Friday, September 28, 2007

Before the Dawn

One of the many pleasures of reading is when you come across a book that is not only well crafted but also informs you and causes you to think about some subject in a way you have not done before. It is even nicer when it sometimes confirms things you had suspected but could not prove.

I have just recently finished Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn which was published in 2006 and basically brings you up to date on what the cascading DNA research tells us about the development of human beings.

I have always been fascinated by human history and pre-history. I can recall even in early grades being intrigued by, but not quite understanding, the well illustrated Time-Life type books laying out the evolution of man through his various shapes and capabilities. I found the plethora of forms (australopithecines, homo erectus, cro-magnon man, Neanderthals, etc.) fascinating and confusing. Who was first, who followed whom, how were they related, how did they interact, etc.

It wasn't till much later that I began to understand that part of my confusion was not from my short-comings of comprehension as I had imagined, but simply the sparsity and contradictoriness of the archaeological record. Archaeologists, historians and paleontologists were telling the best story they could but spinning that story from a thin factual basis.

For all that DNA was discovered fifty or so years ago and despite the impression that what we are beginning to understand now seems like light years of progress, it only seems so because we knew so little. We are still at the beginning of understanding the information wrapped up in DNA and its biological, evolutionary and historical implications. Twenty years from now we will see our current knowledge as only the first stair-step up a very long stairway.

That said, it is easy to lose track, in the midst of all the new reports of discoveries, the set-backs of assumptions, and the bold extrapolations of knowledge, just where we are in our knowing. What has been settled, what has been indicated but is yet to be proven, what old assumptions have been rendered inoperative, and what are the likely scenarios for the future given the research underway now.

Wade does a great job of winnowing out some of the chaff from the wheat. He is suitably cautious about what is known, what is speculated, and what is still unknowable. In the first few chapters he basically brings you up to speed on current knowledge and thinking and then begins to take you further and further afield where knowledge is less and less certain. He is clear that we journeying in un-chartered seas and that the final chapters are substantially speculation based on a few meager indicators. It is fascinating speculation none-the-less.

One of the other things Wade does well is integrate what we have discovered from DNA with that which is known from the archaeological record, from the study of languages, and socio-biology. In some instances the records are mutually supportive, in others there are contradictions that are not yet resolved.

A few of the nuggets which Before the Dawn either confirmed for me or revealed for the first time.
• Modern man's departure from Africa can be dated now with reasonable certainty to 50,000 - 100,000 years ago across the southern straights of the Red Sea. Wade goes for the nearer date of departure of 50,000 years.
• The initial departure from Africa consisted of an amazingly small group of people, probably less than a thousand people and possibly only 150. The most ancient lineages and most diverse DNA remains in Africa.
• In what seems like a generational forced march, people then proceeded along the shorelines of South Asia, splitting in southeast-asia, one group heading north and back into the interior of Asia but also then outwards into the Pacific and ultimately and belatedly into North America across the Bering Straights twelve to fifteen thousand years ago, while the second group headed southwards into Australia 40,000 years ago.
• Europe was most likely populated by people moving up from South and Central Asia into continental Europe 45,000 years ago.
• Modern man coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe for some fifteen thousand years before the Neanderthals disappeared. Whether there was any population mixing in those fifteen thousand years remains to be determined though the evidence suggests not.
• The development of the differences in racial features among the diaspora of modern humans pretty much occurred as recently as only 10,000 years ago.
• The evolution of the human genome continues apace with some capabilities, such as lactose tolerance in northwestern Europe, arising only 7,000 years ago.
• The interface between physical/biological evolution and cultural/behavorial/intellectual development remains murky, confused, confusing, and subject to preposterous abuse by polemicists, but does indicate some possible linkages.
• And on and on.

Wade does a good job of presenting complex ideas well, hedging his arguments with caution, and yet laying out the surprising amount of knowledge that has been accumulated in five brief years. While archaeologists and biologists will always have to work hand in hand, we are no longer hostage to random and occasional discoveries of bones and settlements. We now have a much more detailed record to which to turn, albeit in a language we scarcely yet understand.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark by Frederick Tudgay, 1872

I don't know if you saw it at the time but back at the beginning of the summer, May 21st, there was a fire aboard the last surviving clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, which is moored on the Thames in London. It broke my heart to see the initial pictures and early reports which seemed to indicate that the ship, built in 1869, might almost be a complete loss.

