Aloha `oe: Sheck Exley

Sheck Exley wrote the book on cave diving. Literally.

Photo of Sheck Exley in SCUBA gearSheck Exley (1949-1994) doing what he loved

If the title of his book Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival sounds dramatic, that’s because cave diving is dramatic. Imagine all the fun and danger of SCUBA diving, combined with all the fun and danger of cave exploration, except turned up to 11.

Irby Sheck Exley, Jr. (yes, that was his real name, on his birth certificate) was born in Jacksonville, Florida on April 1, 1949, son of a Volkswagen dealer. His younger brother drowned at age 17; perhaps that is what sparked his desire to make cave diving safer for others, but I don’t want to read too much into other people’s motivations. The important thing is that he did care deeply about making cave diving safe for others. 

The one thing you must understand about cave diving is that it is completely insane. SCUBA diving is dangerous in itself – carrying your own air into a place where you would normally die is an obvious danger, but even if you do everything right you could still die of nitrogen narcosis.

Cave diving adds a new set of dangers. Sunlight can pass through hundreds of feet of open water, but not through rock, so it’s DARK in there, bring your own light. Some passageways are no bigger than you are, so you can go in only to get stuck on the way out. Swimming can stir up mud and silt, reducing visibility to near zero. And with rock above, around, and below, it’s easy to lose sight of where you are and where you are going. There are hundreds of ways to die, and if science has taught us one thing, it’s that nature doesn’t care whether you live or die.

The Grass Mud Horse just learned what cave diving is

Even with all these dangers, thousands of people enjoy cave diving. I’m not one of them, and I have no interest in becoming one, but I can definitely see the appeal. I have a great admiration for people who push themselves to the absolute limit of human ability, even in the most unexpected ways. Especially in the most unexpected ways.

And for people who love cave diving, there is no better place in the world than Sheck Exley’s northern Florida. There are only a few places in the world with both the right rock type and the heavy rains required to create karst topography, home of the most elaborate cave systems – Slovenia, southern Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula – but northern Florida is unique even among these places because of its high water table. There are no above-ground cave systems like Postojna or Tham Luang there; all of Florida’s cave systems are underwater, with entrances at springs and sinkholes.

Even though I’ve never been cave diving – and the thought of it terrifies me – I have some experience with cave divers. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of camping at Florida’s Ginnie Springs,  one of the most famous cave diving destinations in Florida, and thus in the whole world. That means I almost certainly saw Sheck Exley before his death in 1994, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Ginnie Springs, Florida

Exley took a job as a math teacher at Suwanee High School in Live Oak, Florida, so he could live close to his beloved springs. His list of SCUBA diving records, in both open water and cave diving, stretches farther than the deepest cave. He was the first person in the world to log 1,000 cave dives – all before he turned 24. He has had the deepest penetration of numerous caves in Florida and elsewhere. He was the first person in the world to dive to a depth of 800 feet (240 meters), a grueling dive that required more than 13 hours of gradual post-dive decompression. 

But without a doubt, his greatest contribution to the sport of cave diving was his obsession with doing it safely. His book is now required reading for many cave diving certifications – meaning that aspiring divers can’t legally enter their first cave until they know how to do it like Exley did. He also helped popularize the use of the “Octopus,” a secondary diving regulator so that your buddy can breathe from your tank if theirs runs out.

Unfortunately, even for a man who literally wrote the book on safe cave diving, cave diving is still a dangerous sport, and ultimately it took Sheck Exley. On August 6, 1994, Exley died in Mexico’s Zacatón Sinkhole while trying to become the first person to descend to 1,000 feet (300 meters) in freshwater. His cause of death is uncertain, but likely due to the effects of breathing a mix of helium gas under high pressure – effects which are poorly-understood even 24 years later, simply because so few people have ever tried.

Zacatón Cenote, Mexico

But there is one detail of his death that is both fitting and heartbreaking. When he didn’t come up at the scheduled time, his friends in the surface support crew knew he was gone – but they never expected what they were about to see when they pulled up the air hose. With his literal dying breath, Exley had wrapped himself firmly in the air hose, saving his friends from a risky mission to recover his body. But that’s who he was: right up until the end, finding ways to keep everyone safe.

Sheck Exley may be dead, but there are literally hundreds of people alive today because of him.

Aloha `oe, Sheck.

When is an island not an island?

Today’s Google Earth find is extra-weird. This is the Japanese outlying island of Okinotorishima (沖ノ鳥, which means Distant Bird Island). Use the map controls below to navigate. Zoom out to see how far away it is from everything. Zoom in to see the island.

