Saturday, December 20, 2014

Themes

Just went to see Birdman with my relatives. It's based on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story about trying to make your relatives understand the themes of the movie Birdman on the drive home from the theater.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 3

So now we’ve nuked the surface, we’ve nuked the ocean depths, and we’ve even nuked outer space. And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to nuke. What’s a superpower to do?

Well, just make bigger nukes, obviously.

Enter, the H-bomb. The hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb is a much fancier lad than the a-bomb that preceded it. The A-bomb is purely a fission device, in which heavy elements are split, releasing colossal amounts of energy. But you can also fuse lighter elements to release energy. The problem is, it’s hard to compress and heat lighter elements enough to ignite fusion. Re-enter the A-bomb, which can provide more than enough heat and compression to ignite a fusion reaction. And then re-enter the A-bomb again, because we’re going to surround the fusion stage of the weapon with a massive amount of unenriched uranium, called the tamper. Unenriched uranium is stable under normal conditions, which is why we can cram so much of it into our thermonuclear device in the first place. But when exposed to the fusion reaction, unenriched uranium completely loses its shit. It kicks off a second round of fission, which in most thermonuclear devices provides the majority of the megaton-range yield.


It’s also much dirtier. While only increasing the yield by three- or four-fold, it multiplies the radioactive byproducts of the bomb by a thousand times. Behind closed doors, the military fucking loved that part, because a single bomb could effectively bring strategic targets to ruin even if strategic assets within those targets survived the initial blast and fireball. Oh and, by strategic targets, I mean cities, factories, and ports. And by strategic assets, I mean the people who live and work in them.

In public, the tone was very different. The official line in the U.S. was that radiation release did not scale with the increasing yield of nuclear weapons. Which, I guess, is technically true. It didn’t scale, because in the H-bomb, radiation growth exceeded yield by several orders of magnitude.

Which brings us back to Bikini Atoll, where we started this wild and wonderful journey. It was early 1954, about a year and a half after the first ever detonation of a thermonuclear device in the Ivy Mike test. The problem with the Ivy Mike H-bomb, however, was that it was literally the size of a building and thus completely impractical for military use. The Castle Bravo test sought to rectify that by detonating a thermonuclear bomb weighing about ten tons. That’s still pretty heavy, but it’s getting into the deliverable range.

The Castle Bravo bomb was expected to yield a blast in the 4 to 8 megaton range, but the designers made a critical error. They assumed that most of the mixture of fusion fuel in the second stage would prove functionally inert, unable to contribute to the nuclear reaction within the millisecond timeframe of the detonation sequence. This was due to the fact that they had never actually tested the fuel's response to high-energy particles, like those released by the first stage. If someone had stopped and said, “You know, maybe instead of assuming the mix will work a particular way, we should put it in a nuclear accelerator and actually test that shit,” then things might have gone differently.

But who has time for that? We’ve got stuff to nuke. Snap to it!

That very same “fuck it, let’s just light it off and see what happens” attitude was also operative on the day of the test, when it was decided they would go ahead with the detonation despite prevailing winds that were veering from north to east, where they could carry fallout over populated islands. The deciding factor, apparently, was that they’d done a lot of work setting up observation instruments around the blast site, and would have to do it all over again if the test was delayed.

Who needs that kind of hassle? Just blow the damn nuke already.

Which they did. And it was a fucking disaster.


Or a stunning success, depending on your perspective. Like, if you were an insane person, as seemed to be the case for many of our military and civilian leaders at the time, you’d call it a big win, because the yield was a full fifteen megatons. At the time, that made it the largest nuclear detonation in history, leaving a crater over a mile wide and 250 feet deep. The fireball was four miles wide and the resultant mushroom cloud seven miles wide. America, fuck yeah.

Even better, it spread a cloud of radiation over five thousand square miles of ocean. I mean, you can neutralize a lot hell of a lot of strategic assets that way.


The test was so successful that indigenous strategic assets had to be evacuated from islands which were rendered uninhabitable by fallout. Five strategic assets on the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru were exposed, resulting in the death of one of those strategic assets. Radioactive contamination from the test was carried by wind and ocean currents all around the Pacific Rim, from the west coast of America to Japan and Australia.

So, it was a rousing success, unless you happen to be afflicted by sanity.

Speaking of sanity and the lack thereof, you know what nuclear weapons would be great for? The construction business.


From that nugget of an idea came 1961’s Operation Plowshare, a proof-of-concept plan to demonstrate the myriad peaceful applications of multi-kiloton nuclear devices. The goal of Plowshare was to develop a toolbox of nuclear earth moving techniques—whose concepts ranged from merely frightening to utter, batshit insanity—and then hand them over to the private sector. Because, really, what damage can the private sector possibly do with nukes that the government hasn’t already?

Techniques developed by Plowshare were to be used to excavate rock and to fracture fossil fuel deposits for collection of their now-radioactive natural gas. If that sounds familiar, it’s basically just frakking, except instead of fracturing the rock with water, you use a nuclear warhead. What could be less controversial?


Similar methods were proposed for leached copper recovery and steam generation. And hey, wouldn’t nuclear devices make strip mining that much more wonderful?

If you’re already floored by this nuclear hubris, you may want to take a moment, because it gets worse from there. A Plowshare subproject codenamed Carryall planned to use twenty-two nuclear bombs to cut through the Bristol Mountains in California. Then a highway and rail line could be constructed across them. Complete, I imagine, with signs instructing motorists to please keep their windows rolled up.


And if you did happen to ride the crazy train through Carryall mountain pass, the next stop would be a nuclear-blasted sea-level link connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, to be called the “Pan-Atomic Canal.”


Once those ships transit Central America, though, they’ll need a harbor to dock at. And won’t it be easier to find that harbor if it glows in the dark? Enter project Chariot, which would chain several nuclear bombs to blow open an artificial harbor.


Now that you’ve docked your cargo ship, though, you have to get your goods out to the people. You’d like to use a river barge, but the only river nearby doesn’t connect to the river you need to send your product up. Well shit, man, with nuclear bombs we can make rivers into whatever shape we want. Project Tombigee/Tennessee River would have done just that, combining the aforementioned little rivers into one big river.


But, you ask, what if blowing up all those rivers creates a water shortage? Well, my friend, nuclear bombs have you covered there, too. Plowshare proposed to use nuclear bombs to connect two aquifers for easier water access. In another proposal, Plowshare would create a rubble chimney above porous rock, which would allow rainwater to seep through the rubble and collect in an artificial aquifer. Think of it as a value-add proposition, because your drinking water would be suffused with expensive radioisotopes.


Thankfully, someone finally came to their sense and cancelled the program in 1977, before it could do any major harm. But for the decade and a half in between, someone thought all of this was a good idea.

If I may come back to the present day for a moment before I wrap this up, I’m reminded of a bit of common wisdom that’s become popular over the last decade: "we have to keep nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands." On its face, the statement is indisputable, more a truism than a proposition, but something about it has always bothered me. It wasn’t until I was doing research for this series of articles that I finally realized what it was.

The problem is that it rests upon an unfounded, unspoken premise: that there’s such a thing as the right hands.

I leave you now with a song.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Reminder...

The final (for now) installment of Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing will be going up on Wednesday as normal, but after that it'll be light blogging for the foreseeable future.

So make sure you hold that article close and read the shit out of it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 2


Last time in this series, we talked about Operation Clusterfuck Crossroads. You may remember that the testing was halted after only two nuclear detonations, due to no one having a goddamn clue what they were doing. So, with the testing cut short, one vital question remained unanswered: wouldn’t it be cool to detonate a nuke half a mile underwater?

The answer to that question would have to wait nearly a decade, until memory of Operation Crossroads had faded. And then, finally, the dream of a deep-water nuclear test would be revived in Operation Wigwam. Why Wigwam? Because the atomic bomb was invented too late to contribute to the genocide of Native Americans, but we can still nuke them in spirit.

