Thursday, October 31, 2013

Progress report

Over on Facebook I've begun posting daily progress reports on the book. Here's what I have for the month: I started the month severely depressed and barely wrote anything for the first two weeks. I'd keep from completely falling into the whole by hunting for biographical material on some of my mammoth writers and doing some translations.

I finally got myself moving again about two weeks ago. That's when I decided to start putting up my daily reports. I work best when I have small deadlines and an audience that I don't want to disappoint. I'm going to keep this up as an experiment and see if it keeps me focussed and movong quickly. Maybe I'll start weekly reports here on the blogs.

For October:
  • I've written about 10,000 usable words.
  • That includes an entire chapter (admittedly a short one).
  • I put a nice dent into another chapter.
  • I think I figured out the solution to an organizational problem that has been bothering me.
  • That third early occurrence of the word "mammoth" in print? The other two were just trivia; I think this one is important.
Well, what do you think? Is a weekly or monthly progress report something I should add the blogs (daily would be a bit much)?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In your face OED

My smackdown or the mighty and majestic Oxford English Dictionary continues!The OED says the first time the word "mammoth" (in any form) appeared in print was in 1692. I just found my third from before that date! That alone will be worth the price of my book.

PS - They know of three unpublished instances before then. I know of four.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mammoth or mastodon?

Let's suppose you've decided to make a name for yourself in cryptozoology. Everyone and their chupacabra is out looking for sasquatches and lake monsters. Your way to fame will be through finding your own monster and carving out your own turf. So you pack up your extra grainy, black and white camera (the preferred tool of cryptozooligists everywhere) and head off to a lost valley in Montana known only to you and the wizened shaman who told you about it. After a day of fruitless searching, you're heading back to camp. It's that hour between day and night when the light is at its most deceptive. Suddenly, you hearing a crashing the underbrush and there it is. It's the biggest animal you've ever seen! It's covered with long hair! It has a trunk and tusks! You've discovered the last mammoth! Or mastodon. Are they the same thing? If they're not, what is the difference?

First of all, they are not the same thing. They are not even that closely related. They are two different species, in two different genera, in two different families of the order Proboscidea. They are about as closely related as you and a ring-tailed lemur. Today, the order Proboscidea is represented by three species, in two genera of the same family, but, in its evolutionary history, the order has produced at least two suborders, eight families, thirty eight genera, and almost two hundred species. At the end of the last ice age, the number of poboscidean species wandering the earth was in the high teens. They inhabited every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They lived in forests, prairies, jungles, around the edges of deserts, and out on the tundra. They could be found on seacoasts, islands, and high in the mountains.

If mastodons are way over there, where is the mammoth? Mammoths, and there have been about eight species, have their own genus, Mammuthus. They split off from Asian elephants (genus Elphas) about six million years ago. This was after the latter split off from African elephants (genus Loxodonta). At the time, all three genera lived in Africa. As mammoths moved north from Africa into Europe and Asia, they gradually evolved from one species into another to adapt to new climates and in response to the world cooling into the ice ages.

Eventually, two species of mammoth made their way into North America. Yes, two. There is nothing simple about elephant evolution. The steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontheri) evolved in northeastern Asia somewhat less than two million years ago. This was early in the ice ages. This species was adapted to a cool dry climate. It spread to the north and west. The northern group crossed the Bering Straits during a period of low sea levels--that is, just before or just after a glacial period when lots of water is still locked up in ice caps, but the climate in Alaska is still somewhat temperate (my own opinion is that it was after a glacial maximum). This group moved into North America and adapted to grasslands and lightly forested areas. In time, it populated most of the contiguous US and Mexico down to the valley surrounding Mexico City. This population, adapted to a temperate and we call the resulting species the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi).

