Oh, Columbus

It is hard to defend Christopher Columbus, yet he must be considered, as he looms large over us and will to the indefinite future. Try as you might, detest him as you will, he cannot be removed from our past. Where we are today is a consequence of what he did then. What we should not do is use him as a scapegoat for all our problems today.

Columbus was a sailor, which should probably stand as a warning as to character from the get go. He had traveled widely in his years at sea, including Constantinople, and possibly to the North Atlantic. It is commonly held that he had to fight the belief that the earth was flat, but it was widely understood that the earth is a sphere and there were reliable estimates as to size. Columbus tried for a number of years to get funding for a proposed expedition westward to Japan, including from Spain and Portugal. The real opposition to his plan was the expectation that it would not be possible to carry enough provisions for the expected distance. So Columbus fudged. He sold his plan on the basis of a much shorter voyage and ultimately the Spanish monarchy bought it. Obviously, neither he nor they expected that there would be an entire continent in the way. The argument is made that he may have deliberately underestimated the distance, but to the end of his life he insisted that he found Japan.

Whether through error or deliberate miscalculation, on October 12, 1492, the old world found the new and the age of exploration began in earnest. It also marked the end of the native civilizations of the new world and it is impossible to conjecture what might have been. For all that might have been, it must not be forgotten that even the most sophisticated civilizations on either continent lacked the wheel, the horse or other domestic animals, a significant factor in the development of the old world.

That lack of domestic animals played a large part in what would follow. Detractors point to the decimation (not really the right word but that is something for another blog) of native populations. it is not something that can be laid at Columbus feet alone. It is generally understood that Europeans developed immunity to many diseases because of their association with domestic animals. Think swine flu for example. The natives of the Americas had none. In short, even if Columbus showed up in full Haz-Mat, they were doomed. Estimates suggest that as many as 90% of natives succumbed to “European” diseases. It is also possible that a pandemic had occurred shortly before Columbus arrived. Ironically, the same thing happened prior to the arrival of the Mayflower.  Those settlers found a largely empty region and many abandoned villages.

Slavery is another issue, but it is wrong to blame it wholly on Columbus. It is a rather more complicated matter. The treatment of the natives is a sordid story, but in truth and to their credit, they did not make good slaves. Bartolome Del Las Casas was a great defender of the native population, but he suggested that Africans would be better suited and thus inadvertently started what we, and he, would come to regret. In Columbus’ defense, it must be remembered that slavery was a commonplace at the time. In order to fund his expedition, he had promised the riches of the East, particularly Japan, to Ferdinand and Isabella and had to produce something. In short, he was in hock to the mob. If you ever watched The Sopranos, you would understand how that might work out. We can lament it all we want from our lofty vantage point, but it was a fact of life and very much an inevitability. And if you are going to put De Las Casas above Columbus, keep in mind that it was he who shifted the rationalization of slavery to a matter of race rather than as spoils of war.

Finally, yes, Columbus discovered the New World. Yes, there were people already there. Yes, there was previous contact with Europeans, mainly the Norseman, Leif Ericsson several centuires earlier. There were also other possible contacts, but October 12, 1492 stands out as the date that a general understanding of the existence of entire continents previously unknown to Europeans did exist. All that followed hinged on the event on that date. No matter how you wish to name it, it is a date that should be marked and never forgotten.

*The rather large photo at the head of this post is of the monument to Columbus in Barcelona. The size perhaps suggests the enormous consequence of Columbus voyage and what followed from it.

The Tale of My Traveling Hat

This post is by way of taking a poke at a few things in general, and Turkish Airlines, Turkish security in Istanbul, UPS, and corporate isolationism in general.

IMG_20150913_110517235To begin, I have for years worn a Tilley hat, especially when traveling. I like wearing a hat. It protects me from both sun and rain and makes me easily identifiable in a crowd (a story for another day.) I acquired my first one more than twenty years ago in Vancouver BC, IIRC. That one succumbed to absent mindedness on on Amtrak trip. Yet another story. Its replacement is now lost, again due to absent mindedness on a Turkish Airlines flight.

