NPF: THE CENTENNIAL

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 25th, 2016 by Ed

Either the headlines or your social media feed no doubt made you aware that this week (Thursday, specifically) the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. It has been called the best idea America ever had, and although a good argument could be made in favor of nachos it's hard to dispute that.

Growing up in the featureless, flat, expansive Midwest the NPS was not a thing I was familiar with directly until my late teens. During a trip to Arizona during a very difficult time in my life I passed a sign for something called Walnut Canyon National Monument and, on a lark, I decided to stop and see what this place I had never heard of was all about. I'll spare you the sappy writing about the experience and say simply that I was hooked immediately and amazed that something that obscure could be so great. It was natural (puns!) for me to wonder what else was hiding in plain sight behind those NPS signs.

Having the complete-ist personality that compels me to Collect 'Em All when I become interested in something, from that moment in 2003 (and a few follow-up visits to other sites in Arizona) I decided that before I depart the mortal coil I am going to visit every one of the 413 units and counting of the National Park Service. Oh, I was so naive and ambitious back then. It was an unrealistic goal.

Just kidding. I'm currently at 217. At this rate I'll have them all before I'm 50.

Basically all of my vacations involve me checking as many of them off my list as I can. Very few things make me happier than finally reaching a destination that until that moment has only been a name on a list and a green dot on a map to me. True, not everything in the System qualifies as "mind blowing" but I can count the number of times I have been disappointed or failed to see or learn something interesting on one hand. The NPS is very important to me. It's melodramatic to say it Saved My Life; that's going a bit far. But it did give me a sense of purpose, a mission to complete, a list that seems to go on and on and ensures that there is always something new for me to get in the car and find the next time I can get away from work.

If I can muster the time and motivation this weekend I'll post some highlight pictures of places I've been. I'm not a souvenir buyer, but I do take a ton of pictures. If I could go back in time and tell 2003 Ed that a dozen years down the road he would be more than halfway through the list, he would probably roll his eyes. In hindsight, the only regret I have is not starting sooner.

Happy birthday, NPS. Even George W. Bush couldn't slow you down, although god knows he tried.

NPF: PLAYING WITH FIRE

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ethnic and racial prejudice are not only vile but also dangerous. Remember that time we surrendered the right to get drunk because we hated the Germans?

Well. It's a little more complicated than that. But without good old fashioned anti-German sentiment Prohibition likely would have gotten no further than the "Bad Ideas" drawing board. The short version? Glad you asked.

The year was 1915. America's involvement in World War I was that of a spectator, at least until Germany came up with the brilliant idea of unrestricted submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping. Their theory was that any shipping to its European enemies aided the Allied Powers and hurt the German war effort. So, they sunk the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, which carried nothing but civilians. It sank in less than 15 minutes and 1,198 people died. Many were women and children. Many were Americans. Germany, to its credit, immediately apologized for the unfortunate incident.

Just kidding. They celebrated the sinking like a great battle had been won.

"Fuck Germany" attitudes were peaking in the United States, and an opportunistic weasel and Anti-Saloon League activist named Wayne Wheeler, a masterful politician if a very silly human being, seized upon this pretext to build public support for prohibition by framing it as a patriotic blow against the German-dominated brewing and distilling industry in the United States. Nearly every alcohol enterprise of significance was run by German-Americans or non-citizen German immigrants at the time, so Wheeler's characterization contained enough grains of truth to feel plausible. Thus were Americans who loved a good drink convinced to support Prohibition.

Well. Sort of. That was part of it. The other part was that Prohibitionist lied a lot about what their goals were.

When the 18th Amendment was passed, it is historically accurate to say that anti-German prejudice was an important component of building public and political support for it. The other part was the widespread belief that Prohibition was not really full Prohibition. The 18th Amendment proscribes "intoxicating liquors" and nearly everyone – even the people voting directly on the Amendment – believed that this was to be read literally, meaning that beer and wine would continue to be available. As the 18th Amendment is not in itself an enforceable law, specific legislation (which became known infamously as the Volstead Act) was required to spell out the minutiae of what, when, and how the spirit of the Amendment would be put into practice. The public, not to mention many elected officials who had supported the 18th Amendment, were effectively stunned to discover after the fact that they would in fact lose the legal right to purchase or manufacture any alcoholic beverages.

