Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Against it before she was for it

Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to defend the value of volcano monitoring and request regular funding for the USGS early warning system in Alaska.
I think we’re all aware that there have been some recent comments made about federal spending for volcano monitoring and the suggestion perhaps that this might be wasteful money — that we don’t have any need to be monitoring volcanoes. And I can assure you, Mr. President, that monitoring volcanoes is critically important to the nation, to the world, and particularly to Alaska right now where, as I say, we are being held hostage by a volcano.

Volcano monitoring is a good cause. Early warning can prevent millions of dollars of damage to aircraft and other machinery and even save lives. It's good that Murkowski is making the case for it. However, Murkowski would have a lot more credibility if she wasn't such a partisan hack on the issue. Notice how she avoids criticizing a fellow Republican by resorting to the uber passive "there have been some recent comments made." We all know who made the comments. It wasn't some amorphous "they." It was Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, one of the up and coming stars of her party and a possible candidate for her party's presidential nomination in 2012. More importantly, Murkowski voted against the stimulus bill that included $140 million to upgrade USGS facilities including the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the office that performs the volcano monitoring in her state.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Must see mammoth TV

This Tuesday, the mammoths go extinct -- again.

I wonder why they thought I'd be interested in this.

I just received a press packet from WGBH in Boston, the producers of the venerable science show NOVA (this is my first press packet; I'm so excited). Tuesday's new episode looks at the latest entrant into the "what killed the mammoths" sweepstakes. This is the theory that a comet or a meteor exploding over the Laurentide ice sheet in Canada led to the sudden extinction of the Quaternary megafauna in North America, ended the Clovis culture, and started the Younger Dryas cold climate phase. I wrote about it here, when the theory was first unveiled at the May 2007 meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The promoters of this theory have done an excellent job of rolling it out. They have recruited supporters across a wide spectrum of fields all of whom find something in the theory to solve a vexing problem in their discipline. Hardly a season goes by without a supporter presenting a paper or chairing a session at a scientific conference. These papers are skillfully promoted in the science press.

I imagine their very success has engendered some of the resistance to the theory. Many science practitioners and observers have an instinctive aversion to science by press release. It smells too much like the tactics of the supporters of intelligent design, anti-vaccination, and climate change denialism. Scientific theories should stand or fall by proving themselves to specialists who understand all of the issues at stake and not by winning public popularity contests. At the same time, grand theories that solve all problems from paleontology, to history, to mythology, to personal hygiene are always suspect.

However, neither of these widespread reservations means the theory is wrong. I'm still on the fence about it. It will be interesting to how NOVA approaches it and what the more knowledgeable science bloggers have to say about it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New borders

In response to global climate change, Italy and Switzerland are considering a revision of their common border.

Historically, borders are determined in one of three ways. The first is by an international commission that examines economic, ethnic, defense, and transportation concerns and attempts to gerrymander suitable borders between states. This civilized process would, at first glance, appear to have great potential for creating satisfying and peaceful borders. Instead, you often end up with borders that have all of the flaws of any decision made by committee and that leave everyone unhappy. A good example of the failure of this method is the set of borders imposed on Central and Balkan Europe after WWI. As soon as everyone had a chance to catch their breath from the first Great War, the launched a second one to escape their unjust boundaries.*

The second, and more ancient, form of border creation is for one country to invade another, beat them into submission, and tell them where the new border will be. Despite the clear injustice of it, this method has been surprisingly effective in creating lasting borders. After WWII, the Balkan states ended up with roughly the same borders that they had before the war (the only significant exception being the Romania / Bulgaria border). Those borders have remained peaceful ever since.**

The third, and oldest, type of border is created when two people agree to stay on their respective sides of some natural feature of the land. This kind of border making predates states. The most common forms of this type of border are water shaped: rivers and drainage divides. While this kind of border works well for small bands of people, it is not especially well suited for larger groups of people in modern states. In many cases, the groups of people who live in the mountains have more in common with the people across the ridge than they do with the people in the valley and the valley people have more in common with the folks across the river than they do with the folks uphill. Also, the features of the landscape are not as permanent as we would like to think. Rivers in flood have a bad habit of jumping their banks and carving new channels, sometimes kilometers away from the old channels. Mountain ridges have their own problems.

