Monday, October 4, 2010

Lunch Break Viking Update!

When you read history books, you often have to start at the pre-history. For instance, if you want to talk about the United States of America, you have to talk about the Native Americans, no matter how embarrassed you get. Nothing springs from nothing. There has to be a foundation that often takes centuries to build. Another example is the Cold War. To understand how it began, you have to start with the end of WWII. To understand how that war began, you have to go back to the end of WWI, which leads all the way back to the Franco-Prussian War. See where I'm getting?

The same is true when we talk about Scandinavia, or more specifically, Vikings. However, the Viking Age can be misleading, especially when you are looking at the literature. What I mean is this: The great sagas and poetry were all written in Iceland mostly in the 13th century. Those sagas and poems are simply written versions of the oral traditions that come from the Age of Migration, which is basically 5th and 6th century AD. So why, when I am studying Vikings, do I read the sagas and the poetry when the literature seems to just sort of swim through that time period. Wouldn't I be better off reading the ecclesiastical accounts of monks whom the Vikings terrorized?

This question as well as others have been puzzling me over the last couple weeks since I dived back into my research. How do the pieces fit? Thankfully, Professor Harl has come through once again to help me along the way.

In order to study the Vikings, I really have to travel back to the Bronze Age when the religion was formed. This provides sort of the basis of the ethos that would drive the later generations of Scandinavians. I plan on going back through the Prose Edda to get a firmer grasp on just how the religion was viewed and how it affected the people.

The Age of Migration brings forth the heroes and kings that we now read about in the sagas. There really did exist King Hralf Kraki and Sigmund (although, it is believed that Sigmund is a fictional character based on either Arminius or King Sigbert). These historical figures did accomplish great deeds that were later embellished and made legend. But Professor Harl does a really great job of explaining how the kingship of 5th century Scandinavia differed from our idea of kingship. The sagas never tell of battles for territories. That may be the outcome but hardly ever the cause. Usually there is a grievance, or a dishonoring of another king. He is offended and he comes to best his offender. So we see in the Saga of Hralf Kraki. And although at the end of the story, Kraki and his men retreat, he throws the stolen gold along the ground and basically buys his enemy's men. Kraki was seen as a great king not only because of his deeds but also because of the riches he obtained and then shared with his men.

What do these stories of heroes and kings have to do with the Viking age?

Harl tells us that it was mostly psychological. The Vikings were raised to honor the great ancient kings, like Hralf Kraki and Sigmund Volsung, who died in honor and our now with Odin at Valhalla. There existed the mindset that in order to be honored, one would need to emulate the deeds and the attitudes of those great kings, which instilled in the viking warriors a sense of invincibility. Not that they wouldn't die, but that there was no fear of death for to die in battle was to be greatly honored.

What is fascinating to me is how the stories survived. You don't often think of poetry and warriors going together, but the two went hand in hand in the Viking Age. A good bard, if you will, would learn the great poetry of the old kings and heroes, and recite them. Every person who grew up in that time knew the stories. And even after the conversion to Christianity, when the rest of Europe was trying to hide its pagan past, the Icelanders looked at their past with pride and interest. So, even though the Viking Age is really around 800-1100 AD, you must start much further back to understand how they got there and really wait until the 1300s when Snorri and his pals wrote everything down.

Neat, huh?

I think for my next project, after I finish The Saga of the Volsungs, I'd like to read Beowulf and The Saga of Hralf Kraki side by side to compare. Sounds like a snoozefest!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Get on Your Titanics and Ride

History Fans, I have a special treat for you today!

You might remember a few weeks ago when I asked the question, "How should we approach history?" My dear friend and recent graduate from Ball State University with a degree in History, David Buckler, was gracious enough to answer my question with a very insightful and provoking interpretation of how to reconstruct the past.

(David, I tried to clean up some of the grammatical errors and misspellings. I hope that's okay!)

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The question: how should we approach history?
This, out of all questions, makes history worth doing. Or in more complicated way of saying it, different approaches, from Marxist to revisionist allow historians, amateur or professional to approach history with a new perspective.

So first, let's talk about perspective. This aspect is always difficult to understand...at first. Perspective is deceiving. When an event happens to us today it is recorded in the annals of history quite quickly, with the Internet and all. When given that instant information, people quickly write their histories with blogs and such. History, no matter what, changes over time. Because time and history go hand in hand, time changes history. When time passes and more and more information has become available, we have to change with evolving information. For instance, our easiest example for this would be 9/11. At first, most were definitely sure this had been a terrorist attack. But as skeptics, historians, scientists and conspiracy theorist etc. have second guessed this, at the time, certain fact and now have written a new perspective.

Historiographical approaches. I could spend days upon days on trying to explain historiographical approaches, but I'm sure you don't want to hear it from me. But, I will give you mine for good measure. Although it's very not [savvy? bad?] to be a postmodernist or revisionist historian, I like to call myself a Marxist historian. Many reasons cause me to take such approach like my current and seemingly long lasting dissatisfaction with capitalism, my disbelief in the Christian god as the all high being of this earth, my love affair with the tenets of the working class, etc. etc. Basically Marxist historians take to history to build up the proletariat and push down the bourgeois. For instance, my senior thesis centered on the UAW of the 1920/30s and how their members used the union as an avenue to achieve the American Dream. But you may ask, how is that possible? Well, the union actually has it's roots in communist/socialist agendas. Using a collective to create a common individual good that all members can equally receive. What's so deceiving about the American Dream sometimes can be that only special individuals can achieve such heights in their lives, but that essentially it had been a comfort all Americans expected and wanted by the 1950s. Since all wanted its benefits, they tried to find the quickest way possible to achieve such benefits. Ok, my rant about that is done, but in my thesis, I could not help but reprimand the management, aka bourgeois, in my paper for using the tenets of capitalism to keep the working man down. It's not a wrong perspective, and my research proved such accusations right.

So, let's think about it from a revisionist perspective. Since revisionism happens after a longer period of time, they tend to look at the long term, or instead of a period of study, they expand it from the beginning to today and mark where differences unfold and decide that a new perspective is necessary. So what they might see in the UAW is that in short, the unions win, but in the long, management wins. See, today the unions have been corrupted and wrangled away from their original form : collective solidarity. Thus, because in this case the capitalism has prevailed, leaving Marxist thought dead on the paths of history.

Quickly, postmodern thought would have that unions won then and today, and management won then and today. It is literally relative to the documents' voice that tells them so. Example? If in 1937 at one the ford plants, a document from a union newsletter says that the union won a hard fought strike battle, they did. If a corporate newsletter says they won, they did. Confusing and completely unnecessary isn't it?

So you ask about facts, which I think you can glean from my information above, that locking down facts would be like raising the titanic today. You technically could bring up bits and pieces at a time, to understand how exactly people lived on it, how the ship worked, etc etc, but taking it all up at once would provide a break down of information. Historical fact takes much longer than we might think. We are too used to it today to be given what is said to be the "truth" but you as well as I are too smart to know that's impossible. So, never be afraid that you can't raise the titanic all at once. Take it piece by piece and create the story. As time permits you will be able to take up more and more pieces, correcting the mistakes you made before or proving yourself more correct. Pick a side and defend it the best of your ability. That's why there are academic critics and reviewers who will say to you, "are you sure this is a piece of the titanic, or a piece of another unfortunate ship?" When they do ask, go back out again, research primary documents and sources.

At the end of the day, remember you are essentially telling a story. With stories you need protagonists and antagonists. With history you choose those sides and you defend them. If you do it well, you have a great story.
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First, I'd like to reiterate how well spoken this reply is. I think he hit the nail on the head. History is never set in stone. Even the histories chiseled into stone! As long as we are even the slightest bit curious, we can go back to points in history, with a hunch or a hunger and search for truths.
I am also glad that he used his Marxist approach as an example. In my post about Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel I mentioned that I thought his conclusion had an extremely capitalist outlook. I don't know if that is a popular approach, but according to David's explanation, an approach can envelop economics, philosophies, and many other aspects of look at different time periods. What we believe will shape our paradigms and world views, and that in turn will provide us with the drive, as well as the tools, to unearth history.

The beautiful thing is that no approach is better than the other. They each have immeasurable value. David obviously has no room in his heart for a postmodern approach. But research in the UAW in the 1920s and 30s in said approach may trigger David's passion. He says, no, that's not the way it happened, and he sets out to prove his case, bringing up new pieces and new truths that were previously unknown. And though David and the postmodern historian may not see eye to eye when it comes to approaches, in the end, the two have worked together, bouncing ideas off of each other to bring to light the mysterious of our past, wherein lie lessons for our present and our future.

Thanks, David.