As everyone knows well, the law was widely flouted and it is fair to say that most Americans did not panic too much when they realized that Wheeler and his small group of influential Congressmen behind the Volstead Act had pulled a bait-and-switch. But no one really seemed to realize what Prohibition was until Prohibition began. It was a disaster, and a disaster that we as a nation stumbled into – blindly, and practically by accident.

The good thing is that we all learned a valuable lesson about the futility, danger, and enormous cost of trying to enforce the prohibition of something widely consumed (whether legal or illegal) and harmless in moderation. And we never made that mistake again. The End.

NPF: SPLIT PERSONALITY

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 11th, 2016 by Ed

Late Thursday evening (Central Time, that is) an earthquake struck near Vanuatu. If any Americans or Europeans have heard of that small island archipelago nation at all it is likely due to its stint as the setting of the 2004 season of Survivor, back when that show was at the apex of its popularity. The nation's reappearance in the news due to the earthquake is as good a reason as any to tell one of my favorite politics and government anecdotes. What I am about to tell you is true. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

(And don't worry, reports indicate no one was hurt in the quake. If that segue seemed Too Soon.)

During the golden era of empires European powers, especially Britain and France, were scooping up Pacific islands like kids grabbing candy at a parade. Both the UK and France claimed different parts of an island group off the eastern coast of Australia. Captain Cook "discovered" them in 1774 and christened them the New Hebrides, and by the late 1800s the two major colonial powers of Europe were deadlocked over who could add the hapless islands and their people to its trading card list of obscure colonies.

As the islands were too small and irrelevant to spark any kind of major throw-down between Paris and London, in 1906 the nations simply agreed (without consulting the Vanuatu people, naturally) to govern the islands under a rare arrangement called a condominium. When used in the political sense the term simply means any territory over which two governing bodies will exercise shared authority. In practice it meant that every single aspect of the state and government was duplicated; there was, for example, a French police force and a British one. They alternated days, each enforcing the laws of its own nation. Seriously.

Someone arrested in Vanuatu had three choices for legal proceedings. They could be tried in a British court under common law, in a "local" court under tribal law, or in a French court under the Napoleonic code. Every government act and document had to be provided in French, English, and the local Bisonia creole tongue, and public signs were similarly trilingual. Visitors had to pass through both French and UK customs separately. There was a British jail and a French jail (which served champagne). There was a British hospital and a French hospital (which also served champagne). The condominium agreement itself was overseen by a Spanish judge (the first of whom spoke neither English nor French) and a Dutch accountant. The only saving grace was that in the staggeringly hot tropical climate, nobody did much of anything.

Oh, and in 1942 the Americans showed up and essentially took over. Since all parties involved – French, British, or local – were actively terrified that the Japanese were about to invade, this was not unwelcome. The New Hebrides were phenomenally lucky in comparison to many other islands and atolls. Since 1942 residents have held in high regard the memory of a cow named Besse, supposedly killed when an American errant aircraft crash-landed in a farmer's field. This was the sole casualty of World War II in the islands. Not one human casualty was recorded.

A funny thing about decolonization in the Pacific is that the year in which many colonies received their independence coincided exactly with the depletion of the local phosphate (guano) reserves. Isn't it weird how it worked out like that? The New Hebrides – its unconventional and redundant governing arrangement having lasted 74 years, or 73 years longer than anyone predicted – took their turn in 1980 and chose to revert to the local name, Vanuatu. This was common among the islands who had been given meaningless European names. The nearby Gilbert and Ellice Islands, for example, gained independence in 1976 and immediately seceded from one another to become Kiribati and Tuvalu, respectively.

Colonialism was weird. The New Hebrides condominium might have been peak weird.

