Monday, April 27, 2009

Unsung Heroes: Real-life Rambo, Simo Hayha

America has always been enamored of war heroes, so much so that we have elevated many undeserving people to that status through myth and legend when obvious targets did not present themselves (I'm looking at you, Paul Revere). Since the Vietnam War, however, the idea of praising soldier for their ability to kill the enemy has a fallen far out of favor, and it is only considered OK to glorify war in fiction. It should not be forgotten that war is an agreement to settle disputes on a battlefield, placing your life as less important than the cause you are fighting for. If belief and conviction are attributes to be admired, then the soldier should hold a position of respect and those soldiers that execute their jobs with exceptional skill and incredible tenacity should be lauded as heroes. No soldier has done this with more intensity and skill than Simo Häyhä.

Simo was a soldier in The Winter War, a little-known conflict (to Americans, at least) the began when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November of 1939, three months after Hitler invaded Poland. Russia was using the West's preoccupation with Hitler to make a grab at conquering Finland, believing its superior numbers and industrial might would crush the Finns quickly, with the West having little strength to argue after their protracted war with Germany. The Russian army's officer corps had been severely weakened in the Stalinist purges of 1937, however, and no one expected the Finns to fight with such determination, cunning and skill. The Finns held off the Russian forces longer than anyone could have imagined, and in the Moscow Peace Treaty Finland gave up only 9% of it's pre-war land and 20% of its industrial capacity, when the USSR expected total domination.

While snipers had existed in the previous century virtually since the advent of rifling1, they had not been an organized military force in Europe until the First World War. They proved extremely cost-effective in that conflict and became a major part of World War II2 . While German and Russian (many of the most successful of of which were women!) snipers have gained a good deal of mainstream acknowledgement (most notably in Enemy at the Gates) the greatest among them still remains largely unknown.

Before entering the military at the age of 20 in 1925 Simo was a farmer and hunter, already recognized as an excellent marksman. Between the start of action on November 30, 1939 and March 13, 1940 Simo racked up 505 confirmed sniper kills of Russian soldiers (unconfirmed kills bring the total to 542) and an additional 200 kills with his submachine gun. Given that he has more kills than another other sniper, and that sniping has the greatest potential for kill counts among infantry positions, this may place him not only as one of the greatest warriors of his time, but among the greatest warriors ever. As if the shear volume of kills wasn't enough (an average of almost 8 kills a day) his methods make the feat even more astounding.

Operating in temperatures ranging from -4 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit Simo stalked his prey in an all-white camouflage suit, earning his name among the Russia troops as “White Death”. He eschewed the use of a scope in favor of his Mosin-Nagant's simple iron sights, to present a lower profile to his enemies and therefore assist in evading detection. He kept snow in his mouth while in position so that his breath would not create vapor and he routinely froze the snow at the front of his position so that his shots would not puff the snow when he fired, giving away his position. This man possessed patience, determination and cunning in unearthly amounts.

Simo was severly injured by a Russian soldier on March 13th, 1940. A bullet hit him in the jaw and, tumbling on impact, removed a large portion of his face. He left the front lines after that, but recovered sufficiently before the end of the war to train new soldiers to fight the Russians. His impact in this capacity is immeasurable. He survived the war and died peacefully at his home in 2002 at the age of 97. When asked how he got so good he replied simply “Practice”.

With the attention we give fictional action stars and soldiers who's acts, while heroic, do not compare to the uncanny abilities of this man; I'm amazed that his actions are virtually unknown in America. No English book has been published about him, let alone a film. Why create a fictional Rambo when one already exists for us in the annals of history? Why has Hollywood not taken the opportunity to remind us that ordinary human beings are capable of incredibly extraordinary things? And while they're at it they can illustrate how a small, unassuming country with no designs on world power can fend off one of the largest military forces on the planet. As much as I love fiction, I want people to know that amazing stories are also found in history books.

1the practice of milling spiraled grooves down the barrel of a gun to improve accuracy

2The Winter War is generally considered part of WWII, as it happened at the same time and on the same continent, though the parties involved and motivations were not the same.


