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.)