Nail House and Nunchuks

Chongqing Nail House in 2007 prior to demolitionIn 2004 a group of developers had found the perfect site for a shopping complex in the Chinese municipality of Chongqing; all they had to do was remove the people living there. In 2004 they set to task, buying the land from the government and evicting everyone from the houses with nothing more than thugs and a small cash consolation. 280 home owners were removed, but one pair of ‘stubborn nails’ remained, Wu Ping and her husband Yang Wu. Then the battle began.

Instead of leaving with the petty cash they stayed, settling into the house while the land around was picked clean by the excavating vehicles. The ground around the house slowly disappeared but the couple stayed. Slowly the house appeared to rise on its earthen plinth until it sat raised, 10 metres above the ground below. Then water and electricity were cut. The developers were far from pleased.

A pair of thugs were sent up to intimidate the couple but Yang Wu, a local martial-arts champion, was not threatened. Over the three years things escalated and news spread. The towering two-storey house was a showcase for the struggle between citizens and rich developers in an aggressively growing China. A China that didn’t protect its citizens. As Wu Ping said:

“I’m not stubborn or unruly, I’m just trying to protect my personal rights as a citizen.”

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By the Skin of his Body: The Death of Big Nose George

George Parrott PortraitAugust 1878, United States of America; a Union Pacific train was screaming through large, and largely empty, rural Wyoming. The day was warm and the steam train chugged along streaming billowing water vapour lazily through the air. George Parrott or Big Nose George as he was also known, was waiting by the tracks in Carbon County. His outlaw gang and he were ready to move from small pickings and into the big leagues. A simple plan; derail train; rob train; leave train.

As a group they had loosened a few sections of track the day before, moving them enough to destabilise the train, then they lay in wait. Unfortunately for the fellows some section hands had wandered across the damage and immediately repaired it. The train was safe. The train moved past them and wasn’t derailed and so they aborted the robbery, but they weren’t clear.

The section hands immediately reported the tampering to the authorities. Two men set out to investigate, Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Special Railroad Detective Harry ‘Tip’ Vincent. The gang fled to a temporary camp in the nearby ‘Rattlesnake Canyon’ but the investigators were hot on their tracks and discovered them within days. Upon entering the camp they found a pile of embers. When blown upon they glowed, they were still hot.

The gang was lying in wait, then they leaped out. Anything up to twenty shots rang out through the canyon and the two investigators lay dead. Shot by Parrott’s cruel collective.

The group partially buried the bodies and then split, but while they fought the law, the law won. Surveyors near the canyon reported hearing the sounds of gunshots rebounding off the rock faces and 20 men were assembled to handle the incident when they realised the two men weren’t coming back. So off they went, to find the bandits and bring about justice.

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Fact Fragments – Sharks, Cards, Mountains and Spanish

Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons

The highest mountain we know of has yet to be visited, it’s on Mars. We call it Olympus Mons. At 27km from its base to its peak, over 3 times the height of Everest, it is the greatest mountain in the solar system.

More than just tall, it is 550km wide, and is bent around the curvature of Mars itself. So pronounced is the effect that were you to stand on the peak of Olympus Mons, you wouldn’t be able to see the bottom of the mountain, as it would be hidden beyond the horizon. This size is a grand thing indeed, the whole mountain is surrounded by a moat up to 3km deep in some places. Nothing dug it, the sheer weight of it is great enough to literally dent Mars.

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The Great Space Elevator

Powered, as all good things are, by lasers.

In 2009 a helicopter hovered 900m above the Mojave Desert, Andrew Petro was watching. Dangling from the helicopter was a tethered steel cable and a tripod-mounted laser. As Mr Petro watched a small, square robotic device rose upwards, powered by the laser; its ascension was smooth and rapid along the cable, 600 metres up it slowed and stopped. On behalf of NASA, Andrew Petro handed the semi-successful team behind the robotic square a cheque for $900,000 – they had just won a competition about the future of space travel.

Getting to space is expensive, but it becomes a lot cheaper when you don’t use rocket fuel. How to escape the planet without using rocket fuel has been a bit of a conundrum though, but we are approaching the answer steadily. The answer involves a powerful laser, a cable long enough to wrap around earth 8 times, a large steel ball and finally a very big metal box.

First described in 1895 as a ‘celestial castle’ attached to earth by a tether on the top of something like the Eiffel tower. It was more accurately presented in 1979 by Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Fountains of Paradise.’ The answer is a Space Elevator.

The competition was the 2009 Space Elevator Games, a NASA-run competition to encourage innovation into prototype space elevators. The reasons for the sudden interest and investment from NASA are two-fold. Firstly in 1990 the first carbon nanotubes were successfully manufactured; and secondly, high-strength lasers are rapidly increasing in power. The thing is becoming possible. So now, it seems, the space elevator concept could finally be getting off the ground.

