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Saturday, February 17, 2018

GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT

I think to truly understand the programmer's axiom, “garbage in, garbage out”, you have to go back before computers, back to 1933, when two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett, were trying to do two things at the same time - get rich inventing a substitute for rubber, and avoid blowing up their lab. See, natural rubber comes from ParĂ¡ rubber trees grown in hot , humid places like Malaysia, Vietnam and Burma, which are also places that grow malaria infested mosquitoes, and which tended to be politically unstable. Lots of chemists were looking to make a molecule that would act like rubber but avoid the bugs and the angry locals. But it was dangerous and expensive work
Dangerous because Gibson and Fawcett were working with a hydrocarbon, meaning it contained combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen makes all hydrocarbons flammable, and this particular one, ethylene, or C2H4, and made from either alcohol or petroleum, and thus is more flammable than most. But Gibson and Fawcett figured if they heated the ethylene in a pressure cooker, that would break the bonds binding the ethylene atoms together, and when they cooled they would recombine in a way that would imitate rubber. Most of the time, the experiments ended with an explosion, which is why it was expensive. But in 1933, somehow they avoided the boom and got, instead, what looked like a lump of coffee colored sugar. So they tried it again, and this time got nothing – no explosion and no “lump”. Now they were confused.. They wanted to try it a third time, but the Imperial Chemical Company, which employed them, decided it was too expensive, and even if it did work, it would never show a profit until long after the current executives had retired. So they told Gibson and Fawcett to move on.
Well, Fawcett figured he was being cheated out of a Nobel Prize, and in 1935, this ambitious, bitter chemist started telling anybody who would listen what he and Gibson had done. Two other ICC chemists, Michael Perrin and John Paton, decided to duplicate the experiment, and got the same lump. But in checking their data, Perin and Paton discovered their pressure cooker had leaked, which is what must have happened to Fawcett and Gibson. When they fixed the leak, Perrin and Paton got no “lump”. So, figuring the missing element was the oxygen in the air that had leaked in, they added a drop of almond oil, or benzaldehyde, which has seven carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms and a single oxygen atom. They heated up the ethylene and benzalheyde in the pressure cooker and they got the “lump”. They could now make artificial rubber anytime they wanted. They called their artificial rubber polyethylene, or PE for short.
Now, PE is better than rubber because it is a thermoplastic polymer, meaning it is a chain of chemically stable molecules, each exactly like the others, like rubber, but when PE is re-heated under normal pressure, it can be easily injected or extruded into molds. The first idea ICC had was to use PE to insulate underwater telegraph cables. They had been using the sap drained from Gutta-percha trees, native to northern Australia and many of the same unpleasant places (for Englishmen) that rubber came from. Now they had a way to avoid those places. So they built a plant on Wallerscote Island in the middle of the Weaver River, just upstream from the Liverpool docks. They planned to produce 100 tons of PE a year. But on the day the Wallerstcote plant opened, September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War Two.  And nobody could think of anything to do with PE to aide the war effort, so they did nothing with it.  Flash forward five years.
Britain won the Second World War, but they went $50 billion in debt doing it – the equivalent of $500 billion today. To repay that debt British corporations held industrial yard sales, including selling the formula for polyethylene (above) to the American company Dow Chemical. And this is where Harry Wasylyk comes into our story. He was born on the Canadian prairies of Manitoba to Ukrainian immigrants, and was just as ambitious as Eric Fawcettt. After the war Harry was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and he knew the Winnipeg General Hospital was facing a big problem. Their admissions had increased by 50% in the previous ten years, and the post war baby boom was promising even bigger growth in the near future. What were they going to do with their swelling medical wastes?. It was an increasingly important question, and an old one.
It is an evolutionary artifact that before humans came down from the trees, our thinking was strictly “out of sight out of mind”. Thanks to gravity, anything we dropped, from our hands or our butts, magically disappeared. And we have often suffered from this elevated view. In 1887, when the Prefect of Paris tried to require all citizens to use “sanitary” metal garbage cans, libertarian landlords justified blocking the measure not because of the expense, but - so they said - because their “right” to throw garbage in the street was being infringed. The argument that living surrounded by garbage was unhealthy did not impress this early Tea Party logic. As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his 1993 book “Voltair's Bastards”, “The free market opposed sanitation. The rich opposed it...That is why it took a century to finish what could have been done in ten years” In short, public hygiene remained stubbornly “out of sight”.
