Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy

James O'Keefe, the wannabe investigative film maker whose cartoonish pimp sting at an ACORN office made him a conservative hero last fall, has been arrested in New Orleans and charged with intent to commit a felony.

O'Keefe's ACORN sting led to a feeding frenzy of conservative attacks on the urban advocacy group. His notoriety from that stunt led to him being invited to speak before the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian group in New Orleans. Promotional materials for the Thursday event hailed him as "a pioneer in the use of new media to drive these kinds of important stories. He will discuss the role of new media and show examples of effective investigative reporting." Monday, O'Keefe and three of his new friends were arrested trying to plant a bug in conservative Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu's office. No doubt this was one of his "examples of effective investigative reporting."

O'Keefe and his co-conspirators entered the Hale Boggs Federal Building wearing green vests, tool belts, and hardhats and told the staffer in Landrieu's office that they were there to fix the phones--a classic gambit used in television and spy movies since long before any of the foursome were born. The unnamed staffer noticed O'Keefe filming the others as they messed around with the phones. After a few minutes, they asked to be shown the main telephone box for the building. Before they could access the box, a General Services Administration employee asked to see their phone company ID. They told the GSA employee, that they had all left their IDs in the car--a gambit familiar to every underage college student who has ever tried to bluff his way into a bar and one that never, ever works. Federal Marshals arrested them a few minutes later.

One of O'Keefe's co-defendants is Robert Flanagan the son of William Flanagan, the acting US. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana. Flanagan's lawyer says his client works for the Pelican Institute. That makes it sound to me like O'Keefe met the other three after his talk and they decided to some documentary film making on the spot. In other words, the whole caper was planned on the spur of the moment, ineptly carried out, and, ultimately, unsuccessful. It could have come right out of the G. Gordon Libby playbook.

Historical sea level fluctuations

A new study from the University of Haifa suggests sea levels might have fluctuated during historical times far more than previously believed. Dr. Dorit Sivan, who supervised the research, writes that an investigation of underwater ruins along the coast of Israel show short term changes of the sea level of almost a meter during the last 2500 years. We are currently near the highest level.
According to Dr. Sivan, the changing sea level can be attributed to three main causes: the global cause – the volume of water in the ocean, which mirrors the mass of ice sheets and is related to global warming or cooling; the regional cause – vertical movement of the earth's surface, which is usually related to the pressure placed on the surface by the ice; and the local cause – vertical tectonic activity. Seeing as Israel is not close to former ice caps and the tectonic activity along the Mediterranean coast is negligible over these periods, it can be concluded that drastic changes in Israel's sea levels are mainly related to changes in the volume of water.

So far, only a press release version of the study has been released. I'd like to see the complete study when it comes out because this short summary leaves me with more questions than answers. The press release only mentions sites along a short stretch of coast (about forty miles) in the eastern Mediterranean. Has Sivan compared these results to records from any other part of the world? Considering that the Jordan River/Dead Sea valley is a rift zone, how can they be sure that local tectonic activity isn't involved? Do temperature records, such as those obtained the Greenland ice cores of pollen found in lake bed strata, support their sequence? For that matter, what is the sequence? Inquiring minds need to know.

Cross posted at Mammoth Tales.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Not my favorite tool

Js-kit won't let me manage my comments because, it says, I don't have a blog. It also won't let me fix it. So far, their new Echo system is vastly inferior to the old Haloscan system. I plan to dump it at the first opportunity.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Internetless for an hour

We felt so lonely and isolated, but we persevered. It was exactly like London during the Blitz.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lost tribes found!! (again)

Israel is to fund a rare genetic study to determine whether there is a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

Historical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a connection, but definitive scientific proof has never been found. Some leading Israeli anthropologists believe that, of all the many groups in the world who claim a connection to the 10 lost tribes, the Pashtuns, or Pathans, have the most compelling case.

The study would be worth any price if it allowed us to tell the Taliban leaders (and their friends) that they are "really" Jews.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Open access isn't the same as free access (#scio10)

There is one point from the discussion following our ScienceOnline2010 presentation that I want to elaborate on. This is the way in which credentialism excludes amateurs. This is a problem that I face.

