Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A few words about "mammoth"

Brian at Laelaps has a nice post up about a magazine story and rumors of live mammoths in Alaska. The story, "The Killing of the Mammoth" by Henry Tukeman, appeared in the October 1899 issue of McClure's Magazine, a popular British general interest magazine of the day. Tukeman's story is a first person account of how he ventured into a lost valley on the Alaska Yukon border and there killed what may have been the last living mammoth. At the end of the story, Tukeman tells his readers that the bones of the mammoth were bought by a fabulously wealthy adventurer who donated them to the Smithsonian as his own discovery.

All in all, Tukeman's tale is a fairly typical lost valley story, a very popular genre during the high tide of imperialism. Most of these stories have been forgotten, but some (those by H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle) are still occasionally reprinted and made into movies. One of the characteristics of the genre is that they usually told in the first person, with a framing sequence explaining hos the story came into the author's hands or why the author chose to tell it at this time -- usually the storyteller is the dying last survivor of the adventure who wants to make sure the tale doesn't die with him. At a time when there were still blank spots on the map and the general public believed that entire civilizations or ecosystems still waited to be discovered, it's not surprising that these stories were occasionally believed to be true. One such novel, The Smokey God, is still trotted out by believers in the hollow earth as the actual memoirs of someone who went there, despite that fact that many elements of the story are clearly borrowed from Edgar Allen Poe and that it contradicts Newtonian physics.

This was the case with "The Killing of the Mammoth." As soon as it was published, the Smithsonian started getting letters from people who wanted to know more about Tukeman's mammoth and visitors who wanted to see the skeleton. The demand became distracting enough that McClure's contracted a paleontologist, Frederic A. Lucas, to write a nonfiction article on mammoths for their February 1900 issue. The editors prefaced the article with a note apologizing for the confusion. The Smithsonian republished the note and article in their Annual Report for 1900. Lucas graciously ends his article by pointing out that the Smithsonian doesn't have a mammoth skeleton and appeals to some wealthy benefactor to remedy the situation.

From Mastodon, Mammoth, and Man by John Patterson MacLean, 1878

Lucas' piece is a nice summary of the state of mammoth knowledge in 1900. It's worth reading as an historical document (which, of course, is why Brian and I have read it). However, he has one monstrous chunk of misinformation right in his first sentence.
About three centuries ago, in 1696, a Russian, one Ludolff by name, described some bones belonging to what the Tartars called a "Mamantu"; later on, Blumenbach pressed the common name into scientific use as "Mammut" and Cuvier gallicized this into "Mammouth," whence by easy transition we get our familiar mammoth.

Almost everything in that sentence is wrong. Let me fisk it as a list:
  • "About three centuries ago, in 1696..." Maybe I'm nitpicking, but 1696 was just over two centuries before 1900.
  • "...a Russian, one Ludolff by name..." Ludolf was German. There are many possible spellings of his name, so Lucas doesn't lose any points for the double "l". His only time spent in Russia was eighteen months in Moscow in 1693-94. He spent that time studying the Russian language and socializing with upper-class Russians including tsar Peter, not yet the Great.
  • "...described some bones belonging to what the Tartars called Mamantu..." I'm nitpicking again. The linguistic origin of the word mammoth has been controversial right up to the present. Tartar was the leading contender in Lucas' day, so he's not to be blamed for choosing it. Some other contenders have been Russian, Samoyed, Tungus, Yakut, Ostyak, Estonian, Polish, and Hebrew, by way of Arabic. Tartar , or Tatar, still pops up even though the etymology that is given for it -- that it is derived from "mamma" meaning earth -- is completely false. The word "mamma" does not mean earth in modern Tatar and does not appear in any historical lexicon. I have a detailed post on the the name planned for later in my Fragments series.
  • "...later on, Blumenbach pressed the common name into scientific use as 'Mammut'..." Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was one of the great zoologists of his day. One of his projects was to extend the Linnean system of classification and naming into areas that Linneas had been reluctant to tread. One of those areas was fossils. Blumenbach did indeed pressed "Mammut" into scientific use in 1797, but he applied it to the Armerican mastodon as Mammut ohioticum (mammoth of the Ohio). He called the Siberian mammoth, Elphas primigenius (the primeval elephant). That was later changed by biologists into Mammuthus primigenius, which makes things even more confusing.
  • "...Cuvier gallicized this into 'Mammouth'..." "Mammout "was being used in French long before Blumenbach or Cuvier. For example Buffon wrote about the" prodigious bones of the mammout" in his Histoire naturelle five years before Cuvier was born.
  • "...whence by easy transition we get our familiar mammoth..."The English were using the name and spelling "mammoth" at least as early as the 1720s.

