Sunday, January 29, 2006

Earth Science Books

I've just finished reading another book. This time it was about earth science, a favorite subject of mine. The book, When Life Nearly Died by Michael J. Benton, was a great trove of information pertaining to paleontology and mass extinctions. In particular the greatest mass extinction of all of time between the Permian and Triassic Ages when approximately 90% of life ceased to exist.

In recent years most people have become familiar with the "death of the dinosaurs" between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Ages or what is known as the KT Line. This has become the most studied and talked about mass extinction, yet it pales in comparison to the Permian extinction at only about a 50% extinction rate. Dinosaurs have captured the minds of young and old alike for a long time now and people have always wondered what caused their demise. It was in the 1980's that theories began to emerge of a catastrophic cause and the evidence began to build that an asteroid was the perpetrator and this is now the current belief.

This book takes a look at the Permian mass extinction and wonders whether catastrophic cause/s explains how 90% of life didn't make it into Triassic times. Little time has really been spent investigating the biggest mass extinction as the dinosaurs seemed to capture the fancy of most paleontologists. The author does well to take the reader though the history of paleontology, how the different rock ages came to be named and sorted to time and how we've accumulated the knowledge to this point.

Benton talks of the different people in history that played a part in exposing that there was such a mass extinction, the different theories involved and the debate in science circles through the years. I was pleased at how he presented all viewpoints and didn't simply take a side to argue. And I was fascinated as Benton wrote the book as one big jigsaw puzzle placing the pieces of information into the readers mind so that by the end of the book it seems as though a nearly complete picture has settled into the readers thought. I say nearly complete as certainly more will be learned of this greatest of all mass extinctions.

I also found that it reminded me of two books that I read last year. Information from those two books flirted within the words of Benton's book. The first book I read was Frozen Earth, The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages by Doug MacDougall and the second one was Earth, An Intimate History by Richard Fortey. Both these books delve into geology in a similar way as When Life Nearly Died providing chronological history to bring the reader up to date. Earth covers much on plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanos as Fortey jumps around the globe pointing at evidence that's been gleaned from the rock and Frozen Earth tells the tales of the various ice ages.

I think of these three books I've read as a sort of trilogy that in the end makes me think of the earth's future based on what we've been learning about the past. Are we in an extinction phase? Is global warming a precurser to an ice age? And how does volcanism and earth movement play into these questions? These books give plenty of insight into these questions for the future and presents many more questions to ponder about our human role in relationship to the earth.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Mayor Nagin is Afraid of God Too.

Last week on Martin Luther King Jr. day, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin made several stupid comments. Most of the media jumped on his remarks that New Orleans should rebuilt as a "chocolate city." And certainly it had the feel of a racist tone, but I get what he meant.

He's worried that the racial makeup of New Orleans won't be majority black as it was before Hurricane Katrina. And it probably won't be as high a black population as it was due to the fact that so many former residents in the destroyed part of the city will probably remain where they've been relocated. By the time neighborhoods get rebuilt many of the former residents will probably have established themselves with new jobs and new places to live.

You've got to have some sympathy for Mayor Nagin. He is in charge of a city that will be transformed by both nature (Katrina) and the federal government, neither of which Mayor Nagin had/has any control over.

I remember in the days after the flooding happened he gave a radio interview that was in turn played all over the TV networks during the Katrina coverage. He was irate to say the least. I remember thinking that he had just gone through the worst event of his life and was probably sleep deprived as well. I chalked it up to raw emotion.

But the other remarks he made on MLK Day that wasn't given as much media rap was his ideas about God's wrath. He said God had brought the US all of the recent hurricanes because of our collective actions. Unlike the religious kooks who blame moral sins or homosexuality, Mayor Nagin placed the blame on our war in Iraq.

