The End of the World as We Know It

February 6, 2010

Sometimes in the slow evenings of my existence I think about the end of the world.

Now, granted, this usually occurs when I’m watching either the History Channel or Jersey Shore, either of which are exceptional candidates for finding out how, and hoping for, respectively, the end of the world. But in thinking about it I’ve realized we have quite a bit to worry about.

There’s never been a shortage of theories. The Long Count Calendar, an elaborate prediction made by the Maya civilization, advised everyone that the end of the world would happen on 2012, at around 10:30 in the morning, right after breakfast. The Mayans devised this calendar using incredibly advanced technology for the time, mostly due to the scientific efforts they did not invest in, say, the wheel, or not falling for the Spanish-Dude-is-a-god trick.

Or course, we could also die by natural catastrophe. We naturally see blips of this on occasion, when tsunamis and rock slides just outright destroy entire nations in mere minutes. At some point, the weather is going to get its act together and start coordinating this nonsense. Someday, we’re going to get earthquakes, tidal waves, solar flares, volcanoes, ice storms, and Brett Favre’s last throw in regulation in the 2009 NFC Conference Championship all at once, and–poof!–we’re done.

The prospect of an infinitely expanding outer space doesn’t help. For those of us worried that some day the aliens will come with plasma rays and titanium boots and start laying waste to our cities, we really should be worried about what could actually realistically happen, since that is much scarier. The magnetic poles in the earth could switch, causing electrical generators to self-destruct and digital watches to switch to military time. A gamma ray burst, what as far as I can tell is the stellar equivalent of a six year old’s explanation of an episode of Kim Possible along with a brick of C4, could devour the earth in a blink of an eye. An asteroid could demolish the world, even with the assistance of a frustrated Bruce Willis now that he’s not going home to Demi Moore.

Of course, we could be doing it to ourselves each time we tap away at our computers. The concept of singularity–humans develop a computer smarter than humans, so it takes over its own development in an infinite loop of e-nightmares and cyberterror–is frightening. Only more so since I think it’s supposed to be the plot of Tron, but Disney was too scared to awesomeify it into reality. The term “grey goo” sounds cute, but it’s a scenario in which self-replicating nanobots, created with the intention of helping medicine and industry, end up consuming everything in its path, including–amazingly–Hot Pockets. Granted, I may be biased in this particular regard, since I am fairly certain the copy machine at work is smarter than myself, and is at least no doubt better organized. (For the record, I am also scared of most vending machines.)

Not all end-of-the-world scenarios involve random nastiness. It could be deliberate acts of cranky. Iran has been given a green light to nuke Israel, in the sense that I suspect that Tehran’s weapon of choice will be a fully functional and peaceful nuclear power plant small enough to fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim Jong Il has been chucking Fat Men in the Pacific since Churchill was in diapers. Osama Bin Laden has been sitting in some cave in western Pakistan with an Erector Set, knocking over scale replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Opera House while he waits for the canister of sarin to get to him, once FedEx finds his street number.

Then again, the world’s most destructive terrorist isn’t a nutjob in a turban or a fisttwister in Beijing, but a pig. Or a bird. Or some other random animal who, for some reason, holds a grudge against their caretakers and occasional preheaters. Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and no doubt Pachyderm Flu has mutated across species and will some day doom us all. Our bodies are weak to resist such outbreaks–thanks to their newly-formed transmission methods, but also because doctors have been pumping our bodies full of antibiotics like peanut M&M’s for years–and at some point a global pandemic may leave the buildings empty across the globe.

Of course, worrying about all of this isn’t going to do us any good. Aside from getting on the Opus Dei mailing list and maybe buying some of that astronaut ice cream, there isn’t any practical way to prepare for the end of the world. Me, I’ll pop a bag of kettle corn and crack open a Mr. Pibb. No, it won’t save me, but I certainly hope and expect that it will be one hell of a show.


Family Jewels of Denial

July 9, 2007

The Central Intelligence Agency, in its bicentennial house-cleaning, recently released over 700 pages of formerly classified documents, heavily edited for the ubiquitous “national security.” (Please note that we are using the layman’s definition of “house-cleaning” in this sense…the CIA’s definition is decidedly more aggressive.)

When the CIA released the information, it brought to light much of the information about the agency’s activities in the past few decades. And by “brought to light” I mean “stuff that every single person on the face of the earth already knew.”

