Happy 1.4 Billion Day!

As of 5/13/2014 12:53:20 PM, here in the Eastern timezone, we pass an interesting milestone: the UNIX timestamp passes the 1400000000 mark.

And what, you ask, is the UNIX timestamp? It is the count of every second between 01/01/1970 at midnight, UTC and this moment. Calculating time and date is kind of a challenge. You’ve got 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day.. how many days in a month? Well, that depends. How many days in a year? Again, that depends.

This presents a challenge for developers looking to calculate, say, how many users have logged on to a system in the past year. The solution is to rely on this Base-10 number, which was presented as a means to keep UNIX systems coordinated across timezones and locations. It’s a great way to calculate time, because it is  just like our normal counting system. What happened a year ago? Well, subtract 31,536,000 from the current timestamp and have a look.

This afternoon at 12:53:20, we will have passed the nice, neat number of 1.4 billion seconds since the very beginning of 1970. The next such milestone – 1.5 billion seconds – will happen 7/13/2017 10:40:00 PM. So, you know, set you clocks and get ready to party!

Rochester Science

Wine Science: the legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank and Finger Lakes wines

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars is celebrating its 50th anniversary on July 1st of this year. Not only is this a landmark milestone for the winery, but also for New York Wines as a whole. It was Dr. Konstantin Frank who perfected the grafting of vinifera grapes onto native rootstock in order for European grapes to be grown in New York State.

Prior to the perfection of these grafting techniques (where the root-stock of native grapes are fused to the vines of traditional European wine grapes), New York wineries primarily used the native grape types in their wines. While many of the wineries still use these native grape types today, they did not have the reputation of their European comrades. By growing grape types which Europeans and other wine regions were familiar with, New York was finally able to compete on a level playing field and build the reputation they have today.

European wine grapes (vinifera) are susceptible to a parasite which is native to the United States called phylloxera. This small green insect devours the leaves and roots and ultimately kills the vines. The native grapes are resistant to the pest and were thus easier to cultivate. The first way to circumvent the phylloxera was to make French/American hybrids. Wines made from these hybrids won awards but these vines were not as popular as the ones made from vinifera, and in the Finger Lakes the need was to also create more winter-hardy roots to tolerate the cold temperatures common in this area.

By perfecting the grafting technique in the 1950s, Dr. Frank was able to improve the quality of the grapes and thus the wine. One of the keys to his success was the hilling of the dirt around the graft to protect the vine where the European grape vine and resistant root-stock came together at the graft. As a result of this technique, it is possible to grow vinifera grape types in the Finger Lakes. One of these types is Riesling, for which the Finger Lakes have developed their reputation for award-winning wines.

Dr. Frank was a scientist and ran his winery almost as an experiment station of his own. He planted every type of grape he could find because he wanted to know what worked and what didn’t. This led to an amazing collection. Dr. Frank even brought the rkatsiteli (ar-kat-si-TEL-lee) grape to New York. The grape is rarely planted anywhere other than Russia.

Even with Dr. Frank’s work, it has been an interesting Spring already, and the weather could make for some challenges in the wine industry. Most of the effect is going to be seen in the orchards, where the fruit yields have already been hit badly. This may not be the greatest year for fruit wines. In the vineyards, however, at most 10% of the grapes are gone. The most important thing is the fruit set. If the buds were not frozen, then there wouldn’t be any damage to the crops. However, if they did freeze we may see uneven ripening and some decreased yields. There’s no way to know for sure at the moment because the vines are still in the budding process. What a year for a 50th anniversary!


The Water of Life: a brief history of whiskey and distillation

The Internet. Penicillin. The wheel.

These are pretty cool – and one might even say useful – inventions. But just imagine how much less we would enjoy all of these nobel fruits of our collective intelligence – to say nothing of Irish music – if it wasn’t for the hands-down most important invention of all time, whiskey.

Don’t believe me? Well, as it happens, the name “Whiskey” is one of those morphed words that was originally from the Gaelic uisge, as in uisge beatha, meaning “Water of Life.” And in fact, that same phrase was also translated into Latin as aqua vitae. Who are we to correct history?

Whiskey’s origins start with the process of distillation, which was developed in Mesopotamia. But the Mesopotamian people had not yet evolved to the point of enjoying delicious whiskey – in fact, they used grapes, which are all wrong for whiskey, and merely used alcohol to make perfumes. This to me says a lot about the barely-civilized origins of that perfume counter at Macy’s you’re always trying to avoid: they’re primitive and violent for a reason.

