Sunday, April 13, 2014

John’s excellent dental adventure

Friday and Saturday, Anchorage had a mass free dental clinic. You may have heard of these events happening in other cities. I think the first of this kind of clinic that I heard about was one in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The idea is that a large group of doctors and support people set up, what is essentially, an assembly line to provide basic medical services for as many low income people as possible in as short a time as possible. The one this weekend is exclusively for dental care.

The uneven availability of medical care in the United States is a national disgrace. When Obama was elected, around forty-five million Americans had no health insurance. Among the insured, many had inadequate coverage for a real emergency. A side note, rarely mentioned in the impassioned debates over Obamacare is that, even among that sub-group of people adequately insured for normal emergencies, many lack dental coverage of any sort.
Thirteen years ago in Virginia, an association of dentists, staff and other volunteers organized and carried out what was to become known as a Mission of Mercy, or MOM. Their goal was to provide free dental care to local residents who could not otherwise afford or receive care. Since that time, there have been over 70 MOM events in 26 states using the large mobile dental clinic model. While this model had been utilized many times in under developed countries, it had not been tried here at home.
The Alaskan MOM was the result of Anchorage dentist Julie Robinson and her husband David Nielson. After hearing about MOM events in other states they took on the project of organizing one in Alaska. Last year, they checked out a MOM event in Portland. It sounds like they had no problem finding people to volunteer up here. When they opened the doors this morning, they had 240 dentists and 1500 support people ready.

If 2012 was the year of bad loss in my life, 2013 was the year of bad things happening to my head. Six weeks before the boffo finale of my concussion, I lost a chunk of my lower, right, front molar. I had a filling in the middle of the tooth and that filling had been cracked for years. One day around the beginning of November, I was having a piece of cold pizza for breakfast and felt something hard. I assumed it was a bit bone in the sausage I had used for the pizza. As anyone would do when no one was looking, I worked it around to the front of my mouth, dug it out with my fingers, and checked it out. It was a long rectangular piece of tooth enamel, about the shape of a piano key. This was a serious bummer. The majority of my life had been spent in the middle class where there would have been no question about getting it fixed right away. My, apparently permanent, descent into poverty meant I would just have to live with it. Fortunately, no nerves were exposed and the only discomfort was from the sharp edges of the slot.

Fast forward four months. Now functionally homeless (living in number one sister's spare room), another rectangular chunk of my tooth sheared off. Getting my tooth fixed moved to near the top of the list of things to spend the advance on when I sell the book, though that didn't appear to be something that was going to happen soon. On Monday, Number One saw an article in the Anchorage Daily News about the MOM event and left it out for me to read with my morning coffee. The key details were this: the event would be Friday and Saturday only, the hours would be six to six, registration would start at 4:30 AM. And, they added, in other states, many people camped out the night before to make sure they got in.

Thursday night, I watched the six o'clock news and saw that people were already camping out in line. I thought about going down then, but I don't have the heavy clothes I need and am really too old to camp out on the street in sub-freezing weather. The next question was, "how early should I go in in the morning?" Obviously, the answer was, "as early as possible." But how early is "as early as possible?" There was a problem. Anchorage does have a bus system, but it is vastly inferior to bus systems in other comparatively sized cities. The first bus from our part of town, which is not a distant suburb, runs at 6:20 AM. So the question became, wait for the bus and take my chances being far down the line, or get up much earlier and walk in to get a better place in line. A quick poll on Facebook revealed a consensus for getting up and walking.

I got up at 3:30 AM and was out the door at exactly four. The temperature was 22 (-6 C). The Dena'ina Center is not quite four miles away. It took me seventy-nine minutes to get there, which is a bit slow compared to my pre-car days. At 5:20, the line wrapped around two sides of the block. Two television crews were there with their remote vans. The planning by MOM was impressive--garbage cans and frequent collection, port-a-potties, traffic control, information officers letting us know how things worked. It was a good first impression.

The line.

A group of ten of us got in at 7:25. I was number 483. At check-in, they gave us the usual clipboard with the usual questions. People in green shirts directed to some chairs to sit in. At this point, it was important to stay in numerical order. And then we waited. After all, five hundred people came in during the first ninety minutes; there was a bit of a backlog. The small group I shared a row with spent four hours waiting for the next call. At one point I went out for a cup of coffee and a muffin.

Long ago, I came up with the term "situational camaraderie" to describe that instant friendship that springs up between people forced together for a short time. People stuck in long lines, stranded by cancelled flights, or even shoved together in certain audiences form a very brief "we". This was no different. On one side of me was a world traveling engineer and his Brazilian wife. On the other was Roland (I hope he doesn't mind me using his name, a man about ten years older than me who moved very slowly, assisted by a cane. We learned that he had had surgery on his spine just two weeks ago. He spent over two hours standing in sub-freezing temperatures to get his teeth looked at.

When our row was finally called up, we went to a new set of chairs at a table where earnest young people in green shirts told us about the importance of brushing and flossing. It was a revelation. I rushed through the briefing and moved on to the next door, which led to triage.

Beyond the door, more green-shirts took us to more chairs where we waited for our numbers to be called again. Soon, a dentist in blue scrubs held up a green card and I was into triage. By now, it was almost noon, and he had been here to set up well before opening. I'd been standing and sitting in lines for seven hours and he had been standing and looking into people's mouths almost as long.

He looked at my mouth and my tooth and asked me what I wanted to do. I said, "slap some spackle on that hole tell me what to worry about next." I'm not usually sassy, but a short night and inaction had made me a little punch drunk. The triage dentist looked at my mouth some more and told me, yes the hole needed to be filled and there appeared to be some decay at the bottom that might need some drilling. I suggested that it might be muffin detritus. Everything else looked okay, he said, though I needed a good cleaning. The check-in form had asked how many months it had been since my last visit to a dentist. I wrote 36. The next question asked how many months it had been since my last cleaning. My last cleaning was about this time of year in 1988. I wrote down 312. I had hoped for a record, but the triage dentist didn't even blink. Poo.

After triage, our group broke up. That's the purpose of triage. My crappy tooth needed an x-ray, so a green shirt took me to the x-ray waiting chairs about thirty feet away. And I waited. Triage removed the people who could be helped quickly. Those of us who were referred to x-ray had a longer wait. There were maybe forty people ahead of me. I don't know if it was the triage dentists or the green-shirts before x-ray who made the decision, but, at this point, someone decided to move people with non-dental considerations to the front of the line. As soon as Roland left triage, he was escorted into x-ray. Some very old people, a woman who needed to get to work, and a woman with a baby were all moved to the front of the line. It took me a moment to figure out why, but not a long moment. This is the only place in the entire process that I heard a complaint. And it was a short lived complaint. Some guy walked up to the green-shirts to complain about people being moved ahead. Whatever they told him was enough to satisfy him. I didn't hear another complaint for the rest of the day.

