The Coler Chronicles: Collected Bloggings of the Institution Days

Posted by – July 24, 2014

Bloggering from “Inside”

From inside the walls of the institution, Ventboy Alcatraz (Coler-Goldwater), I continued to create content, to blog, and we added video blogging from the inside.

I wrote the following blog posts about the institution experience:

All nine video blogs can be found here: First Video Blog Series From Inside An Institution

these video diaries/rants are me speaking on camera about the institutional experience and related policies… the commentary on the formative “stakeholder meetings” that shaped the Affordable Care Act is one of my most important videos, I think.

I collected everything here for convenient access for readers who’d like an intimate look “on the inside.”

Nick

OMG! Invasive Species: Asian Carp Confound U.S. System

Posted by – July 23, 2014

The Mississippi River watershed a post-aCARPalypse world, the Great Lakes fear Carpmageddon!

Verbzerg (third-person singular simple present zergs, present participle zerging, simple past and past participle zerged)

(slang, video games, strategy games) To attack an opponent with a large swarm of units before they have been able to build sufficient defenses.

From the game StarCraft (1998), in which the easily mass-produced Zerg units encourage such a strategy.

the aCARPalypse has come.  The verb to zerg, originally coined as “to zerg rush” with the quickly and easily mass-produced Zerg soldiers in the PC strategy game StarCraft, fits perfectly the Asian carp invasion of North America’s freshwater ecosystems.  No invasive species in recent memory is invadier than Asian carp—they have zerged up the Mississippi River and its tributaries—swarming everything with unbelievably-fast mass-reproducing carp, crushing biodiversity before our civilization is “able to build sufficient defenses.”

A comparison with a zombie apocalypse, or zompocalypse, is apt too, as everything in an ecosystem the Asian carp touch rapidly become all Asian carp, all the time.  This brings to mind the old adage “90% of everything is crap carp,” though it has long been even carpier than that…

…according to one study cited in the Asian Carp II Seventh Circuit case, 95% of everything is carp. (“A fish kill conducted near St. Louis in 1999 showed that the Asian carp constituted over 95% of the biomass in the Mississippi at that place and time.”)
Source: (Theodore) Sturgeon’s Law, as applied to the invasive fish species problem – Eugene Volokh’s law blog

Think how overwhelming the zerg rush of carp must be now, 15 years after that study!

"The Midwest Faces Carpmageddon!" painting by Nick Dupree, July 22, 2014

“The Midwest Faces Carpmageddon!” painting by Nick Dupree, July 22, 2014

Like most invasive species, and old monster movies, the monster was created (the alien invader carp introduced) via man’s folly and ignorance of potential unintended consequences.  Asian carp, being super aggressive bottom-feeders, were imported to om-nom U.S. fish farms clean beginning in the 1970s, but with seasonal flooding chauffeuring fish over barriers, it was only a matter of time before the Asian carp escaped sequestered aquaculture and swarmed the natural freshwater ecosystems nearby!

Bighead and silver carp have been the most problematic of the invasive Asian carp species in the U.S., filtering plankton from the water, robbing native species of food and living space.  And because of their bottom-feeding habits, they are difficult to catch with normal angling methods, so obvious counter-measures (giant fish fry) have been ineffective, though fishing efforts continue …the Natural Resources Defense Council has its Eat An Invasive Today! campaign.

It’s an ACARPALYPSE where everything becomes Asian carp, and our system of multiple state jurisdictions, state and federal regulatory agencies and “other agency’s job” inaction vs. the uncomplicated carp zerg rush upstream has been a total failure.   Our gov’t has been outwitted by carp.  Our system’s inability to mount a defense,

Wrath of Carp™

stop or slow the spread of one-fish-group supremacy (ecosystems becoming carp monocultures or carptocracies) has led to lawsuits by the upstream states and other parties who have LOTS to lose economically if/when the carp wave crashes into their ecosystems and wipes out biodiversity, wrecks local fisheries, implodes fishing economies and the dollars from angler tourism, fishing tournaments and all the fishermen there due to rich supplies of diverse indigenous fish would be gone.

The upstream states, especially the Great Lakes states so dependent on their native fish species, have understandably been pushing hard for the pertinent agencies to build defenses to protect the Lakes, specifically advocating “complete hydrological separation” of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin AKA closing the key link to Lake Michigan, the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS).
Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and affected indigenous tribes, all bordering the Great Lakes, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who are responsible for building defenses and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago who own the CAWS.

In the Asian carp I case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the prior denials of the pro-hydrological separation states’ claim vs. the CAWS operators and Army Corps of Engineers.  But while rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim because it held that the CAWS was being operated in a sufficiently anti-carp manner, the Court nonetheless ruled against the federales’ claim of sovereign immunity and their argument that federal agencies could never create a public nuisance because they have something like the “divine right of kings” and therefore automatically serve the public good.  The three judge panel acknowledged that the Corps acts on Congress’ orders but refused to immunize them from future public nuisance liability.

July 14, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court ruled again on the suit against the Corps of Engineers and CAWS operators in what’s being called the Asian carp II case.  In this court opinion, the Appeals panel again upheld earlier denials of the Great Lakes states’ plea because of actively ongoing efforts to prevent the carp from getting through the CAWS.  But the Court also (finally) ruled on the legal question of “public nuisance” definitively, holding that YES, federal agencies can create a “public nuisance.” I’m not entirely clear on the exact definition and limits of “public nuisance” in its legal sense as used here, but this concept could be an important precedent on which future cases might be built.  As someone who was once a plaintiff against the state, I understand that the precedent of the federal gov’t itself causing nuisances and being held liable could be super important, though theoretical here.

The Seventh Circuit also rejected the feds’ rather… unique argument that the nuisance was solely carp “acting of their own accord,” and not their fault.  That concept of carp as legal actors brought oddities like “Our decision does not depend on the fact that the Asian carp are advancing upstream of their own volition,” into it, not the sort of phrase that one would normally find in a federal court decision.
Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion in Asian carp II reiterated the previous rulings’ reasoning that the gov’t is doing enough to halt the carp from devastating the Great Lakes, but wholly rejected blaming the carp alone.  “It is the defendants’ apparent diligence, rather than their claimed helplessness, that is key to our holding today…” the ruling stated.
For more about Asian carp II, and longer excerpts from the opinion, see Federal government action can be a public nuisance, Seventh Circuit holds - Eugene Volokh’s law blog

Competing interests are definitely the biggest barrier to a carp barrier, as shutting down the CAWS would upset the movement of millions of tons of vital shipments of iron ore, coal, grain and other cargo, totaling more than $1.5 billion a year, and contribute to the loss of thousands, perhaps bajillions of jobs.  The Chamber of Commerce weighed in with an amicus brief against closing the CAWS, and of course Chicago and the region doesn’t want it closed.

