Monday, July 31, 2006

Because everybody likes a list
Blender magazine has couple lists of badness up. Everybody has done a worst song list and worst movie list, so let's move on to the 25 Wussiest Artists Ever. As is always the case with such lists, it's limited to major American performers. That's fine, the US has produced more than enough wimpy, lame performers to keep the discussion going untill the bartender announces last call and throws us all out. The Blender writers have included the Mount Rushmore men of Wussy music, Kenny G, Barry Manilow, Pat Boone, and Bread. That's good start.

The list is also limited in time, It has one performer from the fifties, two from the sixties, and the rest from the last thirty-five years. Normally, this would be the point where I would stand up for the rest of recording history by going to the bat for almost every white vocal group of the forties, but instead I'm going to go uber provincial. I came of age just before the golden age of Soft Rock, the long national nightmare which preceded the only slightly longer national nightmare of Disco. I could have constructed the entire list from a four or five year period when I was in junior and senior high school.

As I read the list I nodded in agreement with each nineties boy group included, but found myself shaking my head in amazement at the Soft Rock omissions. "But where's Bobby Sherman and John Denver," I wondered. "You can't have missed Lobo," I cried. I reached the end of the article and looked for extra pages. "What about Rod McCuen and his stupid cake?" I demanded, my voice raising to a howl. "Doesn't Michael Murphy and his dumbass horse Wildfire deserve inclusion?? What is the matter with you people?" Obviously, the seventies were a trying time for me.

Which performers absolutely must be included in your list of the Wussiest American Artists of the Last Half-Century?
By now every one has heard about the horrible slaughter in Qana, Lebanon. Fifty seven people, including thirty four children were killed when the house they had taken shelter in collapsed after being bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Predictably, conspiracy theories have begun to fly, from the mere shifting of blame from Israel to Hezbollah...
Air Force Chief of Staff Brig-Gen. Amir Eshel said the building that Israel struck with missiles collapsed about seven hours after it was struck by Israeli jets. Eshel said something in the building might have caused the explosion. claiming the whole episode was faked for the cameras.
But the accumulating evidence suggests another explanation for what happened at Kana. The scenario would be a setup in which the time between the initial Israeli bombing near the building and morning reports of its collapse would have been used to "plant" bodies killed in previous fighting -- reports in previous days indicated that nearby Tyre was used as a temporary morgue -- place them in the basement, and then engineer a "controlled demolition" to fake another Israeli attack.

The most common apologetic argument is that this was a tragic accident brought on by the unconscionable tactics of Hezbollah.
Overlooked in some of the media coverage was the fact that another 150 rockets were launched at Israel's civilian population on Sunday.


Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman called Qana a "hub of Hizballah" and expressed Israel's regrets for the deaths of so many civilians and children. Sunday, he said, was a "horrible, sad and bloody" day.

Nevertheless, Gillerman noted that although the civilians were killed by an Israeli shell, it was Hizballah who was using the women and children as human shields.

John Averosis asks some hard ethical questions about this.
So here's the ethical question of the day. Someone is firing hundreds of missiles at your citizens each day, and launching them from civilians areas because think they think you won't hit back (or hope you do, and thus kill civilians, causing a storm of bad publicity). As for the civilians, it's an open question whether they are helping harbor the guys with the missiles or not, i.e., whether or not they have a say in telling Hezbollah to take a hike (and if they do have a say, would that change your answer)?

So the question is this, under those circumstances, what do YOU do as the leader of country that's receiving 100 rockets a day raining down on your cities?

Second question, which I've posed before. At what point does a local citizenry become responsible for the crimes it supports? When Israel is on the receiving end of bombs, I hear a lot of talk about how every Israeli is a legitimate target because they all support the government. So does the same apply to every Arab, every Muslim, every southern Lebanese, and every American?

He's asked variations of these same questions before and been roundly savaged for it. I think his desire for an open discussion of this issue is sincere--as opposed to Alan Dershowitz's attempt to manipulate his readers into abandoning basic pillars of international law. Sincerely asked, they are legitimate questions. It never hurts to examine the underpinnings of our beliefs; so I'll attempt to explain where I stand on this.

Aravosis asks, "At what point does a local citizenry become responsible for the crimes it supports?" The key to this is how much and how they support the crimes. Whether or not Hezbollah's actions are crimes, legitimate resistance, or something else is a question for another day. Let's assume that they are crimes. The responsibility of the local population lies on a sliding scale from clearly responsible (actively helping Hezbollah), through the highly ambiguous (tolerating Hezbollah's hiding among them), to clearly innocent (human shields somehow held captive by Hezbollah). Notice that all along the scale, Hezbollah is clearly guilty; it is only the surrounding population whose guilt is in question.

The relevant principles of international law are very clear.

Israel has a right to self-defense. Every country and, to a lesser extent, national group, has that right. This means, that if Hezbollah shoots at Israel, Israel has a right to shoot back. It also means that if Lebanon can't stop Hezbollah, Israel has a right to enter Lebanon to stop Hezbollah. This does not mean that is smart or good publicity for Israel to do so; it just means that they are within their rights to do so.