The internet has made accessible vast amounts of literature for much wider audiences than ever before. Many of the original sources that I have been able to use in my research would not have been available to me just ten years ago. Many early journals existed for only a few years, in very small numbers. To read them, I would have had to travel to major libraries in Europe and the Eastern states, which would have been prohibitively expensive. Once at those libraries, I would have needed to get access to their rare book collections, which would have been very difficult since I lack an institutional affiliation. Because of Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and the efforts of many libraries I can now read these works online and, in may cases, view scans of the actual pages without traveling.

My point about lacking an institutional affiliation is very important. Most of the people at ScienceOnline2010 were associated with some kind of university or research institution. It was so taken for granted that they put it on the name tags, as if the affiliation was part of their name. I'm sure that it is standard practice at all professional conferences to assume the attendees are all in that profession. However, this was not a scientists' conference; it was a science communicators conference and communicators were defined as including bloggers who just happen to like science. Many attendees commented that it would have been useful to put peoples' blog aliases or online avatars on their tags along with their names. However, I didn't hear anyone suggest that these identities should have been put on the tags in place of their affiliations. Lacking an institutional affiliation, I put down Clever Wife's soap business, just to have something to fill in the blank.

My conference badge
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The wonderful era of online access, which I mentioned above, is already facing counter-pressures to close it back up. The attendees were all familiar with the problems of modern scientific journals. They are ungodly expensive to purchase and many libraries don't have all of the relevant titles to their research. Many journals are beginning to address these problems by putting their content online, allowing institutions to purchase subscriptions that give access to the members of that institution wherever they are. That's great for them, but a barrier to everyone else. As an alumnus of the University of Washington, I'm supposed to have the same access privileges to library resources as do current students. The catch is that those privileges do not extend to internet access. To read journals, I have to go to the library. That's not a problem for people who work at the University, but, to someone who does not work there, it means making a special trip to read any given article. In those who do not work on or near a university library, the internet revolution has changed nothing.

Many of the journals who have put their content online do allow laypersons to access their articles, but we have to pay by the article. The prices range from ten to forty dollars per article with no consideration for length. Scientific research articles are usually quite short; one article I want is three pages long and will cost me forty dollars to view. For current research articles, I need to determine if it is relevant to my work without actually seeing it first.

The pay-per-view firewalls deprive an historical researcher of important context. The Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society are a perfect example of this. A few years ago they began posting online scanned images of the pages of their entire run. These were treasure to me. Whenever I went looking for an article, I browsed the entire issue to get an idea of the intellectual context of that one paper. This was not only useful, it was a lot of fun. In my presentation, I mentioned letters from landowners about natural oddities discovered on their land. As recently as the late 1700s, the Proceedings printed letters as trivial as someone finding a turnip in the shape of the Prime Minister's head. Priceless!

Last spring, with the scanning complete, the Society turned management of the digital archives over to JSTOR, a for-profit institution. Most of the attendees at our presentation were not even aware of the change. Because of their institutional affiliations, nothing had changed for them; they simply go online and read whatever they want. For me and people like me, it costs ten dollars for each article and letter unless we make a special trip to the University library.

As I mentioned in the presentation, the professionalization of the scientific world was a great thing in many ways, but, along with breaking down some barriers to the free exchange of ideas, it created new barriers. It divided the scientific world into two classes, active practitioners and passive spectators. Threats and barriers to the free and open access of ideas are not limited to censorship and social pressures; sometimes they are as simple as cost and distance.

An Open History of Science - ScienceOnline2010 (#scio10)

My co-presenter at ScienceOnline2010, Eric Michael Johnson, has already put his part of our show up on his blog, The Primate Diaries. Here is mine. We went in chronological order, which meant I went first.
There weren't very many books during the Middle Ages. We all learned in our high school Western Civ that there wasn't very much literacy then, but what's lees often mentioned is that there wasn't very much to read. The best educated people in Europe could go their entire lives without ever seeing a copy of some of the basic books of their intellectual canon. They knew some of the books only by reputation. For example, there was not a single copy of Ptolemy's Geography in all of Europe until around 1400.

