Category Archives: History

Chart of the day: Getting high in Eastern Europe


From Our World in Data [formerly Worldmapper], a remarkable look at an 18,000-year-long game of catch-up, depicting the average height of folks along the eastern half of the Mediterranean as measured from archaeological remains and contemporary living people.

Only now are males reaching the stature of the Pleistocene predecessors, in part because folks are only now catching up to the levels of protein consumed by their hunter/gatherer ancestors. Women, however, still have lots of catching up to do. still have a lot of growing yet to do.

The world’s tallest folks are now the Dutch [click on the image to enlarge]:

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Sustainable farming curbs greenhouses gases


Our final climate offering of the day blends two of our favorite topics, climate change and sustainable agriculture,m with a special focus on biochar [also known as terra preta]

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Amazon Basin had a remarkable secret, lost after their advanced civilization was destroyed by the disease brought by European explorers.

Sailing up the previously unexplored rive, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, traveled down the Amazon in December 1541 on a journey that would last eight months before he sailed into Pacific Ocean, along the way discovering a rich, densely settled civilization producing high crop yields in the rain forest where, contrary to popular perceptions, soils are typically thin and poor.

Orellana’s stories helped fuel the myth of El Dorado, the famous lost City of Gold, but when later explorer’s sailed the Amazon, they found no flourishing cities, leaving Orellana in dispute for the next 500 years until archaeologists found proof of his claims in buried cities and soil rich in pot sherds and bit of partially combusted wood, or char.

The combination of charcoal and pottery turned thin, dreploeted soils in ricb black earth [in Spanish, terra preta], capable of yielding an agricultural bounty able to support a dense, prosperous population.

From David Bennett of the Delta Farm Press:

The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer. For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like potting soil.

Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited to agriculture.

And it was all created by a people the explorers called savages.

And if your interested in learning more the miraculous Native American discovery, here‘s a good place to start.

And now, on to to the latest development.

Study reveals natural solutions to combat climate change

From Cornell University:

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from all U.S. vehicles could be absorbed by forests, wetlands and agricultural lands – erasing a fifth of all greenhouse gas pollution, according to new research exploring natural climate solutions for the United States.

Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-author on research published Nov. 14 in Science Advances [open access].

The researchers analyzed 21 natural ways to mitigate climate change. They found that adjusting those natural management practices to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse emissions could equal 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual emissions. Increased reforestation could be equivalent to eliminating the emissions of 66 million passenger cars, according to the findings.

Improved management of existing croplands has an important role to play, according to the researchers. Woodbury, who led the cropland nutrient management portion of the study, and his colleagues found that many agricultural practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Widespread adoption of cover crops – plants grown on farm fields when they would normally be left bare – aids in carbon sequestration and improves soil health, crop yields and yield consistency. The researchers also pointed to improved nutrient management practices that apply fertilizer when and where the crop needs it, using precision agriculture techniques.

These improved practices could reduce nitrogen use 22 percent, leading to a 33 percent reduction in field emissions and 29 percent reduction in upstream emissions with additional benefits for soil, air and water quality. In many cases, these practices also improve profitability for farmers.

“We have demonstrated that agriculture and forestry have real potential to both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. At the same time, these practices have many other benefits such as improving soil health and water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of fresh water and the coastal zone,” said Woodbury, who develops models to quantify the sustainability of agricultural and forest ecosystems. Woodbury is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

The researchers pointed to biochar as one method with high potential, although further research is needed to overcome cultural, technological and cost barriers. In May, Cornell opened the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at a U.S. university to study the uses of biochar, a solid, charcoal-like material formed by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. Biochar can help soil retain water and nutrients, as well as promote drainage when conditions are wet.

The researchers say that, along with reducing the impact of global warming, natural climate solutions have the potential to improve air and water quality, flood control, soil health and wildlife habitats.

Other solutions include: allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage; increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of tree-killing fires; and reducing urban sprawl to preserve forests.

“These 21 natural climate solutions are really important because they can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world while also providing other benefits including clean water, clean air and biodiversity,” said Woodbury.

BBC documents Orellana’s Amazon discoveries

Here’s a remarkable BBC documentary reporting on what scientists are finding as they retrace Orellana’s footsteps, with a special emphasis on terra preta.

