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Wednesday 28 June 2017

The US Senate Wants to Murder 43,000 People

The US Senate Wants to Murder 43,000 People.

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43,000 legal murders: that’s the true cost of what the Senate health care bill proposes.

The Republican Party promises that they will save millions of American families and businesses billions in taxes and insurance premiums by replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). What they aren’t telling you is that the US Senate bill they support to replace the ACA will murder an estimated 43,000 people every year. That number is based on peer-reviewed research published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), in a study that looked how many people died every year because they didn’t have health coverage before the ACA passed.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that compared to the ACA, 37 million Americans would lose their health coverage if the Senate version of the Republican health care bill passes. Based on the AJPH research (and a little basic math), that means that 43,000 Americans per year would die because they couldn’t afford medical care. That’s 43,000 deaths caused by replacing what we have now, regardless of how flawed it may be.

ObamaCare may not be perfect, but it’s better than the proposed replacement. Write or call your senate representatives now, not just to stop the US Senate bill but for Congress to find ways so that all Americans have access to affordable care.

Other countries have affordable insurance-based health care. Why can’t we?

You can call your senator through the Capital Office Building switchboard. Just call 202-224-3121 and ask the operator for the office of your senator by name. Don't remember your senator's name? Look it up at https://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

Refs:
http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/22/533942041/who-wins-who-loses-with-senate-health-care-bill
https://www.gop.com/icymi-obamacare-repeal-offers-relief-for-american-families/?
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775760/

Wednesday 10 May 2017

How to Offend Just About Everybody

There’s nastiness in the air right now down in New Orleans and it is the trigger for today’s catalog of multiple things wrong on the internet. The city government of New Orleans is removing statues of renowned Confederates. Needless to say, there are many folks in favor of this, especially but not exclusively those of darker-skin pigmentation. Their position is that the city should not be honoring a bunch of dead white guys who supported the institution and continuation of slavery.

On the flip side, there are also some vocal local residents of New Orleans who are not in favor of this. No one has done a survey of the people opposed to the statue removal but their most outspoken advocates seem to be mostly those of lighter-skin pigmentation. In a soundbite, these folks argue that we should not remove these historic works of art with cultural significance, all of which were erected well before living memory merely on the basis of political correctness and modern-day offended sensibilities. Besides, the Civil War was triggered by economic issues, not slavery. Well, that’s a lot of their argument.

Here’s the link to Sunday’s New York Times article on this controversy: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/07/us/new-orleans-monuments.html (accessed May 7, 2017)

Now before we look into the situation in New Orleans, let’s go off on a not-so-brief tangent and look a very similar situation involving a statue of the Puritan John Mason over which I have some rather personal feelings. For the sake of honest disclosure, this isn’t an issue where I can claim to be entirely unbiased.

Get comfortable now because this is one of the longest blog posts I have written to date.

J_M_face.JPG John Mason's Happy Face

When I was in high school, my favorite shortcut to downtown Mystic, Connecticut, took me past a statue of John Mason. Surely you have heard of John Mason? Well, this is how the somewhat-incorrect narrative over John Mason usually goes these days: in 1637 during the Pequot war, Mason led a force of colonists and Native Americans against the Pequot tribe. They marched to the Pequot village in what is now West Mystic, torched the wigwams in a surprise attack, and massacred anyone who tried to escape the fire. The village’s warriors were absent at the time; they were off on a raid to Hartford with their sachem Saccacus, leaving the village undefended. The people left behind at the village were mostly women, children, the ill, and the elderly. Mason’s force slaughtered these several hundred non-combatants with malice of forethought and then hunted down and killed the rest of the Pequots. And that, my readers, is a quick synopsis of Mason’s raid according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mystic_massacre, accessed May 7, 2017).

What’s wrong here? First, the village was not undefended, and by the way, it was also fortified by a rather effective stockade complete with two choke-point branch-barricaded entrances. The resident Pequot warriors were actually home though they were getting ready for a raid, not already away on one. Mason’s attack was not unprovoked: he and his fellow Connecticut colonists who organized the attack saw their action as preemptive self-defense in the face of a half-a-year of documented and ongoing Pequot acts of violence. The Pequots had a several-decade-long history of aggression and bullying, sometimes even with their own preferred Dutch trading partners.

Here’s another inaccurate version from the History Channel website (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/pequot-massacres-begin, accessed May 10, 2017) which is also so wonderfully incorrect that I will quote it:

“As the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay spread further into Connecticut, they came into increasing conflict with the Pequots, a war-like tribe centered on the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut. By the spring of 1637, 13 English colonists and traders had been killed by the Pequot, and Massachusetts Bay Governor John Endecott organized a large military force to punish the Indians. On April 23, 200 Pequot warriors responded defiantly to the colonial mobilization by attacking a Connecticut settlement, killing six men and three women and taking two girls away. On May 26, 1637, two hours before dawn, the Puritans and their Indian allies marched on the Pequot village at Mystic, slaughtering all but a handful of its inhabitants. On June 5, Captain Mason attacked another Pequot village, this one near present-day Stonington, and again the Indian inhabitants were defeated and massacred.”

First off, Endecott was not governor at the time. He was the person put in charge of a ninety-man force from the Massachusetts Bay colony sent to find and apprehend the natives responsible for the killings of two different trading parties. His botched attempt to force the inhabitants of a Pequot village to surrender some of the killers which Endecott was convinced the Pequots were harboring was described in scalding terms by Captian Lyon Gardener, the man in charge of the fort at nearby Saybrook, as the event that started the Pequot war.

Second, the Pequot response wasn’t just an attack on the Connecticut settlement of Wethersfield but had started off in 1636 with a half-year siege of Saybrook that including such niceties as the torturing-to-death of English captives.

Third, and best of all, there was only one village attacked with inhabitants massacred by Mason’s raid. All three on-the-ground accounts by the English commanders involved with the raid describe only one attack and massacre at the Pequot village at Mystic, which for the unaware is a location and community split between the towns of Groton and Stonington. Anything then and now which is in Mystic is by default near Stonington.

The confusion with the May 26 versus June 5 date is the cause of the faulty History Channel account of two massacres. The gap between those two dates is 11 days. That’s a telling number because there is an 11 day difference between the Gregorian calendar used by the English before 1752 and the astronomically-corrected Julian calendar that England adopted thereafter. England was one of the last countries to adapt the Julian calendar after Europe’s intelligentsia became aware of the calendar drift in the old uncorrected Gregorian system in use for over a millennium. Anyone who has done a lot of research into pre-1752 colonial history is usually aware that some accounts written after 1752 may use old uncorrected dates or post-1752 shifted dates. The drift correction between the two calendar systems is 11 days. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia account was obviously unaware of this.

It’s never happy when I run into errors in colonial history because I am a rather hard-core addict for that period in New England.

Now, in our postmodern deconstructionist politically-correct world, we might by justified in labeling Mason guilty of war crimes based on these accounts in the popular internet literature. We should not.

The past really is a foreign country. Let’s step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture of the Pequot War. As you probably didn’t learn in high school history, the seventeenth century was the time that the Dutch reached their zenith as a great trading and colonial power, backed by an impressive navy. While they were most famous for their establishment of the Dutch East Indies and the control of the spice trade, they also made a serious sixty-year-long attempt at colonization in North American. The first Dutch outpost was made near modern Albany, New York, in 1614, and other settlements quickly followed. They set-up commerce with the locals, especially in the lucrative fur trade. The Dutch got on rather well with the locals, and most of the native tribes were rather keen to get involved with trade for European goods. The trading partners for the Dutch in southern New England were the Pequots who had established monopoly control over wampum and furs.

By the end of the 1620s, the Pequots had established a hegemony in what is now Long Island, Connecticut and western Rhode Island through diplomacy, marriage alliances, bullying and warfare. They were not even close to Descarte’s noble savages and were far removed from a bunch nice guys. As the region’s bully boys, they controlled the trade of wampum, furs and other commodities along with their trading partners, the Dutch.

The Dutch made an attempt in 1623 to establish an outpost at the mouth of the Connecticut River on the west bank at modern Old Saybrook but they abandoned it for reasons unknown shortly afterward. In 1815, a small Dutch box was unearthed when a grave collapsed in the town of Old Saybrook. It was dated back to this original 1623 Dutch settlement. Yes, the alleged oldest artifact of European origin discovered in Connecticut is Dutch.

The 1630 advent of the Winthrop fleet with the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay colony threatened the Dutch-Pequot control over regional trade. Several tribes who paid tribute to the Pequots soon allied themselves with the English, in hopes of seeing a way out from under the Pequot stranglehold on wampum and trade. Bradford’s Pilgrims had landed in Plymouth in 1620 but they were rather insular and didn’t make much of an impact on the region. The big changes started when Winthrop’s fleet of Puritans founded Salem in 1630. They quickly spread out, founding Boston soon after, but while they were doing so the Dutch were still active in trading along the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. The Dutch established a fort just south of what is now Hartford in 1633 and negotiated with the locals for the rights to lands along the Connecticut river, including the strategically-important land at its mouth, where they attached a coat of arms associated with the Dutch West Indies Company to a tree to mark their claim.

The Massachusetts Bay Puritans quickly figured out that access and control of the Connecticut river valley was highly-desirable. The land was the most fertile in New England and the river was navigable for 50 miles inland. Furs from up north traveled down the river for trade. It was along a major trading route. Can you say “prime real estate?” It had one problem: it was also territory within the Pequot hegemony.

In 1634, an English trading party led by one John Stone was killed by the Pequots or Pequot allies on the Connecticut river - the accounts are confused as to who really did the killing, but either way the Pequots got the blame regardless of actual guilt. The details are a bit convoluted but the bottom line is that when the Puritans inquired, the Pequots claimed that the killings were justified. The incident did not go over well and the Puritans were not happy with what they felt was Pequot horse puckey. The feeling among the settlers was that the killings should not go unpunished regardless of Pequot claims. Also in 1634, some of the Massachusetts settlers relocated to Connecticut, founding the independent colony of Connecticut and establishing the settlements of Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor. Some of my own ancestors were among the first settlers in Wethersfield.

Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay learned of the Dutch claim to the mouth of the Connecticut River and in the Autumn of 1635, he sent a force to seize and fortify it. The English tore down the Dutch heraldry and carved a smiley face on the tree in its place. Hearing of the English action to take their land, the Dutch responded in kind and sent a ship up from New Amsterdam (now New York City) with an armed force of their own to drive the English colonists off. Since the English force had time to set up two cannons at their fort on the west bank of the Connecticut river, they were able to repulse the Dutch ship in a short action in December, 1635. The English named the place Saybrook, in honor of the two English barons, Lord Saye and Lord Brook, to whom the English king had granted the title to coastal Connecticut.

1636. Tensions were high between multiple groups: the Dutch who had since fallen out with the Pequots, the Massachusetts Puritans, the Connecticut Puritans, the Pequots, and several other native tribes like the Niantics inside and the Narragansetts outside the Pequot hegemony. In July, English trader John Oldham was killed, probably by the Manissess tribe on Block Island. Massachusetts Bay Colony sent a punitive expedition led by Endecott of 90 men to Block Island but the Manissess took to the swamps in the middle of the island and would only engage in hit-and-run skirmishes. The Massachusetts Puritans had to content themselves with burning a few villages and corn fields. The Manissess natives they managed to catch blamed the killing of the Oldham party on the Pequots. Given what Endecott’s little force did next implies that the Manissess shifting of blame may have been believed. The Endecott force subsequently sailed to the fort at Saybrook, in part because they had instructions to apprehend the Pequot murders of the John Stone trading party, by force if necessary.

A group made up of men from both the Endecott punitive expedition and Fort Saybrook sailed from the fort to a major Pequot village on the east bank of the Pequot – now –Thames river. (As a native of southeastern Connecticut, I will make a note here that we pronounce Thames phonetically with a long “a” vowel sound and no hard “t” at the beginning, unlike the pronounciation of the river with the same spelling in England whose name rhymes with phlegm.) Once there, they attempted a rather strong-armed and untactful attempt to have the killers of the John Stone party delivered to them. Oddly enough, at the same time they also attempted to bargain with the Pequots for corn. To say that the parley did not go well is an understatement.

Captain Lyon Gardiner, the man in charge of the fort at Saybrook, later wrote a scathing account of the fiasco and what he thought of the punitive expedition’s unrealistic instructions and expectations. His rather blunt and down-to-earth outlook on how to deal with the Pequots makes for some interesting reading. His disgust for the Massachusetts Bay Lt. Governor John Winthrop as an armchair general leaps out from between the lines and right off the page. The negotiation failed and the Puritans left after setting some wigwams on fire. The native interpreter for the Puritans also killed one Pequot during the breakdown of negotiation. The occasion was not a good example of effective diplomacy.

The Pequots took a dim view of having one of their own killed and their wigwams burned down by the English. They retaliated not against the Puritans of Masachusetts Bay colony responsible for the botched negotiation but with a half-year siege against the nearest English target, Gardener’s under-funded and under-supplied little fort at Saybrook, from September, 1636 through April, 1637. They killed several of the Saybrook men, wrecked several of the settlement’s buildings and fields, and attempted to block all English shipping on the Connecticut river with mixed results since canoes were not exactly optimum vessels for that sort of thing. Gardiner lost several men. The ones not killed outright but captured by the Pequots were tortured to death. One was roasted alive. The Pequots also taunted the inhabitants of the fort with shows of force and baiting tactics. Their verbal taunts included threats to massacre the Connecticut settlers at Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield, the next nearest targets to Pequot territory. Given the ongoing hostilities by the Pequots, Gardener’s men and the Connecticut settlers took these threats seriously.

In late April, 1637, things really escalated. On April 23, a band of about a hundred Pequots (one account says two hundred) attacked a group of settlers on their way to their farm fields at Wethersfield. They killed seven or nine men, women, and children plus 20 cows (one account says several horses). They also took two adolescent girls captive. The Pequots took their two captives plus the clothes of the settlers they had killed. They put on the white linen shirts of the dead settlers and made a point of paddling provocatively past the Saybrook fort thus arrayed. The Saybrook men shot the peak of the bow off one of the canoes with their cannon but stopped firing when they realized that the two captive girls were aboard. Those two girls were later rescued by the Dutch and delivered wearing only some jackets the Dutch had loaned them – the Pequots had stripped the terrified girls of their clothes.

Between the siege of Saybrook and the Wethersfield attack, the Connecticut colonists became convinced that the Pequots would actually carry out their threats to destroy their settlements. This caused the three riverside towns of Connecticut colony - Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield – to declare a preemptive war on the Pequots. The leader of their 90 man army was John Mason of Windsor. Those 90 were most of the able-bodied men of the young colony of approximately 250 settlers. At least one of my Wethersfield ancestors was part of that force. Their instructions were to preemtively attack the fortified Pequot villages at Mystic and Weinshauks (Fort Hill in Groton) in order to head-off the unfortified settlements’ destruction by Pequot raids – or at least, that’s how the situation is described in the settlers’ accounts of Mason’s raid. Mason’s force was inflated by the addition of 200 Narragansett warriors and 60 Mohegans under the famous Sachem Uncas who joined them along their march. There were more Native Americans in the little army than there were Puritans. The Narragansetts and the Mohegans saw the attack as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the hated Pequots. The firsthand account by Captain Underhill makes it clear that many of the natives who joined with Mason’s force were intimidated by the Pequots and the prospect of possible Pequot reprisals if the raid failed – this is a measure of just how formidable the Pequot reputation was for violence among the neighboring tribes.

In order to surprise the Pequots, Mason’s force took a roundabout route and approached from Narragansett territory to the east. According to Mason’s own account, by the time the little army arrived in Pequot territory, the Puritans were exhausted by their two-day march, the hot weather and low supplies. They decided to skip the assault of Weinshauks and launch a surprise attack on just the fortified village above the Mystic river, at dawn on May 26, 1637.

Mason’s original plan was to attack the village, put the inhabitants to the sword, and then plunder the place. Nowhere is it clear that killing women and children was part of the planned attack though Underhill’s account seems to imply that it was. The force was split, each half to attack the two entrances into the village which were on opposite sides of the circular wood-and-earth battlements. Captain Mason attacked one entrance and Captain Underhill attacked the other. The two doors into the fortified village were narrow and easily defended. The wigwams inside were tightly packed, preventing mobility by the attackers. The entrance arrangements were well-designed to impede any attack by creative chokepoints, as Underhill quickly learned. Only two men were killed in the initial assault but a third of the force was wounded trying to force the two entrances.

The initial attack bogged down so Mason changed tactics midstream. He must have realized his original plan was not working as he had planned and if he persisted, he would lose the fight through attrition. The Pequots in the village outnumbered his force by more than four-to-one. His injury rate were already high. He remarked to his men that they would not progress if they kept doing what they had done so far; instead, he decided to burn the village and set the nearest wigwams on fire. Mason’s account and Underhill’s account do not agree with regards to the fire. Captain Underhill wrote that Mason had him set fire to his side of the fortified village while Mason did the same on the opposite side. Mason’s account does not mention that Underhill set a fire on his side of the village but rather that he and his men had to retreat when the fire that Mason set spread quickly their way.

Underhill’s account is worth quoting at this point:

Captaine Mason and my selfe losing each of us a man, and had neere twentie wounded: most couragiously these Pequeats behaved themselves: but seeing the Fort was to hotte for us, wee devised a way how wee might save our selves and prejudice them, Captaine Mason entring into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after hee had wounded many in the house, then hee set fire on the West-side where he entred, my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of halfe an houre; many couragious fellowes were unwilling to come out, and fought most desperately through the Palisadoes, so as they were scorched and burnt with the very flame, and were deprived of their armes, in regard the fire burnt their very bowstrings, and so perished valiantly : mercy they did deserve for their valour, could we have had opportunitie to have bestowed it; many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children, others forced out, and came in troopes to the Indians, twentie, and thirtie at a time, which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children, those that scaped us, fell into the hands of the Indians, that were in the reere of us; it is reported by themselves, that there were about foure hundred soules in this Fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands.

Once the fire was set, Mason ordered his forces to retreat and surround the circular fortification. Anyone trying to escape the burning village was to be killed. This indeed is what happened. The several hundred inhabitants of the village, the defending Pequot warriors, the women, the children, the ill, the injured, and the elderly were all killed, either in the flames or by Mason’s men. Mason’s Mohegan and Narragansett allies formed an outer ring to catch anyone who managed to break through the Puritans’ encirclement. In his account of the war, Mason justified the massacre as an eye-for-an-eye action for the English who had been killed by Pequots.

