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Don't believe me.

October 3, 2010 Leave a comment

You really shouldn’t believe anything that I say here.

That’s not to say that you should stop reading, but you just shouldn’t believe me. Here’s why: most of this stuff that I’m writing about, I pretty much just pull out of my ass. I’m not an expert, there’s no research done here. I just pretty much copy and paste from wikipedia, and we all know how reliable that is.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything that I’m posting is wrong. I’m sure that most of it is actually fairly factual. At least it’s as factual as we know it to be right now. You always have to add that caveat in there, otherwise some jerkwad is going to discover something new tomorrow and come back to your blog and call you out on being an idiot because you were talking about something before something else was learned about that one thing. That’s what Galileo did when he found out that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, and then they burned him at the stake.

See, I just proved my own point. They didn’t burn Galileo, but it sounds believable. Let’s put it this way, my posts have an unfortunate, sometimes unavoidable amount of truthiness to them. I try hard to present factual information here, but sometimes the information that I get isn’t completely true. And sometimes I just intentionally provide false information that I assume everyone knows is wrong anyways. I’m kind of a dick like that. The point is that you should keep reading this despite my flat-out lying, but you should also cast a critical eye on everything you take in. This shouldn’t just apply to my posts, but to all “factual” information or news that you take in.

I don’t want to suggest that anyone turn into a hard nosed cynic disbelieving everything they hear. Someone who instantly rejects anything is just as annoying as someone who believes everything they hear. I just want people to believe what they want to believe, while taking a bit of time to do some research themselves to make sure that the facts they’re regurgitating are actually facts. In the past year there have been a number of instances where news organizations have been purposefully duped in order to be discredited for reporting false information. Fact checking is becoming more and more difficult due to the pressure of breaking an important story first, especially when the internet is instantaneous and you don’t have the luxury of waiting for the next print edition before deciding to run the story.

Just in the past week I’ve run acrost my own critical moments. In the first I was watching Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary. In the first episode he mentioned that the last Civil War veteran died in 1959. When I heard that alarm bells began ringing. The war ended in 1865. If the veteran in question was born in 1859 and died when he was a hundred, he would’ve been 6 when the war ended. I know that they weren’t very choosey when recruiting troops during the Civil War, especially  near the end, but I think the rules were a little bit stricter than that. More than likely the youngest soldier would be about 12, which would mean that the oldest veteran would be about 106 when he died. That’s possible, but still not likely.

I made a quick search on wikipedia, and sure enough found that it was actually a hoax that the last surviving veteran died in 1959. It turns out that the last veteran of the Civil War died in 1951. He was about 104 when he died. Still an unbelievable number, but I felt an enourmous amount of pride when I was able prove Ken Burns to be a lying liar telling lies. LIES! Not so special now you epically long documentary making bastard. No, I’m just kidding he makes really good stuff.

The next example came from Bruce Russet’s book No Clear and Present Danger. The book is a critical look at whether or not the United States was right to enter World War II. Seems like a bizarre stance to take, but it’s a perfect example of taking a quizzical look at conventional thinking. At one point of the book, Russet talks about the making of the atomic bomb. He mentions that without getting involved in the war, America wouldn’t have been able to develop the bomb by 1945, but we would’ve gotten there by 1947 or 1948.  Obviously there’s no way to disprove his prediction, but I couldn’t help but think that he had overestimated the timeline. If The United States hadn’t gotten involved, we wouldn’t have had such an incentive to kick off the Manhattan Project. I can’t underemphasise this enough, but the Manhattan Project was a HUGE!!! undertaking. I don’t all caps shit without a good reason, and don’t even get me started on the multiple exclamation points. As if that weren’t enough there’s the bolding going on. All that to prove that I’m serious about this. The Manhattan Project cost 2 billion dollars and had 130,000 people working on it. They even created a city to work on it. In 1945 there were 75,000 people living in Oak Ridge Tennessee. All of the workers there were involved with the Manhattan project. I cannot imagine this many people and this much money being thrown at building the nuclear bomb if it weren’t for America’s involvement in the war. In my humble opinion, there is absolutely no way that we would’ve completed the bomb within an extra ten years without that incentive to beat the Germans.

I don’t think that most of the people reading this really need to be made aware of how critical thinking is. Chances are if you’re reading this it’s because you can appreciate how awesome I am, which means you’re a pretty smart group. I pretty much wrote this to apologize for any times when I was presenting something that wasn’t true, and to preemptively apologize for any moments in the future where I lie to you all. Also, I wanted to blow my own horn about how smrt I am for finding those two examples.

