Saturday, February 17, 2024

A Window to Another Time

Kaiser Wilhelm II certainly didn’t cause The Great War—at least not single-handedly—but he didn’t do a whole lot to prevent it, either.  Listing all the reasons for the first of the two world wars of the 20th century would take a complex discussion of rising nationalism and empires scrambling to acquire colonies like children grabbing candy after busting a pinata.

Note.  I’m a little astonished at the cartoon to the right.  I fed that first paragraph into an AI program and asked for a cartoon.  There was a ten-second pause, then it spit out the cartoon.  Don’t bother trying to decipher the caption, it’s either gibberish or the text of another meaningless email from Enema U’s Vice-President of Research.

That’s not to say that the Kaiser was exactly blameless, either.  As he grew up, he was fed a steady diet of tales of Prussian military glory, and once he became Kaiser, he wanted to lead Germany to a victorious future.  By definition, that meant he needed a war.

And there was, however, that small difficulty with the Kaiser’s ship complex.  Great Britain had ruled the seas from long before the days of Napoleon, and since being a great naval power was de rigueur for maintaining an overseas empire, the Kaiser wanted his own great navy.  The fact that both of his cousins, the King of England and the Tsar of Russia, had great navies really rankled Wilhelm, so he started building one of his own, touching off an international arms race that greatly added to the spirit of militarism across Europe and even resonated in the United States.

If you doubt that the Kaiser was envious of the British Navy, look at the photo at left, in which the Kaiser is seen wearing the uniform of a British Admiral of the Fleet while attending the funeral of his grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Early on in the war, Germany did very well…for a while.   The Kaiser’s army successfully pushed into France and his navy fought the British Navy to a draw at the Battle of Jutland, but then the war bogged down into a stalemate.  Two years into the war, there was a power shift within Germany when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff seized control, leaving the Kaiser with only a purely ceremonial role and no actual control over conduct of the war.

When the war ended, one of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty required that the Kaiser—who had recently abdicated—be handed over to the Allies to face prosecution “for a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties”.  Considering the low opinions both the French and the English had of the Kaiser, it was likely that he would have been found guilty and executed.  Desperate, the Kaiser wrote to another cousin, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, asking for asylum.

The Netherlands had remained neutral during the war, and while public opinion of the Dutch people was divided on the fate of the Kaiser, Queen Wilhelmina resisted the demands of the Allies and granted amnesty to the abdicated Kaiser.  Since both were direct descendants of Queen Victoria, and Wilhelmina’s grandfather had married the Kaiser’s sister, the queen no doubt wanted to keep peace in the family.

The Kaiser moved to the Netherlands late in 1918 and began house hunting.  Since he was not exactly traveling light—he moved 59 freight cars of antiques, paintings, silver, and memorabilia with him—it took him two years to find the perfect little house.  

Doorn House had started as a 14th century castle and had been steadily improved in the intervening five centuries.  Covering over eighty acres, the estate sports a functioning moat, an elaborate gate house, and extensive English-style gardens.  The former Kaiser was free to live at the estate but was required to stay within ten kilometers of home.  Despite frequent invitations, Queen Wilhelmina never visited her cousin.

In all, Wilhelm lived a comfortable, but somewhat lonely, life. At Doorn house, he frequently spent his time working in the gardens, chopping wood, and futilely dreaming of the day when the German people would demand his return to the throne.  In the 1930’s, Wilhelm had several meetings with Hermann Goering, who wanted the Kaiser to support the Nazi Party.  Disgusted by Kristallnacht, the former Kaiser refused to have anything to do with Hitler or his party, saying:

Of Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers, Hitler has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics.

When World War II started, Winston Churchill offered asylum to the former Kaiser in England, but Wilhelm refused to leave his home.  When the Netherlands were invaded by the Germans in 1940, German troops guarded Doorn House but were not allowed inside the gate.  Wilhelm died of a pulmonary embolism in 1942, and his wishes to have no swastikas present at his funeral were not honored.  His remains were placed in a mausoleum in the garden, there to await the day when the Prussian monarchy returns to Germany.  

Today, Doorn House is a museum, remaining largely as the former Kaiser knew it, with his books and papers still on display along with the more than 30,000 objects he brought with him from Germany.  Of special interest to probably no one is his extensive collection of ornate snuff boxes.  The estate has become a shrine to a group of German monarchists, who still gather at the house once a year in support of the current claimant to the throne, Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia.  His 2014 claim to recover the estate was rejected by the Dutch government.

One last note about Doorn House:  When Wilhelm found the estate, he bought it for 500,000 guilders from the family of the Baron van Heemstra.  Among the Baron’s children who were raised in the old castle was Baroness van Heemstra, who later became a British citizen and a well-known author of children’s book under the penname of Ellaline Vere.  She is better known as the mother of Aubrey Hepburn.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Three Great Letters

In the The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende, the author says that “Letters are a gift reserved for the living, denied to those in heaven.”  I think the author is close to the mark, for letters, at least good letters, are immortal and last long after both the writer and the recipient have left this world.

I like letters.  I like to plan letters in advance, then I enjoy writing them—after selecting the right paper and ink—then I like to mail them.  I would probably like to receive them, but that rarely happens any more.  For most people, letters have evidently been replaced by email, which is a sorry substitute.

There are multiple websites that list the ten greatest letters of all time, the five letters that changed history, or the dozen or so most important letters in politics—there are so many that I have no intention of competing with them.  For the last week or so, I have been thinking about three letters in particular—letters that aren’t important in most people’s minds, but letters that I thought were memorable.  They might not exactly be historic letters, but they are interesting.

After winning the election in November 1960, President John F. Kennedy began putting together his government and the newly appointed Ambassador to India was his former Harvard professor, John Kenneth Galbraith.  Galbraith, his wife, and their three sons would all be moving to India, much to the consternation of Peter Galbraith, the ambassador’s second son.

Ten-year-old Peter didn’t want to leave his friends and his school and he didn’t like the idea of leaving his home and moving thousands of miles away for a period of several years.  When the President heard about Peter’s unhappiness, he could understand how the boy felt, since his own father had been appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James (England) more than twenty years earlier.

Though Kennedy hadn’t been in office for even three months, he took the time to write a personal letter to young Peter, telling the boy about his own experiences in leaving home and friends and moving to a new country.  

“More than twenty years ago, our family was similarly uprooted when we went to London where my father was Ambassador.  My younger brothers and sisters were about your age.  They, like you had to exchange new friends for old.”

