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Category: History (page 2 of 6)

No Chocolate, Potatoes, or Tomatoes in Europe?

If you took a trip to 16th Century Europe, you could meet or see Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Martin Luther, Charles V, Henry VIII, and many other fascinating people from that period. But, you’d also be shocked by many things, especially everyone’s diet.

Michaelangelo never tasted marinara sauce on his pasta because tomatoes were unknown in Italy. No Irishman, German, or Pole had ever seen a potato. No German, Swiss, or Frenchman had ever tasted chocolate, nor vanilla.

What? It’s true. Foods from the Americas started coming to Europe in 1493 when Columbus brought bell pepper seeds and a few others. But it took decades for these to become noticed and spread. Some items like tomatoes took a long time to catch on. It was believed that tomatoes were poisonous until a Frenchman demonstrated that they were not. Cortez first learned of chocolate from Moctezuma in 1520.

European Diet

Fundamental to Italian cuisine are the fagioli soups. Fagioli means beans — the common bean like navy, kidney, black, lima, northern, and pinto. There were none of those in Europe, just fava beans. Nor was there corn, squashes, yams, strawberries or pineapples — no peanuts, so no peanut butter — no zucchini, pumpkins, avocados, or cashew nuts.

There were no hot chili peppers in Europe. The only hot spices were pepper, mustard, and horseradish. But what about Asia? The Chinese and Indians love chili peppers. Chili peppers were brought there from the Americas by European sailors, and they became extremely popular. In fact, chili peppers found their way to Europe from the Americas, to India, then to England. There were no bell peppers either, of any color.

There was no white or brown sugar, just honey for sweetening. No Englishman puffed on a pipe, nor did any Frenchman smoke a cigarette — tobacco was unknown. No green beans, tapioca, papaya, guava, passion fruit, cranberries, sunflowers, pecans, allspice, or chicle (chewing gum).

The European diet was bland. Nourishment came from breads, pasta, grains and meat porridges, apples, pears, berries, beer, eggs, fish, and dairy foods. There was no coffee at this time either, although coffee came from Arabia, not the Americas.

Sound boring? It was. Most of the foods for which European countries are famous like Swiss chocolate, and Irish potatoes, were introduced in the past 400 years. Yet, most people I know think that potatoes came from Ireland.

Negative Side Effects

I find it interesting to observe the effects of introducing new food sources to a place. We’ve all heard of the great impact of the Irish Potato Famine. How did that happen?

The potato was brought to Europe in 1536 and was spread by seafarers to the rest of the world. It quickly became a staple food crop in Europe. It was so successful at feeding the people of Ireland that it touched off a population explosion, resulting in hordes of Irish immigrants to North America. By 1800 it was not unusual for an Irishman to eat an astonishing ten pounds of potatoes a day! Many Irish were literally surviving on potatoes.

For over 7,000 years, the Indians of South America cultivated more than a thousand varieties of potato. But the lack of genetic diversity in Europe left the potato vulnerable to various diseases. One potato disease known as Late Blight, caused by a fungus-like oomycete called Phytophthora infestans, was responsible for the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845. It spread rapidly in western Ireland and resulted in widespread crop failures. More than a million Irish died of hunger and 1.5 million more emigrated to the United States, resulting in a huge increase in demand for the potato in the USA.

So, introducing a great source of nutrition to a region triggers a population explosion. This makes sense. And, it happened again. Africa never had an overpopulation problem before. What happened?

Corn was domesticated from a wild plant called teosinte more than 7,000 years ago in Central America. Corn is fundamental to the Mayan creation myth and is considered a sacred plant. The ears of the wild teosinte plant were small but years of domestication resulted in larger plants and larger ears of corn. Corn spread throughout the Americas. Popcorn was invented by North American Indians. Corn was brought to Europe as a curiosity by the first explorers and Europeans were not much interested in it. However in Africa, it spread quickly, and together with the peanut and cassava from the Americas, completely transformed the diet of much of Africa. The productivity and nutritional value of these foods resulted in a rapid rise in population in Africa, similar to the effect of the potato on Ireland.

