Monday, July 04, 2016

Paul Ryan wants us to have a great Fourth... or something

Today, Paul Ryan's office issued an Independence Day statement. This should be a standard job that any political intern can do on autopilot. Just copy and paste some patriotic platitudes in a reasonable order and you're done. Go enjoy the weekend. Or so I thought. Apparently making sense out of the platitude file takes some talent.

WASHINGTON—Today, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released the following statement in commemoration of Independence Day:
"On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared. We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people. We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day—and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know. Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible. We still believe in those self-evident truths. We still struggle to live up to them. And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness. So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence."

It starts well and ends okay, but is incoherent in the middle. Let's unpack it.

It begins with a press release framing and puts the rest in quotes and italics so that we'll know these are his own special words. This is routine.

On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared.

So far, so good. I would have started by calling it Independence Day rather than the Fourth, but that's just me.

We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people.

Remember the fallen. Still good. You can never go wrong by reminding people that this is solemn, yet joyous occasion. Now it gets a little confusing.

We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day...

Who died on this day? Which extraordinary men and women? Was there a significant battle fought on July 4, 1776? How many women died in that battle? You're not saying "men and women" to be politically correct, are you? Or are you talking about all the American men and women (at least the extraordinary ones) who died on all 240 Fourths since then?

...and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know.

Millions died on the Fourth?! Are we counting all the Fourths since humans first strode the earth? Are we counting foreigners who died on the Fourth?

Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible.

Is it an either/or prospect? Can't we do both? And which things are we talking about? So far, all you've mentioned are signing historic documents and dying on the Fourth of July.

We still believe in those self-evident truths.

The truths which you haven't seen fit to describe. I guess they really are self-evident.

We still struggle to live up to them.

How does one live up to a self-evident truth?

And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness.

Thank goodness for that. For a moment there I thought we were struggling to die on the Fourth.

So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence.

He then climbed into a fighter jet and took off to do battle with aliens over southern Nevada.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why did Russia abandoned Alaska?

For reasons I no longer remember, I signed up for Quora some time back. If you've never been there, Quora is a social media site where people ask questions and the site tries to match them up with who can answer the questions. As a break from working on the book, this spring, I started looking at the questions they sent to me. I do not understand their sorting algorithm. Okay, I went to UofWA, I understand why I get questions on that. I live in Anchorage, Alaska, so I understand getting question on both parts of that. I volunteered mammoths so I expect questions on that and understand why I get occasional questions on paleontology.

Then there are the silly questions. Some silly questions have nothing to do with anything have claimed any knowledge of. Typical among these would be something like: "If Godzilla and Optimus Prime was to fight, who would win? Posted, December 2014. 47 answers. 98k views." Even if I had a strong opinion, why would I pur myself at the bottom of that queue? (By the way, the answer is King Kong, who would let them beat themselves into rubble, then squash their remains.) The most "relevant" question I get is endless variations of "What would happen if Russia invaded Alaska? (Answer: It would be one of the stupidest military moves in the history of stupid military moves.) Another too frequent question is some variation of "Why is Alaska part of the US instead of still Russia/Canada/Japan/Ecuador/Senegal?" Today, I had one of the latter. It was just posted and the only answer was very brief, so, on a whim, I decided to give the questioner a serious answer. Mind you, I did this mostly from memory (based on reading Hector Chevigny's Russian America back in the 80s). I expect my Alaskan friends to correct numerous details.

Why did Russia abandoned (sic) Alaska?

Russian America was an expensive liability. It had never particularly been profitable. Since Eastern Siberia had no roads to speak of, it was far too difficult to settle. The Russian America Company had exhausted the sources of the most profitable fur animals. The few Russians there bought most of their food and supplies from California, meaning much of the small amount of wealth the colony produced was not going to Russia. The incompetent rule by the Russian America Company was becoming an embarrassment to the imperial government, as difficult as that was to accomplish. And it was impossible to defend. Russia had no navy to speak of in the Pacific and the transport situation in Siberia meant it would have taken months, even a full year, to move troops there.