And, into x-ray. Behind this curtain was another row of chairs and eight tables staffed by blue shirts. There were only four chairs, but it gave me enough time to scope out the system. The curtains at the entrance had radiation warning signs and I expected to find some kind of shielded booth for the x-rays. Instead, it was being done out in the open at the tables. One technician sat at the end of the table with a laptop and printer and the other sat at the far end of the table with an honest-to-god ray gun. It was a hand-held, cordless, x-ray gun. I asked the technician if they were allowed to run around with them after hours going "pyew-pyew" at each other. She said "no" but she thought she might. She asked me what I was reading and got a quick lecture about the etymology of the word "fossil". Surprisingly, she seemed interested.

The next green-shirt escorted me to the far side of the x-ray waiting chairs where another row of chairs was set up to wait for the routing table. This was a short wait. I went to a router, who sadly didn't have a chair at the table. We stood at the end of table he glanced at my x-ray and said, "yep, you need a filling." He waived for a green-shirt who showed me a chair literally right behind the router in front of a curtained off area labeled "Numbing." I expected a large-screen teevee set to a financial news channel, but a quick peek behind the curtain revealed more dental chairs and blue-shirts administering anesthesia.

After a few minutes I realized having a green-shirt to take us from the routing table to the numbing waiting chairs wasn't as silly as it looked. The waiting chairs were divided into different sections depending on what procedure we needed. People were plucked from the waiting chairs based on someone watching the dentists on the other side and estimating how soon a chair would open. This way, no one would end up waiting for a procedure so long that their anesthesia began to wear off. As it happened, I had a fair amount of time to wait and spent it watching the operation.

Along with the green-shirts, who were escorts and general crowd managers, and the blue-shirts, who were dental professionals, there were at least three other color-coded groups. A small number of people in pale yellow shirts assisted the green shirts in some capacity. After squinting at their name tags every time one walked by, I figured out that they were interpreters. Multilingual professionals had yellow sticky-notes attached to their name tags announcing their languages. One blue shirt had a line of languages hanging down like medals on a North Korean general. The hand-full of people in lime-green fleece jackets were organizers and sponsors. That left the orange shirts and I couldn't figure out what their role was. I wasn’t the only one watching. One of the news teams from the morning came by to get some footage of the clinic in operation. Another group of still photographers and a film crews roamed the hall from time to time collecting shots for a documentary they were planning.

The people involved tried to keep things upbeat. Several of the green-shirts were wearing funny hats. Two of the blue-shirts were wearing blue tutus that matched their shirts. Someone was making balloon animals. Not long after two kids with balloon hats went by, Sonya the balloon twister visited us. It hadn't occurred to her that Friday was a school day and that not many kids would be there. She was going around the waiting areas making flowers and hats for the grownups. A few seats down from me she made one for a very Alaskan looking man and tied it to his wrist. Next, she approached the woman sitting behind me who kept letting other people go ahead of her. While Sonya was making her flower, the three of us began talking. Sonya and I both deal with essential tremors. We explained to the nice woman the difference between those and Parkinson's. When her flower was done, nice woman finally let a green-shirt take her into numbing and Sonya made a flower for my hat.


Numbing didn't take long. Looking in mouth, the anesthesiologist said I had perfect anatomy. I asked him to please tell that to any single, middle-aged women who came through. He had moved to Alaska about the same time I did, so we talked about that while waiting for the drugs to take effect. I had a major attack of vertigo when he sat me up too quickly and had to clutch the chair for a minute before I could go on. I'm sure you know what happened next. A green-shirt took me to another set of chairs to wait for my number to be called. She started to take me to the extraction area instead of the filling area, but caught herself. I was glad we avoided that mistake. Because of the way they had timed numbing this wait was just a couple minutes and I was finally to the place I wanted to be. Someone was finally going to fix that tooth.

In the filling area, they had set up about twenty stations each with all the plumbing, power, lights, and tools needed for a dentist to do her work. When the dental assistant leaned the chair back I went very slowly because I was still feeling some vertigo. She gave me a white bib and I said it really needed to have a picture of a lobster on it. She told me some of the other dentists had bibs with dinosaurs on them. I wondered if I could ask her for one and decided not to. The dentist looked at my tooth and x-ray and explained to me that this might not be a simple filling. The hole was actually pretty deep. If we broke through to the nerve, she would have to stop because I would need a root canal and they weren't set up to do one. There was also a chance that the tooth was too damaged to repair at all and it might have to come out. The main point was that she was going to go slowly and give me frequent updates as we went.

It was not long before she stopped. The damage went too far below the gum line for her to fix with a filling and there wasn't enough solid tooth for a crown. Also, it and the gums surrounding it were full of infection. Sooner or later the tooth would have to come out. She wanted to give me a few minutes to think about it, but to me there was no question about it. It needed to come out and they were doing free extractions right there. I said, "let's do it." The good news was that she would do it and I didn't have to go get in the extraction line. While I waited for the dental assistant to get an extraction kit, I watched the people over in the cleaning section and decided I would forego a cleaning. I was hungry and tired and decided having a molar pulled would be enough for the day. By now the anesthesia was wearing off. I asked for more. While we waited for it to take effect, I told them interesting facts about elephant dentition and the dentist told me about a veterinary dentist she knew who had worked on an elephant with an abscessed tusk.


There's not much you can say about pulling teeth. Despite all of the advances in medicine over the last few hundred years, the technology of tooth extraction is the same as it was three thousand years ago. It all comes down to grabbing the tooth with some kind of metal pincers and wrestling it out. The dentist was very good at it. She explained every step she took: "Now I'm going to wiggle it forward and back. Now I'm going to wiggle it side to side. Now I'm going to pull." As soon as she clamped on to it, a big chunk of the tooth came off. After it was out, she used some smaller tools to pick out the last bits of root. And that was that.

