Category: Greatest Hits

The Spy Who Loved Nothing

Please give an uncomfortably warm welcome to our newest author, Gustaf Hildebrand.

Robert Lee Johnson
Robert Lee Johnson

The meeting had not gone well, the man gloomily reflected as he was driven out of East Berlin. His head was still heavy after a few too many snifters of cognac. The American’s ambitious scheme to build a life and career in Moscow had sputtered to an unforeseen halt not unlike a Trabant’s two-stroke engine; the only concession the Russians had made was to invite him back for another meeting in two weeks’ time. The three KGB representatives he had talked to didn’t seem very enthusiastic about his offer to defect from the US Army.

The date was 22 February 1953. It was George Washington’s Birthday, a holiday for all American troops stationed in Berlin. The drunken man being shuttled out of East Berlin in a Soviet car was Robert Lee Johnson, a 31-year-old sergeant in the United States Army. Most competent intelligence services would have considered the Army clerk useless, dismissing him as an embittered bureaucrat with a grossly inflated sense of self-worth. Nine years later he would, through a combination of luck and circumstance, become one of the most destructive spies the KGB had ever implanted into the US military.

The Science of Mental Fitness

It’s a testament to the strength and versatility of the human brain that anyone with at least half of one tends to assume that their senses give them direct access to objective reality. The truth is less straightforward and much more likely to induce existential crises: the senses do not actually provide the brain with a multifaceted description of the outside world. All that the brain has to work with are imperfect incoming electrical impulses announcing that things are happening. It is then the job of neurons to rapidly interpret these signals as well as they can, and suggest how to react.

This neurological system has done a pretty good job of modelling the world such that the ancestors of modern human beings avoided getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers before procreating, but the human brain remains relatively easy to fool. Optical illusions, dreams, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and the placebo effect are just a handful of familiar cases where what the brain perceives does not correspond to whatever is actually occurring. The formation of a coherent model of the world often relies on imagined components. As it turns out, this pseudo-reality in one’s imagination can be so convincing that it can have unexpected effects on the physical body.

Nineteen Seventy Three

On 12 November 1971, in the presidential palace in the Republic of Chile, President Salvador Allende and a British theorist named Stafford Beer engaged in a highly improbable conversation. Beer was a world-renowned cybernetician and Allende was the newly elected leader of the impoverished republic.

Beer—a towering middle-aged man with a long, dark beard—sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer’s extraordinary proposition into Allende’s ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile’s entire economy—transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more—could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. With such a pioneering system, Beer suggested, the impoverished Chile could become an exceedingly wealthy nation.

In the early 1970s the scale of Beer’s proposed network was unprecedented. One of the largest computer networks of the day was a mere fifteen machines in the US, the military progenitor to the Internet known as ARPANET. Beer was suggesting a network with hundreds or thousands of endpoints. Moreover, the computational complexity of his concept eclipsed even that of the Apollo moon missions, which were still ongoing at that time. After several hours of conversation, President Allende responded to the audacious proposition: Chile must indeed become the world’s first cybernetic government, for the good of the people. Work was to start straight away.

Stafford Beer practically ran across the street to share the news with his awaiting technical team, and much celebratory drinking occurred that evening. But the ambitious cybernetic network would never become fully operational if the CIA had anything to say about it.

Night Takes Rook

Please give a warm welcome to our newest author Mr J A Macfarlane. Hip-hip...!

Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.

Meddle, Metal, and Mettle

Charles J Guiteau
Charles J Guiteau

In 1881, silk top hats and bow ties were the height of gentlemanly fashion, monocles were the preferred means of corrective vision, and the suggested greeting on newfangled telephone contraptions was a cheerful “ahoy-hoy”. One June Saturday of that year, as the sweaty, swampy summer was just beginning to settle over Washington DC, a gentleman strolled into the US capital’s district jail on the banks of the Anacostia River. The visitor was well-dressed, about 40 years of age, slight of frame, and sunken of cheek. A weedy patch of gray-tinged whiskers sprouted from his chin, and his face was punctuated by a pair of dark, wide-set eyes which were predisposed to shiftiness. He was an attorney named Charles J Guiteau. He approached the attending guard at the Bastille jail and requested a tour of the facilities.

