Archive for the ‘Food Stuff’ Category

Identity and Progressive Agenda 2016 Notes

Monday, December 26th, 2016


Testing the limits of tolerance in the post Coup Turkey.
Hundreds of Turks made a rare protest for LGBT rights in Istanbul Sunday after the murder of Turkish transgender icon Hande Kader, whose body was found burned in a forest earlier this month. Photo by Hande Kader/Facebook
From UPI article August 22, 2016

I have been fortunate this year. I managed to have surrounded myself with a family that is relatively loyal if somewhat dysfunctional, and my constant search for novelty in an ongoing campaign to give meaning to an otherwise seemingly meaningless existence, has got me in and out of a couple of problematic situations this year. One was my attempt at a truly transsexual alliance which turned out to be something of a pipe dream. Ultimately in my view relationships cannot be based on transitory sexual appetites. Commercial careers, perhaps, but not strongly based family ties. Poly fidelity, has its moments but I am probably more of a poor mans patriarch in the polygamous biblical sense of the word, than a trail blazer on the frontiers of human relationships, although I certainly do try to do my part in the romantic belief in the eventual progress of humanity into a truly trans-sexual-racial heterogeneity. The fact that in the US the discourse over the nature of human sexuality has been diverted to a conversation on toiletry is a bit discouraging though. Struggle in the world continues as post modernist struggles over liberation in identity politics continue in the face of repression such as is evident in Turkey. Whether identity issues have distracted from bread and butter issues of class struggle, is something that is being hashed out in the light of the on going right wing reaction around the world. Trumpism can be seen in the light of Nazi attempts to overcome decadence identified with sexual transgression of rigid sexual norms as was brilliantly portrayed in the 1972 film Cabaret.


From:, distraction or battle for control of personal space?

The continued demise of my own personal sexual prowess has been paralleled by the increased ability to encounter and intercept the lives of younger souls aspiring to some kind of continuity in an unstable and chaotic post modern world in which institutions have become both increasingly omnipresent and yet unable to fulfill the somewhat futile goal of social stability. Capitalism doesn’t allow for social and interpersonal stability. It’s pressure to excel and exploit resources, of any and all kinds pinned to a monetary value, has eroded social solidarity to the extent that humans of the modern period have become a hodgepodge of flotsam in a sea of potential resources to be adapted and rejected as required by the mindlessly grinding efforts of the mega machine.


From: Political Cartoon from Summer 2016 when US presidential elections were still in progress. The Russian factor was already in play as was the betrayal of the independent left push represented by the Sanders campaign.

The need for resistance and the creation of an alternative agenda to corporate capitalism as crystallized in the Bernie Sanders campaign showed that like in the McGovern campaign of an earlier generation, that there is in the USA an ongoing desire on the part of the young and the progressive thinking people for change at a fundamental level. It also shows how much better the system has gotten at eliminating such a challenge with old fashioned dirty politics and fear mongering. The left, liberal, minority alliance was unable to beat the right largely due to the decampment of labor and the white working class generally as those hurt by the modern economy abandon their intellectual allies who have shown them little gain. for the demagoguery on the right.


Life’s little Ironies. From:

There needs to be a clear headed assessment of what we desire and how we wish to get where we want to go. Post Modernism although it has liberated many from the fetters of normative identity has muddied the waters in the struggle to unite humanity in a broad based movement to progressive evolution of the human condition. This has been enhanced by the severe disruption caused by modernism and its industrial megamachine over the last couple of centuries. People’s desire for community in the face of the disruptive and depersonalizing power of technological progress gives evidence of the lag between social evolution and our ability to manipulate the physical world around us. We are now just realizing that humanity has to come to terms with the balance between technology and the social mechanisms that allow this tail to wag the collective dog of humanity. Faced with the potential disruption of all life on the planet, humans need to create truly world wide networks of community that put technology firmly at heel and leash capitalism to the service of humanity or train the dog with some new socially progressive tricks.


From: BLM queer and trans people of color contingent, Sept. 26. Durham, NC, 2015.
The issue of identity will continue to be important but it must be in the context of ongoing progress or the right wing backlash will cause delays in progress for humanity and the planet as a whole.

Sanders Campaign, Apathetic Youth, and Grumpy Old Me.

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

From Bernie Sanders Presidential Candidate.

I almost never post here anymore. School, work and my granddaughter are eating up my time. But I thought I would take some of my homework time to make a couple of comments. Perhaps it was watching The Big Short that got me fired up, or the work doing get out the vote calling for the Bernie Sanders campaign today. Whatever the reason, I am writing some of my observations on the current scene around me.

Once I got the hang of the automated dial system, I did pretty good calling to get out the vote for Sanders. Mostly I skipped the script and got to the point. I hate it when people read from scripts and so I didn’t feel like subjecting anyone to my version of the same. More Sanders supporters answered than Hillary supporters, fewer Republicans than I expected and lots of no answers since it was Saturday evening. I found myself encouraging people to go to the caucuses or primaries, no matter who they supported. Interestingly there was only one outspoken Trump supporter in the batch and only one lady lectured me on the evils of socialism. America truly does seem more liberal, or at least more frustrated with the system than four years ago. I think the failure of the Obama administration to gain significant headway has broiled over into the public at large. The copays on Obama care are too high, the wages are still stagnant, and youth unemployment is way too high.

Having my stepdaughter living with me has made me very aware of the levels of youth unemployment, that being around the relatively privileged student population at the university hasn’t. She is out of work, all of her friends are out of work or have marginal Mc Jobs. The worst part is the total lack of interest in participation in the political process. They have bought into the radical critique of the Occupy movement but they are totally apathetic in terms of doing anything about it. The same goes for the students, although not to the same degree. I spent a long five minutes in my Political Geography class lecturing kids on how things haven’t changed as much as they would like, because of the same generalized sense of malaise and despair over their personal ability to make a difference. It was a bit shocking actually.

Well I beat my head against the wall with my step daughter and her friends, but they just seem to want to hang out, smoke pot and joke around. I guess on a superficial level my generation was the same from an outside perspective, but we were fired up with ideals of revolution. Much of the changes we fought for have become part of their daily life and they just accept, liberal pot laws, racial tolerance and sexual diversity as normal. On the other hand I do find anti-homeless attitudes that I find inexplicable. My step daughter even approves of the gentrification of downtown LA, even though it meant that her former boyfriend could no longer afford to live there. She didn’t get connection between Whole Foods entering the neighborhood and the increased rents. Explanations of the dynamics of the situation on my part simply go over her head. I have actually had comments from her friends that I am spreading negative vibes. That sort of no-nothingism, has led me to the unhappy conclusion that all this easy access to pot is supporting an apathetic view that I find alarming. These kids are not getting high and dreaming of revolution. I am not sure what they dream of. Based on what I overhear of their conversations it is not of a particularly high intellectually stimulating order.

OK, I can hear it now, gramps is getting grumpy. I hear my irrelevance reflected in the incomprehension to my attempts at giving them political analysis. When I turn on CSPAN or a documentary about current events, on the TV in the living room they put on the ear plugs and turn up the volume of the latest Britney Spears tune on their iPods. Funny all these jobless broke kids have iPhones and recently I discovered that there is a thriving black market in stolen and second hand Apple products that these kids participate in. In fact it seems that they live in a third world like cash and barter economy. Most of them have little or no ID, don’t have driving licenses, take services like Uber or the disdained public transit, and seem to all have food stamps, but they don’t cook! My step daughter loves to buy overpriced organic junk food from Whole Foods. I tell her at least go to Trader Joes or Ralphs where the stuff is less expensive and the owner’s political views are not quite so fascistic. She likes the atmosphere, when she shops at Whole Foods she says she feels like she is part of the young healthy and successful. Explaining that that is simply a marketing ploy on the part of Whole Foods does not work, rational decision making is not her strong suit or seemingly something that any of her friends indulge in. They hang out, some at the Hare Krishna temple, and wait, for what I am not sure, but they seem pretty fatalistic about their prospects.

I don’t exactly live the life of a middle class success story. In fact I try to use my life as a warning as to what not to do with your life as I am spending my late working life trying to catch up and stash a little savings while I still can. The Revolution didn’t happen and as things stand it looks like our Socialist Vanguard in Bernie Sanders is about to get crushed in the Democratic machine’s super delegate insurance policy that a truly populist candidate can be crushed before it can capture the nomination. I am less optimistic than I wish I could be about the prospects for change. But people are pissed and even if these kids are not part of the solution, I do hope that eventually they become uncomfortable enough to desire more. My step daughter made the comment that she would support a candidate that gave her free child care for her daughter. I told her that both Clinton and Sanders had polices to expand just that, but she had to participate in the struggle to make the changes happen, not wait for it to be handed too her as a given. I don’t know if she got it. But perhaps the discomfort of being a single parent will eventually prod her into activism. The lack of jobs, or the hassle getting her GED, or the fact that she and most of her friends are in their mid-twenties with few prospects may prod them reluctantly into action.

Perhaps, like during Occupy, enough of them will become inspired. They don’t pay enough attention to the political process to catch the Burn, even though I have Bernie Sanders signs, bumper stickers, tee shirt and buttons all over the apartment. One can hope something will get them going. Sometimes I wish we had another Vietnam War, now that was a great motivator, the Draft and an ugly war in a faraway jungle. Right now the military is something to aspire too for these kids. But then that is the general idea. No prospects, the military can pick and choose its cannon fodder. But that is another conversation.

Burford’s Arcadia: Ancient Greek Agriculture, Slavery and Democracy

Monday, May 4th, 2015

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Image: Berlin Foundry Cup,Foundry Painter, Red figure kylix, c. 490
From lecture podcast on Ancient Greek Slavery by Dr Gillian Shepherd

Below is a book review written for my Classics class on Ancient Greek History I had fun writing it but had to edit it down for the class. Perhaps I will post the long version at a later point in time. I focus on the issue of slavery in the ancient Greek world as well as agriculture and the creation of the classical Greek demos.