Wait, where’s the island?

The white ellipse is not the island – those are waves crashing over the surrounding coral reefs, which are just barely submerged. The green patches are not the island – those are formerly parts of the island that have now sunk beneath the waves.

A view from an airplane of the island of Okinotorishima, which is underwater except for some concrete pillarsTotally an ISLAND! Right, guys? Guys?

The rectangular building is not the island – it’s a Japanese scientific research station and military radar installation, held up by a giant concrete pillar drilled into the shallow water below. The nearby circular features are support structures.

Nevertheless, the Japanese government insists that this is totally an island, and it’s totally part of the glorious nation of Japan.

Of course, there used to be an island here. Okinotorishima was one of the few places in the world where the world-spanning underwater mountain range system known as the mid-ocean ridges stuck up above the water. In the 1980s, the dry-land area of the island measured only nine square meters. But between the natural subsistence of the Pacific Plate and the artificial sea level rise caused by global warming, Okinotorishima has now slipped beneath the waves.

You might wonder why Japan is so interested in maintaining its claim on an almost-island hundreds of miles away from anything. The answer lies not with the island itself, but with the waters surrounding it.

International Maritime Law defines an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) offshore everywhere, a 200-kilometer (120 mile) zone in which only the onshore country can operate. This law makes perfect sense in most of the world – the U.S. wouldn’t want an Icelandic whaling vessel to shoot harpoons across Miami Beach, or a Chinese warship to sail right up to the mouth of the Hudson River just to say “STILL IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS! NOT TOUCHING YOU! HAHAHAHA!” Islands count too.

So if the Japanese can convince the world that Okinotorishima is totally an island, they can maintain exclusive access to a 200-km circle around the island. That’s 125,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) of prime South Pacific fishing territory, with the potential for undiscovered oil deposits underneath. The map below shows that circle, which is also in a strategically important area between the Philippines and Taiwan.

A 200-km circle drawn around OkinotorishimaThe yellow circle shows Japan’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Okinotorishima. Click for a larger image.

But this claim is valid only as long as they can justify that there is an island, even at high tide. Every few years, the Japanese Navy must deploy to Okinotorishima to extend the concrete pillars and make sure the research station stays above water.

Yes, this is ridiculous.

And yes, your country would do exactly the same thing.

(Photo: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kanto Regional Development Bureau Keihin River Office)

Except They Weren’t: The Grass Mud Horse

A photo of an alpaca standing next to a man in Bolivia
The Grass Mud Horse is its natural habitat. Except it isn’t.
Source: Flickr user Patrick Furlong via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia is banned in the People’s Republic of China. You can imagine what the country’s notoriously repressive and information-controlling  government might think of a “free encyclopedia anyone can edit.”

Instead, China offers Baidu Baike, an editable encyclopedia site that is like Wikipedia, except that all entries are reviewed and approved by one of China’s many, many full-time Internet censors. In other words, not like Wikipedia at all.

You won’t find a Baidu Baike article on 六四事件 (the “June Fourth Incident,” their name for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests), and the article on 民主 (Democracy) is underwhelming. But these curious omissions notwithstanding, Baidu Baike has more than 15 million articles covering all aspects of life in the People’s Republic of China.

In early 2009, a series of new articles appeared called the Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures (百度十大神兽), profiling some of the legendary creatures of Chinese folklore. The most famous of these was the famous grass mud horse, one of the most beloved creatures of ancient mythology.

Except it wasn’t – the whole thing was an adolescent joke.

Chinese is a a tonal language, in which words are built up from simple components and vocally distinguished by the relative pitch of your voice. Thus the opportunity for puns are endless – and grass mud horse (草泥马, pronounced “Cǎo Ní Mǎ,” which sounds very similar to the Chinese words for “f*ck your mother” (not providing the translation so I don’t get down-ranked by search engines that know Chinese).

The Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures articles didn’t last long. Although they were perhaps mildly amused, the authorities were Not Impressed, and took down each article soon after it appeared, with little fanfare – and, as far as I can tell, no repercussions for the anonymous editors who posted them. But sometimes, a thing on the Internet becomes A THING ON THE INTERNET, and the 10 mythical creatures became such a thing. And none was a greater THING than the grass mud horse. It’s not immediately obvious how to depict an imaginary pun-based animal, but the Internet quickly decided that the grass mud horse looked like an alpaca.

