The Pirates of Panama, or The History of Bucaniers in America

Can you imagine wandering into a used bookstore or yard sale and finding 200 year old copy of a pirate’s autobiography? It apparently happened to this guy. Some extracts:

When we found we had been led by this stratagem of the enemy away from the town, we left the bay and came to several houses, but found them al empty, and swept clean, both of inhabitants and provisions. This place of La Serena our pilot had reported to be but a small town, but being arrived there we found in it no fewer than seven great churches and one chapel. In the gardens we found strawberries as big as walnuts and those very delicious to the table. The inhabitants of La serena upon our approach fled, with them the best of their goods and jewels, and what they could not carry away that was of value they buried. Notwithstanding, we took one friar, and two Chilenos, natives of the kingdom of Chili, which adjoins to that of Peru. These prisoners told us that the Spaniards had killed most of their Chilian slaves, fearing they should revolt from them to us. We were about this time troubled with the scurvy; it proceeded, as we judged, from the great hardship and want of provisions we had endured for several months. We killed a mule and got there as plunder a small, quantity of good chocolate, which the Spaniards have in great esteem. In the gardens we found strawberries as big as walnuts.

Next morning, being Saturday, came into the town a flag of truce from the enemy. Their message was to proffer a ransom for the town to preserve it from burning, for now they began to fear we would set fire to it. The chief commanders on both sides met about this point and agreed betwixt them the sum of 95,000 pieces of eight for the whole ransom. This day also there died one of our negroes slaves on board the ship.

Next morning, we set fire to the town. We fired as nigh as we could every house in the whole town to the end that it might be totally reduced to ashes. Thus we left La Serena, carrying with us what plunder we could find.

and (Pirate Christmas):

December the 8th. This day our worthy commander, Captain Sharp, had intelligence given him, that on Christmas day, which was now at hand, the company, or at least a great part thereof, had a design to shoot him; he having appointed that day to be merry. Hereupon he made us share the wine amongst us, as being persuaded they would scare attempt any such thing in their sobriety. The wine we shared out fell out to three jars to each mess. That night the wind increased.

Sunday, December the 25th. This day, being Christmas day, for celebration of that great festival we killed a sow. This sow we had brought from the gulf of Nicoya, being then a suckling pig. With this hog’s flesh we made our Christmas dinner, being the only flesh we had eaten since we left the island of Plata. It was extreme hot weather. We saw much flying-fish, with some dolphins, bonitoes, and albicores, but they will not take the hook.

It’s fascinating reading what it was like to actually be a pirate; they looted and killed, got shot at and lost their legs, had very few morals but some qualms anyway. The whole book is available from the Gutenberg Project, and there is a good article about the central exploits of the book.

Bach the Thug

Archival sources, including school inspector reports, reveal that Bach’s education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well as his own extensive truancy…documents damn the boys as “rowdy, subversive, thuggish, beer- and wine-loving, girl-chasing … breaking windows and brandishing their daggers”. He added: “More disquieting were rumours of a ‘brutalisation of the boys’ and evidence that many parents kept their children at home – not because they were sick, but for fear of what went on in or outside school.”

I guess Bach was a teenage thug, though that seems like it was pretty par for the course back in the day.  Also, Mozart apparently loved scatological humor as seen in this beautiful letter to his cousin:

Well, I wish you good night

But first shit into your bed and make it burst.

Sleep soundly, my love

Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove.

Context, people, context!

I moved to New York City, and I needed to make money. I wasn’t having luck getting a job. It’s a common tale.

My solution was to grab my typewriter that I bought at a yard sale for 10 dollars and bring it to a park. I’d write stories for people, on the spot—I wouldn’t set a price. People could pay me whatever they wanted. I knew that I had the gift of writing creatively, very quickly, and my anachronistic typewriter (and explanatory sign) would be enough to catch the eye of passersby. Someone might want something specific; they might just want a story straight from my imagination. I was prepared for either situation…

I woke up one day not long after I started “Roving Typist” to a flurry of emails, Facebook posts, text messages and missed calls. A picture of me typewriting had made it to the front page of Reddit…

Without the sign, without the context, I definitely look like someone who is a bit insane. That’s how I thought of it, before I clicked to look at the hundreds of replies; I figured people were probably wondering why I would bring my typewriter to a park. And when I started reading the comments, I saw most people had already decided that I would bring my typewriter to the park because I’m a “fucking hipster.” Someone with the user handle “S2011” summed up the thoughts of the hive mind in 7 words: “Get the fuck out of my city.”

