How A Flea Spawned The Middle Class

There are around 2.8 billion people in Europe, North and South America, Japan and India. A huge chunk of these people are middle class. Neither rich nor poor, the middle classes are able to obtain comfortable shelter, an adequate supply of food, clothing and basic utilities like electricity and sewer service, as well as education for their children and entertainment for themselves. But I wonder how many people in the middle classes know that they owe their existence… to a flea!

Well, not to a flea, exactly. But rather Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that piggybacked on the flea… which in turn piggybacked on rats in the holds of ships. You might have guessed that I’m talking about the Black Death (a.k.a. the bubonic plague) which happened in Europe and the rest of the world between 1347 – 1351. Little is known about the epidemic outside of Europe except that it was also found in the Middle East, India and China and killed around 75 million people worldwide – around 34 million of which were Europeans. Of course, most of us learned about the Black Death in high school, yet we were often never taught about what the disease actually meant at the time and what happened after the disease had run its course…. which is odd, because one of the most important things to come out of the Black Death was the middle class itself!

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The Sad Saga of Diego Garcia

Imagine a scenario where Venezuela wanted a military base somewhere in the Caribbean and offered the United States a nice discount on oil if it would move the residents of Puerto Rico off their island, demolish all existing structures and lease it over to Venezuela in perpetuity… Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? Perhaps Puerto Rico isn’t a good example – with a modern infrastructure, a population of almost four million people and thousands of American businesses on the island, it would be a monumental task (logistically as well as politically) to pull something like that off. But what if the island’s population was much smaller? Could something like that happen?

Well, something like that already did. You might of heard of the island of Diego Garcia on the news. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia is one of the largest American airbases in the world, and planes regularly take off from the island for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. What you probably haven’t heard is how it came to pass that America got an airbase there in the first place. It’s a story of realpolitik, nuclear weapons, a few thousand Creoles and the mysterious powers of the British monarch.

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REVIEW: Illegal Tender

What: An awesome book by author David Tripp
Where: Bookstores everywhere
How Much: $16.38 from Amazon (as little as $2.70 used)

Would you believe me if I told you that one of history’s greatest mysteries was about… a handful of coins? Author David Tripp makes the case with his book Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, a tale of intrigue at the highest levels of government, back-room deals between shady coin dealers, a madness of pursuit worthy of the search for the Holy Grail… and one corpulent and corrupt king.

Here’s the basics of the story in a nutshell:

Theodore Roosevelt had long been critical of the beauty – or lack thereof – of American coinage. In fact, one of the things he was bound and determined to do while in the White House was to remedy this, and to that end he sent a brutally short and to-the-point memo to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortimer Shaw on December 27, 1904: “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” This memo set off a chain of events that eventually resulted in the hiring of famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coins. Although Saint-Gaudens was in ill health – as it turns out, he would barely live long enough to see his designs to completion – he took to the task with gusto, creating new designs for just about every American coin. Sadly though, most of Saint-Gaudens’ designs were simply too complex for the Mint to implement. Striking a coin four times was perfectly acceptable for medallions, but it just wasn’t cost-effective to do the same for pennies. Of all of Saint-Gaudens’ designs, the only one to be implemented without major alterations would be $20 gold piece, which was nicknamed the “double eagle”. The coin would go down in history as perhaps the most beautiful coin the United States ever minted, and it would enjoy robust circulation for around 25 years.

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What’s a “fish camp”?

When people move from one state to another, they often have a ton of questions when they arrive at their new locale, stuff like “how does voter registration work here?”, “when do I need to change my car’s tags?”, “when’s trash pickup day?”, “how late are liquor stores open around here?” and “what’s the deal with local handgun laws?”. That sort of thing.

Of course, when I moved from Atlanta to Belmont, North Carolina in early 2003 I asked all those questions (and more). But I noticed one thing that seemed to be particular to Gaston Country, North Carolina… the “fish camp”. I gathered (correctly, as it turns out) that a fish camp is a locally-owned restaurant that serves up heapin’ helpins of fried seafood. But why is it a camp? And why are almost all fish camps located in Gaston County?

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Helpful Outlook Shortcuts

Microsoft Outlook is much more than just an email program. Outlook has robust contact, calendaring and tasking capabilities and even has a built-in function to create electronic Post-It notes. However, if all you need to do is create a quick note, it’s kind of a pain to have to open Outlook and click New > Note, especially if your office computer is a PII-300. Fortunately, there’s a way that you can create a new Contact, Appointment, Task, Note, Journal Entry or even email without having to open Outlook itself. The following trick works with Outlook 2000 and higher:

First of all, you need to find the path to OUTLOOK.EXE on your system. With Office 2003, this would typically be C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\OFFICE11\OUTLOOK.EXE but you or your IT guy might have installed Office to a different location. To find out for sure, click on Start > Search and look for the file named OUTLOOK.EXE. Once you know the path, write it down.

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Installing Office & That Stupid Product Key

I have to install Office all the time at my job. One thing I absolutely hate about it is entering the stupid product key. If you have to install Office on a regular basis there’s an easy way to have the Office installer automatically insert the CD key for you. All you need to do is insert the Office CD-ROM in your computer and edit the SETUP.INI file that’s located in the root of the Office installation CD. When you first open the INI file, you’ll see a section that looks like this:

; If a value is present, the [Options] section gives the values of properties to apply to
; this installation. Specify them in the format:
; PropName=PropValue
; Remember to uncomment both the section name and the value names.
;USERNAME=Licensed User

Delete the semi-colon in front of the [Options] header and add the value PIDKEY= along with your CD-key like so:

; If a value is present, the [Options] section gives the values of properties to apply to
; this installation. Specify them in the format:
; PropName=PropValue
; Remember to uncomment both the section name and the value names.
;USERNAME=Licensed User

Save the edited INI file on your desktop (or Office network share, if you do network installations. If you go this route, you’re done). All you need to do next is burn a copy of the Office CD with the edited SETUP.INI file and the next time you install Office the CD key will automagically be filled in for you.

