Friday, February 27, 2009

Jindal birth certificate watch - day 3

The Jindal people still haven't addressed my perfectly legitimate concerns about his citizenship. Their silence is damning.

A mammoth literary mystery

I hate plagiarism. Everyone believes that plagiarism is wrong in the abstract, but most students are able to justify a little plagiarism now and then. I managed to get through college with recourse to it. My first experience with discovering a plagiarism was when I found out that someone had stolen an essay from me. I was pleased to find out that he received an A for the assignment and thought it was all a great joke. Between college and graduate school, I worked in a bookstore for a few years and became much less tolerant of plagiarism. This was good preparation for becoming a teaching assistant just as my university was adopting a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism, but I was appalled at how hard it was to get some students to even understand the concept. Later, when reviewing what had been written on the topic I chose for my Master's thesis, I discovered a dissertation that had stolen nearly a hundred pages from an earlier dissertation. I called the original author and he filed a complaint with the AHA ethics committee. Since grad school I've discovered one book and some news articles that were plagiarized; I always make an effort to let the original author know about it. I hate plagiarism.

This brings us to the mammoths. The other night I was using Google Books to track down the earliest version of, ironically, a fake discovery that made its way into mammoth literature in the nineteenth century. Searching a couple of keywords I found this pharase in two books : "Again, in 1843, M. Middendorf found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the ..." My first reaction was the same as I had when I discovered the dissertations: disgust followed by compulsion and finally obsession. I threw aside the work and went off to do something else. After a few minutes I came back because I had to look. I had to confirm that the two were exactly the same for at least couple paragraphs and determine which book was published first before I could go to bed. The next morning I got up early because it wouldn't let me sleep. Now came the hard work of reading both books in a split screen view and documenting the similarities. The two books were Through Siberia published in 1881 by Henry Lansdell and Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia published in 1882 by James William Buel. Both books were accounts of the authors' journies across Siberia, from west to east, with special attention paid to the condition of prisoners and exiles. The two authors followed more or less the same itinerary. The paragraphs that caught my eye appeared in both books as part of an extended digression on the history and resources of the Lena River valley.

In Lansdell the paragraph appears at the end of a three paragraph footnote on pages 289-90:
Again, in 1843, M. Middendorf found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the Yenesei, with some of the flesh in so perfect a condition that it was found possible to remove the ball of the eye, which is preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

In Buel it appears in the main text on 420:
Again, in 1843, M. Middendorf found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the Yenesei, with some of the flesh in so perfect condition that it was found possible to remove the ball of the eye, which is preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

My first glance the night before had shown that Buel copied all three paragraphs of Lansdell's footnote as well as the paragraphs that appeared before and after the point where Landsdell inserted the footnote. The following morning, working backward and forward from that point, I figured out that the copying amounted to an entire chapter (13 pages in Lansdell) with only minor differences. Unfortunately, I did the backward comparison before the forward comparison. At the end of Buel's version of the chapter, I found a found a footnote that would have saved me a sleepless night: "* For much of the information here given concerning the Lena, I am indebted to Mr. Lansdell's 'Through Siberia.'"

Okay, I thought, Buel isn't the jerk I thought he was. But, the footnote got me wondering how much of Buel's book was original. I searched the text of his book to see if he was indebted to Lansdell anywhere else. The only other place where Lansdell's name appeared in the book was in the introduction.
Several books on life in Russia and Siberia have appeared since the Turko-Russian war, but few that I have read treat the subject in a manner that suggests a personal visit to those countries by the authors. ... During the present year a work has appeared from the pen of Henry Lansdell, entitled "Through Siberia," that has met with much favor because it treats of a country about which so little is known, and because the author claims to have been a missionary and philanthropist. The facts are, however, that this work, I know, from observations made while in Siberia, to be a pure fiction so far as it relates to convict life; its statements concerning the prisons of Siberia are almost as wide of the truth as any of Munchausen's choice yarns. ... The London Graphic, reviewing the book, pronounces it an aggregated canard throughout. ... I was told by many prominent persons in Russia that the Government purchased several thousand copies of Mr. Lansdell's book and has been active in circulating it through several countries, because it represents convict life in Siberia as an existence of elegant ease and epicurean luxury...

While Buel though Lansdell's work was good enough that he borrowed an entire chapter from it, when he got around to writing the introduction, Buel damned Lansdell as a liar and a naive, if unwitting, propagandist for the Russian government. Buel wasn't the Jerk that I originally thought he was; he was simply a different type jerk.

This should have been the end of the story, but something bothered me about the paragraph that first caught my attention. It seemed familiar. There are only so many was to tell the same story and I have read about the fresh eyeball in many places. Still I decided to run the first sentence of the paragraph through another search. What I found was page 54 of Mastodon, Mammoth, and Man published in 1878 by John Patterson MacLean, three years before Lansdell's book. It's a book that I read about a month ago.
In 1843, Middendorf, a distinguished Russian naturalist, discovered a mammoth on the Tas, between the Obi and Yenesei, near the Arctic Circle, latitude 66° 30' North, with some parts of the flesh in a perfect state of preservation. The ball of the eye is in the Museum at Moscow.

The paragraph before all three of these is a description of the famous Adams mammoth, discovered in 1799 (I'll blog about it later). The Lansdell version is a shorter version of the discovery. Though different from the MacLean paragraph in wording, the juxtaposition of the two discoveries looks bad for Lansdell.

At this point, the score appears to be: Buel was an ungracious jerk, Lansdell was minor plagiarist, and MacLean... I decided one more search was in order. This time I used the last sentence of the paragraph. This is what I found.

From of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology starting with the 1847 edition:
The most recent discoveries made in 1843 by Mr. Middendorf, a distinguished Russian naturalist, and which he communicated to me in September 1846, afford more precise information as to the climate of the Siberian Lowlands, at the period when the extinct quadrupeds were entombed. One elephant was found on the Tas, between the Obi and Yenesei, near the Arctic circle, about lat. 66° 30' N., with some parts of the flesh in so perfect a state that the ball of the eye is now preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

Principles of Geology was Lyell's best known and most important book. It was enormously influential (Darwin read it during his voyage on the Beagle) and most educated Englishmen of the mid-ninteenth would have been familiar with it. It went through eleven editions between 1830 and Lyell's death in 1875. Lyell updated the book in most editions as new data came in. The next few paragraphs In Lyell and the final (1873) edition of Lyell look bad for MacLean.

In MacLean, one paragraph after the Middendorf eyeball:
In 1866 many skeletons were found retaining the skin and hair, in the flat country near the mouth of the Yenesei, between lat. 70° and 75° N. The heads of most of them were turned towards the south.

The Academy of St. Petersburg, in 1869-70, sent out an exploring expedition under Herr Von Maydell, to the river Indigiska, to examine some remains said to have been discovered there. The exploring party found the skin and hair as well as the bones of the mammoth at two points on the river, about thirty miles distant from each other, and sixty-six miles from the Arctic Sea.

In the 1873 edition of Lyell, two paragraphs after the Middendorf eyeball:
In 1866, in the flat country near the mouths of the Yenesei, between lat. 70° and 75° N., many skeletons of mammoths were found retaining the skin and hair. The heads of most of them are said to have been turned towards the south. So late as 1869-70, an exploring expedition was made by Herr von Maydell, under the direction of the Academy of St. Petersburg, to the river Indigiska, to examine some remains said to have been discovered there. We learn from M. Brandt that the travellers found the skin and hair as well as the bones of the Elphas primigenius at two points on the river, about thirty miles distant from each other, and sixty-six miles from the Arctic Sea.

