The A. brevirostris connection

This post dips into the murky depths of Anthropology, but it is an interesting chapter in human pre-history. The origin of humans is somewhat controversial topic. One thing we are starting to agree on is that the human, as we know him today, emerged 250,000 years ago out of Africa.

A new archaeological find adds a new chapter to our long and storied history. An early hominid, an ancestor to the chimps, orangutans and humans. Unfortunately the only remnants of the skull remain, but through that we can trace our lineage to 12 million years ago. In addition, what is interesting is that this fossil was found in Spain. We can draw one of two conclusions about this. This either means that our ancestors migrated from Europe to Africa, or we haven’t found the fossils in Africa yet. Either way, you are now looking at an even further ancestor. Unfortunately he would be just as recognizable as a orangutan or chimp.

Oh hey its my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather.

Oh hey its my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather.

If you’re into science this site has a pretty comprehensive breakdown of what we can learn from the former face of a dead proto-ape. BBC has a pretty great breakdown of the history of humans. I’m getting started on my history of American currency, so stay tuned.

Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

How not to Investigate Old Stuff

2000 was an exciting year for old stuff. It looked like ancient history was about to be re-written. The Indian science and technology ministir released a story alleging that ruins were found 40m below the surface of the Bay of Cambay. They had found structures that resembled cities found in the Indus Valley. This was found by using sonar to map the rocks underneath a layer of sediment. A year later they dredged up some of the sediment and found a block of wood that was dated to 9,500 BCE. By the beginning of 2002, the BBC was reporting on the new city that would rewrite the way we look at the development of civilization.

Does anyone see the problem with this? First, there had been absolutely no real investigation of these ruins. They were simply lying under a pile of dirt. Second, the wood block could in no way be significantly linked to the ruins. The bay was at the mouth of the river, so this wood could have come from anywhere. Third, and most importantly, none of this had been peer reviewed before the press got ahold of it. Ironically the BBC article brought the attention of archaeologists from all over the world, who quickly debunked the idea that we had completely overlooked a 9,500 year old civilization.

Moral of this story? Check your sources. Try to read through the lines. Also, if you’re out there digging stuff up, make sure you do it in a sound manner. I’ve already posted occasions where people dug stuff up in good faith, but it turns out they were ruining any hope of further investigation. Not to get too preachy, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Also, these guys should have given up way long ago, I mean, the world is only 5,000 years old. Geez.

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Neato Collection

I am a fan of any interesting collections. Here is the website of a guy who collects pencils. I always respect people who have the interest in collecting such mundane objects. He has a list of pencils that he is looking for, so If you have a bunch of old pencils lying around, you may be able to help him out.

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part III


If you’re just finding this, I would recommend the previous articles I have written about Jerusalem:

A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part I

A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part II

Ok, I’ve given you some time to shake off the bloodbath that was classical and medieval Jerusalem. Fortunately, things are pretty sane for a while. As it stands the Ottomans took over the city in 1517, and for the first time ever, Christians, Jews and Muslims all lived together, equally in their holy city. The walls were rebuilt, and the “Old City” as we know it today was constructed.

Although religious tolerance flourished, this was not the best time economically for the city. The population, although incredibly diverse, declined, and by the beginning of the 19th century, as the Ottoman empire waned, it was only at around 8,000.

At this time, several things started to happen. First, we have to understand that although there was a diverse population, each denomination lived in their own community, generally based around each population’s holy shrine. Because of the

Medieval Jerusalem

Medieval Jerusalem

weakness of the Turks, immigrants started pouring in from all over the globe. Some were old Jews who wanted to be buried in their holy city. Others were young families, who wanted to experience the second coming in Jerusalem. In addition, Europeans took a stern interest in the city, and many people moved there in hopes of gaining influence after the inevitable collapse of the empire. This, in coincidence with a Christian revival, meant that there were a good number of people proselytizing all over the city.

The city of Jerusalem is only 1 kilometer square, meaning that there was an obvious population problem. So, various ethnic groups started constructing residential communities outside of the city walls, in what is now called the New City. What started as a small patchwork of communities eventually grew into a full blown city.

On 11 December 1917, the British walked into the Holy City, and the Ottoman era came to an end. At that point, the zeitgeist of Jerusalem was very interesting. Where the new influx of immigrants staking their claim outside of the city, there was an obvious disparity in between the Old and New Cities. The Old City was considered decrepit and impoverished. The British were clever and required all buildings in the New City to be built with a sandstone finish, like the buildings in the Old City, to preserve the tone.