So in May of 1955, a Mark 90 nuclear device was taken five hundred miles off the coast of San Diego and suspended by cable from a barge. Video from the test can be found here.

5/6th scale model submarines—codenamed “Squaws,” because let’s really rub it in, guys—were deployed to gauge the effect of an underwater detonation on enemy subs. The detonation went largely unnoticed, though it was picked up on seismological instruments across the Pacific and a cargo ship leaving San Francisco radioed in to ask if there’d been an earthquake.


The test was better planned than Crossroads and the personnel better prepared, but they still didn’t exactly have their shit together. One of the observation ships lost power due to damage from the blast, remaining within the danger zone for longer than the test plan called for, and the crew apparently had to shelter in the center of the ship during the four hours it took to make repairs.

The Navy cheerfully reported no dead marine animals observed after the test. This claim was made in the same report in which they claimed 100% of radioactive materials were contained to the ocean, which makes me think they just weren’t looking very hard. In the months following the test, a radioactive fish was detected during spot checks at a cannery on the West Coast, but the Navy blamed it on contamination from a test the previous year—as if that made it better. There was no word, naturally, on how many radioactive fish entered the food supply because they hadn't been spot-checked.


Flush with the afterglow of blowing up the ocean with a nuclear device, the Department of Defense started to wonder what it would be like to blow up the upper atmosphere. And in the spring and summer of 1958, they did exactly that as part of Operation Hardtack.

The high altitude portion of Hardtack, codenamed Newsreel for obvious reasons, was a disaster even on its own terms. In its first high altitude test, codenamed Yucca, a bomb was suspended from a balloon fifteen miles above the surface. The bomb detonated as planned, but the desired data was not acquired because the scientific instruments suspended below it were not turned on at the time of detonation. Well shit man, what do you expect, perfection?

The next test, codenamed Teak, was sent up by rocket and intended to detonate over the Pacific, off the coast of Johnston Island at an altitude of 250,000 feet. Unfortunately, someone must have misplaced a decimal point or confused imperial for metric, because this is what actually happened:


Yeah, you guys might want to put some aloe on that. But hey, third time’s the charm, right? So testing continued according to schedule and the Orange test was conducted at an altitude intermediate to the first two tests. It went better than the first two, but it could only have gone worse if someone accidentally left the warhead under their desk.

In the end, however, I’m sure that plenty of valuable data was gathered from these experiments, as shown by whatever the fuck is going on in this documentary picture of an actual Operation Newsreel researcher:

No, seriously. What the fuck is going on here?

But you know what the upside of fucking up your high altitude nuclear tests is? You get to do them over and blow up even more nukes in the upper atmosphere! For that matter, why stop at the upper atmosphere when it’s finally within our ability to nuke outer space?

This was the genesis of 1962’s Operation Fishbowl.
It is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.
-U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958
Nah, screw that noise, let’s slip the surly bonds of Earth and fuck some shit up. This time there would be none of the screw-ups from Newsreel. This time, we’d dot our i's and cross our t’s, making sure every single facet of the testing was well understood and every contingency planned for.

Shit, nevermind. We just dropped a nuke into the ocean. My bad. Turns out we really weren’t rocket scientists, after all.

The first planned test, codenamed Bluegill, aborted when they just kinda lost track of the test rocket after launch. With no ability to tell which way the thing was going, the rocket was destroyed remotely, preventing a nuclear detonation but raining bits of its nuclear core over a wide area of the Pacific Ocean.

The second planned test, codenamed Starfish, was not quite as successful as Bluegill, which is saying a lot. Starfish’s rocket motor stopped working at about 30,000 feet and also had to be destroyed remotely. Again, raw uranium and plutonium debris from a thermonuclear device rained down into the Pacific Ocean. Some of this contamination fell on Johnston Island. And yes, that's the same Johnston Island above which a nuke was accidentally detonated during Operation Newsreel.

After that, Operation Fishbowl was given some time to dry out and get its shit together. Three weeks later, it was back with a third test called Starfish Prime. Defying all the odds, Starfish Prime actually worked, detonating a 1.4 megaton warhead at an altitude of 250 miles.

 Starfish explosion as seen from Honolulu

Starfish Prime exceeded all expectation, in the sense that it caused more property damage than any of the operational planners had dared to hope for. The ionizing radiation generated by the blast stripped electrons from atoms in the upper atmosphere and sent them screaming down through the Earth’s magnetic field at a significant fraction of the speed of light. This interaction in turn created an electromagnetic pulse over the central Pacific. The pulse damaged the electrical grid in Hawaii and cut the telephone link to and from Kauai.

Worse still, many of those electrons were deflected along Earth's magnetic field lines and created an artificial radiation belt that wrapped around the globe for five years before finally dissipating. The belt destroyed seven satellites, at a time when there weren’t a whole lot satellites in orbit. Among its victims was the just-launched Telstar 1, the world’s first commercial telecommunications satellite.

And if all this talk of electrons reminds you of an aurora, then you’re probably smart enough to conduct a high altitude nuclear trial, at least by the standards of the 1960’s. Possibly too smart, as some sources claim the artificial aurora resulting from Starfish Prime took the researchers by surprise.

 Starfish aurora seen from Maui.

The aurora stretched two thousand miles, spanning the equator and illuminating a third of the Pacific. The most intense aurora effects lasted only a few minutes, but some of them persisted for days, and were bright enough for the New Zealand Air Force to conduct anti-submarine exercises by.

With seven satellite kills in the pipeline and a man-made light show unlike any seen before, Operation Fishbowl was finally back on track. So naturally, they blew up their next rocket on the launch pad after an engine malfunction and sprayed yet more radioactive plutonium across Johnston Island.

That test was going to be Bluegill Prime, and the next one in line was Bluegill Double Prime. Why Bluegill Double Prime? Because you try coming up with enough new names to stay ahead of all our catastrophic launch failures.

Bluegill Double Prime blew up too. It started tumbling shortly after launch and had to be destroyed, showering debris from its nuclear core onto—everybody say it together now—Johnston Island.

Pro tip: do not ever vacation on Johnston Island.

Fourth time’s the charm, though, right? And finally, on Bluegill Triple Prime, the rocket launched and the bomb detonated without a hitch.

I’m sure they got lots of fantastic pictures of angry men staring at rabbits, so it was all worth it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Letters Home


 I still haven't gotten a response from any of my previous letters, but that won't stop me from sending more. Nothing will stop me.

Someone please stop me.


Text version after the cut.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 1


Nuclear bombs: they’re pretty safe, right? Just make sure you’re standing behind the yellow line when they go off and you should be fine. Who drew the yellow line? Umm... some guy, I think. He had a clipboard and everything, so he must know what he’s doing.

It’s hard to do an article on the most ill-advised nuclear tests of all time, because it’s such a competitive area. You’d like to think that any nuclear testing would occur only after the most careful study and extensive cost-benefit analysis. In reality, however, most nuclear test programs seem to have their genesis with someone saying, “Hey, you know what look cool?”

The tradition of poorly thought out nuclear testing goes back almost to the beginning, in fact, when competing superiority and inferiority complexes in top military brass collided to make Operation Crossroads, also known as the Able-Baker tests. It all began in August 1945, the same month that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Navy and a United States Senator independently proposed that we drop a few nukes on warships.

The Navy wanted to do it so they could prove they still had relevance in the nuclear age. The Army Air Force, by way of their pet Senator, wanted to do it to prove the Navy’s irrelevance in the nuclear age. Both proposals were more or less rigged to produce the desired results.  The Air Force wanted to pack as many ships in as tight as possible with full loads of fuel and ammunition to assure maximum destruction, while the Navy wanted unarmed, unfueled ships spread over a wide area to show how survivable they were.