Narrower interests than this have blocked action.  The whole Chicagoland regional economy is a heavy player here with lots of clout.

that’s a lot of carp. Silver carp have special abilities like super-jumping, and in 2010 a kayaker in a race on the Missouri River was hit upside the head by a 20-30 pound jumping carp, knocking him out of the race.

But on the pro-hydrological separation side, there are five other Great Lakes states + the province of Ontario, and Indian tribes, and they have clout too and probably stand to lose even more economically, bazillions in income and countless jobs of multi-state economies, than the pro-defendant interests do if the carpocalypse wipes out the Great Lakes ecosystems. Economic impact on one or both sides of the dispute is a certainty because of inaction instead of action on the issue of invasive Asian carp in prior decades!

Carp jokes aside, I think that this long-standing dilemma raises deeply important questions about the American system itself and the sclerosis and decay afflicting the system:

  • when there are competing interests, who decides?
  • if the Judicial branch can’t force a decision on long-view ecological crises, who can?
  • what is the proper presidential role in the event of invasive species catastrophes?
  • why do none of the legislative solutions proposed in Congress pass?

At this late date, the CAWS may be a moot point as carp babies are evidently immune to the electric barriers and the carp have established footholds beyond the canal.
But the challenge of Asian carp and other invasive species, and the larger issue of good environmental stewardship and protecting our communities from toxins, won’t be going away.

Nick

 

Recommended resources:
Great Lakes Law: Great Lakes on the brink of Asian carp invasion thanks to “monumental government screwup” - great overview of the backstory

Fish Out of Water – The New Yorker - includes a wonderful Ralph Steadman illustration of leaping Asian carp

Final ep in the documentary mini-series Constitution USA – exploring the carpocalypse and other challenges to our constitutional system of divided powers.

Bitesized History: the Code Noir and Mercantilism in Jewish Mobile, Alabama

Posted by – July 16, 2014

Tidbits of Colonial Mobile’s Economic and Legal History Through a 19th century Jewish Lens

The rare book “A History of the Jews of Mobile,” a brief monograph published by Springhill Avenue Temple rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses in 1876 on the Jewish history of my hometown Mobile, AL, and now available online, records some fascinating facts.  I’ll get into the super weird history of Mobile Jews serving in the Twelfth Alabama for the CSA in the Civil War in a future post. In this post I’ll go over the most interesting bits of history I was able to glean of the legal and regulatory system early Mobile had in place (when it was considered part of French Louisiana, then British West Florida, then Spanish West Florida).

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, Quebecois explorer and administrator who co-founded Mobile in 1701 and again and again served as French Louisiana’s governor.

Mobile was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on his brother Pierre de Iberville’s advice.  Both young explorers had sailed from their birthplace, Quebec, in search of advantageous spots to put trading posts to cash in on trade with the Indians. The earliest decades of Mobile’s existence saw sparse settlement and several relocations of the colony due to flooding and swamp epidemics. Everything was in flux, and often, like the Dutch,¹ the French only supplied enough money and people to support the bare necessities for trading.  But slowly, the Louisiana colonies eventually added settlers.

New colonial societies can’t function or generate sustainable populations without women (and are totally depressing sausage-fests).  Jeanny boy (Bienville) wrote of the situation to his royal backers in France, and in 1704, Mobile was the first port to see “casquette girls” arrive to be the colony’s first official wives.  Bienville went on to found New Orleans, Natchez and New Biloxi after Iberville founded Old Biloxi near what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “Consignments” of casquette girls reached Biloxi in 1719, and New Orleans in 1728, and to this day a mythos surrounds the casquette girls as the most virtuous religious women of France, like Virgin Marys founded the old Louisiana families.  To claim descent from one of them is to gain auto-nobility in the Louisiana context. Like most lore, the legend that the casquette girls were nuns and Joans of Arc is mostly false. But the dynamic honors founding mothers and mostly omits founding fathers, a notable reversal.

Jews, being strictly banned in the “Code Noir,” weren’t much of a presence in Mobile’s early years. Alfred Geiger Moses noted:

The first two articles of the code read as follows: “Article I: Decrees the expulsion of the Jews from the colony. Article II: Permits the exercise of the Roman Catholic worship only. Every other code of worship is prohibited.” Strange to say, the rest of the code deals with laws regulating the sale and conduct of negro slaves. Gayarre finds the reference to the Jews irrelevant to the general subject-matter of the code. My own explanation of the anti-Jewish laws, which is supported by a good authority, is that they were merely a repetition of the similar legislation current in France at the time of Louis XIV. Drastic as the law appears, it was probably never enforced, because there are no further references to it in Louisiana records. The expulsion of the Jews from America would have been in the sixteenth century an event worthy of the chronicler’s notice.

The Code Noir was developed in France and strictly regulated every corner of economic life that related to the (highly active) slave trade, all activities of the enslaved and freed black population, in enormous detail. And of course a perfunctory ban on all Jews, though Jewish settlement nonetheless accelerated, especially during the subsequent periods of British and Spanish quasi-control.

The main point of controlling Mobile was its lucrative port, so imports and exports were heavily regulated and taxed for the crown’s benefit, and if you didn’t interfere with that imperial extraction process you were relatively free, hence “quasi-control.”
Non-paying the right amount of tribute/taxes, though, could imperil your ability to operate within that colony, and if you were seen as thieving, speculating or profiteering to the detriment of the power people’s loot, you could be imprisoned or death-penaltied.

Rabbi Alfred G. Moses explains:

In the British epoch of Mobile’s colonial history, which extended from 1763 to 1780, an interesting reference to a Jew is citable: Major Robert Farmer, the British commandant of Mobile, was accused, among other charges, of selling flour belonging to the King to New Orleans, or selling or attempting to sell it there by means of “Pallachio, a Jew.” The Major was afterwards acquitted of the charges.

What became at poor Pallachio isn’t known, but it was quite possibly a noir fate.

The concept of “the King’s flour” is really hard to grasp in the 21st century but I think of it as explicitly royalist mercantilism.

Mercantilism meaning “2:  an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies” (see Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)

The “foreign trading monopolies” were the point of colonization, and more purely about royalist monopolies for the French, being less encumbered by entrenched notions of self-sufficient land-ownership meaning individual freedom and citizenship.

North America has centuries of royalist mercantilism baked into its historical crust! It is deeply enmeshed in our laws, customs, folkways and collective subconscious. When the UK’s imperial-aristocratic profiteering off the tea monopoly became intolerable, you ended up with destruction of corporate tea property at Boston Harbor and shots fired at Lexington and Concord. But British mercantilism was replaced with mercantilism for the republic, pro-American trade policy.