Unfortunately here is where the modern Jerusalem starts to evolve. No one really knew what to do with the new region called Palestine, where Jerusalem served as the capital. The Jews wanted their homeland restored; the Arabs felt that, geographical and historical precedent meant that the land was theirs. The tension grew, and they started bombing each other. Jews intent on living in their homeland moved in from all over the world, increasing the tension. This finally exploded in 4 days of riots in April of 1920, in which the Old City was ruled by a mob of Arabs. The Jews no longer trusted the British to protect them, and resented their being on holy land. The Arabs hated the Jews and the British because they felt entitled to the land. The Jews hated the Arabs for all of the violence. The British tried to restrict immigration, which ended in a an attack on a hotel, killing many soldiers. Things were starting to get really messy.

In 1947, the UN divided Palestine and Jerusalem into two parts, Arab and Jewish, with 3

How would you divide this up?

How would you divide this up?

crossing points, to be controlled by an international party. This backfired. Now each side had a border to attack. Oops. If you take a look at this map of the partition, you can see that this idea was flawed right from the beginning. I mean, there is no clear boundary between the two communities, and the establishment of an arbitrary line is really going to screw things up. The Jews and the Arabs really started wailing on each other, and Britain was becoming increasingly more reluctant to intervene. In March of 1948, the Arabs laid siege to the Old City which was eventually broken with significant civilian casualties on both sides.

Two months later the British mandate ended. Things only got worse from there. Because the Old City was technically supposed to be under Arab control, all Jews left to a Western Settlement. Israeli soldiers forcibly displaced Arab villiages that were within their territory. The violenc extended to foreigners, with the assasination

Israeli Soldiers at the Western Wall in 1967

Israeli Soldiers at the Western Wall in 1967

of the US Consul and the UN mediator.

Eventually Western Jerusalem belonged to the Jews and Eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City were annexed by Jordan. The arabs knocked down many Jewish holy sites, and likewise many Arab sites went into disrepare and were knocked down. In 1950, Jerusalem became the capital of Israel. In 1967, the Israeli Army rolled into Eastern Jerusalem, bringing it under Israeli control. All religions were allowed access to their holy sites. Honestly, I am not going to relate everything that has happened in Eastern Jerusalem since the June War, because it is very complicated and is basically the same thing over and over. However, you can see where the current Israeli – Arab conflict stems from.

Man. That was rough. I hope this history has helped you understand the modern moment in Jerusalem. This has been a project I have been waiting to undertake for a very long time. Although we hope for peace in the city, history tells us that this is probably a losing proposition. In researching these articles, I have seen how mired the study of the city is in controversy. Every side jockeys to show that their faction had a temple at a certain site earlier than the other. Each side tries to prove that the other side murdered more people during a raid. It was interesting, and I really wish I could say it was fun, but the nicest thing I can say is that it was eye opening.

Published in: on August 25, 2009 at 4:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Amish Exemption

There are very few, if any, cultures and peoples that I respect more than the Amish. I can’t think of any off of the top of my head at the time of this writing. One moment truly opened my eyes to the depth of their beliefs. You may remember when there was the shooting at the Amish School House, it was truly a terrible bloodbath, if you can handle the gruesome the Wikipedia article sums it up pretty well. Regardless, the event was exceptional because of the reaction of the Amish people. Their response of forgiveness was overwhelming. The people comforted the parents and widow of the killer, set up a charity for his relatives and even attended his funeral. Whatever you think of their response, it is a testament to their beliefs that they were so forgiving at such a difficult time. I appreciate the Amish for their sense of community, their confidence in ideals and their robust work ethic. If I had to design a society from the ground up, I feel like it would very much resemble the Amish. For the record, I consider it a testament to the continuing viability of the American dream that these people can live live their way of life peacefully to this day.

