Napoleon Bonaparte in 1794 Words

August 17, 2019

I always wondered why Napoleon Bonaparte was considered a great military strategist, even though he lost 3 entire armies over his career.  I read a 900 page biography of Napoleon this summer to help me understand his supposed brilliance.  This biography is so detailed as to include such facts as Napoleon had a good report card when he was 12 years old.  I’m writing this essay for those readers who have some interest in Napoleon, but not enough to care about what grades he made in school.

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Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was a good, hard-working tactician in his earlier years.

Napoleon was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica near the coasts of Italy and France.  His family was of Italian descent and would be considered upper middle class by today’s standards.  His family sent Napoleon to military school in France when he was 10 years old, and he stayed there for 8 years, rarely seeing family members.  A French scholarship covered most of his expenses.  Napoleon was a voracious reader, spending much of his time in the library, and he had few friends.  He became an artillery officer, but most of his early years were spent on approved and unapproved leaves of absences.  He was busy straightening out the family business on Corsica (a silkworm orchard) because his father had died at a young age.  Also, he was reluctant to take part in a French Civil War between royalists and Republican revolutionaries.  He first distinguished himself as a competent military man when the artillery unit he commanded helped the French repel a British occupation of the French port of Toulouse.

European powers were almost constantly at war during this time period.  England used its powerful navy to dominate overseas trade, while France contested with Austria over all the little kingdoms that today make up Germany and Italy (neither of which existed as a country yet).  Victory in a battle usually meant the winner could insert a puppet king on the throne of a little kingdom.  Austria was mostly winning these battles when Napoleon was put in charge of the French army in northern Italy.

Napoleon enjoyed a rapid rise in rank for 2 reasons: his ability, and because most of the older French officers consisted of aristocracy that had been purged during the French Revolution.  Still in his mid-twenties, Napoleon commanded a French army that defeated the Austrians and conquered all of Italy except for Sicily.  Meanwhile, other French generals were losing against Austria in Germany.  Napoleon became a national hero and developed a cult of personality following because of his great military victories.

The French government next assigned the task of conquering Egypt to Napoleon as a way to counter British control of the Mediterranean.  At this time the Ottoman Empire owned Egypt, and it was defended by primitive mercenaries known a Mamluks who fought on horseback with spears and muskets.  The more technologically advanced French army easily outclassed them and conquered Egypt.  Napoleon dreamed of conquering the land all the way to India, like his hero, Alexander the Great, so he led his force across the Sinai desert and into what today is Israel.  The French army murdered prisoners and shot women and children during their advance.  Napoleon’s advance was finally stopped at Acre, a fort just north of the location of modern day Haifa, Israel where a cruel Arab king and his Jewish general organized a defensive stand with help from the British navy.  Napoleon was forced to withdraw his forces back across the Sinai desert because the British navy had blockaded his supplies from crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  Without orders Napoleon snuck across the Mediterranean in a boat, leaving his army to succumb to the plague and a British expeditionary force a few years later.

France was a democracy during this time, the only one in Europe, but it was weak.  The executive branch was run by a committee. France was at war with everybody, highway robbery was common, there was a royalist revolt in 1 province, overseas trade was ruined, and taxation and conscription were unpopular.  Elections were fraudulent, and government corruption was the norm.  A few politicians along with the police and the army decided to use Napoleon’s cult of personality popularity to stage a coup d’état and establish a stronger more autocratic government.  This is how Napoleon was installed as the leader of France.

Napoleon was a competent administrator.  He took measures to stabilize the economy and reduce the rampant armed robbery.  He married Josephine shortly before resuming France’s war with Austria.  While he led the French army across the Alps to reconquer Italy (France had lost it when Napoleon was in Egypt), Josephine had an affair with an Austrian military officer.  After Napoleon discovered this betrayal, Josephine never cheated on him again, but Napoleon had at least a dozen mistresses and fathered at least 2 illegitimate children during their marriage.  He was no great lover, though.  His mistresses referred to him as the 3 minute man.

Napoleon didn’t believe in royalty and thought people should achieve their rank through their ability, like he did.  Nevertheless, he made himself an emperor for life and installed his brothers on the thrones of Naples and Spain.

A peace treaty with England didn’t last long, and Napoleon planned to invade England.  He organized a massive army on the northern coast of France and Belgium.  Austria took this as an opportunity to resume their war with France–a big mistake.  Napoleon was able to rapidly move his army from northern France to Germany where he surrounded and crushed the Austrian army and its allies at Austerlitz.  Napoleon didn’t invent the corps level of operations that allowed him to execute this remarkable feat, but he was the first in history to use it.  Armies used this operational method through WWII.  It allowed for more flexibility and mobility.  Unfortunately, this great land military victory was offset at the Battle of Trafalgar where his navy was wiped out by the British navy.  This led to a long standstill with England, but the Austrians were forced to surrender when Napoleon occupied Vienna.