Collective punishment is against international law. Collective punishment is the act of a state holding an entire group responsible for the actions of a few individuals. During WWII the Nazis regularly told occupied areas that for every German soldier killed by partisan activity, they would randomly select ten civilians and execute them. They were not terribly picky about getting exactly ten and often rounded up to the nearest village. The goal was to terrify the group into quiescence and to force them to do the policing that the Nazis were unable to do themselves.

Although the Nazi example is the best known, the tactic hardly originated with them. It is as old as imperial power and written language. It has been the preferred tactic for dealing with guerilla style insurgencies since wars began. The Assyrians used it, the Romans used it, The European powers used it to conquer and hold Africa, we used it against the plains Indians, and Saddam used it in Kurdistan. It is the favorite demand of rightwing bloggers whenever they need to display their toughness. It is also the sick logic that drives tribal vendettas and gang warfare. And, oh yes, I think it is wrong.

To a certain extent, these two principles collide with one another. Often, to get at the people most responsible for war-like action, the state must go through or over people who are less responsible. International law recognizes the inevitability of this collision. International law recognizes that there will be--to use a horrible phrase--collateral damage. The law against collective punishment does not expect the state to produce no collateral damage when pursuing aggressors; however, it does prohibit intentionally targeting non-combatant civilians and expects the state to make reasonable efforts to limit collateral damage.

With that as background, my answers to his questions--based on my own understanding of international law, civilized behavior, and state morality--are:
[W]hat do YOU do as the leader of country that's receiving 100 rockets a day raining down on your cities?

I would send troops in to try and stop those who are launching the rockets and destroy their supplies. By "stop" I mean capture or kill; merely driving off is a distant third choice. My obligation to international law and basic morality is to get the most responsible people while limiting the bystander casualties as much as possible. This means bombing the general area from which the rockets came is not a legitimate option. Every time the Israelis target a building, it should be based on a defensible belief that the building is a current threat--not that it was used as base in the past, that it is a current and continuing threat.

In the course of its history, the Parthenon in Athens has been a pagan temple, a church, a tourist attraction, and an ammunition dump. If Turkey and Greece went to war tomorrow, the Turks would not be justified in blowing up the Parthenon because it had once been used for a military purpose. They would only be justified in blowing it up if it they had good reason to believe that it was being used for a military purpose at the time of their attack.

In order to specifically target the truly responsible, I need good intelligence and I need to send my military as close as possible--foot soldiers on the ground, if necessary. This might mean more casualties for my own side, but that is one of the responsibilities of making the choice to go to war. The decision to use force should not be easy or clean. In an ideal world, every time a leader chose to use force, they would be required to place a close relative in the first line of assault.
At what point does a local citizenry become responsible for the crimes it supports?

Unless every man, woman, and child supports the activities in material way, the "local citizenry" never become responsible. If the village leaders support Hezbollah and allow its presence, they deserve to be punished. If individual adults help Hezbollah, they deserve to be punished in some way proportional to the extent of their help. Children and random family members of those adults never deserve to be punished.

The government of Israel has attempted a strategy that allows them to bypass their responsibility to limit bystander casualties. At the beginning of the current offensive, they air dropped leaflets warning the civilian population to get out of the way. Their argument is that any adult civilians who stay have willingly put themselves and their families in the line of fire, possibly expressly to protect Hezbollah. Therefore, the responsibility for their deaths lies in their decision to stay and not in the Israeli leadership's decision to attack. As a moral argument, if falls down by failing to take into consideration those who are unable to move. As a legal argument, since the action amounts to mass expulsion, I doubt as if it's legal (I'm open to correction on that last point).

Finally, John brings up the double standard of making all Israelis responsible for what their government does, or in somehow mourning dead Lebanese children more than dead Israeli ones. I hope, after reading the above, you can guess that I reject any sentiments along those lines.

Responsibility goes hand in hand with power and freedom. Those who have the power to make and enforce decisions bear responsibility for the results of those decisions. The Israeli cabinet member far from the fighting has far more power and freedom in ordering a peasant to leave his farm than the peasant does in deciding whether follow those orders. The rootless and armed Hezbollah fighter has far more power and freedom than the peasant who is tied to the locale. The peasant, however, has far more power and freedom than his dependents. But for the peasant, the decision is not a simple go to safety or stay in the combat zone. The choice is to leave all he has to the mercies of looters, invaders, and weather and take his family on the road during a battle with no food, shelter or idea just where "safety" is, or to stay and hope for the best.

It's all muddy and there are no perfect answers. There is, however, one unarguable truth in this: children should never be held responsible for the crimes of their grownups.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mmmmm, elastic loaves
Via Mike the Mad Biologist, we see that the leader of Iran has decided to take a cue from some of the great silly nationalists of history.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered government and cultural bodies to use modified Persian words to replace foreign words that have crept into the language, such as "pizzas" which will now be known as "elastic loaves," state media reported Saturday.

The presidential decree, issued earlier this week, orders all governmental agencies, newspapers and publications to use words deemed more appropriate by the official language watchdog, the Farhangestan Zaban e Farsi, or Persian Academy, the Irna official news agency reported.