Lyell footnotes Brandt for his information. An especially damning bit of evidence against MacLean is that he used the same misspelling as Lyell for the Indigirka River. (I don't yet have a copy of Brandt's paper so I can't say whether he also used that spelling.) I've discovered a dozen references in English to the Middendorf eyeball appearing over the sixty years after Lyell first mentioned it. All of them, except MacLean, give Lyell credit. Did MacLean plagiarize Lyell, the most famous geologist of his generation, or was he just sloppy in attributing sources? MacLean was very careful in his description of the Adams mammoth use quote marks and give credit to Richard Owen for six sentences. MacLean also gives credit to Lyell for quotes in two other places in the book.

At the end of the game, the score is: Buel was an ungracious jerk, Lansdell was minor plagiarist, and MacLean (or his editor) was at best very sloppy in his work. Only Lyell come out of this looking good. The possible morals of the story are: A) You can die but you can't hide when you are a plagiarist; B) Cite your sources, dammit; or C) I have way too much time on my hands. All of the above is also allowed. I still hate plagiarism.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Jindal question

This morning I got up and started a brilliant post on all aspects of Bobby Jindal's speech, but then I had to take Clever Wife to a doctor appointment and, by the time I got back, people with much better traffic than I have had stolen all of my good points. However, no one asked the most important question about this man who wants to be president: How come he has never shown us his birth certificate? He admits to being conceived in a foreign country by foreigners. If he has nothing to hide, why hasn't he given us the state's original copy of his birth certificate and allowed us to subject it to exhaustive font and kerning examination? The American people deserve answers.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mastodon nightmares

Brian Switek has a couple of good posts up on things relating to mastodons. The first is about one of the many nineteenth century frauds committed in order to to prove either that Native Americans still retained some memory of ancient mammoths and mastodons or that the two proboscideans had still roamed the land until very recently. Both ideas still have adherents, but these days they are less likely to use out and out fraud to make their cases.

Brian's second post is about various attempts to reconstruct the mastodon into something more exotic than just another variety of elephant. Most of his post is about the idea that mastodons could use their front limbs to feed themselves. Picture a mastodon sitting on its butt like a panda, using its front "paws" to tear apart pine trees and shove them into its mouth. The trunk would be kind of pointless in that scenario, but that didn't bother nineteenth century naturalists.

The earlier of these misconception was that the mastodon had been a carnivore. This idea wasn't completely ridiculous according to the state of knowledge in the eighteenth century. Comparative anatomy was still a relatively new discipline and detailed information about non-European animals was scarce. Their evidence for the carnivorous mastodon lay in its teeth. Living elephants and mammoths have giant molars made up of hard enamel plates held together with softer cement. Botanists call the teeth "grinders" for reasons that are obvious when you look at them.

Mammoth grinder. The surface of the tooth has many parallel ridges like an old fashioned washboard. This allows the mammoth to pulp hard to digest grass cellulose. Modern elephants eat many other types of plants besides grasses, but with this type of grinder, they can live on just grass if they need to.

Mastodons have pointed molars. At the time, naturalists believed only carnivores had pointed teeth. Georges Cuvier thought the points looked like breasts and coined the name "mastodon" (or mastodont) for the animal using the Greek words "mastos" (breast) and "odont" (tooth). Thomas Jefferson endorsed the new name, but had a slightly more earthy take on it:
I have no doubt that the marked differences between the elephant & our colossal animal entitle him to a distinct appellation. One of these differences & a striking one, is in the protuberances on the grinding surface of the teeth, somewhat in the shape of the mamma, mastos, or breast of a woman, which has induced Cuvier to call it the Mastodonte, or bubby-toothed.

Mastodon molar. The points make it easier them to tear apart tree branches, which probably made up the majority of their diet.

The idea that the mastodon was carnivorous came from the brother of William Hunter. In a paper read before the Royal Society in 1767, Hunter explained that he heard of a shipment of bones arriving from the Ohio valley that appeared to be of some kind of elephant. He asked the curators at the Tower if he might examine them and they sent him a tusk and a molar.

Let's pause for a moment and think about that. Imagine reading about the fossil of a new type of glyptodont arriving at the Smithsonian. You're curious, so you call them up and ask if you can look at it. They say, "of course you can" and send the glyptodont's skull and one leg to your house so you can examine them at your leisure.

Back to Hunter. The good doctor and his brother looked over the tusk and agreed that is came from an elephant. When they got to the molar, Hunter's brother "being particularly conversant with comparative anatomy, at the first sight told [Hunter] that the grinder certainly was not an elephant's. From the form of the knobs on the body of the grinder, and from the disposition of the enamel, which makes a crust only on the outside of the tooth, as in a human grinder, he was convinced that the animal was either carnivorous or of a mixed kind."

The Americans enthusiastically adopted the idea of the killer mastodon. Almost every Indian legend about giants or monsters was called forth as proof that the beasts had once prowled the same land where rustic frontiersmen were setting down roots. In his Notes on Virginia Thomas Jefferson, citing those legends, argued that the monster must still exist in the far north or west of the continent. The only reason for its current absence in the East, he went on, was that the Indians had exterminated its food supply when they were given guns and incorporated into the fur trade.

The image of a carnivorous elephant lurking in the forests of America inspired some wonderfully purple prose. George Turner, who along with Jefferson and Franklin, was a prominent member of the American Philosophical Society, wrote:
Now, may we riot infer from these facts that nature had allotted to the mammoth the beasts of the forest for his food? How can we otherwise account for the numerous fractures which every where mark these strata of bones? May it not be inferred, too, that as the largest and swiftest quadrupeds were appointed for his food, he necessarily was endowed with great strength and activity? That as the immense volume of the creature would unfit him for coursing after his prey through thickets and woods, nature had furnished him with the power of taking it by a mighty leap? That this power of springing to a great distance was requisite to the more effectual concealment of his great bulk, while lying in wait for his prey? The Author of existence is wise and just in all his works; he never confers an appetite without the power to gratify it.

Turner pictured the mastodon as an ambush hunter similar to a great cat. However, if the mastodon took its prey "by a mighty leap" it would need sharp molars. After being jumped on by a pouncing mastodon, the prey would have had the consistency of runny pate and the mastodon could have slurped it up with a straw. As to his conclusion that the "Author of existence ... never confers an appetite without the power to gratify it," I refer you to this documentary of an animal with just that problem.

A few years after writing this, Turner was caught misappropriating the Society's funds for land speculation and ejected from the Society, thus depriving us of his further insights.

