Lexington Virginia

When I saw the statue I thought it might be Robert E Lee and I would have to feign outrage. This was Washington and Lee University after all. Closer inspection revealed it was Cyrus McCormick. All those old guys with beards look alike.

McCormick was a local boy and he gave money to Washington and Lee, but he moved to Chicago at an early age. He developed the McCormick Reaper that allowed for much more efficient harvests and revolutionized life for grain farmers, especially on the great plains, which were just on the verge of settlement when the reaper was developed.

Buckminster Fuller coined the phrase “energy slaves” to denote how much of our work is done by energy. This is what makes us so rich today. Add machines to that. McCormick reapers were still pulled by horses. There is the saying that BTUs do the work so you don’t have to. Of course that same goes for most tech. In the end, productivity is the only things that makes us better off materially.

I was driving up I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley. It was and is a major agricultural region. Relatively less important, as other regions have come online, than it was when McCormick lived there but still productive. In McCormick’s time, the Shenandoah Valley was a big grain producer. Today, it is more pasture.

During the Civil War, Union troops sought to destroy the productive capacity of the valley to starve the Confederacy. General Phil Sheridan was put in charge. His troops burned barns, killed livestock and made a desert of this once verdant and productive region, such that “A carrion crow in his flight across must either carry his rations or starve.”
It is a lesson in how war becomes more and more terrible as it progresses to its conclusion. It becomes a war against people when people feed armies.

My first picture is Cyrus McCormick at Washington and Lee. Next is the less PC but more memorably monikered Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at VMI, where he was an instructor. VMI and Washington and Lee are right next to each other, but with very different architecture, as you can see in the buildings behind the statues. Picture # 3 is Main Street in Lexington and the penultimate picture is a little restaurant where I had breakfast. People in Lexington were extraordinarily friendly and cheerful. At least a half dozen people greeted me on the street, and unlike the case sometimes around DC, they did not want anything from me. As semi-introvert sometimes lost in my thoughts, such amity is not always welcome, but I know it comes from good intentions. Last picture is from McCormick’s family farm. It is right of I-81 about 16 miles north of Lexington. Worth seeing, but maybe not worth going to see, but since it is so close …

I -81 is an unpleasant highway. Lots of truck moving at speeds that seem a little too fast, so you cannot enjoy the beauty of the Shenandoah as much as you otherwise might. There are lots of long vistas. It is very different from 95 and especially 85 that are surrounded by thick forests for large stretches.

Paradise gardens

Gardens are more than just places of beauty. They can and should also be place of contemplation of nature, meaning in life and of our relationship with God. This is a tall order, but it was evidently what the creators of the water gardens in Cordoba had in mind when they designed and built the gardens in these pictures.

Water and gardens has a special place in the ideology of Muslim Spain. The garden is associated with paradise, as in Christian ideas, but Muslims tend to add in more about water, probably because believers were often from arid places where water is more clearly something that need to be actively included. In places like Virginia, we give our gardens water, but can rely on rain for much of the sustenance. In arid places, if you do not bring the water, not water will be there, at least not enough.

Providing enough water for these Cordoba gardens was a significant engineering feat in itself.

The sound of running water is a big part of the enjoyment. You cannot hear that in the pictures, so imagine it. We got there near the end of day. This was good because there were fewer people, but the woman at the ticket desk warned us that we had only a little more than a half hour to enjoy the gardens. It would have been nicer to stay a long time, but we saw the whole thing in that time. Funny, I was joking about what to they do to get you to leave. Well, they make an announcement and then turn off the water.

My pictures show the Cordoba royal gardens. I have included one of Chrissy’s beer pictures from the day, another way to contemplate the meaning of life. I noticed along the garden lots of the plants they call Maria sem vergonia in Brazil. Vera Do Val Galante told me what those were. They grew profusely in Brasilia.


Travel can be inspirational. Just putting yourself in new surroundings is a start and if you can be in a place that makes you think in time, it is better.

We came to Spain with that in mind. We wanted to go to a place with layers of history and great diversity. We were also interested in being in a place where knowledge had been created & transferred. Andalusia was a place like that. Scholars showed came from Europe to reclaim the classics.