Sniper Hall of Fame

Simo at

Wikipedia articles of note:

Winter War


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Earth Day Doomsday

Earth Day Doomsday

When people talk about “Saving the planet” they are, in fact, talking about “Saving the human race and a reasonably comfortable way of life.” Even with Human-assisted global warming (Anthropogenic climate change: ACC), acid rain, strip mining, water pollution, toxic waste, nuclear accidents and solid waste proliferation few things that the human race is capable of doing to the planet actually have a great deal of effect in the geological sense.

The Real Ramifications of Global Warming: Waterworld was Wrong?!

Despite the foreboding future of Costner's epically boring film the maximum rise in the Earth's sea levels is about 14 meters. Coastlines would flood, drowning most coastal cities1. The Netherlands and South Florida would be entirely lost to the sea. Large portions of New York and New Jersey would be submerged, and the coastline in the southeast would move miles inland. However, if I showed you an outline map of the world after maximum sea level rise you'd have a hard time telling the difference without direct comparison. Sure, losing these areas would be tragic, but also remember that this amount of change is nearly impossible, as it requires every piece of ice on the planet to melt, and that it would happen gradually. No “Day After Tomorrow” tidal waves wiping out NYC in a single day.

The real danger of ACC is desertification and the drastic shift in the world's climates. The Sahara would grow to dominate half of Africa, the U.S. Great Plains would become a desert, as would much of central Asia. The damage to global food production would be huge and cause civic unrest all over the planet as riots break out and wars to grab resources in areas already plagued with scarcity took place. Even this would eventually balance out, though, as areas that were previously frozen tundra, such as Siberia and Canada, would thaw and become the world's new breadbasket.

So the real danger of ACC is not the damage it would do to the planet, but the damage it would do to our economic and political systems as the distribution of resources changed. The U.S. would be one of the hardest hit, if only because we benefit so favorably from the distribution as it stands today. Russia may actually have the most to gain, as so much of it's land is currently a frozen wasteland, though it would likely have problems with areas that were formerly lightly governed, unproductive provinces realizing they now have the wealth and capacity to go it alone.

Cataclysmic Water pollution: The Sea of Blood

With all the hype surrounding ACC, this much more dangerous and much more permanently damaging phenomenon gets very little press, likely because we understand so little about the balance that constitutes the world's ocean ecosystems. There may be a point in the melting of ice or in the releasing of waste into the oceans, that the entire chemical balance of all of the planets oceans is thrown entirely out of whack, leading to either a massive current change due to salinization levels, or the proliferation of red algae due to rising nutrient (read: human waste) levels. A change in currents would lead to a scenario similar to that of ACC, and would lead to resource wars and world-wide scarcity while adjustments were made to depend on those areas benefiting from such a change.

The result of total algae proliferation (AKA a cataclysmic red tide event) could be a near-complete die out of ocean life, possible the most devastating thing we're capable of doing to the Earth short of an all-out nuclear holocaust. The human population would necessarily shrink drastically due to famine, as 120 million metric tons of food is produced by the ocean each year, and is depended on heavily in the developing world as a major source of protein. This would also take eons for the Earth to correct, effectively hitting a reset button on the development of ocean life.

Neither event, however, will destroy the planet or the human race. Which brings me to the one thing we can do that just might accomplish both.

Nuclear Holocaust: The Candle that Burns Brightest

Here it is, the granddaddy of them all, the Doomsday scenario that was all the rage before ACC came along and stole its thunder: total nuclear annihilation. Keep in mind that I'm not referring to a limited exchange brought on by say, N. Korea or Iran launching a nuke and the major nuclear powers retaliating by turning their country into a glassy plain, I'm talking about a total launch of all payloads currently in operation. While many people believe the event is unlikely to the point of impossibility now that the Cold War is over and science has examined all the ramifications of all out nuclear war (long story short: no one wins), it does stand as the one thing human beings are capable of that could theoretically reduced to Earth to an irradiated ball of dirt.

Oddly enough, the initial conflagration may actually be the least damaging part of the whole sequence. While huge portions of urban population would be vaporized instantly, the vast majority would simply see the mushrooms clouds on the horizon. The real danger to the human race and the planet lies in radiation and dust.