The massacre at the Pequot village was a shock to the Native Americans, both to the Pequots and to the Puritans’ allies alike, and also to some of the younger settlers in the raiding party who had no previous experience in warfare. The power of ensemble musket fire was also a shock to the Native Americans of both sides, this battle being the first time they had experienced such a thing. The Native Americans were unnerved that musket balls had greater reach than their arrows. Apparently the native way of war between tribes did not encompass killing non-combatants, or at least that is what some modern commentators have claimed. Such claims do not stand up well given that the Pequots tortured their captives from Saybrook to death, killed non-combatants at Wethersfield and threatened to exterminate all the settlers of Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield. No amount of whitewash can cover up the fact that the Pequots used acts of violence to bully their neighbors and terrorize the English settlers.

One account of the battle states that there were only five survivors from the Pequot village at Mystic. Another account says that only 14 Pequots survived the conflagration: seven captured and seven escaped. Those who escaped probably alerted the nearby Pequot villages, if neighboring natives didn’t know already from the plume of smoke. Mason’s mid-battle decision to burn the village was made to turn a battle of attrition into a win against a larger foe. Mason was deep into enemy territory, his force was exhausted, and his supplies were getting low. He was not in a good position to fend off any counter-attack and he knew it. His wounded men prevented him from making a quick exit away from the hill where the burnt village was located. Mason’s tired force made camp just below the burnt-out village. An unknown number of Pequot assailants arrived to harrass Mason’s encampment but they were reluctant to come into range of the Puritans’ guns. If the Pequots had known how low the Puritans were on ammunition, they could have successfully counter-attacked. Mason was fortunate that the Pequots did not discover this.

The next day, Mason’s force made the eight-mile march to his rendezvous with the ships from Saybrook sent to pick them up along the banks of the Pequot (Thames) river. The Puritans and their native allies were pursued and sniped-at by arrows for most of that march. The uninjured Puritans in the little army fired back. By the time the little army reached the river, over a third of Mason’s remaining Puritans were injured. They put the wounded on the ships and most of the remainder walked the rest of the way to Saybrook, burning every wigwam and killing any Pequots they encountered. Mason’s and Underhill’s justification for their successful extermination tactics as the Will of God will leave a bad taste for most modern readers.

It is clear that the Pequots underestimated the Connecticut settlers. The massacre and burning of the Pequot village at Mystic had the effect of breaking the morale of the Pequot nation. The Pequots fell apart in the face of the superior technology of the musket and the tactics of no-quarter-given total war that had evolved in the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe. Out of fear of further English reprisals, an estimated 3,500 Pequots abandoned their lands and fled their twenty or so villages to take refuge with other tribes. Some remaining Pequot warriors fought on. The Puritans assembled a second force of 100 men and along with their native allies, they pursued the clumps of the fragmenting Pequot tribe until by the end of Summer when most of the Pequot warriors were dead. The Pequots were either killed, enslaved by hostile tribes, or lived as refugees sheltered by other natives out of reach of the English. Gardener’s account of the colonists’ insistence that the tribes of southern New England and the Hudson river valley kill any refugee Pequot warriors and deliver their severed heads to the English makes for some very sobering reading.

John Mason was considered a local hero for his part in stamping out the Pequot menace. Many years later, in 1889, a statue of John Mason was erected on the site of the Pequot Village he burned down, just about four houses away from the home of one of my good friends in high school. Every time I dodged the Allen Street traffic light on my shortcut into downtown Mystic, I would pass the statue of old John Mason with his dour face gathering more blue-green patina there on Pequot Hill.

So what’s the point of this shaggy dog story and what does it have to do with New Orleans and someone being wrong on the internet? Well, here’s the gig: in 1992, a member of the Eastern Pequots, whoever they are, began a campaign to remove the statue of John Mason from the site of the Pequot village he destroyed. You see, it’s the modern narrative that has prevailed: John Mason and his Puritan militia massacred the defenseless Pequot nation. None of the Pequot bullying and aggression seems to matter in the modern narrative of the Pequot massacre. None of the atrocities visited upon the English at the Saybrook settement nor the fear of the two hundred and fifty settlers of the Connecticut colony is ever taken into account in most of the whitewash of the popular modern narratives. Yes, people now will pay heed to the wealthy Pequots and their billion-dollar casino when they say they are insulted by the statue of the man who massacred the Pequot village at Mystic. Heaven forbid that we offend the folks who bring all that gambling revenue into the local economy. Yes, the funny odor you smell is the whiff of sarcasm.

The Pequot-backed campaign to remove John Mason’s statue succeeded in 1995. I have missed his dour scowl on my old shortcut into downtown Mystic though in one of my more open-minded moments I might concede that the location of the statue on top of the massacre site was kinda tacky by modern standards. Mason’s hometown of Windsor has given the statue a new home. The State of Connecticut spent just under twenty thousand dollars repairing and relocating the statue, a sum that the wealthy Pequots did not contribute to. At the rededication ceremony of the statue in Windsor were a handful of protesters. One held a sign that read “Remember the Pequot Massacre.” Another sign read: “No Hero.”

What is at stake here are the values that our modern American society has an obligation to honor. What is more important to us, the offense of a vocal minority or a respect for the historical cultural milieu that expressed its esteem for the man who saved his colony’s settlements from the aggression of a violent native tribe? Does it not matter at all that Mason was a friend and strong advocate for the Mohegans and their rights for the remainder of his life? Just how far can one take political correctness? Just where do we draw the line between respect for a minority group and absurdity, especially at taxpayer expense?

The New York Times summarized the situation this way:

“the four-year controversy regarding the fate of the statue, boiled down to respect both for the Pequots who died where the statue stood, and for the freedom of expression exercised in 1889 when the statue was originally dedicated with a plaque honoring Major Mason for overthrowing the Pequot Indians and preserving Connecticut's settlements from destruction.“

Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. What concession should the modern Pequots make to address any offense that I may personally harbor because my Wethersfield ancestors were terrorized and assaulted by their bullying ancestors? Oh, whoops! I’m so sorry. Pardon me for being politically incorrect.

And now, let us move on to the situation in New Orleans. What’s going on there is analogous to the John Mason flap. First the city government in April removed an obelisk commemorating the 1874 uprising of the white citizens of New Orleans in opposition to the then-ongoing persistence of the policies of Reconstruction. The modern black citizens of New Orleans were rather offended by this symbol of white supremacy and discrimination, and to be frank, I can’t really fault them for that. That obelisk really was a memorial to the Jim Crow-era of racial discrimination.

In addition, there are three statues in New Orleans of well-known men of the Confederacy and these are now being removed in concession to the complaints of one group of citizens in the city, many of whom have skin of darker pigmentation. The statues are of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and General P. T. G. Beauregard. The argument to remove the statues is that they are monuments to men who supported the slavery of people with darker skin pigmentation. Though the Civil War has been over for more than a hundred and fifty years, many people in New Orleans are offended by the statues and what they may symbolize to people living today. Arrayed against the protestors of the Confederate statues is some rather vocal opposition.

The arguments to leave the statue in place are quite similar to the dialog that was kicked up over the statue of John Mason. The rest of this paragraph is a partial list of the opposition arguments that have been aired thus far. (I'm not supporting any of these arguments, I'm just listing them here.) The arguments include protestations that the statues have intrinsic aesthetic and historical value independent of the support for slavery by the men they commemorate; this line of argument is bolstered by the fact that two of these statues are on the National Register of Historical Landmarks. Further, the statue-preservation proponents argue that removing the statues based on modern offense disrespects the historical and cultural milieu of the late nineteenth century society that erected them. Some have argued that the Confederacy which these men supported was not formed to preserve slavery; but rather that it was formed because of issues of economics and states’ rights. They also argue that removing the statues is the same as trying to deny and erase a whole chapter of New Orleans history. This synopsis should give you an idea of the noise being generated right now in New Orleans.

Once you look past the local details though, there are underlying issues at stake here. For example, just where is the line between respecting the voices of a vocal minority and absurdity? What are the limits of political correctness? Where is the limit to the rights of individuals and minorities at the expense of the commonweal?

Sound familiar?

For the sake of argument, let’s extrapolate for a moment. The City of Vienna was occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II. The soldiers of the Red Army merrily raped almost every ambulatory female in Vienna regardless of age during their occupation. They forced the citizens of Vienna into involuntary labor gangs to rebuild the city. When the Soviets finally vacated Vienna, they left behind an unknown soldier memorial capped with a statue of a Red Army infantry private. Frau Weissgabber, my German teacher in Vienna, said the women of the city called it the statue of the unknown rapist. Frau Weissgabber was one of those rape victims during the Soviet occupation. This is a story that was repeated in every city and town occupied by the Soviets at the end of WWII.

One would think that there would be support in Vienna to tear that statue down. When asked by one of the gals in my German class why the statue remained, Frau Weissgabber said it was important, that the people of the Vienna saw meaning in the statue - because when they looked at it, they would remember. You could almost hear the sound of knives being sharpened when she said that and it was easy to guess what the Viennese found worthy of remembering. Vergessen Nichts, meine Freunden!

In reality, Frau Weissgabber’s account is not correct. The statue remains because its preservation and maintenance were written into the terms of the treaty that established the current Austrian state when the Soviets left in 1955. If there were ever a reason to tear down a statue, the women of Vienna have one. There are still people living there today who were raped during the Soviet occupation.

Austria is a neutral country by treaty and not part of NATO. When I lived in Vienna I found it very interesting that whenever the army of neutral Austria was out practicing war maneuvers, the anti-tank caltrops were always placed facing the Eastern Bloc.

The moral of this little Viennese digression is to point out the reality of offense to the victims of acts committed within living memory versus the disconnect over the possible offense taken for historical acts beyond the reach of living memory. There is a school of thought that monuments should be left alone which are connected with historical people and events that are beyond living memory.

The flip side to this is that there are people right now who feel justified in vandalizing and removing Soviet WWII monuments in today’s Europe, especially in those places that were occupied by the Soviets because of people still living today who suffered under those regimes. Mind you, every time such removals or vandalism happen, the folks in Russia are offended because they feel it shows disrespect for Russia’s undeniable and disproportionately-huge efforts and suffering during WWII. Regardless of that, ten or twenty years from now when the last women raped by Soviet soldiers in Vienna have died, will the vandalism and desire to remove the statue of the unknown rapist then lose its all meaning when measured against its historical value? One can argue that vandalism of any kind is never justified but what about the removal of Soviet memorials? What about the feelings of the adult children of those raped Viennese woman toward that offensive statue? What about the feelings of future descendants fifty years from now or a hundred years from now? Where do we draw the line between personal offense and historical preservation? When should cultural and historical preservation arguments override the complaints of a vocal minority? This is the slippery slope we’re sliding down when we try to tackle such questions.

In New Orleans, this issue is quite germane because the historical value argument was the subject of a two-page newspaper ad in the May 3, 2017, issue of the Advocate, a local newspaper. The ad contained an open letter from the prominent New Orleans civic leader Frank Stewart to the mayor Mitch Landrieu. It’s worth a read if you have the time so here’s the url for it: http://www.theadvocate.com/pdf_b2ba61ce-305d-11e7-b10a-e3731454ada0.html (accessed May 7, 2017)

Stewart makes the historical preservation argument. Two of his examples for comparison to the Confederate statues in New Orleans are the Colosseum in Rome and the Pyramids of Egypt. He points out that both were built by slave labor but that it would be absurd to tear them down because someone could be offended over that fact. In reality, Stewart cuts straight to the gist of the historical preservation argument by choosing these two extreme examples where historical value vastly outweighs any possible complaints of offense over associations with slavery. His point is understandable: in the fullness of time, there will come a day when there is no one left to be offended by any monument, building, memorial, or place; and all that is left in the end is the intrinsic historical and cultural value. This is as true for the Colosseum and the Pyramids of Giza today as it will be some day for the statues of John Mason and Jefferson Davis, for the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee and Mount Rushmore, and eventually even for the Swastika. Time heals all wounds, though sometimes that time may be measured in the thousands of years.

Too bad Frank Stewart is dead wrong regarding the factual content of his two examples. Mr. Stewart’s history here is straight of out of Hollywood. The Jewish slaves of Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments and the biblical book of Exodus are not the corvee labor or permanent paid workforce that built the Pyramids of Giza. In fact, the discovery and excavation of the workers’ village at Giza and the reconstruction of their lives is one of the most exciting and groundbreaking stories in archeology of the last thirty years. The pyramids were not built by slaves. Check out the references listed below on the Pyramids of Giza if you’re curious to learn more on this subject. The Nova article is especially good.

Let’s move on. It’s useful now to quote Mr. Stewart about the Colosseum:

“It was built by slaves, who lived horrible lives under Roman oppression, but it still stands today and we learn so much from seeing it.”

It would be fair to forgive Mr. Stewart for this mistake. He has merely followed along with one of the stickiest and most pervasive historical myths going. In fact, he didn’t include the one detail that persists almost everywhere you look about the construction of the Colosseum, from the tour guides in Rome itself to almost every website I looked concerning this subject on the internet. The usual narrative here is that the Colosseum was built by Jewish slaves captured from the fall of Jerusalem during the Jewish War. Depending on the website, the number of Jewish slaves will vary anywhere from 14,000 to 70,000. After I found over 20 of such websites, I stopped counting.

The myth that the Colosseum was built by Jewish slaves has no basis in any of our source material from Roman antiquity. Just to be sure, I spent an entire evening checking the sources, both primary like Josephus and Suetonius, and high-content secondary like Gibbon, Durant, and various archaeology journals; however, I was confident before I double-checked that the slave narrative for the Colosseum was inaccurate. I just finished watching a series of Teaching Company lectures on Greek and Roman Engineering given by Dr. Stephen Ressler, a professor of Civil Engineering at West Point, so I was already primed with the knowledge that the Colosseum – or the Flavian Amphitheater, to use its real name – was built by specialized and skilled labor, especially because of its innovative use of mixed materials including concrete. Such labor was either provided by skilled free men who were hired or highly-skilled slaves who were contracted through their owners.

In Rome at the time, there were different types of slaves with differing rights according to Roman law. Slaves with specialized skills actually had a comfortable standard of living, the ability to make and save their own money, the ability to hold property, and certain labor rights such as days off and the right to buy their own freedom. They were valuable property and as such, they were well treated. If there were any slaves involved in the Colosseum construction who were oppressed, those would have been the unskilled quarry slaves who mined the travertine, marble and tufa stone for the project. Mine slaves were the lowest of the low, men who were convicted criminals sentenced to hard labor for the rest of their miserable lives with no right to buy their freedom. There may have been slaves in the workforce that built the Colosseum, but they would not have been the sort of slaves who were abused and oppressed.

Next, let’s look at a typical manifestation of the Jewish slave narrative that’s as pervasive as the incorrect myth that pepper was used to cover-up the taste of spoiled meat in the Middle Ages. Here’s a typical example:

“The emperor Titus brought 20,000 Jewish slaves to Rome, slaves used to bulid (sic) the Roman Coliseum (sic). Proof of this lies in the Arch of Titus, which depicts a menorah as part of the bounty from Jerusalem. To this day, the Talmud forbids Jews from walking under the Arch.”

Oh boy – where to begin? I love the faulty logic here. A depiction of booty from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem displayed in Titus’s triumph parade does not prove anything other than the sack of the temple by the Romans when Jerusalem fell. The display of booty does not imply or infer anything about the fate of the Jews enslaved by the Roman when the Jewish rebellion was crushed. The only mention of those enslaved during the Jewish war comes from Josephus. A relatively-recent article in the always-delightful Biblical Archaeology Review sums things up nicely here:

“according to Josephus, 97,000 Jews were taken prisoner during the war with the Romans (this may be the source of the tradition, otherwise unattested, that Jews actually built the Colosseum); of those over 17 years of age many were sent to work in Egypt, while those under 17 were sold.”

Frank Stewart’s examples are based on popular historical myths, not facts. He might have been better off using the giant statues of Buddha destroyed by the Taliban as an example. It is another extreme example, where historical and cultural value should have trumped any modern-day indignation the Taliban felt over the presence of idolatrous images made over two thousand years ago.

In looking at the issues of historical and cultural preservation of monuments versus a group’s offense over what those monuments symbolize for them personally, it is clear at least to me that the balance between the two is rather fluid. For example I find the offense of the rather flush folks claiming to be Pequots over something that happened almost 400 years ago to have a lot less traction than the offense of the folks with darker skin pigmentation in New Orleans. Mason’s raid was not against a peaceful tribe, something that all these modern Pequots and their apologists tend to gloss over. I find I have a lot more sympathy instead with the desecration of a sacred mountain that Mount Rushmore represents for my the Sioux neighbors on the reservation in South Dakota next to my family’s homesteaded farmland. On the other hand, one can make a good argument for the removal or at least relocation of the Confederate statues in New Orleans on the basis that there is offense here that’s within living memory. Where is my justification for making such claim? Simply because those statues are the symbols of discrimination against black people which is something that still happens in our country today. Racial discrimination is not just something within living memory, it is still present among us today in the here and now.

To be honest, I think some folks down in New Orleans have taken a bit too much offense. As one person of darker skin pigmentation suggested, he would like the city to provide sledgehammer to use on the statues:

“let everybody take a whack — just like the Berlin Wall.”

Such a response is more in line with defacing Soviet monuments or blowing up Buddhist statues. When monuments are declared offensive by a vocal collection of citizens, their destruction may not be right the answer if they also have their own own intrinsic cultural and historical value beyond the offense they give.

There's something in the undercurrents of these incidences that is disturbing and that thing is a fight over societal values. A lot of these statues were erected to honor people we used to call leaders or heroes, people who were exemplars of characteristics worthy of emulation. When a group of people claims that they are offended by a statue or memorial and demand its removal, they are really making a claim that their values are as worthy or more worthy than the values originally honored. Here's the important part: the thing that's shared by all these incidents is provocation, whether it's a demand for removal or an act of vandalism. Defacing a monument or demanding a statue be removed because one is offended is not an act that encourages people to engage in in polite and meaningful dialog or to explore their differences and come to an understanding of each other;s point of view with mutual respect. Instead, it's like someone getting in your face, yelling that you've insulted them and demanding you do something about it. Anything resembling respect is missing here. The very act of being offended over statues and memorials for whatever reason is in itself offensive, not because of the issues involved but because of the provocation.

