Who Invented Ice Cream?

I have been mesmerized by a new book, Who Ate the First Oyster?,  which chronicles human stories of individual firsts: the first oyster eater, first cave painter, first to commit murder &c. Author Cody Cassidy uses anthropology and biology to put a face in front of the brain behind each of these inventions, a brilliant way to de-science the work. The book is full of surprises from the very beginning, where Cassidy explains the Very First Invention, which is … well… I can’t tell you or I would be responsible for revealing all the fun parts.

Cody Cassidy’s timeline in Who Ate the First Oyster?

Cassidy also explains that the timeline is compressed, meaning most of human advancements–even the early inventions in his book–occur in a teeny-tiny space at the very end of his timeline. I wish to do Cassidy’s book justice, but, rather than planting Spoiler Alerts over the next seven paragraphs, I thought I might take a different angle. Riffing on this writer’s approach, I would like to give a brief history of the invention that represents the most important contribution to civilization as we know it. Of course, I’m talking about how humans acquired Ice Cream.

Well, maybe fire was more important. And writing. Counting. Computers? Space flight? Ice cream would be right in there, somewhere. Strangely enough, you wouldn’t need fire, writing, counting, computers, or space flight in order to make ice cream, so It Stands Alone. But it starts with harnessing the power of Ice!

Ice in the Desert: Yakhchāl

You might have heard of Babylon or even Ur, if you read about ancient cities, but you might not have heard of Mari, one of the oldest planned cities from the Fertile Crescent where civilization emerged. Mari’s clever but lesser-known King Zimri-Lim had scribes who described the construction of his ice house. They carefully noted, in their 1780 BC cuneiform, that “never before had any king built” such a marvel. Surely, we can imagine King Z-L walking foreign dignitaries through the grounds of his expansive palace, waving vaguely in the direction of a strange-looking domed building. “Oh, over there? That’s a new creation of my underlings, which provides frozen water at my command.”

We don’t have a picture of the king’s marvelous ice house. However, more than a millennium later, by approximately 400 BCE, the Persian Empire had developed a peculiar but effective structure for storing ice, even in the desert. The scientists under Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Darius II, Xerxes II–well, you get the drift–by 400 BCE there was large-scale irrigation through qanats, underground acqueducts. One of those underling scientists had figured out that water below ground was very much colder–aHA! The water could be gathered in pools. But how to keep it cold? That’s where the yakhchāl came in.

The dome structure of the yakhchāl extended upwards to a peak with a hole in the top but also had vents near the bottom for air to come in. The hotter portion of the air would rise up and out, while the colder air would drop downward, further cooling the pool of water. The qanats even channeled water in on the north side, the coolest side, to speed up the freezing process. Thus, Artaxerxes and friends could create ancient Icees, flavored with pomegranate, orange, or lemon juice. How the ices developed next becomes a bit of a philosophical debate.

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The Jefferson Paradox: 168 Words

John Trumbull, “Presenting the Draft of the Declaration of Independence,” 1818.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Clause deleted from the Declaration of Independence

Fans of Broadway shows may recognize those opening words–he has waged cruel war– and hear a lush breeze of violins rise in a syncopated “beautiful waltz” in a song about molasses, rum, and slaves. Slavery was nearly abolished as an American practice–at least, it was proposed to be abolished by Thomas Jefferson before the country became these united states.

But Jefferson also owned slaves and fathered children with one of them, who was 15 when the relationship began. The statesman who argued so passionately for the morality of individual liberty did not entirely practice what he preached. There are nuances worth examining in this paradox, little-known facts that should be included in the conversation. To either stick him on a pedestal just because he wrote the “Declaration of Independence” or join the ubiquitous bands of protesters pulling down statues just because he was a slave owner seems overly simplistic. If we are going to judge historical figures, we should include as much of the picture as we know.

Portland has already opted to topple Jefferson, the slave owner. Photo by Joy Bogdan.
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Capitalism in the Time of Covid-19

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ionizer! See 99.99%. Photo from CBSNews.com.

Who said our economy shut down during shelter-in-place? Based on the nature of advertisements, businesses seem to be thriving–businesses targeted at selling masks, toilet paper, and chloroquine tablets, in particular. The innovation of greed has been a marvel to behold as this pandemic created, in just a few weeks, a whole sub-industry of quackery preying on people’s needs, fears, and hopes.