The logical next step will be to get rid of non-Persian personal names, like Mohammed. He can lead the way by changing his name to Mobutu Sese "Freedom Fries" Ahmadinejad.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Eat the rich
In congress, during the wee hours of this morning, Zach Wamp (where do they get these names? It looks like a cartoon sound effect) had a good laugh over sabotaging the minimum wage bill by bundling it with a permanent repeal of the estate tax. "I know why you're mad," he said. "You've seen us really outfox you." Good one, Zach!

"This is beyond cynical. This is disgraceful," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). I’d like to add cruel, disgusting, craven, and un-American to that. The Republicans don't care whether or not the bill passes; in either case they get to tell voters they tried to do something for the poor. If it fails, they get to claim the Democrats prevented their kind-hearted attempt to help the poor. If it passes, they get to give a big present to their non-working campaign contributors. It's a win-win situation for the Republicans congress.

Of, course, as soon as a Democrat complains about making the repeal of the estate tax their price for helping the working poor, the Republicans will get the vapors over the specter of class warfare. "Gaylord, prepare the smelling salts. I do believe those Yankees are going to engage in--dare I even breathe the words?--class warfare."

Class warfare? We have been involved in a one sided war against the working poor for the last ten years. What else do you call refusing to give a raise to people who try to do honest work for living and see their earnings eroded by a decade of inflation and rising healthcare costs? What do you call giving yourself thirty thousand dollars in raises during that same time? What do you call cutting the taxes of those who do not work, but instead live off of the investments of their parents?

America needs a lot more class warfare against the haves, the have mores, and their hired guns in congress.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Shooting update
It's been four hours since six people were shot at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. The top story at Google news is that Bush and Blair agree that stopping the fighting in Lebanon is someone else's responsibility. Neither Kos nor Atrios have mentioned the story. Atrios is traveling and on the wrong side of the continent. Kos, who lives in this time zone, is busy selling his latest buzz phrase, "people power." Of course, anyone who lives west of about Atlanta knows how hard it is to get into the news cycle with anything except a missing white woman.

Meanwhile, some accurate details are leaking out to replace the rumors that originally filled our local news. All six of the victims are women; one is pregnant. The local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, issued a statement :
The Muslim community of Greater Seattle area watched in horror as news broke of a shooting at the Jewish Federation building ... We categorically condemn this and any similar acts of violence ... We pray for the safety and health of those injured and offer our heartfelt condolences to the family of the victims of this attack. We also hope that the perpetrator of this crime is brought to justice.

Some news stories are eager to toss around the word "terrorist"; others are using the phrase "hate crime." At present, I'm inclined to use the latter phrase. The police were careful and emphatic about saying that they considered this the work of one crazy, with no attachment to any larger organization. The unnamed shooter's quoted words, "I am a Muslim American, angry at Israel," are the words of someone desiring some sort of ill-conceived personal vengeance, not some one attempting to strike fear into the community. If this early quote is an accurate characterization, then the shooter is not a terrorist, just a hateful nut.

I live near a busy street. Every night I hear sirens. The weather has been hot for the last two weeks, so I have had to live with the windows open (this is cold, wet Seattle; no one has air-conditioning). Tonight, every siren sounds sinister, every firework sounds threatening.
Someone just shot up the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. As of this moment, the official word is that five people were wounded and a sixth killed in the attack. The gunman is an American citizen, Muslim from the Tri-Cities (that's the area around the Hanford nuclear reservation, about 250 miles from Seattle). Police still have the area, about four miles from my house, locked down while they make sure there are no other gunmen or victims. By the time there are more details, I'm sure it will be well covered on the national news and you won't need me to tell you what's happening.

When 9/11 happened, my first thoughts were that I hoped was animal rights nuts, the Welsh, or anyone except Arabs. I knew that, if Arabs had done it, it would unleash the very ugliest in Americans. And I was right. I first heard about today's events minutes after they began. I had just climbed on the shuttle from where I work to where I park and one of the other riders saw the breaking headline on his Blackberry. He read the headlines (mostly rumors) to the van as they emerged. The driver muttered that the whole world was crazy and punctuated it with "frickin' Arabs." Yes, he really said frickin'. I secretly hoped it was the neo-Nazis, who have been using the anti-immigrant hysteria to raise their visibility around here. Clever wife met me at the parking lot. When I told her what was going on she said, "Please let it be the Nazis." They say old married people eventually think alike.

So far the first rumors on the shooter are that he is of Pakistani ancestry. That's not Arab, but I'm sure my more easily panicked fellow citizens won't make that distinction. After 9/11 and the first anti-Muslim attacks, some idiot attacked the most visible mosque in Seattle, not far from my home. Fortunately, it was at night, no one was in the mosque, and the attacker was too drunk to do any serious damage. After that, one of the Catholic lay groups sent over a squad of little old ladies to guard the mosque. The Catholic ladies set up a table outside the front door of the mosque and stayed through the coldest and wettest days of the Seattle winter. Really, nothing could have been a better deterrent to the aspiring heroes in the war of civilizations.

I'm not sure how effective an old hippie pacifist would be, but if they need me, I'll take a shift at the mosque. I've often been told I look like a rabbi. Maybe I can put that work protecting my fellow citizens from my other fellow citizens.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What a sad day this is for mammothophiles everywhere:
Disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk, whose team became an international laughingstock after they faked their entirety of their embryonic stem cell research, appeared in court on Monday in a trial about charges that he embezzled public and private research funds. Hwang admitted he spent more than one million in attempting to clone a mammoth.