He stole my idea. I had sarcastically said the same thing in two blog posts (here and here) on just this subject of God's wrath as viewed by religious leaders like Pat Robertson. I also tongue-in-cheek wondered why God goes so easy on Canada as that country has legalized gay marraige and has legal abortions.

Simply put, I don't buy into God's wrath for one moment. I find it humorous that so many people want to attribute the weather or an earthquake to some moral failings that God decides needs violent attention. But when you ask these people something that flips their logic like, why not Canada or why do innocent people die during God's wrathing or maybe it's because we are at war, then they say something like God works in mysterious ways. So, these people want to ascribe reasons to disasters via God as if they understand God, but then they claim they don't understand the mysterious God.

And now Mayor Nagin falls into the God's wrath guessing game. I wonder why? Well, he probably is a bit religious and maybe it's because he's a former Republican (he switched parties basically in order to win the Mayor race). But maybe he's just a bit nutty.

Book Tally

My last post I explained my book reading estimates for a year, about 25 or so. And I also have blogged about all the books I've read so far this year, except one, which I will do shortly. Including this one, I'm up to three books this year and this month and I'm in the middle of one right now.

That last post I mentioned that I'm not into fiction books much, but the first book I read this year was a fiction book. A Christmas gift was the book The Teeth of the Tiger by Tom Clancey.

Basically if you like international spy thrillers then you can't go wrong with Clancey. I liked the series that had the CIA operative Jack Ryan, that three of the books became movies, The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

In Teeth of the Tiger, Clancey brings us back to Jack Ryan in a way with a central character being his son, grown up and ready for the spy business. This book keeps to Clancey's theme of being involved with whatever seems to threaten the US at the time. So naturally it involves Islamic terrorism and a major attack on US soil.

I won't go on anymore as since this is fiction the rule of thumb is not to give away too much of the plot and certainly not the ending. I will say this, the attack on the United States happens midway into the book and what follows is the hunting down of the mastermind. If I had had any say in the plot though, I would have made the hunting down part as a sort of race against time to foil a second attack, which is not quite what Clancey does. Oops, I hope I haven't given too much away. Anyway, it was a decent read.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Books Block My Blogging

Sometimes I get so involved in reading books, that I don't pay attention to the Internet or my blog. The previous post shows the last book I read before the one I just finished. I've decided that I'm going to blog on every book I read this year.

I estimate that I read between 20 and 30 books a year. That of course doesn't count the reading that I get though newspapers, magazines and websites. Thankfully I have a fairly good city library just across the road from me, because that saves me plenty of dollars. I do buy books as well and I currently have three book store gift cards tucked in my wallet from Christmas (see, everyone knows I like reading).

I've nearly given up reading fiction, for when I do delve into a novel I find that in the back of my mind while I'm reading a little voice tells me, "It's all fake." And I can't seem to shut that little voice up. I guess at this point in time in my life, I'd rather just try to sort out reality. The subject matter I read includes, science, humanities, politics, history, social issues, economics, and other things in the real world.

The book I just finished was San Francisco Is Burning by Dennis Smith. This book is about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It's written in a "novel" fashion in order to make the book seem more personal to the reader of the people involved during the three days that the city faced being completely burned down. I'm not a big fan of this type of history, but I certainly understand the writer using this method as nobody that witnessed the event is still alive to tell the tale. Yet, Mr. Smith does do well in providing facts.

What most affected me is that there was a sort of reminder of what happened in New Orleans this past year. San Francisco during its catastrophe didn't handle it well and plenty of mistakes were made that ended up costing lives and property. San Francisco as well was aware that they were in effect a "sitting duck" for cataclysmic destruction and didn't prepare for the eventuality.

One interesting fact that I wasn't aware of was that on the first day San Francisco came under marshall law due to the mayor's acquiescence to the local Army commander. This became probably the worst consequence to the disaster. The commander (who had no experience in fire control) decided that using dynamite and explosives to destroy buildings as a way to create firebreaks was justified. In this misguided effort more fires started as a result of the explosions. In some cases the explosions were not even needed as the fires in the area were burning themselves out or were being handled by the fire department.