Six years after Parisians had rejected metal garbage cans, the Boston Sanitary Commission reported, “The means resorted to by a large number of citizens to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying for its collection would be very amusing were it not such a menace to public health. Some burn it, while others wrap it up in paper and carry it on their way to work and drop it when unobserved, or throw it into vacant lots or into the river.” About the same time a visitor described New York City as a “nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.” City dumps were established to allow rag and bone men to simplify their jobs, and usually next to pig farms (below), as 75 pigs were able to dispose of a ton of garbage a day. None of this, of course, solved the problem of disease spreading flies, cockroaches, and mammals, all drawn to the aroma of rotting garbage produced by an average human household.
Only because of high insurance rates were the thousands of small smokey fires in the ubiquitous backyard trash incinerators, finally extinguished And as living space in cites shrank, so did room for compost kitchen waste. By the middle of the twentieth century, in most of the first world, trash and garbage were now lumped together and left at the curb to be removed by the modern day rag and bone men - now called garbage men. Anyone who thought about public health, like the directors of the Winnipeg General Hospital, expected the post World War II population boom would lead to an explosion of plagues, brought on by garbage spilling out on the streets.
And that was where Harry Wasylyk came in. In 1949, in his Winnipeg kitchen, Harry melted pellets of polyethylene. He chose PE because it was cheap, available in large quantities, easy to work with, water proof and air tight. He squeezed it between rollers into thin twin sheets, cut and sealed it into bags, and in a stroke produced the world's first plastic garbage bag. The directors of Winnipeg General saw it as the hygienic solution to their growing waste problem, and made garbage easy and safer to handle. The hospital eagerly signed a contract. By 1951 Henry Wasylyk had leased a warehouse, installed equipment, and was mass producing garbage bags for Winnipeg General, and a few other local industrial customers.
At about the same time, the Union Carbide PE plant in Montreal, Quebec, had a back log of pellets.
Larry Hanson, at the UC facility in Lindsay, Ontario, about 60 northwest of Toronto, was assigned to find something profitable to do with them. He quickly hit upon the same idea of making garbage bags, and they proved so popular with the janitorial staff, that management adopted the idea. Doing patent research Dow found out about Harry a thousand miles to the west, in far off Manitoba, and decided to buy his factory and his process. In the end, the patent for the plastic garbage bag is held jointly by two Canadians, Harry and Larry.
Every year humans produce 4 to 5 trillion polyethylene bags, mostly the flimsy supermarket shopping bags. And every year those discarded bags kill a billion seabirds, reptiles and sea mammals, making them one of the most deadly materials in the 4 billion year history of our planet. Less than 1% of 380 billion PE bags discarded each year in the United States are properly recycled. The obvious answer would be to ban the production of all PE bags. But, of course no problem is that simple
According to a 2011 study by the British Environmental Protection agency, the average cotton tote bag has a life span of 52 trips to and from the supermarket, and replaces less than 2% of the “fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity” of 350 PE bags. And PE bags themselves make up less than 1% of American landfills. What fills the landfills, is what's in the bags. Concern about the environmental impact of plastic garbage bags is a case of not being able to see the garbage for the garbage bags. They solved a problem, but not THE problem. As Beth Terry writes in her “My Plastic Free Life” web page ““The fact is, there is no magically perfect way to dispose of garbage since the whole concept of garbage itself is not Eco-friendly. The best option is to try and reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.”
Less garbage, fewer garbage bags. But the constant remains – garbage
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Friday, February 16, 2018

VICKSBURG Chapter Fifty-One

It was boys from Madison who drew the first shots from the rebel cavalry at about 6:45am on that Saturday, 16 May, 1863, about 10 miles northwest of Raymond on the Edward's Depot Road. Under the able direction of 22 year old lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel William Freeman Vilas, Companies “A”, “D” and “I” of the Wisconsin 23rd Infantry (above) were deployed as skirmishers, and they slowly drove the rebel cavalry northward up the road.