A crab wearing three wristwatches
The river crab reminds you to promote a harmonious society

As the grass mud horse became more and more popular, in One Of Those Bizarre Things That Happens Sometimes, it quickly took on an additional significance: as the unofficial mascot of the fight against internet censorship in China. It soon acquired an elaborate pun-based mythology: the only natural enemy of the grass mud horse is the river crab (河蟹, héxiè), whose name sounds like the Chinese government’s “harmonious society” policy, of which Internet censorship is a part. The river crab is usually depicted as “wearing three wristwatches” (帶三個錶, dài sān ge biǎo), which sounds like the “Three Represents” interpretation of communism promoted by former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. It all came together in the Song of the Grass Mud Horse video, widely viewed on YouTube – except in China, which bans YouTube. Watch it below, with English subtitles:

Eventually, the censors caught on and banned the grass mud horse too. But it was fun while it lasted, and it has lived on as a symbol of the Chinese resistance. Sadly, that resistance has been powerless to stop censorship, particularly with the government’s new social credit system. But it was fun while it lasted. Because:

If your friend sent you a photo of an alpaca, at least you knew you weren’t alone.

We interrupt this tornado warning for a football game

Photo of a tornado
Not a football game (click for a larger version)
Image from Wikimedia Commons user Justin1569
Happy Thanksgiving! To my many friends in the United States, I hope you had a wonderful holiday full of family, friends, food, and – for many of us, football.

It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of (American) football in the southern United States. Pro football is king on Thanksgiving Day itself, of course, but late November is when the college football season is reaching peak excitement. I’ve written here before about growing up as a college football fan, in a city without an NFL team. But as big as the college game was in Orlando, fans there don’t have the fanaticism of a football state like Alabama – the topic of today’s post.

On the night of December 2, 1983, more than nine inches of rain fell on Alabama. Severe thunderstorms were in the forecast again the next day, but no amount of rain could stop the traditional “Iron Bowl” rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University. The teams were meeting on Saturday, December 3rd, for the 36th consecutive year at the neutral site of Legion Field in Birmingham, about halfway between the two schools.

Alabama had dominated the rivalry throughout the 1970s, winning nine straight games, but Auburn had finally won one the previous year. Led by sophomore running back (and future two-sport star) Bo Jackson, Auburn had a record of 9-1 and was ranked number 3 in the country, while Alabama was 7-3 and ranked number 19. The game was being televised nationwide on ABC, called by the legendary Keith Jackson along with former Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, and shown in Birmingham on the local ABC affiliate.

The sun was shining at kickoff, but the weather took a rapid turn for the worse. Tornadoes are fairly not as common in Alabama as they are in the Great Plains, but they do happen – and as the afternoon wore on and the air pressure dropped, conditions started to look perfect for a tornado to form. Late in the third quarter with Alabama leading 20-16, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning for north-central Alabama, including Birmingham. The local ABC affiliate, superimposed a tornado warning on the national broadcast signal, and meteorologist Mary Brown prepared to read the NWS warning.

But – this is the American South, where even the meteorologists are football fans. And from this perfect storm (lol #seewhatididthere) of weather football arose one of the great moments of unintentional comedy ever to air on American televisions. Click the video below to watch the hilarity unfold:

Auburn held on to win 23-20. There was no Internet in 1983, so this never became a meme, but a tradition was born all the same.

We interrupt this tornado warning for a football game!

Read more about how weather impacted this game at the Alabama Weather Blog.

Repeal and Replace or Circumvent?: Comparative Uses of the Presidential

Approximately a photo of Mac: dude with a mustache and bushy sideburns
Not actually Mac

Guest Post!
One of the joys of being alive is having smart, curious friends to talk with – or to write guest posts for your blog. I’d love to see more of these, especially from friends with perspectives and opinions different from my own – email me your ideas!

Today it’s awesome friend Mac writing with a cool little study on how the last four U.S. Presidents have used their power to write executive orders. Enjoy!

Trump is widely known for his criticisms of Obama’s use of executive orders to circumvent congress and the political process.

Why is @BarackObama currently issuing executive orders that are major power grabs at authority? This is the latest

However, since Trump became president he has frequently used executive orders as a way of getting things done. For an explanation of and historical primer on executive orders, check out this JSTOR daily article. True policy and history nerds, read on. In the first year of his presidency, he was on pace to use double the number of executive orders that President Obama had used. In fact, Obama used the executive order less than any president since Cleveland. So why has Trump, once a critic of the executive order, suddenly begun using it to pass legislation?