That last point was the final straw. In 1854, during the Crimean War, french and British forces laid siege to Petropavlovsk, the main town on the Kamchatka Peninsula and the main port serving Russian America. Although the siege was unsuccessful, it greatly alarmed the imperial government. If the western allies had attacked the capital of the colony, Novo Arkhangelsk (Sitka), there would nave been nothing to stop them. Britain would almost certainly have annexed it to Canada (which didn’t yet exist, but you get the idea) which would have been a huge humiliation to the imperial government, especially considering how big it looks on the map.

After the California Gold Rush, some of the newly rich entrepreneurs in San Francisco had expressed interest in buying the colony to monopolize it’s fishing potential. Their offer was not without precedent. The area around Ft. Ross, California was controlled by the Russian America Company for about thirty years although the imperial government had never made a formal claim to it. When that area was trapped out and efforts to produce food for Russian America turned out to be less productive than they hoped, the company sold its claims to John Sutter, who promptly discovered gold there. The imperial government had no interest in letting the company sell the colony, but once the idea was implanted in their minds, it looked like a possible way to unload the colony with the minimum amount of embarrassment.

The younger brother of tsar Alexander II was a major proponent of the sale, and negotiations were well along when Lincoln was elected the Civil War broke out. In the US, one of the major proponents of the purchase was California senator William Gwin, who briefly advocated for California secession before being arrested. Back in the colony, a new governor had started making the long needed reforms. However, when gossip reached them about the eagerness of the government to dump the colony, all his efforts were put on hold. One by one, families began to pack up and return to Russia. After the war, The American Secretary of State, William Seward, one of the founders of the Republican Party and a proponent of the purchase since day one, negotiated the final sale and convinced the Republican Senate to rarity the treaty.

There is an interesting side note to the story. Russia and the US had always had a good relationship. Catherine the Great was one of the first foreign heads of state to recognize American independence. These good feelings continued for the next century, aided by the fact that we had almost nothing to with each other and knew almost nothing about each other, except that our relations with the British were often tense. In 1863, a bloody rebellion broke out in Russian Poland. As France had always been a supporter of the Poles, the imperial government feared a reopening of the Crimean War hostilities. This time their great fear was that Britain and France would move against their fleet which was bottled up in the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, the French and British had been helping Confederate blockade runners and even threatened to recognize the Southern government. A deal was struck, whereby the Russian left the Baltic while these still could and sailed to New York. This saved the Russian fleet and was seen as a major show of support for the Union by a major European power. Mixed in with the purchase price for the Alaska was a Union payment for the the Russian fleet’s expenses. Hiding this payment was one more reason for Russia to go ahead with the sale.

And they all lived happily ever after except for the Russians in Alaska who were fairly quickly driven out by the military governor sent to administer the new acquisition, a very bitter man named Jefferson Davis who—probably correctly—believed that his name had frozen his military career and deprived him of the opportunity to find glory and promotions during the war.

I've already had on upvote.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Now what am I supposed to do?

Have I mentioned lately that I was writing a book? Yep, little, old me. Saturday, I finished it. It's written, proofed, noted, biblographied, illustrated, and captioned. Then I tied it up with a virtual bow and shipped it off to my agent. It weighs in at a petite 88,592 words. This morning I heard back from her. She thinks it's satisfactory, or, as she put it, "You are amazing! Not many first time authors (or seasoned ones!) can deliver so complete—and to my quick perusal—excellent, an enchilada on such a tight timeline." I am rather proud of my enchiladas.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trilobite note

Almost six years ago, I wrote a piece about an early trilobite discovery and evidence of prehistoric and pre-literate knowledge of the nature of trilobites. It was pretty good and was included in The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs, 2010. Flash forward to this weekend. Catching up on my mail, I found a letter from a museum conservator in Utah asking about the source of one of the illustrations in the post and asking about a higher resolution version of it.

I wasn't very good about linking to the sources of illustrations back then. I have since learned better. Worse, the files and drafts of old blog posts are all on the hard drive of a computer that died about three years ago. I figured it wouldn't be that hard to redo the search I made that found the illustration in the first place. I was wrong. I tried Googling the location where the trilobite in question was found. I flipped to the image page and found several copies of the illustration. All of them linked back to me. This is flattering, but not helpful.

