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. 

VP Biden Accidentally Suggests U.S.-Asia Influence Waning

Posted by – December 27, 2013

December 5th, 2013, Vice President of the U.S. (VOTUS) Joseph R. Biden, speaking to a conference room-full of PRC diplomats and dignitaries after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, made an accidentally revealing comment:

The United States has a profound stake in what happens here, because we needwe are, and will remain—a Pacific power, diplomatically, economically, and military [sic].”

Judge for yourself, but this comment, calculated to reassure allies and make the top echelons of the Beijing regime think twice about aggressive moves in the region, kind of rang hollow or, at least rang… awkward.

To me, the “we need, we are, and will remain a Pacific power” had the ring of uneasiness, the sound of an aging boxer trying to talk tough and he can hardly convince himself.
Let me know if you think differently, but I thought it revealed something akin to the male peacock who is strutting to impress but no longer pulling it off (the female peacocks are rolling their eyes) or the schoolyard bully power-posing in front of the doors to get kids’ lunch money, but it’s more pathetic than intimidating, because the bully has repeatedly shown himself unable to back it up, even a little girl on crutches backed him down.
During Biden’s visit to East Asia, he repeated various versions of the “we really are a resident Pacific power” message, and it did more to confirm we really aren’t than anything.
Someone who is actually powerful doesn’t have to keep trying to convince people.

VP Biden went on an emergency tour of East Asia to address the recent controversy over the PRC imposing an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) over a huge swath of airspace of the East China Sea, including, most provocatively, the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (referred to as the “Diaoyu Islands” in mainland China).  To set up such an expansive ADIZ over disputed territory, nearly half of it overlapping the pre-existing Japanese ADIZ, particularly claiming the airspace of islands controlled by your primary rival country, has, as Biden said, “caused significant apprehension in the region.”  ADIZs have been around since the post-WWII years, so they’re not new, but they never have overlapped like this before over others’ territory.

No one else wrote about how odd Biden sounded in Beijing, so I did… unearthing the unexpected and unnoticed, that’s a big part of what blogging is for, I think.

Nick

Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Posted by – December 7, 2013

Part 3 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

I heard on NPR’s TED Radio Hour in an offhand comment in the first segment of a November episode called Misconceptions, that the brontosaurus name is no more, and that kids today learn that it’s an apatosaurus (older name, same dinosaur).
Taken aback, I searched for the explanation… how could the brontosaurus name (meaning “thunder lizard”) be discarded in favor of apatosaurus (meaning “deceptive lizard”)??? Your average brontosaur—a median example, not the biggest—was roughly the weight of four bull elephants, and one individual’s thunderous stomp would have been about as “deceptive” as a gigantism-affected pachyderm herd stampeding x 50, i.e., not sneaky or deceptive at all.

In Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, the author, British ornithologist and natural historian David Norman, described brontosaurus evidence: footprints of brontosaur herds that were found in Texas:

More convincing were some tracks observed by Bird at Davenport Ranch, also in Texas. Here he was able to log the tracks of 23 brontosaur-like sauropods walking in the same direction at the same time. This suggested very strongly that some dinosaurs moved around in herds. Herding or gregarious behaviour is impossible to deduce from skeletons, but tracks provide direct evidence.
… Some of the large sauropodomorph dinosaurs (the brontosaurs referred to above) may have weighed as much as 20-40 tonnes in life. These animals would have exerted enormous forces on the ground when they walked. On soft substrate, the pressure from the feet of such dinosaurs would have distorted the earth at a depth of a metre or more beneath the surface…
If herds of such enormous creatures trampled over areas, as they certainly did at Davenport Ranch, then they also had the capacity to greatly disturb the earth beneath – pounding it up and destroying its normal sedimentary structure. This relatively recently recognized phenomenon has been named ‘dinoturbation’.
… Great herds of multitonne dinosaurs moving across a landscape had the potential to utterly devastate the local ecology. We are aware that elephants today are capable of causing considerable damage to the African savannah because of the way that they can tear up and knock down mature trees. What might a herd of 40-tonne brontosaurs have done?

© David Norman, Chapter 7 in Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction
For more on this source, see its section of veryshortintroductions.com

So, yeah.  Just imagine it, the extreme damage a herd of brontosaurs could do, “dinoturbation” of the landscape still obvious from the Jurassic Era, 208-144 million years ago (and it makes sense that brontosaurs, unarmored, gigantic prey animals without many defensive adaptations, would travel in herds for strength in numbers).  What might a brontosaurus herd sound like??  Thunder, rolling thunder, louder than anything.  Thunder lizard (brontosaurus) is clearly the right name.

Alas, the apatosaurus name won out, as noted by an NPR News piece just a year ago: Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed : NPR – All Things Considered (i.e. it didn’t exist because it’s apatosaurus and was acknowledged as such in 1903).

The American Heritage Science Dictionary has the most concise explanation of the brontosaurus naming controversy I’ve seen so far:

Take a little deception, add a little excitement, stir them with a century-long mistake, and you have the mystery of the brontosaurus. Specifically, you have the mystery of its name. For 100 years this 70-foot-long, 30-ton vegetarian giant had two names. This case of double identity began in 1877, when bones of a large dinosaur were discovered. The creature was dubbed apatosaurus, a name that meant “deceptive lizard” or “unreal lizard.” Two years later, bones of a larger dinosaur were found, and in all the excitement, scientists named it brontosaurus or “thunder lizard.” This name stuck until scientists decided it was all a mistake—the two sets of bones actually belonged to the same type of dinosaur. Since it is a rule in taxonomy that the first name given to a newly discovered organism is the one that must be used, scientists have had to use the term apatosaurus. But “thunder lizard” had found a lot of popular appeal, and many people still prefer to call the beast brontosaurus.

The American Heritage Science Dictionary, s.v. “brontosaurus,” accessed November 29, 2013

According to the brontosaurus information at the American Museum of Natural History, when paleontologist Elmer Riggs (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago) published his study in 1903 showing the apatosaurus found was actually a juvenile example of the genus, not separate from brontosaurus, it technically ended the matter, “officially” the apatosaurus name took precedent from 1903 onwards.
But there had to be more to it.  I still learned about “thunder lizards” in elementary school. Amidst the late ’80s-early ’90s “dino-mania” brontosaurs were widely seen (and labeled brontosaurus), so when and how did apatosaurus displace the brontosaurus name?

Stephen Jay Gould provides the best explanation of how the hell this happened: in his humorous essay “Bully for Brontosaurus” (one essay in the book Bully for Brontosaurus, which mostly consists of his essays on non-dinosaur natural history subjects) he explores taxonomy and the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), and explains that the apatosaurus name gained currency as an unexpected side-effect of the aforementioned dino-mania, mostly following all the whining over the 1989 USPS-special release of dinosaur stamps that labeled the brontosaurus as brontosaurus, like so:

I used these stamps in 1989-1990. Mom got them, correctly noticing them as the perfect stamps for me. I especially treasured the stegosaurus stamps, stegosaurus is my favorite dino. Image from: What Happened to the Brontosaurus? – The Museum of Unnatural Mystery

These postage stamps were great; I was more inclined to mail letters when they could be stegosaur-stamped letters.
But the Postal Service got a mass of Comic Book Guy-type complaint letters demanding retraction of the brontosaurus name in favor of the apatosaurus name, and the media who had covered the release of the dino stamps since it was one of the first times USPS issued special stamps (unveiled at Disney World the year me/my family were there), got similar complaint letters.  Soon, apatosaurus was widely known as the “correct” and “scientific” name.

