Friday, April 24, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #104: Tulip Mania

Image by John O'Neill from Wikipedia

Tulips are one of my favorite flowers. I love them. Unfortunately, so do the deer, so I can’t grow them, although I was kind enough to plant some anyway. I enjoy looking at them for the five minutes between when they bloom and when the deer eat them.

The term “tulip mania” refers to the period in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century during which futures contract prices for tulip bulbs reached ridiculously high prices before abruptly collapsing, in what is debatably one of the earliest recorded examples of an economic bubble.

Most historians credit Ogier de Busbecq, who was Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey, with introducing the tulip to Europe in 1554. From Vienna, tulip bulbs soon made their way to Augsburg in Bavaria and Antwerp and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In 1593, Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius planted his tulip bulbs in the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, what is today the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. He found that the colorful flowers easily tolerated the colder climate of Northern Europe, and tulips began to grow in popularity, thanks to being more intensely colorful than any other flower in Europe at the time.

The tulip’s newfound popularity in Europe coincided with Dutch independence from Spain and the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age. Dutch merchants were cleaning up thanks to the Dutch East India Company, which allowed them to rake in profits of up to 400 percent from a single trade voyage. Tulips became a luxury item and a way for the nouveau riche to show off their money.

While single-color tulips in red, yellow, or white were popular, the most desirable tulips were multicolored, such as the Semper Augustus, which bears the dubious distinction of being the most expensive tulip ever sold – just before the tulip crash, a single Semper Augustus bulb commanded a price of 10,000 guilders. While it’s difficult to translate that amount of money in today’s currency, it would have been enough at the time to have “purchased a grand house on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam or clothed and fed an entire Dutch family for half a lifetime.” Keep in mind that “an entire Dutch family” in 1637 would have been massive compared to today’s families, since people had so many more kids back then in order to increase the odds that one of them would live long enough to have kids of his own.

If tulip mania were happening today, this flower, the Semper Augustus, would be worth more than ten million euros.

While today’s variegated tulips are the result of careful breeding, the variegated tulips that commanded such high prices during tulip mania were the result of infection by the tulip breaking virus, so-called because it “breaks” the color of the tulip into two or more different colors. While the tulip breaking virus creates stunning flowers, it also weakens the plant, making it harder to cultivate new bulbs. This, as you can imagine, did not help keep tulip prices reasonable.

This flower, the Admirael van der Eijck, sold on 5 February 1637 for 1,045 guilders -- about seven years' wages for a skilled worker.

But by 1636, at the height of tulip mania, even ordinary, dull, unremarkable, single-color tulip bulbs were fetching between 150 and 200 guilders – more than a skilled worker could earn in an entire year. That year, tulip bulbs were the Netherlands’ fourth most popular export, after gin, herrings, and cheese. Though tulip prices were already high, especially for rare variegated tulips, speculation in tulip prices drove prices up to ridiculous levels by the end of the year, when some tulip bulbs were changing hands as often as ten times a day. In February 1637, the bottom abruptly fell out of the tulip market when, for the first time, buyers failed to appear at a tulip auction in Haarlem, which was in the grip of an outbreak of the Black Death. While some historians speculate that the Black Death contributed to tulip mania by giving the tulip speculators a general “fuck it, I’m just going to die of the plague next week anyway” attitude toward personal finance, it’s clear that the Black Death also contributed to the sudden drop in tulip prices, which would continue to fall for the next several decades.

The Black Death -- ruining your economy since 1346.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Things My Cat Has Eaten

Some of you may remember that almost three years ago now, I acquired an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, widdle bitty kitty cat.

That's the one.

Well, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have gathered that that cat is no longer itsy, bitsy, teeny, or weeny. He went from being small enough to hold in the palm of one hand to being so disastrously corpulent that if I’m not careful, I’ll throw my back out picking him up. Though he started out with the adorable moniker Shoe, he is now known as Fatty to all and sundry because…well, I bet you can guess.

Here he is in all his fat, fat glory.

In fact, at one point, when I got a second cat, I became concerned that it wasn’t developing properly and hauled it off to the vet to see what was wrong with it. There was nothing wrong with it. In the vet’s own words: “He’s a normal-sized cat. It’s just that the other cat’s so big that he looks unusually small next to it.”

How did the cat now known as Fatty get so fat? By eating ALL THE THINGS, ALL THE TIME, obvs. Here’s a short list of some of the more unusual things my cat has eaten:

Two Entire Stalks of Bamboo, Woody Stems and All

When I told a friend that Fatty had eaten two entire stalks of bamboo, the response was, “Well, pandas eat it.”


Luckily, bamboo is not toxic to cats, not that Fatty would have refrained from eating it if it had been. I should be clear that Fatty didn’t just sit there and nibble off the leaves. He made short work of the leaves, and then sat there for hours, gnawing and gnawing and gnawing, until he had consumed both woody stalks in their entirely. It was a show of dedication that was nothing short of inspiring.

A Yellow Rose from a Flower Arrangement

This one right here.

I have to admit that I didn’t see him steal the yellow rose from this flower arrangement – I just noticed the rose missing a few days later. I didn’t find any rose pieces anywhere in the house, but having seen what he did to the bamboo, I can only assume that he yanked the rose from the vase while I wasn’t looking and ate the whole thing, quickly and with a furtive demeanor.

A Corn Cob

Mind you, there was no corn left on this cob by the time Fatty yanked it from my plate and escaped behind the couch with it. I was a fool to think he wouldn’t be interested in my leftover corn cob, and an even bigger fool to leave it unattended for thirty seconds. When I tried to take it away from him, he growled and lashed out, so I let him have it. He ate the whole thing in less than a minute and then immediately barfed it all back up.