The 23rd was the leading regiment of 31 year old Brigadier General Stephen Gano Burbridge's 1st Battalion, within the 10th Division, under the irascible professional, 47 year old Brigadier General Alexander Jackson Smith. Behind Smith's division on this same road was the 2nd Division of 42 year old politically connected Major General Francis Preston Blair, junior. His division, under Sherman's XVIIth Corps, had just escorted 200 wagons of ammunition to Grant's army. But now they were marching under General McClernand's orders, expecting to meet with the Army of Mississippi sometime today.
Confederate Major General William Wing Loring's division was just up that road, alerted now and preparing a reception for the Yankee's. But abruptly shortly after 7:30am, the sound of cannon fire from the north made obvious the central flaw in Loring's plan, which Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton (above) had adopted. 
The only bridge over Baker's Creek was behind the rebel army's left flank. And with the ford on the Raymond road still flooded, that bridge was Pemberton's only connection to Edward's Depot and his supply line back to Vicksburg. So while trying to cut Grant's supply line, Pemberton had uncovered his own. In a near panic, Pemberton ordered Loring to pull his men back 2 miles to Champion Hill, dig in and hold his ground.
Up north, where the the Ratliff Road met the Clinton road, atop the 75 foot high Champion Hill, the “slender dark-bearded” 29 year old Brigadier General Stephen Dill Lee (above) was methodically getting his Alabama battalion organized for the day's march. He was not expecting trouble, but then, about 7:30am, a company of the 20th Alabama regiment on the Clinton Road began exchanging gunfire with an advancing Yankee regiment. The shooting got hot for a time, and when the Yankees kept showing up in disturbing numbers Lee had to react quickly. He formed his men into an angle, facing Yankees to the north and east.
In one regard the South Carolinian was responsible for this war. As an 1856 graduate of West Point, Captain Stephen Lee had delivered the ultimatum to Fort Sumter in April of 1860. When the fort's commander, Major Anderson, pointed out he had rations for only 3 days, making any shooting or loss of life unnecessary, Lee had rejected the peace offer out of hand. He replied, “(General) Beauregard will open fire on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." Would the north have reacted with such unity, if the rebellion had begun with a quiet surrender and not a bombardment? Thanks to Stephen Lee, we will never know. 
As a cavalryman in 1862 Stephen had fought at Seven Pines, where General Johnston was wounded. As a Colonel of artillery, he had commanded Confederate guns at Antietam Creek that September, and maybe saved the Army of Northern Virginia. At Chickasaw Bluffs, in January of 1863, at the head of a full division, he had repulsed Sherman's corps, maybe saving Vicksburg. And now atop Champion Hill, reduced again to a brigade commander, Lee saw the almost imperceptible narrow crest that formed an angle along the hilltop as the key to the position.
Grant's hammer was about to fall on Pemberton's army at the most crucial spot at the precise moment it could destroy the rebel army. In addition to the 11,000 blue coats approaching on the Raymond Road, 2 more Yankee divisions were heading toward Champion Hill on the Clinton Road – the 9th Division , under 40 year old Prussian born revolutionary Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus, followed by the 14th Division of 33 year old New Yorker, Brigadier General Eugene Asa Carr – both members of 51 year old Major General John Alexander McClernand's XIII Corps.
And to the north, on the Bolton road, were 3 divisions - the 12th Division of 42 year old Brigadier General Alvin Peterson Hovey, - XIII Corps - the 3rd Division of 37 year old John Alexander Logan, and the 7th Division of 33 year old Hoosier Marcelles Monroe Crocker, both from the XVII Corps under 34 year old Major General Birdseye McPherson. But McClernand was the senior officer present, and about 9:00am when General Hovey asked for permission to launch an assault, McClernand postponed the decision until General Grant had arrived. Meanwhile he ordered Logan's division to extend Hovey's bent line line toward Baker's Creek.
As Hovey's infantry twisted opposent the ridge atop Champion Hill, the 168 men of the 16th Ohio Volunteer Light Battery pulled off north of the the Champion farm house, From here they had a clear view of the Confederates atop the hill.