In “Bully for Brontosaurus,” Gould explains:

I hate to be a shill for the Post Office, but I think that they made the right decision this time. Responding to the great Apatosaurus flap, Postal Bulletin Number 21744 proclaimed:

“Although now recognized by the scientific community as Apatosaurus, the name Brontosaurus was used for the stamp because it is more familiar to the general population. Similarly, the term “dinosaur” has been used generically to describe all the animals, even though the Pteranodon was a flying reptile.”

Touché and right on; no one bitched about Pteranodon, and that’s a real error.

The Post Office has been more right than the complainers, for Uncle Sam has worked in the spirit of the plenary powers rule. Names fixed in popular usage may be validated even if older designations have technical priority. But now…Oh Lord, why didn’t I see it before! Now I suddenly grasp the secret thread behind this overt debate! It’s a plot, a dastardly plot sponsored by the apatophiles–that covert society long dedicated to gaining support for Marsh’s original name against a potential appeal to the plenary powers. They never had a prayer before. Whatever noise they made, whatever assassinations they attempted, they could never get anyone to pay attention, never disturb the tranquillity and general acceptance of Brontosaurus. But now that the Post Office has officially adopted Brontosaurus, they have found their opening. Now enough people know about Apatosaurus for the first time. Now an appeal to the plenary powers would not lead to the validation of Brontosaurus, for Apatosaurus has gained precious currency. They have won; we brontophiles have been defeated.

© 1991, W. W. Norton & Co. and Stephen Jay Gould
essay viewable on Google Books: Bully for Brontosaurus

According to the ICZN Code, the first designated name for the species reigns, but the Zoological Congress of 1913 in Monaco added the plenary powers rule, an appeal process whereby applications to “suppress” the oldest name, if the current name is better and more well-known, could be reviewed. Gould describes the 1913 adoption of the plenary powers rule as a response to what I’d call griefers (a term from the world of massively multiplayer online games—MMOs—meaning someone whose primary means of enjoyment is the intentional griefing, verb: present participle, of other players, the ruining of others’ fun).

In “Bully for Brontosaurus,” Stephen Jay Gould cities Dinny the dinosaur as an example of brontosaurs in popular culture. Dinny is Alley Oop’s trusty brontosaurus-like companion and transportation, in the newspaper comic strip Alley Oop (1932-present).

Some were using the ICZN oldest-name-gets-priority-rule just to derive pleasure from the panic and discomfort wreaked on the Zoological Congress when a well-established name was apt to get toppled; Gould describes an attempt to replace the name boa constrictor with an unknown obscurity that was ultimately suppressed using the plenary powers rule.

The plenary powers rule seemed to set the table for brontophiles to appeal the apatosaurus name. After all, the brontosaurus was everywhere, probably second only to the T. Rex in cultural ubiquity, commonly seen in comic books, comic strips (Alley Oop), cartoon shows and movies, The Flintstones, even as the mascot and logo of Sinclair Oil, and in U.S.-written animated shows, it was akin to visual shorthand for “Jurassic Era” or “dinosaur.”  The brontosaurus is the dinosaur, what people picture when the word “dinosaur” is mentioned.
As dino-mania really took hold, Was (not was) had a big hit in 1987 (UK) and 1989 (US) with “Walk the Dinosaur,” which featured a dance in the music video, “the dinosaur,” done with forward motions of the hand/wrist to mimic a brontosaur’s neck, the most recognizable neck of all Dinosauria.
An aside: though “Walk the Dinosaur” became a dance craze song

Brontosaurus, even on the record cover of the “Walk the Dinosaur” single [1987, Chrysalis Records].

like The Twist or The Hustle (but the dinosaur dance never caught on that much beyond the cave-girls in the music video) originally it wasn’t a dance song.  MTV and near-mandatory music videos for singles changed everything: prior to the music video with cave-girls and dinosaur dance—complete with “follow the dancing ball” caption-instructions to teach you the three steps to the “do the dinosaur” dance—“do the dinosaur” was a reference to the extinction of humanity via global thermonuclear war, the “Boom! Boom! Aka-lacka-boom-boom!” was the bombs falling to start armageddon.

I think the brontosaurus sticks in the popular imagination because it is such a huge, ridiculous animal, straining our ideas about the laws of physics and biology.  Its short, stubby legs relative to its massive body brings to mind a cross between a dino-dachshund and Godzilla.  Its feet look like elephant feet, big, padded oval-shaped feet with three or four front-facing, prominent toe-nails that looked a lot like this.  Its absurdly-long neck shouldn’t even be biologically possible; getting consistent bloodflow up the neck to the brain and down to the tail—a 70-feet-long circulatory system—would have required

Aside from the fictitious dorsal armor-spikes (and human rider), Dinny the dinosaur is actually a fairly accurate rendering of a brontosaurus. His head, longish and pointy, is more correct than many other early depictions, which often incorporate paleontologist O. C. Marsh’s placement of the much blockier Camarasaurus skull onto early skeleton displays of the species.

an incredible, 500-liter, mega-efficient, four-chambered bird-type heart, avian-esque but on a massive, big, big scale that is hard to fathom.  With a reptilian circulatory system it really would be impossible.
Such an outlandish creature is hard to forget.  Its image has real staying power.  And it provides us a reminder of how beautiful and weird the natural world can be, how it tends to zigzag while our expectations go straight.

As for the brontosaurus name, it wouldn’t win an appeal to the plenary powers since the postage stamp kerfuffle (though it totally would have won such an appeal in 1965, 1975, even 1985) but we can still use the name.  ”Brontosaurus” (thunder lizard) is the more appropriate name and, as a slightly newer (1879) synonym, shouldn’t be seen as incorrect, no matter what they say. The best thing we brontophiles can do is keep the name in circulation on the internet, refer to brontosaurus in posts and comments whenever possible (and whenever impossible is fun too). Keep saying “brontosaurus” to keep it alive: brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus.

A haiku I wrote, an ode to retaining the beautiful brontosaurus name:

oh great brontosaur
noble herbivore, thunder
feet ain’t “deceptive”

Nick

For more on the brontosaurus naming controversy, check out:

What Happened to the Brontosaurus? – The Museum of Unnatural Mystery (all content by Lee Krystek) – highly recommended for its comprehensive coverage and informative YouTube video

Google Books: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould

Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed : NPR – All Things Considered

 

For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
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)

Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah

Posted by – December 5, 2013

Originally written December the 5th, 2006, I’ve revised and re-named it to be part 2 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

Tananim Gedolim, in English, “Great Reptiles”

The Spiritual Can Illuminate The Scientific. The Scientific Can Illuminate The Spiritual.

There has been (and will continue to be) debate about evolution and the age of planet Earth.

Among Christians, especially the growing fundamentalist groups, creationism is often embraced, stating a literal 6 day creation of the Earth. Some Charedi Jews (i.e. ultra Orthodox) hold to the Earth being 5767 years old, though an important distinction should be noted: the “literal” reading—the idea that the text shouldn’t be interpreted as much as simply “read”—taught by many forms of fundamentalist Christianity, isn’t really possible within Judaism because we work with the original Hebrew of the Torah which, by definition, can only be interpreted into English, ancient Hebrew worldview converted into English thought and words. So even the more hardline factions that strictly hold to the 5700+ Hebrew calendar years timeframe for the Earth’s age (not meaning 5700+ years from Adam and the human spirit’s first run-publication, or something else) aren’t fundamentalist in the same way strict, sola scriptura literalists are, as they don’t insist that this is the only meaning within the passage.  Within Judaism it’s taken for granted that multiple meanings and explanations, even hidden mystical interpretations, exist on every page, with numerous wisdom and commentary texts relied upon to “bring down” (from Sinai) right interpretations, not the “one book, one meaning” mentality associated with the sola scriptura-thinking prevalent in Protestant versions of Christianity.

