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No Math Questions, Please!
Count your fingers and toes and most likely, you’ll find only ten of each. Our bodies have no physical manifestations that inspired the infinite complexity of modern mathematics. It is purely an invention of the mind of man. We need to explain our world. We need to explain the sky above our heads. And someone should be required to explain the ridiculous interest rates on the credit cards applications sent to me in the mail every day.
A good deal of mathematics was invented back when a calculator was a number two pencil and a leftover scrap of butcher paper. Some was etched in clay tablets and some was scratched in the dirt with a stick.
Ancient Greece, circa 190 BCE
“No, that’s what I want to name the baby,” said mom.
The proud parents look down at their newborn son. “I was hoping he’d grow up to be an Olympic athlete,” said dad. “We should give him a more athletic name.”
“Will you open your eyes,” cried mom. “He’s got a head the size of a ripe melon. I want him to be a philosopher. I want him to think great thoughts. I want him to invent mathematics that will scare the hell out of teenagers when they show up for the PSATs.”
The baby’s father pauses in confusion. This is his son. This is his legacy to the world. This is an issue that has to be settled immediately. “Are you sure that end is his head?”
Hipparchus of Nicaea was born approximately 190 BCE. He was one of the most talented of the ancient Greek astronomers and mathematicians. While many of his predecessors had firm beliefs about our world and the sky above, they did not have the mathematics to describe or prove their beliefs. They did however make major contributions. For example:
Thales of Miletus (circa 624 – 546 BCE), known as the first Greek philosopher, made basic contributions to the science of geometry. He predicted a solar eclipse in 585 BCE. Some scholars believe Thales delineated the constellation Ursa Minor (The Little Dipper) as a navigational aid to ancient sailors.
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) believed the earth was round (spherical). He is considered the world’s first true scientist, the founder of formal logic and an early proponent of scientific observation.
Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE), a somewhat unusual ancient Greek philosopher, believed that the primary goal of life should be pleasure and the pursuit of pleasure. This has absolutely nothing to do with logic or mathematics. I just thought you’d like to know that there was at least one person in ancient Greece who was a lot of fun at parties.
Euclid (circa 300 BCE) compiled what was known of mathematics as well as original work of his own into Euclid’s “Elements”, thirteen books containing not only geometry, but also some elements of what would later be known as algebra and trigonometry.
Archimedes (287 – 212 BCE) is considered one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the ancient world. He contributed to the development of geometry and applied mechanics.
Eratosthenes (circa 276 – 194 BCE), chief librarian of the Alexandrian Library and noted mapmaker, suggests that the Earth moves around the sun and estimates the Earth’s circumference.
Apollonius of Perga (circa 262 – 191 BCE) is yet another contributor to the field of geometry. He is most noted for his work, Conics, where he introduced the terms: ellipse, hyperbola and parabola.
Now, we return to our friend, Hipparchus of Nicaea, who has all of these wonderful predecessors trying to understand and describe the world and the universe into which he is born. Hipparchus adds his own observations of the ancient sky and of a more practical application, the surveying of land. From this, he invents trigonometry.
Trigonometry is derived from the Greek words trigonon, meaning “triangle” and metron, meaning “a measure”. A more modern derivation in some teenage slang dictionaries claim it derives from the same ancient Greek words, but with trigonon, meaning “math test” and metron, meaning “sick day”.
Having extra time on his hands, Hipparchus invents a method to accurately predict eclipses, classifies stars by brightness, estimates the size and distance of the moon, and calculates the length of the solar year to within six and one-half minutes. He also develops the concepts of longitude and latitude, founding the science of geography.
Thinking about the life of Hipparchus, a man so brilliant, so incredibly prolific and so lacking a good digital calculator, I am forced to re-examine and compare my own life’s incredibly modest accomplishments. I’m glad he’s dead.
My Kingdom from a Horse
I’m often asked to explain how I manage to get these fantastic interviews with dead people. It’s quite easy. Place a picture of the dead person on the wall. Stare intently at the picture. Now, lie to your editor. Voila!
