Friday, August 31, 2007

Baby lions!

Because everybody needs to see pictures of baby lions.

Five newborn white lion cubs take a catnap at the Jordan Zoo.

White lions, which originated in South Africa, are actually African lions.

The rare animals are the result of a recessive gene that gives them striking white coats instead of the normal golden fur.

Though white lions are rare in the wild, about 30 live in captivity worldwide.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

An update on recent stuff

Last weekend was my birthday, so I took a few days off from the news and went to my Mom's where I ate comfort food for two days (pot roast, chicken and dumplings, pudding cake, blueberry pancakes). I feel much better now. Let's look at the world.

The big news of the last few days has been that Alberto Gonzales decided he wants to spend more time with his family. It's about damn time. I hope the congressional committees don't just let him ride off into the sunset. He has a stunning amount of damage during his time in Washington. We're just starting to get an idea of the magnitude of his destruction. Before we can repair the damage or make him pay for the damage, we need to know what he did. I want the congress to keep him under permanent subpoena until his annoying babyface finally looks his age.

Meanwhile, the professional media are chasing after every rumor regarding his possible successor. Most of us hope that the next Attorney General will be one to repair the damage and restore respect for the constitution, rule of law, and, at least, an appearance of nonpartisan evenhandedness in the judiciary. Then we have a good laugh and wonder what sort of hack Bush really intends to appoint.

Bush generally makes two types of appointments, and neither is good for the country. The first is the total Bush loyalist like Gonzales himself. These folks have never read the constitution or thought it was quaint if they did. Joe Lieberman loves these folks. The other is the thumb in your eye appointment where Bush appoints the single most offensive person possible and dares congress to oppose them. John Ashcroft at the Justice Department was the first in this line and Dr. Eric Keroack, an anti-contraceptive activist to oversee family planning, was one of the latest. Democrats usually back down on these saying one appointment isn't worth the fight. Then Bush sends another, and another, and another...

This time I think Bush will go for the third strategy, which is to send in a faceless placeholder. I think he'll go for someone who can get past a fairly uneventful confirmation and then change nothing for the remaining seventeen months of his term. Of course, he might try to slip a recess appointment by us.

In the state to the right of Washington, the senior senator, Larry Craig (R-ID), was revealed to have pled guilty last month to propositioning men in a public restroom. Craig, naturally says it was all a big misunderstanding. You see, he got dressed in a hurry that morning and when he got to the airport bathroom he noticed that his stockings didn't match, so he called to the guy in the next stall to ask if he could help and said he would pay him for sox. Well, the guy in the other stall was a hard of hearing vice cop and wackiness ensued. The folks at AmericaBlog have the blow by blow (so to speak) coverage of the latest developments on this story.

Somewhere, lost beyond all of this political blather, the humble British hedgehog has become an endangered species: "The new Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) has identified 1,149 species and 65 habitats in the UK as being in need of conservation and greater protection." Among the eighteen land mammals mentioned in the plan is the hedgehog. This really is tragic. The hedgehog is one of the staples of British children's literature. Imagine if we woke up one day and found out that wabbits and little black ducks were endangered in America. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society suggests urbanization with tidier parks and gardens is to blame. I hope my British readers will take heed of this and let their gardens go to seed.

Finally, Clever Wife and I got up at three in the morning yesterday to look at the lunar eclipse. The moon was a smoky burgundy color when we got outside. We sat on the front step for a few minutes and talked about what caused it. It was a nice warm night and it was worth losing sleep for.

When we went to go back into the house, our littlest cat, Marlowe, made a break for freedom. I caught him and took him back to the safety of the house and he turned my left hand into hamburger for my troubles. I'm supposed to be painting the house this week and this has made handling tools and typing both a bit painful. I'll manage.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

When language fails us

"Gall" doesn't even begin to describe it.
With President Bush these days, often there's nothing left to do but laugh. As when we learn that in a conversation with Egyptian democracy activist Saad Ibrahim, the president said, "You're not the only dissident. I too am a dissident in Washington." As Eric Kleefeld told me yesterday, President Bush seems confused. Dissidents are the ones who get tortured and wiretapped. Not the ones who do it. I guess that's one of those sentence structure mistakes

What's the explanation this time, ego, delusion, not sure what the word means?

Only eighteen months of this embarrassment remain. They are sure to be very long months.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Last throes

Every few days for the last four years I have heard about a particularly horrible car bomb killing dozens of people in Iraq who have crept out of their homes to try and buy food for their families. Every time, the atrocity is followed by some talking head on Fox, who has never been anywhere more dangerous than a parking lot with a broken light, telling us that this horror is a sign that we are winning. Less violence is a sign that the other side is losing and going away, but more violence is a sign that the other side is losing and getting desperate. But couldn't the exact opposite be true? Less violence is a sign that the other side is winning and preparing for their final offensive, but more violence is a sign that the other side is winning and the final offensive has begun?

When violence increases, how can we tell the difference? Simple, count the cars. If the other side has plenty of cars, it must mean that they are husbanding their resources for the final offensive. But, if they are running out of cars, it must mean that they are in their final throes. Now, naturally, with our satellite resources, we must have an exact count of the number of cars in Baghdad. When Dick Cheney, or some member of the White House Press office like Sean Hannity, says the other side is getting desperate they must know that they are running out of cars to blow up. The way to win this thing is to force the other side to use up all of their cars and deprive them of more cars.

