DECEMBER 2019

DECEMBER   2019
Please, Have a Merry. Please. Oh, and get rid of the Orange Jerk!

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Saturday, February 03, 2018

VIRUS

I want to talk about the human propensity for greed, by first discussing a small family of viruses which ignore humans completely -  the Potyviridae. These five related parasites, 100th the size of a bacteria, do not infect humans, but they do infect and quickly kill lilies – after all,  the word virus is Latin for poison. In response, lilies evolved the tulip,  resistant enough to the Potyviridae that they could reproduce for perhaps a dozen generations before succumbing to these miniature succubus. And that's when humans come into the picture, because long before humans knew there was such thing as a virus, they found a way to ruin their own lives, and the lives of thousands of their fellows, by using Potyviridae.  And Tulips.
See, tulips evolved from lilies where Europe blends into Asia, in the Ferghana Basin, north of Afghanistan, east of the Caspian Sea and west of Lake Balkhash - in what is today Uzbekistan.
The basin is surrounded by mountains, and in this isolated test tube 36 different varieties of wild tulips developed over a few thousand years. Some had multiple stalks and blooms, some only one. The blooms could be white, red, yellow or orange. But when infected with Potyviridae the blooms would be wildly stained as if a child had asymmetrically dripped paint over them. 
Then, the unexpected happened. In the 8th century, humans living in the Ferghana Basin converted to Islam, and tulip bulbs were transported westward to Islamic centers, as a beautiful curiosity, the more so because of the fanciful patterns they displayed when infected by Potyviridea, which traveled with its host bulb. And because the bulbs could be transported thousands of miles, because they were purely ornamental, and because they had to be replaced every decade or so,  to own and grow them became a display of extreme wealth, conspicuous consumption, restricted to the ruling caliphs in Baghdad and later Istanbul.
A century after Christopher Columbus – in 1593 - tulip bulbs were first planted in the Netherlands, by the botanist Carolus Clusius. His wealthy patrons were for the first time in history, not blue-blood royalty but the local burgomasters of the the town of Leiden. Recently freed from paying protection money to Spanish royalty, these Dutch Protestant capitalists were interested in just two things, making money, and showing everybody how much money they were making. The “Nouveau riche” adopted all the accouterments of their noble predecessors, including fine clothes, large homes, fancy carriages, personal portraits, and within ten years, ownership of the exotic tulip, so named because its bloom resembled the Dutch name given a Turkish turban. And it was now that human greed enters our story, when tulips pass from being a de rigueur symbol of wealth, to a means of  measuring and achieving of wealth.
The Lord, it seemed, had designed the tulip to make humans rich, and more than a few Calvinist ministers pointed this out. The plant blooms for only a week or two in the spring. And having proven its colors, after the leaves have died back, the bulb may be dug up and sold, before being returned to the soil for the winter. So the primary tulip market was set by the plant itself -  every fall. The rest of the year traders would buy and sell future contracts on the bulbs in the ground, gambling on their future vitality, which, considering their pattern variations was being determined by a virus that was slowly killing the plant, was never a sure thing.  The futures market in tulips began to drive the price of tulips upward, until, within twenty years of Clusius' experiment - in 1610 - the burgomasters felt required to make it illegal to sell tulip futures “short”, meaning to gamble that the price for bulbs in the ground would drop before the next spring bloom.
A disaster in the tulip trade was predictable as far back as the summer of 1623, when a bulb of the rarest variety (only 10 existed), Semper Augusttus, was sold for a thousand guilders. The most skilled carpenters earned only 250 guilders a year, and Carolus Clusius, the man responsible for all of this, earned a mere 750 guilders a year. But when the bulb of the Semper Augusttus (above)  was pulled from the ground, it was found to have two “daughter” bulbs, meaning the value of each Semper Augusttus bulb had just been reduced by 15%. The owner of all 12 bulbs was the wealthy  Adriaan Pauw.  
