Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jindal birth certificate watch - day 217

More than seven months have passed since I asked Bobby Jindal to come clean with the American people and show us the real, authentic, notarized, vault copy of his birth certificate. It's a simple request. He has the power to end the rumors and speculation (by other people, not me) that swirl around this issue. Why is avoiding the issue? what does he have to hide? Why is he hiding it and where has he hid it? Since I exposed this sordid mystery, Dom DeLuise, Michael Jackson, Oscar Mayer (yes, that Oscar Mayer), Sybil (the Prime Minister's cat), and the number three guy in the Taliban have all died. How many more bodies must pile up on the Jindal death list before we know the truth?

If you care about truth, justice, and apple pie, send me lots of money so I can continue my hard hitting investigative work and stay one step ahead of the Illuminati assassins who want to make sure that the truth never gets out.

How old is Grandpa???

A friend of ours is a hardcore e-mail forwarder. Today she sent us this gem. It's called How old is Grandpa???. The punchline is that Grandpa is only fifty-nine. Someone fifty-nine today was born in 1950. I've abridged things a little, but this the truth about that e-mail.
One evening a grandson was talking to his grandfather about current events. The grandson asked his grandfather what he thought about the shootings at schools, the computer age, and just things in general.

The Grandfather replied, 'Well, let me think a minute, I was born before:
  • television (not true, invented by Philo Farnsworth in 1927 and the first networks began broadcasting right after the war)
  • penicillin (not true, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 and widly available for Allied troops during the war)
  • polio shots (somewhat true, the Salk vaccine was first tested on humans in 1952, so although it wasn't invented when grandpa was born, he was vaccinated by the third grade)
  • frozen foods (not true, freezing food is thousands of years old and the first frozen meals were manufactured for the airlines in 1944)
  • Xerox (barely true, xerography was patented by the Haloid company in 1942, but they didn't change their name to Xerox until 1958)
  • contact lenses (not true, several scientists experimented with contact lenses during the 19th century and German lens makers were making useable contacts before 1890)
  • Frisbees (barely true, kids have tossed pie pans as long as there have been pie pans, Captain America was beaning Nazis with his shield during WWII, toy companies started marketing plastic throwing disks in the late forties, but Wham-o didn't name their disc Frisbee until 1957)
  • the pill (true)
  • credit cards (true)
  • laser beams (true)
  • ball-point pens (not true, different types of dry ink pens were sold through the first half of the twentieth century and the completly modern ball point was available before WWII)
  • panty hose (true)
  • air conditioners (not true, air conditioners were invented along with refrigeration, it was used in offices before WWI and was part of the home building boom that came after WWII)
  • dishwashers (not true, also invented before WWI and common during the post war boom)
  • clothes dryers (not true, same as the last two)
  • man hadn't yet walked on the moon (true)

We hadn't heard of:
  • FM radios (not true, the first FM station began broadcasting in 1937)
  • tape decks (maybe true, magnetic tape recording was developed in the thirties, reel to reel recorders became common in the fifties, but the cassette wasn't invented until 1963. So it's only true if by tape deck, grandpa means cassette player)
  • CDs (true)
  • electric typewriters (not true, Edison invented the electric typewriter and IBM introduced their first model in 1935)
  • yogurt (depends where you lived or what your ethnic background was)
  • guys wearing earrings (not even pirates?)

Your Grandmother and I got married first ... and then lived together. (probably true)

Every family had a father and a mother. (not true, almost every sit-com (and Bonanza) on television in the sixties featured single parents)

Until I was 25, I called every man older than me, 'Sir' And after I turned 25, I still called policemen and every man with a title, 'Sir.' (the prevalence of "Sir" depends on where you lived. This was definitely true in the South but varied elsewhere. In the parts of the West where I grew up, it was more common to say "Mister fill-in-the-blank" and to use the title of people who had titles)

We were before queer-rights, computer-dating, dual careers, day-care centers, and group therapy. (mostly true. Though if grandpa still says "queer-rights," he's an asshole)

Our lives were governed by the Ten Commandments, good judgment, and common sense. We were taught to know the difference between right and wrong and to stand up and take responsibility for our actions. Time-sharing meant time the family spent together in the evenings and weekends-not purchasing condominiums. (Blah blah blah. This is so much nostalgic twaddle. Maybe grandpa lived this way and maybe he didn't. In any case, life was never that simplistically black and white)

We listened to the Big Bands, Jack Benny, and the President's speeches on our radios. (not true, grandpa listened to the Beach Boys, The Beatles, and Janis Joplin)

And I don't ever remember any kid blowing his brains out listening to Tommy Dorsey. (That's because you were too young to remember Tommy Dorsey's heyday)

If you saw anything with 'Made in Japan' on it, it was junk. (true)

Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and instant coffee were unheard of. (not true, 1958, 1955 (or 1940), and before WWII)

We had 5 & 10-cent stores where you could actually buy things for 5 and 10 cents.(true)

Ice-cream cones, phone calls, rides on a streetcar, and a Pepsi were all a nickel. (not true, they cost a dime and street cars were mostly gone before Grandpa was born)

And if you didn't want to splurge, you could spend your nickel on enough stamps to mail 1 letter and 2 postcards. (not true after 1951)

You could buy a new Chevy Coupe for $600 ... but who could afford one? Too bad, because gas was 11 cents a gallon. (not true, a 1953 Bel Air sold for $1700. When gas was 11 cents, it was the inflation adjusted equivalent of three dollars a gallon.)

In my day:
  • 'grass' was mowed, (not true)
  • 'coke' was a cold drink, (not true, listen to the lyrics of "Minnie the Moocher")
  • 'pot' was something your mother cooked in , (not true)
  • 'rock music' was your grandmother's lullaby, (not true)
  • 'Aids' were helpers in the Principal's office, (true)
  • 'chip' meant a piece of wood, (true)
  • 'hardware' was found in a hardware store, (true)
  • 'software' wasn't even a word. (true)

And we were the last generation to actually believe that a lady needed a husband to have a baby. (every generation has known how babies are made and that marriage has nothing to do with it, or does Grandpa think the word "bastard" was coined after the pill?)