To understand these political machinations, you have to understand that the Air Force brass, drunk with power after killing something like a million civilians with nuclear and conventional weapons during WWII, were of the opinion that, eh, America didn’t really need a navy anymore. The Air Force’s shiny new nuclear weapons could do anything the Navy could, and better! Shit, I bet if you put floaties on a nuclear bomb, it could have landed troops at Normandy at least as well as the stupid Navy did.

The competing plans eventually compromised, crowding the ships into a small area but loading them with only small amounts of fuel and ammunition.  Scientists who’d worked on the Manhattan project, apparently oblivious to the critical need for the Air Force and the Navy to get into a dick-measuring contest, warned that the entire project was as dangerous as it was pointless. They were, of course, ignored. What the hell did they know about nuclear weapons, anyway?

Amateurs.

The preparations for the test were abysmal. Simulations were conducted using a stick of dynamite and model ships. Many of the test ships being moored at Bikini Atoll had unrepaired damage from the war, which would complicate any later damage analysis. And no pretesting of the effectiveness of planned decontamination techniques was made, so they really had no idea whether they’d be able to decontaminate surviving ships. The man in charge of the tests, Vice Admiral William Blandy, apparently didn’t even realize that ships might survive an atomic blast but still receive a fatal dose of radiation. When someone brought this up, he hastily added test animals to the target vessels. He also didn’t know that the Geiger counters used on site could not detect alpha radiation, and were therefore blind to plutonium contamination.

In short, the whole operation was fucked from the start.

Rare color photo of Admiral Blandy observing the Able-Baker tests.

Nevertheless, in June of 1946 the first bomb was readied for air drop aboard an Air Force B-29. It was armed with the infamous “demon core,” which had already taken the lives of two scientists in separate accidents during the Manhattan Project. In one last act of defiance, no doubt, the bomb missed its target by half a mile and landed well to the edge of the cluster of test ships, sinking only five of them.

Score one for the Navy.

You can find color footage of the Able test here.

Within a day of dropping the bomb, most of the surviving target ships had been boarded for inspection and decontamination. So, yeah, let’s take that point right back. However, in what I’m just going to assume was sheer luck, given the competence level of the people in charge, the Able bomb was air-burst high enough to avoid significant fallout. Most of its fission products dispersed into the atmosphere, where you’re still breathing them today.

News reporters brought in to witness the blast expressed disappointment that the bomb didn’t sink more ships, which just goes to show how quickly human beings get bored with even the most incredible events. This was only a year after the first detonation of an atomic weapon, and the A-bomb was already blasé.

Meh.

So fuck it, we’re putting the next one underwater. Won’t that look awesome?

For the Baker test, a nuclear bomb was suspended by cable from the ocean surface, so that it could detonate underneath the surviving target ships. This was a monumentally poor idea, because no one had a clue how this would affect the blast dynamics. Here’s a little preview, though: it wasn’t for the better.

When Baker went off, it lifted millions of tons of irradiated water and seabed material up to a mile in the air. When it inevitably came back down, this radioactive material expanded into a turbulent cloud of mist which spread outward, engulfing all of the test ships and bathing them in radioactivity. Since Baker was detonated below the surface, nearly all of the fission products and unfissioned plutonium settled into the local environment.

Baker Test. The shadow at the base of the water column is thought to be the battleship Arkansas 
being upended by the blast.

5000 people were sent into that radioactive environment to perform evaluation and decontamination. Fireboats tried to scour contamination off target ships with their hoses, but the process was largely ineffective—partly because they were trying to decontaminate with water pumped from the lagoon, which was now also radioactive. In many cases, this process only created more problems, when radioactive spray from the hoses blew back onto the fireboats and contaminated them too.

Video of the detonation and some of the fireboat cleanup efforts can be found here.

And if you think that’s dumb, you haven’t heard nothing yet, because sailors were actually sent aboard test ships to decontaminate them by hand. With soap and water. These sailors were given no protective equipment. They went to work in their uniforms, scrubbed plutonium-contaminated decks on their hands and knees, and then returned to their ships—dragging the contamination with them to spread it there.

Cleanliness is next to glowiness.

Even worse, the Navy was under the impression that target ships moored at the very edge of the test site could be recrewed and sailed home before being scrapped. Why in the holy hell would anyone want to occupy a ship that’s had an a-bomb dropped on it, and that’s just going to be scrapped anyway? Well, remember that dick-swinging contest between the Air Force and the Navy? The Navy wanted to take its surviving ships back to the mainland and get pictures of them steaming into port, to prove they were still operational after being hit by an atomic blast.

Two ships were thus reoccupied. Their crews promptly received a dangerous dose of radiation and had to be evacuated. The commander of the condemned battleship USS New York even got into a pissing match with the officer in charge of safety, Colonel Stafford Warren, and accused him of taking his Geiger counter readings too close to the deck of the ship. The deck where, you know, people have to walk, so wouldn’t it be a nice little bonus if it wasn't a cancer factory?

Speaking of things that aren't supposed to glow in the dark, guess what the fish in the lagoon started to do. Yup. They started to glow. Not in a visible wavelength, mind you, but let's just say that you could take an x-ray picture of them without actually using x-rays. Because, see, the fish were so radioactive that they now provided their own x-rays. Here's one of the blue tangs (a.k.a. surgeon fish) caught after the test, photographed in both x-ray and visible wavelengths:

At least it has a positive attitude.

The incredibly disturbing fish picture, along with data coming in from off-site tests for plutonium contamination—which were showing positive even when samples were taken deep inside the target ships—finally convinced Vice Admiral Blandy that he’d created a massive clusterfuck and ought to stop before things got even worse. The third detonation in the Crossroads operation was cancelled, all operations at Bikini Atoll were suspended, and most of the surviving test ships were sunk.

No one immediately died from the radioactive contamination of the Crossroads tests, though not for lack of effort on the Navy’s part. The mortality rate among veterans present at Bikini, however, has been higher than that for veterans generally, and 200 premature deaths may be attributable to the Able-Baker tests.

Oh yeah, and did I mention that people were living there? Yeah, Bikini was inhabited prior to the tests. It isn’t now, of course, what with the glow-in-the-dark fish and whatnot. The natives were evacuated to Rongerik Atoll, which then had to be evacuated after it too was contaminated by fallout from the botched Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954.

So congratulations, Bikinians. You’re honorary nijū hibakusha! Hopefully that thought will help get you through your chemotherapy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Buffy's The Order of Dagon Discovers Common Sense

Transcript of Order of Dagon Contingency Planning Meeting Regarding The Key 

Brother Kazamir: Order, order. This meeting will now come to order. Thank you for attending, Brothers. I’ve called you here today because the Hell Goddess known as The Beast, a.k.a. Glorificus, a.k.a. Glory, a.k.a. The Abomination, a.k.a. That Which Cannot Be Named, has discovered that we hold The Key and seeks us even now. If she defeats us and takes The Key, she will unleash Hell on Earth in her attempt to return to her own dimension.

Brother Michal: Question, Brother. I’ve never understood the “That Which Cannot Be Named” part. Can anyone explain that?

Brother Vladimir: It’s very simple, Michal. She is far too evil to even put a name to.

Brother Michal: But Kazamir just put a name to her. Several, in fact. For someone who cannot be named, she has quite a few of them.

Brother Kazamir: Will both of you please shut up? We refer to Glory as “That Which Cannot Be Named” because she was born in the far depths of time, when the universe was fluid and mystical—before sound, before speech, and thus before names.

Brother Vladimir: Fair enough, fair enough. But, technically speaking, can't anything that existed in that time be accurately called “That Which Cannot Be Named”? It seems to me that we need a more specific system. Perhaps Glory could be “That Which Cannot Be Named One”, and then the next thing which cannot be named would be two, and then three, and everything would follow from there, until eventually you reach things that can be named.

Brother Otmar: Oh, and can we change it to “That Which Could Not Be Named”? “That Which Cannot Be Named” implies that it cannot be named now, which is plainly untrue, since we're obviously naming it.