Political rants invoking a bygone golden age of “the free market” and no regulation are misinforming the people.  “The American Way” is another term for the American System, the tariff-heavy economic plan that predominated in the 19th century, mercantilism in reality.  The next time a buffoon is waxing nostalgic about an economic past completely unlike anything we had in North America, remember Pallachio and remember royalist mercantilism.

Nick

 

Footnote:

1. the Dutch were so focused on trade, city design revolved around cramming as many lots as possible as close to trade corridors as possible, which meant tiny lots and mini-buildings.  For a fascinating look at New Netherlanders’ use of space, see
Merwick, Donna. “Dutch Townsmen and Land Use: A Spatial Perspective on Seventeenth-Century Albany, New York.” The William and Mary Quarterly 37 (1980), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1920969

In a Nutshell: America’s Regulatory Octopus and Non-working Toilets

Posted by – July 13, 2014

Part of a new series, “In a Nutshell,” in which I try to explain an idea in 500 words or less.

When the tentacles of regulation clog your toilet

The Commerce Clause of Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” and that is the basis for so much of our legal and regulatory system, from drug laws and gun control, to water use regulations for toilets.

Things like building the Hoover Dam to bring water and electricity to multiple states in the American Southwest seems a no-brainer for federal action. Air and water pollution too, with its impact on multiple states and countries, seems to me an obvious place for federal intervention, and the number of regs waived during the past two decades—the carte blanche given to mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracking—should concern all Americans. In many areas, there ought to be more and better regulation, and there are reams of highly questionable or unnecessary regulation too.

A classic example of this “regulatory state” gone awry is what happened with toilets in the ’90s. As the first episode of Constitution USA explores, at around the 40:00 mark, the Energy Policy Act was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1992, and water use standards were set for toilets in the U.S. at 1.6 gallons. While I’m the first to favor most water conservation and cleanliness measures, I have to acknowledge the unintended consequences of this toilet rule are bad.
Does the toilet in your home clog at the slightest provocation?  If your home/building was built or had a toilet installed between 1993-2000, this rule is probably why.  Toilet manufacturers immediately adhered to less water per flush, but that meant low-flow toilets.  It was years before toilet design and flush technology caught up, and until then, toilets failed with solid material of even modest size. This legacy of toilet failure is still keenly felt in apartment buildings erected between ’93 and the coming of the 21st century.

The blogosphere had a field day poking fun at Rand Paul for mentioning the non-working toilets at a Senate committee hearing on energy regulations, but dude-bro has a point when he said “the toilets in my house don’t work and I blame you…” (full text statementvideo evidence)
Though Paul’s rant kind of reminds me of that Seinfeld episode when Kramer and Newman hated the new low-flow shower heads installed due to related ’90s water regs, so they got crazy high-flow shower heads for circus elephants on the Yugoslavian black market (Seinfeld video), Randy nonetheless has a point. We need technology that works in our homes, and eventually you get innovation and mega uber toilets invented like the Sydney Smart because of the regs, but meanwhile EPIC FAIL occurs. I think a grace period or something to ease the transition is warranted.

I’d make a much broader point: the authority for all this regulation is the Commerce Clause, and all the case law built atop it, but libertarian-ish right-wingers like Rand Paul blame that underlying system… the underpinning system is not the problem as much as the corruption of the guys who write the rules (Congress and/or the federal agencies). That corruption is where things really go wrong. Removing corporate sponsors and corruption from our gov’t is desperately needed, and that is your answer. The wholesale dismantling of the regulatory system is not going to happen.
But criticism of the regulatory state is certainly understandable. What kind of system regulates toilets so rigidly they can’t manage waste of any rigidity, but can’t regulate the hydraulic fracturing industry’s radioactive waste? a corrupt mess of a system that has been affected by “regulatory capture” in a piecemeal fashion, with different but increasing-in-number tentacles of the regulatory octopus captured over the years.

acrylic painting © Vanessa Barrett

Ultimately, even if the Congress ends up frying a lot of the regulatory octopus’ tentacles, our Commerce Clause is going to mean that federal regulation of things like toilets continues, since toilets are sold across numerous state jurisdictions, and also affect water use regionally and nationally. No toilet exists in a self-contained pocket universe, y’know? But our regulatory state as-is is too messed up, the contradictions too great, and the trust of the rising generation too low-flow for it to be sustainable. Change will have to come for our regulatory octopi, too.

Nick

over 600 words – objective not reached 

Recommended resources:
First ep in the documentary mini-series Constitution USA – exploring the Commerce Clause and the state and federal legal tug of war built in to the constitutional system. Can guns built, bought, and used ONLY in Montana be federally regulated under “interstate commerce?” (the Commerce Clause)
The Atlantic -Rand Paul and the 19-year Libertarian War on Low-flow Toilets – the issues here are long-standing…

In a Nutshell: Ted Cruz is a Liberal (What’s liberalism?)

Posted by – July 9, 2014

Part of a new series, “In a Nutshell,” in which I try to explain an idea in 500 words or less.

What is a liberal?

I think of liberalism as beginning with the belief that the citizen is sovereign and has certain inalienable rights, inalienable meaning they are indestructible and unconditional, not contingent on kings, feudal lords, etc., and not coming from the divine right of kings or your social rank or wealth but INBORN.  You have human rights that are immovable, including individual liberty, life, the right to pursue your happiness, and that we all have the same rights (radical equality of rights) is the core of liberalism.  A law that, for example, strictly bans religious hair-coverings is the opposite of liberal.  It’s illiberal, especially if it is singling out Muslim women/the hijab and ignoring similar Jewish and Christian Orthodox hair-covering so only Muslima have fewer rights.

My painted caricature of Thomas Jefferson, from my Cartooning the Presidents series

Quintessentially liberal laws include the Bill of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  In the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century, liberalism increasingly added positive liberty-ish things more about your freedom to pursue happiness and thrive to the list, like the freedom from fear included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, broader interventions for equal opportunity like the Civil Rights Act and so forth.  It’s these interventions that separate 20th century American liberalism from classical liberalism.

No true liberals forget the primacy of negative liberties, what the state CAN’T DO to you, though (the Bill of Rights, your constitutional protections).  20th century Conservatism mostly opposed the interventions to affect outcomes while putting “law and order” ahead of your right to be left alone (Nixon, George Wallace, for example).

To the extent that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have disregarded negative liberties and

Ted Cruz’s official 113th Congress portrait (public domain)

stomped freedom from violence, force, coercion, intrusions, etc., they’re ILLIBERAL!

Insofar as Ted Cruz fights unchecked drone surveillance, NSA web spying and warrantless wiretapping, Ted Cruz is a liberal, at least on civil liberties and “classical liberalism,” and the opposite of neo-cons like Dick Cheney!