The Secret of El Dorado

From the program notes:

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level – in the soil itself. Along Brazil’s Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense – twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies. Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana’s account as highly plausible. But if the first Conquistadors told the truth, what became of the people they described?

Image of the day: A U.S. history reconstruction


In a recent post we entered the notion that “history” is a construction, with no two individuals or nations sharing the same perspectives on events of the past.

Thanks to the always interesting Metafilter, we chanced on an unusual construction of an 1862 U.S. history from a Japan that had, until nine years previously, barred entry to their nation’s mainland by traders and adventures from the West and only opened up after Commodore Matthew Perry landed on the shores of Tokyo Bay on 8 July 1853.its shores, backed by the guns of his famous Black Fleet.

Rutgers University historian Nick Kapur recently tweeted some starling images from Osanaetoki Bankokubanashi by Kanagaki Robun, a child’s history of America drawn for second-hand sources.

The volume, a precursor the today’s manga, features George Washington [and his wife “Mary”], Benjamin Franklin, as well as Bennie’s arch-enemy and would-be assassin John Adams, as well as other curious characters. There’s a truly buizarre series of illustrations of John Adams’ spouse begging eaten by a giant snake, after which the Mountain Fairy lends him a hand to enact his revenge, as so much more. The while book may be view online here.

And now for out favorite illustration, featuring Samurai warrior George Washinton [sic] staving off an attack on his spouse Mary [sic] by the evil British warlord Asura [demon] and his diabolical minions [click on it to embiggen]:

Map of the day: EurAfroAsian heritage endangered


History is constructed.

Every history text, whether in books [popular, academic, and fictional], academic journals, the popular press, and on screens theatrical, computorial, and cellular].

The history we learned as a child born at the very inception of the Post World War II Baby boom we learned at the knees of mother born to a Danish Klansman and 32nd Degree Freemason and a spouse who belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a father sired by two Pennsylvania Dutch settlers invited to settle in a state tolerant of all religions by its founder, William Penn.

Three great-grandfathers fought for the Union in the Civil War, a conflict that loomed large in from our earliest forays into print, and avidly consumed whenever it appeared on movie screens, radio dramas, and then on the black-and-white, often fuzzy, and  oddly compelling screen of the bulky console television set dramatically introduced into our living room shortly before we turned six [we were one of the first homes in Abilene, Kansas,  making us very popular with neighbors, both young and old].

Unlike today, overtly fascist perspectives were then largely limited to utterances by bad guys in novels or in the World War II-based action flicks that dominated the screen or by subscribing to costly mimeographed “newsletters” mailed in plain brown wrappers or via envelopes with post office box numbers for the return address.

America was then dominated by systems of legally mandated racial and religious segregation, drawn up by and for the melanin deficient, a fact confronted at water fountains, soda fountains, restaurants, theaters, club rooms, classrooms [with the Three Rs of Race, Religion, and Region, where one state’s War Between the States was another’s War of Northern Aggression], church pews, courtrooms, and clubrooms. . . and, well, just about everywhere.

Our passion for history was learned first at the knees on our paternal grandmother, whose father commanded a Union cavalry forward scout company in a regiment at the very spearhead of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a campaign that left him with both a lifelong lung disease and insurmountable case of nostalgia, now better known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Through her stories, history became both intimate and vivid, most especially because she’d had direct contact with two of the most dominant figures in he media of the day: As a baby she’d perched on the knee of town Marshal, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock, a figure then-poplar in fiction, film, and [especially for us] television, while as a teenager armed with a high school diploma and a graduation certificate who taught a bright young kid from the wrong side of the tracks how to read and write, a kid who went of to West Point and to lead the Allied armies in Europe during World War II, then served at the helm of Columbia University before becoming President when we six year’s old, Dwight David Eisenhower. Grandma Brenneman rode in a float and we were in the crowd when Ike came to town to announce his run for the White House.

We’ve lived long enough to have seen radical changes in the construction of our remembrance of things past, acquiring along the way what a former editor called “a profound sense of history, especially for one as young as you” [we were then 37].

History constructed in pigment, stone, mud and landscape

Back in third grade we learned cursive, and the even before we were able to write our own name, we insisted our teacher instruct us in writing archaeology, the vocation which we were then certain would be out life.s work [a confrontation with the realities of academic departmental politics would later lead us to take dig in more contemporaneous dirt as a journalist].