Several events changed this situation. The first was contact with Byzantine and Islamic culture. During the Crusades and after, travelers brought back documents that had been lost to Europe--acquired through honest intellectual contact and wholesale looting--and they brought back new ideas and information that had been discovered by the scientists of Islam. These documents and ideas were given broad distribution by the introduction of paper around 1400 and the invention of the printing press fifty years later. The recovery of lost works of antiquity led many many European thinkers to view their times as a rebirth, or Renaissance, of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome.

Immediately following these developments, Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa, demonstrating that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were connected and that direct contact with Asia was possible, and Columbus ran into the New World while attempting to reach Asia from the other direction. While the political world was dazzled by the commercial possibilities of these discoveries, the intellectual world was stunned by the fact that there was more world than they had ever suspected--more cultures, more species of plants and animals, unknown lands. As some English guy put it:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

This new knowledge had a subversive effect. It meant that the ancient authorities--Aristotle, Galen, Pliny, and the Bible--hadn't known everything. More importantly, it dramatically increased the prestige and importance of leaving the books, going into the field, and looking at things, poking them with sticks, doing experiments, and generating new knowledge. This flood of new knowledge required new means of communication.

Even with paper and the offset printing press, books were still expensive to produce. There were no publishing houses in the sense that we think of them. There were printers and they wanted be paid up front for their work. Experimenters and explorers needed rich patrons or to be rich themselves to share their knowledge in book form. Some intellectuals could afford to have cheap pamphlets printed, but the main means of disseminating knowledge was letters. Letters, of course, are as old as writing, but thinkers in the late Renaissance turned letter writing into a means of knowledge distribution unlike anything that had ever existed. an international community, dedicated to the free knowledge grew up that called itself the Republic of Letters. Members of the Republic were expected to share information without regard for politics or religion, to contribute to a discussion, and to pass it on.

An extreme example of membership in the Republic of Letters is Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc who wrote around 14,000 letters in his lifetime and formed something of a central clearing house for new ideas on all topics. To put that in perspective, 14,000 letters means a letter a day for the entire forty years of his productive adult life. These were not short notes of the "Dear Grandma, thank you for the dollar on my birthday, having a wonderful time in Paris and making new friends, love, Nicky." These were meaty letters, multiple pages, dealing with substantial topics.

By the mid 1600s, this model of knowledge distribution had matured. In places like London, Paris, Florence, and Amsterdam enough intellectuals lived to create informal societies with regular meetings. The logical next step was to bundle their letters into small books that they called "journals", to distinguish them from "gazettes"--local news-sheets--and "mercuries"--news and shipping reports from abroad. The Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society, still one of the most prestigious scientific journals in Europe, began publication in 1665. Because books were mostly printed in small runs of only a few hundred at a time, an important function of journals was to write reviews, which were more like abstracts than critiques. It was only later in the century that reports on experiments and research began to fill the majority of the pages of journals. The early journals also featured theology and speculation about systems of the universe. Again, it wasn't until the end of the century that fully scientific societies with scientific journals evolved from their generalized predecessors.

Entry into the early journals was, in a way, much easier than now. The barriers between the individual scientific disciplines had not solidified nor had the fields become professionalized. Though the class system presented some barriers, there was nothing like the credentialism that exists today. Virtually any literate person could participate by mail in any discussion. As late as the early nineteenth century, the most prestigious journals regularly printed letters from landowners about their experiments in animal breeding or some natural oddity they had discovered on their property. In those days before public libraries and easily accessible university libraries, the gentlemen who received letters, pamphlets, and journals were almost honor bound to pass them around and let others read them.

The free and open exchange of ideas envisioned by the Republic of Letters and the first journals was an ideal that was not always attained in practice. Then as now, many researchers would jealously guard their work in hopes of producing an irrefutable synthesis before unveiling it to the world. Then as now, the powers that be were made uneasy by new ideas. The majority of powers had no problem suppressing any ideas that they didn't understand. The inquisition, though not as powerful as it had been two centuries earlier, was still in business and could order all copies of a book destroyed and compel an author to make a humiliation public recantation of his ideas. Following the rule of unintended consequences, they feared that all new ideas had the potential to undermine the established order. With Church and monarchy poised to come down on their heads, experimenters often practiced self-censorship. The same "better safe than sorry" attitude practiced by the powers was practiced by the thinkers. with a two tier stratification into members and correspondents.