The picture on my wall today is a line drawing of Genghis Khan, because the curator at the Metropolitan Museum refused to lend me their magnificent painted portrait. He claimed it was a priceless work of art. After a little haggling, I managed to get “priceless” down to 43.6 million dollars, which is still affordable, if I don’t eat for the next 40,000 years.
I settled for a line drawing and a pizza. Genghis Khan’s lips may be a little thin, but he had a lot to say:
Karakorum, Mongolia – 1227 AD
Cole: Welcome, Mr. Genghis Khan (c. 1162 – 1227), conqueror of the world’s biggest empire and unwashed barbarian, who’s apparently unaware that “filthy rich” is a metaphor. I understand you had a very humble beginning.
Khan: Not exactly. My father, Yisugei, was the chief of our tribe. A chief’s son is nobility of a sort.
Cole: But, you were raised by your mother.
Khan: Yes. My father died when I was very young. His part-time job was robbing rival tribes. Eventually, a group of Tatars poisoned him in revenge. I was only nine years old when he died, too young to be the new chief. Since mom wasn’t very good at robbery and murder, she’d fish and collect berries and wild onions to feed the family. Sometimes, she’d snare a few rodents.
Cole: You mean rats?
Khan: Certainly. You have something against barbecued rat?
Cole: No. I suppose with the right sauce…a little garnish…
Khan: You have to remember, the Mongolian tribes were starving much of the time. We fought so many battles against external enemies and amongst ourselves that our economy collapsed. The whole population of Mongolia sank into poverty. We moved to new pastures with the seasons and lived in “gers”, felt tents. You call them, yurts.
Cole: I did that once in Boy Scout camp. Did you have foul-smelling outhouses with spider webs across the seats?
Khan: We couldn’t afford such luxuries. But, it wasn’t bad. Mom made certain that I was trained to ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow. She taught me that to survive our harsh life, I would need good allies. In desperate times, you can eat them.
Cole: You killed your allies?
Khan: Only if they crossed me. I handsomely rewarded loyalty, even among the people I conquered. The carrot and stick theory works. My personal theory, the carrot and horrible, screaming death, works really well.
Cole: How were you able to conquer such a large area?
Khan: I organized the Mongol tribes by stressing the need for a unified front against external enemies. Then, I organized my army in decimal units, tens, hundreds and thousands. Each unit was a mixture of men from different tribes, so they became loyal to the unit and the army, not their tribe. I rewarded competence, bravery and loyalty with promotions and wealth, and not just among the nobility. All my men shared in the looting, pillaging and raping. I’m an equal opportunity employer.
Cole: So, your secret lay in the way you organized your army?
Khan: It was no secret. My horsemen conquered an empire. They were the best in the world. With a bow, they could shoot accurately at a full gallop. With a sword, no one wanted to meet them face-to-face.
Cole: Understandable. I’ve seen their dental hygiene. How did you handle your men in combat?
Khan: First, every conquest was meticulously planned. Really atrocious massacres are no accident. In battle, my men responded rapidly to hand signals. They could turn on a moment’s notice. We would wear our enemies down, and once I was sure we could easily overwhelm them, that’s when we would close in.
Cole: You mean, close in for the kill?
Khan: Yes. However, I always gave everyone a chance to surrender peacefully before battle. I tried diplomacy first. If instead, my enemy chose to let slip the dogs of war, I shot his dogs.
Cole: Explain your version of “diplomacy”?
Khan: I would usually leave a bag of severed human ears at the gates of a city, along with a demand for submission. If they refused to submit, I would kill everyone and everything in the city.
Cole: Severed human ears!
Khan: It’s very effective. After I wiped out a few cities in each country, almost all of my empire submitted without a fight.
Cole: SEVERED HUMAN EARS!
Khan: You think that’s disgusting? You should try my mother’s recipe for rat!
Run??? to the Store, Mercedes
Let’s face facts, no one runs to the store anymore. Granted, there are still a few health conscious people who walk; and likely, there are families with children old enough to run errands, but our kids are not running or walking. They are balking and asking mom and dad for a ride. From the time we are toddlers, we are taught that the right foot is for the gas and the left foot is for the brake.