We amassed a sizeable and still-growing library of books about the cultures of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece Rome, Mesoamerica, and Asia, allowing us to feast on images of ruined cities and splendid artifacts and stories people and civilizations long vanished. We dreamt of digging in ancient ruins [an aspiration realized on a collegiate dig of an ancient kiva outside Taos, New Mexico].

But now a menace we know all too well threatens to inundate many of world’s most memorable ancient sites, with some very famous names on a the endangered species list.

Flood risk index at each World Heritage site under current and future conditions. [a] In 2000 and [b] in 2100 under the high-end sea-level rise scenario. From Nature open access].

More from the University of Southampton:

UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean such as Venice, the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa and the Medieval City of Rhodes are under threat of coastal erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels, a study published in Nature magazine reports this week.

The study presents a risk index that ranks the sites according to the threat they face from today until the end of the century. The sites featuring highest on this index in current conditions include Venice and its Lagoon, Ferrara, City of the Renaissance and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia. All these sites are located along the northern Adriatic Sea where extreme sea levels are the highest because high storm surges coincide with high regional sea-level rises. The sites most at risk from coastal erosion include Tyre, Lebanon, the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco, Spain, and Ephesus, Turkey.

The study, led by Lena Reimann at Kiel University, Germany, working with University of Southampton coastal scientist, Dr Sally Brown and Professor Richard Tol from the University of Sussex combines model simulations with world heritage site data to assess the risk of both coastal flooding and erosion due to sea level rise at 49 UNESCO coastal Heritage sites by the end of the century. They find that of the sites, 37 are at risk from a 100-year flood event (a flooding event which has a 1% chance of happening in any given year) and 42 from coastal erosion today. By the next century flood risk may increase by 50 % and erosion risk by 13 % across the region, and all but two of the sites (Medina of Tunis and Xanthos-Letoon) will be at risk from either of these hazards.

The Mediterranean region has a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, many of which are in coastal locations as human activity has historically concentrated around these areas. Rising sea levels pose a threat to these sites as the steep landscape and small tidal range in the area has meant settlements are often located close to the waterfront. The report says that more information on the risk at a local level is needed and the approaches to adaption and protection varies across the region due to large social and economic differences between Mediterranean countries.

Dr Sally Brown from the University of Southampton said “Heritage sites face many challenges to adapt to the effects of sea-level rise as it changes the value and ‘spirit of place’ for each site. International organisations, such as UNESCO, are aware of the risks of climate change, and ongoing monitoring is required to better understand exactly what heritage could be adversely affected by climate change and other natural hazards, and when this could occur.”

The authors have identified areas with urgent need for adaptation planning  and suggest the iconic nature of such sites can be used to promote awareness of the need to take action to mitigate climate change. In some cases relocation of individual monuments, such as the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna or The Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik, may be technically possible though not for other sites which extend over large areas such as urban centres, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes.

We suspect the White House to take no action, unless Donald Trump finally realizes his own hotels and golf courses may soon become water hazards. After all, the only history that matters to him is sexual and financial.

Schadenfreude alert: Who meddles in elections?


Now that Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State is claiming – based on no evidence whatsoever – Democrats have hacked his state’s election, it’s time for a reminder of the identity of the world’s number one election-rigger.

Guess what?

It’s Uncle Sam.

We begin with a video report from The Intercept:

A Short History of U.S. Meddling in Foreign Elections

Program notes:

Meddling in foreign elections is bad. I think we can all agree on that. And almost everyone – bar Donald Trump – seems to believe that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election. So that should be condemned. Here’s the problem, though: U.S. politicians and pundits cannot credibly object to Russian interference in U.S. elections without also acknowledging that the United States doesn’t exactly have clean hands. Or are we expected to believe that Russian hackers were the first people in human history to try and undermine a foreign democracy? In this video, I examine the ways in which the the United States has, in fact, spent the past 70 odd years meddling in elections across the world.