The passage that mentions “the great reptiles,” Bereishit (Genesis) 1.21, says the following:

21. And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good

The Hebrew words “tananim” (reptiles, serpents, Leviathan) and gelodim (great, plural) are translated here as “great sea monsters.” The term gelodim, the greats, is clear and unambiguous, “the greats” is frequently used by itself as a noun, especially to refer to the Talmudic greats, the great sages. Tananim is the area of difficulty. Most translations render “tananim gelodim” as great sea monsters, great serpents, or the Leviathan…the King James Version goes with “great whales.” The Leviathan is an ancient mythological sea monster, think Loch Ness Monster, a massive marine reptile described as a fire-breathing dragon in Job 41:
“18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.”

It’s unmistakable that tananim are giant reptiles or members of a terrifying reptiloid species of some kind. In modern Hebrew, “tananim” are crocodiles.

Rashi, the famous Torah commentator and rabbi from 11th century France, offers more insights into the tananim gelodim, which he sees as the Leviathan. Rashi is so foundational because he focuses on the basic meaning of the Hebrew words, the grammar, and decoding ancient idioms. He typically keeps it brief, not getting into hidden interpretations, but for the Leviathan he makes an exception, since the letters in tananim gelodim led to the midrash (retelling) cited. Rashi writes:

the sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].
Source

Okay, come on… c’mon, we’re talking about ancient giant reptiloids that emerged before birds and mankind, and have to go extinct before humanity can begin their world, being too mean, too enormous, too terrible, to co-exist with humans.
The preponderance of the evidence indicates the tananim gedolim are dinosaurs.

I love dinosaurs. They did exist.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.

me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

There are people who retcon history to erase the dinosaurs, or say dinosaurs coexisted with humans, or say that tananim gedolim being dinosaurs is Biblical proof that dino-human coexistence occurred. The Creation Museum in Kentucky has displays showing a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus in Eden, mankind (including human children) peacefully coexisting with predatory dinosaurs that somehow aren’t chasing and eating them, dinos saddled for riding… it’s crazy.

To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.
We’ve proven that situations like The Lost World or The Flintstones didn’t happen.

In this actual exhibit at the Creation Museum (real, not photoshopped) a baby Tyrannosaurus eats plants in Eden, as a Jesus-looking figure (standing inside the T-Rex’s kill radius) looks on peacefully. The Tyrannosaurus‘ teeth, blades rather than the grinding molars characteristic of herbivorous dinos, may have made chewing leaves physically impossible.

It stretches credulity past the breaking point to think the dinosaurs (meaning “terrible lizards”), including Tyrannosaurus Rex, each tooth a scimitar-looking kill-blade, chilled with early homo sapiens, just kicked back and watched Eden flag football together with mankind like bros, and didn’t make a midnight snack out of the human race and end it forever. Velociraptors would see humanity as a feast, raptor-christmas!!!
Dinosaurs are called dinosaurs, “terrible lizards,” for a reason—not because they did a terrible job of lizard-ing—because they terrorize us, and can strike terr into the hearts of man, even in crumbly fossil form.  Listen to Rashi, gigantic dragon-like predators aren’t compatible with the world of man; “if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.”

But of course, dinosaur fossils and an Earth that is demonstrably billions of years old doesn’t necessarily contradict the Torah. To insist on a literal six-day Creation is to have a shallow understanding of a Creation story that has infinite depth in each verse.  There’s much more to it.  There is so much more to Torah, so much more depth and color, so many layers and intricacies to the numerous interpretations and subtexts, not to mention the richness of the oral tradition (the aggadot, midrashim, etc.)
Dr. Gerald Schroeder makes a convincing case that the six days are six epochs, and brings down several Tanakh passages that substantiate that idea.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew and MIT-trained scientist who has made it his life’s work to teach that the Torah can offer enriching perspectives to verifiable science and visa versa. His lectures are the source of much of what I’m about to tell you.

What is a day? All sides can agree that day, by definition, is the time between sunrise and sunset. We know that since Torah tells us the sun wasn’t created until day 3, it can’t be referring to literal days (because a day requires a sun) so these 6 days refer to epochs of Creation. Psalm 90:4 says “a thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday.”

The Jewish sages of the Middle Ages tell us the Earth is billions of years old, and they weren’t bending to science, because science didn’t even exist in their era. Nachmanides described all matter of the universe expanding from the size of a seed (the big bang) in the 13th century… scientific truth mirroring spiritual truth.

In Genesis, you see one beginning, not a cyclic universe. This has been shown by science, a big bang booting-up the universe and linear time.

The second description of Creation describes Adam not finding a mate among the animals. “And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him.” (Gen. 2:20) Obviously, Adam in sinless Eden is not a sheep molester. The Midrash explains among the “beasts of the field” were animals who looked and talked just like people! Prehistoric man! And since he couldn’t find a soul mate among Neanderthals, Hashem created the male and female soul. 5767 years isn’t the age of the Earth, but the time since the human soul was bestowed. 5767 in history mirrors what has been discovered by archeology as about the time organized civilization arose. I don’t think this is a coincidence; this is obviously an important break in human history.

Astronomy has shown that light exploded into the matter of suns, then suns exploded into chunks, element-rich planets which spawned life, i.e. we come from light beams. This is confirmed throughout Judaic thought, as we are called “beings of light.”

Spiritual truth can mirror scientific truth. There are countless examples of this. Another was how a Talmudist, going on kabbalistic teachings, deduced a major descending artery in the brain that was later confirmed to exist by science.

Both the scientific and the spiritual are very exciting to study, because they have the potential to expose and confirm the deepest, most visceral truths of our existence. Science should be embraced by the religious, and it’s very frustrating to see them bashing science. They align themselves with the same mentality of those who insisted the world was flat. Our global reality would be greatly improved by a new Renaissance or Islamic Golden Age that harnesses the best thinkers, undivided: theologians, scientists, anthropologists, everyone toward a goal of bettering the world of man, without heeding specialty boundaries and the counter-productive “thinking from silos” that’s so prevalent today.  Unity.  Unity would be great.

I recommend checking out Dr. Schroeder’s take on the dinosaurs and the translation of tananim.  Dr. Schroeder isn’t one of these “Answers in Genesis” types, he’s more a physicist who’s well-versed in Torah and takes you deeper. His explanations add richness to our understandings of the cosmos and Torah alike.  It’s good to seek out scientific truths, (“…the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” Deut. 29:29) and the exciting scientific discoveries ahead can only help us understand ourselves and all creation.

Nick

For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

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

The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature!

Posted by – December 3, 2013

UPDATE: Apparently the Top Search term leading people to my blog is still “griffin.”  If you’re one of the griffin-seekers, Welcome! feel free to browse, there are lots of posts here, lots of history essays, on everything from Chinese history to the weird story of top-hat gangsters taking over 1850s Baltimore.

Without further ado, here is my June 25, 2007 post on the history of the griffin and its potential dinosaur origin story!

I saw this thing on the History Channel the other day about the origins of mythic creatures.