These are charmingly called the “family jewels,” a phrase no doubt coined by several agents over a good hearty laugh over the water cooler between funneling cocaine to Contras and deciding which Hungarian defector will have his testicles Zippoed first.

I’ve always been intrigued by the CIA. Not sure why. I don’t believe it’s the artificial romance that is falsely portrayed in the media. There isn’t any cool-looking gadgets that slice off limbs or Russian femme fatales who defect at simply the prospect of a guy finishing the job without vomiting potatoes and vodka on themselves. I think it’s the significance of doing something as your everyday job that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in real life. We all know full well that when I’m at work, I argue all day with the dim-witted redhead in activations about who gets to use the fax machine first, and they’re sitting around a table in Langley discussing the assassination of Salvodore Allende over a box of Kripsy Kremes. I bet they get full dental, too.

The CIA’s obsession with Fidel Castro seems strikingly off. I mean, sure, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs and the commies trying to take over everything including most breakfast cereals, but it seems like had they taken the amount of effort used to kill Castro into, say, overthrowing every other nation on the earth, including the Soviet Union itself, they still would have had enough time and resources to produce all three Mission: Impossible movies within budget and without having to resort to casting Tom Cruise.

It’s actually a kind of disturbing topic, but the imaginative ways that the CIA tried to assassinate Castro are almost magnificently comic. Here’s a list of the various methods in which the spooks tried to bring down the Cuban dictator:

An exploding conch shell, strategically placed in Castro’s favorite scuba diving spot. Had it worked, we not only would have rid the world of Castro but also had the world’s first spy mission inspired from a late-show Muppets throwaway skit.

A poison cigar. And not poison as in a liquid that kills you, but poison as in LSD. That’s right, they wanted Castro to trip on live national television and make him a laughingstock of the third world. Or, at the very least, only slightly less alarming than a televised interview Farrah Fawcett.

A beard-falling-out chemical. Don’t know what it is or what it’s called, but it apparently causes your hair to fall out when placed in your…boots. I guess. Rather than assassinating him, this tactic cooked up by the agency would embarrass him right before he went to speak at the UN. I can’t imagine how this would have worked. For one thing, I can’t think of anything more awkward than addressing the UN in the first place, except possibly addressing the UN while representing Israel.

Toxins. The closest the agency got to offing the Cuban leader was when they had a poison capsule full of botulinum toxins in a chocolate milkshake. In one of the tragic consequences of history, the capsule froze against the freezer it was in, and ripped open when the waiter/gambling addict who sold his soul to Allen Dulles went to drop it in. Had he succeeded, Castro would have died drinking a milkshake, a humiliating end to a glorious fighter for the communist cause. Still, it was safer and less humiliating than eating a Grand Slam at Denny’s.

The approximately eighty thousand attempts at offing Castro aren’t the only illegal items revealed in the documents. But most of these activities are almost quaint with a touch of modern-day reflection. Some of the apparently more egregious crimes include the following:

Surveillance of Brit Hume. That’s hardly a crime, I think; about two million people engage in surveillance of him every night, though admittedly I suspect most of that is, indeed, forced. The crime here, though, is—Brit Hume??! I mean, c’mon. Was Bill O’Reilly not antiestablishment enough for Nixon?

The opening of mail intended for delivery in the Soviet Union. This is a crime? Apparently the Soviet Union has never been married.

Funding “behavior modification” techniques on unsuspecting civilians. I know the quote marks are supposed to lead us to believe they’re talking about LSD, but I’m convinced they really mean the obvious government support of Martin and Rowan’s Laugh-In, which I wholly refuse to believe stayed on the air due to the market demand of Americans. If it truly was, well, then, I think Castro might have been on to something.


Wonderlust

July 8, 2007

Recently, a list proclaiming a new set of Wonders of the World was created. This list is the brainchild of Swiss businessman Bernard Weber, who wanted wonders that would reflect a new world, transcending tradition. The historical Seven Wonders of the World, to his credit, was pretty piss poor in its scope. I mean, they were great and impressive and all, but they only covered the Mediterranean area, and even that seemed to be restricted to about a hundred yards in every direction of the chair that Philon of Byzantium was sitting on. (And, c’mon. The Mausoleum is like the Charles in Charge of culturally significant architectural feats—yeah, I suppose it’s nice and all, but the Statue of Zeus has Tony Danza.) So enlarging the scope and time frame seemed to be a plausible and (let’s be honest) lucrative thing to do.

