Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paul Bundy

Nineteen children were killed nineteen years ago on April 19th.

Ten days ago, on April 19th , the American people casually checked off the 19th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. One hundred and sixty eight people were killed. Nineteen of them were children; the youngest was only 3 months old. On that Wednesday in April Timothy McVeigh drove a rented truck filled with explosives through downtown Oklahoma City, lit a two minute fuse, and then parked it in a drop-off space under the daycare room of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; he was protesting government overreach.

Ten days ago a small group of armed people were milling around in the Nevada desert sporting “Domestic Terrorist” nametags in the hopes of heaping ridicule on Senator Harry Reid who had likened their activity to domestic terrorism. Dinesh D’Souza recounted seeing the “Domestic Terrorist” nametags in a post to Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze”. The inhabitants of “Camp Tripwire” were milling about carrying their AR15s and AK47s with nothing to intimidate; their armed closure of interstate 15 had resulted in an apparent victory. Several days earlier the widely held belief was that “The Battle of Bunkerville” would erupt into a shooting battle before the anniversary of the Mount Carmel fire. By April 19th the cows were home and the only important thing they had left to do was protest government overreach.

David Koresh's Mount Carmel compound outside of Elk Texas burned to the ground on April 19th 1993 after a fifty-one day siege by federal agents. The federal agents tried knocking down walls and pumping in tear gas while inside the members of “The Students of the Seven Seals” Christian Cult set up fires and shot each other. When the rubble was cleared the bodies of 76 people were discovered, 20 of them had been shot, and one three year old had been stabbed to death. During the 51-day siege, out on Elk road, a disorganized group of protestors and gawkers assembled. Amongst them was Timothy McVeigh.

The similarities between Bunkerville’s “Camp Tripwire” and Mount Carmel’s gawker camp are striking. Both contained people with wide ranging fluidly heterodox religious views; often focusing on the second amendment as some great commandment sent from god. They both contained people who firmly believed that the US government is implanting microchips in people’s butts. Both camps also had a large number of ex-military who believed that show of deadly force was needed to counter some perceived threat in civilian America. At Tripwire many ex military were organized under the banner of the “Oath Keepersorganization; at Mount Carmel Timothy McVeigh would emerge as the most famous ex-military gawker.

The rhetoric emanating from both camps also made repeated mention of a shooting that occurred on August 31st 1992 in Ruby Ridge Idaho. There two members of a family of extremely religious white supremacists were killed in an operation that FBI director Louis Freeh would describe as "synonymous with the exaggerated application of federal law enforcement".

One important difference between the Mount Carmel gawker camp and Camp Tripwire was that the religious wingnuts at the center of the storm were isolated from the armed militia by armed FBI agents. At Camp Tripwire Cliven Bundy regularly got up on stage and proclaimed the content of specific auditory revelation he had received directly from god.

Cliven Bundy’s racist remarks eventually led to his becoming a pariah to the right-wing personalities. It is a bit scary that so many people would come in armed support of such a transparently racist individual. It is, perhaps, scarier that the right-wing pundits and the armed militiaists would not balk when the Mormon father of 14 began providing the details of his personal revelation. God spoke directly to Cliven Bundy and provided him with specific instruction for the armed militia, and the armed militia went and did some of the stuff. Stuff like dressing up in military fatigues, strapping a semi automatic rifle to their back, and stopping traffic on the only transportation artery in the area.

“It come to my mind real plain — the good Lord said, ‘Bundy, it’s not your job, it’s THEIR job.’ So we come back over here and heard that they had brought some cattle back. So I want you to understand... This is not my job, it’s YOUR job."
-- Cliven Bundy

I fear that the perceived success of the militia in the “Battle of Bunkerville” will facilitate the hardening of dangerously violent people like Terry Nichols, Michael Fortier (and his wife Lori), and timothy McVeigh; or new individuals driven to extreme lengths by some Birther-Oathkeeper-AntiVax-Truther-ChipButt- Heterodox (BOATCH) paranoia.

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
― H.L. Mencken

Many politicians, from local wanabees to Rand Paul, jumped on the media frenzy over this standoff. They did so in order to promote their own brand, but ended up validating the echo chamber of fantastical hysteria that these armed militias are developing. They maintain that there is some lofty fight against government overreach that ties them to the spirit of the Camp Tripwire crowd, but it begins to sound more like they are promoting themselves to a group they see as gullible enough not to look for reasonable truth behind what they can use for justification.

