Monthly Archives: November 2016

People are missing the importance of Trump’s voter fraud claims

You know that Donald Trump has been claiming very clearly and precisely that he won both the electoral and popular vote, and that it only looks like he did not win the popular vote because of voter fraud, meaning, that a certain number of American citizens voted twice, or otherwise rigged the elections. In fact, he explicitly says that millions of Americans voted illegally, accounting for the >2 million popular vote margin that Secretary Clinton currently holds.

Messing with voting in this manner is a serious crime, perhaps often a felony.

What we have here is Donald Trump accusing a large number of his opponents of being criminals when he doesn’t even have to. More recently, he asserted that American citizens who express their First Amendment constitutional rights should have their citizenship stripped, and should also be jailed.

Trump isn’t even president yet, and he has made the assertion that he would prefer that a very large number of Americans who disagree with him politically should be jailed and/or their citizenship cancelled. He has previously said that many non-citizens should be rounded up. And once rounded up, shipped out of the country.

What happens if there is not a place to send such individuals? Or, if the government insists that people leave, but they don’t have way to do so, or a place to go? Since they are no longer citizens, they can be detained. Where? Well, if there are a few of them, in jails. If there are a lot of them, perhaps work camps along the Mexican border, where they can be pressed into labor building The Yuge Wall. Or, concentration camps.

But a lot of people are going to be expressing their First Amendment rights, and disagreeing with Trump, if that happens. But if he, along with the Congress he will fully control — because Republicans know nothing other than walking in goose step with their party — gets his way, and laws are passed that strip citizenship from Americans who speak their mind, those concentration camps are going to start getting pretty full.

For that, a solution will have to be found.

This is not funny, people. It is extreme sounding, I’ll give you that. Almost impossible to believe. It can’t happen here. .

Trump calls for a year in jail for flag burners

… and loss of citizenship, which may amount to be thrown out of the country.

Flag burning may be obnoxious to many, but it is a constitutionally protected act, as long as it is your flag and you do it outside.

Presumptive President Elect Donald Trump has called for severe penalties for flag burners:

By the way, if you strip someone of their citizenship, and you do throw them out of the country, it is possible that they will have no way to go or no way to get there. Once they are no longer US citizen, they can be tossed into a special detention facility, and if there are enough of them, well, you’ve got a concentration camp.

I was about to write a post about something else Donald Trump tweeted, but I got distracted by this latest tweet, from just a few minutes ago.

I’ll be back.

Science-Nerd LEGO Ideas Gift Ideas

You know what LEGO is. Do you know what LEGO Ideas is?

This is a program where people — not normal people but Lego Ninja Expert people — propose lego builds. The builds are normally actually built, but some are just designed or have parts that are just designed. These propose builds are then vetted on a publicly available web space at LEGO. People “support” the project by providing a very simple evaluation and, basically, a vote.

If a proposed build gets 10,000 votes, it goes into review. I suppose the review process is important, or all future LEGO projeects would be about Boaty McBoatface. Anyway, if the project passes review, then a limited number are produced.

Unsurprisingly, a relatively large number of these proposed builds are science oriented, science fiction, or otherwise, nerdy. Most of the rest are hot cars or airplanes.

These projects are usually expensive, and as noted, limited in production. But if you are willing to fork out 50 bucks or so for a very cool LEGO project, you can have some real nice ones at any given time. Sadly, no matter how cool the project is, it eventually fades into obscurity.

I should note also that you will find very few of these projects at any store. I’ve seen a few at Toys-backwardsR-Us, but most are only available on line.

I’ve gone through all the currently available projects (including several that LEGO no longer produces but that are still in the pipeline) to pick out the science and nerd oriented ones, plus one that is neither but still cool. Here they are.

Mars Science Laboratory

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-6-50-32-pmI’m going to start with one that is almost certainly impossible to get for less than 200 bucks, but there are several out there and it is one of the cooler ones ever built: The LEGO Ideas NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover (Kit 2114).

It has all sorts of moving parts and a nice metallic, low-peg look. It was designed by one of the actual engineers on the Curiosity project.

Exterminate! Exterminate!

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-6-53-35-pmThe Doctor Who Building Kit (model 21304) has the Tardis from the outside and the inside. It is bigger on the inside.

There are, I think, two doctors and one companion. Also, there are Daleks and a weeping angel.

There is a booket about the fan who designed this build, and about the TV series. In many ways, this is one of the nicer builds because is has so much cool stuff in it.

Did I mention there are Daleks?


The LEGO Ideas WALL E 21303 Building Kit is destine to be a classic. (See photo above). Don’t tell anybody, but this is Amanda and Huxley’s christmas present this year.


Big Bang Theory

I’ve never seen an episode of the Big Bang theory, but you have! So maybe you would like to have a look at the LEGO Ideas The Big Bang Theory 21302 Building Kit.

Here’s the info from the manufacturer, which, since I don’t know much about it, I’ll just pass on to you:

<li>Build an authentic replica of Leonard and Sheldon's living room in LEGO bricks</li>

<li>Great for display or role-playing scenes from the TV series</li>

Includes a booklet about the designers and the hit American sitcom

<li>The perfect gift for LEGO and The Big Bang Theory fans of all ages</li>

<li>Measures over 3" (8cm) high, 8" (22cm) wide and 4" (12cm) deep</li>

Ha. Leonard Sheldon. Funny joke, that.



I wasn’t sure if I should include this one or not, but on further consideration, a lot of people might like this.

The LEGO Ideas 21305 Maze Building Kit (769 Piece) is an actual maze game thingie.

Many LEGO kits have varying degrees of functionality, but most are minituarized versions of large things, like, say, an airplane or something, so they’ll have a prop that rotates and that’s about it. This kit is a kit to build a thing that is a thing, not a model imitating a thing. there are not many LEGO kits that do this.

In the down where I was born….

Finally, I give you the LEGO Yellow Submarine

Say no more.


This is what racism looks like

Trigger warning: This post contains several images of racist or similar messages found through history and throughout the world, including a handul from the US over the last few weeks. These are provided as documentation to go along with the text of this blog post and to inform the reader of the nature of these messages. Most of the images are from mainstream media and are regarded as genuine. If you feel any are not, indicate so in the comments if you like.

An antisemitic graffiti in Lithuania.
An antisemitic graffiti in Lithuania.
I am a scientist who studies race and racism and related topics. This includes the critique and evaluation of so-called “scientific racism” and the history of racism and closely related political and social concomitants. I point this out here because some people feel that I should not be writing about this topic on a science blog. Those people are wrong for a lot of reasons, and the fact that I am a scientist who studies race and racism is only one of those reasons.

There have been many notable cases of racist, often anti-Muslim, as well as misogynistic, attacks or incidents since Donald Trump was elected, apparently carried out by Trump supporters emboldened by the presumptive election of a candidate who is a known supporter of normalizing sexual assault and whose White House promises to have close ties to the White Supremacist movement.

graffiti-on-a-wall-in-belfast-kill-all-brits-and-cops-c0bax5This is important because of this simple historically demonstrated fact: racism left unchecked eventually leads to holocaust. By “holocaust” I mean many things, and what actually happens would depend on conditions and circumstances, but generally, registration, incarceration, removal, etc. with the eventual killing of large numbers of individuals associated with a certain racial, ethnic, or religious identity.

Why does that happen? It is not true that sometimes, push comes to shove. It is not true that sometimes resources are limited, or opportunities are seen to be shaped by competitors, or success is viewed as threatened by other’s success. It is not true that sometimes these things happen. It is true that these things always, eventually, inevitably happen. If racism is unchecked, and competition continues, it eventually becomes logical, normal, convenient, and eventually imperative, that the object group of the unchecked racism be rounded up and gotten out of the way.