One explanation for this could be that he is simply using executive orders to erase the bad policy of his much maligned (on the political right) predecessor, “Mr. Trump…worked to deregulate industries and dismantle Obama-era programs through executive order.” And certainly, examples of this abound, highlighted by news media and Trump’s own promises of undoing Obama’s work. But how common is this? How often did past presidents use executive orders to revoke legislation of their predecessors? And taking this into account, if Trump is really only using executive orders to repeal his predecessors’ legislation, how often is he using it to circumvent the regular legislative process?

Luckily for us, there’s some data to dig into. Enter the Federal Register. An office of the National Archives and Records Administration, the Federal Register helps citizens and policy wonks alike understand current proposed and passed legislation covering everything from marine safety to administrative practice and procedure to government procurement and to our friend, the executive order.

Listing documents back to 1994, the Federal Register lets anyone download all executive orders from almost all of Bill Clinton’s presidency to the current administration. As part of the dataset, they include disposition notes that contain helpful information on whether the executive order revokes, amends, or supersedes any other executive orders with relevant dates. From here, we can further analyze which executive orders were rolling back previous legislation that was viewed as outdated or bad policy, and which were used to fully circumvent the legislative process. Below is that breakdown.

Presidential Use of Executive Orders and Revocations

President # of EOs Revocations of previous EOs Revocations as % of EOs Months in Office Average EOs – revocations per month
Trump 86 18 21% 21 3.24
Obama 276 60 22% 96 2.25
Bush 291 79 27% 96 2.21
Clinton* 274 66 24% 84 2.47
*Clinton’s executive orders are circa 1994, as far back as the Federal Register tracks them.

We can see here that not only does Trump have the highest number of executive orders per month of being president compared to his three predecessors, but he actually has the lowest number of revocations as a percent of total executive orders issued. So, not only is Trump issuing a lot of executive orders, but he, more than his three predecessors, is doing so mostly to circumvent the legislative process, not to revoke Obama’s, or any other presidents’, own executive orders.

11:11/11+100: The Unluckiest Country

When the sun rose on July 1, 1916, the First Newfoundland Regiment prepared for a glorious battle.

When the sun set, 0.1 percent of the entire population of Newfoundland was dead.

Photo of 22 soldiers in dress uniforms
Part of the First Newfoundland Regiment before the Battle of the Somme
Courtesy of the Rooms of the Provincial Archives Division (NA 3847), St. Johns, NL

In between was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest days in human history.

On Monday, I talked about how the petty feuds and drama of just two families spun out of control into a World War. The problem was that the families were deeply linked with their countries, so King George’s problems and Britain’s problems were one and the same. It was the inevitable consequence of associating a leader with a country – and it should worry us today as non-monarch leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro try to convince voters to link their identities with those of nations like the United States and Brazil.

Back in 1914 Europe, though, these monarchs weren’t just leaders of their own countries, they were absolute rulers of world-spanning empires. And so George V’s problems were not just Britain’s problems, they were the problems of the entire British empire. Even far-flung former colonies like Canada and Australia sent troops. Each corner of the British Empire wanted do its part, even the tiny Dominion of Newfoundland.

This is Newfoundland
(click “View larger map” to explore in a new window)

Then as now, Newfoundland consisted of two disconnected pieces: an island (also called Newfoundland) at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, and a stretch of rugged coastline to the north, called Labrador. When Europeans first found North America, 400 years before Columbus, they found Labrador. The Vikings didn’t stay, but European fishing crews soon discovered the island, and in 1583 it became a British colony, thus part of the British Empire. When the rest of the nearby colonies became independent(-ish) in 1867 and formed the new country of Canada, Newfoundland decided to remain a full British colony.  

By 1914, Newfoundland was one of the more far-flung outposts of King George’s Empire. Its population of 240,000 – smaller than the modern population of Buffalo, New York – supported itself mostly by fishing.

Newfoundland had attained some self-governance, but still fell under the British Armed Forces. And like everywhere in the British Empire, everyone was excited for King George’s War. The Dominion’s government put out a call to raise a local regiment for the British Army. A popular song of the day (popular throughout the Empire, not specific to Newfoundland) encouraged young men to sign up for the fun. It went like this (not ironically):

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
and smile, smile, smile!

Hundreds of young men joined the Newfoundland Regiment the first day. When soldiers stepped onto their ships to go to training in England, it must have felt like they were off to summer camp. Eventually, nearly 12,000 Newfoundlanders sailed off to Europe to fight – more than a third of the service-eligible male population. 

