Friday, July 31, 2009


I hate hot weather. I mean, I really, really hate it. I'm the red-haired (formerly red-haired?), pale-skinned type who can get sunburned watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on teevee. As Woody Allen said, I don't tan; I stroke. When it gets over eighty, I start to wilt. If I do anything very active, I get dizzy and nauseous. You can probably tell where this is going. It has been hot in Seattle this week. I've had a migraine for two days; the heat also does that to me. Wednesday, it got to 104˚ (that's 40˚ anywhere else in the world). I think that's an all time high for Seattle, beating out 103˚ in 1939. Clever Wife, another red-head; the cats,trapped in fur coats; and I spent the day laying on the floor whimpering and feeling betrayed. This is Seattle, it's supposed to cold and wet. I suppose this the cue for for all the solarphiles to jump into the comments and write, "not me! It can't get too hot for me!" Go ahead, but know I will hate you for it. I hate hot weather.

PS If an unseasonal snowstorm in March is all it takes to disprove global warming, this week should totally prove it and end the debate. So there.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obama really born in East Africa!!!

I can't wait until the birthers get hold of this.
Recently, [Rhino Fund Uganda] celebrated the birth of the first rhino born in Uganda after 27 years of regional extinction - and the baby rhino has been named “Obama.”

Image source and more pictures: Rhino Fund Uganda

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

M&Ms save lives

Whenever I see a food mentioned in a medical story, I cringe. Inevitably, the story will say the food is bad for us. I understand the hyperbole common to medical and science reporting. "Scientists have found..." really means "one study over here has found indications that might mean... ." But the damage has been done. I'll have to regard that food with suspicion. The study that says "no it isn't bad" is never given the same prominence in reporting. That's why I was happy to see a study that tells me that something I like is good.
The same blue food dye found in M&Ms and Gatorade could be used to reduce damage caused by spine injuries, offering a better chance of recovery, according to new research.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that when they injected the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) into rats suffering spinal cord injuries, the rodents were able to walk again, albeit with a limp.

Even the side effect is cool:
The only side effect was that the treated mice temporarily turned blue.

I think I'll need to keep a big bag of blue peanut M&Ms around just in case someone hurts their spine. Since M&Ms don't have a very long shelf life in this humidity, I should regularly get rid of the old ones and refresh my supply. It's the prudent thing to do.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quist, Antarctica, and all that

I left a few things out of the previous piece because A) the piece was too long already and something had to be cut, B) I didn't want to digress too much, or C) I forgot.

I only touched on the geographic aspect of the ancient maps concept. Quist's version of it is even loonier if you look at the geologic aspect. For example, if the world was warm enough two thousand years ago for Antarctica to be ice free, sea level would have been a few hundred feet higher. Rome, Athens, Carthage, Alexandria and all of the other homes of his mighty ancient mariners would have been under water.

Antarctica would have looked completely different. Simply removing the ice, without changing sea level puts vast areas of Antarctica under water. If you add the rise in sea level caused by melting all of the ice back into the ocean, Antarctica becomes a chain of islands. If you allow for isostatic rebound, the rise in land when you remove the weight of all of that ice, a lot of the continent rises back above the waves, but the coastline would change into something completely different than today's Antarctica. Finally, a lot of the coastline that Quist points to is ice; if the ice goes away, the coastline goes away.

Though Hapgood only suggested the possibility, there is a whole school of hidden history buffs that believe that the iceless Antarctica was Atlantis. It's the Antarctica as Atlantis school of thought that keeps the ancient map idea alive. Some of the better selling authors who push this idea are Barbara Hand Clow, Rand Flem-Ath (yes, that's his real name), and Graham Hancock. Google around and you'll find thousands of pages on Antarctica as Atlantis.

Quist believes in dragons. No, really. He believes in dragons. This is something that comes out of the Ken Ham, of Creation Museum fame, school of creationism. Ham tells people that dragons are the dinosaurs that Noah took on the ark. They've been lurking around in the forests and other remote places ever since, though most of them are probably extinct by now. If anyone is going to the museum, take some pictures and blog it. Quist teaches this in one of home-schooling "Curriculum Modules."

I only looked at a couple of the modules, I'm sure there are lots of goodies hidden in there for any bloggers with the stomach to read through it all.

As a history guy, one of the things that really offends me about this kind of thing is that it postulates one super race that benevolently handed out knowledge and that all of the rest of our ancestors were too stupid to figure anything out for themselves. It doesn't matter whether the fountainhead of all knowledge was ancient astronauts, Atlanteans, Roman super-mariners, or Yetis with PhDs, it insults and diminishes all other human achievement as nothing more than imitation or plagiarism. Sailing techniques of Classical antiquity were impressive enough without this nonsense. The cartography of the Renaissance involved developing new mathematical tools, new navigational tools, and organizing enormous amounts of paradigm-challenging data the grew and changed with every returning ship. The Spanish and Portuguese sailors who sailed into the unknown were amazingly brave and innovative, to say they couldn't have done it with out a how-to manual is slanderous.

I'll have a couple of other posts someday that touch on various aspects of this. For now, we can argue with the Quists and Hams of the world, but the best tool for resisting them is mockery. It will be hard for others to take these types of ideas seriously if we can make the speakers look silly.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The intellectual dishonesty of Allan Quist

Ever since the recent outbreak of sanity in Kansas, Texas has been virtually unchallenged in its position as the state with the most embarrassing people in charge of its education system. To maintain their dominance, they have taken to poaching fringe ideologues from other states. One of the most recent attempts was an unsuccessful effort to recruit Minnesota's Allen Quist for a board tasked with doing to history what they had already done to science.

At first glance, Quist would seem a natural for the Texas education system. He has impeccable conservative bona fides. During three terms in the Minnesota state house in the eighties, he was famous for his anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-pornography rants. His platform when running for governor in 1994 included the usual planks of tax cuts, abortion restrictions, and states' rights. His wife runs a group called EdWatch--which publishes his books and posts his essays--dedicated to fighting liberal curricula and promoting home schooling. He says all the right things about the Judeo-Christian origins of the United States, young earth creationism, and the "hoax" of global warming. But for some reason, the other board members couldn't bring themselves to support his candidacy and his nomination was dropped.