The marshall law aspect also reminded me of New Orleans as "shoot to kill" orders were instituted. Estimates of as many as 500 people may have been killed by either the military, the national guard, or "deputized" armed citizens during the three days. Another factor was that the military was told to evacuate the city and in their lust to follow this order many homes burned down as homowners that were having an effect at preventing their homes from starting on fire, were ordered to leave at the point of a gun.

There certainly were heros in San Francisco during those three days. The one that jumps out the most was a naval commander who arrived with his ships early on the first day. He provided much help to the fire department as he used his small fleet as fire boats and water taxis to retrieve water. The fire department had been faced with water shortages due to the poor water supply for the city in those years. The earthquake destroyed water mains to add to the problems.

Finally, it should come as no shock to find that San Francisco is probably less prepared for another earthquake of that size than they might have been a few decades earlier. Between Oakland and San Francisco there is only one fire boat of any stature and the author points out that budget cuts have forced the fire department to downsize in the past few years. Well, I guess there is always FEMA.

So, now I'm into another book. I'll tell you about it later.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The New American History

I've just finished reading a book that I found very fascinating. Authored by Charles C. Mann the book is 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

The year 1491 was of course the year before Columbus began the first (at least as far as the general populace believes) of a wave of ocean crossings from Europe to the Americas. The book examines what has been learned within the last few decades of the people living in the Americas prior to Columbus. Essentially this book erases virtually everything I had been taught when growing up. So many myths exposed, so much truth revealed.

Not that I haven't known of many of the more recent discoveries made in archeology since my upbringing, this book wraps so many of them into one good reference location, despite the authors own admission that his work is incomplete and lacking much as to sections of the Americas not covered due to page constraints. The book is very personable in the respect that Mann periodically describes his own visits to dig sites and places of interest.

Some of the "truth" I was taught back in school that gets overturned covered in this book I found most interesting and to be honest more believable. For instance, the idea that the Americas was basically an empty "pristine" land with a smattering of natives living as a hunter gatherer society. Or that the Indians simply walked over a temporary land bridge from Asia. Or that the Americas didn't have sophisticated civilizations. I was particularily intrigued by the very recent understanding that the Amazonian basin supported large masses of farming peoples that could create a soil that was endlessly reusable, unlike the slash and burn techniques of today.

The saddest part of pre-Columbus history is first the lack of understanding of the peoples of the Americas viewpoint and second the tragic loss of so many millions due to the diseases brought over by Europeans. In the America of today we get bombarded in the news about the coming avian flu epidemic in contrast to two continents that were waiting unbeknownest for a slew of diseases including the most deadly for Indians, small pox. The diseases were so potent that white settlers found essentially empty land and abandoned villages within a few decades after early settlements as the movement west began. The diseases began in the very early contact and swept west even before the Euros even "discovered" more of the continent.

The lack of understanding is due to a few factors, such as the history of the Americas was written by Europeans (certainly the history books I was brought up on) with a self interest or self promotion of those that came to dominate the Americas. Europeans were very little interested in even accumulating the wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from Indians of their oral tradition (spoken history) as conquering and later Manifest Destiny became the primary motivation. Another reason is the lack of writings from the Americas prior to Columbus. A very interesting section of the book deals with the "writings" of the Inka civilization that still is not entirely understood. A unique form of recording involving knots on strings. The Inka created three dimensional "books" if you will. Sadly much of the collections of knotted strings (Khipi) were destroyed by the Spanish. A book burning in a real sense.

Whole books have been written in the recent decades about some of the more unique and largest societies of the Americas. The Mayans and Inka, the Aztecs and mound cultures of North America have begun to receive the attention they have long been due. Yet, much is still not known by most Americans (North and South) of those that lived in the very lands we now reside. Our history books in our schools are still decades out of date and will probably be that way for many years to come as recent understandings keep emerging faster than any school book publisher could include. But of course most of these history books don't see that pre-Columbus America has any relevence to modern times.