Of course, the wonder list was not without controversy. Egyptians, offended that they would have to defend the Pyramids of Giza, actively disdained the project. Boy, did that show everyone! Weber declared that since the Pyramids managed to stay upright for the past 4500 years or so, well, that was good enough for him, and it became the honorary 8th wonder of the world, tossing the whole carefully balanced “seven wonders” thing all to hell. Granted, there is an additional, ninth wonder, which is that a Swiss businessman would have the creativity to come up with this project in the first place.

The final seven (or eight) (or nine) were chosen by popular vote; anyone who registered got a free vote, and if you wanted to pay extra you could vote again. Sure, seems a bit odd to pay for additional votes, especially since many of the wonders are located in impoverished nations, but most metropolitan cities across the globe seem to be functioning fine under such as system, so I don’t see why it can’t work in this case.

Anyway, an objective review of the winners is required, so let’s have at it.

Chichen Itza (Mexico): Located in the Yucatan, the Chichen Itza is an icon of the Mayan civilization. At one time, it was a cultural and political center for the civilization, but evidence shows that its occupation came to a violent and strife-ridden end, a monumental testament to the grand achievements a civilization can accomplish in peace, and the price to be paid when there is war. Today, drunken college kids from spring break packages in Cancun appreciate its archeological splendor by vomiting on the stone-paved walkways and flashing the locals.

Christ the Redeemer (Brazil): It’s hard not to be impressed with the Christ Redeemer. I mean, it’s hard to top a 105-foot tall statue of the Savior. It makes the Statue of Liberty look downright sacrilegious in all her humble copper glory. Unlike Lady Liberty, though, Christ the Redeemer isn’t holding any stone tablets. Somehow, I think they missed the mark on that decision. It would have fit right in, having the statue of Christ clasping a list of the nine commandments. Here, I’m assuming in this case that the commandment concerning graven images has been repealed.

Great Wall
(China): Many people are surprised that this grand feat of engineering didn’t crack the original list. Few people realize that the reason for this was that China did not exist until Marco Polo discovered it in 1271 AD. A common urban legend states that the Great Wall is the only manmade object that can be seen from space. This is, as most things, an outright lie; there are many things that are visible from space, such as the national debt, the large, gaping hole in the logical theology of Scientology, and Gordon Brown’s sense of complete indifference. Anyway, the Great Wall managed to keep the barbarians at the gate, as it were, for several centuries, which is more than you can say for New Mexico and Hungary.

Machu Picchu (Peru): This Incan city is one of the most short-lived civic projects undertaken by a reasonably advanced civilization, being abandoned by its founders less than a hundred years after its construction, a feat matched only by the Millennium Dome. Granted, the rather quick arrival of the Spanish army may have had something to do with it, but I’d rather blame the Hearst Corporation or the metric system. Also, I hate llamas, and they run the place like the Irish run Boston. So to hell with them.

Coliseum (Rome): This one seems like a cop-out to me. Sure, I’m certain it was a grand structure in its time, but I’m also certain the resources, debt, slavery, and political maneuvering necessary wouldn’t even be close to matching what it takes to build a new sports complex in the States. I’m sure they had their own version of the “renaissance tax” to pay for its construction, a convenient lie, since throwing Christians to lions for the public’s viewing pleasuring isn’t any more of a “renaissance” than watching Barry Bonds injecting a baseball full of HGH.

Petra (Jordan): K. I’m going to be honest here. I had to look this one up. Usually anything I look at that involves the word “Petra” also involves the phrase “Russian hottie willing to do anything. Visa and Mastercard accepted.” It’s an ancient city in Jordan that tourists flock to, unless there’s any political instability in the area, which is one hundred percent of the time, in which case everyone stays the hell away. It was also the final location of the Holy Grail as evidenced in the scholarly work Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Taj Mahal (India): The Indians were pushing hard for this one. Why they’d be so impressed with a casino in Atlantic City, I’ll never know.


Dollar Back Girl

March 26, 2007

The dollar coin program has always been beset with drama. Well, the best that numismatists can come up with for drama, aside from the occasional pants-soiling misstamp or the centennial major coin heist that shows up in the News You Can Chuckle Silently About column in the paper. The first modern dollar coin featured a prominently bald Dwight Eisenhower, with a rather unimaginative stamp of the moon with a liberty bell superimposed on it, apparently signifying the role of liberty our founding fathers fought a died for along with the boondoggle NASA vacuuming valuable greenbacks to let a man trot about on the moon like a show dog instead of the production of bullets to shoot commies with in southeast Asia.