I expect the Air Force to begin carpet bombing Toyota dealerships any day now. Fortunately I drive a used Chrysler.

Boneyard #3

I haven't been doing my bit lately to participate in carnivals or promote those by my friends. I'll start correcting that lapse right now.

Brian Switek has the 3rd edition of the new paleo-carnival The Boneyard up at his blog Laelaps. Besides links to a number of great stories on all aspects of paleontology, Brian has gathered a collection of some of the best blog reaction to the big cover story in the journal Nature, providing evidence that Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived at the same time. If you had any questions about that story, or about the media coverage of it, this is the place to go for answers.

This is just wrong

It's not just Iraq war vets that the administration screws over. They also screw over vets who are the fathers and grandfathers of today's vets.
Korean War veteran Nyles Reed, 75, opened an envelope last week to learn a Purple Heart had been approved for injuries he sustained as a Marine on June 22, 1952.

But there was no medal. Just a certificate and a form stating that the medal was "out of stock."

"I can imagine, of course, with what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's a big shortage," Reed said. "At least, I would imagine so."

The form letter from the Navy Personnel Command told Reed he could wait 90 days and resubmit an application, or buy his own medal.

The good news is that with the way the administration is treating wounded Iraq vets, there should be no shortage of them out on the streets, willing to sell their Purple Hearts.
After waiting 55 years, however, Reed decided to pay $42 for his own Purple Heart and accompanying ribbon — plus state sales taxes — at a military surplus store.

They have no shame.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I'm glad we settled that


Waiting for the man on a white horse

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
George W. Bush
December 18, 2000

Before the 2004 election, some of the more paranoid on the left speculated that Bush might declare martial law if it looked like he was losing the election. As it turned out, the GOP had much more subtle ways of ensuring the results they wanted. And, as 2006 showed, for all of their undemocratic talk of a permanent one party majority, they weren't ready to end the republic just yet, especially not for George Bush. The GOP as a whole isn't as nuts as some of us feared.

That doesn't mean that the sentiment for a coup didn't exist in some corners and that it doesn't linger on. For your reading pleasure, I give you "Conquering the Drawbacks of Democracy" by Philip Atkinson which was published August 3 and promoted to "must read" status at the Family Security Matters website.
The inadequacy of Democracy, rule by the majority, is undeniable – for it demands adopting ideas because they are popular, rather than because they are wise. This means that any man chosen to act as an agent of the people is placed in an invidious position: if he commits folly because it is popular, then he will be held responsible for the inevitable result. If he refuses to commit folly, then he will be detested by most citizens because he is frustrating their demands.

When faced with the possible threat that the Iraqis might be amassing terrible weapons that could be used to slay millions of citizens of Western Civilization, President Bush took the only action prudence demanded and the electorate allowed: he conquered Iraq with an army.


The wisest course would have been for President Bush to use his nuclear weapons to slaughter Iraqis until they complied with his demands, or until they were all dead. Then there would be little risk or expense and no American army would be left exposed. But if he did this, his cowardly electorate would have instantly ended his term of office...

By elevating popular fancy over truth, Democracy is clearly an enemy of not just truth, but duty and justice, which makes it the worst form of government. President Bush must overcome not just the situation in Iraq, but democratic government.

However, President Bush has a valuable historical example that he could choose to follow.


If President Bush copied Julius Caesar by ordering his army to empty Iraq of Arabs and repopulate the country with Americans, he would achieve immediate results: popularity with his military; enrichment of America by converting an Arabian Iraq into an American Iraq (therefore turning it from a liability to an asset); and boost American prestiege [sic] while terrifying American enemies.

He could then follow Caesar's example and use his newfound popularity with the military to wield military power to become the first permanent president of America, and end the civil chaos caused by the continually squabbling Congress and the out-of-control Supreme Court.

President Bush can fail in his duty to himself, his country, and his God, by becoming "ex-president" Bush or he can become "President-for-Life" Bush: the conqueror of Iraq, who brings sense to the Congress and sanity to the Supreme Court. Then who would be able to stop Bush from emulating Augustus Caesar and becoming ruler of the world? For only an America united under one ruler has the power to save humanity from the threat of a new Dark Age wrought by terrorists armed with nuclear weapons.

When I read excerpts from this essay on Cliff Schecter's blog, I thought it must be a joke, a parody like Blogs4Brownback. It's not. Who is this Atkinson guy and what is this group that has promoted him? I'll get to that, but first, let's pick a few specific ideas out of this horrifying screed.

The two points that leap out first are his main ones. Atkinson hates democracy and doesn't even bother with the usual happy talk of praising the word while gutting its meaning. He wants someone to end the American experiment and then use our military might to end democracy everywhere else. Civilization can only be saved if we give up our individual ways and obey the single unifying will of our al-wise ruler. That opinion would be jaw dropping by itself, but he then marches off into unintentional humor by suggesting George Walker Bush for the role of enlightened autocrat.

The next point that stands out is Atkinson's desire for global scale genocide. Plenty of right wing bloggers express a desire to "nuke 'em till they glow" but few go on to suggest filling the void with American colonists. Would this be voluntary or would the autocrat have the power to pluck up communities and order them into the newly conquered provinces like a Caesar relocating frontier tribes? He's particularly creepy in his suggestion that ordering troops to massacre millions would make him a popular commander and that the troops would gladly overthrow their own government for such a leader.