Brother Kazamir: I fear that we’re wandering from the point.

Brother Michal: I have an idea. Why don’t we call her “That Which Could Not Then But Currently Can Be Named.”

Brother Vladimir: One.

Brother Michal: What?

Brother Vladimir: “That Which Could Not Then But Currently Can Be Named One.”

Brother Michal: Can be named one what?

Brother Vladimir: No, no. I mean she’s the first thing that could not then but currently can be named.

Brother Otmar: Do we know that for certain, though? She could be the second thing that could not then but currently can be named.

Brother Vladimir: Yes, yes, but she’s the first thing that could not then be named, but which we’ve taken to naming now, though it could not once but now can certainly, currently... be... ummm... be named. Thus, one.

Brother Otmar: I don’t follow you.

Brother Kazamir: Shut up! Shut up! We’re here to talk about my plans for The Key! If Glory obtains The Key, the world is doomed! We must do everything in our power to hide it from her. We'll figure out the name shit later.

Brother Vladimir: Quite so! Please continue, Brother Kazamir.

Brother Kazamir: Very well. I have been working on this problem all night, and I have a brilliant solution. I propose that we use an ancient ritual to transform the key into a teenaged girl living in Southern California, younger sister to Buffy Summers, the Slayer, and that we alter the fabric of reality throughout the entire world so that all humanity—with the contractually stipulated exception of the mentally ill—believe The Key is and has always been Buffy’s younger sister.

[Here, the transcriber notes that there followed “One full minute of crickets chirping”.]

Brother Otmar: Apologies, Brother, but ARE YOU HIGH ON CRACK RIGHT NOW?

Brother Vladimir: I was just going to ask that.

Brother Kazamir: What? What? Why would you say such a thing? I think it's a good plan. I thought you'd like it!

Brother Michal: If I may be permitted to speak for my esteemed Brothers Otmar and Vladimir, I believe that they mean no insult, but merely wish to point out the fact that this is the plan of someone who’s high on crack.

Brother Kazamir: Oh, come on! Think about it! The Slayer will protect The Key, for The Key will be her own sister. For what would she sacrifice more, than for her own sister?

Brother Vladimir: I, uhh, I don't know about more, but I daresay she’d sacrifice exactly as much to protect a Key that could destroy the whole world.

Brother Otmar: Exactly. If we’re going to count on The Slayer, why not just give her the damn Key and tell her exactly what it’s for? Why all this obfuscation? It just seems like we could save everyone a lot of hassle that way. Also, The Key wouldn't be wandering around and causing shenanigans.

Brother Kazamir: But if The Key were a mere object to her, she might destroy it rather than letting it fall into Glory’s hands.

[Here, the transcriber notes that there followed “TWO full minutes of crickets chirping”.]

Brother Otmar: What, exactly, would be wrong with that?

Brother Vladimir: Indeed. In fact, why don't we just destroy it ourselves?

Brother Michal: I’ve always wondered why we don’t just break the damn thing. I mean, why keep it around when it serves no useful function and can destroy the world? That’s not the kind of thing you keep in a junk drawer, for old time’s sake.

Brother Kazamir: It is a sacred object of ancient power! We cannot simply smash it.

Brother Vladimir: Why not?

 Brother Kazamir: Because... ancient power. You know. Ancient power!

Brother Vladimir: What ancient power? It only does one bloody thing. It opens up a gateway to every dimension simultaneously, thereby unleashing countless hells on Earth. What do we want one of those for?

Brother Michal: Maybe he's worried he'll get bored with the Earth someday?

Brother Otmar: You’re both wrong. Brother Kazamir keeps The Key around so he can extract favors from people. I can’t count the number of times I’ve refused to lend him money, and then he’s been all like, “That sure is a nice planet you got there. Shame if anything happened to it.”

Brother Michal: Merciful Dagon! That’s horrible!

Brother Kazamir: We’re not destroying The Key, okay? I'm putting my foot down. That’s final. And if you don’t like it, then...

Brother Vladimir: Are you threatening to unleash countless hells on Earth if we don’t go along with your stupid plan?

Brother Otmar: That’s exactly what he’s doing. He does it all the time.

Brother Michal: Now that I think of it, he did once threaten to destroy the Earth if I didn’t turn down my music.

Brother Otmar: So I suppose we have no choice.

Brother Kazamir: Then we're agreed. We use our powers to transform The Key into Buffy’s little sister. And we name her Dawn.

Brother Vladimir: Dawn?

Brother Kazamir: Give me that look one more time, Brother Vladimir, and I'll destroy the Earth. Don't think I won't.

Brother Michal: Ahem. I think, perhaps, that I’ve found a compromise...

[Here, the transcriber notes that Brother Michal held up a newspaper whose headline announced the impending launch of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity.]

Brother Michal: Perhaps instead of transforming The Key into the Slayer’s little sister, we should transform it into the Mars robot’s little sister, eh?

Brother Otmar: And no one would ever suspect a thing! There would be no one to work out the secret, what with The Key being shot off to another planet. And even if they did suspect, how are they going to get to it?

Brother Kazamir:That's a stupid plan. Who would believe that NASA would launch two identical robots to the same planet?

Brother Vladimir: It's better than your dumb plan.

Brother Otmar: Because, unlike you, we’re not on crack.

Brother Kazamir: I am not on crack! Not... today.

Brother Vladimir: I'll lend you money for crack if you agree to our less insane plan.

Brother Kazamir: Deal!

Brother Otmar: Then let us begin the ceremony...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fun With Broken Arrows

“Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.”
–General Buck Turgidson, Dr. Strangelove
Have you ever lost something important at work? An expensive tool, a critical spreadsheet, or maybe  an entire intern? You know that sinking feeling you get when you realize how badly you screwed up? Just imagine how much worse it would be, if that intern were made of plutonium.

The U.S. military classifies nuclear weapons incidents on a scale that starts small at “Dull Sword,” indicating an event which could have become a nuclear incident under different circumstances. For example, in 1950 the crew of a B-36 Peacemaker bomber that was experiencing engine trouble decided, before bailing out, to drop their Mark 4 nuclear bomb on Canada. Because fuck Canada, right? The bomb was only loaded with a practice nuclear core, however, which made a nuclear detonation impossible.

1950, in fact, witnessed a second Dull Sword event when a B-50 also experienced engine trouble and its crew also decided to drop their Mark 4 nuclear bomb on Canada. Yeah, by 1950 the United States Air Force had already dropped as many nuclear bombs on Canada as it had on Japan. And why the hell not? It’s nothing but snow, hockey, and socialized medicine up there. It’s practically Russia already.

Here you go, Canada. Have two of these on Uncle Sam.

Next in order of severity is a Bent Spear incident, which involves a relatively minor mistake or accident which has only the smallest probability of ending civilization. The most famous of these occurred in 2007 when a B-52 that was supposed to be ferrying unarmed cruise missiles for disposal was accidentally loaded with six live nuclear warheads, each one having a maximum yield of 150 kilotons. That’s a total explosive potential around 50 times larger than the “Little Boy” bomb that killed a hundred thousand people when dropped on Hiroshima. Breaking with tradition, these cruise missiles were not fired at Canada, but were instead delivered to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where someone finally noticed they were live weapons. By then, a full two days had passed since they were improperly removed from their secure bunker. In that time, no one at the site of origin had noticed that six nuclear warheads were missing.

Next comes Empty Quiver, which is the theft, seizure, or other inadvertent loss of a nuclear weapon. Boooooring. Wake me up when we get to…

A Broken Arrow. These are the mack daddies of nuclear weapons incidents. A Broken Arrow is any incident in which there's a risk of detonation or release of fissile warhead material. Since the 1950’s, there have been approximately a gajillion of these incidents. Taken individually, most involved no or fairly low probabilities of accidental nuclear detonation, but put all of them together and it’s a fucking miracle that we haven’t accidentally vaporized a bunch of people.