Kennedy went on to tell young Peter to look forward to the exotic animals he would see in India, particularly the elephants.  After warning the boy to avoid the cobras, the president said that he considered the children of his ambassadors to be the junior members of the Peace Corps.

By all accounts the boy took the message to heart and felt easier about the move.  The New York Times reported about the letter on April 2, 1961 and the story has made into several books, including one by the ambassador.  What has never made the books, as far as I can tell, is that there was a second letter.

Peter Galbraith had a nine-year-old brother, James, who felt a little left out by the presidential attention that his brother was receiving.  After all, he, too, had moved to India, leaving behind his friends, his school, and his home.  When President Kennedy learned of the boy’s unhappiness, he wrote a second letter, this time to James, thanking the boy for his sacrifice and urging the boy to grow up to be a good Democrat like his father, but perhaps one not so inconveniently sized.  The president was making a small joke about the ambassador being 6’ 8”.

In 1945, a young agent for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, ran agents in Germany tasked with tracking, and in a few cases, killing high ranking officers in the German Army.  As Germany collapsed at the end of the war, the young agent made his way to the Bavarian mountaintop retreat of Adolf Hitler, helping himself to some of the Fuehrer’s personal stationary.

On May 8, 1945, VE Day, the young agent took the time to write his three-year-old son a letter commemorating the end of the war.

“Dear Dennis, The man who might have written on this card once controlled Europe—three short years ago when you were born.  Today he is dead, his memory despised, his country in ruins.  He had a thirst for power, a low opinion of man as an individual, and a fear of intellectual honesty.  He was a force for evil in the world.  His passing, his defeat—a boon to mankind.”

The young agent, Richard Helms went on to become the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1966 to 1973.  The letter still exists and is on display in the OSS Wing of the CIA Museum, a facility that is not open to the public.

The last letter is my personal favorite, you’ll have to forgive me for being a little biased.  My father was born in West Texas, the son of a poor farmer with eleven children, in an area hit hard by the Great Depression.  To survive, my father left home to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, working to build highways and parks near Fort Worth.

After Pearl Harbor, those young boys, already outfitted with khaki uniforms, were more or less just marched into the nearest recruiting office and enlisted into the Army.  My father ended up as an engineer on a B-25 bomber—something that still astounds me, since my father was many wonderful things, but he was absolutely incapable of doing anything mechanical.  At any given time, there was a large collection of inoperable lawn mowers behind our garage, because my father had no idea how to change a spark plug or clean an air filter.  I still have his maintenance manuals for his plane and have no idea how he managed to do any of the routine tasks the book describes.

While stationed for training in Fort Worth, my father met my mother at a skating rink after she managed to fall down in front of him enough times to catch his attention.  They fell in love and planned a wedding after the war.  Shortly after becoming engaged, my father was sent to the Pacific Theater for the duration of the war.  Surprisingly, for a poor ol’ country boy with hardly any formal education, he was a prolific letter writer, writing whenever he could—but at least once a week—and those letters are now in my possession.  

Reading the letters is an emotional roller coaster and often requires a little research to understand the cultural references.  The letters were censored, too, so at times, it is impossible to determine where my father was stationed when he wrote a letter.  My father was very young, and this was the first time in his life that he had left Texas, so the letters reveal almost constant amazement at the new, wider world he was experiencing.  The most common topics of the letters are returning to my mother, his hopes for a life after the war, his hatred of traveling by ship, and a general loathing of everything the Army gave him to eat.  

“Oh, darling, I can’t wait to get back to you.  When I get back to Fort Worth, we can celebrate.  I want to take you to a really nice restaurant, you know, the kind where they bring the food right out to your car.”

I can’t be absolutely certain, but I don’t think my father was joking.  My biggest question is who he was going to borrow the car from.  

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Secret Agent Tolstoy

In the early days of the Pacific Theater in World War II, the Allies had a difficult problem in the mountainous country between India and China.  The Chinese armies of Chiang Kai-Shek were fighting the Japanese but were desperate for supplies.  Early in the war, Japan had captured Shanghai from the British, then advanced and cut off the vital Burma Road that brought supplies from India to China over land.

The Allies began ferrying supplies by air over the Himalayas—doing what pilots called “flying the hump”—a dangerous mission that cost the lives of many pilots.  If you are interested in reading more about the pilots who took on such missions, I would suggest reading God is My Co-Pilot by General Robert L. Scott.  Actually, I would recommend reading anything written by General Scott. 

There was talk about finding a land route through Tibet, but the State Department strenuously objected.  Keeping China as an ally was an important war goal and China had territorial disputes with Tibet.  The Army sided with the State Department, so the matter was closed—there would be no official overtures made to Tibet.

Luckily, there was an unofficial agency that could handle the job.  The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the war time spy shop, run by Colonel ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, that answered only to the President of the United States (much to the annoyance of both the State Department and J. Edgar Hoover).  Hoover thought that his FBI could handle all the covert needs of the country and the State Department didn’t believe in spies.  

It appears that President Roosevelt didn’t really trust Hoover, so he set up his own covert shop.  After the war, Hoover got revenge by convincing President Truman to shut down the OSS.  By 1947, Truman realized that some form of intelligence gathering agency was needed and most of the former OSS agents would run the new Central Intelligence Agency.

The OSS sent two special agents on a secret mission to Tibet to try and survey a new overland route to China.  At the time, Tibet was so remote that few Westerners had any experience there, and the United States had no direct contact with the government.  So the two special agents had to be skilled diplomats, explorers, surveyors, and military leaders.  Accordingly, the OSS sent Major Count Ilya Tolstoy, the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, and Captain Brook Dolan.

Both men had other qualifications beyond their OSS training.  Tolstoy (right) had served in the Russian Army during World War I, was a trained ichthyologist, had helped develop McKinley National Park in Alaska and, just a few years before the war, had set up a movie studio that specialized in underwater photography, particularly with dolphins.  Today, we call that place Marineland.

Brooke Dolan (second from left) had already completed two expeditions to Eastern Tibet and Western China, collecting animal and bird specimens.  He was the first Westerner to bring a panda out of China.

Since no passport or visa into the country was available, the only official authorization the two men could carry was a personal letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the new Dalai Lama, the leader of the Buddhist faith and the head of the Tibetan government.  When the two agents arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, they were to ask permission to cross Tibet into China.  