We saw statues of Maimonides and Averroes and thought about their lives and work. We visited the Madras of Granada, Spain’s first university. This was a Madras in the usual way that they memorized the Koran, but they also taught other subjects that we would call liberal arts.

There is a lot more think about. People in the past were like us in most basic ways, but so different in their circumstances.


Almost nobody really knows very much about Columbus, but almost everybody knows that they admire or hate him – until a few years ago it was mostly admiration; today it is mostly hate. Until a few decades ago, Columbus was venerated. We sang songs about him in grade school – “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue …” and lots of things, cities and whole countries were named for him.

These days, Columbus is seen as a racist, imperialist and … well you know the litany. He didn’t deserve all the admiration and most of it was based on myth. He also doesn’t deserve all the opprobrium, also mostly based on myth, or rather base on how people feel today about lots of other issues.

The story we learned about the heroic & iconoclastic Columbus was wrong. In school (and maybe more from popular cartoons) we learned that people back then thought the world was flat; this is flat wrong. Educated people in Europe knew the world was round. The Greeks had estimated the size of the globe in the 3rd Century BC and they were very close. The way that Columbus differed from this consensus was that he thought the world was smaller and that he could cross the western sea and get to the east.

Had Columbus not discovered America in 1492, somebody else would have soon done it. The time was ripe. A word about discovery. Vikings had been to America hundreds of years earlier and there is speculation that Basque fishermen made more of less regular visits to the coasts, searching for cod. Of course, people were living in America for 12,000 years. They knew they were somewhere.

What Columbus did was put America on a world map. Well, he didn’t, but it soon was, and his voyages connected the old and the new worlds permanently. This is why he was admired and now is hated. Columbus’ voyage marked the birth of the modern world and the first globalization.

There is no evidence that space aliens have ever visited earth and I think there is a good chance that none every will. Even assuming alien life exists, distances are too great and the laws of physics too strict to allow the travel. And I am glad of this. If aliens ever get to earth, we humans are finished. If they get here, it implies a superior technology, and likely superior military capacity. Whenever people with higher technology have encountered those with lower levels, it has not gone well for the ones behind. This is not merely the lesson of humanity. It is also the basis of natural evolution. We can hope that aliens would be different but that would be the triumph of hope over experience.

This was the lesson from America, but it was a lesson for human encounters since the invention of … anything. Farmers displaced hunters; they could breed faster. People with bronze weapons displaced those with stone and were subsequently replaced by those who mastered iron working. People who could use horses and invented chariots conquered those who ran on human legs.

Pre-Columbian American had been fighting and displacing each other for millennia. Incas had conquered nearby people and formed an effective empire and the Aztecs were running what was essentially a predatory terror state, but Europeans with their guns, germs, steel, horses and more complicated organizations were a quantum leap. In the course of only a few generations, everything changed, and I mean everything – people, plants, animals, even microbes, insects and earthworms.

Blame Columbus
The Spanish still revere Columbus and in Seville is a monument to him and the cathedral features Columbus’s putative burial place. I add the adjective because there is some dispute about Columbus’ final resting place. The most plausible contender beyond Seville is the Dominican Republic. They had remains that they say are Columbus. The Seville remains have been checked for DNA. These remains are related to Columbus’s father and son, so I think we can give good odds that at least part of Columbus is contained in that coffin you see in the picture. The Dominican Columbus has not been tested for DNA. It is possible that part of Columbus might be there too.

They had the macabre habit in those days of revering parts of famous or saintly people. It was the old idea of relics. I think it bad manners to revere parts of somebody. Many churches had pieces of the “true cross” or milk from Mary. How they would have obtained the original is a question nobody answered or even usually asked. One skeptical historian quipped that if you assembled all the wood from the true cross held in all the churches in Christendom, you could build the Royal Navy and if you pooled all the milk of Mary, you could float it.

My opinion of Columbus? He was a visionary man of his times, i.e. the late middle ages. He acted much like people of his times were expected to act. I am glad that he “discovered” America, because I am glad I live here. The world is a lot better now than it was during his time. I don’t praise or blame him for that.

First picture is the Columbus memorial in Madrid. Picture #4 is his tomb. His mortal remains are in that stone sarcophagus.

