Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Afternoon At Big Lots

Where Mass-Market Consumerism Goes To Die...

Do you ever have those moments where you’re walking through a department store, and you see something so astonishingly out-of-date that you wonder how anybody in their right mind would consider purchasing it? Maybe it’s an Angry Birds chew toy, or maybe it’s a tee-shirt dedicated to Charlie Sheen’s crippling drug dependency issues - when you see it, you just know it’s going to be off the shelving in a matter of months, unlikely to ever be viewed by human eyes ever again.

Ultimately, this leads to another puzzle of sorts: where exactly does that instantly dated crap go once it’s ushered off the aisles of America’s big box retailers? Does it get trucked out into the desert and buried in mass merchandising graves, or do they get air-mailed to Zimbabwe as part of some tax-write off or something?

Well, if you’ve wondered about the whereabouts of the discarded crap middle America no longer wants, wonder no more: when mass marketing goods die, they don’t go to heaven or hell, they go here:

What, you’ve never heard of Big Lots before? Clearly, you’ve never been poor in America, then. Big Lots, essentially, is that missing link between Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store, the retailer version of Sasquatch, if you will. The store is an operation that specializes in hawking surplus or overstocked products. . .as well as just mildly damaged and irregular products, too. In other words? It’s the veritable purgatory for mass marketed, American consumer goods.

There are things you’ll find in a Big Lots store that you probably won’t see ever again, unless they somehow resurface on eBay ten years later. The place is basically a repository for stuff that you couldn’t give away for free, the sort of junk that has cluttered the very bottom of America’s bargain bins for years and years. Amidst copies of unsold L. Ron Hubbard and Ron Paul tomes, you’ll find all sorts of recently anachronistic goods, from about a million jillion holiday food sets (if you need Bubble Yum candy canes, they’ve got enough to last you until the UEFA Finals) to stuff that would almost be neat if it wasn’t for the fact that the versions on sale are heavily damaged and stained (alike an animatronics “Abominable Snowman” from the Rankin/Bass “Rudolf” special that, despite having a moving mouth, lacks the capacity to make any sort of sound.)

I recently took a trip to a nearby outlet, and decided to peruse through the (mostly bent and rusted) shelves of the neighborhood Big Lots, in an attempt to spot the most ridiculous - and in some instances, socially damning - items on sale. Needless to say, there is some exceptional, exceptional crap on tap if you’re interested.

First up, how about an entire assortment of foodstuffs endorsed by a stand-up comedian that has a routine where he mocks starving African children for having flies circling around their swollen eyeballs? Oh, and he’s also the voice of a talking tow truck in a popular series of family films, as well - how could I forget.

This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes Big Lots not only a graveyard of sorts for mass market-capitalism, but in some ways, a cemetery for soon-to-be forgotten pop-cultural items. I, for one, had no idea that this stuff existed, let alone why anybody would want it to. Somewhere, at some point in time, some marketing guy said that the white trash, probably racist comedy-fan demographic was large enough to make an instant-fish batter assortment viable as a product - which, admittedly, gets me way too excited for the prospect of some hilariously stereotypical goods hawked by Carlos Mencia a good five or six years down the line.

And speaking of things that really screw with the whole space-time continuum, here’s an entire display dedicated to a line of “retro” 7-Up sodas. Needless to say, these packages - many of them partially shredded and dusted in a brown crud I can only presume to be feces of some undeterminable origin - have seen better days before getting hoisted on the shelving here. The thing that really struck me about this was that, despite being a huge soda aficionado, I don’t think I recall ever seeing these on the store shelves of any legit retailers in my part of the country. The reality before us? Not only are these most likely expired beverages, they’ve probably been trucked and maintained in room-temperature storage for several months before being placed in the middle of the aisle - non-refrigerated, of course - at this particular store.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when that picture entails Power Rangers-themed macaroni, you’re looking at a Tolstoy in the making. There’s not really a whole lot you can say about this one, I guess. . .although if it gives you indigestion, you could always get super-cute and yell “TYRANOSAURUS!” will struggling through a particularly tough dump, I suppose.

Although there is a TON of weird-ass items in the food section of the store, the toy aisle is perhaps even more messed up. For starters, what kid out there WOULDN’T want an action figure modeled after a dude world renowned for getting liquored up and making racially insensitive remarks about deceased pro wrestlers from the ‘80s? The fact that this thing doesn’t have a talking voice chip is one of the biggest missed opportunities I’ve ever seen for anything…

To prove that 2010 happened to future generations, I reckon, there’s a board game modeled after “The Jersey Shore” on sale, too. Admittedly, I’m not really sure why this and the Seinfeld version of “Scene It?” are in the kids section, but whatever. The sooner they learn about nihilism and crude Italian stereotypes, they better they are for it, I surmise.

Hey, what do you get the person that has everything? Well, how about some Black Eyed Peas mugs? With that in mind, what do you get someone you really, really don’t like? The exact same thing. Hell, with 64 fluid ounces of alcohol in me is pretty much the only way you could convince me to listen to their “music” anyway.

And that, I assure you, is just the tip of the moribund iceberg. There’s an electronics section in there too, but since there’s really not that much exciting about Dharma and Greg DVDs, I decided to skip it and run my way through the food section one more time. Hey, those Jolly Ranchers-flavored sodas aren’t going to be on sale forever, you know.

Needless to say, my waltz through the local Big Lots was about as depressing as a jog down the cancer ward. From a sociological perspective, it’s kind of interesting to peer at all the stuff that’s obsolete for “mainstream” consumers - which, conversely, is the stuff the poor and the downtrodden in this country have no option but to purchase. A couple of things surprised me about my visit, most notably, the surprisingly large section dedicated to Hispanic foods. It seems like every single aisle was capped by a display for hot sauce or traditional Mexican candies, which makes me ponder a many things about who the real target audience is for overstock stores of the like.

There’s really no way to sugarcoat it; browsing through these aisles is like ambling down poverty row and experiencing the miseries of just about every underserved minority in the nation. Poor whites, blacks and Latinos shuffle in and out of these buildings all day long, jamming their buggies with beat up cans of salt-speckled vegetables and melted candies to take home to their no doubt malnourished children. And if they’re lucky, they might just get that Guitar Hero action figure lodged between the lukewarm Jones Soda and Cocoa Peebles cereal bars. Well, probably not, but their parents kind of mulled over it, anyway.

Most of the time, when I tell you people about my adventures, I do so because I want to give you a template so that you can try out your own psychosocial experiment. In this instance, however, I’m not really sure I would advocate stopping by a Big Lots for any real reason - unless, of course, you’re one of those sorts that really gets a kick out of watching people shamble about with no discernable reason to live anymore.