The steppe mammoths that stayed in Asia eventually spread back across the grasslands of central Eurasia (the steppes) all the way to Ireland and Spain. These mammoths adapted to the coldest climate. They became a keystone species involved in creating an Arctic grassland in areas that are now tundra. We call this lost ecological system, the mammoth steppe. As opposed to the current steppe which runs through central Eurasia south of the forest zone, the mammoth steppe existed in the dry, cold region north of the forests. These mammoths became shorter and stockier that other than the Columbian mammoth. Their hair became longer and the developed a layer of wool next to their skin. AS you may have guessed, this is the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). During an interglacial period about 500,000 years ago, a population of these mammoths crossed into North America. During the last few glacial periods, they created mammoth steppes on both sides of the American ice sheets, in the northern US states and Canadian prairie provinces and in Alaska and the Yukon.

Okay. I understand the mammoths. What were the mastodons doing during all of this? Mastodons were going nuts, creating new species left and right. The ancestors of mammoths and mastodons split from each other early in the evolution of Proboscidea, possibly over forty million years ago. The majority of proboscid species are on the mastodon side of the order. The ancestors of mastodons entered the New World long before mammoths, possibly in more than one wave. There were three or four species living in South America when humans arrived and the best known species (Mammut americanum) living in North America. Mastodon remains have been found all over the forty eight contiguous states and as far south as Honduras.

We're finally there. We have mammoths and we have mastodons and we have them living side by side in North America. Doesn't that pose a problem? How can you have two large hungry animals filling the same ecological niche? The answer is: you almost never can. Mammoths and mastodons didn't fill the same niche. Forty million years of separate evolution produced two similar looking animals, but the two animals had different feeding habits. Mammoths were primarily grazers. The ate grasses and herbs. They can eat other plant matter, such as tree bark, but their teeth and digestive systems are best suited for ground plants. Mastodons were primarily browsers. They ate mostly leaves and small branches. Where we have found gut contents for mastodons, it has been mostly made up of conifers such as pine, spruce, and fir. Mammoths were found mostly on prairies and grasslands and mastodons in boggy forests. There would have been some overlap around the edges of their ranges, but no extensive contact.

Mammoth tooth discovered during the Thirty Years War. Source.

The first evidence of this difference was their teeth. Mammoths, like elephants, had big loaf shaped teeth made up of parallel plates that were used to grind their food. They had one in each jaw, for a total of just four. Grinding eventually destroys the teeth, so they grew a new pair every ten years or so. Mastodon teeth look more like a familiar molar. They were enamel covered and had high knobby cusps. They had two in each jaw, for a total of eight. This kind of tooth is good for tearing branched apart.

When large numbers of mastodon bones arrived in Europe in the Eighteenth Century, the teeth presented a problem. The ivory and other bones made it easy to recognize it as similar to elephants and mammoths. Were the remains found in some unique place where mammoths came to die, leaving all their bones, except the teeth, and where some other large animal came to die, leaving none of its bones, except the teeth? Putting the teeth and skeletons together as a single animal created a particularly horrifying image. Molars with pointed cusps, like the mastodon had, were thought to be a sign of meat eating. Some of the published descriptions of the animal imagined it pouncing on entire herds of buffalo and tearing them to shreds.

Mastodon tooth found near the Ohio River in 1739. Source.

By the end of that century, people like Ben Franklin on this side of the Atlantic and Baron Cuvier on the other, had managed to convince the scientific community that mastodons and mammoths were distinct species, separate from elephants, and, almost certainly, extinct. That last part was a disturbing idea that bordered on religious heresy. Extinction implied that God's creation came with extra, unnecessary parts. This flew in the face of how Europeans conceived of creation. The world, to them, was a perfect machine. Every part had its own mysterious purpose. Superfluous parts meant the world was not perfect and, possibly, that God was not perfect. Many flat out refused to believe that extinction was possible. These animals had to still exist in some unexplored corner of the world. When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the headwaters of the Missouri river and continue on to the Pacific coast, his instructions explicitly included orders to look for mammoths and mastodons.