You're still wondering if Atkinson is for real. He is. He has had at least a half dozen essays published at Family Security Matters and has his own site. According to his autobiographical essay, he was born in England where he one day realized he was superior to all of the lower class kids who were mean to him. Later he moved to Australia and married a nice woman who works and lets him stay home thinking superior thoughts while self-publishing his manifesto. He is a high school drop out and self-taught expert on the decline of civilization. He makes the obligatory comparison between himself and Galileo. On the site, he goes into great detail about both of his appalling ideas, unlimited monarchy is the only good government and merciless violence is essential for civilization.

Okay, he's a nut, but what about Family Security Matters, the group who gave him their "must read" blessing? A scary nut alone on the Internet isn't that interesting, but a scary nut being promoted by a group is. The SourceWatch wiki explains that:
Family Security Matters is a conservative front group that claims to represent "security moms" and supports President George W. Bush.

Following an appearance on Fox News, Media Matters for America noted that "Family Security Matters (FSM) is a front group for the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a conservative Washington think tank "committed to the time-tested philosophy of promoting international peace through American strength." (The phone number listed on the FSM website is answered by the CSP.)

Family Security Matters has a very elaborate, and probably expensive, website with sections for kids, stories about the danger of illegal immigrants, and the usual slaps at political correctness. Among its dozens of contributing editors are some well known names like Barbara Comstock, Frank J. Gaffney, Laura Ingraham, and Ben Shapiro along with unknowns like Atkinson.

It has all the markings of a fairly typical astroturf operation. For over twenty years, think tanks and industries with image problems have employed fake grassroots groups run by concerned citizens (preferably women playing the role of the mom next door) to attack their critics, cast doubt on science, and generally give the appearance that they have more support from normal people than they really do. Guns, energy, big agriculture, and construction--all industries that favor the Republican Party have--have used these groups for decades and perfected the technique. Ask any environmental activist. A great deal of their time and energy must be spent rebutting these subsidized front groups rather than getting real work done.

Following the food chain Family Security Matters to the Center for Security Policy is where the story gets interesting. Back to SourceWatch:
Center for Security Policy was founded in 1988 and states that it operates as a non-profit, non-partisan organization committed to the time-tested philosophy of promoting international peace through American strength....

A very influential organization with the Center for Security Policy is the Center's National Security Advisory Council, whose members hold senior positions with the Bush administration.

Center for Security Policy has strong ties with the Republican Party with many members serving senior posts in the Reagan administration and George W. Bush administration. Donald Rumsfeld, current Secretary of Defense under Bush, is a receipient of the Center's Keeper of the Flame Award.

The organization's president is Frank Gaffney and members of their advisory council have included many neo-con superstars such as Elliott Abrams, Douglas J. Feith, Richard Perle, Deputy National Security Advisor Jack D. Crouch II, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky, and Dick Cheney. The list goes on and on also including representatives from major defense contractors and conservative cash cows like the Scaife, Olin, and Bradley foundations.

This confluence of influence has led many bloggers to treat this story as "group with ties to the White House and Republican Party advocates overthrow of the government." Whoever is in charge at Family Security Matters didn't see that coming when they promoted the Atkinson article as a "must read" for the day. But why not? Do they actually agree that democracy is dead and the only hope for western civilization is a global Bush dictatorship, accompanied by massive international genocide and forced resettlement of Americans abroad? Did they think that that opinion was one that would appeal to their target readership? Did anyone actually read the article?

At least they know now that they made a mistake. The article has been pulled from their site (my quotes are from a Google cached copy). All of Atkinson's past articles have been pulled and his name has been removed from their list of contributing editors. He has suffered the fate of Trotsky and been airbrushed from all photos of the presidium.

The existence of the article isn't proof that Cheney and the others approve of abolishing the republic and paving the Middle East. Though hiding the article isn't proof that they disapprove of the idea. I suspect some of them might have a wee warm spot in their hearts for a dictatorship, but most of them know better than to say that in public. Mr. Atkinson's article needs to better publicized and our leaders need to answer a few questions about it. Of course, they will be shocked--shocked I tell you--that any of their followers have such feelings. But we will know them by their friends.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Of mammoths and cheese

I followed the headline "Ancient Drawing Of Mammoth Found In Cheddar Caves" expecting to find a new and exciting pareidola phenomenon like the Holy Eggplant of Boothwyn, but it's actually a story about a paleolithic drawing in a normal rock cave. Nevertheless, I'm always game for new evidence of our ancestors hanging out with mammoths.
The engraving, which is difficult to see owing to some degradation of the rock surface since the last Ice Age, appears to be an outline drawing of a mammoth made by the addition of what is believed to be humanly engraved lines to some natural features of the rock, a technique which is well-known from the famous French and Spanish decorated caves.

Graham Mullan said: "Unlike our previous finds of abstract designs in the caves in this area, this is a clear representation of an animal. We are more confident that at least part of it was humanly made and the subject material places it firmly in the latter part of the last Ice Age. Finds of mammoth ivory of that age have been made in this cave in the past indicating that these animals would have been known to the inhabitants.

"Although the cave has been studied by many archaeologists, this engraving has previously escaped notice because it is quite difficult to make out. For this reason, a careful study has been made and this announcement was delayed until we were reasonably confident of the attribution."


Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper in the Department said: "Had I been shown this outline of a mammoth during a visit to one of the well known cave art sites in France or Spain, I would have nodded and been able to accept it in the context of other more obvious pictures. At Gough’s, or anywhere in England, it is not so easy. Cave art is so rare here that we must always question and test to make sure we are getting it right."

In the photograph accompanying the article, I'm not sure which curve is supposed to be the mammoth. I can point to two possibilities. I hope that it's more obvious to those actually present, or else we might be dealing with nothing more than wishful thinking pareidola, much like Jack Cuozzo's drawing of battling mammoths and dinosaurs.

But probability is on their side. Cheddar is one of the richest archaeological areas in Britain and is home to Cheddar Man, the oldest complete human skeleton so far discovered in the British Isles, and other signs of human habitation back to the end of the last ice age. It's also home to sites from the Saxon and Roman settlements as well as megaliths.

As any student of British archaeology knows, wherever there are megaliths, there will also be students of Atlantean Ley lines and other archaeological woo. Cheddar is no different in this respect. So maybe there will be a British Jack Cuozzo to give their new mammoth the cheesy over-interpretation it deserves.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Did you know

Software marketing would be impossible without the phrase "gives you the flexibility to..."?

Monday, August 13, 2007

About six years too late

Karl Rove is leaving the White House. Rove will not go down as the most evil man in American history or even of his generation, but it won't have been for lack of trying.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Cultural markers

Razib over at Gene Expression brings up an interesting observation:
Hung with old college friends last night. We kept referring to South Park episodes to illustrate a point or make an analogy so as to clarify an issue. Interesting that this is a common touchstone for my generation.

I'm mid-boom: born 1956, high school class of 1974, college 1978. Of course, I don't see any number of school friends at the same time any more, but I think teevee as a common language fades fairly quickly over time. That is, people I went to grad school with in the last decade might refer to teevee episodes, but high school friends and college friends from thirty years ago would be more likely to refer to song lyrics or movies for cultural references.

There're two or three possible conclusions you can draw from that: Razib's generation is more teevee oriented than mine, his teevee is more memorable than mine, or teevee fades from our cultural language faster than movies or music. I'm inclined towards the latter, but maybe you have your own theory. When you get together with old friends of the same generation, what cultural references do you use for a common touchstone?

I'll add a complication. The group I graduated from high school with were very close in age and clearly of the same generation. In college, our age spread was much larger, but most of us were of the same generation, just different parts of it. By the time I went to grad school in the nineties, the group I socialized with covered two generations with a few outliers from a third generation. When you get together with people from your past, in a group who are not from the same generation, what common cultural markers do you share?

The state to the right of Washington

Bill Sali, a first term Republican congressman from Idaho, has weighed in on last month's opening of a session of the Senate with a prayer by a Hindu cleric, Rajan Zed of Nevada. Needless to say, he was against it and he's sure our founding fathers would have agreed with him.
We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes -- and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

You know what else our founding fathers didn't envision? Microwave ovens. That's right, not even Ben Franklin, who a very smart person and who knew more than a little about ovens. But, I digress.
Sali says America was built on Christian principles that were derived from scripture. He also says the only way the United States has been allowed to exist in a world that is so hostile to Christian principles is through "the protective hand of God."

"You know, the Lord can cause the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike," says the Idaho Republican.

According to Congressman Sali, the only way the U.S. can continue to survive is under that protective hand of God. He states when a Hindu prayer is offered, "that's a different god" and that it "creates problems for the longevity of this country."

HIstorical revisionism, Christian persecution complex, and open bigotry are par for the course with Sali. Before moving to Washington, Sali was in the Idaho statehouse where Bruce Newcomb, the conservative Republican speaker, said of him, "That idiot is just an absolute idiot. He doesn't have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body. And you can put that in the paper." Many Boise observers were aghast at his winning the nomination last year, but with lots of support from the Club for Growth he managed to win in the reddest of the red states. Sali once declared that critical thinking skills were relatively unimportant for the job of legislating and has been doing his best to prove that in his first year in Washington.

In slapping down Sali's historical revisionism about America as a Christian nation, Ed Brayton brought up a wonderful quote from 1788. The writer, Isaac Kramnick, was one of the many ministers who railed against the Constitution during the debate over its ratification because they saw it as a godless document. Kramnick warned that passage of the constitution would allow the following undesirable types to hold office:
1st. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence - 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the Trinity - 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches - 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain - 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil - 6thly. Jews etc. etc.

A commentor named Wes did a top notch job of updating the quote to identify today's undesirable types:
pdate this quote:
1st. Liberals, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence - 2dly. Atheists, who ridicule the Trinity - 3dly. Homosexuals, abominable wretches - 4thly. Arabs, the seed of Cain - 5thly. Illegal immigrants, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil - 6thly. Abortion doctors and evolutionists etc. etc.

There you have it; Bill Sali is our last line of defense against Quakers and saucy Negroes.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Visiting the Wenas mammoth

Last summer when I read a large Associated Press story about the excavation of a mammoth on Wenas Creek, I was very excited. Wenas Creek is on the way to Mom's house; I drive by the mouth of the creek at least once a month. Maybe, I thought, I can visit, or volunteer, or hang out and become their new best friend.

But then my excitement turned to disappointment. The big article that the local paper ran on it was published the week after the dig closed for the season. I've waited most of the year for the dig to reopen and a few weeks ago it did. I finally visited the site three weeks ago and here is my report.