NPF: CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 4th, 2016 by Ed

(Note: I'm going on vacation as of Friday morning. Posts will continue, although there may be interruptions. Not only do I have to return to teaching imminently, but if I don't take a break from this election I won't survive to November.)

With everything that has happened in the world in the last few years, not to mention the uninterrupted shitshow that has been 2016, it's hard to believe they're even going forward with the Olympics in Rio. The internet can give you thousands of stories about how totally unprepared the city is and how little of what was promised has been delivered (side note: I visited Brazil three weeks prior to the 2014 World Cup, and nothing was ready. The new terminal supposedly being build at the airport in Brasilia had a plastic sheet stapled to 2×4 boards for two of its walls). Beyond that, the likelihood of the Games going off without – I don't want to jinx it – a serious "security issue" at some point seems nearly nil. If international terrorists have found ways to exploit the weaknesses of France, Germany, and Belgium in recent months then Rio, where the cops aren't even competent to handle basic street crime…well, it's not a pleasant thought.

It's becoming clear to the international community what a boondoggle these events are, which is why we see authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states like Russia, Qatar, China, Brazil, and Turkey making the biggest (and most often successful) bids to host Olympics and World Cups. Despite all the promises of economic development, inevitably the huge government expenditures end up in the pockets of a small, predictable group of people with financial and political power. Then the moment the competition ends, the costly infrastructure becomes useless. Remember all that fancy stuff they built in Beijing? Yeah. So, nations with democratically elected leaders are shying away from taking it in the neck financially in exchange for the dubious benefit of turning a major city into a disaster area for the better part of a month.

It might be time to revisit the idea of holding the Olympics in the same city every time. Athens seems to be a popular proposal, but essentially any city big enough to house people for a couple weeks in hotels or dormitories can handle it. Pay once to build facilities and then reuse them with only the costs of maintenance, not new construction, to worry about four years down the line. As for the World Cup, limit it to nations where no new stadium construction would be required. Places like France, Germany, the US, Japan, Brazil, and others could work the games into existing facilities that are more than able to handle it.

Lastly, and only half-fatuously, the Olympics have lost all of their veneer of friendly, amateur international competition. It feels no different than watching pro sports now. Maybe it would revive interest if instead of relying on star athletes, citizens of each nation were picked out of a lottery. If we really want to see if the US is better than Argentina at basketball, the purest form of competition would be to grab a random sample of people and throw them out on the court. We already know Lebron James can dunk on everyone. Let's see how your dentist handles the rock.

NPF: HOME OF THE FUTURE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2016 by Ed

The buildings we live in have changed remarkably little over the past few centuries. Sure, they're better constructed today and take advantage of a slew of technological advances. Fundamentally they haven't changed much – some combination of wood, stone, and metal on a concrete or stone-like foundation. Build some load-bearing walls and top it off with some kind of roof that hopefully won't catch fire or let the rain in. Put a few windows in the walls for light and ventilation. Add some doors. Voila.

I've always been fascinated by efforts to depart from this basic formula, none of which ever manage to catch on. That suggests that people are resistant to change, but also that, well, the basic design works pretty damn well. Sometimes we stick with things because they don't need much improvement.

Two specific examples from the United States of efforts to improve upon the basic design are, to me, especially interesting. One is the Lustron home that emerged after World War II in response to the nationwide shortage of cheap housing for returning GI Bill home buyers. Lustron was a marketing name for steel baked with a porcelain enamel. The sales pitch was that such homes eliminated the maintenance and deterioration issues of wood and drywall. It never needed to be painted, it wouldn't absorb moisture, and it would not fade or crumble with time. And believe it or not, to look at the surviving Lustron homes today you'd never guess their age from the condition of the exterior. The homes were very small by current standards (about the size of an average 1 or 2 bedroom apartment today) but the manufacturers were not kidding about the durability of the enameled steel construction. They did not rust or wear.

lustron

Despite the advantages (and some disadvantages, as temperature control was an issue with the steel walls) the heavily marketed homes were not backed by a robust system of manufacturing and distribution. In other words, they were great at selling them but not great at building them as quickly as competing vendors of traditional wood-and-vinyl siding houses could slap them together. People wanted houses and they wanted them now. Lustron could promise a nice house, but with subdivisions exploding around major cities with cheap ranch houses the buyer could step into tomorrow, the company eventually failed. They had the last laugh, though. Compare these homes today to any houses flung together in haste between 1945 and 1950 and see which one you'd want to occupy.