Up next: Vikings. . . Where do you begin?!?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Politically Charged and Aggressive Jab at Both Wings

Instead of writing about 9/11 on this somber anniversary, I want to poke some folks in the ribs. Although, the three people who actually read this probably agree with me, but, believe me, somewhere somebody is feeling like a complete dingus.

Remember a year and a half ago when a lot of my moderate to liberal friends thought that Obama was going to save the world from evil? (Or at least that he'd win a beauty contest with John McCain).

And remember just after the elections when my conservative Christian friends claimed that Barack Obama would usher in the apocalypse?

And after a year and a half, it seems that this president is leaving EVERYONE disappointed.

The world is still full of all kinds of evil, but not enough evil to necessitate the second coming of Christ.

His approval rating has dropped significantly and the economy is still a mess. After 18 months? What an amateur!

But allow me to point something out. Nearly two years ago, during the primaries, I read Obama's exit strategy for Iraq. Eighteen months. He admitted it would be messy and insufficient. But we'd get out. Just about 19-20 months after he'd been in office. . . SHAZAM!

Now, I know. Let's not lose our heads. The government lies to us and it's only the "formal" ending, so our troops will still be over there. Whatever, nutballs. Our president told us that he would do something in the primaries and he has done it. Granted, he pulled the wool over my eyes and put everybody over in Afghanistan. But it's a start, right? Let's give him some credit!

The economy may or may not right itself. It isn't his fault. He's trying what he thinks will fix it. So today, on September 11, 2010, nine years after the towers crumbled, I finally feel comfortable enough to tip my hat to my president and say, "Not bad."

We still have a lot of work to do. I know that a lot of these things will not get resolved during his time in office. But a small start is still a start.

So, you extreme wingers, take a chill pill. One side demands perfection. The other side prays for destruction. And if Obama ends his four years without much to show for it, I think we can be happy with that. Bush has a lot to show for his time in office, and we all remember what pleasant times those were.

And remember, today is the nine year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so remember those whose lives were taken, whose lives were given, and whose lives were lost in the attacks and in the following two wars that could have been avoided. And if you truly are interested, maybe you could browse through here and get a little more informed.

Burnin' Korans like it's 1099,
-Z

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Built a Connection and All I Got Was This Lousy Uncertainty

One of the things Dr. Mary Brown tried to teach us in our writing classes was to make connections. If you can attach something tangible to something abstract, you have a clear metaphor at your fingertips with which you could shape into whatever point you are trying to make, whether artistically or factually. She also tried to teach us how to murder our darlings, but I obviously didn't pay attention to that advice.
So I blame her for this bold post. It's her fault I keep my eyes peeled for those small similarities. Yes, those minuscule similarities that can connect two extremely different points in history, two of the most fascinating moments in history, according to yours truly. That's right. I am building a bridge between 9/11 and the Norman conquest of England.

I know what you're thinking. He's a madman! He's lost his marbles! Nobody would want to go to his birthday party! It isn't the events themselves. It is the subsequent chronicles of each event that mirror each other in a peculiar way that I want to discuss. We're treading dangerous waters now: how we approach history.

Let's start in Normandy. For the past month I have been slowly making my way through Andrew Bridgeford's book 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you recall from many posts back, I fell in love with the story of 1066 that began decades before with King Cnute. The trail of facts that lead William the Conqueror to the throne of England, however became muddy in my readings. It was my hope that this book would reveal some of the hidden facts and bring to light how William took the crown. To my surprise, Bridgeford had a little more to say than just the facts.

His book follows the Bayeux Tapestry scene by scene, explaining as it goes along. However, his theory from the outset of the book is that the tapestry was created by the English rather than the Norman victors to explain the events of 1066. For hundreds of years it was assumed that the stitching spelled out the steps of the Norman conquest from the Norman point of view. Bridgeford offers clues throughout the different scenes on the tapestry as well as within the margins to back up his theory.

Here is where we get into trouble. I agree with the ideas that Bridgeford is trying to make. I believe, as some do, that Harold visited Normandy not to tell William that the crown of England was his but rather to try and rescue his brother and nephew. I also have my doubts about how much of a relationship King Edward actually had with William and what was really dealt between them. Even though Bridgeford and I see eye to eye on this subject, the way he is going about proving it is extremely bothersome.

I have not seen the Bayeux Tapestry myself, so I am probably stepping out of my field of experience for this. But Bridgeford is drawing conclusions from the embroidery, with support here and there from ancient historians like Eadmer. Are these sources enough to fulfill our theory? Again, I don't disagree with Bridgeford. It is simply that I don't know if I can put my trust in the hand gestures of an embroidered soldier that may or may not have been restored on a thousand year old piece of cloth. And don't get me wrong, I think it is a marvelous and beautiful piece of historical art, but with the tools of the trade at that time, could the eyes of Duke William really be saying something specific?

The answer is that I don't know. And perhaps Bridgeford doesn't quite know either but he has gathered enough evidence to develop his theory. It certainly got me wondering, though. His theory shows us that this old tapestry tells more than one story. And though many historians believe in a truth, another truth has existed for some time along side of it. Of course, it doesn't change the outcome: William and the Normans took over England and it was forever changed. But how we remember the story is still thwarted with missing details.

Can you see the bridge being built?

Fast forward a thousand years to September 11, 2001.What happened that day is indisputable. The towers were hit by planes and they came down. Thousands of Americans lost their lives. But the story of how it happened is riddled with holes, and two truths live beside each other: the official story embraced by NIST, the Commission Report, and millions of Americans AND the idea that something more than terrorists on planes brought down those towers, which is held tightly by the 9/11 truth movement.

I put the pieces together in my head last night at a 9/11 Truth presentation in my town. Graeme MacQueen and Laurie Manwell came down from Canada to talk about their different research. Most of what MacQueen said I had already heard and Manwell's topic barely connected to the events of 9/11. However, she talked about something that struck a chord. She has been studying the psychology of democracy and how leaders and politicians can convince his or her constituents of different things. She referred to the story of 9/11. What a massive heap of tangled facts and half-truths, yet it was constructed, whether by terrorists, our own government, or anyone else, perfectly. We had a victim. We had an enemy. We felt vulnerable. And we were ready to believe whatever we were told because we were scared. And, as MacQueen pointed out, most of the people who are now part of the 9/11 Truth Movement began by believing the official story only to come across some detail that did not quite add up and began to question more.

Yet, in the history books, there will be the story of the terrorists flying the planes into the towers. Just as the tapestry tells the story of the Norman conquest. Yet on the outskirts of history lie these alternate versions. Explosives were used to bring the towers down. The tapestry was sewn by English hands to show the cruelty of William the Conqueror. How do we know what to believe? No longer do the victorious write history. Sure, they get the larger chunk, but a portion goes to the skeptics, the victims, the losers, the conspiracy theorists.

And so how do we approach history? If our story of 9/11 is so similar to the English/Norman story of 1066, what's to say that in 1,000 years, people will be none the wiser and debates will still go on about who is to blame? Do we accept the versions given to us, or we do we search, as Bridgeford has done, for another possible explanation? If we choose the former, we remain ignorant, lost in the dark and unable to learn the lessons history gives us. If we choose the latter, we make an inexact science that much more unstable. Two sides to everything.

But that is what makes history fascinating, doesn't it? Frustrating, too. Just like a good painting can be interpreted many different ways, history can be looked at from many different angles. Some histories, we know, are much more straightforward. We have letters and journals and facts upon facts. It's those mysterious characters and events, like Napoleon Bonaparte, like the wild ride of 1066, like the curious circumstances that surround 9/11, that keep our palates wet.

So I built a bridge and crossed it, and now it feels that we are more lost than we are found. Maybe the answer is to choose a side and run with it, like our friend Andrew Bridgeford, who, though his resources may be shaky, has nevertheless given us a new perspective on an established piece of history.

Keep your eyes on the truth, history fans. And keep those palates wet.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Face to Face with the Past

In March of 2005, I hopped in a van with a group of my college buds and went on my first trip to New Orleans. My first impression with the city was that it was dirty. And all there was to do was to drink and party.

Later that year, Katrina struck with all of its fury. You know the rest of the story.

I visited again in 2008 and once again in 2009 without thinking much about the effects of the hurricane. We saw traces of some of the damage, but not much more thought was given.

Today, nearly 5 years after the devastation first occurred, I visited the Lower 9th Ward. You might recall earlier this year when I posted some things about Hurricane Katrina and about Eric Dyson's book. I knew that this trip to New Orleans would be different than my previous ones. For starters, I refused to step foot on Bourbon Street. I've done that enough. Instead, my good friend Austin drove Kurt and me around the city, looking at schools, houses, and businesses that still show signs of disaster.