The law against selling tulips short had been reaffirmed in 1621, and again in 1630, and yet again in 1636. Clearly many burgomasters saw the practice of betting on a catastrophe as dangerous. At the same time it seems safe to assume there were few bets being made that the price of tulip bulbs was going to go down, since no penalties were ever attached to a violation. The general feeling in Holland seems to have been (as it is in America today about the big banks and hedge funds ) that everybody could continue making money as long as everybody stayed greedy but smart. But that has never happened in all of human history. And it did not happen in 17th Century Holland - first because the traders were not trading in what they thought they were trading in, which was tulips, but in a virus which infected tulips. And second I have now arrived at the central theme of this essay -  greed makes you stupid.
Adriaan Pauw thought he was smart. He kept the value of his Semper Augusttus high by the simple expedient of not selling his bulbs, which prevented anybody from noticing that they got weaker with each generation. But he did go to the expense of constructing a gazebo in his garden, covered in mirrors, to reflect his blooms during their brief existence. It also more than doubled the impression of his wealth. In 1624 Pauw's 12 prized  Augusttus were valued at 1,200 guilders each. The next year that went up to 2,000 guilders each, and in 1626 up to 3,000 guilders for a single bulb. Inflation spread like a virus to all varieties of tulips. During one two year period the price for a “General of Generals” bulb increased from 100 guilders to 750 guilders. On 5 February, 1637 at an auction held in the lake side fortress village of Alkmarr, 70 rare bulbs sold for 53,000 guilders, an all time high - several hundred million American dollars today. Who could resist such temptation? Not  Pauw.  He finally sold a single bulb of Augusttus for 5,500 guilders. But the bloom was about to fall off the rose - ah, tulip.
Just two days earlier and 20 miles to the south in the village of Harrlem, a tulip investor club – called a college – decided to see how deep the demand for tulips really was. They held an auction of a huge quantity of common bulbs. Only one buyer showed up. Realizing he was the market, he demanded a 35 % discount. And he got it. And when word of this disaster reached Alkmarr, prices of tulips collapsed like the price of baseball trading cards or houses in 2007.  Many varieties of tulips would quickly lose 95% of their value.
Families went bankrupt -  heads of households and sons committed suicide - how many has become a subject for much debate in economic circles. Many victims sought a new start in the New World. Said one Calvinist, it was “ God’s Just Plague-Punishment, for the attention of the well-to-do Netherlanders in this bold, rotten century.”  It was the usual, "Heads, God wins; tails human lose" philosophy. But why get God involved when there are so many lawyers around? There were endless lawsuits, because every buyer wanted out of their futures contracts and every seller wanted them enforced. So the politicians did nothing.   Most futures contracts were quietly closed out for 10-15% of their paper value.
A lot of people have tried to claim the Tulip Mania  was not a “market bubble”, like all the other market bubbles since. But the best description of what went wrong that I have found was written by A Maurits van der Veen, from the Virginia college of William and Mary. (BUBBLE)   He wrote in 2009, “...it became increasingly difficult to distinguish those with solid private knowledge from those who were simply following the crowd... these constituted a new kind of trade, no longer linked to individual bulbs.” In other words, greed driven investors were betting not on tulips, but on other tulip investors - call it the tulip derivatives market. That was where the market had first blown up. Sounds like a market bubble to me. And when Tulip mania died, so did some of the most valuable tulips, because their viruses were not passed on. There has not been a Semper Augusttus bloom since the middle of the 17th century.
There are many who still insist the Semper Augusttus was the most beautiful tulip that ever existed, as there are many who insist an unregulated “free market” is morally and functionally superior to regulated markets. But Semper Augusttus was not a true species, but the by-product of Potyviridae devouring the tulip from the inside, consuming its genetic code, and eventually killing the bulb and flower.  It lived no longer than the rich man who had the fortune to maintain its artificial existence.  Modern tulips are far stronger,  their colors symmetrical, and more resistant than the frail infected flowers that so entranced the “Nouveau riche” of 1637. And because of that, billions of people today enjoy tulips  Some day, perhaps, the nouveau riche of a new age will come to admit that like the Potyviridea infected tulip, an unregulated  “free market”, is merely a splash of color which distracts your attention from the parasite devouring capitalism from the inside - unrestricted uninhibited greed, leading to unrestricted, uninhibited stupidity.