From flagship public broadcaster WNYC in New York comes a glimpse of the depth of Uncle Sam’s ongoing meddling:

For decades, American intelligence agencies have historically used clandestine tactics to put leaders into office who are favorable to U.S. national interests. This practice of meddling dates back to the early days of the CIA and was seen as a necessary strategy to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s something Tim Weiner has explored in great detail. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on clandestine national security programs, and his books include “Enemies: A History of the FBI” and “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” He says election meddling is not a grey area for the CIA.

“Several months after the CIA was created in 1947, it set out to steal the Italian election in 1948 to support the Christian Democrats who were pro-American, against the socialist Democrats, who were pro-Moscow, and they won,” says Weiner. “It’s just the beginning of a long, long story.”

After seeing success in Italy, the CIA took this formula — which involved using millions of dollars to run influence campaigns — and brought it across the world to places like Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and beyond.

“The president [of Afghanistan] after the American invasion post-9/11 was a paid CIA agent, Hamid Karzai,” Weiner says. “The list is very long, and it’s part of what the CIA does in political warfare.”

A report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram adds up the numbers:

Dov Levin, a researcher with the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, created a historical database that tracks U.S. involvement in foreign elections. According to Levin, the U.S. meddled in other nation’s elections more than 80 times worldwide between 1946 and 2000. Examples include Italy in 1948; Haiti in 1986; Nicaragua and Czechoslovakia in 1990; and Serbia in 2000.

A more recent example of U.S. election interference occurred in Israel in 2015. A Washington Post report in 2016 revealed U.S. taxpayer dollars were used in an effort to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a bipartisan report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), $350,000 in grants from the U.S. State Department were used “to build valuable political infrastructure—large voter contact lists, a professionally trained network of grassroots organizers/activists, and an impressive social media platform” not only to support peace negotiations, but to launch a large anti-Netanyahu grassroots organizing campaign.

Through the years, the U.S. has also gone so far as to fund the election campaigns of specific parties; make public announcements in favor of the candidates they support; and threaten to withhold foreign aid should voters favor opposition candidates.

More on Levin’s numerical findings on American interference comes from across the pond, via Britain’s Channel 4 News:

According to his research, there were 117 “partisan electoral interventions” between 1946 and 2000. That’s around one of every nine competitive elections held since Second World War.

The majority of these – almost 70 per cent – were cases of US interference.

And these are not all from the Cold War era; 21 such interventions took place between 1990 and 2000, of which 18 were by the US.

“60 different independent countries have been the targets of such interventions,” Levin’s writes. “The targets came from a large variety of sizes and populations, ranging from small states such as Iceland and Grenada to major powers such as West Germany, India, and Brazil.”

It’s important to note that these cases vary greatly – some simply involved steps to publicly support one candidate and undermine another.

But almost two thirds of interventions were done in secret, with voters having no idea that foreign powers were actively trying to influence the results.

Forbes reports on some of the methods employed:

The U.S. uses numerous tools to advance its interests. Explained Nina Agrawal of the Los Angeles Times: “These acts, carried out in secret two-thirds of the time, include funding the election campaigns of specific parties, disseminating misinformation or propaganda, training locals of only one side in various campaigning or get-out-the-vote techniques, helping one side design their campaign materials, making public pronouncements or threats in favor of or against a candidate, and providing or withdrawing foreign aid.”

It’s not clear how much impact Washington’s efforts had: Levin figured the vote increase for U.S.-backed candidates averaged three percent. The consequences often didn’t seem to satisfy Washington; in almost half of the cases America intervened at least a second time in the same country’s electoral affairs.

Ironically, given the outrage directed at Moscow today, in 1996 Washington did what it could to ensure the reelection of Boris Yeltsin over the communist opposition. The U.S. backed a $10.2 billion IMF loan, an ill-disguised bribe were used by the Yeltsin government for social spending before the election. Americans also went over to Russia to help. Time magazine placed Boris Yeltsin on the cover holding an American flag; the article was entitled “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

The Hill gives a voice to the interventionist hidden hand:

When asked whether the U.S. interferes in other countries’ elections, James Woolsey said, “Well, only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy.”

“Oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system in order to avoid communists taking over,” he told Laura Ingraham on her Fox News show on Friday night.

Woolsey served as CIA director under former President Clinton. His comments follow a federal indictment released on Friday that accused 13 Russian individuals and three Russian groups of attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The Russian embassy to the United Kingdom quoted Woolsey on Saturday, adding the comment: “Says it all.”