The first Broken Arrow I’m aware of happened in 1950—a real banner year for nuclear mishaps—when a nuclear-armed B-29 crashed three minutes after takeoff. The nuclear core was aboard but not installed at the time of the crash, so the fissile plutonium merely cooked in the fire until they could put it out. No big.

Not to be outdone by the Americans, a Soviet submarine in 1977 accidentally dropped a nuclear missile into the northern Pacific Ocean. There was a build-up of pressure in the launch tube and they just, you know, accidentally dropped it overboard. Woops.

In fairness to the Soviets, the ocean floor is a popular place for accidentally leaving nuclear weapons. In 1965, the U.S. Navy dropped one off an aircraft carrier while steaming south of Japan. The bomb, the pilot, and the aircraft they were both attached to rolled off an elevator and were never recovered. The loss was not revealed, however, until 1981. Apparently, someone at the Pentagon feared that Japanese people might have strong opinions about nuclear weapons for some strange reason.

God, Japan, you’re such a Canada.

My absolute favorite broken arrow, however, has to be the 1961 crash of a B-52 in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The Air Force, having learned absolutely nothing from the shenanigans back in 1950, had armed the aircraft with two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs—both live, with their plutonium cores fully installed. During a refueling operation off the coast, the tanker crew noticed a fuel leak on the B-52’s right wing. The pilots attempted to make an emergency landing, but the bomber began to break up at around 10,000 feet and the crew ejected, leaving the live bombs in their falling aircraft.

On one of the bombs, three of four safety mechanisms completely failed on the way down and the bomb armed itself for a ground burst. Following its programming to the letter, it deployed its drag chute to slow its descent, activated its detonation triggers, and charged its firing capacitors. When it hit the ground in a muddy field, the trigger mechanism activated, sending an electrical signal to the firing capacitors. If that signal had arrived, the capacitors would have discharged and the bomb would have detonated.

If it had gone off, according to calculations I made using Nukemap, the 3.8 megaton bomb would have created a crater five hundred feet deep. The fireball would have been a mile wide. It would have leveled every building for five miles in every direction. It would have inflicted third degree burns on 100% of exposed persons within twelve miles. The cloud of radioactive fallout would have stretched four hundred miles under moderate wind conditions, reaching as far as Atlanta or Philadelphia depending on wind speed and direction. Something like 20,000 people would have died.


Only an arm/safe switch—the single safety mechanism which worked properly on that bomb—stopped this from happening.

But, you protest, that arm/safe switch couldn’t possibly have malfunctioned, right? It’s surely failsafe, right? Right? RIGHT?! For fuck’s sake, Robyn, that last switch must have been very reliable!

Actually, now that you mention it, do you remember that there were two bombs? On the second bomb, the triggers did not activate, the capacitors did not charge, and the drag chute did not open. Many of its components were never found, but they did recover the arming switch—the same switch that, on the first bomb, was all that stood in the way of a nuclear detonation.

When found, the second bomb’s switch was set to the armed position.

Sleep tight, everyone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Unspeakable Horror of Pee Wee's Playhouse

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Sign

Have you ever wondered how Pee Wee’s Playhouse came about?

No, seriously. How do you explain a cowboy living in the same neighborhood as a member of some sort of cow aristocracy? How can furniture talk? How can early ‘90s technology produce a sentient robot? Why would the King of Cartoons deign to visit a backwoods playhouse on a weekly basis? What kind of sea captain can trek inland on such a regular schedule, leaving his ship idle at port? How can “the most beautiful woman in Puppetland” be a human being who, due merely to her species, must be a hideous abomination to most of the locals? How can fish speak while underwater? Why does a playhouse with one occasional resident need a full time lifeguard? Who the hell would be brave enough to sit in Chairy? How could such an aerodynamically compromised pterodactyl manage to fly? How could a person, even a person as shallow as Pee-Wee, waste magic wishes on such petty desires? How can a kite predict any element of the weather apart from the wind direction? Why does Pee Wee let tiny little Randy intimidate him? Why is Randy even allowed to stay in the playhouse, if he’s so abusive? Why are the ants the most typically human characters we ever see? How could someone bring themselves to eat talking food?

So many unanswered questions. It seems that it would require a vast and complex theory to explain it all.

Or perhaps not. In science, we look for simple answers. But what single factor can explain all of these strange and diverse mysteries?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have your answer. The single factor that can explain everything is Jambi.

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Jambi

Jambi is the only character on Pee Wee’s playhouse with the incredible power necessary to cause these paradoxes. Jambi is the only one who could create such terrible, sentient monstrosities, and at once rob them of all self-awareness of the bleak horror of their existence.

But wait, there's a problem with our theory. Jambi can’t execute his will by himself. He needs a person, a host if you will, to make wishes so that he may grant them.

But who would be sick enough to wish for such things as these?

You may be tempted to say Pee Wee, and in a way you’re right, but it isn’t as simple as that. Pee Wee may be clinically insane, but he isn’t hurtful. He would never wish a human being into furniture. In fact, he would never do harm to any living thing, except by accident.

Except by accident.

An accident such as… a misguided wish? A misguided wish, fulfilled by a genie—a mystical creature who, according to myth, is capable of evils even greater than humanity’s.

Genie Djinn

And so the picture becomes clear. Pee Wee discovered Jambi’s box, perhaps on an archeological dig. We don’t know what Pee Wee did for a living, after all. He could have been anything. Perhaps his history is less glamorous. Perhaps he was merely a janitor, cleaning the archives at a museum, when he found The Djinn’s Box.

Whatever the story, however Jambi caught hold of Pee Wee, the djinn offered him the customary wish. And Pee Wee, because he is such a kind soul, wished for something selfless, something pure, something good.

He wished for an end to world hunger. The evil djinn Jambi grinned and chanted those chilling, fateful words: “Mekka lekka high, mekka hiney ho!”

Pee Wee stared into the eyes of the powerful creature and, too late, saw the evil lurking within. “No!” he cried. “I take it back!” But it was too late.

Pee-Wee big eyed stare

For the only one left was Pee Wee. He ran out into the street to find that he alone was left alive in a world of the dead. A world without life, but a world that would never, ever go hungry.

“You seem like a nice boy,” Jambi the Worldkiller said to Pee Wee. “I’ll grant you another wish, so you can fix things.”

Pee Wee fell to his knees and begged, “Take back my wish! Please take it back, Jambi!”

“I can’t take back your wish, Pee Wee. But I can grant you another.”

“Then bring them back! Bring everyone back!” Pee Wee was weeping now. “Please bring them back.”

“If I bring them back,” said the evil spirit, “there will be hunger. That would be taking back your first wish.”

Pee-Wee's Freakout

Pee Wee sobbed into his hands. “Then bring them back without hunger! Find a way, I beg you!”

“Granted.” This time, the magical words chilled Pee Wee to the bone, as the djinn said again, “Mekka lekka high, mekka hiney ho!”

And the dead rose. Not as living flesh, but as horrible abominations. Furniture. Windows. Clocks. Each took the form of some object, and became an animate creature of felt and stuffing.

Awaking to this nightmare and seeing what they had become, their horrible screams tore through windows and echoed through the streets. All humankind woke to find themselves transformed into creatures more ghastly and terrible than Kafka’s worst imaginings.

For they were puppets. But puppets do not feel hunger.

You're a Wee Little Puppet Man! (Angel)

“Don’t despair,” said Jambi. “Not everyone’s a puppet. A few humans remain. Just enough so that there will always be enough food for them. Of course, I don’t know how they’re going to react to what’s happened. Perhaps you should find them and gather them together. I think we’ll all have lots of fun together.”

Pee Wee blinked through his tears and leveled a hateful gaze upon the djinn. He steeled himself and said, “I wish I were dead.”