Granted, we all have our curiosities about the end of mass-marketed consumer goods’ life cycles, and while you do see exactly that at Big Lots, you’ll also end up seeing a whole lot more stuff you probably don’t want to - like the huddled, hungry masses, being particularly hungry and huddled. If nothing else, Big Lots is your welcome mat to the very tail-end of the American consumption cycle - and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a tail end that stinks to high heaven.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Soda Pop Meets Pop Art

When High and Low Culture COLLIDE!

There’s this guy from the mid 20th century you’ve probably never heard of before named E.T. Hall. If you have, that means you’ve probably a social science major, because his theories about “high and low culture” are pretty much unavoidable if you want to study sociology, philosophy or just about ANY flavor of communication.

Per this Hall fellow, popular culture - a term, by the way, that was introduced by a bunch of neo-Marxists in the early 1900s, in case you weren’t aware of it - consists of two incarnations. There’s “high culture”, which is the entertainment options preferred by the snooty and the upper class, and then, there’s “low culture,” which is the entertainment options preferred by the vulgar and the uneducated. That means that the socioeconomic elite would be into one form of entertainment, whilst the socioeconomic not-so-elite would be into a completely different form. And in today’s America, you know what? Such is indeed the case, albeit with some major, MAJOR caveats.

We all know the stereotype. The rich go to operas and horse races, while the poor go to cockfights and watch Country Music Television. Clearly, it’s a dialectic that Marx would be proud of, but in the America, where we temporarily have such a thing as a “middle class,” things aren’t so black and white. I think the argument can be made that in contemporary U.S. culture, one’s educational level is more or less his or her greatest predictor of entertainment preferences, as American popular culture seems more less divided on intellectual lines as opposed to socioeconomic ones. Pending you have awareness of certain referential points, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your bank account - a well read stock boy can enjoy the works of Bela Tarr and Errol Morris, while a Harvard grad can enjoy getting hammered and watching some Ultimate Fighting down at the local bar and grill just the same.

The problem with Hall’s concept is that I don’t think anybody really believes that their preferred form of entertainment is some indicator of class status. Even so, with so much weaving and mixing going on culturally, to me, it seems like the only pop culture we really have is something of a middle culture - that is, a goulash of both proletariat and bourgeoisie interests, of interests pertaining to both the intellectual and the laity.

So would you call college football telecasts and Facebook high or low culture? How about Xbox Live and YouTube? Is a Nook an emblem of the elite, or the commoner? As you can see, modern culture has been so generalized by technology that it’s hard to tell whether or not something belongs to a specific class. Sure, Broadway and Dollywood may initially reference two seemingly different classes of peoples, but with some semblance of social mobility still left (like I said, some semblance), it’s not really that cut and dry of an issue at the current.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m something of a pop-culture dork. I’m also something of a social-science dork, so I like to talk…at length…about both matters, usually interweaving the two in some meandering, horribly misguided attempt to kill two proverbial birds with one metaphorical stone. I love sociology, and psychology, and history, and philosophy and art house cinema. But, at the same time, I’m also besotted by the so-called lesser interests of society, like video games, fast food, and public service announcements. As a general rule, I like to mishmash high and low culture at every conceivable opportunity, perpetually attempting to bring a touch of commoner insight into the high arts and a touch of forward thinking to the more mundane and banal aspects of modern existence. This entails fine dining and cage fighting on the same evening, thrift store shopping and off-Broadway musicals on the same night, and attending women’s lit lectures a few hours before watching Bloodsucking Freaks and I Spit on Your Grave. I’m not quite sure what the synthesis is supposed to be here, but I’m sure it’s going to be pretty awesome, whatever it turns out to be.

A few evenings ago, I had just such a syncretic afternoon, when I hit up two of Atlanta’s neatest attractions - The High Museum of Art and the World of Coca-Cola - back to back. One is the largest and most prestigious cathedrals of high culture in a 500 mile radius, and the other is an apparent tourist trap for amblers sans any worries about diabetes whatsoever. Empirical wisdom would tell you that the experiences would be markedly different, but as it turns out, there’s actually a lot more commonalities between the high and the low then one would initially think.

The High Museum’s current big attraction is this absolutely MASSIVE display featuring originals by everybody from Picasso to Jasper Johns. As a fan of post modernistic nonsense, I was really excited to check out some of the kookier, less-formless works of art on display. And boy oh boy, did I get some outstanding pretentious dreck by the boatload.

Alexander Calder is one of the lesser known artistes on display at the exhibit, but I reckon he’s a good enough starting point. Calder was one of those guys that had a thing for “anti-art” - essentially, stuff that was supposed to be ugly, banal and inartistic as a statement about the deterioration of modern art quality. Now, on the surface, that seems like a really, really pointless and counterintuitive idea, but when you really think about it. . .well, no, I guess it still seems like a really, really pointless and counterintuitive idea. But digression, clearly that is.

I guess the in-joke with Calder’s work is that while his sculptures are pretty much butt-ugly, the shadows they cast are downright magnificent looking, thus a subtle, subtle jab at the nature of human artistry. You see, even though what we create is ugly, the totally inartistic nature of light creates art sans any effort, which I guess is supposed to remind us that our supposedly awesome works of art pale in comparison to the artistry of the intangibles around us.

If you’re ever in a hurry and you want to scope out the best the High has to offer, just purchase your ticket and take the elevator to the fourth floor, because that’s where all of the awesome modern art is housed. And in what simply COULDN’T have been planned, the view below gives you a clear glimpse at Alexander Calder’s sculpture from a bird’s eye perspective. Funny how things like that just sort of happen, no?

Also on display were some works by Marcel Duchamp, the undisputed king of pretentious early 20th century anti-art. Although his most famous work - a urinal - wasn’t on display, they DID have his famous snow shovel “artwork” hanging from the ceiling. Clearly, this is something you HAVE to see in high definition.

And of course, what crash course on non-art would be complete without an appearance by Andy Warhol? The High had his immortal “Campbell’s Soup” paintings on display, which I was lucky enough to score some tracking footage of.

Yeah, it wasn’t as cool as seeing “Trash” or “Bad” on an IMAX screen, but hey, that was pretty close to it, though.

Outside the museum, there is this amazing sculpture of a Mickey-Mouse like character weeping. For whatever reason, the thing kind of reminded me of the album of the Minor Threat LP, which is worth all sorts of bonus points as far as I am concerned.

I was a little surprised to see so many interactive displays at the High. I suppose my favorite was this little activity center that let you create your own Amish artwork. If anybody can figure out the cryptic message on display here, you win…something.

Honestly, I’ve never really been a big fan of classical sculptures, but this thing had to be seen to be believed. I have no idea how the artist was able to incorporate the translucent veil into the design of the statue, but it was one of the most beautiful, creepy and technically amazing feats I’ve ever seen. Bravo to you, underappreciated Italian guy nobody really cares about!