No wonder people call us 'old and confused' and say there is a generation gap ... and how old do you think I am?

I bet you have this old man in mind ... you are in for a shock!

Read on to see--pretty scary if you think about it and pretty sad at the same time.

Are you ready ?????

This man would be only 59 years old. Feeling old yet?

People born in 1950 include Jay Leno, Morgan Fairchild, Stevie Wonder, Gary larson, David Duke, Peter Frampton, Fran Lebowitz, Julius Erving, John Sayles, and my big sister.

This e-mail would have been mostly true twenty-five years ago, in 1984. Of course, in 1984, our friend wouldn't have had e-mail to send this geezer's rant to us. On the other hand, I could have a lot of fun rewriting this for my grandparents, who were all born in the 1880s.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A little perspective please

I really hate macho chest thumping and saber rattling, but just once I wouldn't mind a little display of military know-how to put this kind of nonsense in its place.
One day after it said it test-fired missiles capable of striking targets 1,250 miles from its soil, Iran said Tuesday that it would soon offer a timetable for international inspectors to visit a hitherto secret nuclear enrichment facility, but that it was not prepared to renounce its nuclear program or debate its "rights" to operate the previously undeclared plant.

Something like this is what I have in mind:
One day after each of them test-fired missiles capable of circling the earth three times and striking within seven feet of their intended targets, Britain, France, and the US said Tuesday that they would really like for international inspectors to visit Iran's hitherto secret nuclear enrichment facility.

I hate bullies, but sometimes a little bullying is just what they need to be convinced of the benefits of behaving themselves. Even we pacifist wienies get tired of listening to these tinhorn dictators try to blackmail the world.

PS - Yes, I know we aren't supposed to have orbital weapons, but Reagan broke that treaty a quarter century ago. I would be very surprised if the three of us and Russia did not have the ability and plans to snap an orbital missile together, using off the shelf parts, in no more than a couple days.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You call that patriotism?

Chuck Norris is calling on his fellow tea partiers to deface the American flag. I'm not kidding.
I suggest you fly some revolutionary flag in lieu of your 50-star flag over the next year. Post the 13-star Betsy Ross flag, Navy Jack or Gadsden flag ("Don't Tread on Me") or any representation that tells the story of Old Glory and makes a stand for our Founders' vision of America.

Of course, patriots know that the 50-star flag truly represents one nation under God and our Founders' republic, but modernists simply don't get it. So what do you say we make a statement by flying a different flag and educate our neighbors when they ask us, "Why are you flying that flag instead of the contemporary Stars and Stripes?" (If you insist on posting a modern USA flag, too, then get one that is tea-stained to show your solidarity with our Founders.)

Really? Stain the flag? I have a better idea Chuck, maybe you could show your dissatisfaction with the government by stomping on the flag or burning it.

I'm not an aging former martial arts star with a Townhall column, so maybe I'm not up to snuff on this, but, when I was in the Cub Scouts, they taught us that soiling the flag was a definite no-no. It's this kind of suggestion that usually drives conservatives to write, call and shout at their congressional representatives to pass laws and constitutional amendments criminalizing flag desecration. For the record, I oppose such laws because I see them as the thin end of the wedge that leads to complete abandonment of the First Amendment. However, i do expect people who claim to respect the flag to actually - you know - respect the flag. This kind of suggestion seem to me to be of a part with those who want to demonstrate their patriotism by seceding and dismantling the Union.

Beyond the forehead smacking idiocy of his suggestion, Norris' column and the comments that follow offer an insightful glimpse into what my friend David Neiwert calls the eliminationist mindset. Norris sets up the us-or-them framework. Naturally, he calls his side the "patriots." What's surprising is what he calls his side's perceived enemies (that's us, dear readers); he calls us "modernists." While conservatism is anti-modern at its core, it's rare to see such an open admission from anyone, except the most extreme fundamentalist, that they are in revolt against the modernity. They usually claim that they are opposed to certain cultural aspects of modernity, not the whole shebang. More ominously, he says of the teabagger movement "we are seeking to protect our nation against enemies of our republic from within (his italics).

Norris' fans take up his Manichean frame and run straight towards the eliminationist goal zone. Cliff in comment #134 says of us, "this group is anti-American. They are traitors in our midst." Linda at #141 confesses, "This is the first time I have ever felt that we are truly being betrayed by our President and that instead of wanting to defend and protect this country, he is trying to bring it down and destroy it. His actions have not been that of an American, but that of a Benedict Arnold." vamtns41 at #15 echoes Norris' language: "Our enemies within (Statist, progressives, far left liberals, Marxist, communist, etc.) are clearly working hard and often successfully at destroying our great country." Jocey at #40 moves them closer to eliminationism: "We really ought to charge with treason those representatives who wantenly (sic) trample the Constitution." What is it that you do with traitors? Herbert at #11 answers the question: "[O]bama should be tried for treason,and put on death row."

This is what passes for patriotism on the far right these days--desecrate the flag and kill the president. These people are dangerous nuts who should be shunned by anyone that we have entrusted with authority or power. Yet one side of our two party system has chosen to pander to the nuts, embrace, and encourage them. It's enough to make the sober want to drink and the drinkers want to give it up.

Update: Looks like Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly beat me to this.
I'm rarely able to understand Norris' perspective, but this seems especially bizarre. Americans who claim to be patriotic should stop flying the American flag? If patriots insist on using the stars and stripes, Norris wants them to pour tea on the flag until it's deliberately stained?

Norris added that doing this would "make our Founders proud." I have no idea what this means.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama weather

For the last decade or so, far right preachers like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell regularly made headlines by interpreting every disaster as God's wrath on America for immorality, or tolerating immorality, or just plain toleration. Natural disasters and especially hurricanes are a favorite of theirs. Hurricane Katrina was a divine judgment against Mardi Gras festivities. Any hurricane that hits Florida is His punishment for a gay pride parade in Ft. Lauderdale or Disney giving benefits to same sex partners of employees at Orlando. So, what are we to make of the fact that, since Obama was inaugurated, we've had an unusually mild hurricane season? I'm not drawing any conclusions; I'm just asking.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Attention Seattle

I'm sure that most of your cars came equipped with that newfangled directional signal option. Now would be a good time to learn how to use it.