Last year, we made our almost annual trek to Greece, leaving in mid-July, and chose to travel on Turkish Airlines. The price was hard to beat and we had heard good things from other travelers about them. Our route was Fresno CA, known as FAT – LAX – IST – SKG, that last being Thessaloniki. We have the good fortune to have a residence in Peraia, a suburb of Thessaloniki.

I forgot the hat when leaving the LAX-IST flight and did not realize it until we had boarded the final flight. On arriving at SKG, we checked with the local TA representative who told us to contact the lost and found in Istanbul. They in turn told us that they would not forward the hat to Thessaloniki, that I had to go to the lost and found in Istanbul in person to get the hat. I could also have an international shipping company send it. Even though there are two daily flights SKG-IST they would not send it as requested.

IMG_20150913_102845189Well that was unhelpful and now the “international shipping company” recommended was UPS and an agent was cited. This agent insisted that I had to send a shipping label from the US. UPS in Greece would not handle this. This is where it became impossible … and questionable. I donkeyed around with this all summer, getting nowhere.

We returned at the end of September and I promptly attempted to create a shipping label. Local agents for UPS professed no knowledge of what was required. Attempts to use the UPS system revealed that a shippers address was required. The system simply would simply not create a label without it. I repeatedly requested an address from the Turkish UPS agent but none was ever forthcoming.

This UPS agent included phone numbers in his email but when I searched the UPS site for Istanbul, his was nowhere to be found. The UPS International Help Line was useless as well. Could they help generate the label? Sorry, no. Could they supply the address for this agent? No, we can’t give out that information. This, in spite of the fact that all those addresses were listed on their website.

The Turkish Airline Lost and Found person had stated that the hat would be held for 90 days. That time has long since come and gone so I presume some Turk is happily wearing a nice Tilley hat acquired from the TA Lost and Found.

IMG_20150911_153407954There is a bit more and I apologize for going on so long. Our return was through Istanbul but we had only two hours to begin with and our SKG flight was delayed forty minutes. That on top of the fact that the new Istanbul airport is enormous made it near impossible to get to the Lost and Found. Security complicated that. We were not treated as in transit as in other airports. Instead, we had to pass through security again and finding your way in that place is not easy. But the final insult came aat our boarding gate.

Among other things, my wife brings back numerous bags of Greek coffee. Loumidis is the preferred brand. This time she had six bags in her carry-on to allow us to meet the weight requirements for the checked baggage. At our boarding gate, we were again subjected to a baggage search. Aha! We had contraband! Too much coffee in too large of bags. It must be confiscated. No need to go into the details as to why. We were able to retain two of them, even though the bags were too big (by what standard?) It was last straw.

IMG_20150913_105315871Now, my final point. Do you have a problem with UPS? With an airline? With any large multi-national corporation? Have you tried to file a complaint? Can you even find out how? I searched in vain for a way to penetrate both UPS and Turkish Airlines past that poor sap who has to answer the phone. If you know of a way, please inform me. Corporate America -and the rest of the world, for that matter- have sealed themselves off from the customers they serve -completely. That is not a good thing. The business world prides itself repeating cliches like “The customer is always right”. It seems it ought to be replaced with the customer is never heard.

[This was initially posted on Ricochet.com. I strongly suggest you visit them if you are interested in good discussions.]

The pictures enclosed were taken at various locations in Spain in 2015.


As we spend a couple of months or more each year in Greece, we have made it a point to take tours to various destinations in Europe. The tour guide will normally be Greek speaking, a disadvantage for me. On the other hand, it allows me to wander a bit and see what we are visiting instead of having my foot nailed to the floor while the guide drones on about whatever. This year, our tour choice  was Poland.

Day 1: Getting there.

Our Greek home is in Peraia,  a suburb of Thessaloniki. The tours originate from Athens so we have an extra leg. Athens is not my favorite airport. It is crowded, cluttered, clumsy and chaotic. It is certainly not what one would expect of a capitol city.

The tours have been using Aegean Airlines, a company that effectively replaced Olympic. They have a fleet of 60 Airbus A320’s, a crowded model with really tight seat spacing. I endured. I did not enjoy.