The short history of the introduction of the word mammoth into Western European languages runs something like this: In Ludolf's Russian grammar, he reported the word as "mammoutovoi." The first known use of the word in English was by the Royal Society's Robert Hooke, who gave the Society a report on Ludolf's book and spelled the word "mammatovoykost." The suffix "kost" is the Russian word for bone. Ludolf gave both forms of the word (mammoutovoi and mammoutovoikost), but Hooke appears to have missed the distinction that between mammoth and mammoth bone (tusk). Only 300 copies of Ludolf's grammar were printed and, thought it attracted the attention of scholars, it soon faded into obscurity. Ludolf's was not the first in-print mention of some form of the word mammoth in Europe. That honor goes to Nicolaas Witsen whose memoirs of travel in Russia described fossil ivory coming from the "mammout." His actual travels occurred in 1664-66 and his account was published in 1694, two years before Ludolf's grammar. There is a third candidate for who introduced the word into Europe. In the early years of the eighteenth century Evert Ysbrants Ides published a memoir of his journey across Siberia as an envoy for tsar Peter in 1692. Ides gave the spelling of the word as "mammuth." His memoir had far greater distribution than either Ludolf or Witsen's works. It appeared in Dutch in 1704, English in 1705, German in 1707, and French in 1727. By 1730 the word had taken its place in the major Western European languages in the same forms that is used today -- "mammoth" in English, "mammout" in French, "mammut" in German, and so on.

The most interesting thing about all of these forms is that none of them has an "n" in the second syllable like Lucas' "mamantu", but the "n" does exist in the Russian form of the name "mamont." Another indication that the "n" in the second syllable was part of the original word comes from the earliest known record of the word. In 1718, Richard James, the chaplain for a failed British diplomatic mission to Moscow, filled his time while waiting for a ship to return him to London by compiling a lexicon of unusual Russian words. One of those words was "maimanto" an underground animal that was a source for ivory. James' etymology remained unknown until his letters were discovered in the archives of the Bodleian Library in 1951.

So, while Lucas' version of the introduction of the word "mammoth" into Europe is wrong in almost every detail, it's right on the early pronunciation. That leaves the question of where did he get the idea that it could be traced to "mamantu" and that that word appeared in Ludolf's grammar. It looks like he found it in a dictionary.
mammoth (mam'oth), n. and a. [= F. mammouth = Sp. mammut, mammoth = G. mammuth, < Russ. mamantu, a mammoth, so called by a Russian named Ludloff in 1696, said to be [from] Tatar mamma, the earth...]
The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language
Vol. IV, p. 3553, Edition of1890

Where they came up with this is a mystery for another day.

Arlen Specter is a Democrat

I'm surprised this didn't happen earlier. Republicans have been threatening to punish caucus members who break Party discipline for years. Everyone is pointing out that once Franken gets seated the Democrats will have a supermajority. It's really only a theoretical supermajority; you never know when Lieberman or one of the bluedogs will go the other way. Still, even a theoretical supermajority might be enough to make the Senate Republicans start negotiating in good faith. Nothing could make the the House Republicans do that, but the Senate Republicans are less insane (except Jim Inhofe). In the short run, I predict exploding heads on Fox News and a redoubled effort to keep Franken from taking his seat.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The case for better interns

The only explanation I can come up for for this is that it must have been written by an unpaid intern on Friday afternoon after all of the editors had snuck out early for the weekend. This is slide twelve of a slideshow at MSN entitled "Monsters that people believe exist." For reasons I can't explain, the slide show in on their Environment site. The slideshow itself is pretty lame -- three of the twelve slides are variations on Bigfoot and one is a picture of a python in a zoo. But this is the topper. No wonder it was put in the finale position.

