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Friday, February 15, 2013


I hate the image of Lincoln that most Americans hold, the five dollar profile of “The Great Emancipator”. You see, Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and ended slavery not because he was a saint but because he was the greatest politician who has ever occupied the White House. And to those who despise “professional politicians”, my response is they have probably never seen a real professional in action. Such Pols don’t come along often, but when they do, they make the puny impersonations that must usually suffice seem like clowns.
And Lincoln’s professionalism was best displayed in his handling of the biggest clown in his cabinet, a man you have probably never heard of but whose best work you see every day of your life, Salmon Portland Chase. If Chase had been half as smart as he was ambitious, he would have been President instead of Lincoln. That to his dying day he continued to think he deserved to be so, shows what a clown he was.
Doris Kerns Goodwin has called Lincoln’s cabinet “A Team of Rivals”, but I think of it as obtuse triangle. At the apex was Lincoln. He was the pretty girl at the party. Her suitors didn’t really want to know her, but they all wanted to have her. On the inside track was the brilliant, obsequious William Seward - the Secretary of State who thought of himself as Lincoln’s puppet master. And the right angle was Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, born to money and brilliant but with a stick up his elementary canal. And on Tuesday, December 16, 1862 the competition between these two paramours for the virtue of Old Abe came head to head in the head of Senator Charles Sumner, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leading Senatorial Cassandra.
Sumner had come into procession of a letter written by Seward to the American Ambassador to France. In the letter Seward complained that “…the extreme advocates for African slavery and its most vehement opponents are acting in concert together to precipitate a servile war, the former by making the most desperate attempts to overthrow the federal Union; the latter by demanding an edict of universal emancipation...(as) the only legitimate way of saving the Union.” To Sumner this passage was proof that behind the scenes Seward was not fully comitted to destroying either the confederacy or slavery. And it confirmed what he already heard from Chase.
Stephen Oates writes in “With Malice Toward None”, “What bothered Chase the most was the intimacy between Lincoln and Seward…In talks with his liberal Congressional friends, Chase intimated that Seward was a malignant influence on the President...that it was (Seward) who was responsible for the administration’s bungling. So it was that Seward became a scapegoat for Republican discontent.” (pp 355-356)
Sumner convened what I call "The Magnificent Seven", the Republican Senate caucus. Once the Seward letter was read out loud, Senator Ira Harris from New York recorded the reaction. “Silence ensued for several moments, (until Senator Morton Wilkinson of Minnesota) said that in his opinion the country was ruined and the cause was lost…” Senator William Fessenden from Maine added his two cents worth. He had been told by a member of the cabinet (guess who) there was “…a secret backstairs influence which often controlled the apparent conclusions of the cabinet itself. Measures must be taken”, Fessenden himself concluded, “to make the cabinet a unity, and to remove from it anyone who does not coincide heartily with our views in relation to the war.”
It is sad to say there was not a first rate mind in that room. There might have been, but arrogance drops a smart person’s I.Q. by forty points or more. It can drop the average mind to zero. Not one of the seven seems to have suspected they were being manipulated by Chase. It is startling to think that men who used an outhouse every day could be that arrogant.
They skewered up their courage for two days before saddeling up and calling on the President at 7 P.M. on Thursday, December 19, 1862. For three hours they harangued poor Mr. Lincoln on the dangers of Seward. Lincoln remained agreeable but noncommittal, and proposed that they meet again the next night. And the amazing thing was that throughout the meeting Lincoln already had William Seward’s resignation in his coat pocket.
Of course Mr. Seward had not offered his resignation out of nobility. He was a politician. After hearing in advance of the intentions of the Seven, Seward had a flunky deliver his resignation in private,  as a demand that Lincoln should pick the genial New Yorker Seward over the priggish Chase from Ohio. But, of course, the loss of support from New York would poke a fatal hole in Lincoln’s ship of state. So Seward was not expecting Lincoln to trade the prig for the poke
Lincoln’s problem was he needed the prig. Chase’s handling of the Treasury was brilliant. He was financing the entire war. It was Chase who had begun issuing official U.S. government backed paper currency, greenbacks. That had not been done since the revolution. It was Chase who had put the words “In God We Trust” on every bill, and its still there today, proof of his priggishness. Of course, Chase had also put his own face on every $1 bill, as a form of political advertising, but Lincoln was willing to tolerate that because Chase was doing a good job, and because without Ohio, the Union would also lose the war.