However, even this mobility solution is inadequate for some people. They not only want to ride, they want to ride in luxury. These people suffer from a genetic defect making it impossible for their bottoms to sit on anything but fine leather, and they are indeed worthy of our sympathy. It must be horrible to go through life unable to put your feet up if you can’t find a chair covered with the tanned pelt of a dead animal.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. In truth, the luxury conscious are just as happy to plomp their backsides down onto Chinese silk or Egyptian cotton.
Still, the concept of combining luxury and mobility is ingrained in our society, and I believe the king of the luxury automobile market is Mercedes Benz.
I know there are some people who will argue with me, claiming that Rolls Royce should be the king. However, you must consider not just the exorbitant cost of a Rolls Royce, but the routine maintenance. Paying more the a thousand dollars US for new brake pads is not luxury, it’s first order stupidity.
Rolls Royce Dealership, Present Day
“I’ve tuned up your car, Mr. Pompous.”
“Thank you. Now, let me pay my bill so you can send your son to Harvard for four years.”
For those of us stuck in reality, Mercedes Benz is tops in the luxury car market.
Did you know that Mercedes Benz began with its most un-luxurious part, an engine? The Mercedes 35 HP engine was in its day a radical innovation.
Wilhelm Maybach (pronounce My-bock) was born February 9, 1846 in Heilbronn, Germany. He became an engine designer at the age of nineteen, forming a lifelong friendship and partnership with his mentor, Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler (b. 1834, d. 1900). The two men designed small, high speed engines for use in transportation. In 1885, they patented an efficient, light, four-stroke internal combustion engine and fitted one to a bicycle creating the first motorcycle. Maybach and Daimler’s engines were also used in boats, balloons and in an eight passenger tram. This modest success led them to form the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler Motor Corporation) in 1890.
They sold their first automobile in 1892.
Consider now that the first automobiles were little more than engines attached to stagecoaches and buggies, but when Maybach designed the Mercedes 35 HP engine, he and Daimler were inspired to create something entirely different. Their 1901 automobile was named after its engine, the Mercedes 35 HP. This was no revamped horse buggy. It was a true automobile with a long wheelbase, wide track, low height, low center of gravity and an engine that could propel it to the blistering speed of 40 MPH (64 KMH). It was a screamer!
If you happen to be a fan of NASCAR, Formula One, or any other racing circuit, you may find it hard to believe that the Mercedes 35 HP engine was inspired by auto racing. This is one of those instances where you will have to put yourself in your great-great grandfather’s shoes, or perhaps, those of his family horse, Nelly. An automobile driving past the family buggy at 40 MPH was unbelievably fast, reckless, dangerous, and worst of all, those damn machines scared hell out of Nelly!
At a later date, I may consider expounding on the horse vs. automobile controversy of that period in our history, and I hope that you will not consider it a spoiler if I tell you now that the horse lost.
While the automobile was named after its engine, the Mercedes 35 HP itself was named after Mercedes Jellinek, the ten year-old daughter of Emil Jellinek, a dealer and successful race driver who admired Maybach’s work and became one of the first customers for Daimler Motor Company. Jellinek was particularly interested in Maybach’s new engine design for racing on the French Riviera, which was a little different in 1901. There were no topless beaches and no one flew in for a little weekend gambling unless the prevailing winds happened to blow their hot air balloon in the right direction. However the Riviera was still a hot spot for the filthy, filthy rich playboys of the day, so I have little doubt that, while not on the beach, someone somewhere was running around topless.
European high society purchased a large volume of Mercedes automobiles and the Mercedes brand was trademarked in 1902. With the success of the Mercedes 35 HP, pioneers Maybach and Daimler continued on their path of innovation. During their long careers, the two inventors are credited with designing numerous innovations, both separately and together, for the automobile industry. These include the first V-block engine, the honeycomb radiator and the float-feed carburetor; the principles of the latter are still used in today’s automobiles.