Rand Paul is a first-term senator; the sitting president of the USA was a first-term senator when he was first elected POTUS. While running for senate Rand supporters famously subdued MoveOn activist Lauren Valle who had shown up at a Rand rally with a sign; the Rand supporters wrestled her to the ground and stomped on her head. With an armed militia to add firepower to his cause he may be ready to attempt a presidential bid in 2016?

"But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word 'Fascism' and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty."
-- Sinclair Lewis

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cliven Hooves

When I first heard about the “Battle of Bunkerville” I assumed that the name Bunkerville was some kind of cute name for the fortified encampment outside of Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch.  A name designed to invoke some kind of military feel. I imagined the heavily armed inhabitants of the camp referring to their Winnebagos as “bunkers”. I pictured each recreational vehicle being given a number, and the night air being filled with the sounds and smells of the portable generators which give life to the multitude of televisions tuned for the hope of at least the briefest glimpse of the RV’s owner on the closest Fox affiliate. I was wrong; the name of that place is “Camp Tripwire”.

I should have known that “Bunkerville” is an actual town name. I have done biology stuff in the deserts of Nevada for long enough to have familiarity with all the rustic exits off of highways 93 and I15.

Bunkerville is the birthplace of Juanita Leone Leavitt (b 1898) who would grow up to take on the last name of "Brooks" and write a famous account of the "Mountain Meadows Massacre".   The most amazing thing about Juanita Brooks's account of Mormons massacring non-Mormon pioneers is perhaps the fact that she was not excommunicated for writing it.  For years her account was considered definitive.

Juanita was undoubtedly related to Raoul and Ruth Leavitt who sold Cliven's parents his ranch in 1948.  Two years later (1950) Juanita would publish her book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and four years after that (1954) Cliven's parents would begin raising cattle.   In 1993 Cliven would be taken to court and be found in arrears for his cattle grazing fees. 

Bunkerville proper is hidden in the shadow of Mesquite Nevada, and Mesquite is the type of border gambling town that palpably urges me to drive on by. I’ve stopped there for gas at least once, but I’ve never cruised down highway 170 to take in the charm of its neighborhoods.

Online real estate brokerages suggest that, had I taken in the Mesquite sights, I would have been treated to a study in contrasting lifestyles. Bunkerville real estate varies in price from $33K mobile homes perched on what look to be cinder blocks to $2.5M stucco homes with central air. If one (courtesy of Google Streetview) continues about a half mile on the south side of the Virgin river by heading out onto New Gold Butte road just before 170 loops back across the river to I-15, one comes to a gravel driveway announced by a sign advertising melons and beef; Bundy Melons.

From Google Streetview

I suppose that down this road, surrounded by the rusting remains of old equipment and automobiles, Cliven Bundy raised his 14 children. I wonder how often Cliven’s location facilitated the disturbance of his late night peace by drunken tourists, bloated with all-you-can eat buffet, and lost on the way to I15 from the casinos of Mesquite. I wonder how many of his children lost their way only to find themselves in adult-sized trouble the handful of miles away in the casinos?

View Larger Map

If none of Cliven’s 14 children sell the family property off for development then one of the (currently) 52 grandchildren certainly will. The history of the Bundy ranch will prove to be as disposable as the income people are throwing away just up the Virgin river in Mesquites casinos.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Watership Down is for Real

On Wednesday the long anticipated film adaptation of the long-running #1 bestseller “Heaven Is For Real” will hit the big screen. It is the story of a preacher’s son who has a near death experience (NDE) in which he goes to Heaven, and meets all sorts of nice people with wings.

Tickets are available now

The NDE is often accepted as a means for divine communication. The death part of the NDE helps to distinguish the words of one’s deity from other types of psychosis. One might understand why it is important to know which disembodied voice in one’s head is coming from whom. The NDE is characterized by trauma, blood loss to the brain, and often heavy medication; clues which apparently help to prove that the voice is that of some god.

On March 5th 2003 Colton Burpo underwent surgery for a burst appendix; he is said to have been saved from death by Jesus himself, with a little help of modern medicine. Also on March 5th 2003 a car bomb went off at the Davao City airport in the Philippines and 19 people were not saved from dying by Jesus or anyone else. Also on March 5th 2003 a car bomb exploded in Cúcuta Columbia where 7 people were not saved by Jesus. Also on March 5th 2003 a bomb exploded in Haifa Israel, close to Jesus’s hometown, and 10 people were not saved.

On March 13th 2003 poor Colton underwent another surgery. Abscesses were drained. At 7:45PM local time a bomb went off in the first-class ladies compartment of a Mumbai Suburban Railway train pulling into Mulund station. Another 10 people were not saved by Jesus.