And what Lincoln knew - and the Magnificent Seven did not know - was that the whispers about Seward’s “backstairs influence” were false. By December of 1862 it was dawning on even Seward that Lincoln was thinking for himself. When Lincoln had first heard about the Magnificent Seven’s deliberations (from Senator Preston King, the flunky who had delivered Seward’s resignation), the President had exploded in anger, a rare event for this man. “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it, and repeat it, and cling to it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary?!” Lincoln was beset by arrogance from all sides. It seemed that everybody in Washington thought they were smarter than Lincoln. But the skinny lawyer from Illinois was about to prove them all wrong.
At ten the next morning Lincoln told his cabinet about the previous night’s meeting. He made no accusations, but Chase immediately blubbered that this was the first he had heard about any of this matter. The President, who had mentioned no names and made no allegations, asked them all, except Seward, to return that night to meet with the Seven. Seward felt the ground giving way under his feet. He had never expected Lincoln might pick the prig. And it suddenly occured to Chase that Lincoln just might.
That night the Seven were now the audience to a bravo performance. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy (then a cabinet office) recorded the festivities. The President “…spoke of the unity of his Cabinet, and how although they could not be expected to think and speak alike on all subjects, all had acquiesced in measures when once decided. ...Secretary Chase indorsed the President's statement fully and entirely…” There were hours more of talking but right there was the end of Chase's mutiny. As the Magnificent Seven were leaving the White House a stunned Senator Browning of Illinois asked one the leaders of the mutiny how Chase could tell them that the cabinet was harmonious, after all his previous talk about back stairs influence. The reply was simple and bitter; “He lied.” Chase was done as a malignant political influence in the cabinet. No Republican was going to believe anything he ever said again.
The next morning Lincoln called both Seward and Chase to the White House. Welles was again present, I suspect as a witness for Lincoln. “Chase said he had been painfully affected by the meeting last evening", recorded Welles, "which was a total surprise to him, and…(he)informed the President he had prepared his resignation…“Where is it?” said the President quickly, his eye lighting up in a moment.
“I brought it with me,” said Chase, taking the paper from his pocket…”Let me have it,” said the President, reaching his long arm and fingers towards Chase, who held on, seemingly reluctant…but the President was eager and…took and hastily opened the letter. “This," said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh, “cuts the Gordian knot.” An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time. “You may go to your Departments,” said the President;…(This) “is all I want…I will detain neither of you longer.”
Both Seward and Chase spent a nervous night, not certain as to who Lincoln would fire. And it was not until a few days later that Lincoln sent a message to both Chase and Seward, saying that the nation could not afford to lose either of their talents. And it did not. But both men had just been reminded who was in charge of this game. Seward never tried to pull Lincoln's strings again.  Chase continued to work miracles of finance, but he petulantly continued to resign annually - until after Lincoln's re-election in November 1864, when Lincoln could finally afford to take Chase up on his offer. Still, never a man to waste talent, Lincoln appointed the clown to the Supreme Court, where Chase’s firm stance for racial equality would have the best influence on America’s future.
And that is what it looks like when a professional is on the job.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013


I believe we will create a better world, someday – just probably not while I am still breathing in it. My personal philosophy is a “depressed optimist”.  Case in point: recent research of the 3 inch fossil Fuxianhuia protensa, (above)  has postulated that about half a billion years ago, as the autotrophs were beginning to drool, they suffered a glitch during mitosis or meiosis, or some sort of reproduction, and begot a double pair of a particular genomic sequence in their proto-brains, and then passed that “oops” down to their daughter cells. As Neanderthals developed tools, this “double dose” of DNA strands gave rise to higher brain functions. Evidently, it also gave rise to crazy.