Napoleon had French, German, and Polish troops under his command.  Nevertheless, Prussia (now just a province in east Germany) decided to fight a war with Napoleon.  Napoleon’s army kicked Prussia’s ass at the Battle of Jenna.  Then he kicked Prussian and Russian ass at the Battle of Eylau. The allies were forced to agree to a peace agreement at Tilsit that overwhelmingly favored France.  Napoleon also used forces to occupy Spain, sticking his brother on the throne.  A long, brutal, and bloody guerrilla war was fought in Spain throughout the rest of Napoleon’s reign.  However, Napoleon sold North America west of the Mississippi to the U.S. because he knew he couldn’t hold that territory, now that he had no navy to speak of. During 1809 Austria declared war on France again and yet again Napoleon’s army kicked their ass, this time at Wagram.  Napoleon now schemed to make Austria a permanent ally.  He divorced Josephine and married Maria-Louise, the daughter of the Austrian king.  This did foster an alliance between the 2 countries, but it didn’t last when Napoleon started losing battles.

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This was the greatest extent of Napoleon’s Empire.

Napoleon’s economic dominance of Europe demanded that all countries under his influence stop importing British products.  Russia refused to boycott English goods, and Napoleon decided to force them to comply.  He led the French army in an invasion of Russia, hoping the Austrians would help him.  Austria officially agreed but didn’t really.  Napoleon’s overreach led to his downfall.

The Russians avoided major battles and fought rearguard delaying actions as they retreated.  The goal was to lure Napoleon’s army deep into Russia where his supply lines would get too thin and his soldiers would starve.  The strategy worked.  Typhoid fever and starvation took an high toll.  The Russians scorched earth strategy meant there was no food along the main roads.  Groups of soldiers leaving the main roads to forage in the countryside were murdered by Cossacks (irregular Russian cavalry).  Finally, the Russians stood and fought 1 major battle at Borodino in front of Moscow.  The French won, but it was an exhausting fight.  The Russians burned down Moscow, and there was no food for the French army when they captured it.  Napoleon mistakenly thought the Russians would surrender when he captured Moscow, like the Austrians did when he captured Vienna.  Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat back to Germany, and the Russian winter and the Cossacks pretty much destroyed what was left of the French army.

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Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.  There was no food and temperatures fell well below zero everyday that winter.  They returned on foot…they were forced to eat all their horses.

The next spring, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England all ganged up on France.  Austria and Prussia, tired of getting their asses kicked by Napoleon, adopted his tactics and were much tougher opponents now.  Astonishingly, Napoleon was able to assemble a formidable army from remnants, new recruits, and troops from occupied Spain; but without much cavalry because they had eaten so many of their horses during the Russian campaign.  But now, Napoleon was outnumbered by at least 3-1.  He won a few more battles, but some of his generals and their army units defected to the allies, and he was forced to abdicate his throne.  He was sent into exile to the Italian island of Elba.

Less than 1 year later, he escaped from the island with 1100 men including 80 of his household servants, and he traveled through France gaining defectors from the army.  Napoleon was still popular within the army but was not well liked by the nobility and working class merchants who were tired of their sons dying in his constant wars.  Nevertheless, he regained the throne.  The allies went back to war with France, and this time Napoleon met his match in Belgium against the British general, Wellington.  When military historians war game the Battle of Waterloo, the French side usually wins.  But by now Napoleon was fat, tired, and out of shape.  He reminds me of an ex-champion boxer who makes a comeback when he is past his prime but just doesn’t have it any more.  Napoleon and his officers made numerous blunders that turned potential victory into disastrous defeat.  Napoleon abdicated his throne again and surrendered to the British.

The British sent Napoleon to exile on the rocky island of St. Helena in the middle of nowhere.  This time there was no escape.  He died in 1821 at the age of 51 from stomach cancer after suffering horribly.  Stomach cancer was a disease inherited within his family.  His father, brother, 2 sisters, nephew, and 1 of his illegitimate sons died of stomach cancer–most during middle age.

Reference:

Roberts, Andrew

Napoleon: A life

Penguin Books 2014

 

 

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Saber-tooth Cats (Smilodon fatalis) and Dire Wolves (Canis dirus) Did Not Compete as Much as Previously Thought

August 10, 2019

Image result for Charles Knight classic painting of La Brea tar pits dire wolf

This classic painting of dire wolves contesting a carcass with a saber-tooth may give the wrong impression.  A new study suggests their diets didn’t overlap as much as previously thought.

A new study analyzing the isotopic chemistry of tooth enamel from carnivores excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits determined there was not as much overlap in the diets of saber-toothed cats and dire wolves as previously thought.  An earlier study examined the isotopic chemistry from bone collagen of La Brea carnivores, and the results of that study suggested the big 3 carnivores (saber-tooths, dire wolves, and giant lions– Panthera atrox) competed for the same prey items.  However, bone collagen can decay and become contaminated, altering the accuracy of the results.  Tooth enamel is more durable, and scientists believe it provides more accurate results.  This new study concluded both saber-tooths and giant lions were ambush predators that lived in woodlands or forests and fed upon forest-dwelling herbivores such as deer, tapir, and woodland bison.  Dire wolves and coyotes (Canis latrans) lived in more open environments and chased down horses, camels, and plains bison.  The diet of saber-tooths, giant lions, and Pleistocene cougars (Puma concolor) resulted in mathmatical values of isotopic bone chemistry identical to those of modern cougars.  The diet of coyotes changed over time.  During the Pleistocene coyotes scavenged meat from megafauna.  Following the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, coyotes evolved toward a reduced size and fed more on bone, smaller animals, and even fruit.  The diets of timber wolves (Canis lupus) and cougars did not change following the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna.

