Saturday, October 30, 2010

My election predictions

I might as well make my predictions and set myself up for ridicule and humiliation. The short version is that I think the Democrats will loose at least six seats, but hang on to a narrow majority in the Senate. I haven't watched enough individual races to predict a number, but my sense is that the Republicans will carve out a narrow majority. The result will be total gridlock, two years of burnt-earth tactics by the Republicans that will make this year look like the very model of collegiality, too much grandstanding by Joe Lieberman, and even more noise from the Tea Party (though not necessarily under that name).

First the Senate. Thirty-seven seats are holding elections; sixty-three are not. Of the seats not up for election, thirty-eight are Democrats, two are independents who caucus with the Democrats, and twenty-three are Republicans. Nineteen Democratic seats are up for election and eighteen Republican. Normally, that would look good for the Democrats, but this isn't a normal year.

The Democrats will definitely loose two seats (Arkansas and North Dakota). There are four Republican seats where Democrats have a chance (Alaska, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire), but these are all fairly conservative states, so I'm not counting on any of them. The remaining fourteen Republican seats are all safe for them to keep. Of the remaining seventeen Democratic seats, I'll call seven safe (Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, two in New York, Oregon, and Vermont). That means the best the Democrats can hope for is to see their majority from drop fifty-nine to fifty-seven.

What about the other ten Democratic seats? There are four that I'd say look good for Democrats (California, Connecticut, Washington, and West Virginia), though all are closer that they should be. Two look good for the Republicans (Wisconsin and Indiana). At this point, we have a Senate of forty-five Republicans, forty-nine Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and four seats that are toss-ups (Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and Pennsylvania). Nate Silver, who had the best record for calling races in the last election, gives the Republicans the advantage in all four races but things are pretty volatile right now. For the moment, I'll split the difference on those and say the Democrats rally enough to save two of those seats, probably Illinois and Nevada.

The House is pretty obscure to me. I can only speak in vague generalities. There are 435 seats in the House. Democrats currently hold 255, Republicans 178, and two are vacant. All of them are up for election. It takes at least 218 to make a majority. That means the Republicans need to gain exactly forty seats to gain a majority. Most pollsters say the Republicans will gain a narrow majority. The question is, how narrow? Today I'll say very narrow, no more than ten seats.

Both parties are working on their get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. In addition, Republicans have some pretty aggressive voter intimidation efforts going in a few states. Some states will drag out the decision for weeks after the election and some will result in lawsuits (Alaska will have both). It's cliche to say that turnout is what really decides the election, but this year that's more true than usual. The far right is very mobilized and the left is very discouraged. I see three wild cards in polling and turnout.

First, cell phones have made polling less dependable than it sued to be. Polling under-represents cell phone users who tend to be minorities and well wired white folk. Both of those groups lean Democratic. Pollsters try to correct for such things, but their corrections are just guesses. Nate Silver doesn't actually poll; he interprets other people's polls so his predictions will depend on how well the pollsters make their corrections. Second, while the Tea Partiers are motivated as all git out, many of them have previously been non-voters. I haven't seen any information on whether their enthusiasm has been converted into a wave of new voter registration. Third, the "unmotivated" left is very scared by the Tea Party. All of the polling has assumed that we will not vote. That could change over the last few days before the election.

The the short version is this: Democrats will keep a thin majority in the Senate and Republicans will gain a thin majority in House.

Next: what comes after the election.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eek, election shenanigans, call Fox News

Conservatives get very excited each election over the possibility of voting hanky-panky. Therefore I'm sure they will join liberals in loudly denouncing this blatant act of illegal electioneering in Ohio.
McDonald’s sells itself as the ultimate happy place. But this election season, a local McDonald’s franchise in Canton, Ohio is telling employees how to keep the company happy: vote Republican.

Along with their recent paychecks, employees received a pamphlet from their employer on company letter head that stated “as the election season is here, we wanted you to know which candidates will help our business grow in the future.” While pointing out that the vote is the employee’s “personal decision,” the pamphlet explicitly states, "if the right people are elected we will be able to continue with raises and benefits at or above our present levels. If others are elected we will not."