The two men left India in September 1942 and began the climb up the rugged mountainous trail up to Lhasa.  The caravan consisted of 33 mules and 15 native guides and took three days to complete.  Luckily, they were welcomed into the capitol, and presented not only the president’s letter, but a $2,800 Phillipe Patek gold pocket watch to the Dalai Lama.  I’m not sure how much the Dalai Lama appreciated the watch, even if it did tell the day of the week and the phases of the moon, since the spiritual leader was only seven years old at the time.

The Tibetan leaders were only too happy to grant permission, knowing that such recognition from the United States added credence to their territorial claims.  All that was asked of the United States was for the gift of long-range radio equipment.  When the request was forwarded back to the US Army, it was shocked to learn of the expedition.

After the war, there was some confusion about whether or not the US government had promised to support the cause of Tibetan independence.  The Tibetans were hardly alone in this regard:  several countries seemed to gotten the impression during the war that America had traded support in the war against Japan for America’s future support for their independence.  The people of Vietnam certainly believed that we had promised to help end French colonialism.  After the war, President Truman evidently decided that French assistance against the Russians was more important than a free Vietnam.  Truman was probably wrong about that, since as General Norman Schwarzkopf supposedly said (but probably didn’t), “Going to war without the French is like going deer hunting without your accordion.”

For three months, the two explorers surveyed mountain passes and followed rugged trails, mapping a route to China.  It was so cold in the highest mountains that they drank 40-50 cups of hot tea daily to keep warm.  The two OSS agents traveled along the same ancient trails that have been used for centuries to transport tea, silk, musk, and jade.

Their secret mission completed, the two men submitted their maps to the Allies…who quickly decided that the trail was so rugged, so long, and at such a high altitude that it was better simply to keep flying those cargo planes over the mountains.

When the Dalai Lama visited President Obama in Washington, in 2016, he was carrying that gift pocket watch.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Please Provide Provenance

Following World War I, and the collapse Austro-Hungarian Empire, the country of Hungary went through a couple of years of chaos as the Hungarian people searched for a stable form of government.  Since the Empire had been on the losing side of World War I, this is not really surprising.

What is surprising is that an Empire ruled over by the Hapsburgs—a royal family far more noted for its enthusiastic inbreeding than for any exhibition of brains—lasted so long.  While Austria exiled the Hapsburgs, Hungary didn’t have to as even Charles I of Hungary realized he had become redundant and needed to leave.. 

Note.  To be fair, Charles I of Hungary (also known as Charles IV in Austria) was not nearly as inbred as his relative, Charles II of Spain.  The inbreeding coefficient of Chuck I/IV was only 0.03125 (3%)—a level definitely high enough to significantly increase the risk of certain conditions like congenital anomalies, developmental problems, and even medical vulnerabilities.  The population on non-royal people generally have a coefficient around .02 or 1% Charles II, on the other hand, had an inbreeding coefficient of 0.254 or 25%, meaning he was more inbred than if his parents had only been brother and sister.  That level of inbreeding produces congressmen, university administrators, and TSA agents.

Hungary struggled to set up a stable government—establishing a brief republic that fell after only a few months to an equally brief communist regime that was so radical that Romanian troops crossed the border and set up a rather strange monarchy.  For a little over a year, there was a monarchy that lacked a king, but had an authoritarian regent.  By November 1920, the regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, dropped all pretense and just ruled as a dictator, remaining in power until the Soviet occupation at the end of World War II.

Naturally, all the political upheaval had a profound effect on the established art world of Hungary.  Royal patronage was dead and even the national identity was in question.  Societal upheaval and disillusionment with pre-war ideals fueled the rise of avant-garde movements like Expressionism and Activism in Hungary.  These artists challenged traditional aesthetics and embraced social commentary in their works, often criticizing the post-war political and economic situation.

One group of Hungarian artists is of particular interest:  The Eight, who were a group of avant-garde artists whose inspiration was derived primarily from French painters and art movements, including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Fauvism.  (To oversimplify, the Fauvists were impressionists who used strong, bright color.  Matisse’s Woman With a Hat, at right, is a perfect example.)

The members of The Eight, Róbert Berény, Dezső Czigány, Béla Czóbel, Károly Kernstok, Ödön Márffy, Dezső Orbán, Bertalan Pór and Lajos Tihanyi, were (besides being desperately in need of buying a few vowels) all going to suffer during the next twenty years leading up to second world war.  Of the eight, all but one had to flee Hungary sometime between 1918 and 1939 for political reasons.  The one artist who didn’t emigrate, Dezső Czigány, suffered severe depression that eventually led to a psychotic break and the artist’s committing suicide after murdering his family.

Róbert Berény was actually part of the government during the brief Hungarian Democratic Republic, so he naturally had to flee the country as the communists took over.  Settling in Berlin, Berény continued to work and achieved international recognition.  In 1926, just as the Nazi Party was becoming increasingly visible in Germany, Berény and his wife returned to Budapest.

By this time, Berény was painting in the Cubist style and experimenting with the Art Deco.  In 1927-28, he produced a painting of his wife, Eta.  She was wearing a blue dress and reclining next to a table upon which was set a black vase.  Generally considered to be one of his best works, the painting, Sleeping Lady with Black Vase, was sold to a Jewish patron.  

With the start of the war, exactly what happened to the Jewish patron and the painting are unknown.  It is possible that the buyer fled the country taking the painting with him, that he sold the painting to raise funds for the trip, or that the painting was seized by the Nazis when they occupied Hungary.  Since Berény’s studio was destroyed during the war, it was even considered possible that Berény had reacquired the painting and had stored it in his studio.  Whatever the circumstances, it vanished.  The last time the painting was seen in public was at an art show in 1928.

Berény remained in Hungary for the rest of his life.  Under the communist regime that took over Hungary after the war, he was an art teacher at the Hungarian University of Fine Art and passed away in 1953.

Fifty-six years after his death, Gergely Barki, an art historian at the Hungarian National Gallery, was forced by his three-year-old daughter to watch the 1999 Sony movie, Stuart Little.  If you are unfamiliar with this work, in the tale, a successful urban family, the Littles (played by Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis), go to an orphanage to adopt a child and for reasons that are never quite explained, adopt a talking mouse named Stuart.  