Here’s a really cool painting featuring a bunch of Centaurs fighting hyena-people. It’s got to be one of the most anarchic paintings I’ve ever seen, with hooves and knives and flayed bodies all over the canvas. Clearly, “Twilight” ain’t got shit on this stuff right here.

The American art section has possibly the most messed up looking stuff on display at the High. How freaky am I talking here? Well, bloody dinosaurs and folk art, prophesies of biblical apocalypse-on-a-trash-can kind of freaky, ostensibly.

Oh, and take note of that apocalyptic one, as it has an unusual connection to the World of Coca-Cola. . .

. . .and speaking of the World of Coca-Cola, here’s what the antechamber of the edifice looks like. There’s all sorts of international signage all over the place, including a couple of anachronistic vending machines and this blue, hardhat-wearing alien that, as it turns out, is one of the company’s less successful marketing creations.

One of the first really cool things I saw was this Japanese Coca-Cola machine.

There’s a lot of really neat discrepancies to note here, including the smaller can sizes, not to mention the fact that the products eschew the tried-and-true Westernized tab for a more mayonnaise-lid like design. The names are also mildly altered, too - for example, Diet Coke is called Coke Light, and Diet Sprite is called Sprite Cool. This, I suppose, is because in Japan, “Diet” is the name of the nation’s main legislative body, which, yeah, could lead to some confusion for soda enthusiasts, I assume. Also, one of the products that is HUGE in Japan is something called Georgia Coffee - which is, as the name suggests, brewed coffee, only served ice cold.

And speaking of international oddities, here’s a Coke machine from the MIR space station! No, really, that’s ACTUALLY what this thing is. I can only fathom the amount of taxpayer dollars squandered in an attempt to provide astronauts with soda options, but what the hell ever…

The wall of international and discontinued sodas was worth the visit alone for a nostalgia junkie such as myself. I’ll just let you check out the video footage, so that you can weep in silence for what could have been.

Oddly enough, this display reminded me of Surge for the first time in several years. . .and in a most horrifying notion, somehow, I’ve totally overlooked the fact that this stuff has been discontinued for almost a full decade here in the States. WHY WERE YOU SLEEPING, AMERICA!

I scoured the place for quite some time trying to procure any New Coke propaganda. The only New Coke stuff on display , unfortunately, was inside this small glass coffer, which played a video that…well, let’s just say revised history a little.

But, it was pretty nice to see Matthew Frewer’s beaming face again, though!

Remember earlier, when I said there was a connection between the apocalyptic trash can art at the High and the World of Coca-Cola? Well, here it is - can you believe that the same guy that did crazy ass Book of Revelations street art was the same guy that designed THIS advert art for Coke?

Anybody who has been to the World of Coca-Cola will be quick to tell you that the tour highlight HAS to be the soda fountain room, which allows visitors to try out a good 60 plus beverages from across the world. Some of the stuff on display, like South Africa’s Bibo - is downright delicious, while others, such as the Italian import Beverly - are. . .well, I think my expression tells the whole story here.

As an added bonus, the Coca-Cola people were even handing out samples of an experimental Coca-Cola product entitled Gingerbread Coke. Just remember: when this stuff gets mass-marketed next Christmas, I got to try out a full year before the rest of you. Soda elitism, bitches.

The big news was that the building recently become the new home of the Coca-Cola secret formula. To commemorate the new arrival, the entire place was redesigned, and a new display - highlighting the history of Coke’s development - was erected.

Honestly, I thought the Vault addendum was pretty weak. A lot of the stuff on display had just been moved over from the history section of the museum, and although there was a lot of high-tech, interactive media integration, I really can’t say that it improved the experience by any great margin. I mean, come on guys, what are you going to do three years ago when the Microsoft Kinect doo-hicky is completely outmoded?

And yep, it’s here: the secret formula for Coca-Cola, allegedly, is contained right here in this very vault. The room has this 360 video screen, which simulates what it’s like to be in a cup of soda. Oh, and Donald Sutherland provides the V.O. for the lecture. Needless to say, you probably shouldn’t drop acid before waltzing into this one.

Of course, due to time constraints, there’s a lot of stuff I have to leave out. As much as I would like to go on and on about the graphite etchings in the High basement of tigers and leopards mauling naked people and the “4D” movie theater that jams a metal rod into your back at the World of Coca-Cola, I have to conclude this entry by discussing the similarity in experiences I, well, experienced, with the two “museums.”

I suppose one can say that a trip to a museum of modern art constitutes a “high culture” experience, while a trip to a museum of soda pop history is most likely a “low culture” one. The thing is, the crowds at both museums seemed to be of the same social and class structure…that being, an internationally-tinged goulash of just about everybody in the middle. I didn’t see a single top-hat sporting aristocrat at the High, nor did I see anybody wearing burlap sacks at the World of Coca-Cola. I did, however, see a wide cross-section of just about every other kinds of people at both venues, from Japanese tourists to birka-clad Palestinians to wheelchair-bound Hindis.

We can bitch and moan all day about cultural imperialism and class warfare, but at the end of the day, I think the entire mass of humanity doesn’t give a hoot about where their “art” stems from, whether it’s expressionistic paintings done by stuck-up Frenchmen or mass-marketed trinkets churned out by a Fortune 500 super duper-conglomerate. At the end of the day, it ultimately doesn’t matter if something is “high” culture or “low” culture - as long as you enjoy it, and you get something meaningful out of it, it remains art, regardless.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

A Modest Review
(with BONUS, now OFFICIALLY outdated War-on-Terror Propaganda Commentary!)

Alike New Coke or The Pet Rock, the “Twilight” phenomenon is destined to become one of those things that we really can’t explain to future generations. Yeah, yeah, right now, the movies are doing gangbusters at the box office, but in 20 years - when Robert Pattinson will look more like Meat Loaf than beefcake - explicating the popularity of the franchise is going to be a next-to-impossible task.

I can envision the discussions now. “Hey, uncle Jimbo, how come all of those dumbass teenagers and housewives were into that fruity vampire crap when you were in college?” my hypothetical nephew will ask me through the perforations of his robotic Hazmat suit. I’ll overlook the veranda, with its panoramic view of the mutant wasteland, and I’ll just have to shrug my shoulders. “It was just a different time,” I’ll have to tell him, with no viable, perceivable follow-up available as a retort. Hell, we can’t explain the popularity of the series now, let alone with two decades worth of muddled future behind us.