References on the Pequots and John Mason:

  • Shermon W. Adams and Henry R. Stiles, The History of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut, Vol. 1, New York: Grafton Press, 1904; accessed May 9, 2017; https://archive.org/details/historyofancient11adam
  • Connecticut State Library, "1752 Calendar Change," accessed May 10, 2017; http://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/hg/colonialresearch/calendar
  • Sam Libby, “A Statue Finds a New Home in Windsor,” New York Times, July 7, 1996; accessed May 8, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/1996/07/07/nyregion/a-statue-finds-a-new-home-in-windsor.html
  • The Manshantucket Pequot Museum, “Battlefields of the Pequot War,” accessed May 8, 2017; http://pequotwar.org/about/
  • The Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation, “The Pequot War,” accessed May 8, 2017; https://www.mptn-nsn.gov/pequotwar.aspx
  • John Mason, "A brief history of the Pequot,” University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, 1966.
  • Marco Ramerini (Dietrich Köster, translator), “Dutch New York: The Dutch Settlements in North America,” Colonial Voyage (blog), accessed May 7, 2017; http://www.colonialvoyage.com/dutch-new-york/
  • Tully, William B. Tully, “Town of Old Saybrook", in: The History of Middlesex County 1635-1885, J. H. Beers & Co., 1884; accessed May 7, 2017; http://dunhamwilcox.net/town_hist/old_saybrook_hist.htm
  • Underhill, John and Royster, Paul , editor, "Newes from America; Or, A New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England; Containing, A Trve Relation of Their War-like Proceedings These Two Yeares Last Past, with a Figure of the Indian Fort, or Palizado" (1638). Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 37; accessed May 8, 2017; http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/37
  • The History of the Pequot War: The Contempory Accounts of Mason, Underhill, Vincent and Gardener, Cleveland: The Helman-Taylor Co., 1897; accessed May 8, 2017; https://archive.org/details/briefhistoryofpe00maso

References on New Orleans:

  • Richard Fausset, “Tempers Flare Over Removal of Confederate Statues in New Orleans,” New York Times, May 7, 2017; accessed May 7, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/07/us/new-orleans-monuments.html
  • Frank Stewart, “Open Letter to Mitch Landrieu,” May 3, 2017; accessed May 7, 2017; http://www.theadvocate.com/pdf_b2ba61ce-305d-11e7-b10a-e3731454ada0.html

References on Soviet Memorials of WWII:

  • Paul Hofmann, “Vienna to Quietly Commemorate Russional Ouster of Nazis in 1945,” New York Times, April 13, 1970; accessed May 9, 2017; http://www.nytimes.com/1970/04/13/archives/vienna-to-quietly-commemorate-russian-ouster-of-nazis-in-1945.html
  • Wikipedia, “Soviet War Memorial (Vienna),” accessed May 9, 2017; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_War_Memorial_(Vienna)

References of the Pyramids of Giza:

  • Britannica Library, s.v. "Pyramids of Giza," accessed May 8, 2017, http://library.eb.com/levels/referencecenter/article/Pyramids-of-Giza/36944.
  • Nova, “Who Built the Pyramids?” February 4, 1997; accessed May 8, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/who-built-the-pyramids.html
  • Writer873, “The Great Pyramid of Giza: Last Remaining Wonder of the Ancient World,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, January 18, 2012; accessed May 8, 2017;

http://www.ancient.eu /article/124/.

References on the Flavian Aphitheater (Colosseum):

  • Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, (Cambridge University Press: 1994).
  • Louis H. Feldman, “Financing the Colosseum,” Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 27, no. 4 (2001): pp. 24–36.
  • Sarina Roffe, “Jews Built Roman Coliseum (sic) After Destruction of Second Temple: A Historical Background of Italian Jewry,” JewishGen Sephardic SIG, accessed May 9, 2017; http://www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/coliseum.htm.

Reference on the Buddhas of Bamiyan:

  • Luke Harding, “Taliban blow apart 2,000 years of Buddhist History,” The Guardian, March 3, 2001; accessed May 10, 2017; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/mar/03/afghanistan.lukeharding

Monday 17 April 2017

President Trump's Taxing Returns

I'm breaking a promise I made not to target overly-political figures on this blog - especially since Trump is such an easy target. Seriously, I don't even have a category for politics and I really don't want to be the author of a bash-Trump blog; however, today is the exception because the smoke-and-mirrors routine this time by the President is just a bit too far into the prevarication range...

The Trump quotes and Trump tweet quotes used here are from:
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/04/16
/trump-blasts-tax-day-protests-says-election-is-over.html (accessed April 16 and April 18, 2017)
and also https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2016/09/15
/a-running-tally-of-trumps-many-excuses-for-why-he-wont-release-his-tax-returns
/?utm_term=.70bec08b3d90 (accessed April 18, 2017).

So let's take a quick sample of some Trump tweets from the Fox News article. Here's what got me interested in this subject: the article headline, which implies so much.

Trump blasts Tax Day protests, says 'election is over!'


Did you catch the inference here? The Fox article wants you to think that Trump is declaring the whole tax return disclosure issue to be one solely related to presidential elections. So the first the question we should be asking is: did the President really make this inference? To examine that, we need first to review what happened over the weekend.

There's a group out there called TaxMarch.org. They organized a number of protest marches to agitate for the release of President Trump's tax returns. You can check their website out at https://taxmarch.org/home (assessed April 18, 2017). Most of those marches had some small turn-outs, though the one in Berkeley on Saturday ended up with arrests and some noise in the news media. A friend of mine who is a retired UC Berkeley research scientist posted up photos he took of the fracas, which appeared to show a situation a bit more ambivalent than what we get delivered in the news. Be that as it may, the point is there were some protest marches in various high-profile locations across the country: none of them very large but several of them gaining news coverage, which after all, is the point of such exercises. It's bread-and-butter attention-getting techniques for grass-roots style political protests and business like usual for this sort of thing.

According to the Fox news article, President Trump reacted to the tax return protests with a couple of tweets. The first one said:

Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!


I opine that if this is what Fox News took as the inference behind their headline, then it's a bit sideways. Reading that tweet without any other referents, I personally would take it as an inference that well-heeled Trump antagonists were behind the protests and not as an inference that protests to release his tax returns are unnecessary because the election is over. Given the our President is often obtuse in many of his tweets, I would take the line about the election as a bit of a non-sequitor in the absence of any other related material that might clarify the reference.

Alas poor President Trump: he provided related material. He provided an additional tweet on Saturday to clarify the situation:

I did what was an almost an impossible thing to do for a Republican-easily won the Electoral College! Now Tax Returns are brought up again?


It was so nice of the President to provide us with that second tweet. I think it is indeed clear now that the Fox news headline was dead on the money: Trump really is making a statement that the whole tax return disclosure issue is one related to presidential elections and should now be a dead issue as a consequence. To bad he's dead wrong on the internet one this matter. To elucidate, we will now look at the history of tax return disclosures of both presidential candidates and of US presidents.

Here are the facts, folks: Presidents have commonly disclosed their tax returns or less-commonly disclosed summaries of tax return information to the public since the the 1970s. It all began with Nixon. Remember Nixon? Well, I remember Nixon but I'm probably giving away too much information on how old I am. Anyway, With Watergate breaking out in the news, Nixon made an unfortunate gaff about his federal taxes. Given his declining popularity, there was an increasing demand from both press and public for Nixon to disclose his return. Nixon protested he was under audit but that did not avail. He eventually caved in and disclosed his returns. You can read all about this interesting episode at the Tax History Project website, at: http://www.taxhistory.org/thp/readings.nsf/
cf7c9c870b600b9585256df80075b9dd/f8723e3606cd79ec85256ff6006f82c3?OpenDocument
(accessed 17 April 2017).

While we're on the subject of Nixon, let's revisit the news back in August. That's when candidate Trump stated he would not release his tax return until the IRS was done with its audit of said return. Just to jog your collective memory, here's a Bloomberg article about the subject: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-08-02/nixon-s-failed-effort-to-withhold-his-tax-returns (accessed 17 April 2017).

Basically, there's nothing holding Trump back from disclosing his returns, not even audits, other than his refusal. The IRS doesn't care if a return under audit is disclosed because it has no influence on the audit process. The only that matters to the IRS is that the return was signed by Trump when it was submitted, to certify "Under penalties of perjury, I declare that I have examined this return and accompanying schedules and statements, and to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete."

So what's the big deal about not disclosing because of an audit? The big deal is that there's no big deal here. It's the law ever since the 1970s that the President's tax return is audited every complete year he or she is in office. Add to this another little fact that every president since Nixon has disclosed their returns despite every one of those returns being under active audit. The nitty gritty details on that are all on the taxhistory.org website (under the "Presidential Returns" tab).

Now what about the tax returns of presidential candidates? Again, visiting taxhistory.org website will show that just about every major party candidate since the 1970s has disclosed their tax returns. Donald Trump is really looking like the odd man out here. I find it is useful at this point to review some of the things Trump has said about his returns. Pulling from a compilation of Trump quotes made by the Washington Post, back in 2014, Trump said:

he would “absolutely” release returns “if I decide to run for office.”


In January, 2016, we find:

(Trump) Said he was ready to disclose his “very big … very beautiful” returns.


In February, 2016, he said:

he would release returns “probably over the next few months.”


In May, 2016, he said:

“release my tax returns when audit is complete, not after election!”


In July we heard:

“Mr. Trump has said that his taxes are under audit and he will not be releasing them.”


In that same month, we also heard from Mr. Trump that:

“I haven’t had much pressure (to release tax returns). I’ll be honest, most people don’t care.”


At what point do we need to ship this man a shovel? When every US President for the last 40 years has disclosed tax returns or return summaries despite being audited every year, and when all the presidential candidates disclose their returns or return summaries regardless of any audit activity, some of Trump's verbage on this subject begins to lose some traction, at least for me. Maybe it's fair to play presidential comparisons here: the last US President and Vice President to protest they would not publicly disclose their tax returns were "I am not a crook" Nixon and his guilty-of-tax-evasion vice president Spiro Agnew. In the end, their tax returns were disclosed as part of the vain attempts to salvage Nixon's presidency. Nixon's attempt to dodge the capital gains tax on the sale of his New York apartment showed up in those disclosed returns and the audit on that attempted dodge went against Nixon. That's in the taxhistory.org Nixon article cited above. It's pretty interesting reading. So the only person to try to dodge the disclosure bullet since Nixon is Trump and does he really want to be compared to Nixon?

What makes this fodder for this blog right now is his insinuation that the disclosure of tax returns is a presidential candidate issue and not a presidential issue. I think the disclosure of US President returns for over 40 years despite mandatory obligatory IRS audits every year gives the lie to Trump's inference. Your own milage may vary.

As I said, nailing politicians on their foot-in-mouth disease on the internet is just too easy to be decent material for my blog.

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Tornadoes 101

While going through my newsfeed this morning, I decided to look at an article on Bloomberg from two days ago with the title: “There Was Nothing Normal About America’s Freakish Winter Weather” by one Brian K. Sullivan. Of course, my inner grammar zealot had a snit because “About” was capitalized in a title despite the fact it was a preposition and further noted with disdain that there was no period following the initial in Brian K. Sullivan’s name; however, I am not my inner grammar zealot so we’ll ignore Bloomberg’s grammar sins and move on to what made this article fodder for being wrong on the internet.

When it comes to articles that venture into hypotheses regarding global warming, I am always on the lookout for the usual sins that reporters make on this subject, especially the one that treats the occurrances of one year as proof or disproof of global warming. As I am sure all my readers already know (and if you don’t, just fake it), climate trends are not statistically significant on scales of mere years. Decadal data, as an average or a sliding average, is the smallest timescale that has any grip in demonstrating real world climate trends with statistical significance; and of course, centurial data is preferable. Much to my disappointment with finding something to blog about, the author of the article made none of those mistakes, alas. All things considered, it’s actually a nice piece about the weather this Winter and how that fits into evolving hypotheses of global warming.

The author saved the best for last: there was a tornado this February in Massachusetts, something I vaguely remember from the news this Winter; and there in the very last sentence of his article, he goofed. Here’s what he wrote:

“officials confirmed it was a tornado, the first ever in a state that began documenting its weather patterns back in the 1600s. “


Now, something that every fourth grader in tornado alley knows is that tornadoes can occur anywhere – even in New England. When we moved to Maine from Texas, I know I disappointed a friend from Aroostook County who wanted to shock me with the fact that northern Maine gets a small number of tornadoes every year. I’ve lived in tornado alley twice in my life and I’m quite aware that tornadoes came pop up anywhere when the conditions are right. I’m afraid my friend from Houlton, Maine was rather put off by my lack of surprise over Maine tornadoes. After all, there have been tornadoes reported in every state, and in almost every country in the world too. This is bread and butter knowledge if you take advantage of attending one of the National Weather Service’s free weather spotter classes – which you can take whether or not you plan on becoming a spotter. The class is free regardless. I think everyone should take one – you’ll learn a lot about weather you never knew before, even if you’re a nerd like me. Great classes, good stuff to learn, absolutely no money required: so what are you waiting for? Go grab some free weather education – you won’t be sorry!

So how about tornadoes in Massachusetts, then? Well, our Bloomberg author was wrong on the internet – and he was doing so well with that article too. It almost seems a shame to take him to task for it, but alas, I’ve written enough so far to see this blog post to the end. It turns out that the first-ever report of a tornado in what would become the future United States of American was out of the small hamlet of Lynn in Massachusetts Bay Colony, a scant five miles north of Boston. I found the tornado report from Lynn while doing my research for this blog post. I knew the author of the Bloomberg article had been wrong on the internet, though, because I recalled that the worst tornado to ever visit New England had been the June 9, 1983 F4 tornado that leveled part of the City of Worcester, Massachusetts. It came at the end of a three-day tornado outbreak that left hundreds dead and thousands injured, not to mention the requisite millions of dollars of property damage.

The outbreak started on June 7 as a storm rolled off the rockies and set up a line of supercell convective storms. The first tornado activity was a handful of small F0 through F2 tornadoes that briefly touched down on a Sunday afternoon along the eastmost Colorado-Nebraska border and in northwest Kansas. This was followed that evening by several F2, two F3 and one F4 tornadoes gouging their way across central Nebraska and into north-central Iowa. Sioux City and Fort Dodge lucked out by being just missed by the course of several tornadoes and the death toll was a modest 11, mostly because the storms crossed sparsely-populated farmland and ranchland. The storm front moved on overnight over the Mississippi River and into the eastern half of the Midwest.

On Monday afternoon, June 8, 1953, this same storm spawned a line of nine tornadoes 300 miles long north-to-south, crossing the northern Midwest from the top of the Michigan mitten to the middle of Ohio. The worst of the tornadoes was an F5 that cut through northern half of the City of Flint, Michigan, killing 116 and injuring 844. In addition, an F4 started some 30 miles southwest of Toledo which cut up to Lake Erie at Sandusky and then traveled along the lake shore into Cleveland, leaving a 120 mile path of destruction with 17 dead and 379 injured. Overnight, the storm continued east over the mountains of the Appalachian Orogeny.

The early afternoon of Tuesday, June 9 was extremely hot. The stormfront crossed the Hudson River and started its first actions with three inch hail falling on the Connecticut River at the Vermont-Massachusetts border. The National Weather Service recognized that southern New England might be struck by some unprecedented weather – but in the 1940s and 1950s, it was policy not to announce that tornadoes might be on their way for fear of creating a panic in the general public. In a era before the severe storm watch system was put into place in 1972, the National Weather Service announced instead the first severe thunderstorm warning ever issued in New England.

At 2:25 PM, a mile-wide F4 tornado developed just east of the huge Quabbin Reservoir that the late great H. P. Lovecraft often invoked in his famous horror stories placed in Massachusetts. It cut a 40 mile long path of devastation into the City of Worcester, killing 94 people in the hour and a half it was on the ground and injuring 1228 others. As it died, an F3 developed 6 miles south of Worcester in Milbury, It traveled some thirty miles to where it died out in Foxboro on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border. The last two spots of activity of the outbreak were two tornadoes that briefly touched down just to the west of the City of Portsmouth, New Hampshire before the squall line of storm cells moved out over the Atlantic Ocean.

In total, the 1953 “Flint-Worcester” Outbreak spawned 50 tornadoes over 3 days, killing a total of 247 people, injuring 2562, and causing over 2 billion dollars of property damage. The Flint tornado is currently rated the tenth most deadly tornado in the history of the USA and the Worcester tornado is currently rated as the twenty-second most deadly. Of the 25 most deadly tornadoes in the country, the Worcester tornado of 1953 is the most easterly and the only one in New England; all the others are in the South or the Midwest.

All of the references today deserve a visit if you want to learn more on this subject. The Stormstalker blog is highly recommended and the Tornado History Project website is a marvel to cruise around. If you click on the tornado symbols, it will show you death and injury statistics. The table feature will summarized outbreak statistics for you. There’s also some vintage footage from the Worcester tornado out on YouTube, if you’re into that kind of thing.


References

  • "There Was Nothing Normal About America’s Freakish Winter Weather,” Brian K.Sullivan, Aprile 10, 2017, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-04-10/there-was-nothing-normal-about-america-s-freakish-winter-weather
  • “25 Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes,” NOAA, http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/killers.html
  • “84 Minutes, 94 Lines: the 1953 Worcester Tornado,” New Worcester Spy, http://newworcesterspy.net/84-minutes-94-lives-the-1953-worcester-tornado/
  • “June 7-9, 1953 – The Flint-Worcester Outbreak,” Stormstalker Blog, https://stormstalker.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/flint-worcester-outbreak/
  • “History of Tornado Forecasting,” NOAA, http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tornado_forecasting/
  • “U.S. Tornado Climatology,” NCEI/NOAA, https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/climate-information/extreme-events/us-tornado-climatology



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Wednesday 22 February 2017

Horatio Admiral Nelson, Salesman and Québécois Legislator

The VipFaq website is always good for a laugh. We've covered the amazing celebrity gossip aggregator website before on this blog because, really, it can be so very wrong on the internet in some really side-splitting ways. What the VipFaq aggregator attempts to do is collect gossip about celebrities and put them in one place. It makes occasional mistakes when it manages to insert historical figures into its aggregator datebase of famous people.

Today's offering from the VipFaq is from http://www.vipfaq.com/Horatio_Admiral_Nelson.html

I will leave it to the reader to weigh just how wrong it is. But put the drink down first and don't try to eat anything either. Here it is:

Who is Horatio Admiral Nelson? Biography, gossip, facts?

Horatio Admiral Nelson (October 22 1816 - December 24 1882) was an American-born merchant manufacturer and political figure in Quebec. He represented Montréal-Centre in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec from 1878 to 1881 as a Liberal. He was born in Richmond New Hampshire the son of Ezekiel Nelson and Ruth Harkins and was educated in the United States. Nelson was a travelling salesman until 1841 when he settled in Montreal. In 1841 he married Maria D. Davison.


Just in case you have forgotten what Nelson was famous for, here's a pic of the Battle of Trafalgar mural in the Houses of Parliament
640px-Daniel_Maclise_-_The_Death_of_Nelson_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Tuesday 21 February 2017

How to Prevent Tar Sand Mining by San Francisco Bay Area Particulate Emissions Regulations

Today’s rant concerns an article in the magazine, The Nation, whose web version can be found at https://www.thenation.com/article/this-bay-area-proposal-would-strike-a-huge-blow-to-the-dirtiest-forms-of-oil-production/

The article has the title “This Bay Area Proposal Would Strike a Huge Blow to the Dirtiest Forms of Oil Production, “ by one Will Parrish, dated 31 January, 2017.