Another negative side-effect came from the introduction of tobacco. In the Americas, tobacco was smoked in moderation, often associated with religious or other ceremonies. In Europe, and throughout the world, it became a highly addictive drug, smoked excessively, resulting in millions of premature deaths.


To finish off the list of foods from the Americas, we have turkeys, brazil nuts, prickly pear, huckleberries, annatto (achiote), and maple syrup.

Lastly, although not foods, many other important substances came from the Americas such as rubber, mahogany, hickory, cochineal dye (Natural Red Dye #4), and logwood. Logwood was a very important commodity, driving politics, economics, and piracy in the Caribbean until the invention of aniline dyes in the 19th Century.

If you plan to travel by time-machine to Europe of the past, be prepared for extremely disappointing dining.

Please comment below.

50th Anniversary of Computer Programming

For what it’s worth, I celebrate a milestone this month, October, 2018. Fifty years ago, I learned to program a computer, in October of 1968. The machine was an IBM 1130. The first language I learned was Fortran IV. Computer programming bit me so hard that I completed the entire four volume IBM programmed learning course in three days of almost non-stop immersion. I was already deep into electronics and astronomy, and the computer complemented both of those fields. For several years, programming became almost an obsession.

In rapid sequence I learned Fortran IV, 1130 machine language, RPG, and APL. I was hooked. Below is an old grainy photo of the very machine I learned on.

Please comment below.

“My” IBM 1130

Coal Mining Isn’t What It Used To Be

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, the term “coal miner” conjured up a stereotypical image of a man covered head to toe with black coal dust, wearing a hard hat, and swinging a pick or shovel. The work was grueling, dangerous, deadly, and paid terrible wages. In the United States, a shocking 90,000 men lost their lives in coal mines between 1900 and 1950. If there was ever a line of work that could be called “the widowmaker”, it was coal mining. The rest of society viewed coal miners as the bottom of the social hierarchy.

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.

 –Tennessee Ernie Ford

Harry Fain, 1946 National Archives Photo

Today, coal mining is used as a political football by politicians. Politicians know that it conjures up powerful images that are based on the stereotype I described above. Most recently, President Trump invoked these images repeatedly during his campaign, and it created the desired effect on his listeners.

However, coal mining today isn’t what it was in 1910. The above stereotypes are completely false today. Coal mining has changed radically as have the men and women working in that business. President Trump’s rabble rousing was based on fantasy and imagery that no longer exists.

Back around 1910, there were thousands of coal mines. Larger mines employed hundreds in each shift. Virtually all coal mining was done underground, not on the surface. This meant entering or descending into deep mines. The standard mining technique was room and pillar, which dates back to ancient times. A room is hollowed out with pillars of coal left standing to support the roof. The size of the pillars was based on the opinions of experienced miners. Sometimes, they were wrong. There’s a tradeoff involved. Making the pillars larger provides increased safety but reduces the amount of coal that can be extracted.

Room and pillar is still used today in mines where there’s a valuable enough deposit, like anthracite (hard coal) and surface mining isn’t feasible. However, instead of relying on seat-of-the-pants guesses, science and engineering is involved. The force on the ceiling can be calculated, the compressive strength of the coal deposit can be measured. Optimal column sizes can then be calculated and actual stresses measured so danger can be detected and averted.

For added excitement and profit, one can still get the material left behind in the pillars by a method called retreat mining. Once a room is exhausted, the pillars can be destroyed, one by one, starting with the deepest one. The ceiling is allowed to collapse and the coal recovered. Needless to say, this is a dangerous business. My two coal miner friends here in West Virginia do this kind of work. With modern technology, it can be done successfully and accidents kept to almost zero.