Categories: History, Thought Exercise

Brooks beats Sumner

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

If you think that politics are brutal now, you have to realize that most senators now are giant pussies. Sure they’re a bunch of blow hards that talk the talk, but none of them are up to the task to walk the walk. At least not like they did back in the day. And by back in the day, I mean some nebulous time that I’m not really sure on the details of. It was definitely after the founding of the country and before 1990. For sure it was in the 1850s, because that’s when Preston “Hard as Fuck” Brooks beat the everloving shit out of Charles “Meatbag” Sumner.

Sumner wasn’t afraid to talk shit, and made a fair amount of enemies in the senate. He was a staunch abolitionist, which in the 1850s didn’t buy many friends from the southern states, and called for the Fugitive Slave Act to be repealed. In a speech that lasted three hours. After making me listen to a speech for three hours, even if I agreed with everything he was saying, I would probably be ready to beat him too. Seriously, I get bored watching most television shows, and those are only an hour long.

When Kansas was first being settled and was about to make the jump from territory to state, there were a number of uprisings between southern racist bastards and good-hearted slightly-less-racist-than-southerners-but-still-opposed-to-slavery-northerners. Otherwise known as border ruffians and free-staters respectively. With all of these goings on, Sumner made a new speech condemning Kansas-Nebraska act and the authors of it. And by condemning I mean he ripped them some new assholes. While doing this, he poked fun at Andrew Butler’s physical appearance and way of speaking. This was no doubt hilarious out of context, but it became less so if you knew that the reason for Butler’s unique appearance and speech was that the had suffered a stroke a few years before.

Well, Preston Brooks, who was Butler’s nephew, didn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, he takes a walking stick, comes up to Sumner a few days later and proceeded to beat Sumner mercilessly. “You want to front mutherfucka, and diss my peeps. I’m as hard as fuck, muthafucka and you’d best stop talkin’ shit before you git got! South side represent.” Is what Brooks should have said during the altercation, instead he simply took Sumner, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

This was not the usual way of doing things amongst gentlemen of the era. Usually there was a duel. However, when Brooks proposed the idea of a duel to one of his friends, Laurence Keitt, Keitt told Brooks that duels were for men of equal stature in society, and suggested that Sumner was somewhat lower than a gentleman, falling more in line with a drunkard. As bum wars have proven time and again beating drunks is hilarious so Brooks decided to go with the walking stick approach.

After the attack, a bunch of idiots decided to send Brooks a whole slew of walking sticks, often with suggestions as to whom he should beat next. Instead of being sent to jail for beating the shit out of a fellow senator, Sumner wasn’t even arrested. Well, if he wasn’t arrested he surely would’ve been kicked out of the senate, right? I mean, he nearly killed someone on the senate floor. Nope. He narrowly survived a vote to kick him out of the senate. Instead of staying on, though,  he choose to resign. Classy move on his part.

As for Sumner, it took him three years before he was able to return to work at the senate. Of course, in the 1800s people, when not being hard as fuck, were pretty lame. I mean, have you ever read any books written in the era? Those mother fuckers passed out at the drop of a hat. Seriously, I’m sure if you look hard enough you would find a case where some guy dropped his hat and went, “By Jove, I believe I feel a bit of the brain fever coming on.” Even after Sumner came back to the senate he suffered from severe migraines and from what is now known to be post traumatic stress disorder. In other words, Brooks done fucked his shit up proper.

Categories: History Tags: ,

Pixels pixels everywhere

June 26, 2010 2 comments

Just found this article today and thought it was an amazing glimpse at the history of the digital photo. We’ve been in a pixel-rut and haven’t even realized it. For years most people have been led to believe that more megapixels is better. This is true, but only partially. The more pixels you throw into a picture, the better the chance of pixel noise, which degrades the quality of the picture. There are pictures that I’ve taken with my ancient 5 MP camera that I know would’ve come out looking better on my even more ancient 3 MP camera.

Instead of trying to squeeze more and more pictures into the image, we should’ve been trying to reinvent what the pixel is, which is what Russell Kirsch is doing. Technologically we get constrained in a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. Unfortunately, the popular belief has been that pixels aren’t broken. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that they can’t work better. This is a great article to show what innovation can do, and also how the lack of innovation can cause things to spiral out of control. Just because something works and has been good enough for past use, doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way and can’t be improved.