Jambi smiled. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said. “Why don’t you take a walk through this new world you’ve created? Have some fun. Then, if that’s what you really want, I’ll grand you another wish in, say, one week?”

Pee Wee did not respond. He rose silently and walked through the streets. All around him, the puppet people wailed and cried out in their lamentations.

All because of him.

And Pee Wee laughed—a mad little giggle on the cusp of sanity. “Ha ha!”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Memo: The Recent Changes at Alliance Psychic Research Institute

To: All surviving personnel, Alliance Psychic Research Institute
From: New Director, Alliance Psychic Research Institute
Subject: Recent Changes


You may have already noticed some changes here at the institute when you came into work today. If you’re worried about your positions, allow me to assure you: for the foreseeable future , there will be no further layoffs and/or assassinations by shadowy Council agents. So if you’re reading this and not spurting blood onto your monitor from a severed brachiocephalic artery, congratulations! You made the cut.

Which is not to say that you’re off the hook.

You people brought a precocious, hyperintelligent teenager in here, taught her eight types of karate, honed per psychic powers to a razor edge, and then acted surprised when she escaped from your lightly guarded facility. Frankly, I’m only shocked that it took so long, and that she needed any outside help at all. In fact, under the circumstances, I’m surprised she didn’t invent a teleporter powered by your collective stupidity and use it to beam herself out.

Which is to say: we expect better critical thinking from you in the future.

In the weeks ahead, you’ll be seeing some changes in and around the facility. And when I say “around”, I mean it, because we’re planning to move this entire program into space. I hope you like looking at stars from your office window.

Why launch you all into space? To put it in one word: security. If another candidate escapes our facility, we would like it if they escaped into the cold vacuum of interplanetary space. Don’t worry. All the amenities are moving with you. You’ll still have an on-site gym, after work enrichment classes, and Wednesday will still be Hot Dog Day in the cafeteria. It’ll just be Hot Dog Day in space—which, if you ask me, is even better. And if you’re worried about being away from your families, don’t fret, because we’re bringing them all with us.

As hostages.

So don’t fuck up again, or your loved ones will pay the price for your incompetence.

That’s enough admonishments and threats, though. Now on to some good news! We’ll have some new faces joining us soon. Notice that I didn’t say “people”, because no one’s entirely certain about that, but you’ll know these operatives by the blue gloves they wear. When I inquired about it, I was simply told that they’re “afraid of catching germs from door knobs.” So you want to remember to sneeze into your sleeve around them, or they might kill you with a sonic weapon that causes excruciating pain and bleeding from every orifice.

That’s what their resumes say, anyway. They also say that they’re very good at volleyball, so I expect the upcoming  interdepartmental volleyball season to be a hot one. Just be careful you don’t spike the ball into one of their faces, or they might kill you with a sonic weapon that causes excruciating pain and bleeding from every orifice.

They’re here straight from Alliance High Command, so please extend them every courtesy and do not get between them and the cafeteria steam trays on Hot Dog Day. If you get between them and the cafeteria steam trays on Hot Dog Day, they may kill you with a sonic weapon that causes excruciating pain and bleeding from every orifice.

In other personnel news, Gary from accounting will be moving up to the head of that department. So if you see Gary in the hall, please congratulate him.

Looking through my records, I see that no one who survived the layoffs ever worked directly with the Tam girl, meaning that no one currently employed in the R&D department knows exactly what went wrong. To help keep you from making the same mistakes again, I’m instituting the following rules:

  • No VIP guests are permitted in the testing areas. If key members of Parliament want to see what we do here, we’ll make them a goddamn video tape.
     
  • Effective immediately, all fruity oaty bars are to be removed from the vending machines, and no fruity oaty bar or fruity oaty bar advertisements of any kind are allowed on site. This institute will not be held liable for what happens to personnel who break this rule.
     
  • The telepathic abilities of your psychic candidates may be used for personal financial gain, but only during your off hours, and only with approval of your immediate supervisor.
     
  • The telepathic abilities of your psychic candidates may not be used to obtain dating or pickup advice, to learn your coworkers’ network login passwords, or to pinpoint the amount of bribe money required to gain your immediate supervisor’s approval under the above mentioned rule. In these areas, you’re on your own.
     
  • Any seemingly meaningless babble from psychic candidates is to be reported to the nearest blue-gloved operative—preferably in a soundproof room with easy-to-clean tile floors. For, you know, security reasons.
     
  • From now on, researchers will be limited to performing no more than two lobotomies per psychic candidate. Which ought to be one more than anyone needs, really.
     
  • Emotionally unstable psychic candidates will no longer be taught eight different kinds of karate. Seriously people, I know we’re all about value-added services around here, but it’s much safer for everyone involved if we put a  firewall between those two skillsets.

Follow these simple rules, and this program will be smooth sailing from here on out.

And never forget your critical place in the Alliance. We're making better worlds here, and you’re a part of that.

Yours cordially,
Dr. Susan Feng
Director, Alliance Psychic Research Institute
Special Projects Division, Anglo-Sino Alliance

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Go Read a Book

Ah, summertime. It's warm, the sun is shining, and everyone's so cheerful.

I hate stupid summertime, for all those reasons and more.

But you know what makes it better? A good book. Especially because, after you're finished enjoying it, you can use it to block the sun and/or throw it forcefully at the next person who dares to be cheerful at you.

"But Robyn," you say, "with all the choices available to me, how can I possibly know which book to enjoy?"

Answer: I will tell you. I will tell you which book to enjoy. You are going to enjoy this book:


Rosemary Harper has just arrived on the Wayfarer, a wormhole tunneler ship with a colorful (both literally and figuratively) crew. Rosemary is trying to get as far as possible from her old life on Mars, and she's in luck, because Wayfarer's next job will take it straight into the distant, deadly, and war-torn heart of the galaxy. So, umm... mission accomplished?

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a very fresh take on the pan-species starship subgenre of science fiction. The aliens are truly alien, in cultural mores as well as appearance, which adds a fun extra dimension to the personality conflicts aboard ship. Beyond the strife on Wayfarer, the galaxy too feels like a deep, rich, and complex place—the worldbuilding aspect of the novel is truly excellent. The politics, technology, and even humanity's circumstances amid the stars are a big change from what you usually see in science fiction, but it's all sold effortlessly.

Full disclosure: the author, Becky Chambers, has done some editing on one my projects, so this should be considered more of a plug than a review. If it was a review, however, I would still have nothing but good things to say about the book, and I'd still recommend you buy it.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is only $4.99 in ebook format through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. A paperback version is also available from Amazon and Createspace.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Perspectives Differ: Cylons Are Trying Too Hard

From: The Threes
To: The Ones, Twos, Fours, Fives, Sixes, and Eights
Subject: An open letter, regarding “The Plan” to destroy humanity

We Threes believe that the rest of you are making this whole destroy humanity project a lot more difficult than it has to be. We Threes want to run off and be warrior princesses as much—possibly even more—than the rest of you, but there are a few things we need to get straight first.

The colonials know that we can hack into and control any networked computer. Actually, wait a second. How the hell can we even do that? I mean, just because a computer system is networked doesn’t mean it’s open. Running some wires between two or three computers doesn’t change anything fundamental about its accessibility from the outside. I mean, if you asked me before, I’d say it has something to do with tapping into wires with inductive signals or something, but now that I think of it, there are wires inside a computer too. Why can’t we tap into those?

Okay, okay, that’s not important now, and I feel I’ve wandered off topic.

The topic is the Colonial Defense Mainframe, which we can hack into at will. So… why do we need an inside man? I mean, inside woman. Sorry, Sixes.

Maybe you're worried that it takes too long for us to hack networked computers. Okay then, I'll give you another plan. Our fighters have incredibly precise faster-than-light jump capabilities. So why not have them jump in a thousand feet above the Colonial cities and destroy them before they can react? It’s a nice, simple plan: in, out, nuke. That way, we cut out the middle-man. I mean, middle-woman. Sorry, Sixes.

