I recently had some decks and exterior stairs at my properties replaced using pressure treated lumber. I get questions about pressure treated lumber from tenants quite often, and with good reason. Pressure treated wood used be a very toxic product. For a long time, pressure treated wood was infused with Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA). As the name implies, it contained arsenic. If termites ate wood that was treated with CCA, they would die. One of the many dangers of CCA was that the arsenic in the wood eventually leached into the nearby soil and poisoned the ground. Pressure treated wood no longer contains arsenic. The federal government banned arsenic in pressure treated lumber in 2003.
The History of Arsenic. People have known since ancient times that arsenic is highly toxic. Nevertheless, at the turn of the 20th Century, arsenic could be found in hundreds of household products. Arsenic was commonly used as a dye to make clothing and paint bright green. Many people died as a result of that. Women who wore green dresses in the 19th Century often became sick and died from the arsenic in their clothing. Weavers and dyers also became sick and died from handling thread all day long that was soaked in arsenic. Napoleon Bonaparte died of arsenic poisoning. That has been known for a long time, but until recently, no one knew where the arsenic came from. A lot of people suspected that his English jailers put arsenic in his food, but that isn’t what happened. When Napoleon was living in exile on the island of St. Helena, his friends in France had his bedroom wallpapered to make the room look more cheerful. That house still stands. The wallpaper in Napoleon’s bedroom was recently tested and found to be loaded with arsenic. It is now believed that the arsenic in Napoleon’s wallpaper gasified in the warm humid climate of St. Helena and killed him. A lot of people in Europe and America died that same way in the 19th Century. A lot of cosmetics sold in early 20th Century also contained arsenic, like arsenic face cream, which was sold everywhere. Smearing a blemish on your face with arsenic cream will actually make the blemish go away – but at a price. Arsenic face cream will eventually kill you. Cosmetic companies also sold arsenic wafers, arsenic pills, arsenic shampoo, arsenic hair tonic, and arsenic soap. When Teddy Roosevelt created the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1906, one of the first things they did was ban arsenic, mercury, and lead in cosmetics. As a result, many cosmetic companies went bankrupt. Today, there are still some consumer products on the market that contain arsenic. The FDA is still debating whether to ban arsenic from commercial chicken and turkey feed, where it is still in common use.
Don’t eat tomatoes grown in arsenic. (That’s actually good advice.) A few years ago, a tenant of mine on McAuley Street showed me tomato plants that she grew in her garden and offered to give me few of them. Her tomatoes looked really beautiful, but I noticed that her tomato bed was full of ant stakes. I recognized the brand and knew that they contained arsenic. I told her the truth about this product and that I don’t eat vegetables grown in soil with arsenic in it (and neither should you!) I know that I disappointed her, and I felt bad about that. I know she put a lot of work into her tomato garden – but arsenic really is very bad stuff. A very small amount of arsenic can kill you. Historically, arsenic poisoning was a common method of murdering people. That’s because until the late 19th Century, there was no way to chemically test for arsenic poisoning, so it was very hard to prove in court. Also, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can be vague – headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, etc. These are conditions that could have a long list of causes. When in doubt about chemicals that you use in your garden, read the label. If a product contains arsenic, they have to state that someplace on the package. Don’t underestimate the danger of arsenic. Just because a product is legal doesn’t mean that it is safe.


Donald Trump recently said that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was “ridiculed” at the time by the “fake news” press. Mr. Trump said: “You know when Abraham Lincoln made the Gettysburg Address speech, the great speech, you know he was ridiculed. And he was excoriated by the fake news. They had fake news then. They said it was a terrible, terrible speech.” Well, I teach Civil War history, and I have a lecture that I give on widely-held myths about Abraham Lincoln, and this myth is high on my list. It is widely-believed that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address got universally bad reviews at the time, but in reality, the reviews of Lincoln’s speech mostly fell along party lines. Republican newspapers thought the speech was great. Democratic newspapers thought it was mediocre, and predictably, Confederate newspapers thought the speech was just awful. There was one thing that everyone who was at Gettysburg did agree upon –  everyone was surprised at how short Lincoln’s speech was. Lincoln only spoke for 2 minutes. Just before Lincoln spoke, Edward Everett, a famous orator of the day, delivered a speech that was 2 hours long, and most people assumed that Lincoln would speak at least as long as Mr. Everett. Here is the review of the Gettysburg Address that appeared the next day in the Providence Journal (a Republican newspaper.) “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one that the President made at the close of Mr. Everett’s oration. Could the elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those thrilling words of the President? They have in our humble judgment the power and charm of the very highest eloquence.” That sounds like a pretty good review to me! Lots of other Republican newspapers gave the speech their highest praise. Another widely held myth about the Gettysburg Address is that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope while he was on the train to Gettysburg. That isn’t true either. Lincoln knew that this was going to be an important event with lots of famous people and newspaper reporters present. Lincoln worked on his speech for weeks. 5 early drafts of the Gettysburg Address still exist and are at the National Archives. A lot of what people think they know about Abraham Lincoln is really just a collection of popular myths garnered from politicians and movies – two equally unreliable sources of historic information.
Vampire Hunting. The movie ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter’ has been on TV a lot lately. Just in case you were wondering, this movie is not historically accurate. At various times in his life, Abraham Lincoln worked as a farm hand, a railsplitter, a boatman, a storekeeper, a postmaster, a soldier, a surveyor, a lawyer, a state legislator, a Congressman, and President of the United States. However, I am unaware of any evidence that Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires.


Goat yoga is popping up everywhere. There are goat yoga studios all over the country now. There are several of them around the bay, including one in Berkeley. I do not understand goat yoga. What is the appeal of doing yoga exercises with a goat standing on your back? I don’t understand what the goats do or what benefit anyone receives from this. I heard about goat yoga just a couple of months ago at a magic convention in Las Vegas. When I first heard about it, I thought the guy who was telling me about goat yoga was pulling my leg, but he told me to check it out on Google, which I did, and I was amazed to discover that he was telling the truth. I looked at photos on Google of people doing yoga exercises with goats standing on them. I said to this guy: “I notice that the goats in these Google photos are not wearing diapers. Are these goats housebroken?” (You know what I mean.) He said: “I don’t know. That’s an interesting question.” Yes, that is an interesting question. If you are going to be doing yoga exercises with a goat standing on your back, it would be nice to know if the goat is toilet trained.  But besides that, what do these goats do besides stand on your back – or your stomach? What is the point of this? As I said, I don’t get goat yoga. I’m not being coy. I really don’t get it. Don’t misunderstand me – I like goats. I petted a goat just recently at the Oakland Zoo. So did my sister. However, I had no desire for the goat to stand on my back, and as I recall, my sister didn’t express any desire for a goat to stand on her either. Can somebody explain to me what is the appeal of goat yoga? I don’t get it.
Update: BEER YOGA. I just got an Eventbrite invitation to go to a ‘Beer Yoga Session’ in San Francisco. See picture below. I just checked this out on Google. Beer yoga is now a real thing. There are dozens of beer yoga studios in the U.S. and Europe. This sounds almost as bizarre as goat yoga. Is anybody doing chocolate yoga?