Scythians spread the legend of the Griffin, and Griffin stories quickly spread to Greece and throughout the ancient world, even to the Jews. The Torah says don’t eat griffins (always good advice). The “New Testament” uses a griffin as a metaphor for Jesus or something.


More cool griffin images

The Scythians would use the Griffin to scare off enemies, letting it be known that their treasure is guarded by a Griffin and if you invade, the Griffin will eat you, etc. An ingenious defense strategy, and evidence has been mounting that the steppe horsemen-warrior cultures (Scythians, Mongols, etc) had griffin encounters for real, it’s just that the griffins seen were very complete Protoceratops fossils. Griffins were really dinosaurs.

This idea has become so established that it even made it into the opening pages of Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman (three cheers for the Very Short Introductions series!)
Here is part of what Norman said about the griffin-dinosaur connection:

“…as early as the 7th century bc the Greeks had contact with nomadic cultures in central Asia. Written accounts at this time include descriptions of the Griffin (or Gryphon): a creature that reputedly hoarded and jealously guarded gold; it was wolf-sized with a beak, four legs, and sharp claws on its feet. Furthermore, Near East art of at least 3000 BC depicts Griffin-like creatures, as does that of the Mycenaean. The Griffin myth arose in Mongolia/north-west China, in association with the ancient caravan routes and gold prospecting in the Tienshan and Altai Mountains. This part of the world (we now know) has a very rich fossil heritage and is notable for the abundance of well-preserved dinosaur skeletons; they are remarkably easy to find because their white fossil bones stand out clearly against the soft, red sandstones in which they are buried. Of even greater interest is the fact that the most abundant of the dinosaurs preserved in these sandstones is Protoceratops, which are approximately wolf-sized, and have a prominent hooked beak and four legs terminated by sharp-clawed toes. Their skulls also bear strikingly upswept bony frills, which might easily be the origin of the wing-like structures that are often depicted in Griffin imagery. …it would appear to be highly probable that Griffins owe their origin to genuine observations of dinosaur skeletons made by nomadic travelers through Mongolia; they demonstrate an uncanny link between exotic mythological beasts and the real world of dinosaurs.”

© David Norman, Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, 2005

 

 

Griffin-looking dinosaur skulls (pictured here) have been laying around in the heart of what was Scythian territory. Read more about this at the American Museum of Natural History: Griffin Bones. The Scythians would have seen these skulls and, understandably, assumed beasts of this nature were nearby, or maybe just thought it was great propaganda material to scare enemies.

The griffin was based on a real creature!

Isn’t that awesome?

And new discoveries are happening every day.

Source: American Museum of Natural History: Griffin Bones

Nick

I’ve elevated this post to part 1 of 4 in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series.
For the other posts in the series go to:
Part 2: Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah (somewhat controversial)

Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

New news items related to my blog posts, November 2013

Posted by – December 1, 2013

Updates on stories I’ve presented

As we say goodbye to November, here is a summary of November news items that add to, echo, or relate to, past posts from my blog.

1. Tea Partier fears about being in China’s debt

On November 11th, I published an essay on the blog: Beijing’s Marshall Plan for the U.S., about the weird China-U.S. economic relationship and the domestic uneasiness, tension, even rage, it’s causing, and how it’s driving Tea Party activism on the debt and deficit.

That day, video came out from Sarah Palin’s Nov. 9 speech at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, and her “this isn’t racist, but…it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master [China]” comment got lots of attention in the news cycle. Unfortunately, the “this isn’t racist, but” quip was like a flashing, neon sign “ATTACK RACISM HERE” and media took the bait: it was deliberate, jiujitsu messaging, suddenly the media is delivering a message about Palin and about the left to her specific audience without even knowing they’re doing it… diabolically clever. She is constantly doing backhanded ways of delivering red meat to her base via outrage-peddling news media, in this case Palin’s delivering the message “I hate the racism police too, I’m like you” with media doing the delivering for her. So, with the journalism guard dog pointlessly chasing a car, debating whether the word slavery is inappropriate (I’d say it is very inappropriate when being used for publicity-baiting but the concept of “debt slavery” merits legitimate discussion) and batting about different ahistorical viewpoints, the China part of the comment was lost in most media accounts.

This is the meat of the comment:

“Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China… when that money comes due – and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.”

Here’s a video of the comment in context:

You can also watch/hear the video of Palin’s speech in its entirety.

This underlines the points I made about the anxiety around potential “debt peonage” to the PRC. The structural long-term debt isn’t the only issue, which liberals need to understand. Right now the left talks past the right and visa versa, ships passing in the night, liberals and liberal-ish budget wonks are saying that the deficit is on track to be a historically low 2% of GDP, when, for the Tea Partier grassroots, the real crux of the matter is being “beholden to the foreign master,” and whether we are beholden by $200 billion or $200 million is immaterial or, at least, the numerical specifics of the debt are not as important to many on the right as WHO we’re in debt to. The dependence on (economic and military rival) China raises very legit problems for “American exceptionalism.” It makes a paradigm shift that topples the U.S.-led unipolar economic and military order a real possibility for this generation of U.S. leaders down the road a decade or two, not just anxieties for the great-great-grandchildren.
An effective liberalism would address the fears of debt-slavery under a foreign jackboot head-on. I hope actual dialogue can happen instead of the continuous talking past each other, engaging on completely separate issues.

The 11 cultural “nations” of the United States: diversity (and devolution?)

The new book describing the 11 nations or socio-political cultures that rub up against each other in North America (Mobile should be categorized with “New France”) being frequently blogged about in November, brought to mind an essay I blogged in May 2010, one of my more vitriolic posts after the Affordable Care Act passed several months previously and the Tea Partier groundswell was peaking, a post chock-full of ranty disillusionment: Nick’s Essay on America’s Decline, with Big Solutions.
Given our system’s seeming inability to seriously address national problems, with the tepid, insurer-friendly ACA nearly impossible to pass as “too socialist,” I offered three “big solutions,” 1. strictly banning bribing candidates with “contributions” 2. Proportional Representation via STV (“Instant Runoff Voting”) 3. if all else fails, let states group themselves into federated republics with near-complete autonomy on domestic policies like super provinces (still within the United States) for each regional political culture. My concept is similar to devolution as done in Spain (Catalonia, to name one such region, is given broad powers to govern itself). Federal Republic of Central America should be noted as an example of what not to do.

Click to enlarge the map!! In this vision of the future, South Carolina even secedes from the Southern Republic, because, hey, let her finally satiate the 200+ years of secession-hunger.


My map, instead of the 11 cultural nations, has seven federated republics and South Carolina. If nothing else, the essay takes on the serious difficulties with our federalist system directly, difficulties that too often get swept under the rug.

Note: I’m different from the Nick that wrote the “Big Solutions” essay almost three years ago. My views aren’t necessarily less vehement, I still dislike the ACA for what it doesn’t do, and I still think root-and-stem reforms and big constitutional questions should be foreground issues, I’m just more interested in understanding and dialogue than before, more keen to write things that further understanding of ideological opponents than to write diatribes like the one above. Though I still want to cry out against injustices, I feel an urge to love (and grok) thy enemy, and get a grayer, less absolute picture of reality. With that shift, I look back on the South (and Mobile in particular) with increasing fondness as I reflect on the good things that came with the bad.