These Buckeyes had been organized by 37 year old Springfield, Ohio lawyer, Captain James Anderson Mitchel. Its six 6 pound brass rifled cannon were serviced by, among others, the captain's brothers and cousins– 36 year old Lieutenant Isaac Newton Mitchel, 31 year old Sergeant “Jim” H. Mitchel, 25 year old Sergeant William Mitchel, 22 year old Corporal Isaa Mitchel, 21 year old Corporal Pomeroy Mitchel, and 32 year old Private Milton Mitchel.
Corporal Pomeroy Mitchel (above) would write years later, “A skirmish line was thrown out to feel (the rebel) position. Logan's Division marched past and filed to the right in an open field or valley while the enemy was in the woods facing them....” Hovey's men were facing west and south.
Up on the bare hilltop, division commander, Major General Carter Stevenson (above), edged Lee's Alabama brigade to the left - replacing it on the Clinton/Ratcliff crossroads with the larger 1st Brigade of Brigadier General Seth Barton – the 34th, 31st and 39th Georgia regiments. The defense of this vital position was also supported by the sole 2 remaining cannon of the Botetourt Artillery – the Virginians badly mangled at Port Gibson back on 1 May – and the 8 guns crewed by Alabamians, under 36 year old Captain James Flemming Waddell.
Stevenson's 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier General Alfred Cumming, extended Lee's line west along the crest, facing north. Stevenson held his 4th brigade under Colonel Alexander Reynolds in reserve, and sent the supply wagons scrambling back across the Baker's Creek bridge to safety. All this took time to establish, but luckily the Yankees seemed in no hurry.
It was not until 10:00am that Grant  (above) and McPherson finally arrived on the field. Grant took over the Champion house as his headquarters, sending Matilda and her 4 children fleeing for Bolton. Angry at the delay, Grant reluctantly waited until Logan's men were deployed out on his left flank, and then, about 10:30am, ordered the assault against the entire rebel line.
Wrote the witness Corporal Pomeroy Mitchel, “The infantry of our brigade went forward on both sides of the road. At the brow of the hill there was a battery which was to be taken first of all. (37 year old hat maker Brigadier General George Francis) McGinnis ordered one section of our battery (2 guns) to advance and prepare for action. After advancing to the (base) of the Hill we halted, while the 49th Indiana and 29th Wisconsin were creeping up the hill to capture the battery...For the last rush, they waited till all the (enemy) guns had fired.” 
The charge, when it came , was short - about 75 yards -  and bloody.  Recalled 23 year old Lieutenant Thomas Wise Durham, of the 11th Indiana, “We were stabbing with bayonets, clubbing with guns, officers shooting with revolvers and slashing and thrusting with swords.” After several long violent  minutes the rebel line broke, and the Confederates fell back, seeking shelter in a ravine on the southern slope, cut by Austin Creek,  But other Federal regiments flanked the ravine, and fired volley after volley into the ravine until, said Durham,, They were really piled on top of each other,” Austin Creek, he said, ran red. By 11:00am, the Yankees had captured half a dozen rebel cannon and controlled the vital road junction. Grant had just cut off two thirds of the Pemberton's small army.
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Thursday, February 15, 2018

MAN OF MYSTERY

I shall now relate, as best I can, the true story of the legendary Nicolas Flamel. He may not be the man you expect him to be, the man from the pages of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. But then I’m willing to bet that you, dear reader, are probably not the person he expected you to be, either.
Nicolas was born about 1335 in village of Pontoise ("bridge on the Oise"), just 17 miles north-northwest of Paris, along the old Roman Road. The village still retained the flavor of a border town, balanced as it was between the "Ile-de-France", where the King of France ruled, and "The Vexin", where feudal lords held sway. They were nominally vassals to the King. But sometimes the King in question was French and sometimes he was English.
It was a very bad time to be growing up French. In the first place the Hundred’s Year War had just begun and was proving so popular among the nobility that it seemed certain to be held over for a long run. Its very name implied optimism. The French ruler, Phillip VI, was a competent King, as far as inbred nobility goes. Unfortunately he was surrounded by a lot of inbred noble idiots. At the battle of Crecy in August of 1346, 35,000 disorganized yet haughty French noblemen charged uphill at 12,000 Englishmen, killing maybe 300 of the sausage eaters, while losing 13,000 of their own blue-bloods. And if that wasn’t bad enough, in 1349 the Black Death descended upon Paris. That year they were burying 800 people a day, peasants and nobility and even clergy. By the time the little bug Yersinia pestis had moved on, half of France had been buried.