That is the final solution.

Fortunately, racism is usually not left unchecked. But when if it is left unchecked for too long, it is very hard to stop. Since the victims of overt racism are victims even if they are not rounded up and put in a mass grave, it is imperative to recognize an increase in overt racism when it is happening and to speak out about it, to not allow if a foothold.

One way to allow racism to spread, become increasingly overt, increasingly normal, and to eventually develop into things like registries of muslims or jews, or special laws governing certain kinds of pepole, or the rounding up of this or that group, is to support those policies. To support policies of registering people of a certain religion is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism. To support policies such as rounding up people who look a certain way or come from a certain place is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-1-33-26-pmTo vote for and in fact elect a presidential candidate who advocates these policies is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism. Then, to add to that campaign’s rhetoric by displaying grafetti, or carrying out certain acts of violence, and so on, is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism.

There is another way to enhance and speed up the rise of racism, which if sufficiently enhanced and sped up, will lead eventually to registry, ghettoization, and possibly genocide, is to tell people who are pointing out the racist rhetoric, graffiti, harassment, etc. to shut up.

This Star of David superimposed on the "corrupt Hillary" image is widely seen as an anti-Semitic hate image, used by the trump campaign.
This Star of David superimposed on the “corrupt Hillary” image is widely seen as an anti-Semitic hate image, used by the trump campaign.
What does racism unchecked look like? Well, we can see it in historical contexts. We see it in the writings of Spanish academics and religious leaders, writing about the presence or absence of a soul in the Native American body, discussing whether it is better to exploit, contain, or exterminate Native Americans and how to do so in a way that is moral. We see it in the registration or labeling of Jews in Europe and the development of ghettos to put them in, and the wiping out of Jewish villages in Russia. We see it in the internment of Japanese in the US. We see it in the demonization of the other tribe in Central Africa, where the other tribe is blamed for all the ills of the dominant tribe, and considered a threat to all that is important.

That unchecked racism looks like graffiti. Unchecked racism looks like calls for registering Muslims. Unchecked racism looks like massive deportation schemes that involve rounding people up in large numbers with no clear plan as to where to actually put them. Some of these things are happening now, some are proposed.

From a NYC Subway platform.  Every racist movement needs some antisemitism, but now and then there must also be a touch of misogyn
From a NYC Subway platform. Every racist movement needs some antisemitism, but now and then there must also be a touch of misogyn
The other day I posted an example of the outpouring of racism we are suddenly seeing with the election of Donald Trump. It appeared to be, and as far as we know was, a hand written note sent to three different Islamic facilities in southern California. The language was profane, the message threatening.

The incident was reported in mainstream media (NBC, etc.). Police authorities are investigating and are taking it seriously. The letter indicated that there is a “new sheriff in town” — Donald Trump — and Trump would do to the Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.

You can read the details here

This was a particularly poignent example, a particularly threatening example, of the current enhancement and rise of racism in the united states, not skipping a beat to go directly to the threat of extermination of Muslim people in the US.

The reaction to that posting included a handful of white men of privilege telling me, on Twitter and elsewhere, that I should not post such a thing, because it was presumably a joke, or because it was profane, or for any of a number of other reasons.

One person noted that it was inappropriate to have posted the profane letter itself as a “featured image” … the image that is at the top of the blog post. That individual had a point, since the featured image automatically goes along with the post in various social media settings, etc. Personally I think it is shocking but not inappropriate, but I can see where others may disagree. For this reason, I took the post down in order to write a more contextualized post, this one. And, to add a note about the reactions of various caucaso-andro-privilaged individuals who scolded me and told me that there was no such thing and that I needed to sit down and be quiet. Here is that image:
If I find out that this is a fake, I’ll change the image and put a link to the documentation that it is a fake. Meanwhile, it is one of many similar messages, likely none fake, that are appearing all of the US.

This is racism enhanced, racism rising.

It is imperative that we not let this happen unchecked.

One more thing. I use the term “overt racism” several times. That was very intentional. It is very important to note that we are not fighting racism in this country as much as we are fighting overt racism. Here is why we do that, and how we do that.

The Alligators of Texas

The American alligator is found only* in the US, and is widespread in Texas. It is found in both rivers, such as the Rio Grande and Sabine, and along the coast. And, it turns out that the preferred locations for many of the important activities in the day to day live of the American alligator overlap a great deal with humans.

Louise Hayes, biologist, and photographer Philippe Henry have produced, with TAMU Press, have produced Alligators of Texas, a highly accessible, well written, and richly illustrated monograph on these beasts.

LOUISE HAYES has been studying American alligators in Texas since 1985 at sites such as Brazos Bend State Park and the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area. PHILIPPE HENRY is a professional wildlife photographer based in St. Mathieu du Parc. His photographs have been published worldwide.

If you are into Alligators and their relatives, regardless of where you live, this book may be an important addition to your collection. If you live in Texas in any of the Alligator areas (near larger rivers, the coast, etc) then you need this book along side your bird guides and plant ID pocket volumes. Not that you need to know how to identify an Alligator, but rather, to learn all about them.

This is a very nice looking book.

*Originally, I wrote “only in the US” because the info that came with, and in, the book apparently says this, and there are other sources that say this as well. For example, one distribution map for Mexican relatives of the American Alligator shows no alligators anywhere near the Rio Grande. An interested reader, however, asked how the heck the Alligators stay on only one side of the Rio Grande and avoid Mexico.

It seems that these alligators actually do avoid the main body of the Rio Grande and are simply rare or non existent in Mexico, but at the same time, the ARE in the Rio Grande, but just rare. For example, a small population showed up in Fort Hancock in Hudspeth County in 2009. They must have been able to pass back and forth across the river.

So, it seems that this species of Alligator is an occasional but rare find in Mexico, and presumably not that common in the Rio Grande itself.

Anybody from the region have any local alligator information to add?


Science Books and Toys for Kids: Your Holiday Shopping Guide

I’ve reviewed, researched, and generally looked around for a selection of gifts that could work for kids ranging from very small to High School (and beyond!?!?) that are science oriented.


The best kids coding books these days are probably those that use scratch. Before suggesting a couple, though, consider, especailly for older kids (middle and high school) this fairly recent Python language book that focuses on Minecraft: Learn to Program with Minecraft: Transform Your World with the Power of Python HERE is my review.

Continue reading Science Books and Toys for Kids: Your Holiday Shopping Guide

Don’t get mugged by voting irregularities

So, today I was on my way to the pharmacy to buy important medicine for my son. The medicine cost about 50 bucks, and I had a fifty dollar bill in my back pocket.

In my front pocket, I had a twenty.

Just before I walk into the pharmacy, this dude with a mask comes along and says, “I’ve got a gun, give me your money.”

So, I hand him the $20. He grabs it out of my hand and runs away.

I went into the pharmacy, and as the pharmacist was preparing the medicine for my son, I called the police. A cop arrived within seconds.

The cop opens up his clipboard thingie to take notes, and I told him exactly what happened, every detail.

When I finished with the story, he tears the page from his notebook where he was writing up the report out, crumples it up, and tosses it into a nearby waste basket. Closing his clipboard thingie, he says, “Well, OK, then, I guess you won’t need to be filing a report.”

“Why?” I asked him. Just at that moment the pharmacist was handing me my change for the medicine, which ended up costing $48.57, and for which I paid with the fifty I had in my back pocket.

“Well, the guy mugged you, but that didn’t stop you from buying what you came here to buy, did it?” And he walks out, gets in his squad car, and drives away.

All elections should be audited. In some states, they are, routinely. Those are the states that ARE the sharpest knives in the drawer.

That is all, thank you very much.