The other scheme – one remarkable in its failure given the man behind it – was Thomas Edison's all-concrete home. Though better known for other things Edison and his associates made great advances in the mass production of concrete ("Portland cement") in the United States, and his company came to be a major player in that industry. Edison and some other wealthy backers believed that a cheap poured concrete home was the solution to America's housing needs, arguing that such homes could be built rapidly and at low cost due to the simplicity of materials. And when Edison said "concrete home" he meant the whole damn thing. They had concrete furniture. Concrete appliances. Concrete walls, floors, and roof. You were getting a house that you could move into immediately with almost no possessions.

Unfortunately, while the material used to build the homes was simple, the process of building one was extremely impractical. Builders refused even to consider buying a quarter-million dollars worth of molds, forms, and pouring equipment necessary to begin constructing them. Those who tried found that construction was near impossible, since they could not figure a way to keep the concrete poured at floor level from hardening before the rest of the home had been poured on top of it. Concrete that dries at different rates ends up brittle, and test homes ended up leaking. And it turns out concrete furniture and appliances are kind of a terrible idea.

To his credit, the small number of concrete houses built have aged beautifully. Visitors have described them as claustrophobic on the inside, with the unusual temperature and acoustics of a concrete bunker (not surprisingly). While they are rather cool in summer, they're freezing in the winter. They were just too hard to build and too "different" from traditional wood-framed housing to catch on. Home builders didn't want to make them and home buyers weren't interested in buying them. The handful that were built are footnote curiosities today.

Don't even get me started on missile silo homes or we could be here all day.

NPF: HANGING ON

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 17th, 2016 by Ed

As you read this I am driving an unreasonable distance to see 90s grunge rock has-beens Candlebox play an embarrassing venue in an embarrassing location. I am doing this purely for lolz, as the kids probably no longer say, as I didn't even like this band when they were "popular" in 1994. It started out as a joke, then one of my friends I don't see often enough offered to come, and now it's happening. I suppose I've spent $20 on dumber things.

Living in Central Illinois has provided more opportunities to say "Holy shit, I can't believe they're still touring" than my first three decades on the planet combined. We've been visited by Dokken. Ratt. Survivor. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Molly Hatchet. Every butt-rock hair band from the 80s that had one hit and that you haven't thought about in 20 years. For The Youths, we also get all the late 90s-early 00s nu metal hacks. Papa Roach came. Sevendust. Uncle Kracker. Staind. Kid Rock. All that stuff. Basically, Peoria and Springfield are the next step down on the waterslide from major stadiums to concert halls to clubs in big cities to clubs in smaller cities to…well, the bottom of the touring barrel. County Fairs. Hillbilly bars. VFW halls. Bowling alleys. It's not hard to look at a band playing the Dew Drop Inn in Dothan, Alabama and wondering if they're on stage thinking about that time they played the Meadowlands or Wembley. It must be depressing. And it's certainly easy to mock for us ironic hipster types.

Whenever this comes up in conversation – "OMG can you believe Everclear is still touring and they're in Peoria?? God give it up already losers!" – my first reaction is to laugh, then to feel sorry for them, and finally to think, "Well it beats working in an office or at Burger King." If you can get paid to do something that for 99% of the population would be a hobby or recreational activity, why wouldn't you do it? I'm sure the folks in Candlebox or Foreigner know that some people are laughing at them, but so what? They probably no longer earn huge paydays, but they have to be making as much or more than the average stiff in the labor market. Doing forty per week in a cubicle or at Jiffy Lube feels bleak a lot of the time, so if similar or better money is to be made by standing on a stage for an hour playing songs while drunks scream the words…hell, I'd take that option ten times out of ten.