In this world of doom and death it would have been no surprise that young Nicolas studied for the priesthood. There were only two ways to get close to God in the Middle Ages, and only one that did not require dying first. I suspect that Nicolas was trained by priests because we know for a fact he could read and write. Those skills in the 14th Century were still restricted by law to members of the church or to the nobility. And most of the French nobility were, quite frankly, not that bright. (See Battle of Crecy, above)
It is also rumored that young Nicolas received a small inheritance. I admit that is a possibility. It is also possible that he stole the money. What we know is that about 1350 he arrived in Paris. There, Nicolas used his precious funds to buy paper and ink and set himself up in business on the street near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherue, (the butcher), as a scribe.
The church was at the center of the Paris market, Les Halles, the “stomach of Paris”. It was also the financial core of the metropolis. And Nicolas, surrounded by butchers, bakers and candlestick makers and buyers of everything from rare silks to local farmers’ produce, wrote and copied letters for a fee. And that made him a Middle Ages high tech worker, a web site designer 700 years before there was a web.
Any merchant wishing to communicate with his clients or suppliers or debtors outside of Paris would pause at the cathedral the same way later generations would visit a telegraph office or an internet cafe. And in time Nicolas moved from being a simple scribe into the greatest and most dangerous profession an ambitious young Christian in 14th century Europe could aspire to; banker.
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“Nicolas Flamel”, she whispered dramatically, “is the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
This didn’t have quite the effect she’d expected.
“The what?” said Harry and Ron.
“Oh, honestly, don’t you read? Look – read that, there.”
"The ancient study of Alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.”
There have also been many reports of the Sorcerer’s Stone over the centuries, but the only stone currently in existence belongs to Mr. Nicolas Flamel, who celebrated his six hundredth and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).”
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. pp 219-220. J.K. Rowling. Scholastic, Inc. 1997)
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Nicolas’ entry into banking would have been a natural evolution. When writing a dunning letter for a merchant, or to establish a business agreement, Nicolas would offer to forgo his usual fee in exchange for a percentage of the payment or the profit. In business today this is called a “finders fee”. If the debt was not repaid or the deal not made Nicolas was out just his paper and ink. But by insisting in the letter that any payment be sent to him rather than directly to the illiterate merchant, Nicolas insured that his percentage – often upwards of 50% - was paid before the merchant received so much as a sou.
But anything that smacked of interest charges was illegal. It was illegal because making it so solved a major dilemma for the Christian Church. On the one hand Jesus Christ was on the record as saying some nasty things about rich people. (“Again I say to you that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” Gospel of St. Mark, 12:25.) On the other hand the Christian Church was incredibly wealthy while the peasants were incredibly poor. The Popes in particular liked to wear nice things. In order to avoid the awkwardness of priests extolling selflessness while eating off gold and silver plate, it was decreed that by a “rich man” Jesus was not in fact referring to powerful landowners like Bishops and Dukes. Profit from sweat was godly. Thus being a serf was God like. Even the indirect profit of rent was, thank God, godly. Profit from non-sweat, like, say, interest, was un-godly. It was a fine line but the church happily walked it for seventeen hundred years.
As recently as 1311 Pope Clement V had declared that charging interest on a loan was heresy for a Christian, and punishable by death at the stake. And they really did it. Not as often as the movies might want you to believe, but often enough to serve as a warning to anybody who got on the bad side of the Pope, like say the Knights Temple, or the Huguenots, or the Jews.
It was the function of a Jew in medieval Europe to be the Christian equivalent of a Hindu untouchable. In fact the followers of the Hebrew God were restricted from doing any other business with gentiles except money lending. This left the ambitious Red Sea Pedestrian with little choice as to a career. And this had the added appeal that every time the French nobility found their debts piling up they simply burned a few Jews, forced a few to convert, expelled the rest from the country and seized their property, including their accounting books, as did the misnamed “Phillip the Fair” of France did in 1306. Charles VI if Franch did again in 1394.