I decided to skip the cleaning and call it a day. A green-shirt took me to the checkout table where I turned in my clipboard. They gave me some extra gauze and a little bottle of ibuprofen. The exit interviewer asked me to rate my experience and I gave them the highest numbers possible. The dentist said she had taken part in several of these MOM events and that this was the best organized one she had seen. The exit interviewer asked if I had any questions. "Yes," I said, "what do the people in the orange shirts do?" "They’re the team leaders," he explained. It was almost three o'clock. I had been there for ten and a half hours, but it was worth every minute.

The Anchorage MOM event treated about 2000 people in two days. They've already started organizing an event next year in Fairbanks.

More pictures can be found at the Alaska Dispatch site.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book update

Today I received another rejection, or semi rejection, letter. The editor wrote that it sounds like an interesting project and invited me to submit the completed manuscript when it's ready. I read that to mean she thinks the concept has potential, but is not willing to risk an advance on a writer with no publication history or academic credentials. Crap.

The problem, at this point, is that there just aren't that many well distributed publishers of non-fiction that will consider unsolicited proposals. My next move will be to:

A. start submitting to smaller university and regional presses or
B. look for an agent.

Both of these probably represent a reduction in profit and money is an object for me. I've spent seven years on this and, being broke and unemployed, I would like to make enough to live on while I finish it and maybe even be able to get an apartment.

Tessa had an old Peanuts cartoon that we kept on the frige door. Snoopy was sitting on his doghouse typing. The captions read: "Dear sirs, With regards to your rejection letter. What I wanted was for you to send me fifty thousand dollars and publish my book. Didn't you know that?" Apparently they don't.

The Stupid Files: "Dear Jim, I win" edition

"No liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves."

Former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC)

Here we are, a third of the way through Confederate Treason Appreciation Month and I was beginning to despair that anyone would say something that I could riff off of. You can imagine my joy when I checked the news yesterday morning to see that Heritage Foundation chief honcho, former senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), had said something so gobsmackingly stupid about the Civil War that it's caused me to restart the Stupid Files.

Jim DeMint is not a stupid man. He's a mean-spirited, scorched-earth extremist, but he's not stupid. Therefore, it stands to reason that there must be some greater context that makes the above statement make some sense. There is context, but it just makes him sound dumb and naive, like he's been getting all his history from David Barton. Last week, DeMint appeared on Vocal Point with Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries. I'm not familiar with the show, but Right Wing Watch has been good enough to provide an audio clip and transcript of his conversation. Here's the context:
DeMint: This progressive, the whole idea of being progressive is to progress away from those ideas that made this country great. What we're trying to conserve as conservative are those things that work. They work today, they work for young people, they work for minorities and we can change this country and change its course very quickly if we just remember what works.
Newcombe: What if somebody, let's say you're talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, "that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later."
Everyone knows we liberals all hate the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and all the values that America stands for, so it stands to reason that we'd jump at the chance to rather incoherently spear them.
DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. It was like the conscience of the American people. 
That's why the Constitution guaranteed slavery and even gave the southern states extra votes in the House for holding slaves. I love the Constitution, but it did not free the slaves.
Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property...
It's nice that he acknowledges that the early republic has its flaws.
...but the Constitution kept calling us back to "all men are created equal" and we have "inalienable rights" in the minds of God.
Both of those phrases are from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Maybe he really is getting his history from David Barton. Also, I'm not aware that Thomas Jefferson ever claimed to know the mind of God.
But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people; it did not come from the federal government.
Fair enough. The federal government is an abstract concept defined by a foundational document (the Constitution) and a large body of literature (laws and court precedents) that for its practical application. As such, it has no thoughts of its own and can create no movements. I'm sure I'm being pedantic here, but DeMint either does not understand, or is counting on his audience not understanding (bingo!), that the government is made up of people. The abolition movement was made up of people, mostly Northerners, who aimed at using the government, especially the federal government, to free the slaves.
It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong.
See above.
People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. 
Wiberforce? William Wilberforce was an English abolitionist. Yes, his writings on the topic were influential, but he died in 1833 and his efforts were directed at slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire.
So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.
Yes, Abraham Lincoln was able to end slavery by the sheer force of his love for God. A lesser man might have used the government to raise the largest army ever seen on the continent and incurred unprecedented debt, all while ballooning the size and power of the federal government and reducing the authority of the states. A lesser man might have used the power of that growing government to impose new taxes, including a tax on income to pay for its expansion. A lesser man might have used an executive order or "proclamation" (which all good Republicans know is nearly treasonous to use for anything other than Mother's Day proclamations), enforced by the might of the state, to dispossess tens of thousands of Southerners of their property without compensation.

No liberal is going to lose an honest debate that big government freed the slaves. No amount of warm feelings in people's hearts could have freed the slaves without the overwhelming power of the state to enforce their goals. The government that the United States had in 1860—the government that the abolitionists chose as their tool—was not big enough to accomplish the task. It had to be made bigger, much bigger. Lincoln, "the very first Republican," was also the very first big government liberal. He did more to expand the size and influence of the government than any single individual in American history, with the possible exception of FDR. It's almost inconceivable that FDR could have expanded the government without the precedent of Lincoln and his Republican cousin Teddy Roosevelt before him. Lincoln set the path for big government.

I said DeMint is not a stupid man. So why did he go off on this dumb Bartonian tangent? Simple. DeMint is a demagogue. He doesn't really do politics with all its give and take, negotiation and compromise. He fires up the mob and points them at their target. In the Senate, he tried to establish himself as the chief spokesman of the Tea Party. But, he's not that dynamic of a personality and there was too much competition in Congress. So he went a little behind the scenes and took over the role of directing the most influential conservative think tank in the country. At the Heritage Foundation, the mob he addresses isn't voters with badly spelled signs; his mob is the elite who pull the levers of power.

The job of a demagogue is to pander and direct. The demagogue tells the mob that everything they believe is right and true and eternal. Then he tells them what conclusions and policies they should support based on their possession of the Truth. DeMint went on a religious show and told the listeners that the greatest injustice in American history, slavery, was defeated by the faith of people just like them. Following that pandering he told them that big-government liberals want to take that credit away from them.

The silly and awkward narrative he used to make those points isn't meant to be taken by itself. If it is, it's laughably wrong. But, his intended audience isn't meant to take it by itself. His narrative fits into a much larger context than the expanded quote I fisked above. The liberals-want-to-steal-your-credit message feeds into the paranoid siege mentality that is so central to movement conservatism. It also echoes a populist message that Lincoln himself mocked, that is the fear that "they" are looking down on "us." In setting big government up in opposition to faith, DeMint reinforces the message heard all across the right that secularism is a (non-Christian) religion and using government to solve problems deprives God of his rightful position in the scheme of things.