The results of this study did not surprise me.  Saber-tooths and giant lions were built for ambushing prey in the cover of thick vegetative growth found more in woodlands than grasslands.  So of course it makes sense they preyed upon animals in those environments.

Reference:

Desantis, L; et al

“Causes and Consequences of Pleistocene Megafauna Extinction as Revealed from Ranch La Brea Mammals”

Current Biology 29 (15) 2019

Pleistocene Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus)

August 3, 2019

During July and August I always have watermelon in my refrigerator.  After I run 3.3 miles in 95 degree F heat, nothing quenches my thirst better than a crisp cold slice of watermelon.  Primitive people living in the deserts of North Africa ~5000 years ago discovered the same usefulness of this species, but the story of the watermelon began long before that.

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Wild citron melons in South Africa.  They are a different species than the sweet watermelon we commonly know, but the type specimen (the first described by biologists during the 18th century) of Citrullus lanatus was mistakenly described from a specimen of this species, C. caffer.  Scientists didn’t discover this mistake until a DNA test of the museum specimen was conducted a few years ago.

A recent study of watermelon genetics estimated the citrullus genus (which includes all watermelons) first diverged from the rest of the Cucurbitidae family about 11 million years ago.  This family also includes bottle gourds, squash, and many other plants. There are 6 species of watermelon, and they originally occurred in Africa.  A single species of the 6 spread to India and Australia during pre-history, and man may or may not have been a factor in the distribution of this species.  The sweet watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) diverged from a sister species within this genus about 3 million years ago.  All members of the Citrullus genus are desert vines that survive arid conditions, but thrive and produce heavy yields following occasional downpours.  The abundant seeds are consumed by megafauna such as elephants and rhinos and spread across the landscape in their dung.  Today, elephants often destroy grain crops interplanted with cultivated watermelons when they seek out this delicacy.

The oldest known remains of sweet watermelons were found at a 5,000 year old settlement in Libya.  Harry Paris believes desert people in North Africa began cultivating watermelons as a portable source of water, rather than as a food source, though the seeds are edible and nutritious.  The first watermelons were green-fleshed, watery, and bland or even bitter.  Early farmers selected for sweeter fruit, and the gene for red flesh is paired with an increased sugar content.  Soon ancient mariners started carrying watermelons on their ships as a source of potable water and spread them throughout the warmer parts of the world.  Christopher Columbus brought watermelons to North America in 1493, and the Indians planted them everywhere they would grow.  William Bartram enjoyed a feast of oranges and watermelons when he visited Florida in the fall of 1775.

There are over 1200 varieties of cultivated watermelon.  I’ve successfully grown 2–Georgia Rattlesnake and Florida Black Diamond.  I used to pull out all the stops using fertilizer and special mulching tarp and was able to grow 35 pounders.  This year I bought a cheap $1.50 pack of Congo watermelon seeds and put minimal effort into the project and was justifiably rewarded with zero melons.

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Georgia Rattlesnake.  I successfully grew 35 pounders years ago.

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Black Diamond.  I successfully grew these 1 year too.

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My late grandfather grew Crimson Sweet watermelons.

Among the more interesting varieties of watermelon are the Carolina Cross and the Christmas King.  The Carolina Cross was bred for its prodigious size and holds the record for biggest watermelon ever grown at 351 pounds.  This could be served at baseball games and fairs.  The Christmas King is less sweet than most watermelons but if kept in a cold place will still be edible in late December.  How is that for an extended season?

Most watermelons sold in supermarkets today are seedless–a recent development.  Farmers began growing seedless watermelons during the 1990’s.  To make a seedless watermelon farmers chemically induce a change in the chromosome number in 1 of the parents.  When they backcross the 2 melons with different chromosome numbers it results in a seedless (or sterile) offspring in the same way crossing a horse with a donkey results in a sterile mule.  Modern seedless watermelons are of consistent quality and are just as sweet, crisp, and aromatic as the old time varieties.

Watermelons are mostly sugar water, but they do contain Vitamin C, a type of beta-carotene known as lycopene, and potassium.

The muskmelon (Cucomis melo) is not closely related to the watermelon but shares a common history.  It also was originally cultivated in the North African desert as a portable source of water.  Later, famers over many generations improved the quality of the fruit by selecting the sweeter individuals for seed.  Most people call muskmelons “cantaloupe.”  However, cantaloupe specifically refers to just 1 variety of muskmelon first cultivated in Western France.

References:

Chomicki, G.; and S. Renner

“Watermelon Origins Solved with Molecular Phylogenetics including Linnean Material: another example of Museomics”

New Phytologist Trust October 2014

Paris, Harry

“Origin of the Dessert Watermelon, Citrullus lanatus

Acta Horticulture March 2017

Ratatouille

July 27, 2019

During summer I utilize vegetables that are of the best quality this time of year.  I like to make Greek salad, gazpacho, eggplant parm, and ratatouille.  The vegetables in ratatouille grow best in regions with warm climate, and this dish originated in the south of France where a Mediterranean climate prevails.  It’s a fairly recent dish, probably not invented until about 1877, and it descends from French peasant stews traditionally made with beans, potatoes, root vegetables, and fatty meat.  These ingredients are less available during the warmer months, so rural people began substituting what they grew in their garden in the summer.  Almost all of the vegetables in ratatouille were unknown in Europe until the 16th century.  Trade brought eggplant from India; and tomatoes, peppers, and squash from South America.  Other countries have similar dishes, such as caponata from Italy, and numerous vegetarian dishes from India.  This is how I make ratatouille.