Thomas Mann does well in pointing out some aspects that do indeed have relevence. The myth of the pristine wilderness for instance. It is now becoming consensus that Indians certainly manipulated nature on a grand scale. In our modern world that has a keen interest in how the relationship of humans and nature play out, understanding Indian culture and their interaction with the environment could be helpful, even critical. Here in the United States we could learn from pre-Columbus Americans and their practice of yearly "controlled burns" throughout much of North America. Indians "landscaped" for their needs much as modern Americans do today, yet in such different ways.

Indians culled animal populations in ways we might understand. The overlapping Hopewell (white-centically named for a farmer whose land a mound was discovered on) and the Mississippian cultures that were known for their mounds more than likely culled bison in order to prevent tramplings of their maize fields. An interesting story is the city of Cahokia with a population of at least 15,000 in approximately 1100 AD was comparable in size to London of the same time. A huge mound located east of today's St. Louis, it may have been a city that learned the hard way about environmental manipulation in a couple of ways. It's been speculated that they reformed a river that later caused major flooding problems after an earthquake and they also may have deforested all the land around them due to the massive need for wood for building and fuel. Of course Cahokia isn't the only culture to ever face a natural fuel resource shortage.

Mann covers the subject of the Americas most important crop, maize. Even today botanists don't understand how maize came to be, except they know that Indians essentially created a plant never known to the earth. In contrast to the earliest civilizations we've been taught most about that had easy grains to begin to cultivate, Indian civilizations came up with maize in what was probably a difficult transition from plants of their time that in no way resembled the corn we know today. The varieties of maize they created was profound, yet we've only recently revisited some of these other varieties for our uses. Corn became the staple that was exported and planted all over the world. Potatoes from South America as well, but that's another story.

Mann also covers the recent upsetting of consensus that the Americas were first settled via an opened land bridge connecting North America and Asia about 13,000 years ago via the Bering Strait at the end of the last ice age. Recent scientific work has shown that there probably was no ice-free corridor. But genetic research finds that Indians are most closely related to North Asians, so conjecture now focuses on the transition being made by boat along the rim of the Pacific. As well the date for this happening is being pushed back to as much as 30,000 years ago based on evidence on a dig in Chile called Monte Verde. The old theory is dying and new ideas are now forming. The Clovis society was not the first people of the Americas anymore.

Well, I could go on at long length about this book, but why don't you just read it. If you are interested in knowing more about the people who once ran the Americas, 1491 is a remarkable re
ad and a sample of the book printed in the Atlantic Monthly can be viewed here.

Thomas C. Mann's website pertaining to 1491

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hey Tom DeLay, What Was the Delay?

Finally Republican Tom DeLay has officially resigned his position as Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. I've wondered what took him so long.

But I haven't wondered too much. It probably had plenty to do with trying to retain power. DeLay had originally temporarily stepped down from the position, but was keeping his foot in the door, so to speak, in hopes of returning to the job. His temporary self-removal was caused by all his ethical problems back in Texas where he is facing indictment for money laundering having to do with shifting campaign funds all over the place in his attempt to cheat Texas campaign finance laws.

As Republicans go, Tom DeLay is no favorite of mine. He is basically ruthless in his pursuit of power. He is an example of what is wrong in politics. Instead of just being a representative that goes to Washington to vote on issues that his constituents would like to have, he had gone overboard in his aspirations of running the Republican Party from the House of Representatives.

He is also closely tied with the in-the-news Republican lobbyist crook Jack Abramoff and probably will get splashed in that growing scandal.