Those last three positions might be what got him into trouble. While Christian nationalism, creationism, and climate change denialism are almost articles of faith for the modern conservative movement, all three involve a certain amount of conspiratorialism. Too often, a little conspiratorial thinking is a thin wedge that opens the door to a lot of conspiratorial thinking.

Michael Barkun wrote about this phenomenon in his 2003 book, A Culture of Conspiracy. Barkun has written several books about American apocalyptic sects and the religious beliefs of racist groups like Aryan Nations. In researching these groups he was surprised to find that believers in one form of fringe thought often embraced other, unrelated, forms of fringe thought. Timothy McVeigh was a UFO buff. Militia groups often push natural foods and alternative medicine. Occultists become anti-vaccination crusaders. The key, he explains, is that all of these groups trade in something he calls "stigmatized knowledge." The basic concepts of each group's beliefs have been rejected by mainstream intellectual authorities. These authorities, as perceived from the fringe, constitute monolithic blocks that wield their power to suppress the truth as perceived by the fringe. Once fringe believers take the first step of rejecting conventional authority in one area, it becomes easier to reject it in other areas and, eventually, in all areas. Once they have made the adjustment to seeing hidden forces working to suppress the truth in one area, it's easy to accept the claims of other fringe believers that hidden forces are at work suppressing their truth. The final step is to determine that all of these hidden forces are actually one all embracing conspiracy.

In Quist's case, it's clear that he has made the jump from believing in conventional conservative bogeymen (secularist, liberals, environmentalists) into a more broadly conspiratorial worldview. His latest essay, available on the EdWatch site, uses a staple of pole shift theory in an effort to discredit the idea of climate change driven by human activities (global warming).
A recently discovered and publicized ancient map of the globe disproves the theory of man-made global warming. The enormous significance of the map has only now become apparent as Congress considers sweeping legislation intended to combat global warming supposedly caused by human activity.

The map was discovered in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, in 1960 by Charles Hapgood. It was drawn by well-known French cartographer, Oronteus Finaeus, in 1531. There is no serious question about the authenticity of the map. Finaeus was a well-known scholar and was an expert in cartography, astronomy, mathematics and military weaponry. The map is based on numerous source maps, some of them going back to the time of Alexander the Great (335 BC).

One section of the map pictures the globe from the perspective of the South Pole. Antarctica is clearly shown on this map and is pictured as being largely ice-free with flowing rivers and a clean coastline. Some of the mountain ranges pictured on the map have only been recently discovered.

A section of one of the Curriculum Modules, written by Quist and offered by EdWatch, is dedicated to the "ancient maps" idea made famous by Hapgood in his 1966 book, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. This book was an expansion of one line of evidence that he used for his earlier work on polar shift theory.

Polar shift theory is an idea that the earth's crust occasionally slips with reference to its spinning core and mantle. The part of the surface that used to be over the pole moves to a lower latitude and a new part of the surface slips over the pole and begins to freeze. The driving mechanism, according to Hapgood is ice. As polar ice builds up, it creates a great weight at the poles that destabilizes the crust. For the Earth's spin to be stable, the greatest weight should move out to the equator. Thus, when enough ice gathers at the poles, the entire crust of the Earth begins to slip toward the equator. When the ice caps reached a warmer latitude, the ice all melts, flooding everything and destroying civilization. Naturally, this explains Atlantis, Noah's flood, and frozen mammoths. Hapgood was neither the first to propose polar shifting nor the first to propose that mechanism, but his exposition is the best known and the one quoted by later pole shift writers.

The source of our trouble, the Oronteus Finaeus map of 1531.

The ancient maps enter the story as evidence of advanced pre-slip civilizations. Hapgood pointed out that, although the coast of Antarctica wasn't sighted until 1818, Renaissance mapmakers had portrayed a southern continent in considerable detail three centuries earlier. This could only have been possible if sixteenth century mapmakers had access to earlier maps by mariners who were intimately familiar with the coastline of Antarctica. Hapgood went on to say, that, since the Renaissance maps do not mention an ice cap, Antarctica must have been ice free when those ancient mariners visited it. According to Hapgood, the 1531 Oronteus Finaeus (Oronce Finé) map is the most accurate Renaissance map of all. Quist's statement that the Finaeus map is "based on numerous source maps, some of them going back to the time of Alexander the Great" is founded on Hapgood's speculation and nothing else.

Before going into what the Finaeus map does or does not portray, it's worth fisking Quist's version of how the map came to light. Quist says:
A recently discovered and publicized ancient map of the globe disproves the theory of man-made global warming. ... The map was discovered in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, in 1960 by Charles Hapgood.

To his credit, Hapgood never claims to have discovered the Finaeus map except in the sense that it was new to him. In Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings he tells how he came to know of the map.
In the course of this investigation I arranged to spend some time in the library of Congress during the Christmas recess of 1959-1960. I wrote ahead to the Chief of the Map Division asking if all of the old maps of the periods in question could be brought out and made ready for my investigation, especially those that might show the Antarctic. Dr. Arch C. Gerlach, and his assistant, Richard W. Stephanson, and other members of the Map Division were most co-operative, and i found, somewhat to my consternation, that they had laid out several hundred maps on the tables of the reference room.

By arriving at the Library the moment it opened in the morning and staying there until it close in the evening, I slowly made a dent in the enormous mass of material. ... Then, one day, I turned a page and sat transfixed. As my eyes fell upon the southern hemisphere of a map drawn by Oronteus Finaeus in 1531, I had the instant conviction that I had found here a truly authentic map of the real Antarctica.

From his narrative, it's clear that the map was not something in a dusty back corner of the library, forgotten for centuries. The LOC staff were familiar enough with it to know that it met the requirements of Hapgood's request. Furthermore, their treatment of it, laid out on a table and left there for days, shows that it was not a rare item requiring special treatment or care. The Finaeus map was not a drawn map, it was a printed map and dozens, possibly hundreds, of copies still exist. A glance at the Bernard Quaritch auction catalogs from the 1880s and 1890s (viewable through Google Books) show copies of the map for sale almost every year, and multiple copies in some years. The Finaeus map was well known in historical, art, and cartography circle long before Hapgood ever laid eyes on it.