As one brainiac involved in this study put it, “The price of higher intelligence and more complex behaviors is more mental illness.” What this implies is that whether you are studying religion or astronomy, Descartes or Deuteronomy, you are ingesting a degree of insanity right along with all the knowledge you acquire. The ability to use fire allowed us to break down meat proteins, but that also bestows the ability to burn down the house you live in. And we do it all the time – ask any Tea Party Member. Music or mythology, Einstein or astrology, nothing that humans have ever invented could not be used to destroy humans. Why should the Internet be any different from that?
You see some idiots have exploited a “hole” in the Java software system, putting, according to the United States Department of Homeland Security, one billion computers at risk, both Apple and Windows systems, and Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Explorer browsers. According to TechNews Daily,  Java has offered an emergency fix, but it means “ users will have to approve every single instance of Java that they encounter online.”  In other words, the $8 trillion web is being destroyed because somebody found out a way to make 50 cents profit by blowing it up.
My question is , what kind of idiot would try to make a profit from destroying all future profits?  But the answer is obvious. The same kind of idiots who blew up the world wide economic system in 1929 and again in 2007, the same kind of idiots who are currently running the National Rifle Association, seemingly determined to convince the vast majority of Americans that the terms “gun owner” and “gun nut” are synonymous. As a famous fictional American once said, “Stupid is as stupid does”.
On the plus side, I also recently came across research from South Africa and Sweden, which reveals that the average dung beetle uses GPS in rolling their poop balls back home. But this G in GPS does not stand for global, but for galactic. We've always known that once the lady beetle gets a nice juicy ball of dung together, they climb on top and do a little dance. Entomologists assumed it was the beetle's way of saying to the universe “This ball of crap is mine!” But now it seems they are actually seeking to orientate themselves so they can find their way back to the burrow.  If the sun is up, they use the sun. At night they use the moon. And on moonless nights they use the Milky Way, that smear of billions of stars that runs across the night sky, that nobody ever figured a dung beetle was even aware of..
According to Professor Marcus Bryne, from Wits University in Johannesburg, “The dung beetles don't care which direction they're going in; they just need to get away from the big fight with the other beetles at the poo pile.”   And there appears to be a lesson on the relationship between Newtonian and Quantum physics here. The beetles can use the Milky Way to define a straight line back to their burrows, because they are so small, and the Milky Way is so far away. However, a moth, using the same basic methodology, circles a flame because they are bigger and closer to the light source. In other words, the moths think they are flying in a straight line, as long as they keep the light at an equal distance. Its the difference between walking from New York and Los Angeles, and flying there. It's the Flatland thought experiment, but with moths and poop, rather than circles and triangles.
But to get back to my original example, Fuxianhuia protensa, has been described as a “missing link”, or more accurately as “a mistaken link”. The problem is the little multi-legged beetle, which an average human would instantly step on if they spotted it in their closet, might have been the ancestor of all bugs – crickets, cockroaches, beetles, moths and lice. But it also might not.  I probably better explain my last statement, or rather let Professor Nicholas Strausfeld from the University of Virginia explain it. “There has been a very long debate about the origin of insects,” he says. And that, it seems, explains everything.
See, to put it simply, the grandaddy of all buggies was either a crab or a sea monkey (brine shrimp if you are over the age of twelve). Crabs are crustaceans, and sea monkey's are branchiopods. Crabs have much more complex bodies than do sea monkeys. So, ancient sea monkeys were thought to have evolved into insects, while ancient crabs evolved into everybody else. Or so the thinking used to go. But then along comes Fuxianhuia protensa, with a squiggly body and an organized brain, and a dependable dated age of 520 million years old. And that is old enough to have been the great-great-great-etcettera-granddaddy of both – which means that life  got smart and then found it might be more advantageous to get stupid again, but with fewer legs..