Our first destination was Krakow, wherein we found a very hospitable city centered around a plaza filled with restaurants, souvenir vendors and people. This, we found, is characteristic of every Polish city and impresses with the tidiness of streets and everything.

Day 2: The salt mine and the city.


On display in the mine are reminders of what such work meant in the time before mechanization. Some of the wooden machinery is very impressive.

In the morning, we began a descent into the Wielezka salt mine which, though now not operational, must have produced a few cubic miles of rock salt over the course of its more than 600 years of operation. More than just a mine, it contains a variety of sculpture, all in rock salt done by miners, that commemorate saints and kings and more. In all, the mine reaches depths over 1000 ft., and includes 178 miles of shafts and passages. In the course of the tour, you descend hundreds of steps. Wobbly legs are to be expected. The ascent is by elevator,


In the afternoon, we took a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. The cathedral is typical of the major churches throughout Poland, immense and magnificent.

The Jewish Quarter, by contrast, is very subdued. Prior to World War II, there were an estimated 80,000 Jews in the city. At the end of the war, a mere 7,000 had survived. Since then the Jewish population has virtually vanished. There are a few synagogues and no more than 200 Jews remaining.

This is characteristic of the entire tour. The simplest way to say it is that the Nazis thoroughly trashed Poland, and the Russians were none too careful in their reconquest. At the end of the war with the country mostly in ruins, Poland began a decades long reconstruction that continues to this day. There was more to come.

P1040688Day 3: Into the Heart of Darkness

As it is told, the Nazis originally only intended to force the Jews out of Europe. They considered sending them first to Siberia, but the invasion of Russia ended that. Then Zanzibar was considered. When they realized that it would be too expensive and probably not possible, the most expedient alternative was extermination, something they set about doing with typically Teutonic efficicency.  The Jews were rounded up and shipped to a number of concentration and extermination camps. The best known of these was near the Polish town of Oswciem, called by the Germans, Auschwitz.

These tracks lead through the building to the selection area. As the prisoners descended from their train, a German officer would select those who would live or die.

Much of this camp remains and is now maintained as a tourist destination. It was situated around a set of brick barracks built for the Polish Army. To these were added additional crude wooden barracks to house the thousands of prisoners. The brick barracks and some of the wooden barracks still stand. The Nazis destroyed most of the extermination facilities when they realized that they were about to loose the war and the Russians were approaching. The gas chambers and crematoriums are mostly gone. A sobering display is housed in several of the brick barracks.

It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of all of this. Auschwitz alone accounted for some 1,500,000 Jews and others. The exhibits recount the treatment of prioners and the processing that sorted the capable from the less so. The latter went directly to the chambers. Those remaining were simply worked to death.

A small assortment of artificial limbs.

The most harrowing part of the exhibits are all the possesions conficated from prisoners as they arrived. There are piles of luggage, shoes, brushes, eyglasses and more.  A large room is filled with human hair shaved from the corpses and sold to the textile industries. All this is only a fraction of what was taken, and that only at Auschwitz.


From the brick barracks, you are lead to the arrival tracks where the selections were made, and then into some of the wooden barracks. On display is a boxcar of the type in which prisoners were shipped to the camps. They would have little or no food or water. With as many as 80 people crammed into one boxcar, a trip that might last as long as ten days resulted in the deaths of many before they ever reached a camp.


These barracks were a minimal consruction that provided only shelter and no comfort at all. Imagine a half dozen people all crammed onto that shelf without mattress or blankets.

Once you have experienced this place, your perspective must change. Talking of the Holocaust without it is to deal with the abstract. Here at this place is the concrete and undeniable evidence and in overwhelming volume.

Empty canisters of Zyklon B, the poison gas used to kill prisoners en masse.

Is there a lesson for us here? Of course there is. There are many lessons. First and foremost is that in the political discourse of the day, to liken anyone to the monsters who perpetrated the holocaust is reprehensible. To do so trivializes what was done and diminishes the memory of all those vicitms. We would do well to rethink our poisonous politics and begin to restore some to civility to it. I do not say that we would or could repeat that history but the less we appreciate the enormity of it and honor the dead whose ashes are scattered there, the more likely we are to visit our own heart of darkness.