The nineteenth century brought an increased professional to the sciences that created new barriers. Credentials in a particular field, while recognizing a persons proficiency in that field, could also be viewed as excluding them from other fields. Professionalism, credentialism, and the rise of a popular scientific press separate from the professional press turned most of the growing educated classes into mere spectators to science. The era of the polymath, gentleman experimenter were numbered and were clearly over by World War One. Rather than self-funded, science came to be paid for by industry, government, or by universities that were themselves paid for primarily by industry or government. These entities had their own motivations for restricting participation in and access to the results of science.

Eric's part was very professionally done with slides matching his narration. Mine was a more old fashioned, history professor presentation with me staying in one place, lecturing (I had an attack of tremors and was trying to steady myself by keeping one hand on the lectern. It didn't work).

About a minute into my presentation I looked out on the audience and could see that they were united by a single thought, "why is the nervous guy talking about the Renaissance?" I like to think that later I saw a few lights go on as they began thinking, "so that's where that came from" and "I never thought of it that way." I think Eric's presentation the importance of an open society for scientific progress and the pressures of twentieth century governments to monopolize and classify information made some of my historical background make better sense.

Dr. Free-Ride (AKA Janet Stemwedel) live-tweeted the session and picked up some of the points from the discussion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Settling back in

I'm working my way through my post-conference checklist.
  • Spend quality time with Clever Wife and the cats. Check.
  • Sleep. Check.
  • Fix decent meal for clever wife. Check.
  • Blog something about the conference. Check.
  • Sign up for Twitter. Check.
  • Launch the second blog. Check.
  • Talk to doctor about medication misfires. Check.
  • Write thank-you notes to some of the nice people I met (i.e. networking). In progress.
  • Reformat and revise my article for Open Lab 2009. In progress.
  • Get back to work on the book. Oh, yeah, the book...

Cognitive daily closes shop

The premier psychology blog in the SciBlog borg, Cognitive Daily, just announced that today is their final day. Dave and Greta Munger began posting five years ago today and have been a constant source of interesting information and experiments/tests. I was lucky enough to meet Dave at ScienceOnline2010 this weekend (Greta always seemed to be on the other side of the room or talking to someone). Dave promises to keep a presence online with other projects, but Gerta plans to commit all of her time to her teaching job at Davidson College. That's good for her students, but bad for us. Get over there and say goodbye.

A league of their own

A new league is being started for white guys who couldn't hack it in pro sports. Rush Limbaugh might get to own a team, after all.
The All-American Basketball Alliance announced in a news release Sunday evening that it intends to start its inaugural season in June and hopes Augusta will be one of 12 cities with a team.

"Only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play in the league," the statement said.


Don "Moose" Lewis, the commissioner of the AABA, said the reasoning behind the league's roster restrictions is not racism.

"There's nothing hatred about what we're doing," he said. "I don’t hate anyone of color. But people of white, American-born citizens are in the minority now. Here’s a league for white players to play fundamental basketball, which they like."

Lewis said he wants to emphasize fundamental basketball instead of "street-ball" played by "people of color." He pointed out recent incidents in the NBA, including Gilbert Arenas' indefinite suspension after bringing guns into the Washington Wizards locker room, as examples of fans' dissatisfaction with the way current professional sports are run.

"Would you want to go to the game and worry about a player flipping you off or attacking you in the stands or grabbing their crotch?" he said. "That’s the culture today, and in a free country we should have the right to move ourselves in a better direction."