I can dig that. I can even empathize with how the little buggies felt. Every human male reaches some point in their lives when they realize that women often prefer bastards to nice guys. As your father might have told you at that point, “Life isn't fair”, and he may even have asked you, “If you ever figure women out, will let me know?” To put it in a more gender neutral way, most people reach a point when they suspect that their brains are just getting in the way of their hormones making them happy. And it appears that sometime in the Cambrian period, the squiggly crawly things wiggling across the ocean floor first confronted that basic philosophical conundrum: brains or balls? Which way will I go?
At that point it now appears that the balls returned to a simpler brain and instant gratification, while the brains tried deferred reward. And the amazing thing is, it appears we both ended up in the same place, standing atop a pile of our own shit and looking to the Milky Way for direction.
It's enough to make anybody a depressed optimist.
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Sunday, February 10, 2013


I warn you that meeting an icon in the flesh is almost always disappointing. Kings and queens, gods and saints, zealot and demagogue are really just stone cold reflections of their acolytes' vision. Real heroes have feet of clay, and it is the clay that is usually the interesting part. With clay you can shape mountains, build palaces, sculpt river valleys, hold warm food or a cold drink, even record legends. But what are you to do when you meet an icon that is both stone and clay? What are we to make of Nefertiti?
At first glance she is a contradiction, the definition of feminine beauty and royal imperiousness, at once immediate and distant, warm and lifeless. She is iconically Egyptian, and yet she now sits alone in a room in Berlin, Germany. She is a Mona Lisa in sandstone, and clay and plaster, powdered glass and arsenic sulfide, coal and beeswax. And so lifelike you might expect her to suddenly rise and walk out of the room, except she is 4,300 years old. And she has no legs. She is the illusion of a genius, a display of talent and skill that humans would not achieve again until Michelangelo turned stone into an apprehensive David. And yet she was abandoned, discarded as sacrilegious trash, forgotten in the ruins, not worth picking up or going back for. And we are forever in the debt of the fools who wanted her forgotten forever.
The real woman was bred to be a ruler, bred to be a breeder of rulers, who only produced six girls for her husband. Because of that it was the men in her lives who defined Nefertiti. Her father Ay was ambitious, and used her beauty to grasp for power. Her husband, a scarecrow of a misshapen prince who became the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV was one of the most powerful and extraordinary mad men in history. She was immortalized by the artist Thutmose, a bureaucrat, the Chief of Works for the Pharaoh, but who was artist enough to dare capture her honest humanity in plaster. And she was saved from obscurity by a Prussian academic, Ludwig Borchardt, an overachiever, a dedicated student of ancient Egypt, a savvy horse trader, and a fervent German nationalist. And to her list of admirers and fans Adolf Hitler and George Patton and a arrogant Egyptian archaeologist, and you might begin to understand the difficulty in finding the real woman behind the statue. 
The dominance of those men might explain why we do not know her real name. History records her as Nefertiti, which translates as “The Beauty Has Come”, but that name was bestowed by her husband, and royal Egyptians changed their names every time they changed their roles in life. Her younger sister's name was Mutbenret., a common girl's name meaning “Sweet one of Mut”, who was the mother goddess of Egypt. Unless they had a different father (which was certainly possible) Nefertiti's original name was probably closer to her sister's. As queen of the Nile, Nefertiti was also known as the Great Royal Wife, Lady of Grace, Sweet Love, Lady of all Women, Lady of the Two Lands, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. And Egypt was the stage upon which she performed all of her roles, those of the living breathing woman, and those of a stone and plaster icon.
An ancient Egyptian proverb says “Help yourself and the Nile will help you.” Egypt has been defined by the river for 12,000 years, since the sluggish White and pulsing Blue Niles first joined and began chasing the retreating Mediterranean Sea northward. From their junction just above the 5th cataract (modern Khartoum), the Nile traverses 1,200 miles of desert in a great S curve. Then, at Aswan and the first cataract, the placid river heads due north for another 930 miles, a mile wide moving oasis dividing lifeless sands, to modern day Cairo. Over its final 100 miles above Cairo the river divides into two , the Damietta and the Rosetta channels before reaching the sea. And it was here, in the 150 mile wide Nile Delta that Lower Egypt was born first. Later, three hundred miles up the Nile, Upper Egypt formed around the city of Abydos. About 3150 B.C.E. (5,000 years ago), the two kingdoms were united when Namer, ruler of Lower Egypt took as his bride the Upper Egyptian princess Neithhotep, meaning “loved of Neith”.