At about the same time a Turner's scientific career was coming to its abrupt end, Thomas Ashe, an Irish adventurer, arrived in America and traveled down the Ohio River. On his way down the river he took possession of a mastodon skeleton belonging to William Goforth. Goforth expected Ashe to find a buyer for the bones in New Orleans and send him the proceeds minus Ashe's commission. Instead, Ashe took the bones to England, exhibited them for a while, sold them, and absconded with the funds. Ashe's travels resulted in two books. The first took the form of a series of letters describing the new country, not always in flattering terms. A long section rather imaginatively describing him exploring a crypt beneath a Hopewell mound may be the source for parts of the Book of Mormon. In the second book, he gave his conclusions about the mastodon.
With the agility and ferocity of the tiger, with a body of unequalled magnitude and strength, this monster must have been the terror of the forest and of man. ... In fine, huge as the frowning precipice, cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle, and terrible as the angel of night must have been this tremendous animal when clothed with flesh and animated with principles of life. ... From this rapid review of these majestic remains it must appear that the creature to whom they belonged was nearly sixty feet long and twenty-five feet high.

The enormous size that Ashe gave for the mastodon may have been a product of his own overactive imagination, but he wasn't alone in this exaggeration. It's a curious fact about elephants that they always seem to inspire over-estimation. Early travelers, on first seeing an elephant, regularly described them as eighteen or twenty feet tall (Asian elephants rarely surpass ten feet and Africans twelve). Medieval European illustrations of war elephants revealed a beast large enough to carry a multi-storied stone tower full of armored soldiers on its back. A broadsheet for PT Barnum's elephant Jumbo, shows the elephant with bleachers on his sides carrying dozens of happy circus goers. Other illustrations of the nineteenth century routinely showed grown men standing under the belly of an elephant.

When they finally discovered that there were herbivores with pointed molars, European naturalists began to give up on the killer mastodon and recognize that it was more like a mundane elephant than like a giant cheetah. Only a shrinking minority held on to the old vision. Hunter, whose study led to the idea of a pouncing, carnivorous mastodon, also gave us the last word on the topic:
[I]f this animal was indeed carnivorous, which I believe cannot be doubted, though we as philosophers regret it, as men we cannot but thank Heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fragments of my research - VII

By 1697 Witsen's book was slowly making its way through European intellectual circles, but had yet to make a mark on English thinkers. Avril's book, though translated into English four years earlier, had rendered mammoth into a familiar Biblical term that didn't excite attention. The English learned the word mammoth from a book on Russian grammar published in Latin the previous year. Robert Hooke, the brilliant but argumentative curator of experiments for the Royal Society, introduce the Society to a form of the word mammoth in lecture: "We have lately had several Accounts of Animal Substances of various kinds, that have been found buried in the superficial Parts of the Earth..., [such as] the Bones of the Mammatovoykost, or of a strange Subterraneous Animals, as the Siberians fancy, which is commonly dug up in Siberia, which Mr. Ludolphus judges to be the Teeth and Bones of an elephant."*

Mr. Ludolphus was Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf, the nephew of a famous German orientalist and diplomat, Hiob Ludolf. Hiob adopted his nephew after the death of the latter's parents and saw to his advancement. He took the younger Ludolf on his diplomatic missions to London and introduced him to influential Englishmen and other diplomats. The young Ludolf appeared destined for a brilliant career. He secured a position as secretary to the Danish ambassador and, through those connections, became the personal secretary to Prince George of Denmark.

Then the wheels came off of his career. After five years with Prince George, Ludolf suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. One of his friends wrote that he lost his reason after reading books by Rosicrucians. Whether or not the Rosicrucians were to blame, his unstable condition and increasing mystical obsessions made him an unsuitable secretary for a royal. But he wasn't thrown out into the street. Prince George, who had become quite fond of his secretary, provided him with a generous pension and used his influence to smooth the way for Ludolf to follow his interests. In a way, he was living the dream of every underpaid academic.

Ludolf's first major project was to study the Russians language, for which he spent for eighteen months in Moscow in 1693-94. He was well received by the Russian intelligentsia, and became friends with Peter the Great, who enjoyed the company of anyone with something new to teach him. After returning from Moscow he met Nicolaas Witsen (remember him?) who, in the course of interrogating Ludolf, advised him to publish his language study. The result was Grammatica Russica, the first systematic study of common spoken Russian published in any language. Ludolf wrote the work fairly quickly, but there was a delay in publishing it because none of the printers he contacted in England had a Cyrillic type set. Following the main grammar and a list of common phrases useful to the traveler, Ludolf added appendix of natural science terms. Mammoth appears in the section on minerals.
The mammoutovoi is a thing of great curiosity, which is dug out of the ground in Siberia. The vulgar tell wonderful stories about it; for they say that the bones be those of an animal which burrows in the ground, and in size surpasses ill the creatures living on earth's surface. They administer them medicinally for the same purposes as they do that which is called the horn of the unicorn. A piece given to me by a friend, who said he had received it from a certain Russian prince returned from Siberia, appears to me to be genuine ivory; and the more skillful tell me that these mammoutovoi are elephants' teeth. So that it appears necessary that they were brought thither by the universal deluge, and in the lapse of time have been more and more covered with earth.

Unlike Avril's description, there is no doubt that what Ludolf's informants were describing was fossil mammoth ivory. The enormous size of the remains, the ivory that looks similar to that of an elephant, and the fact that the ivory was mined from the Earth (which, by the way, is why Ludolf put it in the Mineral section of his appendix) all indicate that his informants were using the word "mammoth" to describe the same fossils that we denote by that name. The description of it as a giant animal that burrows in the ground matches the Chinese description of the ki shu, as the Chinese envoy Tulishen would recognize in the next century. The one element of his description that should make a modern reader sit up and say "huh?" is his matter of fact statement that mammoth ivory has the same medicinal use as unicorn horn.

The first mention of the unicorn in the West was in a history written by Ctesias, a Greek of the fifth century BC who had served as the personal physician to Artaxerxes II of Persia. His Persian hosts told him that there lived in India a wild ass with a single multicolored horn growing from its forehead. The horns were carved into cups that had the power to neutralize all poisons and immunize the drinker from various diseases. This story was repeated several Roman writers with the horn growing in length in each retelling. The most important of these accounts was Pliny's Natural History, the authority of which was unquestioned in the Middle Ages. Julius Ceasar calmly reported unicorns in the Hercynian Forest, which stretched eastward from Germany and was the edge of the known world for Romans. Seven hundred years after Ctesias, a second unicorn tradition emerged. This is the more familiar chivalric legend of the pure beast that could only be captured by a virgin. Although the two traditions sometimes became muddled together, it is the earlier tradition of the poison-proof horn that indirectly became connected to mammoths.

Poison, as a tool to get rid of political opponents, rich relatives, and generally inconvenient people, is as old as politics and wills. Essays on poison and antidotes to poison have been found among the earliest documents of all of the civilizations of the Old World. Whole industries have grown up around manufacturing poisons, poisoning, preventing poisoning, and curing the poisoned. Throughout history, some people (the rich and powerful) have had very good reasons to fear being poisoned. However, there have been times when poison fears have gripped societies; fears that far overestimated the abilities of poisoners and the desirability of many who imagined themselves to be targets. Given the state of the medical practice, disease theory, and forensics in most premodern societies, it was easy for people see poisoning in every unexplained or sudden death. One of the greatest poison panics, and the one most familiar to Western audiences, began in the late Middle Ages and peaked during the Renaissance.

As in any irrational panic, a few quick-witted people were ready to exploit public fears to their advantage. Some used mysterious deaths as an excuse to incite mob action against their personal enemies or against outsider groups. Occasionally this led to pogroms against Jews and gypsies as the poisoners. Historians, being no more rational, usually point their fingers at uppity women like Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine de Medici. The less murderously inclined of those days saw in the fears a way to turn a fast buck. Some sold manuals and tools for poisoners. Others sold antidotes and protective amulets, like unicorn horn.