When they arrived, they found trench warfare: dig a trench, then live in it for months in all weather without a change of shoes. When it’s your turn to shoot, peek out over the top of the trench with your rifle. When it’s your turn to dig, advance your army six inches a day. Know that the enemy is doing the same a few hundred feet away. This went on, day after day, for years. But the worst was yet to come.

Seventeen soldiers in dirty clothes standing in a trench only a little taller than they areWhat happens in the trench stays in the trench.
Day after day until it kills you.

Rifle fire from the trenches was supported by artillery behind the front lines, aiming shells at the enemy trenches. But there was no Google Maps back then, and even airplanes were new, dangerous to fly, and well within the shoot-down range of enemy artillery. So often “aiming shells at the enemy trenches” meant “let’s take our best guess and see what happens.” Once the commanding officers – safe in their tents behind even the artillery – decided that the bombardment and rifling had worn down the enemy enough, they would order the soldiers to climb out of the trenches, run through gunfire across “no-man’s land,” jump into the enemy trenches, and shoot, stab, or punch them to death.

If this seems like a questionable battle plan, know that it was selected because the Allied commanders thought that the enlisted men were too dumb to do anything else.

Along the front lines near the Somme River in Northern France, the battle plan for July 1, 1916 was the same as ever – full infantry charge to try to encircle the German line. As luck would have it, in an incredible statistical improbability, the exact center of the attack would come from the spot occupied by the First Newfoundland Regiment.

The Newfoundlanders knew that they were the heart of the plan, and that the plan would be risky, but hopefully also glorious. One wrote in his diary on June 20th:

“Everyone seems so cool about it all, quietly preparing for what is going to be the greatest attack in the history of the world.”

Lieutenant Owen Steele, First Newfoundland RegimentThe battle began at 7:20 AM with a diversion, when the Allies set off an enormous bomb on a ridge a few hundred yards away. The generals had debated whether to start the infantry attack immediately, or whether to wait an hour. They compromised at 10 minutes, which was the worst possible choice: the bomb was like a giant flashing neon “we’re going to attack now” sign, and ten minutes is enough time to set up and aim all your machine guns.

At 8:45 AM, 780 men the First Newfoundland Regiment leaped out of their trenches to join the ongoing battle. No one was there to photograph them, but this still from a contemporary film re-enactment shows what it must have looked like:

Soldiers in helmets with bayonetted rifles climb up the wall of their trenchClick on the photo to see it in the archives of the British Imperial War Museum

They crossed into No Man’s Land and ran across, about the length of a football field – but miscommunicated orders meant that the unit that was supposed to back them up never showed. The few who survived the run through enemy gunfire then discovered, to their horror, that two weeks of artillery bombing had completely missed the barbed wire protecting the German lines. They had nowhere to go.

The First Newfoundland Regiment on July 2, 1916 Dead: 324 (42%), Wounded: 388 (50%), Remaining 68 (9%)
Because I can’t resist a data visualization:
This chart shows the regiment the next day

The following morning, the brigade commanders held roll call, because all of the regiment’s officers had been killed in the battle. Only 68 enlisted men answered roll. Of the 780 members of the First Newfoundland Regiment, 388 had been wounded, and 324 killed. Remember that the population of Newfoundland was only 240,000.

This video, produced by the provincial heritage trust, tells the full story of the battle (length 11:17, click to play):

The First Newfoundland Regiment remained active on paper, and in fact it’s still around today as a unit of the Canadian Army, but the survivors were absorbed into other units. The war went on for another 2 1/2 years.

News of the tragedy reached home and devastated the country. Had history continued its prewar course, Newfoundland probably would have eventually achieved independence – but suddenly one out of every 800 Newfoundlanders was dead in a single day.

The country now had too few young men to do the hard manual labor of fishing and shipping required to sustain its economy. The survivors (including many people who served in regiments other than the First) suffered from a variety of health problems, including “shell shock,” which now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their military pensions, along with the reduction in work force, bankrupted the country. In 1949, Newfoundlanders voted to join Canada, and were welcomed as Canada’s tenth province.

Newfoundland maintains a proud regional identity, its citizens have represented Canada well in Important Canadian Things. Newfoundland ended up doing well, but there is no way to know what would have happened otherwise. Without question, nowhere else in the world suffered such great loss in such a short time.

Newfoundland will never forget World War One, and neither should you.