The map itself, is quite beautiful (if you like maps, and I do). The projection, called double-cordiform, looks strange to our eyes, but was quite advanced for the time. The right hand side of the map is dominated by a southern continent called Terra Australis, which Finaeus describes as "recently discovered but not yet explored." The aspect of the southern continent that most excited Hapgood and other lost world writers is its two lobed shape which they find suspiciously similar to the shape of Antarctica as we know it.

Robert Argod lost world alignment of Terra Australis and Antarctica.

The above map from Out of Antarctica by Robert Argod is a fairly typical example of how lost world writers line up Finaeus' Terra Australis and our Antarctica to maximize the similarities. However, even in this portrayal, the lack of the Palmer Peninsula on Finaeus' map is a glaring problem. That great hook reaching toward South America is arguably the single most distinctive feature on Antarctica. How could the ancient mariners have missed it? Hapgood handles the problem by pointing to one of the bumps on the smaller lobe of Terra Australis, and identifying it as the base of the peninsula. He then points out that the rest of the peninsula would actually be an island without an ice sheet to connect it to the mainland. His unspoken conclusion is that someone then forgot to draw the island.

The superimposition of the two southern continents involves some trickery without which the dissimilarities between the two would be much more glaring. To make the two continents line up, Hapgood and his followers needed to ignore the position of the south pole on the Finaeus map. I've marked Finaeus' pole with a green dot. The Hapgood alignment also depends on changing the orientation of Terra Australis. On the Finaeus map, Terra Australis is rotated (on its pole) 70 degrees counter-clockwise. Even if the Palmer Peninsula was on Finaeus' continent, it wouldn't point at South America; it would point at Hawaii and South America would point at the blue spot that I've placed in the sea at a little past eleven o'clock.

Finally, and most significantly, Terra Australis is several times larger than Antarctica. Antarctica, for the most part, lies within the Antarctic Circle. The curve of East Antarctica follows very closely to the circle and the two great embayments, the Ross and Weddell Seas, push deeply south of the circle. The Antarctic Circle is entirely enclosed by Terra Australis whose coasts almost reach the Tropic of Capricorn. South America is separated from the continent by the Straits of Magellan and nothing else. Diego Cuoghi, an Italian writer, prepared a more accurate comparison of the two southern continents (below).

The correct alignment of Terra Australis and Antarctica and as shown by Diego Cuoghi.

The pole slip explanation for the amazing concordances that Hapgood and his followers see in Renaissance maps of the world is not the theory preferred by Quist. Quist dates the mighty mariners who mapped an ice-free Antarctica a mere twenty centuries ago rather than the ten to twenty thousand years ago preferred by the pole slip believers. Rather than Atlanteans, Quist prefers Romans.
How can the accuracy of this map be explained? One of the earliest authorities on map-making was Claudius Ptolemaeus (referred to in the West as "Ptolemy") who lived from about AD 85-168. Ptolemy was a cartographer, mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He lived in Alexandria under the Roman Empire.

Ptolemy wrote a monumental work on map-making, Guide to Geography, also known as Geographia, in about 150 AD. Geographia was lost to most of the civilized world for more than a thousand years until it was re-discovered around 1300 AD.

By "lost to most of the civilized world" Quist means the text was well known to the Muslim world. The Kitab surat al-ard ([Book of the Description of the Earth) composed by Al-Khwarizmi around 820 incorporated Ptolemy's geography. Al-Mas'udi, writing around 956 described a colored map of the world based on Ptolemy. Al-Idrisi studied Ptolemy to create his influential map of the world completed in 1154.
The book demonstrates that Mediterranean people of 2,000 years ago had the knowledge and expertise to sail far and wide and to make accurate maps of their travels.

Ptolemy's book describes longitudinal and latitudinal lines and how they are drawn. The book identifies the location of numerous geographical sites by means of those lines. The book additionally specifies how important locations can be accurately placed on maps by means of celestial observations. ... When Ptolemy's Geographia was translated from Greek into Latin in Western Europe in 1406 its global coordinate and navigational system revolutionized European sailing and mapmaking abilities-putting them on a previously unknown scientific basis. The knowledge Europeans gained from Ptolemy enabled them to engage in their own explosion of exploration and cartography beginning in the 15th Century.

That's some pretty powerful exaggeration. Ptolemy's Geographia arrived in Europe just as Europeans were attempting long distance sea travel. For a thousand years or so, European maps came in three types: fairly accurate local maps used for delineating property; navigation maps, which showed important landmarks along a coast or road, but rather indifferently depicted the shape of that coast or road; and mappamundis, illustrations that showed the entire world as a religious allegory. What the new explorers needed were accurate large scale maps. The practical map making tips in the Geographia seemed to be the perfect answer. But there were problems.

While his advice was good, Ptolemy's facts were of mixed quality. The idea of using lines of longitude and latitude to identify locations was almost four hundred years old when Ptolemy wrote the Geographia. Ptolemy's contribution was to attempt to unify various earlier measurements into a single coordinate system. While measuring latitude was a fairly straight forward task in his day, Ptolemy had no method for measuring longitude except for making rough approximations based on reports of travel time between various points. Such a method was useless for maritime navigators. Realistic longitude measurements wouldn't become possible until the development of clocks that could work on a pitching ship, without losing more than a few seconds per day. Ptolemy's Mediterranean was several degrees of longitude too wide. However, Ptolemy's prestige was so great that Renaissance map-makers had difficulty rejecting any part of the Geographia.

Ptolemy's Geographia was a summation of the best geographical and cartographic knowledge the Mediterranean world had to offer. In many respects, it was superior to anything Europe had to offer at the start of the Renaissance. By the time Finaeus set out to compose a map of the entire world, the most important advice he could gather from reading Ptolemy, was the discussion of map projections. Finaeus' cordiform projection was one possible solution to depicting the surface of a sphere on a two dimensional surface. His contemporary, Gerardus Mercator, used the projection eight years after Finaeus and before developing the projection that now bears his name. Mercator's cordiform map makes changes to the northern hemisphere, but copies Finaeus' southern hemisphere in almost every detail, especially Terra Australis.

A later copy of Mercator's cordiform map of 1538.