The Beach at Peraia

Peraia, Greece, August 2019: Life on the beach of Peraia in summer is one long succession of  swimming, walking, relaxing, with leisurely lunches by the waterside. That is true for the human inhabitants. Maybe less so  for the other denizens.

IMG_20190731_234722_979The beach of Peraia is a four mile stretch of sandy beach varying in width from a few feet to a hundred or more. What sets it off from other like places is that the water is shallow well out from shore. Even as much as a hundred yards out it is possible to stand on the bottom. Though lacking in significant surf, it is still a popular recreational area and locals and foreigners alike flock here every summer.

Less recognized is the wildlife that also occupies these waters. The wide sandy bottom looks at first like an aquatic desert  but in fact there is an abundance of life to be found. It may not be a National Geographic coral reef with clouds of exotic fish but there is more to be found than meets the uncritical eye.

Small fish abound along the beach. They seem unphased by human presence.

Stand for a moment a few yards out and watch. Very likely a number of small fish will come to investigate. Characteristically, they are elusive and well camouflaged, as are all the species here. There is little vegetation and no hiding place so species that thrive here are those that can blend in to the point of being invisible. At times those small fish seem able to bury themselves in the sand.

A note for would be fishermen: Forget your exotic tackle. No poppers, hoppers, droppers, no wooly buggers or redwing whizbangs. No spoons, spinners, none. What works for these little guys is bread. Throw a piece of bread in the water and you will start a feeding frenzy. Put a piece on your hook and expect a catch. Of course, they are barely bite size. For bigger fish, you need to get out on the water.

A  conch snail still occupying his shell.

The keen eyed observer will ocasionally come across other oddities. Small conchs and snails are frequently found, usually by stepping on them. They are typically adorned with barnacles, the immobile barnacles taking advantage of the snails to bring them to food. Rocks of varying size are present sans barnacles, since they tend to get buried which would be unfortunate for any attached barnacles.

This mildly perturbed Hermit crab is investigating the sudden change of scenery.

Many of the snail shells have been vacated in favor of small hermit crabs. I am not sure how the change in occupancy takes place but it is likely that the snails are the losers. Hold one of these for a minute or two and the crab will nervously investigate and sometimes try to escape.

A razor clam shell left behind by a feeding crab(?)

A variety of shells litter the sea floor. Razor clams are present but only the empty shells will be found.  Michael was able to find a live razor clam a couple of years ago. Curiously, they were offered at a Madrid food court but there seems to be no market for them here.

Above, tiny crabs vie for exposed clams.

At the waters edge, tiny clams seem to be the choice of numerous small crabs. Since there is constant wave action (mostly from the wake of boats and ships in the bay) these clams are churned up and become crab bait. Numerous clam shells testify to their aundance -and fate. There are also tiny fish, typically about 1″ long,  frequently seen but which are so perfectly camouflaged that it takes considerable concentration to spot them.

These little “now you see them, now you don’t fish are maybe an inch long. With an underwater camera, they are more visible. From above it is just lusck to spot them.

Of all the creatures found here, the oddest is the salp. At least, that is what I believe it is. The locals call them medusa, a generic for jellyfish, but they are not that. There are no tentacles. They are about 6″ in length and appear like a small, transparent cucumber. They pulse slowly and tend to stay near the surface. Probably filter feeders, they do not seem to have any predators.

Salps can be elusive and difficult to photograph. It is bad enough that they are nearly transparent, but in bright sunlight and without my glasses, this is a lucky shot.

The most mysterious* aspect of them is that they will appear suddenly, a few one day, hundreds the next. And then they vanish just as suddenly. If you Google “salp”, a different creature wil be found. Out in the Mediteranean proper, they are found as long chains of individuals forming a tape like entity that can exceed 100′. These however, do not combine and merely float along, alarming the unwary and uninformed.

  • “Mysterious” is the favorite adjective of hack science writers everywhere.

The video above is probably the business end of a razor clam. The fronds appear as a black spot on the sand but when disturbed, they quickly hide.