"For fuck's sake, Margaret, just buy something! God only knows what's going on beyond those cold, dead, lizard eyes."

The distillation process eventually made its way to Ireland, where the lack of grapes meant alcohol producers needed to find a new substrate for their experimentations. As a result, monks who produced alcohol for its medicinal purposes used grains and the first important leap forward was made towards that most enlightened of potables.

But the party really gets started in the mid-1500’s when King Henry the VIII and his vicegerent Thomas Cromwell, seeking to unburden local Catholic institutions of their considerable wealth, dissolved the monasteries throughout England. That sucks for England’s monastery community – which is estimated to have owned one-third of all the land in England prior to that – but its pretty awesome for us, because the monks decided to bring their distillation home with them. And when they did, it was all about rockin’ a fat buzz, no fever, infection or possession by Satan required.

Shure 'an forgive ush father, for we have shinned. Alsho like to shay a shpecial shorry about pisshin' in the holy water, I would. Shaints presherve us.

To be sure: those old monks partied high-test style, drinking the whiskey immediately after distillation. But eventually after enough former monks died of alcohol poisoning, someone got the idea to age the whiskey in barrels and allow it to mellow, not to mention adding the caramel goodness we’ve all come to know and love. And to this day, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Antrim County, Ireland remains the oldest working distillery of whiskey in the world.

I like to believe that, somewhere way down there in our history, this is some branch of my family's coat of arms.

These days, whiskey comes to us in a variety of different variations, from the extremely rare single-cask bottle to the more commercially-viable blended whiskeys. Purists generally prefer the single-malt stuff, which while probably blended from a number of casks, only comes from a single distiller, thus being a reasonably-pure expression of that maker’s techniques.

Me? Well, I’m not purist for anything. But given the option, I trend towards Knob Creek as my poison of choice, particularly for a Manhattan. Bourbon whiskey, I guess you would call that.

If you’d like to know more about whiskey than I can tell you, I know just the place to go, too: Marketview Liquor is having a special whiskey tasting tonight, February 17th, from 4pm to 7pm. Get there early, but if you don’t see me, please save me a sip or two!


Bioarcheology: scientists study the African Diaspora and slavery’s genetic trail

Nature reports today on the beginnings of a vast new historical project aimed at fitting together the missing pieces of the African slave trade’s effects on the victims. One group will study bones of enslaved Africans for demographic, quality of life and chemical analysis information. Another will study written records of slave trade. But the largest focus of the study is on studying the DNA evidence in living populations of French Guiana to reconstruct the origins of the original slaves.

The study has the potential to bring up a host of uncomfortable subjects. For example, one lead researcher notes that the extent to which African slaves and their white masters may have interbred. And since much of the current historical record is “fragmented,” as another researcher put it, we may find that the routes to the Americas are not as straight as we once thought.

For more information on the study, see the Nature article posted below:

Filling in the gaps in the slave trade : Nature News & Comment.


DADT and Parliamentary Procedure: a Historical Perspective

History is a tricky thing. On one hand, those who do not study it they say are destined to repeat it. On the other hand, interpreting history is a subjective exercise and often done in remarkably one-dimensional, self-serving manner. I generally avoid the use historical paradigms on this website largely for this reason. Because as an amateur student of history, I am all too aware of how nuance gives way to silly posturing, straw men and logical fallacies conveniently packaged as history lessons.

It is also for this reason that I have been unable to address the Tea Party movement in any meaningful way. I’ve discussed its members, I’ve discussed some electoral politics here, on the DFE FaceBook Page and on the Twitter feed. But I have yet to have addressed the movement as an object on its own, because I find the whole historical inspiration of the movement too insulting and infuriating to manage to piece together a cohesive argument. I don’t begrudge them their beliefs or political leanings; I don’t begrudge them their solidarity. Hell, I don’t even begrudge them their oft-disavowed but painfully omnipresent racism and xenophobia: such things don’t need my help to collapse under their own weight. But I do begrudge them their historical premise.

Let the Average Joe Tea Party go. But I really want to ask Dick Armey and the leaders of the various strands of the Tea Party movement, “do you really think – honestly? truly? – that Britons killed Britons over tea? Do you really believe – honestly? truly? – that Britons killed Britons over a modest increase in the nominal tax rate for high-earners? And do you seriously believe that Samuel Adams could have mustered the support of twelve other colonies to break from the Mother Country over a health insurance plan? If not, how is this whole Tea Party thing not just a little bit insulting to our Founders?”