Most of the border between Italy and Switzerland follows ridges. Where the rock shows, there has been no problem marking and maintaining the border. Where the ridges are buried by glaciers, the borders have followed the main dome of the glacier. Now, with the glaciers changing shape and perhaps disappearing all together, the border is moving. Switzerland has no problem sending a few surveyors to move the border markers a few hundred meters this way or that, but Italy needs to pass a new law for every adjustment. They expect to have the law ready for signing in a few weeks. The Italians have also approached Austria and France to do the same along their borders.

As long as no homes or businesses are involved, it might not be obvious why countries should be in such a rush to determine the ownership of a few square kilometers of uninhabited ice and rock. In part, the rush is caused by the obsessive desire of all governments to know exactly what they do and do not have control over at any given moment. It's just part of their nature. In a slightly more human time scale (days, weeks, that sort of thing), the big deal is over what the melting ice might reveal. You never know when the ice might surrender a neolithic hunter or two.

What surprises me about this story is how smoothly it's going. All the major Italian political parties recognized that this was something that needed to be done and did it. The party in power even asked the opposition to write the actual bill. If such a thing came up in the United States today, the paranoid, conspiracy buffs who make up most of the Republican base would be howling that the whole issue was a plot by our non-citizen president to undermine American sovereignty. They would tell each other that this was just the first step leading to blue-helmeted Canadian troops, swarming out of their secret bases in the national parks, seizing our guns, turning our children into homosexuals, and herding all right thinking patriots into reeducation camps where they will be turned into Soylent Green.

* Committee borders often fail to meet their own stated objectives of rationality. When the commissioners lack any knowledge of the region under consideration, they either make wild guesses about what might be there or draw big straight lines. Most of the borders in Africa were made this way.
** The Wars of Yugoslav Succession don't count. The borders in question there were not international borders; they were internal boundaries designed by commission. In 1993, I had a chance to talk to the head of the commission that drew the boundary between Croatia and Serbia in the Voivodinia. Lacking good examples to guide them-- this was the Balkans after all--they had to make it up as they went along.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'm going to have to steal this

Thers at Whiskey Fire has the best headline of the week.
Chuck Norris Asks The Questions You're Too Smart to Even Imagine

This has the makings of the next great Internet tradition* on the same level as Shorter** and Simple Answers To Simple Questions***.

* We are aware of all Internet traditions.
** "Shorter" concept created by Daniel Davies and perfected by Elton Beard.
*** "Simple Answers To Simple Questions" concept created by Duncan Black.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Meanwhile, back in the old country, Mt. Redoubt is erupting again. Redoubt is one of four volcanoes on the west side of Cook Inlet opposite of the area where most of the population of Alaska lives. The four are Mounts Spurr, Redoubt, Iliamna, and St. Augustine. Most of time, these volcanoes are happy to rumble and let off little plumes of highly scenic steam. But once a decade or so, one of them has a serious eruption.

The four volcanoes are part of the Alaska range that continues southwest and west to become the Aleutian Islands. The whole arc is a subduction zone where the North American Plate rides over the Pacific Plate. As the oceanic crust sinks into the mantle and melts, blobs of it rise up under the continental plate and cause volcanoes. The water that seeped into the oceanic cruse over the millions of years that it spent being the floor of the Pacific Ocean stays with the magma and gives it its explosive power when it gets close enough to the surface. This is the same process that created the Cascade Range in Washington and Oregon and powers its ten or so active or potentially active volcanoes. In Alaska there are about fifty volcanoes that have erupted in historical times (about two hundred fifty years). That's more than twice as many volcanoes as are in the other forty nine states combined. Volcanic eruptions are a fact of life in southern Alaska.

Source: Alaska Volcano Observatory

Right now, the ash plume is blowing up the west side of Cook Inlet. Most of the population lives on the east side, though our family cabin is already in the ash fall. The biggest hazards from eruptions of the four Cook Inlet volcanoes comes not from the explosions or associated lahars (mud flows cause by the sudden melting of the glaciers on the mountain), but from the ash plume. Volcanic ash is made up of fine particles of highly abrasive rock and glass. It's dangerous for people with respiratory conditions, bad for most machinery, and disastrous for turbines, such as jet engines. Unfortunately, Alaska's road network covers less than a third of the mainland. Everything else depends on aircraft and, during an eruption, the airports in the path of the plume ground most flights.