Hierarchy and deference to rightful authority are key elements at the very core of conservative thought. DeMint crafted his story to impress on the minds of the faithful that supporting the anti-government agenda of the libertarian/capitalist wing of the Republican Party is a religious duty. Those of us who don't like Kool-Ade might find his rhetoric laughable; he doesn't care what we think. I'm sure his message went over just fine with the faithful. How well it went over with the leaders of the faithful and other conservative elites is another question. Will mocking his apparent ignorance cause them to close ranks or to distance themselves from him? I hope for the latter, but I expect the former.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

South Carolina has a state fossil

South Carolina finally has an official state fossil: the Columbian mammoth (that's also the state fossil of Washington). The decision was not without some melodrama.

As I mentioned below, eight year old Olivia McConnell was perusing lists of state symbols and noticed that her state was one of the last states without a state fossil. She did some research and discovered that South Carolina has a special tie to American paleontology through a discovery of some mammoth teeth that were the first in the New World to be authoritatively identified as elephantine in nature. The identification was made by an African slave whose name was unfortunately not recorded. Armed with this background research, Olivia wrote to her state representatives who promptly wrote a bill and submitted it to each house. The bill was short and clear. After the usual whereas's it read:
Article 9, Chapter 1, Title 1 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding: "Section 1-1-712A. The Columbian Mammoth is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina."
It sailed through the House with a 94-3 vote, went on the Senate, and came screeching to a halt. Sen. Kevin Bryant, a creationist, decided the bill needed some religion and amended it with three verses from Genesis describing the creation of the animals. This was judged to be an insertion of a new topic into the bill which, for procedural reasons stopped its progress. At this point, the national press took notice, and not in a way that made South Carolina look good. 

If the story had simply been about religion, Bryant and his supporters would have gotten their Southern stubborn on and said "screw you" to Yankees, the liberal media, and all of the others that they imagine to be persecuting them. The South Carolina legislature has had no problem unconstitutionally inserting religion into their education standards. What made this time different was that the story was almost universally framed as "humorless old men frustrate well-meaning little girl's dream." Defying public opinion in the name of God and the South wasn't going to work this time. Bryant whined to The Daily Beast that he didn't mean to block Olivia's bill, he "just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils."

The simple thing to do would have been for Bryant to remove his amendment and pass the bill before the PR disaster could go on any longer. It didn't work out that way. Bryant removed his amendment, but Sen. Mike Fair, another creationist, put a hold on the bill so Bryant could reword his injection of religion in a way that wouldn't be deemed a new topic. Bryant did this and the Senate leadership accepted his new language. The bill was set to come up for a vote on Wednesday, when Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler blocked it. Peeler thinks the state has more than enough state symbols and considers naming any more to be a waste of time. To demonstrate how strongly he felt about this, he chose the most embarrassing time possible to waste three hours of the Senate's time arguing over it. Finally, the leadership allowed his to insert a second clause into the bill declaring a moratorium on any new symbols. The leadership chose not to view this as a new topic even though it is. The final vote was unanimous.

The final Senate bill is hardly perfect. Peeler got his moratorium. Bryant got his religion. The final wording is awkward and redundant:

The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as the 'Columbian Mammoth', which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.
The one improvement, from my perspective, is that they finally got the species right. The original bill said "Wooly (sic) Mammoth" in  the title and "Columbian Mammoth" in the actual bill. The final version has this corrected to Columbian in both places. The press is still having trouble with that. The New York Times coverage refers to it as the "Columbia woolly mammoth." USA Today correctly refers to it as the Columbian mammoth, but then messes up by calling it a sub-species of the woolly mammoth.

South Carolina has a state fossil and Olivia McConnell has had an education in civics. I hope this encourages her to stay out of politics and to go into science. Or, if she is inspired to go into politics, that it be so the people of South Carolina have someone representing them who knows how to do their homework and who will cut through the crap.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

It's Treason Appreciation Month

A whole year has passed and it's already Confederate Heritage and History Month. Every year, it begins, appropriately enough, on April Fools Day. So far, the governors of Alabama and Mississippi have issued official proclamations calling on the (white) citizens of their states to honor the august achievements of those four years of waging war against the United States. Well, history is history. I'll have a few things to say myself.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mammoths in the news

In South Carolina, eight year old Olivia McConnell noticed that her state has a state grass doesn't have a state fossil. She set out to fix that. She wrote a letter to her state legislators, Rep. Robert Ridgeway and Sen. Kevin Johnson, laying out her reasons why the state need an official fossil and proposed the mammoth for the job. They were impressed and sponsored a bill for her.

The articles I've checked on all flip back and forth between Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth and so does the bill. They are two different species. Columbian would be the correct one for South Carolina. Olivia probably knows the difference. She did her homework on this, but I can't find the text of her letter. One of the reasons she gave for choosing the mammoth was that it has an important tie to South Carolina. The first known mention mammoth remains in the Americas appeared in 1743 in Mark Catesby's in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands he wrote "At a place in Carolina called Stono, was dug out of the Earth three or four Teeth of a large Animal, which, by the concurring Opinion of all the Negroes, native Africans, that saw them, were the Grinders of an Elephant...." Catesby probably heard about the teeth when he traveled in the southern states in 1725.

Olivia's bill should have sailed through both houses and been signed into law in no time. Rep. Ridgeway's version sailed through committee, was put to a vote and passed 94-3. Those three should be ashamed of themselves. Then the bill ran aground in the senate. Far right Sen. Kevin Bryant decided it needed to to be amended with an unconstitutional injection of religion. He wanted to add some verses from Genesis so every one would know just who created mammoths and fossils. Bryant's amendment was ruled out of order because it introduced a new subject. Bryant tried to shorten his amendment, but still wants to keep religion in the bill. Thus, it remains in limbo. In his defense, Bryant whines, "I think it's a good idea to designate the mammoth as the state fossil, I don't have a problem with that. I just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils." Bryant has one ally in the state senate, Sen. Mike Fair, who has placed an objection on the bill. Fair, like Bryant is a creationist and climate change denier.