Religious Literacy and Understanding

In the first weeks of November, The Atlantic‘s post Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God by Tara Isabella Burton was widely shared and blogged about, and I highly recommend it. Burton’s piece is the most powerful and succinct defense of studying theology I’ve seen to date, an excellent refutation of recent calls (from Richard Dawkins, et al) to deep-six theology departments in UK universities as he doubts theology offers “any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.” Burton nails it with the assertion that theology offers a unique “opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.” This piece really re-enforces what I was saying in my 2010 essay Religious Literacy and Understanding, For Our Own Sake,
where I argued:

You can’t really form productive relationships with many every day folk in the U.S. (nor Mexico, South America and Africa) if you’re completely ignorant of Christianity, and, increasingly, its more charismatic groups, which are seeing explosive growth. Unless you can get where people are “coming from,” you won’t understand them, and the spiritual is a huge part of that. The spiritual will always become more a focus when material things fail, and they are failing on a massive scale unseen since the ’30s.

As the U.S. falls, others prosper. You can’t understand what is going on in China right now (their return to their once-familiar role as #1 global superpower) if you have no clue what Confucianism is, and the role it is playing in Chinese policy and politics.

You can’t understand how cultures across the globe are responding to the rapid changes happening, a revolution in technology and society and the economy unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, without religious literacy.

click here to read the rest of the essay

In a world that is roughly 80% religious in some form, religious illiteracy isolates you. Burton’s article goes even deeper; if you only have time to read one link from this post, read her essay, especially if you’re in an academic field.

50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination

November 22nd marked 50 years since President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. My 2008 blog post about Lee Harvey Oswald speaking at Spring Hill College in Mobile mere months before the assassination, explaining Soviet life to Jesuit scholastics gathered in the rotunda, may give you some new insights into this surreal story. I’ve added a recently published study of Oswald’s time in the USSR to give the post better backing.

Hello December,

Nick

A Few Thoughts on Theme in Popular Sci-fi & Fantasy Novels

Posted by – November 27, 2013

In an incidental comment in a previous blog post, I wrote:

Personally, I think the novel is best used when your/my/the author’s ideas about something large (our past, our future, technology, childhood, humanity, the soul, big stuff) are deep enough that you need an entire novel to explore them in proper detail. Length of a given novel should be tied to exploring its theme, I guess I’m saying…

I thought theme deserved a post of its own.  I think that it’s crucial, and understanding theme important, but too often overlooked.

In Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the theme is empathy, or …answering how humans are different from androids, what makes us human, which, in the novel, largely boils down to empathy.

Rick Deckard is one of two android-bounty hunters employed by the San Francisco Police Dept., but when the senior bounty hunter gets injured—damn-near killed—by the new androids with the uber-sophisticated Nexus Six brain types, Rick suddenly has the Nexus Six assignment on his desk.  The SFPD wants all him to “retire,” deactivate, kill, these loose Nexus Sixes, and since they’ve proven so

Nexus-6 androids vs. humans... if you could duplicate the human brain exactly how would be different?  do androids dream?

Painting by Nick Dupree, September 28, 2013: Nexus-6 androids vs. humans… if you could duplicate the human brain exactly how would be different? do androids dream?

dangerous, they want the mission done within 24 hours.  This complex and super tough assignment falling to Rick is the inciting incident.
Hunting down the “andys” is more difficult than ever, since the difference between humans and the most advanced androids has narrowed so much; they’re physically indistinguishable and psychologically and socially getting harder and harder to tell apart.  With the Nexus Six brain types, the only way to identify one as non-human is to either with the Voigt-Kampff test—measuring empathetic responses in increasing facial blood flow, or lack thereof, when asked a series of questions—or the simpler Boneli Test, which measures reaction time to visual stimuli, as it’s a fraction of a second slower in androids.  Rick only knows the Voigt-Kampff test, meaning he has to put facial electrode pick-ups on andys and interview them before killing them, excepting active combat situations, when a post-mortem bone marrow microscopy test is used to confirm inorganic status.
It’s possible for the Nexus Sixes to appear indistinguishable from humans with psychopathic tendencies or stunted or low empathy on the Voigt-Kampff test.  It’s implied that the upcoming Nexus-7 brain types, expected to be released in a matter of months, will be able to pass the Voigt-Kampff test and the Boneli test.

The questions on the Voigt-Kampff test stem from the culture and dominant philosophy/religion of post-apocalyptic humanity, Mercerism.  Humanity has mostly left for the Mars colonies, since Earth’s an irradiated, desert hellscape following the nuclear devastation of World War Terminus.  The government incentivizes emigration with free android helpers for Mars colonists, but enforces an android ban on Earth, where few people remain aside from those whose jobs require it (like Rick) and the population who’ve been affected by the radiation badly enough it has lowered their working-skills or I.Q., and are officially regarded as mutated subhumans, and therefore banned from emigrating by the government; unofficially they’re called the derogatory name “chickenheads.”
Mercerism has apparently grown up in response to the android dystopia and fallout-induced extinction of most Earth animals, and is built around the importance of empathic connections with humans and animals.  So questions on the Voigt-Kampff test take for granted that Mercerism is everyone’s belief, assuming strong empathic connections with animals, and asking things to elicit horror and disgust around eating, killing animals, fur rugs, etc.

With most animals extinct, remaining animals are highly prized, and owning an animal (very expensive) a major badge of honor and status symbol.  Men having a midlife crisis buy a goat or something, not a car, since animals are rare and flying cars ubiquitous.  Mercerism has made people more human, or at least people have focused on the human characteristics that android duplicates can’t mimic or understand, empathic connection with animals and the main ceremony of Mercerism, the empathy box, which is sort of a virtual world that lets the people connect with the prophet Wilbur Mercer and feel his pain as he’s pounded with rocks.
Mercerism and the valuing of having an animal at home to empathize with, those are my favorite parts of the novel.  There’s kind of a keeping up with the Jones competition around owning an animal… “I own a goat,” “well, I own a mare, and she’ll make more horses,” but it’s a competition to restore species.  The demand for animals is so great, some get electric animals, as they’re less expensive, or perhaps duplicates of species that are legitimately extinct (like owls and most other avian species).  Rick Deckard finds his electric sheep deeply depressing, though.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is theme driven, more theme driven than any other example I can think of… because the theme question, “how are we different from identical-brained androids?” drives the plot. In order to hunt down the andys on his list, Rick Deckard has to understand the difference and is haunted by the similarities, so his search, the plot, is all wrapped up in the theme. If the human brain can be duplicated with exactitude, synapse by synapse, which (by the way) IBM’s Blue Brain Project is working toward and is already seeing progress with, how would we humans be different from androids with those identical brains and flesh and bone that’s indistinguishable until put under a microscope? (the Battlestar Galactica reboot’s cylon duplicates seem to be inspired by Philip K. Dick’s androids in this book)
Assuming an identical-brained android, humans are different in their having a soul and the capacity for empathic connection, these are things that can’t be duplicated. And all this zeroing-in on what makes us human is done through showing, not telling.