The cynic in me is having a field day in pointing out that it is just too easy to cherry pick the misstatements and lack of fact checking made by journalists writing about environmental matters. The problem here is that I find that my inner cynic has a good point.

Now it could be argued that it’s not really fair or even productive to cherry pick and attack the misstatements and lousy fact checking in such articles because that’s not the point of the articles in reporting on environmental matters that concern all of us. Yes, I concede there is value in good environmental reporting that gives us information on things that can be a danger to public health and the commonweal. My counter to such a statement is that it’s a real shame there is hardly any good environmental reporting out there.

Let me put it to you in another way (opinion alert!). Regardless of perceived value by people who are interested in articles on any given subject, facts still matter and they should always matter. Even cherry picked mistakes in factual content matter because if enough facts and misstatements exist in a piece of journalism, then it calls into question the quality and credibility of the article and the publication that allowed it into print through its failure to properly vet its content. Having made my position and opinion clear, let us proceed with picking facts and statements like ripe choke cherries before making pie.

The article is about a proposed new emission standard in California. The author shows his bias right out of the gate by making clear that the desirable purpose of this new emission standard is to prevent California refineries from processing heavier strains of crude like dilbit from tar sands - all for the purpose of fighting increasing global emissions of greenhouse gasses:

Just hours after President Trump announced his intention to resume construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Brown declared, “The science is clear,” and said there is much California can and will do on its own to combat the climate crisis. A coalition of climate-justice advocates and labor groups in the Bay Area have a proposal that they say is a prime example of how California can do this. 

The people and organizations in this coalition

“are pushing to make the San Francisco Bay Area the first place in the world to place limits on oil refineries’ overall greenhouse-gas (GHG) and particulate-matter emissions. The proposal would prevent oil corporations from making the Bay Area a center of tar-sands refining by enforcing a cap based on historic emissions levels. “


This statement is somewhat amazing to me since the single best way to stop the production of fuels from tar sands is to get the Canadians to stop mining the stuff. The second best way to keep tar sands dilbit out of California is to build the Keystone XL pipeline - that would send all the tar sand dilbit to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Building the Dakota Access pipeline isn’t an issue as far as dilbit is concerned since its purpose is the transportation of Williston Basin light crude. The third best way to keep dilbit out of California is outlaw the rail transport of crudes through urban areas or to tax it out of existence. Using an emissions regulation to keep dilbit out of California is kinda like using a wrench to light a campfire. Opinion Alert: I really feel that the object of such actions is not to serve the so-called stated action, whether it’s keeping dilbit and other heavy crudes out of California or to preserve Lakota sacred spaces or protect the water supply of the Sand Pipe Indian Reservation; I believe the real aim of such actions are a way to attack evil Big Oil out of frustration by individuals' lack of control over environmental issues in the face of a perceived uncaring plutocracy...but that’s a blog post for some other day. Let’s get back to misstatement hunting.

“The idea for a cap on oil refinery emissions was born from an incident some 15 miles and a world away from San Francisco’s financial district. In 2012, an explosion and fire at Chevron’s massive refinery complex in Richmond—an industrial East Bay city predominantly composed of low-income and working-class people of color—endangered 19 workers and sent 15,000 neighbors to local hospitals with respiratory ailments. Within months, a coalition of environmental-justice, environmental, and labor groups had organized to oppose the oil companies’ push to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes. “

Wow! There’s so much here to pick on!. The aim of opposing Big Oil’s “push” to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes came into being because of the 2012 Richmond Refinery fire? Let’s start with Big Oil’s “push to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes.”

This is chemical engineering 101, folks: heavier crudes are always more expensive to refine than light crudes. There is less profit in refining heavy crudes, including dilbit, always and everywhere. No one in their right mind, even an evil brain-sucking Big Oil executive who rapes and pillages the earth and steals from widows and orphans would prefer heavy crudes over light ones. The lighter and sweeter the crude, the more profit there is to be had, the cleaner the process, and more importantly, the smaller and simpler the refinery can be, meaning safer and less-regulated operation. I would recommend the author of this rather astounding statement might do to take a look at http://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/ and http://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/refineries.html for a crash course from a neutral source on crudes and how they are refined. Seriously, thinking heavier crude is cheaper to refine is right up there with an article I read recently where the journalist actually thought that the crude from tar sands that was pumped through pipelines was the same as raw bitumen - I’m saving that article up for a future blog post.

Now let’s consider the 2012 Richmond Refinery fire. I’ve done work there, by the way, both some geotechnical analysis of ground stability for Chevron for the proposed building of a new structure and tank testing of the Navy’s underground fuel bunkers on the back side of the hill on the refinery’s west side where their million gallon aboveground storage tanks are located. One thing I can say about the facilities there and on the Navy’s side of the hill is that both organizations really care about doing their geotechnical engineering correctly. I’ve hunted buried pipeline in the area too using geophysical tools. It’s one of the more fun places I’ve been to do environmental geoscience.

Anyway, about that fire. First, the fire had nothing to do with dilbit or tar sands products. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Most of the crude that arrives in Richmond comes through the marine terminal. There’s no Canadian tar sands dilbit currently shipped on the Pacific coast. There’s no Venezuelan heavy crude, which is almost as bad as Canadian tar sands crude, being shipped to California. The Bay Area doesn’t refine a lot of the really heavy junky crude because such low profit crap crude isn’t shipped to the Bay Area. Most of the heavy junk crudes go to the refineries along the Gulf of Mexico where more lax environmental regulations make it possible to build new refinery capability. The regulatory environment in California is already so severe for refineries that it is currently impossible to build new refinery facilities in the state (ref: fourth paragraph of http://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/refineries.html, accessed 2/21/2017).

The superficial cause of the Richmond Refinery fire was the explosion of a vapor cloud caused by actions during a piping repair on a leaking sidecut pipe off one of the crude oil distillation towers. The underlying causes of the fire were 1) lack of common-sense safety engineering controls on the pipeline (no cut-off valve to shut down product flow into the pipe from the distillation tower); 2) deteriorated internal pipeline lining (lack of adequate inspection and replacement of worn piping components); 3) inadequate safety procedures (attempt to repair the pipe leak with product actively flowing in pipe instead of shutting down the distillation tower prior to making the repair; and 4) human error (the responders attempting the pipe repair damaged the pipe while trying to work on it but continued the work even after causing the pipe to shift instead of evacuating and shutting down the distillation tower). In many respects, it was a classic industrial accident made up of cascading causes, the cure of any one of which would have prevented the disaster. Chevron goofed big time. Regardless, the fire was not connected to junky heavy crudes, but to normal operations on the usual medium and light crudes and petroleum gasses refined in the Bay Area. If you want to learn more about the fire, I highly recommend the refinery fire website at http://www.csb.gov/chevron-refinery-fire/ and watch the narrated animation. Also check out the report at http://www.csb.gov/assets/1/16/Chevron_Final_Investigation_Report_2015-01-28.pdf.

Now let’s look at the statement that the fire and the resulting plume of rather nasty refinery-fire smoke “sent 15,000 neighbors to local hospitals with respiratory ailments.” Sounds like local hospitals were suddenly swamped by 15,000 crowding through the doors gasping for breath. This is a suspect statement right of the bat when you consider hospital capacity in the bay area. You can get an idea of Bay Area hospital capacity from the number of hospital beds available. There are approximately 14,000 hospital beds in the Bay Area (ref: http://www.issuelab.org/resources/8547/8547.pdf) – that’s for the whole region, not just the northeast end of the Bay up by Richmond, which is actually rather deprived of hospital facilities compared to the rest of the Bay. Frankly, 15000 people trying to get to get to a hospital would flood the roads and cripple the health care response ability of East Bay hospitals. So what is going on here with this statement?

Here’s where I think the journalist who wrote this article got his information: right out of the Chevron Final Investigation Report cited above, which states:

“In the weeks following the incident, approximately 15,000 people from the surrounding communities sought medical treatment at nearby medical facilities for ailments including breathing problems, chest pain, shortness of breath, sore throat, and headaches. Approximately 20 of these people were admitted to local hospitals as inpatients for treatment.”

I will leave it up to the readers of this blog post to make your own decisions as to the author’s use of the information on respiratory complaints during and after the fire, and will keep my personal assessment of misleading hyperbole to myself.

Here’s one more gem from this article. Let us go back to the statement:

“In response, a coalition of groups….are pushing to make the San Francisco Bay Area the first place in the world to place limits on oil refineries’ overall greenhouse-gas (GHG) and particulate-matter emissions.”

I do believe, based on my knowledge of California and US EPA regulations, that there isn’t a standard on CO2 emissions - but in reading this statement, If I didn’t know better then I might think that Bay Area refineries were not subject to particulate-matter emissions. Given that I at one time was working on the environmental remediation of spills at the Navy’s no-longer extant fire fighting school in the middle of the Bay on the Buena Vista, and got my fill of air quality control board and water board regs for the Bay Area, I know better. Particulate matter regulations are very old news. With the proviso that California’s air standards for the Bay Area are much more strict, you can look up the more lenient (but still stringent) US EPA standard for particulate matter at: https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/2012-national-ambient-air-quality-standards-naaqs-particulate-matter-pm

Now given the number of misstatements listed so far in just the first five paragraphs of the twenty-seven paragraph article, would you now give credence to the rest of it as it argues that a new emissions regulation is the way to prevent tar sands dilbit from being shipped by rail to California? Frankly, I find it rather insane that no one is even suggesting better ways to go about this, like bans on rail shipment of crude in urban areas; or regulating the stock-piling, storage and sale of the incredibly filthy pet-coke that’s produced by the refinery cokers that are required to refine dilbit; or taxing the importation of high-sulfur crudes. No, it seems clear that the author of this article and the people he supports believe that more emission regs are the way to hurt Big Oil. Whether you agree that such tactics are salutary and worthwhile instead of finding ways to build more alternative energy infrastructure to replace our dependence on fossil fuels is your own business.

In case it wasn’t obvious, grumpy science nerd is grumpy today.

Thursday 22 September 2016

The Great Plains???

I really should make a new category just for mistakes of geography.

Today's target of journalistic foot-in-mouth is an article in the internet version of the magazine The Nation. The article in question is dated 22 September, 2016, by one Brian Ward and titled "Native Americans Are Fighting a New but Familiar Battle at Standing Rock." (ref: https://www.thenation.com/article/native-americans-are-fighting-a-new-but-familiar-battle-at-standing-rock/)

I confess that today I might be suffering from a little bias...though not in respect to today's target mistake on the internet.

Before I anger half my friends, let me just disclaim at the start that I have a great deal of sympathy and understanding for Native American rights, and I say that as someone whose family has owned property surrounded by the Standing Rock Reservation with some knowledge of what the Sioux tribes have endured. My real complaints here are about the ignorance and laziness of many journalists and environmental activists - though I admit that the latter is an opinion, though one that I have formed as a professional environmental scientist.

Now I'm being quite restrained, actually, with respect to this article because I acknowledge that the author has his own opinions about what constitutes Native American property rights and the status of treaty lands in the American West, and also has his own opinions about what constitutes a danger to a water supply. I'm not going to digress that the history between the Sioux and the government of the USA is not as simple or black-and-white as this author paints, nor am I going to discuss the fact that he leaves out several of the precipitating events in the war between the Sioux and allied tribes and the US Army in latter half of the 1870s. I may decide at some point to write a separate blog post about why the pipeline construction discussed in this article is not a danger to the water supply of the Standing Rock Reservation, but that's for another day. After all, it's so much fun trying to convince the scientifically illiterate that there are these things called facts...

The funny odor you detect right now is the sweet smell of sarcasm.

No, today's target is the following statement from the above-mentioned article:

"in 1876, the Great Plains was home to the Battle of the Little Big Horn"

Let's skip over the incorrect verb tense as an act of charity and notch up the mispelling of "Little Bighorn" to an honest and easily-made mistake. The problem I have with this statement is that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was not on the Great Plains. The battle was in the intermountain valley of the Little Bighorn River. The Little Bighorn River flows out of the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains called the Rosebud Range and down its own little floodplain valley between the Little Wolf Mountains and the much larger Bighorn Mountains. Here's a picture of the geography of the region looking west-southwest, snatched from and annotated in Google Earth:

bighornmts-googleearth.png

The Little Wolf Mountains are in the foreground. The Bighorn Mountains are in the background. The Valley of the Little Bighorn River is between the two. The field of view is from the approximate location of Miles City.

Sadly, I expect that most environmentalist activists make a mess of history and are usually uneducated about real environmental science, but is it too much to ask to at least get the geography right?

Thursday 11 August 2016

No, this blog isn't dead yet...but...

No, I'm not abandoning my blog; however, there's lots going on so I thought I'd drop an update here. First, I did very little last year at this site since I spent my spare time writing a rather involved research paper for the Tudor Society, including lots of paleography and Latin translation. That paper got me something I've been working toward for a long time now: a request from a real world publisher for me to write a real book. So now I'm working on writing a biography of Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who is probably the most important early-Tudor man of letters you've never heard of... No, seriously, the problem with Tudor history is that everyone fixates on the soap opera of Henry the VIII and his too-many wives, two of whom he executed. Such a nice guy!

Lord Morley's wife was Henry VIII's second cousin, and he was Henry VIII's third cousin once removed by marriage, and Henry VIII's actual eleventh cousin four times removed (or something like that...but I'm too lazy this morning to recount it to be sure). He was the Baron of Morley, Marshal and Rhie, which made him one of the most senior barons in the kingdom and a descendant of the Norman conquerors of England. He grew up in the household of Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, who was the mother of Henry VII. His mother was a cousin of the infamous Viscount Lovell, Lord Chamberlain to Richard III and his father was one of Richard III's privy counselors and one of his banner bearers at the Battle of Bosworth.

Henry Parker was the first translator of both Plutarch and Petrarch into English. That's why he's important to the world of English literature. He's also one of the two most quoted primary sources on the life of Margaret Beaufort.

The reason Henry Parker is interesting is because he lived and observed first-hand the courts of six different sovereigns of England, making him the proverbial fly-on-the-wall for most of the important events of pre-Tudor and early-Tudor times. His letters and literary works capture a unique viewpoint of Tudor history. He played an extremely minor role politically but he present for almost everything major that happened with Henry VIII. And last, and actually in my book, least: he was the father of the infamous Lady Rochford, one of the best known, most reviled and falsely maligned "traitors" of Henry VIIi's reign.

Unlike several of his peers and colleagues from the Tudor court, Henry Parker, Lord Morley managed to die peacefully in his own bed. Given his very close ties to both the Boleyns and the Howards, factional families who were "lightened" of both influence and a few heads, that' an accomplishment. In that respect at least, he resembles Claudius, the great survivor of the early Roman Empire.

I'm thinking of titling the book as "Father of a Traitor" only because it is an attention-getter, with the subtitle of "the most important early Tudor man of letters you've never heard of." A good title and a good cover are everything in the book business. Anyway, that's what's up while I'm neglecting my various blogs (this isn't my only one) so hang in there for a few more months. I hope to be done writing by December 2016.

Sunday 2 August 2015

In the Market for a Shiny Object?

Today's offering to the Blog God is something I spotted on Amazon. After ordering a new pair of bike gloves, Amazon tried to tempt me with other things to buy. The very first of those things to buy was a "Portland Design Works Shiny Object." I'm not making this up! Here's a screen dump of the shiny object:

shinyobject.png

What really had me rolling on the floor was the customer review rating of four and a half stars! I had no idea that shiny objects were in such demand that there were 210 customer reviews, mostly favorable. The next time I need a shiny object, I now know who makes them and where I can buy one.

Of course, if you know bikes, you may recognize that this is a gizmo that fits over a tire valve. In this case, this is the end to a CO2 inflation gadget. In fact, if you click the link for the shiny object, you go to its webpage on Amazon where you can see the whole title of the shiny object, which is "Portland Design Works Shiny Object CO2 Inflator."

Of course, what happened here is that the last two words of the product description were cut off on the strip display box that Amazon showed me. That makes today's example of being wrong on the internet a failure of web page formatting curtesy of Amazon's CSS code...

Sunday 26 July 2015

Did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's Action Figure Do Drugs?

I'm sure all of your are keenly interested in George Neville, 1st Duke or Bedford, and the drug problem his action figure might have, except that ol' George there is dead, he wasn't really the first Duke of Bedford, and the allegations regarding his action figure are greatly exaggerated by someone who was wrong on the internet. But before we go down this road, we first need to discuss aggregators on the internet, what they are and how they work because today's subject is about the foibles - one might even say evils - of internet aggregators with the usual cautionary admonitions not to believe everything you read. So before we can get to the all important topic of the Duke of Bedford's action figure, let's start with the first internet aggregators to become popular, the news aggregators. A news aggregator is:

"client software or a web application which aggregates syndicated web content such as online newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and video blogs (vlogs) in one location for easy viewing." (1)

That's it in a sound bite: news aggregators crawl other internet content and assemble what they find in one place for the convenience of visitors to aggregator websites. A good example is one of the first well-known internet aggregators: Google News. Like any means of delivering information to people, not all aggregators are created equal. Certainly Google News is on the upper end of content quality in the land of internet aggregators; and I think anyone can think of at least one news aggregator that's an internet equivalent of the National Enquirer.

I'm sure that a lot of folks have had their time wasted by opportunistic aggregators that attempt to be an end-all source of information on one specific subject by aggregating all mentions of that subject and repackaging it. An example of this phenomenon is dexknows.com, which is a business information aggregator. If you are looking for a particular type of business in a town, chances are that any internet search engine will return a top level result from dexknows.com. This dexknows.com result will present you with info about business in that town that its software has aggregated from other sites on the internet. Where dexknows.com fails is for businesses in small towns. The aggregation software tries too hard to deliver a result - any result - as opposed to telling the user it has no information. The aggregator has the same problem as a know-it-all who just can't admit that he or she doesn't know something.

Here's a good example of aggregator absurdity using dexknows.com. Let's use the small town of McIntosh, South Dakota, population 176, which is pleasant small town three miles south from the state border with North Dakota, some 40 miles west of the Missouri River. The land is prairie of rolling low rolling hills, where the most visible industry is ranching. I own some farmland there, land that my great grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. It's a nice place where solid, salt-of-the-earth, honest and hardworking people live. The little reservoir there is a great fishing spot and when it comes to hunting, you can't beat that part of the Dakotas for the quality of its pheasant hunting

So here's what happens if your do an internet search for restaurants in McIntosh: dexknows.com will tell you that there are two restaurant results for McIntosh - Maverick Steakhouse & Cocktails and Bully's Chop House, both of which just happen to have addresses in Aberdeen, South Dakota. If you know nothing about South Dakota, let me be the first to inform you that Aberdeen is about 150 miles to the east of McIntosh. To my best knowledge of having been there, I believe there is only one restaurant in town, the Main Street Bar and Cafe - but it burnt down last year and I don't know if it's been rebuilt or moved to another building.