We all know that people without color, especially of the Southern persuasion, never cary guns into inappropriate places and that young white men, during their peak years of testosterone production, never flip anyone off, brawl with the spectators, or grab their crotches. All we need to do is look to ice hockey to know that this is true.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Apres Ted le deluge

Former nude model and family values Republican Scott Brown just won Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate. Even if we count Joe Lieberman as a Democrat, and I don't see why we should, this cuts the Democratic majority down to a "mere" fifty nine seats. My first instinct is to say, turn the lights off and send the Senate home; nothing more is going to be accomplished. But that's a much too optimistic way of viewing it. As long as we have Democrats like Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson in the Senate, the Republicans should be able to get a majority for anything they want.

Mammoth Tales: the blog

I have been thinking for a while about starting another blog. I began to think about this as I read about the advantage of an online presence for promoting a book. My idea was not to create a blog only about the book, but one that was less political, more sciency, and to perhaps limit the smart-assery a bit (but only a bit). Everything I learned at the ScienceOnline2010 conference tells me this is the right way to go. The biggest lesson of the conference, in this respect, was "stop goofing off and get it on line." That said, I'm proud to present Mammoth Tales.

As I just said, Mammoth Tales will be less political and more sciency than archy. It will be less of an all purpose blog than archy. Still

In politics, my editorial policy will be to exclude politics that aren't relevant to the larger theme of the blog. Politics, like religion, can be a distraction from a business' primary purpose. How often do we hear conservatives complain about how a celebrity's off stage liberal politics ruin their enjoyment of that celebrity's performances? How often are non-believers turned off by businesses that advertise the owner's religion? I am very strongly opinionated in my politics. If you hadn't noticed that, go back over archy's with a carefully critical eye. I don't want to unnecessarily annoy my other audiences.

It is not my intention for Mammoth Tales to be all mammoths all the time. I intend to use the site for anything I write that is related to science including science journalism, science education, history of science (and maybe a little plain old history). I plan to do more linking to stories that I find interesting, even if I don't have much to add to the stories. I also plan to us more capital letters in the titles.

For the time being, Mammoth Tales post will probably be not much more than a subset of archy posts. I'll cross post anything from archy that fits the editorial slant of the new blog. I'm thinking about a model in which I give some science news a short post in archy and a longer treatment in Mammoth Tales. We'll see how that works out. I plan to repost many of my old mammoth posts from archy and add updates to a few. I hope that makes it interesting enough that archy readers will want to check out both blogs from time to time and, on occasion, flip back and forth between the two driving up the hit meter on both.

Finally, be patient, the new blog isn't very pretty yet (it is nothing more than an off the shelf Blogger template). I still need to populate the blogroll and make a compelling logo. That comes later. the important thing is to get the site up and running and to put some words on it for you to read. As the old cockroach wrote:

are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not

I hope it is.

Absorbed into the social networking Borg

At ScienceOnline2010 I discovered that, however well wired I may look in some contexts--say, among my older relatives--I am a Luddite among science bloggers. I took notes on paper. Everyone tweeted, except me. I live on the Internet. I'm practically a senior citizen among bloggers. I even took a tentative dip into Facebook last fall. But, I don't do mobile very well. I don't carry a cell phone unless I have a special need for one at that minute. Even when I do carry one, I usually have it turned off. I don't know how to text on the phone we have. With my eyesight and lack of manual dexterity, I'm not sure I could text even if I did know how. I'm giving in on the next step into the connected world, I just signed up for Twitter. I'm archymck. Like Facebook, I'm not quite sure how to integrate this into my life in a useful way (and not as another gigantic time suck). Tips, tricks, and followers are welcome.

Monday, January 18, 2010

scio10 We're back

I got home at about eleven last night after a seven hour flight and sixty dollar cab ride. Clever Wife met me with hugs and chocolate cake. Then I slept for eleven hours. One more cup of coffee, and I'll feel normal (though I should aspire for something better than that).

The flights were safe and on time. On the way, I read most of the way (Anthony Grafton's Defenders of the Text) and took a short nap over North Dakota (Minnesota and Montana residents can insert their own joke here). On the first leg of the trip back I read Sydney Perkowitz's Hollywood Science. The book was an easy enough read that I expected to finish it on the second leg. Instead I sat next to a man who was so interesting that we talked non-stop the entire trip. Fortunately for her, the young woman sharing the row with us was listening to her Ipod so she didn't have to put up with two geezers bonding.