PS - Anchorage, I expect you to fix those broken taillights before winter.

Unclear on the concept

At the ultra-conservative Values Voter Summit tonight, Bill O'Reilly is scheduled to be awarded the Family research Council's "Media Courage Award." That session will be closed to the media.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The wrong way to do it

John Amato has this screen shot up at Crooks and Liars with the comment "What more needs to be said?" Quite a bit.

This is a terrible graphic. When I was a history teaching assistant in grad school, one of the most important things I learned in our short teaching orientation, was an observation on how people assimilate information. In its simplest form, there are two types of learners, verbal and visual. at one end of the spectrum are students absorb information entirely in verbal form, either from reading or lectures. At the other end are those who need visual cues, for whom a picture literally worth a thousand words (actual mileage may vary). I'm in that group. I want my history books to have charts and graphs and, especially, maps and lots of them. I can get more out of a well designed map -- and get it a lot faster -- than I get out of a dozen pages of text. I'm a very tough critic of just what constitutes a well designed map. Most of the newer textbooks I perused had sucky maps. Bach at the verbal end of the spectrum, are those people who can't read a map at all. In teaching history, the lesson was explain everything twice, once in words and once in images. In other fields, I believe, the divide is between abstract theory and hands on experimenting.

I didn't hear this Andrea Mitchell Report, so I don't know if her verbal presentation was any good. I do know, however, that this graphic is a disaster at conveying information. Two bars of the same size and color look, well, the same. Without listening carefully or reading closely -- both verbal assimilations of information -- a visually oriented person comes away with the impression that US doctors are evenly divided on the public option, when those favoring it outnumber those opposed by a ratio of better than two to one. For the graphic to communicate the message accurately to visually oriented consumers of news, the graphic needs to look something like this:

In a superb graphic, the two bars would also be in different colors, say red for opposed and green for supporting. To take into consideration certain types of color blindness, they would be in shades of those colors, say dark for supporting and light for opposing. The greater weight of the dark color would reinforce the message that there are more people on that side of the divide.

I'm, no doubt, giving them too much credit for having thought this through, but this presentation looks like the visual counterpart to the "he said, she said" false equivalency that dominates the verbal news media. It's no longer enough to present everything else as mere opinion in which both sides are equally as valid and if there aren't to valid sides to the issue to promote the radical fringe into validity. Now they need to represent issues where there are measurable quantitative differences as being somehow equal.

Television is a visual medium. They should be able get this aspect of their reporting right. It's the minimum requirement of their jobs, not an extra credit assignment. Andrea Mitchell should fire her art director and someone who gets this or, even better, have her art director contract me as a consultant and send me buckets of money. They can get me at bargain rates if they offer a good healthcare package.

Irony has no meaning

Teabaggers complaining about the quality of public transit on their way to protest government spending. It's not the Onion, it's the Wall Street Journal.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) asked for an explanation of why the government-run subway system didn’t, in his view, adequately prepare for this past weekend’s rally to protest government spending and government services. ... "These individuals came all the way from Southeast Texas to protest the excessive spending and growing government intrusion by the 111th Congress and the new Obama administration," Brady wrote. "These participants, whose tax dollars were used to create and maintain this public transit system, were frustrated and disappointed that our nation’s capital did not make a great effort to simply provide a basic level of transit for them." "People couldn’t get on, missed start of march. I will demand answers from Metro," he wrote on Twitter.

Worst of all, somee people had to resort to private enterprise to get to their anti-government rally.
Brady says in his letter to Metro that overcrowding forced an 80-year-old woman and elderly veterans in wheelchairs to pay for cabs. He concludes that it “appears that Metro added no additional capacity to its regular weekend schedule.”

This a classic case of "when I use the government, it's providing neccessary services; when you use the government, it's wasteful spending by the nanny state." You know that these teabaggers would -- to a person -- vote against a mass transit levy in their home towns.

Update: Yep. Brady's as big of a weinie as we suspected:
Brady voted against Federal funding for the very same Metro he’s blaming for offering the tea partiers substandard service.


But earlier this year, Brady voted against the stimulus package. It provided millions upon millions of dollars for all manner of improvements to … the D.C. Metro.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Social networking so far

I've been on Facebook for a couple of weeks now and have located four old high school friends, started a family tree for my niece, taken a bunch of badly written quiz/polls, and probably given away more information about myself than is wise. Yep, it's just as big of a time suck as it was advertised to be.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fear on ice

As part of their marketing, the producers of the movie "WhiteOut" have a little poll running on Facebook.
What is most frightening in Antarctica?

Complete Isolation
-60°C Temperatures
100+ MPH Snowstorms

You'll notice they completely left out the real most frightening thing about Antarctica--Nazis and their their radioactive Yeti allies hiding under the ice.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The real problem with Wilson

Michelle Bachmann must be spitting mad. So far this year she has been the uncontested biggest embarrassment to the House (and just where is Don Young?). Tonight, Rep. Joe Wilson jumped ahead of all the competition with just two words: "You lie!" A speech by the President to the joint houses of Congress is not question time in Parliament--though I do wish we had that institution in the United States. It's supposed to be a fairly formal occasion when everyone is using their eating out manners. The biggest bit of silliness is usually the party of the President trying to embarrass the other party into applauding by frequent "spontaneous" standing ovations. Standing up and shouting "you lie" when the president says the the final bill will not grant coverage to illegal aliens is completely beyond the pale.

By now, everyone and their mandatory writer's cat has commented on Wilson's monumental lack of class. He's going to get seriously kicked around for this, and he'll deserve every blow. Many people will point out that he's also completely wrong. The House bill (the only one finished, so far) specifically says no health care for icky foreigners. Wilson has now apologised for the rudeness, but not for being wrong.

What struck me was the point that brought Wilson to his feet. The Republicans and Blue Dogs object to many aspects of the proposed reforms, and some object to the very idea of health care reform. There are lots of points for differing opinions, interpretations, and preferred solutions. The one that caused Wilson to be overcome with emotion was the very idea that undeserving others might be taken care of when they get sick. This level of meanness has always lain deep below the surface of conservatism. It doesn't often come into the light like this.