Of course, there have been a couple of attempts made to explain the popularity of the series. I suppose the best I’ve yet to encounter is that the series capitalizes on the fledgling, post-pubescent sexual curiosities of America’s neo mall-rats and tweensters, those either over-sheltered or under-sheltered denizens of so many a Hot Topics or Starbucks that yearn for a mysterious, dark stranger to whisk them away from the perils and ennui of things like curfews, credit card limits and having to learn geometry. The great variable there is, a sizable portion of the Twilight fan base are women on the verge of menopause - meaning that the franchise probably connects more with those with a sense of sexual dissatisfaction than it does for those seeking the “Jane Eyre”/”Pride and Prejudice” post-Gothic sense of feministic freedom.

I really had a hard time grasping the popularity of the series until I found out something earlier this year: that the mastermind behind the “Twilight” saga was actually raised a Mormon. Suddenly, everything started to fall into place, and that enigmatic cultural adoration of the series quickly became readily apparent to my glistening, olive-hued pupils.

A lot of people scoff when comparisons between the work of Stephenie Meyer and the likes of Emily Bronte and Jane Austen are made. The reality is, those quasi-Gothic, pseudo-feministic writings of the 19th century are really no different than the quasi-gothic, pseudo-feministic writings of the modern day, as both forms of pop-literature detail the nature of womanhood via the oppression of the church and sexual mores.

Now, I’m not saying that “Twilight” is a form of good social commentary, but it remains a form of social commentary nonetheless. The appeal of the franchise - to the best that I can explain it, anyway - is that it’s a series that confronts the dual dilemmas of sexual identity and religious indoctrination for both young women unsure of their gender roles and older women realizing that they were coaxed into lives of sex-less stagnation thanks to the precepts of society and the church.

“Twilight,” quite obviously, is some really, really unsure commentary about the state of modern Mormonism. A young, bored virgin is absorbed into a closely-knit circle of social outcasts, all of whom port about a certain mystical power that makes them something above-and-beyond human. The “Twilight” take on sexuality is this odd hodgepodge of spiritualism, animism, family values and cosmological destiny - in other words, it’s “Dracula” as re-edited by the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
After much deliberation, I decided to check out the latest “Twilight” movie - “Breaking Dawn, Part 1” - to see just how much of this psycho-sexual religious commentary made it into the motion picture. As it turns out, the film not only contained a pretty good deal of such content, it actually seemed to be making a few pro-religious statements as well. . .meaning that the series may indeed be nothing more than thinly veiled encouragement and/or defense of traditional Mormon tenets pertaining to sexual behavior!

For starters, let’s make this very clear: “Twilight” is a film that endorses premarital chastity. Even though Kirsten Stewart - with her Bugs Bunny-like incisors - was tempted by both vampire and werewolf wiener, she managed to maintain her virginity as something of a spiritual obligation to…well, whatever it is that she believed in. After getting hitched at the age of 18, she is whisked away to Brazil, where, alike the biblical Eden that may or may not have actually been in Missouri, she is lulled into sinful thinking, desiring sparkly vampire dong so much that she seduces her foot-faced vampire hubby into several nights of undead humping, that results in, SPOILER. . .Bella getting knocked up by some sort of vampire offspring that makes her stomach look like a peach colored version of that golf ball thing at Epcot.

The message the film makes is pretty apparent - sexual longing will result in physical punishment, so keep your pants on or else. Hell, even being married isn’t a good enough deterrent from the retribution of Twilight’s vengeful (yet never directly addressed) God-figure - meaning that the chief evil of Meyer’s literary universe is human carnality, not oligarchic vampires or pissed off Indian wolf people.

Meet the real-life Ed Cullen.
The thing that got me about the movie wasn’t so much the not-that-subtle allusions to Mormon ideals (the super-close family, the sexual abstinence, etc.) but the movie’s downright brazen pro-life message. As in, the inclusion of a character that yells at Bella “it’s not a fetus, it’s a BABY!” not once, but several times.

For all of the hubbub about “Twilight” being an ode to teenage promiscuity, the message of the latest movie in the series is one that’s only mildly to the left of “The Silent Scream.” Needless to say, this ISN’T a movie that will appease the nation’s most hardcore NARAL supporters.

As for the film itself - come on, you know that it sucks. The acting is wooden, the dialogue is unnaturally stiff, the special effects are remarkably awful (the werewolf CGI looks like something out of a late ‘90s straight-to-video release, and what’s up with that jerky editing whenever the vampires decide to haul ass?) and the story manages to be both generic and stupid in equal dollops of sub-mediocrity. Walking out of the theater, I felt as if my ticket should’ve read “The Death of American Intellectualism,” or possibly “THIS is Why SAT Scores are Going Down Across the Board” instead of what was actually stamped on the ticket.

Why is this series so lucrative, despite being so empirically inane and uninteresting, you may ask? I’ve thrown out a few suggestions, but at the end of the day, I’m just as stumped as the rest of civilization. I guess the series is popular because it ties together sexual identity with religious guilt, which are two guaranteed pathways to mucho dinero, but I could be wrong. Maybe middle American women really are that obsessed and enamored by made-for-TV-romance, the fantastical readymade form of gothic sexuality that reeks of more petrochemicals than a bowl of plastic fruit. Maybe, we really are a culture more than content with getting our vicarious sexual jollies from the manufactured love lives of make believe high school students, with all of that supernatural junk thrown in as a red herring to keep us from feeling like weirdoes or perverts.

There are people out there that really do enjoy this sort of stuff with a sense of non-ironic attachment and sincerity. And to me, that’s downright freakier than any of the pseudo-kinky, second-hand thrills anybody would get out of screening “Breaking Dawn.”


In case you haven’t heard, the U.S. military is supposed to be leaving Iraq this month. Of course, that just means they’ll be replaced by private contractors and possibly proxy war wagers from Uganda, but PEACE TIME IS STILL SOMEHOW UPON US, apparently.

Serendipitously, as I was exiting the theater recently, I stumbled across this amazing piece of now gloriously outdated “War on Terror” agitprop: ladies and gentlemen, prepare to feast your eyes upon one of the weirdest and most tasteless arcade releases of the post 9/11 years, Target: Terror GOLD.
At first glance, the game doesn’t look that tacky and gaudy. And then, as images of George W. and Osama bin Laden flicker behind the game’s attraction mode title screen, you suddenly realize that this is a game with nary a sense of shame and/or understanding of ongoing global relations.

As the game implores you to toss in an additional quarter so you can dual-wield both of the supplied light guns - billing the act, not at all auspiciously, as “Justice Mode” - you just KNOW the experience is going to about as classy as a Toby Keith ballad. Even more surprisingly, however, is that the game is sort of reluctant to actually address the realities of the domestic “War on Terror” front. What do I mean, exactly? Well, what I mean is, the members of Al Qaeda in the game are, well, kind of white looking. As in, dressed like stereotypical 1950s biker teens white. And just wait until you see the gangster molls that show up about halfway through the bridge stage…

Target: Terror GOLD appears to be a pretty long game, but I really have a hard time believing anybody out there has the patience / disrespect for their own existence to play through the entire thing. If you’re one of those kids that really, REALLY wanted to shoot people in the balls back in the days of “Lethal Enforcers,” then maybe, just maybe, this game is worth your time, money and energy. But for the rest of you (congrats on the sanity, by the way), this thing is just rushed, low-culture sleaze that’s not even worth a squandered quarter out of curiosity.