Number Three Sister is involved in the aircraft business in Anchorage and I need to call my sisters tonight (Mom's estate business). I'll pass on any news, gossip, or insights that she has that hasn't been in the regular news media.

Republicans behaving badly

The Republican candidate for mayor in Jackson, Mississippi is advocating murder and mob violence as a means of fighting the town's high crime rate. "Crime can only be alleviated by a noose and a stout tree limb," says George Lambus in a recent homemade flier, "I will provide the noose and when the economy improves, I will get the jobs here." Not surprisingly, Lambus cites Biblical authority for his version of law and order: "If we look at the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, it's driven with blood." Lambus' fliers, which have so far been distributed in mostly white neighborhoods, describe Jackson’s current city government as “incompetent negro Democrats.” This might be a normal case of just another Neo-Confederate crawling out from under his slimy rock except for the fact that Lambus is himself Black. Lambus is currently way down in the polls and something of a laughing stock in Jackson. One voter said of his rhetoric, "It's offensive, but it’s so ridiculous you don’t even know how to get mad." Unfortunately, he's the only Republican running, so he's guaranteed a spot on the ballot. After losing this election he'll probably end up being offered a position in the national Republican leadership because he so perfectly represents what the modern GOP has become.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My March Madness prediction

The team with a bunch of tall guys under the age of thirty will win.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fragments of my research - VIII

The most illustrious Czars and mighty Princes, John and Peter Alexewitz, my most gracious Lords, having in their Wise Council of State resolved to send a splendid Embassy, on some important affairs, to the Great Bogdaichan, or Sovereign of the famous Kingdom of Kitai, by us Europeans commonly called China: This obliged me with a welcoming opportunity of traveling through part of the famous, but hitherto unknown, Siberian and Kitaian Countries, (never before visited by any German) and informing my self by credible witnesses of the remainder of those Lands, as well as obtaining a certain knowledge of several things with which the World hath not been hitherto acquainted.

Evert Ysbrants Ides was the first educated European to travel in Siberia and gather firsthand information about the collection of fossil ivory. Ides' opportunity to travel across Siberia was the direct result of the satisfactory settlement of a small war on the Chinese border.

The speed with which the first wave of Russian fur traders, called promyshleniki, crossed Siberia created serious supply problems for them. Men carrying small loads of goods and supplies could easily cross Siberia using a network of rivers and short portages by boat in the summer and sled in the winter. Bringing large loads of bulky goods, specifically enough grain to feed a small settlement, was a much more difficult and expensive proposition. It could take three or four years for a shipment of grain to reach a remote place like Yakutsk and, by then, the majority of the load would be inedible. Because of this, the promyshleniki were relieved and excited when they began to hear rumors of the Amur, a valley in the south filled with grain, cattle, and silver.

The first expedition to reach the Amur was a group of 132 cossacks under Vassily Poiarkov in 1643-46. The Amur natives, whom the Russians called Daurians, greeted Poiarkov with hospitality but the relationship turned sour as the Russians resorted to kidnapping, plunder, and, it is reputed, cannibalism to get what they wanted. This kind of behavior went over with the locals about as well as you might expect. Poiarkov had to fight his way out of the country and lost half of his command to native attacks and starvation. However, because he confirmed that the Amur was a land of cattle and grain (he didn't find any silver), the expedition was proclaimed a success. Several other Russians tried to map out a better route into the Amur valley. In 1651, Yerofey Khabarov fought his way down the river with even more brutality than Poiarkov had and built a fort near the site of the city that now bears his name. This is when things began to go to hell.

