The self-proclaimed First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang is one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Under his leadership, massive reforms to the legal and economic systems took place – and, not incidentally, numerous scholars and writers were outlawed or executed, and their books burned. He also decreed vast infrastructure projects, including a massive program of road-building, and the creation of the Great Wall of China.
Huang was not responsible for the entire wall, but rather, for the construction of links between pre-existing sections and extending the ends of the them. The project was a long one, and would be completed for centuries, but it sure kept thousands of peasants to busy to rebel for generations at a time, and may have even served some defensive purpose (which is usually considered to be the reason for its construction).
Widely seen as the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” (in full, “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”) remains a classic even today. It is a deconstruction and an affectionate parody of the chivalric romances that had dominated fiction in Europe for several centuries prior to its publication. The plot of the book concerns a deluded man named Alonso Quijano, whose head has been addled by reading too many chivalric romances. Adopting the name Don Quixote, he sets out to perform what he considers appropriately knightly endeavours.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t go along with his delusions, and this conflict is the origin of most of the book’s famous comedy. Famously, Quixote attempts to battle windmills, believing them to be giants – from whence the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ originates. He is also the origin of the word quixotic. To say that Quixote – the character and the book – cast a long, long shadow over Western literature is to understate the case: this one book is more influential than all but the most important and well-known of Shakespeare’s plays, for example.
“Triumph of the Will” (or in German, “Triumph des Willens”) is the best known film of Leni Riefenstahl. It is a blatant propaganda piece that covers the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg, featuring footage of the massive crowds who attended the rally and speeches given by Hitler himself.
Its dubious political associations aside, “Triumph of the Will” is today recognized as a classic of twentieth century cinema, one of the most frequently homaged and parodied works in the cinematic canon, featuring innovations in camera and music use for feature films. Leni Riefenstahl is today acclaimed as a genius of cinematic art, with horribly bad taste in friends.
To be fair, it wasn’t that much of a cover-up on the part of the company. The deed of sale for the site, sold by Hooker Chemicals to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for $1 does specifically mention the presence of the toxic waste, mostly so that the company’s legal liability for the 21,000 tons of chemicals including caustics, alkalines, fatty acids and chlorinated hydrocarbons – residue and waste from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, solvents for rubber and synthetic resins – could be limited. The company specifically enjoins against building on the site, because they had a very good idea of how dangerous these chemicals were.
The school board went ahead and built primary schools on the area, and later houses were built as well. Presumably, no members of that school board lived in the area or sent their children to school there. In 1976, journalists began investigating rumours regarding the abnormally high rates of birth defects and diseases in the area – leading to a poorly kept secret becoming front page news across America.
The legendary documentary that began the whole “lemmings commit suicide” myth, White Wilderness was 72 minutes of the Disney Corporation making nature more interesting (for a given value of ‘interesting’) in another ‘True Life Adventure’. The scene of the lemmings jumping into the ocean has been at the centre of a number of controversies over the years – it’s actually a river, not the ocean; the filmakers built an apparatus to push the lemmings along; and, of course, lemmings are no more suicidal than any other species.
To be fair, at no point does the narration state that the lemmings are deliberately committing suicide, but nonetheless, this is the starting point of that urban legend.
While there had been rumours about payola in the music industry for years, the practice became more prevalent in the 1950s as radio overtook jukeboxes as the primary way music was listened to. In 1959, the US Senate began to investigate these claims, dragging the whole sordid practice of pay for play into the light. DJs testified to taking payments of as much as $22,000 to play songs, and careers were ruined and reputations tarnished.
In an effort to combat the public reaction to the scandal, the National Association of Broadcasters announced heavy fines for DJs caught accepting such bribes. Later, they restructured the industry to make programme directors at each station instead responsible for deciding what to play – a decision that actually made payola easier for the record labels. It is widely believed that the practice of payola continues to this day with little change other than that the DJs no longer see a dime from it.