Several scenes in the movie take place in the living room of the Little home.  Barki thought he recognized the painting hanging over the Littles’ fireplace.  Now, since the Berény painting had been relatively unknown, it was unlikely that this was a copy or a print.  In fact, in Barki’s opinion, it had to be the original, long-lost painting.  Barki had no method of pausing the movie or of obtaining a print from it, so he sent an email to the production company.

Actually, over a period of two years, Barki sent off dozens of emails to the production company and various cast members hoping that someone would pay attention to him.  Finally, after years of effort, a set designer met with Barki in a Washington DC park to examine the painting.  Using a screwdriver borrowed from a hotdog vendor to remove the frame, Barki was able to verify that the painting was indeed the long-lost Berény original.

Trying to piece together the provenance of the painting during the missing years has proven a little difficult.  The painting sold at a charity auction for $40 to an art collector in the mid 1990’s.  He, in turn, sold it to an antique store for $400, who then sold it to a Sony set designer for $500 who thought it would look perfect in a house where a mouse lived.  When the movie was over, she bought the painting back from Sony for $500 and hung it in her bedroom.

The painting was eventually returned to Hungary, where it was sold at auction in 2014 to an unnamed Hungarian collector for $285,700.  

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Baldwin is Lying

A grand jury in Northern New Mexico has decided to indict Alec Baldwin for the death two years ago of a co-worker, cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins.  The death was a result of the careless handling of a firearm on the Rust movie set.  Despite the vociferous claims of Baldwin that he was not responsible (specifically, that he never pulled the trigger”), Baldwin will likely stand trial for involuntary manslaughter.


I have a few thoughts Id like to share about what has incorrectly been called an “accident”.


Baldwin has long been publicly contemptuous of gun owners and the organizations that support gun safety.  Accordingly, the people on the set charged with ensuring the safety of the actors and crew had relatively little experience and the customary safety protocols on movie sets were largely ignored.  Even after several members of the crew quit after complaining about the lax attitude about gun safety on the set, no action was taken.  Baldwin, in his capacity as the films producer, was negligent for failing to take action.


According to the testimony of some of the crew, the firearms used on the set were also used for occasional target practice by the actors and crew.  No movie set should allow live ammunition to be present on the movie set for any reason.  If the actors need training in the proper use of a firearm, that training should take place at a supervised range—never on the movie set.


Whenever possible, rubber guns should be used instead of real firearms.  When real firearms are needed for action sequences or closeup shots, those firearms should never be aimed at another person.  In addition, an actor should never touch the trigger until that actor intends the weapon to fire.  


On the day of the shooting, several horrendous mistakes were made sequentially.  Inexcusably, someone loaded live ammunition into the firearm.  There are commonly three types of ammunition on movie sets.  First, there are blanks, a type of ammunition that, while it has no projectile, is still so dangerous that the safe handling of blank ammunition would take more space than this blog allows.  Sadly, while blanks were not responsible for the death on the Rust set, actors are still frequently injured or killed by the improper use of blank ammunition. 


When filming scenes in which actors load or unload a firearm, special dummy rounds are used that contain no powder or primer necessary to fire.  Some movie sets even take the extra precaution of using non-firing replica guns for such scenes.  There are also dummy cartridges that have holes drilled through the side of the cartridge to indicate they are non-firing.  Such cartridges occasionally are filled with large metal balls so that they rattle when handled.


The person charged with insuring firearm safety on the Rust set was inexperienced and she failed to ensure that the firearm used that day was unloaded.  When the pistol was handed to Baldwin, he failed to check that the gun was unloaded, as well.  Both failures are enough to justify each being charged with criminal negligence criminal or manslaughter.  Then, Baldwin aimed the gun at a coworker and cocked the hammer…And the firearm fired.


Baldwin maintains that he “never touched the trigger”.  Not that it matters, but lets look at that claim in detail.


The pistol used by Baldwin was a single action revolver, meaning that the hammer must be manually cocked before every shot.  Using your thumb to pull the hammer fully to the rear rotates the cylinder, bringing a cartridge in line with the revolver.  The hammer is held back by the sear portion of the trigger until the trigger is pulled, disengaging the sear and allowing the hammer to fall, firing the cartridge.

Can the hammer fall without the trigger being pulled?  Yes, there are three situations in which the gun can fire without the trigger being pulled.  First, if the hammer is down, with the firing pin resting on the primer of a loaded cartridge—a condition that is inherently unsafe in that model Colt revolver—a sharp blow to the back of the hammer (such as might happen if the pistol were dropped) can fire the cartridge.  That did not happen on the Rust set.


Secondly, the hammer has been wired back so that the sear cannot engage, so that releasing the hammer causes the gun to fire immediately.  Though very rare, there are a few slip shooters” who prefer to fire that pistol that way.  Unless you are a very experienced marksman, this is almost a guaranteed way to miss your target.  I had an uncle who preferred to shoot in this bizarre manner, and even he didnt recommend the method.  The Italian replica of the Colt revolver that Baldwin held when the shooting took place had not been modified.


The only other way for the pistol to fire without the trigger being pulled is for the sear to be defective or worn down and fail to hold the hammer in the rearmost position.  This is probably what Baldwin is trying to claim happened to the pistol he was handed.  The problem with this defense is that it requires the sear to be badly and visibly damaged.  Baldwins gun has been analyzed by experts, including the experts at the FBI laboratory, and the sear was documented to be not damaged.


Baldwin is criminally negligent because he hired an incompetent and inexperienced “expert” (whose hiring was a combination of nepotism and equity hiring) to oversee safety on the set.  Baldwin is criminally negligent because, even after experienced crew members complained about the lack of safety protocols on the set, he failed to establish appropriate safety protocols.  (Some crew members felt so strongly about this that they resigned rather than continue working in what they considered unsafe conditions.).  Baldwin is criminally negligent because, when handed a deadly weapon, he did not personally check to see if the pistol was loaded.  Baldwin is criminally negligent because he pointed a deadly weapon at a person and cocked it.  And lastly, Baldwin is criminally negligent because he absolutely pulled the trigger, shooting that poor woman.  There is absolutely, positively no other possible, credible explanation for the gun’s firing.


Baldwin is lying.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Everything Has a Precedent If You Search For It

Recently we had an extraordinary lapse of national security.  Our Secretary of Defense went into the hospital, evidently without notifying anyone either above or below him in the chain of command of his planned absence.   If what we read in the papers is to be believed (admittedly a rather large caveat), neither the White House nor the Secretary of State noticed his absence for several days.