Wenas Creek flows into the Yakima River from a point in the Cascade Mountains about thirty miles due northwest of the small town of Selah. For most of its length the creek has a wide bottom that is the home to dozens of neat and orderly horse ranches. The ridges on either side of the valley are dusty and covered with sage and dry grasses.

Approaching the dig with Wenas Creek Valley in the background.

In the Spring of 2005, Mayo Ranches hired the Gary Fife Inc., a local construction firm, to build a new road up a hill on their property. Near the end of the project, the Fife workers decided to scrape some earth from the uphill-side of the road to level a dip in the road. A few feet below the surface the backhoe operator uncovered something that looked out of place. Most of the soil on the hill was dry and light colored with a layer of water rounded rocks beneath. What he found was a large irregular and yellowish object just above the rock layer. Fortunately for us, it was lunch time so the construction crew stopped to look at the odd object. Even though the backhoe had damaged the object, it was clear that they were looking at the end of an enormous leg bone.

They told the owners that they had found a dinosaur and the owners called Central Washington University in nearby Ellensburg and eventually contacted Morris Uebelacker of the Department of Geography. Uebelacker showed the bone fragments to Patrick Lubinski of the Department of Anthropology, who recognized it as a mammoth humerus.

At this point let me digress to mention the Lake Missoula floods. I've written about these before. From about 16,000 years ago till about 12,000 years ago Eastern Washington was regularly scoured by some of the largest floods to happen on this planet in the last few million years. These pose a special challenge for paleontologists. This means that most of the Pleistocene bones in the region have been scattered by flowing water. That doesn't mean that there is no information to be gained from these bones. George Last of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Hanford is building a database of the spread of bones in order to map some of the activities of the flood itself. But that's not what interested the CWU professors about the Wenas mammoth.

The Wenas mammoth is about one hundred feet above the highest of the Missoula floods. The floods probably reached the mouth of Wenas Creek. The mammoth on the Mayo ranch is about fifty feet above the valley bottom and about three miles from the confluence of Wenas Creek and the Yakima River. This means the Wenas mammoth bones were not affected by the floods. No mammoth in Eastern Washington has been excavated where it died. The Wenas mammoth is a first for the region.

Drs. Uebelacker and Lubinski were able to form a team and start excavations that same year. This year is their third season. The excavation has been able to precede slowly because it is not threatened by development. Far too much archaeology and paleontology is conducted as an emergency evacuation ahead of bulldozers. The Mayo family have no plans for the hillside where the mammoth was found and support the University's scientific mission. Mrs. Mayo created the mammoth illustration that has become the logo for the dig. This is excellent community outreach on the part of the University.

Mrs. Mayo's logo.

So what did I see when I drove up the dusty side road to the mammoth dig?

Of course I got lost on the way. I headed up the wrong valley, then turned back and found my way into Wenas Creek. I slowed down to read signs and almost immediately found Mrs. Mayo's sign. A few hundred yards up the dusty side road and up the hill, the road leveled out to reveal a group of tents. I almost fell off the road in my excitement. I parked and ran back to take pictures of the signs on the road.

A guide tracked me down as ran around like a sugared up eight year old and pointed me to the guest tent. She told me that the next tour would begin in about fifteen minutes, that I could sign the guest book, and look at their informational display while staying out of the sun. Hot weather and I are not friends. I already came prepared with a hat, dark glasses, a light shirt, and a half-gallon of ice tea. I took a few more pictures and checked out the tent. The guest book revealed that the site was getting seven or eight visitors per day. The informational display was professionally done, but the tri-fold signs reminded me of a grade school science fair or a small town museum. I have never been to scientific conference, so I have never seen the posters that minor contributors put up. I wondered if this is what they are like, or if they are more like a term paper glued to the wall. In any case, the tent display answered some of my basic questions while provoking new ones.

The work tents.

A couple, a few years older than me, arrived just before the tour should have begun. They were local ranchers who wanted to see the site, more out of civic pride than anything else. I waited while they checked out the information tent, then our guide arrived and we crossed the road to the main excavation. She told us about the background to the dig, which I have retold above, then she took us to the active pits.

A couple of students were working in one of the pits under the direction of Bax Barton, the team paleoecologist, while Dr. Lubinski and another student walked around planning the next stage of work. Barton joined us to answer questions.

Paleontological and archaeological digs all pretty much look the same: a series of precise 2 x 2 meter square holes in the ground with people intensely scraping thin layers of soil away. The workers carefully study the ground that they are removing and then send their soil to another worker who shakes it through a wire screen. Everything they find is carefully documented. The pits are surrounded by various measuring sticks (and now GPS units), paint brushes, and note taking tools, which these days include laptops, digital cameras, along with the traditional notebooks and stubby pencils. At Wenas, the soil is very dry and crumbly, so it's fairly easy to remove, but it is also very dusty to handle. I was still sucking grit off of my teeth an hour after I left and long after I finished my iced tea.

Looking into the pits, we could see three clear layers of soil. The topmost layer is light colored and finely grained. This is mostly wind deposited. In some places a white streak was visible just below the surface. This was ash from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Ashfalls like this are quite valuable because the isotopes can be used for radiometric dating. The next layer down was darker and a bit coarser grained. This, our guide told us, was gravity deposited, by which I assumed she meant mud from further up the hill. The lowest level that they were working was made up of round rocks, the sort that you find in river and creek bottoms. That's exactly what they were. Barton used a folding measuring stick to point out the layers for us and to indicate out a few bone fragments that hadn't been removed yet. As I mentioned above, the mammoth bones were found on top of the rock layer.