The illustration.

After noodling around for a while, I figured out how to find it. I found a scientific paper that mentioned the discovery (as a bonus, it had a photograph of the fossil). From that I found the name of the discoverer and the French journal that published his original report. I did a quick search to see if I could find it online. I couldn't, so I went Gallica, the site that has scanned copies of books and journals in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. There I had no problem finding the illustration, not in the original journal, but in one a few years later. My Google fu is still amazing. While looking for the illustration, I found out a good deal more about that fossil and decided to share it.

Adrien-Jacques-François Ficatier was an army doctor stationed in Paris during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was also an amateur archaeologist. During the 1880s, he spent several summers poking around caves in the Yonne region southeast of Paris looking for artifacts. In 1886 he explored one of a series of caves just upstream from Arcy-sur-Cure. This cave is almost 60 meters long with a thick layer of earth, rich in artifacts, covering the bottom. The lowest layers have been dated to 35,000 years ago--well before the last glacial maximum. Ficatier excavated the two upper layers in the cave which date 14-15,000 years ago. There he found bones of horse and reindeer along with hundreds of pieces of worked flint, four needles, three spears, and several pieces that had been drilled to be worn as pendants. These were a wolf's tooth, four scallops, other marine shells, a beetle carved from pine, and a trilobite.

The trilobite is small--43 mm long and 23 mm at its widest point--and well worn as if it has been handled a lot. There are tiny holes on either side that would have been used to hang it. In 1897, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, the Society of Historic and Natural Sciences of the Yonne organized a series of excursions to the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure and St. Moré to compliment the usual dinners and lectures. Henri Douvillé, an  influential professor of paleontology at the École des Mines, told the Society that the trilobite belonged to the species Dalmanites hawlei found in Bohemia (the Czech Republic). More recent paleontologists have questioned that identification, but all agree that it was not a local fossil.

The trilobite.

The stratum where the trilobite was found has been dated to about 14,000 years ago. This is after the glacial maximum had passed, but during a sudden cold snap called the Older Dryas. The human culture of the time, called Magdalenian, was originally identified as one of great reindeer hunters. They had an improved set of hunting tools and were using dogs. Of course, they didn't just hunt reindeer. It was at about this time that mammoths died out in Europe.

There was more to their culture than just hunting. They manufactured items for personal adornment. The little trilobite meant something to them. It had enough value that it was a worthy object for long distance trade. What it meant is hard to say. One of the other items Dr. Ficatier excavated that summer might offer some context. The only manufactured amulet is a wood-borer beetle carved from lignite. Like the trilobite, it has holes drilled on the sides, rather than the top, for hanging. In many parts of the world where trilobites were traditionally called some variation of "stone insects". Was the trilobite significant because it resembled a beetle? Were these people the clan of the cave beetle? No one knows.

The best image.

After the summer was over and he returned to his job, Ficatier wrote up his field notes and they were published in a regional journal the Almanach historique de l'Yonne de 1887. It is here that the illustration first appeared. Over the next ten years, it was published in at least three journals that I know of. I've taken my image from the Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie et de biologie de Lyon. The fossil itself, along with the beetle were placed in a museum in Joigny. Later that collection was moved to the Musée de l'Avallonnais. The museum's displays are mostly of local artists. There is an archaeology room, but I have been unable to determine if the trilobite, or the beetle, is part of the permanent display.

One final note. While looking for some biographical information on Ficatier I found out that a Playboy playmate from the 80's named Carol Ficatier is from Auxerre near Arcy-sur-Cure. I don't know how common the name Ficatier is in that part of France but, if it's not common, there's a possibility that they're related. Fame takes many forms.

The uncredited image.
Me. "The First Trilobite," Mammoth Tales. 10/14/2015 (reprint).

The photograph.
Schmider, Béatrice, et al. "L'abri du Lagopède (fouilles Leroi-Gourhan) et le Magdalénien des grottes de la Cure (Yonne)," Gallia préhistoire. Vol. 37,  No. 1 (1995)  pp. 55-114.