Hwang was indicted in May by South Korean government prosecutors who say that Hwang misspent public and private dollars intended for research.

On Monday, Hwang admitted he spent part of the money, some $1.05 million in failed attempts to clone mammoths, extinct members of the elephant family.

"We secured mammoth tissues from glaciers and tried cloning three times, but failed," Hwang said.

Hwang indicated South Korea's powerful SK Group gave his research team the money and that it was intended for "peripheral activities related to the research."

In his original case of scientific fraud and in his alleged current financial misdeeds, Hwang has claimed that junior members of his research team lied to him. I wonder if they lied to him about the mammoth tissue as well. None of the known frozen mammoths, or other frozen extinct quaternary mammals, was found in a glacier. All were found encased in frozen mud or silt. The image of frozen animals in glaciers--usually crystal clear ice with the animal caught in mid-stride looking rather surprised--is the stuff of cartoons with no more basis in reality than not falling till you look down or Acme Catalog products. The only way to get the surprised looking animal in clear ice is to use a freeze ray.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Help, please
Kos got this piece of hate mail after appearing on Nightline last night.
I think if a Democarat would be in office right now we would probbaly lose more freedoms then we already have because they would have abrought the troops home. Everyone has to realize that freedom is not free. The only reason we went to war with the Taliban is because they were hovering Al Qaida which was the terrorist organization that planeded and carried out the 9/11 attacks and killed over 3,000 Amerciacans.

While I can sort through most of the bad spelling, I'm completely stumped by the Taliban "hovering Al Qaida." I don't think he means that the Taliban was levitating Al Qaida. Does anyone have the slightest idea what he was trying to say? Is this some kind of regionalism that I'd understand if I travelled more to some of the scarier parts of this great land of ours?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Dershowitz butters the slippery slope
Although I have been aware of him since the late eighties, I never really though about Alan Dershowitz enough to form an opinion of him one way or the other. When I worked in bookstores he was just a name on a book. I knew what section to shelve him in and where to point the customers. I don't follow most crime news, so his career as a celebrity lawyer never had much influence on me. This has changed since 9/11. Now I do have an opinion of Dershowitz and it is not a good opinion.

Within weeks of 9/11, Dershowitz was making the rounds talking about legalizing torture. By January, he had a book out on the subject. This was not the result of a sudden conversion for Dershowitz; he had been advocating such a thing for years for Israel. Now, Dershowitz wants to get rid of the restriction on collective punishment. Like the ban on torture, this is one of the foundations of international law and a benchmark of civilized behavior.

Dershowitz's tone is seductive. He doesn't come across as bloodthirsty or unhinged. He thinks the unthinkable in a rational and slightly sad manner.

On legalizing torture:
In my new book, "Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age," I offer a controversial proposal designed to stimulate debate about this difficult issue. Under my proposal, no torture would be permitted without a "torture warrant" being issued by a judge.

He just wants to "stimulate debate about this difficult issue." What could be more reasonable than that?

On legalizing collective punishment:
The news is filled these days with reports of civilian casualties, comparative civilian body counts and criticism of Israel, along with Hezbollah, for causing the deaths, injuries and "collective punishment" of civilians. But just who is a "civilian" in the age of terrorism, when militants don't wear uniforms, don't belong to regular armies and easily blend into civilian populations?

We need a new vocabulary to reflect the realities of modern warfare. A new phrase should be introduced into the reporting and analysis of current events in the Middle East: "the continuum of civilianality."

Again, he just wants to move the discussion along by providing us with better language for debate.

The result of his rational discussion in both cases will be the same: we will legalize something that was previously unthinkable and illegal. Worse than simply legalizing the reprehensible, Dershowitz's "discussion" framework creates a poisonous moral atmosphere.

Take torture. The argument for torture always rests on the ticking bomb scenario. We know that there is a powerful bomb somewhere that will kill many people. We know that our prisoner knows where the bomb is. We are running out of time. For the moment, leave out any question of the effectiveness of torture or the likeliness of the scenario ever happening. If they thought it would work, most people would torture in these circumstances. No one would let thousands die if they thought a few slaps and cigarette burns could save them. No jury would convict them, and even if one would, we still have pardons and clemency. By keeping torture illegal, we make a statement about who we are as a people and, more importantly, who we are not. The moment we legalize torture — even in the most restricted circumstances, even if we haven't used it yet — we have become a torturing people.

Now the slippery slope argument enters. What if it's only a small bomb? What if we're not sure there's a bomb, but the prisoner knows; do we torture to find out for sure that there is no bomb? What is the prisoner resists torture; do we go after his loved ones? Do we then limit ourselves only to adults or go after his children? Wouldn't it be more affective to start with the children? What is one child compared to thousands? What if the bomb isn't going to kill anyone, but will cause millions in damage?

Dershowitz's "continuum of civilianality" creates the same fog around collective punishment.
There is a vast difference — both moral and legal — between a 2-year-old who is killed by an enemy rocket and a 30-year-old civilian who has allowed his house to be used to store Katyusha rockets. Both are technically civilians, but the former is far more innocent than the latter. There is also a difference between a civilian who merely favors or even votes for a terrorist group and one who provides financial or other material support for terrorism.


