Super-sized Sunday: KGB assassination, the "steely-eyed missile man", some computer comedy, the BFG 9000, groups of birds, some odd lifeforms, human echolocation, and the Outer Space Treaty

Today, I have quite a number of entries... don't really know why, except that I wrote down some cool stuff I saw on the History and Discovery Channels this weekend, and wanted to share. We will look at the dragon tree, lyrebird, barreleye, Georgi Markov, John Aaron, some funny computer codes, the biggest weapon in the Doom series, collective nouns for birds, the Outer Space Treaty, and humans who use sonar.

List of collective nouns for birds takes us way past the term "flock". It's fairly common biology trivia (at least, amongst non-ornithologists) is to whip one of these bad boys out and show off how smart you are, until someone better versed shows you up. For example, ravens and crows are well associated with death in mythology, so its kinda creepy (albeit appropriate) to call a group of them a "murder", through vultures are known as a "venue" normally and a "kettle" when circling. A bunch of chickens are called a "peep" (perhaps why they are associated with Easter beyond the egg tradition?), though it's a "brood" if it's just hens, which is probably better associated with the concept of offspring (and to a lesser extent, juvenile honeybees). A groups of cranes is called a "herd" (which puts in my mind an image of a bunch of the construction vehicles grazing in the plains), a "balding" of ducks, and a "parliament" of owls. A group of lyrebirds is known as a "musket".

Speaking of lyrebirds, they are a type of Australian songbird, well known for their amazing mimicry abilities. One individual bird would perform courtship shows that included the calls of 18 known bird species (and some others unidentified), and man-made sounds like a rock crusher, hydraulic ram, and automobile horns. I have a pet parrot, and she is mostly concerned with the sounds of the telephone ringing and saying "beep" when I tried to teach her the noise. Another cool animal is the barreleye, a type of deep-sea fish with a transparent skull. The green are the actual eyes, which are excellent at identifying prey silhouetted above it, and the transparent skull protects them from the stings of jellyfish-type organisms, whom they often steal food from. The last interesting life form is the dragon tree, one of the most unique species on the Yemeni island Socotra, which has no shortage of unique life. Aside from just looking cool, it's most famous for the red resin sap (known as dragon's blood), prized in ancient medicine and alchemy.

Georgi Markov was known as a Cold War defector that was assassinated by a very unique method. Having previously been critical of Communism in his books and plays, he left Bulgaria in 1969, and continued his criticism over Radio Free Europe. While living in London in 1978, he was murdered by Bulgarian secret police (CSS, the individual is thought to be Francesco Gullino) using a Ricin pellet injected from an umbrella in broad daylight on Waterloo Bridge on 7 September. Three days later, he died and was examined by Scotland Yard, who theorized that the tiny pellet was of KGB origin.

Does the term "SCE to Aux"  mean anything to you? How about "steely-eyed missile man"? Both are associated with John Aaron, a NASA flight controller who single-handedly saved the Apollo 12 mission and was credited with a critical role in the recovery of the Apollo 13 crew. As a member of mission control, he supervised the electrical, environmental, and communications systems onboard the spacecraft, and started work in early 1965 during the Gemini missions. When lightning struck the Apollo 12 launch and began feeding nonsensical telemetry data just after liftoff, the flight director nearly aborted the mission. However, Aaron recognized the data pattern and diagnosed it as an obscure malfunction of the equally obscure Signal Conditioning Electronics (SCE) system. When he recommended to switch it to auxiliary, his colleagues and astronaut Pete Conrad had no idea what he suggested, but Alan Bean located the switch and flipped it, restoring the system to normal, saving the flight, and earning him the highest of nicknames. During Apollo 13, he helped to develop the sequence that allowed the Command Module to power up just prior to reentry.

Working in an office environment means computers are everywhere, and that means that tech guys are indispensable. However, sometimes, even us geeks are stumped by obscure, irrelevant, or obsolete codes. PC LOAD LETTER is one of the few that have made it into pop culture, and while seemingly gibberish printer talk, is actually not as strange as it seems, if exceedingly non-intuitive. "PC" refers not to the computer, but to the paper cartridge/cassette, or in layman's terms, the paper tray. "Letter" is the most common type of paper in the Western Hemisphere, the standard 8½ x 11 inches. Simply put, the printer is telling the user that it's out of paper and wants you to load letter-size. Another printer error message seen in early Unix systems is "lp0 on fire" or "printer on fire", which is far less dire than it sounds. The code was generated when a printer (the primary one known as lp0) error was detected, but the device was still running. The reason it was so dramatized was that line printers of the 1970s could have paper coming into direct contact with parts moving at 1200 to 2400 RPM in the event of a jam, and it was assumed that the friction, aided by paper and ink dust and alcohol-based cleaning products, could start a fire if not attended to immediately. There has never been a documented case of fire like this, but the legacy remains. Halt and Catch Fire (HCF) is a code that was put in 1960's-era IBM manuals (along with gems like "Execute Operator") as a joke, but later found use in actual code as a test instruction to shut down the processor that often lingered undocumented in production machines. The dreaded killer poke was when an invalid value was mapped to a hardware register, which could cause hardware damage (even to the point of bricking it). In the late 70s, companies began introducing sanity testing to prevent damage like this.
What the fuck does THAT mean?

If you haven't gathered by now, one of my main passions is video games, and I'll always have a soft place in my heart for iD games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Thus, the BFG 9000 remains an fond icon of my childhood gaming days, before I realized that being a United States Marine wasn't quite like being a space marine. The biggest weapon in Doomguy's arsenal (why didn't they name him like they named B.J. Blazkowicz?), it epitomized "one shot kill" and of all that is awesome with sci-fi weaponry. Consistantly ranked near the top of lists of the best video game weapons, it is a single shot mass destruction device that fires large balls of green plasma and can kill simply with the coolness of its name (do I have to spell out the acronym?)...
The old-school is on the top, while the Doom 3 version is below.

Echolocation is used by many species of animals, most notably bats and dolphins, as a type of biological sonar. However, some humans are capable of it as well, detecting the reflections of sound waves as a means of locating (or even analyzing) objects around them. Typically, these humans are blind or otherwise visually disabled, and will emit these clicks as a way to improve their mobility. The axiom is that a disabled sense tends to heighten the others to compensate, but since both sight and hearing are similar in the way they analyze waves of energy, there may be a closer relation than that.

The title of the Outer Space Treaty is fairly intuitive as to its content, but in a nutshell: it forbids the militarization of space and the claiming of any celestial body as territory. Unlike the Moon Treaty and Space Preservation Treaty, it serves as an effective international space law (subsequent treaties would clarify rescue, the liability and registration of objects launched in space, nuclear testing, and the International Space Station). It also restricts the actions of non-signatories and non-government entities in space by requiring the permission and supervision of a state party. Most of the nations on Earth have signed it, including all of the space-faring states.
Green nations have signed and ratified the treaty, yellow have signed but not ratified.

Lastly, Winners Don't Use Drugs. If you've played an arcade game in the 1990s, then you know that FBI Director William S. Sessions used the FBI seal to scare you sober, as well as the ubiquitous anti-piracy warnings.

Today's bonus: I enjoy watching Law & Order, particularly SVU, but I can't help but laugh at how accurate this article from College Humor is. Happy reading!

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