Like most other cities the world over, Los Angeles moved away from the inflexibility of light rail public transportation after the Second World War. An increasing emphasis on car ownership gripped the West, leading to booms in freeway construction, service station openings and closures of all sorts of rail lines, light and heavy. Most of the light rail lines of Los Angeles were replaced by bus routes – often, the lines were purchased by bus companies with the express intention of doing so.
The last of the Red Cars – those operated by the Pacific Electric company – ran on the Los Angeles to Long Beach line until April 9, 1961. The last of the Yellow Cars ran almost two years longer, before the last service on the J, P, R, S and V routes on March 30. All of these were replaced by bus lines on March 31, 1963. It was the end of an era.
When it was first created, the Neutron Bomb was hailed as a triumph of efficiency and progress. In theory, it would kill the population of its affected area, while leaving the buildings standing. The bomb would have a lesser degree of heat and concussive force than an ordinary nuclear bomb, but a greatly increased amount of radiation.
The bomb was never used in a combat situation, and its production has been largely discontinued. The United States, the Soviet Union, China and France all had developed neutron bombs, but no country is currently known to deploy them.
Really, what needs to be said?
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took off from the Kennedy Space Center, near Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 16. Four days later, the lunar landing module, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin, landed on the Moon. They were supposed to take a sleep break, but Armstrong was impatient to walk on the moon – and who could blame him?
It was July 21 (UTC) by the time they began the EVA. They stayed on the lunar surface for about 150 minutes (15 minutes longer than was originally a plan). During this time, the two spoke to President Nixon in the White House, planted an American flag on the Moon, performed a number of scientific experiments and took numerous photographs, all of them now iconic images.
Despite what you may have heard, it is highly unlikely that the landings were faked. I do not believe that they were, and neither does Buzz Aldrin.
The Khmer Rouge were a Communist movement allied to the Viet Cong. When the United States military pulled out of Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, they left a power vacuum that their opponents were quick to exploit. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, championed a particularly oppressive form of dictatorship that called for a return to medieval technology and an abandonment of urbanisation.
With the fall of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. All the citizens of Cambodia were forced to leave the cities, to practice subsistence agriculture in the rural areas. The regime was infamous for its cruelty and brutality, to say nothing of its near genocidal policies. It is estimated that in the four years of their reign, as many as two million people were killed, either in concentration camps, summary executions or simple starvation. In fact, during the years of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia became known as the Killing Fields – more than 20,000 separate mass graves were created in these years.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a decisive turn against Western influences, and a new, theocratic constitution that effectively made Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dictator for life as part of a return to Islamic values. Among these was the banning of almost all Western culture, including most modern music. (With the exception of some music by Queen – the late great Freddie Mercury was of Persian descent, after all.)
Khomeini is gone now, but the bans remain in place.
The Bhopal disaster (also referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy) is the worst industrial catastrophe in the history of the world.
It occurred on the night of December 2–3, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A number of chemicals – most notably methyl isocyanate gas – leaked out of the plant, and literally hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to it. Many of them were killed.
Estimates vary on the death toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259 and the government of Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release subsequently. Other governmental agencies estimated 3,000, 8,000 and even 15,000 deaths from diseases and injuries resulting from the disaster. In 2006, a government affidavit gave a figure 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.
Union Carbide continues its business today, its safety standards not much improved from 1984.
In the 1980s, the two most insecure men in the world were Ronald Reagan and Muammar Qaddafi, both of whom were aging wannabe-alpha males whose greatest fear was being thought weak. Unfortunately, one of them was the US President and the other was the dictator of Libya. So the clash of egos played out in civilian lives lost to terrorism and military lives lost to reprisal.
In 1986, Libyan agents bombed a nightclub in West Germany on April 5, killing three people (one of them a US serviceman) and injuring 229 more. Ten days later, the US sent a force of 45 jets to raid a range of military targets in Libya. The raid was considered a major success, destroying barracks, aircraft and air defences, and killing 45 soldiers and 15-30 civilians. Two members of the attacking force were also killed.
Reagan celebrated like he was personally responsible for the success of the mission; Qaddafi fumed and escalated his support of anti-US terrorism; most of the world condemned both leaders for their actions and the actions they ordered.