From the above, you've probably guessed that the chief determiner of their uniqueness was the teeth. When Baron Cuvier presented the paper that was seen as the final word in the argument, he coined the name mastodonte. The etymology is from the Greek "masto" meaning breast or nipple and "dont" meaning tooth. Cuvier thought the cusps of the teeth look breast like. He probably needed to get out more often. Jefferson, with his American charm, called the mastodon "bubbie toothed." Cuvier was too late with his name. Just a few years earlier, his peer Joseph Blumenbach had taken the initiative in giving the two extinct animals Linean binomials. The mammoth, he thought, was too close to the Asian elephant to deserve separate genus. He named it Elphas primigenius, meaning the primeval, or first, elephant. This was factually wrong. Woolly mammoths evolved much later than Asian elephants. The mastodon, he confusingly named Mammut americanum, meaning American mammoth. When paleontologists eventually decided to put the woolly mammoth in its own genus, along with later discovered mammoths, they named it Mammuthus primigenius which is still wrong because it was the last mammoth.

Let's get back to your budding cryptozoology career. The beast in the brush did not stop long enough to give you a big toothy grin so you could figure out its dietary preferences. Don't worry, despite two centuries of bad illustrations making them look the same, there are significant enough differences in appearance to make an identification. Thanks to finding almost intact frozen mammoths, we know more about them than any other prehistoric, extinct animal. This includes details of their appearance. We know what their ears looked like and what the very tips of their trunks looked like. We don't know as much about fine details of mastodon appearance, but we know enough.

A very nice person made this and donated it to Wikipedia. Source.

Woolly mammoths have a distinct and well known profile. Their back slopes down from their shoulders to their hips. This is not formed by and great difference in the length of their legs. Instead, it is caused by long dorsal spines on their thoracic vertebrae. This humped area is used to store fat for the winter. The woolly has a high domed head tight against its shoulders and tusks that begin pointing almost straight down before making a tight corkscrew curl back up almost to eye level. Columbian mammoths differ from woollies by being taller. Their legs are longer and the hump is less pronounced. Their hair probably wasn't as dense as on the woolly.

Mastodons had shorter legs and longer bodies than either mammoth. The line of their back was fairly straight. Their heads projected further forward as did their tusks. The curve of the tusks was more like those of modern elephants. Baby mastodons had short tusks in their lower jaws, though they shed these when their adult teeth came in and reshaped their jaws. Mastodons probably had longer tails than woolly mammoths, though you would only notice that if you saw them together. Like the Columbian mammoth, mastodons didn't have fur as thick as the woolly's wool.

There you have it, the key to a good photographic identification of a mammoth or mastodon is to catch them in profile, maybe in the crest of a hill, silhouetted by the setting sun. Good luck with that.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Mini-Snopes: the last line of defense against Obamacare

This bit of wisdom has been around since 2010 and has been attributed to no lesser great thinker than Donald Trump. Sadly, the real Snopes has determined that the Toupee never said this in any documented venue. To proceed:
Let me get this straight.
It says, in a probable copyright violation of a Hallmark character.
Were going to be "gifted" with a health care plan...
I'm not sure who called it a "gift," but feel free to make fun of them is you want.
...which we will be forced to purchase...
Actually, there is no plan that you will be forced to buy. You see, this idea is part of the claim that the government is going to "take over" the health care system. This argument is, what experts in logic call, "a lie." What the law requires is that everyone have insurance. That's it. If you get insurance through your employer, as fewer and fewer people do, that's great, nothing changes. If you get your insurance through socialistic government programs like Medicare or Veterans' benefits, that's also great. If you can afford to buy your own insurance, good for you, nothing changes. If you can't afford insurance, or have been empoverishing yourself to pay for it, you might be eligible for a tax break or subsidy. Many people too poor to purchase their own insurance will be eligible for expanded Medicaid, unless you live in a state with a Republican legislature that will not allow the expansion.
...and fined if we don't...
The only people who will be fined are people who can afford insurance, but who refuse to buy it, thus saddling the rest of us with their expenses when they have to go to an emergency room.
...which purportedly covers at least ten million more people...
More than that, I hope, since about fifty million Americans are without insurance.
...without adding a single new doctor...
I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Maybe someone made that claim, but I'm not sure who that was. What I want to know is, why is more doctors a bad thing? Hundreds of counties, mostly blood red, already need doctors. Doctors are well paid professionals who make a significant contribution to their local economies. I think more doctors is a good thing.