Considering that Pliny and other reputable ancient sources had written about the anti-poison power of alicorns (unicorn horns), it's a marvel that the horns hadn't shown up earlier in Europe. The first alicorns to move out of ancient texts and tapestries and into the real world appeared in the thirteenth century. Soon Kings, Popes, Dukes, and the wealthiest members of society began to acquire "genuine" alicorns. Those who couldn't afford, or find, complete horns made do with fragments of horn or even alicorn powder.

It's probably not a coincidence that alicorns began showing up not long after the Norse reached Greenland with its rich hunting grounds for walrus and narwhal. Despite a steady flow of ivory of approximately the right shape coming out of the North, the demand for alicorn far outstripped the supply. By the peak of the poison panic, tiny fragments labeled as alicorn were selling for ten times the price of gold. A complete horn could command twice that or even more. A complete and well-shaped narwhal tusk was something that only kings and cardinals could afford. To meet the demand, bits of bone were sold as alicorn. Paranoid buyers snapped up white stalactites. Finally, fossils, plain white rocks, and vials of water that once been touched by an alicorn could be sold for ridiculous prices. It's almost certain that some bits of mammoth ivory were drafted into service as alicorns.

At the same time that the demand and price of alicorn were inflating, so were its reputed medical properties. By the time the panic peaked, alicorn provided "effectuall cure these diseases: Scurvy, Old Ulcers, Dropsie, Running Gout, consumptions, Distillations, Coughs, Palpitation of the Heart, Fainting Fits, Convulsions, Kings Evil, Rickets in Children, Melancholly or Sadness, The Green Sickness, Obstructions, and all Distempers proceeding from a Cold Cause." Reports even surfaced that the horn could raise the dead. Well meaning rulers ordered tests to protect buyers from fake alicorn (a Renaissance version of the FDA). These usually involved waving the purported alicorn at something like a poisonous snake to see if it was repelled (or killed) or poisoning pigeons** and seeing if it could revive them. A surprising number of products passed the tests.

Since the time of Ctesian (4th cen. BC), the size of the alicorn had grown from one cubit (eighteen inches), to three feet according to Pliny (1st cen. AD), to four feet according to Isidore of Seville (7th cen.), to a whopping ten feet according to Albertus Magnus (13th cen.). Although some skeptics pointed out that a unicorn would have to be as big as a ship to support such a big horn, most people had no problem believing that even the biggest piece of ivory had once rested on the brow of a horse (or goat, or ass, or some hybrid of the three). At least two mammoth tusks were passed off as coming from unicorns. The first was dug up at Quedlinberg, Germany in 1663. The tusk, along with several other bones, were recovered in pieces and assembled to form a unicorn. The second was recovered intact and, despite its size and shape, prominently displayed at the Halle cathedral, also in Germany.

Both of the German tusks came to light as skepticism about unicorns was creeping into European thought. For over a hundred years, English, French, and Portuguese sailors had been exploring the coasts of North America, had become familiar with walruses and narwhals, and had shared their knowledge with the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, explorers also brought back rumors of sightings of unicorns on every continent. Ludolf's Uncle Hiob wrote that there were unicorns in Ethiopia, although he never saw one when he was there.

As the slow moving scientific revolution gained momentum, more and more intellectuals questioned conventional wisdom and sought knowledge through observation and test rather than blindly accepting the authority of ancient authors. Pierre Belon and Andrea Marini, writing in the mid sixteenth century, were solidly convinced that nothing could have all of the medical properties attributed to the alicorn. Sir Thomas Browne in the next century pointed out that it was impossible for all of the descriptions of unicorns that had popped up over the centuries to be referring to the same animal. Thomas Bartholin, one of a family important Danish scientists, examined several alicorns and wrote an entire book pronouncing them to be narwhals' teeth. Gottfried Leibniz, the co-inventor of calculus, referred to Bartholin's book in order to question the Quedlinberg unicorn.

When Ludolf wrote his Russian grammar, the individual elements of the unicorn/alicorn belief were in decline, but most people still believed that some part of it must be true. The enormous prices that "true" alicorn commanded on the previous century proved to be a bubble and, by Ludolf's time, the price was approaching that of elephant ivory. The new consensus that was emerging was, that although most unicorn sightings were of more mundane animals, real unicorns might exist somewhere and, while most alicorns were bogus, they might still have some medicinal properties. Though both ideas sound absurd to us, they were perfectly reasonable conclusions at the time. European thinkers admitted that, while they didn't have enough evidence to prove that unicorns were real, they also didn't have enough to prove that they were not. In a way, this recognition was a triumph for the scientific method.

* Hooke can't have read Mr. Ludolphus' book very closely, since "Bones of the Mammatovoykost" translates as "bones of the mammoutovoi bone."

* No doubt Tom Lehrer was testing his alicorns when he wrote "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Republicans behaving badly

This week's exciting installment features self-deception, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. In other words, business as usual for the Grand Ol' Party.

First up, the Volunteer State legislature makes the news in a way that lets all of the other states' legislatures make fun of them, even Florida's.
Four Tennessee state representatives, all Republicans, have signed up to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit against President Barack Obama, aimed at forcing him to prove he is a United States citizen by coughing up his birth certificate.

Let me just say what all the world is now thinking, including their fellow Republicans on the Hill: This is dumber than a box of rocks.

Tennessee Reps. Eric Swafford, Stacey Campfield, Glen Casada and Frank Nicely now have a giant "G" on their foreheads for "Gullible."

You have to admire the courage and tenacity of this four in daring to take on the Global Muslamopinkofascist Conspiracy and its allies the Men in Blackhelocopters and the Alien Shapeshifters in order to pursue a suit that has been thrown out of every court in the land and repeated debunked. I hope the local Democrats are taking notes for the next election.

Next up, Don Young demonstrates the ethical and logical skills that led me to name him the stupidest man in congress over twenty years ago.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, ... had nice things to say in a press release.

Young boasted that he "won a victory for the Alaska Native contracting program and other Alaska small business owners last night in H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."


Yet later in the day Young — who recently told McClatchy that he would've included earmarks, or local projects, in the bill if it had been permitted — issued another statement blasting the overall measure.

"This bill was not a stimulus bill. It was a vehicle for pet projects, and that's wrong," he protested.

As an extra bonus, it looks like other Republicans have been taking lessons from Don.
Rep. John Mica was gushing after the House of Representatives voted Friday to pass the big stimulus plan.

"I applaud President Obama's recognition that high-speed rail should be part of America's future," the Florida Republican beamed in a press release.

Yet Mica had just joined every other GOP House member in voting against the $787.2 billion economic recovery plan.

Okay, maybe Florida still has something to worry about.