DeLay has been one of those so-called Religious Right politicians, but it turns out he is just a hypocrite. He used the RR to collect campaign money, but it had little to do with pushing their issues and plenty to do with his personal goal of political power. DeLay has also been one of those Republicans that bleat on and on about morality and here he is facing all kinds of ethical charges. It seems like it's always the loudest moralists that then get outed as immoral and unethical.

Abramoff and one his buddies Christian political fund raiser Ralph Reed, both pals of DeLay, it turns out were bilking one casino interest in favor of a different casino interest. So these Christian moralists are not only basically stealing but as well they are favoring gambling. Unless I'm mistaken isn't gambling something conservative Christians aren't too fond of?

DeLay and his many buddies are why Christian Conservatives used to stay out of politics, because they eventually get taken by these conniving crooks. I guess no one learns from history, or rather ignorance of history isn't bliss. These pretend moralistic political scum have succeeded at seperating tons of millions of dollars from conservative church going folk, money better spent on their churches and communities. One wonders if these folks will grow upset with getting robbed by the political snake oil salesmen.

At any rate, SO LONG Tom DeLay, I knew you were a crook and am glad you are getting what you deserve. I'm enjoying your fall from grace because you were always a disgrace.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Bush Will Stop Torturing, Or Will He?

George Bush is God. How do I know this? Because when recently Bush signed the anti-torture bill that was started by John McCain, Bush decided to add his interpretation to the bill. He basically said that if he wanted to (under the power of the presidency) he would not follow the law.

This is how Bush does politics. He could have vetoed the law, although he has yet to veto anything and besides the law passed so overwhelmingly that his veto would be overturned. So instead he adds a quick remark to the bottom of the bill as a "just in case" exception thereby altering the bill he signed.

Our president is suppose to be a person that follows laws just like all Americans. Sure, a president gets some special powers and some allowances as to some laws that don't have to be followed, but when Congress sends him a law to sign, he is suppose to follow that law if he signs it. By signing he agrees to those words, yet Bush feels he doesn't have to do it that way.

Imagine if any of us signed a contract but then at the bottom wrote that we would follow it most of the time but not under certain circumstances not explained. That contract would be torn up and we would be told we couldn't do that. When our city, county, state makes a law, no one gets to write in at the bottom that the law will be followed except under a personal exception.

But maybe I'm thinking up the wrong tree on this. Maybe torture should be welcomed. Maybe we all should be able to torture. When we find out we've been cheated on the receipt at the grocery store we should be able to torture the clerk and managers and owners until our money is given back. Let's just skip laws and "innocent until proven guilty" and court systems and innocent mistakes and mistaken identities and all that tedious stuff called the legal system, let's just go straight to torture.

We could torture stupid people. For instance after Pat Robertson's latest dumb remarks that Israels's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was caused by God, we should be able to go to Robertson's TV studio and torture him on the air until he apologizes to basically everyone including God. And after torturing Robertson, we could torture the owners of his station for letting him continue to say stupid things on TV.

Ah, but I'm just not into torture. I'd rather stick to laws. I may not like all our laws, but citizens can take action to change laws they don't like. We've outlawed torture and that's a law I agree with. It's too bad that Bush doesn't agree. It's also too bad that he seems to think he can change a law AS he signs it. We shall see if he will be able to get away with this one.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bush Lied About Wiretaps

April 20th, 2004...The day President Bush lied all over the map about not wiretapping. Read this article that explains the whole episode. Here's the quote;

"Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed by the way. When you're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution."

Who values the Constitution? Not Bush. He lied about busting the Constitution and claims to care about it? What a joke. Bush is turning the presidency into his own kingdom. You've got to wonder when he plans to ORDER Congress to change the part of the Constitution that only allows two terms for the president.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Endless War, Endless fear

As the Iraq War goes on and we hear the debate over when to pull troops out or how do we define victory, it's curious to me why we don't hear the same debate about The War On Terrorism.