I doubt as if any pundits or politicians will comment on this, and if they do, I doubt as any will come out in opposition to such meanness. Obama's speech tried to appeal to the best in our national character. What no one wants to admit is that our national character isn't what it once was.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Zombies of the mammoth steppes

The problem with the internet, we are told, is that it has no standards and no controls. Anything that is written will be recycled endlessly, regardless of whether it is true or not. There is no way to correct bad information on the internet. This is why the internet is inferior to traditional media. At least that's what we're told.

In the three hundred years since Europeans first received reports of a mysterious creature in Siberia called the mammoth, nothing has engendered more public fascination about them than the occasional discovery of nearly intact, frozen mammoth carcasses with flesh still attached. At some point in the nineteenth century, frozen mammoths became a staple of catastrophist theories. As one of the usual suspects, frozen mammoths have regularly been trotted out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth's axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, or that Noah's global flood was real. Sometimes they prove all of the above.

Three particular mammoths show up more often that all of the others combined. The Adams mammoth, named for the person who excavated it, was discovered in 1799 near the mouth of the Lena River. In 1807, Michael Adams journeyed to the spot and recovered most of the skeleton and several hundred pounds of skin and hair. This was the first nearly complete mammoth recovered and scientifically described. It was the basis for all nineteenth century ideas about what a mammoth looked like in life. The Berezovka mammoth, named after the place where it was found in 1901, was also nearly complete. Since scientists were able to get to it soon after its discovery, they were able to examine the tissues and remains of some of the internal organs. In between the Adams and the Berezovka was the Benkendorf mammoth. In 1846 a surveying party, led by a Lt. Benkendorf, discovered a complete mammoth exposed by a flood of the Indigirka river. Before the mammoth was carried away, the party was able to make some measurements and examine the contents of the mammoth's stomach. The main difference between these three famous mammoths is that the Adams and Berezovka mammoths are real, while the Benkendorf mammoth is a complete fiction. The story of Benkendorf's discovery originally appeared in a fairly obscure 1859 German book of science for young people, Kosmos für die Jugend by an author named Philipp Körber.

The fictitious nature of the story hasn't hurt its popularity. In In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood Dr. Walt Brown cites the Benkendorf mammoth in to prove his version of the Noachian flood. John Cogan, in The New Order of Man's History, cites the same mammoth to prove his theory of Atlantis being sunk by a giant asteroid strike. Robert W. Felix cites the Benkendorf mammoth in Not by Fire but by Ice to prove his theory that magnetic pole reversals cause sudden and regular ice ages. In Darwin's Mistake: Antediluvian Discoveries Prove Dinosaurs and Humans Co-Existed, Hans J. Zillmer calls on the same mammoth to disprove both evolution and modern geology.

It's easy to point and laugh at the creationists and catastrophists for being suckered into believing that a fictional mammoth would support their theories. Recycling anecdotes is a well established tradition among conspiracy theorists and other purveyors of forbidden knowledge. Unfortunately, the Benkendorf mammoth has just as long a history of being cited in textbooks, popular science writing, and even academic papers. Samuel Sharp's 1876 textbook Rudiments of Geology uses the Benkendorf mammoth as a source of information about the appearance and diet of mammoths as do the authors of the 1902 edition of The Cambridge Natural History, H. H. Lamb's 1977 book Climate: Present, Past and Future,and a 1983 Time-Life book, Ice Ages. As recently as 2002, Donald R. Prothero and Robert M. Schoch gave two pages to Benkendorf in their Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: the Evolution of Hoofed Mammals.

Why has the Körber story managed to survive so long? More than anything else, I believe three elements have come together to turn Benkendorf's mammoth into a nearly unstoppable zombie. First, the original story was well told, filled with many plausible details, and included the solutions to some outstanding mysteries about mammoths. Probably because of the verisimilitude and answers, the story was adopted and retold in considerable detail by some very influential scientists. Their credibility led to many retellings in both the popular and scientific press. Finally, debunkings of the story have been weak, made by not credible writers, or located in hard to find places.

The story of the discovery is told in the form of a letter to a German friend written by Lt. Benkendorf, an engineer in command of a steam ship surveying the Siberian coast and deltas of the Lena and Indigirka rivers. As the story opens, Benkendorf is taking the ship up the Indigirka to a place where he is to meet a troop of Yakuti horsemen.
In 1846 there was unusually warm weather in the north of Siberia. Already in May unusual rains poured over the moors and bogs, storms shook the earth, and the streams carried not only ice to the sea, but also large tracts of land thawed by the masses of warm water fed by the southern rains.... We steamed on the first favourable day up the Indigirka; but there were no thoughts of land, we saw around us only a sea of dirty brown water, and knew the river only by the rushing and roaring of the stream. The river rolled against us trees, moss, and large masses of peat, so that it was only with great trouble and danger that we could proceed.


Suddenly our jager, ever on the outlook, called loudly, and pointed to a singular and unshapely object, which rose and sank through the disturbed waters.

I had already remarked it, but not given it any attention, considering it only driftwood. Now we all hastened to the spot on the shore, had the boat drawn near, and waited until the mysterious thing should again show itself. Our patience was tried, but at last a black, horrible, giant-like mass was thrust out of the water, and we beheld a colossal elephant's head, armed with mighty tusks, with its long trunk moving in the water in an unearthly manner, as though seeking for something lost therein. Breathless with astonishment, I beheld the monster hardly twelve feet from me, with his half-open eyes yet showing the whites. It was still in good preservation.