Bax Barton does his best Vanna White imitation while pointing out the main strata. The flags mark finer delineations among the three strata that I mention. The rough areas near the bottom are shelves containing bones that they have not yet removed.

In the past two years they have found the front limbs of the mammoth, some neck vertebrae, ribs, and both shoulder blades. They have not found the rear half, the skull, or the tusks. The latter led to a bit of a running gag. Early on I asked how old the mammoth was when it died. Our guide said that it was an adult, but that they couldn't give a more precise estimate of its age without the teeth or tusks. Did they know whether it was a male or female, I asked. Not without the tusks. When she explained the differences between the Columbian and woolly mammoths, my companions asked which one this was. She paused and they jumped in, oh, you need the tusks.

So far, they only have this middle portion of the mammoth. They still haven't discerned a pattern in the spread of the bones. If a mammoth died of natural causes or was killed by predators, the bones might be scattered over a fairly large area by scavengers. If it was killed by humans and butchered, we might find the top side missing and the bottom side still in place or scattered by scavengers. If the mammoth drowned, was buried by a mudslide, or otherwise died in a place inaccessible to scavengers, we might find the entire skeleton close together and even fully assembled. While I was there, they were starting a pit on the downhill side of the road to see if any bones have spread that far. The worse case scenario, which no one was mentioning, is that the skull and tusks are right under the road.

One tantalizing clue about the site is a rock chip that they found last year. This is a flake of chert, almost certainly produced by human tool making. It was found an inch or so above one of the forelimbs. That inch might mean a couple thousand years or the same day. They don't have enough data yet to make a date determination on the chip. The bones themselves have been dated by multiple carbon -14 tests to 16,000 years ago (which is about when the first Missoula flood happened).

The ribs of a bovid animal, probably a buffalo of some sort, have been found with the mammoth's. This is another clue about the origin of the bones. If the human link is confirmed, it will probably mean that this was some kind of kill site, like a water hole or mud wallow. It could also be evidence that the animals died elsewhere and had their bones moved here by flowing water or mud. They might be mixed together for no other reason than that this was once a bend in the creek.

After showing us a few other operations, we dropped by the pit that was the star attraction that day. On an unexcavated shelf near the bottom of the pit was exposed a split scapula, a shoulder blade, of the mammoth. The blade was about the size of a serving platter. One end of it extended into the pit wall. While the bits of ribs that we had seen in the previous pits didn't look that different from a splintered stick, this was clearly a bone--a big bone.

The scapula. A cow's scapula is on the right side of the pit for size comparison. The student in the center is beginning to move the wall between this pit and the next so they can remove the scapula. In the foreground you can see the string markers for the next pit, which they might have been able to start if I wasn't standing in the middle of it taking pictures.

While we admired the scapula, Barton mentioned that they had just shipped off their grant applications for next year's work. The Mayo's are happy to let the University excavate for years to come, but the University has to beg from season to season to keep the work going. Many of the tools and other supplies, such as the paintbrushes, have been donated by science-minded local businesses.

There are a number of good reasons why this did should be funded. As I mentioned above, this is the first mammoth in the region to be excavated that was not scattered by the Lake Missoula floods. As such it is the best possible teaching dig for the students of CWU. Mammoths are common enough that a bone by itself isn't that interesting. We already understand mammoth anatomy. The most interesting information we can gain from most mammoth discoveries is that which can be gleaned from their context.

The best example of context is the rock chip. If that chip can be associated with the mammoth it will mean that people were in the Northwest thousands of years earlier than was previously thought. The leading theory of the peopling of the Americas was that Siberians entered North America through Alaska and walked into the center of the continent as the glaciers pulled back. In recent years some evidence has appearaed that put humans here too early to have come that way. The best alternative is that they still came from Asia and touched on Alaska, but came down the west coast in boats. A confirmed 16,000 years old tool in Washington would add huge support to the coastal migration theory. It would also mean that there were human witnesses to the Missoula floods, which is just mind boggling to imagine.

Even if the tool doesn't pan out, there is a lot to be learned from a mammoth in that year. Sixteen thousand years ago was right about when the climate was rapidly turning warmer. The mammoth skeleton can tell us many things about the kind of environmental stresses that climate change produced (unfortunately, tusks are one of the best bones for this). The soil that buried the mammoth will contain valuable clues to the climate in the form of pollen and other botanical remains.

The dig now has a web cam which will be broadcasting for the week or so left in the season. After that, they will cover the dig, unplug the camera, and remove the signs so the Mayos can have some privacy for the rest of the year. Then the team will return to Ellensburg to prepare for the fall semester. But that's not the end of the story. digging up the bones is just the start of their work. During the winter they will be going over soil samples with microscopes and performing as many test as they can imagine. And I'll keep watching for news out of Ellensburg.

Housekeeping 2007

This is vacation season in the US. Because traffic is usually low during July and August, many bloggers slack off during this time, too. Some actually take vacations themselves. I usually approach the slow seasons with a firm determination to be there for the readers. I plan to take advantage of slower news to work on some longer pieces and give people a reason to come here. Of course, it never works out that way. Something always happens to distract me from serious writing.