My friends still come home from work with black faces and clothes full of black coal dust — hard shiny anthracite coal particles that sparkle when you look at them. They use the two washing machines at the laundromat set aside especially for coal miners. Unlike their counterparts a hundred years ago, they don’t use a pick and shovel, are highly skilled, and are paid well. But, they are in the minority. The majority of coal is produced nowadays using surface mining, including the infamous mountaintop removal mining technique. Fortunately for the environment, the number of mountaintop removal permits has dropped to about half of what it was ten years ago. This might be from political pressure, or because coal sales have dropped sharply since 2008. I don’t know. The economic collapse of 2008 started a sharp decline in coal sales that continues today. Demand has dropped. Again, President Trump’s rhetoric about increasing jobs in coal could only happen if demand increases. Coal mines are not gold mines, where the demand is essentially infinite. Coal mines produce only the amount of coal that is needed.

Surface mining, which produces the majority of coal today, is done by comparatively few highly skilled workers using gargantuan machines worth millions of dollars each. These machines are so large that you have to see them in person to comprehend. Imagine a bulldozer that could drive down one side of your neighborhood and obliterate every house on one side of the street in a single pass, without the least effort. Or, a dump truck so large that it’s not apparent where the driver is located. You have to climb three flights of stairs to reach the cab. Coal mines of this type employ more people who are mechanics, machinists, welders, engineers, and explosives experts than those who actually do the mining. It’s a whole different world from coal mining in 1910. What’s more, over the next ten years, more of these machines will become robotically controlled with no operator. In twenty years, surface mining will likely be done entirely by computer and robots.

Let’s look at some numbers. In 1900 the population of the country was 76 million and the coal industry employed 500,000 men. So, the better part of one percent of the population, or 1 out of every 152 men in the country, was a coal miner.

In 1900, annual coal production was about 275 million tons. From 1900 to the present, coal production increased to a peak of almost 1,200 million tons in 2008. In 2008, the US population was about 307 million, and the coal industry employed about 70,000 people, nationwide, or 0.02 percent of the population. In 2008 we had one seventh the number of people producing five times as much coal as we did in 1900. Coal production efficiency per worker is 35 times what it was in 1900.

To put these employee numbers into perspective, consider that Walmart employs 1.5 million people in the USA. Amazon employs 570,000. The US Postal Service employs 503,000. The coal industry employs 70,000. To increase production, the coal industry would add a few more machines and a few more employees to accommodate demand. So, to base a political campaign promise on increasing jobs in coal mining is disingenuous at best, stupid at worst. Coal is one of the worst sectors to choose to make such a promise. The number of jobs in coal mining will not increase significantly no matter what happens. The only reason to make such a promise is because it has strong emotional appeal to voters because they still have the old coal miner stereotype in their head and don’t know how things have changed.

Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913

If you were born and raised in Los Angeles and/or are interested in the history of the Southland (Southern California), there is a wonderful book for you.  “Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913” by Harris Newmark is a great book about the history of Los Angeles and the Southland from 1853 to 1913, written by a person who lived it.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s I was fascinated to learn the origin of some of the street names like Sepulveda, Pico, and Olvera. Sepulveda is named after the Sepulveda family, owners of tens of thousands of acres now occupied by Palos Verdes. Pico Blvd. is named after Don Pio Pico. When I was five years old, my uncle’s house was near Winslow Drive and Micheltorena, and I thought Micheltorena was such a strange word. I had not yet learned to speak Spanish, nor did I know that Micheltorena was a well known person in 19th century Los Angeles.

As time went on I learned more but I’d never before found a book like this one–jam packed with information. Written by a businessman who immigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1853, the author personally knew everyone of any importance in the Southland over a period of 60 years. He writes the story of LA as it grew from a few adobe buildings and dirt streets, complete with gold miners and gunslingers, to a modern metropolis.