This is Ötzi, the mummy of a Chalcolithic hunter who died in the Alps sometime around 3300 BC. In 1991, Ötzi was discovered thawing out of the Schnalstal Glacier on the Italian/Austrian frontier. The MSN caption reads "The iceman is believed to be the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans that roamed the mountains, encased in ice." How many things are wrong with this?

Let's start with the low hanging fruit and mock their grammar. How do you roam the mountains, encased in ice? At best you might slide or tumble downhill, but roaming is definitely out when you're encased in ice. Don't take my word for it, ask Lyuba the baby mammoth. He'll back me up on this one.

"The iceman is believed to be the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans..." Really? It's believed by who exactly? The scientists who examined and named Ötzi are all agreed that Ötzi is a completely modern human and not a Yeti, despite the similarity in their names. I can't find an example of even the most credulous cryptobiologist who thinks Ötzi is a missing link. Real scientists don't even use the phrase "missing link" except when talking down to reporters.

Next, what is Ötzi even doing in a slideshow on "monsters that people believe exist?" There is no "believe" involved here. Like the python, he does exist. He's carefully stored at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. He is also not a monster, he's a normal guy who happened die in a place where his body was preserved for over five millenia.

I realize that there is constant pressure for commercial sites to keep putting up fresh content, but I could have put together a better slideshow on this topic when I was in the seventh grade. If anyone at MSN is interested, I'm available at a resonable hourly wage.

Postscript: Apparently after being soundly mocked by PZ's Legion of Doom, a grown-up took charge and removed the slide from the show.

Should we waterboard Sean Hannity

At first glance, the answer to that question appears obvious – an enthusiastic "hell, yes!" I think most of the people who read this blog would find it immensely satisfying to see conservative apologists for torture subjected to it. I'd love to see how many false confessions we can wring out of Rush Limbaugh with a little harmless fraternity hazing. However, taking Hannity up on his offer to be waterboarded would actually give the apologists a massive propaganda victory, create a false impression about the reality of waterboarding, and set back the anti-torture cause.

First some background. Charles Grodin appeared on the Wednesday edition of Hannity's Fox News show. After mocking Hannity's mascara but before questioning the fascistic tendencies of the show, Grodin had tried to put Hannity on the spot about torture.
Grodin: You're for torture.

Hannity: I am for enhanced interrogation.

G: You don't believe it's torture. Have you ever been waterboarded?

H: No, but Ollie North has.

G: Would you consent to be waterboarded? We can waterboard you?

H: Sure.

G: Are you busy on Sunday?

H: I'll do it for charity. I'll let you do it. I'll do it for the troops' families.

Many liberal bloggers think Grodin got the best out of that exchange. I disagree. Hannity kept his cool, didn't back down, and even managed to get some points from the Fox audience for his patriotic posturing "I'll do it for the troops' families" schtick.

Thursday, Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O'Donnell jumped on board in an attempt to call Hannity's bluff.
O'Donnell: The reason Sean Hannity thinks torture is a good idea. The reason Sean Hannity thinks it works is because it would work on him. ... [P]eople who live where Sean Hannity lives and those safe places and the safe Cheney home where no one in the Cheney family would ever submit themselves to military service, ever submit themselves to the risk of torture. They think torture works because it would work on them.


Olbermann: [addressing Hannity] You'll do it for charity? For the troops families? I'll take you up on that Sean. For every second you last, $1000. Live or on tape provided other networks cameras are there. $1000 a second Sean because this is no game. This is serious stuff. Put your money where your mouth is, and your nose. And I'll double it when you admit you feared for your life. When you admit the horrible truth. Waterboarding, a symbol of the last administration, is torture.