Benkendorf's crew secure the mammoth with ropes and chains and try to pull it to the shore, but its rear feet are frozen to the ground and they can't budge it. Refusing to give up, Benkendorf has them tie the ropes to stakes driven into the riverbank and waits for the river to excavate the mammoth for him. The next day, the Yakuti horsemen arrive and Benkendorf puts them to work reeling in his catch.
Picture to yourself an elephant with the body covered with thick fur, about thirteen feet in height and fifteen in length, with tusks eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends, a stout trunk of six feet in length, colossal limbs of one and a half feet in thickness, and a tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair. The animal was fat and well grown; death had overtaken him in the fulness of his powers. His parchment-like, large, naked ears lay fearfully turned up over the head; about the shoulders and the back he had stiff hair about a foot in length, like a mane. The long outer hair was deep brown, and coarsely rooted. The top of the head looked so wild, and so penetrated with pitch, that it resembled the rind of an old oak tree. On the sides it was cleaner, and under the outer hair there appeared everywhere a wool, very soft, warm, and thick, and of a fallow-brown colour. The giant was well protected against the cold. The whole appearance of the animal was fearfully strange and wild. It had not the shape of our present elephants. As compared with our Indian elephants, its head was rough, the brain-case low and narrow, but the trunk and mouth were much larger. The teeth were very powerful. Our elephant is an awkward animal, but compared with this Mammoth, it is as an Arabian steed to a coarse, ugly, dray-horse. I could not divest myself of a feeling of fear as I approached the head; the broken, widely-opened eyes gave the animal an appearance of life, as though it might move in a moment and destroy us with a roar....

The bad smell of the body warned us that it was time to save of it what we could, and the swelling flood, too, bid us hasten. First of all we cut off the tusks, and sent them to the cutter. Then the people tried to hew off the head, but notwithstanding their good will, this work was slow. As the belly of the animal was cut open the intestines rolled out, and then the smell was so dreadful that I could not overcome my nauseousness, and was obliged to turn away. But I had the stomach separated, and brought on one side. It was well filled, and the contents instructive and well preserved. The principal were young shoots of the fir and pine; a quantity of young fir-cones, also in a chewed state, were mixed with the mass....

So intent are they in examining the mammoth that no one notices the river slowly undermining the riverbank. Suddenly, the mammoth is snatched from Benkendof's hands as the bank collapses taking the mammoth and five of the horsemen with it. Sailors from the ship manage to rescue the horsemen, but the mammoth is irretrievably lost.

Besides being a ripping good yarn, Körber's story had a lot going for it. At the time, only one fairly intact mammoth had been recovered and described in scientific literature. This was the Adams mammoth. Adams was able to recover an almost complete skeleton, a large part of the skin, and several bags of hair. However, most of the soft tissue had been eaten by scavengers, the tusks had been cut off and sold, and the hair had shed from the skin. This left the angle of the tusks and the distribution of the hair open to speculation. With no internal organs present, Adams could provide no information about what the mammoth ate. This was an area of great interest since knowing its diet would be a major clue about the past climate of the Arctic coast. Adams' account of recovering the mammoth was published in several languages. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius reassembled the skeleton and published an exact description of it along with large detailed illustrations. Both Adams' and Tilesius' papers were broadly circulated and well known even in the popular press. Körber's description of Benkendorf's mammoth stuck closely to Adams' and Tilesius' descriptions, even where they made incorrect guesses.

Körber describes the tusks as "eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends." This follows Tilesius' attempt at reconstructing the placement of the tusks on the Adams' mammoth. The original tusks had been cut off and sold before Adams reached the mammoth (in fact, it was the ivory merchant who reported the find). Adams bought a pair of tusks on his way back from the coast and claimed they were the originals. Whether he was conned by the ivory merchants or let his own wishful thinking blind him is not clear. These tusks were from a younger, smaller mammoth than the one Adams excavated. Tilesius could only guess at their placement and put them on the wrong sides of the skull with the points curving out and back over the mammoth's shoulders. In part, because of Tilesius' incorrect guess and Körber's confirmation of it, the correct placement of the tusks would still be a topic of debate into the first decade of the twentieth century.

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius' reconstruction of the Adams' mammoth skeleton. Tilesius' work on the body was very accurate. However, since he didn't have the original tusks to work with he was reduced to guesswork on that detail and put the two that he tried to use on the wrong sides. While Tilesius had the tusks curve out and back, a real mammoth's tusks curve down and out, then up and back inward, with the tips actually crossing on an old male. Nineteenth century naturalists expected the tusks to be better weapons than they really were. Tilesius' mistake wouldn't be corrected until 1899 and not generally accepted for another decade.

The idea that the hair on the mammoth should be in the form of a mane, rather than equally distributed about the body, comes from Adams. Adams described the mammoth, when he first viewed it, as having "a long mane on the neck." By the time Adams reached St. Petersburg, all of the hair had fallen off of the skin. Since Adams says most of the hair had fallen off by the time he reached the mammoth, it might be that the only hair he saw still attached was around the neck and shoulders. In any case, this was another incorrect assumption that gained support from Körber's tale.

Körber provided two other details about the mammoth's appearance that were bad guesses. The "tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair" is a nice detail that goes along with the lion-like mane. On Adams' mammoth, the tail had been carried off by scavengers; its appearance was anybody's guess. The "parchment-like, large, naked ears" are a convincing detail that make his mammoth more elephant-like. When Adams began excavating his mammoth, most of the flesh and the skin of the head had been eaten by scavengers. However, one side of the head was still buried and had preserved its skin and ear. Adams mentioned only that ear was "furnished with a tuft of fur." By the time the skin reached St. Petersburg, the ear had dried out and was too damaged for Tilesius to draw any conclusions about its original appearance.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' famous illustration, published in 1859, makes the same assumptions as Körber about the placement of the mammoth's tusks, big ears, mane, and lions tuft at the end its tail. At the time, these details were being challenged by naturalists to no avail.

While all of these external details were corrected by the early years of the twentieth century, Körber's imaginative description of the contents of the mammoth's stomach is a important bit of misinformation that persists to this day.
I had the stomach separated, and brought on one side. It was well filled, and the contents instructive and well preserved. The principal were young shoots of the fir and pine; a quantity of young fir-cones, also in a chewed state, were mixed with the mass....

We can be fairly certain that Körber didn't set out to fool the scientific community. His book was intended for young people with an interest in science. Unfortunately, this one detail, taken as a scientific observation, had consequences in several fields. At the time, discovering what the mammoth ate was considered the most important evidence as to the environment in which it lived. Naturalists were divided between those who thought elephants in the Arctic meant Siberia had had a warm climate in the recent past, and those who thought mammoths were adapted to the cold, meaning Siberia's cold climate had never changed.* The answer to the question had great implications for understanding the nature of the mammoth, the nature of the ice ages, and whether or not geological and climatological conditions changed gradually or catastrophically.

