Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fake quotes and bad jokes

Watch Rachel Maddow slap down Pat Buchanan on MSNBC's Race For The White House. Apparently, MSNBC has cut this segment out of the version of the show available online. Naturally, Left Blogistan is going nuts over this heavy-handed censorship and calls are out to deluge the brass at MSNBC with mail. The kossacs are running with this. A typical example is this from a diarist called Jonibgud.

Jonibgud follows his/her call with this:
A network executive, seeking to explain MSNBC's apparent kidnapping of its own footage, spoke of his company's public-interest obligations.

“Viewers are incredibly engaged this election season, with a real appetite for political news,” said Phil Griffin, Senior Vice President, NBC News and Executive in Charge of MSNBC. "But sometimes, for viewers' own good -- and to maintain our good standing in the Village -- we have to self-censor. Some truths are just too painful, and we have a responsibility to protect the public as well as inform them."

It's an outrageous admission. Raw Story repeats the quote. I didn't think it sounded genuine, so I Googled it and found that the first part comes from a press release announcing Race For The White House last March. The second--and damning--part only appears in Kos and Raw Story, though in a few minutes I expect it will be all over Left Blogistan.

I suspect Jonibgud meant the quote as a joke but failed to make that clear. In any case, it's a fake quote and will be sure to bite the kossacs and anyone who uses it on the ass. DO NOT use the quote until it has been confirmed, as it possibly libels Phil Griffin.

Update: The comments on the Jonibgud post are outraged at the Phil Griffin quote and ready for action. Over twenty quotes in, someone named Parallax857 points out that the quote is joke. A few more angry comments ensue and then the rest of the gang catch on. Too late, I'm afraid. Democratic Underground has picked it up; it took till comment number 29 for someone to catch on and inform the enraged readers. It's been ten hours since Raw Story posted it and they haven't caught on yet. Phil Griffin is probably baffled by the angry e-mail he's getting today.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ted Stevens indicted

There's good news from the old country today. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate has been indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges. This is good old fashioned corruption, accepting gifts from someone doing business in the state and not reporting them (also known as taking a bribe). Stevens is 84 years old and up for re-election this year. This might be a good time to retire. Normally, I would expect him to resign claiming health issues and have the Republican governor appoint his son Ben to fill his seat. Unfortunately, Ben is under investigation for corruption in the Alaska state senate and is expected to collect his own indictments any day now. Alaska hasn't had a Democrat in their congressional delegation in twenty eight years (and even then it was Mike Gravel). We should practice saying Senator Beigich (pronounced BAYgich).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'll help, but only if I can kill something

Failed Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter had a great idea for giving himself a consolation prize and helping some of the world's neediest people, the Darfur refugees living in Chad. Hunter's staff contacted the embassy in N'Djamena and asked them to make arrangements for the congressman to go big game hunting for wildebeest and then distribute the meat to the refugees. The embassy, not one of our largest, was worried about the logistics and disruption of their staff, but made inquiries anyway. In their response they told Hunter that he would have to coordinate his visit with the World Food Program's distribution schedule, that the government of Chad doesn't allow big game hunting, and that, even if they did, there are no wildebeest in Chad. Hunter's staff said never mind, they'll go somewhere where he can kill something. His constituents must be proud.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Volcanoes Erupting in Alaska

Here's some news from the old country. Okmok Volcano on Umnak Island in the eastern Aleutian Islands (the end near the mainland) started erupting on July 12 and continues to produce explosions and ash plumes through a newly created vent. The initial eruption sent a cloud to 35,000 feet. Most of ash and gas from that explosion blew southward over the North Pacific, but some of it spread eastward enough to reach the port of Dutch Harbor. Sulfur dioxide injected into the upper atmosphere stayed aloft long enough to drift south and get caught in the mid-latitude wins that blow eastward across the lower forty eight United States. It was detected as far inland as Eastern Montana on the 17th. Mount Cleveland on Chuginadak Island and ninety miles west of Okmok burst into action on Monday with a 20,000 foot plume. Two eruptions at once is a rare event and will keep the state geologists busy for the next few weeks.

Alaska has more big, active volcanoes than the the rest of the United States combined. They can affect the global climate and crops, but you hear much less about them because most of them only directly endanger a small number of people. That is a function of how large and sparsely populated Alaska is. Umnak Island, for example is larger than Oahu in Hawaii. But while Oahu has almost nine hundred thousand people, Umnak has only thirty nine--not thirty nine thousand, just thirty nine people. Although these volcanoes are on the end of the Aleutians closest to the mainland, they are still almost a thousand miles away from Anchorage. The tourists on the cruise ships sailing into Southeastern Alaska and Anchorage will not be aware that two volcanoes are erupting in the state unless they buy a local newspaper.

