History Politics World

Syrian Refugees: we can have security and dignity, together.

Let’s be honest: as much as some Americans might wish it otherwise, our history is filled with examples of us being the same scared herd animals the rest of humanity is. Our current imbroglio over Syrian refugees is not surprise. Yes, we are absolutely as willing as the next large group of hairy animals to jettison our stated morals and standards when convenience dictates. When fear dictates. We are, in the end, only human.

How many times in our history can we cite in which we fell below our Lady Liberty’s standards? When we’ve asked for our immigrants to be a little less tired and a little less poor? When we’ve asked those seeking our shores to huddle a little less closely to us?

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    Today it seems clear, we’re poised to make the same mistakes with the Syrian refugees for many of the same reasons. In fact, some of our nation’s leaders are willing to directly – and positively – compare our current situation with that which prompted Japanese internment camps during WWII. And then apologize later, because they didn’t realize it would be a big deal:

    The longtime mayor of Roanoke, Va., who faced criticism this week for citing Japanese internment camps in his defense of limiting Syrian refugee assistance, apologized on Friday.

    He said he did not anticipate the international attention his comments would bring.

    Add to this the presidential nomination process, which is bringing the firebreathers out in full force. We can perhaps forgive (or at least ignore) the overheated rhetoric of political season. After all, our political process depends on free voices, even if they’re nuts. But somehow, we’ve graduated from refusing Syrian refugees to the idea of somehow “registering” Muslims.

    Neither can we blame only our Republican presidential hopefuls: Rochester’s own Louise Slaughter capitulated to the popular fever of the moment, signing on with the bill to restrict refugee intake by preposterously-high standards. Everywhere, it seems, “caution” appears to rule the day.

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    There is nothing new or exclusive about Syrian refugees, compared to the millions of displaced people across the globe. There is nothing new about the State Department accepting refugees, nor even of accepting Syrian refugees. Yet, because we suddenly turned our attention to this non-story after the actual story of loss and tragedy in France, everything is different.

    Can we respect Syrian refugees and our history?

    However often we have trended towards nativism in the past, we don’t have to succumb to the same knee-jerk fear response now. Unfortunately, we know we can’t expect the Fox News Network to ignore this “issue,” any longer. Because Benghazi. But cooler heads can prevail.

    We can live up to our self-imposed obligations and find a way to show that “peace through force” can mean the force of our will. We can look to our Lady Liberty and understand that the poem written there wasn’t a bragging point for the rest of the world: it was a challenge to our own people. We can, even through the ugliness of our political process, show the world that democracy trends toward respect for humanity.

    For now, it’s enough to just lay out a few bare facts about Syrian refugees and let you make your own mind up. For that, I present the first in what I hope will be a long series of the DFE Datagram, our attempt at a story through numbers:

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    History Technology

    Whispering Wires: before the NSA, our legacy of wiretapping

    It’s hard not to push the paranoia button when it comes to the Internet, even when you’re trying to speak rationally about it. There are just a lot of people in our world for whom unknown technology will always elicit the fears summoned by their favourite 70’s B-movies. And there are always plenty of people who are convinced that a President not elected by their vote must surely be looking to grind his axe on the unfaithful.

    But while the fears of executive overreach is ever-present and routinely justified by history, they’re always based on a myopic focus on the present. In fact, we get the basis for our current debates about the legality of the NSA’s snooping programs from laws passed during Prohibition Era America. I was reminded of that this weekend when I rewatched the potent Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition.

    Roy Olmstead was one of the more successful bootleggers in that era, and he was the victim of what at the time was a legal grey area: the tapping of telephone wires by Federal agents to listen in on his calls. By listening in to those calls, the Feds were able to hear all Olmstead’s plans, including communications between him and corrupt cops.

    Olmstead was a well-recognized criminal and in our modern era, it would be a trivial matter to have obtained a wiretap warrant. But in his era, no warrant was necessary. At least in the view of the Federal Government, though many legal minds of the time disagreed, including Olmstead’s own lawyer.