With that, Olbermann allowed himself to be suckered into Hannity's game, even though I'm sure Hannity never thought it out far enough to know that he has this game in play. Olbermann is basing his challenge on one of the more persistent myths of American culture: the myth that all bullies are physical cowards. While that's probably true for most bullies, it's complete folly to assume that every bully will conform to a two dimensional stereotype. Furthermore, there is more than one kind of physical cowardice. The classical playground bully isn't adverse to all pain; if he was, he would avoid all fights. The playground bully typically picks fights with kids he knows he can beat and humiliate. The playground bully is happy to accept some discomfort if he knows he will win in the end. Bullying is all about banishing your own sense of powerlessness by inflicting powerlessness on someone else. This means there is a lot of macho posturing involved in common bullying and most concepts of macho and masculinity include being able to "take it." In playground bullying, the bully is willing to shrug off a few blows as long as the game is fixed. This why Hannity is comfortable inviting waterboarding. He knows that it will be only for a few seconds only and that, if he can grit his teeth and tough it out, he will not only win his political point, he will enhance his masculine reputation, a goal that I'm sure is dear to his heart.

This brings us to the second reason why waterboarding Hannity would be a bad idea. The only possible conditions under which it could be done are not torture – they are reality teevee.* Waterboarding Hannity for charity would not be torture it would be a cheap stunt and nothing more. A torture victim is in the exact same position as a bullying victim.** Powerlessness and uncertainty are necessary for torture techniques to rise to the level of actual torture. A torture victim is not only physically powerlessness, he has no idea of the course or outcome of events. He does not know when the torture will happen, what kind of torture will be used each time, how long each session will continue, or whether the torturers will continue until he is crippled, brain damaged, or dead. Even if he gives the torturers everything they want, the victim cannot be sure that the torture will ever stop.

What Hannity and Olbermann are talking about is not torture. It is a situation in which Hannity gets to set the time and place. Hannity will know that it's only for a short time. Hannity knows that no one will allow permanent harm to come to him and that, if he becomes emotionally overwhelmed, the process will stop. And Hannity knows here will be a large payoff for going though with it. Anyone can endure discomfort and pain if we have some control over it and knows when it will end. In the smallest sense, we go through this every time we allow the doctor to stick a needle in us. No one would call getting a shot torture. But if we didn't know whether the doctor was going to keep sticking needles into us, if we had no idea when someone was going to grab us and carry us off to have more needles stuck into us, if we had no idea how deeply the next needles would be stuck or whether they would blind or cripple us – that would be torture. When G. Gordon Liddy held his hand over a flame to impress and intimidate others, that wasn't torture. But if I had thugs hustle him off in the debt of night so I could hold his hand over a flame, with no guarantee that I would stop before his hand was reduced to charred stumps of bone – that would be torture.

If Hannity takes Olbermann up on his offer, it will be because Hannity recognizes all of this. He will realize that he has inadvertently suckered Olbermann into a losing game. Hannity will go in to it knowing that all he has to do is grit his teeth for ninety seconds of terror. At the far end of the tunnel he gets to humiliate Olbermann and come off as a tough guy. His few moments of bravado will give great comfort to American conservatives and to torturers everywhere. Make no mistake, every torturing regime on the planet would watch this stunt with profound interest. If Hannity pulled it off, not only would American conservatives have evidence to argue that "harsh interrogation techniques" are not torture, totalitarian regimes everywhere would use his stunt make the same claim about their tortures. Torturers would be able to use the prestige of the United States as cover for their crimes even as that prestige was dramatically diminished. The anti-torture cause would be dealt a blow that would take a generation to repair.

Words have consequences and Grodin and Olbermann's challenges, made with the best of intentions, could have almost unimaginably horrible consequences. Torture is serious business. Treating it like a reality teevee challenge diminishes that seriousness. Lets hope Hannity really is as much of a physical coward as O'Donnell predicted. If he isn’t, a lot of innocent people will be in for a world of hurt.

* I admit that reality teevee is torture for many viewers, but it isn't torture for the participants; it's masochism.
** And yes, I am saying that bullying is the same as torture – exactly the same. The enabling attitude of too many grown-ups who shrug off bullying as "boys will be boys" or some such nonsense is exactly the same attitude that allows too many people to shrug off torture as no worse than fraternity hazing or acceptable as long as it doesn't cause too much permanent physical damage.