Illmatic707 chimed in: I have never wanted to fist fight someone so badly in my entire life.

Leoatneca replied: Bet 90% of his high school did to. It’s because of these guys that bullying is so hard to stop.

I’m back in Portland right now which is full of…”hipsters” like these. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own stories and reasons for what they do – it’s not always what you assume it is. This story about how someone, somewhat undeservedly, became a hated hipster meme is both gripping and an insightful reminder of how careful we need to be.

Broken heartland

Every so often someone writes about how this or that region is going to collapse. Today we get a perspective on why agriculture will collapse in the Great Plains:

The seed, it turned out, was organic, as were all of Teske’s crops — though he was quick to clarify that this was “not just for moral reasons.” On the contrary, organic farming seemed to him the only sensible option left. Decades of innovation had turned conventional farming into such an expensive and technical proposition that it was hopeless for anyone but agribusiness conglomerates to attempt it. This, he said, was the real cause of depopulation. Modern technology made it possible, and more or less obligatory, for a single owner to work fifty times as much land. So neighbors got to buying out neighbors, and then were bought out themselves. The only way forward, Teske figured, was to reject all those modern innovations, at which point you were basically “organic.”…

Sprawling beneath eight states and more than 100 million acres, the Ogallala Aquifer is the kind of hydrological behemoth that lends itself to rhapsody and hubris. Ancient, epic, apparently endless, it is the largest subterranean water supply in the country, with an estimated capacity of a million-billion gallons, providing nearly a third of all American groundwater irrigation. If the aquifer were somehow raised to the surface, it would cover a larger area than any freshwater lake on Earth — by a factor of five.

Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable. Land that had been marginal became dependable; land that was dependable became bountiful. Even as the U.S. population surged, with soldiers returning and babies booming, the output of the plains rose fast enough to meet and exceed demand…Then, during the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely…None of which, he went on, is likely to come back. For complex reasons involving wind, weather, and soil composition, the Ogallala does not recharge in the way one might expect. In fact, of the eight states above the aquifer, only Nebraska, with its sandhill dunes, is permeable enough to contribute any serious replenishment…

The farmers we stopped to talk with seemed to break his heart more each day. On a 12,000-acre plantation near Weskan, Kansas, we stood inside a cavernous warehouse of gleaming tractors and combines while the owner chattered and Teske interjected questions about loan terms and well output. He nodded gravely at the answers and chomped on the stub of his cigar until, as we headed down the driveway, his face collapsed and he moaned, “That poor bastard can’t even see the cliff he’s going off.”

One of the major ecological problems in the country – in the world – is the drainage of aquifers and dwindling water supply. It actually shocks me how little news it gets. Read the article, it’s absolutely great writing and had me gripped throughout the long, long article.

Photo from

Why was Spinoza excommunicated?

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

Baruch Spinoza managed to get the harshest ostracism ever pronounced on a member of the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam. The reason? Basically, he disagreed with everything the leaders of the community believed in and made them worry for their already-shaky position in a Catholic society.

The history of US population growth

The size of each state’s abbreviation swells in proportion to its size in population (states in darker blue have a larger share of the U.S. population, states in lighter blue have a smaller share).

Only three states (Virginia, New York and then California) have ever held the designation of the most populous. Those states are bracketed in red. Meanwhile, the cartwheeling red star approximates the westward shifting center of the U.S. population…Note how inconsequential California looks in 1870, and the moment, one century later, when it takes over from New York as the nation’s largest state by population.

via Atlantic Cities

This is Rome

A beautiful journey into the living history that is Rome. One of my favorite facts about the city is that it went from housing a million people to just 50,000 in a short span of time. They even resorted to ‘mining’ the city like in the Book of the New Sun.