Clinton-Trump Gap in Key States

As you know, there is interest in doing a recount for the presidential balloting in three key states. The chance that a recount in these three states would change Trump’s win (290 to 232 electoral votes) is small. But, it is possible that a recount could demonstrate irregularities that should be addressed.

Also, there is the possibility again small, of so-called “faithless electors” giving Trump a pass. If something like that happens, from Clinton’s perspective, it would be nice if even one of these states flipped (most likely Wisconsin).

So, to keep track of the numbers, here are the current vote values prior to any recount. I’m not too sure about Wisconsin because the Wisconsin Secretary of State does not actually provide the numbers to the general public, which I’m guessing is a violation of their state’s statute or constitution, but hell, that’s Wisconsin for you. The Louisiana of the North, they call it these days.

Friday, November 25th

Michigan (16 electoral votes): 10,704 (0.2%)
Wisconsin (10 electoral votes): 27,257 (0.9%)
Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes): 70,638 (1.2%)

On the electors: Some will claim that an elector is somehow rigging, violating, or otherwise besmirching the process by not voting for the candidate that won their state’s popular vote. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The electors are carrying out a duty in service of the United States Constitution, and and the Constitution does not stipulate that they vote for the majority in their state.

There have been so-called “faithless electors” — those that do not follow that state mandated rule — in the past, and they were never fined or otherwise prosecuted for violating state statute. There is, as I understand it, a reason for that. The state laws that tell an elector how to vote are so blatantly unconstitutional that even a right wing judge whose corrupt brother in law was the candidate harmed by the elector could not possibly uphold the law under an appeal. If a faithless elector was taken to court, and that case was challenged (which it would be), the entire edifice would instantly crumble and the electoral college would have to start to function like it did in the old days.

And, how is that, you ask?

Well, in their Enlightened wisdom, the Founding Fathers, who are today revered, even fetishized, by the likes of the Tea Party and the Sage Brush Rebellion and all the other yahoos, deemed the unwashed masses — the yahoos — unfit to vote for President (or Senator for that matter). The Electors are supposed to be your betters, who will make the decision for you. And, soon, possibly by the time of the next election, this is how we shall start to do things.

Or maybe not the next presidential election, but if the electoral system is tossed aside this year (Wisconsin shifts so the vote becomes 280-242 and 11 electors dump Trump so the vote becomes 269-253) and the election goes to the House of Reprehensible to decide, you can bet on change happening over the next few years, though it will probably come in the form of a bunch of state laws that continue to fly under the Constitutional radar screen.

Lego Technic Builder’s Guide

The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawet “Sariel” Kmiec (Second Edition) tells you how to build machines, models, robots, etc. that will work.

screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-5-46-11-pmYou need to construct these things in a way that ensures they won’t easily fall apart, and that requires a certain amount of engineering. There are some fairly expensive and specialized Lego Technic pieces that you may not have on hand, and this book can help you emulate them. How do you matcha motor or servo to a specific task? You need to know some stuff to make that decision sensibly. How do you make a transmission? Or an independent suspension?

And, very importantly, how do you manage the backlash that is “the gaps between mating components.” That seems important.

From the publisher:

This thoroughly updated second edition of the best-selling Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide is filled with tips for building strong yet elegant machines and mechanisms with the LEGO Technic system. World-renowned builder Pawe? “Sariel” Kmiec covers the foundations of LEGO Technic building, from the concepts that underlie simple machines, like gears and linkages, to advanced mechanics, like differentials and steering systems. This edition adds 13 new building instructions and 4 completely new chapters on wheels, the RC system, planetary gearing, and 3D printing.

screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-5-45-47-pmYou’ll get a hands-on introduction to fundamental mechanical concepts like torque, friction, and traction, as well as basic engineering principles like weight distribution, efficiency, and power transmission—all with the help of ­Technic pieces. You’ll even learn how Sariel builds his amazing tanks, trucks, and cars to scale.

This beautifully illustrated, full-color book will inspire you with ideas for building amazing machines like tanks with suspended treads, supercars, cranes, bulldozers, and much more. What better way to learn engineering principles than to experience them hands-on with LEGO Technic?

New in this edition: 13 new building instructions, 13 updated chapters, and 4 brand-new chapters!

We’re only starting to mess around with techincs but there is a lot of hope for it. People are starting to combine arduino and traditional robotics, Lego and robotics, and arduino and LEGO Technic. Pretty soon, someone will be combining Arduino controllers, Raspberry Pi computers, LEGO technics, and the Cyberdyne Systems hardware, and we’ll all be history…

But in the meantime, The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide will be our guide for the immediate future.

You think this year’s election is strange?

Clinton beat Trump by a large margin, by electoral standards. A couple of percent is actually a lot these days. Yet so far it appears that Trump won the electoral vote, even though those votes are not yet cast and who knows what is actually going to happen.

But this year, strange as it it and stranger thought it may become, is not the strangest ever. That goes to 1876.


The Feast: A Thanksgiving Day Story

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a feast. But what is a feast? Anthropology is all about examining ourselves through the lens of other cultures. Or, at least, that’s what we used to do back in the good old days. Let’s have a look at this great American holiday from this perspective and see what we see.

A traditional feast in Venezuela

The enemy has arrived, in force, outside your village. The men are armed and wearing the symbols of war, which is appropriate because your group and the group milling about outside your walled settlement are at war. One of the men, wearing war garb but adorned also with white feathers to indicate a peaceful intent, attempts to enter your village but is stopped by guards. They converse briefly and the guards allow the man to crawl into your village through the only opening in the surrounding wall left following preparations for possible attack. After crawling though the small opening, he sands and walks into the center of the plaza where he kneels, and is handed a large container of beer which may or may not be poisoned. He drinks the entire amount without stopping, so that if it is poisoned, he will surely die, and if it is not, he will surely cop a buzz.

The visitor drops the container that once held the beer, still squatting on his haunches, and sways back and forth for a moment. He does not feel the poison. He only feels the buzz. He belches, stands up and walks towards the entrance whence he came. On his way, he is stopped by a warrior who places a large package on the visitor’s back, a tumpline across his forehead to help carry it, muttering a few words about how he knows his sister is young and unmarried. The visitor gives the warrior a stern look and crawls, carrying the package of ready-to-eat food, out of the walled village where he will share it with his compatriots as a snack.

An hour later a group of the enemy warriors, shouting a war cry, pushes their way through the tiny village entrance only to find that every single one of your warriors, dressed in the symbols of warfare but also adorned with small white feathers, is taking a nap. The invading warriors, six of them, engage in an aggressive-looking dance shouting “we are strong, we will pierce your skull with a spear.” Half of the six visiting warriors are indeed armed with a spears, and as they approach you and your sleeping compatriots, none of you appear to wake. Perhaps a sleepy eye opens to glare at the bellicose visitors now and then, but for the most part, not a muscle is moved or a nostril twitched as the visitors jab, inches short, at the reclining men, again and again, until each warrior has been mock attacked by the three dancers. By this time you notice that the other three dancers are women, the wives of the warriors making the threats, in drag.

Just as these six retire to a place of their choosing near the center of the plaza, another set of enemy warriors enters through the small hole in the wall. Their dress is that of the warrior, but again, topped with little white down feathers of a certain bird. Their dance is aggressive but this time also sexual in nature, and their chant is very different form the last “Your girls are ready to fuck. Your girls are ready for us to take them away when we slit your throats.”

And again, each of your male compatriots continues to recline and appear to not notice the intrusion, while the children hide behind stores of food and the women sit and watch, quietly amused. Except the young women, who giggle, and some taunt back “You are too old and shriveled” only to be shushed by the older women who know that sometimes these events go very badly, when the visitors practice treachery instead of ritual, killing the men who recline indifferently in their hammocks, and raping and stealing the women.