Update: Good morning C&Lers and Pharanguloid hordes. Thanks for dropping by to check out my tortured logic. Help yourself to the watered down coffee and stale cookies and be sure to pick up our brochure on your way out.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??*

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, in 1718, a member of the French Academy, the Abbé Henrion, wrote that, as a consequence of Eve's original sin, there had been a progressive reduction of the height of man since the time of Adam. Conservatives in all ages find a way to blame icky girls for their shortcomings. According to Henrion's calculations Adam was 124 feet high, Noah 104, Abraham 28, Moses 13, Alexander the Great 6, Julius Caesar 5, and the Abbé himself was no bigger than your thumb and slept in a snuff box. Okay, I made up that last part. Henrion realized that his decidedly non thumb-like stature was a flaw in his scheme that needed to be explained. Fortunately, as a man of the cloth, the good Abbé was able to find solace and answers in his faith. The advent of Jesus, he explained, created a new dispensation during which the shrinkage would halt. For this gift he thanked Providence.

But was it a gift or was Henrion being shortsighted? A big population that was smaller would be better than small population that was bigger. If we were tiny we could have all the benefits of a large productive workforce without putting as much strain on our resources. In Adam's day a side of beef would have been no more filling than a couple of cocktail wienies are today. But if we were tiny, the Irish famine of the 1840s could have been ended with a bushel of spuds. Sure, there might have been some inconvenience if the domestic animals had stayed the same size, but that wouldn't have been an insurmountable problem for our ancestors. The same people who turned timber wolves into chihuahuas wouldn't have had a problem making those schnauzer sized cattle from the Jack-in-the-Box ads. All of the energy a family four uses in a year could be provided by a single lump of coal. We could be completely irresponsible about our carbon footprint for another thousand years before tipping the whole planet into the crapper.

I have a post involving giants coming. It was getting too long, so I cut this digression out.

* We are aware of all science blogging traditions.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I may need some help with this one

Steve Benen at Political Animal points out a bit of Fox News BS* from last week. According to Media Matters:
An April 17 headline posted on TheFoxNation.com -- Fox News' new and allegedly bias-free website -- claimed that the "Taliban Copies Democrat Playbook." The headline linked to an April 16 New York Times article headlined, "Taliban Exploit Class Rifts in Pakistan." In fact, the Times article -- which described insurgency tactics such as roadside bombs -- made no mention of the Democratic Party.

Benen comments picks up the story by pointing out Fox News' hypocrisy** in in this:
This, apparently, is "Fox Nation's" idea of being clever. You see, the Taliban is exploiting class rifts in Pakistan, so the Taliban is necessarily emulating the "Democrat [sic] Playbook." How droll.

But the reason this was of particular interest is because there was one recent instance in which a leading American politician really did want to see a major U.S. political party share a playbook with the Taliban. It wasn't, however, a Democrat -- it was National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who said GOP lawmakers should emulate the Taliban because "they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes."

Let me see if I understand this. Fox News (a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP Big Wurlitzer) thinks the Taliban are using the Democratic playbook. Pete Sessions thinks Republicans should use the Taliban playbook. Does that mean Sessions thinks the Republicans should use the Democratic playbook? The Democratic Leadership Congress thinks the Democrats need to be more like the Republicans who should be imitating the Taliban who are copying the Democrats who... My head hurts. I'm going to go gargle Scotch till the world makes more sense.

* The phrase "Fox News BS" would like to give a big shout out to its friends at the Department of Redundancy Department.
** The phrase "Fox News' hypocrisy" also wants to give a big shout out to its friends at the Department of Redundancy Department.***
*** The Department of Redundancy Department wants nothing to do with this post.

What comes after Fascism?