I could have read all of the books on Katrina, and I still would not have been prepared for the Lower 9th. It was heartbreaking. Here I am, heartbroken.



The good news and the odd news is that Brad Pitt is helping to build some houses in the Lower 9th. They are very strange and not entirely efficient, but it looks like a good idea.

There were so many houses just left to the wild. Down the side roads there were empty plots of land where houses once stood. The X's spray painted on the front of buildings were an eerie reminder of the ones who had left, either in the tide of the water that overtook the levees, or in the mass exodus that followed. Written on one building was, "Home. This Used to be Home." It was very hard to watch the families who were trying to rebuild, who sat on their porches across the street from hollowed out houses that whispered horrible secrets of what went on five years ago. On the way out, there was a school that had sat untouched with a sign that read, "Classes will resume August 29, 2005." A place that had been discarded by its country is putting back together the pieces of their lives, trusting in each other and billowing with pride.

I did not cry until we passed a group of children riding their bikes on the way into St. Bernard Parish. And I thought of the stories I had heard about white people barricading the bridges so that they black people couldn't get out. And I thought about how disastrous the Louisiana school system had been before the hurricane and how much worse it must have gotten in the years that followed.

I am glad that I visited the Lower 9th Ward, even if it was difficult to look at what happened. That's what being a historian is all about: facing the horrors of the past and trying to understand them.

New Orleans is still dirty. Probably filthier than ever. It is not a city that I particularly enjoy. But it has such a unique personality that most other cities cannot obtain. And it takes pride in that, whether for good or for bad. And in the wake of disaster, people stubbornly stay put to build a life, even in the Lower 9th Ward where they had been tossed aside and forgotten. It is a beautiful and heart-breaking place, and I'm very glad that I was able to see something beyond the booze-soaked streets of Bourbon Street, even if it was difficult to take in.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hralf Kraki!

History Fans,

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that I finished The Saga of Hralf Kraki on the way to and from the Grand Canyon, which was really neat to see, even though I was very scared and whimpered like a child.

The bad news is that I've been sucked back into a life of reading fiction. I know, I know. But I promise they have been good books. So, call this a little vacation. I promise that after I am done I will be ready to continue my scholastic life.

As for Hralf Kraki, the saga itself was fun to read (plus his name is extremely fun to say). The story went more in depth about Beserkers and Champions. It also further illuminated the masculine society and how women push stories forward yet are often the cause of problems. But I am very excited to get back to Jesse Byock's book that I was reading earlier.

So, hang in there, History Fans. I'll be back to my regular self before too long.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Blame Everything on Geography

Greetings from Los Angeles!

Yesterday I finished Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. And it was very fitting that I reached the finale in California.

You see, Jared Diamond's theory is that there is no scale to which human beings are measured. There are no components that some human beings possess that others do not. What does this mean? It means that Europeans did not take over the globe because they worshiped the right God or because they had some inherited gift that Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians did not. His theory is that geography caused it, along with a few other factors. But it mainly rests on the lay of the land.

I explained in my last post about the important of axises. This is one of factors. Diffusion of technology and ideas spread much faster on Eurasia's east-west axis than it did of Africa's or the America's north-south axises. The other factors, as I may have discussed previously, include the amount of plants and animals on each continent that could be domesticated, as well as the geographical blue prints, amount of food production, and central organization. It was harder for technology to spread across Africa's Sahara Desert and tropical rain forests, while Eurasia offered few disruptions on that east-west axis.

I believe very much in Jared Diamond's theory. When the Europeans encountered the Native Americans in 1492 and thereafter, they weren't meeting a community of people who were a step below on the evolutionary chain. No. Instead, they were meeting a community of people who lived with what they had. North America had no large mammals suitable for domestication. It wasn't until Europeans arrived that the Native Americans adopted horses. Without the those large mammals, the Native Americans lacked both energy and fertilizer that would have boosted their food production. Neither did North America produce very many crops that could be domesticated. It took a very long time for corn to be transformed into the edible crop we know today. It took a very long time for beans to travel from Central America to the pockets of civilizations across North America. Because of these factors, Native Americans in North America did not develop villages or technologies like Europeans did.

Europeans had the advantage of having many crops and large mammals that could be domesticated. And they had a longer time to develop them. When Asians crossed the Bering Strait in during the Ice Age, Europeans had already started the process of domesticating their sheep and cows and figuring out what's good to eat. When the Native Americans had time to settle into the New World and figure out what's good to eat, they were already many years behind the Europeans. But that's where the comparisons stop. From there, the Native Americans lived their lives as mostly hunter-gatherers because that's the type of land the geography gave them. The same is true with Aboriginal Australians, but of course, they get to add isolation to their list of withouts.

And since the Europeans had large mammals, they got the large mammals' germs and developed diseases. Their large food production also meant that they could settle into villages and raise an army. You see, when you are a hunter-gatherer, most of your efforts go into finding food. But when you are able to create a large enough surplus of food, that gives people extra time. Extra time to raise an army, to invent things, etc. But it comes with a price. More food means more people means more differing opinions. So because of these factors, the Europeans eventually said so long to their tribal ways and made their way to a chiefdom and eventually states. The Native Americans, because they lacked those first few crucial elements of crops and mammals, stayed with their tribes, except, of course, the Aztecs and the Incas.

Why the Aztecs and the Incas did not develop along the same lines as the Europeans is somewhat of a mystery. Again, they didn't have mammals or very many crops that could be domesticated, but they had more than the North Americans. And the truth is that they could have given the Europeans a run for their money. But as the European diseases preceded their guns and steel, the Native Americans died off by the millions.

The biggest question that Jared Diamond brings up is addressed in the Afterword. Why Europe and not China? China was unified in 221 B.C. and had domesticated their animals and crops around the same time as the Europeans. And it's true that many Southern Chinese expanded into the Pacific and their ancestors now inhabit those tropical areas of Southeast Asia. But why didn't they come to the New World and take over the globe? Diamond blames that event back in 221 B.C.: unification. Diamond says that because Europe stayed fragmented over the years, they maintained a competitive drive. That competition led to many inventions, innovations, and explorations. China had been unified and were isolated from any other advanced societies. The rest of Asia were hunter-gatherers. And because of their unification and isolation, there was no competition to develop new technologies or to beat someone else to the new world.

This last part, I'm not so sure about. Diamond takes an extremely capitalist view of the world. The more competition, the better. That may be true. And he may be talking about life in general rather than economics. Whether or not I agree with it does not mean it is not a good explanation for why Europe took the reins of the Earth instead of China.

And here I am in California, marveling at the geography of the state. In the Redwood Forest, it was cool and moist. In Eureka, it was warm. San Francisco was pretty warm, while Monterrey was freezing! Lancaster was super dry in the desert and Santa Monica was perfect. The mountains, the desert, the ocean. My own little class on geography and what that means to the people within it.

I highly recommend this book. Jared Diamond knows his stuff, and proposes a monumental idea: that we are equal, but by geographical accidents, some were given the means to overtake others.
How romantic!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Axis of Inequality!

Hello from Denver, CO, history fans!

So far my travels have not led to very exciting historical sites, but I did get to see the falls of Sioux Falls. And tomorrow we are heading to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. These are more geographic marvels than historical landmarks, but exciting nonetheless.

But for this post, I want to focus on axises. Axii?

I have been slowly making my way through Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. There is an awful lot of information to discuss. If you don't know the purpose of the book, let me enlighten you. Diamond is trying to answer the difficult question of why some societies overtook others, why peoples on one continent developed certain technologies before others. I hesitate to use the word evolve because that implies that there is a standard. Why, he asks, did societies progress as they did at different speeds?

History has shown as that the people of Eurasia have ruled the world for a good long while. What is the reason behind the enslavement of Africans, the destruction of Native Americans, the oppression of Aboriginal Australians. Why were the Europeans the big bullies? Diamond spells out very specifically that it was NOT because some people were inherently more advanced or superior. And although there are many factors that go into answer these questions, it really comes down to one area: geography. Of course it branches out from there. But geography is so vital. Why, you may ask? Well let me tell you.

Let's look at the geography of our 4 major land masses: Eurasia, The Americas, Africa, and Australia. The biggest of these is Eurasia. It also is home to the Fertile Crescent, the most lucrative geographical area when it comes to food production. Because of the Fertile Crescent's geography, it provided the necessary wild crops to its inhabitants who then domesticated them. The domestication of crops meant that the people there no longer needed to live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Instead, they could live in one place and grow larger families because they had the means to do so. Suddenly, there was a larger population in a small area such as had never been known. Do you see how geography set the stage for such an incredible phenomenon? It had nothing to do with the people who lived there. It had everything to do with the land. The Fertile Crescent provided a wider variety of crops than any of the other continents could offer. Also, Eurasia had more large mammals that could be domesticated. The Americas had very few options as far as large mammals were concerned. Africa, on the other hand, had plenty of large mammals but very few met the criteria for domestication.
Australia, unfortunately, was so isolated from everything that hardly anything applies to this continent. It's like your dummy little brother who has to take remedial classes and can't seem to pass the freshman math class.