Every session at the conference was interesting and I got something of use out every single one. I'll post separately about some of the sessions. The socializing and networking went better than expected. I'm naturally rather shy, though I can be a crashing bore when I come out of my shell. I think I managed to stay in the middle most of the time. I must have done something right, I just received a friend request in Facebook.

I had one technical glitch. I took our spare cellphone and skipped taking the camera thinking I could use the phone and it would be one less thing to carry around. Then I discovered that the camera in the spare phone doesn't have a flash. There will be no pictures except those others send me (which probably won't be of me at my best).

The biggest problems for me were medication related. I've reached the age where I have multiple prescriptions. I'm bit of a physical mess. between us, Clever Wife and I have something like eleven prescriptions. I had at least one unpleasant reaction each day, each one worse that the previous. The first day, I went to a session on graphic tools and found my eyes so dry that I couldn't focus (naturally the eye drops were back at the hotel). On day two, I had an attack of tremors during my presentation (I'll post the presentation later today or tomorrow). The last day, when I should have been running around trying to make my best impression for some last minute networking, I had an attack of tremors so bad that I couldn't eat with a fork at lunch. If there hadn't been finger food, I would have gone hungry. It was only at the airport that I realized I had taken a second dose of the morning pills the night before and was going through violent withdrawal from the night pills. When I popped a night pill, the tremors were gone in twenty minutes. At home, I have avoided this by using a daily pill box. I understood that TSA regulations required me to carry all of my pills in the pharmacy labeled bottles, so I left the pill box at home. Let's call that one a learning experience.

Now, I have to check my Luddite paper notes from the conference and try to put everything I learned into action. I need to get over my Twitter aversion and join the noise. I started tinkering on a more specifically blog a while back; I need to finish it and get it online. I need to send letters to the people I chatted with (networking, you know). I need to get an agent for the book. I need to work on my elevator speech. I need to do the laundry from the trip. I need to get a new sport's jacket because the old one is getting really ratty even though I've only been wearing it for nine years. I need to get some groceries and fix Clever Wife a nice dinner. I need to make it up to the cats. Blah blah blah. And so on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Southward bound

this is it
less than a day to go
i hope you re packed
i have my stateroom
all fitted out
i found a nice place
in one of your jacket pockets
underneath a couple of a t m receipts
and next to a very old bus pass
i made a nice nest out of
the tooth picks from
grocery store cheese samples
it s not only comfy
but it provides
all the in flight smacks
a cockroach could desire

let s get this show
on the road

yee haw

Monday, January 11, 2010

The bug and the blogger meet the scientists


i m looking forward
to our big trip
to north carolina

great uncle archy
was a world traveller
he went to france
after the war to end all war
to watch them put together
the peace that ended all peace
he hung out with ghosts in london
and tourists in hollywood
oh the stories he used to tell

me i ve never been
east of aurora blvd
or north of the late lamented
larry s market

you re not much better
oh sure you visited serbia
to chat with an old revolutionist
and went to leningrad
to look at the icons
but you ve only seen
the upper left hand corner
of your own country

we both need a change
let s pack our grips
and hop a plane
back east and down south
to rub shoulders
with the science set
you don t have to tell them
you were a history major

we can see
if they finally
ended prohibition
in the bible belt
but only in the interests
of scientific research
of course

Bad history about Finland

Stupid never sleeps. Therefore, we must remain ever vigilant and never let down our guard. For if we do, stupid will slip into our world, unrecognized and unmocked. Sadly, I let my guard down last May (I think I was taking a nap that day) and the stupid escaped from its box. Luckily, Sadly, No! noticed something on Media Culpa that resurrected the stupid from the pages in MacLean's magazine. First some background.