Okmok is a shadow of its former self. The current erupting cone sits inside the crater rim of a collapsed caldera almost exactly the same size as Crater Lake in Oregon. Okmok has apparently undergone two caldera collapses in the last 10,000 years. The earlier was around 6200 BC, or five hundred years before Mazama became Crater Lake. The more recent collapse was in about 400 BC. Both of those occurred while people were living in the Aleutians, possibly on that island.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Democrat Party

In a post on the terms "Darwinist" and "Darwinism" Coturnix compared the terms to the use of "Democrat party" by Republicans.
Words like "Darwinist" and "evolutionist" that are never used by actual evolutionary biologists serve as code-words for belonging to the Creationist Village, just like saying "Democrat party" instead of "Democratic party" immediatelly signals one's political party affiliation (GOP).

A reader names Ian took issue with that.
I think your comment on the "Democratic" versus "Democrat" is quite as black and white as you indicate.

If you want to go the the Democratic Party web site you have to type
You cannot get there by typing
although that is a valid address.

Also the Democrats usually refer to themselves as such. You never hear anyone referring to the "Democratics"!

I'm sure it is used perjoratively, but I'm also sure there's "language laziness" involved on here just as there is all over the English language. It's rather easier to use the snappy "Democrat" than it is to use "Democratic".

I'll assume that Ian's comments were sincerely intentioned and not a disingenuous attempt to confuse the issue. What Coturnix referred to is really that black and white. The issue is not whether it's okay to call an individual supporter of the Democratic Party a Democrat. That usage has a long history of common usage and is used by the Democratic Party itself. No one has ever said that the proper noun for an individual is "a Democratic." The issue is whether it is an insult to call the Democratic Party the "Democrat Party." It is.

The legal name of the party is not the Democrat Party; it is the Democratic Party. None of the usual excuses for using another name apply here. There is no common nickname accepted by the Party like "Mormon for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saint or "GOP" for the Republican Party. It is not an inside slang used by members of the Party, as in the case of white idiots who insist they should be entitled to use the word "nigger" because they heard some Black rappers use it and despite the fact that they are not Black rappers.

It is ungrammatical; "Party" is a noun and "Democratic" is the correct adjectival modifier. It is also rude; any schoolyard bully knows that one of the easiest ways to get someone's ire is to consistently and defiantly mispronounce their name. It goes at a person's basic identity. It says, "you don't say who you are; I say who you are." This is why many people see Bush's insistence on making up nicknames for everyone he meets to be a basically rude and bullying behavior. "Democrat Party" also distances the Party from the concept of being democratic. It's just a name, a few syllables with no real meaning. That distancing is, of course, intentional for those who use "Democrat Party."

The use of "Democrat Party" by Republicans as an insult has long history going back to at least the 1930s (the OED notes at least one usage in the 1890s). A few Republican politicians and conservative commentators have used it over the years, but it didn't really become common--indeed, pervasive like the talking point of the week--until the Newt Gingrich era and the studied contol of messaging that Gingrich and Frank Luntz instituted. I think the phrase popped up during the attempted rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy, who used it almost exclusively when referring to the party of Jefferson and FDR. For people with any sense of decency, that should be reason enough to avoid it. Gingrich and Luntz latched on to it and made it party of their official usage for Republicans.

I'm not the only one who has explored this issue. Here's Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker:
There's no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. "Democrat Party" is a slur, or intended to be--a handy way to express contempt. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but "Democrat Party" is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams "rat."

...and Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post:
There's also something grating and coarse-sounding about this abbreviated appellation, like saying "Jew" instead of "Jewish." It is, conservative wordsmith William F. Buckley wrote in National Review in 2002, "offensive to the ear."

All of this history and analysis should be unnecessary for anyone with an iota of manners. All they should need to know is that when Democrats hear that term, they feel insulted. The essence of manners is to avoid offense. That should settle the issue. As Rabbi Hillel put it "The main idea is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Actions have consequences

One of the people who sent death threats to PZ Myers over his Eucharist comment has managed to get his wife fired from her job.

For those of you arriving late to the story, the background is this: Two weeks ago a student at the University of Central Florida, named Webster Cook, made news when he took a Eucharist, a consecrated communion wafer, out of the campus church. Webster said he originally intended to bring it back to his pew to show a curious non-Catholic friend before consuming it. When a church leader tried to seize the wafer from him, Cook got mad and left the church with the uneaten wafer. This turned into a stand-off, with the church demanding he return the wafer, Cook demanding an apology, and the local press running headlines like "'Body Of Christ' Snatched From Church, Held Hostage By UCF Student." The headlines were just the beginning of the silliness. The local diocese promptly declared Cook's action a hate crime and dispatched a nun to protect the Eucharist from attacks by unbelievers during the next mass.

At this point, William Donohue became involved. Donohue is a notorious anti-Semite and homophobe who claims without authority to be a spokesman for all American Catholics. For reasons no one can explain, the cable news networks regularly give him a platform from which to dispense his fringe rantings. Donohue issued a press release through his group the Catholic League:
For a student to disrupt Mass by taking the Body of Christ hostage—regardless of the alleged nature of his grievance—is beyond hate speech. That is why the UCF administration needs to act swiftly and decisively in seeing that justice is done. All options should be on the table, including expulsion.

Donohue's followers began swamping the university with demands that Cook be expelled and/or jailed and many sent harassing letters to Cook himself damning him to hell. Some included death threats. The school responded with armed guards--for the Eucharist at the mass.