In this quarter's Sea History, however, there is encouraging news. Jessica Beverly reports that the Cutty Sark had been under restoration at the time of the fire, and that

"More than half her original hull planking, all three masts and rigging, coach houses, the master's saloon, deck furniture, and anchors had been safely transported to Chatham Historic Dockyard and other storage sites. Irreplaceable treasures, such as the Cutty Sark figurehead collection and the Trust's artifacts and archives, were also off-site at the time."

The damage is dreadful to look at in the pictures and there will be a lot of work to restore this treasure but it appears it can be done with much of the original infrastructure intact.

Thank goodness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Sidewalks of New York

The Sidewalks of New York
James W. Blake and Charles E. Lawlor 1894

Down in front of Casey's old brown wooden stoop
On a summer's evening we formed a merry group
Boys and girls together we would sing and waltz
While Tony played the organ on the sidewalks of New York

East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang "ring-a-rosie," "London Bridge is falling down"
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

That's where Johnny Casey, little Jimmy Crowe
Jakey Krause, the baker, who always had the dough
Pretty Nellie Shannon with a dude as light as cork
She first picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York

Things have changed since those times, some are up in "G"
Others they are wand'rers but they all feel just like me
They'd part with all they've got, could they once more walk
With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York

Monday, September 17, 2007

What is a Boy?

Boys Playing in the Water by Albert Edelfelt, 1884

What is A Boy? - Attributed to Alan Marshall Beck in a Reader's Digest article in 1954.

Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy. Boys come in assorted sizes, weights and colors, but all boys have the same creed: to enjoy every second of every minute of every hour of every day and to protest with noise (their only weapon) when their last minute is finished and the adult males pack them off to bed at night.

Boys are found everywhere--on top of, underneath, inside of, climbing on, swinging from, running around, or jumping to. Mothers love them, little girls hate them, older sisters and brothers tolerate them, adults ignore them, and Heaven protects them. A boy is Truth with dirt on its face, Beauty with a cut on its finger, Wisdom with bubble gum in its hair, and the Hope of the future with a frog in its pocket.

When you are busy, a boy is an inconsiderate, bothersome, intruding jangle of noise. When you want him to make a good impression, his brain turns to jelly, or else he becomes a savage, sadistic jungle creature bent on destroying the world and himself with it.

A boy is a composite--he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword swallower, the energy of a pocket-sized atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyan, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker, and when he makes something he has five thumbs on each hand.

He likes ice cream, knives, saws, Christmas, comic books, the boy across the street, woods, water (in its natural habitat), large animals, Dad, trains, Saturday mornings, and fire engines. He is not much for Sunday School, company, schools, books without pictures, music lessons, neckties, barbers, gifts, overcoats, adults, or bedtime.

Nobody else is so early to rise, or so late to supper. Nobody else gets so much fun out of trees, dogs, and breezes. Nobody else can cram into one pocket a rusty knife, a half-eaten apple, three feet of string, an empty Bull Durham sack, two gum drops, six cents, a slingshot, a chunk of unknown substance, and a genuine supersonic code ring with a secret compartment.

A boy is a magical creature--you can lock him out of your workshop, but you can't lock him out of your heart. You can get him out of your study, but you can't get him out of your mind. Might as well give up--he is your captor, your jailer, your boss, and your master--a freckle-faced, pint-sized, cat-chasing, bundle of noise. But when you come home at night with only the shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams, he can mend them like new with the two magic words, 'Hi Dad!'"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sampler: The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were-- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.

They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.

"Now, my dears," said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, "you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Now run along, and don't get into mischief. I am going out."

Then old Mrs. Rabbit took a basket and her umbrella, and went through the wood to the baker's. She bought a loaf of brown bread and five currant buns.

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, who were good little bunnies, went down the lane to gather blackberries; but Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor's garden, and squeezed under the gate!

First he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes; and then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley.

But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

George Orwell "Politics and the English Language"

Over many reading years, I have occassionally heard reference of George Orwell's essay written in 1946, Politics and the English Language. It has always seemed an intriguing essay, complimented or mentioned positively by writers whose discernment I respected. But since it was always incidental to what I was doing at the moment, I have never tracked it down and read it.