At some point I stopped looking at it as hanging on to faded dreams of stardom (although certainly that might be the mindset of some people who can't let it go) and began to see it for what it is: a way to make a living. And comparatively speaking, a fun way. I knew a guy who played minor league baseball for about fifteen years. People often snickered that he was delusional about making the major leagues and couldn't walk away. His perspective was totally different. He knew he wasn't going anywhere; he also knew he got paid about $30,000 to play a kids' game outside during the summer for six months per year. The other six months he worked odd jobs for additional cash. Annually I'm quite certain he made more when all was said and done than a lot of the manual labor and office bodies that thought he was crazy.

Yes, it's easy to laugh, and today I will probably laugh a few times. But you know what? Good for you, Candlebox. Millions of people have to wake up on this Friday and go to a lousy job. You get a check for a couple thousand bucks to play songs you wrote 25 years ago for an hour. I don't think there's any doubt about who wins this day. I'd get on stage and sing "Far Behind" too if anyone would pay to see me do it.

NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH GAVE AN ENTIRE ISLAND ANTHRAX

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 9th, 2016 by Ed

World War II brought out the insanity lurking beneath that famous British reserve. Not only did they try to blow up an entire island, but they rendered another one uninhabitable for decades – after they killed a bunch of sheep, of course.

We tend to forget how poorly WWII was going for the Western Allies before 1943. Preparing for the worst or perhaps eager to inflict the worst on Nazi Germany, the British began secretly developing an offensive biological weapons capability in early 1942. Military scientists made an aerosol out of anthrax and managed to rig a munition to disperse it. To see if the setup would work and produce lethal results, they needed somewhere very remote and very empty to test it.

Enter Gruinard Island. In Scotland, of course. Because they flipped a coin and it was either that or Ireland. Because Britain.

The island's small handful of residents was displaced by the government. More accurately they were replaced. Replaced with sheep. Eighty sheep were imported to see how they would react to being blasted with weaponized, extra-virulent anthrax. Ooh, the suspense! Are you ready for a shock? They died. Autopsies revealed that they died of anthrax. Watch some highly strange footage of the "experiments" here.

The tests proved, in case anyone was skeptical, that bombing German cities with anthrax would have lethal consequences that could linger for decades (note: anthrax is a rugged, hard to kill spore, which explains its popularity as a bioweapon). This proved remarkably prescient, as the British soon discovered that poor Gruinard Island was thoroughly, perhaps permanently, infected with literal tons of anthrax bacteria. Eventually the displaced owners and the general public started clamoring to clean up the problem in the late 1970s. A legitimate cleanup effort began in 1986, and it turned out that after an entire island gets drenched with liquid anthrax it's really hard to decontaminate it. For the next four years the tiny (0.75 square mile) island was bathed repeatedly in 300 tons of formaldehyde mixed with seawater. Some very nervous sheep were introduced in 1990 and their health was monitored closely.

They lived. The sheep lived.

The original owners were sold their island by the UK government for the 1942 purchase price of 500 pounds, and 26 years later there have been no cases of human, sheep, or any other mammal contracting anthrax on Gruinard. Hard to imagine what could grow in formaldehyde-soaked soil, but I guess nature is resilient.

The punchline? The secret project was called Operation Vegetarian. That famous British wit.

NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH TRIED TO BLOW UP AN ENTIRE ISLAND

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 26th, 2016 by Ed

Perhaps it is just the American ignorance of the minutiae of European geography talking, but Germany is not a country I think of as having islands. I'm aware that it is not landlocked (The Hanseatic League, a powerful economic and political entity of associated guilds during much of the Middle Ages, was based in what is now Germany along the North Sea. It also serves as the root word of the national airline Lufthansa, literally "Air Guild," which is almost too awesome to be true. Almost.) but no islands along its coasts are large enough for a non-German and non-resident of the area to notice. "Europe" and "Islands" make one think of Greece, Sicily, the UK and Ireland, Malta…but apparently Germany does possess a handful of small islands. I know this only because in 1947, in the wake of World War II, the British tried to blow one of them up. Literally. They tried to remove an island from the map and rid themselves of surplus war ordnance in one swoop. Two birds, one stone.