Also, the first digital image is 50 years old, holy flipping cow!

Categories: History, Science Tags:

Will-o'-the-wisps

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Will-o’-the-wisps are strange glowing lights found in swamps and marshes. There’s no universally accepted theory for what they are, especially given some of the unique characteristics that they have. They’re said to be able to run away from individuals that attempt to chase them down, and follow victims that back away. In popular folklore they’re considered to be malevolent disembodied spirits who will lead wayward travelers to getting hopelessly lost in the swamps.

The folklore behind them is pretty interesting. My favorite story involves a man named (wait for it) Will.  Will is a thief who manages to anger a number of random villagers. As they’re chasing him out of town with torches and pitchforks, they trap him. Before the villagers can get him, Will makes a deal with the devil. In exchange for his soul, Will asks the Devil to take a form of a gold coin so that he can pay the villagers back. Once Will is let off the hook by the villagers, the Devil can takes his own form and leave the townspeople robbed again. The devil agrees to the deal, Will puts the gold coin in his wallet, which contains a cross, preventing the devil from reverting back to his real form. The devil then must make a deal with Will to be let out of the purse. Will gets his soul back, and escapes from the villagers. However, once Will dies, he’s led such a pitiful life that he’s not allowed into heaven. He goes to Hell but the Devil, a man of his word, won’t take Will’s soul. Will is forced to spend eternity wandering the Earth. To help him out, the Devil gives him an ember from Hell, which can never go out. To pay the devil back for this kindness, Will uses this ember to entice travelers into a trap so that they devil may take their souls.

In some variations, the main character is named Jack, and he puts the ember into a carved turnip, which is where we get the term Jack-o’-Lantern.

What Will-o’-the-wisps really are is fairly interesting. The decaying organic matter found in swamps gives off a lot of random gases. Two of these are phosphine and methane. Phosphine by itself can phosphoresce when it oxidizes, throwing off a bit of light, but it can also spontaneously ignite in the atmosphere. This ignition can also cause a bit of a chain reaction that ignites methane gas in the area. In lab experiments, these gas bursts often burn at a much lower temperature than most fires, which explains how these fires can occur without doing any noticeable damage to the surroundings.

One of the other theories is that tectonic shifting can cause a release of piezoelectricity and water vapor.  When these two elements are released from the grounds surface and meet in the lower atmosphere, they can create strange lights. No one is sure exactly how, but it’s still an interesting theory. Especially given the awesomeness of piezoelectricity, which is what gives quartz its unique characteristics.

What I find most interesting about all this is that swamp gas is often given as an explanation for the lights associated with UFOs. In my experience, swamp gas was always seen as a convenient cover up excuse, and not something that people really took seriously (not that I ever took UFO claims very seriously, but swamp gas just seemed like such a cop out of an excuse. I think it’s fascinating how our folklore has changed. Disembodied spirits leading people to their deaths and making deals with the Devil are seen as hokum now, while men from other planets  in flying saucers abducting citizens become more and more accepted. The phenomenons haven’t changed, but the story giving some sort of rational explanations for those phenomenon has.

Categories: History Tags: ,

Who the Hell is Jack Russell?

March 1, 2010 3 comments

You know Jack Russell terriers? They’re those adorable little dogs that that are mostly white but with a couple of brown and black spots on their face and bodies. The dog from Frasier was one (well, not really). Maybe a picture would help.

That’s Cassie, our Jack Russell terrier. At least, I’m pretty sure she’s a Jack Russell, it gets rather confusing. Her breed was named after an actual Jack Russell. He was an ordained minister and hunting enthusiast who lived through most of the 19th century (that’s the 1800s for those of you who get confused like I do). One day he spotted a Jack Russell terrier bitch (though it wasn’t called a Jack Russell back then, that would just be weird) owned by a milkman and bought her on the spot.  He began breeding the dog and it became the start of the line of Jack Russell’s we have today. Being a founding member of the Kennel Club, Jack Russell set up many of the standards which are used to judge Jack Russell breeds today.