Again and again groups of visiting enemies enter, sometimes just men, sometimes men and women, dressed outrageously and engaging in a dance and a chant, the combination of which has never been seen before and will never be seen again. They’ve been working on this routine for weeks. Again and again, your village’s warriors ignore the threats as though they were less significant than a bothersome fly, the children continue to hide but peek out from their burrows with increasing boldness, and the women go from sitting quietly to taunting and chanting back to eventually rising up and getting to the most important business they have on this day …

… cooking the feast.

After all the enemy have danced their way into the village, each group retiring to the growing gaggle in the middle of the plaza, your warriors jump from their hammocks and causally pick up war clubs, bows and arrows, spears, or simply rip a pole from their front porch, to use as a weapon. They surround and approach the seated visitors who pay them no mind. As they approach, you notice your distant cousin among the enemy visitors, and just as you see him, one of your own warriors, your brother, walks to him and leads him by the hand back to his section of the circular village, to sit by his hearth or lay in his hammock. The visitor’s elderly wife follows, and that is when you finally recognize her … she is your grandmother’s sister, and was born in the village you live in now. Again and again this happens: Members of your village invite visiting families to their hearth and home, and now and then you recognize a relative among the visitors, or you mark the relationship between one of your own and the enemy family, and very often the women in the group are rather close to your own lineage.

Over the next few hours, after the sorting out of the visitors so that all are resting, their weapons cast to the side, at one hearth or another, you all start to eat. Universally, a buffet can only begin when someone in charge of cooking the food cajoles someone who is visiting to begin to eat. Two older women who have been in charge for the last five days of making the beer, cooking the turtles captured last week by the men on a foraging trip, baking the plantains harvested from the garden, and processing the fruits collected by younger women and children just this morning, drag some of the visiting enemies to the beer trough or to one of the large cauldrons of food and get them started on distributing it. Quite suddenly the activity level rises, and in less time that it takes an old man to choke on his ebene1, almost everyone is chowing down on the victuals, and most of the conversation has stopped.

Over the next two hours, the food is put aside and the men begin to talk. They talk about previous battles. Strangely, when one man reveals his pride in how quickly he killed the brother of one of the other men at the feast, there seem to be no hard feelings. It was war, and the man who did the killing was brave and is now of high status because of that killing. More important than that event, at the moment, is the fact that these two men each have a younger sister who is unmarried, and a younger brother who is also available. That there is blood spilled between them seems to increase the urgency with which they close a deal whereby they exchange their sisters in a marriage arrangement. In an hour or two, that deal is sealed. Now it only remains to get the girls to go along with it (now and then they do, though usually not).

Other men talk about their weapons, the narcotic drugs a particular person makes, a cache of machete’s recently obtained from the boat of a missionary that went missing (the boat, not the missionary) and two or three young dogs just now past their initial training and ready to hunt. Deals are made, objects are exchanged on the spot, other exchanges promised for later. Even though the women of your village were once renowned for making excellent pottery, today it is claimed that no one in your village, even the older ladies, have a clue as to how to do that. It just so happens that the visiting village, the enemies (or shall we say, at this point, the new allies?) are known to make the best pottery, while your village is known these days, though they never seemed to do this before, for making the best monkey-killing arrows.

Pottery and arrows and promises of more pottery and more arrows are exchanged, as well as two more promises of marriage. And, off to the side, a group of men have planned out the details of a raid on a third village, located to the south, former allies but since the breaking of two marriage contracts and a handful of other untoward events, now freshly minted enemies.

This goes on for three days. Shows of bravado, of expertise, making of alliances through trade and exchange and, ultimately (and we shall see how this goes) marriage arrangements, and perhaps equally ultimately, arrangements to cooperate in raids, waft through the conversation. Men speak in ritualized tones, sometimes softly but with a stage whisper meant to be heard by others, sometimes loudly with a chanting cadence, strongly suggesting that others are stingy, passive-aggressively decrying their own suffering for having gotten the short end of a deal, loudly committing their younger, healthier brothers and cousins to this or that duel to the death (the brother or cousin happens to be out of town at the moment).

While the men have contributed measurable effort to prepare for the feast, the women have done most of the work and continue to do so. But as they alternately prepare food, nurse the children or clean the pots, they catch up. Many of these women are sisters, across the boundary between your village and the former enemy, or in-laws from marriages way back in time, or cousins of some kind. Every married woman is a cousin to her husband, but not of the same clan, but since all the men are of the same clan, many of the women end up being from one clan, but a different one from the men, and are therefore at least nominally related, if not sharing known and fairly recent ancestors. The men eye the women suspiciously as they converse quietly, as to not be heard. If the alliance being formed today goes well, these women may end up all living in the same village, and their friendships, broken for the last several years by war but now renewed, will be important. If the alliance fails, then every one of these women may be considered a spy, because she may be more loyal to her brother or her cousin’s husband than to her own spouse. The women are well aware of this concern, and they remember to allow certain bits and pieces of conversation to be overheard by the occasionally quiet men, bits and pieces that will enhance a sense of uncertainty for some of the men, a sense of security for others, depending.

In truth, and not admitted by the men, the women now conversing in the background are the ones who arranged this feast. On a day to day basis, the men of warring villages avoid each other, only coming into contact when a raid is carried out, and then, that contact is in the form of a fight with arrows or an attack with spears. The women, in the meantime, forage in small groups (of only women) or work in distant fields or some specialized resource gathering area (like a mineral or clay deposit) that may be shared by the women of warring villages. In truth, and not known to the men, many of these women have conversed just weeks before, and see each other with reasonable frequency, as their day to day business simply can not be carried out if they are not allowed to do so, irrespective of the state of alliance or hatred among the men. It was through these conversations between women of the two villages, across the boundary of warfare, that this feast was arranged.

So, what is Thanksgiving again?

The above fictionalized prose is a reasonable description of a typical traditional Yanomamo feast, as documented by several anthropologists during the 20th century. Obviously, we are speaking today of a feast because Thanksgiving is a feast engaged in by Americans on the third Thursday of November, and there may be some connections. The Thanksgiving Feast is thought by modern Americans, especially those who read Wikipeda (which has pretty much ruined any possibility of having a non-trivialized conversation about American Thanksgiving, as per Wikipedia’s usual inability to address matters anthropological or historical) to be just another harvest festival, a gathering to partake in the harvest and to thank the appropriate god or gods for their largess.

That may be at least a little true. Harvest festivals do not need historical continuity to be connected to each other or to be similar in how they work. It need not be the case that Canadian Thanksgiving, American Thanksgiving and some roughly similar festivals found this time of year elsewhere are all descendants from some original Neolithic ritual. And, in fact, I would argue the opposite. The “first thanksgiving” (in the United States) was an event that happened at Plymouth in 1621. The documentation of this event is reasonably good, and it certainly happened, but much of what we know about it comes from documents that were clearly propaganda tools designed to raise money to fund the adventures of the Plymouth Plantation and other efforts. The event may have gone on for days and may have looked in some ways like the event I describe above, at least in so far as shared displays of bravado and arrangements for trading and overall male bonding are concerned. It was a male-oriented event but it is likely that most of the work was done by women. Both sides, the Wampanoag and the English (consisting of religious Puritans and others) brought the food, and it was held at the village of the English. The English may well have been engaging in something that seemed familiar to them earlier in Europe, and Wikipedia, in an all to typical fit of Western Centered cultural imperialism tells us so. But this ignores the fact that feasting was probably a widespread Native American activity.

One might argue that feasting is a global phenomenon, and that would be more or less true. Not all cultures have feasting, any more than all cultures have any given trait. But many do, and feasting is found in Eurasia, Africa and the New World, as well as Australia. But the nature and purpose of the feasting varies a great deal.