Khabarov knew, but chose to ignore, that the Amur was within the Chinese sphere of influence. What he might not have known was that it was also part of the homeland of the new Qing dynasty of China. The only reason he was able to occupy as much land as he did was that most of the armed Manchu horsemen were still busy conquering China. A year after Khabarov built Achansk, a Chinese military expedition arrived to drive him out of the valley. This was the beginning of more than thirty years of seesawing occupation of the Amur country. By the early eighties, with most of China finally pacified, the Kangxi emperor was ready to deal with the Russians once and for all. Now it was the turn of Moscow to get alarmed.

Moscow, in the 1680s, was infected with a bad case of "who's in charge here?" In April 1682, Tsar Fedor III died at the tender age of twenty one without leaving an heir. The succession fell on his brothers Ivan and Peter. The elder of the two, Ivan, was severely epileptic, nearly blind, and may have suffered from a variety of other problems (diagnosing the physical and mental health of historical figures is more of a parlor game than a science among historians). Peter was strong as an ox, but only ten years old. To further complicate matters, the two boys had different mothers and the two sets of in-laws formed powerful and antagonistic factions at court. Fedor's death was followed by a week of riot and rebellion (not all of which was related to the succession). When the dust cleared, Ivan and Peter had been declared co-tsars and their sister Sophia was the de facto regent ruling in their names.

Except for a few years during the reign of Catherine the Great, historians have not been kind to Sophia. She has been reduced to cartoonish stereotype of a scheming woman (which is bad) who was finally put back in her place by a strong male (which is good). In fact, Sophia Alexeevna Romanov was an extraordinary woman. She was intelligent, well informed, and literate in three languages. She was comfortable giving orders and appearing in public at a time when most upper-class Russian women were kept in harem-like seclusion for their entire lives. During the seven years that she served as regent for the two tsars, Sophia had successes and failures no different than any other rulers’. For the advance of mammoth knowledge, her most important achievement was settling the Amur conflict.

Since the beginning of the century, the tsars had recognized the potential for Siberia to become a private trade route to China, but every attempt at making official contact with the Chinese court had failed due to cultural misunderstandings. Despite that, the Kangxi emperor wanted to open trade with the Russians and hoped that a show of strength would be enough to drive the promyshleniki and Cossacks out of the Amur valley. In 1684 a large and well supplied Chinese army arrived on the lower Amur and began to move west driving the Russians before them. At Albazin, on the northern bend of the Amur, the Russians attempted to make a stand, but were soon defeated. The Chinese allowed the survivors to retreat, razed their fort, and moved down river to their base of operations. When word of the defeat on the Amur reached Sophia and her advisors, they quickly dispatched an envoy to make peace with the Chinese.

This should have been the end of the crisis, but, before the envoy could arrive, the Siberian Russians returned to Albazin and built a new fort provoking the Chinese army to return and start a new siege. They were only saved by the arrival in Beijing of advance messengers from the embassy. The Kangxi emperor ordered his army to lift the siege and prepared his own diplomatic mission to meet the Russians. Further complications--and there are always further complications in diplomacy--delayed the meeting of the two missions until the summer of 1689. The negotiation took place at the Russian outpost of Nerchinsk on a tributary of the Amur almost 300 miles west of Albazin. Amid elaborate ceremonies by the official heads of the missions, the real negotiations were carried out in Latin by a Polish cavalry officer (for the Russians) and a French Jesuit (for the Chinese). The agreement, signed on August 27, the first formal treaty signed between China and a Western power, required the Russians to evacuate the entire Amur valley, but established formal trade through Nerchinsk.

Sophia did not get to celebrate the Treaty of Nerchinsk. At the same time that the negotiations were wrapping up in the East, Sophia's regency was coming to an abrupt and unanticipated end in Moscow. Sophia's position had been dramatically weakened by two disastrous campaigns in the Crimea and by her half brother Peter turning seventeen in June. Amid rumors that Sophia was planning to murder Peter and rule in her own name, supporters of the two Romanovs engaged in a month of dramatic maneuvers that resulted in Peter taking control and Sophia retiring to a convent. Peter's half brother Ivan stayed on as co-tsar until his natural death seven years later.