...but provides for 16,000 new IRS agents...

Congratulations, I'm glad to see that you've finally moved down from the claim of a quarter million IRS agents to a slightly less ridiculous number of 16,000. Nothing in the law provides for that number of new IRS agents. The IRS estimates the number will be closer to 375, or 7.5 per state.
...written by a committee...
Okay. The run on nature of the sentence is getting out of control. I'm going to express my editorial prerogative as the owner of the blog to add some sentence breaks.
[This bill was] written by a committee whose chairman says he doesn't understand it...
In fact, it was written by several committees. Republicans had a lot of influence on some of those committees. I'm not sure which chairman the writer means, but this is the first in a series of comments in which the writer tries to use one person out of the 300 million Americans to invalidate the law.
...passed by a Congress that didn't read it but exempted themselves from it...
Congress didn't exempt themselves from the bill. They hadn't when this tirade first started circulating and they haven't since then. This nefarious disinformation is based on a bit of unsuccessful trickery inserted into the original bill by one of it's Republican authors, Sen. Chuck Grassley. To review: everyone is required to have insurance. Members of Congress and their staffs already have insurance, the same insurance all federal employees have, no better, no worse.
...and signed by a president who smokes...
At this point we move into a series of meaningless cheap shots that, as far as I can tell, serve no other purpose than to fill space. This shows the ignorance of the person who wrote this rant. Short pithy quotes are much more effective that a long rambling rant. But, to the point. So what if the president smokes? I haven't seen any evidence of him smoking in the last few years. But even if he was smoking like a chimney, so what? The law doesn't require us to live the exact same lifestyle as the president. Who cares if he smokes?
... with funding administered by a treasury chief who didn't pay his taxes...
Again, so what. The Secretary of the Treasury's past taxes are relevant to his getting the job. His current taxes are relevant to his keeping the job. None of his personal taxes are relevant to the validity of funding any specific bill. If they were, we would have to disband the military.
...for which we'll be taxed for four years before any benefits take effect...
Well, it's been over three years since the bill was passed. Many of the benefits have already taken effect. The Medicare prescription donut-hole has been closed. Young adults up to the age of 26 can stay on their parents' insurance, children cannot be refused insurance for pre-existing conditions. And, on January 1, I'll have insurance for my cataracts. I'm not sure which horrible taxes I've been toiling under during those years, but they don't seem to have destroyed the republic. I thank the founders for designing our country so that allowing a bare hint of the compassion of our peers lavish won't destroy us. a government which has already bankrupted Social Security and Medicare...
Neither Social Security nor Medicare is bankrupt. We might argue about how to maintain their solvency in the future, but neither was bankrupt when this first began circulating and they are not not. To say so is unconscionable fear-mongering.
...all to be overseen by a surgeon general who is obese...
It's still an irrelevant cheap shot and, by now, tiresome. If we hired an aerobics instructor as Surgeon General, would you suddenly support the bill? Whatever your answer, it reflects badly on your argument.
 ...and financed by a country that is broke!
And no matter how often this is repeated, it's still a lie. Paychecks to our military are still honored by the banks. Foreign countries still line up to buy our bonds, even though we are now paying no interest. However, if we default on those bonds by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, then we might destroy our credit rating. The last time Republicans played games with the debt ceiling, our credit rating lost a notch, for the first time in our history. The only thing that held it up was the fact that we are too big to fail.