Radiation is capable of some really horrendous things. If you've ever seen pictures of radiation sickness then you know what I mean. But radiations most insidious effect, in terms of the long term survival of the planet, is its ability to damage DNA. It can render both plants and animals infertile, and enough of it could effectively sterilize the planet. It impossible to say if the amount of nuclear radiation we're capable of generating is enough to accomplish this, but its a real enough danger that it stands as the one thing human beings could do to damage the planet so severely that it would virtually have to start over from scratch, with only the lower life forms who's resiliency and simplicity could withstand the damage. Oddly enough, cockroaches are not especially resistant, but fruit flies are.

If the radiation level are not sufficient to render the planet's plant life infertile, then the dust clouds become the most immediate problem. It estimated that a total nuclear war would release 150 Tg (150 X 1012 grams) of dust into the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to fall by 68° Fahrenheit in North America and 86° in Eurasia. This in comparison to the last Ice Age being 44.6° cooler than the planet is today. Precipitation would also drop by 45%. Food production all over the planet would likely cease for at least a year, possibly longer, and most of the world's population would die of starvation. The survival of any of the human race would depend on how long the clouds lasted. Earth, however would outlast the clouds, and the surviving plant life would start the cycle anew.

So what could destroy both the human race and the planet entirely? Asteroid impact? Nope. Comet? Nope. There's only one thing I've found:

Gamma-ray Burst: Not Cool

A GBR is a rare sort of supernova that sends jets of Gamma-rays jetting out of it's poles. If one happened near the Earth it may just strip away a large portion (20-50%) of the Ozone layer, exposing everything to unsafe levels of ultraviolet radiation (our current “holes in the Ozone” are depletions of about 5%). But if one of those Gamma-ray jets is pointed right at us, it could be curtains.

A Gamma-ray jet has approximately the same energy as a hypernova, and would expose the planet to more energy than the sun has in our entire existence. If one happened within, say, 1000 light years and hit us directly it would destroy our atmosphere , the seas would boil, cities would melt and all life would be hopelessly irradiated. Even in the deepest gold mines we would be exposed to lethal amounts of radiation.

You might find all this depressing, but it actually makes me strangely optimistic. These GBRs occur approximately 1/100,000 years in any given galaxy, and the only star we can see that might do it and might be pointed at us and might have a clear shot is between 5k and 8k light years away. A direct hit would likely damage the Ozone and create massive amounts of smog, but would be unlikely to expose us to the massive amounts of radiation that would doom all life on the planet. If this is our only concern for complete annihilation, I feel good about those chances. Plus, if there are any sort of laws to the universe, or sentience determining our fate, going out due to such an absurdly unlikely event just seems unfair and anticlimactic.

So what's my point? People often talk about saving the Earth as if they're doing something altruistic, something entirely selfless that they expect no reward for. This is BS. We are not working to save the Earth for the Earth's sake. The Earth was just fine before we came along, our time here as been geologically insignificant, and it will continue on like we were never here if we manage to kill ourselves off. We are working to save the planet for our sake, and for the sake of our way of life. The rewards may not be immediate, but they are our rewards, not the planet's and not the rest of the planet's life (who would probably be happiest if we would just leave it alone entirely). Forget Saving the Earth, it doesn't need our help, Save the Humans.


Flood Maps

What's left to eat? Fish: Net Results

WR 104: A nearby gamma-ray burst?

Massive Salinity Changes In Oceans

Wikipedia entries of note:
Climate change
Nuclear Winter
Red tide

1Notable U.S. cities lost to maximum sea level rise:

New York

Portland, ME




Virginia Beach






Fort Lauderdale



New Orleans

Long Beach

Sacramento (What?! Apparently Sacramento lies in a basin that the San Fransisco bay will spill into. Huh.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Investigation: 2012

Investigation: 2012

Apocalypse, cataclysm, Armageddon, the end of the world. These events are predicted almost every year, sometimes even weekly. The next predicted date for the end of our age has thousands of people either hopeful, concerned or frightened. Maybe you've heard about it, maybe you haven't. Either way it will soon become a part of the lexicon with the release of a major motion picture this year. It’s coming: 2012.