A Bag of Frozen Green Beans, Sort Of

After the corn cob incident, I should’ve known not to turn my back on food of any kind, no matter how briefly. But I guess I didn’t think Fatty would try to steal and consume an entire bag of frozen green beans.

Let me tell you how wrong I was.

The moment I turned my back on the bag of frozen green beans, Fatty snatched it and tried to make a getaway. Hilariously, he snagged the wrong end of the bag, so that he left a trail of frozen green beans behind him as he raced for his stolen-food-eating spot behind the sofa. I was able to rescue some of the green beans, and Fatty ate the rest.

Part of a Towel

Sometimes, people ask me why I don’t just put my fat cat on a diet. The reason is that the one and only time I tried to put him on a diet, he tried to eat a towel:

He met with no small measure of success.

Don’t worry, he pooped it out. But I figure eating towels can’t be good for him. I don’t want to have pay thousands of dollars to have a towel surgically removed from the inside of my cat.

Also, he tried to eat the vet once, so there's that.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #103: The Pony Express

Coming and Going of the Pony Express, by Frederic Remington, 1900

Last Tuesday, the Google Doodle commemorated the 155th anniversary of the first Pony Express delivery with an interactive doodle that I did not play because dammit, Google, I have shit to do. Despite appearances, Web content does not write itself. But I noticed the doodle anyway, and it inspired me to write this blog post.

The Pony Express was the brainchild of these three men, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell:

No, I don't know which is which.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell were in the shipping business and hoped to win a government contract for their mail delivery service, which was the first to allow Gold Rush settlers in the new state of California to contact the loved ones they’d left behind back east. East Coast dwellers at the time benefited from the U.S. Postal Service, which was founded in 1775. But, mind-boggingly, at the time the Pony Express was founded in 1860, there was no reliable means of communication between the East and West Coasts.

The three business partners put the Pony Express together over the course of two months in 1860, because they didn’t have the Internet to distract them. The service initially hired 120 riders, who were paid $100 a month, or about $2,857 in today’s money. Most unskilled laborers at the time could hope to earn about $857 a month if they were very well-paid.
The Pony Express riders worked for their money. Riding at a pace of 10 to 15 miles an hour for eight to 10 hours at a stretch and changing horses every 10 miles, they were able to achieve what many people of the era called an impossible feat – delivering mail from California to the nearest bastion of civilization, St. Joseph, Missouri, in just ten days. One hundred fifty years later, we get impatient if an email doesn’t send right away.

The first westbound delivery reached its destination in San Francisco at 1:00 a.m. on April 14, 1860. A single letter carried on that trip survives today:

The envelope, embossed with a 10-cent postage stamp, was issued by the USPS in 1855. They took upcycling seriously back in the day.

Though the Pony Express delivered about 35,000 letters in its nineteen-month span, only about 250 of those letters remain extant. The service didn’t handle many deliveries, due to its high cost – at the time of the inaugural delivery in 1860, it cost $5 to send a half-ounce letter from Sacramento to St. Joseph, or about $142 in today’s money. By the time of the final delivery in October 1861, the price had dropped to $1 – about $27 in today’s money. These days, you can send a piece of First Class Mail weighing as much as one ounce to any address in the country, no matter how remote, for just 49 cents, and it will usually arrive in three to seven days. But of course, that’s too slow.

"In my day..."

The Pony Express sought young, energetic riders “not over eighteen.” They had to weigh fewer than 125 pounds, and had to swear an oath on a special edition, Pony Express Bible not to swear, drink, or fight with other members of the firm. I guess it’s implied that they were allowed to fight with non-members, since this is the Wild West we’re talking about.

Famous riders include William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who signed on at the age of 15, and later became famous for being Buffalo Bill. He made his longest ride when he made a round trip from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station in Wyoming after he learned that his relief rider had come down with a sudden case of being dead. He rode 21 horses across 322 miles (518 km) and completed the journey in 21 hours, 40 minutes.

Jack Keetley, who joined the Pony Express at the age of 19 and delivered mail throughout the entire 19 months of the service’s existence, made his longest ride across 340 miles (550 km) over the course of 31 hours in which Keetley stopped only to change horses – he did not eat or rest. When he arrived at his destination, he was asleep in the saddle.

The most badass Pony Express rider, IMO at least, was Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, an Englishman who immigrated to the United States during his teens. He was one of the riders who helped complete the fastest ever Pony Express delivery, that which delivered the results of the 1860 Presidential election to California in only 7 days and 17 hours. His portion of the ride covered 120 miles in eight hours, 20 minutes. He holds the record for longest Pony Express ride, a 380 mile (610 km) round trip from San Francisco to Smith’s Creek. He made the trip because when he arrived at his original destination, Buckland’s Station, he found his relief rider so afraid of the Indians that he refused to sally forth. Haslam agreed to press on, but during his return trip, he ran afoul of the Indians that had so frightened his colleague, and took an arrow through the jaw, an injury which cost him three teeth.

But none of his dignity.

The Pony Express never won the government contract its founders hoped for, but during its lifetime only one of its deliveries failed to arrive on schedule. The mailing, which left San Francisco on July 21, 1860, reached St. Joseph two years later (no, I don’t know what happened). The Pony Express closed on October 26, 1861, two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete. By the time it shut its doors, the Pony Express had earned about $90,000 dollars (over $2.4 million today) and lost about $200,000 (over $5.4 million today).