When word of the treaty reached Peter, he accepted the terms and began planning a trade mission to Beijing. Russia had a severe shortage of literate agents who were competent to make their way through foreign cultures, which explains the necessity of hiring Latin speaking Polish cavalry officers to conduct delicate diplomatic negotiations. For his first official trade mission to China, Peter hired a German, Dutch, or possibly Danish merchant named Evert Ysbrants Ides*. Ides had been in Russia since 1677, operating his own merchant house, first in Archangel and later in Moscow. In the spring of 1692, Ides left Moscow at the head of a 400 man caravan with instructions to exchange ratifications of the treaty, determine the best items for trade, feel out official attitudes toward the treaty, and request that a Chinese envoy be sent to Moscow.

Frontispiece of the 1705 English edition of Three Years Travels from Moscow Overland to China: Thro' Great Ustiga, Siriania, Permia, Sibiria, Daour, Great Tartary &c. to Peking. Containing, An Exact and Particular Defcription of the Extent and Limits of Those Countries

The most direct route from Moscow to China is the same one that the Trans-Siberian Railway follows today, around the southern end of the Ural Mountains, across the steppe lands at the center of Eurasia, across Lake Baikal, and on to the Amur. Unfortunately, the steppe lands were controlled by Kirghiz nomads and unsafe for Russian merchants. For this reason, Ides' caravan had to take a much more roundabout path to Baikal that took them across the Urals on the same path as Ermak a century before, down the Irtysh River to its junction with the Ob, up the Ob and its tributary the Ket, to a portage into the Yenisei basin, and up the Angara River to Baikal. By October, the mission had only reached the way station of Makofskoi on the Ket portage. It was here that Ides had had his encounter with fossil mammoths.
Amongst the hills, which are situate North-East of [Makofskoi], and not far from hence, the Mammuts Tongues and Legs are found; as they are also particularly on the Shores of the Rivers Jenize, Trugan [Lower Tunguska], Mongamsea [Taz], Lena, and near Jakutskoi [Yakutsk], even as far as the Frozen Sea. ... I had a Person with me to China, who had annually went out in search of these Bones; he told me, as a certain truth, that he and his Companions found the Head of one of these Animals, which was discovered by the fall of such a frozen piece of Earth. As soon as he opened it, he found the greatest part of the Flesh rotten, but it was not without difficulty that they broke out his Teeth, which were placed before his Mouth, as those of the Elephants are; they also took some Bones out of his head, and afterwards came to his Fore-foot, which they cut off, and, carried part of it to the City of Trugan [Turukhansk], the Circumference of it being as large as that of the wast of an ordinary Man. The Bones of the Head appeared somewhat red, as tho' they were tinctured with Blood.

This account by Ides is the first Western description of a frozen mammoth and the beginning of a scientific and popular fascination that hasn't ended over three hundred years later.

Locating the mammoth to which Ides' unnamed traveling companion referred is a little tricky. Makofskoi was, and still is, a small town on the western end of the portage between the Ob and Yenisei Rivers. Ides gave no indication of how far he meant when he said mammoth remains were found in the hills to the Northeast. My conclusion, based on Ides' phrase "not far from hence," is that the find must have been close to Makofskoi. The explorer Adolf Nordenskiold, who traveled along the Arctic coast in the late nineteenth century, thought, because the hunter took the mammoth's foot to Turukhansk, that the find must have been close to that place. Turukhansk is 450 miles north of Makofskoi, which is not "not far from hence." In Ides' day there were two major towns on the Yenesei where his companion might have sold the ivory, Turukhansk and Yeneseisk, which is only eighty miles from Makofskoi. That argues in Nordenskiold's favor. If the find was closer to Yeneseisk the only reasons the hunter would have had for going all the way to Turukhansk would have been if Turukhansk was offering a better price for ivory or if he had other business there. Without more evidence there's no way to settle the matter. If we split the difference between Makofskoi and Turukhansk we arrive at the Stony Tunguska River. Maybe the site was blown up in 1908 by the Tunguska meteorite.