Here in Minnesota, Ojibwa Native Americans occupied most of the woodlands and some of the prairies during the 18th and early 19th century, with Lakota/Dakota/Sioux (I’ll call them Dakota) occupying the prairies of the western and southwestern part of the state, and the Dakotas. They were often at war. Ironically, the Dakota were probably the more war-like, having a culture more invested in bellicosity in comparison to the Algonquin speaking Ojibwa, but the Ojibwa had lucrative fur trapping contracts with the French and the English and, related to these contracts, were armed with guns. That made the Ojibwa more powerful than the Dakota, though the latter had certain advantages. As a result, it was clear to various leaders of the day that a continued war between them would result in strife and loss of income. Rather than fight all the time, they fought seasonally, selectively, and avoided fighting altogether when it interfered with the efficient exploitation of the numerous beaver of the region.

And, from all accounts, the maintenance of alliances between Ojibwa and Dakota was facilitated, in part, by feasting not entirely different (but perhaps less ritualized) than that described above. It seems most likely that the English at Plymouth, in the 1620s, were being brought into a Native practice by the Wampanoag, which was possibly done a few times then dropped (as other developments beyond our scope here occurred). By the time the “first Thanksgiving” was revived, about a century and a half later (eventually codified as an official holiday) the real meaning and purpose of it would have been forgotten. The first American Thanksgiving was probably a ritualized gathering meant to forge alliances, at which it is possible that a raid or two was planed, but at which there is no record of intermarriages between English and Native being arranged.

The First American Thanksgiving

Of the first Thanksgiving we have exactly two contemporary descriptions, and it isn’t much. In fact, there is so little, you can read it all in a few minutes. First, by Edward Winslow, from a letter of 12 December 1621, published for wider audiences within a year of its writing:

Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

The second description was contemporary and from a good source (William Bradford) but was not known to anyone else until the middle of the 19th century. It was the event of this description becoming widely known that caused the revival in the US of the idea of a “First Thanksgiving” and this is the reason we celebrate the holiday today.

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

The true meaning of Thanksgiving

In the end, I think we all know what the true meaning of Thanksgiving is. Gravy, with stuffing a close second. Enjoy your feast and remember to treat your suaboya2 well.


Bradford, William. 1908.Of Plymouth Plantation (Dover Value Editions). (Written ca. 1650)

Chagnon, Napolean A. 1996. Yanomamo: The Fierce People (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology). Harcourt Brace; 5th edition (November 15, 1996)

Heath, Dwight B. 1963: Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Corinth Books: New York

Winslow, Edward. 1621. Letter. In “Mourt’s Relation,” Heath 1963.

See also this page on feasting by archaeologist Kris Hirst.


1Ebene is a narcotic substance ingested via the nose that results in vomiting and severe illness along with a hallucinogenic state.

2Suaboya is your appropriate aged unmarried paternal cross cousin (father’s sister’s offspring) and thus your preferred marriage partner.

Emergency Thanksgiving Help: Books for Uncle Bob

When I go to Thanksgiving, all the people there will be reasonable. Also, this will be in Minnesota where politics are not discussed. And if they are discussed, my Father-in-Law has well developed techniques to run interference, as is his responsibility as head of the hosting household. There will be chairs to get from the basement (always wait until the last second to ask Greg to help with the chairs, just in case he starts talking politics!). The dogs are trained to make a fuss when given secret hand signals. That sort of thing.

But you may not be as fortunate as I am. Perhaps you will be having Thanksgiving with some people who are not either a) Democrats or b) silent. In the old days (last month) the big concern was climate change or, possibly, evolution. Now, of course, it is the Trump presidency.

If you are very unfortunate, you have an “Uncle Bob.” That’s the code word for that man without a filter who never misses a family event and can’t wait to argue with you. There are a lot of different kids of Uncle Bob, and I’ve got some suggestions for books that may help prepare for some of them.

In case your Uncle Bob is an Evangelical Christian:

Climate change is a confusing and polarizing issue. It may also prove to be the most daunting challenge of this century because children, the elderly, and the poor will be the first to feel its effects. The issue is all over the news, but what is seldom heard is a conservative, evangelical perspective.

Connecting the dots between science and faith, this book explores the climate debate and how Christians can take the lead in caring for God’s creation. The authors answer top questions such as “What’s really happening?” and “Who can we trust?” and discuss stewarding the earth in light of evangelical values. “Acting on climate change is not about political agendas,” they say. “It’s about our kids. It’s about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Capping off this empowering book are practical, simple ideas for improving our environment and helping our families and those around us.

Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment

In case your Uncle Bob is big on Bigfoot: Don Prothero, Dan Loxton, and Michael Shermer on cryptozoology

Throughout our history, humans have been captivated by mythic beasts and legendary creatures. Tales of Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness monster are part of our collective experience. Now comes a book from two dedicated investigators that explores and elucidates the fascinating world of cryptozoology.

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero have written an entertaining, educational, and definitive text on cryptids, presenting the arguments both for and against their existence and systematically challenging the pseudoscience that perpetuates their myths. After examining the nature of science and pseudoscience and their relation to cryptozoology, Loxton and Prothero take on Bigfoot; the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, and its cross-cultural incarnations; the Loch Ness monster and its highly publicized sightings; the evolution of the Great Sea Serpent; and Mokele Mbembe, or the Congo dinosaur. They conclude with an analysis of the psychology behind the persistent belief in paranormal phenomena, identifying the major players in cryptozoology, discussing the character of its subculture, and considering the challenge it poses to clear and critical thinking in our increasingly complex world.

Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids

In case your Uncle Bob is a Neocon: Rachel Maddow on the unmooring of American military power

Written with bracing wit and intelligence, Rachel Maddow’s Drift argues that we’ve drifted away from America’s original ideals and become a nation weirdly at peace with perpetual war. To understand how we’ve arrived at such a dangerous place, Maddow takes us from the Vietnam War to today’s war in Afghanistan, along the way exploring Reagan’s radical presidency, the disturbing rise of executive authority, the gradual outsourcing of our war-making capabilities to private companies, the plummeting percentage of American families whose children fight our constant wars for us, and even the changing fortunes of G.I. Joe. Ultimately, she shows us just how much we stand to lose by allowing the scope of American military power to overpower our political discourse.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

In Case your Uncle Bob thinks our elections are fair: On the hacking of the election by Putin

In April 2016, computer technicians at the Democratic National Committee discovered that someone had accessed the organization’s computer servers and conducted a theft that is best described as Watergate 2.0. In the weeks that followed, the nation’s top computer security experts discovered that the cyber thieves had helped themselves to everything: sensitive documents, emails, donor information, even voice mails.

Soon after, the remainder of the Democratic Party machine, the congressional campaign, the Clinton campaign, and their friends and allies in the media were also hacked. Credit cards numbers, phone numbers, and contacts were stolen. In short order, the FBI found that more than twenty-five state election offices had their voter registration systems probed or attacked by the same hackers.

Western intelligence agencies tracked the hack to Russian spy agencies and dubbed them the CYBER BEARS. The media was soon flooded with the stolen information channeled through Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. It was a massive attack on America but the Russian hacks appeared to have a singular goal—elect Donald J. Trump as president of the United States.

New York Times bestselling author and career intelligence officer Malcolm Nance’s fast paced real-life spy thriller takes you from Vladimir Putin’s rise through the KGB from junior officer to spymaster-in-chief and spells out the story of how he performed the ultimate political manipulation—convincing Donald Trump to abandon seventy years of American foreign policy including the destruction of NATO, cheering the end of the European Union, allowing Russian domination of Eastern Europe, and destroying the existing global order with America at its lead.