One might think that the featureless seafloor along the Peraia beach would be bereft of life. It is anything but and a visit here will soon show otherwise. Maybe you should take a trip and swim here. You never know what might be under your feet.


What to do With TrainHenge?

Stonehenge is a fascinating monument of mysterious origin. Are we building a similar monument?

This structure is north of Fresno, on the south side of the San Joaquin River.

The saga of California’s high speed rail project took an unexpected turn when newly elected governor Gavin Newsom decided to cut the project in half. Originally planned to extend from San Diego in the far south to the SF bay area and Sacramento, Newsom’s change of direction would reduce it to the Bakersfield to Merced segment, a distance of about 165 miles. The project is ~as expected~ well over budget, underfunded, and behind schedule. Not one inch of track has been laid but hulking monuments loom over the landscape. If the project is never finished ~and that is a distinct possibility~ one wonders what will become of them.

The Last Spike at Promontory, Utah. Building railroads was much easier then. We celebrate the 150th anniversary of this event in May.

The project is a victim of the fact that those once open spaces are no longer open. When the first trans-continental railroad was constructed, right-of-way acquisition was a simple matter of surveying a route and laying track. Native Americans might have objected, but most of the land was under federal control and thus readily available. The structures being built in Fresno for HSR reflect the difficulty of finding a usable route. Rather than building on the ground, the planners have chosen to create an aerial path through the city.

As is typical in such instances, this project was sold on questionable premises. First, of course, was the original cost estimate. It was so far below reality that  no one even mentions it anymore. Then it was the promise that it would pay for itself. That might have worked had the original cost held but at $66 billion and rising, it would be a long time happening. Amtrak currently quotes a Bakersfield to Sacramento ticket at about $45. Considering the faster service, one might expect an HSR ticket for the same route to be double. The segment to be built, if it extended to Sacramento, might cost $20 billion. If so, it would take more than 22,000,000 tickets to recover that cost.

The overpass structure south of Fresno. What could it become?

Traffic reduction was another selling point. It is reasonable to think that some reduction would occur. If so, why is the San Francisco – San Jose corridor still a traffic nightmare? The California DOT, a.k.a. Caltrans, operates the Cal Train service over that route and claims 65,000 average daily riders. The impact on traffic for all that is vanishingly small. To have any significant impact on valley traffic, the HSR system would have to carry at least ten time that number of passengers. Are there a half million  people eager to ride the train each day?

The critics of the project are legion and most of the arguments against have merit, as I have noted. One argument, however, is as fallacious as anything that has been offered in support of it. That is that trains are obsolete. This is a useless argument from the outset, and ultimately meaningless. Yes, it is an old technology in its essence. (I have a poster commemorating 100 Hundred Years of the Railroad that was produced by the Baltimore & Ohio for a centenary pageant in 1927, to illustrate how old it is.) If age is the criterion, the automobile and the airplane, competing transportation technologies are more than a century old. Should we be searching for replacements?

We are always “putting America to work”.

A line from Bakersfield to Sacramento may still be worth the trouble and expense, though I stand by the arguments that it will never recover its costs and have little impact on traffic. In fact, that route may be ideally suited to a high speed rail system just because the competing technologies do not serve us well. Anyone in the valley, especially south of Sacramento, knows the pain of trying to fly anywhere. If one were to book a flight from Bakersfield to Sacramento, the airlines typically will soak you about $500 and sned you to LAX or SFO in the process. And there is the enjoyable prospect of being scrutinized, x-rayed, maybe frisked or even strip searched in the bargain. Oh, and be sure to leave behind that bottle of whatever that is too large and anything vaguely resembling a weapon.

One more thing on which no price can be placed. People like trains. Given the choice between a bus or the train, most will gladly take the train. The same thing is true of streetcars or trolleys. There is something appealing about trains that cannot be quantified.

Stonehenge is a mystery to us. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. It has its own problems, mostly that it is a popular destination hampered by traffic problems. Perhaps Trainhenge will not be forgotten, all the troubles of its beginnings digitally preserved for the ages…maybe. But if the rail project is not continued, what will it become?

These Stonehenge tourists can tell you about the traffic problem. They did manage to survive left-hand driving…