So what about those axises?

Look at the major axis of each land mass. Both the Americas and Africa have north to south axises. But Eurasia has an east to west axis. I mean, as far as the landmass is concerned. This means that food production, and technologies, and other inventions and innovations could travel much easier in Eurasia than in the other two continents. This is because as you go east to west, though the terrain may differ slightly, the days are relatively the same length and the climate is not too incredibly different. I mean, you start in Western Europe and travel east and you don't encounter too much of a different climate or biome until you get to desert in China.

But in the other two continents with their north to south axises, the food production, ideas, and technologies can't travel as well. North Africa received many of the same ideas and innovations that Europe had, but it could not travel south very well because of the Sahara Desert. Then as you push past the Sahara, you get to intense rain forest. The length of days varies as one goes north or south and food can't grow the same way.
For instance, corn grew abundantly in Mesoamerica. The Mexican climate was ideal for growing the crop. But travel north to Canada and try to plant the corn. The days are shorter and the winters are much longer. It would take a while to experiment with how to successfully grow corn in that northern climate. And much like Africa, the Americas had its share of geographic obstacles, such as the desert in the southwest, the Andes in South America, and the extreme climates that stretched from the Mississippi valleys to the Mayan Empire.

I don't know if you find this as fascinating as I do. And I really butchered Diamonds words. The concept, however, is so interesting to me. Geography dictating societies and history. And it's intriguing and a little horrifying to learn that there isn't a standard to which people and societies evolved. Some cultures accepted technologies while other discarded them. Many of these technologies were invented without a cause and were later adopted for different uses. Other cultures, for whatever reasons, denied access to these technologies. Diamond explains this very beautifully and I won't try to recount it.

So, the next time you get angry at the Europeans for destroying the world, think about what you've learned about axises and get angry at geography instead!

Just kidding, geography never handed out blankets infected with smallpox.

But it's nice to remind yourself that you and your culture are no better or more advanced than the people in New Guinea or sub-Sahara Africa. We grew out of what was around. Our cultures are different and rightly so. Different strokes for different folks!

Until next time!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Columbine Myths

History fans, I apologize for my tardiness. I finished a book about two weeks ago, but my life has been so busy that I haven't had time to sit down and update History Books. Of course, I should have plenty of time to update this summer while I'm touring around the country. I bought a good amount of books for the trip and should have plenty to discuss.

But today, I want to talk about Columbine. If you remember, on April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School and went on a shooting rampage that lasted approximately 13 minutes. It took over four hours to discover what sort of damage the two boys had caused and nearly a decade to figure out exactly what happened in the school and what had led up to the tragedy. The information from this post I found in Dave Cullen's book Columbine.

I expected Dave to give an account of what happened and maybe some insights. He provided that and much more. It soon became clear that everything I thought about Columbine was not actually true. Here are some myths from Columbine on which for you to chew. Also, I listened to this book a few weeks ago, so I'm going on what I remember.

  • April 20 - Hitler's Birthday: The widely accepted belief is that the Columbine killers chose the date April 20 because it corresponded with Hitler's birthday. The date is actually accidental. Eric and Dylan had planned on that Monday, April 19, for over a year. The date meant nothing. But one of their ammunition suppliers couldn't get everything to the boys on time, so their plans were delayed. Near the end of his life, Eric had taken an interest in German history, specifically Hitler and the Nazi regime, but the meaning of the date is inconsequential.
  • The Bully Theory: Prior to the Columbine massacre, the majority of school shooters had been outcasts and misfits, out for some sort of monumental revenge. As soon as the new cameras reached the school, the reporters started secreting the same old tune of outcast's revenge. But the truth is that Dylan and Eric were not really picked on at all. In fact, Dylan bullied younger kids and got suspended the year before for carving the word, "faggot" into a freshman's locker. Eric had written in his notebook that he hoped to kill all the jocks, but it wasn't because they bullied them or picked on him. It was because they were a part of the human race. Eric hated everyone and wanted everyone, regardless of his or her subculture, to perish, jocks included. Bully awareness became a huge conversation following Columbine. I hope that some good came out of that conversation. But the fact of the matter is that bullying was not really a key issue that drove either boy to do what he did.
  • The Blame Game: When the public began scrutinizing and studying the killers, fingers started pointing in every imaginable direction. Marilyn Manson, violent video games, the parents. Michael Moore pointed out in his documentary that perhaps a violent culture was to blame since a few miles away sat Lockheed Martin, a company that manufactures warheads. Many of the Columbine kids' parents worked at the factories. But here's the truth: Eric Harris was a psychopath. He had no conscience and yearned for death and destruction. Dylan was a depressed mess of a boy. Eric, who had no feelings, fed off of Dylan's intense anger and frustration. Dylan who had no thoughts of his own leaned on Eric's criminal plans. Their musical taste varied. Dylan loved techno and Eric's favorite band was KMFDM. They never mentioned Marilyn Manson in their writings. The boys enjoyed video games and perhaps some ideas were derived from the games. Dylan had made some drawings of how they would be dressed on "Judgment Day" that looked like something out of Halo or some sort of war game. Eric was an exceptional liar, as most psychopaths are, and kept his parents in the dark about his real feelings towards life. Dylan was less successful at lying but had decent relationships with both parents. I think that of all the parents of students of Columbine, the Harris's and the Klebolds were the most surprised. Were there warning signs that they could have picked up on to prevent the killings from happening? I think Eric was hellbent on destruction and was very good at hiding his tracks. Dylan, on the other hand, revealed some signs of struggle that his parents could have picked up on. But both boys said in their journals and in the basement tapes that they chose to do this, that it was no one's fault but their own.
  • The Shootings: What most people don't know is that the attack was actually drawn up to use guns as a last resort. Eric and Dylan had intended on blowing up the school, along with their peers. But, as the police quickly discovered, the bombs they had made out of propane tanks were shoddily built. The boys had placed one bomb a couple miles from the school. The idea was that that bomb would go off and create a diversion so the police would be occupied. Then the bombs in their cars would go off, then the bombs in the school. Either the boys decided at the last minute to change plans or they thought that since the bombs didn't go off, they needed to rethink their plans.
  • She Said Yes: One of the most controversial myths to come out of Columbine was the story of Cassie Bernall. The story that came out of the library was that Eric had held a gun to Cassie's head and asked her if she believed in God. Cassie said yes and Eric pulled the trigger. Cassie's mother wrote a book about the ordeal and her story exploded through Evangelical youth groups and churches. The account came from one student who survived int he library. However, when word got out that the mother was writing a book, a student named Emily came forward to police and said that there was never an exchange between Cassie and Eric. She said that she had been hiding under the same table as Cassie when Eric walked in without a word, knelt down, and blew Cassie away. There were similar reports to other survivors. The students and their parents were allowed to revisit the library, and the boy who originated the Cassie was explaining to his parents what occurred on April 20 when a detective stopped him. He pointed out that the research and other eyewitness accounts contradicted what he was saying to his parents. The boy argued, then realizing he was mistaken, left the room feeling sick. Investigators agree that no exchange ever took place in the library, discounting one of the most tremendous youth martyr stories our generation ever knew.
  • Open Spaces: In 1997, Dylan and Eric were arrested for breaking into a van. Part of their punishment was to meet with a counselor who evaluated them. During that time, and the year and half leading up to the massacre, about a dozen reports were sent to the police in regards to Eric Harris. Most of them came from the parents of one of Eric's peers. They had stumbled onto Eric's website, on which were death threats, accounts of making bombs, etc. Not long after the investigation began, the Jefferson County officials realized that if anyone were to get their hands on these reports, that the blame would fall on them for not taking them seriously. There was a secret meeting called the Open Space meeting where they discussed the matter and decided what to do to the evidence. That's right. A cover up. For years, nobody knew that either boy had been in any sort of trouble. The reports on Eric had disappeared, then reappeared, then disappeared again. Finally, an affidavit was proven successful in finding one of the reports.
  • What Changed: In the aftermath of Columbine, one would think that a slew of changes would appear in the legislative branch. Unfortunately, not much was done in Colorado to prevent further attacks, as was evidence in the Deer Creek shooting that occurred a decade later. A few laws were passed that put safety locks on firearms and a few tidbits on selling guns to minors. But little progress was made with gun control. In fact, one of the biggest improvements occurs in Michael Moore's documentary when he and a survivor get K-Mart to stop selling ammunition. One crucial move was made by the police. During Columbine, the SWAT team sat outside the school for three or four hours before anything was actually done when Eric and Dylan had committed suicide after only 13 minutes of shooting. The reason for this is general policy. Secure the scene, then enter. Plus bombs were still going off long after the killers had died. The police changed their policy and from the on, they rushed into the buildings to take down the perpetrators. This change was mostly due to the fact that the only teacher to pass away, Dave Sanders, bled to death during those hours that the police stood outside the building. The students and faculty called 911 repeatedly for three hours and each time the response was the same: "Help is on the way." Sanders could have been saved.