And hey, maybe they have some kind of point defense protecting their major cities, but we should be able to overwhelm that. We have enough nukes. Seriously, have you seen how many nukes we have? Because I’ve seen how many nukes we have, and it’s a lot.  Enough to saturate their planets and still hold plenty back. Hell, we can even keep that whole hack-into-any-networked-computer ability in our back pockets, as a backup plan.

For that matter, have you seen the reports from Caprica Six? There are three battlestars guarding Caprica at any given time. Have you seen how many basestars we have? Because I’ve seen how many basestars we have, and it’s a lot. We could assign three basestars to every battlestar and still have a very effective reserve force for any other contingency. We would therefore prevail and suffer only modest and acceptable robot casualties from the remaining colonial force, which would be badly damaged and in desperate need of inspiring speeches.

Which brings us to our other concern: How could the Colonials possibly be this stupid?

They know that we can hack into any networked computer, yet they’ve put networked computers onto all of their battlestars. One of the Fives reports that they use cordless phones in most of their ships and military bases. That’s just asking for it. We even have reports that they’re using wireless networks to land their fighters.

Perhaps, you say, they’ve done a lot of work on their firewalls, and they think that upgrading to Barracuda Pro is going to save their organic butts from nuclear holocaust. Okay, then why only three battlestars to protect an entire planet? Have you seen how big a planet is? Because I’ve seen how big a planet is, and it’s really big.

For that matter, since even their own pathetic FTL computers are capable of jumping a ship directly into a planet’s atmosphere, past any orbital defenses, and then jumping it out before an enemy can respond. Do they not understand the implications of that technology? Do they not see how it makes orbital defenses virtually irrelevant?

Apparently, they don’t. If I were them, I’d abandon those planets (i.e. giant targets) immediately, and try to find habitable worlds somewhere secret, where we can’t find and nuke them. But you know what they do? They just plod along within their own little systems, never exploring past the “red line,” which is what they call the maximum safe range of a single FTL jump.

I ask you, why wouldn’t they explore further? Every FTL-capable ship in their fleet can make multiple jumps. Data from one of the Fives indicates that Colonial FTL drives are capable of jumping once every 33 minutes for days at a time (although this remains to be proven.) With that technology, they could fan out through this entire sector of the galaxy, finding habitable worlds to hide on, or perhaps even terraforming marginal planets.

But they don’t even try. So what does that tell you? That they’re either very smart, or very, very stupid.

The Ones tell us that they’re very, very stupid, and must therefore be destroyed. “Have you seen how stupid they are?” one One said to us one time. “Because I’ve seen how stupid they are, and it’s very, very stupid.”

Okay, if we accept that premise, what harm would it be to leave them alone? If they’re really that stupid, killing them is like abusing a poor dumb animal.

And what about the alternative? What if they’re a lot smarter than we think? They might use this attack as provocation for following us back to the Colony and getting rid of us for good. Okay, I know that's a long shot, but we have to at least accept the possibility.

I’ve also heard, from one of the Sixes, that this may all be part of an elaborate plan by God Himself, to force humans and Cylons to work together, fighting to survive beyond the heavens on a lonely quest to find a shining planet known as Earth, and that members of a nucleus of survivors from each race will breed together to produce a messianic figure whose offspring will populate this planet. That... seems somewhat unlikely to us Threes, but whatever. We include it here for the sake of thoroughness.

In conclusion, we believe that the attack on the colonies must logically be either completely unnecessary or a great deal more dangerous than we imagine. We recommend forgetting the whole thing, and devoting our efforts to expanding and colonizing every corner of the galaxy, except for the Twelve Colonies of humans. That should ensure sufficient strength and containment to deal with any future threat they may represent.

Oh, and if we do happen upon this planet “Earth” during our explorations, and determine that we’re fated to blend with humans there? Then we can just jump back to the Twelve Colonies, ask for breeding volunteers, and save everyone a hell of a lot of time and hassle. Based on what Caprica Six has reported, we can count on at least one human taking us up on our offer.

Hugs and Kisses,
The Threes

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tips for When You're a Kid Sleuth (Part 2)

Penny and Brain discuss Inspector Gadget's mediocrity

So you're back, are you? Still think you've got what it takes to be kid sleuths? Well then, let's get to it, maggots, by memorizing these important tips.

You Might Want to Put Some Aloe on That

Here’s the thing: you’re going to get knocked out a lot. Whether it’s a blackjack to the back of the head, a tranquilizer dart, or the ever-popular chloroform-soaked cloth, something’s going to render you unconscious about ten times a year.

This is, medically speaking, a really, really, really bad thing. Or “res perquam, perquam, perquam mal,” in the Latin. You see, the human brain is not a lightswitch that you can turn on and off without consequence. It’s a series of tubes. (Ordo de angustiae.)

For one thing, tranquilizer dosing is tricky. The dosage that puts me into a comfortable nap might well kill you, and it might do nothing to a larger person but make them groggy. There’s a reason that you have to spend ten years getting licensed to keep an eye on an anesthesia machine that administers sedatives with practically unfailing precision. So, do you really think the idiot thugs you’re investigating are going to get the ketamine dosage right on their first try?

Nuh-uh. You wouldn’t trust those morons to tranquilize a stray dog, let alone a person. And as a kid sleuth, you probably have a lower than average body weight, raising your risk of death-by-dart even higher. Given these risks, you might be tempted to hope for chloroform, but that’s even worse. Chloroform is just as dangerous and even harder to dose. Plus, it’s a carcinogen.

Being knocked out is even riskier. A total loss of consciousness after being hit on the head indicates a traumatic brain injury (traumaticus cerebrum owie,) which is especially damaging to children and teenagers. Given the rate at which they’re knocked out, it’s sheer luck that the average kid sleuth isn’t lying comatose with a tube up their nose, trying to solve the Mystery of the Persistent Bedsores.

So, no matter how often it happens to you or your friends, treat every loss of consciousness as a bona fide medical emergency. Immediately arrange transport to the nearest emergency pediatric snooping facility.

As a consolation, any villain who tries to knock you out is guilty of premeditated assault, so you can have the police and/or your dad add that to their rap sheet.

Some Miscellaneous Advice

Encyclopedia Brown meets Se7en - Bugs Meanie has a gift

Never step foot inside a lumber mill, or any industrial space that features a conveyor belt of any kind, for that matter. Just don’t, because everyone you investigate, no matter how trivial their offense, will prove to be an opportunistic murderer. The perp’s big crime could be having his car double parked, and he’d still be willing to kill you to stop you from exposing him.

You can be a kid sleuth even if you’re an idiot. Hell, some scholars argue that it could even make you better at it. Just make sure you have a highly competent friend, and unconditionally forbid them from helping you.

If you’re between cases, get a hobby. You’ll be shocked at how often it’ll be critical to solving the next case you’re on. Any hobby is fine, as long as it’s not the same hobby you had before your last case. In fact, never mention that old hobby again, because it’s against Sleuth Union rules, and you could lose your insurance coverage.

Making an adult disguise by standing on your friend’s shoulders and wearing a large trench coat is ALWAYS an option.

Purchase a pair of tactical door wedges and take them with you whenever snooping in a haunted castle, pyramid, Aztec temple, or etc. It’ll save your bacon when you inevitably get trapped in a room and the walls start closing in. Make sure you get a wedge that’s rated for both spiked and unspiked walls of doom.

Never try to figure out what state your hometown is in. You may be the world’s greatest detective in the under-15 category, but this is one mystery that no one will ever solve. Thinking about it will only give you migraines.

Office hours are critical. Have a time and a semi-public place were other kids can consult you, even if it’s your mom’s garage after school. Because, if you don’t have boundaries, you’re setting yourself up for trickery and kidnapping. And if you ever get a message from someone asking you to go to a remote location after dark, so they can hire you for an important case? That is so a trap. Immediately hand the message over to the police. Believe me, this is one time they’ll actually listen to you.