But nuance, as usual, gives way to silly posturing. And in this case, hats.

Certainly, the Revolution was sparked by taxes and certainly it was instigated with brush fires like the Boston Tea Party. But even closer to the source of the actual friction between Britain and the Colonies was Parliament’s self-aggrandizing obsession with it’s own rules and procedures, at the expense of its actual duty to govern the country. We know the phrase “no taxation without representation in Parliament,” but what is less-well understood is that Parliament was not blindly ignoring the complaints of the American Colonies: it was operating under a set of rules it believed genuinely covered the Colonies without the need to adjust the way it did business. The charter that founded Parliament accomplished two necessary functions of a democracy. First, it established the Parliament as representative of the citizens of Britain. Second, it established Parliament as the sole origin of the laws that governed the whole of the British Empire. But when that charter was written, it didn’t take into account a large population of Britons now living in a conquered part of the Empire as indigenous people. There was no “redistricting” the British Parliament.

So at loggerheads were two entirely correct propositions: the common understanding of representative democracy on the American side and the supremacy of the Parliament as a legal body on the other. But in response to this growing and seemingly obvious contradiction, Parliament chose to worship its own rules and procedures rather than address any concern outside of them. That the American condition was in direct conflict with the founding principles of the Parliament – principles for which many commoners very much like the American Colonists fought and died – was of less importance to the Parliament than the orderly adherence to the rules that had governed it since then. And in response to the growing unrest across the ocean, the Parliament whose sovereignty over the Colonies lay at the heart of the conflict opted to pass more soveriegn laws: the Townshend Acts, the Stamp Act and finally the suite of nearly unenforceable Acts known as the Coersive Acts.

One lesson that might be taken from this history is that a parliamentary body more interested in itself than its job will leave an alienated populace to take matters into it’s own hands. Does that mean revolution? Of course not. But it is a lesson in disenfranchisement of a type that, for all the bluster, pomp and circumstance of Washington, I personally never really thought we would see in this country. Until recently.

Because when we view history and the present through this lens, what are we to make of Susan Collins’ decision to block the revocation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? She is not an opponent of the fight against the discriminatory law that forces soldiers to lie about who they are. Indeed, she is a full-throated supporter of the effort. She doesn’t have any objection to the DREAM Act, either. There doesn’t seem to have been a single issue in the defense spending package with which she had a difference. Not a moral objection. Not a single ethical disagreement. And she would have had the support of an overwhelming majority of American voters, as well. The sole objection upon which she declared her willingness to join in the Republican filibuster was…. parliamentary procedure. That Democrats opted not to allow any more Republican amendments to a spending bill. And in retaliation for an extra-Constitutional parliamentary procedure she found unjust, she chose to support yet another extra-Constitutional parliamentary procedure.

For all the impassioned speech-giving prior to casting her vote, it boils down to taking her job as a Senator more seriously than her job as a lawmaker for the American people and those she represents. Say what you will about the pre-Revolutionary British Parliament, they at least passed and argued over laws. Susan Collins held civil rights of gays and innocent child-imigrants back from history for who knows how long because of arbitrary rules setup in the Senate which have no basis in law whatsoever.

Of course it isn’t the only example. If it was, this would be an isolated incident we could just leave aside. But Washington is starting to look more and more like a place completely unprepared to fulfill its duties, and that is especially true in the House and Senate, where the day to day football of the Congress matters much more than the 10% unemployment rate, the faltering housing market, the runaway banks, the crushed working man and oh, yeah: the will of the governed.


Sweet Stuff for a History Geek

The Rochester Museum and Science Center, along with the City of Rochester, is still undergoing the process of archiving and researching all those papers and documents removed from the 1873 time capsule in the old City Hall. Now, they’re starting the process of actually cataloging those items online:

Rochester’s 1873 Time Capsule.

This is way-bitchin, people.


I’m Just Sayin. . .

It’s never ceased to amaze me the plans the military develops when we’re not looking. This one sounds oddly familiar in a number of ways.