The credited image.
"Communication de M. PHILIPPE SALMON, L'Age de la pierre," Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie et de biologie de Lyon, Vol. 6 (1891) pp. 13-18.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ryan's SUPER SECRET plan to steal the election

Lately, I've seen a couple articles explaining how Republicans could keep Trump out of the White House without using convention shenanigans. It would have the added bonus of also keeping the Democratic nominee out. The secret lies in a little known provision of the Constitution to throw the election to the House. There are two versions. Both are pretty ridiculous speculation. They involve the Electoral College...

Most people know that the president is not chosen by a popular vote, they're chosen by the Electoral College (fun fact: the phrase "Electoral College" is not in the Constitution). That same most people probably don't think about what that means very often, if ever. When we vote for in November, we are not voting for our preferred presidential candidate. We are voting for a slate of people who promise to vote for that candidate five weeks later in Washington. If no one gets a majority in that election the House of Representatives holds its own election. Each state gets one vote. To get that, the state delegations hold a mini-election. The winner of that vote is the state's vote in the House vote. Got that?

Here's version one, from Huffington Post. Faced with Trump being their candidate, panicking establishment Republicans slap together a third party team that takes enough electoral votes from both sides that neither one has a majority. The election is thrown to the Republican dominated House who elect their chosen third party team. There are several glaring flaws in this clever scheme. In many states, it's already too late to get onto the ballot. More importantly, getting votes is not enough; they need to take entire states to collect electors. In 1992, Ross Perot (remember him?) gained 19 million, votes but didn't win a single state. Even more difficult is the fact that these states have to draw from both sides of the aisle to throw the vote to the House. It's hard to imagine Democratic leaning states to flock to the banner of a hand-picked, Republican establishment team.

Version two is from the Washington Post. This one is not only unlikely, it has the added feature of causing a major constitutional crisis. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution says: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors... [italics mine]." In the early days of the Republic, many states did not allow the voters to choose the electors. The manner they directed was for the legislature to hold a vote for the electoral slates. This was based on the general fear of mob rule held by the upper classes. This is why many states originally only extended the vote to property owners and why Senators were not elected by a popular vote until 1913.

The version two clever scheme is that a bunch of states will change their laws returning the election of electors to the legislatures. The majority of states have Republican legislatures making it possible to steal the election from both Trump and the Democratic candidate. The result would be be multiple constitutional crises at both the federal and state level, endless lawsuits, hundreds of recall elections, and probably violent protests. Changing electoral law in the middle of an election is the worst election idea in the history of bad election ideas.

Basically, if Trump comes to the convention with a majority of the delegates, or even a good plurality, the Republicans have to go with him. Yes, his candidacy is almost guaranteed to be a disaster, but all the alternatives are worse.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The missing Swedish source

The other day, I went to check out how I referred to something in chapter four to make sure I was consistent in chapter five. To my horror (really, horror), I discovered that the version I had saved was not the last version I wrote; it was the one before. All of the editorial corrections and content additions I had made were gone. After the predictable two hours spent checking everywhere for the corrected version, hoping the additions were in another file, and repeatedly looking in the trash can, I arrived (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression) at an acceptance of my screw up.

Sigh, do it over. My many-times published, childhood friend, David Neiwert, pointed out that, while this is horrifying, having had a chance to get your thoughts together once and mull it over, the second version is usually better. He's right. At least that's how it works in non-fiction. I'm sure many poets would punch us in the face for saying that. But, then, poets are an emotional lot.

And so, after remaking the editorial corrections, I spent today recreating the missing addition. Naturally, I went back and re-researched it. My new version is four times as long as the last version. Telling it in greater detail might add clarity to the narrative, but there is  a problem. This anecdote is the weakest sourced section in the entire book. It's based on what I call "the missing Swedish document."

One of the reasons this book has taken nine years to write has been that I have sourced everything. I don't want to claim to be able to read the minds of long dead people. When I was a kid, the young people's histories we were given (often written in the 19th century) were full of "when Bobby looked at the open sea, his mind was filled with thoughts of the adventures he would have." For all we know, Bobby was filled with terror at the thought that he would be raped half way around the world before dying of scurvy. And leaving such a childish genre, my own graduate studies were filled with statements of what Stalin wanted or was planning. Was Stalin planning to invade Western Europe when he died in 1953? I think he wanted to. I'm not sure he was brave enough to actually have planned to do it. In my studies, the only solid evidence I've seen is that he planned to invade Yugoslavia later that year.