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Friday, February 02, 2018

WORST OLYMPICS EVER


I contend that 1900 saw the most horrific games in modern Olympic history, surpassed only by the ancient standard for horror when King Oenomaus was killed in an Olympic chariot crack up , followed by the race winner Pelops throwing competing driver Myrtilus, off a cliff. 
What could have surpassed such gore and horror, committed in the name of the purity of athletic endeavor? Simply, the Paris games of 1900 when Leon de Lunden from Belgium murdered 21 birds to win the "Live Pigeon Shooting" event.
In order to make the sport even “less sporting” for the birds, the little sacrifices were released one at a time, and each human contestant was allowed to keep blasting away until he missed – twice. Sports historian Andrew Strunk has described the event as “…a rather unpleasant choice. Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping…”. In all 300 unlucky pigeons were sacrificed for the Olympic ideal. Just think of it; Dick Cheney could have been an Olympic athlete! If maiming competitors counted, he might have won gold.
Those Paris games of 1900 almost didn’t happen, since the French bureaucracy considered Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin (above), who was pushing the modern Olympic concept, as "too English”, what with his alien ideas about exercise producing a healthy mind and body. In fact it wasn’t until Coubertin resigned from the French Athletic Associations that other French sportsmen agreed to back his idea.
Unfortunately, with Coubertin out of the way, the French Government stepped in and things went down hill from there very quickly.  
First the government decided not to award medals for first place, but "valuable artwork" instead. It must have been quite a sight to see Msr. Aumoitte, winner of the “one ball” croquet championship, standing on the victory podium with a Monet hanging around his neck.
Then there was the marathon, where two American runners, Arthur Newton and Dick Grant, lead from the start. But when they reached the finish line together they discovered two heretofore unnoticed French runners, Michel Theato and Emile Champion, rested and waiting for them, and already wearing their winner’s artwork. The Americans pointed out that all the other contestants were splattered with mud while Theato and Champion looked like they had not even broken a sweat. But this being France, the American protests were worst than meaningless.
In fact, because they protested, the Americans were awarded sixth and seventh place, instead of third and fourth. Well, as Albert Camus noted in one of his lighter moments, "Pauvre de moi, du cognito tricherie, ergo se donner la mort”, or, “Please excuse me but I think you cheated so I am now going to commit suicide".  The International Olympic Committee took the American protests under consideration for twelve years, before finally rejecting them; proving once again the Jerry Lewis rule about sports rulings; timing is everything.
The Games of 1900 were the longest in Olympic History, running between 14 May and 28 October, and including such extravagant events as "Cannon Shooting", "Life Saving", "Kite Flying" (above)... 
..."Tug of War" (above)  and "Fire Fighting". 
The Croquet Tournament took 21 weeks to play out in front of a paying audience of exactly one, an elderly Englishman living in Nice, France.
Curiously the strongest protest in that the 1900 Olympics was between two Americans. The born-again Christian coaches from Syracuse University felt that competing on a Sunday would be a sin. So they talked their most athletically gifted student,  Myer Prinstein (above), the world record holder in the long jump, into going along with them. Myer was a nice Jewish boy, and he finally agreed to skip the Sunday competition out of “team spirit”.  Besides, his qualifying jump on Saturday – his actual Sabbath - had been so impressive he thought it would be good enough for the victory. And it almost was. Almost.
That Sunday afternoon (14 July, 1900), while Myer was soaking in the Parisian culture, his Catholic teammate Alvin Kraenzlein (above) broke his own sabbath and beat Myer’s long jump mark by exactly...one centimeter. That Monday, when Myer noticed that Alvin was carrying an extra Van Gough around, he started pounding on Alvin. And Alvin pounded right back. But, since they were both track stars with no upper body strength, nobody got seriously injured.
The nineteen hundred games also featured a controversial final in the “Underwater Swimming” competition. This may sound like a fancy name for drowning, but the drowners...