But the recognition that "civilianality" is often a matter of degree, rather than a bright line, should still inform the assessment of casualty figures in wars involving terrorists, paramilitary groups and others who fight without uniforms — or help those who fight without uniforms.


Hezbollah and Hamas militants... are difficult to distinguish from those "civilians" who recruit, finance, harbor and facilitate their terrorism. Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians, as some organizations do. Terrorists increasingly use women and teenagers to play important roles in their attacks.

The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some — those who cannot leave on their own — should be counted among the innocent victims.

If the media were to adopt this "continuum," it would be informative to learn how many of the "civilian casualties" fall closer to the line of complicity and how many fall closer to the line of innocence.

Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others.

Notice again that he's not actually advocating changing international law; he's just suggesting a better vocabulary to move the discussion along. But, he's moving the discussion in a direction that will result in changing, or disregarding, an important international law. The slippery slope is just as dangerous and ugly here as it is with torture. If everyone might be a little guilty then we need show no restraint or feel any guild about killing anyone who gets in the way of our pursuing legitimate targets. While his tone is rational and reluctant, the result is the same as if he were a bloodthirsty Malkin clone calling for genocide.

Dershowitz's articles have not been the causes of these two international standards falling away. The Bush and Sharon/Olmertz governments were already breaking, or planning to break, these international laws before Dershowitz wrote. However, by muddying or disposing of previously clear limits to moral behavior, Dershowitz provided rhetorical and moral cover for the enthusiastic torturers and war criminals to go ahead.

And the damage goes beyond that. Dershowitz’s framework that we should discuss these things (as a prelude to discarding them) undermines the whole idea of rule of law and standards of civilized behavior. What should be absolute boundaries are now merely temporary obstructions to be handled by skillful negotiation.

Dershowitz once had a reputation as some kind of civil liberties advocate and liberal. Maybe it was once deserved, but no more. Now he’s just another scared "realist" enabling the dismantling of three hundred years of Enlightenment civilization and cheering on the coming darkness.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Scientists have no morals
If anyone has wondered why Republicans have become so anti-science in recent years, Rick Santorum explains it. It's because those scientists have no morals.
Most scientists unfortunately, those that certainly are advocating for this [embryonic stem cell research], and many others feel very little moral compulsion. It's a utilitarian, materialistic view of doing whatever they can do to pursue their desired goals.

Republicans like Santorum have lots of moral compunctions and only do what's right.

Thanks, Rick. I'm glad you cleared that up for us.
Goodbye Ralph, please
Here is one of the stories that I didn't get around to commenting on during the week.

On Tuesday, Ralph Reed was defeated in his quest to become the next Lt. Governor of Georgia. The vote wasn't even close and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy. Reed's background includes a stint in the College Republicans*, getting fired from his college paper for plagiarism, a stint as an anti-abortion protestor, head of the Christian Coalition, dirty tricks in various elections from his college days forward, and money laundering for his old roommate Jack Abramoff. His people are saying that his loss is somehow the fault of sabotage by John McCain. If that's true, we all owe McCain our thanks.

Lt. Governor of Georgia might be a do-nothing job, but Reed has his eyes firmly set on the White House and this was an important step in that direction. As Lt. Governor, Reed would have been able to get press attention and would have been well positioned to be annonted as the front runner for governor when Sonny Pudue is term-limited out of office. As the last century has shown, governorships are the best path to the White House. As Reed is barely forty-five, we shouldn't count ourselves safe from him yet. He says we won't have Ralph to kick around anymore, but I don't belive it. He will return.

* Since the College Republicans is nothing more than a school in dirty tricks for future corrupt politicians, isn't it about time the whole thing was declared a criminal enterprise under RICO and shut down?
For your weekend reading
A new Carnival of Bad History is up over at Hiram Hover's.

In one of the posts, Wilson, The Elfin Ethicist, provides us with rules for writing tendentious history.
  • First, make no effort to develop historical research and interpretation sensibilities apart from your particular ideological project. Jump right in.
  • Evaluate the reliability of any source according to whether it corroborates your opinions.
  • Make no distinction between facts and interpretation. In any case, remember that the truth of the latter determines the truth of the former.
  • Assume that ulterior motives lie behind the work of any scholars who disagree with you.
  • Project today's political battles onto your ancestors' lives.
  • Use nice round numbers. Then round them again. With enough rounding, any number will support your position.
  • Either adopt a position of total relativism or ignore context altogether. Switch sides as appropriate.
  • Blame historical figures for failing to take into account what you know but they did not.
  • Remember that a lack of acceptance or publicity is always evidence of a conspiracy.
  • When characterizing your opponents' work, employ the term "revisionist" a lot. At the same time, obsess over how wrong the conventional understanding is.
  • Remember that "left," "right," and other sweeping political labels always provide accurate insight into individual opinions. Everyone within the Left or the Right thinks and acts alike, for all practical historical purposes.
  • Always think of yourself as politically incorrect. At the same time, always think of your detractors as fringe radicals.
  • If you must read the things your opponents write, read only the stuff that uses the most pejorative language. This will provide inspiration and spice up your prose, as well.
  • Never, ever consider the remote possibility that your detractors are intelligent people speaking in good faith.