Bad behavior isn't limited to Republican elected officials; their pundits are also in on the act. Over the weekend, George Will, one of the supposed intellectuals of the conservative movement, wrote a column pushing one of the movement's articles of faith, i.e. that anthropogenic climate change is a myth. in it he said:
According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

This provoked a quick response from the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center.
We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

Finally, if we needed any other evidence that the modern Republican party has become completely unmoored from reality and sense, consider this: Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the chief arm-twister responsible for the House Republicans' unanimous rejection of the stimulus bill, says he's looking for inspiration and tactical advice from disgraced former speaker Newt Gingrich. Newt, as we all know, prevented millions of Americans from getting health care fifteen years ago, led shutdown of the government that was disastrous for his party in the following election, managed the pointless impeachment that deeply increased public cynicism about government, and laid the groundwork for many of the conservative policies that have wrecked our economy, destroyed our international credibility, and undermined our national principles and institutions. But he brought the Party out of the minority and into the majority and that's all that matters to people like Cantor.

There've been plenty of other outrages this week that I could have listed, but this is enough to get your blood pressure up for the start of the week.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy birthdays

Two hundred years ago today, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Charles Robert Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born. They never met, but they shared more than their birthdays. Both were devoted family men who were deeply traumatized by the loss of a child. Both suffered from chronic mental conditions for which society had little sympathy (Lincoln was depressive and Darwin was subject to crippling anxiety attacks). Both were sloppy dressers. Both challenged the accepted social and intellectual standards of their times and became the centers of intense controversies. The dust from their controversies still hasn't settled. In death, both have been attacked for words they never said and ideas they never supported. Both have been reduced to cardboard cutouts used to represent simplified versions of their ideas. But in reality, both were a complex as only real people can be.

One hundred years ago today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had its official birth. The organization came out of a series of meetings between prominent black intellectuals and a few white social activists who were concerned about the assault on the rights of "colored people" embodied by Jim Crow laws and formalized segregation in the Southern states. The organizers planned a kick-off event for the group to coincide with the centennial of Lincoln's birthday, but the event had to be postponed until May. Nevertheless, today is the official birthday of the NAACP.

Though different, all three are often hated by the same people. I hope you're not one of them.

Today is a day for the good guys. Let's raise a cup and thank them for what they gave us.

Why does anyone take these people seriously

When we last left Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and his idiot spokesperson, Brad Dayspring, they were apologizing for sending reporters a profanity-laced video as their response to an ad critical of Cantor's bad faith attempts to stop the stimulus bill (see previous post). Today, our intrepid heroes continue to show their contempt for the news-viewing public by pushing talking points that are not only lies, but are lies that directly contradict Cantor's own words.

Four weeks a go, Cantor was full of praise for Obama's commitment to bipartisanship:
"I have met with Rahm and spoken with him several times and he said, 'Look, you need to understand--working in a bipartisan manner is something the president-elect takes seriously,'" Cantor noted. "It has thus far been a very efficient process."


"[Obama] was very clear: he said bring us your ideas," Cantor recalled. "I take the president-elect at his word that he really does want to change the way Washington works."

Two weeks ago, Cantor told NPR he believed Obama was "open to continuing to work to try and get this stimulus right." Then, having got Obama and the congressional Democrats to dedicate a large portion of the plan to Republican favored tax cuts and and to cut provisions that might have helped women, children, and first responders, Cantor led the House Republicans in unanimously rejecting the bill. After that duplicitous performance, what does Cantor have to say? He's blaming Obama for not being bipartisan.
"Though the administration’s marketing of its bipartisan hard work has been outstanding, the actual work has been almost nonexistent," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

The Washington press corps seem to think that Cantor's rank entitles him to unlimited camera time and column inches. But, considering the fact that he's nothing more than a serial liar and hack propaganda minister, shouldn't the press corp be calling him on his behavior or looking for less dishonest Republicans to talk to? Is this the sort of thing they should be encouraging?

(This post was almost entirely stolen from Think Progress.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Maybe I was too hard on Steele*

Michael Steele, the new head of the Republican Party, is dumber than an especially dumb post. I, and many others have been mocking him for that, but I think we should give him credit where credit is due. What Steele has going in his favor is that he perfectly representative of the Grand ol' Party.

Exhibit A.
The day before, as [Republican Rep. Steve Austria of Ohio] was explaining his opposition to the huge federal stimulus package backed by President Barack Obama, he told The Dispatch editorial board: "When Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression.... He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression."

Steele stood by his stupid words and even expanded on them. Austria followed up his stupid words with an explanation that indicated he thinks his constituents are even stupider than he is.
Austria later backtracked, saying, "I did not mean to imply in any way that President Roosevelt was responsible for putting us into the Depression."

Exhibit B.
Yesterday, AFSCME and Americans United for Change unveiled a pretty good ad in support of the economic stimulus plan. The new national television spot tells viewers, "We're in an economic crisis and Republican leaders are playing politics instead of doing what's right. Call the Republican leadership; tell them 'no' is not an option."

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is featured in the pro-stimulus ad, responded today, sending journalists a video message.


The video, sent around by Cantor's office, is apparently intended as some kind of parody, using an AFSCME video from the 1970s, but with a new crass voice-over, intended to make unions look like mobbish goons. Greg Sargent transcribed some of the clip: "On your way to work tomorrow, instead of sittin' around with your finger up your a**, look around. There's a union out there called AFSCME and they're busting' their balls doing a lot of sh*t work you take for granted. For example, we pick up your f-kin' garbage.... We don't take sh*t from nobody. You got that, a**hole?"

Greg wasn't the only journalist to receive this. When Glenn Thrush asked Cantor's office for a reaction to the AFSCME/Americans United for Change ad, the Republican leader's press secretary sent over the vulgar video. "You could post this as my response," Cantor's aide said.

The same staffer who sent the video out has been forced to apologize.

And, speaking of apologies, here's exhibit C.
State Rep. Bryan Stevenson set off a firestorm in the House today when he said any attempt by the federal government to undo state laws restricting abortion would be "the greatest power grab" since the North declared war on the South to end slavery.

"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression," Stevenson said, R-Webb City, referring what Southern states called the North's attempt to end slavery in the 1860s.

The remark caused a sudden gasp heard throughout the House's chamber.

Let's cut to his "apologies" and explanations. He had two. Number one.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Stevenson said, "The terminology I used did cause offense, and I’m sorry for that."

He also said he was "strongly opposed to slavery in any and all aspects" and "not prejudiced in any way."


The war, he said, turned on federal authority versus state authority. Although the conflict did lead to the abolition of slavery, Stevenson said it was accompanied by "the illegal expansion of federal authority."

And number two.
Stevenson said he's a "card carrying member of the Cherokee Nation" and that his ancestors walked the Trail of Tears from Virginia to Oklahoma.

The first is the classic non-apology apology; admit no wrong, only say you're sorry that other people are too dense to appreciate your wit. Then qualify the apology even further by saying your point was correct and your only crime was in being to plain spoken. The second is simply a non sequitor; I can't be prejudiced because I'm a minority, too. On the other hand, I suppose it's a good thing he let us know he's opposed to slavery. At the rate the GOP is marching into the past, you never know.

This is the party Steele leads, stupid, insulting, and unrepentant about both. It's what they want to be and he's the perfect choice to lead then into more of the same.

* Then again, maybe I wasn't.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Some updates

Here are some later developments on two stories I blogged last week.

Michael Steele is still dumber than a sack of hammers
The new head of the Republican Party started his new job by saying, "Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job." Like a lot of people, I pointed out the jaw dropping stupidity of that statement. I sent a longer version of my mockery to the Seattle Times who published it. Most of the comments were from the far right and I took time to write a long answer to one who vomited out the Fox News talking point that all economists agree that the New Deal made the Depression worse. Meanwhile, it came out that Steele is being investigated for multiple campaign finance violations.