In between these persecutions the crown quietly re-admitted the Jews because even medieval economies could not function without bankers. But the persecutions could break out again at anytime, with the slaughter of innocents, whose only crime was that they were easy scapegoats and were profiting doing something the Christian church profited from but disapproved of, at least publicly.
So it was easy for Flamel to keep his business arraignments secret since the merchants involved were Nicolas’ co-conspirators and equally as guilty as Nicolas, in the eyes of the church. As the profits began to roll in Nicolas was able to rent space for a stall that rested against the very columns of the front of the Cathedral la Boucherue.
Now that he had a roof over his head and some privacy when he did business, Nicolas’s profits increased. And Nicolas now had the capital to offer direct loans to tide customers over while they were waiting for their debts to be repaid; more profit for Nicolas, and more risk. He needed a cover story to explain where his growing wealth was coming from.  And it could not be from interest.
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“I, Nicholas Flamel, a scrivener of Paris, in the year 1414, in the reign of our gracious Prince Charles the VIth, whom God preserve; and after the death of my faithful partner Perenelle, am seized with a desire and a delight, in remembrance of her, and in your behalf, dear nephew, to write out the whole majesty of the secret of the Powder of Projection, or the Philosophical Tincture,…”.
The Testament of Nicolas Flamel
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The testament of Nicolas Flamel continues for some 3,000 words, and not one word of it was actually written by Nicolas Flamel, or anybody who knew him. He had no brother or sister that we know of, so he had no nephew. And modern researchers have noticed in the testament the use of words and phrases that were not in use in 14th or even 15th century France.
Nobody even heard of the testament until the 18th century, which is when it was probably written and sold several hundred times over for a tidy profit to those who wanted to believe they were buying the secret of unlimited wealth and life. There are always such people about, ask any Wall Street guru or the merchants of Amsterdam in the 15th century who invested their fortunes in Tulip bulbs. But there is an underlying truth to the so called Flamel testament - with emphases on the lying part.
Nicolas chose as a cover story, alchemy, from the Arabic, meaning “Art of Transformation”. The modern English translation is “con man”, from the criminal code meaning the art of stealing. Alchemy was a shell game, a bunk, a fraud, a card trick where the colored liquids and the incantations and the clouds of smoky incense performed the same function which the modern day scantly clad magician’s assistant performs. What would you rather look at, an egg turning into a dove, or a half dressed woman with a really great pair of legs? Let me rephrase that question; which will you look at? One defies the laws of natures, but the other is natural law. Millions of magicians have built their careers on this equation. You can take that to the bank; they did. And do.
There is no shortage of examples of Alchemist proven to be frauds. Edward Kelly lost his ears in Lancaster, England, for forging title deeds. Only then did he delve into alchemy. He claimed to have learned how to transmute common metals into gold. And yet, somehow, he never got rich from it. He wrote his most famous book, “The Stone of the Philosophers” during one of his jail terms. Biographer Ralph Sargent said Kelly’s career only “…differs from that of an ordinary mountebank by the audacity of his claims and the magnitude of his success.” Kelly’s success ended in 1596 during a prison escape when the bed sheet rope he had knotted together failed to support his rather substantial weight.
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Peter; (to Rafe)
“Alchemy is a secret science. None almost can understand the language of it and it has as many terms impossible to be uttered…If thou have any gold to work on, (my master’s) art is then made for you. For with one pound of gold, he will go near to transmuting it into ten acres of ground….But here comes my Master.
(Enter the Alchemist)
Rafe: (disbelieving)
This is a begger.
Peter:
No. Such cunning men must disguise themselves as though there were nothing in them. For otherwise they shall be compelled to work for Princes, and so be constrained to betray their secrets
“Gallathea” 1592 - John Lyly.
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One more thing: the modern myths about alchemy being a predecessor for chemistry are “merde”, which is modern French for “I don’t think so”, spoken in a bratty voice, slowly, and with thick sarcasm. In fact alchemy is to chemistry what UFO’s are to rocket science. Most rational people in the middle ages, who actually knew real alchemists, knew they were frauds and said so. So why would anybody want to be associated with alchemy?