With only a few modifications, these same rules could be used by aspiring political pundits, creationist defenders, greenhouse skeptics, or really any current events blogger. I plan to hang them over my computer.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Kumbaya, man, kumbaya
People who consider themselves political realists--people like libertarians and neo-cons--like to strike a tough, no nonsense pose that includes macho sayings that demonstrate their seriousness and complete lack of sentimentalism or idealism. One of my least-favorite of these sayings is: "No one ever stopped a war by singing folk songs." I think this shows a dangerous overconfidence in their powers of historical analysis. Does anyone know for sure that singing folk songs never stopped a war? Can we know for sure the complete and total causes of any human even?

Real life is complicated. Really, really complicated. Chaos mathematicians regularly demonstrate how a flatulent butterfly in the Amazon can cause hurricanes and crop failures half-way around the world. When considering the full complexity of the world can anyone guarantee that singing folk songs didn't stop a war, or contribute just a little to stopping a war? I don't think they can. Maybe those realists shouldn't be so smug about their so-called seriousness. Maybe we all owe the folksingers a little more respect.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Not dead yet
See, I told you I wouldn't get much blogging done this month. The changeover to my new job responsibilities will continue to be crazy for about another week before it settles into a routine. I took over the new job just in time to get handed a series of short deadline projects. I spent last weekend with a park full of belly dancers (yes, there's a story; yes, I'll tell it). That was a one time distraction from weekend blogging. I promise I'll get something up this weekend, maybe even the latest mammoth story.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Happy birthday, Nick
Today is the 150th anniversary of Nikola Tesla, one of the great geniuses of the era of electrical invention and a favorite figure of numerous schools of conspiracy theory. If neither of those is a good enough reason for celebration, then you should raise a glass just for the excuse to use the word sesquicentennial in a sentence. Those don't come along every day you know.

Tesla was a Serb born the village of Smiljan in a district called Lika, in what was then called the Croatian Military Frontier of the Habsburg Empire. Before Tesla was an adult, the Habsburg Empire became Austria-Hungary and the Military Frontier was absorbed into Croatia proper (which was itself part of the Hungarian half of the empire). Tesla was not especially interested in politics, but the successive rulers of Smiljan have politicized his memory.

After World War One, Croatia, Lika, and Smiljan were all absorbed into the new Yugoslav kingdom. During World War Two, the region was part of the Independent Croatian State (that was really its name. It's kind of pathetic when you have to put "independent" in the name of your country). The local Serbian population suffered atrocities at the hand of the local fascists, the Ustasha.

Following the War, Yugoslavia was recreated as a federation with Smiljan included in the socialist Croatian state. It was not inevitable that this would happen. Roosevelt thought that maybe Yugoslavia had been a bad idea to begin with and suggested dividing it into two parts. Stalin might have agreed, seeing advantage in a different solution for every shift in the international situation. At various times, he supported a unitary Yugoslavia, a complete break-up into tiny republics, a federal Yugoslavia, a super federation that would have included Bulgaria and Albania, and annexing the Balkans into the Soviet Union. Tito's federal state just happened to be the solution Stalin was supporting at the end of the war and the one that solidified into reality before he could change his mind.

During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Smiljan was included in the short-lived Serbian Republic of the Krajina, which seceded from Croatia. When the region was reconquered by Croatia, most of the Serbian population fled to Serbia proper. True to the nature of the region, almost every word of the preceding historical summary will be sure to offend someone's nationalist narrative.

During all of this, the memory of Nikola Tesla was something of a political football. Tesla died in 1943, before the Communists came to power in the old country. As he had few opportunities to offend them, he was adopted as a national hero. Tesla was a perfect Yugoslav icon. Both Serbia and Croatia could find reason to claim him as a native son, the former by ethnicity and the latter by geography. There were Tesla museums and Tesla statues in both Belgrade and Zagreb. Tesla was shown on the currency of the Yugoslav Federation.

When I visited Belgrade in 1993 to interview Milovan Djilas, the economy was in the final stage of a total collapse under runaway inflation. A liter of beer cost a hundred million dinars at the hotel I stayed in. To keep up with the rising prices, the government mint introduced a new bigger bill every couple weeks and stopped printing some of the smaller ones. Seeing that I was interested in the currency, one of the refugees living at the hotel gave me a handful of obsolete bills for souvenirs. With enough old bills, it was easy to see how the mint could get new denominations into circulation so quickly. They simply reused the designs and changed the numbers, colors, and, in some cases, shuffled the designs on the back. The child who appeared on the 50,000 dinar note with a green background and roses on the back reappeared on the one million dinar note with an orange background and an iris on the back. I still have a few five million dinar notes with Tesla on them.

This was in the Serbian remainder of Yugoslavia. In Croatia, his statue was blown up, and the house where he was born was allowed to fall into ruin. Now the Balkans are moving on to another era. The leaders of Croatia and Serbia are looking for causes to bring them back together. Tesla is available for the job.