Jack Russell would breed the dogs to help hunting foxes. The terriers have an aggressive temperament, which I can personally vouch for, Cassie doesn’t get along with other animals. In fact, she tries to rip their throats out; this goes for anything from squirrels to German Shepherds. This aggressiveness combined with their small size and digging ability made them perfect dogs for flushing out fox holes. They’re also highly intelligent creatures. You wouldn’t know this sometimes looking at Cassie most of the time, but she has a knack for getting into trouble and figuring things out when it serves her needs. If she wants to get at cookies cooling on a table, she will, otherwise dumb as a stick.

There’s actually three kinds of terriers that often get lumped together and collectively called Jack Russells. There’s the actual Jack Russell, the Parson Russell and the plain old Russell. Most of the differences are minimal and result from the country of origin and a little bit by size. It’s all politics, really. The Parson Russell terriers was originally called the Parson Jack Russell terrier, but the term Jack Russell terrier actually became trademarked in the United States by the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America. So the name had to be shortened. The Parson Russell is  just a bit smaller than the Jack Russell, given the varying sizes of certain dogs, this can be a rather difficult thing to judge. The Parson Russell is descended from the United States while the Jack Russell is descended from England and the Russell Terrier was adapted in Australia.

I’m sure all of these standards are fascinating to the kennel club enthusiasts of the world but really don’t matter to the layman. If you come up to me and assert that, “Actually, Eddie from Frasier was a Parson Russell Terrier,” you’ll probably be meant with a punch in the face. At the very least I’ll nod my head in understanding and then curse your name when you walk away.

Here’s some more pictures of Cassie, so that you may bask in the cuteness.

She thinks she's people

Lazy Sunday

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Categories: History Tags: , ,

The plot to kill Heisenberg? Certainly, it was a matter of principle.

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Yes, the Heisenberg. The one whose car had a kick ass GPS system, but a broken speedometer. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, we’re talking about Werner Heisenberg, physicist extraordinaire. During the late 30s and early 40s (you know, when World War II was going on) Heisenberg was one of the few European scientists who decided to stay in his homeland of Germany. Unfortunately for the allied forces, and for Heisenberg himself, he was considered by his colleagues to be the preeminent mind on nuclear fission. If there was going to be one scientist to split the atom and make the bomb it was Heisenberg.

Heisenberg was loyal to his country, but he wasn’t a Nazi. Regardless, once the war began he was effectively cut off from most of the scientific community. This made the allies very nervous. American scientists were working furiously to unlock the power of the atom and feared more than anything being beaten to the punch. Propaganda would occasionally come out of Germany claiming that they were well on their way to developing a bomb capable of shaking the heavens and destroying parts of the world. No one could be sure of the first part of the claim, but the closer the American’s got to splitting the atom, the more they began to believe the second part.

Since no one on the allied side knew where to find Heisenberg, nor what exactly he was working on, America took a jealous lover’s stance and decided that if we couldn’t have Heisenberg on our side, then no one could. Anytime Heisenberg was discussed seriously by the espionage communities, it was always suggested he be kidnapped. Kidnapping someone who doesn’t want to be kidnapped can be rather difficult, and nearly impossible when it involves sneaking into Nazi Germany and then sneaking your captive back out, so the option of eliminating Heisenberg was always included with the plans. While no one was really comfortable with assassinating a respected scientist, it was deemed a necessary evil to prevent the Nazis from having access to Heisenberg’s brain.

There were at least two separate instances where Heisenberg was in danger of being assassinated. The first was really aborted before it got anywhere. As one of the assassins was trying to place Heisenberg’s exact location they stumbled upon some correspondence between him and another scientist. In it, Heisenberg outlined what he had been working on, and none of it had to do with creating a bomb. Reports like this had gotten through before, and it was never seen as being watertight evidence. The European allied agencies determined that he wasn’t a threat, but the Americans wanted to err on the side of caution. Something else happened, though, that really stopped the plan dead in its tracks. The American’s had split the atom. Once that happened, Heisenberg seemed like less of a threat.

Oddly, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor of the CIA) changed its mind and sent former Red Sox catcher Moe Berg to find out what Heisenberg was up to. They gave Berg a rudimentary education on nuclear physics and a list of keywords and phrases to pay attention to and sent him on his way. A symposium was arranged in Zurich, Switzerland and Heisenberg was invited to attend as a guest speaker. If any of those keywords or phrases that Berg learned were said at the speech, indicating that Heisenberg was working on an atomic bomb, Berg’s orders were to kill Heisenberg right then and there. Luckily for both scientist and spy, Heisenberg’s speech was not about atomic weaponry.  It was also in German, which Berg knew how to speak, but probably had a hard time understanding physics in.