And what happened to little Mercedes, who lives on in the name of an automobile legend? Mercédès Adrienne Manuela Ramona Jellinek had two scandalous marriages and, stricken with cancer, died young and impoverished. In the end, it’s certain that she was not seated on finely crafted leather or able to afford a Mercedes.
It’s a Latte Whatever
Coffee shops are found nearly everywhere around the world. It sometimes seems that another variety of coffee appears just about every day. Add the seemingly infinite number of ways to prepare coffee and you might have a menu that’s longer than this planet’s equator and just a bit shorter than the list of men who want a date with Halle Berry.
I have plebian tastes. In the morning, I want a hot cup of plain black coffee, preferably Colombian. While I appreciate the hard work of entrepreneurs bringing new coffees, exotic blends and inventive recipes to market, I have developed certain curmudgeonly rules by which I live:
- Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee.
- I don’t want to try your new blend. I want my coffee.
- I don’t care if latte whatever is popular. If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t drink it.
- Don’t ruin my coffee with toxic substances like cream and sugar.
- At six AM, none of the above is negotiable. I have a gun!
As I age my way into advanced senility, I’m toying with adding a sixth rule concerning people who are wide-awake and blatantly cheerful first thing in the morning. However, I’ll save that for my future discussion of euthanasia.
Now, let’s take a look at the history of coffee:
Coffee consumption may have started as early as the sixth century AD. It was used as a food, a medicine and an additive for wine. There are several legends about the first use of coffee, but no verifiable facts. My favorite legend, which I’m making up at this very moment, is about a young couple with colicky triplets. After a year without sleep, they were willing to eat or drink just about anything. The rest is coffee history.
Coffee is native to Ethiopia. It may have derived its name from Kaffa, the province where it’s believed the plant originated. Coffee spread to the Middle East and was cultivated there perhaps as early as 850 AD. Cultivated coffee remained in the Middle East for centuries, but the product was actively traded. Coffee arrived in the East Indies during the 1600’s thanks to the efforts of Dutch merchants eager to profit from a new cash crop, and no doubt, craving their own personal caffeine fix.
In another direction we find one of my personal heroes, Captain Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a young military officer resourceful enough to carry his own coffee plant to the West Indies. Being a generous soul, he kept the plant alive on the long journey from a botanical garden in France all the way to Martinique by sharing his daily water ration. Nearly every coffee plant in the Western Hemisphere is believed to be a descendant of this single plant. God bless you, Captain de Clieu!
In the future Hollywood movie version of Captain de Clieu’s voyage, there will be pirates, blazing canons and a half-naked damsel-in-distress, whom Captain de Clieu deeply loves even though she’s secretly stealing his coffee beans to feed a six-cup-a-day habit. It’s rumored that if a certain unnamed major studio is willing to cough up enough money, the coffee plant will play itself.
Coffee as a beverage first appeared around 1300. It appears in Europe and North America in the mid-1600s. Coffee was commonly brewed with spices. Sugar was added by the Egyptians to soften bitterness in the beans. Eggs were added for the same purpose in colonial America. The use of milk in coffee began in the late 1600’s.
Coffeehouses became gathering places for people to discuss politics, religion, literature and new ideas; exactly the type of places that most governments dislike. Charles II of England called coffeehouses, “seminaries of sedition”, but then the English kings have a long history of accepting new ideas only about thirty seconds before their subjects lop off their heads. Charles II calmed down. He probably had a cup of coffee.
Coffee cultivation reached Brazil, today’s largest producer, in 1729, the same year diamonds were discovered. European interest and settlement in Brazil increased quickly. I’d like to say it was the coffee that drew such interest and not the prospect of becoming disgustingly wealthy in the diamond trade, but I’ve already told you about the young couple with colicky triplets. One really whopping lie per story is my general rule.
Coffee production spread fairly rapidly across South and Central America. Central Africa became another major producer after World War II. Coffee consumption increased worldwide during the twentieth century and coffeehouses are still the place to discuss politics, religion, literature and new ideas. However, coffeehouses located on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill generally keep any new ideas very, very simple…at least, till after everyone’s had their coffee.