A Tibetan monk ascends to his mountaintop temple in the Himalayas to ring a bell. His eyes widen as he raises them to the horizon. A huge tidal wave looms over the highest mountain range on the planet, threatening to crash down and devastate the environment. Similar devastation awaits the rest of the planet... 2012 trailer

Wait a second! Where on Earth is all of this coming from? What makes people think that the world is going to come to an abrupt end on December 21nd 2012? Climatic projections? Astronomers tracking an asteroid on a collision course with Earth? Economists predicting a total collapse of the trade network? The Bible? Nostradamus? Astrology? An ancient calendar that ends abruptly and somewhat arbitrarily on that date?

The Mayan Calendar

So what is the root of all this speculation? Believe it or not it finds its source in the calendar of a civilization that collapsed before Europeans ever set foot in the New World. The Mayan Calendar is divided into K'in (days), Winal (20 days), Tun (360 days), K'atun (7,200 days) and B'ak'tun (144,000 days). represents day one on the Mayan Calendar (August 12, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar).

This itself isn't significant. Calendars have been created by several civilizations with knowledge of astronomy in the past. The Mayan calendar has become a portent of doom because the Mayans believed that we exist in the fourth world (or world of the Fourth Sun in some translations) and that a transition to the Fifth World will take place between (December 20, 2012) and (December 21, 2012) on their calendar.

What the Mayans actually believed would happen on this date is unclear, as inscriptions are hard to come by and translation is a tricky business. The most complete and understood inscription comes from a monument in the Tortuguero archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico, that scholars agree refers to the descent of the god B'olon 'Ok, the Mayan deity of war, conflict and the underworld. This seems like a negative event to our modern western sensibilities but the Mayan character for descent or “coming down” was often used in a positive connotation in dedications. It is also clear that the Mayans did not believe the world would cease to exist on this date, as they referred to dates past it and considered the changing of an age an event to be celebrated.

However, civilizations have portended the end of the world or the coming of a new age almost since civilization began and the Mayans didn't seem to be particularly adept soothsayers (they didn't see the fall of their civilization coming, for instance) so why has this date become the source of such hysteria? Part of it is the age and mystery surrounding the calendar, part of it is opportunists attaching their pet cataclysm to the Mayans, and part of it is the coinciding of a few astronomical and astrological events to roughly this time period. Lets start with the astronomical events, or things perceived as such.

Astronomy & Astrology: 2012

Galactic Alignment of the Solar System: This is the idea that the plane of the solar system will be precisely lined up with the galactic plane on 12-21-2012. This is completely false. This event occurs every 33 million years or so, and evidence points to it last occurring about 3 million years ago or so, so it's not due for quite a while.

Alignment of the sun to the Galactic Center (as viewed from Earth): The precise alignment actually occurred during the winter solstice of 1998, and the sun will remain roughly aligned to the Galactic Center for 36 years after that date. Also, the event is only a visual phenomenon from Earth and holds no scientific relevance (i.e. no increased radiation, heat, gamma rays or any such nonsense)

The Age of Aquarius: Whew! Good luck wading through all of the ideas about this time period and when it will either begin or end, or what it even means! An Astrological Age is determined by what constellation of the Zodiac the Sun appears in during the vernal equinox, and the current age effects the development of the Earth and its people. For example, the Age of Leo is associated with the warming of the Earth and the melting of the glaciers, the Age of Cancer with domestication of animals and the Great Floods of myth, the Age of Gemini with the invention of writing, and so on. Due to the irregularities of these constellations the exact measurement of an age is difficult to determine. The Age of Aquarius's starting dates range from the 15th to 37th centuries and it will last approx. 2,150 years. It's generally accepted among the Astrological community that the prior Age, the Age of Pisces, started within 100 years of the birth of Christ, so by that reckoning the new age will start roughly between 2050 and 2250, not exactly close to 12-21-12. Astrologers generally agree that the Age will be marked with the fall of religion and the rise of rational thought, but that's where the agreement ends. It could certainly be argued that this transition is already taking place, astrologers point to The Reformation, The Enlightenment , or The Industrial Revolution as indicators of the new Age, though offical astronomical calculations place its start in the 24th century. Consenus will likely not be reached without the benefit of a great deal of hindsight.