Today, he is expanding on his original stupid point about jobs.

STEELE: But you've got to look at the entire package. You've got to look at what's going to create sustainable jobs. What this administration is talking about is making work. It is creating work.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's a job.

STEELE: No, it's not a job. A job is something that -- that a business owner creates. It's going to be long term. What he's creating...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So a job doesn't count if it's a government job? [..]

STEELE: ... That is a contract. It ends at a certain point, George. You know that. These road projects that we're talking about have an end point.

We're looking at a textbook use of the no true Scotsman fallacy. After having the stupidity of his first statement pointed out, Steele has simply changed the definition of job to only mean work created by the private sector. If that wasn't enough of an assault on logic, he has further narrowed the definition to mean only permanent employment. Got that, contract workers don't have jobs, people paid for piece work don't have jobs, office temps don't have jobs, construction workers don't have jobs, the President doesn't have a job, substitute teachers don't have jobs, Steele himself didn't have a job when he was Lt. Governor of Maryland, musicians and actors don't have jobs. Okay, he might be on to something with the last group. But, since job security disappeared about twenty years ago, I guess no one in America has a job.

Steele is so much dumber than a sack of hammers that it's really unfair to the hammers to include them in the same sentence with his name.

Chris Ryan still thinks we all suck
Chris Ryan, who blogs as Chris in Paris at Americablog, wrote a short sarcastic rant which appeared to say all the world's economic woes are the fault of the baby boom generations. This was so logically, historically, and personally offensive that I pounded out a long, and probably overly emotional, response, pointing out that it's irresponsible to shoehorn seventy-five million people into one ugly caricature: in this case Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. My impression has always been that fighting prejudice was one of the main points of Americablog and Chris' rant seemed to set up a gigantic double standard, i.e. that bigotry based on race, gender, religion, sexual preference, or nationality is bad, but bigotry based on age is okay.

Since I was still feeling mildly hysterical yesterday, I wrote directly to the address on the blog repeating some the things I said in post and asked that someone respond on this issue. John Aravosis, the founder of Americablog, wrote back and engaged in an e-mail dialog with me. The final outcome is that we agree to disagree. John pointed out that both he and Chris are boomers and that, yes, it is their position that our generation are responsible for the world's economic and environmental woes. I still think that such an opinion is bad history, bad logic, and that it's unfair for them to include in their self-flagellation the millions of boomers who have tried to make the world better.

I think John deserves a lot of credit for taking the time to talk to me. His blog gets more traffic in normal day than I get all year and, from the hundreds of comments and scores of letters he gets each day, he chose to spend time with me. He could have blown me off with a simple "fuck you," but he didn't. That shows a certain amount of humanity. But I'm still disappointed.

Unless something changes in a big way, that's all I'm going to say about Chris Ryan. However, I plan to keep making fun of Michael Steele. He's not only a partisan stooge, he's an incompetent partisan stooge, and I can't resist that.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Fragments of my research - VI

In 1681, a letter from Ferdinand Verbiest, the head Jesuit at the Kangxi Emperor's court in Beijing, arrived in Europe calling on his Jesuit brothers to come to China. The Vatican, at that time, was eager to find a safe land route to China, because many of their best missionaries were lost at sea before ever reaching their destinations. Louis XIV of France was looking for a way to expand French prestige and commercial interests in the Far East. Verbiest, for his part, knew that a northern route around the Muslim khanates in Central Asia was possible; in 1675-76 he had traveled west as far as Tobolsk as the interpreter during some failed negotiation between the Russians and Chinese. This confluence of interests came together in the decision to send Father Philippe Avril and four companions to reconnoiter the unknown middle of Eurasia. For his part, Avril was happy for the opportunity to preach the Gospels to "the Barbarians."

Avril could have used Witsen's map on his journey. European knowledge of the northern half of Asia, at the time, was limited to lists of rivers and tribes and little drawings of dragons and people with their faces on their stomachs scattered around the edges of maps. Most maps showed the capital of China on the shore of the Sea of Aral in Central Asia, though the letters of Verbiest would have made it clear that the imperial capital was on the other side of China. This means Avril, besides not knowing the route to China, didn't even have a clear idea of how far away it was.

Avril's journey took him through Rome, Cyprus, and Syria to Armenia where he met Louis Barnabe, another Jesuit with extensive knowledge of the Central Asian trade routes. From there they proceeded to the Caspian and sailed to Astrakhan in Russian territory. Here they interviewed merchants who had traveled the old Silk Road across Central Asia to Xinjiang and entered China from the West. The travelers tried unsuccessfully to join several caravans, but received permission to go to Moscow. Here their travels came screeching to halt. The Russians wondered if the Jesuits were insidiously clever spies trying to throw them off balance by telling them exactly who they were and what they wanted. The Russians replied with the most powerful weapon at their disposal; bureaucratic delay. After a full year in Moscow, the government not only refused them permission to go any further East, it ordered them out of the country.

The mission wasn't a complete failure; like Witsen before him, Avril used his year in Moscow to gather information from merchants and was able to accurately describe the northern route. And, like Wisten, hidden among the intelligences about Siberia was a description of the source of Siberian ivory.
Besides furs of all sorts, which they fetch from all quarters, they have discovered a sort of ivory, which is whiter and smoother than that which comes from the Indies. Not that they have any elephants that furnish them with this commodity (for the northern countries are too cold for those sort of creatures that naturally love heat), but other amphibious animals, which they call by the name of Behemot, which are usually found in the River Lena, or upon the shores of the Tartarian Sea. Several teeth of this monster were shewn us at Moskow, which were ten inches long, and two at the diameter at the root: nor are the elephant's teeth comparable to them, either for beauty or whiteness, besides that they have a peculiar property to stanch blood, being carried about a person subject to bleeding.

The Persians and Turks who buy them up put a high value upon them, and prefer a scimitar or a dagger haft of this precious ivory before a handle of massy gold or silver. But certainly nobody better understands the price of this ivory than they who first brought it into request; considering how they venture their lives in attacking the creature that produces it, which is as big and as dangerous as a crocodile.

Later, on his way out of the country, the governor of Smolensk, who had served a stint in Siberia, gave Avril some more intelligence on his "Behemot."
There is beyond the Oby, a great river called Kawoina, into which another river empties itself, by the name of Lena. At the mouth of the first river that discharges itself into the frozen sea, stands a spacious island very well peopled, and which is no less considerable for hunting the Behemot, an amphibious animal, whose teeth are in great esteem.

Several things stand out in Avril's account. His translation of mammoth (or mamout or mamant) as Behemot is something that many later travelers will also do. The mention that Persians and Turks use Behemot ivory for knife handles ties into the earlier Arab sources who wrote about the substance khutu, imported from the North and used knife handles. His description of Behemot as a living animal on the shores of the Arctic ocean, suggests that he was applying the word to something other than fossil mammoth ivory. However, the mouth of the Lena River is one of the richest grounds in Siberia for collecting mammoth ivory, which suggests he was. We'll examine all of these points after we hear from the rest of the Russian travelers.