Good Witch, Bad Witch, Burnt Witch
Witches and witchcraft are very confusing. Ferreting out evildoers is a good thing until it turns into a witch-hunt, which is a bad thing. You’ll gladly take your son to see a witch at a haunted house on Halloween, but tell him not to marry one. In The Wizard of Oz, the good witch allows a little girl named Dorothy to wear a pair of glass slippers, a clear case of child endangerment. Meanwhile, the bad witch tries to take the glass slippers away from this innocent child. (Okay, she tries to steal them. Close enough.) It’s no wonder we’re confused! Which is a good witch; which is really bad? And, was she a witch before or after she found out that you slept with her roommate?
Stories of witchcraft are found in many societies going back to prehistoric times. In the Old Testament of the Bible, sorcery is punishable by death. In ancient Greece and Rome, witchcraft was only illegal if it did harm. In most of Europe and Central Africa, witches were generally believed to be wholly evil. African witches were supposedly fat from eating large quantities of human flesh, which may explain all those missing white hunter stories.
Nearly everyone thinks of witches as ugly, old women, who use animals as assistants to work their black magic. Among those noted are cats and dogs (Europe), baboons (Africa) and hyenas and owls (Japan). In the 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz, the use of flying monkeys appears to be unique, as was the invention of LSD in 1938.
In modern societies, you are usually free to make up your own mind whether to believe in witches or not. However in 15th century Europe, not believing in witches and witchcraft was heresy. Witches existed! They consorted with the devil. They seduced good men from the righteous path. They danced naked in the moonlight without an MTV camera crew!
Heresy is a belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine. By definition, it does not negate the free will of man that most religions support with their most basic teachings. Heresy has gotten a bad name through the actions of a very few, who have altered this definition to read: “Believe the way we do, or we’ll torture and kill you.” Regardless of their political or religious beliefs, the vast majority of people agree that the torture and murder of innocent heretics is an unconscionable and blatantly immoral waste of human life, much like time spent watching reality TV.
Still, America had its witch-hunt. Salem, Massachusetts was a theocracy, a Puritan church-state, which was gripped by mass hysteria and held witch trials in 1692. Nineteen women and one man were hung. They were most likely guilty of nothing more than being a little odd or a little eccentric. These “witches” were tortured to obtain confessions. They were then tried, convicted and killed by false witnesses, fanaticism and the moral cowardice of the colony’s leaders. By pure coincidence, false witnesses, fanaticism and moral cowardice are the same ingredients necessary today for an effective congressional lobby.
However, America’s Puritans were novices when it came to witch persecution. On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII feared that witchcraft was spreading in Europe, especially Germany. He issued a bull (papal edict) authorizing and encouraging witch hunting. This led to the issuance of another document, the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer for Witches in 1486. This document was authored by Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer, two Dominicans, and became the authoritative text on the detection, interrogation and extermination of witches. Even in 1486, most people believed witchcraft was silly superstition. Why then should Johann and Heinrich’s Hammer recommend that you hunt witches? I have a theory based on the following excerpt from the Hammer:
First the jailers prepare the implements of torture, then they strip the prisoner (If it be a woman, she has already been stripped by other women, upright and of good report).
Johann and Heinrich were educated men in a remarkably prudish society. Obviously, they knew a traditional strip club was out of the question.
The Hammer for Witches also provides specific instructions on obtaining a confession. The prisoner is “persuaded to confess, being led to believe that he will in that case not be put to death”. But then the Hammer demands that “even if he confess his crime, he will be punished with death.” Despite the male-oriented wording, the majority of witches prosecuted were female. The estimates of witches burned or otherwise killed from the 15th to the mid-18th centuries, range up to the hundreds of thousands. Inquisition was a thriving business.
Thankfully, our world has progressed. “Give them a little hope, then burn them” no longer frightens modern man. He’s been to a single’s bar.