...er, swimmers, were actually awarded 2 points for each meter they swam under water and one point for each second they were able to remain submerged. But despite having stayed under for far longer than anyone else, Peder Lykkeberg of Denmark was disqualified because it was alleged that he “swam in circles”. Just read the rules, I say.
Also in the river (during this Olympics all the water sports were held in the river Seine, which was not nearly as clean a sewer then it is today), were the exciting finals of the “Swimming Obstacle Course”. 
This involved swimming, of course, but also pole climbing, more swimming, boat boarding and de-boarding, more swimming, followed by swimming under a boat, followed by more swimming.
The winner was Freddy Lane (above, center) from Australia,  in 2:38. Freddy climbed over the stern of the boat as opposed to clambering across the boat's wider middle. For his efforts Freddie received a 50 pound bronze horse. I presume the equestrian winners received statues of fish. Oddly enough neither of these water events were repeated at any future Olympics.
But the sport from the 1900 Paris games  I am most glad having missed was the "Equestrian Long Jump". Now, try to picture this: four spindly legs holding up a big muscular body, and with a human wearing riding garb and hat balanced on their back. Horse and rider gallop up to the jump line and then fling themselves into the air - not over anything, just up. As high as they can go.
The winner was a British stallion named “Extra Dry”(above), with a soaring leap of 20 feet and one quarter of an inch. Can you imagine the excitement that must have gripped the crowds, watching this equestrian suicidal display? A horse leaping twenty feet and one quarter of an inch; that’s just nine feet short of the current human long jump record. And we've only got two legs.
It makes me wonder if the X Games are really all that original.
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Thursday, February 01, 2018

CARPE RODENT, CARPE DIEM

I begin by asking why is this day different than all other days. That question,  in Jewish families, is the beginning of the Passover Seder. But if you have Celtic markers on your genomes, it is the beginning of Imm'ulk, the second quarter of the year. The first quarter is of course Sow'en – November through January – followed by Imm'ulk, then Bell'tan – May through July - and Loo'nassa – August through October. For some reason that is not the way they are currently spelled in English, but it is the way the ancient Irish and Welsh pronounced them - approximately. As you might have noticed these is a pagan calendar, the way the ancient Celts marked time, and Imm'ulk was the season the female sheep start to drip milk from their teats. And, no, that is not why one of them is called a 'Yeww”. .
Lactating sheep may seem like a rotten reason to have a holiday, unless you are heavily invested in lamb futures, or, if sheep or goat milk makes up a large part of your children's protein intake. The word Imm'ulk in old Irish means “in the belly”, as in baby lambs, or goat kids. And that brings up the Celtic lady of fertility, Bree-id – again, roughly the phonetic spelling.  The people of the pre-Christian British Isles, and particularly the center of the Bree-in cult around Kikdare, Ireland, felt the need to invoke a Goddess because the sheep drip seemed to always begin about halfway between the Winter Solstice (22 December and the Spring Equinox (21 March) every year with out fail.  And a thousand years ago that seemed a magical and mystical event.  Today we know its just a little nut of coincidence, the product of the Earth's 365 and ¼ day elliptical orbit around the sun and its 23 degree angle of tilt. Change any of those numbers and you get a different coincidence, and different holidays.
On her facebook page - if she had one - Bree-id would have listed her interests as biology, poetry and heavy metal. Believe it or not, that made her a pacifist among the otherwise violent and argumentative Celtic gods, thus her association with fertility and motherhood. When the Romans arrived they recorded her name as Brighid – which seems to be where the word “bride” came from - again fertility. The Christians faced a harder problem converting the Celts of Scotland, in part because they still had snakes. Their fertility spirit was Cailleach,  a shape shifter, AKA a hag. An ancient Scottish proverb says, “The serpent will come from the hole, On the brown Day of Bride, Though there should be three feet of snow, On the flat surface of the ground.” The Scots would not scan a good poet until Robert Burns in the 18th century.