As with the physical appearance of the mammoth, Körber's speculation about the diet of the mammoth was based on solid science. In one of the earliest attempts at debunking the Benkendorf story, Johann Friedrich von Brandt pointed out that the description of the mammoth's diet accorded very closely with his own research into woolly rhinoceroses. He went on ,rather testily, to accuse Körber with stealing his ideas on how mammoths and rhinoceroses came to be frozen in Siberia. When Körber's book went to press in 1859, the only account of Brandt's research into woolly rhinoceroses was a letter published in the journal of the Royal Prussian Academy in 1846. The key passage it this:
I have been so fortunate as to extract from cavities in the molar teeth of the Wiljui rhinoceros a small quantity of its half-chewed food, among which fragments of pine leaves, one-half of the seed of a polygonaceous plant, and very minute portions of wood with porous cells (or small fragments of coniferous wood), were still recognizable.

It's certainly possible that Körber was familiar with Brandt's letter. The original was published in his native language, German. It was also published in one of the most influential geology books of the century, Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, from the 1853 edition forward.

Brandt may have been right in suspecting that his letter was the source of Körber's supposition, but Körber had another source available to him. In 1805, a mastodon skeleton was discovered in Virginia by workmen digging a well. Word of the discovery made it to Bishop James Madison. In a letter to Benjamin Smith Barton, Madison described the most important part of the discovery:
It is now no longer a question, whether the [mastodon] was a herbivorous or carnivorous animal.** Human industry has revealed a secret, which the bosom of the earth had, in vain, attempted to conceal. In digging a well, near a Salt-Lick, in Wythe-county, Virginia, after penetrating about five feet and a half from the surface, the labourers struck upon the stomach of a mammoth. The contents were in a state of perfect preservation, consisting of half masticated reeds, twigs, and grass, or leaves. There could be no deception; the substances were designated by obvious characters, which could not be mistaken, and of which every one could judge; besides, the bones of the animal lay around, and added a silent, but sure, confirmation.

Barton was an influential scientist in his own right and the publisher of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal. Barton not only published Bishop Madison's letter, he forwared it to Baron Georges Cuvier who quoted it in his Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes. Like Lyell's Geology, Recherches was an enormously influential book that went through numerous editions. Even before the first edition of Recherches was published, American readers knew that the story was wrong. In 1809, Madison wrote to several of the American journals that had published his letter to say that his sources had exaggerated. It was true that the vegetable matter was found inside the skeleton of the mastodon, but it was no different from the vegetable matter in the soil surrounding the skeleton. Unfortunately, no one thought to tell Cuvier and the misinformation was repeated in every edition of Recherches.

The story of the Benkendorf mammoth made it into academic and popular science literature in the early 1860s, just a few years after the publication of Körber's book. By the end of the century, some of the details were so well established that they had could stand up against newer, and more correct, data. A mammoth well enough preserved that it still had its stomach matter intact wasn't discovered until 1901 when the Berezovka mammoth was found. Otto Herz recovered thirty-five pounds of plant matter from the mammoth's stomach and mouth, which turned out to be meadow grasses and not conifers. However, when the final analysis of this material was published in 1914, the author, V. N. Sukachev, almost apologetically wrote that his conclusions gave "no particular reasons for distrusting Benkendorf's testimony." The two diets have continued side by side to this day creating confusion about the nature of the mammoth's habitat.

How is it that the educated guesses in a children's science book gained such credibility? For that, the responsibility lies with two prestigious scientists who reprinted Körber's tale and by the weakness of the efforts to debunk it.

On 26 November 1842, twenty-seven year old Alexander von Middendorff left St. Petersburg for Siberia. Middendorff had been hired by the Academy of Sciences to investigate the phenomena of permafrost and conduct a survey of the flora and fauna of the Taymyr Peninsula. His tiny expedition included three other scientists, four Cossacks, and a Nenets interpreter. The expedition was brutal--Middendorff suffered freezing, starving, and severe depression--but ultimately was successful. Before returning to St. Petersburg, Middendorff mounted a second expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk and ascended the Amur River.Leaving one of his companions behind to continue gathering data in Yakutsk, he returned to the capital in 1845 as something of a scientific celebrity. Middendorff's letters from the field were published in the journal of the Academy and a short report was written based on the letters. The Emperor found the report quite interesting and gave all of the scientists medals and pensions. There is no word whether the Cossacks or the interpreter received any reward for their parts. Middendorff then settled down to write the formal analysis of the data they had gathered. It took him thirty years. I'm sure any graduate student will empathize.

Middendorff found the remains of a mammoth while he was on the Taymyr Peninsula. Immediately upon returning to St. Petersburg, he began to collect information about other discoveries of mammoth carcasses. Lyell included some information from Middendorff in the 1847 edition of his Geology. Middendorff wrote a long article on mammoths in 1860 as a warm up to his official report on his own find. This appeared in 1867. Along with the details of his own find, Middendorff included an historical survey of previous finds with the entire Benkendorf letter. This is the ultimate source of the transition of Körber's tale from the realm of fiction into the realm of fact.

It appears to me that Körber's tale came to Middendoff's attention because of Johann Brandt's debunking of it. Middendorff and Brandt were colleagues and friends. At the same time Middendorff was writing the volume of his researches that included his mammoth, Brandt published, in a popular Russian magazine, an article on mammoths that concluded with his debunking of Körber. Brandt was upset because he believed Körber had stolen his theories on the mammoth's diet and how mammoth carcasess came to be preserved. Brandt was quite emphatic in his rejection of the Benkendorf story: "[T]he whole story of Benkendorf is pure lie and invention. The expedition to the Indigirka never took place and could not take place because of the impenetrable masses of ice of the Arctic Ocean; Benckendorf is a work of imagination."

