History is written by the victors, and the victors tend to leave out the blooper reel. That's why we're taught that important historical events were flawlessly executed by geniuses instead of what they often truly were: calamities built on a solid foundation of arguments, fuckups, and backbreaking levels of frustration. So let's sneak a rare peek behind the curtain, and maybe even feel a little bit smug over how ...
The reveal of the iPhone in 2007 was the 9/11 for tech nerds everywhere, in that they all remember where they were when it happened. With a weird black rectangle in his hands, Steve Jobs turned cellphones into magical supercomputers which mankind could use to watch porn on public transportation. But the iPhone that wowed millions with its revolutionary features? It didn't work.
When the iPhone was nearing completion, Jobs wanted nothing more than to show off his greatest achievement at Macworld '07, despite the phone being nowhere near ready to be showcased in its full glory. The prototypes that they had ready for the demo were buggy, glitchy monstrosities that consumed memory like a brain parasite and couldn't work for sustained periods without crashing. The iPhone team and Jobs practiced the launch presentation for five days straight, and there wasn't a single run-through during which the phones didn't drop calls, self-sabotage the internet connection, or flat-out die. The most dangerous place in 2007 wasn't in Iraq; it was the conference room where Jobs threatened to fuck a phone to death.
Eventually, the team figured out a solution: They could make the phone look like it worked, but only as long as certain actions were performed in a certain order, like a video game combo that unlocks you getting to read your emails. What followed was the painful, frustrating process of working out, step-by-step, an order of tasks -- the "golden path," they called it -- that Jobs could perform onstage which would both A) show the iPhone's capabilities and B) not cause it to spit fire and brimstone.
"What? Bullshit is a form of magic ..."
But the con artistry didn't end there. In order to make sure that the phone maintained a good signal connection throughout, they also had AT&T install a miniature cellphone tower in the conference center. Oh, and to be on the safe side, they also reprogrammed the phones to show a maxed-out signal bar at all times. It's not lying to your customers if you expect it to someday be true, right?
When presentation day rolled around, it went off without a hitch -- which you already know, because you're probably reading this on an iPhone. Jobs managed to dazzle the room, the iPhone prototypes seemed perfect, and the terrified engineers got blackout drunk to celebrate the fact that they'd wouldn't be hanged from the tallest tree in Silicon Valley.
The hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden remains one of the greatest paybacks in recent history. Even more impressive, it was a testament to the professionalism -- nay, genius -- of our armed forces. Ha, kidding! Rather than a team of military experts, the raid on Bin Laden looked more like it was planned by a ninth-grade sketch comedy troupe.
For starters, no one could definitively say that bin Laden was the one in the compound. It was clear from surveilling the joint that someone important was in there, but there was little else to go on. When President Obama asked his various advisors and agencies to estimate the likelihood that their man was in there, he got back answers ranging from 80 percent to 30 percent. One staffer even remarked that they had better intelligence that there were WMDs in Iraq. Yeah, it was that bad.
Because the worst-case scenario was some dead innocent Pakistanis and this is the American government we're talking about, they went ahead with planning the raid anyway. The joint chiefs provided Obama with several options for taking out the compound, most of which involved blowing it to hell. These were quickly disregarded, and ultimately they hit upon a plan to load the compound with soldiers like a life-sized G.I. Joe play set. They built a full replica of the compound and set the soldiers to work. But there was one teensy tiny snag: Because of time restraints, they couldn't build the tall brick wall around the compound, so instead they used a chain-link fence. What could be the harm in that, right?
Unlike a chain-link fence, a solid wall tends to trap hot air, which is exactly what Abbottabad's scorching temperatures were causing. So when one of the mission's transport helicopters tried to sneak over the wall, it was hit by an issue called "settling with power", causing it to quite un-stealthily crash. It was a small miracle that this didn't screw up the operation, but there was still plenty of time for that.
The Navy SEALs entered, killed ObL, and escorted his body (and sizable porn collection) into a helicopter and back to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. All that was left to do was confirm that they'd gotten the bastard -- a job that required them to check his DNA, run his ugly mug through facial recognition, and measure how tall he was. It was only when they attempted the last bit that they'd discovered they were missing a tape measure. "No matter," they thought. "We'll just have a six-foot-tall man lay down next to the body and guess." So much for military precision.
Upon hearing about this, Obama reputedly said, "We donated a $60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?" It's that kind of random incompetence that starts conspiracy theories, you know.
If you're wondering why the aliens haven't contacted us yet, it might be because we did not make a great first space impression. Tell us, would you be very eager to make contact with a species that had to break a frozen piss icicle off the side of their spacecraft? However, our literally out-of-this-world level of ineptitude started before we even got into space, because a shocking amount of what NASA does is guesswork.
To make sure we wouldn't turn space into one big floating graveyard, NASA spent a considerable amount of time designing and building the spacesuits that'd keep our astronauts alive. There was only one snag: In order to test the spacesuit properly, it had to be put inside an oxygen-free, depressurized environment. Considering that pesky oxygen tends to get everywhere on this planet, NASA wound up building a special chamber into which they could send an intern, lock the doors, suck the air out, and see how long it took for them to turn purple.
The unlucky so-and-so that NASA spent into the chamber was Jim LeBlanc, spacesuit technician and professional test subject. After the chamber was thoroughly de-aired, LeBlanc's only lifeline was a hose keeping his suit pressurized. While putting the suit through its paces, however, the hose detached, fully exposing LeBlanc to the vacuum of fakespace.
It took ten seconds for his body to go from 3.8 pounds per square inch to 0.1 -- an experience LeBlanc only remembers as feeling the saliva on his tongue start to bubble and boil under the sudden change in atmospheric conditions. For LeBlanc, it was over in seconds. In a vacuum, you lose consciousness after 15 seconds, you start experiencing permanent body and brain damage after 30, and after 90, people stop calling for an EMT and start writing letters to your parents.
