Saturday, January 29, 2011

It Came From Craftsbury

Holy Saint Martha! As impossible as it may seem, January is gone forever and it's time once again for another long over-due installment of our world famous Monster of the Month series. Today, we thought that we'd keep it local and focus on a creature that's straight out of the Green Mountain State. Just as Florida has the Skunk Ape, just as Illinois has the Mad Gasser, just as Idaho has whatever monster Idaho presumably has (possibly potato based) too must Vermont have a monster to call its own. However, since most everyone is familar with the lake dwelling Champ, we decided to showcase another unnatural beast. Submitted for your approval: the bloodthirsty Goonyak!

While there are a couple variations on the story of Goonyak, they all date back to 1976, and seem to have originated from the Craftsbury region. The physical description remains consistant, though. Goonyak stands out in the crowd of shaggy Bigfoot-types thanks to his sheer size and predatory ferocity. It was said to be eight feet tall, strong enough to rip barn doors from their hinges, and posessed six inch claws which it used to skin its prey. In one version of the story, Goonyak is killed by a farmer, but only after taking ten shots to the chest. In another version, it's a game warden who manages to slay the monster. Afterwards, pathologists at UVM dissect the enormous corpse in some clandestine laboratory. No one can say what terrifying secrets spilled forth from Goonyak's innards.

In researching the beast, Vermont author Joe Citro found no evidence to support the tall tale. Both the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and UVM have denied Goonyak ever existed, but we like to think that UVM President Daniel Fogel keeps the remains inside a secret vault and (in between budget reviews and meetings with the alumni association) stares at the clawed hulk in mute horror.

But don't take my word for it!
You can read about it in a book.
Or you can read about it in this book.
Or, better still, read about it in both books. They're both excellent.

Wreck. Rebuild. Repeat.

Seventy thousand people come to Disaster City every year, but they never stay for long. The place is strewn with burnt and broken furniture, crushed cars, and scattered garbage. Ruined children's toys can be seen in particularly ghastly areas, and elsewhere you might catch a glimpse of a severed limb. Mercifully, Disaster City is not a proper city at all, but a massive emergency simulator that stretches across 120 acres. The brainchild of George Bennett, the dean of engineering at the colossal Texas A&M University, Disaster City is intended to train firefighters and rescue workers from around the world and therefore must be as convincing as possible.

Bennett first conceived the idea for the City in 1998, after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. The tragedy convinced Bennett of the importance of a training ground where people could learn to navigate rubble and rescue survivors as quickly as possible. Disaster City features mock-ups of collapsed malls, factories, office buildings, parking garages, and even a ship. Each day, volunteers are given realistic make-up "wounds" and head to the City to take part in the training exercises. Mannequins are used in the place of corpses. Visiting firefighters will scour the debris for the concealed volunteers and learn how to operate the equipment necessary to free them.

Humans aren't the only ones that receive training either. Various organizations, including the Department of Engineering at Texas A&M, have used Disaster City to test experimental robots intended to venture into areas too dangerous for rescue workers. Rescue dogs are also brought to the City to sniff out "survivors."

The entire site cost $7.7 million and it provides invaluable experience to people from all over the globe, so that when tragedy strikes, they will be well prepared to help save lives. Compare this cost to $237 million budget of Avatar and contemplate the bizarre priorities of America.

Would you like to know more?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

And now, a word from Commander Ace Hunter

Well? Are you?

Samurai of the Sea

The 1185 naval Battle of Dan-no-ura did not end well for the Heike of Japan. One of their generals had defected to the side of the rival Minamoto clan, and arrows were raining down on their ships. Soon, the Heike's child-emperor Antoku (only six years old at the time) was left defenseless as his guardian samurai hurled themselves into the sea, preferring death to defeat. Little Antoku was slain with his grandmother, and the Minamoto ultimately won the Genpei War and became the ruling shogunate of all of Japan, beginning a period of military rule that lasted several hundred years.

This historical battle produced some mighty interesting folklore. As the legends goes, for allowing their clan to be destroyed, the spirits of the Heike samurai were doomed to wander the ocean floor in the form of crabs. Even in their new crustacean forms, they still bore the furrowed brow and snarl that typifies any good samurai. Upon finding these many-legged warrior ghosts in their nets, fishermen would throw them back into the sea lest they interfered with the world of the supernatural.

Nowadays, the Heikegani are a fairly common variety of crab in the waters of Japan. They are immediately recognizable thanks to their distinctive bumpy carapace. Human beings are psychologically hardwired to recognize facial patterns (just try looking at an electrical outlet and avoid seeing a panicked expression) and it's easy to see a grimace on the backs of these crabs. It is thought that the Heikegani were given their unusual shells thanks to generations of artificial selection. The superstitious fishermen of antiquity, tossing back those crabs that appeared to have samurai faces while eating the crabs that appeared normal, unknowing bred a new species. Thanks to the enduring legend surrounding the Battle of Dan-no-ura, the Heikegani have had a lasting cultural influence; they have served as the inspiration for an acclaimed 1911 shin kabuki play and even appeared in a 1997 issue of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series as enemies of the eponymous samurai rabbit.

Would you like to know more?
-Watch Carl Sagan talk about Heikegani in this educational video
-Read this article by Joel W. Martin