But, that is a different lesson. For now, the important lesson is that this rant is a farago (don't you love that word?) of lies, half-truths, deceptions, and irrelevancies.

To return to the document at hand.
What the hell could possibly go wrong?
Well , some honest person might be fooled by this BS.

Lack of internet

Day One

1:52 - What I thought was a mere slowdown has turned into full-blown no internet. I have decided to leave this journal so that when they find my lifeless hulk they will know I did not go down without a fight.

2:12 - I can handle this. I have work to do. The writing has been going well today. I can get by on my existing research. I don't have to look anything up. And there are dishes that need to be done. I probably wouldn't have had time to look at the internet anyway.

2:19 - Why does Chrome even have a refresh button when it won't refresh? They could easily make something that would replace the refresh button with a we're sorry button. Would that be so hard? But no, they choose to temp me with the promise of internet and then break my heart. What kind of sadistic torture is this?

2:25 - I'm out of coffee. I'm out of coffee!!!! What the hell is going on here?!? Is the whole world breaking down???????

2:36 - Nothing.

3:22 - The stove is looking nice and clean. Maybe I should do this more often.

4:38 - I wonder if they still make Zagnut candy bars. I can't even remember what they tasted like, but the name sure was fun to say. Zaaaaag-nut. Zagnut.

5:40 - Is it too early for a glass of wine? I was planning to have wine with dinner tonight. It's not like there's rule against having a glass or two before dinner. But if I have it now, I might not have enough for dinner. That would be bad. And after I have wine, I won't be able to go get more wine. The nearest store is two miles away, and I won't want to drive then. Maybe I should save it. Yes. That's what I'll do.

5:54 - Was that a flicker? It looked like a flicker. The number of tweets on Chrome bird just went up. So why can't I connect to anything else? Why is this happening???!!?

6:49 - Hmm. That's a new sound. Has it always done that?

7:37 - Ever since my baby left me,
I've found a new place to dwell,
Down at the end of Lonesome Street,
At the Heartbreak Hotel.
And I'm feelin' so lonesome, baby,
I'm feelin' so lonesome I could cry.

Or is it die? Cry? Die? I'd know, if could look it up ON THE INTERNET!

8:07 - CURSE YOU OBAMACARE!!!!!!!!!!!

8:14 - Wait a minute. I was just able to use my cell phone to bludgeon my way into Facebook. It took several tries, but I was able to do it. I think this means "unplug it. Plug it back in. Goodbye. Call my friend if that doesn't work." Let's try that.

8:22 - The internet is back!!!!! Hello, everyone. Call back the dogs; I'm still alive!!

Well, that was interesting. I think I handled it well.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Stupid Files: Mini-Snopes edition

I've seen that meme called the 28th Amendment or Congressional Reform Act of twice today. With all the feelgood shouts of "stop their pay" and the GOP pushed lie that Congress has somehow exempted itself from Obamacare, we're probably going to be seeing a lot more of it in the coming days. I've written about it before, but it's time to refisk it. 

There are several forms of it floating around. The first one I saw included term limits ("stop me before I vote again!"). Another version says Warren Buffett himself started the chain letter. That lets you know how honest the propagators of these things are. The original was some person's honest rant which they sent to their friends who sent it to their friends and so on. But at some point, someone thought it would be more effective if they added an out-and-out lie to the beginning. This sort of thing appeals to the inner populist in us all. It's an emotional appeal not a rational one. It counts on the too easy impulse to shout "Yeah!" and press "Send to All."

And so to begin. Warren Buffett does not send chain letters. The various versions are presented as a list with different numbering and paragraph breaks, but a core content. The list is made up of a mish-mash of misconceptions, outdated information, and just plain weirdness.

1. No Tenure / No Pension.

"No tenure" What does that mean? Congress doesn't have tenure. We can vote them out at any time, but we need to take responsibility for our own votes and do it if we don't like what they are doing. Democracy belongs to those who show up. Their pension is the same one that all government employees have.

2. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're out of office.

This is that unkillable rumor that Congress keeps collecting their pay for life. Think about this for a moment. What the rumor claims is that if Sarah Palin were to elected to Congress, she could serve one term, quit, and still collect 172K a year. That's not how it works. Congressional pay ends when the job ends, just like at any job.

3. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

Members of Congress do pay into Social Security. They have since 1984.

4. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

5. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

Congress participates in the same retirement program that other federal employees do. It's based on a formula of years served and pay grade. There is no special fund.

6. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

According to the 27th Amendment, Congress cannot vote itself a raise. What it can do is vote the next congress a raise. If we don't like it, we have the responsibility to let them know our disapproval, either by voting them out or by deluging them with letters, petitions, and phone calls. Since the 27th Amendment was pased, Congress has voted raises roughly once evry four years.

7. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

Because of that rumor about Congress exempting itself from Obamacare, this one is sure to get recycled a lot. The health care system that the American people participate in is one where some people get Medicare, some have veteran's benefits, some use Medicaid, some buy their own, and some get insurance through their employer. The Federal government provides insurance for its employees, including Congress. There is no special policy for them. They have the same choices as the rest of the civil service. Obamacare requires people to have insurance. Congress has insurance. Therefore, Congress is participation in Obamacare. It's that simple.

8. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

Once again, because of that exemption thing, this one is getting a lot of traction. Some versions of this list say they are specifically immune to sexual harrassment laws. They are not. Do you think that Congress could pass a bill saying rape or murder is a crime unless one of us does it? Of course not. If they tried they would be laughed out of the Supreme Court. There are a tiny number of laws under which they are treated differently. One of them is specifically written into the Constitution. Article I, Section 6. "They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." Even then, as soon as the session is over, they can be arrested.

9. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 12/31/13. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

This line is in every version of this that I have seen. Something very specific was bothering the original author   but I have no idea what it was. Contracts are a normal part of adult life. Does this mean that members of Congress can't buy or sell a house or a car or get married? Those are all contracts.

I hate these things because I hate seeing people taken advantage of. If you see any variation of this nonsense, point the person who sent it to you back to me or to the Snopes article. If all of us did this, we could raise the avaerage IQ of the internet by at least two points. 98% of you won't and you are bad, bad people.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Shutdown stupid 2

Today, Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) explained the important issues behind his principled stand against funding the government.
We're not going to be disrespected, We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is.

It speaks for itself.

Life is one unending good news, bad news joke

Today, I had my eyes checked. The good news is I don't have glaucoma. The bad news is I do have cataracts. So far it's not bad enough to need treatment; it's just one more damn thing that I have to monitor. Anyhow, thanks to the Kenyan tyrant, when it does get that bad, I'll have affordable insurance. And, when I buy that insurance, they won't be able to refuse to cover the cataracts as a previously existing condition.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Stupid Files: shutdown edition

We can always count on Darrell Issa to issue some paradox laden rhetoric. Who can forget "an 'act of terror' is different than a 'terrorist attack.'"  Here's how he explains the budget process.
 Not funding the government is part of funding it.
Is this quote lacking context? Let's look at what he says next.
If you have the right to fund the government, you have the right to fund the government to a lesser amount.
 That sort of makes sense if you ignore the fact that Rep. Issa is face-palmingly unclear on how the government works and what rights are. A right is something that we can chose to exercise or not. My freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. I have the right to bear arms, but I also have the right to keep a gunless household. The Miranda warning includes a sentence about waiving rights. I suppose I have the right to quarter troops in my house during peacetime. Funding the government is not a right possessed by a few hundred people who work in Washington. It's an obligation. It's part of their job description. The only right Rep. Issa has in this regard is the right to resign from his job and let the voters of California's 49th district hire someone who is willing to do the job.

The stupid is very strong today. I imagine I'll have to update this post more than once.