Back to the mammoth. I have what I think is a significant anecdote. I've hesitated to add it because I can't source it. All I have is "a certain Swede said... ." I'm sure I know who the certain Swede is, but I can't find where he said it nor can I find a direct quote anywhere else. All I have is this oblique reference. I'm sure the first reviewer of the book will latch onto this point and ask about it.

I'm doomed.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Would you vote for a man who never punched anyone in the face?

As everyone knows, there are two things that Americans do better than any nation on earth: make pizzas and punch faces. Face punching is an under-appreciated quality in presidents. Reagan punched people in the face all the time. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." POW! "Hey Ortega!" POW! "How do you like your fancy sunglasses now?" Kennedy was also an enthusiastic face puncher. "So, you want to put missiles in Cuba?" POW! "I didn't think so." Woodrow Wilson didn't even need a reason to punch people in the face; he did it for the pure American joy of it. FDR wanted to be a face puncher, but he could only reach the faces of people 5' 2" or shorter. Jimmy Carter never punched faces. That's why he was voted out after one term.

It's a shame Jim Webb dropped out of the race. I have no doubt he would have punched first and asked questions later. Sanders isn't on record doing much face punching, but I'm sure he has the gumption to step up and be a great Face Puncher in Chief.

The next round of debates need to test the pizza making skills of all the candidates. An informed populace is the foundation of democracy.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

A zombie mammoth bites the dust

A few years back, I mentioned the mammoth book actually was a byproduct of my love of fringe theories. A lo-o-ong time ago, when I was a teenager, I noticed that each fringe genre recycled a standard set of evidences that were proof positive of each writer's preferred theory. For geological catastrophists, frozen mammoths were right at the top of the list. Working in bookstores in my late twenties and early thirties, I played a game of find-the-mammoth with each new catastrophist book. Very few failed. An important part of the theory was the idea that mammoths had been frozen so fast that its meat was still fresh and delicious tasting. This week, one of those stories about mammoth meat was decisively debunked--not that that will make it go away.

In the 1690s, the literate classes of Western Europe became aware of ivory from a mysterious Siberian creature called mamant or mammoth. The natives said it was never seen alive. They belived it lived underground and died when it breathed surface air by accidentally tunneling out of its subterranean home, usually on river banks. They believed it was a currently living animal because the meat was fresh enough for their dogs to eat. None of these stories said that they ate the meat. And, dogs will eat their own shit, so that's not the best recommendation for the palatability of the meat. This detail, the freshness of the meat, was one of the things that made the mammoth so fascinating, more than any other extinct animal, and kept attention focused on it for the next century.

Once the mammoth was recognized, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a unique, extinct species, native to the North, more focus was placed on just how it came to be frozen. During the previous century, this was not a particularly difficult question. The mammoth was an elephant. During the biblical Deluge, they drowned and their corpses were washed north. When the waters receded, the now Arctic elephants rapidly froze. This theory fell into disfavor as the general literary consensus tipped toward viewing the Deluge as a metaphor or local event in the Middle East. On the geological side, the concept of uniformitarianism, that major changes happen very slowly, in small increments, also denied the idea of a sudden, global flood. This was immediately followed by the discovery of the ice ages. A slow warming and cooling world provided many opportunities for mammoths to become frozen.

Back to the mammoth. By 1850, only fourteen mammoths with some soft tissue attached had been reported since 1692, only four were supposed to have been relatively complete, and only one had been recovered. This made it easy to believe that each frozen mammoth was due to a rare and unique accident. Today, after 350 years, only seventy-five mammoths with soft tissue have been reported and only fourteen have been relatively complete. Due to global communication, the end of the Cold War, a rapid erosion of of local superstitions, and an appreciation of the high monetary value of mammoth carcasses, a third of those complete carcasses were reported and all of them recovered in the last ten years.