Aggregators on the internet are only as good as the intelligence of their software, which brings us to hot topic of George Neville's action figure's drug addiction - and yes, you're right: that funny odor you've noticed coming from this blog is the sweet smell of sarcasm!

There's an aggregator I just noticed today called vipfaq.com. I found this wonderful little gossip aggregation site while doing a search on trying to ascertain the cause of death in 1483 of George Neville, formerly the Duke of Bedford and heir presumptive to the throne of England. He had not a great life. His father was John Neville, Marquess of Montagu, the brother of Richard Neville, Earl or Warwick, the famous Kingmaker of England's Wars of the Roses. George's father and uncle died at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, which their side lost. Needless to say, George lost his title and most of his Neville lands after the victorious Edward IV had his father and uncle labeled by Parliament as traitors. George ended up with greatly diminished prospects under the guardianship of his second cousin, the future Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester. George Neville died unmarried at the age of 22 at the Castle of Sheriff Hutton, just north of the city of York (2). I still haven't found anything on his cause of death - but I'm not done searching yet. I got distracted from my search by vipfaq.com's website popping up in the midst of my web searches on George Neville's cause of death.

First off, I was really surprised to find that vipfaq.com is a bit confused about when George Neville died. Here's what vipfaq had to say about George Neville's death (3):

Is George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford still alive? Are there any death rumors?....... Unfortunately no, George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford is not alive anymore. The death rumors are true.

This is right next to this tidbit:

How old was George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford when he/she died?........ George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was 532 years old when he/she died.

Plus there's this:

When did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford die? How long ago was that?........ George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford died on the 4th of May 1483, which was a Friday. The tragic death occurred 532 years ago.

Well, George's death was indeed tragic, at least for him...but what's with the date of death confusion? Did he die at the age of 532, which would have been his age in 1993 - he was born in 1461 - or did he die in 1483, 532 years ago? I think someone needs to check their SQL or PHP code and fix that math mistake in the software.

The information from vipfaq.com is just fascinating for the details it reveals about George Neville, especially for me since I have been having such problems finding good information about his life and death. For example, about that action figure...

Are there any books, DVDs or other memorabilia of George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford? Is there a George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford action figure?........ We would think so. You can find a collection of items related to George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford right here.

The words "right here" at the end of that quote are hyperlinked text which when clicked on will take the user to:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss? url=search-alias%3Daps & field-keywords=George%20Neville%201st%20Duke%20of%20Bedford & tag=fairymeadows-20.

This lands the user on Amazon's website, bring up the results of a search through Amazon's online products in all categories on their website for items related to George Neville, 1st Duke of Bedford. Now look carefullly at the end of the URL address: I have no idea what "fairymedows-20" is for at the end of the web address for a search on amazon.com, and I'm not sure I really want to know.

Now when I followed this link myself, here's a partial list in order of what Amazon presented to me as items that might satisfy the criteria of being memorabilia of ol' George Neville and perhaps even his action figure:

  • A New Benchmark In Marriage Guide - 267 Success Secrets, Paperback, by Dorothy Simpson. A book full of information and trivia about marriage.
  • The White Queen, Philippa Gregory's racy bodice-ripper romance disguised as historical fiction, which was made into a racy and just-as-inaccurate mini-series on TV. I'm still trying to figure out why every suit of armour in the mini-series was missing its right pauldron.
  • An autograph of Neville Duke, the famous British WWII ace.
  • A CD of selections of movie music from famous British films.
  • Several more books, both biography and historical fiction about prominent War of the Roses and Tudor women.
  • A 1975 reprint of the first DC Comics Flash for $15. What a rip-off! It's not worth that because it's not the real first edition - it's just a reprint.

Now, did you see any action figure there? I didn't either. Right now I'm feeling very disappointed. After all, you can get action figures of Richard Wagner, Funko-Pop Mister Rogers and Joseph Stalin (4). So why shouldn't there be a George Neville action figure, perhaps of him at age nine attending his betrothal ceremony with Elizabeth of York, future queen of Henry VII?

Given that vipfaq.com is a celebrity gossip aggregator, some of the more colorful sorts of information are collected by this site. For example, the following:

Many people enjoy sharing rumors about the sexuality and sexual orientation of celebrities. We don't know for a fact whether George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was gay, bisexual or straight. However, feel free to tell us what you think! Vote by clicking below.

What followed here was a poll where you could vote for gay, straight or bi sexual preference for George Neville, former Duke of Bedford. The poll was followed by poll results to date:

100% of all voters think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was gay (homosexual), 0% voted for straight (heterosexual), and 0% like to think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was actually bisexual.

There was also financial information on George Neville, which surprised me since it was dead wrong. George Neville had an income of 400 pounds a year at the time he died, which for the year 1483 was a lot of money. Here's vipfaq.com on the subject:

What is George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's net worth in 2015? How much does George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford earn?........ According to various sources, George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's net worth has grown significantly in 2015. However, the numbers vary depending on the source.

Of course, there was some discussion of recreational drug abuse:

Did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford do drugs? Did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford smoke cigarettes or weed? It is no secret that many celebrities have been caught with illegal drugs in the past. Some even openly admit their drug usuage. Do you think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford did smoke cigarettes, weed or marijuhana? Or did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford do steroids, coke or even stronger drugs such as heroin? Tell us your opinion below.

The results of this website poll were:

0% of the voters think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford did do drugs regularly, 0% assume that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford did take drugs recreationally and 0% are convinced that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford has never tried drugs before.

Not exactly helpful, was it? How will parents know if George Neville as a public figure is a good role model for their children if people don't make their opinions known?

Last, vipfaq.com brings up a vital subject that needs to be out in the open about every important public figure, living or deceased:

Are there any photos of George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's hairstyle or shirtless?........There might be. But unfortunately we currently cannot access them from our system. We are working hard to fill that gap though, check back in tomorrow!

Needless to say, I will be checking their gossip aggregator daily now to get news on this vital question. Oh, yeah! George Neville, tragic romance figure beef cake and victim of those terrible Plantagenets! I MUST score a pic of the dude shirtless, gels! I'll pin him up next to my pic of Charlton Heston from the mud pit scene in The Ten Commandments.

shirtless.png

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_aggregator (accessed 26 Jul 15)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Neville,_1st_Duke_of_Bedford (accessed 26 Jul 15)
  3. http://www.vipfaq.com/George%20Neville%201st%20Duke%20of%20Bedford.html (accessed 26 Jul 15)
  4. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Accoutrements-11444-WAGNER-ACTION-FIGURE/dp/B000BY29B8, http://neighborhoodarchive.com/articles/20140210_custompop/index.html, http://www.amazon.com/KING-JOSEPH-STALIN-ACTION-FIGURE/dp/images/B006MZKG6K (all accessed 26 Jul 15)

Monday 1 June 2015

Raped by Rogue Sodiums (Borax is a Buffer - Part 2)

The visitor to my glue handout on my website has comes back with more questions. As this is turning into a deeper look at the casein and borax "glue" I am posting it up here.

And yes, I'm still saying that the mix will make a weak glue far inferior to traditional cheese glue. Read on for details:


Hi Cat, thanks for the quick reply. I am referring to this (http://www.sinopia.com/-Casein-Milk-Paint-Recipe_c_41.html) - casein and borax glue, which seems to contain no lime. and no soda bicarbonate. Borax is an emulsifier so it is possible to incorporate linseed oil and pigments as well. What is the chemical reaction here? acidic / basic conditions? They claim that the final pH is neutral. To the best of my knowledge, borax in water is alkaline. That should help the hydration of the casein. Anyways, this whole milk paint is pretty old and seems to have been abandoned. I like stuff like that... Hope we can kick this pebble down the road, Likewise i will purchase some sodium (bi)carbonate to try your idea too. I was also thinking of using potassium-carbonate...

Dear ---,

Sorry on the delay. I've been a bit busy lately.

I'm making an educated guess here as to what's going on with a little help from a glue chemistry text - given my environmental geochemistry background, protein chemistry is not my best discipline. I'm really best when it comes to the inorganic stuff. Regardless, looking at what Sinopia has on their web site, what they are selling is dried powered casein protein, probably produced by the classic curd making process of adding a weak acid to a low-fat milk. When you hydrate dried casein using water and no additives, you get a weakly acidic solution with a pH of approx. 6.6. When you hydrate borax, (Na2B4O7·nH2O) you get some Na+ ions, half as many (B4O5(OH)4)2- molecules [the 2- here is a valence of minus 2 and not a doubled B4O5(OH)4 molecule] and the release of the compositional water of the borax crystals. But there's an additional hydrolysis reaction with the borate ion where boron is hydrolyzed, to wit: B(OH)3 + H2O ---> (B(OH)4)− + H+. It's this reaction that makes borax so useful as a pH buffer. The boron hydrolysis will buffer any excess alkalinity back toward neutrality but will always be weakly alkaline.

Mind you, in the world of art supplies, near-neutral alkalinity is passed off as neutral pH (pH 7 to 8) and for all intents and purposes, that's okay. Most of the world's drinking water is slightly alkaline as is all mammalian blood chemistry. Most of the biochemistry of living things happens in a slightly alkaline environment. It's normal - but when you're selling art supplies, it's not that easy to explain to people that their world is really slightly alkaline so things get sold and "acid free" or "neutral pH."

There is no real glue reaction here at this point in the traditional sense of forming a caseinate: in making a solution of water, casein and borax, the sodium ions will not react with the casein to make sodium caseinate because the casein will not dissolve and so the sodium can't get to it to react with it. You could say that keeping the casein in suspension as a colloid is like keeping it in a chastity belt, to protect it from being raped by those rogue sodiums. Casein will only dissolve in decidedly alkaline conditions, which you won't get in a borate-buffered solution. The casein particles will stay suspended in the solution.

Thus far, I'm pretty confident my description of the chemistry is correct since my glue book (A. L. Lambuth, Protein Adhesives for Wood, p. 26, in: A. Pizzi, Ed., Wood Adhesives, CRC Press, 1989) tells me that a mixture of casein and borax is a simple dispersion of casein particles as the colloid with borax as the emulsifier. The addition of heat here is not to drive a chemical reaction but to mechanically disperse the casein throughout the solution. The boron hydrolysis will buffer the solution to near neutral pH. The creation of a translucent mass by hydrolysis that the Sinopia instructions mention leads me to believe there may be an additional reaction here where the kappa-casein is hydrolyzed, leaving the alpha- and beta-caseins behind. The swelling would be due to the unkinking of the casein micelles with the destruction of the kappa-casein wrapper around the alpha- and beta-caseins by the hydrolysis process. I have no reference for that reaction - I'm just going here on what I know about the behavior of casein micelles.

Using it as a binder for pigment involves driving off the water in the solution through drying. As water exits the solution, there will be a limited opportunity to form sodium caseinate at the solution/casein-surface interface, which would be the only true aglutenant reaction of this stuff. Heating the mixture will mechanically break and disperse the solid casein granules, thus increasing the available specific surface for such a reaction to occur.

Given that I've found a discussion of casein borate emulsions as a paper paste and pigment binder in an industrial glue science book implies this is well-known chemistry. But if you give it a little thought, this casein in borate buffer emulsion is going to be a weak glue. Weak glues are okay as pigment aglutenants. That's because you don't need strong adhesion for pigments - what you need is chemical stability and protection for attack from atmospheric humidity and airborne pollutants. But if you want to use this stuff as a true glue to stick one solid onto another, I'd go for a calcium caseinate glue made with pickling lime or a collagen-based glue.

If you're thinking of using this as a pigment binder, go for the Sinopia recipe. I'm a huge fan of Sinopia and have ordered certain hard-to-find art materials from them for years and years now. If the folks at Sinopia say it works for pigments, it works.

If you're going for true glue as opposed to making an aglutenant for pigments, try the potassium carbonate. Use it like you would use the pickling lime in the Cennini cheese glue recipe and see how it works. If it doesn't work, try it in the same proportion as the baking soda in the high school recipe I put in my glue handout.

Mind you, potassium carbonate is not as bad as the lime compounds in powder form but it is a skin irritant and it does make a strong alkaline solution that you don't want in your eyes. Just because it isn't as strong a caustic as lime doesn't mean it's benign as a chemical. Seriously, always protect your eyes when mixing any of this stuff.

ttfn Cate


Frankly, I have too much work to do at the moment to spend a lot of time on doing more glue chemistry - but I really like that this guy is interested in the chemistry of glue. People don't do amateur science like they use to and I don't want to discourage anyone from having some fun with this sort of stuff...and so, now I have to work most of the evening to catch up with what I didn't do in order to reply to the glue questions. There really is no rest for the weary...

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Borax is a Buffer

I'm apologies for being a truant on my own blog lately. I'm working toward scheduling more time to work on blog posts but I'm not there yet. I've discovered over the last couple of years that one doesn't own a business - the business owns you!


Eight years ago, I taught a class on making glue for a living history group and when I was done, I posted my class notes on the subject on my living history oriented website, rocks4brains.com/stuff.html. The glue handout is at rocks4brains.com/glue.pdf. In that handout, I described making cheese glue, which is a Medieval variant of casein-based glues like pre-WWII Elmer's wood glue. Casein glues are made by exposing milk-product caseins, which is what's in curd, to an alkaline solution to unkink and unwind the protein micelles and then introducing Na+2 or Ca+2 to rebind those proteins to make glue.

I got an email this morning from someone thinking to replace the pickling lime in my cheese glue recipes with borax. Here's the email and my reply:

I am writing after visiting your website, though it seems like there has been no activity in it for a while.

 

I should really write a more modern website and update stuff but I'm lazy...

 
Anyways, trying my luck: i am trying to make my own glue - casein glue actually. I wish to use borax as the alkaly agent, i also wish to avoid lime. any other suggestions? <

Dear ---, looking at the chemistry, I don't think that borax will work well. It's a pH buffer and water softener. 


In solution, it's going to form sodium cations (+2) and a borate complex (-2). Borax solution is a second-rate water softener (i.e. it REDUCES alkalinity) and it is more commonly used at labs to buffer enzyme solutions to maintain near-neutral weak alkalinity. Unlike lime or lye, it's not a caustic. Also, the sodium cation released from borax is not as effective as calcium in rebinding cassein proteins. So borax gets you a wimpy anion complex that actually decreases alkalinity and buffers solutions to near-neutral pH; plus, Na+2 is less effective compared to Ca. That makes it a far worse choice than baking soda. If you want to avoid the lime compounds and still get a usable cheese glue, use baking soda. 


I don't use baking soda to make cheese glue so I don't have my own recipe for it. If I were doing this, I think the first thing I'd try would be the Cennini-based recipe but with 2 parts skim mozzarella to three parts baking soda and then experiment from there to obtain the optimal ratio of cheese to baking soda. 


Hope this helps, Cate



Borax - it's a buffer and reduces alkalinity, which is the opposite of what you want to make casein glue. If you want deep details on the chemistry, check out my glue handout whose pdf URL I have already provided.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Jesus Had a Brother Named Isukiri and Other Tall Tales

yeah, yeah, yeah...I'm behind on my blogging. It's been a real blizzard of doing my business's taxes and having a little too much life on the side. So tonight, instead of part 2 of the "America's Worst Meltdown" or my newest project on the Sweating Sickness outbreaks in England during Tudor times, I offer up a blog by a Buddhist monk which left me howling with mirth, especially when I realized I had my leg pulled.


I have very little to say today because someone has done the debunking ahead of me.  So I'm going to be lazy and point you to the blog of a Buddhist monk in Singapore.  His name is Shravasti Dhammika, which is enough of a typing twister that I will refrain from repeating it.

Let me first present what this gentleman posted that inspired today's blog entry.

First, the monk's blog starts out with this picture of a road sign pointing to Christ's grave:


graveChristAomoriJapan32012255506329270.jpg

Next there is a photo of a sign at the grave site which has the following text:

Christ's Grave

When Jesus Christ was 21 years old he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33 and engaged in his mission. However at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ's preaching. Instead they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross. his younger brother Isukiri casually took Christ's place and ended his life on the cross.

Christ who escaped the crucifixion went through the ups and downs of travel and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village and died at the age of 106.

On this holy ground there is a dedicated burial mound on the right to deify Christ and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri. The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.

I really love the totally Japanese name for Jesus's brother who would have been a first century Galilean jew.

In the blog, the above sign is followed by a picture of the grave itself:


graveChristAomoriJapan32012255506329272.jpg

Under the grave photo is the punch line which states:

Of course all this is nonsense. Everyone knows that Jesus survived crucifixion and went to India and died there.

After this howler of a statement, the monk provides links to three of his other blog posts where he discusses the travels of Jesus Christ to India and other non-Levant locations.

If we stopped here, you might consign this blogging Buddhist to the same landfill as the folks who believe Jesus married Mary Magdalene, moved to France and had kids. But in the quest to leave no citation unverified, I found that the links to the monk's other blog posts reveal not a crackpot but a man who did his research and wrote a really tight debunking of Christ's alleged travels outside of the Holy Land.

This Buddhist monk was not wrong on the internet even though that was my first impression. His remark that everyone knows Jesus went to India was sarcasm, which I didn't pick up on until I checked his other blog posts.  If you missed the sarcasm, you might believe this monk actually believed that Jesus traveled to India. The moral to this story is always check out citations: just because something written has a citation doesn't mean it's true.  There are lots of people out there who lie with citations in the same manner that other people lie with statistics.  It's common enough that lying with citations is one of my favorite targets on this blog.

This guy's blog on Buddhism is first rate and you should check out his posts on the so-called travels of Jesus. Normally I'd do my own debunking on Jesus going to India but this Buddhist monk has done such a fine job that I don't think I can improve on his posts at all.  Here are the links so you can check them out for yourself:

Sunday 15 February 2015

America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown: A Disaster Made of Words - Part 1: Nuclear Fear

It is arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engine. Electricity opens a field of infinite conveniences to ever greater numbers, but they may well have to pay dearly for them. But anyhow in my thought I stop short of the internal combustion engine which has made the world so much smaller. Still more must we fear the consequences of entrusting a human race so little different from their predecessors of the so-called barbarous ages such awful agencies as the atomic bomb. Give me the horse.  - Winston Churchill -  

Introduction

When it comes to nuclear accidents, the first casualty of what happened is always the truth. The world of nuclear issues is a veritable minefield of misstatements, because activists almost uniformly resort to hyperbole and a half, while nuclear industry professionals will try to make any accident sound as frightening as making toast in your kitchen. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little but when dealing with nuclear topics, I always assume bias and I will advise everyone to do the same. Very few people can write rationally on this subject. I'm not even sure I can - but I'll try.