Planet X, Nibiru or Marduk: A theory based on mistranslations of ancient Sumerian texts that states that a previously unknown planet or brown dwarf star passes close to the Earth every 3600 years. Some theories state that the planet is inhabited, the source of the “Greys” that have visited us more an more often recently, while others make the more sane assertion that the passing body's gravity or radiation will have disasterous effects on the planet. The theory is not supported by newer translations or any astronomical data. Once proposed to arrive in 2003 by the nut that runs Zeta Talk, they've revised their new date to be 2012, pretty much because it just sounds good. Even the original theorist, Zecharia Sitchin, who was tranlations have been proven to be woefully wrong and his interpretation of artifacts and symbols to be entirely off the mark doesn't expect its return for another 1000 years. Some folks are even attaching the words of Nostradamus, that font of end-times theories that fail to come true, to this event. Man, you just gotta Google this one for all the absurd wildly divergent theories on it, it’s good for a laugh.

Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Object: While 30% of our stellar neighborhood remains unscanned, no object is projected to come close to hitting the Earth until 2880, when the asteroid 1950 DA has a 1:300 chance of colliding with the Earth. While a real danger, it's certainly not going to make a 870 year jump just to prove some people right.

Ecology & The Environment : 2012

Pole Shift: Some of you from the “Sightings” crowd might remember this one from 5/5/95 theory that preyed on our X-files addled adolescent brains. It goes like this: the ice accumulation at the poles will cause the Earth to become unbalanced and it will tip 90 degrees. Completely discredited, with little evidence to back it up in the first place. It seems even more unlikely with the current depletion of Polar ice.

Supervolcano: Recently posed by Discovery and the BBC as a possible Doomsday scenario is the eruption of the supervolcano that currently resides under Yellowstone national park. While the eruption is theoretically long overdue, things are often delayed thousands of years on the geological time scale. Fortunately an eruption of this magnitude will likely require centuries of build up and will almost certainly have years, decades or possibly centuries of warnings leading up to the event. Another real threat that could theoretically happen any day, nothing shows that it will happen on 12-21-12.

Geomagnetic Reversal: An event that may be the origin of the “pole shift” theory, but with actual evidence of its occurrence in the past, and a scientific certainty that it will happen again. The phenomenon itself happens when the Earth's magnetic field weakens to the point that it temporarily winks out of existence, only to return shortly thereafter, having randomly determined which pole is “north” and which is “south”. Unfortunately we know so little about the behavior of Earth's magnetic field that we have no way of predicting this occurrence. The Field does seem to have weakened since we started measuring such things (a very insignificant period in geological time) , and while it doesn't seem to be weakening to the point that it would temporarily fall, we don't know when that point might be. We also aren't sure what this fall and realignment might mean to us on Earth. It might allow stellar radiation to bombard us or it may wreak havoc on weather patterns. It will almost certainly do some negative things to electronics. Certainly a major event, possibly even cataclysmic if modern electronics are disrupted or all electronic data is corrupted, though unlikely to be “world-ending” as it has happened before in human history. Nothing tells us it's going to happen in 2012, but it is one of the few “possible” candidates.

Climatic Tipping Point: Being the theory that at a certain point in time anthropogenic global warming (AGW) will reach a point that human efforts will find impossible to reverse. Assuming that AGW is a real phenomenon (there is still some dissent) this point may have already happened or could happen at any moment. Either way, it will be impossible to determine when it happened except in hindsight as its effects could take centuries to attract notice. Could happen on 12-21-12, but no one will realize it.

Peak Oil Day: The day that oil production reaches its peak, and declines steadily afterwards. Originally theorized to happen in 1970, the day has been repeatedly delayed by rises in supply and drops in demand, such as the shift to more fuel efficient cars in the '80s. Some people theorize that this already occurred in 2006, leading to the recent surge in oil prices, others theorize that it will happen soon or within the next 50 years. Some people expect the day to be marked with massive strife and warfare, but these consequences lessen the more energy demand has been shifted to other supplies. This could certainly occur on 12-21-12, but with the economic recession and recent rise in awareness of the finite supply of oil more and more systems are shifting to alternate fuel source, further delaying Peak Day.