Picture # 3 is an upside down map of the Mediterranean. It has south on the top because it is meant to show where the Spanish fleet set out to defeat fight the Turks. The Spanish and allies from Venice and Naples defeated the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in the biggest navel engagement since classical times. It was one of history’s key battles, but I bet most Americans never heard of it.

The last picture is a Seville street scene. I don’t know what the #2 picture is. I just thought it a cool picture.

Prado and other works of art

Everybody said that you have to see the Prado Museum if you go to Madrid. I am glad we went, but really glad we did not take the tour, which would have required spending much more time.

Let me stipulate that for students of masterpiece paintings, this must be heaven. They can study the evolving techniques and even study how the brush strokes of the masters varied with their experience and age.

Let me further stipulate that I am glad that this art is in the world and that many people treasure it. It makes some people gloriously happy and uplifted. Good.

Let me finally stipulate that I generally love museums, but I guess I am less enamored with fine arts, arts of arts’ sake. I like it to have a relationship to something more.

I enjoyed the portraits of the Hapsburg monarchs – strong family resemblance but not an attractive bunch. I enjoyed seeing the originals of many painting I had long seen in books. I appreciate Brueghel because of the landscapes and insights into climate. Dürer I like, maybe arts for arts sake. And I enjoyed the nearby table of deadly sins attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, but otherwise there were just too many painting of chubby children, emaciated saints and religious symbolism.

I am firmly believe, or at least fervently hope, that the ideas of medieval religion are wrong, else I am surely headed straight to hell. I will have a lot of company there because these guys though pretty much every normal human feeling was a sin. They venerated saints and penitents who went out and abused their bodies and minds.

It was not featured at the Prado, but I recall the story of one Simeon Stylites, who was considered a saint and holy man because he sat on top of a pillar in the Syrian Desert for 37 years, eating and drinking little and exposing himself to the elements. I think that is just plain nuts, certainly not admirable. And the whole incentive system is wrong. Crazy Simeon beats the crap out of himself for 37 years with the goal of going to a better place where he never has to do that again.

Anyway, I am glad I went to the Prado and I do not have to go again. I enjoyed the grounds around the museum. There were some really big cedar trees and a grove of plane trees, and across the street was a remarkable vertical garden, you see in the first picture. Maybe better than the paintings of the chubby babies.

Does native still matter?

I fight invasive species all the time on my farms. It is an endless battle against ailanthus, multi flora rose and Japanese honeysuckle, among others. Invasive bugs are killing trees I love. This is another endless struggle.

Add in climate change and human induced landscape changes and we know it is a fight we will not win, but maybe we can finesse better solutions.

First, we need to accept the reality. The concept of “native” and invasive are now merely conveniences. Native means little when in the face of so many changes. We can never really “restore” the old world and really would not want to. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on.

Our task now is not to try to mimic the nature we found, but rather try to understand and use natural principles to help more appropriate systems develop. We will never get it “right” but then neither does nature. It is always a dynamic. There never was and never can be nature in static balance.

That does not mean we should not favor natives long established. In practice, we should give natives something akin to the right of first refusal. If a native species works well, go with the native. But if conditions have so changed that the native species is no longer appropriate, we need not go to radical means to make it appropriate. Ironically, the only way to “restore” nature in many cases would be with massive human intervention.

What we need now is an iterative approach, think-try-think again-try again. We are dealing with not with a complicated system but with a complex and adaptive one, which means that what we do will change basic conditions.

Our metaphors of nature are not always appropriate. I mentioned the idea of balance, more a religious than a scientific concept, but the one I am thinking of here is that idea of nature as a tapestry. We say that if we pull out one thread, the whole thing can unravel. This is true of a tapestry and for a complicated system. It is not true of a complex, adaptive system. Nature is not fragile. Nature is robust; we are fragile.

These were some thoughts as Chrissy and I walked through the Royal Botanical gardens in Madrid. The garden is packed full of species from all over the world, many grow well here in Spain. Many are not associated with each other anywhere except where humans have made it so.

I could catch a giant sequoia, palm tree & bald cypress in the same picture frame. It reminded me of a natural environment I visited in Arizona, a “sky island” near the border with Mexico. The warming after the last ice age made the area hot and dry, but cold adapted species persisted on higher elevations. But the species mix is odd. You find cactus & agave next to spruces, fir and ponderosa pine.