Before I go waltzing down the path of tangents, let me introduce today's target of being wrong on the internet. It's an article in the web-magazine, Pacific Standard:

50 Years After America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown (1)

What's wrong here is the accident this article refers to. No, it's not Three Mile Island ("TMI") or the SL-1 accident in Idaho, the only real reactor accident that killed people prior to Chernobyl (2). The article is about a small experimental sodium-potassium cooled reactor whose design was being tested for satellite applications at a Rocketdyne facility in the Santa Susana Hills of Simi Valley, City of Los Angeles in California. The first time I ever saw this while surfing the internet one evening I just about had a cow. Los Angeles? The site of America's worst nuclear reactor accident??? Oh Please! Show me the bodies, someone!

Then I started digging. It turns out there is a dedicated knot of activists down in the Southern California who believe that an accident at with this small experimental salt-cooled reactor accident really is the worst nuclear meltdown in this country and that it was covered-up and concealed from the public. I hope to show that neither of these two points is true. But this post has gotten so long in the writing that I'm breaking it into four parts, of which this is the first. But before we begin to dig into details, it's time for -

POTENTIAL AUTHOR BIAS DISCLOSURE

For the purpose of complete disclosure, I glow in the dark as does my family and my spouse's family too. I found it hugely amusing when I told my father about this person I was dating when I was in grad school. The second I mentioned that my future father-in-law was a former "navy nuke" and reactor operator, and that my future spouse had worked at one time at a nuclear power plant, everything was A-Okay with with cold warrior dad.

My father cut his nuclear teeth working on the Manhattan Project, spent half his career designing and building nuclear submarines and the other half fixing nuclear reactors. My favorite picture of my father is of him at the helm of the USS Nautilus, back when the engineers at the Electric Boat shipyard manned the controls for sea trials. Yes, my dad, the first helmsman of the Nautilus. It doesn't get any better than that. My brother's got a PhD in nuclear engineering and is an expert in modeling reactor vessel degradation (don't quote me on that - I haven't read his resume for a couple of decades and disciplines do shift with time, but I do know he was still doing a lot of stuff for Oak Ridge not too long ago). He founded the health physics program at Columbia University. That's reactors and nuclear safety too. I'm not in the nuclear field myself but at one time I could honestly claim to be an expert in nuclear methods used in borehole geophysics. I've extracted lots of isotopes from earth materials and irradiated a lot of rocks and boreholes in my day. And I'm really really good at x-ray fluorescence. Nuclear credentials? Mine aren't as good as my brother's or my father's but I got 'em!

If I have a bias, it probably leans favorably toward nuclear power generation using the proven reactor designs that can't melt down and/or cause explosions that release ionizing radiation. Yes, we do know how to build reactors that can't meltdown or explode though some of you will not believe me, either because you don't know what a meltdown really is or because all things anti-nuclear are a matter of religion for you.

I have nothing to cite in support of this, but I believe that anti-nuclear power stances are essentially religious beliefs. See? There's my bias, out in the open. I will try to stay objective here.

NUCLEAR FEAR

Nuclear fear exists and it is irrational. It affects the people who think nuclear reactors are part of the road to hell. It also affects the people who work in nuclear-science based industries who fear that irrationality.

Let me tell you a short story about nuclear fear.

I spent part of my career as an earth scientist in the environmental field. I've investigated and helped to remediate some tens of sites, mostly on the west side of the USA. Several of those were Superfund sites. I was the field work manager for one of those Superfund sites. But I cut my environmental teeth on the Navy's landfill on Mare Island. I did a well-logging geophysical survey using a passive gamma-ray detector in something like 30 groundwater monitoring wells. A passive gamma-ray detector measures the natural background gamma-ray emissions of the materials next to it. This works because almost all physical matter emits a very small amount of radiation from the natural decay of naturally-occurring radio-isotopes, including alpha particles, electrons and gamma-rays. The naturally-occurring radioactive elements include uranium, thorium, radium, radon gas and potassium; and almost all physical matter on the earth's surface contains very small amounts of these elements including all those fancy granite kitchen counters, table salt and your own body. The radio-isotopes of these elements are one of the two contributors of that background radiation you hear scientists talk about. This background radiation is nothing to worry about because all biological systems have been exposed to it for billions of years and are already evolved and adapted to it. Another way to look at background radiation is that it is actually plays an essential role in evolution - but that's a post for another day...

The purpose of the passive gamma well-logging study at Mare Island was to document the integrity of the well seals in an environmentally-sensitive area. All wells have to be constructed such that fluids from the surface or from a stratigraphic layer can't leak into any other stratigraphic layer in the ground. I'm sure you can see where testing the well seals of wells built in and around a landfill would be a good thing. The well-logging survey was a tasty little study and I was quite proud of it. The study worked like this: clay was used in the grout to seal the monitoring wells, and because clay is rich in potassium in comparison to the calcareous mudstones of Mare Island, recording the elevated gamma-ray emission from the radioactive decay of naturally-occurring K-40 in the clay-rich grout would show that the well seals were thick enough and continuous. The passive gamma logging tool I sent down the wells was just a glorified hyper-sensitive gamma-ray analog of a Geiger-Mueller counter called a scintillation detector which was calibrated to measure the extremely small amount of background radiation in the wells. To give you an idea of how much gamma radiation there was, the background in plain old air was around 5 to 8 API units, the bay muds, siltstones, and sandy shallow aquifer layers underlying the landfill were around 5 to 12 API units and the well seals were around 18 to 20 API units. Now don't quote me on that since I'm remembering this off the top of my head - but since it was my first real well-logging survey at my very first real industry geology job, I remember it well. That was back in the days when my first job was still an adventure for me instead of the slog it later turned into.

California law at the time stipulated a minimum seal thickness of two feet for environmental monitoring wells (please don't quote me on that either - I don't know where my old California well standards booklet has wandered off to so I can cite that thickness - but I do know we built those wells to exceed the state standards). When I was done logging, my gamma-ray study showed that all the wells had continuous seals of three to four feet as indicated by the steady elevated gamma-ray counts next to those grout seals around the well casings.

Now here's where the nuclear fear comes in: the Navy had the study removed from the publicly-published report on the environmental investigation of the aquifers under the landfill. Why? Because they were afraid the public would panic over or misunderstand the words "gamma-ray." Here's their reasoning: gamma-rays were ionizing radiation after all, and ionizing radiation is nuclear by definition. Since the Navy had just lost a huge civic suit brought against it by the State of California over its stand that the State's environmental laws did not apply to federal military reservations, and since they were also fighting a battle at that time over the presence of the nuclear reactors on submarines at Mare Island, they were overly-sensitive about accusations that there might be nuclear waste on the navy base. So the last thing they wanted was someone claiming there was radioactivity in the Mare Island's landfill on the basis of the passive gamma study I did of the well seals.

It really was absurd. Potassium-40 is everywhere in this world. It's a naturally-occurring substance. You yourself as you read this have naturally-occurring Potassium-40 in your body which you acquired by ingestion of everyday table salt. It's background radiation. It's there and it has always been there. Some earth materials like clay have more of it than other earth materials like limestone or coral - and that's why passive gamma-ray detection is useful for investigating rocks in wells. Passive gamma logging is so useful that every oil and gas well in world will have a passive gamma log run in it.

My first borehole logging study was never published because of nuclear fear. I still have the report draft from over 30 years ago packed away in a box somewhere. Was the nuclear fear in this case justified? Well, probably. To people lacking a basic understanding of science and for whom anti-nuclear doctrine is a matter of religion, seeing the measurement of gamma-rays in monitoring wells might very well have caused some numbnuts to misunderstand the nature of the my well-logging study.

Whoops - showing my bias there again... My bad!

MORE FEAR THAN NUCLEAR FEAR

Humans in general can be uncomfortable with change and one of the usual responses to hard-to-understand change in the form of new technologies is avoidance (3). Nuclear fear is really only one of many negative reactions to new technologies and this particular fear phenomenon is actually quite dated. Some of the most notable negative reactions to new technologies are exemplified by the introduction of the steam engine, the railroad and electricity (4, 5).

I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late James Watt, who said that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. - Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first high-pressure steam engine - (6)

Early fears about railroads centered around the adverse effects that high speeds of 30 mph could have on the human body and around the dangers of locomotive explosions (7). Fears over electricity persisted well into the mid-20th century where some older people in rural areas would not even touch a telephone for fear of electrocution (5). The data on the power of vaccines to conquer the former plagues of the past is inarguable (8); however, fears over vaccinations persist to this day despite the existence of proof-of-principle for the effectiveness of vaccines for over 200 years. The more you look at such phenomenon, the stranger it looks. To the scientifically inclined, such behaviors appear irrational and perverse since, after all, facts are facts. Behavior like this is why some people like myself tend to think of such fears as religious beliefs since they are taken by their advocates as the truth based not on fact but on an act of baseless faith and bolstered by bad theodicies of pseudo-scientific arguments. Yet many holders of such anti-rational beliefs are intelligent people of non-trivial education. So what is going on here?

The answers to such a question are not easy or obvious. To say that holders of anti-technology beliefs are luddites or stupid or uneducated is as insulting as it is wrong. Nor can you say that it is limited to western civilization in the face of such episodes as the great Japanese resistance to the introduction of smallpox vaccine in the 19th century (9). There aren't a lot of good explanations of this phenomenon which is a bit off from my point of view since this is one of the most important cultural happenings of our time.

One partial explanation that seems to work is that of Weart (3, 10). If there is one book to read, I'd point anyone to his Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, though if one is more oriented to explanation and text rather than pictures, his shorter distillation and update of his early work, which goes by the title of The Rise of Nuclear Fear may be the better pick. For those in love with ebooks - or at least in love with their convenience like I am - the latter is available as an ebook whereas the former is not.

Weart's model is based on the phenomenon of psychological-to-physiological connection. The trite and cliche example of this is Pavlov's dogs who would salivate at the sound of bell because Pavlov had trained the association of the bell and being fed into the dogs. Weart makes the case that technological fears like nuclear fear work in a similar way. No, people are not animals like dogs but there are proven human responses to stimuli that provoke emotional responses that are seemingly unconnected except in the mind of the person experiencing a stimulus response. I am reminded of an example I read in a book on the psychology of adults who were orphaned as children old enough to remember the missing parent or parents. One case study was of a woman who felt extreme sorrow and sometimes would weep every time she heard a particular piano piece by Chopin. Investigation with her relatives revealed that one of her parents, who died when she was something like four, was fond of playing Chopin on the piano. 

Others of these psychological-to-physiological behaviors appear to be hard-wired to humans as a whole: for example, arachnophobia or ophidiophobia are statistically-significant behaviors for the human race everywhere.  For most people, fight or flight at the sight of a spider or snake is in your genes, even if the snake is a harmless garter snake or the spider is one of the helpful ones that eat mosquitoes.  Weart's point is that people can be trained - and are trained - to respond in specific ways to certain stimuli even if there is a rational disconnect between the two, and that this is a real thing which exists at both individual and sub-species levels.

When you understand Weart's point in the previous paragraph, then his main argument is that nuclear fear is based on response to stimuli unconnected with nuclear stuff in the real world. The connections come from the world of the imagination as manifested in popular literature, entertainment and modern myth. The X-men, Godzilla and the giant insects of countless 1950's "B" movies all belong to the nuclear mutants created by the aftermath of atomic bombs. It's so common a thing in movies and comic books that it's a tired old cliche and trope. Now there's no such thing as Godzilla but Godzilla is real in our cultural universe and every time you see Godzilla, something in the back of your brain says "mutant monsters are nuclear consequences." 

Then there's the gig that folks in the nuclear business glow in the dark but that's not real either - but in the reality of cultural memes, one can nuke things until they glow in the dark. Well, places that have been bombed do not glow in the dark. It just doesn't happen. Some reactors exhibit bluish glowing effects, most commonly when fission occurs surrounded by a pool of water. It's called Cherenkov Radiation and it's due to the creation of highly charged particles in a reactor which then travel through the reactors coolant at speeds faster than light can travel through the same coolant. As the particles interact with the coolant and slow down, they dump energy. In the classic case of water-cooled reactors, the dumped energy manifests as high-frequency blue-light photons. It's a reactor thing. It's not a bomb effect. You can't bomb something to the point that it will glow in the dark.  Physics just doesn't work that way - but that's not what the cultural meme tells you!

Weart's point is that stuff like this is what's behind nuclear fear. Godzilla isn't real but your cultural exposure to science fiction movies associates mutant monsters with the aftermath of atomic bomb explosions. These are the sorts of things Weart talks about but in much greater detail on many more levels than my quick and dirty examples here.

Nuclear fear, like all technological fears, is a gut reaction based on emotional, psychological and cultural responses that have very little to do with real science, fact and critical thinking. We are ruled far less by our higher thought processes than we believe we are.

Mutants-For-Nuclear-Power.jpg

References

  1. Bien, T. J, and Collins, M., 25 Aug 2009, "50 Years After America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown", Pacific Standard Magazine, accessed 30 Jan 2015. 
  2. Doc Clark, 31 Jan 2013, "The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident???", accessed 14 Feb 2015. 
  3. Weart, S. R., 1989, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674628366.
  4. Volti, R., 2005, Society and Technological Change, 5th edition, Worth Publishers, ISBN 978-0716787327.
  5. Simon, L. 2005, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray, Mariner Books, ISBN 978-0156032445.
  6. Francis Trevithick, 1872, Life of Richard Trevithick: With an Account of his Inventions, Vol. 2, p. 395-6, accessed 13 Feb 15. 
  7. National Railway Museum (UK), 2012, "Fear and Fascination", accessed 12 Feb 2015.
  8. Doc Clark, 28 Jan 2015, "Vaccination for Idiots", accessed 14 Feb 2015.
  9. I wish I could find a good English-language reference on what happened in Japan with the smallpox vaccines but my friend who was a published Japanese historian passed away just a few years ago so making a phone call to pick his brains for a reference isn't an option anymore. So I'll fess up in the dearth of a better reference for now and confess that most of my knowledge on this subject is actually based on the late great Tezuka Ozamu's award-winning historical manga epic Hidamari no Ki. Commonly considered the Walt Disney of Japanese anime, Tezuka obtained an MD before becoming an manga and anime creator and medical themes run through many of his works. Tezuka was descended from one of the historical doctor characters in Hidamari no Ki, which was one of the last manga series he wrote before his death. But basing one's knowledge of history on a manga, even one by Tezuka, is not the preferred way to document an historical event. I'll keep looking for a ref on this. One the big problems here is that I have never found a good popular history of Japan that's a decent read and at my age, life is too short to slog through dry history texts when there isn't a grade at stake...
  10. Weart, S. R., 2012, The Rise of Nuclear Fear, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674052338.

Thursday 29 January 2015

I AM NOT A TROLL: my review of Ann Rule's Fatal Friends, Deadly Enemies

News for the readership first: Gold Part 2 is tabled for now! I actually posted it at one point and then retracted it after my number one reader pointed out that I was too obscure in making my case on how Dr. Straub was wrong on the internet. It's in the queue for rewriting, but it will be a massive rewrite and there are a few posts I want to do first - like the one below - instead of holding everything up while I bang my head on redoing Gold Part 2.


This topic has been in the queue for a while now and it's time for it to see the light of day, especially since it really is already written and posted as an amazon.com book review. What happened is that I wrote a review and went back a few years later to revise it (details are below as to why). The reason I'm posting this here on my blog is because someone in the comments on the review accused me a being a troll without investigating the verifiable facts I put in my original review. That just made me mad because to accuse me a being a troll and making up stuff without actually bothering to verify the details I listed for that very purpose is what I might politely call contempt prior to investigation.

I can swallow most drivel on the internet but as this blog proves, I can't let some things slide. I went back to amazon.com to revise the review I wrote in 2012 about Ann Rule's book that discusses the Susan Powell case with the title Fatal Friends, Deadly Enemies. I'm going to show my original review, my revised review and the comments that I have taken issue with.

First, my original review on Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors: Ann Rule's Crime Files Volume 16:

Upfront I will be honest and disclose that my interest in this particular Ann Rule book was mostly due to the Susan Powell case since I am close to some of the folks who were Susan's friends in Salt Lake City. That being said, I have to say that I am disappointed in the Susan Powell account which contains several minor factual errors. For example, Rule states that Susan vomited after eating the meal Josh Powell served her on the afternoon of 12/6/2009 and that is not true. She reports the price of Josh Powell's DEX ad as $10,000 when in reality is was $100,000. She gets the address of the Powell house in West Valley City wrong. There are several other minor mistakes like this but I think I've managed to make my point here. All of the errors I list here could have been avoided by better research, especially since people with firsthand knowledge of these matters have discussed them openly and in detail on various Facebook groups, internet forums and blogs. But aside from news media and internet sources, many of the errors reported could have been avoided if Rule had actually contacted more of Susan's friends and acquaintances. What disappoints me most is that there are at least two people I know very close to this case who are quoted in Rule's text who were never actually contacted directly by Rule or anyone working for Rule; and that leaves me wondering what Rule used as sources of information for her quotes. Frankly, that's just plain sloppy journalism for someone of Rule's stature as a crime reporter.

Granted, the errors are all minor, but they could have been avoided. It leaves me wondering, however, whether the other cases covered in this book are also subject to these types of errors and slapdash research. Looking beyond this problem, I will note that like usual for Ann Rule, the pacing is excellent and the narrative is gripping. There is no argument that Ann Rule is one of the best wordsmiths in the True Crime genre; but I just can't get around my disappointment in discovering that Rule's research wasn't as good as her ability to captivate her readers, hence my rating of just three stars.

Now here's my revised review:

Upfront I will be honest and disclose that my interest in this particular Ann Rule book was mostly due to the Susan Powell case since I am close to some of the folks who were Susan's friends in Salt Lake City. That being said, I have to say that I am disappointed in the Susan Powell account which contains several minor factual errors. <<<<text deleted with a list of minor errors>>> What disappoints me most is that there are at least two people I know very close to this case who are quoted in Rule's text who were never actually contacted directly by Rule or anyone working for Rule; and that leaves me wondering what Rule used as sources of information for her quotes.