While Rick Deckard struggles with the lines between android and human, J.R. Isadore, the novel’s other protagonist, a “chickenhead” who empathizes with andys and animals (electric and otherwise), in fact he can’t always tell them apart in his job picking up electric animals as a driver for an electric “animal hospital,” is hoping for connection in his abandoned neighborhood.  J.R. Isadore is clearly the most autobiographical character here—Philip K. Dick used J.R. Isadore as a pen name a few times—and his empathy and generosity, almost like his mental disabilities also deteriorate the logical walls most people have to divide up empathy, is poignant and beautiful. He empathizes with the androids, and the most terrifying scene is one where this female andy, incapable of empathy but super-intelligent and manipulative, something close to a high-functioning human psychopath (moreso than the other andys), begins to dismember a spider, perhaps the last spider on Earth. J.R. empathizes with the spider, empathizes with the andys (and they outnumber him 3-to-1) and there’s nothing he can do; we feel his conflicted agony as this horrible female disrespects and maims a life-form she doesn’t understand or appreciate in the slightest.
Having J.R. Isadore there illuminating other facets of the theme takes Do Androids Dream from great sci-fi novel to great literature that adds to our humanity. It works so well because its theme neatly drives the tightly-structured plot, which covers an incredible amount of ground in just over 61,000 words.  It is extremely organized storytelling, ironic coming from an author known for stream of consciousness narratives and, literally, being schizophrenic.
This book has so much humanity in it: there’s something really beautiful about how the gentle J.R. Isadore and violent Rick Deckard alike want animals to love and connect with… both feel this terrible yearning for extinct species to return, that the human race is incomplete without all Earth’s animals. They are part of our Earth family.

The version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I had (from the New York Public Library online MP3 audiobook collection) was packaged as Blade Runner, the name of the 1982 movie (actually taken from the title of an Alan E. Nourse novel), a new audiobook version released in 2007 by Random House Audio to coincide with the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. But this audiobook, read by Scott Brick, has the same content as Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Blade Runner

Blade Runner
I rate it a must-read, a classic.

Theme, well-written, can be the difference between good, great and classic.

What’s the theme of George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones? (the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series)

I don’t know what the theme is… perhaps you’d have to read more books in the Song of Ice and Fire series before a clear theme emerges.  The first book is roughly 284,000 words long, and though all of the words seem needed for all the complex, viewpoint-characters—chapter-breaks mean a different character’s point of view, telling the story from multiple viewpoints—I started having difficulties with book two, A Clash of Kings, which weighs-in at a daunting 326,000 words (approximately).  It’s clear why it takes Martin five years or so to complete each novel in this series: they’re hefty behemoths.  I got bogged-down in A Clash of Kings because of the length, the fact that characters from the background in book one (that we’ve not had time to really know and invest in) are given chapters to helm the viewpoint, even total a-hole Theon Greyjoy.  And an obvious theme to buy-into is not readily available.
The theme is probably like this George R.R. Martin quote that’s been going around Twitter: “History is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging.” It reflects a bleaker worldview than Philip K. Dick’s novel with killing eerily-human robots on a devastated, irradiated, dead Earth ^

But A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t bleak really, because the theme—even assuming it is discernible and I described it remotely accurately—isn’t prominent in the novels. Martin foregrounds character more than anything else.  A Song of Ice and Fire is character-driven, as is typical of epic fantasy, and it works so well (and nearly sells more copies than the rest of the fantasy genre combined) because of

Tyrion “the (p)imp” mural, filling the side of a building entirely, somewhere on Herbrand St., London, England

its awesome, iconic characters, his uncommonly vivid characterizations and rich story-arcs for viewpoint-characters that draw you in like no one else’s characters.

Richly-complex, iconic characters like Daenerys, Mother of Dragons™, Tyrion the Imp™ and Jaime the Kingslayer™ drive the story and are hard not to follow and root for, even when richly-layered with past misdeeds and evil-doings, and that’s why they translate so well to the screen (and to hilarious internet memes).  Thanks to the HBO series, Martin’s characters have become pop culture giants.  Tyrion (as portrayed by Peter Dinklage) has become a disability icon of sorts, making what’s obvious in the disability community—that the physically “other” are no less protagonists (or villains) than anyone else, even amidst medieval civil wars—mainstream.

I grok that many novels won’t have a theme, and it’s okay to mainly focus on character and/or plot; not everything has to explore deeper issues,
Still, I love a good theme.

Nick

The Accursed 113th Congress: Are Our Democratic Institutions Broken?

Posted by – November 18, 2013

ac·cursed
1: being under or as if under a curse
2: damnable

Source: Merriam-Webster’s dictionary – accursed

I am probably one of the few bloggers who would notice our worst. Congress. ever. is also the 113th Congress, and feel a gut feeling that the correlation isn’t really… entirely coincidental.  Too many horrendous events have happened to me and those I know on the 13th day, especially Friday the 13th, and though I know on the intellectual level that correlation doesn’t imply causation—a number can’t damage you, and dates on the calendar are more subjective…or more Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey than you might initially realize, for example the Jewish calendar may tell you it’s the 5th of Tishrei instead of September 13th—nonetheless I have some mild triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13… or at least some discomfort and anxiety around thirteen.   Or, as Alejandra said in another context, not meaning 13-itself, “numbers are bad enough… odd numbers are shady mtherfkers.” 

Prior Congresses (Congrii?) have been notably awful: there’s the last session—the 112th Congress—which brought us to the brink of a sovereign default crisis in 2011 which led to Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit rating of the United States government for the first time, and we lost international credibility big time, and so on.  Of course there was the infamous 80th Congress, which President Truman ran against as “the Do Nothing Congress,” though it was a marathon of productivity compared to the 112th and 113th Congress.  We would much prefer “the Do Nothing Congress” to the current situation.  All the available polling data bears that out. And the 113th Congress is even worse than the 112th by every available yardstick.

Confidence in Congress has never been lower.

Put another way, when Public Policy Polling did a survey during the shameful government shutdown last month, asking registered voters questions like “what do you have a higher opinion of: Congress or hemorrhoids?” hemorrhoids won 53% to 31%… people have a higher opinion of dog poop than Congress 47% to 40% and when asked about zombies vs. Congress, people have a higher opinion of zombies 43% to 37%… at least you know where zombies stand…well, shamble.  [Public Policy Polling full results PDF]

The 113th Congress is also on track to be the least productive in history, demonstrating a shocking inability to pass legislation, even ceremonial laws like congratulating the winner of the World Series and the like…

Ceremonial vs. Substantive legislation in recent Congrii. Source: Washington Post’s “The Fix”

The inability to pass legislation has become so bad during the 113th Congress, the federal government is unable to fund itself, meaning funding only getting done in half-hearted three month CRs (Continuing Resolution), creating dysfunction in everything from scientific research to military procurement.  We’re on a three month CR right now; the weeks of government shutdown lowered expectations so much, it’s seen as a success.  The legislative machinery of our republic is going grinda-grinda-grinda, grinding nearly to a halt, and the dysfunction is mostly due to choices made by the House leadership.

Now, to the real thrust of this post: the decay of our democratic institutions and the weakening of American constitutional values occurring at present.  For example, the mechanism, or underpinning, enabling law that made the government shutdown possible was House Resolution 368, which banned anyone bringing legislation to the floor to re-open the government except the House Majority Leader or his designate, a new, innovative abuse of parliamentary rules and certainly extra-constitutional—not in the constitution, as the parties are not mentioned in the constitution, nevermind a party’s “Majority Leader”—and against the spirit of constitutional law if not its letter.
H. Res. 368 was snuck-in at 1am as the government shutdown began October 1st. Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, whose DC suburb-district is made-up heavily of federal employees and was disproportionately harmed by the government shutdown, proposed that the House vote on the Senate bill to re-open the government in order to force the Speaker-designate to block him under H. Res. 368, so he could question H. Res. 368 in public; the video clip of Van Hollen’s effort became the first “parliamentary inquiry” to go viral on Facebook and Twitter.  Ironically, the Majority Leader given the sole power to re-open the federal government, and kept it shut down for over two weeks, was Eric Cantor, whose DC-suburb district has broad swaths of its working population depending on federal contracts and paychecks, and was nearly as disproportionately harmed as Van Hollen’s district.