It is useful to recall that species were not always where humans initially found them and some thrive much better outside their native range. A good example is the Monterrey pine, isolated locally in its home in California but fantastically well adapted to parts of the Southern hemisphere. Or consider the eucalyptus, found only in Australia by the time humans came around, but a tree that developed in South America and now is common there again. What is native anyway?

Pictures are from around the garden. You can see a sequoia from California flanked by a bald cypress from the American Southeast and a sub-tropical palm – mixed and novel relationships.  Another shows a zelkova. I noticed because the Japanese zelkova became common around Washington as replacement for American elms killed by Dutch elm disease. This one, however, was a central Asian native.  Next picture is just one of my favorites of the southern pine forests and American plains – a rattlesnake master. And up top are some horse chestnuts. They are native of the Balkans, but planted very widely in Europe and North America. Unfortunately, they are also threatened by a leaf miner. They were lovely trees.

Trains, restoration and hotels

We started our day with a rainy walk to the train station in Cordoba and caught the fast train to Madrid. These trains can reach 300 km/hour. They are always comfortable and nearly always on time. I love trains and would always prefer them to cars when I am in Europe.

The challenge for trains is that every train journey starts and ends with a walk. European cities are densely packed. You can walk where you need to go usually. Besides in a few cities, like New York or Washington, once you arrive by train there is often no place to go w/o a car.

I would like American cities to be more walkable, but that is not how they have developed. Building fast trains in most places is and will be a waste of time unless and until this changes.

There was a proposal to build a fast train from Milwaukee to Madison a few years ago. That made absolutely not sense. Most of the travellers would live between those two cities. Even if the train made the journey in zero time, driving to the station would take more time than just driving to the city of your choice.

Restoration or not
There is a debate among antiquarians & archeologists about whether we should restore old structures or leave them in their current state of repair. It is a kind of purist debate.
I fall firmly in the middle about this, maybe a little leaning toward restoration. We should leave some alone as the control, but we should restore what we can, provided that (a big if) we can reasonably know what it looked like.

We still face the problem of “when”. This is very clear in Andalusia, where cultures are layered. To restore the Islamic splendor, we would need to destroy the Christian heritage. To restore the Roman grandeur we would need destroy both Christian and Islamic glory. You get the picture.

In Cordoba, they are restoring the old walls along the cathedral to what they were during Islamic times. This was an easy choice. The restored walls are many times better than the old weathered and destroyed facades.

Beer at the train station
We got some decent beer and good ham sandwiches at a shop at the train station. When you order beer in Spain, they do not ask you what kind. You get the beer they have on tap. So far that has been a brand called Cruzcampo. It is a reasonably good Pilsner style beer. I miss my IPA.

Interesting permutation. We were going into a better restaurant, but they shooed us away, claiming they were full. There were lots of tables. We could see the place from the shop we finally ended up. The tables did not fill. Not sure what happened. If I was the paranoid type, I would think up lots of reasons why we were “denied” service. Probably something prosaic.

The Marriott Auditorium Hotel is a giant hotel. They say the biggest Marriott in Europe. Rooms are kind of in “Mad Men” style, as you see in the last picture. I used Marriott points and not many points at that.

You can benefit for point-money arbitrage. Presuming you have point enough, you need to look both to point and cash. Sometimes the cash price is low but the points are high, and sometimes vice-versa. My general observation is that you should pay money in the USA and use points in Europe. Of course, sign up for whatever points promotions are available and check all the dates. It can be a lot cheaper one day to the next. It takes some time to get the best rates, but it is fun to play the game.

It really does not matter which hotel chain you choose, but you should stay mostly at only one. I achieved lifetime titanium status at Marriott (it took me more than 30 years), so I get lots of stuff free and they treat me royally when I show up.

Luggage people

Chrissy has a theory – more a superstition really and like all superstitions it is right enough of the time that confirmation bias can provide sufficient proof to keep it viable. Her theory is that you can follow people dragging luggage – luggage people – to the train station and alternatively, you can follow them to the center of town.