In hindsight, the whole plot was rather scatterbrained to begin with. If Heisenberg had been working on an atomic weapon, what were the chances that he would be allowed to attend scientific meeting/week long vacation in Switzerland. Even if that happened, why would Heisenberg reveal to a roomful of  allied scientists that he was working on a bomb? Finally, by the time the plot was actually carried out, there were 100,000 Americans working on the bomb. Three years earlier he was seen as a much larger threat, but at the time his expertise wasn’t needed and even if he were developing a bomb, it wouldn’t stop the Americans from what they were doing. The OSS was still in its infancy at the time and a lot of their plots and schemes were handled with much less finesse than the British Secret Intelligence Service’s plots, but then again the SIS had been around since 1909.

While Heisenberg’s speech revealed nothing about the threat of atomic weaponry, Moe Berg was able to arrange a more intimate meeting with Heisenberg to needle some more information from him. After a party which both attended, Berg and Heisenberg left at the same time. The two began walking down a remote road with no one else in site. Berg attempted to start a conversation with Heisenberg which amounted to little more than pestering the scientists with questions. The answers must have laid Berg’s mind at ease because the two parted company and never saw each other again.

Berg was no assassin, but he was given the perfect opportunity to carry out a covert assassination. I wonder if Heisenberg ever knew how close he came to being killed.

What we do in life echoes through the history textbooks

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Failure is not always failure.

In my What If? book the other night I was reading about the American Revolution. There were numerous instances during the war when a single action could arguably be what won or helped to win the war for the United States. In any one of these instances, if things had not worked out as they did, the balance of power could’ve toppled into Britain’s favor assuring them victory (even if it wasn’t swift). Two of the most interesting examples of this involved that paragon of treachery, Benedict Arnold. That is, Benedict Arnold before he became a Benedict Arnold. When he was still on the American side.

The first took place on Lake Champlain on the eastern side of New York during the fall of 1776. Arnold was on the southern side of the long lake holed up in a fort with about 3,500 men. On the north side of the lake, the British sat, planning an assault on the fort with 16,000 men. Instead of sitting and waiting for the British to build up their fleet and attack, Arnold had his men make boats and built his own fleet. He was able to make up 13 small ships and gathered all the soldiers he could, most of whom knew nothing of ships. Arnold attacked in what was surely considered a suicide mission. The almost insurmountable odds were raised even higher when Arnold learned that the British were making a 180 ton man-of-war, which could’ve single handedly destroyed Arnold’s boats. At the last moment, Arnold retreated to an island and took a defensive position. The British general was thrown Arnold’s brashness and decided to wait until the man-of-war was finished before attacking, even though his men argued that their 26 other gunships could easily destroy Arnold’s fleet.

The ship wasn’t finished for another four weeks, at which point the British attacked. Arnold could do nothing but retreat back to his original outpost at the souther part of the lake, losing most of his ships in the process. By the time he did, though, the British determined that it was too late in the year to start a siege, and they retreated back to their defensive position in Canada. Arnold’s attack had failed and he wound up back where he started, but by launching his attack, he assured that the British were unable to invade and inhabit New York until the following spring. If they had, the British would’ve had nothing to stop them from going where ever they chose in New England. Arnold’s failure was a major victory for the continued existence of the United States.

Insubordination is great…when it works out in your favor

The second event took place in the spring the British easily took the fort Arnold had retreated back to. By this time, however, an army had moved into place to back him up. Arnold was replaced in command by Major General Horatio Gates. Gates had no battle experience and when he attempted to hold off the British from invading Albany Arnold was able to easily point out holes in his defensive position. Arnold plugged these holes and, as a result, easily beat back the advancing British Army.

Major Gates gave no credit to Arnold for the win and a bitter argument ensued. At the end of it, Arnold was confined to his tent and stripped of command. When the British attacked again three weeks later it looked as if the Americans might be beaten. Arnold disobeyed his orders, though, and rushed into battle commanding the troops to a victory.  Gates only left his tent after Arnold had arrived and rallied the troops. Because of this victory, the French figured that the Americans had a chance of winning the whole war and decided to loan America some much needed money and guns.

Because of his act of defiance, Arnold swung the moral pendulum back to the American side.  With a failed suicide mission and disobeyment of direct orders, Arnold had a major impact for America’s benefit. It’s hard to imagine that he knew he was doing something so great at the time.