Of course the Tea Party types are like a 21st century mutation of the Barry Goldwater libertarian-ish far-right, so we disagree on how expansive freedom from corporate feudalism and economic violence should be, and on fundamental principles like positive rights and the role of gov’t.  But, since “libertarians” are a weird mutation of classical liberalism, there’s more of the Right agreeing with (the few remnants of) the ACLU Left on civil liberties than during the ’80s, for example.

We’d do well to turn off the hate radio and open a dictionary, and untangle what’s liberal and what ain’t.

420ish words

Nick

 

Recommended resourcethis episode of PBS’ documentary mini-series Constitution USA about the Bill of Rights.  At the beginning of the episode Peter Sagal talks to the Arizona Leathernecks Motorcycle Club, a group of retired Marines, and they talk about the gov’t getting out of your hair.  While you may peg them as Tea Partiers, gun rights nutbars, etc., and you’re not necessarily wrong, what they’re saying about motorcycle helmets and your own business to risk it really epitomizes my idea of liberalism, as there’s no liberalism without civil liberties.

George Washington’s Ideas about Technology and Transportation Infrastructure Offer Lessons for Today’s U.S.

Posted by – July 8, 2014

An Independence Day post (belated) – bloggery for the Founders

We would do well to mark the 4th not with the flag-waving militarism and “fighting for freedom” boo-yahs that typify so many public Independence Day events, and focus on the thing that Independence Day was really commemorating: the Declaration of Independence (adopted prior to large-scale war), our separation and unique vision for our republic. It should be a day of reading the Declaration of Independence and Constitution first and foremost, and yes, as John Adams wrote, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other…”
And in addition to a day of remembering the actual founding documents and principles, which include freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures of your files, we should have a day of loudly reading, painting, sequential art explainer-drawing, studying, and debating the ideas of the founding brothers and sisters (their actual ideas, which are really diverse and disagree with each other). We can glean relevant lessons for today from all our founding people.

Today I’m talking about George Washington’s ideas. Exalted as the first General of the first-ever separate American army and victor of the War for Independence, his actual words and ideas get lost.
John Adams objected to this oversimplified exaltation of the revolutionary generation more than anyone else. Adams was always writing letters lamenting the editing out of the Revolution’s complexities, that the Revolution was a process not an event and its processes were as diverse as the 13 colonies that fought, and that the gruesome War for Independence was waged at great cost of life and limb and nothing to boo-yah about! He hated

Parson Weems’ Fable,” is a 1939 Grant Wood painting depicting Parson Weems telling his famous “Cherry Tree” fable. It’s unique for kind of breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging that Weems narrated this myth.

the prospect of the Independence struggle being dumbed down so badly that kids think “Washington chopped down a cherry tree,” the redcoats ran, and everything was copacetic. In the years prior to John Adams’ death, the leading figures of the revolutionary generation were increasingly remembered in low-information hagiographies, a trend that was yet to peak. Throughout the 1800s, the founding fathers were so ridiculized and mythologized, you end up with craziness like Constantino Brumidi’s 1865 fresco The Apotheosis of Washington on the oculus of the capitol dome ceiling to this day, depicting Washington ascending to the heavens and becoming a god, AKA apotheosis,

detail shot of the George Washington part of the enormous, epic mural The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi. These painted figures are as big as 15 ft tall! (photo by Michael Edward McNeil)

surrounded by figures from classical mythology, the goddess Victoria (draped in green, using a horn) to his left and the goddess Liberty to his right (seriously).

But George Washington wasn’t a deity like Zeus.  George Washington was a person, and as much as he preferred to stay atop his white horse looking majestic and being “above the fray,” he was often forced into the fray. He had opinions, and if you think of late 18th century American politics as a spectrum—Jeffersonians with states’ rights positions and a vision of the United States as an almost E.U.-like confederation with a tiny low-tax federal gov’t that’s big enough to do foreign policy and raise armies (kinda) in the event of national emergencies but little else on one end of the spectrum, and the Hamiltonians who advocated a strong national gov’t with united goals, federally funded “internal improvements,” more spending for a federal military, and the taxes to pay for such a robust federal gov’t. on the other end of the spectrum—Washington was more of a Hamiltonian, through this vastly oversimplifies Washington.  George Washington adopted Alexander Hamilton as a political right-hand-man of sorts, and though that relationship got very fraught and cranky and “good day to YOU, sir!” even breaking up sometimes—read Ron Chernow’s excellent biography Alexander Hamilton for the details—Hamilton’s influence on the old dude was unmistakable, especially when it comes to things like Washington’s famous Farewell Address, where Hamilton’s ideas are particularly prominent.

But Hamilton and Washington were very different men.  Being roughly a generation older, and a pious Virginia landowner, George Washington always saw the world through a distinctly “landed Virginia gentry”-type of lens, and definitely held a vision for the United States of a republic of white yeoman farmers independent of corrupt cities, similar to the vision of fellow Virginia bros Jefferson and Madison, though better on the question of slavery.  Washington was definitely way better than Jefferson at freeing the slaves on his estate; Jefferson only freed five slaves in his will, all males of the Hemings family. two of whom have DNA-tested positive as his sons.

With George Washington, after his presidency and time teamed with Hamilton, you get a man applying the federal “internal improvements” concept, a robust program of road-building and canal-ing, to his goal of a nation of republican landowners.  You get Washington: rural technocrat. This is super interesting in light of today’s infrastructure problems, rural America being in its death throes and so on. But there isn’t much written about “Washington the technocrat,” aside from chapter five of Paul Johnson’s George Washington: The Founding Father, available as a stand-alone book, or as part of the Eminent Lives presidents collection as an ebook or audio conglomeration.

An excerpt:

Back in Mount Vernon, Washington, now fifty-two, took stock of his personal state… Not for the first time he reflected that America’s first problem was the tyranny of distance. It was vast, and growing each year, and communications were not keeping up. … He saw America increasingly in unitary terms and this vision was strengthened by further travels… His diaries show what chiefly interested him: the impact of distance on the economy, social life, and opportunity. Any steps to speed up travel were central to the country’s future. He noted that stagecoaches ran three times a week from Norfolk, Virginia, up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But just to get from Richmond to Boston by stage might take twelve days. There was one good wagon road into the interior, but south of Virginia, roads, stages, and tracks were so bad that people preferred to travel by sea, a sure sign of a primitive transport economy.