Religion & Spirituality: 2012

Global consciousness shift: Ranging from Jose Arguelles' and Daniel Pinchbeck's theories of humans spontaneously rising to a new level of enlightenment to the Global Scenario Group's (GSG) “Planetary Phase of Civilization” concept, many sources believe that the human race is headed for a completely new societal structure. While Jose and Daniel believe this will be accompanied by a sudden shift in human understanding and mental faculties (ESP! mind bullets!) precisely on 12-21-12, the GSG's Planetary Phase of Civilization states that global society will make a shift from a world of capitalist nations and consumerist states into a more interconnected society of global institutions, ubiquitous information technology and coresponding shifts in culture and consciousness. The GSG believes that this will be a shift akin to the transition out of the Stone Age, or into the Modern Era. I don't think many will argue that the Human race is making a transition from the era of nation-states and human vulnerability to the environment (as opposed to the other way around), there's no reason to believe that this transition will happen suddenly on a single day.

Christian End Times: Ah, the Coming of Christ, that familiar fall back in the doom-sayer repertoire. Honestly, with it being promised every year, if there's any truth to it they'll eventually get it right. Some vague biblical prophecies have supposedly come true: the re-establishment of the Jewish state, a united European state, and climate change leading to “tribulation events.” But Jesus himself gives us the final word on trying to peg down a specific date: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." Matthew 24:35-36

Science & Technology: 2012

The Technological Singularity: This one is my personal favorite, and while a specific date for it is impossible to pin down, its occurrence is becoming a popular scientific and pseudo-scientific theory. The scientific one goes like this: technological innovations are occurring at an exponentially accelerating rate and while the specific algorithm has yet to be pinned down (though several have tried) they all end at a point where technology advances at the same rate that time passes, essentially at a rate inconceivable by human beings. This would happen because of a great leap in intelligence available, either through seed AI (an artificial intelligence capable of improving itself) or through augmentation of human intelligence through cybernetics, gene therapy or drugs. Most theorists put the date for this change at somewhere between 2005 and 2050. The pseudo-scientific theory, generally referred to as Timewave Zero and originally proposed by Terrence McKenna, constructs the algorithm with data from the I Ching, which McKenna then manipulated to give the end date of 12-21-12. While no scientific data gives any specific date, it does seem that the world is headed towards this point, which could lead from anything to Robot Apocalypse to a Utopia, or simply a different age of history with old problems solved and new problems created.

Being a fan of The Apocalypse (Bring on the zombies! As long as they aren't those freaking scary ones from 28 Days Later.) I honestly went into this investigation hoping to find some truth behind one of these theories of sudden, cataclysmic destruction. Having only found evidence for geomagnetic reversal, the climatic tipping point, Peak Oil Day and the Technological Singularity happening anywhere close to this date, and with none of these even having sufficient evidence to point to a specific year, let alone a single day, I was left a little disappointed. All of this has raised another question in my mind though: Why do so many people portend a sudden, violent end to our world on a yearly basis? My guess is that they're looking for an easy way out. A sudden end is much simpler than a slow decline caused by global environmental degradation, trade collapse and widespread warfare.

Sources and Reference:

The Mayan Calendar:

Finley's Mayan calendar notes, including a "today's date in Mayan" calculator


Astronomical Events:

S. Tonkin's atronomical calculations

Age of Aquarius


Zecharia Sitchin's errors

List of Potentially Hazarous Objects

Ecological Events:

Hutton's Pole Shift Articles

S.Mewhinney: "Kerplop"

Discovery Channel's Virtual Supervolcano

Scientific American's “Secrets of Supervolcanos”

G. Glatzmaier: The Geodynamo

The Washington Post on Climatic Tipping Point

Religion & Spirituality:

Arguelles' Galactic Research Institute

Pinchbeck's Blog

Global Scenario Group

Christian End Times projected dates

Science and Technology:

Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

Timewave Zero

Terence McKenna Land

Online Timewave Zero Calculator

Up Next: “Investigation: Fluoridation”