Enter PZ Myers. P-Zed commented on his blog Pharyngula at the silliness of it all saying "It's a frackin' cracker!" adding:
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.

This rude comment sent Donohue into an apoplectic fit.
The Myers blog can be accessed from the university’s website. The university has a policy statement on this issue which says that the "Contents of all electronic pages must be consistent with University of Minnesota policies, local, state and federal laws." One of the school’s policies, "Code of Conduct," says that "When dealing with others," faculty et al. must be "respectful, fair and civil." Accordingly, we are contacting the President and the Board of Regents to see what they are going to do about this matter. Because the university is a state institution, we are also contacting the Minnesota legislature.

It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.

Donohue's message was a clear call for his followers to lay siege to the University of Minnesota with demands for P-Zed's firing and they responded with zeal. Some might think that P-Zed's irreverent comment crosses some sort of line and that he indeed deserves to face stiff consequences, but before you think that consider these two points. First, P-Zed didn't actually commit any kind of desecration or sacrilege; he merely made a rhetorical offer to do so. Second, and more importantly, he made this offer on his own time in a forum unconnected to the University. Donohue deliberately misleads on this point. P-Zed's blog Pharyngula is hosted by Seed magazine on its ScienceBlogs site. The pages are clearly marked as such. P-Zed has always been scrupulously clear that his blogging expresses his thoughts and are not endorsed by the University of Minnesota, or by Seed or by any of the other sciencebloggers for that matter. For the university to punish or censor what P-Zed says on his own time in his own space would be a massive intrusion into his private life and violation of his right to free speech. "Myers blog can be accessed from the university’s website" only by following a link from his personal faculty page to his blog. By playing the game of six degrees of internet separation I'm sure I could "access" Nazi or pedophile pages from Donohue's Catholic League.

In a bizarre follow up, Thomas E. Foley, a Virginia delegate to the Republican National Convention to be held in Minneapolis next month has asked for extra security to provided by the police to Catholic churches during the convention. Directly referencing Donohue as a source of his information, Foley seems to imagine that P-Zed will lead angry hordes of atheists and liberals to attack good Catholics as they try to worship in peace. Since he has only asked for additional security during the convention, I can only assume that plans to leave the good Catholics of Minneapolis to a fate worse that death after the convention cameras are gone. Wouldn't that security be put to better use at the airport protecting the delegates from Republican congressmen with wide stances?

Like Cook, P-Zed was soon deluged with letters and blog comments that were abusive, harassing, and occasionally threatening. On Sunday he printed two of the threatening letters with all of their header information. This was one of them:
what I would like to know is how did you even get a job at a collage.

when you are obviously a moron. How would you feel if nice folks starting ranting against Fags, and atheist like yourself.

well sir, you don't get to blaspheme and walk away from this. You have two choices my fucked up friend, first you can quit your job for the good of the children. Or you can get your brains beat in.

I give you till the first of the month, get that resignation in cunt

It includes all of the hallmarks of the genre: homophobia, misogyny, profanity, irrelevant strawmen, and bad grammar. It also included a return address: 1800FLOWERS is an online florist, a perfectly legitimate business that many of us have used. P-Zed and some of his commenters expressed the opinion that it was probably fake since no one is stupid enough to send threatening letters from the work e-mail. Others determined that it was a real address and that it was, in fact, sent from the 1800FLOWERS servers. Many sent letters to the florist (too many; P-Zed had to remind them that counter harassment is just as bad a harassment and beg his supporters to stop).

Today we got news that 1800FLOWERS has fired the user of that e-mail account, Melanie Kroll. But here's the problem. Ms. Kroll didn't write the threatening letter; her husband, Chuck, wrote it on her computer while she was apparently out of town. Chuck has written a rambling confession and semi-apology and posted it in the comments of Breaking Spells, a blog that wrote about the issue. He has not, as far as I can tell, said anything directly to P-Zed.

Although it's long, Chuck's apologia is worth looking at in detail. The capitalization, formatting, and such are all his.
Melanie Kroll did not send an email to anyone named Paul. Melanie Kroll did not threaten anyone in an email with death, or as was the case in the email in question, a physical beating.

this email did not come from 1-800-flowers, or anyone connected in anyway shape or form to that company, which happens to provide good paying jobs, for lot’s of folks who might otherwise not have them. they also happen to provide a good product at a fair price.

The fact is, that this email to the so called professor, was sent by an angry male catholic, who was very upset after reading that some crazed person in a position of responsibility, charged with teaching children biology, had been encouraging people to steal and desecrate the body of CHRIST, which for Catholics is represented by the Eucharist.

I know this to be true, since I wrote the original email to this so called teacher.

This is clearly not an apology to PZ Myers, who Kroll denigrates as "the so called professor," "some crazed person in a position of responsibility," and "this so called teacher." Notice the peculiar conservative tendency to reduce college students, people who are old enough to vote, drive, die in war, and occasionally buy beer, as vulnerable "children." It's not only insulting to the students, it's an inflammatory form of romanticism similar to referring to a blastocyst, an undifferentiated bunch of cells in a woman's womb, as a "baby." This is a usage that Kroll has most likely learned from listening to the propaganda of people like Donohue. Make note of the all capitals treatment that Christ gets; we'll see it again later.
Was the tone of the letter terse, and did I say I would beat his brains in, yes I did.