…Washington was the pioneer. He realized early that the tyranny of distance could be reduced by intelligent use of her tremendous rivers, having canoed some of the fiercest himself. As early as 1769 he tried to promote the use of lock canals to improve natural waterways like the Potomac and Ohio. The canal (linked to improved post roads) was the dynamic of the revolution in transport of the eighteenth century, just as steam was for the nineteenth, and the internal combustion engine, in cars and aircraft, was for the twentieth. Washington’s diaries show that as soon as the war was over he turned again and again to canals. In September 1784 he traveled across the Alleghenies partly to inspect his western lands but also to plan canal routes (and roads) to link Ohio tributaries to the Potomac. …In May he became president of the Potomac Navigation Company, empowered with a joint charter from Maryland and Virginia to improve roads and build canals throughout the area. As always, Washington pushed for the rapid development of the area, emphasizing that improved transport to the whole Ohio valley was the surest way to bind the settlements there to the states, and encourage new ones.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Washington enthusiastically advocating and

George Washington’s head in the Head Museum, New New York City in the year 2999

planning high-speed rail lines today if his head were preserved Futurama-style, or planning for freight trains for the underserved Southern states during the 19th century rail revolution he didn’t live to see.  He was also big on Ag innovations and new technology to improve livelihoods for American farmers.

Most of Virginia’s representatives today are skittish at best about any sort of centralized infrastructure planning, but George Washington wasn’t. When reading the aforementioned chapter, it comes through clearly: Washington expected people to get behind things like the Potomac Plan.  Building infrastructure so your country can function is simply leadership, and he was disgusted by the federal Congress’ inability to deal with the desperate need for transportation infrastructure.  The system now is even more unable to do things; we’ve got corruption in Congress and federal agencies rivaling only the capital’s “Gilded Age” machinations.
But I think we would do well to internalize ol’ GW’s ideas about internal improvements.

Nick

Law and Order: When Is It Wrong To Follow The Law?

Posted by – June 19, 2014

When law-breaking is moral and obedience is immoral

Philosophical contradictions (cognitive dissonance)

There have always been contradictions in the predominant (deeply right-wing) currents of political/moral thought in the state I call home, Alabama, that I have never made sense of.
For example, one moment a conservative is the most believingest true believer of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship to do anything, saying that all we need is government to remove itself and bootstraps individualism will solve every problem, then the same dude switches from rose-colored glasses to dystopian lenses, and suddenly Americans have no entrepreneurial spirit at all and only want to mooch off state aid. In this mode of thinking, conservatives presume Americans’ ambitions stop at being a hundredaire!

Similarly, the same conservatives that rail against the “nanny state” demand everyone on gov’t assistance be drug tested, the most intrusive, nanny statest program yet! Florida lost more money drug testing welfare recipients than anyone thought; source: No Savings Are Found From Welfare Drug Tests – New York Times. The program was pitched as massively culling the welfare rolls of druggies and saving untold millions, but very few people tested positive for narcotics, and the only thing that it did was waste money and punish and humiliate people. Hard black market drugs are far less affordable and available to the very poor than is assumed in the unreal fantasy world of the conservative echo chamber. Still, “fiscal conservatives” want this money-squandering testing, though the judicial branch increasingly blocks such testing as unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, there being no probable cause for everyone, just because they’re on state aid, to be urine-searched and intruded upon.

And of course during the Republican primary debates in ’08 and ’12 you have the contradiction of “free markets! Boo-yah!” and the position on the Mexico-U.S. border: seal it, wall it, snipers and barbed-wire electro-shock fences, and the more like the Berlin Wall it sounded and the more violent the language, the more carnal howls of bloodthirsty approval rang out from the debate audience. And no one noticed that the brutal approach to the border, blocking commerce and movement, is the opposite of free markets. One day the far-right may get their laser-turret dystopia on the Mexican border, but there’s no “freedom” about it.

To OBEY

But today the main contradiction I’m exploring is this: law and order… why does the conservative insistence on OBEYING cover some things but not others? There is leniency for the powerful; we shelter the corrupt bankster, but tell the wayfaring immigrant and his pregnant wife “sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”

Why isn’t Cliven Bundy following the law? I don’t think he should if the law means his own destruction. …the law saying that Mexicans have to starve and be unable to afford to compete with subsidized U.S. corn and basically die rather than work in U.S., that is an evil law.
I believe in inalienable rights, a sort of natural law, inalienable and unmovable principles that are constant whether you’re Mexican or not, and regardless of disability, gender, outward appearance, age, etc., and one of those rights is the “right to resist” and non-violently civil disobedience-style defy laws that obviously lead to self destruction.

I want to have a morally consistent view. Of course Bundy’s grazing herds and non-paying of taxes is less bad than some of the legal bribe activities politicians do on a regular basis, the president ordering grandmas blown up by Predator missiles in Pakistan, etc., so it’s obvious to me that, while the law matters and shouldn’t be ignored willy-nilly, what is legal and what is right don’t enjoy 1:1 correlation.

“The British put a tax on salt, and said that Indians could not make their own salt. Gandhi walked with his followers 200 miles to the sea to break the law by gathering salt. Soon the jails were overflowing with Indians—and the British did away with the Salt Act.” – comic book panel from Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a December 1957 educational comic book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and non-violent civil disobedience.

And immigrants are even less offensive to my view of right and wrong. I’m an immigrant, all of us are, except for indigenous tribes.  In the mindset of the Tea Party type person, Cliven Bundy’s defiance of federal law is good, whereas the immigrant with no choice but to “illegally” cross because legal immigration is impossible for Mexicans (given the antiquated “quotas” being full) is hated and wrong. I don’t understand this, especially when immigrant laborers put food in your markets, meaning a direct relationship of sorts, and Bundy doesn’t.

We have a problem because natural law (and common-sense) increasingly conflicts with the growing reams of rules. We probably break 20 federal, state, local rules and regulations before lunch…

Gandhi was right to break the law forbidding indigenous salt gathering, as laws that are enacted solely to protect an evil corporate monopoly are inherently unjust and illegitimate.  Similarly, the real Tea Party, the Boston Tea Party, was also about defying the laws set up to benefit the royalist colonial trade monopoly.  Both were backlashes to the merging of corporation and state.

To be a truly moral actor you have to be willing to disobey the authority figure if you’re being ordered to do bad things. These moral dilemmas come to the fore surprisingly often in hospitals, with nurses and other hands-on staff having to make pivotal choices, like whether they should follow the nonsensical bureaucratic rule and potentially harm the patient, or disobey and potentially get fired or harassed by authority figures.

I’ll end on the definitive answer, from Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Letter from Birmingham Jail – April 16th, 1963

 

 

 

 

 

Nick

Nick Reviews Neil Young’s “Freedom”

Posted by – June 1, 2014

Neil Young’s 1989 “comeback album” Freedom is probably Neil Young’s best work, and I think it should be considered in the rare category, “best Folk rock albums ever.”