    To me, the upshot of this story is partially that the government will always grab for more power and more information than they have a right too. To some extent, this strikes me as logical and predictable. It is also that our democratic institutions withstood this overreach as it has many before it. A country that survived the Alien and Sedition Acts or the suspension of habeas corpus under Lincoln can right many wrongs.

    And maybe it’s my post-Obama apolitical cynicism, but the biggest upshot to me is just how static and unoriginal the political response is to such a repetitive phenomenon. The only thing that changes is who the supporters and critics are, not their arguments:



    History Science

    Richard III and evolution, how one identified the other.

    His power challenged and overthrown, pierced by “humiliation wounds,” his legacy to be tarnished by his successors, Richard III’s lifeless body was draped over the back of a horse, to be carried to parts unknown. For hundreds of years, nobody has ever known just where the last Plantagenet King finally laid down to rest.

    Uncovering that mystery took detective work. It took a lot of convincing of skeptical colleagues. It took forensic analysis and most definitively of all, it took mitochondrial DNA evidence:

     DNA from the skeleton matched a sample taken from a distant living relative of Richard’s sister. Geneticist Turi King said Michael Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter living in London, shares with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. She said combined with the archaeological evidence, that left little doubt the skeleton belonged to Richard.

    What is mitochondrial DNA and why is it so authoritative? The answer is an amazing bit of cellular evolution that takes place millions of years before the first humans even thought to stab each other with sharp metal things.

    Mitochondria are the fuel cells of the cellular world. Every cell in your body has several mitochondrion, whose role it is to convert energy from glucose into a form that the cell can use, called ATP or Adenosine Tri-Phosphate.

    But what is really interesting about mitochondria is that they behave like a separate living organism within the cell. They have their own discrete nucleus with its own DNA, their own cellular wall that performs the same functions as the wall around the main cell, ..and they even reproduce in the classic cell splitting bacterial way:

    Bacterial and mitochondrial reproduction. Image courtesy Berkley University

    This has led scientists to believe that mitochondria are in fact their own separate species of symbiotic life. Somewhere along the line, scientists believe that a proto-mitochondria was enveloped by another type of cell and rather than being killed, ended up helping the host cell out. Scientists have observed bacteria being absorbed by amoeba in this same fashion. The result was a form of inter-species cooperation that is beyond ubiquitous. All forms of eukaryotic life – cells which have nuclei, which is to say every cell in your body, your dog’s body and every plant or tree – have mitochondria. That leaves only bacteria and archaea without mitochondria.

    So, why does this all matter in the discovery of a long-dead king? Because mitochondria reproduce asexually, are contained in the ovum (an egg cell) and are therefore passed from mother to child exclusively. Whereas the rest of your DNA is half your mother, half your father, your mitochondrial DNA is all momma. And because it is copied asexually, it is very, very consistent over hundreds and even thousands of generations. The DNA that make your mitochondria work are probably not all that different from relatives so far back, your profile doesn’t even include them.

    Thus after hundreds of years, a controversial noble’s irrefutably ignoble resting place beneath a modern-day parking lot was discovered.


    Reconstruction and gun control: a historical perspective

    For twenty-five or so years, now, I’ve been arguing one side or the other on the gun control issue. And in all that time, I do not recall the current brand of gun freedom discussion, so popular among those who try to shout me down on the issue. That is: that during the Reconstruction, white Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan actively sought out gun control as a means to control newly free black populations. The argument goes: this is what “the people in power” always want, therefore surrendering our guns now is just a huge mistake in a millennial struggle for power in democratic societies.

    I cannot help but notice that an increasing number of Republican arguments against public policy seem rooted these days in a novel affection for racial history. I don’t think I am alone in finding the sight of the Party of Pat Buchanan casting the Klan as bad guys.. counter-intuitive.