Many people believe that the Amish do not pay taxes. This is only partially true. They do not pay Social Security Tax, as their belief system does not allow them to pay for insurance, as it shows that they do not believe in god’s will. This was not always the case, in the early days the IRS tried to levy taxes on an Amish man, going so far as to take half of his horses (he is a farmer who doesn’t use tractors, so this was rough). The Amish “fought” back, and the media got involved. Its a pretty amazing story:

Pay Unto Caesar – The Amish & Social Security

Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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American Dollars in the Past

The history of currency in the US is fascinating, probably more so than in any other country. That will be my next big project after my history of Jerusalem (Tuesday next week, be there). I found a website that has a bunch of neat pictures of old currency. Try this one on for size:

Cool huh

Cool huh

Honestly, that is a cool bill. The current 2 dollar bill has a picture of the signing of the Declaration of Idependence. But yeah, some moms and their kids are good too. Anyways, here’s the site for more:

Back in Time

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 3:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Kasparov vs the World: the Ultimate Showdown

In 1999, Gary Kasparov, the reigning heavyweight champion of chess took on the entire world, literally. Many consider it the greatest game ever played. It took 62 moves and 4 months for Kasparov to cast his winning move. Kasparov said that no single game consumed more of his time. He published a book on it a year later, clocking in at 202 pages, which is the longest analysis of a single game ever published.

Here’s how it worked. People could vote on which move they wanted to take against Kasparov, the vote with the plurality being chosen. 4 chess stars suggested moves to the masses. After the people chose their move, Kasparov had 24 hours to make his. You can see the match played out here:

Kasparov v World

Here are a bunch of articles about it:


The final move, if you're at all interested

The final move, if you're at all interested

These kinds of things are why I love the internet. The collective intellect of the internet masses battles the heavyweight champ of chess, and what comes out is one of the most complex battles of minds that the world has ever seen.

Published in: on August 20, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The H. O. Studley Masonic Tool Chest

For those of you that don’t know, I collect boxes. There’s something about my psychology that makes me wild for neat

The studly tool box

The studly tool box

boxes. In addition to that, there are few more satisfying feelings than when I figure out how to pack a bunch of stuff into something efficiently. It should come as no suprise then, that this tool chest is one of my favorite things in the whole wide world. Currently owned by a private collector, it was once a centerpiece item at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

Not only is this a display of maniacal obsession for crafting the perfect toolbox (over 300 instruments are contained in the 19.5′ x 39′ x 9.5′), but it is a collection of the finest woodworking, machinist and stonemasonry tools available before the turn of the century. See that plane in kind of the archway on the left side, but to the right of the big plane?  In 1993 that one piece was valued at $700.

Studley’s main trade was as a piano decorator. He constructed his workchest somewhere between 1890 and 1920. The chest was passed down from grandfather to grandson for 2 generations, and in one of the greatest trades since we acquired Long Island, one man got it from his brother for a 1934 Ford. It is truly a testament to an artisan’s love for his craft. Its not often when the mundane details of a person’s work can truly be called art, but I definitely feel there is something indescribable about this set.

Here is an article with a more in depth history of the man and his work:

Modern Woodworking

Published in: on August 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How Unfortunate: Easter Island


Easter Island has one of the most unfortunate histories of any colonial areas in the world. It is a microcosym that tells the tale of human excess and the terrible toll of European colonialism. Consider its isolation. Its nearest neighbor is over 1,200 miles away. Because of this isolation, it is one of the most recently inhabited areas in the world; yet despite this its history is numbered by a series of coincidental shipwrecks.

We are not even sure when the island’s original inhabitants arrived or even where they came from. The range of dates range from 300 CE to 1200 CE. Although popular knowledge has it that polynesians colonized the island, a variety of sweet potatoe grows on the island whose only close relative is found in Latin Americe. Sweet potatoes cannot float, and the only conceivable way they would get to the island would be via human transport. Perhaps the Polynesions went to Latin America and come back. Who knows.

This is where all the fresh water comes from. No joke.

This is where all the fresh water comes from. No joke.

The island that the original settlers found when they first arrived is nothing like in the present. First off, although it is at the tip of the Polynesian islands, it is by no means a tropcal island. Evidence shows that the island was at one point covered by forest. However, as the population grew, the trees were cut down, eventually to the point of the complete deforestation we see today. Soil samples tell us that a very good amount of the native plants died during that process. For what its worth, this coincided with the rise of the famous moai statues. This bit of irony meant that a seafaring people had out competed themselves from escaping the island by boat. They still made rudimentary boats out of reeds grown in a crater on the island, but nothing that could cross an ocean.

Their civilization was surprisingly advanced, considering their situation. In fact, they came up with their own written language, rongorongo, notable is it one of precious few writing systems developed independantly in human history. For a very long time they had a clear class system, where a king ruled the island through the power of the gods. The moai were carved and erected in their honor when they died. At some point there was a coup, where the king was overthrown. A series of wars took place across the island, resulting in the statues being knocked down. Soon, a strange form of government took place, which historians call the birdman cult.

There is a small island just off of Easter island where a certain type of bird lives. The waters in

This is the island they had to swim to

This is the island they had to swim to

between are teeming with sharks. In the spring, young men would swim across the straight. Oh yeah and they had to climb a stark cliff to do it. Whoever brought an egg back to their “tribe” was put in charge of distribution of the islands rescources for a year. This caused a lot of problems. Obviously each “Birdman” would favor his tribe would do his best to stock up while he was in charge. Many credit this system with the islands rapid decline. This was the system in place when missionares arrived. The aboriginal people tend to be referred to as the Rapanui, so we’ll call them that from here out.

You may be wondering why, in fact, we call the island Easter island . Well, the first white dudes sailed up to the island on Easter Day 1722. There are no good harbors on the island. The only water is found in a crater in the middle of the island and as we discussed earlier, the island was barely able to support their population. They moved on, but not before killing a few islanders.

The esteemed Captain Cook visited briefly in 1774. Several ships passed by. At one point a French guy mapped the island, and estimated the population of the island to be around 1000. The natives eventually became hostile to parties wishing to land. The Europeans, of course, left venereal disease and often took women for, ahem, lascivious acts.

No langing here

No landing here

Things took a nasty turn in 1862 when 8 Peruvian ships descended and took nearly 1,500 Rapanui as slaves (roughly 1/3 to half of the population). A year later they were released, and 15 returned to the island, bringing with them smallpox. This killed uncountable amounts of natives, causing chaos and tribal warfare. A missionary came with his partner in 1866, bringing with him tuberculosis, which killed approximately 1,200 Rapanui, including the last member of the old royal order, a 13 year old prince, whose father, the last king, was one of the slaves who died in Peru. The missionary’s efforts were not in vain, however. By the time of his death, he had converted the island to Roman Catholicism. Whew.

The French captain who had brought the missionaries saw an opportunity, and bought up the better part of the island by exchanging fairly useless trinkets. He married a Rapanui, set up a sheep farm on the island and had two daughters. He ruled through coertion, and shipped off a good number of Rapanui to Tahiti to work for some of his buddies, and the missionaries brought almost 250 with them when they left. When the captain was murdered there were only 230 Rapanui left. 6 years later there were 111 left, only 36 of which had offspring. In less than 10 years, only 5% of the Rapanui people were left. It is because of this that we know precious little about their culture.

The island remained a sheep ranch, and a relative of the french captain came and ruled for 10 years, and helped the Rapanui to make some cash by making traditional artwork. Some Americans came by, did some digging and dynamited some stuff while they were playing archaeology. A Chilean guy eventually bought everything up, and ran the island as a sheep ranch. He walled off the villiage where the Rapanui lived, and would not let them enter or leave. Most of them had little clothing, and their prized posessions were stuff that washed up during shipwrecks. The Rapanui rebelled in the early 1900’s, but the Chilean government rolled in and put a stop to it.

The island changed hands until 1966, when the Rapanui were given Chilean citizenship. Since then there has been serious investigation into their culture, and they are doing rather well, all things considered. The US constructed a very long runway, to be used by the space shuttle in case of an emergency.

I’m really sorry that most of my stories tend to  be bloody or sad. Unfortunately, most stories worth telling are rarely happy. The story of the Rapanui is truly one of the cautionary tales for the human population. We would all be well served to understand our impact. It can be directly seen on this island, 1,200 miles from civilization. If you can call the Polynesian islands civilization.

Published in: on August 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part II Romans to the Ottomans

Ok, where were we. The last time we checked in on our fair city, the Jews were pissed that they were being forced to adopt Greek culture, so they rebelled and became the capital of the Hasmodean kingdom. The Hasmoneans were nothing to write home about, it lasted for 103 years until 37 BCE, when the Romans rolled in and calmed things down. To put this all in perspective, Julius Caeser was murdered in 44 BCE. The kingdom was marred by the normal things that plague a hereditary monarchy, fratricide and regicide. There were varying blocks of civil war until the Romans rolled back in in 27 BCE.

Finally in 19 BCE, Herod was installed by the Romans. He married a Hasmonean princess to make himself seem more legitimate, and then murdered all of her relatives. To his credit, he built a huge complex around the Second Temple. He also greatly expanded the minting of currency in the city. After he died in 6 BCE, Jerusalem and the Judea came under direct Roman rule.

Siege and Destruction of Rome

Siege and Destruction of Rome by David Roberts

Without going into details, we know that Early Christianity began to evolve in the city at this point in time. Jerusalem was allegedly the site of the original crucifixion, and was where the Apostles really started preaching the Gospel. The Romans tended to be decent about letting a race keep its culture once it was a province of the empire; however in 66 CE, the Jews revolted in opposition to the Roman taxation as well as cultural imposition. The soon-to-be emperor Titus brought in 60,000 troops, and beseiged the city, crucifying the thousands that attempted to flee. Finally he broke through and destroyed the Temple and the better part of the city. Only a section of one wall of the temple was left, what is now known as the Wailing Wall.

Jerusalem remained a relatively unimportant colony of the Roman and Byzantine empire for nearly 600 years. During that time the city was rebuilt, and the Jews rebelled unsuccessfully against the Romans two more times. In 335, the emperor Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, turning the city into the epicenter of Christian worship. It is worth noting that Jews were banned from the city during this time.

Things really start to get messy when Muhammed allegedly ascended into heaven from Jerusalem in the mid 630s. Islam had spread through the Arabian peninsula, and they wanted to take over their holy city. The Jews, as they had been banned from their holy city for nearly 600 years allied with the Muslims in their conquest. In 638 the Arabs overwhelmed Jerusalem, slaughtering everyone who was garrisoned there. 60 years later, the calphate built the Dome of the Rock, on the spot where Muhammed allegedly ascended into heaven. The Dome would come to be the second most sacred site in the Muslim faith.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem did very well during the early years of Arab rule. Christians and Jews, were treated as somewhat second class citizens. They could not practice their religion, but for the most part were tolerated, which was very kind of the Muslims if you ask me. This all changed in 1009, when the acting Caliph ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, started killing clergy, and harassed pilgrims. 30 years later his successor tried to make it right by allowing the church to be rebuilt, realizing the the reason Jerusalem was doing so well was because of the pilgrims.

But the damage was done. In 1095 the Byzantine Emperor and the Pope called for all good Christians to take up arms. This was not 100% religiously motivated, the Arabs were weakening, and Christianity in general needed some good news. But, the crusades had begun. The Crusaders reached Jerusalem in 1099, tired and hungry, a fraction of the size when they had begun. The Jews and Muslims did their best to keep the crusaders out of the city, but in the end they didn’t stand a chance. The Crusaders murdered as many Muslims and Jews as they could get their hands on, and burned all the synagogues and the mosques oftentimes with their respective worshipers inside. Please keep this in mind next time you hear a politician use the phrase “crusade”.

The New Christian Republic of Jerusalem lasted until 187 when Saladin took it back. He went out of his way to make it known that all religions would be tolerated under his rule. This was unacceptable to the Christians, and another crusade was lead by Richard I. At one point on his trek, he took over a city by telling them that they would be spared, only to massacre the residents when their gates were opened. Richard made it to the city walls, but never took the city, instead arranging a deal where unarmed Christian pilgrims could come to the city whenever they wanted.

For one reason or another in 1219, the acting caliph destroyed the walls of the city, rendering

Badass statue of Saladin in Damascus

Badass statue of Saladin in Damascus

the city completely defenseless. 10 years later the Germans came under control of the city, and tried to rebuild the walls, but they were again knocked down 10 years later when their lease ran out (no joke). Again in 1243 the Christians took control of the city, but ended up staring at a massive army of Mamluk Turks that easily took over the city and murdered all but 2,000 Christians and Jews.

Jerusalem is so vulnerable at this point that there is a possibility that Mongols periodical wailed on the city from time to time during this period. There is no evidence to support this, but the general area was always on fire it seems. The Mamluks did their best to rebuild the city, but eventually in 1517 the Ottomans took it over. And that is where I will stop the summary.

Living in Jerusalem was seemingly a death sentance in the 1500 years after the death of Julius Caesar. Some of the worst atrocities in the brief history of humankind were committed during that period. At this point now the Muslims are the top dogs in the region. Next time we’ll start with the Ottoman Empire and take it to our modern period.

Published in: on August 7, 2009 at 3:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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