I wrote this in the same way one does when saying “I’ll beat your ass”, “or kick I’ll kick your butt” or other such niceties used by members of the unpolished masses, such as myself.

I live a thousand miles away from this guy.

"I didn't really mean it" isn't a very good defense for sending threatening letters. It's one thing to say something like that to someone in person in a bar or other public place. It's something else completely to commit a threat to writing and send it to someone you've never met. It crosses the line between noise and crime. The "unpolished masses" is a nice bit of populist self-pity.
Upon reflection, and reading many of the comments made, I feel that no matter how mad I was, it did not make it right for me to use the language or tone I used. In fact, I think there would have been many more constructive things I could have done, the angry email was just the simplest way.

And I’m sorry.

This is the clearest part of the apologia. It gets to the point. While it's not clear who Kroll is apologizing to, it's clear that he knows he made a mistake and he's sorry he did. Even though he's mostly sorry for himself and his wife, if he would have stopped at this point, it would have been a great letter. But he doesn't stop.
I wonder if that university where mr. myers is employed excepts any money from the state? And I wonder if the good people of this state know that they are paying good, hard earned tax dollars on such a disturbing creature as mr. myers.? I know for a fact that the University is aware of mr. myers antics, and have disavowed his statements.

I am going to write to mr. Myers and offer him my apologies for using such childish language, and the threatening way in which I presented myself to him. It is my hope that he will forgive me, or hold me accountable. However, I think it is his duty to repair the damage that he and his associates have achieved through their concerted and organized campaign to punish both Melanie Kroll, and 1-800-flowers, who were completely blameless in this matter.

However, this whole incident has caused someone who had nothing to do with the email to mr.myers,.a wonderful, sweet person who would never threaten anyone terrible troubles. Great harm has been done to this wonderful lady, without proof or a question asked, you just accuse, and assume. Wow and I thought you liberal folks were supposed to be the open minded ones.

After insulting P-Zed some more he says he's going to apologize to him for his "childish language." Then he insults the "liberal folks" to who he's addressing the current letter.
It’s somewhat amazing to me, that a guy responding (albeit brutishly) )to a news article about a crazed professor who was encouraging his students and others to desecrate the American catholic church, could turn into this orgy of innuendo, and an attack on an innocent, hard working mother of three, and a company that hires many underprivileged people, and single mothers as a matter of policy.

This follows a few paragraphs where Kroll pleads for his wife and the good name of her, now former, employer. Once again, the element of self-pity creeps in and he once again insults the audience he's supposedly apologizing to, accusing them of an "orgy of innuendo" and "attack."

At this point, you can see the damage done by Donohue's technically correct, but misleading implication that P-Zed made his comments in a university forum. Kroll's statement that he was provoked by "a crazed professor who was encouraging his students and others to desecrate the American catholic church" is wrong in almost every detail. I'll leave aside whether P-Zed is crazed. That's a matter of opinion. I've met him and found him charming and soft-spoken. Others who only know him from his writing might have a different opinion. The key error is that he never "encourag[ed] his students" or anyone else to "desecrate the American catholic church." PZ Myers threatened to desecrate a communion wafer should one happen to come his way. He did not ask anyone else--student or other--to desecrate anything. Most importantly, his comments were not directed at his students or in his role as a professor. They were the comments of some guy with a blog, talking to his readers.
My sending mr. myers that wrongheaded stupid email was never the fault of Melanie Kroll, or 1800-flowers, or the pope, or Bill DONAHUE, not even the president. It was just my gut reaction to statements made by mr. myers and his disciples.

Isn't it a little creepy and cult-like that Bill Donohue gets the same all capitals treatment that is otherwise reserved for Jesus Christ? Even the pope, God's vicar on earth, doesn't get that treatment.
In closing I still maintain that if mr. myers. Or anyone, who is encouraging people to desecrate the Eucharist, or if he is doing so himself, I would like to beat his brains in, would I? I don’t know. I’ve never done so before. Though, at that one moment when I was reading his statements..? I suppose If I caught him doing it, I would try to stop him.

And now he undermines his entire apology. He's never assaulted anyone before, but in P-Zed's case he might make an exception. How does this help his case.
I wonder if all of you perfectly politically correct folks here, the ones who prefer to stifle any thought, or debate that does not fit into the approved thoughts of the day. Would find it so interesting, or funny, if mr.myers were attacking the Muslim or Jewish religions, or encouraging others do so?

It appears that Mr. Kroll's temper has been building as he writes. Whatever spirit of contrition he had at the beginning is now gone, replaced by sarcasm and assaults on an imaginary liberal strawman.
What many folks don’t know, is that mr. myers seems to have a warm spot for the Islamic religion. We know this from his spirited defense of Islam in the past, he insists Islam differs from other religions. It seems that mr.myers can’t even be a good atheist.