Even though I don't much care for Cullen's writing style, he brought up some extremely interesting insights into the Columbine tragedy. I think what affected me the most was hearing what the parents of Eric and Dylan had to say. The Harris family for the most part kept silent after the killings, with the occasional apology. The Klebold family had a couple of interviews but also kept their distance from reporters. I'm not belittling losing a child. I think that every parent of the victims deserved to be upset and angry. But I can't imagine being the parent of the one who was responsible for such an enormous tragedy that affected the nation. And in the blame game, the parents got the brunt end of it. While I think it's true that parenting has quite an impact on the lives of their children, we have to keep in mind that these boys were 18. They were adults. And they told us that they knew exactly what they were doing.

Two very disturbing things were unveiled in this book. The first was the fate of Mark Manes. He was the one who sold Eric and Dylan their guns. Someone needed to take the fall for what happened and they pinned it on Mark. Did Mark break any law? He may have sold a gun to a minor, but at that time that wasn't that big of an offense. The parents of the victims berated him in court and Mark became the Columbine scapegoat.

The second and more disturbing point Cullen made was that Eric and Dylan were performers. Everything they wrote down and said on camera was meant for an audience. They left instructions, blueprints, and explanations in their journals and in the basement tapes. They knew precisely what they wanted to do, and they wanted everyone to see how they came to the conclusion. It's extremely unnerving and downright bewildering to see people filled with hate enough to act it out with such aggression.

That's what I learned at Columbine.
Until next time.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Welcome back, history fans. You might be wondering why there has been such a long gap between posts. The truth is that I needed a break. I finished a book about Hurricane Katrina and followed up by 9/11, and some doses of more Hurricane Katrina. Add onto that an earthquake every other week and a volcano that ruined half of Europe's travel plans, and I just needed to take it easy. So I've been reading the Wrinkle in Time series, along with lots of Calvin and Hobbes comics.

About a month ago, I was putting away some books at Borders when one caught my attention. It was titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The name itself was enough to make me want to read it. But at that point, I had enough on my plate, like 9/11 conspiracies and time traveling with Mrs. Who, Which, and Whatsit. Plus, it was a book about science.

Now, it's not that I have something against science or that I'm afraid of it. I've just had bad experiences with it. For instance, my 6th grade project for the Science Fair was a bathtub alarm. That's right. You could finally leave the room while the tub fills up with water and an alarm would sound when it got to desired amount. I didn't receive a prize for that one. In 7th grade, I was taught by an angry man who had no qualms about making fun of you in front of the class. My 8th grade teacher was a small man with a nasally southern drawl who looked like a bug and was rumored to be a black belt in karate. I took my last science class in my first year in high school. Somehow I passed Chemistry with a C even though I never had an inkling of what I was learning. My steps up to science were simply broken and rotten. The idea of reading a book about science just sounded annoying and complicated.

But as soon as I started Skloot's book, I knew that science had been redeemed in my heart. Not just the story of Henrietta Lacks herself but the writing style and the structure of the book had me floored. The story tip toes science fiction while shoving you headfirst into cell culture history. Then, every time you start to scratch your head, when you've heard enough about cells, Skloot will steer the focus back to the life of the Lacks family, how the dealt with the author, condescending and silent scientists, and confronting the fact that their mother will live forever.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. You heard me. The birth of the story is the death of the main character. She died in John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore at the age of 31. Months before she passed away, a doctor took a sample of tissue from a tumor that nested inside of Henrietta. Those cells were taken for a purpose but not with its owner's consent. You see, there in John Hopkins was a doctor who was trying to prove to the world that they didn't understand cancer like he did. In order to run the tests to gather evidence, he needed to experiment on live cells. The problem was that cells from people died after a few days, a week at most. He teamed up with a man named George Guy who was hell-bent on growing live cells. Together, they took samples from every woman who entered the hospital with any case of cervical cancer. And so far nothing had survived. Until Henrietta.

Those cells became known as HeLa cells. They were the first human cells to survive outside of the human body. They are still growing and thriving. George Guy went ape shit and told as many scientists as he could about his amazing HeLa cells. After a few years, the HeLa cells became known worldwide and they opened the door to all kinds of scientific and medical advances. Cell culture was built upon HeLa cells. The field was extremely erratic prior to the discovery and standards were implemented based on research with HeLa cells. The polio vaccine was developed through HeLa. In fact, the man who created the vaccine needed an enormous amount of cells, so some scientists actually built a HeLa cell factory that produced millions of cells every day. Cancer research, AIDS research, chromosome mappings, and countless other important advancements were made possible through her eternal cells.

For a woman who contributed so much to scientific progress, not much credit was given to her or her family. For 25 years, doctors at John Hopkins and around the world handled the cells taken without permission from within Henrietta Lacks without her family having any clue that a part of her was still alive. It was until 1976 when researchers began to panic about the contamination problems they saw in the HeLa cells that Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, was told that her mother's cells were studied worldwide. Most of the textbooks up until then had put the donor's name down as Helen Lane, a misleading pseudonym given by the doctors and John Hopkins. Reporters began contacted the Lacks family, asking them questions about Henrietta. But nobody would answer the family's questions. A poor black family that moved from the tobacco fields of Virginia to the mean streets of Baltimore, no one in the Lacks family quite understood what it all meant. For Deborah, her mother's cells had done good for the world. For Henrietta's sons, it meant that doctors stole their mother's cells and sold them for profit. They deserved some of the money.

That idea isn't entirely unfounded. A profit was made off of the HeLa cells, though not for the doctors at John Hopkins. And the anger and fear of the Lacks boys shouldn't be discredited either. Months before they were told their mother's cells were alive in labs across the world, the Tuskegee syphilis study had just been uncovered. And it was not uncommon for experiments to be carried out on black folks, especially in the 50's when Henrietta was in the hospital. Her sons thought that her cells were stolen, that the racist doctors at John Hopkins had killed her in the process, and that if they weren't careful, any of the children could be next. Oh, also, there was Dr. Chester Southam looking for bodies to inject.

Guess our country didn't learn much from the Nuremberg trials.

But the family couldn't sue John Hopkins or any of the doctors for a couple of reasons. The first was because they didn't have enough money for a lawyer. In fact, the children of the woman who produced one of the most important pieces of medical research couldn't even afford to go to the doctor. At one point, Deborah was slicing her pills in half so they would last longer because she didn't have enough money for a new prescription. The other reason was that the cells didn't belong to them.

A man named Roger Moore was diagnosed with a form of leukemia by his doctor. He started going to a specialist in California about every month or so. On every visit, he was supposed to sign a permission form. He eventually became suspicious and refused to sign it. The doctor went ballistic and demanded that the permission form be signed, even though Moore didn't entirely understand why. He hired an attorney who discovered that the doctor had developed a cell line like HeLa called Mo out of Moore's blood cells. Moore had no idea. His body apparently produced a very rare protein that the doctor recognized immediately as gold. Moore sued the doctor. And lost. The court ruled that once cells left your body, it no longer belonged to you.

Moore had three things over Henrietta. He was white, he could afford an attorney, and he was alive. The children of Henrietta were left to fend for themselves and try to distinguish fact from fiction. Undereducated, talked down to, and overlooked, the children became suspicious of anyone who came asking about their mother, especially after a con man pretended to be a lawyer and nearly took the last remaining money and properties of Henrietta and her family.

Rebecca Skloot went through an incredible journey with the Lacks family. At first, her questions were met with the same suspicion and anger that they showed to anyone who came wanting to know about Henrietta, and eventually became almost a part of the family.

I don't normally recommend books here because I know that most of the people who read this blog would most likely not enjoy books about the Mayflower or about the melting temperature of steel in a high rise building. But this book really blew me away, not only in content but in style and diction. So, history fans, go get your heart broken in downtown Baltimore. And take some science in stride. It's not so bad after all!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

You Say Science, I Say Hogwash

Friends! Fans! Grab a pen and start writing your mother! Carve it into your neighbors' palms! Go tell it on the mountain! This will be my last 9/11 post! Well, at least for now. I'm sure after the last post, the few of you who read this probably think I've gone batty, that I might have the deep down crazies. And you might be correct. But this whole situation is crazy, so I'm right where I belong, I suppose.