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“Who in his dusty workshop bending, with proved adepts in company, made, from his recipes unending, opposing substances agree…There was a lion red…a wooer daring, within the Lilly’s tepid bath espoused. And both, tormented then by flame unsparing, by terms in either bridal chamber housed, if then appeared, with colors splendid, the young queen in her crystal shell, This was the medicine – the patient’s woes soon ended, and none demanded – who got well.”
“The Cannon’s Yoeman’s Tale. Canturbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer. 1400
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About 1370 Nicolas married the widow Perenelle. She offered Nicolas emotional comfort and I certainly hope some physical comfort as well – for the both of them. She also probably provided the funds to build the new home they constructed on the Rue des Escrivains. (Hey, if George Washington could marry into Mount Vernon, then Nicolas Flamel could marry into the street of 'fakes'.) They lived frugally in order not to attract attention to Nicolas' business, and because they were both set in their ways and that is the way they had always lived - call it the Silas Marner syndrome. In 1407 Nicolas built a shop at 51 rue de Montmorency (now a restaurant) where he employed other scribes and artists to create illuminated manuscripts. The mafia would call this kind of business a front, or a money laundering scheme. And the most prominently displayed and the best selling books Nicolas sold were, no doubt, the copies of ancient texts on alchemy. Call it the 14th century self help market.
Remember; it was far safer in medieval France to be rumored a magician than to be known as a banker. But is it more logical to believe that Nicolas Flamel turned lead into gold and discovered something which still eludes science, or to believe that Nicolas Flamel knew how to add and subtract the vig and figure the percentages of interest rates? Well, we know which option is the more romantic to read about.

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“It is certain that he had been seen often walking along the Rue des Lombards, and furtively entering a small house at the corner of the Rue des Ecrivains and the Rue de Marivault. It was the house built by Nicolas Flamel, in which he died about 1407, and which, unoccupied ever since, was beginning to fall into ruins, so greatly had the hermetics and alchemists of all countries worn away its walls merely by scratching their names upon them…It was supposed that Flamel had buried the philosophers stone in these cellars, and for two centuries alchemists from Magistri to Father Pacificque, never ceased to worry the soil, until the house, so mercilessly ransacked and turned inside out ended up crumbling into dust under their feet.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Page 134. Victor Hugo. Carey, Lea and Blanchard. 1834.
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On the second and the third floors of Flamel’s bookshop, now the oldest house in Paris, Nicolas sheltered the poor, as he did in several other houses he owned or rented in Paris. But if Nicolas were not a money lender and a secret banker, what fueled all his generosity? If it came from turning lead into gold, why did it ever stop? Have we humans gotten greedier in the last 700 years? I don’t believe we have. If lead can be transmuted into gold, and if Citibank’s International group could lose $20 billion in 2008 and then in 2009 the VP in charge could still expect a $5 million bonus for a job well done, why is gold not as common as lead? The answer screams for your attention.
The visits by Jews and the nobility to Flamel’s humble shop, usually made after dark, were all cloacked in the legends of alchemy. Even a trip Nicolas made to southern France (then under English control) to collect debts fit into the cover story. It was claimed Nicolas had traveled to Spain to learn more about magic from Muslim mystics. But the truth was the faith of Mohammad executed its alchemists just as often as the Catholic Church, and for the same reason; most of the practitioners were frauds and con men.
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True, Sir. The two favorite studies of my youth were botany and mineralogy. I have regretted I were not a man, that I might have been a Flamel, a Fontana or Cabanas” Page 523. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas. Oxford World Classics. 1846
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During his lifetime Nicolas donated large sums to la Boucherue cathedral, and he endowed seven churches, fourteen hospitals and three chapels. The church was no more likely to ask questions about the source of Nicolas’ generosity than a modern politician is prone to inquire about the source of a campaign donation. But sooner or later all donations, like all lives, must be spent. Perenelle died sometime around 1410. Nicolas himself died in 1418. They were both buried in the cemetery “…of the innocents” in Paris.
Nicolas left his substantial fortune to the Catholic Church, which put his name and image on the hospitals and the churches they built with his money. And that is how his name and the mystery of his wealth has survived for 500 years; proof positive that bankers, too, have hearts; at least as long as they are afraid of being burnt at the stake. Remove that threat and they are just as selfish as the rest of us.  And a lot more powerful.
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