Burford, Allison. Land and Labor in the Greek World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1993.
Allison Burford’s study of the ancient Greek agricultural world is based primarily on the extant ancient literary sources with some reference to archeological research, epigraphic and papyrus material as well as numerous secondary sources. As she states in the preface, Burford has not written an exhaustive reference work on the legal and technical aspects of land ownership, nor is it a statistical study of land tenure and agricultural practices over the course of the period, roughly the Eighth through the Second centuries BCE (Burford, ix). Basing her study upon a suggestion by M. I. Finley, she examines aspects of ancient Greek agricultural practices (x). The author argues that Greek civilization was based in agriculture and the ability to find free time from agricultural labor to via the labor of others, indicating that chattel slavery in Athens, and the institution of helotry in Sparta, for example provided much of the means for this freedom (1-3). She focuses more on the fundamental relationship between town and country emphasizing that agriculture concerned much of the population’s interest (3, 10). She also argues that the farming practices described in Hesiod’s Works and Days, were essentially the same as those of the time of Xenophon in his Oeconomicus written some three centuries apart, negating much of the idea of a transition from pastoralism, or the concept of an agricultural revolution in the Fifth century BCE (8-9, Morris, 1294). For Burford “the Classical city-state is, then, the developed image of the early community, not an entirely different creature” (12). Burford is interested in showing the continuity of the dependence upon agriculture and how it shaped ancient Greek civilization (12).
Alison Burford Cooper published studies in ancient social and economic history, including The Greek Temple Builders at Epidaurus (1969), Craftsmen in Greek and Roman Society (1972), and Land and Labor in the Greek World (1993). Born in England, she read Classics at Cambridge University. After teaching at the University of Nebraska and the University of North Carolina–Asheville, she and her husband Guy L. Cooper retired in Ann Arbor (Cooper, 1). The work under consideration, written near the end of her academic career seems to sum up her position regarding the importance of agriculture in the ancient Greek world building upon the work primarily of M. I. Finley.
Burford describes the dependence upon domestic food production and anxiety over the annual harvest as being primary to the Greek economy and civilization (Burford 2-3). She describes agriculture outside of Attica and Athens, especially descriptions of the Spartan system, but because of the dearth of literary source material, her focus is primarily, almost necessarily, upon Athens and Attica. She goes into some detail on the types of agricultural practices, division of land between productive agricultural and the more marginal upland where grazing occurred. She asserts that it was the exchange of surpluses locally and not dependence on international trade, even in Athens, except briefly during the Imperial period, was the driving force of daily life and policy of ancient Greeks (3).
Burford focuses on the mechanisms of land ownership, asserting that the state had overriding concerns and that the polis could and would intervene in private ownership, calling the polis “proprietor in chief of all landed assets within its boundaries” (16). This was true in Athens as well as the more obvious case of Sparta. She goes into some detail on efforts to make land distribution among citizens equal, not only in the new colonies but within the polis, citing Aristotle among others and examples from city states besides Athens (28). She then discusses the actual inequality of land distribution and the “concept of ‘ancestral portions’” asserting that the relationship between families and their land as going back to the foundations of communities and the preservation of the oikos through the “assured transfer of inheritance within the family, preferably from father to son” (29, 34-35). The legal dispute over distribution of the estate of one Hagnias of Athens, who had no children, became a multigenerational affair involving increasingly distant relations, to me indicates the power of families in property rights and privileges of the citizens within the context of the polis, whereas Burford sees the fact of intervention on the part of the courts as an indication of state power (43-45). Litigation rather than blood feuds is an advance of sorts.
She goes into some discussion of the position of the female inheritors, the epikleros who “had no independent rights to property,” but essentially used as a means of insuring that property stayed within the greater family or oikos to the extent that a male relative designated to marry an epikleros, had to divorce his existing spouse (46). Burford sees this as an indication that the community was more concerned with maintaining the stability of the oikos as the basis for the polis, citing Solon’s law providing for the dowry of an epikleroi with no estate by proscribing that the members of the pentakosiomedimnoi provide for epikleroi of the thetes within a family group (47). It seems to me that the state control of property is exaggerated and the families of the oligarchs still seem to have undue influence in the countryside even after the reforms of Solon as I will discuss further.
For the most part Greeks rejected feudal like peasantry an unacceptable status, one of being subservient to a greater lord, as was the case in Athens when Solon abolished indentured servitude. Defining helotry as feudal peasantry, according to Burford is not helpful, although I personally did not clearly understand the distinction she was trying to make other than to insure that readers would not look to medieval equivalency (85-86). The popular rebellion against indentured servitude by the citizens led directly or indirectly to the increased slavery of foreigners in Athens in my mind.
M.I. Finley’s contention that Athenian democracy was a result of chattel slavery, is taken up by Burford with her initial assertion that “chattel slavery became concomitant of radical democracy, and at the same time many landowners took a hand in working their own land” (3). Michael Jameson, agreeing with De Ste Croix, says “one might almost say that in the ancient world there was no true freedom without slavery” (Jameson, 122). Finley asserts that large scale agriculture of the wealthy classes was largely undertaken by slaves, including the overseers, indicates in my mind an oligarchic reaction to labor cost increases and the desire for control (Finley, Was Greek Civilization based on Slave Labor, 149).
Burford argues that in “Attica as in Chios and numerous other places, chattel slavery became the most important form of labor, not because the pelatai or thetes, the ‘nearby dependents,’ were reduced to slavery but because they were emancipated” (Burford, 209). This is an important point, as Finley points out using the analogy of the USA slave states before the American Civil War, he notes that three quarters of the land owners in the south had not connection to slavery and were small holders, yet close to one third of the population in the slave states were slaves, whereas in Classical Greece the practice of slave holding was more widespread (Finely, Was Greek Civilization, 151). Burford, discussing Attica, believes that the reforms of Solon reduced the availability of easily coercible labor, increasing the dependence on chattel slavery (Burford, 209). Burford cites Homer’s story of Eumaeus (Od. 15.415-84), Odysseus’ swineherd who had been kidnapped by Phoenician traders and sold into slavery as an example of piracy as a source of slaves as well as an example of the prevalence of slavery (Burford, 208). The question of Athens increased participation in the slave trade as a driver of empire, especially mass collusion versus resistance on the part of the thetes is an interesting issue. Were the oarsmen active slavers?
Contrasting Burford’s decidedly landlocked views on the shaping of Greek civilization are the views of those who would emphasize trade and naval power especially during the period of the Athenian Thalassocracy. Ian Morris, in his review of Burford, claims she doesn’t give enough weight to the “new model” of Greek agriculture with a shift to a market orientation Athens in the Fifth century BCE (Morris, Review, 1294). John Hale in his Lords of the Sea claims that without the navy there would not have developed the extreme form of Athenian democracy, the degree of democratization was due to the dependence of the Athenian Navy upon the urban poor for oarsmen (Hale, xxvii). David Lewis notes that trade with Barbarian parts of the world was required to maintain the extensive slave population required in the Athenian economy (Lewis, 91). This would tend to support the contention that there were economic drivers to the expansion of the Athenian Empire. Lewis considers the Greek Comedies as rich source of information on Greek attitudes about slavery; Aristophanes Scythian archers, the slave police force of Athens, are prominent in Lysistrata (Lewis, 100; Findley, Was Greek Civilization, 152; Lis. 15-24). Burford gives little if any information about the complexity of the relationship between overseas trade, slavery and agriculture.
I think that exploring further the implications of the slave trade and the economic basis of the more industrial aspects of Athenian agriculture in particular would have been helpful as Jameson points out the locus of slavery in Athens, unlike the more feudal like conditions in Sparta, where helotry actually inhibited urbanization similar in some ways to the American pre-civil war south, rather he points to slavery as being indicative of the importance of Athens as a trade and industrial center (Jameson, 123). One could be tempted to see the relative sympathy of the Oligarchs in Athens to the Spartans due to a confluence of interest in maintaining a lucrative slave market, with Nicias having some one thousand in the silver mines alone, the would have been sufficient economic reasons for a convergence of interest (Finley, Was Greek Civilization, 149). Aristophanes reminded his audience of the Athenian rescue of Sparta from the helots, (even if this was fictional, it would seem to have been a popular fiction) “Then Cimon went, taking four thousand infantry, /and saved the whole of Lacedaemon for your state,” indicating a resounding normalcy of slavery in Athens making a keener focus on the nature of dependence on slavery to be of even more interest (Lys. 42).
As the entire world population at least until the nineteenth century was primarily agricultural, and much of that of a subsistence nature, Burford’s focus on what the majority of the population did for a living is a good idea. D.W. Rathbone, reviewing Burford, is critical of the lack of focus on the growth of monetization, or any exposition of the field surveys and excavations of rural sites in more than a cursory manner (Rathbone, 330-331), to which I would add lack of geographic and topographic imagery in the form of maps, charts or photographic information, is to be regretted. Stylianos Spyridakis although largely praising her work, found the omission of evidence for a stronger case to be made for wealth generation outside of the purely agricultural sphere, pointing to trade in particular (Spyridakis, 107). Overall the impression is that Burford certainly went to great pains and into great detail to prove her point as to the rural nature of the Greek economy, but it presents a relatively static view of Greek agriculture. The book presents a massive amount of research mainly from the literary sources. The author tends to focus on detailed information giving the impression of a relatively static rural society over the time period with Hesiod and Homer side by side with Xenophon and Aristotle, where things happen, but there is not the focus on trends in population pressure, climatic conditions, the slave trade, etc. that would create a more dynamic model of the Greek world as it relates to the natural systems and practices of the populace over time. The book provoked a desire in this reader for more statistical data to verify the literary sources.
Works Cited
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translation and introduction by Donald Sutherland. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 1961.
Burford, Allison. Land and Labor in the Greek World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1993.
Cooper, Alison Burford. “Feasting and Fasting in Classical Greece.” Repast Quarterly Newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor. 20. 4. 2004.
Finley, M. I. “Was Greek Civilization based on Slave Labor?” Historia: Zeitshrift fur Alte Geschichte, 8.2 (1959): 145-164.
Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy. Updated Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999.
Hale, John R. Lords of the Sea The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Viking Penguin. 2009.
Jameson, Michael J. “Agriculture and Slavery in Classical Athens.” The Classical Journal. 73. 2 (1977- 1978): 122-145.
Lewis, David. “Near Eastern Slaves in Classical Attica and the Slave Trade with Persian Territories.” Classical Quarterly, 61.1 (2011): 91-113.
Morris, Ian. “Forward.” The Ancient Economy. Updated edition, Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. ix-xxxvi.
Morris, Ian. “Land and Labor in the Greek World.” The American Historical Review, 99.4 (1994): 1293- 1294.
Rathbone, D. W. “Burford, A. ‘Land and Labor in the Greek World’ (Book Review).” Classical Review, 44.2 (1994): 330.
Spyridakis, Stylianos. “Land and Labor in the Greek World.” Agricultural History, 68.1 (1994): 106-107.

Asian-Mexican Breakfast Review

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Prickly Pear which is also known as Cactus Pear or Opuntia has a number of health benefits.

Today I woke up, read some Bio-geography, and then noticed I was dizzy. That is usually a sign of low blood sugar and sure enough mine was down to 52. Normal is 80-120, 200 means take insulin. I took a little glucose tablet and decided to make something to eat instead of taking a shower, my normal morning routine.

Testing blood sugar levels

Still a little dazed, I rummaged in the fridge, pulled out some cactus leaf, cactus pear, Italian squash, chayote squash and began chopping and pealing. I turned the gas on the cast Iron pan and the tea kettle, rinsed some chana dal, heated a pot of water and started simmering the dal. I spiced it with the rest of the basil leaves from my wilted plant that I got at Trader Joe’s. I also added a good shake of turmeric, a lot more nutmeg than I planned and some asafoetida. This was an unusual mixture for me to use, a rather radical departure but I was in a daze as I said.

Asafoetida plant

I then took some left over soup from the fridge, and threw that in with the veges, this had a paste like consistency due to my habit of constantly adding ingredients. It was based on an organic mushroom soup concentrate, Pacific brand, that I found in the discount bin at Ralph’s. The soup had been a mix of the base with organic carrots, organic celery, a gala apple, a couple of turkey sausages, a tomatillo, a couple of jalapeno’s, a little chopped yellow onion and a couple of pieces of garlic all chopped up together. This had already been on the stove twice and was about a week old, well seasoned.

Then I threw in a couple of strips of bacon, usually I get turkey bacon, but in this case I found some pork bacon that was on sale.
I used to get soy bacon but that got to be too expensive, I switched to turkey bacon, but that has gone up, so now I just look for what is on sale and isn’t loaded with sodium.

After that came a chopped up tomatillo, some yellow onion and 3 or 4 pieces of garlic chopped up. I threw in a hand full of fresh rosemary spears and let it all simmer some more, all together over half an hour of cooking time.

While this was on low burner, I noticed some fruit flies hanging around a honey dew melon I had bought a month ago that never really ripened. I have noticed lately that there is a lot of fruit that is like this. It is picked early, and often instead of ripening it simply sits and then goes bad. This honeydew had a corner that had become moldy. So I cut it off, scraped out the seeds. and chopped up the rest of the insides but kept the outer casing to form a gourd. I this left the chopped up bits of melon, added the contents of one of those Paige Yogurt cups, the kind with the fruit on the side. I poured in the yogurt sans the cherry fruit concentrate, added a healthy amount of sage, really poured it in, added a little clove powder, and a generous couple of drops of vanilla concentrate. On top of this I placed a dozen or so green organic table grapes, a little salsa and a spoon of honey then added a shake of hot sauce and it was done.

