Friday, 21 October 2011

Before, they were cool

Yep, the grammar is correct, today the topic is people who used to be cool but later turned out to be monsters. Of course this thing is inspired by the very recent demise of the good colonel but it has a deeper background in my fascination with the lives of powerful leaders slash mass murderers.

It's not that I respect them - quite the contrary, I'm utterly disgusted by violence and repression of basic liberties - but I find it truly amazing how some people start from a humble background, rise to immense power in time that's not enough for some of us to even get a degree; then they commit unimaginable atrocities and fall only to be committed to history.
Then, in our history books, we try to memorize the number of casualties caused by each major conflict or unscrupulous regime, and quite often don't even realize that each one of these twenty million had a story, had a family, had someone who loved them and probably didn't even get to know what exactly happened to them... which is probably better, as most died horrible deaths.

But anyway, I know that most people appreciate the full extent of the brutality of genocide. What people very rarely take into account is that those same people that committed those unspeakable acts were, at least for some time, considered pretty cool and universally liked. Think about it - you can't get the resources to slaughter millions without having a unique charisma to drag your whole nation into the particular variety of sick shit you happened to be keen on. So, I have here a bunch of people who's dark side you know plenty about, but I want you to meet them before, when they were cool... and I have a picture of each one to help you out.

Muammar Gaddafi

Of course that's the hot topic this week and I'm going to start with him. He's the easiest one anyway because I don't need to give you any background, you're probably hearing too much about him already. I'll just show you this picture:


It's a widely known fact that this guy only feels secure when he's surrounded by 200 female personal guards from his elite squad - what I didn't know until recently is that when he was younger he actually resembled someone I know who's nickname translates loosely to English as 'the handsome one'. I mean, look at him, he does look like a 70s film star.


This guy killed, starved to death and in various other ways caused the deaths of > 20 million people, but yet, can you tell by this picture?


I mean, WTF? Here he looks as if he's the first hipster, wearing a keffiyeh before Yassir Arafat was even born!
Looking at this one, I can't help but assume that he had the top coiffeurs from all distant corners of the USSR maintaining his trademark moustache in his later years (there probably were a few that refused his generous offer, and he had to have them killed so that no one else has them)

I remember visiting the house next door as a kid - they had Stalin's portrait on the wall. Who's this person - I asked once. That's uncle Stalin, he's a very good man.
A few weeks later I uttered this phrase in the presence of my parents. WHO TOLD YOU THAT they both yelled at the same time. Walls emerged between our yards and I was forbidden ever to set foot in his place again.
As a student I told this story to a friend. Interesting thinking - he concluded - if Stalin, who killed millions, is a very good man, then how good is someone who's killed merely thousands?


My impression is that Lenin never was the attention whore that Stalin became at his height - that's not backed by any serious research but this picture definitely supports it:


You can't really imagine this humble boy to be the beast that Stalin was, can you? All he is guilty of is devoting his life to impose a utopian system that eventually didn't work (and never could've - but reasonable economic theories were - although invented by that time - not very popular) and cost the lives of millions. But hey, it was all driven by good intensions!


It's sometimes tempting to feel sympathetic to Osama Ben Laden, too - he was a fervent follower of a holy (albeit nonsensical and atrocious) cause, a leader of his people, lead a humble lifestyle in hiding - and he killed merely thousands (which, compared to Stalin, makes him a very very good man)!

Further, when you see this picture you're likely to laugh even if you had loved ones killed in 9/11:


I had to include Hitler in this post as he's probably the most well-known mass murderer, and by all means the most systematic one - yet I found it pretty hard to find him cool in any way, except for the widely known and over-exploited fact that he applied (unsuccessfully) to an art academy. But wait a second...


His failure to get admitted to The Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna for two years in a row might be well known - but not so much is the fact that he was sporting a handlebar that will only be matched years later by Salvador Dali's!


For a change, we should take a look at Che Guevarra, who doesn't exactly fit in the category presented so far but is anyway well worth mentioning. First, he is generally accepted to have played for the good guys - the fact that some nations have been struggled ever since to get rid of the same good guys didn't prevent the politically-dissilusioned (and dissoriented) youths of the 90s to revere him.
Another interesting aspect of his case is that he changed images quite wildely:


Here is what he looked like at 21, studying medicine, before the commies poisoned his mind. It took him just one motorcycle trip to turn into the savage revolutionary that we're so used to seeing on teen's t-shirts.

Then, it took just a few successful revolutions to turn him into this:

Luckily for his devotees, he died before being able to become currupt by power and have more of these cleanly shaved pics to dilute his public image that he fought hard to establish. This is no joke, there are some many pictures of Che, you wouldn't believe it - gives us 2.8 million pics for "Che Guevara" and merely 1.7 for "Marlon Brando" - who's fucking job was to have pictures of him taken (and hell, was he good at it) and lived twice as long.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Funny in the Head

I find it amazing how humanity ventures mind-bogglingly far into outer space, recreates history as far back as like 14.7 billion years ago and whatnot but still we know so very little about some aspects of ourselves.
A typical example is our loose grasp on the functioning of the human brain and scientist' pathetic attempts at explaining the weird (and if you are cynical enough - hilarious) things that can go wrong with it.

Studying the Brain
A good start of getting introduced to some lesser known brain malfunctions is taking a look at the way our brains work was studied. It was known to man that the brain is responsible for thought as far back as Hippocrates. How did he get this insight, you may wonder. Well, it's very simple - he observed the problems that people with brain damage are having.
What some might find even more puzzling is that an ancient form of cranial surgery has been performed since the Neolithic (end of the stone age, 9,000 BC) - people then believed that drilling holes in the skull relieves the pressure inside the head and cures certain diseases, and somehow managed to do it with their primitive tools.