    Novelty notwithstanding, their argument is endowed with solid historical evidence, as University of Buffalo history professor Carole Emberton discusses in a History News Network article published on Monday. She describes a Reconstruction South that is rocked by violence and revolution. She describes this, our nation’s worst post-war reconstruction effort, having in this case, “devolved into a paramilitary contest in many areas.” In this chaotic environment, the right to bear arms and the right to vote became intertwined:

    Radical Republicans paired the right to vote with the right to bear arms, citing black men’s participation in the war effort as evidence of their worthiness to cast ballots. They also cited white southerners’ determination to prevent their former bondsmen from becoming citizens by disarming them as a reason to reaffirm both voting and private gun possession as twin rights of post-emancipation citizenship.

    Were we to read this article while keeping our eyes firmly cast on the players – the black citizens struggling for power and the white Southerners who took it from them – we can easily see that the black struggle was for the “right” and the Southern Democrat effort is for the “wrong.” If we keep an eye on the people who drive the narrative, we can pretty easily pick a favourite side for which we can root.

    We can feel the burn of anger and resentment when “our side” loses. In every conflict, military or para, the objective is to disarm the enemy. And so they did. This isn’t a historical footnote and it isn’t the kind of injustice we would want to repeat. All very true.

    If on the other hand, we focus instead on the machines that play their part, we clearly see that more guns did not yield a favourable result. The Civil War brought a flood of increasingly effective and cheap weapons to the United States. Guns during the Civil War entered their Industrial Age, suddenly becoming ubiquitous, sophisticated and brutally efficient. The demand for guns leading up to the Civil War nearly quadrupled the yearly output at the fabled Colt Company plants, as one example Professor Emberton notes.

    Into this mess Radical Republicans pour a conflation of guns and democracy. White Southerners pour in their resentment and loss. “Militias” are formed and direct assaults on the institutions of our democracy begun. The result is a wound that, more even than the Civil War itself, leaves its continuing mark as evidenced by the whole argument.

    History does not belong to any “side” in a political or historical argument. Certainly, not my side. But to me, the story of Reconstruction fire arms reads as a cautionary tale against allowing a build-up of dangerous weapons where they will inevitably get used. That reining in the power of the gun facilitated one sin or the next does not invalidate gun control as a worth-while public policy, any more than does the existence of street signs in Bathist Iraq make traffic law an instrument of dictatorship.

    History Rochester VIDEO

    On the Fourth Day of Christmas, a present for Rochester and Mayor Richards

    Ever notice that whoever wrote the “12 Days of Christmas” song had a severe bird fetish? At least six of these 12 days of true love gift giving are bird related, and possibly more. History has debated that the fifth day’s gift of “five golden rings” actually referred to ring-necked pheasants, not fancy finger jewelry. So! There we have it. The first seven days of the 12 Days of Christmas are birds, equaling a grand total of 28 birds from your true love.

    Um, thanks?

    Culturally, we may not typically celebrate 12 days of Christmas anymore, but Rochester is certainly on board with Day 4, albeit perhaps unintentionally. Day 4 is another commonly misinterpreted verse to the 12 Days song, with many singing “four calling birds” when in fact, it is actually “four colly birds.” Okay, well that’s all fine and good, but what the heck is a colly bird? According to our good friends at Wikipedia, colly bird is the old-fashioned term for a black bird. Merry Christmas, Rochester, indeed!

    The crows are back in town, and they’re back with a vengeance.  Earlier in the year, the city put forth extensive creative and technological efforts to disperse crows from downtown areas, however, the colder weather has brought them back, much to the city’s chagrin. Earlier this week, wildlife biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture began their most recent attempts to chase the overwhelming amount of crows out of Washington Square Park, which, on Sunday’s count, clocked in with over 25,000 crows.

    The USDA has been working through the night using non-harmful techniques such as spotlights and pyrotechnics to rid the crows, however, these colly birds aren’t leaving without a fight. Several crows have flown away or moved to other trees while others have barely budged. Back in February, we reported that crows have an uncanny sense of memory – perhaps they’re calling our bluff?