The Croatian government has spent $8.75 million restoring Tesla's house and the presidents of Croatia and Serbia will both be present to dedicate it as a museum today. In Zagreb, the Croats are unveiling a new statue and name a street after Tesla. In Belgrade, the Serbs are renaming the airport Nikola Tesla International.
Five million Teslas
Coturnix, whose secret identity is Bora Zivkovic, will be celebrating the Nikola Tesla sesquicentenial tomorrow. For two weeks now he has been having a countdown of sorts to the birthday of one of Serbia's proudest sons. Coturnix has given us a constant stream of Tesla quotes and scientific trivia. I'll contribute a Tesla post to the fun.

In late August 1993 I collected a few of these five million dinar notes in Belgrade. At the time they were worth about two-thirds of a cent American. Over the next four months they lost even more value.

The portrait on the front of the bill is of Tesla in later life. On the back, to the right is a modern hydroelectric dam. Tesla's innovations made the long distance transmission of electricity through powerlines possible. To the left is a picture of Tesla in his lab at Colorado Springs around 1900. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to see him in this reproduction. Below is a photo from the same series as the basis for the dinar engraving.

Tesla had a series of portraits made of him surrounded by home-made lightning. He loved the shock value of posing is such situations. Unfortunately, it contributed to his public image as a mad scientist, an image that was only confirmed in many peoples' minds as he developed obsessive/compulsive tendencies in his middle-age.

The device is an experimental magnifying transmitter, by which he hoped to broadcast electricity without wires. It is essentially a bigger version of the Tesla coils that were popular at science fairs when I was a kid.

In grade school in the early sixties, I wanted to build a Tesla coil and even had some plans from Popular Mechanics. Most of the parts were things that I could have scrounged from auto junkyards, except for one major step-up transformer. That I would have needed to buy new and the price was some unattainable amount like fifty dollars. In modern prices, that's about $136,000. You wouldn't believe how much candy you could buy for a nickel in those days. Hershey bars were the size of surf boards. Even if I had taken up a paper route, I couldn't have saved that much. [/geezer]

Friday, July 07, 2006

Did blonde mammoths have more fun?
In any kids' book about quaternary megafauna you will find a picture of a woolly mammoth. I can almost guarantee that the wool on that woolly mammoth will be some shade of red, from copper-penny red through rich auburn to moody chestnut. The reason that artists always portray mammoths as red-heads, aside from the fact that red-heads are just so darned good looking, is that we have actual hair from woolly mammoths and it is red. This would seem to preclude any questions about the color of mammoths and yet it does not.

Hair is almost clear with a core that contains particles of pigment and bubbles of air. Black hair and red hair in humans use the same pigment. Solid pigment produces black hair and specks of pigment and air bubbles show up as various shades of red. Several processes can turn black hair red. Malnutrition can reduce the production of pigment. In many parts of the world where black hair is the norm, red hair was a sign of ill health, most often associated with famine. When red-headed explorers and missionaries arrived in central Africa, the Pacific islands, and southeast Asia, they were often pitied and assumed to be ill.

Certain chemical processes can also turn black hair red. African and Asian Americans can achieve many shades of red through light bleaching. More significantly for mammoths, chemicals in the ground can turn black hair red after burial. This probably explains the mysterious presence of red-headed mummies all over the world. It might also explain why mammoth hair is always red. That doesn't mean the mammoths weren't red to begin with. They might have been red and they might have started with a darker color and become red.

Today, the journal Science has news of research the gives us a few more clues about mammoth color, but doesn't settle the issue. Evolutionary biologists at the Max Planck Institute have decoded part of the genetic code of mammoths and located a gene (Mc1r) which controls hair color.
In humans, reduced activity of the Mc1r gene causes red hair, while in dogs, mice and horses it results in yellow hair.

Using ancient DNA extracted from the excavated mammoth bone, the international team of researchers were able to look at the variations in copies of the Mc1r gene.

Dr Michael Hofreiter, an author on the paper and an evolutionary biologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, said analysis revealed two different versions of the gene were present - a fully active and a partially active version.

The researchers propose that hair coloration in mammoths is likely to have been determined in the same way as in present-day mammals.

This means that mammoths with one copy of the active gene and one of the partially active gene would have had dark coats - most likely dark brown or black.

While mammoths with two copies of the inactive gene would have had paler coats - possibly blond or ginger.

What this tells us is that mammoths came in a variety of colors, light and dark, but, until we know more, we can't say what those colors were. It might have been brown to blonde or black to red. Like cats in the dark, all dead mammoths are the same color.

* And most kids these days do have books about quaternary megafauna. This is quite a change from my day when all we had were anthropomorphic steam shovels and home invasion by anarchistic felines. It's not fair, man.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Stupider than Ted
Last week, Senator Ted Stevens brought shame and disgrace on the people and state of Alaska with his boneheaded explanation of what the Internet is and how it works. His words were spread across that very same Internet by my liberal blogging colleagues.
I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why?

Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially....

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck.

It's a series of tubes.

And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

After we all have a good laugh at Stevens' well deserved expense, I'd like to point out that Ted Stevens is not the stupidest man in congress. He isn't even the stupidest man in Alaska's tiny three-person delegation to congress. Both of those titles belong to Alaska's only Representative, Don Young.