And so, it remains unclear if South Carolina will get a state fossil. Three other states have mammoths as their state fossils (and one has the mastodon), but duplication has never been a problem for state symbols (state flowers, for example). Changing the species won't help. Bryant and Fair will want to attach religion to any fossil. Most stories on this predictably end with the gag that perhaps Bryant and Fair should be the state fossils. The story shouldn't be about their obstructionism. It should be about Olivia McConnell, a smart, observant girl. I hope those two old poops don't discourage her. We need more girls like Olivia.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hobby Lobby and privacy

 Over the last few days, while looking at some of the pre-trial commentary on the Hobby Lobby vs. Obamacare suit, something that's been nagging at me finally jelled into a coherent thought. The primary arguments will be over whether the government is violating the religious freedom of the owners of Hobby Lobby by requiring the insurance they contribute to for their employees to cover birth control. I think the feminist issues have been covered well by my side and both sides have covered the religious freedom angles. My epiphany was over the privacy angle, which actually grows out of the liberal argument about whose religious freedom is being infringed upon by whom. All of these issues are inextricably intertwined. It's the job of the Supremes to untangle them and decide which thread is the Constitutional issue they want to opine on.

How does privacy fit into this? I'm fairly sure privacy is not even a choice among the bases the Supremes will use to make their decision. Robert Bork, who was Reagan's first choice for Scalia's seat argued that there is no right to privacy and, as far as I know, neither side in this case is making an argument that it is relevant. But it is. Be patient with me.

The Green family, who own the Hobby Lobby chain, claim they don't want to control the sex lives of their (female) employees, they just don't want to be forced to pay for aspects of those sex lives that they don't approve of. Ty disapprove of birth control, which they (very incorrectly) equate to abortion. By their logic, they don't want to pay for scarlet women to kill babies. That's not the issue. The issue is the privacy of their employees. Not anyone's religion. Privacy.

Compensation for a job can include a lot of things, pay for work, paid time off, bonuses, stock options, and insurance. These things the employer gives to the employee in exchange for work of some sort. In most jobs, this means the employer has a great deal of control over what the employee can or cannot do during what are considered working hours. Periodically, in the past, employers have tried to control their employees during their off-work hours. Schools, both private and public, have been well known for imposing morality codes on teachers that apply to every hour of every day. Over the last decade or so, many secular employers have tried to exert control over their employees off-the-clock vices. They have tried to control their employees smoking and drinking, even when these haven't affected their job performance, in the name of keeping insurance costs down. Other employers drug test for pot use, even when this hasn't affected job performance, and a cost to the company, just in the name of the employer's pecksniffery. The liberal, libertarian, and even, occasionally, conservative counter-arguments to these efforts has been that whatever the employee does off-the-clock is none of their employer's damn business. Different parts of the spectrum can have different rationales for objecting or supporting some of these employer demands. From the perspective of privacy, none of it is justifiable. Which brings us back to Hobby Lobby.

Insurance is part of the total compensation package that an employer gives to an employee. If a female employee wants to use their insurance to cover birth control, the Greens say they are being made to subsidize something they disapprove of. But what if the employee chooses to use part of her pay for birth control? How is that different? Pay and insurance are both part of the total compensation package. If the employer has the right to tell an employee how to use their insurance, why don't they have the right to tell them how to spend the monetary part of their compensation package? Why not tell them which cable channels they can subscribe to? Why not tell them to eat more vegetables, like Michelle Obama isn't?

The Greens want to intrude into the most basic economic transactions of their employees. In its most extreme, how is this degree of control different that the company store or the plantation. Conservatives love the plantation analogy; how can they defend this one?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Vilui rhinoceros

Peter Simon Pallas arrived in Irkutsk an hour before midnight on March 14, 1772. He was accompanied by a painter and three naturalists. The horses, he writes, we tired. It was a week before the equinox but the rivers were still frozen and there was plenty of snow on the ground in that part of the world. This was a feature, not a bug, as far as travel in Siberia was concerned. When the temperatures rose, the whole country would become one endless, roadless, mosquito-filled bog. Since the beginning of the Russian state, the fastest way to travel its vast expanses had been by sleigh in the winter. He could have used those frozen rivers and snowy ground to continue deeper into Siberia but Irkutsk was his goal. He wrote that he knew the city held curiosities he had to see and stories he had to hear about the unknown land across Lake Baikal. Irkutsk did not disappoint. The governor had a rhinoceros to show him.

Pallas had arrived in Russian four years earlier at the invitation of Catherine the Great. He had been offered a teaching position at the Academy University, but that title was more a description of his pay grade and social status than a job description. He immediately set to work preparing for a five year expedition into the eastern provinces of Catherine's empire. Before leaving, he took time to look through the Academy's collections where he discovered a rhino skull that had been discovered near the Amur River on the Chinese-Siberian border. Numerous bones of rhinos along with hippos, elephants, and other tropical animals had been found in his native Germany and other parts of Europe. He wrote a paper describing this skull, tying it to the problem of the Siberian mammoth. Like most thinkers of his time, he was inclined to explain their presence in the north as a result of the Biblical flood washing the bones of tropical animals north. Pallas did not follow the usual method of scientific explorers, which was to collect samples and take notes and then analyze and write about them on their return. He sent several scientific papers back to the Academy and two volumes of a travel narrative while still on the road.

When Governor de Brill told him that he had preserved parts of an unknown large animal, Pallas' first thought was probably of a mammoth. Westerners knew of tales of bloody preserved mammoth carcasses as long as they had known about the mammoth. Earlier in the century there had even been a report by a reputable European. In addition, Pallas had seen dozens, possibly hundreds, of mammoth bones since leaving St. Petersburg. In his Travels, he wrote that there was hardly a river east of the Don that did not produce a few. He must have been both surprised and delighted when de Brill produced the head and feet of a rhino. During his four years on the road, Pallas had begun to doubt the wisdom of his having come to Russia. Captain Cook was the superstar of exploratory science. It seemed to Pallas that the South Seas was the real frontier. In Siberia, he lamented, one could go a hundred miles without discovering anything. A preserved rhino was something to get excited about.

Pallas was exceptionally lucky that almost everyone involved in bringing the mammoth to his attention had understood its importance. The rhino had been discovered by a group of Yakut (Sakha) hunters in December on the banks of the Vilui River, a tributary that fell into the Lena well above the Arctic Circle. The rhino was nearly complete when they found it, but enough of it was in a bad state of decay that decided to cut the feet and head from the carcass and leave the rest behind. In any case, even if they had wanted bring the whole body, breaking it loose from the frozen ground would have been almost impossible during the winter. The hunters took these parts to Ivan Argunov, the district magistrate who took a notarized statement detailing the location and position of the carcass and sent the parts and statement to the regional capital on Yakutsk in January. The authorities there kept one foot and sent the rest on to Irkutsk, where it arrived in late February, just three weeks before Pallas' arrival.