While all this was going on I poured the hot water from the tea pot into a single serving melitta style filter filled with Don Francisco’s fine grind expresso, which sat on my coffee cup in which I had placed a triangle of Ibarra Mexican style chocolate and the cherry jam from the yogurt container. Hand poured style of making coffee demands a fine grind that slows down the water percolation. If you use a regular grind, the water pours through and the coffee is weak, you have to pour it through the filter a couple of times and never tastes right. I always choose a fine grind and a bold or strong coffee to get maximum flavor.

Chana Dal

I replaced the water in the simmering chana dal as there was a lot of white foam. After that the liquid was clear. I should have soaked the dal in cold water for a while before cooking and as it was it was not done in time for breakfast, no matter, I will have it later with another couple of meals. As a habit I cook beans and broil potatoes on the weekend so that I will have them during the week. I also tend to make way more than I can eat on the weekends and save left overs for my week night meals. After a long day of work and school, I rarely have the energy to cook on weekday evenings.

The food on the frying pan was done so I threw in some olive oil, added a couple eggs, and threw a slice of Vogel Mixed Grain bread in the toaster. The bread had come out of the freezer, I buy it from the discount section at Ralph’s where the normally expensive loafs can be bought for a dollar or so. I freeze it because I don’t eat bread often, usually I have tortillas with my meals.

With every thing done I slices up a key lime, squeezed it on top of the fruit gourd, made a plate with the food from the frying pan, slicing the piece of toast in half after spreading some Philadelphia cream cheese with jalapeno on it, then placed the over medium eggs on the toast, added a squeeze of lime, some hot sauce, black pepper and a dash of sea salt on the eggs and the veges on the side of the dish, and I was ready to chow down.

The flavor was intense, acidic and a little hot, from the leftover soup most likely. It has a complexity and was balanced between soft and hard elements.Usually I add potato to cool out the flavor, or have some beans and a grain like rice, but in this case it was the veges that stood alone and once my mental expectations had adjusted to the flavor messages from my taste buds, I enjoyed the dish. It was not too dry or wet, hard or soft, in fact it was tasty. I had no more cilantro so that staple was missing from my plate. The egg on toast was a little more generic than I had expected, when I added some of the bacon it became more flavorful.

Honeydew melon

As for my gourd of fruit and liquified yogurt, it was very tangy. The clove, sage and vanilla flavor really stood out front and center. The yogurt made it taste like one of those savory Indian yogurt dishes. Most of the fruit sweetness came from the grapes as the honeydew was rather bland and woody, tasting more like chayote than honeydew. But it was a pleasant spiciness, not overwhelming. I deliberately did not add too much honey as I did not want the sweetness to drown out the spiciness. The sage added a nice savory flavor that made the whole dish an exotic and interesting combination for the palate.

Chayote squash

Some source info. Since I live in Southern California, I am blessed with access to abundant fresh food, and unlike Florida, the state doesn’t take the hell out of groceries. Chayote, tomatillo, cactus leaf and cactus pear can all be got cheap from Mexican markets, or the discount stores like Food 4 Less. Ralph’s has the organic produce, day old stuff, and especially day old organic meats, I always look for deals on that sort of stuff there. Indian food like asafoetida and dal can be found at some regular markets but most likely you will have to go to an Asian or Indian market. I found the chana dal on the street outside of a church where some kind soul left a bag full of Indian and Middle Eastern grains and legumes. I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I grabbed some of the items. My daily walks often are productive like that.

The 4th, Earth Porn, and Nostalgia for a Natural World

Friday, July 4th, 2014

“This painting (circa 1872) by John Gast called American Progress, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; she holds a school book. The different stages of economic activity of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation. The Native Americans and wild animals flee” (Modernization Theory, Wikipedia).

I was taken by a facebook site, Earth Porn, the natural world as eye candy. This I have traditionally associated with a form of nostalgia. This was exceptionally well portrayed in an old, 1973 movie, Soylent Green, where Edward G. Robinson, in his last role, living in a world of environmental collapse, over population and scarce resources, decides it is time to snuff it. He goes to local death-atorium where he is given the cool aid, and gets to listen to classical music and watch a video of how beautiful the earth once was. “The “going home” score in Roth’s death scene was conducted by Gerald Fried and consists of the main themes from Symphony No. 6 (”Pathétique”) by Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 (”Pastoral”) by Beethoven, and the Peer Gynt Suite (”Morning Mood” and “Åse’s Death”) by Edvard Grieg” (Soylent Green, Wikipedia).

Bee Colony Collapse Cartoon

This movie had global warming, overpopulation, food shortages, and environmental destruction. People live on stoops and abandoned cars in the street of the New York of this dystopia. Infrastructure is crumbling and only the elite live in a reduced version of the former luxury that they had once known. Most people live on space rations of energy wafers. Fresh food, vegetables etc are only available to the well connected, and even their access is pitiful. Police use garbage trucks to deal with riots, scooping up people into their dumpsters in back. The crux of the movie’s plot is the discovery that the main energy food, a wafer called Soylent Green, is not made from plankton, the original food of last resort, but peoples bodies being recycled. This is the logical result of the collapse of all other food sources.

An Aquatic Air Breather

The Edward G. Robinson character is old enough to remember the days when there was nature, room to live in and dignity in life. If this is the end of the world, then places like Calcutta, and the Favellas of Brazil already are there and have been for decades. Removal of populations from rural self sufficiency into the low wage work in urban environments, performing such tasks as stripping waste electronics from the developed world, of their resalable components, sorting through more traditional trash dumps for bits of recycled materials, selling second hand clothing transported from charity drop offs at Good Will and Salvation army, where they are baled and shipped to Africa where local textile production has collapsed and people wear second had throw away clothing made in Bangladesh sweat shops. The globalization of poverty has been enhanced buy the mechanization of agriculture, and squeezing the last bit of economies of scale out of each and every process in the world economy.

Dino-Soylent it is a matter of perspective.

I have ranged quite far from my initial statement about the environment as eye candy, but because of its increased scarcity and the urbanization of the population, the natural world becomes subject of nostalgia. Even primitive people living outside the pale of civilization, as defined by being incorporated in the global capitalist economy, have disappeared from the planet and those few remaining are like the California Condor, endangered species. Organizations like Survival International are dedicated to preserving the rights of tribal people to exist outside of the western capitalist mode of production and exchange. They are exotic, rare and now instead of being threats, dangerous as portrayed in old racist moves from the 1930’s where even Tarzan is the scion of British aristocracy. This represents a certain nostalgia for a disappearing world also the emergence of a marketable commodity, the trade in untouched human communities. These world heritage cites, reservations, might be the equivalent of that preserved in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World by MAYUMI OTERO

Whether this commodification of the persistence of the pristine, is a sign of the imminent extinction of these aspects of life in the imagination of man, and thus its elimination from the world, as it is the image of the pristine and untrammeled nature that gives it value. If there is not a remaining image of that as valuable, then it has no means of being given a context in which to give it meaning. Once something is gone, it becomes mythologized, like the American West, recently critiqued in the movie A Million Ways to Die in the West, a Seth McFarlane post modern disparaging of the romantic vision of the old west while retaining the political correct vision of the Native Americans as the original hippies. This is another level of myth that is being perpetuated by McFarlane, who with good intentions is retaining a critique of history that is in the tradition of cultural studies postulated by Edward Said in his ground breaking work Orientalism, which critiques triumphalist eurocentrism. It goes further in claiming that imbedded in the tradition of western classical culture is the racism of an Aristotle and Greek definitions of the other as barbaric. This other became the slave and subhuman when Europe actually recovered from the collapse of the Roman Empire, some thousand ears later in the 16th century, when a rationale was needed to justify the imperial colonial project. Christianity as a justification, offering Christ to an unsuspecting world, as a rational for enslavement, conquest and exploitation was certainly something that a Chinese mandarin might find suspect.

I contend with some little alarm, that the environment is going the way of the passenger pigeon and in a sign of this we value it more. In capitalist language we will give this increasingly scarce resource an economic value as we turn pristine nature into the reserve of the affluent, until we have removed it to the realm of myth and nostalgia.

Nostalgia for Nature – Installation. 2012.
Plexiglas chamber with a lightbox, 3D printed black sculptures (painted Polyamid), 3 beetles, moss, soil, branch by Hugo Arcier

Columbo’s In Eagle Rock

Monday, February 17th, 2014

February 17th, 2014
Columbo’s Restaurant in Eagle Rock
By Gary Crethers

I took my girlfriend out for a belated Valentines dinner to a restaurant she picked because it had crab cakes, her favorite appetizer and because it has live Jazz music. The prices seemed reasonable and most of the reviews on Yelp seemed positive, especially the ones saying it was old school Italian, dark and Godfatheresque, with red Naugahyde booths.
We got a 9 pm reservation, just before the music was set to start, and arrived at 8:40 after a not too harrowing drive up the I-110 from Torrance. We got through downtown, onto the I-5, and the Glendale Freeway without much trouble. With “Jamzilla” constantly being talked about on the news radio station, I was expecting a freeway holocaust. Instead we were there in less than 45 minutes, nothing for an LA drive.

Parking sucked, there was no space when we arrived, but I trusted in the magic of that blue disabled tag to find us a place in reasonable walking distance, and I did, next to a vegetarian Thai place a short block away. We walked in through the bar, narrow NYC style, neighborhood bar, standing room only. We shoved our way back to the restaurant where when we told them we had a reservation at 9, they told us we had 5 parties ahead of us. Over booking, or simply previous guests not leaving was not clarified. We sat in a well lit room, next to the door of the real entrance, not the bar entrance we used, on the side of the building. People were not leaving their tables. The hostess asked us if we wanted to sit outside, my girlfriend said no, she wanted to see the band. They offered us a space in the banquet room. Again that did not have access to the band, so we nixed that option. Finally they dragged a tiny table in from outside and offered us that. We reluctantly accepted after sitting around for over half an hour playing with cell phones. I tried to parse out exactly what a friend’s email about Heidegger meant. It was a long dry tale…. And if this were through the looking glass it would have been a rewarding experience.

Seated, at our cold and tiny table, at the back of the room, with the wind striking us full on every time the door was opened, needless to say I was not a happy camper. My girlfriend was doing her best to put a positive spin on it. I asked about a booth, the red Naugahyde kind. It was closer to the mini stage where the band was setting up and more significantly it was out of the doorway breeze. When I asked about it, since we were next on the list, some guy, manager I guess, said it was going to someone who had been waiting for an hour. Well that was what we had been waiting and I was told by the hostess that we were next in line. I was going from being mildly irritated, to pissed-off and about to go to my ready-to-make-a-scene, the-revolution-is-now stage of escalation. If I went there, it would not be a pretty sight. My girlfriend began to grimace and give me the look. A St. Valentine’s Day massacre was not what she was looking forward to. We ordered our crab cakes and drinks. I got a Bombay Sapphire. She got some peach female wine thing. I told the waiter we wanted to move. I went back to the hostess and asked her about the next booth being cleared, since the maître d’ or whatever he was had seated the other couple in ‘our’ booth. My booth, the one I coveted, claimed, was due!