Deputy Warden Russ eyeballed the man, as deputy wardens do, and explained that visitors were only allowed to tour on particular days. Undeterred, Mr Guiteau surveyed the fraction of the structure that he could see from the office, and remarked that the facility was, “a very excellent jail.” The steadfast deputy warden urged the would-be sightseer to return at a more appropriate time. Mr Guiteau decided that he would do exactly that, and departed.

Although Charles Guiteau was a licensed lawyer, his visit to the Bastille was not on behalf of a soon-to-be-incarcerated client. As he would later explain, he had visited the prison to “see what kind of quarters I would have to occupy.” Perhaps most importantly, he wanted to ensure that the structure would be able to withstand the angry mob that would soon pursue him. Such were the details that a gentleman must attend to when he plans to assassinate the president.

Too Close for Comfort

Edvard Westermarck
Edvard Westermarck

One of the most common taboos across human societies of the past and present has been incest. Virtually every known culture has considered it repulsive, especially when involving siblings or a parent and child. The leading behavioural theory that has been proposed to account for the ubiquity of this aversion is known as the Westermarck effect, after Finnish scholar Edvard Westermarck, who proposed it in his 1891 book The History of Human Marriage. The idea of the Westermarck effect is that young children will become sexually/romantically desensitised to anyone they live in close contact with over the course of the first few years of their lives. That is, they will reach adulthood with no compulsion to consider a relationship with anyone they shared a home with in their early childhood. Note that crucially, the connection does not have to be biological; according to the theory, it applies just as readily to children adopted at a young age as to those raised by their birth parents. But since children are likely to be raised by at least one of their biological parents – about 97.5% of children in the U.S., according to the 2000 census – the effect is thought to have arisen through evolution because it reduces the chances of inbreeding, which can tie the gene-pool up in ugly knots of emergent recessive traits. It functions well in this respect. However, when a child is separated from biological family at an early age, there is no chance for the Westermarck effect to take hold; reunions between biological relatives who were separated much earlier sometimes lead into unforeseen emotional territory.

Aches on a Plane

Alongside Memphis International Airport in Tennessee there lies a sprawling complex filled with hundreds of miles of conveyor belts, thousands of employees, and millions of parcels. A steady stream of cargo planes—often hundreds per day—carries in cargo from around the world to be sorted and redistributed. This is the FedEx Express global “SuperHub,” and in spite of its titillating name it is seldom the site of much excitement. One notable exception to the day-to-day routine occurred in mid-1994. It was the same year that Federal Express embraced the abbreviated “FedEx” moniker and changed to their infamous hidden-arrow logo, and it was just four years after the release of MC Hammer’s multi-platinum hit U Can’t Touch This.

On 7 April 1994, just after 3:00pm, 39-year-old FedEx flyer Andy Peterson boarded a DC-10 cargo plane at the SuperHub. He was scheduled to join Flight 705 as the flight engineer; a support role in charge of monitoring and operating aircraft systems. As Peterson entered the aircraft, he was greeted by 42-year-old Auburn Calloway, a fellow flight engineer. Calloway introduced himself as the “deadhead,” for the flight. He was just there because he needed a lift.

Shortly the men were joined by the plane’s pilot, 49-year-old Captain David Sanders, and his 42-year-old co-pilot Captain Jim Tucker. The DC-10 had a bellyful of electronic gear bound for San Jose, ultimately destined for Silicon Valley. But flight 705 wouldn’t make it anywhere near California that day.

Bound By Tradition

On 20 October 1998, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, China sent out a press release stating that they were officially halting production of a curious variety of footwear known as “lotus shoes.” This announcement may appear pedestrian to Western eyes, but in a way it was a symbolic epitaph for a bizarre custom which had been in practice in parts of China for about a thousand years: a process known as foot binding.

Until the mid-twentieth century, a girl born into an affluent family in China was almost certain to be taken aside sometime in her first few years to begin a process of sculpting her feet into tiny, pointed “lotus” feet. This body modification was intended to attract suitors and flaunt one’s upper-crusty status. The culture at large considered these reshaped feet to be beautiful, and the dainty gait that resulted from such radically reshaped extremities was seen as alluring, but the process of producing lotus feet was grisly, problematic, and led to lifelong podiatric problems.

Rider on the Storm

In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. In another Crusader followed his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.

Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft’s engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader’s emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”

Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn’t seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.

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