Ides goes on to report what the locals believed about the remains.
Concerning this Animal there are very different reports. The Heathens of Jakuti, Tungusi, and Ostiacki, say that they continually, or at least, by reason of the very hard Frosts, mostly live under ground, where they go backwards and forwards; to confirm which they tell us, That they have often seen the Earth heaved up when one of these Beasts was on the March, and after he was past, the place sink in, and thereby make a deep Pit. They further believe, that if this Animal comes so near to the surface of the frozen Earth as to smell, or discern the Air, he immediately dies, which they say is the reason that several of them are found dead, on the high Banks of the River, where they unawares came out of the Ground. This is the opinion of the Infidels concerning these Beasts, which are never seen.

But the old Siberian Russians affirm, that the Mammuth is very like the Elephant, with this only difference, that the Teeth of the former are firmer, and not so straight as those of the latter. They also are of Opinion, that there were Elephants in this Country before the Deluge, when this Climate was warmer, and that their drowned bodies floating on the Surface of the Water of that Flood, were at last wash'd and forced into Subterranean Cavities...

The description of the mammoth as a subterranean animal that dies on exposure to surface air is almost identical to that given by the Chinese writer Tung-fang So in the second century BC.

The three "heathen" tribes that Ides mentions are names given by the Russian conquerors and used to lump together all of the peoples of the Lower Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei, and Lena river basins. That is to say, he was ascribing the belief in the mammoth as a giant mole to most of the people of Western and Central Siberia. Later travelers ascribed different beliefs to many of these peoples. Still other travelers confirmed Ides' observations. When Ides traveled across Siberia, most of these peoples had been under Russian rule for a century, giving them plenty of time to have heard about the ideas of tribes with which they had had very little contact and to have learned the Biblical stories of Noah and Behemoth. Today, it is virtually impossible to sort out which tribes believed what before their contact with the Russians.

While Ides was the first educated European to travel in Siberia and report firsthand information on the collection of fossil ivory, he wouldn't be the last. Peter the Great's diplomacy, wars, economic needs, and personal curiosity would send a constant stream of educated Europeans into his Eastern realms. They in turn would send back a constant stream of information that would be eagerly consumed by a Europe that was looking at the world through an increasingly scientific lens.

Hmmm. I still seem to be having trouble with that "keep your blog posts under a thousand words" thing. Oh well...

* Ides nationality and name have been the source of much confusion over the years. Accounts of his journey describe him variously as Dutch, German, and Danish. In the opening quote he implies that he considers himself to be German, but the first edition of his book was published in Dutch. The confusion comes from the fact that his parents were Dutch immigrants to Holstein, a German-speaking province that is the home of many cows and was then ruled by the King of Denmark. It's likely that Ides was fluent in both German and Dutch.

The possible spellings given for his first and middle names are even more varied than his nationality. Because his middle name is sometimes spelled Ysbrand, some writers have assumed that he and the mission's secretary, Adam Brand, were one person. Adding to that confusion was the fact that both of them published memoirs of the journey, which the same writers who thought they were the same person assumed were merely different editions of the same book. They weren't, it wasn't, and that's that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No surprise here

The Center for American Progress has an interactive quiz to measure how liberal or conservative you are on the current big issues. It consists of forty questions that you rate on a ten point scale of agreement / disagreement. It only takes a few minutes. My score is in the comments. What's yours?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Curse you, Portland!

Business Week has a list of America's twenty most depressing cities and Seattle's arch-nemesis, Portland has beaten us again. The magazine ranked fifty of the largest metropolitan areas based on depression rates, suicide, divorce, crime, unemployment, and cloudy days. Portland edged us out in every category except unemployment (WaMu's collapse gave us the edge there).* This is so unfair. Seattle's mass transit is vastly inferior to Portland's. Surely standing in the rain waiting for bus that's going to be late counts for something. Our downtown is uglier than theirs. Despite the real estate crash, housing in Seattle is still more expensive than in Portland. Both highways leaving town get closed far more often than theirs. Our city government is stupider and less colorful than theirs. Doesn't having fewer bicyclists mean we lack the will to get healthy? Why were these things left out of the scoring? Portland must have had an in with the judges.

* Oddly, we both are usually right at the top of "Most Livable City" lists. There must be something depressing about living in a great place. For the right sociology students, there's a dissertation or two in that paradox.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Anti-Semitic salt

Via Mike the Mad Biologist:
You've heard of kosher salt? Now there's a Christian variety.