Until today.

And now having read it I understand why it is held in high regard. Take a look at it through the link above. A few quotes give a feel for his pugnancious advocacy to not write lazily but do so with attention and concentration. His message is pretty similar to that of E.B. White in his Elements of Style or of Robert Graves in his The Reader Over Your Shoulder which I have always particularly enjoyed.
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
I especially like his translation exercise.
I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
And then later in the essay.
A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Not much nostalgia for the old days

Sultan Mehmet II

From Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler's The Best, Worst & Most Unusual.
Most Unusual Archer: Mohamet II was an avid archer who insisted on practicing his art upon moving targets. Citizens straying too near the palace were frequently found studded with arrows, and it did not take pedestrians too long to learn to stay well out of the range of their mad sultan. Understandably, Mohamet was disappointed when he discovered that his people were avoiding him. Left with no alternative, he ordered the palace guard to round up a regular supply of Instanbullians for hazardous assignment as royal prey.

At last, the terrified Turks appealed to Sheik Ul-Islam, an influential man of the cloth, who was one of the few who still dared to approach the world's most imprudent archer. After patient and tactful negotiations, the sheik persuaded Mohamet to limit his practice to eight targets a day - restricting himself to prisoners of war.

Now there's a thank-you

USS_Skate_1943_US_Navy_Photo.gifUSS Skate, 1943. US Navy Photo

Also from Time-Life's War Under the Pacific. This time it is relating an incident following one of the first deployments of submarines as life-guards. The USS Skate has been assigned life-guard duty, seeking and rescuing pilots downed in the waters around Wake Island. Though not as glamorous as their preferred hunter-killer missions, life-guard duty was very dangerous for submarines but a tremendous booster of morale among pilots tasked with flying hundreds of miles across open ocean in enemy territory. Skate has made several rescues in this, its first operation.
From the carrier Lexington, some of whose fliers were among those saved, came a grateful signal: "Anything on the Lexington is yours for the asking. If it's too big to carry away we will cut it up into small parts."

Sometimes it comes down to luck

Reading Time-Life's War Under the Pacific, I came across a couple of items.

The first relates an incident in the first twelve months of the war in the Pacific, a period when US submarines were badly handicapped by highly defective torpedoes. But as related, sometimes plain luck is enough to sink an enemy ship.
The (USS) Tambor moving along briskly on the surface at night, fell in with four cruisers and two destroyers, presumably American. By first light, she saw that the warships were Japanese - and they saw her. In the ensuing confusion, two of the cruisers collided. Both were damaged in the crash, and one sank that afternoon without being hit by a single torpedo from the Tambor.

One can only imagine the feeling on the submarine's bridge as the early dawn suddenly reveals their predicament. "Uh-oh" hardly covers it.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Keeping Perspective

The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet

Sometimes the biggest news is the least reported. Peter Magnusson points out in his blog, that based on a recent report from the UN's International Labor Organization "For the first time in 10,000 years, farming is not the dominating industry".

Read the whole thing

Home again, home again, jiggety jog


On this day, September 6, in 1522 a lone surviving ship, the Victoria, of Magellan's original fleet of five ships, returned to Spain, being the first ship and crew to circumnavigate the globe and forever shrinking our world, and setting boundaries on fears and illusions but opening up a world of exploration and discovery.

Of the 270 members of the expedition that had set out three years earlier, only 18 returned. Magellan, having been killed in the Philippines, was not among them. Juan Sebastian Elcano captained the Victoria on its return. His reward? The King of Spain dispatched him with another fleet to repeat the journey three years later. He did not survive the second voyage.

Indpendent Readers

Around the World in a Hundred Years by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Anthony Bacon

Young Adult

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Plus ça change . . .

I cannot claim any real knowledge of Henry James (1843 - 1916) not being much of a fiction reader and even less of an enthusiast for books about social situations and manners. I was, however, dipping into the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910) and came across this description of his characters:
Rarely are they at close quarters with any ugly practical task. They are subtle and complex with the subtlety and the complexity that come from conscious preoccupation with themselves. They are specialists in conduct and past masters in casuistry, and are full of variations and shadows of turning.

It makes you wonder at the circumstances that in a century, liberated them from the pages of Henry James' novels and allowed them to occupy the airwaves and so many seats of power today.