The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election

Also, Mayer’s Dark Money: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

In case your Uncle Bob is an idiot:

With his trademark wit and insight, veteran journalist Charles Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.

Pierce asks how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate. But his thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated. Erudite and razor-sharp, Idiot America is at once an invigorating history lesson, a cutting cultural critique, and a bullish appeal to our smarter selves.

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

Changing the racist mind after Trump

Question: How do we wipe out racism by making racists not be so racist?

Answer: We don’t.

We do something else that actually works.

The expanding Trump-fueled conversation about racism

It has been absolutely fascinating to observe myriad conversations reacting to the Trump electoral win. All the usual suspects are engaged, but also, many others who had previously been little involved, or not at all involved, in the national political conversation, are saying things.

And along with this has come a certain amount of method or concern questioning. I won’t call it trolling because only some of it is that, and “trolling” is one of those terms of art used in a not very artful world. Let’s just say that people are questioning approaches in ways that are sometimes interesting.

Many people seem to think there is a way to communicate to those who hold opposing views that will make their views more entrenched, and a better way to communicate that will change their minds. This opinion is often based on very strongly held feelings but lack reference to any scientific study or valid body of data.

Communication experts are not as dogmatic, because communication is an academic field, a science (an artful science, perhaps) and therefore, complex. Communication experts know that, for the most part, people don’t change their minds much, or if they do, not for very long. People’s opinions on widely discussed issues do not alter in the face of argument, and when they appear to do so, it is often only a little, and only temporary.

Jodie Burchard-Risch was unhappy that Asma Mohamed Jama was speaking her native language, KiSwahili, to her family, while having dinner at Applebees. So, Jodie Burchard-Risch took her beer mug and slammed Asma Mohamed Jama across the head with it.   Minnesota nice is not what you think it is.
Jodie Burchard-Risch was unhappy that Asma Mohamed Jama was speaking her native language, KiSwahili, to her family, while having dinner at Applebees. So, Jodie Burchard-Risch took her beer mug and slammed Asma Mohamed Jama across the head with it.
Minnesota nice is not what you think it is.
(I quickly add that people do change their minds completely, going into a process with dogmatically held beliefs, later leaving the process with nearly opposite beliefs. I’ve seen this happen may times in the evolutionary biology classroom. Go to any meeting of atheists, and you’ll see it there too, people who were dogmatically religious who are not dogmatically not. Numerically, these people are rare. But, they do count.)

A few days ago I said something insulting to or about (can’t remember the details, it happens so often) someone or some group that was spewing racist hogwash. I was mildly scolded (as often happens) for being so nasty. You catch more flies with honey. People are going to hear that sort of thing and not change their minds. You can’t convince anybody of anything that way. And so on.

And yes, that scolding was half correct. A harsh approach will rarely change someone’s mind. But, the obverse assumption, that being nice would change someone’s mind, is almost nearly as incorrect.

Convincing someone was not my objective, and when it comes to racism, rarely is. Getting people who are deeply racist to become un-racist is nearly impossible. Changing those minds should not be the objective if one wants to be efficient (though efficiency is not always the goal, I quickly note).

There is a different goal, and that is to make people shut up.

“… go right into the zoo where you belong …”

I have a story that I think is true. I am a trained anthropologist, and I’ve focused some of my work on racism, so I believe myself when I tell this story.

Act I: Once upon a time, closing in on 20 years ago, I moved from the Boston area to the Twin Cities. Before moving, I lived in that space between Harvard, MIT, and a half dozen other colleges, where most of the people one meets are progressive and liberal, and standard white American racism simply isn’t something you encounter on a day to day basis, even if it is more common in other parts of the metro area or elsewhere in New England. Indeed, the majority of people I worked with on a day to day basis were not even white Americans, so it would take extra work to locate that sort of racism. A nice, safe, academic bubble.

Soon after moving to the Twin Cities, I ended up in a northern near-outer-ring suburb (we classify our suburbs by which ring they are in). The northern outer ring suburbs are working class, conservative (but often Democratic because of the Union presence), and a bit xenophobic. If you hear a story about something bad happening in the Twin Cities area — something racist, or just plane Coen-Brothers-Fargo — there is a good chance it happened somewhere between Fridley and Coon Rapids. This is where I lived for a while. Also, Falcon Heights, which is an odd mix of academic university people and white fear (google that city’s name, you’ll see).

So, I go to Target for the first time. Targets were everywhere in the Twin Cities but had not taken over the entire planet yet. A young white woman is greeting each customer in a friendly matter, a fitting attitude in Friendly Fridley, Minnesota (yes, that is the town’s motto). Each customer had a few items (this was the fast lane) and she put them carefully in a bag, took the money, handed the bag graciously to each customer, and send them on their way with a “Goodaytcha” (a traditional Minnesota greeting, like Aloha or Chow).

Until the black customer came up in line. She did not speak, scowled instead of smiling, slammed his two or three items on the counter expecting him to bag them himself, and gave him nothing close to the time of the day. I was the next customer. I got the bagging, the greeting, the goodaytcha, all of it. That was my first observation of racism in the checkout line in Minnesota, and it turned out to not be a unique experience. This turned out to be how it was done most of the time in Friendly Fridley and many other northern suburb communities.

(I’m careful to get the geography right, because other parts of the Twin Cities are diametrically opposite in attitude.)

On another day. I’m just leaving a BP gas station, the one on Snelling and Larpenteur, just a few meters away from the exact location Philando Castile was murdered by a local cop.

As I’m heading for the door, the young woman who worked there came around the counter to do some stock related task or antother, so she’s standing by the door, and I’m about to leave but holding back because I’m messing with the bag of items I just bought. At that moment, a man who had just exited a fairly fancy but rented car, wearing a three piece suit (the man, not the car), black, enters the establishment and asks directions.

“I’m looking for Como Zoo, I’m late for a conference,” he said, in a medium-thick West African accent. “Can I please get directions?”

I was about to answer, but the girl beat me to it.

“Go right down that street,” she said, pointing to Larpenteur Avenue. “Take a right at Hamline, go down a few blocks…”

At this point the man is starting back out the door, hearing the directions, in a hurry, but still listening.

“Then turn left where you see the sign, and head right into the zoo…”

At this point the door is about to close behind the man.

“… where you belong.”

Because he’s an ape, I remember thinking. She is telling this man, probably a doctor or scientist or something from a West African nation visiting us and giving a talk at the local zoo, which is often the venue for small conferences, that he is an ape.

The man stopped, holding the door open, almost said something, then instead, kept going and drove off.

The Decline of Overt Racism in the Twin Cites

None of that is unusual. I saw stuff like that all the time.

It might be a surprise to some that overt racism was widespread in the great state of Minnesota, which gave us Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone (I first met him, by the way, in Friendly Fridley itself!), Walter Mondale, and all that. I’ll note that in the months after first moving here, the two things I heard again and again from others who had moved here a bit earlier were these: 1) Wow, people are really racist here, I had no idea; and 2) “Minnesota nice” … it is not what you think it is.

Transgender CeCe McDonald and some friends were violently assaulted outside a Minneapolis bar.  CeCe had a knife, and defended herself from a beer-mug wielding assailant.  The attacker did not live, CeCe did hard time, but is now out, and telling people about her experiences.
Transgender CeCe McDonald and some friends were violently assaulted outside a Minneapolis bar. CeCe had a knife, and defended herself from a beer-mug wielding assailant. The attacker did not live, CeCe did hard time, but is now out, and telling people about her experiences.
Act II: During this period of time, a large number of Hmong people had recently moved into the Twin Cities, many to the neighborhood I lived in for a year. Indeed, Hmong farmers grew food in my back yard, they kinda came with the house. Great efforts were made to make the Hmong feel welcome, though there was also plenty of racism. Then Somali people started to move into the area. Almost no effort was made to help them feel comfortable. Apparently, Asians are tolerable, Africans are not. Similarly, people from West Africa, mainly Liberia, were moving here, and it turns out there has long been a strong Mexican presence. I discovered that in some parts of the Twin Cities, anti-Mexican racism was clearly more rabid than anti-Black racism.