The head and feet were in excellent condition. Almost all of the skin was present and covered with hair. The delicate structure of the eyelids remained. Muscles and fat were preserved under the skin. Though the horns were missing, from the spots where they had been attached, he could tell it had been a two horned rhino. Of immediate concern was making sure it remained preserved in the best condition possible. It had already begun to give off a stench that he compared to "an ancient latrine." He chose to dry it in an oven. The melting fat falling in the fire caused the oven to get much hotter than he wanted and one of the feet was burned beyond any hope of saving. Naturally, the loss was blamed on an inattentive servant although I feel confident in say that no one in Irkutsk had any experience in drying rhinoceros parts so we should cut him some slack. Pallas took careful measurements of the head and feet and wrote a detailed article (in Latin) for the Academy. He would have liked to have spent more time studying it, but the Siberian Spring was coming and he wanted to get across Lake Baikal before the ice broke. 

The Vilui rhinoceros as it appeared with Pallas' description (source)

Pallas' paper was published in the Academy yearbook for 1772 and eagerly read by scholars all over Europe. When he returned in 1774 he was covered in honors and eagerly sought out by other scientists. Moving to Russia turned not to have been a bad choice after all. he stayed in Russia for the rest of his working life. His rhino did not disappear into the Academy collections never to be seen again. During the Nineteenth Century, other scientists continued to study it. Its blood was examined, the remains of its last meal were picked out of its teeth, and, in 1849, Johann Friedrich von Brandt, the head of the zoology division at the Academy wrote a book length anatomical study of the remains. As an introduction to his study, Brandt went over the documents relating to the discovery.

In his rush to leave Irkutsk, Pallas regretted not having had time to make drawings of the remains. The Academy made up for this lack by having an artist prepare a detailed set of drawings of the head in profile and the remaining foot from the front and side. When Brandt made his study, he had an artist make new drawings, though not as detailed, of the head from all angles. By Brandt's time, enough other remains, especially horns had been made that they were beginning to be able reconstruct the Siberian rhino and see how different it was from living rhinos. One detail that particularly stood out was how unusual the horns were. Instead of being essentially conical, like those of living rhinos, The horns they were finding in Siberia were flat as a knife blade and ridiculously long, sometimes three or even four feet. Brandt had his artist match the skull up with one of the horns in their collection to give readers an idea of the horn's magnitude.

The Vilui rhinoceros as it appeared with Brandt's description. Because color printing was still rare, the illustration was most likely had colored. In either case, the use of color demonstrates the importance the Academy placed on the study. (source)

Like many extinct animals, the name of Siberian rhino has gone through many permutations over the years, from Rhinocerotis antiquitatis to Gryphus antiquitatus to Rhinocerotis tichorhini to its current name Coelodonta antiquitatis. It's commonly called the woolly rhino and is one of the best known ice age animals after the mammoth and sabre toothed tiger. Pallas never did have his name attached to it. It's curious that he didn't give it a name. At the time, he was working on his own naming system to fix the weaknesses that he saw in the Linnaean system. As it was, the naming credit has gone to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who, coincidentally, also named the mammoth. Pallas needn't feel slighted; he named and has had named after him a number of other species.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Monsieur Paquet's giant bone

Business must have been going well in 1779 for Monsieur Paquet, a Paris wine merchant. At least, that's what we can infer from his decision to expand his cellars that year. After removing part of the wall, He began digging into the yellow soil of mixed sand and clay. Two feet in, he discovered something very large and hard that was not a rock. At first, he thought he had run into a tree trunk, but, after clearing away more soil, he discovered that it was the biggest bone he, or anyone he knew, had ever seen. Paquet vanished from history soon after that, but the created a mini controversy and the last hurrah of the idea that mammoths were not elephantine in nature.

Paquet knew he had something valuable. He spent eight days trying to excavate it, but, with the soft walls collapsing, he finally had to give up. Using a sledge hammer and iron wedges, he broke off what he could see of the bone and built a wall over the rest. Even without the part still buried and other pieces chipped off, the bone weighted over 200 pounds. Several doctors came to view his bone and all agreed that it was one half of a giant pelvis. However, one learned visitor disagreed.

The exception was Robert de Paul de Lamanon, a promising new light on the French intellectual scene. As young men, Robert and his older brother, Pierre-Auguste, developed a habit of walking, rather than riding, wherever they went. This gave them the opportunity to examine all aspects of the countryside from agriculture to the living conditions of the peasantry to the geological structure of the land. After his father died, Robert dropped out of the seminary—as a student of Locke, Hobbs, and Rousseau he had no interest in religion—and set out with his brother to study the mountains of Switzerland. He estimated that they walked 1800 miles through the Alps that year. Based on his close-up observations of mountain valleys and the gravel deposits below the mountains, he developed a theory that the primary force shaping the earth was water—not the waters of the Biblical deluge, but rivers and periodic eruptions from enormous primal lakes in the mountains. This was the Lamanon who arrived in Paris and heard about Paquet's giant bone.

After rather roughly wresting it from the ground, Paquet kept the bone in the hopes of selling it for the sizable amount of 800 livres (at the time, Lamanon was living on a budget of 600 livres per year from his father's estate). Despite his high hopes for selling the bone, Paquet was willing to let Lamanon spend several days examining it. Lamanon hired an artist named Martin to help him and the two used their time to take measurements, make drawings, and even construct clay models of the bone. Based on his examination, Lamanon argued that it couldn't possibly be a pelvis. He pointed out that several structures were missing, most importantly, the acetabulum, the socket that meets the ball at the top of the femur to form the hip joint. To his eye, it looked like the lower part of a skull. Building on that observation, he stated that the bone bore no resemblance to the skull of an elephant or hippo or any other known terrestrial animal, which was true enough. Therefore, he concluded, it must have belonged to a whale. He admitted that the only whale skull he had seen was the damaged skull of a young whale left behind by a showman as he skipped town ahead of his creditors.