Freedom opens with an acoustic performance of “keep on rawkin in the free werld” live in concert (cut from an outdoor set he did at Jones Beach, New York).  Though concert recordings can be annoying with the crowd noise and whatnot, and this is no exception, bookending the beginning and end of an album with acoustic and electric versions of the album’s lead single or most representative song is a Neil Young tradition. In addition to that, the following track, 2 – “Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1)”, has simple guitar lines that mirror “Keep on Rockin’ In The Free World,” so leading off with it established something Young builds on…
One track lends itself to the next, music and lyrics setting up a foundation for the next song. This “album as a cohesive whole” isn’t seen as often today, nowadays an “album” is more a “best of” collection of an artist’s recent songs, selection of stuff recorded over a certain timeframe, or worse, hit single… filler… random crap… potential single #2… filler… more filler, then please become a single #3.
One of the things that takes a record from great album to one of the “best evaaaaar” is its “as a whole” impact. Though Freedom‘s wholeness isn’t as clear/blatant as a concept album’s with a single unifying theme or story, the songs unite loosely around ideas of political, personal, and relationshipal freedom. Not just the songs themselves but their sequence, how one song sets up the next, matters here, and I definitely give more points for the whole album being a canvas.

Favorite moments:
As mentioned above, “Keep on Rockin’ In The Free World” is an excellent lead-off for the very related second song “Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1).” Like its predecessor, “Crime in the City” throws out vignettes about street-level reality in 1980s North America or “the free world,” backed by simple but powerful guitar lines. Then, Young adds more: electric guitar compliments the acoustic guitar that’s driving the longer, almost spoken word-vignettes, and following the second vignette about a producer there’s a touch of pedal steel guitar, then separating the third and fourth stories more pedal steel guitar in the fill, then the fill between stories four and five is a sweeping swirl of pedal steel guitar, almost like the Hawaiian-style of steel guitar, then the final lengthy musical break brings in subtle saxophone lines that mirror the guitar lines. All brilliantly done, and the vignettes or dispatches from the front lines of urban decay are touching and real. The third story even has you sympathizing with the corrupt 1980s cop on the beat as he improvises survival amidst the inner city hellscape.

Song #3 – “Don’t Cry” is grunge rock in its purest form, raw guitar feedback-y as hell backing raw emotional lyrics, one magnifying the other. If songs like this don’t make the point that Neil Young is one of the founding fathers of grunge, that grunge’s Mt. Rushmore would have Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Black Francis/Pixies, and Neil Young, then Neil Young’s 1995 album with Pearl Jam, Mirror Ball, will hit you with that point until it’s blatantly obvious.

“Hangin’ on a limb” is #4, an achingly beautiful song of love and loss and freedom with Linda Ronstadt’s backing vocals subtle and muted but not too muted, just right. The lyrics say a lot in a few subtle lines:

And when the melody
Through the window called
It echoed in the courtyard
And whispered in the halls
He played it through the night
She knew he had to go
There was something about freedom
He thought he didn’t know.

and though their love was hangin’ on a limb,
she taught him how to dance

The part about a melody’s infectious whispers changing lives is striking, and this, along with the lines in 7. “Someday” reminding us where men’s labor goes “Workin’ on that great Alaska pipeline / Many men were lost in the pipe / They went to fuelin’ cars / now smog might turn to stars… Someday” brings it home for me… We need great songwriting like this to express human life and its intricate adaptations to horror and beauty and everything.

I judge everything, with each element, instrument-playing, musical arrangement, lyrics, etc., all having weight. My music reviews don’t hinge solely or predominantly on vocals, which is mostly how music is judged today in the age of The Voice, X-Factor, American Idol, et al.
Neil Young’s high, abrasive countertenor might be off-putting for some, but I give his 1989 comeback album Freedom five out of five rabbits because I “listen small,” catching the small details and beautiful things.  This album is like a small, intricately arranged piece of jewelry with each element subtle and measured to never be gaudy or overkill-y.
If you like folk rock and/or country love songs and/or the grunge sound, check out Freedom.

You can listen to the album here for free (via Spotify) or above (also via Spotify).

5/5

Image: Five out of five rabbits

 

 

 

SCORE: FIVE BUNS

—Nick

Nick Reviews Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories”

Posted by – March 12, 2014

This album, Random Access Memories, won the Grammy for Album of the Year last month, sold umpteen-bajillion copies/went platinum in an era of “people don’t buy albums,” and hit number one in over 20 countries, and after listening to it I understand why.  It has the mass appeal of Europop/techno-dance, while being way more clever and creative than most any discothèque-type techno that came before it.  You do get the repetitive loops endemic to techno, and that annoyed me sometimes, but often Daft Punk mixes it up so much with a diversity of sounds and actual musical instruments, and modular synthesizers like their obvious forefathers, Kraftwerk, that it works.

Evidently they had all the tracks recorded live with real musicians performing all the instruments, and limited the use of electronic sounds to drum machines, a modular synthesizer, and vintage vocoders. The music is still predominantly electronic, but it’s electronic music with a distinctly “analog” feel, again the Kraftwerk sound, and the album is so creative because it puts the music of the 70s and 80s in a blender, ending up with an interesting gumbo of electric sounds and musical instruments. Track 6 – “Lose Yourself to Dance” reminds me of how “Der Kommissar” (original Falco version) layers electric guitar over synthesizers.

“Get Lucky” (Track 8) became the biggest international hit single in recent memory.  It’s so popular that it has prompted innumerable parodies and tributes, some of the weirdest include Postmodern Jukebox‘s ridiculous (but wonderfully violined) Irish tenor version, and the partially a cappella version performed for the Sochi Olympics opening ceremonies by the MVD Police Choir (video here). This wasn’t just the most surreal moment of the Sochi games, it was quite possibly the most surreal moment of any Olympic opening ceremony ever.  
The American media, typically oblivious, reported this as the “police choir,” but the MVD is the Interior Ministry.  The MVD are bodyguards for the Czar “president,” top ministers and other key officials, alongside their core role of beating protesters with clubs in the streets, silencing the opposition, spying on dissidents, etc.; these aren’t “police” in U.S. or UK terms, and we’ve yet to coin an American neologism for “combining the jobs of the U.S. Secret Service and the East German Stasi,” though “secret police” almost covers it and “Interior Ministry” more than gets the point across in European and Eurasian/Mideast contexts.  

This weird moment exemplifies the growth of a global language & pop culture: note that Random Access Memories is in English, every lyric sung, every word spoken, but is being embraced nonetheless as a European discothèque-type thing from Sochi near the North Caucasus to Reykjavik to Helsinki, and this is super clear watching the diverse hodgepodge of Russian guys in the secret police Glee club belting out perfect imitations of an English language song.  
This surreal performance also epitomizes how many feel about Russia’s Olympics: “oh great, the oppressive regime’s doing a celebratory butt-dance and singing perfect harmonies about getting lucky on every TV screen in the world!”  It isn’t my favorite track.

My favorite track is Track 10 – “Motherboard,” which throws a symphony orchestra into synthesizers, now string section, now woodwinds, live drums, then toward the end throws (what sounds like) ectoplasm or quicksand or viscous Cthulhu dung or something atop that.