As such, my last trip to the local multiplex was no doubt an important one. After all, it’s quite rare to encounter the epitome of the developing male and female’s horribly misdirected cultural consciousness in one evening - let alone the commercial exploitation of both at the same time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Humanity's Eight Closest Calls With Extinction

Counting Down Our Species' Greatest Brushes with Complete Eradication


I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but apparently, there are a lot of people out there that think the world is going to come to an end in about a year’s time.

And then, even if Herman Cain doesn’t get elected, there’s still that whole Mayan calendar thingy to worry about.   

No matter what 2012 throws at us, whatever's supposed to eradicate humanity better be something fierce, because the species has damn near survived just about every calamity possible since homo got erectus. In fact, when you look at the catastrophic events that human beings have waltzed through - in addition to the near-apocalypses that we managed to avoid by the skin of the skin of our collective teeth - it appears that nothing short of the planet getting McGangBanged by the Sun and Jupiter is going to keep human life from trucking along on spaceship Earth.

So, just how close has humanity gotten to complete obliteration, you may be asking yourself? Well, homo sapiens have played evolutionary Houdini more than a time or two in the 200,000 or so years we’ve been on the planet, and the only thing more surprising than how many times we’ve escaped certain annihilation is just how close we’ve been to guaranteed extinction not just once, but several times throughout history.

It seems as if humanity has played the Rocky Balboa to cosmological fate’s Ivan Drago ever since we diverged from our orangutan ancestors. Ice ages, mega-famines, super-diseases, ultra-volcanoes - and during those rare off years when mother nature wasn’t trying to wipe us off the planet - we we’re busy dwelling whether or not we should just use our nuclear uber-weapons to do ourselves in.

The story of humanity, up to this point, has really been the most remarkable survival story ever told, this perpetual, you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me roll call of near terminal calamity after near terminal calamity, an almost endless parade of would-be apocalypse scenarios that, in a direct bitch slap to probability, we’ve somehow managed to surmount or circumvent time and time again.

So what exactly have we overcome, you may be pondering? Well, I’ve narrowed my list down to eight doomsday scenarios that, through some miraculous, inexplicable fortune, our species has been able to avoid.

Now, who’s ready to get all paranoid up in this mother?


The Year Without A Summer

Pictured: The thing that probably killed half of your ancestors two hundred years ago.

In 1815, the Tambora volcano, which is situated off the coast of Indonesia, erupted. Well, erupt is sort of an ill-fitting term here, as the nomenclature “The earth pretty much exploding from the inside out” is more or less what actually happened.

There’s this thing called the “Volcanic Explosivity Index” which measures eruptions much in the same way the Richter Scale measures the magnitude of earthquakes. The Tambora eruption was the absolute largest since humans had recorded history, scoring a 7 on the VEI scale (the equivalent of a 10 on the Richter) and making Krakatau and Pompeii  look like squished zits by comparison. In addition to killing just about everybody in a 200 mile radius, the eruption had the added benefit of spewing so much ash into the ozone layer that it pretty much blacked out the sun for a good year afterward, turning the entire planet into a souvenir snow globe for just about all of 1816...hence, why many historians often refer to it as “the year without a summer.”

If you’re wondering just how much of an impact one volcanic eruption in southeast Asia can have, chew on this: the eruption not only royally effed up the Pacific rim, but plunged Europe and the Americas into months of aberrant frigid weather. The highlights include a doubled mortality rate throughout Europe (complete with a Typhus outbreak that killed a good 100,000 Irishmen), a massive rice famine in China, a worldwide cholera outbreak, a Hungarian mega-blizzard (in which, reportedly, turd-colored snow blanketed the entire country for a better part of the year) and crop failures in New England and Canada so vast that it ultimately led to entire agricultural industries relocating halfway across the countries.

For all of you folks wondering just how fast climate change takes, 1816 proves that it's an incredibly short turnaround. In Connecticut and New York, the city streets were iced over in June, and in Montreal that summer, the city was covered in about a foot of snow. To make matters worse, Mother Nature apparently developed bipolarity that year, too, as temperatures in the mid-Atlantic frequently fluctuated from normal seasonal temperatures to below freezing levels in the same day. Oh, and did I mention that for most of the year, half the Eastern seaboard was shrouded in an enigmatic red mist of volcanic fog?

The breakdown in Europe was especially severe, as it almost led to the complete downfall of civilization within the continent. Arson, looting, pillaging and sundry other forms of chaos reigned as starved and diseased villagers ransacked one another like they were in "State of Emergency" or something - in Sweden, the proverbial shit hit the fan so hard that people had to resort to eating grass to stay alive.

As bad as it was, 1816 - often given such whimsical nicknames as "eighteen hundred and froze to death" - could have been WAY worse. Had the weather freakiness and accompanying famines continued for a few more years, it's pretty much a guarantee that there would have been some MAJOR political revolutions going on throughout Europe, and the likelihood of a super pandemic emerging would have been way, way higher than any of us would like to imagine. And speaking of global disease outbreaks...

The Bubonic Plague

I wonder why you never see this at Ren-Faires?

Yeah, yeah, everybody knows how bad the Bubonic Plague was. By the time most of us are in the fifth grade, we’ve probably had to do at least one project about the Black Death in class, so we consider ourselves bona fide experts on the subject at hand. The thing is, we really don’t have a proper grasp of a.) just how ghastly the plague was, and b.) just how many people died as a result of it. . .primarily because so many Europeans kicked the bucket that there was hardly anybody around long enough to scribble down accurate statistics.

The Plague, for all intents and purposes, wasn’t the first time the Bubonic Plague that threatened all of civilization. Nor, technically, was it the absolute deadliest such pandemic in human history. However, in hindsight, it probably came closer to wiping out the species than most analysts observe. . .or would care to consider, for that matter.

Depending on who you ask, the Bubonic Plague managed to off somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the entire European population from the 13th to 17th centuries. According to some analysts, once you factor in worldwide deaths stemming from the disease, you could be looking at a death toll about twice as costly as World War II.