The band “Erica Lake and The Angry Dolphins” began to play an old blues tune, did a moderately decent version of “do right woman do right man,” an old Aretha Franklin standard, but the singers voice was distorted at the end of the room and the sound hadn’t been adjusted by a drink from mediocre to tolerable at that point. The drinks came rapidly, the crab cakes not so much. But the cakes were decent, not too wet and not too hard, sort of just right, served in a bed of arugula with balsamic vinegar and oil. My gin and tonic was beginning to work, but then we had a long wait for the waiter to take our main course order. I spied the maître d’ and told him I was not happy with being passed over. This was not the lord taking our first born child. This was a crowded Italian place with crappy service. The waiter finally took our order. I pointedly asked hostess to give us the next booth, her boss hostess or perhaps the manager, came out and apologized, and made the excuse that because it was Valentines a lot of people were lingering.

I wasn’t having it, my girlfriend was beginning to get her things together for the exit stage left routine, but then a booth opened and the waiter, and head hostess whisked us off to the magical red Naugahyde promised-land. The meals arrived just as we made ourselves comfortable in our red plastic love nest. I got the Seafood Valentino special, scallops, jumbo shrimp and lobster in linguine and some kind of pink sauce. My girlfriend ordered Four Cheese Ravioli. The meal came with a soup or salad. I ordered a salad. It was nothing special, chopped iceberg lettuce, some tomato and creamy Italian dressing. I was trying to figure out what kind of wine to have with my pink concoction and settled on a Pinot Grenache that the waiter recommended. It was light and fruity, almost a brute in its effervescence. By now my gin and tonic had hit me and as I don’t drink much anymore, I was feeling good, the music got better, and I was satisfied that my playing the squeaky wheel paid off with a better seat.

I gave most of the lobster to my girlfriend, it was not particularly special. My shrimp and scallops were great. The sauce was bland. The baby carrots were uninspired but crisp. My girlfriend had desert some kind of brownie and vanilla ice cream made out like a slice of pie. It was tasty in a gooey intense chocolaty way. The band got better as the drinks took hold, and they did a very decent version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” They were not a jazz band, but a rock and blues cover band, although they did one of their own. We stayed for both sets. And it was pleasantly entertaining. The guitarists were decent and the singer was ok as long as she didn’t overreach, she didn’t have enough range to do a really good belting blues tune.

On the walls were a series of paintings of vaguely Italian scenes, with one decent portrait of a courtesan with a big hat and another of what looked like the artist’s girlfriend. The crowd was mostly in their forties and fifties, largish, Italianish, some with teenagers, a few thirty some-things and lots of Trader Joe’s looking flowered shirts wearing Sinatra hats. This was not an especially hip crowd, but a comfortable bunch of semi drunks and their foreign exchange adopted teens. The bar, as full as it was, did not seem to be in conflict with the general ambiance. In other words the whole place was noisy. People got up and danced between the tables later in the evening and best of all we got 50% off for our inconvenience. The entire meal was less than fifty bucks. I added a tip that would have covered the full hundred bucks it would have cost and we left reasonably happy. Happy enough to have decent sex when we got home and that is saying something. So I give the place a B, at least they tried.

Evil Medieval Comets: Astrology, History & Portents

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

A fanciful interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials. Is that light a comet or some other malignant force?

Comets in pre-modern belief were harbingers of ill. They wandered into the affairs of the orderly cosmos of man and brought about disruption. H. G. Wells wrote his In The Days of the Comet as a utopian vision of how mankind could benefit from an alchemical like transformation in which elements in the comet affected the atmosphere of the earth and humanity breathed in sanity and out irrationality. Certainly with World War One hovering over the heads of humanity, those were wistful and wise thoughts. Unfortunately, not to be, war resulted and la belle epoch had been consumed in bloodshed and the modern era, was born. The world of the Gatsbys, self made men, hucksters, and flim flam artists arose, the Great Depression resulted and the Second World War in which the old world powers were swept away leaving the Soviet Union and the United States to struggle for the hearts and minds of humanity, Equality, Liberty and Pursuit of Profits, over Equality, Community and Pursuit of Perfection. Profits, at least temporarily, won out over perfection, liberty and community still struggle with Equality, remaining a common value of the age, if only given lip service.

From BRITISH ART SHOW 7: IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET. Anja Kirschner & David Panos.

I found an interesting blog of Margherita Fiorello that deals in medieval astrology and it had a piece about an astrologer’s view of Hailey’s Comet’s appearance in 1301. This anonymous astrologer seems fairly typical, writing with some exactness about the position, and reading into it portents that can only be called interesting.

About the comet motion from North to South, I believe it’s the attraction motion, i.e. the Comet is attracted by Mars, from which was generated. Mars in fact, which was not exceeding the zodiacal southern latitude, was in aspect with the Comet, whose latitude was more than 20 N degrees. For these reasons the Comet seemed to move from North to South toward East, so its eastern longitude grew and grew while northern latitude decreased and decreased.

In the same way and for the same reasons its tail moved. In fact in the beginning of its appearance, its tail stretched toward North and following its motion moved Eastwards, inclining towards South to the stat which is called Altayr, i.e. Vultur Volans, which has a longitude of 21.15 Capricorn and a latitude of 29.25 N. And in this way, slowly, it moved towards Mars.

Medieval Astrologers

So, after having carefully considered the nature and the temperament of the producing planet and of the receiving sign of the comet and its motion and every other detail about its nature, which I omit in order to be brief, I will go to the judgement.
So I say that this comet, for its different and several causes, it means several accidents.
It means in fact strong winds and earthquakes in the regions which are in familiarity and sometimes a dryness of the air preceding profuse rains, but this because of “accidens”, i.e. because southern and western winds, which will cause clouds and rains.

And because of the corruption of the air, death and plague, famine and illness to the genitals, to the bladder and lungs and pains for parturient women and miscarriages and difficult deliveries and plenty of visions.
It means that there will be many fights between powerful people, wars and murders, and the religion of Moors will be weaker, and on the Earth thieves and robbers will be more and more.
It means wars, quarrels and massacre, the death of the kings, princes and nobles, the coming from the West of a King’s enemy and the King violence on his people and his lust for money. It means at last the destitution of courters and the unfairness of their acts that will correspond to a great hardship for them. So, Mars was in Scorpio, in which it has many rights because it has here the triplicity and the domicile: having 8 points (5 because of domicile and 3 of triplicity) will make stronger the meaning of the comet.
These judgements are based on the most important astrologers, Ptolemy and Albumasar and Aly Habenragel.

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi

Giotto’s Comet. This beautiful fresco named Adoration of the Magi on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed by the great Florentine Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) has always been regarded as the Halley’s comet in its 1301 apparition. In 1993 Hughes et al.(Q.J.R. Astr. Soc. 34. pp.21-32) suggested instead that it could be the comet seen at the beginning of 1304 (C/1304 C1).

And many poets talked about the meanings of a comet. Virgil in facts wrote in the ninth book of the Aeneid:

“Sanguinei lugubre rubent de nocte comete”

Lugubre, gloomy: he used the name as an adverb. And he calls the comets “sanguineos”, bloody because they mean bloodshed.
Claudianus adds, talking about the comet:

“Et nunquam celo spectatum impune comete“

A comet was never seen in the sky without a disaster.

And Lucanus, talking about the wonders when the war between Pompeus and Caesar was near, says that the appearance of a comet means a change in the kingdom (Margherita Fiorello).

Drawing by Peter Apian of the Comet of 1532.

A more pedesrian interpretation sums up the ancient and medieval view of comets. This is from “Unexpected Visitors: The Theory of the influence of Comets.”

The ancient Greeks had a method to anticipate them from ingresses and ideas about their significance based on their colors and shapes but theirs was an astrology and astronomy of the naked eye and far freer of pollution and night light than ours. Atmospherics certainly played a role in their observations and their interpretation. The Greeks and later traditional Medieval and Renaissance astrologers thought them wholly malefic. These same astrologers held that comets and other portents in the heavens were fleeting appearances of the sublunary sphere. An event for our punishment or (very rarely) benefit from the Logos appearing in the space between the Earth and Moon. In their model of the heavens, change does not occur beyond the sphere of Luna except for the movements of the planets. The effects of comets were supposed to last for 1/8 of their period; to the ancients this would most likely have been their period of visibility, and to begin in earnest when the Sun or Mars transited their place of closest approach to the Sun or perihelion. Their appearance was heralded by disturbances in humans, animals, and the weather. The comets then dispensed, by perihelion position and their dispositor, their good or ill effects - usually ill. They also often heralded the rise of an agent. This agent could be a war leader but might, depending on the position of the comet, show a religious leader, reformer, or great trader (Jonathan Flanery).

I couldn’t resist adding this image of the reputed cause of the most famous conflict in Florence and Italian medieval history. I don’t know if it was preceded by a comet, but Villani does refer to the fatal statue of Mars, and Villani is a firm believer in astrology.

The Buondelmonte murder, from an illustrated manuscript of Giovanni Villani’s Nuova Cronica
in the Vatican Library (ms. Chigiano L VIII 296 - Biblioteca Vaticana)

“In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Par. xvi. 136-144. Amidei, honourable and noble citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of the Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M.-122- Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided.

Here’s Giovanni Villani himself. Florence lost this gifted (if not always nonpartisan) historian in the terrible Black Death of 1348.

For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the Inf. xxviii. 103-111. Par. xvi. 136-138. evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on Par. xvi. 145-147. this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and Cf. Par. xvi. 128. tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghi-123-bellines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy” (Villani).

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus Lubienietski’s Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668).

The above will give the reader some insight into Florence. There was no lack of disasters in Italy and in that year, 1301, the occupation of Florence by the French representative of the Papal authority and the loss of power on the part of the White Guelphs of which Dante belonged, to be replaced by the Black Guelphs who allied themselves to the Papal legate in order to gain control of Florence and persecute their enemies, the Whites. I also find the reference to Virgil to be satisfying and intend to return to that revolutionary period in Roman history with an eye to the literary angle, and focusing so much on the politics. Certainly Virgil, initially something of a pacifist and spiritual idealist, going off to live in an Epicurean community in Naples, to escape the conflict between Caesar’s adherents and those of the old Republican order. In my own life, after the conflict in Vietnam had ended, I temporarily left the life of radical politics to retreat to a commune in Colorado in an attempt to create some idealized cooperative society under the sheltering parental guidance of a gnostic spiritual vision. I eventually rebelled at the direction of the community, a certain Maoist anti-intellectualism and my own impatience with sitting out of world affairs, at least as I saw it, by not participating in the radical politics of the day. Perhaps that is what drove Virgil into the affairs of state, or perhaps it was merely self interest, desiring to regain properties that had been confiscated and given to war veterans of the victorious Octavian in his native Mantua. Dante, had upon exile from his native Florence, joined briefly in White and Ghibellines conspiracies to regain control of the city. He soon became disillusioned with their vain efforts and spent the rest of his life writing his famous literary works and advocating for the return of a worthy Emperor to restore order to Italy. I am now in my own way retired from active battle, and doing my part as a literary warrior.

Masonic initiation. Paris, 1745

I am still somewhat obsessed with medieval Florence. But this is about comets, and the times. Although I cannot say much about our own times, not aware of any particular comet, although I am sure there are comets galore with the advances in astronomy. Listening to an audiobook version of War and Peace as I write, I am captured from time to time by the plot and distracted from my writing. I found the descriptions of Pierre’s spiritual journey with the Masons, reminiscent of my own adventures with the Ministry. He also wanted to work on the political level rather than the boring and tedious task of self improvement. Youth wants change to be rapid and revolutionary, and for a young man to live in interesting times is not a curse but a relief. And as I have indicated previously, I in my own way continue my spiritual quest, expecting less, and with many regrets over failures especially in the personal realm of family. Family as Tolstoy constantly reminds us in his great work, is of such importance. Having just returned from the east coast and visiting my own mother and sister, confronting the remains of those youthful devils that still cling to the soul, like Pierre’s dream dogs biting at his heals (Tolstoy 408).