Here’s a short list of names in the book that should sound familiar to any Angeleno: Juan Temple, owner of the 27,000 acre Los Cerritos Rancho, after whom is named Temple Street; Don Abel Stearns, owners of tens of thousands of acres between San Pedro and San Bernardino including Los Coyotes Rancho, La Habra Rancho, San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana Rancho, and the Los Alamitos Rancho upon which now sits the City of Long Beach; John G. Downey; Bernard Yorba, owner of the land upon which now stand the City of Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, Westminster, Garden Grove, and other parts of Orange County, which was then part of Los Angeles County; Willliam Workman and John Rowland, owners of the 49,000 acre La Puente Rancho; Don Luis Vignes, owner of the land now occupied by East LA; The Dominguez Family, owners of a 48,000 acre land grant from the King of Spain; Dr. del Amo; Henry Dalton, owners of the Azusa Ranch and Duarte; Manuel Garfias, owner of the 14,000 acre San Pasqual Ranch upon which were built Pasadena and South Pasadena; Don Ygnacio Machado, owner of La Ballona; Colonel Jonathan Trumbull Warner, owner of the Warner Ranch upon which part of Orange County now sits; Benjamin Davis Wilson, owner of most of San Gabriel, after whom Mt. Wilson is named; Colonel Julian Isaac Williams, owner of the Cucamonga and Chino ranches; Don Pio Pico, owner of a 22,000 acre rancho and after whom Pico Blvd. is named; William Wolfskill, owner of Rancho Santa Anita and Rancho San Francisquito upon which Newhall now stands; Don Jose Ygnacio Lugo, owner of the land upon which Santa Barbara now stands; Louis Robidoux, owner of the Jurupa Rancho upon which now sits the City of Riverside and after whom Mt. Robidoux is named; Juan Forster, owner of the Santa Margarita Rancho and Las Flores Rancho; and the Verdugo Family, owners of a 36,000 acre land grant from the King of Spain dating from 1784 and upon which now sits the City of Glendale.

Interested? The above really is a short list. The author knew all of these people personally and many more. The book contains vast amounts of first hand information.

“Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913” is available for free download from The Gutenberg Project:

The epub version includes all the photo plates from the book. I highly recommend it.

Or, get a real copy of this excellent book:

Sixty Years in Southern California by Harris Newmark

Mayan Calendar Doesn’t End on December 20, 2012

August 11, 3114 BC marks the beginning of the current calendric cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar.  The Mayan calendar is comprised of repeating periods that result from the Mayan base-20 positional number system.

The Mayans were the first humans to invent a positional number system like our decimal system—a system based on powers of a number base plus the idea of a numeral that represents zero.  A positional number system must have some way to represent the value zero.  In contrast to our base-10 system, the Mayans chose base-20.  So instead of decimal places Mayan numbers have vigesimal places.  Instead of the decimal system of nine numerals plus zero, Mayan numbers are composed of 19 numerals, plus zero.  In the decimal system, each digit represents a power of ten.  In the Mayan system, each digit represents a power of 20.  A positional number system is a necessity for doing serious mathematics.  Imagine doing even simple addition with a non-positional system like Roman numerals.

Our Gregorian calendar uses decimal numbers for years and a messy system based on the arbitrary values 7, 28, 29, 30, and 31 for weeks and months.  We call the periods of our calendar days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and millennia.

The Mayan Long Count system is much cleaner.  The periods correspond to vigesimal places of a Long Count date and are named k’in, uinal, tun, k’atun, baktun, piktun, etc., each representing a power of 20 except the the second place, the uinal, which is base-18. (This results in the 20×18 = 360 day count in the lowest two places to represent the 360 day Mayan year.) From the third place on up, the count is purely vigesimal.

Mayan Calendar

Mayan Calendar

The Mayans actually used three calendars side-by-side.  The Tzolkin and the Ha’ab calendars are designed to keep track of holidays and astronomical / planting cycles.  Those calendars restart every 52 years and don’t concern us here.  The third calendar, the Maya Long Count calendar, counts an unlimited number of days from a specified starting point using a modified base-20 system that accommodates the 360 day Mayan year. Because this calendar is unlimited, Long Count dates are inscribed in monuments intended to last for a long time.

Now let’s connect some of the Mayan Long Count periods with real numbers.  The first vigesimal place, the kin, counts 20 day cycles.  The second place, the uinal, counts base-18.  Together, the first and second places roll over every 360 days, which is the length of the Mayan year, and the count carries into the third digit.  The third digit, tun, counts 20 Mayan years.  The fourth digit, k’atun, counts 20 tuns, or 400 Mayan years, which is 394.25 years on our Gregorian calendar.  It is this 394 year cycle that is going to roll over in December 20, 2012, and the next vigesimal place, the baktun, will increase from 12 to 13.  We are now in the 13th baktun since the start of the Long Count calendar (like saying we’re in the 21st century in our calendar).  The next baktun begins on December 21, 2012.