In explicitly endorsing gubernatorial candidate John Kasich (R), Senate candidate Rob Portman (R), and House candidate Jim Renacci (R), the pamphlet — which was directly inside the envelope with the paycheck — appears to directly violate Ohio Revised Code regarding elections:

"No employer or his agent or a corporation shall print or authorize to be printed upon any pay envelopes any statements intended or calculated to influence the political action of his or its employees..."

To be clear, this was a local franchise that did this, not corporate McDonalds. So far the home office has not commented.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Irony, still not dead

Last week, Charles Wilson, who repeatedly threatened to kill Sen. Patty Murray because she voted for the healthcare bill, was sentenced to one year in prison, where he will get taxpayer-funded, government healthcare.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'm not part of the elite after all

The selective use of the word "elite" as an insult is a pet peeve of mine, as I'm sure it is for all of us in the elite. In response to an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by Charles Murray (author of the appalling Bell Curve), Claire Berlinski has created a quiz to identify who belongs in the "elite", as defined Murray's use of the word.
1. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" No.

2. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" No.

3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" No.

4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? No.

5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? No.

6. How about pilates? I know it's an exercise program, but not what it entails.

7. How about skiing? No.

8. Mountain biking? No.

9. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? No.

10. Does the acronym MMA mean nothing to you? Yes.

11. Can you talk about books endlessly? Yes.

12. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? No.

13. How about a Harlequin romance? Yes, when I worked in a book store.

14. Do you take interesting vacations? Very rarely.

15. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? No.

16. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? I don't even know where that is.

17. Would you be caught dead in an RV? I've been caught alive in one.

18. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? I can't afford to go on a cruise ship.

19. Have you ever heard of of Branson, MO? Yes.

20. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? No.

21. How about the Rotary Club? No.

22. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town? Depends on your definition of small. Does Idaho Falls, ID count?

23. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? I never polled them, but probably yes.

24. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? Yes, if I count as a family.

25. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? I don't have very many close friends at all, but I do have friends who are.

26. Have you ever visited a factory floor? Yes. I'm counting a fish processing ship as a factory.

27. Have you worked on one? Yes.

You're a member of the elite if you answered yes on 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14 or no on any of the others. I get an elite score of seven out of twenty-seven. I guess that makes me a non-elite, real American, just like the millionaire media personalities on Fox.

We could go on and on about all the things that are wrong with Murray's article, but I'll hand this over to you guys for now. How did you do?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The rare mountain mammoth

Last Thursday, Jesse Steele, a heavy equipment operator from Grand Junction, CO, was working on a job to enlarge the little reservoir that provides Snowmass Village with its water. As he pushed some earth into a pile where it would be loaded into dump trucks for removal, he noticed what appeared to be a rib rolling over the blade of his bulldozer. As a matter of fact, bulldozers rarely doze actual bulls, but that was Steele's first thought. Perhaps he had uncovered the bones of a cow or a buffalo. He and some other workers were curious enough that they poked around in the dozed up dirt. What they found were bones that were too big and strange for any local fauna they were familiar with. They passed word up the food chain and by Saturday they knew that they had a mammoth. The water utility threw a fence around the site to keep the bones safe for an orderly excavation.

Mammoth bones are found all the time. Hundreds show up in Siberia each year and a dozen or so in the US. This one is special for two reasons. First it might be almost intact. Most dead animals are picked apart by scavengers, the bones carried away or scattered. Those that stay on the surface decompose. Most of the buried ones eventually erode out and fall apart. Usually when we find the remains of a prehistoric animal, we find only a few bones or fragments of bones. Steele's bulldozer uncovered one side of a young mammoth and the experts from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science believe the rest of the skeleton is still in the ground there. They are still in the first stages of examining the site. It will probably be weeks before they know for sure.

The second interesting thing about this mammoth it that it was found at 8000 feet in the mountains. Elephants can handle some pretty rough terrain, but they aren't mountain goats. A mammoth would have gone where the food is. Mountain meadows would have had some pretty tasty grazing in the summer. But how much food could there have been at that altitude during the end of the ice age?