The Scots told their children that on the first day of Imm'ulk the hag would go out to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And since she also controlled the weather, if Caileach made the sun shine that day, it meant she was trying to gather lots of wood, which meant winter was going to last another month and a half or so. But if it was cloudy on the first day of Imm'ulk, then Caileach was planning on an early spring and she would not need extra sunlight for her search. In other words, if the old hag saw her shadow, it would be six more weeks of winter. And if that sounds familiar to you, its because that is the straight line, the set up to a joke retold year after year. Allow me to explain:
The Christians later co-opted the Irish goddess as Saint Brighid, spinning the story that she was the mother of St. Patrick, who drove the snakes out of Ireland. They just made that up of course, and later dropped her as a saint, but then they also made up the part about the snakes and Saint Patrick too. But because the Romans recruited both Irish and Scottish Celt's as soldiers and used them on the Rhine River frontier, the blended legends of Brigid and Caileach became embedded in Germany. And because their German ancestors later became coal miners, and because the miners' ancestors later moved to America, drawn by jobs in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, where, for some reason, the Germans were called “Dutchmen”, that is how Irish ewes dripping milk from their teats, and an ugly old Scottish woman scrounging for firewood, combined to produce a local German immigrant festival celebrating the largest rodent in North America – Ground Hog Day.
See, a ground hog is a rodent, but its not a rat. They are much closer to a squirrel in need of weight watchers. And, without the expressive tails. This 4 to 9 pound animal, is actually a marmot. There are marmots living among the rocks and mountains of South Africa, and the Middle East, and central Europe, and along the foothills of the Himalayas. The ones living in North America are actually some of the smallest marmots anywhere, in part because living on flat ground, they are surrounded by foxes, wolves, coyotes, bears and hawks and eagles – all of whom find groundhogs very tasty. On the treeless great plains, they evolved into prairie dogs. And back east, they became groundhogs – grass eaters all. Look at it this way; if God were a rodent, cows would look more like ground hogs.
This plump, furry, generally irritated little beast is known by a number of nom-de-rodents. They sequel when injured and whistle to warn their mates (Ground hogs and Whistle-pigs), and the native Americans called them “wuchak” (woodchucks). They hibernate over winter below the frost line, emerging from their extensive Chateau marmots only in the spring. And since they don't have calendars, they respond to changing temperatures. When their dens warm up, they wake up and go looking for something green to eat. Any brief respite in winter like, say, around the end of January or early February, might draw some of the hungrier ground hogs to look for take out.  If it is an early spring, they get a jump on their fellows at early mating. If not, if its a normal or late spring, they become fuel, keeping hungry predators alive until real spring finally shows up - thus proving that individuality is an adaptation for the survival of the species, just not necessarily the species your in.
As far back as 1841 a local storekeeper in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania named James Morris had noted in his diary, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd... The day on which , according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as weather is to be moderate.” Again, that's the set up. The guy who delivered the punch line we are seeking was a local funny boy, a bachelor with a quick wit and the good German name of Clymer H. Freas. Clymer had been raised by his older brother, and after graduating from a local collage, he got a job working at the Punxsutawney Spirit, the only newspaper the town of Punxsutawney has ever had.
For decades, Punxsutawney,  halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers, had been a local center of the first great American pastime – guns, beer and shooting things. In this case the “things” were ground hogs, and the beer was referred to as “ground hog punch”. And after shooting the whistle pigs, the celebrants then barbecued and ate them. Surprisingly, spending a cold morning killing a large rodent did not catch on with the Pennsylvania womenfolk, but then I suspect they were not invited. But after the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad began regular service into town in 1883, lots of men from Pittsburgh began to journey the ninety miles to tramp through the woods around Punxsutawney, blasting away at the large non-aquatic beavers, while getting blasted themselves. The town, evidently, needed the attraction, since in the language of the Delaware Indians, Puixsutawney actually means “Town of mosquitoes”.