The town of Tampere, Finland has a small museum dedicated to the life of Lenin (not Lennon, the Beatle, Lenin, the Commie). Lenin has a few connections with Tampere and Finland in general. During the failed 1905 revolution, Lenin stopped in Tampere on his way to Russia. In those days, Finland was ruled by the Russian tsar, but not considered part of Russia proper. He was met there by a group of Russian Communists, including Stalin. It was their first meeting and Lenin wasn't especially impressed. During the next revolution, March 1917, Lenin again passed through Tampere on his way to Russia. Once again that whole revolution thing didn't work out so well and Lenin returned to Finland, wearing a devilishly clever disguise, and hid out for a couple of weeks. The third time Lenin returned to Russia for a revolution, October 1917, it was a roaring success. Three weeks later, Lenin recognized Finland's independence from Russia. That's about it for Lenin's connections to Finland and Tampere.

Lenin's disguise, clean shaven and a wig

What brought the Lenin Museum to the attention of Susan Mohammad, the Maclean's reporter, was a minor brouhaha over public funding for the museum. Some local conservative political groups, who didn't like the results of Lenin's last revolution, want to make the museum an anti-Lenin museum and rename it the "Museum of the Victims of Totalitarianism." By "totalitarianism" they only mean Lenin's kind and not the kinds practiced by Hitler, Franco, various Latin American Caudillos, Ayatollah Khomeini, or the Plymouth Colony. In an attempt to demonstrate why some Finns would think Lenin was a bad man, Mohammad wrote the following sentence:
[A]bout 10 million Finns died under Lenin, almost half due to starvation.

Lenin ruled Finland for a little over three weeks in 1917, which is not enough time for most people to starve to death unless they're locked up indoors. The population of Finland during those three weeks was around three million, a number that is considerably smaller than ten million (but you already knew that). The collectivization famine, engineered by Stalin, five years after Lenin's death, did kill up to ten million people in Ukraine and South Russia. The only resemblance between that atrocity and what Susan Mohammad claims is that it both involved foreign people and both were the fault of a half Russian guy whose nickname ended in -in.

Despite having Mohammed's fantasy pointed out to them, the MacLean's editors have never issued a correction. The Finns had a good laugh over the article. One paper asked the questions "how [could] Lenin have pulled off the feat of exterminating us three times over, and ... who is living here now?" We should join in the fun, because it's never too late to point and laugh at stupid.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Is this a Southern thing?

I'm heading to the Carolinas next week and want to be up on the local customs.
A South Carolina man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing an $80 slab of meat. ... Prosecutors said the sentence was justified because the Aug. 26 theft from Reid's grocery store in Orangeburg was his ninth offense.

Authorities said when a store manager approached Zachary about the missing New York strip and the big bulk under his shirt, he fled, right into the arms of an off-duty police officer.


Zachary testified he was "massaging" the meat, not stealing it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Bad, badder, and baddest science

Fox News may have just published what will prove to be the stupidest science article of the year. Several science bloggers have already written about this, but the article is so wrong it deserves attention by a wider audience. This is the opening of the offending, and unsigned, piece:
The tremendous volcanic eruption thought to be responsible for Earth's largest mass extinction — which killed more than 70 percent of plants and dinosaurs walking the planet 250 million years ago — is still taking lives today.

Scientists investigating the high incidence of lung cancer in China's Xuan Wei County in Yunnan Province conclude that the problem lies with the coal residents use to heat their homes. That coal was formed by the same 250-million-year-old giant volcanic eruption — termed a supervolcano — that was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Except for the fact that there is a high incidence of lung cancer in Xuan Wei, everything about these sentences is wrong.
  • The dinosaurs did not go extinct 250 million years ago; dinosaurs did not exist 250 million years ago. An extinction event did occur 250 million years ago. It is usually called the End Permian event. At that time, over ninety percent of all sea life went extinct, including the trilobites, and around seventy percent of all land species went extinct. Just as the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, cleared the field for mammals to evolve, the End Permian extinction cleared the field for dinosaurs to evolve.
  • Volcanoes do not make coal. Period.
  • The Permian was not ended by the eruption of a supervolcano. Supervolcano is the popular name for an extraordinarily large caldera collapse. These events pump enormous amounts of ash into the atmosphere. The land downwind from a collapse can be buried under hundreds of feet of ash, killing all life and probably causing some extinctions. Globally, the amount of ash that lingers at high altitudes is enough to cause a sudden drop in temperatures that continues for years. If the right background conditions are in place, it is enough to trigger an ice age.
  • The volcanic event that coincided with the End Permian extinction was the deposit of flood basalts in what is now Siberia. Flood basalts are lakes of lava that are deposited by slow-motion eruptions through a series of fissures that form over a large area, rather than single vents like more familiar volcanoes. Flood basalts events that can last millions of years. The flatlands of Eastern Washington are a flood basalt deposit that took over six million years to form.