This summer has been a little worse than usual. A month ago, I had big plans to do some science writing over the summer. Since then my mother's chemotherapy regimen has changed twice leading me to go spend some time with her doctors to make sure I understand what's going on and whether this is a good sign or a bad sign (it's neutral). I've had my own health issues in the form of repeated migraines. This happens every summer, caused by heat and bright sunlight, but somehow I manage to forget about it and get caught by surprise the following year. Finally, we had a death in the family. An aunt, my childhood baby-sitter, died after a long decline. I had been braced for this for a long time, but even so, the real event takes a lot out of me.

So, posting has been shallow and light, but today the weather turned cooler and I suddenly felt interested in getting some words down again. A number of readers, including old friends Coturnix, Dum Luks, and the Farmer, have sent me news clippings about baby mammoths and mastodon DNA and Clever Wife has been nudging me to get back to work on the book. I'm looking at unfinished pieces and seeing what I can pull together. I'll start with the story of my trip to a mammoth excavation and then we'll see what I can pull together after that.

I might even get up the energy to update the blogroll. But I'm not making any promises.

Monday, August 06, 2007

They have some explaining to do

The following Democratic Senators voted to give the Bush administration more power to ignore due process and act without any sort of meaningful oversight.
  • Blanche Lincoln, AR
  • Mark Prior, AR
  • Dianne Feinstein, CA
  • Ken Salazar, CO
  • Tom Carper, DE
  • Bill Nelson, FL
  • Daniel Inouye, HI
  • Evan Bayh, IN
  • Mary Landrieu, LA
  • Barbara Mikulski, MD
  • Claire McCaskill, MO
  • Amy Klobuchar, MN
  • Kent Conrad, ND
  • Ben Nelson, NE
  • Bob Casey, Jr, PA
  • Jim Webb, VA

Every one of them is a disgrace to their party and to the country. They need to explain why we shouldn't immediately start recruiting primary challengers to boot them out of office.

Needless to say, former Democrat Joe Lieberman and all of the Senate Republicans voted against the constitution.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Do not eat the local bread

From BBC:
An Indian suspect was forced by police to eat 50 bananas as a laxative, to retrieve a necklace he was accused of stealing and swallowing.

When the bananas failed to produce the desired effect, police fed Sheikh Mohsin rice, chicken and local bread.

Finally the necklace, which appeared on an X-ray taken on the suspect, was excreted and retrieved.

I was planning on having chicken and rice for dinner. I may have to change the menu.

No reincarnation without a license

The authorities in China have forbidden reincarnation without a permit from the officially atheist government.
Tibet’s living Buddhas have been banned from reincarnation without permission from China’s atheist leaders. The ban is included in new rules intended to assert Beijing’s authority over Tibet’s restive and deeply Buddhist people.

"The so-called reincarnated living Buddha without government approval is illegal and invalid," according to the order, which comes into effect on September 1.


It is the latest in a series of measures by the Communist authorities to tighten their grip over Tibet. Reincarnate lamas, known as tulkus, often lead religious communities and oversee the training of monks, giving them enormous influence over religious life in the Himalayan region. Anyone outside China is banned from taking part in the process of seeking and recognising a living Buddha, effectively excluding the Dalai Lama, who traditionally can play an important role in giving recognition to candidate reincarnates.

For the first time China has given the Government the power to ensure that no new living Buddha can be identified, sounding a possible death knell to a mystical system that dates back at least as far as the 12th century.

While a first glance at this announcement might make you wonder whether the Chinese have an equivalent of April Fool's Day, the intent is very real and sincere, but not necessarily intelligent or unstupid.

The key concept to understanding totalitarian governments is the application of the root "total." Governments like those in modern China, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, Medieval Europe, or Puritan Massachusetts claim the right to be involved in all political activities and believe that all activities are political. If a group af people get together to play chess, they must first form a club, file incorporation papers with the state, and wait for state approval of their group before actually playing chess. Religion is treated the same as chess.

Soviet Russia tried to control religion in this way. The Orthodox church was required to get state approval for its activities. The state claimed the right to approve of the hierarchy of the church as the officers of a "religion club." They hoped to control the church by only allowing politically dependable citizens to hold high offices in the church. China treats religion in the same way. Every time a bishop dies, Rome and Beijing engage in a conflict over who gets to appoint his replacement. The only thing they agree on is that it won't be a woman.

After 1918 the Russian Orthodox churrch abroad became a separate church. Moscow appointed a metropolitan for the Soviet Union and the exile church appointed its own. While this didn't end the existence of the chuch in Russia, it di divide the locals from the exile community. China is attempting the same in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama is not an exile because he is the religious head of the lamanistic Buddhists of Tibet; he is in exile because he is the head of state of the Kingdom of Tibet, which is not recognized by the Communist government in Beijing. For the Buddhist "church" of Tibet, the Communist government in Beijing wants to claim the same power that Stalin claimed over the Orthodox chuch of Russia. They want to have the power of approval over new officers of a "religion club" in Tibet.

If their attempt is successful, the best they can hope for is that in a generation, they might have split the local "legal" Buddhists from the "illegal" exile community. More likely, they will only manage to create a caste of Quisling priests who have legal ownership of the Buddhist properties, but no authority. At the same time, their "reincarnation permits" will make a joke of those same Quisling priests. That in itself might serve to undermine Buddhism in Tibet, but Clever Wife has her doubts. Are the Communists of China really that forward thinking and oblivious to globalization trends or is this a sign of some internal struggle within the Party? Is this merely a concession to some senile old git by a younger cadre who don't expect to have to enforce the ruling?