Underpinning all that, how we find ourselves with appropriations stalled and shutdowns possible in the first place, is the Hastert rule.  The Hastert rule, which really should be called the Gingrich rule, as it was first added under Newt Gingrich’s speakership, requires majority support among the Republicans before the speaker will bring legislation to the House floor for a vote.  As the constitution envisions legislation passing the House with simple majorities, the Hastert rule to require legislation either passes with majority-Republican votes or never gets considered, is unconstitutional.  Similar to the situation in the Senate, where the constitution requires supermajorities in cases of ratifying treaties, expelling a Senator, removing a president, not for routine legislation like the 60-vote supermajority needed for passage of most everything, since most everything is now held up by filibusters, this Hastert rule violates the spirit if not the letter of the constitution,  The filibuster certainly isn’t mentioned in the constitution, and the routine blocking of run-of-the-mill legislation and nominations is an innovation not seen until recently.

In the House of Representatives, the Hastert rule has meant nothing gets voted on until the Speaker and/or Majority Leader “have the votes” of the majority of the Republican caucus.  This has meant a vocal minority of the Republicans can grind the legislative

Male elephants tusk-jousting for dominance. Photo by EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

machinery to a halt; the elephant factions have to battle it out and come to a resolution before anything can happen.  This explains the historically low number of bills voted on and passed, the inability to appropriate funds for federal departments, etc. And because of the rapidly changing dynamics within the GOP, which, in my recent post discussing the shifts in conservatism I describe as “revolutionary flux,” the Hastert rule is freshly problematic, not only because of its inevitable enabling of an extremist minority shutting down the government, but because of Republican unity on positions so radical they risk extinction in future presidential elections if the Speaker had held fast on the Hastert rule.  For example, an extension of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) had the majority of the Republicans united in opposition, but the national GOP didn’t want to head into the next elections having removed assistance for battered wives, so Speaker Boehner allowed a vote; VAWA passed with only 38% of the Republicans in the House voting yes.  Similarly a “danger zone” for national disgrace, Speaker Boehner had to bring the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill to the floor despite harsh opposition, even drawing no votes from Republicans representing damaged New Jersey districts; it passed with a healthy majority of 241 votes, but only 49 Republican votes, a mere 21% of the majority.

I don’t usually quote others at great length like this, but the blog Gravitas: A Voice for Civics has an excellent explainer on the unconstitutionality of the Hastert rule, explaining it much better than I can:

For example, right now there is an initial impetus to oppose the death penalty between what we call liberal or progressive politicians and libertarians. Usually, these two groups of politicians are known for their antagonism toward each others’ positions, but here is one area in which they agree. Now, I don’t know whether there are enough liberals and libertarians to form a majority, but there is the possibility that if not today, maybe eventually. This potential is exactly what the Founding Fathers foresaw and I believe hoped for. But the Hastert Rule makes such an eventuality almost impossible.

Why? The Hastert Rule calls for limiting the bills that come before the House for a vote to those that are supported by a “majority of the majority.” Let me explain. The Constitution calls on each chamber of Congress to form its own rules. The formal rules of the House state that the Speaker has the role of placing on the voting agenda those bills he or she feels should be considered by the membership. So, if the Speaker is against a bill, it will not come up for a vote unless 218 members sign a “discharge” petition – a very unlikely development. In effect, this role gives the Speaker a great deal of power. An informal rule – one not voted on by the membership – states that the Speaker will not call up a bill that is not supported by a majority of the members who make up the majority party in the House – presently, the Republican members. This, in effect, can give as little as one quarter of the members veto power over any considered policy option – a far cry from the rule of the many. That is what the Hastert Rule allows. The Democrats have never implemented the Hastert Rule when they held the majority, but Republicans have, although there have been a few occasions when the present Speaker has brought up a very limited number of bills that didn’t have a majority of the majority’s support. The Hastert Rule is named after a former Speaker, Dennis Hastert, but it was in effect under a previous Speaker to Hastert, Newt Gingrich.

Whatever its origins, the rule counters a constitutionally conceived quality: the possibility and, hopefully, the likelihood that Congress, particularly in the House, would have rolling coalitions that form over particular issues and policy considerations. These coalitions would form over one area, dissolve, and then other coalitions would form over other considerations. In each, there would be a different collection of members. This reflects a more congregational atmosphere in our Congress and would give meaning to its name: a congress, not a parliament. The Hastert Rule belies this entire conception and, as such, it is un-constitutional with a small “c.”

Read the post in its entirety: AN UN(c)ONSTITUTIONAL RULE

Perhaps we need a new word for things that violate the intended system, instead of “against the spirit of the constitution,” or “un-constitutional with a small ‘c,’” we could call it counter-constitutional, meaning it runs counter to the framers’ intent for our constitutional system of government.

People have a tendency to chuckle at the EPIC FAIL of our

from an early Bob Dylan music video, in which he captions the song with signs that he flips through for every word of the lyrics

from an early Bob Dylan music video, in which he captions the song with signs that he flips through for every word of the lyrics

system: you know, “LOL Congress is less popular than dog poo,” or “haha, we make Europe’s coalition parliaments that collapse every year look functional.”  But I’ve written so much about the dysfunction and the erosion of constitutional values in hopes people will notice the problems.  I want blogging to save us.

The weakening of constitutional values seems to be worsening not only in our legislative branch but in disregard and non-enforcement of the Fourth Amendment leading to a case of the police unnecessarily forcing a colonoscopy on a guy they thought was hiding drugs in his butt (he wasn’t).  The president suspending sections of the Affordable Care Act by executive fiat isn’t exactly a sign of constitutional health either: the law blog The Volokh Conspiracy points out the order’s lack of constitutionality.
Our country desperately needs its legislative branch, the broken branch, fixed.  We badly need to get the budgetary and lawmaking machinery running at normal speeds again, break the cycle of budgeting by emergency CRs; we need an end to austerity and a return to normalcy.  There’s such a yearning for a return to normalcy, you even heard the House GOP calling for a return to “regular order” in legislative procedure and budgeting in the first half of 2013 (though that rhetoric seemed long-forgotten by gov’t shutdown zero-hour October 1st).
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the 2014 midterm elections to seat the 114th Congress and in the presidential primaries in late 2015 and early 2016, candidates on all sides run on variations of the “return to normalcy” theme.   I expect to see at least one presidential campaign reminiscent of Warren G. Harding‘s strategy in his 1920 run; Harding’s main campaign slogan was a “return to normalcy,” tapping into the American public’s weariness of the economic upheaval (and unimaginable carnage) of Woodrow Wilson’s presidencies and World War I.  Harding won in a landslide.

For Congress, normalcy would look like a string of routine appropriations bills passing and fully funding federal departments and programs.  Appropriation bills have become more “rarity” than “routine,” a situation that desperately needs reversing.
The accursed 113th Congress has visited upon us so many evils, the most obvious being the government shutdown, but an even longer-lasting evil is the distortion of expectations to the point that the vicious cycle of three-month budgets via emergency CRs is seen as regular, and anything resembling a healthy appropriations process is seen as remote, a distant thing on the horizon, at the verge of impossibility.  The 113th Congress’ dysfunction feels even more egregious because more voters voted Democratic party for Congress in the 2012 Congressional elections than voted Republican, yet redistricting allowed the GOP to keep a healthy majority in the House; unlike the awful 113th, the 112th Congress had a definite democratical mandate for obstruction and/or reversal of the incumbent’s policies behind a sizable GOP victory.
Hopefully the departure of the unluckiest 113th Congress following the 2014 midterm elections, a year hence, will mean a breath of fresh air and full funding for federal obligations for a full fiscal year.