Pierre Bezukhov at Noble Assembly - illustration by artist A.P. Apsit from book “Leo Tolstoy “War and Peace”, publisher - “Partnership Sytin”, Moscow, Russia, 1914. - stock photo

But back to the comet issue Pierre riding home on a sleigh, observes the comet of the winter of 1811-1812, reflecting on its portending disaster, yet falling in some kind of love with the foolish Natasha, “in Pierre’s heart that bright comet, with its long luminous tail, aroused no feeling of dread” (Tolstoy 562). As well it should not have for the Russians, but for Napoleon, it was of course a very bad year.

Now I must move on, leaving Pierre to his thoughts, and consider, could the plague have come from outer space, via comets? I love digging around on the web and finding all these other people who are pondering the different angles. Makes it hard for copyright protagonists and academics will decry such public pandering without any fees attached, but I use my access to university sites as a student for some material, and google for the rest, seeking other seekers.

This is from Joseph and Wickramasinghe’s article “Comets and Contagion: Evolution and Diseases From Space.”

[P]lagues are all bacterial diseases which are spread by infected fleas, by contact with the body fluids of infected people and animals, and by inhaling infectious droplets in the air. How did fleas come to be infected? Were they also contaminated by pathogens in the air?

Bacteria and Viruses From Space?

Yersinia pestis is one of the causative agents of plague. Yersinia pestis are anaerobic and must live within host cells during the infective phase of its life cycle (Brown et al., 2006; Perry and Fetherston 1997; Wickham et al., 2007). Infection takes place through a syringe-like apparatus by which the bacteria can inject bacterial virulence factors (effectors) into the eukaryotic cytosol of host cells. Yet, as they are anaerobic, Yersinia pestis (and other pathogenic bacteria) are completely dependent on their host species, and cannot be propagated over evolutionary time if the host dies (Brown et al., 2006). Thus it must be asked: what is the origin of these plague-inducing bacillus which periodically infect and kill huge populations over diverse areas, and then reemerge hundreds of years later to attack again? In fact, Yersinia pestis is the causative agent responsible for at least three major human pandemics: the Justinian plague (6th to 8th centuries), the Black Death (14th to 19th centuries) and modern plague (21st century).

Yersinia pestis infected flea.

The keys to unlocking this mystery may include the fact that these microbes are anaerobic (Brown et al., 2006), resistant to freezing (Torosian et al., 2009), and they periodically obtain many of their infective genes from other bacteria and viruses such that their genome is in flux and undergoes periodically rearrangement following the addition of these genes (Parkhill et al., 2001). A major anaerobic, freezing environment is located in space. Therefore, could these microbes have originated in space?

A variety of microbes have been discovered in the upper atmosphere, including those who are radiation resistant (Yang et al., 2010), and at heights ranging from 41 km (Wainwright et al., 2010) to 77 km (Imshenetsky, 1978) and thus in both the stratosphere and the mesosphere which is extremely dry, cold (−85 degree C (−121.0 degree F;), and lacking oxygen. It is the mesosphere where meteors first begin to fragment as they speed to Earth (Wickramasinghe et al., 2010). Could these upper atmospheric microbes have originated in meteors or from other stellar debris? Or might they have have been lofted from Earth to the upper atmosphere?” (Joseph and Wickramasinghe).

Contours of the spread of the Black Death.

The Black Death (1334-1350AD) for example, has all the hallmarks of a space incident component or trigger. That this disease spread from city to city has been well documented (Kelly 2006; McNeill 1977). However, the progression of the disease did not follow contours associated with travel routes, displaying a patchiness of incidence including zones of total avoidance (Figure 6). Moreover, the pattern of infection appear to travel the course of prevailing winds (Figures 7 and 8). This does not accord with straightforward infection via a rodent/flea carrier as is conventional to assume. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1979) interpreted these patterns as indicative of a space incident bacterium.

1577 Great Comet Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, Von einem Schrecklichen und Wunderbahrlichen Cometen so sich den Dienstag nach Martini M. D. Lxxvij. Jahrs am Himmel erzeiget hat (Prague (?): Petrus Codicillus a Tulechova, 1577).

I am not so sure I am convinced by this, but it is from an academic source, and so should be taken seriously. It certainly puts a different twist hon my previous posting. I am not going to list all their sources, so if you want to see them go find the article on line, I have info about it below.

I am also reading volume two of Hajo Holborn’s A History of Modern Germany, reading about the after effects of the Thirty Years War, the later I had read about in the last year or so. Incipient Germany and the shattered remains of the Holy Roman Empire, are such a complex jigsaw puzzle. It is impossible to read this history without recourse to a map, simply to place oneself in the setting, at least mentally. Only being a few chapters into the book, I find my pedantic side attracted to the satisfactory experience of placing the pieces of the German jigsaw in the appropriate places. And now I shall quote a line more or less at random, actually not, some comments about the aftereffects of the Thirty Years war reminds me of our own times.

The miseries of war; No. 11, “The Hanging” Jacques Callot 1632 (published in 1633).

In many respects it had been a new discovery to find that it was physically possible to siphon off so much money from the population. Public finance, including taxation, had been in its infancy before the war. Now it became a deliberate, if still clumsy, art. A century earlier it had been a widely held opinion that the prince was to defray the expenses of government with his own income from domains - mining rights, monopolies, tolls, etc. - usually called the ‘camerale,’ and that taxes were to be levied only for extraordinary purposes, such as defense… Throughout the war taxes had gone up, and even at the end of the war it was impossible to return to the earlier level. Payment of debts, resettlement of the population, land improvement, and maintenance of troops - all these called for revenue…The princes now demanded them as a matter of right and also claimed discretion in the use of the tax income (Holborn 43-44).

Comet of 1618 was associated with the coming “end of the world” and spreading death and disease, during the Thirty Years War.

Through concessions and compromises, the princes won the battle to establish standing armies. Once a standing army - a ‘miles perpetuus’ as it was called at the time - had been created with the assent of the estates, it became self perpetuating; it gave the prince a weapon that could be used against the estates, especially since it could sometimes be financed by foreign subsidies (45-46).

Bonus Army marchers confront the police.

This naturally brings to mind the military industrial complex, but even more, thinking back to history, Hoover called out the army to destroy the Bonus Marchers in 1932, who had Marched on Washington, DC to demand immediate payment of the Veteran’s Bonuses promised to soldiers who had participated in World War One. The DC police could not remove them from their encampments, and the army was called in led by Douglas MacArthur, who ordered Major Patton to clear the campsites. Patton did so with a cavalry charge followed by six tanks and then infantry who had fixed bayonets and used tear gas. Without a standing army this might have had a negotiated solution. Certainly it was one factor in Hoover’s defeat in that years elections. Roosevelt, the next year, upon another march, gave them a campsite, and meals. He sent Elanor Roosevelt to meet the marchers and she was able to offer them entry into the Civilian Conservation Corp. “One veteran commented: ‘Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.’” (Wikipedia Bonus Army).

I am not even going to look for a comet to determine the fate of the Bonus March, perhaps an intrepid astrologer can look up predictions from the time and see if they can post-prognosticate on this.

Credit: NASA/JPL

This photograph of Halley’s Comet was taken January 13,1986, by James W. Young, resident astronomer of JPL’s Table Mountain Observatory in the San Bernardino Mountains, using the 24-inch reflective telescope.

Works Cited

“Bonus Army.” Wikipedia. Bonus Army-Wikipedia.Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

Fiorello, Margherita. “A Medieval astrologer about Halley Comet in 1301.” 24 Feb. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

Flanery, Johnathan. “Unexpected Visitors: The Theory of the Influence of Comets.” Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany 1648-1840. Princeton: Princeton U. P. 1964. Print.

Joseph, Rhawn, and Wickramasinghe, Chandra. “Comets and Contagion: Evolution and Diseases From Space.” Journal of Cosmology. 7 (2010). 1750-1770. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: The Modern Library. 1931. Print.

Villani, Giovanni. Villani’s Chronicle. Trans. Rose E. Selfe. The Project Gutenberg eBook, Ed. Philip H. Wicksteed. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

Wells, H. G. In the Days of the Comet. London: The Century Co. 1906. In the Days of the Comet-Wikipedia. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

Were Medieval Cities Inherently Unhygienic? Some Notes On Florence

Saturday, January 11th, 2014


I was just reading in Medieval and Renaissance Florence Vol. 1, by Ferdinand Schevill that medieval Florence was incredibly unsanitary. He states “Water was supplied first, from public fountains, of which there was one for each of the fifty-seven city parishes, and second, from numerous private wells with a capricious action and of a very doubtful purity. Not only was there no underground sewage system but the government recognized no obligation to collect and dispose of the city refuse. Everybody tossed the household waste into the street, where it lay until eaten by wandering hogs or washed by the rain into the river. Only the houses of the well-to-do had cesspools, while the mass of the population, without causing the least scandal, utilized for their needs the less frequented streets, the plentiful ruins of the houses of magnates destroyed under the Ordinances of Justice, and the vast circle of the city walls” (Schevill 237-238). This in a city of some 90,000 according to Giovanni Villani in 1339, who based his figures on grain consumption (qtd. in Schevill 211).

Breugel detail.

How could a city this large, considered by many to be the most advanced in Europe of its time in terms of developed commercial and civic urban institutions. Villani was a contemporary member of the merchant class, three times a member of the priory (city council), an official of the mint and on the committee to finish construction of the third city walls who was born in about 1280 (226) and died in the bubonic plague 1348 (240). Villani who was proud of his Roman past “being on that blessed pilgrimage in the sacred city of Rome and seeing its great and ancient monuments and reading the great deeds of the Romans as described by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Livy, Valerius, Orosius, and other masters of history… I took my prompting from them… in view of the fact that our city Florence, daughter and offspring of Rome, was mounting and pursuing great purposes, while Rome was in its decline” (qted. in Schevill 227-228). He could not have missed the aqueducts, among the monuments of Rome. The Cloaca Maxima was still functioning, as it does to this day.

Leonardo Bufalini, Roma (Rome, 1551). Go to the site “Waters of the City of Rome” for an enlargeable version of this map.

When the humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio recorded his first impressions of Rome in 1398, he described the legendary hills overlooking the Tiber as deserted, while the modern population clustered along the riverbank, erecting flimsy houses among the massive ancient remains. He also observed the fundamental division between the abitato, the low-lying, densely-inhabited part of the city immediately adjacent to the Tiber, and the disabitato, the uninhabited, elevated regions beyond. This division would persist into the sixteenth century and was largely fixed by the range of the water-sellers, or acquarenari, who delivered water in barrels collected from the Tiber.

London Water Carrier similar to acquarenari of Rome.

The only ancient aqueduct that continued to function in Renaissance Rome was the Acqua Vergine. It supplied water to the Trevi fountain at the foot of the Quirinal hill, and in turn the surrounding district remained populous, despite its relative distance from the Tiber.

The first major disruption to the Roman aqueduct system occurred during the attack of the Goths in 537 CE. Evidently the damage was not catastrophic, for the system continued to function under the Byzantine administration. Significant restorations were again made in the eighth century under Hadrian I, providing enough water to satisfy “almost all of Rome.” The peculiar advantages of the Aqua Virgo became apparent during this time of limited resources and political turbulence. The aqueduct was easier to maintain than any of the others, as it traveled only a short distance, and its submerged conduit was insulated from damage.