His thesis is that, it’s wrong to attack Islamic houses of worship and symbols, because they are poor and minorities. At least that is what a reasonable person would gather from mr. myers past statements.

This is completely incorrect. He has either mixed PZ Myers up with someone else or, as I suspect is the case, assigned all of the attitudes of the strawman "liberal professor" of his imagination to P-Zed. PZ Myers is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender. His atheism and rationalism lead him to be equally critical and hostile to fundamentalist Protestants, Scientologists, Catholics, and, yes, Moslems. Here are a few samples of his "warm spot for the Islamic religion" (here, here, here).

Kroll goes on in that vein for a few more paragraphs finishing with this:
It may very well have resulted (if the recent 30 or so year past is any indication) with the good professor hearing the words Allah Akbar shouted into his ear, while not so nice things were happening to him, perhaps things like, being shot in the lobby of a travel agency, being thrown overboard of his cruise ship, or being shot at the airport ticket counter at lax, or maybe being driven over by a student in the college parking lot, could be the bus he rides would have been torn to shreds by a homicide bomber, or even being murdered while riding his bicycle to work, or perhaps he would have been sitting at his office computer, when one the offended folks drove an airplane through his window.

A big finish that includes murderous fantasies and not a little envy over the willingness of Islamic thugs to act on their violent urges while most Christians refrain.

Chuck Kroll's apology obviously needs work. If he's looking for forgiveness, he needs do a lot more to deserve it. Melanie Kroll is another matter. She threatened no one. He worst crimes are bad taste in men and leaving her computer unguarded. Nether of these should have cost her her job. I'm going to write to 1800FLOWERS and ask them to reconsider their decision. Vengeance against the whole family is only valid in primitive, religious based societies. Modern, secular societies should have higher standards of justice.

Meanwhile, I don't think the story is over. Donohue, Foley, and others are still gunning for P-Zed's job and hoping to get as mileage out of crackergate as they can. They need the persecution narrative to keep their flock in line. For Donohue, there's money to be made through his Catholic League. This sort of kerfluffle is an ideal fundraising controversy. For Foley, fear is one of the glues that hold the modern Republican Party together. The modern GOP has used the culture wars to distract voters from real wars and their economic failures for the last forty years. Foley is hoping to work the old magic one more time. If Donohue and Foley destroy a good professor on the way to their goals, they don't care.

We, however, should care.

The White House is Cursed

I see via Dispatches from the Culture Wars that the always entertaining Pastor J. Grant Swank has determined that the White House, and America by extension, has been cursed by God because Bush added a Koran to the White House library. I find it hard to believe that it is the only Koran put in that library. Jefferson had one, but it's in the Library of Congress these days. Even if this is the first one in a long time, I don't see any indication that we've received any new curses since Ramadan. It looks to me like the same old curses are the only ones in effect. But then, I haven't checked out the fall TV line up yet.

New carnival

Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock has the first issue of a new carnival devoted to the history of science. It's called Giants' Shoulders. I'm still reading my way through the posts, but I can already tell you its a lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Say hello to planet Makemake

The International Astronomical Union has recognized a plutoid, or new dwarf planet, in our system with the name Makemake--pronounced something like McKay-McKay.* Makemake is slightly smaller than Pluto and orbits quite a bit further out. Makemake is another discovery by master planet finders Mike Brown and his team. This the same team that gave us Eris, Sedna, Quaoar, Orcus, and several others without official names.

Mike Brown has a habit of giving his discoveries whimsical temporary names. Eris was rather famously known as Xena while waiting for the IAU to take official action on its name in 2006. Another, 2003EL61 is called Santa by Brown and his crew. They called Makemake, EasterBunny. The latter two names came from Brown discovering them during different holiday seasons and adopting the icons of those seasons as easy to remember temporary names. Unfortunately, the naming rules of the IAU do not allow marketing mythology or television characters yet.** The IAU rules specify the area from which names are to be chosen, but allow the discoverer the right of nominating the actual name.

Brown explains his choice of Makemake like this:
Easterbunny has no obvious hook. Its surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology. (For a while I was working on coming up with a name related to the oracles at Delphi: some people interpret the reported trance-like state of the oracles to be related to natural gas [methane] seeping out of the earth there. After some thought I decided this theme was just dumb.) Strike one.

I spent some time considering Easter and equinox related myths, as a tribute to the time of discovery. I was quite excited to learn about the pagan Eostre (or Oestre or Oster or many other names) after whom Easter is named, until I later realized that this mythology is perhaps mythological, and, more importantly, that an asteroid had already been named after this goddess hundreds of years ago. Strike two.

Finally I considered Rabbit gods, of which there are many. Native American lore is full of hares, but they usually have names such as "Hare" or, better, "Big Rabbit". I spent a while considering "Manabozho" an Algonquin rabbit trickster god, but I must admit, perhaps superficially, that the "Bozo" part at the end didn’t appeal to me. There are many other rabbit gods, but the names just didn’t speak to me. Strike three.


Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapa Nui. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I wasn’t familiar with the mythology of the island so I had to look it up, and I found Make-make, the chief god, the creator of humanity, and the god of fertility. I am partial to fertility gods for things I discovered around that time. Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter. Makemake was the last of these discoveries. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that.

Oh, and Rapa Nui? It was first visited by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722, precisely 283 years before the discovery of the Kuiper belt object now known as Makemake. Because of this first visit, the island is known in Spanish (it is a territory of Chile) as Isla de Pascua, but, around here, it is better known by its English name of Easter Island.

Now that the IAU has settled on the name plutoid for the group dwarf planets outside the orbit of Neptune, they will probably be naming one or two every time they meet for a while to come. For those keeping count, the official tally for our system is now four stony planets, four gas giants, four plutoids, around 180 moons, 1000 Kuiper belt objects, 3500 comets, and 10,000 asteroids with about seven more plutoid candidates under consideration and a few dozen believed to exist.

* This is going to be fun. Mike Brown initially announced that the proper pronunciation is maki-maki. It was only after this advice had gone out in news stories and been planted in Wikipedias of a number of languages that someone pointed out that the proper pronunciation should be MAH-kay MAH-kay. It will probably take years for that confusion to sort itself out. Meanwhile, in the spirit of Brown's previous plutoid, Eris, the goddess of discord, I'm doing my little bit to add to the confusion.

** When Herschel discovered the seventh planet, he suggested we call it George. If television names were allowed, we could have named the moons Jane, Judy, Elroy, Rosie, Astro, and Mr. Spacely.

Monday, July 14, 2008

You can't get there from here

Mr Burns: "I'd like to send this letter to the Prussian consulate in Siam by aeromail. Am I too late for the 4:30 autogyro?"

For the third time in a year, John McCain has mentioned the no longer existent country of Czechoslovakia when discussing foreign policy. That's not an uncommon mistake for Americans of his age (or any other age), but McCain is using his purported foreign policy expertise as one of the main arguments as to why he should be president. Voters need to be assured that he isn't going to declare war on the Byzantine Empire as soon as he gets into office.

Update: He did it again today.

Today is Bastille Day

Do something to overthrow the status quo.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

To the barricades!

Bill Donohue, the antisemitic and homophobic talking head, has taken aim at PZ Myers and is attempting to get the University of Minnesota to punish P-Zed for something he published on bis blog. The blog, Pharyngula, is hosted by the magazine Seed and has no connection with the University. Besides harassing the University, Donohue's followers have been sending death threats to Myers.

This is the post that offended Donohue.

For more information about Donohue, search Media Matters archives and let Donohue's own words damn him.

I've sent a letter to the president of UM at Morris ( expressing my support for P-Zed; I encourage you to do the same.
Dear President Bruininks,

This is just a short note to express my support for Dr. Paul Z. Myers and his right to free speech. I have been a reader of his blog Pharyngula from the very beginning. I have found his writing to be entertaining, informative, and provocative--sometimes all three at the same time. He is always very clear that what he writes on his blog is his opinion alone and not that of the University of Minnesota or of Seed magazine, the host of his blog.

Now, I see that Dr. Myers is under fire by William Donohue, a minor cable news personality who claims, without authority, to speak for all American Catholics. Manufactured outrage, intimidation, and calls for boycott (usually unsuccessful) are Mr. Donohue's stock and trade. Mr. Donohue is attempting bully the University of Minnesota into punishing or pressuring Dr. Myers into censoring his speech. To do so would be a grotesque violation of Dr. Myers academic freedom, personal freedom of speech, and an improper intrusion by the University into his extracurricular life.

On a more general level, giving in to Mr. Donohue would legitimize and encourage his brand of strong arm tactics to the detriment of our common political culture. I have confidence that you will not do that.

Thank you for your time,

John J. McKay

Milwaukee woolly mammoth

The Milwaukee Public Museum has unveiled the most intact woolly mammoth skeleton so far discovered in North America. The skeleton is only missing a rib, some toes, and a few tail vertebrae. A few of the frozen mammoths unearthed in Siberia have more complete skeletons than that, but they generally had better preservation conditions than those in North America.

Besides being an excellent skeleton, the mammoth shows what might be butcher marks on some bones. This would make the skeleton doubly important because it has been dated at 14,500 years old. That means it died over a thousand years earlier than an other signs of human habitation in that area. Recently, some well dated discoveries have pushed back the date when the first humans arrived in the Americas. Those are mostly limited to the coasts or are far to the south of Wisconsin.

Earlier dates complicate sorting out the relationship between human arrival and the extinction of mammoths and other Ice Age megafauna in the New World. It would mean that humans lived with the mammoths and hunted them for thousands of years before the mammoths went extinct. The usual model of hunting extinction has the hunters crossing the continent in a few hundred years, causing a wave of extinctions. A period of co-existence also causes problems for the idea that the hunters or their dogs might have brought new diseases from Asia that wiped out the mammoths. That model demanded an even quicker extinction wave after first contact.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Get your Indiana Jones on

Archaeologists are opening a system of secret caves and tunnels under the giant Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Little is known about the civilization that built Teotihuacan. The city had been long abandoned and overgrown when the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico. The tunnels were discovered in the 1970s during the installation of a light show for tourists. It was closed soon afterward. Most of the information about the tunnels was lost when Jorge Acosta, the archeologist who excavated them, died in 1976... probably from a curse!