Today, I finished David Ray Griffin's book, The Mysterious Collapse of WTC7: How the report was unscientific and false. The title doesn't lead much to the imagination. And just like the title, the entire book spells out each little detail to the point that it is cumbersome and nearly redundant. Nevertheless, Griffin has once again proven that the official story of what happened on September 11 is riddled with holes, mysteries, and all sorts of whodunnits. And once again he made a believer out of me.

I will give you the basic rundown of what the reports say. There is a lot of science mumbo jumbo, so I'll give you the easy History Books version. The official story of what happened to World Trade Center Building 7 is that debris from the collapse of the North Tower damaged WTC7 and started fires. These fires eventually got so hot that they caused thermal expansion within the steel beams and girders. The girders, because of the expansion, busted through the shear studs that held them in place and began to collapse and fail. A few central columns were then left without any support and they, too, collapsed. The video footage of WTC7 collapsing was nothing but a hollow shell of a building, as all of its inside had fallen apart. That is the explanation of the global collapse of WTC7.

Now, I am going to point out a few things that Griffin spends way too much time on. Should we do bullets? Yeah! Let's do bullets!

  • Fires were reported way before 10:28, when the North Tower collapsed. Remember Barry Jennings? He reported explosions and fires before 9:30. Michael Hess as well originally reported fires, though later he changed his story.
  • The fires that were started were extremely manageable. About six floors were reported to be in flames. These floors, however, were, for the most part, offices. The amount of combustible material was thin. Many experts agree that there was combustible material present, but enough to keep a fire in one place for about 40 mins. NIST reported some fires sitting on certain floors for nearly seven hours.
  • The combustible material available would have not been able to sustain a fire for a very long length of time. Not only that, but the temperatures it could have actually got to is nowhere near hot enough to create the kind of thermal expansion in steel.
  • The steel beams were reinforced in concrete. What normally happens in buildings is that when the steel is heated, so is the concrete. That way, they both expand with the heat and the beams and girders don't fail. In NIST's computer simulations, only the steel was heated and the concrete was completely ignored.
  • A few scientists looked at the logistics of that kind of thermal expansion. It takes an awful lot of heat spread out across the surface of a steal beam in order for it to expand even a small amount. NIST reported that there were isolated fires that each stayed on its floor, and only a couple moved across the entire floor. With about 40 minutes of combustible material in each location, there is actually no way for the fire to heat the entire beams or girders simultaneously and at the same rate in order for it to expand enough to break the shear studs.
  • NIST originally said that the girders didn't have shear studs. That was proven false. There were in fact shear studs. NIST admitted that they fabricated it.
  • All of NIST's research was done through computer simulation. Nothing was done with hard evidence with the steel or any piece of that actual building. NIST, in their report, admitted that they not only ignored the more likely scenarios and chose the less likely that fit their hypotheses, but also admitted that they embellished the heat of the fires, the length of the fires, and the amount of combustible material.
  • It is completely implausible for a building to collapse in a near free fall without the use of explosives. NIST's explanation that the columns fell and what we saw collapse was the empty shell of the WTC7. In order for that to happen, in order for the building to collapse that quickly without resistance, every column and every beam would have had to fail in unison. And remember, NIST said that there were fires on about six floors (8-14). How in God's green earth could fires in the lower middle of a building create enough heat across the entire building for each column and beam to fail in unison? It doesn't make sense. At all. NIST actually said in its report that what happened was "a miracle." You are scientists, you intergalactic ninnies! You aren't supposed to believe in miracles!

There you have the short version. Also, the term "intergalactic ninnies" is a name my cousin Josh used to call me when we were kids. It is no less fitting in this circumstance.

Now, one important question kept popping up when I would bore people to death with my knowledge of WTC7. Why? Why take out building 7? It was a good question that Griffin never answered directly. What was so important inside this building that was actually further away from the towers than some other buildings that needed destroyed? I emailed David Ray Griffin's webmaster, Edward Rynearson, and asked him this exact question. And though he isn't the friendliest pen pal, Mr. Rynearson did answer my question. He wrote:

WTC7 may have contained the control mechanisms for the attack. They may have used microwave beams like they use at airports to guide the planes in. Also, the SEC was storing evidence against energy companies involved in fleecing California consumers during the blackouts. This evidence was destroyed. CIA had offices in this building.

We really need a real investigation to determine exactly what happened.

Ed
Whoa, mama! Thanks for opening up a whole new can of worms, Ed!

The SEC aside, just take a look at the information that was available. There were in fact reports that people knew that WTC7 was going to come down before it actually did, when never in history had a fire brought down a steel structure of that size. There were reports of explosions. The building came down in what looked like a controlled demolition. The reports that NIST gave are improbable, implausible, and smeared with the nasty stench of scientific fraud. Griffin provides an enormous amount of evidence that explosives were used to bring down WTC7. At the very least, NIST should have investigated it. At least give it some thought. Instead, their reply was that the use of explosives seemed so ridiculous that they didn't even bother considering it as an option.

My question now, as I continue my research and reading, is what if NIST did believe in the theory that explosives were used. If they created a report that supported this, what holes would be evident from that side? Would there be as many pieces missing from that story as there is in the official one? I am certain that some would show. However, from a scientific approach, the rule is to follow the most likely hypothesis and to never ignore evidence, no matter how weak it might be. You have to follow up on the evidence. You have to answer the questions of professional people in the fields of engineering, fire control, and demolition. You have to present your work to your peers for analysis. NIST did not do any of these things. That is why a new investigation, one that wouldn't be pressured by the Bush (or Obama) administration to force the story to fit an outcome.

And I intend to help. It looks bleak, yes. The masterminds are all but off the hook. Thousands of lives have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if we can help bring the truth to light, we can maybe save a few thousand more. We can bring our soldiers back to their families. We can unmask the stereotypes we've given Muslims. We can punish the ones who are actually responsible. We can tear off Dick Cheney's nut sack and staple it to his forehead.

These things will likely never happen. So why pursue it? I guess I like the mystery. I like absurdity of it all. I believe too much in the truth.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Convicing Coincidences and Other Odd Occurences

I totally intended to continue my line of thought and post another entry or two about Hurricane Katrina, Michael Eric Dickson, and Paul Harris's book, but I saw something this week that I had to put up on History Books. Yes, it is about 9/11. Yes, it is a conspiracy theory. That is the extent of what I will say. I am going to post the information, and you take it as you will: conspiracy or coincidence.

Many deaths have taken place to key witnesses and people tied to the 9/11 truth movement that could have turned the tide in the investigations for 9/11. Here are a few.

Barry Jennings

I talked a lot about Barry Jennings in a previous post. His death is mysterious, probably the strangest out of these series. Two days before the NIST report, Jennings was found dead. The cause is unknown.

Beverly Eckert

Mrs. Eckert was an inspiration to say the least. Her husband died in the attacks on 9/11. Since then, she worked extremely hard to bring the families of victims together. It was this group of families that pushed the Bush administration to go through with the investigation and create the 9/11 Commission. She was offered money by the government to just hush up, but she refused and went on to sue the government. When the Report came out, she was also one of the many who were dissatisfied and who demanded an unbiased investigation. She was killed in a plane crash in Buffalo, just after meeting President Obama.

Kenny Johannemann

Kenny Johannemann was a Twin Towers janitor. Not only did he rescue a man from the wreckage but he also supported the account of explosions occurring. His family says that 9/11 changed him. He took to drinking and depression and eventually shot himself in 2008.

Madame Jeane Palfrey

Madame DC is the toughest one to tie in. She was mixed up in a lot of crazy shit before 9/11. Known for her ring of prostitution, Palfrey was in the news quite a bit and even spent some time in prison. She said that she'd rather die than go back there. Before she passed, though, she was interviewed on the Alex Jones show and said that she would never kill herself and she thought that she might be in danger. The rumors were that through her girls, she had acquired some classified information on 9/11. It's tough to tell, though. She was facing a pretty hefty prison sentence for other charges.

Michael H. Doran


Michael Doran was an attorney who fought for the victims of 9/11 and got them and the families of victims compensation. He was piloting a small plane near Cleveland when it went down, resulting in his death.

Christopher Landis

Former Operations Manager for Safety Service Patrol at the Virginia Department of Transportation. Landis gave some photographs of the Pentagon to some filmmakers. Apparently, these photos not only showed the crash site but also government officials covering it up. One week after the makers of "PentaCon" obtained his testimony on film, Landis committed suicide.

Bertha Champagne

Bertha was the baby-sitter of the younger Bush brother, Marvin, who, if you remember from my earlier posts, was the head of Securacom, the company that ran security for the entire WTC complex. She was 62-years-old when she was found in the Bush's driveway, run over by her own vehicle.