The Terra Australis of Finaeus and Mercator not a map of Antarctica based on lost Roman sources. Ptolemy, the Romans, and the other peoples of the Mediterranean were good, but not that good. Terra Australis is a big blob that only superficially resembles Antarctica, and only if you turn your head sideways and squint. By that same logic, if I stand far very away, in deep shadows, and don't speak, I look just like Antonio Banderas.

But Finaeus and Mercator's blob was not a figment of their imagination. They were not fantasists. Both were serious scholars trying to solve a difficult problem. Finding the best projection to represent the whole world was only one part of the problem. The other part was trying to make sense of the new and disjointed information that came in every day from sailors, priests, and spies. Finaeus and others tried to connect and faithfully represent these fragments of information using what seemed to be reasonable conjecture to fill in the blank spots.

In 1569, over thirty years after his cordiform map, Mecator published a new map of the world incorporating additional information. This map still featured an enormous southern continent beginning in Tierra del Fuego, but this Terra Australis featured some place names along the coast. From Tierra del Fuego, the coast tends straight east before jutting north to form a headland named Promontorium Terrae Australis in the South Atlantic near the Tristan da Cunha island group. Further east, it forms a second headland. near a group of islands called Los Romeros. The coast then loops south before turning almost due north the tropic of Capricorn where it almost touches Java. This land has the names Beach, Lucach, and Maletur. East of Beach the coast dips below the tropic again before heading gradually southeast across the South Pacific. Directly east of Beach is an island called Java Minor and beyond that is the enormous island of Nova Guinea. from Nova Guinea, the coast runs gradually southeast until it meets Tierra del Fuego. This stretch of coast is called Magellanica Regio (Magellan's Land). A dozen or more other map-makers published maps in the last part of the century showing a southern continent with the same outline and place-names as on Mercator's (e.g. Abraham Ortelius 1570 and Sebastian Munster 1588). From these-maps, it is possible to get a glimpse of the process by which these map makers created the outlines of Terra Australis.

A 1587 map by Rumold Mercator based on his father's 1569 map.

Each of the named places along the coast is based on land visited or sighted by European sailors. Tierra del Fuego on the south side of the Straits of Magellan has the same name today. At the time, no one knew that Tierra del Fuego was an island. That fact would not be learned until 1616 when Willem Schouten sailed around the south side of the island and named Cape Horn. Promontorium Terrae Australis is probably Gough Island, 230 miles southeast of tristan da Cunha. The island was discovered in 1506 by Gonçalo Álvarez, but misplaced, discovered again by Anthony de la Roché in 1675 and misplaced again, and, finally, permanently discovered by Charles Gough in 1731. Los Romeros is most likely Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean, discovered, but not named, by Juan Sebastián Elcano and the survivors of Magellan's expedition on their way back to Spain. Beach, Lucach, and Maletur are the northwest coast of Australia. The names are those of rich southern kingdoms mentioned in Marco Polo's Travels,. The first, officially reported European visit to Australia was made by Willem Janszoon in 1606, a merchant for the Dutch East India Company. However, Portuguese merchants knew about the continent for a century before Janszoon arrived. Abel Tasman, in 1642, was the first European to sail around The southern side of Australia, proving it was not attached to a polar continent. Java Minor is most likely Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentraria, though it could be any of a number of larger islands in Indonesia. The names Java Major and Java Minor, or variations on that theme, moved around the East Indies and Australia for about a century before being combined into one Java, the one we know today. Nova Guinea is, of course, New Guinea drawn too large and placed too far to the east.

Since each of the named places on Terra Australis turned out to be an island, the question arises, why did generations of Renaissance map-makers insist on constructing a southern continent out of reports of isolated islands? The answer is that they "knew" there had to be a very large continent in the south. It was the logical conclusion of an intelligently designed world.

Almost as soon as Classical Greek scholars figured out that the Earth was a sphere, they decided that it must have a land mass in the south large enough to balance out the known lands in the north. In part, this was a scientific opinion based on their lack of knowledge about how gravity and celestial mechanics functioned. At least equally important in coming to that conclusion was the belief that the gods would not allow the world to be asymmetrical. Symmetry and aesthetics demanded that a perfect creator would design the world that way. The idea that an intelligently designed universe must use perfect, that is symmetrical forms was later adopted by the Church, to the detriment of scientific progress. In particular, the insistence that the orbits of the planets must be perfect circles hampered astronomy and navigation for twenty centuries before Kepler finally did away with the idea. Ptolemy wrote about the southern, Antipodean continent, and the Renaissance map-makers accepted his judgment on the matter.

Mark Twain wrote "God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor" (he stole the line from Rousseau). That is the problem of intelligent design. The only way ID can produce usable scientific predictions, is through a clear understanding of how the designer works. The The only way to do that is by saying, "we know how the designer thinks; we know the innermost thoughts of God." Unfortunately, that inevitably means putting ourselves in the place of God and and believing God would do thinks the same way we do, or wish we could. The Classical Greeks, the Medieval Church, and Renaissance map-makers all believed that God's designs must be based on perfect geometric forms and symmetry for the simple reason that they found those design elements the most pleasing. Modern creationists exalt their own minds as equal to the mind of God while at the same time denouncing secularists and atheists, whom they imagine being guilty of exactly that form of hubris.

The symmetrical world as envisioned by Macrobius, a fifth century Neoplatonist philosopher.

This is the level of Allen Quist's intellectual honesty and his understanding of geography, geology, and history. He's willing to push a fringe theory of science, for the sole reason that he imagines it supports his political position on climate change. Everything else is expendable in the pursuit of that agenda. If he was a lone loony barking in the wilderness, his opinions wouldn't matter. But he was being considered for a seat on board tasked with writing a social studies curriculum for Texas. Because textbooks are authorized at the state level in Texas, the state has an out-sized influence on the content of textbooks everywhere in this country. Texas, and our public schools, may have missed that particular bullet, but thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of home schooled kids will not. Quist has dedicated a section of one of his curriculum modules at EdWatch to the ancient maps idea. Home schooling parents who don't know better will read his curriculum and use it to teach their kids. At the very least, those kids will grow up to become ignorant citizens. More individually tragic, those kids will be held back by their warped understanding of science when they try to go to college or compete in the job market.