Colton’s descriptions of heaven, Jesus, and the nice winged people he met inspired his father Todd to work with Lynn Vincent to write a book. Lynn Vincent is famous for co-writing Sarah Palin’s first book: “Going Rouge”.

The Wednesday before Easter Sunday is an auspicious day for opening a movie about resurrection. Called “Holy Wednesday”, it is thought by many fundamentalists to be the actual day of Jesus’s crucifixion.

The Wednesday crucifixion argument relies on a Sunday resurrection, and Mathew 12:40. The passage from Mathew states that Jesus was in the ground for three days and nights, and the only way to do that is schedule a crucifixion for a Wednesday.

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” – Mathew 12:40 (KJB)

Easter itself is scheduled each year for the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (The paschal moon ). The rules for determining when Easter is are so divinely inspired that the calculation has its own branch of study called “Computus”; a name from which many important modern fields of study can be linked.

Whenever Jesus was resurrected the entire Christian world knows that he was crucified either the Friday (Good Friday) or Wednesday (Holy Wednesday) before Easter Sunday. Many Christians will celebrate the torture and mutilation of their Lord and Savior by filling baskets with cellophane grass and suggesting that a magic rabbit lays chocolate eggs for good little boys and girls.

I’ve always liked the part about the rabbit.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Virgil's Colony Colapse Disorder

Spring hints through the occasional snowfall, and my thoughts turn towards the birds and the bees … especially the bees for some reason.

I have decided to raise honeybees again. I will be raising the carnelian strain (Apis mellifera carnica Pollmann) because it, of the strains available to me, is the best adapted to “long winters”, and at the altitude I will be raising them the winters are still longer than those experienced by flatlanders.

I have received a pile of wood from Mann Lake, and I will soon assemble the Langstroth hives my bees will live in. My bees will arrive at CAL ranch in a screen-sided wooden box sometime in May. I might name them “Raymond”.

Internet chatter would suggest that a malady called CCD (for Colony Collapse Disorder) threatens the continued existence of bees. It is unfortunately true that CCD is amongst the ever-growing number of threats to any hive. I lost my last hive to a harshly cold winter and -probably Nosema-induced- dysentery. The bees emerged from the hive on a too-cold winter day to paint little black stripes on just about everything. There were none left to emerge in the spring.

Long before 2006, when CCD was named, hive deaths were a problem. In the winter of 2000-2001 50% of Pennsylvania hives were lost. But the problem of hive deaths goes back in time much farther than that. In-or-around 29 BCE Virgil published his now famous book of four poems called the Georgics; the fourth of these was devoted to Apiology, with special attention to hive collapse.

Virgil sat down with Octavian shortly after he returned from the battle of Actium as the most powerful man in the Western World (in 31 BCE), and read him a pre-publication copy of the Georgics.

“It's monstrous labour, when I wash my brain, and it grows fouler.”
          -- Gaius Julius Octavius (Caesar Augustus) to Marc Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare (Act II Scene VII)

Virgil is perhaps best known as Dante’s guide through the environs of Hell. In the “Inferno” Dante recounts wild and wacky adventures in Hell with Virgil; his posthumous friend and mentor. In Hell they see the sights, go skinny dipping with strange women in the river Lethe, and sightsee the ongoing torture of the damned.

“He with the cloven tail assumed the figure
The other one was losing, and his skin
Became elastic, and the other's hard.” -- Dante from “Inferno”

Dante chose Virgil as his guide through hell because the complexity of Virgil’s verse could compactly communicate many themes. When talking about placement of hives Virgil could have simply stated “avoid swallows as they eat bees”. Instead he said:

“And Procne smirched with blood upon the breast
From her own murderous hands. For these roam wide
Wasting all substance, or the bees themselves
Strike flying, and in their beaks bear home, to glut
Those savage nestlings with the dainty prey.” – from Virgil’s Georgics

Procne was Tereus’s Wife. Tereus raped his sister-in-law Philomena one day, and then ripped out her tongue to prevent her telling. Philomena wove a tapestry to tell her sister about her husband’s escapades, and together they behead, then cook, then feed Procne’s son to his father. Tereus becomes angry when he finds out, and the two sisters narrowly escape his axe by being turned into birds by the Gods.

Beekeeping is even more interesting when one realizes that some threats to the hive are not delicately chirping birds but vengeful cannibals.

So important is the message in Virgil’s beekeeping description that one French translator for the Georgics was recommended to the Académie française by Voltaire. Jacques Delille served as professor for Latin poetry through the French revolution, he would translate Virgil’s Aeneid, he would write original poetry, but his translation of the Georgics would remain one of his most treasured works.