The anonymous Fox News writer was trying to summarize a recent paper about a cancer cluster in a small area of southern China. The authors of the paper have discovered that the low grade coal used for cooking and heating in Xuan Wei contains a much higher amount of silica than coal anywhere else in the world. Exposure to crystalline silica, which most commonly comes from cutting and grinding rock, causes inflammation and scaring in the lungs, a condition called silicosis.

The coal used domestically in Xuan Wei comes from three seams that were laid down in the late Permian. The uppermost seam, the one that was laid down closest to the time of the Siberian flood basalts and the End Permian extinction, contains the highest amount of small grain silica. The researchers found that the silica was added to the coal after if formed, probably carried in by groundwater. As a source for the silica, they point to a local layer of flood basalts, the Emeishan basalts, which were laid dawn about ten million years before the End Permian extinction. natural erosion of these basalts would have made the ground water high in silica. Later the eruption of the Siberian basalts would have added silica to the atmosphere, which, carried by water, would have added more silica to the already silica rich coal.

The paper is a great piece of detective work aimed at locating the source of an extremely tight cancer cluster. The women of Xuan Wei get lung cancer at a rate twenty times the Chinese average. However, the solution to the mystery has nothing to do with supervolcanoes and nothing to do with dinosaurs. The mystery of how those got into the story probably has more to do with a scientifically illiterate intern trying to tie a fairly dry scientific paper to two far more exciting and popular topics. Chris Rowan has traced the lede sentence, to a press release issued by the American Chemical Association, with one very significant change. This suggests the possibility that the Fox writer did not read beyond the release and maybe the paper's abstract. Sadly, most of the people who read the Fox article will never know just how wrong it is.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Hey baby, wanna get lucky?

Who would have thought that line still worked (or that it ever did).
A truck driver, who claimed to be a Taoist master, has been convicted of duping a young model into having sex with him. He will be sentenced later this month, following a psychiatric report. The [Hong Kong] District Court heard during the trial that Au Yeung Kwok-fu had used false pretenses to trick a 19-year-old girl into have sex with him nine times since 2007, by telling her that this would improve her luck. He also claimed his so-called supernatural powers would prevent her from getting pregnant. Judge Stanley Chan said the victim was a simple-minded person with little experience of life. He said this had led her to have sexual intercourse with the defendant, leaving her pregnant and seeking an abortion. The judge rejected suggestions that the sex was part of a Taoist ritual, and that it could have had any effect in changing the victim's luck. He will hand down his sentence on January 21.

Joe Lieberman coddles terrorists

I was shocked, shocked to find out that Joe Lieberman (CT - himself) thinks we should go easy on terrorists. How else can we interpret this:
You could not find a better, more humane facility for a detention center in the world.

That's how he describes Guantanamo Bay. It's the nicest prison in the world. The prisons on the mainland are nastier than Gitmo and he wants to prevent the accused maybe-terrorist like people from being sent there. What else do you think we should do to make their lives easier, Joe? Send them personal valets to bring them pina coladas by the pool? I don't think so!! These people are the worst of the worst. They managed to take a mighty nation that defeated King George, Santa Anna, Kaiser Wilhelm, and the Berlin Wall and turn us into a nation of bed-wetters who cry "please shred the Bill of Rights" every time the alarm is raised to orange*. They need to punished for that! Their neighbors denounced them for money and that should be proof enough that they are bad, evil, icky men who deserve to be taken out of that tropical paradise and put behind the cold, gray, esthetically unpleasing walls of built-in-America prisons. I suppose next Joe will be saying he doesn't want to inconvenience them with long, boring trials!!! Enough is enough! Send the prisoners here; they deserve it.

* Gag stolen from Comrade PhysioProf.