Secretary of Defense Austin is a retired 4-star general, so there is no doubt that he is an expert on the chain of command, so I’m inclined to believe this was an inadvertent accident like the numerous times previous presidents have misplaced the launch codes or accidentally driven off without the military officer carrying the nuclear football.  Every administration is made up of people and we all know how unreliable people are.

Naturally, there was only one possible reaction to the news:  Has something like this ever happened before?  Of course, it has.

In 1897, after being elected president, William McKinley started assembling his cabinet.  The Republican Party had two competing factions, a group led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge—who favored more military expansion and American involvement in world affairs—and a rival group, led by Governor John Davis Long, that pushed for a more modest, slower military expansion, believing that large militaries encourage countries to engage in war (and in the process bankrupt their economies).  Each of the two rival factions had its own favorite candidate for the position of Secretary of the Navy.

Few Americans can name the Secretary of the Navy today, but at the end of the 19th century, the civilian head of the American Navy was much more important than it is today.  The ever so much politically correctly named Department of Defense was not created until 1949, so the military was divided into two main branches.  The army was led by the Secretary of War and the navy was headed by the Secretary of the Navy.  

Since President McKinley was a close friend of John Davis Long, Long became the new Secretary of the Navy while Lodge’s choice, a young Theodore Roosevelt was picked to be the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Since Roosevelt was the number two man, in a much less glamorous position, he should have become a minor footnote in history.

While Long wanted to modernize the navy, he wanted a small scale program of gradual growth and slow replacement of the aging ships.  His deputy, Roosevelt, wanted….well, everything and wanted it done yesterday.  Long let most of the established departments run themselves, Teddy on the other hand stuck his nose into everything and everywhere, constantly asking questions and making suggestions.  Think of it this way, an elderly Mother Superior was in charge and her deputy was Miley Cyrus on crack.

Luckily for future historians, both men were compulsive writers, and each wrote numerous letters, kept journals, and would later wrote conflicting books on the history of the US Navy.  In Long’s book, The New American Navy, he described his energetic subordinate.

He worked indefatigably, frequently incorporating his views in memoranda which he would place every morning on my desk.  Most of his suggestions had, however, so far as applicable, been already adopted by the various bureaus, the chiefs of which were straining every nerve and leaving nothing not done. . . . He was heart and soul in his work.  His typewriters had no rest.  

Roosevelt, on the other hand wrote about how only a strong navy could uphold the honor of a country, that a strong navy was the best possible guarantee of safety for a nation and that if you didn’t understand that, you probably had to sit down to pee.  (That’s loosely paraphrased.)  All of Roosevelt’s plans probably would have come to naught if Henry Long had not been absent from the office so often.

Whether Long was truly sick or was just a raging hypochondriac is a matter of debate among naval historians.  What we are sure about is that  Long was frequently absent from the office, traveling for his or his daughter’s health to distant health spas, thus leaving the Navy in the hands of Roosevelt (and his rabid typewriter).  

As war with Spain over the independence of Cuba grew closer, Roosevelt began to make frantic plans.  Wanting to strengthen the US fleet on the east coast, Roosevelt took advantage of Long’s absence to order the USS Oregon to sail from San Francisco to Florida around the tip of South America—a journey of 14,000 nautical miles.  The entire nation eagerly read newspaper accounts of the perilous 66-day voyage.  Years later, Roosevelt would use that long delay as a reason for seizing Panama and building the Panama Canal.

While the Oregon sailed, Roosevelt continued to make plans.  He ordered Admiral Dewey to resupply his fleet in the far East and move closer to the Spanish-held Philippines.  Having prepared the navy for war, Roosevelt then resigned his post and began organizing a volunteer force, commonly called the Rough Riders.  

Secretary of the Navy Long thought this last move was foolish.  As Long recorded in his daily journal:

He has lost his head to this unutterable folly of deserting the post where he is of most service and running off to ride a horse and, probably, brush mosquitoes from his neck on the Florida sands.  His heart is right, and he means well, but it is one of those cases of aberration-desertion-vain-glory; of which he is utterly unaware.... Everyone of his friends advises him, he is acting like a fool. And, yet, how absurd all this will sound if, by some turn of fortune, he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark. 

Well, as we all know, Roosevelt led his men up Kettle Hill, across the connecting saddle to San Juan Hill—site of the last land battle for Cuba—and became a public hero, eventually being honored with the Medal of Honor.  His success in battle had one other memorable result.

In 1899, Vice-President Garrett Hobart died of a heart attack, leaving the country without a vice-president until the next election.  Once again, each of the two camps of Republican leadership had a candidate they urged President McKinley to select.  The traditional Republicans wanted John Davis Long, while Senator Lodge urged McKinley to pick the newly-elected governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt.  Obviously, McKinley chose Roosevelt as his new vice-president and after just a few months in office, Roosevelt became our 26th president when McKinley was assassinated.  

Long, somewhat bitter, resigned his post as the Secretary of the Navy and Roosevelt replaced him with someone more to his liking, sending the new secretary a letter of warning about the men in the department.

You will have to struggle against the men who believe in the old system of quiet and rest; of ships that never wear out by work but only by rust, and of respectable men who live long and never do anything wrong because they never do anything at all.  

Once retired, Long wrote his history of the Modern Navy, carefully explaining that Roosevelt had been wrong about everything and anything good in the navy was due to his careful leadership.  Roosevelt, as Commander in Chief, ordered that no copy of Long’s book be allowed aboard any ship of the navy.

Actually, Roosevelt never found the right man to head the Navy during his time as President:  by the time he left office, four different men had attempted to run the Navy to his standards.  (One of those short-term appointees was Charles Bonaparte, the grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, but I promised not to mention the Corsican anymore.)

It is interesting to think what might have happened if Long had stayed in the office more instead of running to various mountains and springs for his health.  Would we have even fought in the Spanish American War?  Would the Panama Canal ever have been built?  Would the United States have had a large enough navy during World War I?  Would Theodore’s cousin have followed in his footsteps and served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and eventually become our 32nd President?

One last point.  The USS Oregon did arrive in Florida in time to fight in the war.  The last and culminating battle of the war occurred on July 3, 1898 when the Spanish fleet attempted to break the American blockade outside the harbor of Santiago de Cuba.  The Spanish Fleet was old and was no match for the American Navy, led by the USS Oregon.  One by one, the Spanish ships were either destroyed or forced to beach themselves to avoid the larger American ships.  The last ship to run aground and be scuttled by its Spanish crew was the Cristobal Colon.