The German island of Heligoland is and always has been lightly populated. Today it is home to fewer than 1500 souls – some of whom, as long as we're on a roll with tangential Fun Facts today, speak Frisian, which is obscure but notable for being more similar linguistically to English than any other tongue. During WWII the Germans used its strategic location in the North Sea and its composition of hard sedimentary rock (another oddity, as the only such island in the North Sea) to build it up as a mini-fortress. Of particular importance were hardened submarine pens. These German U-boat fortifications were and remain some of the most singularly massive concrete structures ever built and they proved all but impossible to destroy (extant French pens are now a tourist attraction, and the British developed the ludicrous Grand Slam bomb specifically to destroy them).

German soldiers on Heligoland were among the last holdouts to surrender after the war, and the submarine pens represented a part of the Nazi war machine that the Allies, Britain and its pride-filled Naval tradition in particular, wanted to see destroyed. At the same time the UK had to do something with thousands upon thousands of tons of explosives that were manufactured but went unused during the war. So they piled nearly seven thousand tons – tons! – of explosives onto, around, and under tiny Heligoland with the intention of destroying the submarine pens but with the destruction of the island considered both likely and, to the British command, acceptable. The fact that the island was laced with underground tunnels that were packed with explosives led many engineers to believe that the entire island would collapse and sink into the sea.

The resulting blast, dubbed the "British Bang", is considered by some sources the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Heligoland survived, although with a new geographical feature; unterland and oberland, the high and low opposite ends of the island, were joined by mittleland, the lowland blasted between in 1947. Both the population and the island itself have returned slowly over time. Today, a wealthy German developer is pursuing a plan to use landfill to replace parts of the island blown away by the Brits and to expand the island by filling in the space between Heligoland and several nearby small bits of land. What value this reclaimed land could have is not clear to me, but certainly rich developers have their reasons.

Lot of tangents here, but you know how I get when the topics are as enthralling as geography, the mid-20th Century, and blowin' shit up.

NPF: BLINDED

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ever wonder why outward visibility is so terrible in modern cars? It's not your imagination. It also is not a coincidence that features like "blind spot warning system" and "rear view backup camera" have become standard even on compact cars near the bottom of the new car price ladder. They're putting those things on everything from the Mercedes S-Class to the Kia Soul because visibility, especially behind and to the side (the classic "blind spot") is almost nonexistent in some modern vehicles.

Here's why.

Around 1990 when the SUV boom began in the U.S., auto manufacturers generally tried to economize by building big SUVs on existing platforms from cars and (pickup) trucks. In broad strokes, 1990s SUVs are some of the most unsafe vehicles you can drive today. They were almost uniformly top-heavy, poorly proportioned, and practically designed to flip and roll over during sharp handling. Something darts in front and you need to swerve to avoid it? Well your 1994 Ford Explorer is going to go full Michael Bay. Then of course there was the infamous Ford/Firestone rollover fiasco that was all over the news for the better part of three years and practically brought both companies to their knees. Firestone was making (and still makes) shitty tires that were exploding and causing Ford's tall, heavy, poorly balanced SUVs to do cartwheels. The public became sufficiently exercised for Congress to act.

In the early 2000s Congress and the NTSB mandated new measures to make vehicles either better at avoiding accidents or able to make accidents more survivable. Making cars better at avoiding accidents involves complicated and generally quite pricey technology like electronic stability control, torque distribution / all-wheel drive, and a whole lot of other electric nannies to bail out poor drivers doing dumb things like braking while cornering fast. The other option was to increase your odds of living through an accident, even a rollover. And that's much cheaper.