Are there people that really believe that there will be a time that there are no terrorists? I read a lot of history and there really has never been a time that someone couldn't be described as a terrorist. Whether it was a nation or empire that was doing the terrorism on other people or whether it was an opposition terrorizing a nation state, there has always been those who were viewed as "evil" by the type of actions that were used.

England viewed the American colonies as terrorists by the acts of disobedience they used such as the Boston Tea Party. And during the Revolutionary War the American force (insurgents) used what would be termed today as guerilla tactics and England considered the Colonial Army as evil renegades. Later the United States terrorized Native Americans in the sweep of manifest destiny using terrorists tactics, such as brning of villages, yet the US government called the indigenous opposition evil (literally) and as wagers of terrorism, such as scalpings.

A historian could easily trace a history of terrorism from practically the dawn of man. Terrorism is nothing but political war tactics that are deemed appalling to the recipient of the attacks. The aspect that the tactic is appalling to the recipient is the inner feelings of fear and that's why terrorism past and present ellicits such strong reactions from those that are being attacked. Further it's the discovery that a tactic induces that fear which causes the attacker to consider it a successful tool and to use it even more.

I'd have to say that when we decide that Al Qaeda type attacks are not considered so appalling is when we'll decide that the War On Terrorism is over. Sure, there may be a time that these type of attacks are reduced, but will they ever be completed stopped, not likely. We don't even name the same type of attacks on our country as always terrorism. The Oklahoma City bombing done by an American did not get the terrorist label. Yet the exact same truck bomb attack was used by Al Qaeda on US embassies and that was called terrorism.

My problem with this War On Terrorism is that we are being told that this is some type of new war and could last decades. This "new war" is being waged with many crossings into our Constitutional rights. Secret spying, torture, suspensions of habeous corpus, etc. are deemed neccesary in this new war. But I'm not buying it.

Going back to World War II, we can trace nearly a continuous line of wars, every one different from the next, that the US has been involved in, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Granada, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and I'm probably missing a few and have the order mixed up. Somehow only this War On Terrorism justifies being called a new war and stepping on Constitutional rights.

And no these examples are not to be called "conventional warfare" if a person does the research and understands all that was involved in most of these wars. Conventional war is only a defintion of war as a point in time where there seems to be a large agreement in how war should be waged, yet war is simply never the same from one to the next. The use of guns and bullets were at one time seen as a terrorist weapon, just ask Montezuma. The use of napalm in Viet Nam was considered appalling by much of the world and many here in the US, yet the US is one of a handful of countries that refuse to sign an international agreement to ban that type of weapon and we used it early in the Iraq War.

The War On Terror is not some war that we will consider over, as we never deem the War On Drugs as victorious. These type of wars are really just a state of mind, or rather a state of our collective mind. There will be a day that we view the War On Terror as not something to always fear attacks in the recesses of our mind. I mean how many of us really fear terrorism this long after 9/11? Did we fear terrorism for years after the Oklahoma City bombing? Most Americans don't live anywhere near what would be considered a terrorists target. New Yorkers didn't evacuate their city for other parts of the country after 9/11, they adjusted their state of mind to not fear.

Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11, yet we have approximately the same number killed on our roads every month, yet drivers aren't considered terrorists and people live with the knowledge that driving is a dangerous act. The fear factor is the difference, note that we aren't fighting a "War On Traffic" (maybe we should be). As Franklin Roosevelt once famously said, "All we have to fear, is fear itself." We will stop paying much attention to terrorism when we end our collective fear. I for one had done that not long after absorbing the shock of 9/11, but many people will live on in fear. They will buy into the Bush Administrations use of fear to scare Americans into allowing our Constitutional rights to be eroded.

I refuse to give into fear. I don't care what color the terrorist warning threat is, (haven't heard much from that have we?) I live my life on my terms not some vague fear I'm suppose to imagine. I just hope more Americans understand that we are being made to fear by both our government and our media. Simply acknowledging that fact lessens fear quickly. Fear itself is not going to get me!