6 Bizarrely Important Massive Operations (Hidden Around You)
Does it feel like the world is broken? Like all of society is run by incompetent morons? Well, a lot of things do suck, we're not going to dispute that. But some things behind the scenes run like clockwork, even though they're the craziest operations of all ...
A Factory Makes Millions Of Man-Eating Worms (To Save Us From Man-Eating Worms)
In the 1950s, the southern United States had a problem: worms which fed on flesh. Human flesh, sometimes -- their scientific name, Cochliomyia hominivorax, literally means "snail fly that consumes man." But at least when humans notice maggots in an open wound or smell their injured legs decaying, they tend to give their doctor a call and get that sorted out. Animals, however, are more likely to let those parasites eat freely and kill their host. That's why this pest, commonly known as the screwworm, used to kill millions of dollars' worth of cattle every year. They killed pets too, and deer, but it was their effect on our burger supply that really made us sit up and seek a way out.
Applying comic book logic, scientists tried treating the worms with radiation, and they discovered something promising. Radiated male worms grow up healthy but sterile. If we release a whole lot of these sterile worms, they beat fertile males when it comes to nabbing females. Each female mates just once, so hooking up with a blank-shooting male means she lays no eggs. Over the course of about a decade, the Department of Agriculture released more and more of these sterilized worms and, amazingly, eradicated these Hamburglers from the U.S.
By 1991, Mexico was free of the worm too, and Central America followed after that. South America, however, proved trickier to liberate. And so long as the worm exists down there, it can creep back north and multiply -- unless we put some kind of barrier in its way. If you're thinking "border wall," well, we kind of already built that. It's called the Panama Canal. But canals and walls are no use against the screwworm because, in its final form, it flies through the air. What we really needed was a live barrier made of those sterilized males. And since they can't reproduce, we'd have to keep replenishing the barrier with more and more radiated bugs.
So that's what we did. We'd been churning out these worms in Texas and then Mexico, and now we set up a plant in Panama to make more worms 24/7. The hatching room simulates conditions in an infected animal, the sterilization chamber blasts radioactive cobalt, and between the two, the worms swarm and feed. Originally, we fed them meat, but that costs too much, so we switched to milk, egg ... and thousands of gallons of blood.
Those of you who've heard about other crazy interventions into nature know two ways this story ends. Either we give up when the whole operation just fails, or the operation backfires and creates tiny Dracula flies. But so far, this story doesn't end at all. We're still maintaining the worm barrier today, and we're managing very well. Every week, the plant produces 20 million worms, and U.S. planes dump them into the buffer zone.
It costs about $15 million a year but saves American farmers $1.3 billion in losses. And anytime a few worms get by and seem ready to take over (say, in Florida), we have defenses prepared to wipe them out. Can we try the same thing to free us from other insects -- like Florida mosquitoes, for instance? It's certainly worth a shot.
The U.K. Must Constantly Monitor A Sunken Ship's Kiloton Of Explosives
The United States was cranking out loads of munitions during World War II. And so in August 1944, a ship known as the SS Richard Montgomery set off across the Atlantic with a massive supply of explosives. It was bound for France but made a quick stopover in England (to do some sightseeing and have dinner with Reginald, probably). It found itself in an estuary of the Thames a lot more shallow than it was used to and got stuck on a sandbank. When the tide went out, the heavy ship, still perched on this tiny spot, cracked in two. It's still there today ... and so are its explosives.
Thanks to this year's Beirut explosion, we're all freshly educated about the dangers of concentrated explosives. We know the Oklahoma City explosion involved 2 tons of ammonium nitrate, and Beirut's had 2.7 kilotons. Well, that should give you some idea of the danger of the 1.5 kilotons of explosives sitting in the Richard Montgomery's ruptured hull. Or, maybe that's comparing apples and Apple Jacks -- rather than a raw explosive compound, the Montgomery's cargo includes thousands of blockbuster and cluster bombs designed to maximize widespread destruction.