My ratatouille.  I cooked the bell peppers separate because my wife can’t eat them.  My daughter refuses to eat eggplant, and I had to make something else for her.

Slice 1 or 2 eggplants into long wide strips and add salt to them.  Let them sit for an hour until the salt forces the extraction of the bitter liquid inside.  Then wash the salt off.  Many chefs claim this step is unnecessary, but I made the mistake of listening to them once, and the eggplant was bitter.  Slice 3 or 4 zucchini into long wide strips.  Place the zucchini and eggplant into a pan covered with a thin layer of olive oil and sprinkle salt on the vegetables.  Roast them in the oven at 375 for half an hour.  (The size of the vegetables varies and so does oven temperatures.  Use common sense and knowledge of your own oven when making this.)

Meanwhile, in a skillet sautee an onion, 1 or 2 sweet peppers, and some garlic in olive oil.  Sprinkle salt on them. When the vegetables in the oven are done dump them in the skillet with the other vegetables.  They should be swimming in olive oil.  Add a 6 ounce can of tomato paste plus 6 ounces of water to this along with some basil and oregano.  Heat them together briefly and it’s done.

Ratatouille is a nice side dish, but I prefer to make it the focus of the meal.  It’s satisfying because the eggplant has a meaty texture, and the olive oil is a good substitute for meat fat.  I like to serve it with hard boiled eggs and crusty bread.  One could poach eggs in it, but I like hard boiled eggs better.

I’ve even invented an excellent sandwich using leftover ratatouille.  Heat the leftover ratatouille in the microwave.  Smear some of the excess olive oil on the bottom of a sturdy bun.  Add a layer of salami and put a slice of provolone cheese on the salami.  Place a big spoonful of warm ratatouille on the cheese so that it melts and top with the other half of the bun.

Do Astronauts Masturbate in Space?

July 20, 2019

My favorite segment of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO is his New Rules.  A few weeks ago he was critical of the ridiculous aspiration some chumps have that humans should go to Mars.

He’s right.  Wasting money on a manned trip to Mars is really a stupid idea.  Humans can not live in space.  Humans can exist in space for awhile, using very expensive equipment, but I wouldn’t call that living.  Some nerds expressed their outrage toward Bill Maher on Twitter, but I defended him and got into an argument with Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer who works for Madein Space Aerodynamics–a company that manufactures optic fiber and other products in micro-gravity.  On his Facebook page Fagin claims that he is going to be one of the first people to land on Mars.  Yeah, right.  Traveling to Mars is extremely difficult.  Even unmanned missions to Mars have had a high rate of failure.  There have been 28 failed unmanned missions to Mars compared to just 19 successful missions.  And these are unmanned missions.  Just imagine how risky a manned mission could be.  Moreover, being trapped in a space capsule for that long is akin to some kind of cruel and unusual punishment.  It would take about 7 months to get there and 7 months to return–about as long as the longest space station mission ever.  (A Russian cosmonaut once stayed in a space station for 438 days.)  So for over a year, the astronauts would not be able to go for a walk in the woods and hear birds singing.  They wouldn’t be able to do any outdoor activities, and there are many indoor activities they would miss out on as well.  There is no sex in space.  When I suggested to Max Fagin there was no sex in space, he responded by telling me I hadn’t thought this through, and he then ended our discussion.  No, he  hasn’t thought this through.  Sex in microgravity would be difficult and uncomfortable.

It is against NASA’s regulations to have sex in space…even to masturbate.  Bodily fluids might float around inside the capsule and foul their expensive machines.  But let’s say NASA allowed sex as an experiment.  There would still be difficulties.  In microgravity the blood that normally goes to the sex organs rises to the head, making it hard to achieve and maintain an erection, and this can cause an headache during sex as well.  Even if an erection can be established, the partners would float apart.  A suit with Velcro has been designed that would hold the coupling pair together, but really…does that sound sexy? The lack of privacy is also not particularly sexy–I know I wouldn’t want professional colleagues watching me have sex.  Astronauts experience lowered testosterone levels in microgravity, and this too would likely dampen desire.

Nerds dream about establishing colonies in space, but reproduction would be a real problem. A fetus would be exposed to high levels of radiation, resulting in increased rates of mutation, and most mutations are harmful.  NASA has experimented with rats in space.  Rats impregnated in space suffer higher rates of failed pregnancies.  Humans would eventually become extinct, if forced to live in space, even with advanced technology.

I’m all for unmanned missions and super telescopes because scientific knowledge is never a bad thing.  But manned space missions are an expensive boondoggle that humans can’t afford when there are so many unsolved problems on earth that require loads of cash to solve.