There are a lot of oddball collaborations here, with the song done with “Rainbow Connection” songwriter Paul Williams, Track 7 “Touch,” in which Williams (still alive!) sings the lyrics he wrote about…touching… over/between electronic experiments, the weirdest by far. The Daft Punk + Paul Williams collaborations (he also wrote—but doesn’t sing—lyrics for Track 9 “Beyond”) will go down in history as one of the most bizarre musical collaborations ever, right up there with the weird Bing Crosby-David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy” duet.

Paul Williams also gave the acceptance speech for Daft Punk’s Album of the Year Grammy.

I don’t usually like electronic music. But overall, I give this album four out of five rabbits.

Image: Four out of five rabbits

 

 

SCORE: FOUR BUNS

 

—Nick

Birdosaurs: Investigating the Evolution of (some) Dinosaurs into Birds

Posted by – December 31, 2013

Part 4 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

My Disclaimer: This post covers dinosaur evolution, and I apologize in advance for my (rather incomplete) knowledge of evolution and the evolutionary sciences, but I do know that, evolution, as phrased in Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Scalia’s Misunderstanding” (p. 448 of the previously mentioned Bully for Brontosaurus) is not:

Evolution is not the study of life’s ultimate origin as a path toward discerning its deepest meaning. Evolution, in fact, is not the study of origins at all. Even the more restricted (and scientifically permissible) question of life’s origin on our earth lies outside its domain. (This interesting problem, I suspect, falls primarily within the purview of chemistry and the physics of self-organizing systems.) Evolution studies the pathways and mechanisms of organic change following the origin of life.

—Stephen Jay Gould, “Scalia’s Misunderstanding

 

The when and what and the how of hereditary changes, for example the theropods (suborder Theropoda, from Greek, meaning “beast feet,” a broad category encompassing all bipedal-running carnivores like T. Rex and Velociraptor) or… more specifically, maniraptoran (“thieving/snatching hands” or “raptor hand”) dinosaurs becoming birds, these are the study of evolution’s main points of inquiry.

Mesozoic Mysteries

My questions are: why did some landlocked dinosaurs evolve feathers, while their airborne cousins, the pterosaurs—the first flying vertebrates—did not?  Why would flightless bipedal predators like Deinonychus and Microraptor (and their other raptor descendants) develop feathers instead of pterosaur-style fur-like pycnofibre coats?  Basically, what is the evolutionary advantage of feathers vs. pycnofibres if you’re a theropod?

First, the issue of maniraptoriforme dinosaurs (trying to use a broad category for all the raptory dinos close to birds, though it is likely I’m using the wrong one).
Yale paleontologist John Ostrom unearthed Deinonychus from Montana in 1964, and though Deinonychus wasn’t the first raptor described, Ostrom’s detailed monograph on the specimen (published in 1968) provided the clearest evidence yet that bird-like theropods existed, and shed new light on dinosaurs.  Deinonychus was obviously built for speed and speedily tearing prey, their scary claws inspired the Greek name Deinonychus (“terrible claw”), and, along with their big brains and eyes, did not match up with the prevailing view of dinosaurs as fairly slow, cold-blooded cousins of crocodiles.  What I call the warm-blooded birdosaur theory, proposed by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1868 along with his observations about Archaeopteryx (the small, bird-like dino “transitional species” found in 1861, “intermediate between birds and reptiles”), was revived thanks to Ostrom’s work.  His work on the similarities between Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx put the theory on such solid ground, few try to disprove that “some dinosaurs were warm-blooded.”  And subsequent discoveries established it so well, warm-bloodedness is hardly doubted nowadays even in lumbering herbivores like Stegosaurus Stenops.
Viewing dinosaurs as bird-like endotherms (animals that create their own heat via metabolic processes, AKA “warm-blooded”) was a big breakthrough, re-shuffling the family tree so all birds are derived from dinosaurs, and broadening what are considered “reptiles.”  And it also allows dinosaurs to make sense. For example, the height of a brontosaur‘s neck would break the laws

Quetzalcoatlus was an enormous pterosaur that would’ve been roughly eye-to-eye with modern-day giraffes. Art by pterosaur expert Mark Witton. Explanation of the mass estimate for Quetzalcoatlus on his flickr.

of biological possibility for an ectothermic (cold-blooded) creature with the limitations of a reptilian circulatory and respiratory system, but could be possible (though still “redonkulous”) with a powerful, avian-type of cardiopulmonary system.  Likewise, understanding how pterosaurs vaulted themselves into the air and then sustained the movements of powered flight for extended periods is near-impossible assuming ectothermic metabolisms, especially considering the biggest, giraffe-sized pterosaur species, but begin to make sense for an endothermic creature.

Ornithological Explorations

When I say “subsequent discoveries” confirmed the birdosaur theory, I’m referring to the series of fossil “transitional species,”or more informally, “dino-birds,” that have been found in the late ’90s and throughout the ’00s up through today, mostly in China and environs.  A surprising number of these seriously freaky-deaky species, Archaeopteryx-like “dino-birds,” have been identified and studied in recent years.

Insofar as a species can be freaky-deaky, these “dino-birds” are… though in my opinion, plenty of existing species fall into the freaky category: turkeys, vultures and ostriches from the birdosaur lineage, bats who arrived at scary, pterosaur-like wings independently, etc.  But I guess if you’re a member of one of the aforementioned species, you don’t seem so freaky.

Xiaotingia

“Life restoration” of Xiaotingia, dino-bird of the Late Jurassic. Xiaotingia is so similar to Archeopteryx, it’s classified as an “archaeopterygian.”

First described in 2011, Xiaotingia zhengi is the closest relative of Archaeopteryx found so far, and one of the basalmost (earliest, most “basal,” preferred over the term “most primitive” since later stages of evolution aren’t necessarily “better”) “transitional species” identified to date, more basal than Archaeopteryx.  Like Archaeopteryx itself, the phylogenetic categorization is murky indeed: it’s debatable whether Xiaotingia counts as a straight-up bird (“early avian species”) or an “intermediate species” (dino-bird) somewhere amongst the roots of what became the bird family tree (the class Aves).  Its dino characteristics exist mostly in certain non-avian skeletal features, not in visible form (excepting the long, bony, maniraptoriforme tail).

Graciliraptor

Graciliraptor, a freaky-deaky birdosaur from the early Cretaceous, is one of the more basal (primitive but you’re not supposed to use “primitive”) dino-birds, with much more dino-y characteristics.

Described in 2004, Graciliraptor is considered closely related to freaky four-winged dino-bird Microraptor, so it’s considered a microraptorian, an even more narrow category than Maniraptoriformes, that includes the smallest, closest dino relatives of birds.

Tianyuraptor

at 1.6m, Tianyuraptor is the largest known microraptnrian.