Delille would be succeded as professor of Latin Poetry by Pierre François Tissot. Tissot was the brother-in-law of Jean Marie Claude Alexandre Goujon. Goujon, a famous “La Montagne” revolutionary, famously stabbed himself to death with a knife Tissot supplied while on his way to be beheaded.

As Jacques “The French Virgil” Delille lay in state Tissot allowed a young historian by the name of Aime Nicolas Leroy access to the body of his predecessor. Leroy removed a large swatch of skin from Delille’s chest, and another from his leg. Leroy then used this human skin to bind a copy of Delille’s translation of the Georgics. History does not suggest that Tissot supplied Leroy with the knife he used to flay the French poet, but I like to think he did.

“I don't think I was seen by anyone; rich with my little treasure, I left and disappeared at once. Some will perhaps find a little fault with the act I have just confessed. When I got the idea of stealing these fragments, so frail but so precious for me, it overcame me, and I felt myself driven on by my respect for an illustrious dead man . . . and I committed; this Larceny by way of reverence.”
Aime Nicolas Leroy quoted in “Religatum de Pelle Humana” by Lawrence S. Thompson

It is fitting that the Georgics should have such a complex and bloody history as this complements the causes of colony collapse that it describes.

Not content with the standard theist “God Did It” explanation for natural phenomenon, Virgil provides a backstory for the collapse of a particular set of hives. The backstory is full of the type of jealousy, betrayal, and carnage that makes for great telling. In order to resurrect the hives the beekeeper is sent on a journey into hell; for advice and ingredients.

This is Virgil’s method of reversing CCD:

“ But not Cyrene, who unquestioned thus
Bespake the trembling listener: "Nay, my son,
From that sad bosom thou mayst banish care:
Hence came that plague of sickness, hence the nymphs,
With whom in the tall woods the dance she wove,
Wrought on thy bees, alas! this deadly bane.
Bend thou before the Dell-nymphs, gracious powers:
Bring gifts, and sue for pardon: they will grant
Peace to thine asking, and an end of wrath.
But how to approach them will I first unfold-
Four chosen bulls of peerless form and bulk,
That browse to-day the green Lycaean heights,
Pick from thy herds, as many kine to match,
Whose necks the yoke pressed never: then for these
Build up four altars by the lofty fanes,
And from their throats let gush the victims' blood,
And in the greenwood leave their bodies lone.
Then, when the ninth dawn hath displayed its beams,
To Orpheus shalt thou send his funeral dues,
Poppies of Lethe, and let slay a sheep
Coal-black, then seek the grove again, and soon
For pardon found adore Eurydice
With a slain calf for victim."” -- Book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics

Virgil offers proof that this works.

“But sudden, strange to tell
A portent they espy: through the oxen's flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.” -- Book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics

Saturday, April 5, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Tomorrow -April 6th 2014- a Mass Resignation for Mormons will take place; also taking place will be the biannual conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. There will be speakers and good company at the mass resignation. If I can make the time I will be there.

At 11am people will start congregating at City Creek Park in Salt Lake city. City Creek Park is on the NorthEast corner of North Temple and State Street; just across form the LDS Church offices and the down a block from the conference center where the big LDS conference will be going on.

Things will really get started about 11:45 when everyone will accompany those resigning around temple square to wherever one drops off letters of resignation.

Then, at about 1230, there will be some more kind words by several people including David Silverman (President of Atheists of America) who is flying out for the event.

Route of Mass Resignation March

To many readers of this blog the idea of a mass resignation from a church might sound bizarre. I was personally icncredulous when first presented with the idea that one had to actively pursue removal from the LDS church in order to not be considered a member by that church. Even people who were simply born to Mormons, and had never attended church in their lives, are considered “inactive Mormons” until they successfully petition the church to remove their records. I have been told that the LDS Church has at times refused requests to be removed from their Church.

The removal from the Church is a non-trivial action by the inhabitants of Utah. It limits employment. It limits opportunities -social, athletic, and academic- for one's kids. It often exposes the petty small-minded nature of one's relatives; a nature one grows up hoping is not contaminating one's own gene pool.

On the other hand it is an absurd way of performing the absurd ritual needed to leave an absurd Church based on absurd ideas.  A Theater of the Absurd made real.

I like the idea of a mass resignation.

Make it a party.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

DNA History and space Aliens

One of the fundamental problems with religious scripture –and there are many- is that it attempts to present historic fact. The basic concept is that the scripture says that things happened at some time, and that these things actually happened. This creates a problem in that the process of “things happening” should leave a residue, and that residue is often missing.