Hapgood and other believers in pole shift and ancient civilizations with advanced navigational skills are mostly harmless. For the most part, they are grown-ups who are entitled to believe whatever they want, even if it is stigmatized knowledge. The problem with such belief comes when someone like Quist comes along with a political agenda who is willing to throw his weight behind the idea. Quist should be ashamed of himself, but somehow, I don't think he is.

Update: Jon H in the comments pointed out that I said Australia in a few places where I meant Antarctica. I think I've fixed them all. That's what I get for writing late at night. Sorry if that caused any confusion.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

That's not what animal-husbandry means, Senator

Last week, Sam Brownback, introduced Senate Bill 1435, entitled the "Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2009." After finding that:
(1) advances in research and technology have made possible the creation of human-animal hybrids;

(2) human-animal hybrids are grossly unethical because they blur the line between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual;

The bill forbids making or transporting human/animal hybrids and establishes a punishment of One million dollars and ten years in prison for any mad scientists who break the law. Though, it would be hard to convict anyone under this bill, since mad scientists have an automatically recourse to the insanity plea. In introducing the bill, Brownback, who is a member of the same party as Larry Craig, David Vitter, Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford, and Michelle Bachmann, emphasized the need to protect human dignity.

When Bush called for a ban on human-animal hybrids in his 2006 State of the Union address, calling it one of "the most egregious abuses of medical research," most people were baffled. After all, wasn't Manimal a good guy? It didn't take long to discover that human-animal hybrids were a peculiar nightmare of the same faction of the religious right that made banning stem-cell research an article of faith for the Republican Party, even though most members of the GOP hadn't heard of the concept before 2001.

Just two weeks ago, Bobby Jindal signed a similar ban into law in Louisiana. Since that time there has not been a single werewolf attack in the Magnolia state. Brownback and twenty other members of the Senate decided it's time to take a record of success like that and go national.

While the fears of the voters Jindal, Brownback, and company pander to sound like so much comic book fantasy, there is just enough reality in the concept to keep them going for years. There really is a line of research that involves inserting genes from one species into another to better understand the control mechanisms within cells. Observing a petri dish full of hybrid cells is a much better way to understand genetics than purposefully initiating mutations in human births, or that in doing nothing and waiting for possibly fatal mutations to happen. Biologists have been pursuing this type of research for over twenty years and have bred bacteria that can produce interferon, insulin, and human growth hormone.

The Brownbacks of the world care less about understanding life and developing successful therapies that they do about pandering through fear. This type of politics is based on stoking the Luddite paranoia of their supporters by confirming their worst fears. Fear serves to bind followers to their leaders and keep them from straying. In passing bills like this, they assure their followers that the threat--in this case posed by scientists and godless liberals--is real and that only their swift action prevented the unthinkable.

For the dynamic to work best, the feared threat must not only be unthinkable, but also not very well thought out. The worst threats are those that remain in the darkness, where we can't measure their full extent. Brownback and the others alarm their followers by telling them "we must stop this ungodly mixing or... you know." The followers each get to fill in the blank with their own particular demon.

Political observers often point out that this kind of communication between leaders and followers is done in a sort of code. Much was made of Bush's use of Biblical language in this respect. The most important massage that Bush communicated to the religious right was simply that he was one of them. A wink, a nod, a secret handshake, and the right phrasing was all it took to convince millions that he was one of them, that he shared their values and concerns.

Brownback's bill tells a certain group that he and his co-sponsors understand and share their fears. But, with the fears hidden and barely defined, should we believe that it's all about mad scientists and cartoon monsters? Brownback's blog says: "Creating human-animal hybrids, which permanently alter the genetic makeup of an organism, will challenge the very definition of what it means to be human;" "This legislation is both philosophical and practical as it has a direct bearing upon the very essence of what it means to be human;" "The issue is that when you make changes in the germ-line, such changes are passed along to one’s offspring;" and "Tampering with the human germ-line could be the equivalent to setting a time-bomb that might detonate many generations down the line." At issue is purity and the preservation of the human race.

What other fears might his language connect with? A quick look at the sponsors of the bill and their home states reveals something about what some of those fears might be.
  • Sam Brownback - Kansas
  • Jim Bunning - Kentucky
  • Richard Burr - North Carolina
  • Saxby Chambliss - Georgia
  • Thomas Coburn - Oklahoma
  • Bob Corker - Tennessee
  • John Cornyn - Texas
  • Jim DeMint - South Carolina
  • John Ensign - Nevada
  • Lindsey Graham - South Carolina
  • James Inhofe - Oklahoma
  • Mike Johanns - Nebraska
  • Jon Kyl - Arizona
  • Mary Landrieu - Louisiana
  • Mel Martinez - Florida
  • John McCain - Arizona
  • James Risch - Idaho
  • John Thune - South Dakota
  • David Vitter - Louisiana
  • George Voinovich - Ohio
  • Roger Wicker - Mississippi

Of the twenty-one sponsors, only four are from states outside the greater South (former Confederate and border states). This is region that still bears a burden of infamy for its past concerns about preserving the purity of the race and the dangers of mixing.

I'm not claiming Brownback, or any of the co-sponsors, are making a direct or conscious appeal to racism. Their anti-science and anti-modern message is enough reason to condemn them without adding other charges. But the uglier appeal is there. In recent years, the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been painting themselves into a racist corner and have come to regret it. How many votes will their sliming of Sonya Sotomayor and their encouragement of anti-immigrant groups lose them in the next round of elections?

Now more than ever, the Republicans should be cautious about saying anything that could be interpreted as pro-racist. The problem for them isn't that Democrats and liberals might call them racist. Gotcha politics and faux outrage is a game that both sides play and that accomplishes nothing except to numb people to real outrages and destroy confidence in the political system. the reason they should be cautious is that, in appearing to give comfort to racists, they might give comfort to racists. Hate crimes are on the rise.