Monsieur Martin's drawing of the bone (source)

It was no coincidence that Lamanon specifically called out elephants and hippos for comparison. Besides being the largest of terrestrial animals, they had both been suggested as identities for other giant bones found around the Northern Hemisphere. In Asia and Europe, the bones were called mammoth and assigned to elephants. In the Ohio country of North America, mastodon bones, then as yet unnamed, showed features common to both elephants and hippos. Lamanon used his analysis of Paquet's bone to question those identifications. The mere resemblance of certain bones, he wrote, specifically referring to tusks and teeth, does not necessarily mean they come from the same animal. The teeth of a horse resemble those of donkey and the teeth of a cat those of a dog. Mammoth teeth resemble those of an elephant, but those of the mastodon do not. Couldn't this mean that mammoth, mastodon, and elephant are three completely different animals, or that mammoth and mastodon finds were not the remains of single animals but the co-mingled bones of several different animals, some elephant-like and some not? This was the position of the great Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton regarding the unknown animal of the Ohio. As for the Siberian mammoth, he pointed out that, even though the offer of a substantial reward for a complete skeleton had been in effect since the time of Peter the Great, no one had yet been able to produce one.

That Paquet's bone might have come from a whale was the starting point in the argument Lamanon wanted to make. His next point was the idea that other large bones were not necessarily those of known terrestrial animals. Having set his argument up, Lamanon moved on to his objective: using Paquet's bone to support his geological theories. The primal lakes that Lamanon envisioned shaping the geology of the north were really inland seas and their draining was a series of explosive, catastrophic events. He argued that whale bones in places like the Paris basin didn't come up from the ocean; they came down from the mountains. Mixed bones, such as those that Daubenton believed the Ohio animal to be made of, Lamanon saw as evidence of the violence of the lakes' draining. Even if the bones included those of elephants or hippos, these were animals living downstream, swept up, and deposited far north of their native habitats.

Most naturalists believed that the mammoth was an elephant and the mastodon was something similar, but there was still enough room for doubt that Lamanon's argument that they were not wasn't scandalous. What did scandalize some was the fact that he directly challenged Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte du Buffon and intendant of the royal museum (Jardin du Roi). Buffon was without question the most influential man in French science. Buffon's theory of the earth was that it had started out as a molten sphere and cooled first at the poles and that the habitable part of the world had expanded from there. He further claimed that only hot climates were hospitable for large animals. By this, he explained giant bones, such as the mammoth's, were relics of a time when the climate of the North was tropical. His theory of the relationship between temperature and size so annoyed Thomas Jefferson that he dedicated a large part of a chapter of his Notes on the State of Virginia to refuting it. Lamanon refuted Buffon by pointing out that there were plenty of large animals in the North such as moose, but especially fish and whales.

A childhood friend of his later wrote that "a thousand voices were against him, he was assailed on all sides, the newspapers rang with accusations of arrogance, audacity, boldness, ignorance itself.” One such outrages person was one Baudon, who published a nitpicking response to Lamanon five months after his paper came out. Boudon upbraided Lamanon for having the temerity to contradict his betters. He followed this by assuring his readers that his only motive was his love of truth and not currying favor for his forthcoming book. August was embarrassed enough by his brother that he wrote a letter of apology to Buffon on his behalf.

Neither Buffon himself nor his protege Daubenton seemed particularly offended. Buffon was happy to take advantage of Lamanon's geological observations in his later works. Daubenton's curiosity was sufficiently aroused to make a trip to Paquet's wine cellar to examine the bone and convince the merchant to dig out the rest of the bone. Daubenton was the perfect man to settle what kind of bone it was. Forty years earlier, he had been chosen by Buffon to catalog the zoological collections at the Jardin du Roi. In that capacity, he had handled and measured the bones of hundreds of animals, both living and fossil. Later he had helped Buffon write his encyclopedic Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière by contributing anatomical essays on 182 species of quadrupeds. He was easily the most knowledgeable comparative anatomist in Europe. Daubenton took one of Lamanon's clay models and compared it to the bones in the royal collection. The closest match he found confirmed what Lamanon's observations. In a short paper read before the Academy, he set out his reasons for believing the bone was part of the sphenoid process, a lower part of the skull, of an especially large whale.

Daubenton was accompanied on his visit to Paquet's by the chemist Berniard. Lamanon asked Berniard if it was possible to determine, by chemical analysis, whether a bone came from a land animal or from a sea animal. Berniard admitted he didn't know. Since none of the three of them had heard of such an experiment. They secured a piece of Paquet's bone and Daubenton brought from the royal collections pieces of whale, elk, porpoise, and human bones; a walrus tusk; an elephant's molar; and one of the teeth of the unknown animal of the Ohio. As to the primary question, Berniard determined that there was no significant difference between the bones of land and sea mammals. For his readers he also pointed out that there was not enough difference between the human bones and the other animals to claim a special place for humans in creation. At least, not based on biology.

This was the final scientific word on Paquet's bone, but it was not the final word on Lamanon's paper. A year after the first appearance of his paper, Journal de physique, de chimie, d'histoire naturelle et des arts published a short paper by P. de la Coudreniere that challenged both Buffon's and Lamanon's theories of the earth and used mammoths as his main evidence. Coudreniere made a reasonable argument against each theory. Of Buffon's cooling theory he points out that because the earth is a flattened sphere, the poles are closer to the internal fires within than are the tropics and, by his calculation, should be the last to cool, meaning something else must determine the temperature gradient. Of Lamanon's lakes theory, he points out that the largest salt lake on earth, the Caspian Sea, doesn't host anything larger than beluga sturgeon and small seals. It certainly doesn't contain whales. So far, so good. Then he goes off the rails.

Coudreniere next turns his attention to the mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, which he assumes to be local breeds of the same beast. What does the animal look like? What does it eat? Where is its food found? It can only be, he informs us, a bear, specifically the giant bear of Greenland. How that answers the latter two questions, he doesn't explain. There is no known animal more voracious than polar bears, he tells us, but there might be an even bigger bear never seen by Europeans, known only to the Eskimos. Quoting an anonymous history of Greenland, he describes a black bear, reputed to be thirty-six feet high, though, he admits, the size was probably exaggerated. The reason the mammoth/bear is rarely seen in Eurasia and North America is that Greenland is its primary range and it only migrates into the other continents during times of famine. That Greenland was attached to the other continents by an unmapped polar land was a fairly common belief at the time. That elephant sized bears roamed that land was a less common belief.

Lamanon wrote very little about Paquet's bone after his article was published. After Baudon's piece was published he sent a short letter to the editor saying he never had the pleasure of meeting Baudon, but wished to assure him that he had no animosity toward Buffon or any other great men. He worked behind the scenes with Daubenton and Berniard but soon moved on to other projects. He never responded to Coudrenier's giant bear thesis. In 1785 he sailed on the la Pérouse scientific expedition to the South Pacific—the French equivalent of Captain Cook. He was killed in Samoa in December 1787.