Luckily for LeBlanc, it took someone only 25 seconds to force their way into the chamber and administer oxygen to him. Despite being so close to death, the worst side effect he felt was a sore ear. To this day, LeBlanc is the only person to have survived a total vacuum. We're not sure that he brags about it too often, however.
The most important part of a secret government project is that it's secret. Otherwise it's a plain old regular government project, which sounds boring. Case in point, the Manhattan Project. While the world's best scientists were working out how to build a city-flattening bomb out of pissed-off atoms, their greatest challenge was making sure the workers at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos kept their goddamn mouths shut.
Between September 1943 and late 1944, the Manhattan Project's security staff dealt with more than 1,500 leaks. Low-ranking employees running their mouths was a particularly bad problem. In one incident, a group of plant workers laid out their entire working day to a small-town doctor because they were worried about a weird rash. In two other cases, a young worker was cautioned after bragging to his brother that they were working on atomic bombs. Meanwhile, a secretary was shitcanned after writing a letter to her uncle talking about how the damned war wouldn't last very long after "the product" was released -- a letter which she then lost.
Accidentally losing things was another running theme in the logs of the investigations. In one instance, an engineer working on the project was traveling from New York to Oak Ridge when he accidentally lost a cache of classified engineering drawings in a phone booth. They were later found not by the project's security, but by some random member of the public who dropped by to hand them back. Of course, the engineer was "soundly reprimanded" and fired, which was still better than being kept on the payroll as the guy who has to stand on a big red bullseye in the middle of the desert and measure impact site radiation levels.
However, dumbass employees weren't the only ones accidentally endangering the project. Sometimes, when security services traced a leak back to its source, it turned out to be nothing but some civilians gabbing about atoms and getting things right. We can only imagine how happy it made the conspiracy nuts to have their homes invaded by federal agents confirming their every belief. Once, though, they tracked down an organization spreading the word of "the devastating energy contained in minute quantities of uranium," only to find out that it came from a Bible college pamphlet dissing science compared to "the power of God." We assume this is why the American military decided to confiscate the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones.
Before the internet, there was the Library of Alexandria. Packed with hundreds of thousands of scrolls, books, and texts, the library wasn't just the intellectual hub of the ancient world; it was book heaven. Unfortunately, the party was cut short in 642 CE, when the library was burnt to the ground by an army of anti-intellectuals who were angry that the building's contents went against their beliefs. But that's only half of the story. In truth, the Library of Alexandria fell because it was too expensive to keep upright.
Over the course of its life, the library was attacked several times, most notably during the religious riots of 391 and 415, and when Julius Caesar swung by in 48 BCE and tried to burn the place to the ground. But what doomed the place in the end was having its budget cut. Sometime in the second century, Emperor Marcus Aurelius wiped out the library's finances -- he cut off all sources of funding, slashed the stipends paid to the library's scholars which enabled them to live and study there, and expelled all foreign researchers. It's nice to see some traditions never really go away.
At the same time, the library too often became the site for major military actions and persecutions, making it only a desirable facility for the type of academics who liked dodging arrows on their way to work. With no money for upkeep and its reputation as damaged as its walls, many of the scholars moved out and the library's collection fell into disrepute. It was a small mercy, therefore, when Caliph Omar ordered the library burnt, putting it out of its misery in a blaze of glory. At least now book nerds everywhere can rest easy knowing that they didn't get the good stuff, because the good stuff was already long gone thanks to the infinitely more destructive power of bureaucracy.
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with a small army of volunteers, soldiers, and one Native American girl keeping them alive, set out on an amazing journey to map out the majority of what we lucky folk call America -- the important parts, at least. And you know what? They didn't do too badly, especially considering that the closest thing that they had to mechanized vehicles was a horse wearing a feedbag. In two years, the expedition marched from St Louis, Missouri to Fort Clatsop in Oregon, and back again -- a distance of over 7,000 miles.
Let's get this out of the way first: They ate their dogs. Being average hunters in unknown territory, it didn't take long for members of the expedition to start chowing down on their canine companions. Not even as a last resort, mind -- just when they got bored of eating dried salmon. Only Clark refused to eat the dogs. It's a low bar to set for your national heroes, not eating your own pets just because you don't like fish, but only half of Lewis and Clark managed to clear it.
Their business trip did come with some pleasure along the way, though. Alongside exploring the country and doing as much science as possible, the expedition's other mission was to establish links with any native populations that they came across. And boy, did they do that. The Corps of Dicks-overy tried to have sex with every local woman they encountered, with a respectable rate of success. Not that Lewis and Clark were particularly dashing gentleman explorers, but to their great fortune, plenty of Native American communities believed that sex was a great way of absorbing other cultures. And seeing as these underfed idiots were they only white meat for miles, many noble women performed a walk of shame in the hopes of figuring out this "rifle" business before it would come back to bite them in the ass.
All of this fun had its downsides, however. Within months, most of the men were diagnosed with venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. The good news was that the expedition had thought ahead and packed some medicine for precisely this scenario. The bad news was that the medicine was laced with mercury and caused terrible diarrhea.
And while curing VD with mercury poisoning didn't exactly help Lewis and Clark reach the Pacific any faster, it did make them real easy to track. All future historians had to do was follow the trail of innumerable latrine pits they dug along their route, handily marked with an easily detectable eau de mercury. You could not take a more historical dump if you ate an entire set of encyclopedias beforehand (which were also bound with mercury).
If Steve Jobs can rock a fake iPhone, then you sure as hell can. Trick your friends and family into thinking you're a functional adult!
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