Frijoles Barrachos and Carolina Reaper Peppers

July 13, 2019

I’m growing a Carolina Reaper pepper plant in my garden this year.  I planted it in May of 2018, but it didn’t start flowering until October, and I was forced to dig it up and bring it inside the house before it was killed by a frost.  There is not a good sunny place in my house, and the plant gradually lost all of its flowers and many of the leaves.  When I replanted it outside this spring, I didn’t expect it to produce peppers, but it finally has.  The Carolina reaper is the hottest pepper in the world, producing fruit with 2,200,000 Scoville units.  This is 200 times hotter than a Jalapeno and 4 times hotter than an Habanero.  Scoville units measure the concentration of capsaicinoid, the substance that makes peppers hot.  The Carolina Reaper is an hybrid between the La Sofriero and Naga Viper peppers.

A Carolina Reaper pepper grown in my garden next to a matchbook for size comparison.  They turn red when completely ripe.

While cutting into a Carolina Reaper pepper I could smell the capsaicinoid.  I put a pepper measuring just a little more than an inch square into an half-gallon pot of pinto beans, and it made the whole batch astonishingly hot. I love hot foods, but this made it tough to eat, even for me.  I later turned the leftovers into refried beans.  I was afraid this would concentrate the capsaicinoid and make it even hotter, but instead the oils must have evaporated because it was a little more bearable.  Nevertheless, my mouth burned for at least 10 minutes after consuming a bowl of beans, and I could feel the heat in my stomach for about 2 hours.  It hurt even worse exiting my body the next day.  The only culinary use I can think of for this pepper is as an ingredient for some kind of insanity hot sauce.  I’m going to add salt and hot vinegar to the rest of them, and keep the hot sauce in a malt vinegar dropper.

Peppers (Capsicum chinense and/or C. frutescens) are native to Central America and Southern Mexico.  There is an interesting disjunct population in southeastern Missouri.  Indians probably cultivated them there, and they escaped into the wild.  Taxonomists disagree over whether there are 1 or 2 species.  Native Americans have used them for ~9000 years and probably began cultivating them a long time ago.  The small pequin chili peppers still grow in the wild and birds propagate them.  The capsaicinoid doesn’t stop birds from eating them and spreading the seeds in their dung.  Bird digestion increases pepper germination by 370% because bird digestive juices work to prevent fungal growth, and ants (which might consume the seeds) can’t find them without rotting fruit around the seeds.  The capsaicinoid does stop insect predation on the fruit.

I enjoy eating frijoles barrachos–a simple peasant dish.  To make it, soak 1 pound of pinto beans in 1.5 quarts of water over night.  Put the beans and water in a crock pot with 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 chopped onion, 2 tomatoes,  2 hot peppers (I recommend jalapenos, not Carolina Reaper), and 1 12 ounce bottle of dark beer.  Cook on low for 8 hours.

Frijoles barrachos.  I could eat beans everyday and never tire of them.

I like refried beans even better because the evaporation concentrates the flavor.  Take the leftover beans and mash them with a potato masher.  Dump them in hot bacon grease and fry them, stirring frequently, until they develop a nice crust on the bottom and much of the liquid has evaporated.

Frijoles barrachos after they’ve been well fried.  Serve with cheese and/or bacon.

Pleistocene Mimosas

July 6, 2019

A remnant of the local original landscape grows on a 4′ by 4′ area of my front yard near the road.  It is known as sensitive briar (Mimosa microphilia), and it attracts numerous bees and other pollinators.  Sensitive briar resembles its close relative, sunshine mimosa (M. strigillosa), but differs in that its vine is covered with thorns.  These mimosas, native to southeastern North America, prefer to grow in prairies, ravines, savannahs, and open woods; and they do well on sandy or rocky soils.  I live in a sandhill area located on the fall line between the piedmont and the coastal plain.  The sandy soils originated during the Eocene when this region was a coast line and the fall line was a sandy beach.  Today, the co-dominant trees are loblolly pine and sand laurel oak.  Before humans repressed fires, it seems likely this area was dominated by longleaf pine with some sand laurel oak.  Longleaf pine is slow-growing and dependent upon fire for germination, and it has largely been replaced in my neighborhood by faster growing, less fire-dependent loblolly pine.  Also in the absence of fire, sand laurel oak forms dense stands on vacant lots when formerly they would be thermally pruned and grow farther apart.  I hypothesize the original environment was open woodland or even savannah, dominated by the aforementioned trees and with a great variety of flowers and grasses growing in the open spaces between the trees.  Other species in my neighborhood that might be remnants of this original environment include yellow cottony aster, a type of small daisy, prickly pear, ground cherry, blackberry, lowbush blueberry, false foxglove, and passion flower.

Sensitive briar growing in my front yard by the road.

The mimosa genus includes about 400 species of herbs, shrubs and trees within the legume family.  The most commonly noticed mimosa in southeastern North America is Albizia julibrisson,  a native from Asia and the Middle East.  It was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in 1783 and has spread like crazy all across the region.  They are found in open areas alongside roads and are now considered an invasive species.  I think they are more beneficial than detrimental.  Their flowers feed the bees and butterflies, and their roots, like those of all legumes, help fix nitrogen in the soil.  They are probably more beneficial than many of the native plants they outcompete.  They produce numerous bean pods that readily germinate in road side ditches.