A baktun is a period of 144,000 days or 394.25 Gregorian years. The Classic Period of Mayan history occurred during the 8th and 9th baktuns.  The last day of the 13th baktun occurs on Dec 20, 2012 in the Gregorian calendar, which is on the Mayan Long Count calendar. The 14th baktun begins
on (Long Count) or Dec 21, 2010 (Gregorian).

When 20 baktuns are completed (7,885 years from the starting point in 3114 BCE) a new piktun begins and the baktun starts counting again from zero.  The pictun isn’t normally written on Long Count dates because it’s assumed.  Just like we don’t write leading zeros on Gregorian years.  We don’t write 000002012, just 2012.  When 20 pictuns are completed, or 157,700 years, a new kalabtun begins. In fact there are two more digits defined beyond these in the Mayan Long Count Calendar, the k’inchiltun and the alautun.  The Mayan Long Count calendar has places already define and named that carry it another 1.2 billion years.  In our calendar we’re only named periods out to millennia.  The Mayans had a much longer view of time.  And even after 1.2 billion years have elapsed and the named periods of the Mayan calendar are filled, the calendar still doesn’t end.  You just keep adding more digits to the year, the same as we will do when our year passes 9999.

In light of this, the idea that the Mayan calendar ends is particularly ridiculous.  The Long Count calendar is defined, with named periods, 1.2 billion years out into the future.  It would make more sense to say that our calendar ends in 9999, since we haven’t named any periods beyond the millennium.  But the hoopla about the new baktun (similar to a century on our calendar) makes for lots of book and movie sales.

For a timeline of Guatemalan history, from 15,000 BC to the present, see Guatemala History Timeline. 

The Maya Paradise home page displays today’s date in all three Mayan calendars: Tzolkin, Ha’ab, and Long Count.  Maya Paradise

Elena Kagan Lost My Support

It’s too bad really. Elena Kagan has a brilliant mind and is supremely qualified academically to be a Supreme Court justice, but the confirmation hearings and a reading of some of her opinions reveals a fundamental wrong-headedness about natural rights.

The wordings found in the Declaration of Independence (which is not the basis of law), and the Bill of Rights and Constitution (which are the basis of law) make it very clear that those documents are acknowledging pre-existing rights that all people have. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution do not confer any rights on the people. Those documents prohibit the government from infringing rights the people already have.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (The right is preexisting.) “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” (The right already exists.) “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” (The right already exists.) And so the wording is throughout the Bill of Rights and Constitution.

The founders were very clear in their position that those rights are inherent in every person–God-given if you prefer. No man and no government has the power to confer those rights, so the founding documents of the United States do not make the error of attempting confer rights. Instead, those documents are the basis of laws that prohibit the government from infringing the rights we as human beings already have.

Yes I know that if you ask people on the street, many of them would agree with the statement: “our rights come from the Bill of Rights.” Well they don’t, and the distinction is critically important for a Supreme Court justice. Elena Kagan does not agree with the position of the founders on natural rights. In various opinions that Kagan has written, she uses the word “confer” with regard to rights protected by the Bill of Rights. She worded her opinions to say that the Bill of Rights “confers” those rights, and this is wrong-headed. It’s so wrong-headed that in my opinion it disqualifies her from serving as a Supreme Court justice, regardless of any other opinions she may have. She doesn’t agree with the fundamental thinking behind our founding documents. Instead believes that government has the power and the ability to confer rights on the people. Government has no such power. Despots and dictators like to believe they have those powers, pretend to have those powers, and use physical force to make it look like they have those powers. Perhaps Ms. Kagan would do better serving on the Supreme Court of a country like Myanmar, Iran, or North Korea, not the United States.

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