Roman Aqueducts used gravity for water flow.

The earliest records of the Capitoline administration that still survive expressed specific interest in the maintenance and care of the Aqua Virgo, or the Acqua Vergine as it was called in Italian, and the Trevi fountain. Already in the new city statutes issued in 1363, six paragraphs were dedicated to the care and maintenance of the Acqua Vergine, to be administered by the marescalci curie capitolii, or the subordinate officials appointed by the Capitoline magistrates. These officials were entrusted with supervising the conduit along its length from its entry point at the northern gate of Rome to the Trevi fountain. They were also authorized to protect the conduit from secondary siphons and penalize all offenders. The 1363 statutes expressly prohibited all unsanitary practices at the Trevi that might contaminate the water supply, such as bathing, washing animals, or laundry; the statutes further stipulated that all property owners who possessed spiragli or openings into the channel were responsible for sealing these openings to prevent their contamination by rainwater. The extraordinary attention devoted to the care of the Acqua Vergine in the civic statutes emphasized its vital importance for the life of the medieval city (Karmon).

Taddeo di Bartolo, Trevi Fountain, 1414

Medicine was already emerging in Florence with one of the earliest hospitals the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. “Founded in 1288 by Folco Portinari, the father of the Beatrice beloved by Dante Alighieri, the hospital represents an early and efficacious example of health care in Italy and in Europe” (Gozzoli).

Institute and Museum of the History of Science / Eurofoto

Print depicting the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence, much later image.

Tatjana Buklijaš in his article “Medicine and Society in the Medieval Hospital” describes the early development of secular hospitals in cities where the merchant classes had emerged in Northern Italy in the High Middle Ages.

Italian merchant urban communes, such as Florence, Padua, and Venice, spearheaded urbanization and partial secularization of hospitals, which were being increasingly established by local governments, confraternities, and rich individuals. Hospitals guarded the social order and enabled uninterrupted running of commerce and manufacture in cities. Considered as institutions of social prevention, they simultaneously protected marginal social strata from homelessness and hunger, and the society from the marginal social layers. They brought under the same roof all those who could not afford better accommodation – abandoned children, travelers, the sick, and the poor. In contrast to monastic institutions, they employed university-educated medical practitioners. This was the period when early-medieval type of religiousness, marked by asceticism, withdrawal from the worldly life, and contemplation, was replaced by the late-medieval “secular” type, which emphasized the need to act socially and charitably. Thus, the number of hospitals was often higher than what the population size required. The representatives of the secular type of religiousness were confraternities. These associations of citizens practicing the same craft or inhabiting the same area performed religious and social activities, organized processions to honor protector saints, and ensured financial and other support to its members and the wider community.

In this period, hospitals preserved both the symbolic and material link to the Church and religion, based on the idea that the body and the soul were closely connected and mutually influenced. Physicians refused to treat patients who had not made a confession, as the sacrament of confession purified the soul from sins. Hospitals frequently emulated monasteries. Patients were occasionally required to follow the monastic rules and some hospitals admitted 12 male patients in an obvious reference to 12 apostles. Even the hospital architecture was supposed to inspire religious devotion—the leading European hospital, the Florentine Santa Maria della Nuova, had a cross-shaped ground-plan, with the long axis serving as the male and the short as the female ward. The monastery-like hospital interior included frescoes with Biblical motives and altars adorned with Christian iconography.

Medieval view of influence of the stars on fate.

Thus we have this interesting cultural mix of secular and sacred that permeated the society. Schevill points out that Villani “suspects that the abundant filth has something to do with the recurrent plagues, but in the end he falls back for their explanation… on the will of an offended God supplemented by the astrological mysteries.” He goes on to point out that the “grande mortalita” of 1340, in which Villani clams some 15,000 persons died, is attributed to the appearance of a comet in the eastern skies earlier in the year (Schevill 238). Astrology was the secular reason of the day given by philosophers. After the great flood of 1333, Schevill states “that the theologians, who categorically explained the flood as a judgement of of God upon the wicked, no longer had it all their own way… a group of ‘philosophers’ put up a stiff fight in favor of the view that the flood was just a natural event. The position signified a notable measure of rational enlightenment, although the arguments… were borrowed from astrology” (233, 235). This mixture of magic and realism is a reflection of the pragmatism mixed in with the influence of the Church and the general illiteracy of the times. Yet that did not prevent the development of appropriate technologies when understood and the technical ability was at hand.

According to Paolo Squatriti in his Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, cities like Florence did not get most of their water from aqueducts even in the Roman period, only for baths, the rest came from wells. He further states when the aqueducts were cut during the sieges of Rome and Naples in the sixth century, quoting Procopius, the wells provided sufficient water for drinking, only the baths and mills lost their supplies (quoted in Squatriti 22).

Late Medieval Baths at Brothel

The public baths were still in use in many Italian sites in the so called dark ages, of the early medieval period in Italy with Lombard lords going to baths with a retinue in ninth century Salerno, and were frequented by women also, although as a rule separately from men. They were not allowed in the Episcopal baths of Ravenna, Rome or Naples during this period. There is also literature berating women for getting dressed up to go to the baths where they might be accosted by men along the way (50).

What this shows is that although there may have been a Christian injunction against bathing, but for as long as the Roman aqueducts functioned, they provided for baths that were used, at least by the upper classes and higher clergy of the period immediately proceeding the high middle ages of which Schevill writes. Possibly medieval cities were not as unbathed as previously thought. Although sewage was a different story. But with the collapse of the aqueducts, if there were adequate sources of water then there was no pressing need to replace them. This might be a more reasonable explanation as to why they fell into disrepair and may not have been maintained in smaller cities.

Roberta Magnusson in her book Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, Monasteries, and Waterworks after the Roman Empire, indicates that there was a degree of transference of Roman technology but the cultural environment in which the hydrological technology was used was different by the High Middle Ages. Also the old Roman systems had mostly collapsed by the ninth or tenth century and the revivals in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were mostly innovations for monasteries and to a lesser extent palaces. It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that significant municipal water supplies in the form of fountains had become more common. Only a few fountains are indicated in the twelfth century Sienna (Magnusson 3-6). This would seem to be indicated by the prevalence of fountains in fourteenth century Florence.

Pianta prospettico - assonometrica di Firenze di Petro del Massaio, nella Comographia di Tolomeo del 1469 (Cod. Vat. Lat. 56999).
Plant perspective - perspective view of Florence Peter Massaio in Comographia Ptolemy of 1469

Lewis Mumford in The City in History, indicates that the Medieval city was essentially rural and not like the concentrations of people in the nineteenth century. “A change for the worse certainly came about toward the close of the Middle Ages, despite sanitary regulations… Until overcrowding began, the normal smells of a medieval town were probably no more offensive than those of a farmyard; and it was not for the 19th century, with its hideous sanitary misdemeanors, to reprove the earlier period” (Mumford 293). It could be recent experience in overcrowded Europe had colored the view of writers in the earlier part of the twentieth century such as Schevell who could not imagine a city like Florence smelling anything but horrible, imagining the sanitation to be more like the modern conditions of many cities of his own childhood. In any case since Giovanni Villani in his fairly meticulous account of early fourteenth century Florence does not even mention the odors, perhaps they were not so bad as a modern would suspect. Epidemics of the age, influenza for one, named in Florence as Schevell points out where typhoid, tuberculosis and influenza were common indicates that the city may have reached the point where better sanitation was required and could have been a major reason for the rapid spread of devastating diseases in that century (Schevell 238).

Later estimates also lower the population of Florence to more like 45,000 at the eve of the plague. This would also give some greater credence to the notion that sanitation systems were not a high priority simply due to the lower population density and semi rural character of medieval cities. The excerpt below is from an article on the black death by Ricardo Olea, and George Christakos.

Florence is another interesting case. There is not much disagreement about the duration of the epidemic, which is set to 8 months at most (Biraben 1975, pp. 77 and 103; Cohn 2002, pp. 167-168; This duration was typical of cities with 40,000 to 50,000 residents, such as neighboring Bologna and Pisa. This city size, though, is in contradiction to estimates of at least 90,000 residents coming from none other than the reputed Giovanni Villani. In the opinion of Ziegler (1969, pp. 51-52), Villani was misled by his sources, which were primarily based on the number of bread tickets issued during the famine of April 1347. Apparently, corruption was rampant during the distribution, leading posterity to believe that Florence was a larger city than it actually was-an opinion that is reinforced by the 100,000 casualties reported by Boccaccio (Deaux 1969, p. 85). Equation (1) gives Florence a preplague population of about 45,000 residents, a finding that is in agreement with the opinion that Florence reached a maximum population of 60,000 in 1300 (Chandler 1987, pp. 16-18); the population decreased over the next 47 years by 25-50% (Gottfried 1983, p. 46).

Agricultural cycle

In an effort to have an independent assessment of the population of Florence, we compared its city wall with that of Bologna. In 1333 the city of Florence completed construction of its sixth and last city wall, which had a perimeter of 8.5 km enclosing an area of 430 hectares (data from http://www.aboutflor On the other hand, the third and most recent wall of the city of Bologna had a perimeter of 7.8 km and an enclosed area of 410 hectares (data from It was started and completed at about the same time as the Florence wall. We regard it as highly unlikely that two cities with similar characteristics, in the same part of the country, with the same duration of the Black Death epidemic and almost identical urban areas would have had greatly different populations. In our opinion the value of the population for Florence derived from the scaling law of Eq. (1) is correct: On the verge of the plague, Florence had about the same population as Bologna (i.e., 40,000 residents or 10% more at most).

Equation (1) is a convenient and rigorous way to bring consistency to reported values for population sizes and durations of the epidemic (Olea and Christakos 299, 300).

This is also confirmed by Morrison, Kirshner, and Molho, whose article “Epidemics In Renaissance Florence” lists the population of Florence to be in the 40,000 range during the fifteenth century when they describe deaths due to epidemics using the Florentine Dowry Fund created in 1425 and extending to about 1570 in their study which they chose due to its having more complete data about the birth and death dates for some 25,000 women whose families participated in the investment fund created during an extended war with Milan, it paid 2.5 times after 7.5 years and 5 times after 15 years of the initial investment if the girl married, to her husband or a designated third party. While most of the participants were from wealthy families some 50%, not all were with 14% coming from lower income families (Morrison, Kirshner, and Molho 528, 529). Although this study is from a slightly later period, the city of Florence was not at that period a major metropolis, certainly not on the scale of ancient Rome.

The Dance of the Black Death in a medieval allegory

William McNeill in Plagues and Peoples presents a picture of population growth in the extreme west of Europe and East Asia that coupled with the increased trade that was encouraged by the Mongol Empire resulted in the encounter with the plague carrying rodents resulting in the great epidemics of the fourteenth century (McNeill 161-163). This was also influenced by the availability of food which in Florence was always a touch and go matter with only five twelfths of the bread supply coming from locally controlled sources, the rest coming from elsewhere in Tuscany or imported overland from the Po Valley or by boat from southern Italy (Schevill 235-236). According to Georges Duby in Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, “Prosperous [land owners], nearly all its wasteland cleared, teaming with laborers and covered with growing crops, the countryside of Europe on the brink of the fourteenth century was really overpopulated and was burdened with a growing number of peasants in a condition of near starvation. We can believe, too, that the economic activities of a small band of entrepreneurs - lords and their agents, and townsfolk attracted by speculation in grain and cattle - slowly, but inevitably, exhausted certain soils, lowered the level of wages and reduced the purchasing power of nearly all the peasant families. Thus this basically vulnerable world, with its few reserves of wealth, unconsciously built up for itself difficulties for the future years” (Duby 286).