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Mimosa trees are widespread and common in disturbed areas of the southeastern United States.

The mimosa genus is very old with a world wide distribution.  They likely originated before the continents drifted apart.  During the Pleistocene sensitive briar flourished in the open spaces that resulted from rapid climate change and megafauna foraging.  However, there is no pollen or fossil evidence of this species from that age.  Nevertheless, I’m sure they were common in some areas and just perchance left little evidence of their previous existence.

Plants in the mimosa genus are capable of rapid movement.  Sensitive briar closes its leaves when being touched.  Scientists think this response helps protect them from foraging herbivores, but they are vulnerable to at least 1 predator–the mimosa webworm (Homodaula anisocentra).  The larva of this species wraps mimosa leaves inside a protective webbing which prevents the leaves from closing completely.  They then feed upon the leaves before their transformation into their adult stage.

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Mimosa webworm.

Green Sahara Periods

June 29, 2019

I subscribed to The Economist magazine for awhile.  It’s an excellent magazine for news about world affairs.  I’m interested in world affairs, but not to the depth it gets covered in this periodical, and I recently decided not to renew my subscription.  Some of their articles are redundant because they’ll often have 2 articles in  1 issue about the same subject that say the same thing.  Their articles are also far too wordy.  The editors of this magazine need to learn how to be more succinct.  They could probably cut the word count of their articles by 75% and not lose anything in the translation.  In 1 of the last issues I read there was an article (actually 2) about the expansion of the Sahara desert.  The unnamed author of this article assumed the expansion of the Sahara desert was caused by man-made climate change.  His assumption was just plain ignorant.  Astronomically forced insolation can entirely explain the expansion and retraction of the Sahara desert.

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Map comparing vegetation of North Africa during dry and humid climate cycles.  The Sahara desert becomes a lush environment at regular intervals that last for about 6,000 years.  The current natural cycle causes the present day arid conditions.

Scientists have determined  the Sahara desert becomes a lush environment with lightly wooded grasslands, lakes, and rivers at cyclical intervals.  They refer to these times as Green Sahara Periods.  Animal life colonizes the region during Green Sahara Periods, and the environment resembles the Serengeti Plain rather than the desert it is today.  The increase in moisture that transforms the desert into a rich natural community is caused by the 23,000 year variation in the earth’s wobble.  The earth normally spins like a top, and like the child’s toy this spin can wobble.  The wobble leads to a seasonal variation when the earth is closest to the sun (perihelion).  At the point in the cycle when earth is closest to the sun during summer, the amount of solar heat increases in this region.  This differential heating of the atmosphere causes low pressure systems to form over the Sahara, drawing in monsoonal precipitation from the Atlantic Ocean.  10 times more rain falls on the Sahara during humid periods than during present day conditions.  This transforms the region into a much more inhabitable environment.

Evidence of Green Sahara Periods dates to the late Miocene ~9 million years BP.  The last 4 Green Sahara Periods occurred from 6,000-10,000 years BP; 77,000-81,000 years BP; 102,000-108,000 years BP; and 122,000-128,000 years BP.  Notice 1 cycle was skipped.  This was during the Last Glacial Maximum when the earth was particularly arid.  Perhaps, other factors outweighed the 23,000 year cycle.  Scientists have noticed Green Sahara Periods have become less frequent since the mid-Pleistocene.

Evidence for Green Sahara Periods can be found on the land and in the ocean.  Explorers crossing the Sahara desert find dry lake beds and river drainages; and there are many rock paintings depicting scenes rich in wildlife that no longer occur in the region.  Samples of cores drilled from the ocean bottom find fluctuations in dust levels at regular intervals.  Sediment dated to dry periods contains high amounts of dust blown from land in sand storms.  Of course, the amount of sand greatly decreases during humid periods.  The shells of microscopic sea creatures, known as foraminifera, excavated from ocean cores also show isotopic variations that relate to changes in precipitation.

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Rock painting in the Sahara desert depicting giraffes, goats, dogs, and people.  Giraffes no longer occur in this region.

The Green Sahara Periods influenced human history.  The rich environment allowed humans to expand from Africa into Asia across the Levantine gateway.  During desert cycles hunter-gatherers could not cross from 1 continent to the other.  1 study suggests humans may be hastening the expansion of the desert by grazing their livestock on the edges of the desert.  I don’t buy this.  Humans likely play a minor role compared to the natural cycle.  If precipitation increased, the desert would begin retracting, regardless of human activity.

Reference:

Larrasoara, J; A. Roberts, E. Rohlirn

“Dynamics of Green Sahara Periods and their role in Hominim Expansion”

Plos One 2013

The Alcovy Conservation Center (part I)

June 22, 2019

We took my daughter to Atlanta for her birthday, so she could see a Braves game with her aunt and a friend.  I stayed in an air-conditioned hotel room with my wife and mother-in-law and watched the game on television.  The best way to attend a Braves game is to rent an hotel room in Battery Park and walk to the stadium because the traffic  and parking are a nightmare.  My wife is disabled and a sports stadium is just no place for a person in a wheelchair (think bathroom logistics).  That’s why we didn’t go ourselves.  We were hoping to have dinner with my daughter next to the stadium before the game, but the traffic was so bad we got separated (we were in 2 different cars) before I had a chance to give my daughter my camera.  Otherwise, this blog entry would have photos from inside Sun Trust Park. She did take photos with her phone but hasn’t figured out how to upload them to the computer yet.  I got stuck in Atlanta traffic.  Getting stuck in Atlanta traffic makes me feel like committing suicide.  This was vacation 2019 for us.  Actually, my idea of an ideal vacation is to get drunk and listen to music, then watch internet porn the following day to forget how shitty my hangover makes me feel.  Oh wait…that sounds like every Thursday night.