    According to USDA wildlife biologist Mark Carrara, these things take time and will decrease gradually, comparing the techniques to pet training, which may not be such a far-fetched comparison. For whatever reason, these crows do seem to believe they’ve found a home in Rochester. Perhaps Rochester should be more selective when choosing its “true love” next year, or at least one that blesses us with better gifts. In the meantime, happy eleven months of the fourth day of Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


    History Science VIDEO

    From Tahiti to the ISS, Venus’ transit, exploration and the passage of history

    At this point, photos coming from the International Space Station on a daily basis has become routine. You do realize, dear reader, how truly amazing that is all by itself?

    But for us science bloggers who weren’t able to view the Venus transit across the sun, the ISS is once again going to deliver an incredible consolation prize in the form of photos taken by astronaut Don Pettit from the Space Station’s cupola. As common as photos are from ISS, this set will still be significant in that they represent only the third set of photos taken from the cupola, which features exceptionally-clear glass windows for perfect photography.

    And of course, this will be the first set of photos of Venus’ transit from space. As the video below does a great job explaining, the cultural significance of this moment is not without precedent, as Captain James Cook observed the last Venus transit from the recently-discovered island of Tahiti.

    It was originally though that Pettit would be able to release photos in real-time, but that doesn’t appear to have happened, based on his Twitter and Facebook profiles. Hopefully, we don’t have long to wait!


    Biggest bank heists, ever

    Every once in a while, I get a request to post something to the site. Normally, those posts tend to be spammy, useless or just otherwise make me uncomfortable. But this infographic from Home Security System is pretty cool information from a historical perspective, so I gladly pass it along to my readers!

    The World's Biggest Heists [Infographic]

    © 2012

    History Science

    Think natural selection doesn’t play a role in modern humans? New study says that yes, it does.

    As humans, we like to believe that no, natural selection does not play a role in our continuing development. Our intellects and ability to conquer nature are what have pushed us forward.

    But a new study of birth, death and marriage patterns in a single village in Finland between the years 1760 and 1849 suggests that all the patterns we expect to find in animals are present in humans. At least, they were 200 years ago. Most villagers died off before they were 15 – suggesting that disease and a lack of adaptable qualities took their toll. Of those who did not die, 20% never married or reproduced, suggesting that sexual selection also played a role in the village’s continued existence.

    Whether the same holds true for an era of modern medicine remains unanswered by this study. But one interesting note is that, in this village at least, comparable wealth had no particular bearing on the success of the individual. You might think that the availability of modern medicine would now be weighing against evolution. Considering the fact that the U.S. ranks 50th out of 221 countries in life expectancy, well, maybe evolution is indeed still weighing in on our future?

    Natural Selection Is Still With Us – ScienceNOW.

    History Politics Rochester

    On the anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s arrest, a note about #OccupyRochester

    I’ve always taken a certain pride in what I view as a fairly progressive tradition here in Rochester. Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and many other progressives made Rochester a hot-bed of populist reform in the middle 1800’s. It is not common knowledge, but the lone man who voiced support for Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Bill of Rights – which contained the call for women’s suffrage that even Susan B. thought might wreck their movement – was none other than Frederick Douglass. Abolition, temperance, women’s rights. These were all of-a-peice in an effort to turn America toward a more accommodating path for human dignity.

    And in 2011, we find ourselves once again in the middle of a similar struggle for human dignity. The Occupy Wall Street movement stands in opposition to the rampant, world-wide greed and avarice of the corporate elite. Once again, we in Rochester have the pride of hosting a small piece of that global effort with the #OccupyRochester protestors joining the effort. As the protestors struggle to voice their message against an ambiguously hostile City Hall, we are reminded today that in this, too, there is a parallel with those old days of populism.

    Because as @Sean_Dobbin notes on Twitter, today is the anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s failed attempt to vote here in Rochester. She went to the polling station despite not yet having been granted the franchise that all Americans enjoy today. She was arrested for her efforts.