Robert de Paul de Lamanon (source)

Paquet's bone did not achieve the fame of some other bones, but its impact on science was not totally insignificant. Berniard's comparative chemical analysis of bones would be cited several times over the following decades. The bone became an important piece of evidence for scientists deciphering the geology of the Paris basin. Freshwater shells and the strata of gypsum that underlie the city all point to an age when the basin was covered by water. Georges Cuvier, who occupied a position of authority in the first third of the Nineteenth Century equivalent to that of Buffon in the last half of the Eighteenth, frequently cited the works of Lamanon in establishing that fact. Cuvier also sought out the bone and was able to add to our knowledge of it. Lamanon and Daubenton were able to identify the bone as having come from a whale, but they could only speculate about the species. The collections at the Jardin du Roi were sadly deficient in whale bones. Daubenton used a small sperm whale, which is a toothed whale, for comparison and documented enough points of similarity to be confident that it was a whale, but could go no further than that. By the time that Cuvier approached the problem, that deficiency in the collection had been alleviated—partly through new donations and partly through directed looting by the revolutionary armies. Cuvier was able to narrow the species down further to a type of baleen whale. He thought that it most resembled a Greenland whale.

Though Lamanon's name was remembered and Paquet's bone was remembered, Paquet's name was not. He became merely "a wine merchant" in the literature. In 1785 he was finally able to sell the bone. In the six years since he had dug it out of his cellar wall, it had attracted attention, but no buyers. He was forced to lower his asking price. He was probably relieved when a Dutch collector offered him ten Louis d'or. Though less than a third of his original asking price, it was a sizable chunk of money and probably something of a record for a damaged partial bone. The buyer was Martinus van Marum, an agent for Teyler's Museum in Amsterdam. The museum was a rare public collection that was the brainchild of the late Pieter Teyler, a rich banker who left his entire fortune and personal collections to a foundation dedicated to bettering the arts and sciences. Marum, no doubt, grabbed the bone for the museum's grand opening that year.

Over the years, others have had a chance to examine the bone. It is indeed the sphenoid process of a Greenland whale or, as we would call it today, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). The taxonomy of the right whale went through several permutations in the Nineteenth Century being lumped together with other baleen whales at times and split into multiple species at others. For a time, Paquet's bone was seen as the type specimen of a species Balaena lamanoni. Paquet had been forgotten by then. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Lamanon would no longer have his own whale.

The bone today (source)

The final word on the bone is a bit anticlimactic. The website of Teyler's Museum, tells us that the bone was neither a fossil—which was known when it was found—nor even very old. Though the bone was an important piece of evidence in convincing scientists of Cuvier's generation that Paris had once been deep underwater, it might be that it wasn't there at the time. Researchers at Teyler's think that it might have been nothing more than a waste product of the women’s undergarment industry. Fragments of whales' ribs have been found in the same district that are known to have come from the manufacture of hoop skirts and corsets. This has not caused Teyler's to remove the bone from their collections. Whatever its age, it's a piece of history. It remains on public display in the same room as Homo diluvii testis, one of the most famous fossils in the history of paleontology and one of the Beringer lying stones and equally famous counterfeit. That's pretty good company.

If I ever get to Amsterdam, I'll definitely visit Paquet's bone.

NOTE: One of the annoyances of working with Seventeenth Century journals, especially French journals, is the convention of rarely using first names. Some modern countries, such as Russia, have a convention using initials rather than first names, but Seventeenth Century French journals rarely give even those. Everyone is "M" (Monsieur). This makes finding biographical details a bit of a challenge. Buffon and Daubenton are influential enough that I wouldn’'t have had to go further than Amazon to find out who they were if I didn't already know. Lamanon is the only person in this post whose full name was given on his paper, and he was important enough that I could have picked up the few details I needed from Wiki. I'm not surprised at the lack of information about Paquet. It wouldn't have been unusual for the time if Lamanon had referred to him as "a wine merchant" and left it at that. This leaves Baudon, Berniard, and Coudrenier. I can find nothing else by or about Baudon. It looks like he never found a publisher for his book. Berniard, as I mentioned, was quoted into the next century, not just on bones but on other studies as well. Yet, no one in that century seems to have known what is name was. I was tempted to identify him with Pierre Berniard, another chemist who, however, I found out was in Poland at the time. Finally, I found a library entry for one of his articles that gave him the first initial "L". Maybe they were related. That leaves P. de la Coudreniere. I have two candidates: Henri Peyroux de la Coudreniere and his brother Pierre. Henri was a land speculator who left a small mark in history by encouraging Acadian refugees to settle in Louisiana. Pierre stayed out of his brother's schemes and stayed home to take care of their elderly mother. Henri would be the more fun of the two to work into the story, but I have no good reason to believe it was either one. Although it's unlikely in that century, I can't exclude the possibility that one of Baudon, Berniard, or Coudrenier might have been a woman.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mini-Snopes: yet another congressional pay edition

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about this one. It's back. If you see it, help kill it.

Let's be clear. Neither members of Congress, nor the President, nor the Vice President get their pay for life. That is bullshit. Think about it for a minute. Do you really think some one-term, House member is going to get his pay for life after only "working" for two years? Even if you're going to be extra cynical and say "they would if they could," the correct answer is, they couldn't and they never will.

Members of Congress get a civil service pension just like the person delivering your mail, processing Social Security checks, or sending you your tax return. It's a formula based on the number of years they worked for the government times their highest pay grade times a fractional multiplier. The total cannot equal their final pay, even if they were boyhood friends with Jefferson Davis, like Strom Thurmond was. Ever since they began to pay for Social Security and Medicare in 1984, members of Congress been part of the civil service pension program.

I'm all for economic populism, but let's focus on the right things. How much pay Congress makes is not important. How much pay you make is. How much Social Security and Medicare your parents, grandparents, or you collect is. How much food, rent, and medical support other vulnerable Americans get is. These are the issues and people that are important. You should care more about what they aren't getting than you should about what a few hundred congress members get. If you've fallen into the the trap of hating the poor, then do it for the veterans. Many of them are poor, old, hungry, and sick. Everyone loves the veterans, in theory. It's too bad they don't care as much for the civilians that the veterans were protecting.

There are good reasons to cast a jaundiced eye on the benefits package congress gets. A lying internet meme is not one of them.