Could anything in archaeology be cooler than finding a secret tunnel under a pyramid? You could drink on that story for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Long live the Revolution!

Two hundred thirty two years ago today a group of colonial politicians voted on a document supporting treason and rebellion against the British government.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Two days later, they gathered to sign a clean copy of the document prepared for them by their secretary. That was just a formality. The treason was committed by their act of voting on the second. If loyalist troops had arrested them all on the third, they would have been hanged. Let's raise a cup to their treason and reread just what they had in mind.

Giant atoms

Remember the little solar system model of the atom that our grade school science textbooks taught us? The idea that electrons were just like little planets whizzing around their nucleus suns was the source of a number of good comic book plots. Of course, if went any further in your physics education, you soon learned that the solar system model was wrong and that scientists had known it was wrong since 1927. In fact, the solar system model was the working theory for about a dozen years. Nils Bohr proposed the solar system model in 1913 to replace the yummy, but inaccurate, plum pudding model proposed by J. J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, in 1897. Bohr's model won him a Nobel Prize in 1922 but by then it was already known that the model had problems.

The 1927 version, called the Copenhagen interpretation is still the dominant paradigm in physics. The Copenhagen interpretation came out of a series of meetings and collaborations aimed at incorporating quantum weirdness into a more complete understanding of fundamental physical principles. It was only partly successful. The Copenhagen interpretation resulted in the use of the mathematics of probability to model the atomic world, but did so at the expense of an easily visualizable metaphor that was accessible to laypersons. In the Copenhagen interpretation, electrons don't exist as discrete particles inside an atom. Instead they are smeared out across the electron shells in wave-like patterns that can only be described mathematically. This makes the job of textbook illustrators very difficult and they have retaliated by sicking to the old Bohr model for the past eighty years.

Now, there is a glimmer of hope for the illustrators. A Rice University-led team of physicists has built a bigger and better atom. Quite a bit bigger, in fact. One of their atoms is about the size of a poppy seed. Using lasers, the team excited potassium atoms to extremely high levels and forced the electrons to exist in real space and planet-like orbits. The result is giant Bohr atoms with real, Newtonian, billiard-ball particles.

I have no idea what use these giant atoms will have; the Rice team gave the usual answer about increasing our understanding and maybe having computer applications. I suspect they really made these atoms just because it was a cool experiment to do. As a next step in their research, I suggest shrinking a team of super scientists and sending them to explore these new electron worlds. They'll probably find dinosaurs there, because lost worlds always have dinosaurs.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Last thoughts on Tunguska

After collecting as many wild theories as I could, and I didn't include all of them in the article, the most surprising thing to me is that I couldn't find one that blamed the blast on the Jews and Freemasons. Now that's weird.

And now for something mammothy

The last few weeks have been kind of crazy for me. I wrote about the death of my cousin Bob three weeks ago and how that's likely to lead to some big changes in my life (I want to thank everyone who had kind words and thoughts for us. It helps). My wife is starting her own business and had her big launch at a fair last weekend. This weekend I drove back and forth across the state to get my Mom and my sister and deliver them to the SeaTac airport so Mom can visit my sisters in Alaska. In the midst of all that I was trying to write the Tunguska piece below. Whew. Now that I have a few days of breathing time, I'm trying to get caught up on my mail and all the other things I've let go for the last few weeks (you won't believe what the kitchen looks like).

Alan the Librarian (not to be confused with Conan the Librarian) wrote over a week ago with a mammoth question. I'm probably too late to be of any use, but it's a good question, so here goes.
I get some weird questions at this job. One patron asked me if I could confirm a Native American story he'd heard recently, involving (I kid you not) an Iroquois legend about hunting a mammoth (or possibly a mastodon) from upstate New York all the way to what is now New Jersey. Said storyteller claimed that "recent" archeo digs had revealed mammoth bones with projectile points (for those of raised in the 1960's, spearpoints and arrowheads).

Let's see. Back in the twenties a couple of mammoths were found with projectile points near-by but none of them was conclusively proven to have been deposited at the same time. The first conclusive find was a mammoth at Naco, Arizona on the Mexican border in 1951. It was immaculately excavated by Emil Haury over the next two seasons. He found nine mammoths there one with eight projectile points inside the ribcage. Since then a number of confirmed mammoth kills have been found in North America. They are usually identified by the butcher marks on the ribs though at least one with a spear point embedded in a bone has been found.

Butchered mastodons are less common, but there is one here in Washington at Sequim that has a possible broken projectile point embedded in bone. Another set of butchered mastodon bones was found in Michigan by Daniel Fisher. He believes the bones were meat was stored in a cold lake by weighting it down and submerging it. He actually stored parts of a dead horse this way and found it still safe to eat for months. One suggestion why butchered mastodons are not as common as butchered mammoths is that they might not have tasted as good. Mammoths were grazers and ate mostly grasses and leaves. Mastodons were browsers and ate pine and fir branches. Mastodon meat might have been resiny tasting while mammoth was nice grass-fed, free range tasting. This, of course disproves the theory that Atlanteans or Phoenicians colonized America, because they ate Greek food and would have liked that resiny taste.