But, John, you may be asking (go ahead, ask), when did the mammoth feast enter the mythology? That's a very good question. I commend you on your persip... perisap... smartness. As I mentioned, the earliest reports of mammoth meat only mention dogs eating it. Dogs eating the meat are mentioned again a couple times in the nineteenth century. But, by the dawn of the twentieth century, I can't find a single account of humans eating it, let alone it being the main course of a great feast.

Back to catastophism. Frozen mammoths are now a staple of catastrophist theories. Frozen mammoths are among the usual suspects that catastrophists trot out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth’s axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, some cosmological event dumped millions of cubic miles of ice on the earth, or that the Deluge was real. When any new catastrophist theory is proposed, frozen mammoths cannot be far behind. The mammoth most often cited, though often anonymously cited and turned into a plural, is the mammoth discovered on the Beresovka River in 1900.

This mammoth was only the second complete mammoth to be recovered. It was found halfway down a high bluff over the Beresovka River in northeastern Siberia. Its claims to fame are based on the date of its discovery and its high degree of preservation. It was only the second relatively complete mammoth recovered; the first was a century earlier. It was better documented than the first. Mikhail Adams, who recovered the first mammoth in 1806, was a botanist who quickly lost interest in it. The main documentation of it was written by the person who reconstructed the skeleton, Wilhelm Tilesius, who hated Adams. By contrast, the Beresovka mammoth was recovered by Otto Herz and Eugene Pfitzenmayer, who both were interested in the mammoth itself and respected each other. Finally, they wrote during a time when the interested audience for information about such discoveries was magnitudes larger than the audience for the Adams mammoth. They not only wrote several scientific articles on the discovery, the samples they brought back allowed other scientists to write papers on it. Pfitzenmayer even wrote a popular book on mammoths. Quite simply, the world knew more about this mammoth than any discovered before then and any since until Dima in 1977.

From here, the details of this mammoth move into catastophist literature following two paths. The first is because of the high quality of the remains themselves. The flesh and even parts of the organs were recognizably intact. Plant tissues from its last meal were still in its mouth and identifiable nearly a century before DNA sequencing. All of these details have led catastrophists to believe the mammoth was frozen suddenly and completely. An entire industry has grown up around this belief. Someday, I'll go over all the details of that, but, today, let's go over the small aspect of that belief that was debunked this week.

Catastrophism means suddenness. The significance of the Beresovka mammoth to catastophists is the idea that the perfection of its preservation was due to its being frozen in a few hours--faster than any known means of freezing. One line of thought using the Beresovka mammoth was based on the supposedly non-arctic food found in its unflossed mouth. The other is based on the quality of its meat. Twice now I've mentioned that several recorded accounts, before 1901, mention dogs eating the meat, but none mention humans eating it. So, did Herz or Pfitzenmayer make this claim about their mammoth? No, they did not.

The origin appears to have come from Herz' comment that the mammoth's flesh "looks as fresh as well-frozen beef or horse meat." This has been taken to mean it tasted like well-frozen beef or horse meat. It did not. Pfitzenmayer wrote that they could smell it a mile away and that they initially could only work on excavating it for a few minutes before fleeing to get some fresh air. Though it's not mentioned in either of their initial accounts. One of them did taste the meat.* One night, toward the end of their work, they got drunk and began daring the other to eat come of the meat. The dogs had shown that it wasn't fatal to eat (see dogs and shit, above). Finally, fortified with a lot of vodka and pepper, one of them was able to chew up a chunk of mammoth, but not swallow it.

Before I adjudge this story to be the origin of all mammoth feast stories, I want to suggest the possibility of an undocumented oral tradition that also fed into it. I'm an Alaskan. Many old, white Alaskans have a grandfather, know someone who had a grandfather, or whose grandfather knew someone who regularly ate frozen mammoth. The Seattle catastophist Donald Patton wrote that "mammoth steaks have even been featured on restaurant menus in Fairbanks." None of these stories has been documented as true. All of these stories date back to the gold rush days. None of the Russians before then make that claim, none of the Anglo-white guys since then make that claim, and I've never met an Alaskan native that makes that claim. My opinion is that all of these stories are based on sourdoughs (old white Alaskans) BSing cheechakos (newcomers).