Paul Smith and John del Giorno

Smith was the pilot, del Giorno was the cameraman. These two were the first to witness the second plane slamming into the tower. Smith died a year or so ago by a cab that had been run off the road by a mysterious black car. Del Giorno refuses to speak about what he saw the morning of 9/11.

Major General David Wherley

General Wherley was one of the brave souls who first responded to the terrorist attacks by scrambling fighter jets in to the sky. Even though the airliners still crashed into the towers, Wherley tried his best to take care of the situation. He died in what was the worst DC metro crash in history in 2009.

Salvatore Princiotta

A first responder. A hero. A fire fighter. He moved to Arizona to help treat his lung condition that he got from breathing in so much filth at Ground Zero. He was murdered in 2007. The number one suspect in the murder case was Jeffery Bigham, who later shot himself.

David Graham

David Graham claimed that he spotted two of the alleged 9/11 terrorists the morning of the attacks. He took his information to the FBI who told him to shut up and go away. Graham began writing a book about his experience and the responses he got from the FBI. He was poisoned last year.


Now, I am the first to admit that some of these are shaky at best. The hooker, the baby-sitter, and the general all could be coincidences or freak accidents. But the dentist, the operations manager, and Barry Jennings eerily bring to mind Hollywood stories of spies and murder and deceit. I am about 25 pages away from finishing David Ray Griffin's The Mysterious Collapse of WTC 7 and I have some interesting things to talk about on my next post.

Before I go, I'll leave you with this. NIST admitted that it fabricated its computer simulations to fit their hypotheses of how WTC 7 collapsed. Admitted that they lied. Did you know this? Our government lied to us. That may not come as quite a shock to some. But it should rattle you. They went to great lengths to cover up what they did. NIST is the tip of the iceberg. Could they go as far as to commit murder? Here you have eleven maybes.

If you live in New York or know anyone who lives in New York, send them here: http://www.nyccan.org/

Sign the petition to reopen the investigation with an unbiased commission.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Indifference, or It Came From Lake Pontchartrain!

First, history fans, I must warn you of the heaviness of this post. My study of Katrina has taken a turn from dealing with race and class to focusing on the mishandling of the rescue efforts that followed the storm.
Secondly, I want to thank Paul Harris for taking an interest in this blog. He was kind enough to send me a book of his own account of being trapped in the Superdome during late August 2005. I look forward to reading it, and I feel that it will be a good addition to our discussion here on History Books. I also have been listening to Dan Carlin's podcast, Hardcore History, and have some exciting posts brewing about the Punic Wars and the activities on the eastern front during World War 2. But! Before I get swept up in these tangents, let's get back to the eye of the storm. See what I did there?

I was hoping to have Dyson's book Hell or Highwater finished before the end of Black History Month, but March sneaked up on me. The book has been pretty startling. I had heard prior to reading the book about how FEMA failed tremendously and how the government dropped the ball. As I began reading through it, however, it seemed that the local government, not the federal government, blundered big time. But as I continued reading, I realized it was a joint effort between local, state, and federal governments in the late and inefficient response to the devastation that Katrina wrought. Everybody messed up. The federal government, however, was trusted in the end to take control of rescue efforts, clean up, and rebuild, and it was they who delivered the knock out punch to the beaten victims of the New Orleans.

Where do you start to assign the blame? Does it lie with Bush? Can we hold Mayor Nagin accountable? What about Governor Blanco? To figure out how this disaster could have been avoided, you might have to go back hundreds of years. But for the sake of a subject that I know little to nothing about, we'll just go back about ten years when articles, documentaries, and editorials began popping up not only in Louisiana but all over the country that pointed out the poor shape that the levees were in and how a rough storm could spell a disaster for the city of New Orleans. Ten years ago! And for ten years, the army corp of engineers looked at the 17th street canal with an awful feeling in their stomachs. They told the government how much money they needed to fix the deteriorating levees. But there were more important things to do than to protect the poor citizens of the Lower 9th and Jefferson Parish.

The money that could have been used to prevent some of Katrina's wrath traveled across the Atlantic ocean, through the Mediterranean, and into the desert, where it pledged its allegiance to the lies of rich men. The engineers had estimated $1 billion could have secured the crumbling walls that embraced Lake Pontchartrain. Instead that money was sent to Iraq and to Afghanistan. Along with the state's money, Bush sent thousands of Louisiana's finest to fight and to die in the desert. And so the stage was set. The prediction was widely acknowledged: soon a storm would power through the sad defenses and fill up the Crescent City with water. Sadly, the warnings fell on deaf ears.

Tackling natural disasters is tough. There is only so much you can do to prepare for them. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and even hurricanes can happen quickly, without warning, and take the lives of unsuspecting citizens. Very rarely do we get an adequate heads up that something like that is coming so we can get ready. A tornado siren can go off five minutes before the cyclone rips through a town. We can now track hurricanes when they are forming beyond the Caribbean and can prepare for impact a few days before. How then do we excuse ourselves for getting ten years of constant warnings and no action was taken? The blame can be tossed from mayor to governor to president, but in the end, not one person in charge thought it necessary to rebuild the deteriorating levees in New Orleans.

The next big misstep fell into the hands of Mayor Nagin. As Katrina blew through Cuba and gained momentum, Nagin was told how serious the situation was. He stalled. And lives were lost. Giving the go for a mandatory evacuation is a tough decision. It's expensive and dangerous. I know that Nagin wanted to be sure that this was the storm they had all feared before he gave the order. Yet, even when his worst fear was confirmed, the mayor again hesitated. I can't wrap my head around why. A voluntary evacuation was issued. This meant that the folks who had access to vehicles could get out of harms way. The thousands of poor folk who were dependent on the city for transportation were out of luck. Not until Katrina was knocking on the door of New Orleans did Nagin tell everyone to get out. The official plan to evacuate the poor folk of New Orleans involved commandeering the city and school buses, picking up the citizens, and booking it down both sides of the interstate. Here is the result of Nagin's hesitation:





The mayor acted too late. The baton was then passed to Governor Blanco, who I think tried her best to deal with the situation. Again, she waited too late to act, but when she did, it was decisive and prudent. She contacted the federal government, told them things were out of control, told them what they needed, and waited. I discussed in the last post about President Bush's indifference towards the cries for help from the South, how he seemed to treat it casually as though it were something egregious on a list of things to do. As the commander-in-chief, Bush has to take a chunk of the blame no matter what, and with good reason. I've made it clear that I believe all levels of government were to blame for the poor response. But if I were to ask who is to blame for turning a disaster into a catastrophe, the answer would be FEMA.

Michael Eric Dyson does an absolutely fantastic job of covering the background of FEMA, how it originated, how it grew to be obsolete, and how it led to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Created in 1979 to deal with response, rescue, and rebuilding in the midst of natural disasters, FEMA balanced on the edge of bankruptcy and tumbled through mismanagement until Clinton took office in 1993. President Clinton, who happens to be one of my heroes, whipped FEMA into shape and during the Midwest floods of the early '90s, got the agency to help with rescue and redistribution. It bought out much of the ruined land and helped the citizens settle into new communities and lives. Through hurricanes and earthquakes, FEMA, though not entirely faultless, thrived and knew its purpose. However, near the end of Clinton's term, especially in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, FEMA began to turn its attention to something much more exciting than natural disasters: terrorism.

Soon after the attacks on September 11, newly elected President Bush became obsessed with fighting terror. He directed much of this endless, exhausting task to FEMA, which he had demoted from a cabinet-ranked agency to a small piece of the Department of Homeland Security. Because of its intense focus on terrorism, FEMA lost touch with the natural disaster part of the job. It still responded, but as we see in New Orleans during Katrina, the agency was weak and built to do only so much, its chain of command and protocol getting lost somewhere in a muddled bureaucracy and ill-defined job descriptions.

Aside from its late response, its inadequate supplies and troops, and the Bush administration's attitude of indifference, FEMA surely did all that it could to save lives and to protect those survivors living in squalor in the Superdome and in the Convention Center. Wrong. Dyson points out a dozen unbelievable decisions FEMA made during the rescue efforts that actually made my jaw drop. You are probably going to say that in a disaster that huge, there needs to be organization so that it doesn't become more chaotic. I would initially say yes. But what if the people who were supposed to be organizing weren't really doing anything and there were a large amount of resources within reach? That is what we have to face now.