The original plan for the following day was to visit Fernbank Forest, but I learned online those bastards charge $18 to walk in their woods.  When I visited Fernbank Museum a few years ago their forest was closed for repairs and I couldn’t see it even after I paid their damn fee.  (Why does a natural forest need to be repaired?)  I guess I will never see it.  As an alternative, I chose to visit the Alcovy Conservation Center in Covington, Georgia.  It is maintained by the Georgia Wildlife Federation and it is free.  It’s mostly used for school field trips.  Visitors are supposed to check in but there was no one there, not even other visitors.  (The Fernbank Forest is notoriously crowded.)

Kiosk at Alcovy Conservation Center.  The land includes 115 acres of woodland, meadow, and wetland.

Big black oak.  There were a number of really big black oaks in this park.

Open woodland.

This is an old fencerow in an old pasture.  Birds and squirrels planted these trees.

I enjoyed my visit to the Alcovy Conservation Center.  I had time to see just half of it.  I didn’t even see what it is most famous for–a tupelo swamp.  This type of natural community is common in the coastal plain but uncommon in the piedmont where the conservation center is located.  There are just 4 other sites in the piedmont region with tupelo swamps.  I also didn’t see the canebrake and marsh.

I did see some enormous black oaks.  Other common plants I encountered were water oak, willow oak, river birch, sweetgum, shortleaf pine, loblolly pine, hickory, pawpaw, dogwood, muscadine grape vine, and trumpet creeper.  This is the only site in Georgia where I have seen pawpaw growing in the wild.

Pawpaw tree.  I wonder if the pawpaws will be ripe when I visit again in late August.

I didn’t come at a good time to see wildlife–it was late morning and sultry.  There were many small drab birds, probably sparrows, but they wouldn’t stay still for identification.  I saw dark phase tiger swallowtail butterflies.  I didn’t know tiger swallowtails came in a dark phase until I searched my field guide for identification.  It too wouldn’t cooperate for my camera.  Charles Wharton, the late author of The Natural Communities of Georgia, wrote white tail deer grew larger along the Alcovy river bottoms than anywhere else in Georgia.  They were sensibly resting in the shade, while we slogged through the heat, and we didn’t see them.  The squirrels were also resting in the shade.  I walked on a path known as fox squirrel trail but saw no squirrels of any kind.  This site hosts a disjunct population of the bird-voiced tree frog, but it is probably past mating season for them.  However, on the plus side, I didn’t see a single fly or mosquito.

The Georgia Wildlife Federation encourages wildlife here.  There is a chimney swift tower, many bluebird boxes, and they even have at least 1 bat box.  I’ll be back to see the parts I missed.

Chimney swift tower.  Chimney swifts with their nestlings live in my home chimney.  I notice some people put caps on their chimneys to prevent birds from nesting there.  If you put a cap on your chimney to block chimney swifts, you can’t be my friend.

The Human History of Sicily in 1345 Words

June 15, 2019

Humans first began colonizing Sicily about 14,000 years ago.  Historians aren’t sure where these people originated, but they probably came from what today is mainland Italy, Spain, and/or North Africa.  Different tribes roamed various parts of the island where they fished, hunted large mammals, and foraged in the forest for plant foods.  The oldest known culture is the Mycenaean, a people who established trade routes and flourished on the island from 1600 BC-1200 BC.  This culture died out, possibly following some natural disaster, such as an earthquake that weakened the stability of that society.  Greeks started colonizing the island in 734 BC, forcing the native tribes away from the coast and into the interior.  The Greeks were 1 of the dominant civilizations in the Western World during this time, but they weren’t a single country.  Instead they were made up of many different city states–some were democratic while others were ruled by autocratic kings.  The Greeks fought with the Carthaginians for control of Sicily, and the Greeks eventually forced them off the island.  The Carthaginians descend from the Phoenicians of the bible and were a sea-faring, trading civilization.  The Greek city states of Sparta and Athens then fought for control over the island, and the former were victorious.

Almost a century later Carthaginians invaded the island again. The first great king of Sicily, Gelon, led an army that defeated the Carthaginians in battle.  (The Carthaginains still controlled a small part of the island, but Gelon had most of it.)  Gelon also founded the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily where he established the capital of his state.  He forcibly moved the richest, best educated people he conquered to Syracuse, and the city became renowned for its high culture.

Gelon, the first great king of Sicily.