Some say the bombs will never detonate. They've been sitting in salt water for decades, which should have rotted away the fuses and stuff that set the things off. But, well, the last time we went about clearing a sunken ship's explosives that probably weren't going to detonate, they very much did just that, setting off an earthquake-level boom that could be detected 5,000 miles away. The Montgomery has more explosives than that ship and less water shielding us from them. The consensus now says the best way to avoid waking them up is to just stay away. And to keep people away, we have to monitor the area constantly. Forever.
It's a busy shipping lane, so boats come somewhat close all the time. Port authority officials maintain an exclusion zone of about a thousand yards around the vessel, but they still have to be ever vigilant because there's generally at least one very close call a year. If a ship does knock into Monty and set off a chain reaction, we might see the biggest peacetime non-nuclear explosion in history, with debris shooting miles into the air and a tsunami roaring up the Thames. Maybe we'll one day put together a solid plan for removing the bombs risk-free. But for now, our strategy is to sit tight. And stand guard.
Visa's Data Center Is A Fortress Protected From All Threats
Tech companies fear hackers, and to guard against them, they implement stuff that's very elaborate but isn't very interesting to look at. Say, they turn on Windows Defender and cunningly rename the file where they store their passwords to "GroceryList.txt," or do some slightly more advanced form of that same thing (GroceryList.docx). We'll leave the details to them because we wouldn't understand it ourselves.
But tech companies also fight physical attacks. Exhibit A: Visa's Operations Center East. This is the part of the article where we'd love to include a photo of Operations Center East, but we can't because we don't know where it is. It's "somewhere near D.C.," but the media reps who visited it are forbidden from disclosing the location. Want to try searching for it using satellites? Good luck: The complex is disguised on Google Maps.
That should prevent you from say, recreating the ending of Fight Club, or plowing headfirst into Center East with a vehicle loaded with explosives. If you do try that anyway, the building can stop you in your path by lifting hydraulic bollards. If that is, the vehicle isn't going too fast. If it is going too fast, that's where measure B comes into play. The approach to the building turns sharply, so anything moving too fast will be unable to navigate the turn and will crash into a dry moat.
Natural disasters are also all part of the plan. The building is designed to withstand 100 feet of snow falling on it. It can shrug off 170-mph hurricane winds, or a 7.0 earthquake. It has enough backup generators to supply 25,000 homes. Inside are 3,000 miles of cables and servers cooled with 1.5 million gallons of water.
Now, are you wondering, "Hey, did Visa invite media to tour the place just so it could get stats like those out there for the sake of P.R.?" That is a good question. An even better question, though, would be, "What happened to those reporters who toured the facility and then declined to write stories?" To answer that, you must look in the moat.
The Government Collects And Stores All The Nation's Dead Eagles
When art dealer Ileana Sonnabend died in 2007, she left her children a work called "Canyon." Part sculpture, part painting, "Canyon" includes such elements as a stuffed bald eagle, a mirror, and a weird hanging pillow that even legit art critics agree looks like a random scrotum. It was a valuable piece, worth some $60 million according to the IRS, which meant it would cost the kids $29.2 million in estate taxes. If the kids didn't feel like paying $29 million for the privilege of inheriting "Bird & Balls," you might assume they could just sell it and still make a profit. But they discovered they couldn't sell the piece because it contained an eagle. In fact, every appraiser who didn't work for the IRS said the unsellable piece was worth $0.
In the end, the IRS agreed to drop the bill when the kids donated the piece to a museum, but this illustrates how weird U.S. law is about eagles. You are not allowed to kill a bald or golden eagle, and you are also not even allowed to collect an eagle who died naturally. You are not allowed to own parts of these eagles, period. This isn't about the Endangered Species Act, incidentally. The bald eagle used to be endangered, but neither eagle is currently endangered or considered at risk in any way.