Bread rationing in times of scarcity

Thus we can conclude that medieval society was capable of developing fairly sophisticated technology as it did its best to meet the requirements of the time. Disease was not well understood, but efforts were taken to both protect the water supply and deal with disease in a mixture of faith based and secular remedies. Hygiene in this period was probably no worse than during all of pre-industrial history, but material conditions of over population, unsound agricultural practices, and the diseases brought about by the very extension of trade that brought prosperity to the merchant classes of the cities of the time, resulted in a perfect storm of disease that culminated in the great Plague. This was not simply a case of poor hygiene, it was a culmination of trends and a lack of adequate understanding of historical and natural processes, something that in our own times has not been mastered.

Medieval Farming

Works Cited.

Buklijaš, Tatjana. “Medicine and Society in the Medieval Hospital.” Croatian Medical Journal. 49.2 (2008): 151–154. Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Trans. Cynthia Postan. Columbia, S.C. U. of South Carolina P. 1968. Print.

Gozzoli, Antonella. “Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova [Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova].” Trans. Catherine Frost. Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.

Karmon, David. “Restoring the Ancient Water Supply System in Renaissance Rome: The Popes, The Civic Administration, and the Acqua Vergine.” The Waters of Rome, 3. (2005): n.p. Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

MacNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books. 1976. Print.

Magnusson, Roberta J. Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, Monasteries, and Waterworks after the Roman Empire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P. 2001. Google Books. Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

Morrison, Alan S., Kirshner, Julius, and Molho, Anthony. “Epidemics In Renaissance Florence.” American Journal Of Public Health 75.5 (1985): 528-535. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 1961. Middle Ages 5th – 15th centuries Environmental history timeline. Web 11 Jan. 2014.

Olea, Ricardo A., and George Christakos. “Duration of Urban Mortality for the 14th-Century Black Death Epidemic.” Human Biology 77.3 (2005): 291-303. ProQuest. Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

Schevill, Ferdinand. Medieval and Renaissance Florence Volume 1: Medieval Florence. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row. 1963. Print.

Squatriti, Paolo. Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000, Parts 400-1000. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P. 2002. Google Books. Web. 11 Jan. 2014.

My Trip to Florida

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Gainesville, FL. circa 1900. Crackers going to a Gators Game?

This is something of a ramble, impressions mostly. I drove across country on the I-10 from Long Beach to Gainesville, FL and back over the Christmas holidays. I saw my mom, sister, niece and her husband. They all have horses. Florida is for the most part incredibly rural, low wages prevail and land seems to be cheap. My mom lives in a senior government apartment in Gainesville and keeps her horse on some rich guy’s play farm. My sister and niece have their own places with piles of dogs and horses. It seems many people live in trailers in rural Florida. My female family members always placed having animals and the luxury of land for their horses over suburban comforts, although my sister has done a reasonable job of attaining both the agrarian and modern ideas. I got to ride a horse for the first time in 9 years.

Florida State Park where my sister and I went riding. A Spanish mission existed there back in the 1600’s.

By contrast my father who lives in California, has no animals, or land, he lives in a trailer in a retirement community in the foothills of San Gregorio mountain, wears old worn out clothes and only dresses up when he leaves his trailer to go visit old rodeo friends in Vegas. My own kids are urban, and have values similar to my own urban propensities as do their mothers. I have always been anti-fashion in my own way, although I understand proper job interview style, what was once the dressing up for church, weddings and funerals. I have always been obsessed with material symbols of wealth, as a child I was jealous of the suburbanites in their cookie cutter split level houses, with plumbing that worked. Our old farm, with dozens of animals and rich in land, fruit trees, all seemed nothing to me who had to struggle carrying buckets of water from a well when the pipes froze and when the well dried in the summer we had muddy water. But I am wandering into my childhood in Connecticut.

American Alligator at Paynes Prairie. I didn’t see any gators, but I heard some in a small swamp by the Post Office in Gainesville.

My sister and I took her horses, in her trailer and Ram tough Dodge out to some state park a few miles from her place where we saw feral pigs, not boars, no tuskers there, lots of deer and walkers as she calls the pedestrians, (she is very big on that zombie show on AMC). It was nice to be on horseback, feeling the energy of the horse, this one wanted to follow the pigs, she was curious, a quarter horse named “Sugar” I let her have her head and we had a good ride. Florida has a lot of forested land. Dirt roads go off into the back country where homesteads and farms exist. The land around the paved roads being more expensive is for the most part divided into what seem to be a few acre lots where people have mini-farmlet’s working at day jobs and coming home to their rural retreats, large enough for horses and in many cases a cow or two. Developments of more traditional suburbs rapidly fade a few miles from the City of Gainesville, which is mostly a college town and medical research center. There are lots of trees in Florida, Spanish moss, ponds and lakes full of gators. When I took a drive with my mother to the open country around Ocala, Florida, where there are lots of racing horse farms, I felt a relief, and hadn’t realize how oppressive hanging oaks blocking the sun as in the area around Gainesville can be.

Photo taken 2009 at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park: courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Former southern maximum range of the American Bison in it’s wild state east of the Mississippi river.

New homes are available for $130,000. My sister has 5 acres, a barn, double wide trailer home, and pays $500 a month mortgage, that seems like a fantastic deal from urban California where land is so expensive. But wages are low, RN’s make $15 an hour there, and most people work for little more than the federal minimum wage. The state seems to find that too high and one hears of agricultural workers working for much less, mostly Hispanic, the area has emerging retail stores catering to a Spanish speaking population. Even the local Hardees chain now has Mexican food on the menu. Gainesville as a university town has a diverse population. A block from my mother’s place is an Indian Market, Greek and Thai restaurants, an Asian market catering to Japanese, Thai and Chinese food, where I got miso, tofu and fresh made ramen style noodles to make soup. My mother calls my food weird and wouldn’t eat it. She likes a place called Cracker Barrel, where they have amazingly cheap meals with American food. A meat and potatoes place, lots of vegetable sides, with prices cheaper than Denny’s. She made a mean kielbasa with carrots, cabbage and potatoes, which she boils all together in stages. I was impressed, considering my mother doesn’t like to cook.

Mom’s Kielbasa looked something like this.

On the road prices varied. I went to an I-Hop in San Antonio Texas for breakfast, $15 for an omelet, hash browns and a glass of OJ. But it was fresh and a good omelet. On the other hand stopping at a local place, not part of a chain, on the east side of San Antonio, had great Mexican food for around $10 served by a tattooed rocker waitress. Orange Juice is an extra at the McDonalds in Florida, a plastic cup of it costs a buck extra. In California OJ is an option not an extra with the breakfast. Truck stop food seemed better, with salad bars and a general emphasis on a more varied diet than previously, the salad bar at one place was $9 for all you can eat soup and salad, and $13 for a full buffet, this was in Arizona. Driving to Florida I had riders who shared expenses and driving, an older trucker and his girlfriend. They told me that anyone can now use the facilities at truck stops where for $10 you can take a shower, use the laundry and generally rest up and get cleaned up. The facilities I saw were very well maintained. In fact all across the country, rest areas and facilities seemed generally better maintained than I remember from my last cross country drive in 2004. The roads also were much better, perhaps a result of the stimulus spending.

Mississippi River at I-10. When I drove across it was always dark, not lit up like in this photo.

Gas in Florida ranged from $3.24 to $3.45 a gallon. It seems near Gainesville to have been more expensive than in other parts of the state. I got gas in Louisiana for $2.99 a gallon, it was cheapest of all. Texas seemed to be $3.09 all the way across, New Mexico was $3.05 off the road a bit, they wanted $3.59 at this rip-off Chevron station right on the freeway, I just drove into the town of Deming and found the cheaper one within a few blocks. Arizona wasn’t much more where I paid $3.11 at a station in Buckeye west of Phoenix. California is universally more expensive; my local Food 4 Less charged $3.46 with a $.10 discount. What does it mean, California has higher emission standards and thus gas has to be refined to California standards, the highest in the nation. We pay more to breathe easier.

I went to Ocala with my mom and there were tons of beautiful large horse farms.

I like animals, and I always wondered why I am so adamant about living in the city, having urban interests, politics and such. My sister and mother have rural values, and are suspicious of the government and complain about the local county where apparently taxes are the highest in Florida and according to my sister corruption is rampant. She particularly dislikes the biomass plant. She blames it for the increase in the local utilities cost. Perhaps I will look into it. I am no fan of corn ethanol it is largely responsible for the increased cost of corn in the supermarkets. Speaking of food, it is very expensive in Florida compared to California and I played the dumb transplant complaining to cashiers about how much more expensive things were in Florida. They have a new Trader Joe’s there and I was wondering why things were so much more expensive there, one of the clerks told me transportation from California was the main reason. I asked why they didn’t buy locally, and he said perhaps when they get a local warehouse. Food is such an industrial process, in Florida tomatoes are grown for catsup in fast food restaurants and oranges are grown for pulping into juice. They are expensive for consumers there because production is geared for industrial distribution not individual consumption. Thus oranges in the form of juice are cheaper there than oranges in their natural state. I am not really all that knowledgeable about food production but the bits I do know make for some interesting outcomes. Policy makes a difference too. In California the tax base is more progressive, in Florida more regressive. They have wonderful highway rest areas in Florida, cheap housing and expensive food. California has cheap food, expensive housing and mediocre rest areas. But part of what I am seeing is the difference between urban and rural, in California rural areas have less expensive housing and urban areas in Florida are more expensive, it has a lot to do with the cost of the land, real estate values more than anything else. I would have to do a research paper on state intervention and cost of living in California versus Florida to see whether progressive or regressive work out better in the long run.

Florida cheaper housing, low wages, expensive groceries, California expensive housing, higher wages, cheaper groceries

Radio basically sucks across the country along the I-10 corridor, with the exception of New Orleans which is a beacon of culture compared to the rest of the south. The supposedly public air waves full of Jesus talk and gospel rock and gospel metal etc. The few NPR stations seemed to be valiantly struggling to retain that candle in the wind of culture, but there were whole stretches of Texas where there was nothing but the Bible. I grabbed onto an ESPN signal and listened to football talk for hours in West Texas. Even as far west as Blythe, CA I got a dose of smug fundamentalist preachers proudly talking about how their college was not accredited, didn’t want their preachers tainted with secular humanism. I can imagine their science curriculum, some kind of creationist horror story straight out of A Handmaiden’s Tale.

Scopes Monkey Trial seems to be going on non stop on Christian radio all along I-10, most irritating is its presence in the so-called public end of the fm dial where I expect public radio not fundamentalist radio.

Got nothing done artistically, not on the surface, observed, basked in familial bliss and read most of Great Gatsby, tried to listen to audio books I had downloaded to my laptop but it didn’t work well, I got through the first part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight while driving through the Texas hill country but it would not automatically go on to the next part and I didn’t want to stop every 20 minutes to link to the next part. So it was the crappy local radio for company. The hot spot I got to have internet service didn’t work, and my sister lives in a dead zone so even cell phone service was erratic.
Florida Cracker homestead.

Driving by a small cabin my sister mentioned that it was a cracker house. Now I was familiar with the Maryland term for Crackers which was a derogatory name for dumb rednecks. But in Florida it has a different meaning. So I went to the trusty Wikipedia to find some quick semi-factual info. I say semi factual because Wikipedia often changes its facts from one link to another.

By the 1760s the English, both at home and in the American colonies, applied the term “cracker” to Scots-Irish and English American settlers of the remote southern back country, as noted in a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”[citation needed] The word was later associated with the cowboys of Georgia and Florida, many of them descendants of those early frontiersmen who had migrated South.