Retired barber Joe Godlewski says he was inspired by television chefs who repeatedly recommended kosher salt in recipes.

"I said, 'What the heck's the matter with Christian salt?'" Godlewski said, sipping a beer in the living room of his home in unincorporated Cresaptown, a western Maryland mountain community.

By next week, his trademarked Blessed Christians Salt will be available at http://www.memphi.net, the Web site of Memphis, Tenn.-based seasonings manufacturer Ingredients Corporation of America.

It's sea salt that's been blessed by an Episcopal priest, ICA President Damon S. Arney said Wednesday. He said the company also hopes to market the salt through Christian bookstores and as a fundraising tool for religious groups.

Chemically, kosher salt is the same sodium chloride as any other table salt. The main differences are that kosher salt usually has no additives (such as iodine) and that it is milled into much larger grains that common American table salt. Kosher salt is not blessed by a rabbi (neither is any other kosher food). The name kosher comes from the fact that large grain salt is used to prepare kosher meats.

Some cooks believe kosher salt has a different, and superior, taste than other table salts. Except for flavors caused by additives and other impurities, kosher salt tastes exactly the same as any other salt because they are exactly the same stuff (see previous paragraph). In any dish where the salt dissolves, non-iodized salt and kosher salt will taste the same. The difference in grain size only matters when the salt is used on the surface of food. Large grain salt stays intact and doesn't melt so that you get little bursts of salt flavor on foods like pretzels and roast beef. If you put kosher salt into a little plastic tub and quadruple the price it becomes margarita salt.

Godlewski's idea of blessed Christian salt may be nothing more than an attempt to commercialize on ignorance, but the whole idea reeks of anti-Semitism. Part of the intended market will be the suckers who would buy moose nuggets if they were labeled "Christian", but many other consumers of "Christian" salt will be those who want to avoid anything that has a taint of Jewishness about it. In a way, the latter group is a sub-set of the first, only with a more specific and vile reason for buying "Christian." Simply put, Godlewski's product panders to bigots.

Now that I think of it, maybe my path to wealth lies in selling Aryan moose nuggets.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Illegal immigrants threaten life in Pacific Northwest!

I can't wait till Lou Dobbs gets hold of this story.

Beth Sanderson, of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center here in Seattle, just released the results of a study into the effect of invasive species on native salmon. The results are not good.
[Sanderson's team constructed an] explicit database that identified the presence of invasive species in roughly 1800-square-kilometer, hydrologically connected areas throughout Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The number of invasive species in each area ranged between 86 and 486, the majority being plants and fish.

Sanderson and colleagues assembled reports of predation by six nonindigenous fish species: catfish, black and white crappie, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, and yellow perch. Hundreds of thousands to millions of juvenile salmonids were being consumed by these species at just a handful of sites, and for some of the species, salmonids constituted a large fraction of their diet.

Salmon populations on the West Coast have dramatically dropped over the last few years. Till now, most of the research into the decline has focused on direct human impacts like over-fishing, dams, and environmental degradation in the spawning grounds. The indirect effects of invasive species on the salmon ecology has been neglected. This is a rather odd oversight. Every hiker, gardener, and forester in the Northwest is aware of the negative impact of invasive species on dry land.

If Dobbs and the Minutemen would do something about this kind of foreign invasion they might finally be worth a damn.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Jindal birth certificate watch - day 5

The mainstream media is either too afraid or too corrupt to touch this story. It's up to the amazing power of citizen journalism to see that this doesn't disappear down the memory hole.

A very brief history of plagiarism

In response to my post on a nineteenth century plagiarism mystery, Coturnix wrote:
I am assuming that the standards in the past were much loser than they are now and that the precise definitions of plagiarism evolved some time in the 20th century. Correct?

Coturnix is right about standards being different in the past, but it was much further in the past that he thinks. In ancient and medieval Europe, there was something of a double standard about plagiarism. Many authorless genres like religious texts were freely copied and incorporated into later works, "good writing" usually meant slavishly imitating a small number of respected authors (Cicero being the most important), and scholarship meant demonstrating mastery of the ancient greats. On the other hand, poets and playwrights have always jealously defended their words.