Legends are hard to make sense of, but luckily, Adrienne Mayor has written an entire book about Native Americans and fossils (Fossil Legends of the First Americans). Indians on both American continents were aware of fossils and recognized that they were from animals that no longer roamed the land. What's more, in many cases they reassembled the bones and recognized their similarity to existing species. In the case of mammoths and mastodons, they recognized that these were from animals unlike any they knew. Clearly they were monsters. Almost everyone who lived near fossil deposits had a legend of a heroic ancestor or friendly god who banished the giants and monsters at the beginning of history, making the world safe for the true people.

How these stories got recorded by the white folks is a little trickier. Native storytelling was a living art, so the stories weren't ossified into an unchanging form. The tellers had no problem adding new details as they learned things from their new neighbors.

The earliest story was recorded by Bernal Diaz in 1519. Diaz was a captain in Cortes' army. When the arrived in Tlaxcala on their way to Tenochtitlan, the local elders showed them a huge femur and explained that the bone was from and ancient carnivorous giant. Naturally, Cortes helped himself to the bone and sent it back to Spain. The bone, which Mayor believes was from a mastodon, disappeared into the imperial collections and vanished. She attempted to locate it a few years ago. The archivists to the old imperial collections confirmed that it had arrived, but they couldn't locate it. That doesn't mean it isn't in a store room somewhere. The Codex Madrid, one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, was misshelved in the imperial library and lost for 140 years.

Evert Ysbrants Ides, the traveler who first introduced the word "mammoth" to Europe in a book about traveling across Siberia on his way to China, mentioned in passing that the mammoth had teeth like an elephant, but didn't go any further in identifying its elephantness. It wasn't until 1728 that an European anatomist, Johann Breyne, would examine the bones of a mammoth and authoritatively pronounce it to be an elephant. He would have been disappointed to know an African slave in South Carolina beat him to that identification by three years. The slave, probably from Angola or the Congo basin, looked at some "giant's teeth" his owner had discovered and identified them as coming from an elephant. These would have come from a Colombian mammoth; mastodon teeth are quite different and were something of a mystery until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Mammoth and mastodon bones are fairly common in the Northeast US. It's not really clear when or who the first English settler to find one was. However, there was a well publicized discovery of bones at Calverack on the Hudson River in 1705. The bones were identified by local clergy (including Cotton Mather a few years later) as giants who died in the Noachian flood. People came from miles around to marvel at the bones. Among them were Iroquois who came to say "I told you so" to the Puritans who had mocked at their stories of ancient giants. The important thing about this exchange is that the Iroquois agreed with the Puritans that the bones were human-like giants; they did not describe anything elephant-like.

In 1762, James Wright of Fort Pitt interviewed some Shawnee about the bones they had brought up from the Ohio country to trade. These were probably from Big Bone Lick Kentucky or nearby; explorers had been collecting bones from there since 1739 and the Indians knew the white folk valued them. The Shawnee described the skull of an animal with a "long nose." Though this might sound like a description of a trunk, it was more likely a description of the long bone sockets that hold tusks. Even if it was a reference to a trunk we have the problem that it was well known by educated settlers of that time that the mammoth was an elephant. In the nineteenth century, many monsters of Indian legend were transformed into mammoths or mastodons with the tellers using those words and drawing illustrations that look just like European drawings of elephants.

The Lenape Stone

Having said all of that, the most probable solution to what Alan's patron had heard about is a puzzling artifact called the Lanape Stone. This stone a piece of inscibed slate, was found in two pices on a farm in Buck's County Pennsylvania in 1872 and 1881. The stone shows feathered Indians fighting a wounded mammoth who has trampled one Indian. The stone was very controversial for decades after its discovery, but is now generally believed to be a fake on artistic and other grounds. A more tempting depiction is a hammered petroglyph found near Moab, Utah that might depict a mastodon, but isn't really that clear.

The short answer is, yes, Indians hunted mammoths and mastodons. There is clear proof of that. But it's unlikely that an unbroken and clear oral tradition describing the animals has survived. Descriptions of giants and monsters from the past are more likely based on encounters with fossils. On the other hand, it's unlikely that they completely forgot living with and hunting giants, so even though there probably isn't an unbroken and clear oral tradition describing the animals, there are probably hints of memory that have evolved over the millenia first loosing track of the real appearance of mammoths and then regaining it.

Obama to expand faith-based initiative

At an event in Ohio, Barack Obama announced plans to expand Bush's program of steering federal social service dollars to religious groups. I have no problem with steering federal dollars to private programs that work. What I have a problem with is exempting those groups from oversight and discrimination laws. I have a big problem with spending my money to subsidize bigots who provide nothing of value.

My biggest problem with Obama since the very beginning has been his Lieberman-like pandering to moral bullies and willingness to be a scold toward his own side. I'll probably have a lot more to say about this after he becomes president.