It turns out that this field advanced significantly with the industrialization of the world - and that's quite a straightforward relationship. The machines - and especially vehicles - are a steady source of humans with damaged brains and occasionally - with intact bodies. Studying these cases gives scientists an opportunity to study what exactly goes wrong with people with specific parts of their brains damaged and to thus infer what these parts might be responsible for.
At first they found it puzzling how people with what appears to be severe brain damage were able to get on with their lives surprisingly well. Take a look at this, for example:

So, both the guy and the rod are the same on both pictures, and surprisingly enough, the one on the left is done later. This guy (Phineas Gage) had his head literally impaled on the rod and not only survived but became sort of a celebrity.

People with this kind of injuries, however, experience certain changes that reveal a lot about the function of the affected areas. Of course it didn't take scientists long to figure out that they might as well inflict this to animals and they diligently destroyed various parts of a wide range of animal brains and observed how animals reacted. Animal rights activists will probably find this extremely objectionable but one might argue what's a reasonable price tag for obtaining the knowledge about how our brain works. I personally will probably place it higher than experiments on animals and lower than actually destroying parts of people's brains.

But anyway, let's not cut any animal's brains for now (unless it's for culinary purposes) and instead take a look at some intriguing conditions that occur naturally. Popular culture has formed vivid (although not scientifically correct) images of some "mainstream" diseases, like schizophrenia, insomnia, paranoia, etc. but there are some rare cases that are even more curious:

Unilateral Neglect
This is defined in wikipedia as "a deficit in attention to and awareness of one side of space", i.e. people either fail to percieve or ignore, or maybe just don't care about their left or right side.
It has different forms - ranging from rejecting the existence of one's own side of the body (resulting in patients complaining about a dead man's leg being stuck under their blanket) to inability to percieve anything on their, say, left hand side.
When some people with this condition are presented with a picture they can only perceive its right hand side. And it's getting even weirder - when they are presented with a well-known image, e.g. the face of a relative, that is turned upside down - they still only see the right side, although it's technically on their left, where they are expected to ignore everything. So this gives us an important clue - when we see an image that we recognize as upside down our brain rotates it first before starting to process the information. And no, this is not an excuse to upload sideways and upside down images on facebook - you'll still look like a moron if you do.

Alien Hand Syndrome
This is a neurological disorder, the sufferrers of which poses no control over one of their hands (or some other body part occasionally - not counting the penis, that's another phenomenon that's much more common).
In much the same way that some of the science fiction from the past predicted the world that we now live in, Kubrick predicted this condition with Dr. Strangelove. In this cult film (one of my favourites) the character with the same name is a weapons science consultant for the US military with a rather naziish look and a hand that occasionally does the nazi salute seemingly out of his control.

Incredible as it may sound, this later turned out to be a real desease and there are people who's one hand appears to be totally "under alien control". To make things worse, there are a lot of documented cases of the alien hand being really counter-productive like stubbing out one's own cigarettes, doing the classical "stop hitting yourself" bully manoeuvre, spontaneously undressing or slapping a colleague's butt. It kind of has the "coolness" factor of Tourette's but instead of swearing you are allowed to actually touch!

Tourette syndrome is also a curious case but it was made well popular by South Park so I'm assuming you've heard about it and won't cover it here - after all I don't take seriously people who haven't seen all South Park episodes.

Now back on the AHS - it's a reasonable thing to ask who then controls the alian hand (if you don't buy the story with actual aliens with remote controls slapping people's butts with your hand)? It turns out to be your other hemisphere! It's like each of your hemispheres has a separate consciousness and usually the left one is dominant and has the final say. Sometimes, however, the right hemisphere takes a hold on a limb and decides to disobey the ruling elite - and you definitely don't want any democracies and shit like that in the way you rule your body parts.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Botnet Wars

Spam is an inherent part of our online lives and its impact has some weird implications.

First, a few words on how spam works. Masses of infected computers form botnets, which are controlled by spammers. These formidable armies of zombies have been proven to number up to 30 million computers:
and who knows how big they actually get.

So, аll those people that have tried to search for porn with google and have clicked on all the links, and as a result have loads of porn popups opening all the time are part of the botnets. When someone is unknowingly taken to the dark side it can be less obvious sometimes and quite likely some of you are sending spam right now, and in any case all of us have done so in the past.

A BBC article got my imagination running while I was hanging proper stoned at a long queue at the post office last week (the usual mess that we get when there is 5cm of snow in London - delays that outlast the snow!):
So what happens is that suddenly there is a drop of 50% in global spam levels, but still experts detect that the botnets are alive and well - they just aren't sending spam! So, my stoned head was thinking, what the hell might they be doing with all this computing power in their hands? This is no joke, this is no SETI, these are a hundred fucking million machines that are responsible for the spam that each and every one of us receives every day (indeed, you might have good spam filters and not have it in your inbox but they are still wasting your provider's resources). They could be predicting the global warming, looking for the Higgs, running a simulation of WWIII or FSM knows what?

Unfortunately, it turns out to be a lot less exciting :-( It appears to be just a marketing technique - 64% of email spam is about medical products which I guess are not much sought after around the holidays - actually all the spam that disappeared was v1agra and the like (probably in some rough correlation to the peak of cocaine usage), all the rest was still going, and it all went back to normal on 10th January:

So I guess spammers aren't taking over the world after all.
Not this time, at least.