Saul Anuzis, who lost out to Michael Steele in a bid to become chairman of the GOP, explains the escalation of epithets hurled at President Obama. "Liberal" no longer shocks after thirty years of overuse. "Big spender" has no credibility after eight years of Bush deficits. "Socialist" and even "Communist" no longer scare now that a whole generation has grown up without the Soviet boogyman. "We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago," Anuzis tells the New York Times. The GOP and Fox News needed something bigger to scare voters with, so they turned to Jonah Goldberg's silly book for guidance: "Fascism — everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing."

It's an amazing confession. Anuzis makes no attempt to explain what, if anything, is fascistic about Obama's policies. He doesn't even imply that he believes the policies are in any way fascist. Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Jonah Goldberg might be able to delude themselves into believing it, but it's nothing more than a marketing decision to Anuzis. The Republicans needed a scary name to call Obama, "fascist" still makes people take pause and listen, so "fascist" it is.

If Anuzis' cynicism is stunning, his frankness about his cynicism is doubly stunning — and stunningly stupid. This seems to be a new trend developing among political operatives. They can't seem to resist bragging about their tactics, even though that bragging lets the other side prepare their counter-punch and warns the public about how they are about to be manipulated. It's like a magician telling his audience, "I'm going to wave this shiny thing over here so you won't notice me pulling the dove out of the secret pocket in my coat with my other hand." It's counter-productive for both the magician and the political operative. In show biz, it's career suicide. In politics, it's not only career suicide; it contributes to the public's cynicism and undermines their faith in the electoral system. Democracy needs a certain amount of faith to survive.

Calling the other side fascist is usually a sign that you're a kook, losing the argument, or a kook who's losing the argument. Even when it's technically accurate, it turns off the audience. Left wing debaters have been blowing their credibility away for decades with this tactic; now it's the right wing's turn to do the same. And, when "fascism" doesn't work for them, what will they turn to next? Blood libel?

What the hell is wrong with these people?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The other ten commandments

David, the lesser, Limbaugh makes a ridiculous claim today in his World Nut Daily column.
Much of our Bill of Rights is biblically based, as well, and the Ten Commandments and further laws set out in the book of Exodus form the basis of our Western law.

This is a standing claim of the religious right in their Christian nation narrative and is easily disproved by making even a passing glance at the Ten Commandments. Only two of the commandments have permanently made it into American law (no murder and no stealing) and those two are taboo in all human cultures, not just the Abrahamic ones. As to the rest of the Mosaic law, most of it is in Leviticus, not Exodus, and most of it is not part of American law (eating shrimp and wearing blended fabrics are not against the law in the US). This brings up the question of whether Limbaugh has ever read the Bible and what he thinks the Ten Commandments say.
  1. Thou shalt not make laws respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
  2. Thou shalt not not make laws abridging the freedom of speech nor the freedom of the press.
  3. Thou shalt respect the right of the people peaceably to assemble and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  4. Thou shalt not infringe upon the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
  5. Thou shalt not quarter troops during peacetime in any house without the consent of the owner.
  6. Thou shalt not perform unreasonable searches. Neither shall thou seize without warrant.
  7. Thou shalt not hold a person to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, without first indicting by a Grand Jury. Neither shall thou twice put a person put in jeopardy of life or limb for the same offense. Neither shall thou compel self incrimination.
  8. Thou shalt give speedy and public trial and preserve the right to trial by a jury of peers.
  9. Thou shalt not impose excessive bail or fines. Neither shall thou inflict cruel and unusual punishments.
  10. Thou shalt preserve for the States and the people those rights not delegated to the United States by the Constitution.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

VC Day

James Dobson has admitted defeat in the Culture Wars. As the victors, can we make April 11 a holiday?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Memo to the Tea Party

Didn't you guys pick the wrong symbol for your "grassroots" movement?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The jokes write themselves

From TMP:
It looks like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has now become more careful with her use of the English language. In an interview with NewsMax, Bachmann spelled out in detail what she means when calling for people to be "armed and dangerous" on the issue of cap-and-trade. ... "I want them to be armed with knowledge, so they can be dangerous to the policies of the left."

Michele Bachmann. "Armed with knowledge." I can't wait to see what Rachel, Keith, and Jon have to say tonight.