If I Listen Twice as Long, They’ll Say Something Twice as Incriminating!

Know how long to snoop. We’ve been over this already in the Superhero’s Girlfriend guide, but it bears repeating. When you come across a couple of goons who are—fortunately for you and unexplainably for them—discussing their plans in intricate detail, eavesdrop long enough to learn their plan and not a second longer. Then exit the area in a careful manner. Do not under any circumstances back blindly away from your hiding place, because perps surround their most sensitive sites with ankle-high pipes and tree roots for exactly this reason.

And One Last Thing...

I don't want any messages saying “I'm contemplating the clues.” We're not contemplating a goddamned thing. We're snooping the perpetrator constantly. We’re going to snoop him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. Our plan of operation is to sleuth and keep on sleuthing. We will sleuth through the perpetrator like crap through a goose.

Thirty years from now when you're still the same age you are now, someone will ask you, “What did you do in middle school?” You won't have to cough and say, 'Well, I shoveled bullshit on the essay portion of my history tests.”

All right, you sons of bitches. You know how I feel. I'll be proud to lead you wonderful guys in sleuthing anytime, anywhere. That's all.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Proterozoic Eon, Part 5

Full Linear Timeline of Life on Earth
You may remember that we started our journey through the Proterozoic Eon two and a half billion years ago. After a hell of a lot of Monopoly, we now arrive in the still-Proterozoic of only one billion years ago.

We've come more than half of the way home, watching 1.5 billion years of the Earth's history. The continents have shuffled around a lot, volcanoes have come and gone, and we've suffered a couple devastating meteor impacts.

Life has undergone a few major changes, all on the microscopic level. Cyanobacteria destroyed the environment. Complex cells called eukaryotes evolved, then invented sex. At some point along the way, multicellular organisms evolved—we can't say when with any certainty—but they're not much to look at. In fact, from where we're standing along the Toronto coastline, life still looks pretty much like pond scum.

Cyanobacterial fields forever
"You guys had a billion and a half years to evolve, and this is the best you can do?"
Adapted from an image Copyright and CC Martyn Gorman

And if life in the oceans isn't looking all that evolved, life on dry land has gotten absolutely nowhere. The coastlines, rivers, and lakes of Earth are teeming with life, but go any distance inland and it's the same sandy regolith we saw when we got here, with nothing but the odd desert crust to prove that life exists.

Land in the Proterozoic Eon

Now let’s play a couple more games of Monopoly, which will bring us to an even billion years ago. Something funny is happening now. Remember the supercontinent Columbia, which broke up, just like the Eagles?

Well, it’s getting back together, just like the Eagles. The ocean off the coast of Toronto is narrowing. In fact, you can just about see Montevideo coming over the horizon. Wave! All the major plates are smashing into each other, forming the new supercontinent of Rodinia.

Life has been busy, too. Following up on their recent triumph of sex, they’ve now invented murder.

As with sex, it’s entirely possible that murder existed long before now, but it’s here, at about a billion years ago, that we see the first clear signs of it, in the form of predation. We don’t actually have a fossil of a predator eating its prey this early in history. For that matter, we don’t have a fossil of a predator at all.

But we’re pretty sure predators were around, because we can see what their prey were doing to defend against them. Because this is the era when acritarchs, an umbrella classification encompassing microscopic fossils, started to get spiky1.

Acritarch
Image from PNAS cover July 2005

Other eukaryotes , around this time, also start evolving mineralized coatings that might have been a defense against predators. And stromatolites, those bulbous formations created by bacterial mats, begin to decline, perhaps because they fell victim to newly evolved predators1.

Stromatolite taxa, acritarchs, macrophagous predators, and grazers
From: Bengston. Origins and Early Evolution of Predation. The Paleontological Society Papers 8. pp 289-317

We’re going to play a couple more games of Monopoly to take us to about 800 million years ago. Here, the supercontinent Rodinia is breaking up. Yeah, again. You’re going to have to get used to it, because this shit happens a lot.

In the oceans, more crazy shit is going down. The first armored amoeba have shown up2, and there’ll be no hemming and hawing this time, because we know these little bastards are predators. There is some hemming and hawing about how long amoeba have been around, though. These little armored dudes are the first to leave fossils, but amoebas may have been around for a while. They may, indeed, have been the predators we saw signs of two hundred million years earlier.

And there’ll be no hemming and hawing about animal life this time, either, because something has just shown up off the coast and no one with a lick of sense would dare deny that it’s an animal. And here it is, in all its glory. The first animal:

The First Animals?
From: The first animals: ca. 760-million-year-old sponge-like fossils from Namibia. South African Journal of Science. Vol. 108 no. 1-2 Pretoria 2012.

Yeah, it’s a sponge. They’re animals, you know. It may seem weird, but they are definitely our ancestors, and the ancestors of every worm, fish, lizard, and human being alive today. They’re multicellular, can reproduce sexually, are made of highly specialized and differentiated cell types, have a primitive immune system, and even primitive muscles. They’re animals, and they’re here to stay.

And they’ve shown up just in time for another ice age. Sucks for them.

This ice age won’t last quite as long as the last one—only a couple hundred million years—but it’s going to be even more severe. Again, the glaciers and pack ice will come and go, because an ice age doesn’t mean that it’s always frozen, all the time. But there will be long periods, lasting from 20 to 60 million years, when most of the planet is covered in a kilometer or more of solid ice. Some of these may even have been more “Snowball Earth” events.

I told you to bring a sweater. It’s not my fault you don’t listen.

Two games of Monopoly later, and the planet is finally warming up again. We’re now at about 600 million years ago, the continental plates are coming together yet again, this time to form the supercontinent Pannotia. And, I’m sad to say, we’re only one Monopoly game away from the end of the Proterozoic Eon.

Here at the end, the oceans are warming up and conditions are ripe for life. The cyanobacterial mats are still here, and they still make up most of the biomass on Earth, but eukaryotes aren’t doing too bad.

Larger life (meaning, larger than a microorganism) from this period is hard to classify, because most species are soft-bodied and live on or above the bacterial mats. They don’t leave great fossils, unlike the hard-bodied trilobites and burrowing worms that will start to show up in force a hundred million years from now. But maybe they look something like this:

Ediacaran (Late Proterozoic) Ocean Life
Image CC Ryan Somma

We don’t know what most of these animals evolved from, and we don’t know what they evolved into, assuming they even left ancestors to evolve into anything. We’re not even sure when they died out. We think it was at the end of the Proterozoic, but without any clear sign of an extinction event such as a meteor or extreme volcanic activity, it’s possible they survived right into the Cambrian. In the Cambrian, the paucity of bacterial mats may have made fossilization of soft-bodied creatures less likely, and so they may have disappeared from the fossil record despite living on.

What we do know is that they’re here in the last days of the Proterozoic, and there are a freaking lot of them. In modern times, you’ll find them in the fossil record all across the planet, if you know what to look for. They spread, they evolved, they covered the planet with an explosion of complex life.

And then they disappeared.

Sorry to say, but so must I. The old Monopoly board has gotten a little decrepit over the past two billion years, and you can hardly tell St. Clare’s Place from Baltic Avenue anymore. We’ve had fun, but it’s time to go. The Cambrian is coming, and we don’t want to get eaten by an anomalocaridid.

***

If you enjoyed this trip through the Proterozoic Eon, check out my other science articles in the Archives!

Citations and References
  1. Bengston. Origins and Early Evolution of Predation. The Paleontological Society Papers 8. pp 289-317.
  2. Porter. Testate amoeba in the Neoproterozoic Era: evidence from vase-shaped microfossils in the Chuar Group, Grand Canyon. Paleobiology 26 (3) pp. 360-385.