If Middendorff learned of Körber's tale from Brandt, he should also have known of Brandt's objections. For Middendorff, the most telling evidence of the story's fictitious nature should have been the sheer magnitude of Benkendorf's expedition. Middendorff's expedition to the Taymyr was made up of a mere four scientists, four Cossacks, and an interpreter. The idea that a fully crewed steam cutter and fifty Yakuti horsemen could have been dispatched to the same region a mere three years later must have sounded to Middendorff like fiction, and bad fiction at that. When Middendorff copied the Benkendorf letter into his report, he added a warning to his readers that they shouldn't put too much faith in the account:
Since we know the birthday of the enterprising countryman of mine to whom we owe this extraordinary discovery, because we have before us his life's story and the story of his expedition down to the minor details, there would seem to be no doubt about this wonderful discovery. The real and invented are so cheekily woven together here that it is worthy of a place along side la Martiniere's fanatsy of Novaya Zemlya [a famous seventeenth century hoax] that persisted for so long. But I do not deprive my readers of the pleasure of reading this.

This is far from Brandt's uncompromising rejection of the story. Middendorff went further in qualifying his rejection. Following the account, he wrote:
We can only hope that at some time in the future the author will publish this episode himself and describe many other adventures and occurrences experiences seen by him during his travels in Siberia. We are happy that at least a small grain from his rich store of information has come down to us.

Middendorff seems to have thought that the Benkendorf letter, as published, was a generously embellished account of a real discovery. Regardless of what he may have thought, such nuance and his various caveats were completely missed by later authors. Although Middendorff started out as an unknown teacher on a small research expedition, the quality of the monographs based on his research made him a well respected authority within a very short time after his return. Scientists all over Europe and the Americas eagerly awaited new papers and carefully studied each one, though, in this case, not as carefully as they should have.

Alexander Theodor von Middendorff: Was it all his fault?

Middendorff's reports were published in German and have never been translated into English except in fragments used by English speaking scientists in their own works. William Boyd Dawkins was one of those scientists and the person most responsible for introducing Benkendorf to the English speaking world and for lending credibility to the story. Dawkins was an influential British geologist who became involved in debates over the antiquity of man, labor rights, and the channel tunnel. It was the first of those that got him interested in mammoths.

In 1868, within a few months of Middendorff's monograph being published, Dawkins referred to it in an article entitled "On the Range of the Mammoth" published in Popular Science Review. Dawkins included almost the entire text of the Benkendorf letter (in his own translation). He introduced the letter with "The fourth and by far the most important discovery of a body is described by an eye-witness of its resurrection; so valuable in its bearings that we translate it at some length." Dawkins went on to emphasize the importance of the apocryphal stomach contents:
This most graphic account affords a key for the solution of several problems hitherto unknown. It is clear that the animal must have been buried where it died, and that it was not transported from any place further up stream, to the south, where the climate is comparatively temperate. The presence of fir in the stomach proves that it fed on the vegetation which is now found at the northern part of the woods as they join the low, desolate, treeless, moss-covered tundra, in which the body lay buried—a fact that would necessarily involve the conclusion that the climate of Siberia, in those ancient days, differed but slightly from that of the present time. Before this discovery the food of the Mammoth had not been known by direct evidence.

For the English speaking world, this was the moment that the genie escaped the bottle. Dawkins either didn't notice Middendorff's qualifications or didn't understand their significance. Because Dawkins was a scientist of some prominence, other scientists and writers felt safe in following his lead. During the last part of the nineteenth century, dozens of writers made reference to the Benkendorf mammoth on Dawkins' authority.

Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins: Was it all his fault?

After 1868, the story of the Benkendorf mammoth took off with a roar while attempts to debunk it, or even to make qualifications, as Middendorff did, gained no traction whatsoever. Brandt's debunking was published in a Russian language popular magazine and went almost entirely unnoticed. It was mentioned in 1867 in the Bulletin de la Société impériale des naturalistes de Moscou by Alexander Brandt, who wanted to assure his readers that there was no feud between Middendorff and Johann Brandt, and again in 1958 by B. A. Tikhomirov. I know of no other reference to Brandt's debunking during the intervening ninety-one years. Neither Middendorf nor Brandt made any effort to correct the misinformation being spread.

There was nothing extraordinary about the paper on mammoth extinction that Henry H. Howorth read at the 1869 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Howarth reviewed the unanswered questions about the mammoth and its environment, and proposed a catastrophic flood to account for both their extinction and the ice age (it was a common belief, at the time, that the mammoths went extinct before the ice age, not after). Howarth's flood theory was well within the mainstream of geologic thought at the time. Over the next decade he established himself as a solid figure in politics and as an historian. In the early 1880s, however, he began to develop his flood ideas in a series of articles published in Geological Magazine. In these, he took a more strident tone and denounced the uniformist orthodoxy of the geological community and what he called "the extreme Glacial views of [Louis] Agassiz." In 1887 he organized his ideas into a book, The Mammoth and the Flood. Two other books on his catastrophic ideas followed.

Howorth did not believe the Benkendorf story. In the first of his articles of the 1880s, Howorth revealed that he was familiar with several pieces that referenced Benkendorf, but he ignored the story. In fact, he went so far as to say, "I am not aware that the contents of the stomach of any Siberian Mammoth have been hitherto examined." In an article in 1882, Howorth directly took on Benkendorf:
This notice has always seemed to me to be most suspicious. ... I confess my suspicions were not allayed when I found [Middendorff] had obtained it ... from a boy's book. ... It is very strange that if genuine no accounts of this discovery should have reached the ears of Baer or Brandt, Schmidt or Schrenck, who none of them mention it, and that it should be first heard of in a popular book for boys in [1859].

Howorth repeated his suspicions in The Mammoth and the Flood. Since 1869, the scientific community had moved away from catastrophism, and Howarth's theories were dismissed as an eccentric hobby horse of an otherwise reputable politician. It would be easy to say that because of that, no one noticed his appraisal of the Benkendorf story. However, despite the rejection of his geological theories, Howarth's book continued to be read for his encyclopedic history of mammoth discoveries. His suspicions about Benkendorf are smack in the middle of this history, and yet generations of researchers have managed to miss them.