Tianyuraptor. Really bizarre and amazing dino-chicken Tianyuraptor ostromi (named in honor of John Ostrom).

Velociraptor

This “life restoration” of Velociraptor mongoliensis is largely representative of the current consensus on what most “raptor” species were like: feathered birdosaurs.

In September 2007, researchers found “quill knobs” on the forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia. These bumps on bird wing bones show where feathers anchor. This, along with other finds, including multiple discoveries of fossil feathers with these ‘raptors, proved that later raptory theropods often had feathers, strengthening Ostrom’s birdosaur theory even further

Current Toronto Raptors logo, still more tyrannosaur-like than today’s conception of raptors as feathered and bird-like.

and rendering Spielberg’s scaly Jurassic Park velociraptors (and NBA team Toronto Raptors‘ velociraptor logo) inaccurate.

Why feathers?

Why would some theropods, landlocked carnivores in an environment of ferocious dino-eat-dino competition, evolve feathers?  Why would the development of feathers make the evolutionary to-do-list for these predatory dinosaurs who needed to devote all the biological resources they could accrue to gain an edge in the game of kill-or-be-killed?  This is especially puzzling when one considers pterosaurs’ featherless physique; now that we know more about pterosaur evolution, it’s clear that their fuzzy, partial pycnofibre coats weren’t helpful for flying and bore no resemblance to proto-feather layers.  We can conclude the weird partial coats of pycnofibres (which kind of remind me of humans’ internal cilia) were sufficient for pterosaurs’ thermoregulatory needs and feathers weren’t crucial to being a flying predator.  Additionally, pterosaur evolution was so radically different from all other archosaurs, they must’ve split from the herd very early in their development.

Predatory raptors, under intense evolutionary pressures constantly (driven by climate change, ecological shifts disrupting the food chain, plus fearsome competition for prey with other predatory species),

John Ostrom’s crowning achievement, Deinonychus, depicted as a big feathered raptor here in the traveling exhibit “Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight,” Germany, February 2009.

wouldn’t’ve invested evolutionary/mutagenic energies into feathers unless out of necessity, so I tend to view their feathering-up as a thermoregulatory aid, essential for smaller species (microraptorians for example) that are especially vulnerable to heat loss. Eventually, climate swings into colder temperatures may have wiped out featherless theropods while feathered species survived, or perhaps a time period of the only sustainable sources of prey being in cold parts of Earth disadvantaged featherless predators, or something far more complicated, but somehow feathers gave enough benefit that they continue in the gene pool from at least the Late Jurassic to today.

In Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, the author, British ornithologist and natural historian David Norman, described proto-feathers as beginning for heat-conservation purposes, but suggested the development of “genuinely bird-like flight feathers,” and perhaps bird flying itself, originated as byproducts of their primary function – mating displays:

…so small, active endotherms would be expected to insulate their bodies to reduce heat loss. Small theropod dinosaurs, therefore, evolved insulation to prevent heat loss because they were endotherms -not because they ‘wanted’ to become birds!

Liaoning discoveries indicate that various types of insulatory covering developed, most probably by subtle modifications to the growth patterns of normal skin scales; these ranged from hair-like filaments to full-blown feathers. It may well be that genuinely bird-like flight feathers did not evolve for the purposes of flight, but had a far more prosaic origin. Several of the ‘dinobirds’ from Liaoning seem to have tufts of feathers on the end of the tail (rather like a geisha’s fan) and fringes of feathers along the arms, on the head, or running down the spine. Clearly preservational biases may also play a part in how and on which parts of the body these may be preserved. But for the present, it seems at least possible that feathers evolved as structures linked to the behaviour of these animals: providing recognition signals, perhaps, as in living birds, or being used as part of their mating rituals, long before any genuine flight function had developed.

In this context, gliding and flight, rather than being the sine qua non of avian origins, become later, ‘add-on’ benefits. Obviously, feathers have the potential for aerodynamic uses; just as with modern birds, the ability to jump and flutter may well have embellished ‘dinobird’ mating displays. For example, in the case of the small creature Microraptor, a combination of fringes of feathers along the arms, legs, and tail would have provided it with the ability to launch itself into the air from branches or equivalent vantage points. From just this sort of starting point, gliding and true flapping flight seem a comparatively short ‘step’ indeed.

© David Norman, Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction
For more on this source, see its section of veryshortintroductions.com

It’s kind of romantic if you think about it, devoting millions of years in order to move from carpet-esque proto-feather fuzz to a covering with more “bling,” to impress a mate.

American Museum of Natural History’s cast replica of Sinornithosaurus specimen NGMC91, nicknamed “Dave.” Sinornithosaurus (Greek and Latin mash-up meaning “Chinese birdosaur”) was another “dino-bird” found in Liaoning, in 1999. It was found with a proto-feather coat “similar to down.”

It also underscores how features often evolve in animals in indirect and unexpected ways.

In another unexpected quirk of evolution, the dating of dino-bird specimens, even basal “intermediate species” like Xiaotingia, and oldest, basal microraptorians like Sinornithosaurus, shows they were around after, and coexisted with early avians. That freaky dino-birds like Sinornithosaurus rubbed elbows with ducks, ostriches, quail, turkeys, etc. means birds “spun-off” from an earlier common ancestor, likely an even more basal microraptorian during the Jurassic period.

Think of Aves (the class containing all of today’s birds) as a TV show spin-off, but a spin-off that lasts much longer than the older show it branched-off from, like The Simpsons, which was originally a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show, was spun-off as its own series, coexisted on the TV schedule with The Tracey Ullman Show for multiple seasons but ultimately outlived its ancestor and keeps going and going up to today.  Similarly, Aves spun-off from the dino-bird show, coexisted on the Mesozoic schedule, living side-by-side throughout the Cretaceous, but the dino-bird show got canceled via the big, horrendous kablooie, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, and along with an estimated three-quarters of plant and animal species on the planet, didn’t live to see the Cenozoic (the consensus is still that something bad collided with the Earth).  Somehow, Aves kept going and going, with nearly all its cast intact.

Nick

thus ends the big Dinocember series (though I may do a bonus post on pterosaurs and a quick note on stegosaurs)
For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 2: Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah (somewhat controversial)

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on nickscrusade.org, by far)

Note: I wanted to add the infamous Alabama State Board of Education “biology textbook insert” evolution disclaimer at the top of this post, but it is too long.  The revised disclaimer seems 30-40% longer than than the original 1996 sticker I confronted in high school, though it’s still written in the same clunky, dense committee-ese that proved indecipherable for even the most bold, intrepid minds back then, so is skipped so thoroughly that few students could tell you it’s there.  Read the 2001 “biology textbook insert” here if you’re in need of an insomnia cure. 

Related Posts with Thumbnails