As a side note, the article about the find, by Brent Gardner-Smith, a staff writer for the Aspen Daily News, is an example of excellent science journalism. First off, he avoids sensationalizing the find. He never once claims this find will solve the mystery of mammoth extinction or that it will be cloned. He works in some nice educational background information, mentioning the two species of mammoth, woolly and Columbian. He supplies important tips for future discoverers of fossils (leave them in the ground and don't let them dry out). Writers for the major news outlets could learn a lot from this small town writer.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Red flag over Luna

I grew up during the space race. I remember watching every satellite launch on television, holding my breath for the first Americans in space, and sitting out one cold night to watch a real satellite pass overhead. I could name all of the astronauts. I built plastic models of capsules, rockets, and satellites. I mourned for Apollo 1, cheered Apollo 8, and held my breath for Apollo 13. But the space race wasn't just the United States rushing into the starry yonder; it was a race against an opponent: the fearsome Soviet Union.

To us civilians, the other side was something of a mystery. We knew they were a powerful and formidable adversary. At the end of WWII, they collected their German scientists and we collected ours. Both sides set their Germans to work doing sciency things that would eventually lead to one of us beating the other and conquering the stars. Yes, the reality was a lot more complicated than that, but that was how things were portrayed to this second-grader in a government town. When I was old enough to first understand, the Russians (as we always called the Soviets) were winning. They built the first intercontinental ballistic missile (the R-7 launcher). They put the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1). They put the first animal in orbit (a well-behaved mutt named Laika). They launched the first man to orbit the Earth ( Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1). They sent the first satellite to the moon (Luna 2). They beat us to Venus (Venera 3). They put the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6). The first spacewalk (Alexey Leonov from Voskhod 2). Basically, until the Gemini program began in 1965, they were kicking out butts. When Castro announced the Russians would be putting missiles in Cuba in 1962, it looked like Russian technology was ready to overwhelm and obliterate us.

And then they didn't. We went to the moon and they didn't. We went again and they didn't. We went six times and they never did. We put a lander on Mars and flew past the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and they didn't. Our image of Russia as a serious competitor whose German scientists were just as good as, if not better than, ours slowly faded away. Then the Soviet Union faded away.

The American space program was everywhere during my childhood. The launches were broadcast live on television. Magazines had pictures of the astronauts, the capsules, the rockets, the satellites, the ground crew, and the instruments. After the flights, the capsules toured the country. I built plastic models of all off it. Werner von Braun regularly appeared on the Wonderful World of Disney to explain the American space program to us. By contrast, the Soviets space program was a mystery. Some of that came from our side refusing to give them credit for doing anything except being scary. But most of the mystery came from the Soviets themselves. Launches were not announced in advance and never televised. All we heard were after-the-fact announcements that this or that milestone had been achieved. We had only vague ideas what the hardware looked like and who anyone in the program was except for the successful cosmonauts.

All of which leads me to this. This is the Soviet LK (Lunniy Korabl - Lunar Craft) manned moon lander. The Soviets never publicly talked about it and never released pictures of it. Every thing we know about it has come out since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This lander survives in Moscow Aviation Institute.

The LK was similar in design to the American Lunar Excursion Module, but smaller. The two space programs come up with nearly identical solutions to the problem of putting a man on the moon quickly and on a budget. Two modules were to be launched on a single rocket and docked face to face. Once in lunar orbit, a cosmonaut would enter the landing module for a decent to the surface. After planting a flag and setting up some instruments, the cosmonaut would be launched back into lunar orbit from the landing module. In orbit he would have to reentered the command module. The landing module was to be jettisoned, while the lunar team returned to Earth in the command module. The differences were mostly of size and budget. Only one cosmonaut would have landed on the moon as opposed to the two American astronauts who did during the Apollo missions. There was no direct connection between the landing and command modules; the cosmonaut had to make a spacewalk to move between the two modules. The LEM used one rocket to decent to the lunar surface and another to ascend from it. The LK would have used the same rocket.