Avril's account enjoyed far greater distribution than Witsen's. Within two years it had been translated into English, with Protestant translator issuing an obligatory denunciation of Avril's Catholicism before enthusiastically recommending the work. Witsen took note Avril's account and copied large sections it into his own book.

Coming Next: Mammoths and unicorns.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Why do they hate us?

No peeking. Guess where I found this.
The baby boomers have done such a fantastic job with the global economy and have always thought about the broad population rather than enriching themselves. They're always so right when they blast those good-for-nothing youngsters in their 20s who only think of themselves. They're selfish little punks and we all know it. Can't they grow up and be more like the boomers who ushered in the Gordon Gekko era that has served us so well? The boomers have delivered so many greats including George Bush and Bill Clinton who never hesitated to think of others.

No, it's not a rant left in the comment thread by a troll. No, it's not the same old crap from a rightwing site like Michelle Malkin or World Nut Daily. It's not an obscure diarist in the back of community site. This is Chris in Paris, one of the main writers at Americablog, one of the biggest liberal news blogs.

What's odd about this outburst, besides its virulence, is the fact it's totally gratuitous. He uses it as the introduction to link to an editorial pointing out that the "class war" charge is only leveled when the working class want a fair shake but never when the rich are fleecing the whole country. He seems to imagine that the mass of the sixties and seventies generations will rise up to defend the privileges of the rich and demand the head of this poor reporter who dared to point out a double standard (one of many) of the pundit class.

This is not just a straw man argument, it's a particularly stupid straw man argument to assume that all baby boomers are the same. For crap's sake, there are more of us than there are in his adopted country of France, including its remaining colonial dependencies. Does my generation have its share of jerks and greed-heads? Of course we do. So does yours, Chris. And yet, I don't see anyone defining your generation by zit-heads ‪like Jonah Goldberg, Dennis Miller, Michelle Malkin, and Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

Chris isn't the only liberal blogger, or not insanely right-wing, to express his disdain for the older generation by tilting at straw men. In 2005 Markos Moulitsas, the Kos of Daily Kos, was hoping the Democrat could mount a serious opposition to the Iraq war without "sound[ing] like hippy[sic]* retreads." A few months later he started a minor kerfluffle by sneering at "these touchy-feely hippy[sic] types that thinks[sic] war is inherently bad." However, when he was filming an ad to push his first book, he had no problem putting out a casting call for hippies. Mark Hoofnagle, one of two Hoofnagles at, a site ironically devoted to fighting stupid ideas, never misses an opportunity to sneer at "crystal-clutching hippies" by declaring that "" and "I don't like hippies either."

The first few times I heard members of the younger generation (a phrase I never thought I hear myself utter) use "hippie" as an insult, I was pretty baffled. There was much more to it than simply mocking the clothes and music of an older generation. Teenage clothing fashions always deserve a good mocking and pop music is very time specific. What puzzled me was the bile packed into the way people spat the word at people and ideas they loathed. I thought about it for a few years and came up with a few tentative conclusions.

Chris's angry sarcasm directed at the perceived hypocrisy and moral collapse of my generation is the best illustration of my thoughts. We had ideals and we failed to live up to them. Americans are completely unforgiving of failure (don't believe me? On the scale of insult, where does "loser" fall?). The pop psychology observation is that we are an ugly reminder that youthful energy and idealism fade and sometimes are replaced with more mundane practical concerns. They hate us because they fear that they will become us.

They're also ignorant of history. All three of them are too young to have actually seen a hippie in its natural habitat. They rant at straw men and stereotypes because they have no idea of the diversity of historical processes that have worked themselves out over the last thirty years. Members of the late sixties and early seventies counter culture were a small minority of the baby boom generations. Some of my generation were rich jerks from day one and never changed. Some were working poor who never had time for politics or cultural flamboyance. Most of us were middle class kids who watched the great cultural and political battles from afar and participated in some small way on our chosen side when the battle came close enough.

The counter culture came to a screeching halt in the winter of 1974-5. Nixon resigned, Patty Hearst was kidnapped, and the Viet Nam war ended and with it the cement that was holding the various movements vanished. A different clique moved into the limelight with disco and cocaine. Those of us who had rooted for the hippies loudly condemned the sell out of our generation. We lacked perspective because we were in the middle of it and we made the same mistake that Chris, Kos, and Mark make lacking perspective because they are too far away. I can't repeat it enough times: a generation is not a monolithic block. The disco divas were not the same people as the counter culture. Most of the movement liberals did not go away or become Gordon Gekkos, they simply became invisible when the counter culture broke apart and they had to pursue their causes in isolation.

The same people who use hippie an insult often sneer that "no one ever ended a war by singing folk songs." Do they really think that the only thing the anti-war movement did was strum guitars and sing? They exposed the lies of the official government body counts and casualty reports. They encouraged non-cooperation with the draft and helped draft resisters get out of the country. They brought tens of thousands of people into the political process who might have lived their lives in apathy. Pop music played a part. One generation's protest songs might seem lame to the next (I never could get very fired up over the Internationale), but music is the language of a generation. Those protest songs made the war uncool.

Chris says we elected Bush, but fails to mention that we elected Obama too. My generation has plenty of failures to answer for. But we have our share of successes to point to. We created the environmental movement. We created feminism. We took the torch of liberalism from Women’s' Suffrage and the New Deal and we kept it burning to turn over to your generation. If you can do a better job than we did, go to it. I'm rooting for you.

I'm probably wasting way too much energy on this, but Chris' scorn and vulgar stereotyping pissed me off royally. I didn't become rich stockbroker and I have never voted for a Republican. Maybe the reason I didn't sell out is that no one offered to buy me, but the fact remains that, for thirty years, I've tried to maintain some integrity. I have been one of the working intellectual poor most of my adult life. I was downwardly mobile compared to my parents, as were millions of us baby boomers. After decades of crappy minimum wage jobs, noisy apartments, and riding the bus, Clever Wife and I finally had a few good years and were able to get back a little chunk of middle class life. Now might lose it. We're both unemployed. Our COBRAed insurance costs almost a thousand dollars a month and probably won't cover the seven prescriptions we need through the year. We're finally old enough to understand what age discrimination means, at this age it's a more threatening than being dismissed as dumb kids, like we were at the other end of our working lives.

When I get up in the morning and hear Chris, who lives in a country with great health care and humane pensions; Kos, who has managed to parlay a passion for politics into national recognition and a career that provides a comfortable life for his family; or Mark, a doctor and well read writer, tell me that everyone like me sucks it makes my pressure valve pop. I don't begrudge anyone their success if they earned it, but I despise anyone who, in their success, loses their compassion a uses their lofty perch to exalt ignorance and spit down on others. I don't need their insults. No one does.

* Just for the record, hippy is an adjective meaning well endowed in the hip region. Hippie is a noun, first coined by beatniks to describe suburban hipster wannabes. It is a diminutive of hip, which, as those out in squaresville might not know, is a synonym for cool. Dig? In the sixties, the term was proudly adopted by a counter culture that included both dropped-out flower children and serious political radicals. To sum up, a hippie can be hippy, but not all of the hippy are hippies.