And things started to get worse and worse. Bullying in schools was becoming more dangerous. This was not likely related to racism, but was closely linked to intolerance, in this case of transgender and gay students. The CDC almost shut down the largest school district in the state. Take the most populous county in the state and combine it with a very rural county. Remove the major city (Minneapolis) and all the wealthy suburbs. What you’ve got left is traditionally white but with recent non-white immigrants, working class, conservative. That is the Anoka-Hennepin school district. The death rate from suicides, mainly caused by bullying supported by teachers and administrators, was so high that the school district became a point source of youth mortality, which set off alarms, and broght in the CDC.

Two African American women were severely beaten by a bunch of white dudes in a pickup. Transgender people were attacked, some killed. Other bad things happened, joining the intolerance against Somali people, other racist things, the suicides, all that, and ultimately seemed to create a backlash. Programs were implemented. Non profits formed from the blood of some of those who were killed. Government officials and agencies responded. The school districts got involved. There was a not very well organized but widespread push against racism and general intolerance.

Making intolerant remarks and acting in a racist manner went from being expected, normal, maybe even a form of local enterainment, to becoming not OK, frowned upon, disallowed, and in some contexts, punishable.

I believe that overt racism in the northern ring suburbs of the Twin Cities declined.

In one of many incidents, a Muslim girl was attacked at Northdale Middle School, Coon Rapids, for wearing a headscarf.
In one of many incidents, a Muslim girl was attacked at Northdale Middle School, Coon Rapids, for wearing a headscarf.
Did this happen because people got less racist? No. It happened because racists learned the one thing that we can actually teach them, and that they can actually do.

They learned to shut the fuck up.

They learned to top being so overt.

This is important because overt racism normalizes racism. Overt racism provides a daily ongoing lesson for the young, growing up and trying to figure out how to act. Overt racism perpetuates racism. Racists shutting up attenuates the cultural transmission of racism.

Making racism not normal, making racists shut up in as many contexts as possible, slows down the spread of racism, and can lead to its decline, much more effectively than being nice to racists can ever hope to accomplish.

The rise of white supremacy, with Trump

Then Donald Trump gets elected. Act III.

maplegrovhighschooltrumpsupporterdoorI’m not going to argue about whether or not Donald Trump is some sort of leader of the American white supremacy movement. He has been cagy in what he has said, and rather than definitively repudiating the white supremacists, he appointed as “top advisor” one of the country’s best known and most active white supremacists. His immigration policies are mainly directed at people not considered white by white supremacists, and that policy includes getting certain people on a registry, which is the first step in incarceration which is one step closer to elimination by some means or another. I assume that when Trump tries to throw people out of the country because of their ethnicity, he will encounter problems similar to those encountered by the Nazis in their efforts to get rid of undesirables. For example, you can’t just expel people to another country. The other country can say no. In the end, the Trump administration will have to find a solution to that. What, I ask, will be Trump’s final solution?

Within minutes, it seems, of Trump’s victory, we had overt racism everywhere. In these places in Minnesota that had experienced serious intolerance, where this intolerance was just starting to be handled (making people shut up being the first step), we see the name “Donald Trump,” the name “Hitler,” the symbol of the swastika, and phrases like “whites only” or “fuck niggers” and “white America” scrawled on walls and doors and other things in schools, added to notebooks handed in to teachers, and so on.

Racism, rather than being pushed down and smothered, is being normalized, and those who would normally keep to themselves, and thus not be contaminating the up and coming generation, have found their voice.

maplegrovehighschooltrumpsupportertpIt is not time to be nice. It is not time to make reasonable, thoughtful, convincing, logical, nuanced, historically contextualized arguments. Well, sure, do that, we all love such things, that’s why we watch the Rachel Maddow show. But when it comes to communicating with racists, don’t bother. Just shout at them, and tell them to sit down and shut up.

The two images I’m showing here are from the a high school in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities. From a farther Western suburb, I could show you a homework assignment with swastikas and “Trump” and “Hitler” written all over it, but I don’t have permission to use the photo. White supremacists, racists, the other scum of the earth that always live among us are rearing their ugly heads and letting us know who they are. Even when they are violent, as they often are, we should not be violent against them. But we can make them shut up.

Hurricane Otto

This is a bit late in the year for an Atlantic Hurricane. The season normally runs from June 1st through November 30th, but that includes a bit of buffer time.

Otto is a tropical storm that will turn into a hurricane on Wednesday, probably, and make landfal near the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Expect coastal flooding as well as serious inland flooding. The storm will arrive in the Pacific on Friday as a tropical depression.

Then, we’ll have to see if it turns into something in the Eastern Pacific basin.

Your Science Based Holiday Gift Guide! (For adults)

These are my suggestions, mostly books, for holiday gifts that have some sort of science relevance. See this guide for gift ideas for kids. (There is a pretty good chance that there is an idea or two in the Kids Guide for the adult in your life, depending on the adult.)

For your Uncle Bob

Get ready for your favorite science-denying uncle, whom we all know of as “Uncle Bob” (though he goes by many different names) with these two important books related to climate change.

If your Uncle Bob is an Evangelical Christian.

Or, really, any kind of Christian.

My friend Paul Douglas has co-authored a book on climate change written specifically for Evangelicals: Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment.

The book’s structure swaps back and forth between science (the parts written by Paul Douglas) and scripture (the parts written by co-author Mitch Hescox). I don’t know Mitch, but from the blurb I learn: “Mitch Hescox leads the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), the largest evangelical group dedicated to creation care ( He has testified before Congress, spoken at the White House, and is quoted frequently in national press. Prior to EEN, he pastored a church for 18 years and worked in the coal industry. Mitch and his wife live in Pennsylvania.”

Paul Douglas ( is a respected meteorologist with 35 years of TV and radio experience. A successful entrepreneur, he speaks to community groups and corporations about severe weather and climate trends, and appears regularly on national media outlets. Paul and his wife live in Minnesota.
Paul Douglas ( is a respected meteorologist with 35 years of TV and radio experience. A successful entrepreneur, he speaks to community groups and corporations about severe weather and climate trends, and appears regularly on national media outlets. Paul and his wife live in Minnesota.
Now, you might think that the chances of an Evangelical Christian reading my blog is about zero. This is not true. Many Christians, ranging from Evangelical to less-than-angelical read this blog, they just don’t say much in the comments section. Except those who do, mainly those denying the science of climate change. Well, this book is for all of you, especially the Evangelical deniers, because here, the case is made on your terms and in your language, in a very convincing way, and, including the science. It turns out that, according to the Bible, you are wrong on the Internet.

Let’s say that you are a fairly active atheist who likes to annoy your Christian relatives at holidays. If that is the case, then this book is for you!! This is the book to give to your Uncle Bob.

I can’t attest to the scriptural parts of this book. This is not because I’m unfamiliar with Scripture or have nothing to say about it. Both assumptions would be highly erroneous. But, in fact, I did not explore those parts of this book in much detail, just a little. But I am very familiar with the science in this book, I’ve delved deeply into it, and I can tell you that Paul has it right, and it is very current.

