Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Location, Location, Location

If you want to know what kind of neighborhood you might have lived in, say, when the dinosaurs became extinct, check out this handy globe and map at Dinosaur Pictures.

Continental drift gives us volcanoes and earthquakes, but it also means that the Earth did not always look the way we know it today. The original supercontinent Pangaea split up over millions of years as it became our current setup, but the map will show you where a particular street address would have been on that land mass, as well as others throughout the last 750 million years or so. Sometimes that land mass was under water, and other times it might have been under a glacier. It may have started out in an entirely different hemisphere.

What this kind of thing might mean for folks who consider themselves the center of the universe is, I guess, an open question.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Measure of Freedom

Today is the holiday "Juneteenth," marking the 1865 notification of African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they had been freed by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham Lincoln had signed the Proclamation in 1862, setting it to go into effect on January 1, 1863. It initially covered slaves held only in areas that openly rebelled against the United States, and of course it was tough to enforce in any area that Union forces had not retaken. News of Robert E. Lee's April surrender didn't reach Galveston until May, and the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi operating west of the Mississippi River did not lay down its arms until June 2. Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops occupied the port city on June 18, and the next day Granger publicly read a declaration of emancipation.

Of course, we know that the former Confederate states, beginning in the 1890s, began pushing back the rights of African-Americans until in some cases their worlds were even more restricted than before. Northern cities did not always offer much better; African-Americans walking through the Chicago suburb of Cicero, IL, were at no less risk of their lives than those who lived in the South might be walking in a "white" area of one of its cities. It would take the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to enable African-Americans to regain any significant portion of what they had lost after the Reconstruction era and problems undeniably persist today in spite of that progress.

Only four states -- Hawaii, Montana and both Dakotas -- do not have some kind of official state observance of the Juneteenth holiday. Although resolutions to create a federal recognition have been introduced in Congress from time to time they have not established it yet. On the other hand, it is on the Apple iOS system's official calendar, so government recognition may be a moot point.

Obviously the population for whom Juneteenth means the most are modern African-Americans whose ancestors were owned by other people. But it has a national dimension as well. The Declaration of Independence suggested that the leaders of the American colonies held that God had created all of humanity as equals who possessed rights simply by virtue of being a human being. Since some of those signing the document owned slaves, it's sometimes said that the Declaration was hypocritical, or at least those signers were. It seems more likely that they were simply limited in their thinking, and as time moved on we came to understand that they fell short not in their ideals, but in the execution of them.

Step by step across the decades, brave and visionary men and women have reminded America that it promises its citizens some things and have sought to elevate it so that it will live up to make those promises real for all of those citizens. Martin Luther King referred to the Declaration as a promissory note that civil rights activists wanted "cashed," so to speak, for America's black citizens as well as its white ones. The suffragettes whose victory was sealed by the 19th Amendment wanted the same for America's female citizens as well as its male ones.

The nation unfortunately took almost as many steps back after Juneteenth as it took forward to get there. But the holiday and the Proclamation it represented showed that such steps were possible, and made many Americans realize that if their fellow citizens could be arbitrarily denied equal rights, some day they might be also. Those seeds may still have a way to go before fully flowering, but without that first bloom celebrated on June 19, 1865, none of the rest might have ever followed at all.

Monday, June 18, 2018

To Coin a Phrase

Today in 1815, Napoleon was the first man to meet his Waterloo, ending the foul little Corsican's reign of terror across Europe.

As to why ABBA decided to make a love song using the name as the theme, who knows? But they did, won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with it and their career was off and running.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Railroads that pass over roadways are common, as are other roadways. At some airports, even airliners cross over highways, leading to an interesting view as you enter and exit the bridge.

But a highway at Gouda in The Netherlands is probably one of the most interesting of all, as it passes underneath an aqueduct that carries boats. The pictures at Atlas Obscura show how a yacht looks as it crosses over the busy multi-lane road. It might be hard to keep your eyes directly on the road in front of you when that happened; better to be a passenger than a driver.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Pardon Me?

In the most recent Bloom County, Steve Dallas learns that sometimes absolution comes at far too high a price.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Familiar Faces

This entry at Bored Panda shows several forensic reconstructions of people from the past; some famous and some not. Scientists and artists used computer software to develop the reconstructions from bones, aided by contemporary descriptions of the people involved. It's pretty fascinating.

And it's kind of nice to know that Maximilien Robespierre suffered from a lot of minor irritations that affected his health and appearance. It's not truly justice for the man who helped transform the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror and pave the way for the rise of the bloodthirsty Napoleon, but it's something.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


I had always been a little curious about the "Stanford Prison Experiment," a supposed exercise in which two groups of people were assigned to be either guards or inmates. The experiment was conducted at Stanford University in 1971 and claimed to show that just that minor exercise of power brought out innate cruelty in the group acting as guards.

My curiosity came from wondering how ordinary folks degraded so quickly. Certainly there are people in authority who abuse their power. Professions in which one is a part of a group that has power over another group that is essentially powerless can tend to draw people who like to exercise that power or abuse it. But not everyone's a closet sadist, and the idea that just a few hours of being on the top side of a massive power imbalance would prompt abuse never really sounded true to me.

Turns out that the experiment, like a lot of famous psychological experiments that are supposed to show how rotten people can be, was fabricated. It had always been given a bit of a side-eye based on questionable ethics and such, but writer Ben Blum dug deeper into the records of the experiment, following the trail of French documentary moviemaker Thibault Le Texier who had researched and prepared his own exposé.

Blum's interviews show that one of the supposed breakdowns that stopped the experiment early was faked. The cruelest guard deliberately went over the top and crafted a character based on guards from Cool Hand Luke, even faking a southern accent he didn't really have.

Writing for Vox, Billy Resnick notes several other famous psychological experiments have problems being reproduced and seem to feature coaching from the experimenters which probably skewed the results. Although many of these experiments are decades old, information eroding their credibility is only lately being confirmed. Some required many years of work and research to be debunked.

Which effort, it seems, according to both stories, pales in comparison with getting the fraudulent or suspect findings out of the classroom. The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to have been clearly refuted, and it only took forty-seven years. It may take another forty-seven to get it out of basic psychological textbooks.