Yep.

There’s lot’s more, after the jump. . Continue reading

Two insightful documentaries on gender politics


From Australia’s marvelous Special Broadcasting Service’s Dateline come two insightful documentaries on the politics of gender.

Back in April, 2016, in his early days on the campaign trail, Presidential candidate Donald Trump said transgenders folks “should ‘use the bathroom they feel is appropriate’ and agreed that the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner could use any bathroom she chose at Trump Tower in New York.”

But then Ted Cruz, the guy whose dad he accused of a role in the John F. Kennedy assassination, fired a bigoted broadside, and Penthouse Predator did a quick one-eighty.

Such are the post-Post-Modern politics of gender in the Land-of-the-Free-and-The-Home-of-the-Brave™.

The first documentary looks at a multi-national violent male supremacy outfit spawned right here in California by started in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder and former commentator Gavin McInnes as bigoted Republic rhetoric rose to a self-righteous roar, enabled by the violent rhetoric endorsed and uttered Trump.

Defending Gender part 1 – Proud Boys

From the program notes:

Dateline reporter Dean Cornish travels to the USA to see why the Proud Boy’s controversial views are speaking to thousands of young men. The group believe masculinity is in danger – and they’re not alone. Proud Boy membership has exploded and they now have chapters in Australia.

Reclaiming manhood is one of the central pillars of the Proud Boys. The group’s founder Gavin McInnes says there’s a war on masculinity.

“The plight of the Western male is, right now, there’s a war on masculinity going on in the West and it starts in kindergarten, when children are punished for being rambunctious; boys are punished,” he tells Dateline.

“I think being a man requires four things. You have to have broken a heart. You have to break someone’s heart. You have to beat the shit out of someone, and you have to have the shit beaten out of you”.

Iceland leads the way to a different world

On 24 October 1975, the women of Iceland held one of the most remarkable general strikes of the last half of the 20th Century.

From Iceland Magazine:

On October 24 1974, Icelandic women observed what was called Kvennafrídagurinn, [The Women’s Day Off], known outside Iceland as the Icelandic Women’s Strike. It was estimated that at least 90% of Icelandic women participated by not going to work and by doing no housework. An estimated 25,000 women gathered for mass a demonstration in downtown Reykjavík. The total population of Iceland was only 216,695 at the time. Mass meetings and demonstrations were also organized in smaller towns around Iceland.

The year 1975 had been declared the International Women’s Year by the United Nations. Icelandic women’s rights organizations, including representatives of the Redstockings, a group of radical feminists and women’s rights activists, agreed that a women’s general strike would be a powerful event. By walking off their jobs and refusing to do unpaid housework women could draw attention to their contribution to the economy and society.

>snip<

The action succeeded in paralyzing the Icelandic economy, forcing businesses and government offices to shut down. The next days local newspapers ran stories about men who had to do the dishes for the first time, bring their children with them to work and prepare dinner. Stores ran out of simple foods which only need boiling, like sausages [bjúgu] and hot dogs.

The impact of the strike was significant, as it helped change public opinion. A law was passed in 1976 banning wage discrimination on the basis of gender. The gender pay gap stood at more than 40% at the time: Women were paid less than 60% of what men were paid. According to the most recent data from Statistics Iceland the average wages of women are currently 74% of the average wages of men. The unexplained gender pay gap is smaller, or 4.5%.

In their second documentary, the folks look at SBS Dateline look at the status of women in Iceland today, the country now ranked at top of the U.N.’s gender equality list.

Defending Gender part 2 – The Best Place to be a Woman

From the program notes:

In this week’s Dateline, SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen travels to the island country to explore how it became world capital of gender equality, and looks at what impact this is having on the idea of masculinity in society.

We meet women who sparked Iceland’s feminist revolution in 1975, working mums, stay at home dads, the CEO of a gender-neutral kindergarten trying to reverse gender stereotypes and promote gender equality, and attend a sex education class with teens learning about sexual violence and consent.

Iceland is on its way to eliminating the gender pay gap completely by 2022.

So, what is the country doing differently to make the most equal society in the world? And what can Australia learn?

Charts of the day II: The dying American Dream


From “The American Economy Is Rigged,” a new analysis by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz in Scientific American: