Archive for the ‘History’ Category

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well… arguably, yes – but I won’t go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is –

To Be Continued…

No Sleeping Says Prince Charming

“The monster”

Ah. Thank goodness!

After a couple of weeks where the Bush administration had things come out on a Wednesday or a Thursday, I was starting to think they had lost their touch. Maybe they found out I cared.

In an executive order issued Friday, Bush again reiterated the US stance on torture,

Bush’s order requires that CIA detainees “receive the basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.”

A senior intelligence official would not comment directly when asked if waterboarding would be allowed under the new order and under related _ but classified _ legal documents drafted by the Justice Department.

However, the official said, “It would be wrong to assume the program of the past transfers to the future.”

A second senior administration official acknowledged sleep is not among the basic necessities outlined in the order.

Remember. This executive order comes out about three weeks after Mr. Bush assured high Presidential Scholars that “America doesn’t torture people.” From the Boston Globe,

Before the scholars posed for a photo with Bush on Monday, she handed him the letter. He put it in his pocket and took it out after the photo shoot. Reading silently to himself, the president looked up quizzically at Oye and said, according to her, “We agree. America doesn’t torture people.”

The scholor who handed the letter to Bush, signed by approximately a third of the students honored, was the daughter of a former detainee; her mother is of Japanese decent, her family interned during the Second World War. One can understand why she cares. (Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, helped fund Hitler which might show why he cares.)

But hey: Let’s give Bush credit. – America doesn’t torture. Um – Right? Let’s see how America used to defined torture. This from an article also in the Washington Post, this time from March 2005

The State Department’s annual human rights report released yesterday criticized countries for a range of interrogation practices it labeled as torture, including sleep deprivation for detainees, confining prisoners in contorted positions, stripping and blindfolding them and threatening them with dogs — methods similar to those approved at times by the Bush administration for use on detainees in U.S. custody.

Look again at the reported language in the new executive order. None of those things are excluded. They just stopped being torture. Because torture is everything the Bush administration decides it won’t do.

According to the definitions in the 2004 State department report – sleep deprivation was still considered “torture”. Under the entry for Saudi Arabia,

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Criminal Procedure section of the Basic law prohibits torture and Shari’a (Islamic law) prohibits any judge from accepting a confession obtained under duress; however, authorities reportedly at times abused detainees, both citizens and foreigners. Ministry of Interior officials were responsible for most incidents of abuse of prisoners, including beatings, whippings, and sleep deprivation. In addition, there were allegations of beatings with sticks and suspension from bars by handcuffs. There were allegations that these practices were used to force confessions from prisoners.

I guess in the last three years, that paragraph wouldn’t be allowed any more.

Once again Prince Charming has decided to spin a fairy tale where sleep is optional and reality is whatever he choses to release to the public. Just don’t let him near Sleeping Beauty – she’ll be looking like a hag in no time.

But at least I can go back to sleeping well. Bush & Co. stayed true to form by releasing the executive order on a Friday afternoon. They aren’t slowing down any; They just have too much democracy to destroy, so little time for destroying

(Political) “Scientific War”

Oh, Oh. This won’t be pretty.

There is an article at the National Geographic news site saying that Zahi Hawass, the scientist with the rather pompous title of General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is making waves again.

Upping the ante, Hawass on Sunday told his country’s parliament that he “will never again organize antiquities exhibitions in Germany if it refuses a request, to be issued next week, to allow the bust of Nefertiti to be displayed in Egypt for three months.”

While this sounds like a rather inconvenient tit for tat between two museums, it is far more serious.

Hawass is not an unwritten book. He has been pushing for the return of Egyptian artefacts to Egypt since he got his title.

You know this guy. His is the face of Egyptian archaeology, not only on National Geographic but on any show involving a pyramid in Egypt today. He seems to have two modes – Indiana Jones with rolled up sleeves and (I kid you not) a Fedora and the perfect Middle East minister with tailored suit and perfectly manicured fingernails. You can’t film about ancient Egypt in Egypt without giving him airtime.

He certainly doesn’t worry about science stuff. During the NOVA episode The Mummy Who Would Be King, he walked into a room and declared, in a booming, confident voice, that a newly rediscovered mummy was ‘royal.’

Myself, I can smell royal mummies. And I know the difference from a mummy to the others. You know, I discovered, in my career, more than 254 mummies. And I can really look at the face and from the first sight I will find out that it’s royal mummy or not.

I have seen a report on the discovery of a number of mummies where archaeologists wondered if they had discovered Nefertiti’s tomb. The reporter asked a conservator working on one of the mummies a rather innocuous question. The terror this woman felt was written in her face. She stammered something and told the reporter that he needed to talk to Hawass. Only Hawass gets airtime. To disobey this rule is to fall into disgrace in Hawass’ eyes.

But there is one person who Hawass really dislikes. That is the director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Dietrich Wildung. From an article in the LA Times,

If Hawass is a master at outreach, he’s a black belt at loftiest target has been Dietrich Wildung, an eminent scholar who runs the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. In 2003, Hawass announced that Egyptian police had a tape of known antiquities thieves talking about the kinds of things Wildung would be willing to buy from them for his museum’s collection.

“The … authorities have incontrovertible evidence that he was involved in the illegal trafficking and buying of antiquities,” Hawass wrote in his column for the English edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. But when asked why Egypt, two years later, still hasn’t moved to indict Wildung — as Italian authorities recently did in bringing a case against Marion True, the J. Paul Getty Museum’s curator of antiquities — Hawass acknowledges that the tapes are hearsay that can’t prove a case.

Now Hawass wants Germany to “loan” the classic Nefertiti bust back to Egypt. The Germans think that as soon as the statue is back in Egypt it is gone. Possession is, after all, nine-tenths of the law. Since this also the central piece in the German museum, they are understandably nervous about giving it up. It would kill their exhibition.

There are long traditions of German and Egyptian scientists working together. Germany was active both before and after the second world war and many major discoveries were made by Germans. Thus a disagreement on this level might cause an academic break.

But unlike the nice quiet science types, Hawass plays hard ball. He is ratcheting up the language. Back to the National Geographic piece,

Hawass said today that he would send a letter to Germany tomorrow formally requesting a loan of the bust for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

The museum is scheduled to open in 2012 near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, just outside Cairo.

“I will begin a negotiation,” Hawass said.

If it fails, Hawass said, he will organize a worldwide boycott of loans to German museums.

“We will make the lives of these museums miserable,” he said. “It will be a scientific war.” [My emphasis]

No. It will be a political war. A political war where science plays a very minor role compared to the ego of one Egyptian minister.

It is a political (science) war.

Galactic Tsunami

Well. Since we are obviously doomed today, just thought I’d say. It’s been nice.

On the other hand, I suspect we’ll be reading each other on Monday. So could someone please give me somewhere to sort this rather bizarre video about the “Scientific Verification of Vedic Knowledge.”

This sounds like someone who has had way too many Quaaludes and is making a case for the a literal reading of the Vedas. Actually he seems to be pointing out that ancient India was like way ahead of our science. Oh. And they had nuclear weapons. So here’s my WTF?!!!!

Is fundamentalist Vedic thinking an issue? Do we need a literal reading of the Vedics. Does this mean they will stop teaching evolution in India now?

So. I hope to get better informed by Monday.

Or we’ll all be dead – killed by the Galactic Tsunami . So whatever.

Speaking Snake

Harry Potter isn’t the only person who can speak to snakes.

In ancient Egypt, snakes spoke Canaanite and were used to protect dead people from getting bitten – um – to death.

At least that’s what I get from this National Geographic report about a recently translated spell in Egypt.

The passages, inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara, reveal that the Egyptians enlisted the magical assistance of Semitic Canaanites from the ancient city of Byblos, located in what is now Lebanon.

The Canaanite spells were invoked to help protect mummified kings against poisonous snakes, one of ancient Egypt’s most dreaded nemeses.

According to the incantations, female snakes—acting as mediators for Canaanite magicians—used their multiple mouths and sexual organs to prevent other snakes from entering the mummified rulers’ remains.

While I don’t quite get the multiple mouth thing and using their sexual organs to prevent other snakes from doing things is just unfair. Maybe that’s just me. Do I look like an ancient Egyptian?

The story goes on to explain that the Canaanite people got along rather well with the serpant folk and describes where the spells were found and a little about the content.

In the inscribed spells, a Canaanite-speaking mother snake cajoles and threatens invading snakes in their own language.

“You need somebody with good connections to the snake. You can’t just come along and say, Get out of here, snake. Why should the snake listen to you?” Steiner said.

“You need to involve someone who commands the snake’s respect, someone who can speak to the snake in its own language and who is related to it in some way—its mother or its lover,” he added.


Is that why we have such trouble talking to Dick Cheney? He doesn’t love or respect anyone. No. That can’t be it. What? He also isn’t a poisonous snake? Gee I hadn’t noticed.

But maybe I should go find some Canaanite sourcerers just in case.

Or maybe just I should just hiss for Harry.

Dead Supremacist Walking

The phrase used to proceed a death-row inmate on his final journey, “Dead Man Walking” takes on a rather macabre meaning in the case of James Ford Seale. According to the Herald Sun, Seale pleaded not guilty yesterday to the 1964 killings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore.

A former Ku Klux Klan member pleaded not guilty today to charges in the 1964 murders of two black teenagers in Mississippi, in a case that highlights violence used by white supremacists during the civil rights era.

Marshals escorted James Seale, 71, to and from federal court in Jackson for an initial hearing on kidnapping and conspiracy charges.

A three-count indictment says Mr Seale trained a shotgun on the teenagers while his companions beat them. Then they attached heavy weights to the pair and threw them alive into the Mississippi River.

Although Mr Seale doesn’t face the death penalty, his case does somehow remind one of the Day of the Dead. You see reports of Mr. Seale’s premature demise were somehow slightly overstated.

The story starts at the height of the civil rights movement. Two black, 19 year old teenagers were hitchhiking in rural Mississippi in May 1964; unfortunately the wrong Volkswagen stopped. According to the June 2000 story in the Clarion-Ledger, the teens were then taken into the forest; beaten or in Klan jargon “whipped”; driven to the Mississippi; tied to an old Jeep engine block and drowned. The only reason for not shooting them first was because shooting would have gotten the boat bloody. Nice.

Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner PosterIn rural Mississippi in 1964, this probably wouldn’t have caused much of a ruckus, it was par for the course. But one month later, 3 civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, disappeared. These weren’t poor black Mississippians, 2 were activists from New York and that was news, national news. The FBI got involved and the story of the search for Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner became the stuff movies are made of.

But during the search for the three men, a the lower half of a body was found in the Mississippi river. A more through search was made and a second body was found. Dee and Moore had been found.

Based on information from a Klan informant, James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards were arrested and interrogated by the FBI. The Clarion-Ledger story then goes on to quote the rather Kafkaesque questioning,

According to FBI documents, authorities confronted Seale and told him they knew he and others took Dee and Moore “to some remote place and beat them to death. You then transported and disposed of their bodies by dropping them in the Mississippi River. You didn’t even give them a decent burial. We know you did it. You know you did. The Lord above knows you did it.”

“Yes,” Seale is quoted as replying, “but I’m not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it.”

When authorities arrested Edwards, he “admitted that he and James Seale picked up Dee and another Negro in vicinity of Meadville, Miss., and took them to an undisclosed wooded area where they were ‘whipped,’ ” a Nov. 6, 1964, FBI document says. “States victims were alive when he departed the wooded area.”

The FBI didn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute the case and turned it over to the local District Attorney Lenox Foreman. Foreman promised to bring the evidence to a grand jury, but despite repeated failures to communicate attempts by the FBI to jump-start the case, Forman never did and the case dropped into obscurity.

It was 35 years later that reporters from the Clarion-Ledger, while going through over 1000 pages of documents found a bullethole loophole missed in the original proceedings. It became likely that the two teenagers had been on federal property when the beating took place. This moved the case from the local to the federal prosecutors office. They chose to follow up.

There was only one problem. At least according to James Ford Seale, Jr. The story as related by the Associated Press in 2005 could only take place in rural Mississippi or perhaps Hollywood.

In 2000, a Jackson newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, uncovered documents indicating that the beatings might have occurred in the Homochitto National Forest. Claiming jurisdiction, the Justice Department reopened the case.

Not long after, Mr. Seale “died.”

The Los Angeles Times published an article on the case in June 2002, which said Mr. Seale had died the previous year.

In 2003, The Clarion-Ledger ran a series on unsolved cases from the civil rights era. An item on the Dee-Moore case included comments Mr. Seale had made “before his death.”

While filming a documentary on the 1964 killings, the brother of one of the victims, Thomas Moore, discovered that Seale Sr was still alive and – um – kicking . Probably still hating as well. The case has finally come to trial and yesterday Seale Sr entered a plea of not guilty. Now he will be tried by a jury. The AP has also published an excellent summary of the story.

In other current white supremacist news, it seems Kevin Alfred Strom, the founder of National Vanguard and one of the leading “intellectuals” in the neo-Nazi movement, has been arrested and charged with child pornography and witness tampering. Strom’s former and current wife seem to be publicly agreeing to the charges. But not all the rats are abandoning ship. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center,

One other woman spoke up, too. April Gaede, a long-time National Alliance activist who quit that group to help Strom form National Vanguard, told the VNN web forum that Strom had called her in March 2006, four months before he took his mysterious leave of absence. Strom “told me that [Elisha] had found some porn on his computer and that it was of adult females but that she freaked out and called him a pervert,” Gaede wrote. “Then he told me that she had threatened to ‘get even’ with him and that he was afraid that she would plant something on his computer.”

Unmentioned by Gaede was the role Strom has played recently as promoter at concert after concert of Prussian Blue — the folk-singing, neo-Nazi duet comprised of Gaede’s two daughters, pretty blonde twins who recently turned 15.

(Hat Tip and obsequious grovel to Trees/AnomalousData for that.)

One can only hope that these people are finally either dying out, being prosecuted or simply self destructing.

Maybe it’s a case of Dead Supremacist Walking.


There has been an ongoing online ‘discussion’ between Trees, of AnomalousData fame and Anne Liebermann from Boker tov, Boulder! The humor I use here gets far darker when I comment on Trees blog. As an example, I present the following exchange:

[Preface: this is heavily edited and snipped for effect. I chose not to identify the cuts because there would have been more ellipses than words. Just go read the original]

Trees: Given a choice between living under Shar’ia law as Anne believes we will have to do (She thinks the liberals are going to hand the U.S. over to the mullahs), or living with the Torah or the Bible, or the Zohar (or, more likely, all three together) as the imposed religious law of the country…
… well, I imagine that beheading is faster and less painful than stoning or burning, but I’d probably just learn French and go help Canada defend it’s borders.

Anne: Help Canada defend its borders… from what?

Trees: The hostile theocracy on it’s southern border, of course. 🙂

Me: But wouldn’t they start with Mexico first?

Trees: Why would they start with Mexico? Global climate change models have the American grain belt shifting north into Canada by 2025. All the food will be in Canada

Me: Hadn’t thought of global climate change…excellent point that.

Anne wondered if we, the mouth-foaming liberal dregs, could really be serious. Trees gave her answer explaining a very small part of her belief system in a measured voice; clearly stating her case in what I found a nicely moderated tone. *golf-clap* My response got long enough, I thought I’d use my own damn bandwidth. So here’s my response Anne.

If there is anything I worry more about in the world, it is intolerance. I really don’t care whether it is religious, racial or political. My experience has been that in moving from culture to culture, the only way forward is to integrate, adapt and accept. It probably isn’t realistic to think most people could live that way, but I try. While I would consider myself to be a-religious as opposed to anti-religious. I would also argue that I am probably genetically missing the “God antenna;” the lack is in me, not the belief systems of others and therefore I am not in a position to judge; I can only learn.

Perhaps most troubling for me is the thought that any idea can be used to justify persecution. Race is a nice marker. Should the Latinos be driven out of the southwest America and didn’t those populations displace the original Indio populations? Were there cultures destroyed before the Indio settlement of Mesoamerica? Nationalism, often coached using the euphemism Patriotism in America, is another way to separate and divide the them from the us. And, increasingly, groups are using religion (what an innovation!) to divide and disrupt.

Anne, I live in Germany and notice you post often about topics and things happening in Germany. One of your recent posts was about a rabbi who hides his kippa under a baseball cap in Germany. This leaves me rather uneasy. Where you don’t understand the dark, gallows humor Trees and I use, I can’t imagine your understanding of the current German culture. Anti-Semitism isn’t rampant in Germany; intolerance is rampant in the world. I could point to the Paris riots this summer where the frustration of being marked outsider for whatever reason is enough to limit or destroy chances and that frustration boiled over. I could point to examples in Germany like the Rütli school [German] in a disadvantaged part of Berlin (Neuköln). The teachers sent an SOS because of the violence. German kids chose not to speak ‘proper’ German because the racial situation with about 35% immigrants (primarily eastern European) and 25% Turkish, was so dramatic, it was better to ‘pretend’ not to speak German. Thus the gutter linguafraca was adapted. Misunderstanding breeding intolerance breading ignorance. Bravo!

Anne, one of the questions you asked was “When was the last time a fundamentalist Christian blew him/herself up in order to murder a crowd of innocents?” Trees pointed out the bombings of abortion clinics, the bomb in the Olympic Park etc. The only difference between current the Judeo/Christian viewpoint and the Islamic practice is that the Judeo/Christians believe one should sacrifice one’s self at the front of an army and not as a sole individual; thus we have hero worship and posthumous Congressional Metal of Honor ceremonies. But don’t get me wrong I am not foolish enough to believe that Buddhists only immolation themselves in crossroads and that all Hindus would like peace on earth and good will to cows, but let’s stay in our cultures shall we? The dead opponents probably don’t appreciate the difference whether it was a suicide bombing or a suicide attack.

Anne, in your answer you wondered about my reference to American labor camps; the idea isn’t that far fetched. We are only 150 years from slavery; about 90 years from the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918; about 90 years from a president who re-segregated the White House and cursed what he called hyphenated Americans. We are only 60 years from the Japanese internment camps, 53 from McCarthy, 48 years have passed since My Lai. We are only 3 years from Abu Ghraib. The organised abuse of power is neither purely American nor is it foreign to US shores. It is something lurking around the periphery of any society – American, Western, human. If religions can use traditions reaching back centuries and millennia, am I so off-base by choosing behavioral characteristics seen not just through history but in recent decades?

Anne, if I, from this side of the Atlantic, were to use your knack for finding news snip-its, than yes, I could say the labor camps are being built. I would argue Guantanamo and Diego Garcia are only the cases that have leaked to the press. I don’t believe it is happening but I could probably make a case for it and convince some people. But after consideration, I guess you are probably right on one part, the camps would be for internment and not labor. We can’t have anyone taking jobs from the “good” and “righteous.”

Anne, today division is accepted and allowed. Separation is celebrated. It doesn’t matter whether you are locking the bad guys in or simply keeping them out using privileged schools and gated communities. Today having a hyphen is politically correct. African-American, Mexican-American, Jewish-American. We claim to celebrate integration while highlighting and exploiting the differences.

So Anne, I ask you, am I a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal? Is a liberal one who thinks peace not conversion is acceptance; someone who realises that there are too many people, good and bad, adept and disabled, advantaged and disadvantaged for true equality and that while life isn’t fair, one must treat each person fairly? Is a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal someone who wishes for peace but is pragmatic enough to have lost faith in that hope? Someone who thinks equality is best championed using words and not bulldozers, fairness best advanced in tone and tolerance and not in rhetoric and hostility?

If yes Anne, than I am a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal. But Anne, I would argue there is one thing I hope not to be – intolerant. Reading your writing, I get the feeling that you perceive the world as a place of injustice and intolerance and you react in kind.

Perhaps you might just forget the reactionism and just try the kindness.

Not Christmas Unless the Nazis Go Free

I was going to write a post about the fact that Deborah Lipstadt is blogging again but some of her first posts pointed me to a different topic.

In case you don’t know, Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. One of her major research areas is studying holocaust denial and one of the biggest holocaust deniers is David Irving. When Professor Lipstadt published her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, she didn’t think too much about the occasional comment about David Irving. She assumed he was proud of denying history. That was until her book was put on sale in England.

Around the time Lipstadt’s book came out, bookstores in Britain had had just about enough of Mr. Irving’s right-wing Nazi (not neo-Nazi, he does the original stuff) propaganda. Therefore they refused to carry his then newest book work scribblings screed about Josef Goebbels. Irving smelled Jewish conspiracy and looked around for someone to blame. He found a target in Professor Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin books.

British libel law is almost the exact reverse of the American version. If someone sues for libel, it is the defendant who must prove the truth of the matter and not the plaintiff to show untruth. Irving sued, represented himself (what was that comment about people who represent themselves having fools as clients?) and lost spectacularly. In a damning judgment, Judge Sir Charles Gray blasted Irving,

The charges which I have found to be substantially true include the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

If you want to learn about Holocaust denial, what claims are made and how wrong they are, you can get everything for free at the Holocaust on Trial website, a project supported by Emory. The site includes almost all the expert reports produced for Professor Lipstadt, the trial transcripts and the complete judgement. (As entertaining and educational as the Dover judgement.) You could of course also buy either the book by Deborah Lipstadt or, for a slightly different perspective, you could read Michael Shermer’s excellent Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?

Why is any of this relevant now?

Over a year ago, David Irving was sentenced to 3 years in an Austrian prison for having denied the Holocaust in Austria. (Actually, it’s not quite that easy. Irving denied the Holocaust long ago at some neo-Nazi meeting in Austria; the Austrian state department declared him persona non grata and denied him entry into the country; he entered; about two years ago he was put on trial and put in prison. Phew!) Holocaust denial is a crime in many European countries including France, Germany and Austria and Irving is denied entry in these and a couple of other countries. Irving, after serving 13 months of his sentence, was released and, on December 21, sent back to England (who have to let him in). It was a repent David Irving that appeared before the Austrian courts. The Telegraph brought the following heart rending rendition,

The appeal court said it had made its decision to release Irving early due to the “exceptional long time since the crime”, as well as his defence that he no longer denied the Holocaust.

The judge, Ernest Maurer, said: “We expect Irving will leave Austria immediately. We don’t suspect he will commit another offence.”

Appearing handcuffed in court for the appeal verdict, Irving looked at the judge and said in German: “Thank you, your Honour.”

Of course, an almost unrecognizable, repentant David Irving isn’t something you see very often – or it appears – for very long. Shortly after landing back in Britain, Irving was also back in the business of anti-Semitism, racism; in short, all the things we recognize him for. The Guardian pointed out on December 23,

The discredited British historian David Irving came under fire last night for making racist comments a day after flying back to Britain following a year in prison in Austria for Holocaust denial.

Mr Irving, 68, who was released from a three-year sentence in Austria after undergoing what the judge said was an “impeccable conversion”, told a press conference that he supported the drunken anti-Semitic comments made by Mel Gibson that Jews were responsible for all modern wars. He also boasted about his success as an author during the 1970s by referring to his cash purchase of a “nigger brown” Rolls-Royce.

Well, at least he managed almost 24 hours.

According to the Austrian newspaper, Der Standard (German), the *cough* ‘activist’ judge involved in the case isn’t a completely unwritten page himself. He has close ties to the FPÖ, the far right political party run by Jörg Haider. As a matter of fact, he has made enough right-wing judgements, that he even managed to have a book written about one of his cases dealing with a neo-Nazi detractor. From the publisher,

The court battle handled [in this book] touches on the important themes, right-wing extremism, Social Darwinism [Biologismus] and national socialism. And the sole judge [as opposed to a panel] in the case, Ernest Mauer, is neither unknown nor uncontested.

So where all this does that leave us? Not far from where we started a couple of years ago. The judge in Austria is remaining true to form as is David Irving. Deborah Lipstadt is blogging again (although it is difficult to tell on which blog).

And Michael Shermer? Is there anything we can do for one of the leading sceptics of our age, one of the people who goes around bashing frauds and psychics, doing online debates with the likes of Deepak Chopra? Professor Lipstadt found a present for him too. You see there is this channeler in Florida who claims Anne Frank has forgiven Hitler…

So, I may have missed these Christmas doings last year, but hey, here’s a belated Merry Christmas to all. To all except the neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denying slugs out there.

The Ghost of Authors Present

Since he is no longer up for re-election, George W. Bush has been able to actually admit that he can read. Not only do we have his widely commented excursion in existentialist/absurdist literature this summer with Albert Camus (among other readings) but for Christmas we found out from the Washington Post that he just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost “- an account of the plundering of the Congo in the late 19th century. ”

For those of you who, like myself, were more interested in the blossoming sexuality of your high school classroom neighbor than the detailed lecture on the causes, execution and consequences of nineteen century European African colonialism (a lecture that often lasts a respectable thirty seconds) I will attempt to briefly summarize the history of the Congo Free State. To preface, I haven’t read King Leopold’s Ghost and have gotten most of my information from the most excellent one volume history The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham. (For a single volume history of post-colonial Africa I would also strongly recommend Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa.)

In 1865. Leopold II succeeded his eponymous father to the throne of Belgium. He had long felt that Belgium needed an outlet for it’s energies; something to mobilize the people, something to mobilize the country, something to make him money. In short Belgium needed colonies. Unfortunately several factors stood in the way of this noble dream. First there really wasn’t much territory left – South America had long since been divvied up between Portugal and Spain, the Pacific and Southeast Asia were under the control of the French and British and Victoria would be crowned first Empress of India in just over a decade. The second stumbling block was closer to home; neither the politicians nor the public were enamored with the idea of carrying the Belgium flag out to paint the world – um – green.

None of this deterred King Leopold. He spent the next ten years seeking an outlet for his dreams. First he looked at buying a colony. Britain turned down the idea of a Belgian colony among the palm trees and cannibals in New Guinea; Spain declined ‘leasing’ the Philippines for the paltry sum of 10 million francs. Leopold had to look elsewhere. His attention was drawn to Africa, in the 1860’s and 1870’s still largely unexplored. He was especially interested the adventures of Lieutenant Verney Lovett Cameron in central Africa and Cameron’s descriptions in January 1876 of a land of ‘unspeakable richness’ waiting for an ‘enterprising capitalist’.

Since the Belgian public wasn’t interested in supporting a colony in Africa, Leopold would just have to do it himself – privately. He arranged a conference with leading explorers, including the American Henry Stanley, made famous from his accounts of his African adventures during the search for the Scottish missionary David Livingstone. One thing led to another and Leopold had manoeuvred the major European countries to a conference in Berlin about the subject of dividing up Africa. Leopold carved out the center – the area around the river Congo – for himself. Publicly his motives were of the highest calibre. Philanthropically he would bring European ‘civilization’ to the deepest, darkest corners of the African continent; the calibre of his motives were almost has high as those of the rifles used by the mercenaries he would send.

Now building a colony isn’t cheap. The costs of empire are what caused the colonial American tax bruhahas leading to revolution and it was the cost that tarnished the feelings of Belgian politicians towards what was then called Leopold’s folly. After ten years and an investment of over two-thirds of Leopold’s net worth, the Congo ‘Free State’ still wasn’t showing a profit. Ivory was the biggest export but it wasn’t enough. Things might have collapsed if it wasn’t for the work of two men – neither Belgian.

The first person died even before Leopold was crowned. He was the American Charles Goodyear, whose patent number 3,633 from 1844 for the vulcanization of rubber revolutionized the industry, making the sap of an otherwise useless tree one of the most important industrial products of the age. The second critical figure was John Boyd Dunlap, who’s patent for an inflatable tire changed the way the world rides just as the use of bicycles and automobiles soared. The demand for rubber exploded and Leopold was sitting on the dynamite – the wild rubber trees in the Congo.

It is here that the story loses any innocence. By 1902 Leopold was making around 40 million Francs per year from Congo exports. Enjoying the luxuries of his newly built palace and the pleasures of his eighteen year old mistress (Leopold was 65 by now – eat your heart out Mike Foley), Leopold had managed to keep any hints of misdoing in the Congo more or less quiet. It took the British shipping clerk/journalist Edmond Morel to do the calculations and the photographer/missionary Alice Harris (do all these people do two things?) to provide the evidence of the atrocities being committed in the name of commerce. It turns out that instead of the normal colonial model, exporting raw goods from the colonies and importing finished products into the colonies, Leopold had come up with a less moral but far more profitable method – export raw goods and use the local population as slave labor. (*forehead slap* It’s just so simple – why didn’t the British think of that? Oh – honor.) In one of the more disgraceful practices, native mercenaries were required to ‘prove’ they had used their ammunition correctly – one bullet – one hand. Of course if the previous owner wasn’t dead yet, that was of no bother.

By 1908 the public outcry against Leopold had become unbearable. He was forced to turn the Congo ‘Free State’ over to the Belgian government and retired to his estates until his death in 1909. His funeral procession was booed.

But what does all this have to do with our current noble leader, George W. Bush?

Quite a bit – at least according to Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost. In a verbal broadside an open letter printed in the LA Times on December 22, Hochschild finds lots of similarities. He poses President Bush a number of questions.

First, as you now know, the long effort by King Leopold II of Belgium to bring Congo under his control was driven by his avid quest for a commodity central to industry and transportation: rubber. Does that remind you of anything?

What’s more, the king justified his grab for Congo’s natural resources with much talk about bringing philanthropy and Christianity to darkest Africa. Now what did that remind you of?

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question, for extra credit: Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you’re right again.

As a reader of history, you must have been interested, I’m sure, in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal.

The piece is both well written and damning. Well worth the read.

But, as opposed to Mr (Dr? Prof?) Hochschild, I wouldn’t try to ask questions President Weasel wouldn’t answer – I’d simply make a single suggestion. Next time when you’re choosing Christmas reading Mr President, try to make sure the author is no longer among the breathing, editorial-writing living. In this sense Camus was an excellent choice.

That way, shortly before Christmas, like Scrooge, you might be able to avoid the Ghost of Authors Present while reading about the Ghosts of Kings Past.

Just an idea.

A Burning Desire

President Bush signed the Military Commission Act of 2006 on Tuesday. Among other things, this removes the right of Habeus Corpus.

Thus restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, on the right of assembly and association, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house-searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property rights are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

If you just got cold shivers reading the above passage, good. I didn’t quote the newest move toward an American dictatorship; rather it is the first paragraph of the decree signed by Hindenburg in February 1933, just after the Reichstag burned . It effectively ended the Weimar Republic and signalled the start of the Nazi regime. The next paragraph allowed the federal government, in case of danger to the public, the right to take over the state governments. Both of these provisions were enacted permanently or ‘until further notice.’ But for just a moment, an instant, you might have imagined an American Congress and an American Senate passing legislation with that language. The leap isn’t quite as far to see George W. Bush signing it. Doesn’t that give you pause to think?

I am currently reading Richard J. Evans’ ‘The Coming of the Third Reich,’ the source for the text I used above. On Tuesday, I reached the part of the book where the Reichstag is burned by the Dutch social malcontent and arsonist Marinus van der Lubbe. This happened about a week before federal elections and was used by the Nazis to ban the Communist party, the third strongest political power in pre-WWII Germany. Goebbels used the fire to whip up a feeling of fear, suggesting that the communist party was posed to overthrow the government and install a godless, evil regime.

If you have never heard of Richard Evans, he is one of the premier historians of the Third Reich. His fifteen minutes of fame outside academia came during the Irving vs. Lipstadt libel trial in 2000. David Irving sued Professor Lipstadt over her representation of him in her book ‘Denying the Holocaust’, a discussion of Holocaust ‘revisionists.’ The full transcripts and many of the expert reports can be found at Holocaust Denial on Trial. Evans wrote the expert witness report examining Irving’s validity as a historian. 

Very soon after we had begun our examination of Irving’s work along the lines sketched out above, it became clear that Irving did all of these things [i.e. deliberately manipulate and distort documents, suppress evidence, wilfully mistranslate documents , consciously use unreliable or discredited testimony, falsify historical statistics, or apply one standard of criticism to sources which undermine their views and another to those which support them]. Penetrating beneath the confident surface of his prose quickly revealed a mass of distortion and manipulation in every issue we tackled that was so tangled that detailing it sometimes took up many more words than had been devoted to it in Irving’s original account. […] A similar knotted web of distortions, suppressions and manipulations became evident in every single instance which we examined. We have not suppressed any occasion on which Irving has used accepted and legitimate methods of historical research, exposition and interpretation: there were none.

Needless to say, Irving lost the trial. In a judgement almost as entertaining and educational as the Dover ruling, Justice Gray blasts Irving, basically discrediting him as a historian or anything but an extremist, right-wing talking head. Irving now languishes in an Austrian prison for entering the country despite a court order denying his entry. This order came a direct result of Irving’s attacks on the reality of the holocaust. Naturally, I could have used the above quote to describe the distortions used by the current administration to justify the Iraq war; but that would be hyperbole.

Returning to 1933, in what would now be considered a terrorist act, an unemployed Dutch construction worker set fire to the seat of the much weakened Weimar government. Even though all evidence pointed to an isolated incident perpetrated by a deranged individual, Hitler and the Nazi government used this act as a pretext to claim that the fire had been a communist plot, a prequel to the overthrow of the government. The Nazis spread a feeling of fear and terror, projecting a threat to the country and stability in every socialist nuance.

The Stormtroopers were unleashed, smashing and destroying the offices of the communist party and the homes of the party members, who were arrested and taken to the precursors of concentration camps. While many of these people were no friends of democracy or the republic, the arrest was not for any specific crime, it was enough to be in the wrong party, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. These detainees had no right to counsel; some were tortured; some were killed. They had no recourse to justice and no possibility for appeal. Often tried under any pretext, the verdict and the penalty were clear before the trial started.

Seven years later, the first buildings in Auschwitz were being erected. Few could have foreseen the impending dangers.

To complete my nightmare, I would reach even farther back into history. The Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the two greatest periods of democracy the world has ever known, democratic Athens and republican Rome. Both of these nations (OK, one was a nation-state – picky, picky, picky) were the most powerful entity in the areas they occupied at the time they existed, both had elections and were highly advanced technologically. One minor point is often overlooked though. Both of these experiments failed. Let’s hope that bad things don’t come in threes.

I, for one, have a burning desire not to see the Capital building set on fire in two weeks.

Bushwacking the Truth

Fred Kaplan has an excellent piece up at Slate about the backstory to the current North Korean crisis. He uses a McCain campaign misstep to frame the article but the contents are pure history. This is a who did what, when kind of thing. (What won’t be written when the House Ethics Committee is finished investigating Mark Foley.)

The meat of the article is how the Agreed Framework, the US-North Korean arrangement, was bombed by the Bush administration.

The accord fell apart, but not for the reasons that McCain and others have suggested. First, the U.S.-led consortium never provided the light-water reactors. (So much for the wild claims I’ve heard lately that North Korea got the bomb through Clinton-supplied technology.) Congress never authorized the money; the South Koreans, who were led by a harder-line government than the one in power now, scuttled the deal after a North Korean spy submarine washed up on their shores.

Second, when President George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001, he made it clear, right off, that the Agreed Framework was dead and that he had no interest in further talks with the North Korean regime; his view was that you don’t negotiate with evil, you defeat it or wait for it to crumble.

Third, a few months into Bush’s term, evidence mounted that the North Koreans had been … not quite violating the Agreed Framework but certainly maneuvering around it. Confronted by U.S. intelligence data in October 2002, Pyongyang officials admitted that they’d been enriching uranium—an alternative route (though much slower than plutonium) to getting a bomb.

It should be noted that the bomb that the North Koreans set off on Sunday was apparently a plutonium bomb, not a uranium bomb. In other words, it was a bomb made entirely in Bush’s time, not at all in Clinton’s. [my emphasis]

The entire article is well worth the read. It puts most of the current Republican rhetoric into perspective. Especially Bush’s press conference on Wednesday.

Now, if someone would just wack Bush instead of bushwacking the truth.

Shooting Down the 2nd Amendment

Imagine someone invoking the thoughts and deeds of the Founding Fathers to justify actions today. Now imagine someone actually going back and checking those pesky little details, the facts. It appears that is what Saul Cornell did while researching his newest book which he recently promoted in Minneapois-Saint Paul.

Cornell, a professor at Ohio State University, passed through town the other day with much to say about regulating guns. Yet his aim isn’t to take sides in the modern gun-control debate — a squabble he thinks has strayed rather off-topic. It’s far more interesting, he thinks, to look back to learn what this country’s founders actually thought about gun regulation.

They couldn’t imagine life without it, says Cornell. That’s the point of his new book, “A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.” In it, Cornell excavates the foundations of the Second Amendment and offers some startling conclusions.

“As long as we’ve had guns in America,” says Cornell, “we’ve had gun regulation.” In fact, the Second Amendment’s chief purpose is to assure such regulation. Without it, the founders feared, anarchy might take hold.[my emphasis]

I wouldn’t say that anarchy is imminent. I do feel groups fighting any form of gun regulation are doing more to contribute to the problem than solve it.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a big Founding Fathers fan (the Enlightenment was so pre-scientific method) but they were a pretty clever set of people. I am relieved to see that I am finally on their side instead of wondering how their system might be improved.

Nevertheless, much of the current political climate has misused and misconstrued exactly what the Founding Fathers actually wanted to say. Now, in an earlier post, I asked the question whether people feel safe to walk the streets. It seems I am not alone questioning this nor am I alone in the feeling that the question should be asked.

Unfortunately in today’s climate, I’m sure ideas like this will be shot down before they get very far.

Hat tip: Ralph E. Luker/CLIOPATRIA

Oedipus (the Quickie)

This must be my month for things Greek .

I give you:
    Oedipus (Quicktime , YouTube)
    The story of Oedipus, in 8 minutes, performed by vegetables.

Hat Tip: Ehrensenf (German video blog)

Girls Just Wanna Sing Hate Songs (updated)

[Update: News as of June 2007 can be found here. (Hi Sweden ;-)]

Remember the Girl Band Racist Hate Singers Prussian Blue? This would be Lamb and Lynx Gaede who enjoy playing white supremacist meetings. Well they’re baaaaack in the news.

According the Great Falls Tribune, they moved from Bakersfield, California to Kalispell,

The arrival of a white nationalist family, including 14-year-old twins who perform music as the group Prussian Blue, has prompted neighbors to distribute fliers that say, “No hate here.”

Lamb and Lynx Gaede, their mother April and stepfather Mark Harrington moved to Kalispell from Bakersfield, Calif., which was “not white enough,” April Gaede told ABC’s “Primetime” in a show that aired last fall.

For some reason, the residents of Kalispell didn’t find this form of ‘nice place to live’ marketing particularly amusing. Equally oddly the Gaedes were surprised by the reaction, the distribution of fliers, felt harassed and (as good new neighbors would) complained to the police. The police simply informed the Gaedes that this was well within freedom of speech rights and they’ll have to live with it. (A little like the hate songs the girls sing but we won’t go into that.)

Not mentioned in the article or any other blog entries I’ve read about this bunch is the connection between the name Prussian Blue and holocaust denial. Holocaust deniers claim that there couldn’t have been any gas chambers in Auschwitz because the walls of the chambers aren’t colored blue. Why should they be blue? A standard reaction between cyanide and iron (in the bricks used to build the chamber) is usually called Prussian blue. Holocaust deniers have been saying for years, “No blue brick, ho holocaust.” Of course this claim is silly because
a) the interiors of the gas chambers were painted and the cyanide couldn’t reach the bricks well and
b) because the gas concentrations used in the gas chambers were far too low to have the kinds of effects the deniers would like to see.
c) any marginal blue coloring would have long since weathered away because the gas chambers were blown up shortly before the end of the war.

But a real girl band doesn’t allow trivial things like facts or taste stand in the way of a skyrocketing career. Now if they could only find somewhere to live. Might I recommend under a rock? On the moon?

Hat tip: David Schraub/Moderate Voice and Eugene Volokh

Of Slaves, Code Rings and Cryptography

I have always been fascinated by cryptography. Actually, I’m fascinated by what cryptography used to be. You see somehow, computers have taken quite a bit of the cloak and dagger out of the subject. It is now possible to create nearly perfect codes for everyday use and perfect codes for one time use. Anyone can reach a level of cryptographic sophistication with the click of a mouse unimagined by the kings and poets of earlier centuries. Math and engineering have usurped 3000 years of ingenuity.
Oddly, I’m not one of those persons who spent hours and days trying to decipher the secret message Tony the Tiger was trying to send me during breakfast. I also didn’t grow up during the age where you could get a secret decoder ring for your favourite Saturday Matinee feature. (Although I sometimes feel I need one listening to George W. Bush.)  Finally I’ll admit to being addicted to Fargo North Decoder on The Electric Company.

Seriously however, I always wanted to know more about why some people seem to be able to solve these things easily and why people are always warned not to try to think of their own code because it has been done and will have problems. I want to look through a keyhole and discover what ideas people tried to hide and what their secret methods were. Trying to keeping information secret and having those secrets exposed has affected history more often than many people realise.

Thus, I found my perfect book in the classic tomb The Code Breakers by David Kahn. Originally published in 1967, he has put together the definitive history of codes and ciphers and their effect on war and peace. Beginning with the steganographic techniques used by the Greeks (shave slave, tattoo message on the head of slave, let hair grow back, send said slave to recipient, shave slave…), through Elizabethan England (the day Mary Queen of Scots really lost her head), into the European black chambers (when the ambassador of one country forwards the mail to a second because spies got the envelopes mixed up), to the trenches of WWI (where the Germans never got anything quite cryptographically right), historical topics are extremely well covered. Unfortunately more modern topics are less fulfilling. The book, even in its revised form from 1996, is dated. There is a long, almost obsolete section on the NSA. I would argue that the discussion of the more modern versions of cryptography, asymmetric keys, PGP or quantum cryptography are better left to the shorter, more modern The Code Book by science author Simon Singh.

There are several reasons why any book on cryptography will be out of date almost before publication. Governments try to keep modern ciphers and effective algorithms secret and often outlaw (or at least try to outlaw) those methods that can’t reasonably be subverted. Thus any book discussing modern techniques will of course not be able to reflect current affairs. This is clearly shown in Kahn’s book. Published a mere twenty years after the Second World War but before the breaking of the German Enigma code was declassified; Kahn’s on this account is justifiably thin.

In addition, most modern methods have moved from something that can easily be mastered in an afternoon to something that can only be understood with a Masters in mathematics. The discussion of the more modern methods is where Singh’s book shines. He devotes most of his book bringing life to Bletchly Park (where the WWII English code breakers were headquartered), the ideas of Rivest, Shamir and Aldeman (the creators of the RSA algorithm) and the legal battles waged by Phil Zimmerman the author of the pretty good privacy software. (Aside: Phil Zimmerman is not to be mistaken for Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister who almost single-handedly brought the United States into the First World War when the English broke the code in the infamous Zimmermann Telegraph. But that’s another crypto-story.)

Finally, cryptography is one of the fastest moving branches of computer science today. Some form of cryptography often hides behind the headlines that a DVD ‘encoding’ has been cracked or a password file compromised. Cryptography, both trying to find ways to quickly and securely encrypt as well as efficiently and correctly decrypt information, is increasingly important and increasingly invisible in our modern world. The only way to remain abreast of these changes would be to work in the field itself.

Neither of these books is directed at the person looking to start a career in cryptography; that’s not their goal. They try to give a historical backdrop to an almost timeless endeavour, keeping secrets secret. These are the antidotes, the stories of bygone days, those looking for modern methods should look somewhere else.

I will be relating some of the stories, gleaned from these and other sources in the weeks and months ahead. I’ll also show the methods of breaking some of the classic ciphers in addition to showing some of the mathematical methods used to determine which of the classic ciphers might have been used. I find things like this a wonderful way to spend a rainy weekend. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something interesting.

If you don’t want to wait for me to get around to writing about this stuff, run don’t walk to the local bookstore and get these books. (Actually drive don’t run because the bookstore is probably too far, you’ll get there faster and the books are rather heavy. You could also order them online. But, hey, if running floats your boat…I was just saying.) You might even try nabbing these little guys at the local library.

Both books, The Code Breakers by David Kahn and The Code Book by Simon Singh, are fun reads and I’m sure you’ll learn more about why some things happened the way they did and not the way you might have thought. And that message doesn’t need a code ring.