There are real monsters in the dark, but these weren't manufactured by mad scientists. These monsters are made from fear, resentment, and ignorance. Shining a light into the darkness is one of the best ways to banish the monsters, but a good laugh is also powerful. It's hard to take someone seriously, as a threat or as a leader, once they have been made ridiculous. Brownback may be a pandering demagogue, but he's also a buffoon. Let's take this opportunity point and laugh and say, "That's not what animal-husbandry means, Senator."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day

Go out and lay siege to the prison of your choice.*

* Note to law enforcement agencies: The phrase "lay siege to the prison" should be understood, in this context, to have an entirely metaphorical meaning, referring to liberating the mind and spirit, and is not a call for violent action against the personnel or property of the various corrections systems of the United States, its territories, or its allies. But you knew that. Right?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lost in translation

One of the great joys of the mammoth project has been going over the primary sources. Just a few years ago, I wouldn't have been able to research this topic without massive financial support. The seventeenth and eighteenth century sources are hard to find and the research would have involved traveling around to visit various rare book collections. Only a few have been reprinted in more recent times. Now, thanks to Project Gutenberg, Google Books, the Library of Congress, and others, I can look at digitalized versions of most of the sources I need by way of the internet. The digitalized versions preserve more than just the text, by presenting the appearance of the original--the fonts, the layout, and the illustrations--I can get a much better sense of how these ideas were communicated and experienced at the time. The only thing missing is the smell of old paper. The price I pay is in temptation. What started out as a popular history is slowly being transformed into the dissertation I never wrote. Why take anyone's word on anything when I can go hunting for the original source?

With the Teutobocus, the original sources are all in French, a language I do not read. Computers and the internet help here, but it's hard work. My process is something like this. When I find a French source, what I usually find are PDF or JPEG images of the pages. If I find them on Google Books or Internet Archive, I can use the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scan that they provide to get a text that I can work on. If not, I have to download the PDF or JPEG images and run them through an OCR program on my computer to get a text file. Once I have a text file, I need to clean it up. OCR scans are always filled with mistakes and pre-nineteenth century printing is always messy and out of alignment. On top of that, OCR programs are completely stymied by older typographic conventions like ligatures and the long S. Of course, there are some images that the OCR programs can't read at all. In those cases I have to transcribe it by hand. Typing something in a language you don't understand amounts to pounding it out one letter at a time.

After creating an accurate text file, the translation begins. I need at least five browser tabs open to translate. I usually have two machine translation tools, a dictionary, a verb reference, and a search window in front of me. I copy a paragraph out of my text file and paste it into the first translation tool (Google Translate). The first translation is rarely usable. A little history is in order here.

The first Académie française dictionary was published in 1694, so when I work on any documents from prior to that date, I'm dealing with a melange of regionalisms, outdated traditional spelling, and personal preferences of the printers. My job might be easier if I had a translation tool that worked in Occitan (the southern french dialect), for comparison purposes, but I haven't been able to find a free one. The two dictionaries published in the eighteenth century made major spelling reformations. The dictionary of 1835 made a vowel change that affected the imperfect conjugation of every single verb in the language. So, my first machine translation only serves to identify the words I need to work on. I'm getting fairly adept at identifying the patterns of change and can correct a paragraph for a second pass through the translator in less than a minute.

If I can make out the sense of the author's meaning at this point, I paste the text into a new file and go on to the next paragraph. If I can't, I start using the other browswer windows to do some detective work. If the first translator produces English words, but nonsensical sentences, I try using the other translation program. I also go to the second translator for words that stump the first program. Sometimes breaking a sentence into phrases gives me a better result than attempting to translate full sentences. Splitting apart the contractions that appear in every sentence also helps.

If the second translator doesn't help, I move on to the dictionaries and verb references. I can usually recognize when a word is a verb and look for less common conjugations. I can also hunt for secondary meanings for words. If I can't find a meaning for a word, my final resort is to Google it and see what turns up. When looking at some letters of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, a savant who wrote in Aix-en-Provence in the first third of the seventeenth century, I found the solution to several problematic words in Catalan and Italian.

If none of that works, i call up someone who can read French and whine until they help me.

We're about to invade Poland

Sen. Jim DeMint must be jealous of the attention his fellow South Carolina Republican, Governor Mark Sanford is getting. There's no other way to explain his run of contemptibly stupid public statements this week.

On Monday, he defended the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by saying it "was no more a coup than was Gerald Ford’s ascendance to the Oval Office or our newest colleague Al Franken’s election to the Senate.” Ah, yes. I remember watching with satisfaction as the army stormed the White House to drag Nixon from his bed and put him on a plane for Mexico City. And when the Minnesota National Guard physically booted Norm Coleman out of office--well, that was just the miracle of democracy in action.

Last night, in a book tour event at the National Press Club event, he explained where Obama's "power grab" (by getting elected) has brought us:
Part of what we're trying to do in Saving Freedom is just show that where we are, we're about where Germany was before World War II...

DeMint is clearly a joke, but the increasingly irresponsible rhetoric coming from Republicans and right-wing pundits is no laughing matter. The cumulative effect of all their talk about secession, treasonous liberals, the need for revolution, and how Obama is leading us into communism/fascism/shariah law isn't merely polarizing, it's dangerously polarizing. If you combed through the last forty years, it wouldn't be difficult to find examples someone on the left making every one of those claims about the right. But the speakers you would find would almost always be fringe characters, with limited exposure in the national media, and no support among mainstream politicians. It's the right that has begun assassinating people in America, not the left. My friend David Niewert over at Crooks & Liars and in his new book, The Eliminationists, should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the dynamic at work here.

Meanwhile, Poland and France had better start looking over their shoulders.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Another mammoth case of plagiarism

Since dealing with my mother's estate, it's taken me a while to get started again working on the mammoth book and related topics. First on the list is finishing the Teutobocus story that I began over a month ago (part 1, part 2). Part three will be here next week and the conclusion soon after. Meanwhile, I'll give you this little tidbit to fill the time.

The original sources for the Teutobocus story are all in French, a language I do not read. My first priority in hunting for the sources has been to find English translations. When that fails, I hunt for French sources and translate them using brute force. (Explaining my method made this post too long, so I pulled that section out to use in another post. Tomorrow, I promise.)