The Bubonic Plague is one of those cruel, bitter in-jokes that makes you wonder why the universe hates the English so much. You see, the Bubonic Plague began right around the same time the Dark Ages came to a close; which meant that as soon as Western civilization was ready to make that great technological leap forward, it had to do so with feet covered in gangrenous boils. Needless to say, the Plague not only came dangerously close to wiping out Western progress, in a lot of ways, it pretty much succeeded - had the pandemic not occurred, it’s quite likely we would have encountered the Renaissance about three hundred years later. . .which, if you believe in the literal definition of history, would have resulted in an alternate reality where George Washington had a Facebook account.

Although it sounds sort of douchey to look back on an event that murdered half a continent as “a stroke of good luck,” that’s precisely what the Bubonic Plague was. You see, back in the Medieval days, people really didn’t do much traveling - in fact, the average European probably traveled no further than 20 miles away from his or her place of birth throughout his or her entire lifetime. Since people were so isolated, disjointed and virtually quarantined as communities already, the highly infectious disease was pretty much relegated to specific towns, which meant as long as you carried an oversized bird beak filled with crushed up flowers and  knew where not to go, you had a pretty high likelihood of avoiding the Plague like. . .well, the Plague.

A lot of people tend to think that the Plague was an epidemic that only affected the white folk, but in reality, the disease was pretty common in Asia, the Mideast and Saharan Africa. Once again, the fact that transportation was so gloriously primitive was sort of our unintended saving grace here, so even if a traveler contracted the disease in one part of the world, odds are, he or she would most likely be as dead as a doornail before they even got halfway home. This, of course, results in one of the most ironic ironies in the history of irony: the Bubonic Plague was a direct result of primitive technologies, and our humanity was inadvertently spared BECAUSE of our primitive technologies. Had the Plague flared up about three hundred years later - when global transportation was fairly commonplace - we would probably be looking at a much, much higher worldwide death toll, with at least half of the planet succumbing to the pandemic. Pending the disease spread to more remote places on the map - the Americas, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa - we’re definitely looking at the virtual eradication of entire races of indigenous peoples here.

Even after the Plague suddenly disappeared around the 1600s, the after effects on humanity were being felt all the way up until the mid 20th century, as the post-plague population numbers of Europe didn’t fully recover until the early 1900s. . .just in time, of course, to whittle those pesky figures away once again with back-to-back World Wars.

And, thankfully, the Bubonic Plague has been officially “cured” by modern science, which really isn’t shocking, since health care 600 years ago consisted primarily of stabbing people and getting them to hock loogies in buckets until they bought the farm.

Well, except for this one guy in Africa, who has apparently developed a case of a treatment resistant strain of the disease. But hey, it’s not like we’re at any risk of another pandemic of the like, right? RIGHT?

World War III NARROWLY Averted (Part One)

A man who knew that there was only one pathway to prosperity and peace: one paved with lots and lots of dead Soviets.

Following the Allied Victory on May 8, 1945, many Europeans wondered just how long until World War III would break out. Well, had Winston Churchill had his way, it would’ve kicked off right then and there.

It’s no surprise that Churchill wasn’t really a fan of Joseph Stalin. In fact, Churchill was so damned certain that eventually, those godless Communists would try to succeed where Hitler failed that he engineered plans for a counter-strike to a potential Soviet invasion before Berlin had even fallen.

Before the war in the Pacific theater was even finished, Churchill drew up plans for combating the Soviet Union, pending they staged an invasion of Europe. Churchill’s blueprint, the not-at-all-ominously titled “Operation: Unthinkable”, involved pretty much every planet on the earth attacking the U.S.S.R. in case they made any indications of eastern movement - so, yeah, as much as Churchill went on and on about this being retaliatory plan, all signs point to this thing being a preemptive strike designed to cripple the Soviet Union pronto.

The thing that kept Churchill’s plan from occurring was, primarily, the fact that the U.S. was still sort of fighting World War II at the time. Churchill sent several cables to Truman, who I can only expect replied with “BRB, FIGHTN JPNSE, NO THX KBYE.” Without U.S. backing, Churchill knew that his plan was quite unlikely to be implemented, since he pretty much credited the U.S. with winning the last war by itself. Even so, Churchill was so CERTAIN of the Soviet Threat that he continued to push for the preemptive strike all the way up into the early 1950s, getting shot down by pretty much everybody he talked to as “some batshit insanery right there.”

Had Churchill decided to follow through on his plan sans United States involvement, it’s pretty much a given that Europe would’ve been annexed into the Soviet Union shortly thereafter. With a ten million man army, Stalin’s forces outnumbered almost the entire remaining armies of Europe combined; the Russians would’ve most likely steamrolled over a war-ravaged Europe on a B-line to the U.K., and that’s where things would’ve gotten really interesting.

The only reason the U.K. didn’t get demolished a la France during WWII was because it had a natural barrier keeping the Germans from having an easy access point into the country. That, and Russia hasn’t had much historical success with its navy, getting its ass kicked by both Japan and…if you can believe it, Finland... in battles early in the 20th century. Now, there is a likelihood that the Brits could have staved off an all out Soviet attack as long as they were well buttressed by Scandinavian flanks and a secured waterway, but that would only delay an inevitable beat down from Russians, not prevent one. That means that, eventually, the Russians would either invade the island or the Brits would have to enter Soviet territory. And when this thing would’ve gotten to a ground battle, it’s all but certain that Stalin’s armies would’ve kicked so much limey ass their boots would’ve been permanently stained citrus green.

For those of you keeping score at home, a non-U.S. backed European attack against the U.S.S.R. would’ve been a suicidal plan that gave Stalin complete control over every continent on the planet except the Americas. . .which, obviously, would’ve led to an impending World War IV, probably no sooner than the early 1980s.

Of course, that’s not to say that the U.S. DIDN’T have its own plans for instigating World War III in place at the same time frame…

World War III NARROWLY Averted (Part Two)

One of America's greatest wartime leaders, seen here probably envisioning the death of millions upon millions of Asian people.

During World War II, the U.S. had the good fortune of enlisting two of the most brilliant military strategists in history in BOTH theaters of warfare. While Eisenhower led the Allied Troops to victory of Nazism, General Douglas MacArthur waited breathlessly for his opportunity to pounce on the carcass of what used to be Japan…a country, by the way, that was ready to do battle without a navy, an air force, land vehicles, or ammunition. Of course, Truman made an executive call that quickly brought that prospect to an end, and MacArthur was soon reassigned the not at all ironic duty of rebuilding the nation he was sort of responsible for turning into a rock quarry.

Fast forward about five years later, when America’s next major military ordeal flares up in Korea. MacArthur, now appointed general of the Korean operation by Harry S. Truman, says that he has a brilliant plan to end the skirmish in a hurry. Truman, no doubt intrigued by the World War II hero’s plans, is somewhat shocked by MacArthur’s idea. . .namely, the fact that he wanted to drop nearly two dozen atomic bombs on Korea and just call it a day.

The shocking part, if you dare imagine it, isn’t actually the fact that MacArthur wanted to dole out ten times as much atomic death to the Koreans as we did to Japan, but the fact that MacArthur was ready to stage a military coup to make it a reality. The Joint Chief of Staffs - perhaps realizing that turning a nuclear arsenal into weapons of conventional warfare wasn’t the wisest idea - went to Truman, whom subsequently fired MacArthur’s ass on the spot for even campaigning for a nuclear attack, let alone threatening a goddamn overthrow of the executive branch to get it in action.

The ramifications had a.) MacArthur promulgated an official coup attempt or b.) Truman actually authorized MacArthur’s plan would have been absolutely momentous. In the first scenario, we’re looking at the probable dissolution of the entire U.S. military, and most certainly, a long, long moratorium on international militarization for the United States. Although it seems pretty unbelievable, there have been a number of coups staged against the standing U.S. government throughout the last two hundred and fifty years, from a pissed off moonshine distillers revolt in the late 1700s to DuPont’s failed bid to overthrow FDR in the 1930s. The thing is, we’ve never actually had an internal military overthrow happen here, so had MacArthur commandeered a one-man, non-state-sanctioned onslaught against Korea, there’s no real precedent in place for us to guesstimate what would’ve happened. The only parallel I can think of is Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” - only with freaking nuclear weapons at his disposal.

If the atomic bombs indeed got dropped on Korea (whether by Truman’s authorization or decree of a shirtless, bandana sporting MacArthur), we’re pretty much looking at World War III occurring just five years after WWII ended. China would’ve gotten pissy about us turning its backyard into a radioactive garden, and that probably would’ve given the U.S.S.R. a lot of incentives to retaliate. From there, we’re most likely looking at an all out, pro-wrestling style donnybrook between the capitalists and communists, with central Asia as our three-ringed, steel-caged enclosed Pay-Per-View venue for mayhem.

With European troop numbers extremely depleted following WWII, the communistic nations would have had a staggering man advantage over the ex-Allied Forces. To compensate for a lack of ground forces, this probably means that the U.S. would have gotten even more bomb happy, probably launching a couple of extra atomic bombs at China, Russia, India or anybody else that got too sassy for our liking.

The only thing keeping humanity from evaporating here is that, at the time, the U.S. was the only nation on the planet with a known, sustainable and viable nuclear arsenal (the Ruskies, contemporaneously, were still working the kinks out in their program, mind you). While there would have been untold nuclear-spawned fatalities, I suppose we can take some succor in knowing that those bombs were only headed unidirectionally. . .because the murder of two billion people and turning half the planet into a toxic waste dump is really the best case scenario we can vouch for here.

The Ebola Virus Outbreak of 1976

Yeah, you're going to be having nightmares about this one later...

A lot of times, it’s sort of difficult to gauge just how close humanity has gotten to almost certain doom. In the case of the Ebola Virus Outbreak of 1976, we actually know the precise mileage: only 20 freaking miles.

That year, a mysterious trader waltzed into a Maridi hospital, complaining about a headache, the chills, and the fact that blood was profusely seeping out of every hole in his body. The under-trained, understaffed and under-equipped physicians really didn’t know what to do, and in just a matter of days, half the hospital population had dropped dead.

Now, if you know anything about politics in the Congo, you pretty much know that they don’t give much of a shit about anything. This incident, however, was so pants-pissing horrifying that officials had no option but to call the World Health Organization for back-up, who promptly sent surveyors to Zaire to assess the outbreak. And yeah, just about all of them, died too.

The WHO, realizing that this is one of those scenarios where it’s probably for the best if they interfered, sent more personnel to the area, and in a matter of weeks, the enigmatic Ebola Fever had all but vanished - mostly due to the fact that well over half of the people that contracted it died within hours of catching it.

Since the WHO had their shit together and the outbreak occurred in an extremely remote part of the planet, humanity didn’t just dodge a bullet with the Ebola Outbreak, we dodged the biological equivalent of an all out nuclear blitzkrieg. Had the wayfaring stranger with a bloody bunghole managed to crawl his way into a more densely populated area of Zaire - or god forbid, he managed to make it to a social gathering place, like a market or a roadway - we’re looking at the single greatest pandemic in human history, bar none.

You ever see that movie “Pay It Forward?” Well, back in ‘76, we were this friggin’ close to using that precise model, only the “It” in question was “unstoppable, untreatable grisly death” for millions - and quite possibly billions - of human beings across the globe.

And to think: the ONLY thing that prevented an unparalleled biological catastrophe from decimating civilization 40 years ago was a pair of good running shoes.

All Out Nuclear War NARROWLY Averted (Part 1)

You sunk my battleship...and oh yeah, came this close to instigating global thermonuclear omnicide, too.

There’s this thing you’ve probably heard of called “The Doomsday Clock.”Although the eggheads at the University of Chicago claim that the closest we've ever gotten to being nuclear annihilated was in 1953, we actually came THIS close all-out atomic war in 1962...and had it not been for the bravery of one Russian submarine second-in-command, there's pretty much a 110 percent chance that our grandparents would've been turned into radioactive clay about fifty years ago.

Pending you didn't snooze through your high school U.S. history course, you'd know that in 1962, there was this thing called the Cuban Missile Crisis. Long story short, the Americans and Soviets were ready to blow the living hell out of each other, and each side was waiting for the other to make just the wrong move so we could ka-blooey the dog shit out of the corresponding half a hemisphere. 

Well, on Oct. 27, a goddamn armada of American ships trapped a Soviet sub off the coast of Cuba - a sub that, wouldn't you know, just happened to be equipped with a nuclear arsenal. In other words, the very fate of the species hedged on a game of nuclear chicken between nautical forces - and ever ones to keep hostile events from getting suicidally tense, the U.S. fleet did what any reasonable organization would do to a cornered enemy force that had atomic weaponry: they started dropping depth charges on them to scare them into resurfacing.

The captain aboard the Soviet sub, understandably, started freaking out, thinking that a nuclear war had already started. His political officer likewise panicked, and since they had authorization from Moscow to launch one of their nuclear torpedoes, both of them were WELL beyond ready to send the missiles a flying.

The lone dissenting voice amongst the officers came from the second-in-command, a guy named Vasili Arkhipov. Arkhipov - who already survived a near nuclear mega-disaster a year earlier when the K-19 sub he was on almost melted down - stood his ground and fought against the torpedo launch, ultimately getting his captain to surface. . .thus saving the entire planet from atomic omnicide.

Although Arkhipov's adventures inspired several movies - including "Crimson Tide" and a Harrison Ford movie nobody went to see - he died a relatively unknown soul, receiving very little acclaim upon his death in 1999 - even though he's single-handedly responsible for preventing the absolute closest call we've had to nuclear Armageddon as a species.