A cracker cowboy
artist: Frederick Remington

I could go on about the history of Florida. Crackers showed up after the French and Indian wars when Spain temporarily ceded Florida to the British in 1763, who ceded it back to the Spanish in 1783 after the end of the American Revolution. And then sold the land to the USA in 1821. The Spanish were in Florida from Ponce De Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, to the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565 as the first permanent settlement by Europeans in the continental US, to the eventual sale to the USA in 1821, that is a long period of time and constitutes the majority of recorded Floridian history. The park I went riding in was part of that history. Interestingly enough the French had established a settlement in 1564, the year before St. Augustine, but were driven out by the Spanish a year later.


Trail in San Felasco State Park. Looks like one I rode horseback on, I saw some feral pigs in a place that looked like this.

The origins of San Felasco is a corruption of San Francisco, there was a Mission there to convert the local Indians who mostly died off from epidemics due to the presence of these white ’saviors’. You don’t hear much about native Florida Indians who had mostly died out. The Seminoles are mainly a mix of Creeks and other tribes escaping from the American settlers in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi with run away slaves who found safety in Florida until it was bought from the Spanish by the Americans.

The mission of San Francisco de Potano was founded in 1606 by the Franciscans Father Martín Prieto and Father Alonso Serrano. It was the first doctrina (a mission with a resident priest) in Florida west of the St. Johns River. The mission was at the south edge of present-day San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park (”San Felasco” is derived from the 18th-century Seminole pronunciation of “San Francisco”).

The Potano Indians were enemies of the Spanish for some 30 years after the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. In 1597 the chiefs of the Potano and other Western Timucuan tribes had pledged allegiance to the governor of la Florida in St. Augustine. Franciscan missionaries began visiting Western Timucuan villages that year, but a rebellion in Guale Province disrupted missionary efforts in Florida for a decade; missionaries continued to make occasional visits, but permanent missions were not established, even though chiefs requested them and returned to St. Augustine to renew their vows of allegiance to the Spanish authorities. The arrival of additional Franciscan missionaries in 1605 allowed the establishment of permanent missions in Western Timucua to proceed, beginning with the mission of San Francisco de Potano in 1606.

The Potano being defeated by Chief Utina with the assistance of French forces. This image supposedly based on an original etching by Jacques le Moyne is unlikely to depict Native American warfare accurately (from Wikipedia article on Potano).

Another thing I was fascinated with while in Florida was finding the highest spot. I drove very close to the Sugarloaf Mountain in Lake County, the highest spot in peninsular Florida, at some 308 feet I would hardly call it a mountain. But it has an uplift of some 200 feet from the surrounding region which makes it the most impressive landmass height in Florida.

Sugarloaf Mountain

The highest spot in Florida is called Britton Hill and is in the Panhandle in Northern Walton County at 345 feet, this place has barely a visible rise above the surrounding farmland. Florida has the lowest high point of any state. This spot doesn’t even rate as a hill. I was thinking of climbing it with mountain gear and pretending it was Everest.

Britton Hill.

To sum up, lots of driving, radio tuning, eating out of a bag of Trader Joe’s sunflower seeds and drinking bad gas station coffee, punctuated by my sisters tales of her asshole boss and my mom’s heath issues, talk of animals and relatives not present, lots of dogs jumping up on me, licking my head and cats sleeping in my lap, horse riding, petting, and feeding, all in all a rather relaxed family Christmas.

Corporatization of Organic Industry, Inevitable?

Friday, November 8th, 2013

From review of movie “Food, Inc.”

Inevitable Corporatization of Organic Industry? A Critique of “The Organic Myth”
By Gary Crethers

Diane Brady in her 2006 Business Week article, “The Organic Myth” argues that the organic food industry isn’t what people popularly believe it is, due to the growth of the industry and the entrance of major food corporations into the field. She uses anecdotal evidence and some statistical data to bolster her position. Brady provides plenty of evidence that the industry is being changed, but does not indicate measures the organic movement is using to counter these changes other than showing examples that are not viable in her article. No place does she address the effect of government policy other than as an arbitrator of standards. Seemingly sympathetic to the organic movement, Brady presents an argument for the inevitability of the corporatization and outsourcing of organic food production, which belies its roots in small scale local farming and marketing. The lack of presentation of the growth of local small scale producers and suppliers, or public policy choices that create a bias towards agribusiness models, is a failing that distorts Brady’s portrayal.

Brady first gives the reader her definition of what will be called the popular conception of an organic farm and its products:

Next time you’re in the supermarket, stop and take a look at Stonyfield Farm yogurt. With its contented cow and green fields, the yellow container evokes a bucolic existence, telegraphing what we’ve come to expect from organic food: pure, pesticide-free, locally produced ingredients grown on a small family farm (Brady 583).

Questioning ingredients in Stonyfield Yogurt

This is reasonable enough, it is her introduction into the story. The author then goes on to describe what has happened to Stonyfield Farm. “Chairman and CEO, Gary Hirshberg” (583), beleaguered head of a growing organic yogurt business having trouble finding suppliers to meet the demands of his clients. Furthermore he has sold the company to a large corporate entity from France, Groupe Danone to scale up to meet those demands (583). Hershberg’s quest for organic milk in the US leads him overseas to get New Zealand powdered milk. “It would be great to get all of our food within a 10-mile radius of our house,” he says. “But once you’re in organic, you have to source globally” (583, 586). Brady goes on to state her main point and the crux of the problem as she sees it:

Hirshberg’s dilemma is that of the entire organic food business. Just as consumers are growing hungry for untainted food that also nourishes their social conscience, it is getting harder and harder to find organic ingredients. There simply aren’t enough organic cows in the U.S., never mind the organic grain to feed them, to go around (583).

Organic Factory Farmed Cows in Pens not free range grazing according to Cornucopia Institute

This certainly is a challenge, and this is where the argument becomes a problem. Brady provides two options, global sourcing or industrial scale farming. Both have drawbacks, with overseas sourcing it is accountability, and with industrial scale it is tantamount to duplicating practices of agribusiness that are anathema to the values of the organic movement (587). The third model, that of small scale enterprises replicated to meet demand is treated as unrealistic by the author. Her examples of the attempts of the traditionalist small organic producers to meet demand are totally inadequate leaving the market open to inroads by major corporations, but also not giving traditional small farming that was the standard before world war two its due. That is where Bradly fails.

The article while it does give one reason to pause and consider what is happening to the organic food industry, Brady states:

Now companies from Wal-Mart to General Mills to Kellogg are wading into the organic game, attracted by fat margins that old-fashioned food purveyors can only dream of. What was once a cottage industry of family farms has become Big Business, with all that that implies, including pressure from Wall Street to scale up and boost profits (583).

Butterworks Farm owners Lazar family and friends

The only example of a small farm that meets the model she describes above of a pastoral small farm is that of Butterworks Farm in Vermont run by the Lazar family. The farm has forty five cows, and serves the local market that Hershberg wishes he could draw upon. “[T]he Lazars embody an ideal that is almost impossible for other food producers to fulfill” (585). Brady argues that this model is impractical because “a cow can only walk so far when it has to come back to be milked two or three times a day” (585). Why would the distance a cow can walk limit the ability of a series of small farmers to serve the country following the model of the Lazars? Is Brady to young to remember bottled milk delivered by the milk man from the local dairy? Such was the case even into the 1960’s. Rather than pursue the movement for smaller farms, Brady belittles these small scale practices.

Indicative of the slant Brady gives the story when she says, “the corporate giants have turned a fringe food category into a $14 billion business. They have brought wider distribution and marketing dollars. They have imposed better quality controls on a sector once associated with bug-infested, battered produce rotting in crates at hippie co-ops” (586). Brady returns to Hirshberg who states, “autonomy and independence and employment are contingent on delivering maximum growth and profitability” (588) and describing how “the movement is shedding its innocence” (584). Joe E. Scalzo, the CEO of White Wave parent company of Horizon, and head of one of the largest organic dairies following the factory farm model, states, “You need the twelve cow farms in Vermont - and the four thousand milking cows in Idaho” (588). Brady quotes Barbara Robinson of the USDA stating “The real issue is a fear of large corporations” (588). What is left understated is the legitimate nature of this fear. The emphasis on the advocates of corporatization makes it seem as if this is inevitable.

International sourcing of Organics, How certifiable is the food chain?

The problem is that the author has presented a lop sided approach that treats those who would maintain “the pastoral ethos that has defined the organic movement” (585), as hippies, and unrealistic idealists, thus making it hard to take seriously their efforts to maintain the original values of the organic movement as she stated in her introduction. Where is the alternative that is realistic and viable? She quotes from Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, he complains “big dairy farms produce tons of pollution in the form of manure and methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide — gases blamed for warming the planet” (588). That is sad, but Brady fails to present the reader with viable alternatives to the corporate takeover of the organic industry. Hirshberg’s semi corporate sellout seems to be a dubious proposition at best.

Brady presents the early days of the Stonyfield Farm “producing yogurt amid the rudimentary conditions of the original Stonyfield Farm was a recipe for nightmares, not nirvana,” Brady citing Hirsberg’s wife Meg who is a critic of the “bad old days” when Meg’s mother would loan money to the business while Meg begged her not to do it (584). Brady gives short shrift to the original founder of the farm Samuel Kaymen, who left after the merger with Groupe Danone because as Brady quotes Kaymen saying “I never felt comfortable with the scale or dealing with people so far away” (588). If this is meant to be sympathetic to the small is beautiful ethic, it certainly doesn’t read that way.

Organic Coops with membership participation, this is how we used to do it and still do in some places

The only real hope for those who believe in small, local organic production and distribution seems to be that the corporations will give up because “It simply isn’t clear that organic food production can be replicated on a mass scale” (584). She notes “Inconsistency is a hallmark of organic food…that’s an anathema to a modern food giant” citing the example of Heinz foods which had to resort to dried or fresh herbs instead of the quick frozen ones it was used to for its organic ketchup (586). A representative from Wal-mart disparages not being able to squeeze prices out of suppliers who have such inconsistency and irregular supplies (586). These factors may impact agribusiness practices, but with the increased profit margins, will this be enough of a hindrance? Brady doesn’t give any evidence of large corporations pulling out.

Giving little support to back Hirshberg’s more idealistic desire to “change the way Kraft, Monsanto, and everybody else does business” (584), instead Brady ends on the note with Hirshberg arguing for upscaling in something more akin to a damn the torpedos full steam ahead approach, “Our kids don’t have time for us to sit on our high horses and say we’re not going to do this because it’s not ecologically perfect,” says Hirshberg. “The only way to influence the powerful forces in this industry is to become a powerful force” (588). How this is to be done, Hershberg seems to thing joining the corporations to beat them is the approach. But Hershberg must maintain profitability acceptable to the new owners (583).

Corporate Giants Buying up Organic food producers

Other approaches such as Co-ops, long a staple in the dairy industry since the early 20th century and local distribution is not seriously considered, farmers markets in every neighborhood, or supermarkets with buyers that focus on local and organic sources, federal funding for small family farms instead of agribusiness is not even considered. The assumption is the market will handle it all but nowhere is there found any focus on the effects of federal dollars other than as a body to insure standards. Agriculture is shaped as much by policy as by the market and nowhere is this the clearly addressed by the author, thus although Brady makes interesting points, she avoids the larger issues of public policy choices, it is this market bias, and lack of presentation of alternatives that flaws her approach.

This is how milk used to come and still could be

Work Cited

Brady, Diane. “The Organic Myth” Business Week, 16, Oct. 2006: cover story. Rpt. in Elements of Argument. Eds. Annette, T. Rottenberg, and Donna Haisty Winchell. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2012. 583-588. Print.

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