Only time will tell what the intention behind this ruling was, but, for now, it deserves nothing more than contemptuous laughter.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Something that is not there

Many American Christians, especially Evangelical Protestants, but also other sects, seem to believe that the basic articles of faith of Christianity are capitalism, conservatism, Nascar, country music, and hatred of abortion, liberalism, and homosexuality. The last element of that creed seems to have been successfully exported to Iraq.
In the first panel of Iraq religious minorities ever assembled by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last week, the Rev. Canon Andrew White – vicar of the 1,300-member St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad – shared about the struggles of the depleting Iraqi Christian population and the effects of being associated with a "Western religion."

During the question and answer session, White spoke about Western culture and values and their detrimental effects on Iraqi Christians.

"Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the Christians are targeted because they are seen as belonging to a Western religious tradition," said White, who noted that in actuality Christianity originated in the Middle East.

"It is seen as an immoral tradition. It is seen as a tradition that does not uphold values. It is seen as a tradition that does not uphold the respect for the kind of issues that the Islamic religion holds as very significant to them," said the Anglican priest who has worked in Iraq for over a decade.

White said that the previous day he had received an email from some of the Christians in Baghdad asking him if it was true that the Church in America supported homosexuality.

"You see, what may happen here in fairly a benign way is seen there as particularly offensive," said the Baghdad church head.

"These positions often held by Western Christians are not held by Iraqi Christians," emphasized White. "They are very, very different. My people say the Creed and they believe it...."

Hatred of homosexuals is not part of the Nicene Creed as recited by Iraqi Anglicans, nor is support of gay rights part of the creed as recited by American Christians of any sect. Gay rights, one way or the other, are not part of the fundamental, historically based articles of faith of any Christian sect (except that of Fred Phelps, who is arguably not really a Christian, American, or human). Many mainstream Christians look at the message of social justice taught by Jesus and mean tolerance and fellowship with gays. Others look at a few verses of Levitical law and Pauline letters and believe that, since Jesus didn't specifically include gays in his message, that they must still be condemned under ancient nomadic laws. To choose which to believe, most Christians look to their own cultural norms and decide that the sacred texts support the position that they were inclined to take in the first place. Muslims, Jews, and others are no different.

Vicar White, in blaming the tolerant welcome of gays by some American Anglican congregations for violence against Iraqi Christians, is, at the same time, telling a broad social truth and engaging in the worst sort of scape-goating.

The truth that he tells is that of other people's prejudice. His Muslim neighbors see the West as a Christian society. As the local representative of Christianity, they see his congregation as the outpost of all that they dislike about the West. They were already disposed to make this equation long before Hollywood, miniskirts, or Stonewall. If these social trends did not exist, his Muslim neighbors would blame him for Western imperialism, capitalism, and trans-fats. In fact, they already do blame him for these things. As long as they equate Christianity with the West, they will blame him for anything that they dislike about the West. This is basic bully psychology: pass the pain downhill. Western power and culture make local elites feel helpless, so they exorcise that helplessness by exercising their power over someone less powerful than themselves. The fact that the local Christians bare some conceptual similarity to their tormentors, makes them that more attractive as victims.

Vicar White's crime is in supporting that equation. In pointing to American gays and the Christian congregations who embrace them, he passes the blame for his pain down the food chain to someone still more helpless. He is embracing his tormentor's frustration and violence and legitimizing it. Of course, this article only quotes a few paragraphs of Vicar White's words. I don't know if the message I'm condemning is really his or if it one attributed to him by the author and editor of the article. But, whether or not it was his intention, Vicar White's words are being used in the American culture wars to oppress a powerless and despised minority. The message of the article is that American gays must stay in their disadvantaged place; to claim their rights is to hurt others.

This is a contemptible message. I don't know if it was Vicar White's intention to pass on that message or if he is being used by American culture warriors. My feeling is that identifying the source of the evil isn't as important as stopping the spread of the evil. Blaming supporters of GBLT rights in America for violence in Iraq is vile and opportunistic. No one who believes in the virtues of peace, egalitarianism, and tolerance should give Vicar White's argument more than a moment's consideration. American values, Christian, secular, or otherwise, promote better than that.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Once a playground bully...

Our diplomat in chief at work charming the press representatives of our most valuable ally:
At a recent press conference at Camp David, President George Bush insulted BBC political editor Nick Robinson, the Daily Mirror reports.

Robinson, who has asked Bush pointed questions in the past such as whether the president was "in denial" over the Iraq war, posed a question to Bush about whether he could trust visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown not to "cut and run" from Iraq.

Bush replied with a dismissal: "Are you still hanging around?"

Later on, Bush poked fun at the bare-pate of Robinson, joking, "You’d better cover up your bald head, it’s getting hot out."

The respected British reporter shot back, "I didn’t know you cared."

Bush responded with a cool, "I don’t." The Mirror reports that Bush then "snorted disdainfully" and “walked away to laughter."

Dear rest of the world, Please accept our apologies. Half of us didn't want him in the first place and half of those who did now understand their mistake. Give us another chance and there is at least a forty percent chance we won't blow it this time.