<<< more text deleted, originally expressing my disappointment >>>

I will note that like usual for Ann Rule, the pacing is excellent and the narrative is gripping. There is no argument that Ann Rule is one of the best wordsmiths in the True Crime genre; but I just can't get around my disappointment in discovering that Rule's research wasn't as good as her ability to captivate her readers

<<<rating comment deleted>>>

Comments as of 13 Sept 2014. I think I was in the first ten people to review this book on Amazon. I have now revised by rating upward. After I wrote this review, I discovered that Rule's main sources of info were Chuck and Judy Cox. Granted Rule did not contact the Salt Lake City folks closest to this crime but given that she was talking directly with Susan's parents, and given how fast Rule had to write this book (even old pros like her have deadline pressures), the sources she used can't be impeached at all and the minor errors that crept in are understandable. Even with errors, it's a worthy read. I say that from the perspective of truly deep knowledge on this case since after more than five years, there are still several of us still working with Susan's friends in SLC in the ongoing search to find her remains.

Here are the comments I have taken offense over:

LifeIsGood says: The reviewer attacked Ann Rule. How do we know that HE knows the actual, correct information, like the correct address? That is a question that I have for him. This reviewer is a Troll.

JulieM. says: I agree with LifeIsGood. Some errors could be typos, but how does this person know if she vomited or not? An address being incorrect affects the story in what way? AND, sometimes authors are given wrong information or editors don't catch errors. In the end, So What?

Now here is my response, having found the comments on my original review:

I have never responded before to a comment on any of my reviews. When I said I was close to this case, I was being modest. It is not my habit to name drop nor grandstand my expertise or credentials. I am involved in the ongoing forensic investigation to find Susan Powell's remains and work with the PI hired by the Cox family to provide certain scientific analyses of evidence within my areas of study, in which I am published academically and have taught at the University level. I have personally spent hundreds of hours working on finding Susan along with other professionals and non-professional friends and family of Susan Cox Powell. Right now there is a box of evidentiary material from Susan Powell's purse that Chuck Cox sent me a couple of months ago to analyze and identify. That's how close I am to this case. I opine that my knowledge of this case is extremely deep and detailed and there is very little about it that I don't already know. When I said there were errors in this book in my original review and took the time and trouble to list a few of those errors, it was to show actual examples of factual content vs. errors. It was there for those who might want to bother to verify my information, like the error on the vomiting or the error on the address. You yourself could have bothered to do so though you chose to challenge my bona fides and truthfulness instead without first verifying my statements. Anyone can do that simple task of fact checking on the Susan Powell case, afterall, by reading the case files, many of which are available to the public at a website build by KSL TV in SLC at http://www.ksl.com/?sid=25263938&nid=148&title=west-valley-city-documents-relating-to-the-susan-powell-case. I suggest that the next time you want to write a comment like the one you wrote above, that you do a little research first before resorting to contempt prior to investigation.

I only saw your comment claiming I was a troll when I went to edit my original review in light of information I have since learned from Ann Rule via one of Susan Powell's friends that visited with Rule in 2013. That's what people who work in science do professionally: revise their conclusions in the venue where they published their remarks when they find their original analysis has flaws. I found I had to revise what I said about Rule's book in light of what I learned about how Rule wrote it, something I felt was needed since I claimed closeness to this case in my original review as part of my claim of authority to speak on the factual errors of the book's first printing. Greater claims of authority and credibility also have greater responsibility for honesty and disclosure. I am still disappointed in Rule's errors but that disappointment is now attenuated by the newer knowledge of Rule's main sources of information and the deadline pressure she was under while writing this book. I also learned that Rule is now in her 80s, something I did not realize. That someone of her age can still produce the things she still writes is rather astounding if you think about it and a lot more admirable in my eyes than others of her generation just sitting around on a beach in Florida or on a golf course in Arizona and doing not much of anything other than being retired. Thinking is work and most people are lazy. Whatever else one might say about Ann Rule, she's not lazy!

So for the record, someone was way wrong on the internet, because while I may be an arrogant effete in-your-face know-it-all, the one thing I am not is a troll.

Grumpy scientist is grumpy!

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Vaccination for Idiots

This what happens when you vaccinate in a society:

polio.png

If you want to know what happens when enough individuals in a society opt out of vaccination, I have some articles about the current measles outbreak I could send you...

For the people who got measles at Disneyland, out of the California victims for whom vaccination data could be verified, 82% were not vaccinated.

refs (accessed 28 Jan 15):

  • http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/polio.pdf (it's their graphic which I redrew to improve clarity)
  • http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-measles-outbreak-disneyland-20150121-htmlstory.html

Monday 19 January 2015

How Not To Be An Atheist

Today's post is about the Facebook graphic shown below from on the Facebook page of a group at https://www.facebook.com/a.revolt.digital.anarchy. These folks are out there on the liberal fringe - so far out, in fact, that they advocate that everyone should eschew the technology of the modern world and go live off-grid on self-supporting homesteads. Ideologically, the folks on this facebook page are true communistic anarchists - complete with a strategy of destroying modern society by refusing to participate in it, by walking away and ignoring it in a true anarchistic fashion. They are against all governments and all religions. As they are Marxists, they advocate atheism so it isn't a stretch that the following was posted to their facebook page during November 2013:

kingjames.jpg

I'm not going to address the ideology of these folks at all or even say anything about believing or not believing in any religion. Today, I am merely going to point out the copious errors about the King James Bible (KJB) from this Facebook post. Frankly, if the author of this FB graphic-full-of-errors wanted to successfully promote atheism, he or she should have at least done enough research on biblical translation and the creation of the KJB to get the facts right.

The information I'm using today is so mainstream that most of it is from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The author of this Facebook graphic really has no excuse since correct information from universally-acknowledged authoritative sources is easily accessed on the internet. In a way, I think the author of this gem is doubly damned since even the Wikipedia entries on the KJB and the oldest biblical manuscripts are really very good.

Let us deconstruct the text of this Facebook graphic.

"The King James version of the New Testament was completed in 1611 by 8 members of the Church of England."

For the KJB, the translation of the Gospels, Acts and the Apocalypse was done by a committee of 10 scholars. The translation of the Epistles was done by a committee of 7 scholars. So the number of translators for the New Testament was 17, not 8. As for the Jewish scriptures compiled into the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, those were translated by four committees of some 35 additional scholars. When the translations were complete, they were peer reviewed by a committee of four known and several unknown scholars who were not on the original translation committees. The work of producing the KJB took 6 years and produced something that's rather mind-boggling: the only work of great literature ever produced by a committee.

"There were (and still are) no original texts to translate."

Okay, this is a bit underhanded. It certainly is true that there are no original texts to translate so long as one is clear that the texts under question are those known as autographs, i.e. texts in the handwriting of the actual authors. On one hand, yes, not having originals is a problem, especially from the point of view of our literate and lettered 21st century modern society were the written word is taken as the highest form of reliable evidence for everything. "He said, she said..." is always trumped by "get it in writing."

The lack of original autographs of New Testament works - or Old Testament works - is problematic but it's a problem that is universal for almost every manuscript source in existence. No written work from Antiquity exists in autograph manuscript form - not a single one. Not the Bible, not Cicero, not Caesar, not the Koran, not the Lotus Sutra, not the I Ching, not Confucius, not Homer, not Ibn Batuta, not even a single play of Shakespeare exists as an original in the hand of its author. The entire edifice of classical (i.e. from Antiquity) western learning rests completely on copied texts because before the printing press, everything eventually existed as a copy.

To protest that the validity of a text can be challenged on the basis that the only surviving manuscripts are copies and not originals is a bad argument. The implied argument here is that because copies can be errant, all texts that rely on copies are errant; however, the potential for errors in a copy does not make any particular work of literature invalid. Now one can argue further that the possibility of copying errors is sufficient to cast doubt on any work that relies on copies but that's actually specious.

Certainly, there are problems with any written text that has come down to us from antiquity because copyists make mistake and always have. In addition, when it comes to copying things that people consider to be scripture, a copyist who sees something in a text that is at odds with personal belief can be tempted to make changes in that text like changing an inconvenient word or adding a few lines here and there. In fact, we know this happened in certain ancient texts, like the ending of the Gospel of Mark and the gloss in Josephus's Jewish Antiquities about Jesus. We know about these because scholars have taken the time to assemble the oldest copies of ancient texts to compare them for the express purpose of finding additions and changes made by copyists through time.

One of the benefits of academic scholarship is that people who study ancient texts, literature and scripture - in all fields, not just biblical studies - find and publish their findings on texts which only exist today as copies. Because of the work of such scholars, we are able to know about changes and glosses in the works of antiquity. Some of this scholarship is hard to access, only appearing in academic journals or presented at conferences of scholars; however, because scriptures are important to a wide range of non-scholars, a lot of this scholarship on textual analysis of the Bible is available to the general public. For example, in superior publications of biblical texts, the kinds used in academic and congregational bible studies, you'll often find footnotes in the text to tell the reader there were variations of a word in different ancient manuscripts. For example, in my copy of the Revised Standard Version published by the Oxford University Press, the word "freed" in Rev. 1:5 has a footnoted alternative reading in some manuscripts of "washed." This alternative reading likely arises from a copying mistake of writing LUSANTI (freed) as LOUSANTI (washed).

The problem of mistakes, willful changes and additions to texts while copying is actually addressed in the New Testament itself, though you might not realize this. Here's the passage, which is the third to last sentence in the New Testament:

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

It's St. John the Divine's curse to discourage copyists from making willful changes in his text. Personally, I suspect he was doing hallucinogenic mushrooms while on Patmos.

"The oldest manuscripts we have were written down hundreds of years after the last apostle died. There are over 8,000 of these old manuscripts, with no two alike."

Biblical Scholars date the writing of the Gospel of John before the reign of Trajan, which began in 98 AD. The oldest known fragment of the Gospel of John has a probably date of 117 to 138 AD. Most of the other New Testament books have fragments which date from the second century AD, though sadly, the earliest known fragment of the oldest Gospel, Mark, is dated to the third century AD. The reason that fragments can be identified is because their text matches more complete but more recent manuscripts. In a way, the existence of fragments is reassuring because it shows that copying drift in the text is not too bad. And consider that every new fragment or manuscript found improves all future translations.

There are four ancient bibles known as the four great uncial codices. They are: the Codex Sinaticus dated between 325 and 360 AD, the Codex Vaticanus dated between 325 and 350 AD, the Codex Alexandrinus dated between 400 and 440 AD, and the Codex Ephraemi dated ~450 AD. Most modern translations of the New Testament rely heavily on the Codices Sinaticus and Vaticanus.

Yes, there are thousands of surviving manuscripts and fragments. This wealth of surviving texts makes it possible for scholars to correct copyist mistakes that have crept in over the centuries. And yes, each manuscript or fragment is unique because each was written by hand. That's the nature of handwritten texts. But the author or authors of this Facebook graphic are insinuating that the differences are proof of errancy. That's the gimmick in this sort of argument. It works like this: the word of God should be inerrant because being God means being perfect - but because we can find errors in a Bible, that means it's not the word of God. This again is specious because to make this work, one must impose a precondition on God that God would intervene to insure the error-free transmission of the scriptures. If that unstated precondition is in force, then the existence of errors would imply that the bible was not the Word of God. The problem is that you can't assume that God would intervene to prevent human error. The absence of divine intervention is not proof of the absence of the divine.

"The King James translators used none of these, anyway. Instead they edited previous translations to create a version their king and parliament would approve."

My first quibble here is that many of the manuscripts and fragments we know about today were unknown in 1604 when the translators began their work on the KJB; however, the KJB translators did not just slap a bible together based on previous translations. That statement is just plain incorrect. They used multiple sources, including Greek and Hebrew biblical texts and rabbinical commentary on Hebrew scriptures as well as utilizing the Tyndale and 1572 Bishops' Bible as a base upon which they built the new translation. One of the sources that they relied upon the most was the Greek New Testament compiled by Theodore Beza. Beza's work relied heavily on previous compilations by both Erasmus and Estienne and also on a 400 AD New Testament, the Codex Bezae Cantabrigensis and a 550 AD New Testament, the Codex Claromontanus, both of which were among the oldest complete Greek New Testaments of their day. For the Old Testament, they used the Hebrew Rabbinical Bible published in 1525 by Venice printer Daniel Bomberg. In addition, they used the Vulgate in places. Basically, they obtained what they believed were the best resources at the time and used them to create the KJB translation.

The quip about the King and Parliament is a red herring.

"21st Century Christians believe the 'Word of God' is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th centuries scrolls that claim to be copies of lost letters written in the 1st century."

I'm afraid my flabber is gasted here. Lost letters? I think the author is referring to the Epistles but the Epistles are only part of the New Testament and the New Testament doesn't include the Apocrypha or the Rabbinical Bible portions of the Christian Bible. Fourth century scrolls? Is the author referring to the Great Uncials? The Great Uncials are all codices. There are no surviving complete Bibles from antiquity in scroll form. I'm going to take issue with the author saying "claim to be copies." There's no claim here. We know the surviving oldest biblical texts are all copies and the existence of fragments consistent with younger whole texts shows that the chain of copying gets us to within 30 years of some of the original texts with some confidence that the essence of the originals is not lost to us.

The author of this piece has equated every single Christian with English-speaking Protestant biblical literalists and I don't think I need to detail just how wrong that it.

Frankly I've seen some brilliant anti-theodicy arguments in my day. This isn't one of them. All this FB spew has shown me is that someone didn't do their homework before spewing.

Post Script One

One of the most famous editions of the King James Bible is known as the Wicked Bible, printed in 1631. There was a typographical error in the Ten Commandments, where Exodus 20:14 reads:

Thou shalt commit adultery.

Post Script Two

For an excellent work on how errors sneak into scripture and how scholars ferret them out, try Misquoting Jesus by Prof. Bart Erhman. While Wikipedia has some really marginal pages in it, its article on early biblical manuscripts is really good. Check it out at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_manuscript

References

  • Biblical literature. 2015. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/64496/biblical-literature/73391/Canonical-standards-of-the-3rd-and-4th-centuries
  • Ehrman, B. D., 2005. Misquoting Jesus. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-073817-0.
  • Great Uncial Codices, 2015. Wikipedia Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_uncial_codices
  • King James Version (KJV). 2015. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/318454/King-James-Version-KJV
  • King James Version, 2015. Wikipedia Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version
  • Norton, David, 2005. A Textual History of the King James Bible, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77100-5.
  • Rylands Library Papyrus P52, Wikipedia Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from Retrieved 19 January, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rylands_Library_Papyrus_P52

Friday 26 September 2014

California Cotton

Here's a question from a Facebook discussion on the California drought among some of my friends:

"I for one am still wondering why anyone is farming below Fresno, and most the farming there is cotton, isn't cotton a 3rd world crop?"

The last bit is why this qualifies as a subject for this blog. Okay, it was just a question but I already wrote most of this post as a reply to that question on Facebook - and I'm not one to waste decent prose. All things considered, it took me about a half an hour to write the text and then two hours to attach decent references to it.

Cotton is not a Third World crop, unless we're serious about labeling the USA as a Third World country. Cotton is an all-world crop. It is grown everywhere in sub-tropical climates (1). There are cotton species that are native to all continents excluding Antarctica (1, 2). The world's leading grower of cotton is China (3), followed by India and the US trading off for the number two spot (2, 4). The US is the world's largest exporter of cotton (2,5). Texas and California trade off on being the top cotton producer in the country (6, 7, 8).

California became the top producer of cotton after the devastation of the deep South's cotton farms by the boll weevil in the first half of the 20th century (9, 10, 11) . The USDA spend decades eradicating the boll weevil so now cotton is grown again in the South but for many years, the South produced only a fraction of its former production (9, 11).

Cotton has moderate drought and saline soil tolerance but it requires irrigation throughout the American southwest, including CA (12). The southern counties of the Central Valley used to be a major producer of grapes but with the degradation of the soil from irrigation and the introduction of cotton, the vast vineyards south of Fresno are a thing of the past (13, 14, 15). Cotton is a now major crop in Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno and Merced counties (8). The Grapevine at the southernmost location of the Central Valley is not named for either of the winding roads that once climbed - or still climb - from the foot of Wheeler Ridge to the Tejon Pass; it got its name in the 19th century for the wild grapes and the subsequent vineyards that once dominated the area (16). Wild grapes still grow there in spots as I discovered the one time I rode my motorcycle up the now abandoned path of the original car route up the pass. I suspect you could find some to munch on if you drove that road right now.

Cotton is a heavily subsidized crop in the US (17) and in terms of labor it's a cheap crop to harvest here due to the prevalence of mechanical pickers. Cotton is still picked by hand in the so-called developing countries (1). If the subsidies were rescinded, American cotton farming would likely implode as we would no longer be more competitive on the world market with South American and Eurasian cotton, despite our lower labor costs to harvest the crop. We don't use all the cotton we grow - we export a huge amount every year. It's really just a cash cow except for when the price of cotton on the world market is low, which is often given that it's grown almost everywhere (e.g., 5).

Cotton requires upwards of 25 inches of precipitation to produce a crop (12). Annual rainfall in the southern San Joaquin Valley is between 5 to 10 inches a year (8). It doesn't take a genius to see that cotton is not a crop we should growing in CA if you want to use the State's water responsibly. Open-range cattle and sheep are probably the best fit for the water and climate of the southern San Joaquin Valley, but compared with subsidized cotton grown with subsidized irrigation water, open-range livestock are less profitable. Only a fraction of the livestock in the southern Central Valley are ranged, however: most are raised in feedlots in Fresno County, fed on high-water-demand grain crops - as anyone who has ever rolled down their windows on I-5 near Coalingua already knows. But that's a whole other topic...

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "cotton", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/139828/cotton.
  2. Wikipedia, s. v. "Cotton", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton
  3. International Trade Centre, s. v. "Cotton Exporter's Guide", Chap. 6.2, accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.cottonguide.org/cotton-guide/market-profiles-the-structure-and-characteristics-of-the-domestic-cotton-market-a-macro-view-china/
  4. International Trade Centre, s. v. "Cotton Exporter's Guide", Chap. 1.1, accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.cottonguide.org/cotton-guide/The-World-Cotton-Market/Production-trends/
  5. USDA (Sept. 2014), s.v. "Cotton - World Markets and Trade", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/cotton.pdf
  6. National Cotton Council of America, s. v. "National & State Cotton Area, Yield and Production", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.cotton.org/econ/cropinfo/cropdata/state_data.cfm
  7. National Cotton Council of America, s. v. "FAQ", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.cotton.org/edu/faq/index.cfm
  8. California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, s. v. "California Agricultural Statistics Review", accessed 25 Sept. 2014, http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Statistics/PDFs/ResourceDirectory_2013-2014.pdf
  9. Lange, F., Olmstead, A., and Rhode, P. (2008), The Impact of the Boll Weevil, 1892 - 1932, accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/alolmstead/Working_Papers/BOLL%20WEEVIL%20.pdf
  10. Hunter, W. D., and Coad, B. R. The boll-weevil problem, USDA Farmer's Bulletin 1359, at: UNT Digital Library. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1788/. Accessed September 26, 2014.
  11. Weber, Devra (1996). Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal. University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-91847-4.
  12. National Cotton Council of America (1999), s. v. "Cotton Water Use", Cotton Physiology Today, v. 10 no. 2, accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.cotton.org/tech/physiology/cpt/plantphysiology/upload/CPT-v10No2-99-REPOP.pdf
  13. Parsons, J. J., 1987Carl Sauer Memorial Lecture: A Geographer Looks at the San Joaquin Valley, accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://oldweb.geog.berkeley.edu/ProjectsResources/Publications/Parsons_SauerLect.html
  14. Gentry, C. (1968), The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California, ISBN-13: 978-0891740216.
  15. Reisner, M. (1986), Cadillac Desert, ISBN 0-14-017824-4.#
  16. The Ridge Route Organization, s. v. "History", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://www.ridgeroute.com/history.html
  17. Environmental Working Group (2012), s. v. "Cotton Subsidies", accessed 26 Sept. 2014, http://farm.ewg.org/progdetail.php?fips=00000&progcode=cotton#

Monday 25 August 2014

Stalin Said What???