This began to change during the Renaissance when original scholarship became more respected and individual accomplishment was recognized in many more fields that it had been previously (for example, this is when painters began signing their works). Why this happened is an enormous subject that I won't go into right now. The point here is that, by the mid 1600s, accusations of plagiarism and stealing ideas were common in every creative field including the sciences. An accusation of stealing someone else's words or ideas and passing them off as your own was one of the worst insults imaginable and grounds for lawsuits and duels.

Just as a sidebar, the word "plagiarism," in the sense we use it today, first appeared in English in the various battles among Shakespeare and his peers. The mighty and majestic Oxford English Dictionary credits Ben Jonson with being the first to use it in print. The form they used was "plagiary," which is a Latin term for a type of kidnapper or illegitimate slaver.

The first English copyright law was passed in 1709. It had as much to do with protecting the rights of publishers against book piracy as it did with protecting the author's rights against unscrupulous printers, but author's rights developed very quickly. James Boswell, best known as Samuel Johnson's biographer, was a lawyer who argued one of the important cases over how long copyrights lasted for an author and his or her heirs (it was twenty one years at the time).

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the concept and the law were very similar to what they are today. Even footnotes were being used in a form very similar to what they are today. What has changed since then has been the issue of enforcing copyrights across borders. Most European countries concluded agreements to prevent book piracy (we should probably thank Napoleon for making that possible by dramatically reducing the number of countries in Europe). The United States was the odd man out. We refused to give any protection to foreign authors and publishers until 1891 and we didn't sigh on to the Berne Convention until 1988.

The bottom line for my mammoth post is that Buel, Lansdell, MacLean, and Lyell were all operating under the same concepts and very similar law to what we have today.

In the spirit of the topic, let me declare that most of what I know about this subject comes from Thomas Mallon's 1989 book Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Spring break creationism

Hey, gang. Looking for something fun, wholesome, and educational to do with the kids this Spring? Look no further! Those nice folks at People for the American Way have found the perfect getaway for the whole family. It's the Creation Studies Institute's...
Ice Age Fossil Adventure

Over 10,000 people have been involved in this family-centered activity in which one is taught how to collect and interpret Florida fossils using a biblical framework.

CSI offers you and your family the chance to spend a weekend enjoying God's creation and giving glory to God as we dig up and identify the fossil of Ice Age creatures on the Peace River in Arcadia Florida.

Actual picture from last year's Ice Age Fossil Adventure. An unexpected encounter during the nature walk in the beautiful snow capped mountains of southern Florida.

Who knows? You might be the one to discover a dinosaur just like the one Jesus used to ride!

The Creation Studies Institute (CSI) has been around since 1988 pushing a pretty standard version of young earth creationism and flood geology. It is the brainchild of Tom DeRosa. His official biography tells how he was once a godless evolutionist but saw the light and was reborn as a doctrinaire creationist. DeRosa a protege and close associate of the late D. James Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Ministry. Kennedy's hideous documentary Darwin's Deadly Legacy, which argued that Hitler got his ideas from Darwin, was based on DeRosa's book Evolution’s Fatal Fruit: How Darwin’s Tree of Life Brought Death to Millions.

CSI shares many beliefs with Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the much older Institute for Creation Research. CSI has its own Discovery Museum in Fort Lauderdale that has been around longer than AiG's better known Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky. In the Discovery Museum gift shop you can buy DVDs like this one exposing Al Gore's global warming alarmism as a scam perpetrated to force "the United States to give up her sovereignty and her rights [by] surrendering them to the socialistic mandates of the United Nations."

According to CSI and other young earth creationist groups, the ice age came after Noah's flood and lasted up to 700 years during which many of the animals that survived on the ark went extinct. Saving those species just to kill them immediately after seems a little odd to me, but subtle and mysterious are the ways of their lord. CSI also lets us in on such little known facts as those atheistic "scientists" don't think the planet Jupiter should exist.

The globe turning the wrong direction on the home page of the Creation Studies Institute site is a perfect example of the kind of science they want to teach our kids. Letting these clowns near a fossil bed is about as smart as giving a Taliban with a sledge hammer a free pass to a museum of antiquities.