Young Clymer evidently did not at first participate in these festivities, because in February of 1886, he first mentioned Ground hog Day in the “Spirit” by merely noting, “up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen his shadow."   However, next year the 22 year old Clymer was invited to his first ground hog soiree at the “hunting lodge” up on Gobbler's Knob, about a mile southeast of town. He had so much fun that two years later he was one of the founding fathers of the Groundhog Club, elected Secretary and poet laureate.
As poet he waxed lyrical about the 1907 GHD; “Promptly at 12:22 O'Clock...a rift was riven in the overhanging clouds and B're Groundhog sallied forth, casting a shadow which shot through a shimmering sheen and sent a shaft of effervescent and effulgent rays...”. Clymer went into more depth describing the speeches given later at the barbecue as “eulogizing the flesh of the only Simon-pure vegetarian on this planet, and each, under the subtle influence of partaken woodchuck and assimilated punch, grew eloquent and combed the earth sea and sky with metaphor and simile, couched in the most beautiful phraseology.” That particular celebration continued past one in the morning. Not a bad punchline.
However the ladies and children must have complained, because in 1909, they held what Clymer described as a “Circumgyratory Pageant of the Astrologers, Horocopists, Magicians, Soothsayers and meteorological Attaches”, also known as a parade. It had floats representing the four seasons and because you would have be drunk to stand outside in the dead of winter, they held it in August, and called it “Old Home Week”. But because there was a lot less drinking, and no groundhogs to justify the thing, the parade never caught on.
By now Clymer was editor of the paper, and the groundhog day celebrations and his joke had begun filling hotel rooms and restaurants. It was now a serious matter, and as editor Clymer was expected to be a civic booster. It was around now that the groundhog became the town's official symbol, and Clymer named him “Punxsutawney Phil,  Seer of Seers,  Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire.” They stopped shooting the rodents (officially), and concentrated on the ridicules legend. But they would have to continue without their poet. In the teens, Bachelor Clymer married Miss Moss Rose Wall. And after that, as a man with responsibilities, he decided to put his skills for hyperbole to a job with more financial remuneration than that offered to a newspaperman and poet laureate. He abandoned Puxsutawney and its mid-winter freezing rodent festival, and moved to balmy Florida where he switched to selling swampland around Tampa. He died there in 1942.
But his work was done. The punch line for the joke had been written down, the dirty words removed, the telling civilized so as to render the joke acceptable to women and children. It didn't happen overnight, of course. In 1920, the first year of prohibition, Phil supposedly threatened not to offer another prediction for 60 weeks, unless he was given a drink. He was not, but he went right on predicting. A mere 37% accuracy rate (not much better than sheer chance) has so far failed to kill the joke, but it  now barely elicits a chuckle, but that will not kill it either. Besides, how much chuckle would a woodchuck chuckle, if a woodchuck could chuckle a chuck? That doesn't seem to matter, either.
The little town never had more than 10,000 residents, and after the mines closed, today it has barely 6,000. Still it is held together by a rodent. In the gift shop down at 102 West Mahoning Street, they sell “Gobbler's Knob Hot Chocolate Mix”, which you can drink from your “Amazink Shadow Mug”, featuring a “Punxsy Phil” and his shadow, which disappears when hot water fills the mug You can also buy Punxsy Phil Mardi Gras beads, and "Punxsutawney Phil in a Can." (above). Pull the pop top and a little plush Phil pops out, holding one of two signs predicting 6 more weeks of winter or not. You even buy a bag of Ground Hog Poop - actually its malted milk balls, but the kids love it.
You can head south on Highway 36, turn right on Woodlawn Avenue for about a mile to the crest of the hill, to Gobblers Knob. If you go there any day of the year other than Groundhog day you will likely find it abandoned, a empty stage set. The star resides year round downtown, in Barlay Square, at the memorial library, in his newly labeled Phil's Den, complete with below ground level window viewing. Human beings traveling hundreds, perhaps thousands,  of miles just  to see a marmot sleep -that is the real joke. And that is funny. Everybody should laugh at themselves for doing it at least once.
Do Ground hogs laugh, I wonder?  I doubt it. Otherwise, they would be getting a much large share of this largess, than they are.  Just remember. They are cute. But they bite. They always bite.
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