The English language has never been Young's friend. He is famous in Alaska for such coinings as "Pribilof's dog" and "bladderdash." Young hates environmentalists and has a temper. He has been known to make points by waving hunting knives at environmentalists who testify before his committees. When Mollie Beattie, the first woman to head the Fish and Wildlife Service, made her first appearance before his committee in 1994, he waved an 18 inch oosik, a walrus penis bone, in her face. His language is often salty:
Earlier this year, a group of students in Fairbanks invited the Alaskan wild man to speak about the GOP's "Contract with America." Young expounded on a number of his favorite topics, including the need to slash federal funding of the arts. The government, Young said, has funded "photographs of people doing offensive things" and "things that are absolutely ridiculous." One student asked Young what sort of things he had in mind. "Buttfucking," the Congressman replied....

Even though he was born and raised in California and didn't move to Alaska until he was an adult, Young cultivates a rustic Alaskan outdoorsman image. This led to his most legendary moment. In 1975 he opposed a bill that would have outlawed the use of leg-hold traps (the toothed, clamp traps that are a staple of cartoons). After a string of celebrities and animal experts testified to the traps' cruelty, Young sought to counter their emotional testimony with a demonstration of his own. Announcing that he was "the only licensed trapper in this whole Congress," he offered his own expert opinion that the traps were not cruel. He demonstrated with his own trap.
Representative Don Young set off a leghold trap on his own hand and stated he would leave the trap on for the duration of his testimony. He proceeded to describe his own trapline of 500 leghold traps. He set out so many traps, it was days before he would return to kill any trapped animals who had somehow survived. To the horror of those present, he described seeing a lynx who survived 6 weeks in a leghold trap because other lynx came to feed him. In the midst of his testimony, the Subcommittee Chairman noted, "I am concerned about your fingers. They are blue now." To which Representative Young replied, "Yes, they are." Shortly thereafter he removed the trap from his hand.

When I mock the politicians of other states, I hope that my friends who live in those states don't take my jibes personally. These are the people who represented me for twenty years. When I make fun of your foolish representatives, I feel your pain.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

How bad does it get?
Jonathan Dresner of the University of Hawaii has taken over keeping the Carnival of Bad History alive. He is not only runningthe site for the moment, he is hosting the latest CoBH at Frog in a Well, the Japan history group blog. Jonathan has gathered a fine group of bloggers debunking the latest in bad history. He also gives us some great quotes to ponder.

With Jonathan's help, CoBH is going monthly. The next issue will be hosted at Hiram Hover’s place at the end of July.
Where have I been?
You may or may not have noticed that posting has been a bit sparse around here. The usual excuses apply: life, family, and work have conspired to cut into my valuable goofing off and blogging time.

Clever Wife's long battle with her teeth came to a triumphant conclusion last week when the dentist fitter her with her permanent choppers. For two years she has been unable to bite. She can chew but, before anything could go into her mouth, it had to be cut into tiny bits. And chewing hurt. All this was fixed with her new teeth. For weeks she had been anticipating all the foods she hadn't been able to eat: crusty bread, bacon, caramel, whole nuts. I was, of course, jobbed with figuring out how to make a meal out of this. I was leaning toward carameled pork ribs on a baguette with a whole hazelnut garnish, when nature came to my rescue in the form of a massive head cold. Her first dinner with the new teeth was homemade chicken soup.

I have been training into a new job for the last few weeks. My boss is leaving and all of the duties of our little three-person team have been redistributed. I have been learning one job, while training someone else into my old job, and fending off the rest of the company who unreasonably expect us to do some work during the transition.

The Northwest rainy season chose this exact moment to stop, so I have also been trying to catch up with some of my homeowner duties. I'm doing a rather slovenly job of it, but the house does at least look inhabited again. On the first dry Saturday, I woke up to the sound of lawn mowers and weed wackers all over the neighborhood. I staggered to the kitchen to make some coffee and thought to check out the blogs while it brewed. Before the computer could even warm up, I spotted my neighbor, John (another John from Alaska), getting out his yard equipment. By this point in time, John and I owned the second and third worst yards on the block. Oho, I thought. His plan is to cut his yard first and leave me as the bad neighbor. I would have none of that; I rushed caffeinless to the yard and we cut our yards together. Literally, together. The neighbor between us is in his late eighties, so we Alaskan Johns have divided up his yard and each take care of a part of it.

So, while all of this life stuff has been going on I have been neglecting my blogging duties. I feel bad about that, not so much because I feel a sense of duty toward the blog or its audience, but because I enjoy it. I enjoy writing. I enjoy the social element of blogging (that's you). I believe I think clearer if I try to put my opinions into words that others can follow, not that most of these exercises ever make it onto the blog. The problem, of course, is that there are other things that I want to do or that need to be done and never enough time. I want to take care of my wife. I want to spend quality time with the new kitten and the older cat. I want to putter about the yard and house. I want to take a nap every afternoon. These things get in the way of blogging and working for a living gets in the way of all of them. I gladly give up the blogging for family and home. Although I would gladly give up the job for blogging, that option isn't on my table. I'm not alone in this; whining about not having enough time is our real national pastime.

Fortunately, our forbearers saw fit to create a day in July when we can exercise our freedom to goof off, a day devoted to doing whatever we please, eating food that's bad for us, and making noise. I choose to make my noise on line.

PS - Weekday blogging will probably continue to be sparse while I ease into my new job. I'll try to make up for it with some good weirdness posts on the weekends.