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Wasps and Mind Control

The jewel wasp (Ampulex compressa) is a bright, iridescent creature; one with a particular way of making sure its larvae get food. A mixture of hunting, poison and mind control make up its impressive repertoire. It starts when a female wasp finds a cockroach.

 Upon finding the cockroach the wasp descends and stings it twice. The first sting strikes the midsection of the cockroach, this sting immobilises the cockroach’s front legs. The second strike goes directly into the brain of the cockroach, the wasp pumps in a specialised venom that doesn’t kill, but instead changes how the cockroach acts entirely.

 The new cockroach is not paralysed, but confused. It will not flee from danger. In its new state the wasp moves to the front of the cockroach and grabs an antenna. Then it leads the cockroach on a walk like a dog on a leash. Dumbly the cockroach continues on, the venom working its brain precisely, until they reach the wasp’s nest.

 The wasp lays an egg on the cockroach’s belly then seals the cockroach inside its nest before leaving. Over the next day or so the cockroach remains stupefied, even when the eggs hatch and a larva emerges. Then the power of the brain venom is shown. The larva begins to burrow into the cockroach, eating its flesh, live; the cockroach does nothing to stop it, and so it dies. A fantastic, if gruesome event, but how did it work? Read more

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Nuclear Reactors and Bin Bags: The Dangers of Space Junk

Rubbish, junk, and garbage are not words typically associated with space. Space is imagined as a vast, and impeccably clean sphere; but we are making a big mess of it, a mess that is becoming a threat. In orbit around Earth are 10 million unwanted pieces of rubbish, zooming around without a care in the Universe. We call this space junk.

32 nuclear reactors number among the varied space-junk. Among it lies Vanguard I, America’s second satellite and the oldest piece of space debris still in orbit, dating back to 1958. Not all space junk is space-worthy though, there is normal waste as well, in fact there are about 200 bags of it. Instead of carrying their refuse back down to earth with them, cosmonauts on the Russian Mir space station just threw the waste into space for its first ten years. They hoped the bags would fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, a rubbish idea; especially when one considers what space junk is capable of.

Space Concerns

Space junk is more than mere clutter, it is extremely dangerous. Without any air the pieces are never slowed down by normal collisions. During the first American space walk in 1965, Astronaut Edward White managed to ‘misplace’ his glove in the vacuum of space. The glove reached 28,000 kilometres per hour, making it the most dangerous item of clothing in history. It burnt up in orbit a month later, trying to slap the Earth. Space debris of all kinds can far exceed those speeds, some containing enough devastating kinetic energy to pass straight through 50mm of steel. In other words, enough to damage any space-faring craft that dares leave Earth. In fact, this has already happened.

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The Nuclear City In The Ice

800 miles from the North Pole, in the middle of the cold war, in the Greenland Ice sheet, America was building. Lashed daily by winds of up to 200 km/h the US Army Corps of Engineering slowly dug out their trenches and sunk in the buildings. In October 1960 they were finished, Camp Century was habitable. The city beneath the ice.

Camp Century was built as an ‘Army Polar Research and Development Center’. Due to the remote location it was powered by an Alco PM-2A, the world’s first portable, and working nuclear reactor. Additionally Camp Century had a Barbershop, Library, Standby Diesel Power Plant and Theatre. That is more than a science outpost needed, but science was not the aim of the project.

The initiative was codenamed ‘Project Iceworm’. A United States plan to embed a vast network of tunnels into the Greenland ice sheet. The small tunnels branching from Camp Century would hold up to 600 nuclear warheads. A geographical expedition commissioned in 1958 said the plan was viable so they began with Camp Century in 1960.

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Think It, Feel It

It is possible to catch leprosy from an armadillo if you are a human or an armadillo. Were you to handle an infected armadillo and contract the disease unwittingly you might never notice, around 95% of humans are immune to leprosy. Even if you did contract leprosy it could easily be stopped early on. That is for real leprosy, what about imaginary leprosy? What happens if I told you that you had leprosy – and you believed me?

If you believed that you had leprosy from your excessive armadillo handling sessions, something curious would happen. You would look up the symptoms, then they would manifest. Your skin might become rough, your muscles would feel much weaker and you might notice that the nerves in your hands and skin aren’t working, it is harder to feel things. The problem is this; nothing at all is hurting you, you should be healthy. Then medicine enters.

Medicine would have little physical effect on you, after all there is nothing to fight. You would suffer the side effects, but if you believed the medicine would work, your symptoms would disappear.

In The Mind

It all felt real, in fact those effects were real, though there was only one external factor. The idea of leprosy. A person believing they had a disease, as long as they know the symptoms, will develop the symptoms. This is the extreme case of mind over matter and it is most definitely a real problem. This is the nocebo effect. Nocebo comes from the Latin for I will harm. It is the evil twin of the more famous Placebo effect.

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