Fragments of my research - V

Nicolaas Witsen was the first of the four to travel to Russia. Witsen came from a prominent Dutch family with business ties in Moscow. His father was the mayor of Amsterdam, a board member of the Dutch West India Company, and a patron of Rembrandt's. The younger Witsen was fascinated by the new discoveries around the world and began collecting travelers' accounts to make "a contribution to the explanation and description of the earth." In time he would become mayor of Amsterdam thirteen times, sit on the board of the Dutch East India Company, and become a close friend of Peter the Great. He used his wealth and influence to travel, do research, and commission others to travel and do research on his behalf. In 1664 he attached himself to a mission to Moscow to look after the family's business interests there. During his year there he collected information about the country that he used in his book thirty years later.

As the title North and East Tartary indicates, Witsen's interest was more in Russia's new territories in Siberia than in the Russian core provinces. During this trip he heard the word "mammoth" used to describe fossil ivory: "By the inlanders [Russian settlers in Siberia] these teeth are called mammouttekoos [suffixed with the Russian word for bone, "kost"], while the animal itself is called mamout." His informants told him that many people were employed looking for buried mamout bones. Occasionally whole dead mamout bodies were found; they were of a brownish colour, and emitted a great stench. It had a tail like a horse's and its feet were short. It was seldom seen, and, when it was seen, it was a bad omen. He thought these reports were the babblings of superstitions natives and said that European Russians were sure they were elephant bones.

Witsen's is the first printed appearance of the word "mammoth." In reality Witsen's book was an encyclopedia of everything he could gather on Siberia: letters from his many correspondents, excerpts from other books, pictures, both of his own and by artists he commissioned, lexicons of over twenty five languages, and the best map that, till then, had been printed of Northeast Asia. It's somewhat surprising that he was able to gather all of this information. The Russian Tsars were secretive about their realm. Like authoritarian governments in all times, they wanted to carefully filter new ideas coming in--accept technical knowledge, but prevent foreign social concepts--and keep strategic knowledge from getting out. At that time, trade routs and accurate maps were state secrets. One reason so few navigational charts exist from the Medieval and Early Modern times is, that they were considered state secrets. Only a few were printed, old ones were destroyed, and captains were expected to die before letting them fall into enemy hands. On the other hand, the fact that he was able to collect so much information is testimony to the inability of even the harshest authoritarian states to seal them selves off and to the eternally gossipy nature of travelers and servants.

Witsen's narrative of his journey, with the explanation of mammoths, was only a small part of his total work. Besides being buried inside a mountain of other material, the dissemination of Witsen's information on mammoths was handicapped by the book's publication history. Witsen never finished with the project. For the rest of his life, he continued to add new material. Only a few copies of each edition were printed, probably for his circle of friends. Only ten copies of his map are known to exist. Nevertheless, the Republic of Letters was a small enough community that word of his new word spread throughout Europe.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fragments of my research - IV

For centuries, if not millennia, before 1600, carvable materials had been coming out of northern Eurasia along with descriptions of large buried monsters. Of the surviving written descriptions, it's clear that many of them refer to fossil mammoth ivory and frozen mammoth carcasses, but, with many of the descriptions, it's less clear what the writers referred to. For historians and biologists, one of the biggest problems in sorting these descriptions out is, that the ancient writers used a large number of different terms and, lacking a common terminology, it's almost impossible to determine what they were referring to. In the 1690s, the word "mammoth" came out of Siberia and was adopted by the intellectual community of Western Europe. While this improved matters considerably, it also created some ambiguities of its own.

Four separate accounts, published in the West in the 1690s, used some form of the word mammoth to describe ivory found in Siberia and also gave some kind of clue as to the sort of animal that the ivory came from. All four learned the word from the Russians. While it's clear the word was well established in the Russian language by the time these travelers visited, it's harder to determine exactly when the Russians adopted it. There are, however, clues.

There is absolutely no indication that the word was known to the Russians prior to Yermak's invasion of western Siberia. That establishes a baseline of 1584. The first clear description of a mammoth tusk comes twenty five years later from Josias Logan describing the purchase of a tusk at Pechora: "There use to come hither in the Winter about two thousand Samoieds with their Commodities, which may be such as we dreamed not on yet. For by chance one came to us with a piece of an Elephants Tooth, which he said he bought of a Samoied." Logan recognized the tusk as from an elephant, but doesn't mention what the native traders called it. Writing in 1880, Leopold von Schrenck, the director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg and a first rate a zoologist and ethnographer in his own right (he has two fish, a bird, a snake, and a butterfly named after him), wrote that the Samoyeds called the mammoth Iengora, the stallion or master of the Earth. This neither proves nor disproves whether Logan heard the word mammoth or any stories about it but, if he did, he missed a fabulous opportunity to make my life easier.

The first record of the word comes in 1620. Two years earlier, Richard James sailed to Russia as part of an embassy from King James I, first of the Stuart dynasty, to Tsar Mikhail, first of Romanov dynasty. Since the ambassador returned to England before they had even reached Moscow, the embassy was a complete failure. After loitering around Moscow for seven months the rest of the party packed up and headed home. Arriving in Archangel, they discovered that their ship had sailed without them. The leaders of the party set out overland to hire a ship in another port, leaving James and the lower ranking members to wait for the next English ship. That turned out to be almost a year later. Once again loitering around a Russian city with nothing to do, James wrote down some Russian songs, poetry and created a lexicon of some of the more curious Russian words that he learned. Among them is this: "Maimanto, as they say, a sea Elephant, which is never seene, but according to the Samites, he workes himself under grownde and so they find his teeth or homes or bones in Pechare and Nova Zemla, of which they make table men in Russia." The entry makes three important points: that the Russians, at least in the far North, were using a form of the word mammoth by 1620, that the Samites (probably the Samoyeds) believed the animal lived underground, and that the mammoth was the source of fossil ivory that they collected. James never published his notes and the manuscripts were eventually deposited in the Bodleian Library.

The four accounts published in the 1690s were Father Philippe Avril (Travels in various States of Europe and Asia, in French, 1691), Nicolaas Witsen (North and East Tartary, in Dutch, 1694), Heinrich Ludolf (Russian Grammar, in Latin, 1696), and Everard Ysbrand Ides (Three Years Travels from Moscow over-land to China, in German, 1698, and Dutch, 1704). It was from Ludolf that word made its way into English.

Note: My blogging betters tell me that its better to populate your blog with many short, quick reads that with long, in depth posts. I'm going to test that theory by covering the Western travelers in Russian and observers of mammothdom in ones and twos. This way I can put something up every day and build the suspense so that lots of people come, pumping up my stats and sending me lots of linky goodness. At least that's the theory.

Monday, February 02, 2009

I'm betting he flunked Social Studies

Last night on Wolf Blitzer, the new head of the Republican Party, Michael Steele was showing off his intellectual firepower:
Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job.

Wow. So Mr. Steele believes the all-volunteer military is made up unpaid volunteers. He apparently believes that civil service that Republicans like to demonize as "the bureaucracy" (cue sinister music) is made up of actual demons instead of citizens receiving paychecks. He must believe that all of those government buildings just appeared overnight instead of being built by construction workers who receive paychecks. Roads and bridges? Natural features of this great land of ours. With this kind of an incisive mind leading the renewal of the party of Hoover, we Democrats need to be very afraid.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Did the good guys win

If the devastation in the chips and beer sections of my grocery store are any indication, there must have been some kind of sporting event today. Since it's the middle of winter, I'm guessing that it was curling. But I could be wrong.