    139 years ago, there appears to have been little indeed to separate the reactions to her movement and our own. In both cases, the City of Rochester was accommodating to a point – they actually allowed Susan B. Anthony to register to vote, oddly enough; they allowed the Suffragettes to march in the streets. But ultimately, when it really counted, Rochester turned then as now to its polite rules of conduct, which like it or not, did not include women at the time.

    Drawing conclusions from such a gathering of facts is really more of a Rorschach’s test than a proper intellectual exercise. The facts are necessarily limited. But I do think that, as we think about Rochester politics generally, its worth noting that we demonstrate in every era a profound need for orderly conduct. As I noted when I last posted about Occupy Rochester, polite rules seem to be the great constant of Rochester history, even as the mores have changed.

    I think along with that is an accommodating nature, which in the end, is a very humanist and populist nature. We have never been nor will we ever been the Berkley of New York – in fact, I would hazard a guess that Mrs. Anthony would be shocked indeed to observe our lives as we live them now. But our tradition, or present condition and our future all seem bound by a genuine compassion for the world that we ignore at our own expense.

    Susan B. Anthony – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

    History Rochester

    What Detroit and Cleveland Owe Rochester?

    I’ve just picked up and started reading my anniversary present from my wife: an 1884 book called Rochester: A Story Historical, written by Jenny Marsh Parker. When reading a book this old, the book itself *is* the history, more so even than the tale it tries to impart. Not just its take on the past, but the entire frame of mind of the author tells a revealing story about where we’re from and to whom we owe our history. And at the same time, this book discusses in contemporaneous fashion landmarks of the Rochester landscape that have long-since ceased to be.

    Many of us are familiar with at least the name of Tryon Park, for example, without knowing that Tryon was one of the first “cities” of white men in the region. I’m sure the list of five: Tryon City, Castle Town, Carthage, Hanford’s Landing and a little-known hamlet of Pittsford, represent fascinating stories in and of themselves. Note that “Rochester” is not among their numbers, and that “Falls Town” was a hell-hole of a swamp that nobody ever thought would turn into a city. Whoops!

    But Tryon being at the mouth of the Irondequoit Bay was a trader’s village established in 1799. And being not just a remote outpost, but the home of an adventurous entrepreneur of the classic American mold, Tryon is in the words of the author owed no small debt of gratitude from the likes of Detroit and Cleveland for their early starts:

    It may well be questioned if Cleveland and Detroit are not largely indebted to the city of Tryon? If the great oaks that from little acorns grow are under any obligations whatsoever to said said little acorns, Cleveland and Detroit must own that one of the sources of their early prosperity was in the ambitious trading-post on Irondequoit Bay. Oliver Culver, famous among our best pioneers, superintended that big ashery at Tryon Town for three years. He saved his money, and in 1804 bought up a large share of the goods the Tryon Town merchant was glad to sell at a low figure, and with these he went to Cleveland. There was but one trader before him. Indians brought him their furs, and the Pennsylvania settlers drove their pack-horses to his cabin laden with whiskey and brandy, butter, cheese, and honey. He could sell salt at three dollars a bushel, and his Tryon Town goods brought a quick sale and large profits. The suppressed spirit of the disappointed city seemed to have found an outlet for development. From Cleveland Oliver Culver went to Detroit, where he did well in apples and white fish. He returned to Western New York a few years after to buy his broad farm lands, and settle down for life. Why are not Cleveland and Detroit indebted to Tryon Town, and shall we not establish its just claim for recognition?

    I doubt if either metropolis would be nearly as impressed by the trade exploits of a single merchant as the author is. But in a country exploding with new growth and potential every day, the author is clearly attempting to stake out a place in the larger historical narrative of the United States for scrappy little Rochester’s contributions. This is 1884, before George Eastman, before Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. Before the world watched Olympic Games on television, sponsored by and emblazoned with all these names. Little did she know what things – great and small, noble and ignoble – would come later to ensure our place in history.

    And I’m three chapters into the book. Wow.