Some 200 Indigenous tribes traditionally use eagle parts for religious purposes. The federal government realizes there's something absurd about policing how Natives use eagle feathers, but they also don't grant a blanket tribal exception to the eagle law because some of them do kill eagles for the non-religious black market. So, the government has Native Americans apply individually for eagle parts from a Fish & Wildlife division called the National Eagle Repository.
Wildlife offices nationwide keep their eyes open for dead eagles and ship them to the Repository in Colorado. Some are burned to a crisp by power lines; some are found rotting in the summer heat. But all go to the Rockies, where they're frozen in a converted chemical weapons plant. The bird morgue takes in about a thousand birds a year and then ships them off to applicants, packed with dry ice. They don't handle quite enough birds to meet demand, but we're still guessing that's around 1,000 more frozen eagles than you thought the government was transporting using the Postal Service.
States Keep Going To Sea To Dispose Of The Dead
What happens to you after you die? Not to your consciousness -- that's between you and the man with the scythe -- but to your body? Your family might stick you in a diamond or shoot you into space, and pyramids are always an option. Still, unless you get your life in order soon, there's a good chance your landlord will simply report your death to the authorities, who will wait for a family who never comes. And these authorities will be faced with the problem of how to deal with the unclaimed dead.
Protocol varies. Some places hold pauper's funerals (they generally call them something a little less insulting, like "national assistance funerals"), while others turn to mass graves. To let you know what goes on in some states, let's focus on North Carolina, which has a single centralized medical examiner's system. They hold an unclaimed body for 10 days. Then they cremate it but do not bury or otherwise dispose of the ashes right away. They hold on to these ashes for at least three years in case they manage to make contact with the missing family.
Once that period ends, they scatter the ashes at sea. The medical examiner goes out in a boat, sailing three miles from shore, as required by law. He notes the wind's direction because he doesn't want the ashes flying back in his face Big Lebowski-style. A while ago, the office would just take one boat trip every couple of years; now, it's more like every six months. They might dump 80 people's ashes in one go.
The medical examiner notes the dumpsite's GPS coordinates because sometimes, that family who neglected to claim the body still turns up, and it's kinder than shrugging and saying, "Eh, we dunno."
Cherry Orchards Hire Helicopters To Dry Damp Fruit
As supremely complicated as farming is (if we wanted to take a thorough look at it, we'd need not just an entire article but also several years of instruction), you probably figure you know the basics. We plant stuff, give it water and nutrients, pick it, and then leave some time to play in the field with the dog. Sometimes, it rains. Rain is good for plants. Essential, really. Any plant that can't survive rain wouldn't stand much of a chance in the wild, of course.
But there's a difference between "surviving" and "providing marketable produce," and not much of the produce you eat was designed to stand a chance in the wild. It was designed (by us, through artificial selection, over the course of many years) to be easily farmed and, hopefully, delicious and nutritious too -- or at least to look really good. Take the cherry. Cherries existed even in prehistoric times, but they weren't as sweet or fat as the cultivated ones we have today. The traits we chose in cherries came with a trade-off, though. These cherries get destroyed by rain. If rain hits them and we don't dry them, they either get moldy or suck water in till they burst.
So, cherry growers need a way of drying cherry trees every time it rains. Heat is no good and can damage the trees even more than rain, so flamethrowers aren't a viable solution. We really need powerful wind to knock all the droplets off. We need fans that can hover above the trees and move along the whole length of an orchard. We need ... helicopters. Choppers dry cherry trees with their whirring rotor blades. Pilots call this process "cherry blowing," and while that sounds sexual, if anything, it undersells how much this process will turn you on:
Cherry growers having to hire helicopters all the time also explains why cherries are so damn expensive. The price has nothing at all to do with controls forced on us from the Cherry Mafia, an organization that engages in no criminal activity and, in fact, does not exist. (There, I said it; please, let my dog go.)