Yes, yes, yes...Gold Part 2 is coming, really!


Stalin Said WHAT???

Gunning Fog Index = 11.92

Most people these days don't remember or never even heard of the Great Books Movement (1, 2), a moment in American education that shined brightly but briefly. Then the collective consciousness of culture forgot about this too on our careening path toward over-specialization and the destruction of a broad and meaningful liberal arts education. I went to a post-secondary institution that still taught a Great Books-inspired curriculum, one of three left in the country (3), wherein I read everyone who mattered as dictated by the gurus of the curriculum. Not only did I get exposure to Marx, Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin, but having started with Plato and ending somewhere around Bertrand Russell, I gained an appreciation for not only how people said things over the centuries, but also learned how they tended to say them.

That appreciation leads me into consternation frequently - like today, for example. I made the mistake of glancing at Facebook instead of my usual practice of "make a post for the business and get out quickly." What I saw was this (4): stalin.png

I knew instantly that Joseph Stalin never said "socialized medicine is the cornerstone of communism." Why? Because of the language itself. The phrase "socialized medicine" became commonly known and used in America only after WWII and they were words put into the mouth of Harry Truman by his political enemies (5). Regardless of his discredited efforts to try to bring universal health care to America, Truman was a true patriot, even if he was a Democrat. Some folks just need to wake up to the fact that "Democrat" does not mean "traitor", "communist", or "anti-christ" despite what certain rabid Tea Party pundits want you to believe.

It is absurd that someone like Stalin would ever have used the pejorative Americanism "socialized medicine." He wasn't even writing his own stuff anymore when he was an old man in failing health after WWII and no socialist writer would ever have used a label of "socialized" in front of a term like "health care" or "medicine" anyway. I've read Stalin. He didn't write like that. If anything, he would have discussed health care by bragging how great it was under the world's existing communistic governments.

The concept of throwing the derogatory adjective "socialized" - a buzz word invoking Communism - in front of a proposed benefit program is one that is only relevant in a place where Communism is equated with the works of the Devil, like America. Based on history of buzz words and political expressions plus the language that Stalin typically did and did not use were the two reasons why I knew this was not a Stalin quote. And just to be sure, I did a rather extensive search of the writings of Joseph Stalin (6), using search terms like "medicine" and "health care" and such.

If you're interested in a rather decent discussion on the misquoting of famous Communists on "socialized medicine," check out this comment thread on the snopes.com site (7): http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=49510

Once again, Facebook has reinforced my belief that for most, thinking is work and people are lazy.

References

  1. (1) Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Robert Maynard Hutchins", accessed August 25, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/277638/Robert-Maynard-Hutchins.
  2. (2) Wikipedia, "The Great Books", accessed 25 August 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books.
  3. (3) Columbia University, University of Chicago, St. John's University.
  4. (4) https://www.facebook.com/UniversalFreePress/photos/a.145136705532577.25873.142868065759441/658172290895680/ (accessed 25 Aug 2014).
  5. (5) Reid, T. R. (2010), The Healing of America, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0143118213. - has a good history of the politics of health care in it
  6. (6) Stalin Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/, accessed 25 Aug 2014.
  7. (7) http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=49510, accessed 25 Aug 2014

Wednesday 6 August 2014

How Much Gold?

Gunning Fog Index = 11.35

"Would that gold could have been banished for ever from the earth, accursed by universal report!" - Pliny the Elder, Natural History Book XXXIII, Chapter 3 -

Today's topic is the abundance of gold - in the universe, in meteorites, on the earth, in the oceans - basically everywhere. Why? Because of a blog post from the end of May by physicist William Straub on the www.weylmann.com blog website (1), which Straub writes and maintains. Incidentally, if you're at all on the nerdly side, I recommend this blog. I think Straub's the first person I've run into who can write about Reimann geometry engagingly. But he doesn't write about physics exclusively - he also wanders across stuff like politics and economics and other "soft science" topics. His blog site is actually focused on the theories of the early 20th century physicist Hermann Weyl and how these fit into quantum physics and relativity. If you like knowing about the history of science, this is a blog for you. I really love this guy's blog. There's an entire blog post with the title "A Brief Look at Gaussian Integrals." Sheer nerdly bliss!

Anyway, the following paragraph by Straub from his May 20 blog entry is today's example of being wrong on the internet. The subject of his blog post is asteroid mining and why it's improbable. He makes some really good points based on the estimated costs to mine the asteroid belts. I have no quibbles there. I'm picking on the good Dr. Straub because of this:

"Closer to home are the asteroids that orbit the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, many (if not most) of which are made primarily of primordial iron and nickel, though there's no reason not to think they may also have huge amounts of gold, platinum and other precious metals. All of the gold ever produced on Earth would fit into a cube 50 feet on each side, and a single gold asteroid could easily surpass that amount." (ibid.)

I have differ: this looks to me like a misrepresentation of what we know about gold, elemental abundances and the solar system. We'll look at why I believe this but to do so will cover a lot of ground. As a result, this blog post is the first of two parts on this topic. In this part of "How much Gold," we'll look at some recent journalist writing on the subject of Gold and see who is quoting whom, with varying amounts of journalist sloppiness and lazy internet plagiarism identified. Part two will tackle the deeper subject of how we know what we know about the abundance of gold, even in places that we can't directly sample, like the sun or the core of the Earth.

So what do we know about elemental abundances, including gold? If you think about it, you should realize that there's no direct way to measure the abundance of gold on earth or any other planet. There's no giant scale out in Space where we could weigh all the gold on the planet. Our knowledge of elemental abundances is based on an handful of observations, some conjectures and some scientific arguments. We're going to look at these (mostly in part 2); and when we're done, you should see that this house-sized cube of gold invoked by Dr. Straub is the product of mostly arm waving and some sloppy journalism. Like many other scientific topics, estimating the abundance of gold is not a simple task; however, many journalists won't look at the science even if they can understand it. Instead, most journalists will make a bee line for an expert to quote since it saves them time and effort. The huge downside of journalists relying experts is that some of those experts aren't experts. Often the authority queried or quoted is merely a well-known pundit, celebrity or convenient secondary source - but not a real expert.

Recent Pop Journalism on Gold

I'm not sure when this whole "cube of gold" thing started or who started it. It's been surfacing noticeably for a few years now. The size of the gold cube changes from article to article. True to form, later articles depend on more secondary and tertiary sources than earlier ones, and the excretable practice of internet cut-and-paste plagiarism is certainly alive and well.

So let's talk about stacked-up cubes of gold. Here are some of the estimates of the gold cube based on the length of one side:

  • 50 feet (ibid. (1))
  • 68 feet (Warren Buffett quoted by NASDAQ(2))
  • 21 meters (World Gold Council website(3))
  • 20 meters (Warren Buffett quoted by the BBC (4))
  • 21 m (Thomson Reuters GFMS quoted by the BBC (4))
  • 67 feet (Warren Buffett quoted by Catholic Online (5))
  • 69 feet (Warren Buffett quoted by the NY Times (6))
  • 20 yards (wealthdaily.com (7))
  • 50 meters (Gold Standard Institute quoted by the BBC (4))
  • 25 m (howstuffworks.com (8))

If you look carefully at this list, there are only four unique gold cubes under discussion: the 50 ft cube from Dr. Staub's weylmann.com website, a 21 m cube from Thomas Reuters GFMS, a 50 m cube from the Gold Standard Institute (as quoted by the BBC) and the 25 m cube from howstuffworks.com. How do I know this? Mostly from careful reading and because the BBC article named and discussed its sources. One of those sources, Thomas Reuters GFMS, featured prominently in the BBC article. Thomas Reuters GFMS is a reputable authority on global commodities and its reports often get attention in the business and financial press. What likely happened is that Thomas Reuters GFMS issued a commodities report which was then quoted by various news outlets and business pundits like the BBC and Warren Buffett. After that, other news outlets used the BBC and Buffett as secondary sources for crafting their own articles. From there, we can see the usual slide of sloppy internet journalism towards tertiary sources, cat-and-paste plagiarism, lazy aggregation and minimal-to-no research.

Estimates for a Gold Cube

I have no idea where Dr. Staub got his 50 ft gold cube. He didn't cite a source but given that his topic was asteroid mining and not elemental abundance, there's really no need to wax anal over this. Still, it would have been nice to know...

Sources 2,3,4, and 5 from the above list all lead back to Thomas Reuters GFMS. The BBC quoted the Thomas Reuters GFMS figure for "gold above the ground" as 171,300 metric tons (a.k.a. "tonnes"). Since the density of gold is 19300 kg/cubic-meter, it's simple to calculate the length of the cube sides as ~21 m. I would like to see the original Thomas Reuters GFMS commodities report on gold myself - but that information is not free. Those commodities reports are valued information and are sold as such. Since I can't afford something like a paid news service subscription like Thomas Reuters GFMS, I have to rely on good secondary sources like the BBC. Reliable news is not free.

It's good that respected news outlets like the BBC care about their sources but not even the BBC cites its sources in detail. This is true of all news media that either earn their money through advertising or get their funding from governments. Academic publications are really the only ones that care about listing a trail of references. This is germane since I tried to hunt down the reference to the Gold Standard Institute, finding several different organizations that call themselves by that name. Searching the websites of both the so-called international Gold Standard Institute and a Gold Standard Institute in the US, I could find nothing on how much gold there was in the world or how much had been mined to date. We know nothing about their 50 m gold cube because the source could not be traced. I suppose I could try to contact the reporter from the BBC but I think I'll be lazy and skip that since my conclusions for this blog post do not depend on the source for the 50 m gold cube. I suspect I'm an oddity in that I often track down journalistic sources when some journalist has been kind enough to cite them.

The source of the 25 m gold cube from howstuffworks.com was calculated assuming that all the gold ever produced could be approximated by mining 50 million troy ounces of gold per year for 200 years. That's not a bad way to approach the problem. The current yearly production of gold is around 50 million troy ounces, according to this website. The howstuffworks.com gold article didn't say this explicitly but modern mining methods that can completely dewater a mine are about 200 years old. Before then, mining stopped at the water table, greatly reducing the amount that could be removed from the ground compared to now. The author of this howthingswork.com webpage is assuming that gold produced earlier than 200 years ago is small in comparison to the amounts produced since then. I wouldn't have done a gold estimate this way, but I understand the logic behind this approach. It really is a lovely back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Variations of Cube Size

It's screamingly obvious that famous rich person Warren Buffett is quoted in four times in the above list. It doesn't matter that Buffett was probably quoting Thomas Reuters GFMS. Journalists love to quote someone with celebrity status. Invoking a famous rich person as an expert will sell more news compared to dry stuffy primary sources. In the for-profit news business, deadlines, circulation and ad revenue will always trump careful writing and research. With his iconic status as a financial wizard, Buffett may look like an expert source on gold but I doubt he generated his own numbers. Like a lot of other really smart people in finance, Buffett likely consulted one or more authoritative sources on commodities for his info on gold.

It looks like Warren Buffett - as quoted in the Nasdaq article (2) - used an approximation of the Thomas Reuters GFMS figure of 171,000 metric tons, saying that:

"If all of this gold were melted together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.)"

It's mildly amusing that the BBC article misquoted Warren Buffett with a 67 ft cube side and the New York Times misquoted him with a 69 ft cube side..

If you look up the density of gold (19.3 g/cc or 19300 kg/m^3), you can calculate the volume of the Thomas Reuters GFMS gold figure:

So: 171 300 tonnes x 1000 kg/tonne x 19300 kg/cubic meters = 8875 cubic meters. Taking the cube root, we get 20.70 m for a cube side. Converting from metric to neolithic units we get 20.70 m x 3.281 ft/m = 67.92 ft. If we round up, that boils down to 21 m or 68 ft. So where did the 20 m or 67 ft come from? Probably from someone writing an article on gold who got sloppy with their rounding. I'm guessing that someone used 20 m after rounding down from 21. As for 67 ft, I'm still scratching my head over that one - I'm guessing it's probably a typo.

I suspect that something similar happened with the figure of 20 yards from wealthdaily.com: someone probably rounded from 21 m to 20 m and then got really sloppy, equating 20 yards with 20 meters. Now if you care about this sort of thing, one yard is only about three inches less than one meter, so yards and meters are close enough for a rough approximation; however, that difference grows when you're talking more than a couple of meters. That 20 yards is not even close to 20 meters - 20 yards is really about 18.3 meters. Numbers get a lot of abuse in the news.

One of the most annoying aspects of internet is cut-and-paste journalism which shows up a lot on news aggregation sites. For example, if you bother to look at the article on gold from Catholic Online, it's clear it was lifted the BBC article through a mix of paraphrase and non-attributed direct quotes. As a rewrite of someone else's journalism without permission or attribution, it's technically plagiarism. But cut-and-paste plagiarism is pandemic to the internet - and the costs of trying to combat the theft of one's writing is more than most writers can bear.

Gold on Earth vs. Gold Removed from the Earth

There was something I found interesting in reading all these various blogs and articles about gold. It's a tendency to conflate the amount of gold that people have removed from the Earth through mining and the total amount of gold on the planet. Here's a compilation of how various articles and blogs phrase their statements on gold:

  • Dr. Straub (1): "All of the gold ever produced on Earth would fit into a cube 50 feet on each side."
  • Warren Buffett (2): "Today the world's gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons."
  • World Gold Institute (3): "All of the gold ever mined would fit into a crate of 21 metres cubed."
  • Prior/BBC (4): "How much gold is there in the world?"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "the total amount of gold in the world - the gold above ground, that is - could fit into a cube with sides of just 20m"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "Their latest figure for all the gold in the world is 171,300 tonnes"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "The US Geological Survey estimates there are 52,000 tonnes of minable gold still in the ground"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "All the gold that has been mined throughout history is still in existence in the above-ground stock."
  • Catholic Online (5): "Their latest figure for all the gold in the world is 171,300 tons"
  • Catholic Online (5): "(One expert's) figure for the overall amount of gold in the world is 155,244 tons"
  • Catholic Online (5): "(This expert) makes only minor adjustments to the GFMS figure for the amount of gold mined since 1492"
  • Catholic Online (5): "The Gold Standard Institute believes that if the world emptied our bank vaults and jewelry boxes, we'd find no less than 2.5 million tons of gold"
  • Kitcomm misquoting Warren Buffett (9): "If you took all the gold in the world, it would roughly make a cube 67 feet on a side"
  • wealthdaily.com (7): "a specific measurement of how much gold is in the world"
  • Mankiw/New York Times (6): "if all the gold in the world were made into a cube, its edge would be only 69 feet long"

I confess that I ordered the quotes to show a progression from describing "gold produced" or "gold stocks" or "gold mined" to describing "all the gold in the world." The folks who used terms like "gold stocks" or "gold mined" got it right. The folks who used expressions like "gold mined" intermingled with expressions like "the total amount of gold in the world" were sloppy. The folks who said only things like "all the gold in the world" were just dead wrong.

All the gold ever mined is not the same thing as all the gold on Earth.

Before we proceed, let's stop and ask how do we know how much gold there is anywhere? The trivial answer is that we don't. It's the whole giant scale in Space dilemma. There's no way to make a direct measurement so we have to look elsewhere for clues to solve this problem. A lot of what we know about the amount of gold anywhere comes from relative elemental abundances measured from meteorites - and that takes us back to Dr. Straub's original statement about the amount of gold that might be in an asteroid. We're not going in circles yet, but before we do we're going to pause for now. This is the end of part one of "How Much Gold."

Part 2 will be an examination of the evidence that researchers have used to estimate that amount of gold in all kinds of places: the sun, the asteroids, the core of Earth, and other places that we can't sample directly. If you think about it, you'll realize that it's impossible to get a sample of the something like the gasses in the sun or the iron thought to be in the Earth's core. It's obvious that direct measurements based on actual physical samples have never taken place for these places and yet, you read about the size and composition of things like the sun or the core of the Earth or asteroids out in the asteroid belt all the time. When we're done, not only will we have calculated a compilation of gold amounts for all sorts of interesting places, we'll also have laid out the evidence behind those numbers so you can see a typical thought process behind the construction of scientific knowledge.

References

  1. Staub, W (20 May 2014), "The Money Pit Syndrome, or It's Time to Grow Up — Posted Tuesday, May 20 2014," www.weylmann.com (accessed 6 June 2014).
  2. Anon, (15 Aug 2014), "Why Warren Buffett Hates Gold," http://www.nasdaq.com/article/why-warren-buffett-hates-gold-cm267928 (accessed 19 June 2014).
  3. World Gold Council, "Facts About Gold," http://www.gold.org/history-and-facts/facts-about-gold (accessed 19 June 2014).
  4. Prior, E (31 March 2013), “How much gold is there in the world?” BBC News Magazine, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21969100 (accessed June 18 2014).
  5. Catholic Online, "Could the world's entire gold supply be melted into cube, 67 feet on all sides?" http://www.catholic.org/news/business/story.php?id=50370 (accessed 20 June 2014).
  6. Mankiw, G. (27 July 2013), "Budging (Just a Little) on Investing in Gold," http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/business/budging-just-a-little-on-investing-in-gold.html (accessed 20 June 2014).
  7. Anon., "How much gold is in the world?" http://www.wealthdaily.com/resources/how-much-gold-is-in-the-world (accessed 20 June 2014).
  8. Anon., "How much gold is there in the world?" http://money.howstuffworks.com/question213.htm (accessed 20 June 2014).
  9. Anon. (18 April 2013), "Thread: Top 7 Warren Buffett Quotes on Gold Investing" https://www.kitcomm.com/showthread.php?117711-Top-7-Warren-Buffett-Quotes-on-Gold-Investing (accessed 20 June 2014).

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