When Amenhotep III died after 38 years on the throne at the end of 1350 B.C.E., Egypt and its capital at Thebes, had reached its pinnacle – of wealth and power and influence and art. But the 45 year old man who wore the twin crowns had grown timid and fat, racked by debilitating arthritis and that most Egyptian ailment, dental abscesses – developed by a life time of grinding sand grains in every mouthful of food. His devotions to the minor god Aten, the sun disk, grew to match his agonies. His great wife, Tyie, had assumed many of his duties, as he prepared to enter the city of the dead. Only near the end was the Pharaoh's eldest surviving son, who had been schooled away from Thebes, finally bought back, leaving him woefully inexperienced in the palace politics.
The term Pharaoh began as the name of the King's “Great House” - his palace - but it had come to refer not only to the god-man on the throne, but to palace servants, bureaucrats and functionaries, much as the term “White House” is0 used today. This institutionalized Pharoah was supported by two pillars of power, the army which obeyed only the King's commands and the priesthood of Amun-Re (pronounced Amun-Ra). The god Amun had started as a local deity of Thebes, but through centuries of donations by wealthy nobility and even Pharoahs, it had grown to ultimate power, co-opting many of the old gods into an all encompassing triad deity. According to an Egyptian proverb, “All gods are three... He who hides his name as Amun (the invisible father), he appears to the face as Re (the sun), his body is Ptah.(the creator). The connection to the father, son and holy ghost seems impossible to avoid. But, remaining in ancient Egypt, by 1350 B.C.E. the priesthood of Amun-Re controlled up to 30% of all land in Egypt, vast wealth and estates, armies of slaves and fleets of ships; even more than the Pharaoh.
The man who placed the twin crowns of Egypt on Amenhotep IV was the High Priest of Amun-Ra at Thebes was Amenhotep-Huy (above). He had also been the previous Pharaoh's Vizier, or chief of staff, and his “Director of Works for Upper and Lower Egypt”, Superintendent of the Harem; Overseer of the Double Treasury of the Great Royal Wife, and Steward of Queen Tiji.  And he continued in those posts under the new Pharaoh, because Huy had allies in both the government and the faith, making him the second most powerful man in Egypt. In addition Huy was a wealthy man in his own right, from a powerful delta family. He owned large estates and an exclusive resort on the “Reed Sea” where he rewarded his supporters with lavish vacations. He had even dared to dictate to the previous Pharaoh.
The new young ruler (above) waited, squirming against the restraints placed on him by Huy. During this time he dedicated several new temples in Thebes and its religious suburb of Karnak, including one close to his father's heart, the Gempaaten (“the Aten is found in the estate of the Aten”). Most of these temples had been started by his father, and built by his chief architect Bek. But it seems Amenhotep had begun to feel out those around him. We know he encouraged Bek to turn away from the standardized art of his father and seek to draw and sculpt more closely from life. The young king and his beautiful wife spreading such revolutionary messages must have set off sparks among the young artisans in his service.
After two years Amenhotep and Nefertiti had two daughters, Meritaten (she who is loved of Aten) and Meketaten (protected by Aten), and as their names indicated, the Pharaoh had begun to turn his private face away from Amun- Re. He was growing more determined that when he finally had a son, the boy should never be forced to kowtow before a mere functionary, a priest like Huy. An idea was forming in Amenhotep's mind, a way to freedom, a sweeping away of the old way of doing things, breathing new life into the Kingdom, and using some of that great wealth his father had guarded to restrain the smothering Priesthood of Amun-Re.
In the third year of his reign, Amenhotep IV ordered Bek to dispatch royal engineers down the Nile, looking for a spot away from Thebes where a new city could be established, a new city dedicated to the god Aten. What he did not tell anyone yet, was that he intended this new city be the new capital of Egypt; Akhetaten
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