You can see the flaw in this thinking, since it is confirmed by observation of people going either direction, but it sort of works to make you feel more comfortable. And people dragging luggage indicates that you are probably near a hotel or a train station.

Her other luggage people theory is probably true, although not easily testable. She thinks that the proliferation of wheeled gear and backpacks had cut into the business of taxi drivers. This makes sense.

You can drag wheeled luggage a fairly long way. It can be a little annoying when sidewalks are rough and it is a lot annoying to drag across cobblestone streets, as they have in old town Cordoba, but it works. We dragged our luggage from the train station to our hotel, a walk of about 25 minutes, accompanied by the click-clack of the luggage wheels, and by the sight and sound of others doing the same.

Seems like a lot more old people are travelling these days and walking with wheeled luggage and backpacks. I suppose that they are people like us who learned the travel business as poor college kinds and now return to the habits of youth. Not all the way, of course. Now we stay in actual hotels and can afford to eat in decent restaurants.
I recall first time I travelled overseas, when I went to Germany, I spent a lot of time looking around for a place to sleep and the options included youth hostels or isolated park benches, not nice hotels. I also ate so little that I lost about ten pounds in my month in Germany. Unfortunately, I will not be losing any weight this time. In fact, I expect to come back more “robust,” since eating good food and drinking beer is a bigger part of travel pleasure when you have a little more money.

My picture is my usual drinking picture. I posted Chrissy at the same spot yesterday. Next are luggage people in Granada, followed by olive groves taken from the train between Granada and Cordoba. It can be very arid in this part of Spain. Some of the land looks like Arizona, complete with prickly pear and agave imported from the new world. In places with enough water you find miles and miles of widely spaced olive trees. Next is a picture of the Marisa Hotel, for Mariza. Last is another night street scene. More people pack the streets at 9pm than 9am.


They say that the Alhambra is the must see attraction in Granada. But only so many people can go in each day. Tickets sell out. That is why I signed us up for the three hour tour in advance. Chrissy & I got to the meeting place well in advance, but no guides showed up. When we inquired and looked closer at the electronic ticket, I learned that I had signed up for the right date and time, but the wrong month. We probably will not come back on October 21.

I immediately began the rationalization process. I messed up big time, but …

We did get to have a beautiful, if arduous, walk to get up to the gate, through a wonderful hardwood forest. And we did have a couple of beers in a pretty place. And we did get to walk around the walls and contemplate the ephemeral nature of earthly power. And there were lots of nice sights in the city on the way around. And it was still enjoyable. And Chrissy was very understanding of my folly. I usually do a good job of double checking these things. Crap.

We will have to get a book and read more about it. The trip has made me want to learn more about Spain in general and Andalusia in particular.

City life

Walking around Seville made me think about what makes some cities more walkable, pleasant and livable than others. Seville is certainly one of the most pleasant cities I have ever seen. I could see lots of the characteristics of a livable city. Buildings should integrate with life on the streets. In fact, the building itself is much less important than the relationship it creates in the community. Of course, attractive buildings are often better, but not always.

Buildings in Seville tend to be open to the outside. Most people like the merger of indoor and outdoors and Seville has that in abundance. In fairness to more buttoned-up cities, this works well because of the climate.

You also need density. This is something that we don’t do well in the USA. One reason is that we tend not to like it, but another is related to our building regulation. The narrow streets and lack of access that make a place like Seville so attractive are usually illegal in the USA. And a big factor of a nice city is that few of its iconic buildings were built between around 1935 and 1965. Let’s not start on the malevolent influence guys Le Corbusier, suffice it to say that Seville did not suffer that.

We visited some of the parks as well as the great buildings of the Alcazar and the Cathedral. The Alcazar is a royal place. The Moors built the first part on Roman foundations and their influence is still dominant. After the reconquest, the Christian monarchs build on that, sometimes literally on top. We did the guided tour. The guide would often point to the different “layers” of a building. You can see in one of my pictures, the Moorish middle floor with a renaissance layer on top built by Charles V.

Speaking of Charles V, recall the he was born in Flanders – in Ghent, now part of Belgium. In addition to being King of Spain, he was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (most now Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and the Czech Republic. His family was the famous Austrian Hapsburgs. Spain in those days was part of great empire spread across the world and it got influences from all over.