For more information, click here.

Hedy Lamarr, Adolf Hitler, and your cell phone

Can you name the Hollywood bombshell that partied with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, then developed a communications system to defeat them both… which is still an integral part of modern wireless communications?

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna on November 9, 1913. Aside from being amazingly beautiful, Eva was as smart as a whip, too. When she married her first husband – Friedrich Mandl, a German arms manufacturer – it wasn’t long before she knew his trade inside and out. And it was at various “business social” events that Kiesler ran in to Hitler and Mussolini… which is ironic, because both Kiesler and Mandl were Jewish. Mandl did everything he could do disguise his Jewish background, even converting to Christianity. Mandl was also insanely protective of his wife, and had her followed nearly everywhere she went. Between her husband’s obsessive jealousy and Germany’s ever increasing anti-Semitism, Kiesler just couldn’t take it anymore, so she fled to London.

It was in London that Kiesler met movie legend Louis B. Mayer – the last “M” of MGM. Mayer hired her on the spot and personally changed her name to the one film buffs and geeks everywhere still remember: Hedy Lamarr. She had already appeared in several European films – including the sexually provocative Ecstasy. But it would be in Hollywood where she’d have her greatest success, appearing in Algiers (1938), White Cargo and Tortilla Flat (both 1942) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949).

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How John Wilkinson Created The Modern World

If you’re a fan of the modern world, you owe a debt of gratitude to John Wilkinson. Wilkinson, whose father was an ironworker and a part-time inventor, was one of those fantastic industrialists that envision the entire world using his product in as many forms as possible. In Wilkinson’s England, people would sit at iron tables eating off of iron plates using iron cutlery in iron houses. Wilkinson was such a fan of iron that he was buried in an iron coffin and had an iron obelisk for a tombstone. But it wasn’t iron tables or iron plates that led John Wilkinson to change the world… it was cannon.

Prior to Wilkinson, almost all manufactured goods were made “in-house” by individuals. By that I mean that each product – and all the component parts therein – were either made by the manufacturer or someone local to him. Take a cabinetmaker, for example. It’s entirely possible that a cabinetmaker would have made all of his tools himself, as well as all of the component parts of a cabinet, such as the nails. And when he made those nails, he might make them the length of his pinky finger or as thick as his favorite book – or any other measure he chose. He might have “outsourced” his nail production to a local blacksmith, but that blacksmith was just as likely to use some other non-standard measure (such as the diameter of a coin) to determine the length of a nail. And, of course, a cabinetmaker or blacksmith in another town might use an altogether different measure to make his nails.

Of course there were large factories, especially when it came to complex products like carriages. Making a carriage required a blacksmith, a slew of carpenters and an upholsterer at a minimum. But a factory like this was more like a collection of tradesmen working under one roof than the single entity we think of today. If an upholsterer were to leave the factory, his replacement might have completely different tools and components than his predecessor. Of course, the factory owner had the ultimate say in the quality and appearance of his products, but by and large the tradesmen were left alone to do what they did best. And most of the time, “their best” was close enough.

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The War of Jenkins’ Ear

Wars have been started for any number of reasons: money, land, religion, xenophobia… you name it. But one of the strangest beginnings to any war in history has to be the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748).

Under the terms of the Treaty of Seville (1729), the British agreed not to trade in Spanish colonies. To enforce the treaty, the Spanish were allowed to board and inspect any British ship in Spanish waters.

In 1731, the British ship Rebecca was boarded and searched under the terms of the treaty. However, it seems that the Spanish minister and the British ship’s captain – Robert Jenkins – had some sort of disagreement that resulted in the Spanish minister cutting Jenkins’ ear off. For some reason, this news didn’t make it back to Westminster until 1739, but when it did the British public weren’t happy. British Prime Minister Robert Walpole reluctantly declared war on Spain, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear had begun.

The war itself wasn’t particularly interesting – which is why you’ve probably never heard of it before – but several interesting things did result from the war:

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The Confederados

Imagine walking through the Brazilian jungle. The lush canopy overhead nearly blocks out the sun and your senses are almost overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of the rain forest. Now imagine that you come to a clearing in the jungle. At the other side of the clearing, you see Tara from Gone With The Wind, complete with Anglo-Saxon owners, African slaves… even a Confederate flag flying proudly in the wind. Although it might sound like a fantasy – and perhaps the image of an exact copy of Tara in the Brazilian jungle is a bit overblown – I assure you that many as 10,000 Southerners packed up at the end of the Civil War and became Confederados in the Brazilian wilderness.

Here’s how it happened: towards the end of the Civil War, Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II – one of only two Brazilian monarchs, and the only native-born monarch in Brazilian history – knew that the Southern cause was lost. He knew that his country needed the expertise of experienced cotton farmers, so he sent recruiters to the American South offering subsidies and tax breaks to unrepentant Confederates as an incentive to move to Brazil. Even though no less a figure than Robert E. Lee cautioned Southerners against such a move, thousands packed up everything and started life anew in the jungles of Brazil.

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