“So were all those that were numbered of the children of Israel, by the house of their fathers, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war in Israel; Even all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.” – Numbers 1:45-46 (KJB)

One of the most famous scriptural histories which lacks a residue is that of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. According to biblical scripture the number of individuals escaping Egypt was over 2 million (The 603,550 men over the age of 20 from numbers 1:46 plus this or that group with special tasks and all their families. The text is specific but tedious). There is the problem that 2 million people leaving ancient Egypt with its population of around 3 million should have generated some bit of news, but there is very little ancient chatter concerning the magical escape of two thirds of Egypt's population. There is also the problem that a band of people approximately four times the size of the current-day population of the Sinai peninsula would wander around a measly 61,000 square kilometers of desert for 40 years without leaving a trace; unless you count those bits of stone tablets that nobody has actually seen (except those Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark). There should be expansive and obvious evidence for so large a group existing in such a confined space for so long, and there isn’t any.

One reason that the lack of evidence for the precisely enumerated exodus horde is extremely problematic is that these numbers make little sense on their own. A group this size arraigned five abreast would form a line well over 300 miles long, and it is only 230 miles from Cairo to Israel. If there were some sort of physical evidence, like huge trash dumps or expansive fields of pit toilets, then one could at least argue that we know it happened even though it makes no sense. Without evidence it just sounds impossible and it looks like it did not happen. It is very easy to come up with stories that sound impossible and never happened. It is done all the time. Such stories are usually labeled as fiction or have some person using them as some kind of justification to ask for money. Supporters of the bible insist that it is not fiction.

“Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief.” -- Austin Farrer

The exodus issue is not new. The problem with the numbers is so fundamental as to have inspired doubt for hundreds of years. One of the most common ways of dealing with it, shy of the preferred complete abandonment of Judeo-Christianity, is to suggest that the numbers are code, or allegory, or over-exaggeration; in other words simply not accurate. This opens the door to a more secular interpretation of the bible. The stories in it are just stories. The laws in it are just suggestions that made sense to desert-dwelling tribesmen thousands of years ago; this is especially nice since some of the laws, like stoning people to death for gathering sticks on Sunday, would be especially awkward to enforce in a polite society.

“ And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance. And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men;” 2 Nephi 28:4-5 (Book of Mormon)

Not every religious person is willing to abandon the literal interpretation of scripture as history. The LDS church has recently gone to great lengths to reconcile their story of American colonization by a family from Israel with the lack of residual evidence of that history. They have even changed their scripture slightly (in 2006) by rewording an official introduction to the Book of Mormon that stated that the Lehi family was “"the principal ancestors of the American Indians" to instead say that they "are among the ancestors of the American Indians". That type of re-revelation can only be accomplished by a scripture that can be edited by living prophets. The reason for this divine re-inspiration was the lack of residual DNA evidence linking the American Indians to the inhabitants of Israel in 600BCE.

The LDS Church posted an in-depth argument about how the lack of DNA evidence does not say the colonization did not happen. At issue is why native Americans have DNA that would be expected if their ancestors emigrated over an ice-bridge from Siberia about 40 thousand years ago instead of sailing over from Jerusalem about two and a half thousand years ago. The Mormons take a two-pronged approach. First they explain that the Israelite DNA markers could be lost through genetic drifts or bottlenecks. Second, and this is my favorite, they invoke what they call “the founder’s effect”.

The LDS Church describes “the founder effect” in this way: “It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions. In this case, their descendants might inherit a genetic profile that would be unexpected given their family’s place of origin. This phenomenon is called the founder effect.” A more readable explanation would go like this: “Lehi’s family, unlike all their known neighbors, could actually have moved to Israel from China”. Why not? They were the only folks who knew reformed Egyptian so why shouldn’t they be the only Chinese Jews on the planet at that time?

“It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” -- Dallin H. Oaks

All this raises the obvious question: “If you are going to make up history why not make it extremely interesting”. Mark Twain famously called the Book of Mormon “Chloroform In Print”, but I wager he would never have insinuated that the scripture of the Church of Scientology was boring!

The scientologists believe that Aliens some 75 million years ago flew around in magic DC8s dropping hydrogen bombs into volcanoes (volcanoes that still exist) in what is called “Incident II”.

One might ask “why?”

As in “Why not make up scriptural history and then invent fabulous evidence to prove it”. This is difficult with pesky historians trying to interject “accurate” information. This is not a problem in North Korea. In 2012 North Korean archeologists confirmed that a site they were excavating was indeed a magical unicorn lair. If they would only put their surviving scientists to the task of cloning magic unicorns from the DNA they retrieved from the lair instead of making those pesky atom bombs then people would treat them nicer.