And now, after many digressions and distractions, I've finally arrived at the great mammoth feast. In 1920, Martin Gardner published A Journey to the Earth's Interior, Or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered? His book is the most mature development of the hollow earth theory. The central idea of this theory is that the surface of the earth is a bubble with an empty space inside. The earliest western development of this idea was by Edmond Halley of comet fame. Various later versions developed ideas of what was inside. Gardner watched the many attempts during his life to reach the poles and decided it was not possible because there were no poles. When explorers reached a certain high latitude, they entered a hole that led to the interior world. Gravity held people against the under side of the bubble and a tiny sun balanced at the center made life possible there. When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Pellucidar based on the same idea, Gardner wrote to him asking if he had anything to do with the books. I don't know if Burroughs answered.

Gardner, for once, did not need the biblical flood or any other type of catastrophe to put frozen mammoths in the Arctic. Like most catastrophists, he believed that mammoths were normal tropical elephants whose appearance in the Arctic needed explanation. His solution was that they lived in the eternal tropics of the inner world. Occasionally, however, they would fall into rivers or off the northern coast, drown, have their bodies carried through the polar hole, be deposited on the Siberian coast, buried, and frozen there before they could decompose--obviously.

Gardner dedicated an entire chapter to the mammoth and within that chapter, a subtitled section to the mammoth feast. Gardner specifically says it was Herz who held a banquet with meat from the Berezovka mammoth "and he asked scientists in other parts of the world to contribute other ancient foods--such as corn dug up from the ruins of Egyptian cities." Later versions of the story have added that Tsar Nicholas II was the guest of honor. Other versions of the feast removed Herz from the story and made Guillaume Apollinaire, the Italian/French poet, the guest of honor. Later, when asked about the feast, Gardner would only vaguely say, it was in all the papers, look it up yourselves.

This, Klondike tall tales, and other rumors established the popular legend that, at some time, there had been a feast or dinner of mammoth steaks. Thirty years later, a newer version appeared: at some point, soon after WWII, the Explorer's Club of New York featured mammoth steaks on the menu of its annual dinner. Oddly, this story, with its exactness, has not been repeated as often as Gardner's vague story. But there is some truth to this story, the Explorer's Club is a real organization, it is in New York, and it has a fancy dinner with exotic fare every year. Despite this story having so many verifiable points, I have never come across a catastrophist who looked onto it enough to verify the fact of the mammoth steaks. But, academic rigor has never been a feature of fringe thought; recycling is their primary feature. After sixty-five years, someone has finally looked into this factoid.

Here is the story as reconstructed by Jessica R. Glass, Matt Davis, Timothy J. Walsh, Eric J. Sargis, and Adalgisa Caccone in an article in PLOS One. The famous menu was the from the 1951 annual Explorers Club dinner, held in January that year. The source of the popularization of the story is an article in The Christian Science Monitor that appeared several days later. The first point they make completely kills the legend. The menu didn't say mammoth; it said Megatherium, which is an extinct species of South American giant ground sloth that did not live in the far north. Although this might disappoint catastrophists, in its way, it is much more interesting. Megatherium remains are far rarer than mammoths and, as it is not an Arctic species, well preserved soft tissue would have been insanely rare. If only there was some way to prove that.

There is. Paul Griswold Howes, the curator of the Bruce Museum missed the dinner. Wendell Phillips Dodge, the chairman of the club, was good enough to save a piece of the Megatherium for Howes. Rather than eat the tasty bit, Howes preserved it and added it to the museum's collections. Dodge was rather--well--dodgy about the origin of the meat. Originally, he claimed it came from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. If true, this would have extended the range of the Megatherium by over 10,000 miles. He is also reported to have said he had discovered a formula by which he could convert sea turtle meat into giant sloth meat. I think we can assume that formula included a generous helping of bullshit.

Spoiler: It's not mammoth meat (source)

Glass et al. have the tools to go beyond merely determining that the meat was not mammoth. They were able to determine what it really was. All they needed was the sample that Howes stored at the Bruce Museum. Howes carefully labeled the sample so it wasn't difficult to find. The meat had been cooked and stored in isopropyl alcohol, but this didn't prevent them from extracting DNA for identification. Unlike forensic crime dramas, they weren't able to determine that it was a near-sighted, left-handed, yellow sloth from a bad part of Davenport, Iowa. However, they were able to determine that it wasn't a mammoth or any kind of sloth. It was, in fact, a green sea turtle of a sub-species native to the Pacific Ocean. They weren't able to narrow it down further than that. The green sea turtle is now an endangered species. In those days it was a favored species for making turtle soup, a major factor in its becoming endangered.

Although it's easy to dismiss the mammoth feast as so much fringe silliness, it has had a very real effect on how the public perceives mammoths. The idea that there is almost perfect mammoth tissue available in the Siberian tundra is one of the drivers of the idea that each new discovery might provide the necessary genetic material to clone a mammoth. Hundreds of frozen mammals have been in the northern tundra. None of them have provided decent DNA for cloning.

This isn't the end of the story. In 1979 a prospector near Fairbanks uncovered the frozen remains of a steppe bison. Rather than try to blast the thing clear, he reported it to the University of Alaska and R. Dale Guthrie was able to conduct a proper excavation of it. It is one of the best preserved Pleistocene mammals ever recovered. It was brought to the university and, along with being properly examined, the main parts of the body were prepared for display in the museum. The chief taxidermist, Erick Grandqvist, saved a piece of meat from the Bison's neck. When his work was done, he Guthrie, and visiting paleontologist, Björn Kurtén made a stew out of it. The meat was tough, but edible.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book update

We sold the book.

I've been holding my breath over this, but it finally came together today. Last spring I started sending lots of query letters to agents. In June, one asked to see my full proposal. A few days later, she asked to talk to me. At the end of the talk, she offered to represent me. I accepted and she sent me a contract. After that, we worked on improving my proposal and working up a better sample chapter. Just before Thanksgiving she said she thought it was ready and that she was sending it out to publishers. The week before Christmas, two publishers wrote back asking for more information. One was a small university press. The other was a major publishing house. Ten days ago, the University press made an offer. It was a much smaller offer than I had hoped for, but it was exciting to think that, no matter what happens, the book will see the light of day.

Fast forward to today. We still haven't heard back from the big publishing house. It's Friday. There was only junk mail in my box. Considering the time difference, it was already after lunch in New York. I figured that meant I wasn't going to hear anything this week. I deleted all the junk mail and as Gmail refreshed, a new letter appeared from my agent. A third press was interested and was making an offer. The new offer was more money, greater marketing mojo, and a hardback release sooner than the university offer. Other than the million-dollars-and-a-cheese-sandwich offer that I never really expected to get, this was everything I had realistically hoped for. I wrote back basically saying "OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG, YES!!!"

The normal procedure, at this point is to notify anyone else who has expressed an interest to see if they want to start a bidding war. An hour later, my agent wrote back to say, this morning's publisher raised their bid and the other two dropped out. Most people who have met me will say that, with exceptions that don't need to be listed here, I'm usually a fairly reserved person. I was screaming and dancing in the kitchen. "Tell them yes! Tell them yes! Tell them yes!!!!"

And that, dear friends, is where we stand. The publisher will send a formal contract to my agent stating the terms of the bid; she'll examine it and, if everything is above board, send it to me to sign; I'll fall to the floor in a swoon, then get up; and sign it. Naturally, about five minutes after I gave her my permission to accept the bid, my impostor syndrome kicked into overdrive. Unless some drunken prankster in mail-room of the publisher sent the bid, I now have four months to deliver a draft.

It's finally real. Ever since I was a teen-ager, I've wanted to be a writer. My topic has changed over the years: first I want to be a science fiction novelist, then I wanted to make important contributions to my fields of graduate study (modern Balkans and colonial Africa). After dropping out of grad school, I became a technical writer. It was pretty cool to fill out the "Occupation" box on my tax forms with "Writer" even if the writing wasn't that exciting. Blogging was a little more satisfying, but eventually that became harder to do as traffic dried up. Somewhere along the way I stumbled into mammoths. It was nothing more than a blog post that I meant to use to illustrate a different point. Nine years later, it's a book. I think on my next tax form I might write "Author."