The Spanish Empire in the New World began with Christopher Columbus and ended 406 years later with the scuttling of a ship named after Columbus.  There’s a pleasing symmetry in that.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Salmon and Gluckstein

One of the great benefits in being retired is that I no longer feel obligated to re-read the books that I assigned to my students and I don’t have to read the newest publications in any field…. In short, I don’t have to read anything I don’t want to.  Having said this, I still read just about anything put in front of me, but I no longer feel guilty about it.

The wonderful people at Penzler Publishers (the publishing company started by Otto Penzler and the Mysterious Bookshop) have been reprinting quality hardbacks of great mysteries long out of print.  Unfortunately, this series does NOT include any of the works of Rex Stout, one of my favorite authors, because Bantam Books holds the rights to all of the author’s works and stubbornly refuses to reprint any of them except in cheap paperback editions.  Otto Penzler once assured me that if Bantam ever relinquishes the rights, he will reprint the entire Nero Wolfe series.

One of the books currently being offered by Penzler Press is Vincent Starrett’s Murder on “B” Deck, a book that has been out of print for almost a century.  Starrett was a prolific American writer who might be better known for having been one of the foremost authorities on all matters related to Sherlock Holmes as well being known as a newspaperman who wrote a weekly column on books for a Chicago newspaper for over 25 years.  Since Starrett was born in an apartment over a bookstore, perhaps his occupation was in his DNA.  When he passed away in 1974, his Chicago gravestone was carved in the shape of an open book.

While I regularly purchase “new” Penzler books, I also found a first edition of Murder on “B” Deck from a London bookseller at a reasonable price.  (I receive a lot of books from England and occasionally one arrives in a distinctive bag bearing the imprint of the Royal Mail Service, something my postman enjoys as much as I do.).  The book arrived in good condition, but the book’s flyleaves bear an interesting inscription:

This book is the property of 
And is loaned at the rate of twopence
Per period of seven days or part
Thereof counting from date of issue.
If lost, will finder kindly return it to
any S. & G. BRANCH

Salmon Gluckstein sounds like a like a Kosher brand of lox.  And if they have branches everywhere, why have I never heard of them?  And a tuppence a week sounds like a bargain to rent a book.  Obviously, I needed to do a little more research.

The story starts with Samuel Gluckstein, a cigar maker who left Prussia and moved to London sometime in 1841.  By 1855, he had opened his own company that made and sold cigars, helped by his four sons.   In 1873, the company was incorporated as Salmon and Gluckstein after Samuel took in Barnett Salmon, who had married one of Gluckstein’s seven daughters.  Over the next century, the company would change, spin off new companies, and branch out in ways never imagined by the founder, but would remain a family business with leadership remaining with either a Salmon or a Gluckstein.

The two families established an unusual form of partnership wherein every member received the same salary, a home, and (eventually) a car, but the rest of the profits were plowed back into the company, enabling a remarkable amount of growth.  Almost immediately, the company expanded its production from cigars to cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, as well as producing its own line of briar pipes.  Eventually, there were over 120 S. & G. tobacco stores across England.  If you are wondering about the picture, Navy Cut refers to a specific cut of tobacco used by the British Royal Navy where instead of an entire leaf of tobacco being cut, the leaves were pressed into blocks that were then cut across the grain into chips, making tobacco that was easier to pack and store in humid environments.  The lifeboat image was to inspire confidence.  

Shortly after the turn of the century, the stores added a lending library service, providing books for patrons to read for a fee so small that it is obvious that the books themselves were not a source of profit and someone in the business understood human nature.  While a burning cigar smells to everyone but the person smoking it like it was not hand rolled by a skilled tobacconist, but collected from the fetid field of grazing sheep, the aroma of a fully stocked cigar store is all but heavenly.  I don’t smoke, but whenever I visit a good tobacco shop, I am tempted to start.  Obviously, the customer who rented and later returned this book bought enough cigars to make the whole program profitable.  

Even as S. & G. tobacco shops merged with other companies, merged again, and then shut down the little shops as they expanded their sales worldwide, the Salmon and Gluckstein families spun off another “small” business, the J. Lyon tea shops and cafeterias, that spread across England roughly around the turn of the century.  One of the things that made the tea shops so popular was that the waitresses, called “Nippies”, wore distinctive uniforms and acted as chaperones to the fashionable young ladies of High Street who met there.  

By the middle of the twentieth century, there were over 200 such tea shops and the company had branched out into making cakes, teas, and various sweets.  By the early 1950’s, the company was selling the first business computers and had a large string of restaurants under a variety of names and franchises.  The company eventually sold its computer division to Fujitsu.  While the tobacco shops and little tea shops have all closed, the company continues on.  I wonder what Samuel Gluckstein would think of it all.

So, I can now sit down and enjoy Murder on “B” Deck without worrying to whom I should pay my tuppence.  I really wish I could know more about the people who read this book before me.  Most likely most of the readers were men, since—though it might just be my imagination—my book smells ever so faintly of cigars.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Napoleon III and the Impressionists

This blog, in general, stirs up a couple of recurring themes in my email.  The majority accuse me of being either a lefty academic socialist or of being a right-wing fascist, then a few mad people want to know how they can apply to Enema U, and most of the rest complain about the “too damn many stories about Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Please forgive me: I can understand why people might tire of French history—particularly if they have seen that recent horrible bio-pic about ‘the Little Corporal’.  I’ll try and tone it down for a while.

So, Napoleon III—a totally different guy—had successfully gotten himself elected President of the French Republic and, by skillful and underhanded use of his executive power, had managed to seize the country and (like his uncle, who shall remain nameless) make himself the emperor.  

Note.  I’m still thinking about that awful movie.  Of course, Josephine was worried about not bearing a certain Corsican an heir.  Despite the movie showing a middle-aged emperor with a young Josephine, it was actually the other way around with a post-menopausal Josephine terrified that she would be tossed out on her tired ass in favor of a fertile tart who could produce an heir.  So, Josephine came up with a plan to keep that ass on the throne by marrying off her daughter from an earlier marriage to the emperor’s favorite brother, Louis Bonaparte.  Josephine hoped that, if that union produced a baby boy, the emperor would be satisfied with a combination nephew and grandson for an heir.  The plan did produce a male child, but the emperor still divorced Josephine and remarried.  That male child eventually became Napoleon III, so while Josephine’s plan did not save her marriage, it did provide an heir.  Why didn’t that dreadful movie tell that story?