If Your Uncle Bob is Investment Savvy

Romm_Climate_Change_Book9780190250171Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Joe Romm is the ideal climate change book for the person who is always checking their stock portfolio or watching the real estate market, or, simply, planning on moving or retiring soon. It is is also a very up to date examination of climate change science, the effects of climate change on humans, policy related problems, and energy-related solutions. Everyone should read this book, and if you teach earth system sciences you should consider using this book as a guide in your teaching, or in some cases, assigning it in class. The book is written to be read by general audiences, so it would work well in a high school or college setting.

As Romm points out, climate change will have more of an impact on humans, including you, than even the Internet. It is an existential issue. Romm acknowledges that some of these impacts are already happening, but that future impacts are likely to be very significant. Over the last 10 years or so, we have seen remarkable superstorms, significant drought, notable wildfires, and killer heat waves. These events have made people sit up and take notice. For this reason, more people want to know more about climate change, and indeed, everyone should know something about this problem. Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is an effort to provide that information to the average person.

MadhouseEffect_Book_On_Climate_ChangeWhile we are on the subject of Climate Change, here are must have, must read titles that are not necessarily new, but always worth mentioning. I’m giving you links to my reviews so you can find out more.

<li><a href="">The Madhouse Effect</a>, by Michael Mann and Tom Toles, is an excellent holiday gift. Not only is it a festive red in color, but it is full of cartoons. It is current, forceful, an excellent choice given the current political circumstances.  </li>

<li><a href="">Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change</a>, by Michael Mann.  This is the IPCCC "Scientific Basis" report converted into a very readable and illustration rich format. This is the book I give to science teachers.  </li>

<li><a href="">Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics</a>, by Dana Nuccitelli.  This book proves that climate skeptics are FOS. </li>

Science skepticism and denial

The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, by Shawn Otto is one of the most important science books to come out in several years.

WarOnScience_Comp_11_PGW_150dpiThis is not Yet Another Popular Book on how people don’t get science. This is a very well written, accessible, thoughtful analysis of the history of science vs. anti-science from the beginning of modern science itself, but focusing on the recent and current anti-science effort. Why is this happening? Who is doing it? What can be done about it?

This and much more is all covered. Also, since the book has been out for a few months now, the price has dropped so get a copy cheap!

I’ve written a detailed review with extensive commentary HERE.

A second book I’ll mention in this category is “Truth or Turthiness” by Howard Wainer. I wrote a review of that book here. Give this to your favorite skeptic so they can hone their skills.

Fossils, Paleontology

k10850The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals is a brand new title by Don Prothero. My review of this excellent book is here.

The giant sloths may be extinct, but Don Prothero himself is a giant of our age among fossil experts. His primary area of expertise includes the fossil mammals (especially but not at all limited to rhinos). I believe it is true that he has personally handled more fossil mammalian material, in terms of taxonomic breath and time depth, across more institutional collections, than anyone.

A typical entry focuses on an order, and the orders are arranged in a taxonomically logical manner. A living or classic fossil representative is depicted, along with some boney material, in the form of drawings. Artist’s reconstructions, photographs, maps, and other material, with phylogenetic charting where appropriate, fills out the overview of that order.

The text is expert and informative, and very interesting. the quality of the presentation is to notch. The format of the book is large enough to let the artistry of the production emerge, but it is not a big too heavy floppy monster like some coffee table books are. This is a very comfortable book to sit and read, or browse.

I should also mention Don Prothero’s other book, just out at the end of last year so maybe you already have this, “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils.” I reviewed it here.

“The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth is an excellent geological overview of that amazing place. But it is also, explicitly, extensively and intensively, an exploration of the creationist view of the Grand Canyon, and the Canyon’s role in proving that evolution is not real.

It turns out that Evolution is real, the canyon is amazing, and this book is another excellent choice of a volume to pass on to a teacher in your local middle school or high school. I review it here.

General Science

Here is a list of general science books that I regard as excellent. Where I’ve written a review, I’ll link you through to that review, where I’ve not yet posted a review, I’ll link you through to the book itself on Amazon.

<li><a href="">Venomous: How the Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry</a>, by Christie Wilcox is just plain fun. And, disturbing at many levels. A great read. You won't be able to put it down, but if you do put it down, check for scorpions first!</li>

<li><a href="">The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters</a> by Sean (The <strong>B</strong>iologist) Carroll uses the key principle of homeostasis to explore complex biological systems. Very readable, fascinating.  </li>

<li><a target="_blank" href="">I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life</a><img src="//" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> by Ed Yong is about the gazillion cells that live in and on you, and how they are really, well, you.  This book is about what is regarded by many as another revolution in thinking about how life works.  Great read. </li>

<li>Do not. I repeat do not. Do not bring this book on your next airplane flight.  You will learn things from <a target="_blank" href="">The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters</a><img src="//" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> that will amaze you and, frankly, freak you out. </li>

<li><a target="_blank" href="">Alligators of Texas (Gulf Coast Books, sponsored by Texas A&amp;M University-Corpus Christi)</a><img src="//" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> by Louise Hayes (Photos by Philippe Henry) may be of local interest, but I include it here because it is an excellent monograph on this particular animal. If you live anywhere near the Gulf Coast, but especially Texas, this book needs to be near your back door.  </li>

Bird Books

I have a handful of super excellent bird books that are new and should be of interest to anyone with a science bent, not just bird people.

bird_brain_evolution_of_intelligence_nathan_emeryBird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence was written by Nathan Emery, who is a Senior Lecturer (that’s like a Professor of some sort, in America) at Queen Mary University, London. He researches the evolution of intelligence in animals, including primates and various birds, and yes, including the crows!

He and his team “…have found striking similarities in the behaviour, ecology, neurobiology and cognitive mechanisms of corvids (crows, rooks, jackdaws and jays) and apes. [Suggesting that] these similarities are adaptations for solving similar social and ecological problems, such as finding, protecting and extracting food and living in a complex social world.”

The book is really great, the best book out there right now on animal intelligence, possibly the best book so far this year on birds. This is the kind of book you want laying around the house or classroom to learn stuff from. If you are writing or teaching about anything in evolution or behavior, this is a great way to key into the current work on bird intelligence.

HERE is my full review of this book, including musings about the subject matter.

Another bird book, that I’ve also labeled as the best bird book of the year, is What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young. This is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park. (My full review is HERE.)

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-36-00-amAnd, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.

To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.

This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)

This title is more for those specifically interested in birds. It is one of those books that looks at an entire category of birds over a large area. The title of Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide, by Sébastien Reeber could be rewritten to say “Temperate and Subtropical Waterfowl of the Northern Hemisphere,” though that would be a bit misleading because a large percentage of these birds migrate long distances, so really, it is more like “Waterfowl of the world except the ones that stay in the tropics or otherwise don’t migrate north of the tropics,” but that would be a silly title.

k10714Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is large format. The up and down and back and forth dimensions are not as large as Crossley’s bird guides, but it is way bigger than a field guide, and thick … 656 pages. The plates start on page 32 and the detailed text and photograph rich species accounts run from pages 177 to 616, to give you an idea of the balance and expansiveness found in this volume.

This book is organized in a unique way. There are two main parts. First, 72 plates show peterson-style drawings of all of the birds that are covered, with the drawings arranged on the right side, with basic ID information, range maps, and references to other parts of the book on the left side. This allows the user to find a particular bird fairly quickly. Importantly, the pictures cover both sex and age variations.

The second part of the book significantly expands on the plates, and is cross referenced by plate number, with extensive text and multiple photographs to add very rich detail.

So, when it comes to your preference for drawings vs. photographs, you can have your cake and eat it too. Also, when it comes to your need for a basic field guide vs. a more in depth discussion, you can have your cake and eat it too there as well.

This is really an idea gift book for a bird lover. Chances are they don’t have it, chances are, they’ll love it. Write a nice inscription in it.