All out Nuclear War NARROWLY Averted (Part 2)

What we almost woke up to a good 27 years ago...
…that is, until 1983, when we somehow got even closer than we did in 1962.

For those of you that weren't around in the early '80s, let me put it to you like this: it was a scary, scary time to be alive. As bad as U.S./Soviet relations were in the '60s, things were immeasurably more intensified by the 1980s, thanks to the two nuclear powers collecting a stockpile of weapons large enough to kill everybody on the planet a couple of times over. The fact that we had a probable mental retard serving as U.S. President most certainly did not help matters, either.

Looking back on the chain of events that led to the absolute closest we've ever gotten to realizing World War III thus far is sort of like looking at the craziest ass "Metal Gear" scenario Hideo Kojima could ever dream up.

In 1981, the Soviets began Operation RYAN, the largest intelligence gathering initiative in USSR history, to find out just how likely a nuclear strike by the U.S. would be. In riposte, the U.S. began a series of PSYOP maneuvers, which were basically moving ships and personnel around the Arctic know, because making a bunch of trigger happy Reds even more paranoid is the best approach anybody could've taken at the time.

From there, shit got all sorts of real when on March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a plan to use outer-space satellites and drones to laser-cannon the shit out of Russia if they ever thought about sending some warheads our way. In response, the Russians shot down a Korean flight that hoovered over their airspace - taking out a crazy ass U.S. congressman from Georgia in the process. Clearly, the stage was being set for some tremendously intense times...but little did anybody know just how unbelievably close we would get to complete nuclear annihilation shortly thereafter.

On Sept. 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a duty officer at the the Soviet Union's nuclear early warning command center, received a system report that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles their way. Petrov, who had been rather skeptical of the program's accuracy for some time, decided that the message was erroneous, and decided to not report the detection to his superiors. Oh, and by the way - the Soviet Union's official policy was that if ANY incoming missiles were reported on the Oko System, that meant the entire Soviet arsenal was to be utilized in retaliation. 

Of course, Petrov was in the right - as it turns out, the system accidentally mistook the refraction of the sun through some low-lying clouds as an atomic attack - but had Petrov followed procedure...yeah, none of us would be here right now.

And if you're wondering how the man that literally saved the planet was rewarded, he's currently living as a pensioner in the outskirts of Russia, having received a monetary gift of just $1,000 USD by the Association of World Citizens in 2004 for saving the collective asses of the entire human race...while Madonna reportedly spends that much on body lotion every night of the week.

The Lake Toba Eruption 

Such a lovely view...of the thing that almost wiped us off the planet.

Although humanity has been faced with certain doom several time throughout history, one incident stands head and shoulders above them all as the absolute CLOSEST the species has gotten to extinction. Just how close, you ask?

How about this, amigo: it dropped the worldwide population down to just TWO THOUSAND PEOPLE.

Remember when we were talking about the Tambora Volcano a little earlier? Well, that wasn’t the first time Indonesia came close to killing us all…and nor was it the island’s most proficient attempt at omnicide, either.

The thing about Indonesia is that, for all intents and purposes, the entire nation is basically a volcano. Actually, the entire nation is like some sort of super-duper-mega-volcano, as it rests on this thing called a caldera, which is to the common volcano what a SCUD missile is to a water balloon.

When calderas as MASSIVE as the one at Lake Toba erupt, the result isn’t so much an eruption as it is the earth’s freaking core getting puked into the atmosphere. Keep in mind that calderas are the things that are pretty much responsible for forming most of the land mass in southeast Asia - so every time one of these things go off, it’s like the planet is cranking up a steamroller and preparing to pave over whatever’s in a 500 mile radius. . .and just for good measure, the things typically trigger earthquakes, tidal waves and send enough ash in the atmosphere to trigger overnight ice ages. So in other words, it’s like playing SimCity and hitting the tabs for all of the natural disasters at the same time.

Now, the Lake Toba incident is pretty controversial, because we don’t have too much physical proof that it transpired. This, primarily, is because the eruption killed damn near every living thing on the planet, not to mention that it occurred approximately 70,000 years ago…which was about 64,000 years before we had written accounts of history. Even so, a lot of scientists are pretty sure that it transpired, based on mitochondrial DNA, fossilized remains, and some rather telling geological data that says that something unfathomably massive happened pretty damn close to where Lake Toba is situated today.

At the time of the eruption, human beings were barely recognizable as we know them today, probably looking more like the genetic cross-pollination of hobbits and Monchhichis than Tom Brady and Roseanne Barr. As such, they were probably ill-prepared for a sudden, onset case of doomsday, and an overwhelming majority of the human population was killed off. And by majority, I don’t mean “half plus one”, I mean a good 99.99998 percent of the species.

You know how the Tambora eruption turned the planet into a refrigerator for a year? Well, the Lake Toba eruption disrupted the global climate not for a year, but for about a thousand, ushering in an ice millennium that sent many a species into extinction. . .and humanity survived, by just about the tiniest margin we can dare imagine.

According to the most popular version of the theory, the eruption dwindled the global human population to just 10,000 people - of which only about one fifth were capable of reproduction. That means that no matter who you are or where you’re reading this, your ancestry can be traced back to one of just one thousand pairs of great-to-the-21,000th-power grandparents. So yeah. . .there’s a pretty high likelihood that we’re all humping our genetic cousins at this point in time.

For all of our doom saying and prophesizing about geopolitical events bringing about the end of humanity, historically, our greatest threat comes not from the earth itself, but the unlit powder keg underneath it. You can broker armistice deals and engineer antibodies to fight viruses, but there really isn’t shit you can do to stop a caldera from erupting - nor is there really anything you can do to safeguard civilization from a mega-eruption, either. And although caldera activity of the sort hasn’t transpired on such a massive scale in recorded human history, there’s plenty of geological data out there that proves that ultra-eruptions really aren’t that uncommon of an event throughout pre-history. And then, there’s the data that says there’s increased geological activity going on throughout the Pacific Rim, which may or may not indicate that these dormant mega-volcanoes aren’t all that dead yet.

And the absolute most horrifying thing? The Lake Toba caldera is actually one of the smaller calderas on the planet. The largest super-volcano on the planet isn’t just active, it’s actually one of the most active calderas on Earth, with a history of mini-eruptions that have caused instantaneous climate shifts, not to mention the insta-death of untold indigenous people in the surrounding area. And the geological consensus is that, one of these days, it’s going to not only produce a 7 on the VEI scale, it’s likely to produce an eruption on par - if not even more destructive - than what Lake Toba did 70,000 years back. 

Oh, and one last thing: it isn’t in southeast Asia, but right here in the middle of the freaking United Statesas the most visited national park in the entire country.

But hey, what a great locale for a viewing party on 12-21-12, huh?