Perhaps the most frustrating semi-debunking of Körber's story came in 1929. I. A. Tolmachoff's "Carcasses of the Mammoth and Rhinoceros in Siberia" is a classic of mammoth paleontology. In it, Tolmachoff described all of the finds of mammoths with flesh still attached. His count of thirty-nine is still sometimes repeated, as is his map of their locations In fact, the count is now up to around one hundred and his thirty-nine carcasses included four rhinoceroses. Tolmachoff was firm in his rejection of the story, saying "Howorth quite correctly considers it a fiction. ... Such an expedition never took place to this part of Siberia. The first steamer arrived to the Lena River only... in 1881."

It's possible that Tolmachoff's debunking wasn't entirely missed. The name Benekndorf has slowly faded out of scientific literature. Prothero and Schoch's lengthy quote is more of an exception than a rule. Körber's misinformation about mammoth diet has been harder to stamp out, because it gained a life of its own attached to Middendorff's authority but separated from its Benkendorf origin.

The Russian scientist B.A. Tikhomirov tried to deal with both the diet misinformation and the Benkendorf story in an article that was published in Russian in 1958 and in English in 1961. The title "The Expedition That Never Was -- Benkendorf's Expedition to the River Indigirka" should be all that most people need to see to get the point. Unfortunately, most people didn't see it. In the same year that the English version of Tikhomirov's article was printed, William Farrand published his article, "Frozen Mammoths and Modern Geology," which made reference to Benkendorf. Using Google Scholar, Google Book, and plain old Google, I can find well over two hundred references to Farrand's article and zero to Tikhomirov. I made no attempt to eliminate the duplicates in Farrand's results, but the imbalance is clear. Although Farrand's article is excellent and deserves the attention it has received, it is a perfect example of how difficult it has been to stamp out the myth of Benkendorf's mammoth.

Gratuitous mammoth, just because I thought we needed another illustration. This one is an early work by the Czech illustrator, Zdenek Burian.

That catastrophists and others have kept the Benkendorf story alive isn't surprising. Catastrophists, conspiracy buffs, and other forbidden knowledge writers not only endlessly recycle each other's material, when mainstream scientific literature does penetrate their sphere, it is usually decades out of date. Maybe someday they'll hear of Tikhomirov, until then, I'm the best thing the internet has to offer as a mammoth myth debunker. I fully expect every blogger I know to link to this post and raise it up in the Google ranks, Not because I'm begging for traffic, mind, you, but as a public service. You owe it to the kids. It's always the kids who suffer the most.

The internet has made the dissemination of bad information faster and easier than ever before, it did not invent the problem. Print media did just fine in spreading nonsense for the five thousand years and will continue to play its party for the foreseeable future. Long after mankind has eliminated itself from the globe and the world has been left to cockroaches and crabgrass, those cockroaches will talk about the Benkendorf mammoth.

Final word: The Benkendorf story might have left one good deed as part of its legacy. While hunting for examples of Benkendorf still in circulation, I found five separate sites offering the same term paper on the ice age with -- you guessed it -- prominent space given to the Benkendorf mammoth. For you teachers out there, the sites are:, Essaymania, Midtermpapers, Digital Essays, and Example The last site is my favorite because they also offer a really bad essay on the "Siberian" Scientist Nicola Tesla. ***

* At the time, there was a separate, related, dispute over whether or not mammoths had really lived in Siberia. Many naturalists thought that mammoths, as elephants, must have lived in a warmer climate. At the same time they felt Siberia must have always been as cold as it is today. Therefore, they concluded, the mammoth bones and cadavers found in Siberia must have come from somewhere else, probably far to the south, and that their remains were carried to Siberia by rivers or ocean currents. Someday I’ll write post on the controversy.

** Yes. At the time, they thought the mastodon might have been carnivorous. I wrote about the killer mastodon here.

*** I still seem to be having trouble with that "keep your posts under a thousand words" thing.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A useful graphic

Soon after the inauguration, Republicans thought they had a winner in calling the current economic mess "the Obama Recession." A year ago you'd have to be as deluded as Glenn Beck to believe such revisionist nonsense, but Obama seems to have brought out the inner Glenn Beck in millions of people, turning our national political discourse into a freakshow of conspiracy nuts on parade. In most areas, it's almost impossible to penetrate their alternate reality bubble, but it is possible to make some quick rebuttals of the "Obama Recession" lie. Here's one.

Steve Benen made the original chart and I only added the arrow and lower labels. The chart shows job losses over the last ten months. Admittedly, the fact that there have been hundreds of thousands of losses every month for the last year is pretty depressing, but there has been a very clear and easy to understand change in the momentum. Things are crappy and continuing to get crappier, but it's easy to see that things could stop getting crappier pretty soon and even start getting less crappy in the foreseeable future. So, print this out on a notecard (do they still make notecards?) and keep it on hand so that the next time your right-wing neighbor or brother-in-law starts ranting about how Obama is destroying the economy and the stimulus has been a failure, you can whip this out and smack them around with a real fact.

Remember, facts are our friends.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

According to the evidence, Joe Klein is a bad person

Joe Klein thinks he has the definitive takedown of Glenn Greenwald.
During that time, I have never seen him write a positive sentence about the US military, which has transformed itself dramatically for the better since Rumsfeld’s departure (indeed, he ridiculed me when I reported that the situation in Anbar Province was turning around in 2007). I have never seen him acknowledge that the work of the clandestine service—performed disgracefully by the CIA during the early Bush years—is an absolute necessity in a world where terrorists have the capability to attack us at any time, in almost any place. Nor have I seen [him] acknowledge that such a threat exists, nor make a single positive suggestion about how to confront that threat in ways that might conform to his views. Therefore, I have seen no evidence that he cares one whit about the national security of the United States. It is not hyperbole, it is a fact.

Joe Kline has never written a a positive word about Woolly Mammoths. He has never opined on the important issue of who's more awesome, Mammoths or T-Rexes. Nor have I seen him acknowledge that whether or not we should clone new Mammoths is one of the defining issues of our day. Therefore, I have seen no evidence that he cares one whit about science. It is not hyperbole, it is a fact.