Sitting in Florida were a few Black Hawk helicopters, equipped with water and food and rescue gear, waiting for orders that never came. I have to keep in mind that the military is trained and can't do things without being ordered or asked, even if they know that breaking the rules is the right thing. This is a difficult moral/ethical issue that bothers me to no end. The pilots wanted to join the rescue efforts but could not. Sitting in the Gulf of Mexico was the USS Bataan. On board was enough food and water and hospital beds to accommodate much of the miserable refugees in the Superdome. FEMA never even called to ask for its service, so it sat empty in the harbor. Trucks with gallons and gallons of water were turned away by the National Guard because they weren't FEMA approved. A fleet of 500 water planes from Florida begged FEMA to allow them to help with the rescue. They were told it was too dangerous. Two hundred fire fighters drove down from Illinois were stopped outside of the city and told that they hadn't been approved by FEMA. When George Bush visited, a helicopter filled with food and water was flown in for a photo shoot but then was sent back without delivering any of its goods to those in need. And probably the worst example was of a doctor who was giving chest compressions to victims who were dying in the street. FEMA told him that he had to stop because his credentials hadn't gone through FEMA. He showed them his credentials and begged them to let him continue. He was trying to save lives. He was then forced to leave by the armed guards, who, by the way, had been given a shoot-to-kill order from Governor Blanco in the midst of the looting and violence that had been grossly overstated.

I understand that New Orleans was dangerous, contaminated, and even violent. But no matter what excuse is given, I cannot accept these atrocities. It breaks my heart to think of that doctor and those pilots and those fire fighters who had the misfortune of seeing the suffering and not being able to do anything about it. I will admit that while reading it, I felt my thirst for conspiracy burning in the back of my throat. And though some may argue that some agenda existed, I really think it was human error, hubris, and, as the title implies, indifference.

This post has had little to do with the racial issues that Dyson highlighted at the beginning of this book. When it comes to the actions, the series of events, the mis-communication, the battle for control, color and class was drowned out of the picture. A few days later, however, the world could see them floating in the water, next to the thousands of bodies whose lives had been overlooked for decades, centuries. The $1 billion that could have saved the levees has turned into $24 billion. The city of New Orleans will rise again, still below sea level, still impoverished, and I can't help but ask why.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Zack History Month

February is black history month. I usually try to celebrate this month by doing some research about different figures or different aspects of African-American culture. In college, I decided to do a leadership presentation on Marcus Garvey. A couple years ago, I began to trace the roots of rock and roll back to blues, listening to all sorts of different black artists. One year, I sent flowers to my old choir director, who I was in love with at the time. (She is a black babe!)

This year, I decided to plunge in a little deeper. I picked up a book by Michael Eric Dyson called, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Before I get into the book, however, I want to briefly touch on a couple of things.

First, race is a hot topic. It has been for decades, centuries even. It's something that floats around in our subconscious and even, in some cases, the forefront of our activities. A lot of how you view race is how you are brought up. I am a white male that grew up in a nearly all white neighborhood, and went to mostly white schools. Black people, to me, were like rumors. I'd heard that they existed and even saw them time to time, but I had no clue what their culture was like or even how they differed from me.

My television answered that question. I soon picked up on the cultural traits and the subtle nuances that separated the race cultures. Unfortunately, this is how many white kids learn about our black neighbors. And we are incredibly uninformed. As I grew up, those ideas, whether I believed them or not, would still be a part of my culture. My parents would warn me to lock my car doors in black neighborhoods and the cops would chase and pin a black man down on a television show daily.

So when our president said that it's time to have a national conversation about race, many hearts on both sides swelled. Some with fear, some with anger, some with hope. Josh, who works with me, told me about this video he watched of a group of African-Americans who had got together to have such a talk. One of the points that was brought up was how afraid white people are of saying the wrong thing that nothing at all gets said. I think this is true. The lady said that it was their job (blacks) to start the conversation and help white folks through it. My first reaction was that this is ludicrous. It's a two sided ordeal and should be initiated by both, or by white people who have done the most damage. But after reading the first couple chapters of Dyson's book, I understand why she would say this. Black people are the most patriotic Americans. After centuries of being treated poorly, and even downright rotten, they continue to believe in democracy and in the beauty that America can become.

Come Hell or High Water is a look at Hurricane Katrina through the race lens. Many accusations were tossed around about what happened in New Orleans in one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever seen. Dyson is dissecting the late reaction from the Bush administration and from FEMA. He is looking into the heart of the Delta with a chip on his shoulder because our government not only was late to respond to those in need, but had for years kept these people from improving their lot in life.

New Orleans is 67% black. Twenty eight percent of New Orleans lives in poverty. These two statistics are not coincidences. For years and years, our government, both intentionally and unintentionally, made financial progress for Southern blacks a near impossibility. Especially in a place like the 9th ward. A piece of land that no one wanted that freed slaves took because they had nowhere else to go and general customs, segregation laws, and Jim Crow kept many Southern blacks where they were.

Downtrodden. Tossed aside. Overlooked. Discriminated. African-Americans all over the United States felt these things at one time. But the south is a different story. I, a native Hoosier, didn't even realize it until I visited the city of Birmingham, AL. There, a man walked us through a memorial park and explained each and every statue and piece of art that represented his people's struggle during the Civil Rights Movement. And racism was still alive and well there. The man told us this. But you could hear the truth in his voice. You could feel it in the city. My friend Nathan who lived there told us some pretty disheartening things about life in Birmingham.

But as I am reading through Dyson's book, it became apparent that there is more than just racism that is being played against Americans. It's the class system. Our laws and legislature haven't discriminated against African-Americans for some time. But they sure do against the poor. Especially in Bush's administration. The president who presided over the rescue efforts of Hurricane Katrina was the same one who cut food stamp funding and gave tax breaks to the rich. Dyson makes a point to say that if Katrina had laid waste to half of Connecticut, the government would have responded much more quickly. Do I believe this? You bet I do. Is it because Connecticut is mostly white and New Orleans is mostly black? No, it's because Connecticut is very wealthy and contains some wealthy and important people. The 9th ward is one of the poorest parts of the country. No wealth, no importance. Take your time. But don't get me wrong. I don't believe for a moment that correspondence between race and economic status is a coincidence. That was years of planning.

To further drive the dagger in, George W. Bush was on the ball in 2004 when a hurricane hit a wealthy, rich part of Florida. The president visited the victims four times in six weeks. FEMA was praised for their quick response and their efficient help. Yet when Katrina absolutely devastated the poor and black city of New Orleans and the surrounding delta, he visited three times in maybe as many years. When the people of our nation needed our government the most, when they needed someone to prove that they gave a damn, no one responded.


Just like Birmingham opened my eyes to the realities of racism, Hurricane Katrina opened the eyes of the nation to the incredible socio-economic divide that existed in America. Out of sight, out of mind, right? It took a devastating hurricane to bring to the table the existence of the plight of American people. There had been for decades folks who lived in absolute poverty, partly because of our own government. You might think that I'm exaggerating. You might say, come on, man, you're making it worse than what it seems. Well, I say to you, doubters and believers, look at this time line: COWABUNGA!

Bush went on vacation during one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. Does this mean that he doesn't care about black people, like Kanye West claimed? I think if you look at the policies he implemented, you could make that case, not as a human caring for another human, but as a statehead caring for the peoples of his territory. I don't believe that Bush overlooked the people of Louisiana because it is largely a left-voting blue state. But I do believe that his administration, as well as administrations before, could have put the levees on the priority list or could have developed better plans for helping the poor blacks living in our southern states.

Dyson claims that the poor black of Louisiana and Mississippi are the most patriotic of Americans because they had gone through a life-altering disaster after having been pushed aside for most of their lives and still believe enough in our country to fight for change. Call them naive. I call them stronger than I. And don't get me wrong, many of the victims felt hopeless after the hurricane. How could you not? Thousands of people lost their lives when many could have been saved.

Is class status the new racism? Has it existed like this for years and years? I'm not sure. But it makes believe much more strongly in those programs built for the poor. Yes, they are abused. Yes, they have many flaws. But they exist to serve those who really do need it. And as long as they have access to help, we are doing our part. But we must not turn away and pretend that everything is hunky dory. I know that it is tough. I am a white male in rural Indiana. Nothing much bothers me. To right racism, I've learned, takes more than buying a Jackie Wilson album or confessing my love to my black choir director or reading a book by Michael Eric Dyson. It takes making an effort to reach out and communicate positively. And I'm not saying grab a black stranger and say, "Happy Black History Month." No, that wouldn't do. Maybe I don't really know the answer, other than talking deliberately and honestly to the African-American people in my life to learn and to be able to teach by example.

I apologize by how long-winded this entry turned out to be. Like I said, it's a hot topic. Emotions run high. It's hard to look back at a tangled and messy past, but that is where our lessons lie, history fans. I'm sure there will be plenty more updates as I move through this terrific book.

Celebrate black history.