Subtle Distinction: Historical vs. Contemporary

I’m surprised I need to make this distinction, but allow me to point out that there is a difference between accepting history with all it’s warts and accepting contemporary crimes as simply a matter of historical fact. As the torture story continues to evolve in the media, we find that many people, particularly Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough, want to simply dismiss the acts committed in the Bush Administration as part of a larger historical fact of life which cannot be helped. For example, let’s review the TPM “Day in 100 Seconds” from yesterday:
The fire bombing of Dresden was indeed a nightmarish and shameful act. The dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the most egregious acts of war in the history of mankind, it’s fair to say. And in both cases, while we may argue around the particulars, these acts were done in the heat of a war when generals did not believe other alternatives remained. Sherman’s march to the sea also comes to mind.

But those things are in the past. We might have done something different at the time, but we did not. And in the animal nature of man and the horrors of war, these things do happen repeatedly throughout history. We cannot condemn all of our history – or that of mankind – as simply evil because of the evil acts contained in that history. All of this is true. Yet that hardly justifies or excuses criminal acts of war committed in our recent past, still subject to criminal investigation. Neither justifies, excuses those acts, nor releases us from the duty to prosecute those acts.

Put simply, the question is this: because Jesse James killed a lot of people and robbed a lot of banks, does that mean we have to accept that bank robbers and murderers operate in our midst currently? Or do we hold the present to a different standard than the past? By Morning Joe’s standards, there is no particular reason to seek out Osama bin-Laden, since after all, terrorists have always existed. Or how about Bernie Madoff? Thief is probably as old an occupation as whore, don’t you think?


Friday Heritage Blogging

This, my readers, is why I don’t run for office. Check out number sixteen in Keith Olbermann’s Coundown of Public Corruption. If that dude don’t look like me and my old man, I’ll eat my hat.

P.S.: I don’t know for a fact that this man is related to me, but look at him! Anyone who knows me knows that’s a pretty scary likeness.


Sad. Just Sad

The Bush Administration feels the need to put out talking points to it’s cabinet members in order to maintain the veneer of accomplishment on the Bush Legacy.


Dean Baker on Effective Financial Regulation

In his post, ironic-twistingly named “A Financial Sector Small Enough to Drown in a Bathtub,” Dean Baker provides some simple and practical solutions for regulating the overgrown mess of a financial system we currently have:

The best way to restrict the size of the financial industry is through a system of modest financial transactions taxes (FTT). A tax of 0.25 percent on a stock trade, or 0.02 percent tax on the purchase of an option or future, will have almost no impact on those looking to invest in the stock market or hedge their wheat crop. However, it will impose a heavy cost on short-term traders, and therefore will substantially reduce the volume of trading.

Basically, we got into our Subprime/ARM Mortgage crisis because the people lending us money took our debts and sold them as commodities on the market. Doing so meant conducting hundreds and even thousands of individual transactions, all of which would be eligible for this tax he proposes. As he explains, such a tax would have no effect on small businesses or private individuals looking to get a piece of the “American Dream,” but would have made huge differences to the type of financial two-step that got us where we are right now.

Baker also goes on to point out that lots of other perfectly industrious and wealthy nations have imposed the exact same tax. He specifically cites the UK. What he does not point out is that there is a very specific reason that the UK might want to impose such a tax: they’ve already been through basically the same process we’re about to go through now after WWI and it basically killed their empire.

The Dutch also went through a similar scenario. So did Spain, after a fashion. Even Rome did it. In fact it seems an endemic European failing that whenever it seems obvious that manufacturing will not continue to provide limitless growth, we choose to try to make money in the financial sector rather than accept the modesty of an empire at it’s peak. But making money off the financial sector is basically making money out of air; it’s a Robbing Peter to Pay Paul scam which, once the momentum of that game is interrupted, cannot help but come crashing down on itself.

So, that’s where we’re headed. It won’t mean the end of our nation, but it will mean some bitter disappointment for the next few years, I’m afraid. With luck, it will also mean a bit of enlightenment for our head-long society once the power players in it begin to understand that a small shift in fate could put them on the bottom with all that chattel they’ve been ignoring.


The First Lovers

OK, I’m a sap and I admit it.  Still, when I look at Barack and Michelle Obama together, taking nothing away from all the other First Couples in the history of America, I have to say I’ve never seen a couple so much in love and quite so noticeably in the White House.  There’s a real tenderness I don’t recall ever seeing in George and Laura, Bill and Hillary, or the rest.  It makes me feel good to think of so much love in the White House.

Yes.  I know.  Sap.