This Eisenhower dollar was huge, and anything more than a token supply (har!) of them sagging in your front pocket pegged you as either a professor or a pervert or, statistically most likely, both. It rarely saw circulation except in casinos, where they were used primarily as a means with which to weight down bodies in the East River.

Decades later, under the tutelage of Jimmy Carter, the Susan B. Anthony dollar was introduced. Like the election of Carter, Anthony was chosen by a specialized group of professionals who sought to associate their cause with the absolutely least appealing individual that could possibly be imagined. Granted, Tommy Jefferson and George Washington weren’t exactly runners-up in the Mr. Potomac contest, but the profile chosen to represent poor Miss Anthony made one wonder why the bald eagle was declared endangered. And some decried the choice of Anthony to represent the women’s right movement, when there were many, many more plausible candidates that encouraged more women to join the feminist movement, like Margaret Singer and Sean Connery.

The coin failed to catch on, however. One of the largest peculiarities of the entire dollar coin debate is to discover that there is actually an entity called the “vending machine and car wash lobby.” And it was precisely this comical concept that fought for the adoption of the dollar coin, since it made the manufacture of machines much, much cheaper. (As anyone who has attempted to purchase a week-old pack of stale Ding Dongs at the gas station vending machine with a greasy, ragged dollar from last year’s Labor Day bender with the long-forgotten number of that blonde chick with the ample bosom whose tube top wanting of material proudly proclaimed her allegiance to a specific women’s apparel corporation scribbled on it can attest, expensive does not necessary equal success.) The Anthony dollar, alas, was very similar in shape, size, material and color to the already-popular quarter, and so was widely dismissed by the public, who soon replaced the dollar’s main supporter, Carter, with another of a much different shape, size, and material (though, as always, the same color).

Despite the Anthony dollar’s lack of popularity, the United States Mint found itself caught off guard late in the mid-2000’s when it found it actually had a shortage. The dollar coin, while well out of circulation, still found a use in post office vending machines, the ever-perennial casino and, one presumes, the victims of inflation in schoolyard odds-and-evens tournaments. Despite the fact that another dollar coin was commissioned, they were left with the solution of minting more useless Anthony dollars after having the plates sit dormant for around fifteen years. Much, again, like Jimmy Carter. (Don’t worry. That’s never getting old.)

The next attempt at a dollar coin, the Sacagawea, was a similar disaster, though to not quite the same degree. The congressional oversight committee declared that while they would commission a new coin, it still had to be the same general size and shape of the Anthony dollar, which made no sense since all of the vending machines still needed to be converted over and therefore the biggest drawback to the Anthony dollar was kept in place. At the very least, though, the committee had at least seen fit to declare that it would be a different color, a questionably useful trait to add when you’re fishing for it in your front pocket.

Except even THAT got buggered up. The gold color, of course, was purely for show, much like the dollar coin committee, since the coin itself is a rather standard alloy of mostly copper and zinc. After only a few months in regular circulation, the gold coloring started to flake off of the coin. Since the cost savings of a coin are the fact that it lasts longer than a dollar bill, the one differentiating advantage of the coin, of course, was lost.

To restart the introduction of dollar coins into the currency once again, the mint is initiating a Presidential Dollar program modeled after the surprisingly successful State Quarters program. Four times a year, a new president’s countenance will grace another issuance. Ultimately, the success of the dollar coin will be determined by the removal of the paper bill in circulation. Much like how Canada handled it (Canada, of course, being in the forefront of the currency sciences). There are certain questions yet to be answered—How bad will they have to crop poor William Howard Taft? Will the Nixon coin have two faces? Will the Bill Clinton coin be used to make decisions, much in the same manner that he did? (The Clinton coin, by the way, will be minted approximately 2017. This joke, though, was minted circa 1993)—one question does have an answer: As long as strippers exist, so will the dollar bill. I’ve heard, anyway.


The Persian Aversion

March 18, 2007

There has been a lot of talk about ancient Greek history, mostly due to the release of 300, the motion picture adapted from a historically based graphic novel (or, rather, “comic book movie, with period piece decapitations”). And while most of that is sidetracked by the bluescreen magic of digitally creating an altered historical world enough to create an R rating, the basis for the movie’s plot has not gone unacknowledged.