Sicily was ruled by a series of tyrant kings after Gelon’s death.  They all varied in their competence and cruelty.  Timoleon was the next great ruler of Sicily.  He drove the Carthaginians off the island after they had tried to regain control once again.  His sensible administration of the island led to it becoming the first great granary of the rising Roman empire.  Rome became the big world power during the 3rd century BC and after they defeated Carthage in 2 major wars, Sicily became part of the Roman empire, though most of the inhabitants spoke Greek instead of Latin.  Rome ruled Sicily for centuries and aside from several slave revolts Sicilian history was uneventful during this time period.

The Roman empire collapsed circa 500 AD and split into 2 kingdoms.  Western Rome, influenced by the pope, was Roman Catholic, while eastern Rome, ruled from Constantinople and known as the Byzantine Empre, was Greek Orthodox.  For a brief time the German Ostrogoth tribe conquered the western empire and ruled Sicily, but this didn’t last long.  The Byzantines took control of Sicily for about 200 years until Arabs invaded the island when they were spreading the Muslim religion across the Mediterranean at the point of a sword.  The Byzantines frequently tried to regain control of Sicily, but they could never beat the Arabs.  However, Arab kings, though they were brothers, were constantly fighting each other in a kind of Civil War that made them weak.  Meanwhile, the Normans, used as mercenaries to protect the western Roman empire, were becoming numerous and troublesome to the pope in southern Italy.  (Normans were Vikings that had conquered northern France and shortly after assimilated the French culture.) To get rid of them, the pope gave Sicily to King Robert of the Normans.  Sicily, of course, was ruled by Arab brothers and wasn’t the pope’s territory to give.  Nevertheless, Robert and his Viking army invaded Sicily and eventually defeated the Arabs.

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Illustration of Norman invasion of Sicily.

The Normans ruled Sicily for over an hundred years, until 1 of their kings married into German royalty and passed the torch onto them.  There was 1 great German King during this era by the name of Hohestaffer.  The Pope asked him to lead a Crusade to retake Jerusalem.  But instead of all out warfare, he managed to regain the city with a peace agreement.  This pissed the pope off because he hated Muslims and wanted bloodshed.  Worse yet, Hohestaffer was reportedly decent to the Muslim citizens who still lived on Sicily.  So the pope sent an army after Hohestaffer, but the German king defeated it, took his army to Rome, and made the pope surrender.

The Catholic church always hated this German line of kings, and several generations later they replaced this lineage with French Royalty.  The French kings never lived on the island and seldom even visited it.  Instead, they doled the land out to their buddies who served as absentee landlords that got rich from the poor laboring peasants.  Sicily was always kind of a backwater region controlled by distant royalty who gave their powerful friends vast estates.  This created enormous income inequality that persists today.  The Sicilians often rebelled, and during 1 rebellion King Ferdinand of Spain came to their rescue and established Spanish rule.  Spain owned Sicily for centuries, but again, the system of vast estates that enriched super rich land barons remained.  Most of the population consisted of poor peasants who never even had the chance to own land, despite the existence of large amounts of fallow acres on these huge estates.  Spain introduced the Inquisition to Sicily, explaining why it remained backwards for so long.  Many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Sicily during Spanish rule.  At this point in history Muslims were more civilized and scientifically advanced than Christians, and Jews were worldly merchants.  The Mafia probably originated during Spanish rule.  The land barons paid bandits protection money–in other words they paid them not to be robbed.  In return the bandits helped the land barons suppress peasant rebellions.

Spain ruled Sicily for about 400 years, but in a war against the Holy Roman Empire they lost it.  Austrians defeated the Spanish in a major battle on Sicily, and the Holy Roman Empire briefly owned it.  Another peace treaty granted the island to a king of the Piedmont province located in what today is Italy.  The next peace treaty granted the island to Austrian royalty who ruled Sicily from Naples.  The French under Napoleon’s brother ran the Austrian royalty out of Naples, but the British (at war with Napoleon) occupied Sicily and protected the royalty, until Napoleon’s eventual defeat.  Austrian royalty regained Naples after Napoleon lost.

Naples and Italy were controlled by Austrian royalty until Italian independence in 1861.

Unhappy peasants often rebelled in Sicily and Naples.  Royalty often were forced to flee, and they would agree to democratic reforms.  But as soon as the kings repressed the insurrections, they would tear up the newly written constitutions and re-establish autocratic rule.  Emmanuel II of the Piedmont kingdom in central Italy was different.  He supported democracy and wanted Italy to be united.  He invited the French to help him kick the Austrians out of a couple Italian provinces which were then united under his rule.  However, it was a mercenary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who liberated Sicily and Naples from Austrian rule.  Italy was born in 1861.  A decade later the French were forced to leave Rome after their defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, and the pope retreated inside the Vatican.  (The pope and the Catholic church always opposed democracy).  This established the modern day boundaries of Italy. Nevertheless, the peasants in Sicily were still oppressed, squeezed between land barons and the mafia.  Many left for a better life in the U.S. and South America.

Italy was democratic until 1922 when Benito Mussolini took over.  He suppressed the mafia on Sicily for 14 years, so they were glad to help U.S. troops, when along with the British, they kicked the Germans and the Italian army off the island in 1943. The loss of Sicily caused Mussolini to lose power.  Since World War II, Sicily and Italy been under a democratic socialist government, and the people are probably better off than at any other time in their history.

Reference:

Norwich, John

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

Random House 2015