Counterfeit: Rascal Rollover

Despite the gutting of budgets for critical government health agencies like the CDC and FDA, the handful of people there are kept very busy posting about bogus companies. For example, the Wall Street Journal last week wrote about how thousands of overseas medical suppliers were using a fake Delaware registry as their representative. Pop over to the CDC, and you can easily find a handy list of how to tell if a company is falsely claiming their product is endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Hint: they might misspell NIOSH.

What’s crazy isn’t so much that an Asian company might market a product in the U.S. with the fancy label “Air Queen,” or that they might sell a lot of masks which aren’t medical-grade. What’s crazy is that they bothered to create a fake Letter of Approval from the NIOSH, which the NIOSH then has to post with a “We Don’t Endorse this Crap….” label. Instead of working to design and manufacture whatever they would need to make masks that are medical-grade, it’s obviously much cheaper to create a fake letter of endorsement. But since American consumers wouldn’t care whether the letter has the correct government agency on it, there must be a middle-market supplier who needed to be convinced, which requires someone to be on top of determining what the transport paperwork looks like for such agencies. That’s damn elaborate!

However, as the founder of Quackwatch Dr. Stephen Barrett told NPR, when the AIDS crisis arose, those who touted fake cancer cures started touting fake AIDS cures. He called it “Rascal Rollover.” With Covid-19, the Rascals roll on.

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Not Playing Ball

Sports Fan, the Word of the Day is avarice. That seems to cover it well at least for fans, network executives, owners, and players. Some owners and some players anyway, as how professional sports purveyors are planning to address opening of their sport in our Covid-soaked world varies dramatically by sport. If, like me, you are desperately greedy to watch some games besides a 13-2 baseball donnybrook from 2015 or the Doritos Cornhole Championships, then let me give you a rundown of plans for some of the national sports leagues. How those leagues differ in approach reveals a lot about their industry.

A new revenue stream for sports franchises! Photo from NBAStore.com. Made in China.

Let’s also agree that we don’t want anyone playing who might risk getting Covid-19. I’m not in the camp that thinks we can achieve herd immunity by letting the disease burns its way through or that only weenies wear masks. Any of these players and leagues could decide as they move forward–as they did on March 12th–that it’s too dangerous to risk the health of players, coaches, and surrounding support workers. We don’t yet know if any sport is safe enough. What is true is that this disease won’t discriminate between a linebacker and a knuckleball set-up pitcher.

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We Do Not Protest Too Much

We’ve been down this road before. It has helped.

This past week has embraced us with the feeling of a watershed moment. Peaceful protests are still the central focus across the country, while incidents of mayhem seem to have died down. History shows that something good often comes out of it, impossible as it may seem at the time.

1963 Civil rights march, photo at Gallup.com, from US National Archives.

When Gallup conducted polls in the early 1960s, both before and after the 1963 March on Washington (the “I Have a Dream” speech), respondents said that such massed protests hurt the cause of civil rights. Not by a bare majority either; in May 1964, 74% of those polled by Gallup said that non-violent protests “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality. ” It’s hard to see the watershed when the waterfall is still falling on our heads.

Protests, historically, have followed a particular pattern. Oppression. Uprising, partly peaceful/partly violent. Masses come together. Law enforcement cracks down. More mass protests, more crackdowns. Trials with verdicts, rarely with justice satisifed. But later, some change. Society inches forward over the rubble.

Here are a few examples from the last seven centuries or so.

Negotiations Go Better when You Don’t Spit on the King

The Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 is an early example of mass protests which led to positive change, though it took a squirrely path to get there. Let me set the scene. The Black Death had ravaged Eurasia and North Africa, where by the 1350s, somewhere between 30-60% of the population had succumbed. Peasants died by the millions, but the landowners and wealthy were also not spared, leading to a labor shortage and inflation. Laborers demanded higher wages and more autonomy, and some got it from the barons who depended on the peasants to work their farms for income. At the same time, England was engaging in continuous skirmishes with France on their own soil and across the Channel, and constant war was expensive. All of it sounds rather familiar.

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