None of it ever happened. The LK is a piece of alternate history, a prop for Nixiepunk. But still, it's very cool.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A nice thing about being unemployed...

...or underemployed, or self-employed, or whatever it is that I am is that, when I feel crappy, I don't have to do a cost benefit analysis over whether or not to take part of the day off. I can just lay down for an hour or two.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mystery map, 1710

While looking for a completely different map in the online Siberica collection of the Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, I came across this lovely and puzzling goodie.

Distantia Asiae et Americae (click for larger view)

If you're like me, the first thing you noticed about the map is the sheer beauty of the engraving, the large ships, the symbolic American and Asian natives, and the sea monsters. Next, you probably tried to orient yourself to the strange coastlines. A few familiar names eventually showed up to give you the key you needed. There's California on the left, portrayed as an island. On the right, the large island is labeled Iaponica--Japan. California and Japan, that should have been all you needed to orient yourself and realize... the map is backwards! The mapmaker helpfully included and inset, showing the Eastern Hemisphere, no doubt to help his readers know what part of the world they were looking at, but it's backwards, too. The strangeness of it all sent me scrambling to find out more about the map. This is what I discovered.

The map is entitled "Distantia Asiae et Americae." It is from Geographica politica, volume 7 of Heinrich Scherer's New Atlas, published in Augsburg, Bavaria between 1702 and 1710. The maps were probably prepared in 1699 and 1700 under Scherer's direction, but he didn't live to see the entire Atlas published dying in 1704. The Atlas is highly thought of among historians of cartography because of Scherer's use of thematic maps, such as geologic maps that ignored borders and human settlements in favor of river and mountain systems. The biography of Scherer at tells us that he was a Jesuit and Royal Tutor to the Princely house of Bavaria. He was a very devout Catholic who included a great deal of religious imagery in his maps. Looking at some of his other maps, I could see that that was true. In many, the title covers almost a quarter of the page and features saints, the Madonna, and dramatic scenes of colorful heathens being converted. But no one could tell me why this map is backwards.

Just for the hell of it, let's look at the map itself. We'll start on the left with America. In the far north is Nova Dania, New Denmark, a name given to the northwestern part of Hudson's Bay by Jens Munk when he wintered there in 1619-20. Nova Dania wandered around maps for the next century following various speculations about the Northwest Passage.

Next, moving south is Provincia Luysiana and the river Mesaschipi. At the time Scherer prepared his map, the French province of Louisiana claimed the entire drainage of the Mississippi from the Appalachians to unknown regions to the north and west. On this map the Mississippi reaches almost to the Pacific coast. Between two of its tributaries is, what I believe is, a monkey. South of Louisiana is Novum Mexicum with two lions.

The westmost part of the American mainland is Regnum Anian. The Kingdom of Anian had a long existance on maps of the western and northwestern parts of North America. The name originally appeared in a 1559 edition of Marco Polo as a northern province of China. Anian began appearing on maps in the next decade as the hypothetical straits separating Asia from America. Originally a province on the Asian side, Anian soon moved to the American side. Mercator may have been the first to do this. For the next two hundred years Anian moved around, sometimes a kingdom, sometimes a waterway, but always associated with a passage through the continents. It was the Spanish equivalent of the Northwest Passage.

Across the Mare Vermeio from Anian and New Mexico is the Island of California. When California first appeared on the map in the mid 1500s, geographers knew it was a peninsula and it stayed a peninsula for over a half century. But in 1624 it became an island and stayed that way for almost a century. The Island of California comprised more than just the Baja Peninsula. It often extended over thirty degrees of latitude. Scherer's California extends from around the twentieth parallel, off the left side of the map, to the forty-ninth parallel, the current US-Canadian border. Along its western coast, Cape Mendocino (Northern California) and Cape Blanco (Southern Oregon) are marked. It wouldn't be until the 1720s that California was rejoined to the mainland.

This a good place to mention the lines of latitude and longitude on the map. The main lines are ten degrees apart. Nothing special there. However, there are two extra lines on the map. Forty-eight North is labelled "Parallelus Monacensis" and approximately two-hundred-fourteen East is labeled "Antimeridianus Monacensis." These mark the latitude and longitude of Monachus (Munich) on the other side of the world. If you look at your own map of the world, you'll see that forty-eight North runs just south of Munich, but that thirty-four East (214 minus 180) is nowhere close. Thirty four east runs through the Crimea. What gives?

The use of the Greenwich Meridian as the zero meridian is a fairly recent standard. In the nineteenth century, several countries used some point in their national capitols as the zero meridian for mapmaking. I have some maps of the US that use the Washington meridian and maps using the Paris meridian are easy to come by. But, before the era of nationalism, most of the West used the edge of the known world as the prime meridian. From the time of Ptolemy, that point was the westernmost of the Canary Islands, Ferro, which is eighteen degrees west of Greenwich. The discovery of the Azores in 1431 might have pushed the prime meridian another thirteen degrees west, but the mapmakers of Europe wisely chose to stick with Ferro rather than revise their maps every time some sailor ran aground on a new rock in the Atlantic.

Knowing that we need to correct the lines of longitude by approximately twenty degrees, we can see that Scherer's intelligence on Asia was pretty good. China, Japan, the Marianas, and the mouth of the Amur River are all placed within a few degrees of their actual locations. Further north things begin to fall apart. In 1700, the only Europeans who had visited Northeastern Asia were Russian fur trappers who rarely left records, and the records they did leave had little in the way of scientific observation in them. Scherer's intelligence on the location of the other side of the Pacific is about as good as his intelligence on it's shape. Correcting the longitude, he places Cape Mendocino at 162° W when it should be 140° W.

European geographers had a hard time accepting the existence of so much water on the other side of the world. Earlier mapmakers believed Asia was much larger than it is, leading Columbus to believe he could sail directly west from Spain to reach Japan. After Columbus, many geographers were happy to make North America an extension of Asia. As Jesuits and Dutch merchants brought back new information about the shape of Asia and Spanish Conquistadores about the shape of Central America, European mapmakers filler space in the Pacific by having North America balloon far to the west. Others, while finally accepting that North America could not fill the space, seized on any available rumor to place another land mass between Asia and North America. This brings us to Japan.

At first glance, the blob called Iaponica looks nothing like the Japan that appears on our maps. But, like most old maps, as you look at it and begin to identify the features, you can see that most of the important parts are there. Start near the bend and locate Yedo. That's Tokyo. From there, you can identify the main island of Honshu and details like Yokohama bay, the Chiba Peninsula, Kyushu and Shikoku Islands, and a number of cities. The familiarity ends there. In the north, a narrow isthmus connects Honshu to Iedso and to east of that lies Compagnie Land.

Asianists and map geeks will recognize Iedso as a variant spelling of Ezo, the old name for Hokkiado, the northern island of Japan. Ezo was another geographic mystery to European mapmakers. Most of what Europeans knew about Japan in the seventeenth century came from Jesuits and Dutch merchants who were based in the southern part of the country. In the mid sixteenth century, Jesuits reported the existence of a land north of Japan called Yeco, Jeso, Yedzo, or something similar. No one was sure whether Ezo was an island, part of the Asian mainland, part of North America, or the edge of a large land mass between Asia and America. In the early years of the seventeenth century rumors began to circulate that a Spanish ship, traveling east from the Philippines to Mexico, had been blown off course and discovered a land in the north rich in gold and silver as all unreachable lands were. In later versions, the ship became Portuguese with a captain named Juan de Gama. In some geographer's minds, de Gama's land and Ezo were one and the same. In others, Ezo was a part of the Asian mainland and de Gama's land was a separate land in the North Pacific.

The Dutch East India Company sent Abel Tasman to look for de Gama's land in 1639. He failed and we now have to be satisfied with only one Tasmania. Four years later they sent a second expedition under Maarten Vries to look for the northern Eldorado. Vries reached southern Japan in May 1643 and sailed north, keeping the coast in sight. By early June, Vries had reached Ezo. Because Vries stayed far enough offshore to avoid antagonizing the Japanese, who severely limited their contact with outsiders, he missed the straits separating Honshu from Ezo and Ezo from Kunashir, the first of the Kurile Islands. Vries believed Ezo to be beyond the jurisdiction of the Japanese emperor, which was true. The further north he went, the more comfortable he became with coming in close to examine the shore. In this way, he discovered the straits between Kunashir and Etorofu and between Etorofu and Urup. Vries sailed through the northern strait and explored the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk, reaching the coast of Sakhalin Island before turning east. On his way out of the Sea of Okhotsk, he mapped the western side of Etorofu.

When Vries tried to sum up the geographic knowledge he had gained, he created a map of the eastern side of Ezo that influenced cartographers for the next hundred fifty years. Vries drew the Pacific side of the island fairly accurately though he exaggerated some of the features. He lengthened the eastern end of the island by combining Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islands into a peninsula. Sailing into Okhotsk, he produced an excellent chart of southeastern Sakhalin, which he then attached to the northern part of Ezo. He charted both sides of Etorofu, which he named Staten Eylandt (State Island). It was on Urup where he made his greatest mistake. Although he only saw the tip of Urup, Vries believed it to be the edge of a much larger land mass, possibly even North America. He gave the land the prosaic name of Compagnie Land, claiming it for the Dutch East India Company.

When Scherer began working on his atlas, fifty years after Vries' voyage, the Dutch maps were still the most detailed intelligence available for that part of the world. A half century of speculation by sailors and mapmakers had, in fact, clouded some of the detail brought back by Vries. Compare Scherer's "Iedso" with Jan Janssonius' "Landt van Eso" from his 1652 map of Japan and Korea, one of the first maps to use Vries' report, and a modern satellite image of the area Vries explored.

Detail of Jan Janssonius' 1652 map of Japan and Korea.

Detail of Scherer's map, c. 1710.

Google maps, 2010.

On the Janssonius map, Etorofu is recognizable as Staten Eylandt. The two southeastern capes on Sakhalin, Patience and Aniwa are recognizable and properly oriented. By the time Scherer drew his map, most of that detail had been lost. Etorofu is a generic blob and Capes Patience and Aniwa have lost their shape and rotated ninety degrees. It's odd that Scherer did not avail himself of the original Vries material rather than using inferior later interpretations of it. Japan is obviously important to the purpose of Scherer's map. It's the most detailed part of the map, having more cities marked than the entire rest of the map.

I'll finish here. There are lots of other aspects of the map that could generate posts of their own: the animals or the iconography of the colorful natives, for example. If anyone has any more information about the map, I'd love to hear it. I'd especially love to know why it's backwards.

It was the plague

In news that is not surprising, but still interesting, a group of German Anthropologists have confirmed once and for all that the Black Death in the 14th century was caused by Yersinia pestis, better known as bubonic plague or even just The Plague. The study, done at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, extracted DNA from mass graves for plague victims in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Using a variety of tests they eventually located markers that indicated the former presence of Y. pestis.

While most of us were taught the the Black Death was indeed caused by bubonic plague, there have been some historians and scientists in recent years who have questioned that diagnosis. The traditional version was that the plague was carried by rats and transmitted from rats to people by fleas. A major line of argument in the revisionist school challenges this transmission vector, by pointing out that many of the outbreaks during the Black Death happened during the winter when fleas are not active. Another line of argument is based on the Medieval descriptions of symptoms that, while close to those exhibited by Y. pestis, are not quite the same.

The new study answers the second of those critiques. Once they found Y. pestis, the Mainz scientists attempted to identify the exact strain of the disease. What they discovered were two strains that don't match the known modern strains. One of the two appears to be completely extinct while the other appears to be related to modern strains found in Asia. If the epidemic was caused by different strains than the ones we know, then it makes perfect sense for the symptomology to be different that that which we know.

This discovery leads to a new challenge to the traditional historical narrative of the Black Death. That narrative has the plague initially being brought from the Crimea to Italy by rats on Genoese ships. From Italy the disease spread through the Western Mediterranean, up into Western Europe, then across Central and Northern Europe before disappearing back into the East. Finding two strains implies two separate epidemics at the same time. One from the Mediterranean and one from the North.

I sometimes joke that the one thing that unites history and the sciences is the sentence "It's more complicated than we initially thought." This is a perfect example of that at work. Nailing down the disease and its strains has answered one question and eliminated one challenge to the prevailing theory. At the same time, it leaves one question still open (the flea problem) and created a new challenge. This brings us to the one sentence that unites all scholarly enterprise, "We're going to need to do more work on this."

Saturday, October 02, 2010

What the hell is Sharron Angle talking about?

Really, what?
One of the last questioners asked about "Muslims taking over the U.S.," including a question about Angle's stance on the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

"We're talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn't a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it," Angle said.

"Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don't know how that happened in the United States. It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States."

Is she saying that Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas are now governed by Sharia law? Is she saying that just because there are a large number of Muslim-Americans in those towns that they are on the verge of imposing Sharia law on their fellow citizens?

Two months ago, Angle raised some eyebrows when she refered to government social programs as idolatry: "They violate the First of the Ten Commandments prohibiting idolatry." This led several reporters and bloggers to look into her past membership in the Constitution Party whose bylaws state that the founders established "a government of law, under God, rooted in biblical law, which controlled and regulated government." Howard Phillips, the founder of the Constitution Party, was a strong proponent of Christian Reconstructionism , the idea that the idea that the institutions of family, church and government need to be reconstructed along Old Testament lines. The current leaders of the Party downplay the ammount of Reconstructionism in their program, but it's clear that many of the individual members of the Party are reconstructionists.

Angle may or may not be a full blown reconstructionist. She tries to avoid questions about her beliefs, but cannot help letting it slip into her public statements Like many culturally conservative Christians, Angle is opposed to the separation of church and state--or, more accurately, believes it should operate in one direction only, keeping the government out of the churches while allowing the churches into government. For example, she thinks creationism should be taught beside evolution in public schools. What her few statements reveal is Christian Nationalism, a kinder, gentler form of reconstructionism. Angle is an active Southern Baptist and Southern Baptists are among the most voiciferous supporters of Christian Nationalism. Christian Nationalism is the belief that the majority of the founding fathers believed something similar to modern Protestant fundamentalism and that they intended the United States to be a Christian, not a secular, country. They usually bolster their argument by pointing out that the overwhelming majority of Americans are one kind of Christian or another.

This might be the clue that explains what she meant by her Sharia comment. At its core, despite all of the quote mining of the authors of the constitution, Christian Nationalism argues for a simplistic form of majority rule. Christians are the majority in this country and should be allowed to dictate their beliefs on the rest of us (they conveniently ignore the fact that tens of millions of Christians disagree on some of their favorite issues). If Angle believes Christians should be able to write the law because of their majority position, then she probably expects other religious communitees to want to do the same. It's simple projection. She imagines that, if she were a Muslim in Dearborn, she would want to establish Sharia law, therefore the real Muslims of Dearborn must be moving to establish Sharia law. Because of her one way view of separation of church and state, she must also believe there is nothing to stop them from doing so. Or she's just shooting off her mouth without paying attention to what comes out. I wouldn't rule either one out.

Friday, October 01, 2010

What the hell is Glenn Beck talking about?

Really, what?
I would like to propose that the president is exactly right when he said, "slaves sitting around the campfire didn't know when slavery was going to end but they knew it was would and it took a long time to end slavery." Yes it did. But it took a long time to start slavery and it started small and it started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here and a court order there and a little more regulation here and a little more regulation there and before we knew it, America had slavery. It didn't come over in a ship to begin with as an evil slave trade. The government began to regulate things because the people need answers, they needed solutions. It started in a courtroom, then it went to the legislatures. That's how slavery began. And it took a long time to enslave an entire race of people and convince another race of people that they were somehow or another less than them and be done.