The earliest of the Teutobocus sources was a pamphlet, credited to a monk named Jacques Tissot. This pamphlet was sold as a means of advertising the traveling show that took a set of bones, reputed to have been Teutobocus', on a tour of France in the years following 1613. Luckily for me, the complete pamphlet was republished in a volume of the anthology Variétés historiques et littéraires published in 1859. The editor of the series, Edward Fournier, also provided a commentary on the pamphlet. When I found this volume on line, I copied article and commentary, made a rough translation with Google Translate and set it aside for later polishing whil i looked for some other sources.

I considered myself extra lucky to find an English translation of Tissot's pamphlet in a 1912 volume of a journal I'd never heard of, The Post-Graduate. The translator was an American medical doctor named Charles Greene Cumston. I read over Cumston's introduction and saved it along with his introduction.

Last week I was spending some time on translations and started polishing Fournier's commentary. It looked familiar. A few minutes later, I had my crude translation of Fournier side by side with Cumston's introduction. This is what I found. I'm giving Fournier's french original and my translation, so readers who are comfortable in French can check my translation.

These are the first few sentences of each.
Fournier's commentary: Cette pièce se rapporte à un événement singulier qui intéresse, comme on le verra, plutôt la paléontologie que l’histoire: étrange problème, dont la solution s’est fait attendre plus de deux siècles, de 1613 à 1835, et qui aboutit, en fin de compte, à faire restituer à un mastodonte des ossements que pendant deux cents ans on avoit prêtés à un géant imaginaire!
My crappy translation: This piece refers to a singular event of interest, as will be seen, to paleontology rather than history: strange problem, whose solution has been waiting more than two centuries, from 1613 to 1835, which resulted, the restoration of a mastodon bones that for two hundred years had been attributed to an imaginary giant!
Cumston's introduction: The brochure which I will reproduce and translate, relates to a most singular occurrence and, as will be seen, is a most interesting document bearing on the history of osteology. The problem was very strange, the solution of which remained unsolved from 1615 to 1835, and in the end resulted in the reconstruction of a mastodon, whose bones for two centuries were supposed to be those of an imaginary giant.

Fournier's commentary: La découverte eut lieu le 11 janvier 1613, dans le Bas-Dauphiné, à quatre lieues de Romans. Des ouvriers qui travailloient dans une sablonnière voisine du château de Chaumont, propriété du marquis de Langon, y trouvèrent, à 17 ou 18 pieds de profondeur, un certain nombre d’ossements de grande dimension...
My crappy translation: The discovery took place on 11 January 1613, in the Bas-Dauphiné, four leagues from Romans. Workers who toiled in a sand pit near Castle Chaumont, the property of the Marquis de Langon, found at a depth of 17 or 18 feet, a number of large bones...
Cumston's introduction: The discovery took place on January 11, 1613, in Bas-Dauphiné, four leages from Romans. Some workmen who were digging in a sand pit near the Chateau of Chaumont, belonging to the Marquis de Langon, came upon a certain number of very large bones at the depth of some seventeen or eighteen feet...

A list of the actual bones found follows. The similarity of two lists of the same thing proves nothing. Skipping past the list we find.
Fournier's commentary: La découverte, déjà importante, l’eût été davantage si quelques ossements n’eussent été brisés par les ouvriers ou ne fussent tombés en poussière sitôt qu’ils avoient été exposés à l’air.
My crappy translation: The discovery, already important, would have been better if some of the bones had not been broken by the workers or fallen into dust as soon as they were exposed to air.
Cumston's introduction: The discovery, although important, would have been still more so, had not some of the bones been broken by the workmen or fallen to pieces when exposed to the air.

Fournier's commentary: Aujourd’hui la science ne tarderoit pas à s’emparer de pareilles dépouilles ; alors ce fut l’ignorance et le charlatanisme qui firent main-basse dessus.
My crappy translation: Today science would not delay to take such remains, but then it was ignorance and charlatanism that took over.
Cumston's introduction: Today science would not be long in seizing upon such findings, but at the time of which we speak ignorance and charlatinism (sic) held them in their grasp and soon fables commenced to be carried abroad.

Fournier's commentary: Les fables commencèrent à circuler; on parla d’un tombeau où les ossements auroient été découverts, mais dont on ne retrouva jamais la moindre trace; de médailles de Marius mêlées aux débris, et enfin d’une inscription sur pierre dure portant ces mots: Theutobochus rex.
My crappy translation: Stories began to circulate, they spoke of a tomb where the bones were found, but we never found the slightest trace; medals of Marius were mixed with debris, and an inscription on stone takes on these words: Theutobochus rex.
Cumston's introduction: A tomb in which the bones were found was talked of, but no trace of this was ever found; likewise medallions of Marius were said to have been unearthed with other debris, and lastly, it was rumored that an inscription had been found on stones, bearing the words: Theutobochus rex.

Fournier's commentary: Deux individus qui s’étoient tout d’abord donné un intérêt dans l’affaire: Mazuyer, chirurgien à Beaurepaire, ville des environs, et David Bertrand ou Chenevier, qui y exerçoit les fonctions de notaire.
My crappy translation: Two individuals who had first expressed an interest in the case: Mazuyer, a surgeon from Beaurepaire, and David Bertrand (or Chenevier), who exercised the functions of notary the area.
Cumston's introduction: Two individuals who were first to interest themselves in the affair, to wit, Mazuyer, a surgeon of Beaurepaire, a nearby town, and David Bertrand or Chenevier, a notary of the same place.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind, at this point, that Cumston was a plagiarist. Was this a one time slip up or was Cumston a hardened serial plagiarist? I don't know. I'd never heard of Cumston before this, but a glance at Google Books reveals that he wrote dozens of books and articles on various aspects of medicine during the early twentieth century and that he was quite prominent in a number of learned medical societies. After WWI he quit practicing medicine and taught the history of medicine in Geneva.

Thomas Mallon's entertaining study of plagiarism, Stolen Words, points out that, counterintuitively, the great plagiarists are neither lazy nor unimaginative. They are often people who have already produced admired works. When exposed, their associates are baffled because they seemed the last people who would need to plagiarize. But it is their very success that makes them plagiarize. They feel pressure to keep producing in order to maintain their position of respect. Once they discover how satisfying it is, they act like a television serial killer, growing bolder and taking greater risks, daring the world to discover them. I don't know if that describes Cumston, but he leaves a tantalizing clue in this article.
Fournier's commentary: Tout cela, selon nous, impliquoit un doute indirect.
My crappy translation: All this, in our view, implied indirect doubt.
Cumston's introduction: To my mind, all this implies an indirect doubt.