The story of the Battle of Thermopylae is one that seems lifted right out of a comic book, rather than the other way around. The Persians, led by the Scrabble-friendly Xerxes I, initiated a rather grand scheme to conquer the scattered Greek city-states. The Greeks, then known as rather states’-rightsish in their politics, declared that banding together to fight the future Iranians would be in everyone’s self-interest, not least the Greek blacksmiths and fisherman, though perhaps not so much so the Thespian mercenaries who had yet to negotiate a valid health care plan in their contracts.

The rather ad hoc collection of defenders is the type of arrangement usually fraught with difficulty; it’s much easier to fight for “Queen and Country!” than it is for a “Federalist System of States in a Delegated Organization of Overlapping Economic and Political Interests!” This collection of states was called “the Greeks who banded together” by the Greek historian Herodotus. I’m pretty sure that seems like it should be a rather dismissive description, less a “We shall stand together or we shall fail” patriotic call to arms and much more like Britain calling the newly formed United States “a ragtag collection of worthless drunks, thieves, whores, and politicians who couldn’t fight a war sober or with any amount of effect and will die of shame if the syphilis doesn’t get to them first.” But I can’t verify that, since sarcasm is rightly regarded as a difficult thing to ascertain in Greek translated scripts from a millennium-old armchair historian without tenure.

Xerxes then sent envoys to each of the separate city-states to demand tribute in the form of “earth and water,” code words for food and wine or at least bottles of Evian and Jalapeno pita chips, in exchange for not slicing their necks open and salting the olive orchards. The Greeks, prompted by this threat, responded by throwing the envoys down the well in what is largely regarded as a deviation from normal diplomatic protocol. They chucked the hapless diplomats down the stone passageway to an aquatic death while stating “Dig it out for yourselves,” engaging in a sort of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions style of diplomacy, one that admittedly has not been met with a significant amount of success since.

After numerous war councils and maneuvers on both sides, the Greeks chose as their last stand to defend the chokehold at Thermopylae. After consulting the Oracle (A dozens lines in Latin hexameter verse is boiled down to “Defend at Themopylae, and take the under for the Athenians, and oh, by the way, you’re probably gonna die”), the force of three hundred Spartans, led by Leonidis, arrived at their destination and proceeded to engage in their usual pre-battle preparations, a somewhat comical mix of calisthenics, hair-braiding, and latent homosexuality, assuming here that we are treating “latent” and “blatant” as synonyms. Joining the Spartans were a collection of other nationalities and mercenaries, adding up to between 5,000 and 7,000 men, against a Persian attacking force of two and a half million.

And then the battle began. The battle itself was no doubt as exciting as ancient warfare always is, complete with phalanxes, showers of arrows, walls of dead bodies being used as defense entrenchments, and obligatory shots of some poor extra getting his nose caught in another man’s mace ball. The totally perplexed Xerxes, sitting upon his chair, sent thousands upon thousands of elite troops just to see them die against a relative handful of men.

In retrospect, of course, Xerxes was making the fatal error of sending his troops to battle in concert with a solid if unimpressive mix tape of standard classical music pieces, while every modern general knows full well the attackers much be accompanied by “Cold Hard Bitch” by Jet in order to win battles.

One classic motto derived from this battle is the butchered Latin “Molon Labe,” which roughly translates into “Come and get it, pussbag.” During the battle, Xerxes sent a missive to the defenders offering to spare their lives if they set down their weapons. Leonidas responded with the above bon mot, displaying a manner of wit and relisilance that was no doubt respected by all presence for the remainder of his life, which of course was about three more days. In modern times, this motto has been adopted by many gun control opponents, drawing the historical parallels of the defending force’s overwhelming ability to fend off a vastly superior opposition with shortswords and bronze shielding with the right to shoot a rabbit eating your turnips in the garden at 30 yards with an elephant shotgun.

Another famous quotation from the battle is another response from one of the fighters. When advised that the Persian arrows would be so numerous it would block out the sun, one apparently underconcerned Spartan replied, “So much the better, for we shall fight in the shade.” (At this point, most historians assume the Greeks were more interesting in selling novelty bumper stickers than winning battles.) The rather offhandedly macabre remark has represented the fighting spirit of willingness to fight under any adverse conditions. So much so that the motto has been adopted by the modern Greek 20th Armored Division, something that no doubt gives them a significant amount to be proud of when they roll into a Patra ghetto to throw canisters of mustard gas at longshoreman protesting the EU decision to permit the importation of Bulgarian lamb meat.

As for the outcome of the battle—well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Well, okay. Everybody dies except the box office.