Thank you, American armed forces

Recent events have reminded me of America’s unusual advantage on the world stage. We have a highly professional and uncorrupt military: a blessing enjoyed by few nations today or at any time in history.

The Russian kleptocracy goes to war

Russian armed forces corruption
Captured Russian soldiers say they weren’t told they’d be invading Ukraine

Today, the Russian army is bogged down in Ukraine — apparently due to its corruption and low competence. Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy: a state ruled by theft. In other words, the Russian government regularly diverts public resources into private pockets, particularly Putin’s pockets and those of other Russian oligarchs, as well as their supporters’ pockets. Military experts think that corruption has played a central roll in stalling the invasion. Those diversions of vital resources create inefficiencies. That’s why a forty-mile-long convoy, bound for Kyiv, sits idle and vulnerable, stretched out across the northern part of Ukraine. The soldiers lack fuel, replacement parts for “lemon” equipment, and even food. (Reports say they’re robbing supermarkets and begging Ukrainian civilians for food.) Continue reading “Thank you, American armed forces”

Four Modern Breakthroughs that Ancient Science Just Missed

Ancient Greek and Roman scholars achieved some amazing things. They foreshadowed many of the inventions and discoveries that shape our world.

  • Anaximander of Miletus / Evolution & Life’s Aquatic Origins: Anaximander was one of the first philosophers and the author of the earliest known philosophical text. He lived in the Greek city of Miletus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) during the early 500’s B.C.E.: the age of Buddha, Confucius, and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. Based on observations, he concluded that life sprang from the seas or from warm water covering the Earth. He also thought that the first animals were fish and that humans and other land animals descend from those fish. In other words, he reached some of the same conclusions as Darwin and his successors. Anaximander, however, did not develop a theory of evolution. Fish fossils seem to have influenced him, but his main inspiration came from the fact that young fish aren’t dependent on their parents: they swim free the moment they hatch. So the very first fish could survive without parents. Young humans and land animals, on the other hand, do depend on parents, so the very first land creatures couldn’t have survived without parents. The parents of those first land animals, then, must have been … fish. Anaximander got it wrong, but his method was sound, and he started down the right path. Continue reading “Four Modern Breakthroughs that Ancient Science Just Missed”

Leofric and Lady Godiva

The legend of Lady Godiva is based on real events, according to a startling new discovery — but the facts were distorted right from the start, during the heroine’s lifetime. Several months ago, a student found a medieval manuscript in a cellar beneath Queens’ College, Cambridge. It included a 14th Century copy of the 11th Century text below. Queens’ is my alma mater, so I was one of the first non-academics to receive this translation from the Latin. It will blow your mind. (And after all these years, it’s about time we heard the other side of the story: the legend of Lady Godiva from her husband’s point of view.)

Lady Godiva, Claxton painting
Marshall Claxton, Lady Godiva, 1850

I, Dunstan, priest, wrote this from the mouth of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, on the seventeenth day of July in the fifteenth year of the reign of our most gracious King Edward [1057 AD].

My wife’s Latin inscriptions call her Godiva, but in English her name is Godgifu, God’s gift. I will not offer the obvious play on words about whether the Lord actually meant her as a gift, and if so to whom. But I have my doubts. Certainly she was beautiful in her youth, but that fair quality brought me little joy. More often than not, when I knocked on her chamber door in the wee hours, she said her blood had come or she was fatigued. Yet those ailments interfered not at all when a handsomer, younger man knocked on Godgifu’s door. Of course, they all kept that from me, my loyal people. But I had my informants, for not all in an earl’s household fear his wrath. My truest spy was my housekeeper, Tydfil, who fears little and has more wisdom than any woman I know, or any man. Tydfil told me of all Godgifu’s lovers. Did you never wonder why so many handsome young men of Mercia found themselves fighting in distant Ireland or Scotia, rented as mercenaries to warring lords? But Godgifu had her revenge. Now I am old, and I can hear the rustling wings of the Angel of the Lord. So I need a son to follow me. Yet doubt plagues me. That warlike young man who waits so eager to take my place: is he my own getting or the son of some handsomer man? They say only a wise man knows his own child, and though sometimes even Tydfil praises my wit, I cannot tell my wife’s truths from her lies. Continue reading “Leofric and Lady Godiva”

“Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Here’s a crazy idea that might work.

“They” has become the English language’s preferred third person singular pronoun, for gender-neutral use. But of course, we use the same pronoun for the third person plural. That creates confusion. Why not revise the pronoun’s spelling when it’s singular? Why not switch out the “e” for an “a”?

You’d need only a few words of explanation. “In this [article/book], I use ‘thay,’ ‘thair,’ and ‘tham’ as third person singular pronouns, equivalent to ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them.’ I use the latter three solely as third person plural pronouns. Continue reading ““Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun”

The History Behind Polarized America

For most of its history, the United States had a ruling majority. But during the late 20th Century, that White caste divided into two groups, which I’ll call Metropolitan Whites and Heartland Whites. They have different interests, so they no longer cooperate, which means each is effectively a large minority. Both benefit from the economic and political advantages of White skin, but the Metropolitan Whites rely on White privilege less because they’re wealthier and more plugged-in to the new economy. That frees them to ally with non-Whites.

the different white visions - why we're polarized
Each group has its own visions

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The Backflow into Africa

A 19th Century nobleman of Ethiopia -- the population most impacted by the backflow
A 19th Century nobleman of Ethiopia — one of the lands most impacted by the backflow

We all know Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and then spread across the rest of the world. But scientists have demonstrated that, starting around 5000 B.C.E., an astoundingly large group came back. This “backflow” brought so many people from Eurasia that today’s East Africans get as much as 25% of their genome from Middle Eastern ancestors. In other words, about a quarter of their ancestors were Middle Eastern migrants. And even in southern Africa, thousands of miles away, the people get about 5% of their genes from backflow migrants. In fact, the Khoe-San of southern Africa get some of their pale skin genes — an advantage in sun-poor lands far from the equator — from these Eurasians. Continue reading “The Backflow into Africa”

Disobedient Confederate Generals Helped End the Civil War

The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models, including the American guerrillas of the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to fight a similar war after they’d lost on the battlefield. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve ended. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.)

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrenders
Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

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Neanderthal and Denisovan Genes – and Covid-19

The media reported last week that genes from Neanderthals protect many of us against severe Covid-19. Those genes actually come from Denisovans too: another early human species. Unfortunately, a different set of Neanderthal genes increases our chances of serious Covid. This post goes behind the news and looks at our connection to these two prehistoric creatures, as well as their genes’ impact on Covid risk. It also looks at those genes’ frequency among modern ethnic groups.

Neanderthal woman
Neanderthal woman (from the Neanderthal Museum)

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History Tells Us Congress CAN Impeach the President After His Term

The Constitution says nothing specific about whether Congress can impeach an official after his or her term. That didn’t stop the House of Representatives from impeaching the Secretary of War in 1876, after he left office — or the Senate from trying him. And history tells us Congress got it right that year, just as they apparently will again in 2021. The Framers based the impeachment process on the English Parliament’s power to impeach. And English impeachments could start after the official left office. In fact, Parliament impeached an official named Warren Hastings in 1787 and tried him between 1788 and 1795 — though he left office in 1784. The Hastings impeachment battle raged while the Framers wrote the Constitution, and it played a central role in their thinking.

The House of Commons, where they impeached Hastings
The House of Commons, Late 1700s

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