Your car's pillars (A, B, C, and in some vehicles like station wagons, D) have exploded since then. Some of them are so wide now that outward visibility is near zero. Why? Two reasons. One is that they are now stuffed full of airbags. The other is that they have been thickened to strengthen them so that the roof (per NTSB rules) can support the entire weight of the vehicle during a rollover. Here's the C-pillar in America's most popular family car, the Camry. Twenty years ago that would have been three or four inches wide, tops, to maximize driver visibility and exterior aesthetics. Now it has enough steel in it to support a 4000-pound load during a high speed impact.

Anyone knowledgeable about the industry over the years can confirm that the single biggest change in cars since, say, the 1960s and 1970s is weight. Cars today weigh twice as much or more as comparable vehicles did Back in the Day. The curb weight of a 1967 Ford Mustang was 2970 pounds. The curb weight of this year's model is over 3800…and the Mustang is a sports car with great pains taken to keep weight down. All that weight is about safety, period. "Classic" cars were and are death traps. If you got in an accident at highway speed you were probably dead. Today cars are full of airbags, safety cages, crush zones, reinforced everything, load-bearing A-B-C pillars – you name it. All that weight increases occupants' odds of surviving an accident.

If you happen to have a pre-2000 car as well as, say, a post-2010 car to compare it to, grab a ruler and measure the three main pillars. Or just sit inside and admire how much better your visibility is from behind the wheel of the older vehicle. Modern cars are engineering marvels for the most part, but unfortunately we are now relying on gadgets to allow us to see what's going on around us. Anyone who has survived a serious accident will no doubt argue that the tradeoff is worth it.

NPF: TRIAL AND ERROR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 13th, 2016 by Ed

In 1909 a vacationing paleontologist named Charles Wolcott happened upon some very interesting looking plant and animal fossils in the Canadian Rockies, near the border of Alberta and British Columbia. The fossils were exciting (to a paleontologist) in that they preserved soft features extremely well, which is a rarity – usually features like bones and hard shells are distinct in a fossil but not much else. Over the next 30 years Wolcott returned often to locate, study, and categorize the species he found. Eventually he determined (correctly) that they dated from the Middle Cambrian. Thus they excited a handful of paleontologists with a niche interest in that time period, and the fossils from the site, which became known as the Burgess Shale, held the oh-so-thrilling distinction of being the oldest soft tissue fossils ever discovered.

Wolcott and his fossils remained in that strange limbo of academic fame-obscurity, his work well known to a small handful of people but otherwise wholly ignored. Then in the 1960s some enterprising graduate students re-examined the thousands and thousands of Burgess Shale fossils and found something curious. In keeping with scientific orthodoxy of his era, Wolcott had carefully, meticulously – obsessively, even – categorized every one of his finds into an existing family of plants or animals. The students noted that much of what he found was so utterly bizarre and unlike anything alive today that Wolcott had actually found a lot of species the likes of which have never been seen before or since.

What is particularly interesting, presuming one understands evolution, is how wacky some of the body plans nature "experimented" with during that era appear today. The Smithsonian keeps a nice gallery of what some of the Burgess Shale creatures looked like; suffice it to say that the whole four legs, two eyes, one mouth thing hadn't quite caught on yet. One – an arthropod called Opibinia – had five eyes on stalks and a long elephant-like trunk with a clawed mouth on the tip.

There is an active debate among people who understand such things better than I do just how unique the specimens of the Burgess Shale truly are. Some scientists believe that they are far less bizarre than some early interpretations have suggested, while others maintain that it indeed represents a snapshot of the "Cambrian explosion" which saw the phenomenally rapid expansion of forms of complex life on Earth. I think the understanding of what happened 600 million years ago will always involve a healthy amount of conjecture, but it stands to reason that any sudden proliferation of kinds of life forms would involve a great deal of trial and error. Especially at such an early stage in the evolution of life, there had to have been a lot of false starts before a general blueprint of animal life – adapted to breathing oxygen, resistant to the deleterious effects of solar radiation, and with the basic senses necessary to sustain life long enough for reproduction – was settled upon.