While Napoleon III initially came to power through a popular vote and was initially seen as a proponent of some liberal reforms, his rule gradually became more authoritarian.  As he consolidated power, curtailed freedoms, and limited political opposition, he faced criticism for suppressing democratic ideals.  An inept example of 19th century authoritarianism, the emperor might have been termed a fascist a century later.

Napoleon III's foreign policy involved military interventions, and he faced significant setbacks (“He chose…poorly.”).  One notable example was the French intervention in Mexico, which resulted in establishment of the short-lived, French-supported regime of Emperor Maximilian I.  The military venture faced resistance and it ultimately ended in failure for Napoleon III (It ended even worse for Maximilian, who was executed!).  The French Army, after losing in the Crimean War, suffered one setback after another, seriously eroding any sense of French national pride. 

Chief among Napoleon’s problems was the problem that plagues all bad leaders.  As James Carville once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Economic issues, including financial crises and difficulties in managing the economy, contributed to public dissatisfaction.  The French economy experienced “challenges” and there were concerns about inflation and rising unemployment.

Napoleon III may have been a lousy emperor who ran France like a carnival on acid, but he wasn’t stupid and he knew that he was losing the support of the people, so he sided with a strange group in order to gain the support of the common people.  

In one of his more public roles, the Emperor supported the arts—he was a patron of the arts and supported various artists and cultural initiatives.  He sponsored the construction of grand public buildings and monuments, including the renovation of Paris under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann.  The redesign of Paris included the creation of wide boulevards, public squares, and parks (in large part giving the city of Paris the look that we know today).  While the emperor supported the arts, this support was used to enhance the regime's legitimacy and present an image of prosperity and refinement.

During the mid-19th century in France, the annual official art exhibition, known as the Salon, was organized by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  It was a prestigious event, mostly because of its exclusivity and was the venue where artists could showcase their works.  However, the selection process for inclusion in the Salon was highly competitive and many artists found their works rejected by the conservative jury of the Academy, a group that firmly believed that the pinnacle of artistic expression had already been reached and there was no need for either growth or change.

In 1863, a significant number of artists, including some who were trying to portray both light and color, had their works rejected from the official Salon.  The rejected artists, feeling that their innovative and non-traditional styles were not being given due recognition, loudly protested against the decisions of the staid Academy and appealed directly to their emperor.

Napoleon III, recognized the growing discontent among artists and saw an opportunity to align himself with public sentiment.  By authorizing a separate non-government exhibition, the Salon des Refusés, he could appeal to the public's appreciation for new and unconventional artistic expressions.  This move allowed Napoleon III to position himself as a supporter of artistic freedom and innovation a move far more calculated to curry public favor than an actual appreciation of a new art form.

The artists who participated in the Salon des Refusés included Édouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, and Paul Cézanne.  While the public was...intrigued…by the daring new art, the Academy and most art critics were appalled.  The new style was light, bright, and painted in a hurry, even appearing unfinished and scandalous.  The unconventional and daring nature of the artworks appealed to a segment of the public that was eager to see something new and different from the academic norms.

The art critic, Louis Leroy, reviewed a later exhibition in the satirical magazine "Le Charivari," and used the term "impressionists" to describe Claude Monet's work, Impression, Sunrise.  In his review, Leroy commented sarcastically that the painting looked more like an "impression" than a finished artwork. He used the term "impressionists" as a way of deriding the artists who painted in a style that he perceived as unfinished or sketch-like.  According to Leroy, it was not a real painting, only an impression of one.

Leroy's use of the term was not intended as a compliment, but the artists embraced it, and the term "Impressionism" became associated with a revolutionary and innovative approach to painting.  The Impressionist movement was a rebellion, a markedly radical change from the academic conventions of the time.  Impressionist painters sought to capture the effects of light, color, and atmosphere in their works, often employing loose brushstrokes and focusing on everyday scenes.

Over time, the term, "Impressionism", became widely accepted and is now used to describe one of the most influential art movements of the late 19th century.  The Impressionists played a crucial role in challenging traditional artistic norms and paved the way for new approaches to painting.

So, in an unintended consequence of his quest to curry public favor, it was Napoleon III who gave the world the art of the Impressionists.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Free Croissants for Everyone!

A couple of weeks ago at the bowling alley, my shirt did not cover the top of a long scar from my chest surgery.  “What’s that from?” someone from the other team asked.

“Autopsy scar,” I answered.


“Yes.  I’m the first living heart donor.”  I replied.

The strangest part of the story is that I think the guy believed me.  He's not alone, from the mail I get, more than a few of my readers fully believe that I’m heartless.  And after today, that number is likely to increase because I’m about to dump a lot of cold water on something we all wish was true.  Who doesn’t want to feed the hungry?

In 2016, France passed a law that made it illegal for any grocery store larger than 4000 square feet to throw away food that was reaching the end of its salable lifespan.  Instead of simply tossing this still useful and nutritious food, it would go to a charitable non-profit organization that would make sure that the food reached those in need.  Not only would this help reduce a ridiculous amount of food waste but would help clean up the environment since decomposing food releases carbon into the atmosphere.

Who could possibly be against that?  Well, me.  This seemingly kindhearted proposal costs more than it is worth.

Before going into why I think the program is misguided, I should point out that the program has two goals:  to feed the hungry and to eliminate food waste and its negative effects on the environment.  I don’t know anything about food waste, but since the French government says only 5% of the nation’s food waste comes from grocery stores, it doesn’t seem like this program will do much to solve the problem.  I will, however, comment about the program’s goal of feeding the hungry.

This is a misguided and economically unsound idea that, while it will feed some hungry people, will do so at an exaggerated price, creating relative shortages and higher prices for all consumers, which results in lower profits for both farmers and retail establishments while increasing the cost of government.  It would be far cheaper for the government simply to buy the food and give it away.  The program is inflationary, and it creates what economists call “dead weight loss”, meaning that resources could be more efficiently allocated.

That sounds unreasonably harsh, so let me explain.

First, this will lead to a higher cost for the grocery store.  No matter how simple the government program is made for the stores, it will be more expensive than simply throwing the food away.  Stores will not be able to sell remaindered produce to those who currently use the waste to feed farm animals or to make compost.  And while the people may be poor, they were buying food before the program was implemented and those sales, as small as they might have been, would have been sales that will be lost for the store.  