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, please absorb this: for better or worse, the House and Senate are our democratic institutions, meaning the democratically-elected, collaborative, “people’s house(s),” and when democratic institutions are weak, the authoritarian parts of our system—the increasingly “unitary” executive, an enforcement branch run amuck without Congressional oversight, etc.—inevitably become stronger.  Despite the absence of a savvy demagogue-executive who could strip Congress of power, it seems the Congress and “the suicide caucus” could still self-destruct, de facto leaving the U.S. with a unitary executive by process of elimination (only the executive still functioning). We have to have healthy, functioning democratic institutions lest “separation of powers” whittle away, and a much more unitary/much less representative system emerges as a fait accompli, justified as a necessity in the face of a Congress that isn’t able to even keep the lights on.  Our democratic institutions MUST regain credibility.

Keep bloggering on.

Nick

That Time Mobile, AL Made The Front Page of the New York Times

Posted by – November 13, 2013

And how The Times missed the story

It’s not exactly surprising that the New York Times missed the story: their writers too often cling to conventional wisdom like a drunk grabbing a lamppost, not for illumination as much as desperately-needed support.  Don’t get me wrong, the Times sometimes has great coverage and is valuable as one of the few newspapers doing fact-checked, traditional journalism, and one of the last old-guard newspapers still standing, but their coverage of the American South is consistently abysmal. It’s nearly as clueless as their coverage of disability issues.  When it comes to the South, the NYT writers are like most New Yorkers, they hear “Alabama” and can picture only the cornfield backdrop on that show Hee-haw!  The problem is, despite the reality being more crawdad than cornfield, more riveria than rural, you can get through this front page report on Alabama’s First Congressional district primary run-off with the image of the rural cornfields unperturbed.

The front page story, well, it was actually a prominent front page blurb in Wednesday, November 6th—print, web, and app—New York editions then continued inside (or on page A17) with the headline: Byrne Wins Republican Runoff in Alabama House Race, was seen nearly 100% through the DC pundits’ lens:

… But the race to replace Mr. Bonner became a national proxy fight between the ideological wings of the Republican Party after Mr. Byrne and Mr. Young emerged atop a nine-candidate field in a September primary.

Dean Young, the Tea Party challenger, did see the race as an epic struggle: his defiant election night “concession speech” ominously referred to his loss as “the first warning shot that goes out across the nation,” and the beginning of his national movement. Byrne, to his credit, tried to explain to the media.that the race was actually about representing Mobile Bay area interests in the House.  This is why he won. (I’d say Jo Bonner won too, abruptly retiring a few weeks before the tsunami of filth from the shameful government shutdown hit)

City of Mobile’s stunning waterfront, backed by blood oranges and cinnamon-sunset. Tip of the hat to Ronald Cook for sharing this beautiful cityscape, originally captured by photographer Tim Ard.

The New York Times missed the story because they missed Mobile.  After the dateline, MOBILE, Ala—pronounced MoBEAL, my hometown—they don’t mention the city again and don’t interview anyone in the city, though Mobilians are the bulk of the voters in the First district, and thus decide the election.  At minimum, The Times has deprived readers of the context that explains why Bryne won: Mobile.

Bradley Byrne didn’t win because voters sided with the “Republican establishment” vs. the Tea Party, as The Times suggested.  Byrne won because he’s more like his predecessors, Jo Bonner and Sonny Callahan, who were laser-focused on getting federal earmarks, grants, and infrastructure projects for the city and the area economy, and made “bringing home the bacon,” not ideological warfare, job 1.  Dean Young might have won in a purely rural district with his pledges to “be just like Ted Cruz,” but far-right crusaders will never get much traction in districts like the First, where an urban population center supplies much of the vote… in this case, Mobile is also a port city trying to compete with similarly-sized ports (like Charleston) and needs the pipe of infrastructure funding open and flowing in order to have a chance.

You see, the true story of Mobile and the Mobile Bay area is infinitely more layered, diverse, and beautiful than the stereotypes or The Times’ one line descriptor “the deeply conservative district.”  The city of Mobile is over 300 years old: it’s called “the city under six flags” because of its rich history

Seal of the city of Mobile

of being under France, Spain, Britain, Republic of West Florida (nominally), United States, and the Confederacy. These flags are on the city seal, including the bonnie blue flag of the Republic of West Florida, a 90 day secession in 1810…  though Mobile remained de facto under Spanish colonial rule, this Republic also included Pensacola and Baton Rouge.  The secession was crushed and all the territory therein forcibly incorporated into the U.S. by Andrew Jackson’s troops during the Madison administration.

Mobilians’ historical and socio-economic background, the collective subconscious, draws more on the statist-war economy under the Confederacy and the mercantilism of the French, Spanish, and British periods—I’ll write a post on Mobile and mercantilism—than the free market American image.  European colonies like Mobile and New Orleans didn’t really ever have the “wild west capitalism” or “free enterprise system” that politicians often say that they want to get back to, it never happened.  Whether you are Republican or Democrat in Mobile—and the word “Democrat” means something different in the Alabama context where the history includes George Wallace-style Democrats—you’re not automatically against state intervention, especially when it means some “bacon” for the local economy.

With the Democratic win in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election November 5th, some have said that Virginia’s election must’ve been rigged or unfair somehow because Cuccinelli won more counties, and the electoral-result map shows Virginia as a sea of red with a few islands of blue.  Dave Weigel blogged about this, renewing discussion of islands of blue where the urban population centers—and decisive voting blocs—are, and electoral maps.  Since, the blogosphere has lit up with discussions of the best electoral maps and cartograms.  Political science professor John Sides posted an excellent compilation of some of the best cartograms that have been created in recent days on his blog The Monkey Cage: the map that most accurately reflects Mobile and American voters as a whole is this one by Chris Howard, which corrects for population using relative darkness/lightness of the blue and red and purple.  In it, Mobile county is purple.

It’s unfortunate that The Times substituted the canned, pre-determined “Republican establishment vs. the Tea Party” narrative for the truth that it’s a purple district where the more moderate, bacon-bringing candidate has a natural advantage, and all politics are local.  They mangle the story, not from falsehoods, but from missing the point.  I understand the limited space in newspapers, but a few lines of context would have made all the difference.

Mobile city was part of New France… in the discussion of the 11 nations or political cultures that rub up against each other in North America being frequently blogged about too recently, Mobile should be categorized with “New France.”  The real Mobile is lost in the shuffle, kind of how the redistricting loses the city…

Alabama’s First Congressional district, the two coastal counties and four inland, rural counties

As you see in the map of the First Congressional district, they’ve included the hinterland counties to create a balance of rural and urban voters. Balanced districts like these are rare. And maybe they shouldn’t exist: so many rural areas are included here, the Mobilians are nearly canceled out.  Back when the Democrats held Montgomery—in the late ’90s and mid ’00s—there was discussion of drawing a new Mobile-only Congressional district.  This could have meant real representation for Mobile and Mobilians’ urban interests, a constituency that is 51% black and heavily Catholic, a very different person sent to Congress, and some misconceptions about coastal Alabama shattered in Washington.  We should remember this when discussing redistricting.

The one time my hometown makes The New York Times, and not for hurricane destruction, they gotta mangle it.  Dang it….

Nick

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