Cumston has not only appropriated Fournier's work, he has attempted to absorb Fournier's person at the same time. He has taken taken the most personal part of Fournier's writing, a casual opinion delivered in the first person, and called it his own. This is the hubris of the plagiarist.

If there was any reason to doubt that Cumston was a plagiarist, and not simply sloppy with his attributions, this should settle matters. Cumston managed to repeat a semi-error of Fournier's.
Fournier's commentary: Ce détail, que nous trouvons dans la Vie de Peiresc, par Requier (1770, in-8, p. 144), n’a pas été connu de M. de Blainville.
My crappy translation: This detail, which we find in the Life of Peiresc by Requier (1770, in-8, p. 144), was not known to M. de Blainville.
Cumston's introduction: This detail, which was unknown to de Blainville, is to be found in Requier's Life of Piersec, published in 1770.

While Requier does indeed mention the detail that Fournier and Cumston say he does, but what neither mentions is that Requier's 1770 account of the Teutobocus story is drawn almost word for word from an account by Pierre Gassendi published in 1641. In the introduction to his book, Requier is very explicit in his indebtedness to Gassendi. In fact, parts Requier's book (including the Teutobocus story) so closely follow Gassendi's that I could make a strong case for calling Requier a plagiarist, except for the fact that he acknowledged Gassendi as his source. If Cumston had really done is own research, it's highly likely that he would have noticed Requier's bow to Gassendi and looked at that source. Gassendi's book was not obscure, after the 1641 Latin edition was published, it was translated and republished several times (including an English edition of 1657).

As I said, Cumston wrote many books and articles. I have no plans to pour over the rest of his oeuvre any time soon. If anyone has a free month or two to waste, I'll let them do it. For now, the lesson is simple: some crimes come and go and are forgotten, but plagiarism is forever.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Layers of idiocy

The big bloggers have all picked up on this bit from a Palin piece running on ABC News' site this morning.
As to whether another pursuit for national office, as when she joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the race for the White House less than a year ago, would result in the same political blood sport [opposition research and accusations of ethics violations], Palin said there was a difference between the White House and what she had experienced in Alaska. If she were in the White House, she said, the "department of law" would protect her from baseless ethical allegations.

"I think on a national level, your department of law there in the White House would look at some of the things that we've been charged with and automatically throw them out," she said.

There is no "Department of Law" at the White House.

There is more wrong with this that that there is no Department of Law in the federal government. There is in the Alaskan government, so it could be an honest slip on her part. As Steve Benen points out, the real problem with that statement is in what she thinks a federal "Department of Law" can do.
It's tempting to think Palin may have been referring to the Justice Department, but it's not "in the White House," and it doesn't have the authority to "throw out" charges against the president. Maybe she's thinking of the White House Counsel's Office, but again, it has the ability to defend against allegations, not "look at some of the things that we've been charged with and automatically throw them out."

She clearly shares the Bush/Cheney idea of a royal president who can do whatever he/she wants and who is above the law and constitution.

I see one more thing wrong with her statement. Unless the author of the piece (Kate Snow) is misreporting it, the discussion was about running for office, not holding office. Palin doesn't appear to understand the distinction. Even if there was an all powerful Department of Law in the White House that could stop investigations and prosecutions, it would not be at the beck and call of everyone running for office, it would not have the power to stop political campaigns from conducting opposition research, and it would not have the power to stop people from making accusations. On that last point, her recent ham-handed effort to silence Shannyn Moore is clear evidence that she does believe executives have the power to stop people from making accusations or even from reporting that someone made accusations.

Palin's ego, idiocy, and sense of martyrdom are like an onion; every time you peel away one layer, you find another layer of ego, idiocy, and sense of martyrdom underneath.

Monday, July 06, 2009

She hides it so well

Alaska attorney Thomas Van Flein on his client Sarah Palin:
She's actually very articulate.

Does anyone remember the old Saturday Night Live skit where Phil Hartman played Ronald Reagan switching between his senile grandfather public persona and his evil mastermind private persona. I'm not sure why I thought of that.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sarah gets bored

Sarah Palin had a press conference earlier today to announce that she is retiring as governor of Alaska in three weeks. Like her fellow Republican governor, Mark Sanford, she managed to babble her way through more than half of her time before finally getting to the point. It was vintage Palin, a mixture of faux folksiness, self-congratulation (look at all the stuff I did and how I stood up to all those people who were mean to me) and whining (you won't hear any of that in yer mainstream media, also). She managed to wrap herself in her children and whine once more about the people who picked on them. She said the best way she can end the same old politics and help hardworking, average Joe Sixpacks, sittin' around their kitchen tables, in this great land of ours, supportin' the troops and worryin' about the liberal media and activist judges and special interests who think they know better that real Americans how to protect our amazing freedoms, is by bein' a maverick and rejectin' politics as usual by workin' outside big government, by golly, 'cause she's not a quitter and that's why she's quittin' the same old politics as usual, also. She didn't say what she's going to do outside the government and how that's going to support freedom.

This fits in perfectly with her high-school princess personality. She got the title and the attention she wanted, but now it's hard work and not as fun as she thought it would be, so she's going to leave and chase after the next shiny thing. No doubt, she'll show us what a good mother she is and how much she supports family values by pulling the kids out of school and having Willow look after Trig while she races around the country performing her populist act before rabid crowds of teabaggers. Winking at resentful, but adoring libertarians gets her much more of the kind of attention she so pathetically craves. Maybe she can have feud with Paris Hilton. If we're lucky, maybe this flakiness will come back to haunt her in the 2012 primaries.

I have have to agree with her on one thing, though: this is what's best for Alaska. I wish I could be sure that having her down here was good for America.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

This just in...

Michael Jackson is still dead. We take you now to our live coverage of the street in front of some building where he no longer is. And be sure to tune in at seven for our exclusive interview with Generalissimo Francisco Franco who will give his perspective on being still dead.