In addition, implementing the law requires supermarkets to establish mechanisms for the proper sorting, storage, and transport of unsold food.  While these measures contribute to the overall goal of reducing food waste, they also incur additional operational costs for businesses.

As profit from selling produce diminishes, stores will attempt to minimize their losses by buying less produce, which results in less unsold surplus.  Farmers faced with a decline in sales will produce less.  Since governments raise revenue through taxing sales, a decline in sales will reduce tax revenue even as the cost of enforcing the new program will increase government cost.  

It might be easier to visualize how this works if we consider the extra cost imposed upon the retail organizations as a sales tax.  Since the sales tax increases the cost of an item, it reduces the amount sought by consumers, moving the supply line left on the graph (right).  Since consumer demand (red line) stays constant, the intersection of the demand line with the new supply line shows that the price goes from P1 to P2 while the quantity sold drops from Q1 to Q2.  

There are two general rules about any government program:  1.  The program expands over time, and in only the seven years this program has been in place the punitive fines to stores in violation of the program have increased substantially.  2.  Anything you tax decreases while anything you subsidize increases.  Already in France, the number of people receiving the free food has increased.  Since more people are obviously in need of food assistance, there are calls to expand the program.

The bottom line for the program is simple.  The cost of “free” food has been shifted to food producers, retailers, and consumers.  The French government spends money regulating and enforcing the transfer of food, financed by taxpayers.  The availability of “free” food entices more people to use the program, and the increased number of people on the program serves to validate not only the initial need for the program but justifies the program’s expansion.

It would have been cheaper for the French people if the government had directly subsidized food programs for the poor.   This reminds me of the tariffs imposed a few years ago by the government to save jobs in manufacturing.  Ten years later, the Congressional Budget Office released data that showed that several thousand jobs that had an average payroll of $65,000 a year were saved at an overall cost of only $200,000 each.  It is a wonder the program wasn’t immediately expanded.

Now, seven years after the implementation of the French law, what has been the result?  If you search the web, all the charitable organizations love the new regulations—as do the climate activist groups.  If you do a Google search, the top dozen responding sites have names like and and, predictably, these organizations think the new regulations are fantastic.  There are no organizations on the web representing the tired French economists who are weary of being called heartless for trying to explain macroeconomics. 

Currently, France is pressuring the European Union to adopt the law, and it is only a matter of time before California, Oregon, or one of the other liberal states that substitute ‘caring’ for ‘thinking’ adopts a similar law.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Last Gasp of Bed, Bath, and Beyond

Two weeks ago I wrote about the causes of the corporate murder of Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  While the company is as dead as Julius Caesar and the remains have been thoroughly scavenged by jackals, there is still one last chapter about the demise of the company.  I need to tell you the other half of the story.

Wait!  Haven’t I seen numerous recent television commercials for BB&B offering me all sorts of remaindered junk for incredibly cheap prices?  Of course you have, but that company is actually who bought the name of the defunct company.  They own the name and they can call themselves Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but it is not the same company where you used to shop for towels.  When companies like Polaroid, Bell and Howell, or Sharper Image go bankrupt, marketing companies buy the name and use it for advertising purposes, hoping to milk any remaining goodwill and legitimacy the name still generates.   This is why no one tried to purchase the name “Enron”.

The defunct corporation, that we will now call Used-To-BB&B, is still going through the bankruptcy process and one of the last pieces of business is it’s $37.65 million lawsuit filed with the Federal Maritime Commission against Overseas Orient Container Line, the company that brings its merchandise from China to ports in California.

Think back just a few years to when we were all staying home for just a few days to “flatten the curve” of new Covid cases.  Those few days turned into quite a few months and all over the globe, factories shut down, dock workers neither loaded or unloaded ships, and with all the ships waiting their turn to be unloaded, the waters off the coast of California began to look like a seagoing used car lot.  

When a cargo container was unloaded, there were no trucks waiting to haul the container away, so those containers of merchandise took up most of the storage space in the dockyard.  Since there were no workers to load an empty container back on the ship, what little storage space left was overcrowded with empty containers.  Depending on your political party, this was either a mild kink in the supply line or a galloping clusterfuck.

Since freight companies don’t make any money while ships sit idling at anchor and both the banks holding the loans on the ships and the crews on the ships expect to be paid whether the ship moves or not….the shipping companies started to playing dirty.  They began charging extra for “expedited” shipping, which was basically nothing more than moving a ship up to the front of the line to be unloaded first, if and when both dock workers and trucks could be located.

Since the shipping companies were under contract to provide timely service at a set price, the extra fees do seem something that Used-To-BB&B might be able to sue about.  But the shipping companies added to the extra fees by charging both demurrage and detention fees.  Let me explain—no, that will take too long, let me sum up.

Demurrage refers to the extra charges incurred when the consignee (the party receiving the cargo) exceeds the allowed free time for the use of a shipping container at a port or container yard.  Since the filled containers couldn’t be removed from the shipping yard because of the congestion in the port and the shortage of trucks, this hardly seems fair.  Even if the congestion were magically removed, the ports were closed due to the need for social distancing.  Effectively, the shipping companies wouldn’t allow the containers to be picked up but were charging extra because they weren’t.

Detention charges, on the other hand, are incurred when the shipping container is retained by the consignee or shipper outside the port or container yard for longer than the allowed free time.  This charge by the shipping companies was really cute since the container couldn’t be returned because the ports were closed, and even if they were open, the containers could only be returned if you had an appointment and the shipping companies refused to give anyone an appointment.  And even if you had an appointment, and the port magically opened, there were no trucks to return the container.

So, Used-To-BB&B had merchandise sitting offshore that they had paid for but couldn’t get delivered unless they paid extra.  Then, they were charged extra because they couldn’t get a truck to pick up the freight because the trucks weren’t running and the port was closed.  When they finally did get the merchandise, they were charged extra because they couldn’t get an appointment to return the empty container with trucks that weren’t running to a port that was closed.

These extra fees and charges were not what bankrupted the company, though that is exactly what is being claimed by Used-To-BB&B in court.  In the long run, I’m not sure how interested the Federal Maritime Commission will be in finding for a company that no longer exists, and against the shipping companies that work daily with the commission.  Only time will tell, and even if Used-To-BB&B wins, the funds collected will not come close to paying off all of the outstanding debts.

I am sure about one thing, though.  The lawyers on both sides will make a fortune.