Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stop the Presses!

The nation is gearing up for a presidential election, and the press is as happy as a tornado in a trailer park, reporting on a field of candidates that could have stepped out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  Not content with simply reporting the facts, several journalists still feel the need to exaggerate, to confabulate, or to embroider their stories—in short, to lie.
 
Selling newspapers—or airtime—with exaggerations or lies is certainly not new in America, nor is there any proof that the stories of today are any more exaggerated that those of the last decades of the 19th century—the age of the birth of yellow journalism.
 
The term "yellow journalism" actually comes from a battle between two New York newspapers, The Journal American of William Randolph Hearst and The World of Joseph Pulitzer.  Both men would stop at nothing to sell their newspapers, with each competing with the other for the most fantastic story.  Strangely, this name for type of journalism comes from something they shared:  The Yellow Kid.
 
The Yellow Kid was the main character in a cartoon strip called Hogan's Alley, drawn by Richard Outcault.  The Yellow Kid was a young boy with jug ears, two buck teeth, beady blue eyes, and a yellow nightdress.  Living on the wrong side of the tracks, the Yellow Kid could ridicule and satirize the changing world of a city poised to enter the new century.  This comic strip set the standard style still used today—it was showcased in a Sunday supplement to the paper, its conversations appeared as text in balloons above the characters and most of its humor was based on social commentary.  While you may never have heard of The Yellow Kid, you probably are at least remotely familiar with Outcault's other creation, Buster Brown.
 
While it is little remembered today, the Yellow Kid was very popular, and the two newspapers that carried the strip were called "The Yellow Kid papers", which over time was shortened to "The Yellow Papers"—something that eventually gave rise to the term, "Yellow Journalism". 
 
Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer invented this type of journalism, however.  In the last half of the 19th century, journalists all over the country spiced up their stories, inflated the facts, and in many cases, just lied from boredom or to sell their papers.  Working as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain invented a California massacre—most likely just for the fun of it.
 
In Texas, there was a series of exaggerated stories that may be responsible for the very survival of Fort Worth and eventually gave the city the nickname, Panther City, which is still used today.
 
Shortly after the Civil War, B. B. Paddock, a Confederate officer, set up a law practice in Fort Worth, despite there being no record of his ever having spent a single day in any school.  (To be fair, neither an education nor intelligence seems to have been a prerequisite for practicing law in those days.)  In any case, Paddock relatively quickly abandoned the law and became the editor of the Fort Worth Democrat.
 
As the editor, Paddock worked passionately to develop the city and to attract investors.  This passion eventually led him to publish a map of Fort Worth that showed no fewer than nine railroad lines leading into the city.  In fact, no such line came within 30 miles of the town.  Rival newspaper editors ridiculed Paddock by calling his creation the Tarantula Map.
 
Nevertheless, the map did help attract the interest of T&P Railroad, who planned to build a line to the city.  Rapidly, the population of the town grew to 4,000, there was a general building boom, and... inevitably,  a bust.  The banking firm backing the railroad went bankrupt, local business failed, and a mass exodus brought the population of the town down to 1,000.  The very existence of Fort Worth was in question.
 
One morning, a local citizen pointed at some scratches in the main thoroughfare and declared that a panther had spent the night asleep there, completely unmolested in the middle of a city more dead than alive.  A lawyer (probably one who met the above requirements), on hearing the story, recounted the tale in a letter to a Dallas newspaper, that referred to the nearby city as Pantherville.  (It is interesting to note that, even then, there was a rivalry between the two cities.)
 
Undaunted, B. B. Paddock adopted the image of a panther on the masthead of his paper and continued to push for investment.  Eventually, Paddock was successful:  the T&P Railroad did come to Fort Worth and prosperity returned.  Sadly, while Paddock is all but forgotten in the town today, the panther lives on.  Fort Worth is proud of her nickname of "Panther City", as reflected in the names of many local businesses.  Today, even the badges of the city police proudly bear the image of a panther.
 
Speaking of wild animals in city streets:  an earlier newspaper hoax might be the most outrageous example of the 19th century "creative journalism", the true forerunner of yellow journalism.
 
On Sunday morning, November 8, 1874, the people of New York were startled to read a story on the front page of the Herald:  "A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death", which detailed a grisly accident at the Central Park zoo.  A rhinoceros escaped from his cage, killing his keeper and panicking the rest of the zookeepers, who quickly took flight from the zoo, allowing several other animals to escape in the wooded park.
 
Lions, tigers, a polar bear, and a panther were among the animals that roamed the park, killing, trampling, maiming, and even devouring the unsuspecting pedestrians strolling through the gardens.  Local hospitals were kept busy tending to the dead and dying New Yorkers, many of them prominent citizens.
 
Slowly, the terrorized citizens fought back—a group of Swedish immigrants shot a lion that was saturated in the blood of its victims, the rhino was chased until it fell into an open sewer excavation, and the polar bear was pursued until it found refuge in the Central  Park reservoir.
 
Mayor Havemeyer ordered the city's citizens to stay off the streets until the crisis was over.  Later editions of the Herald explained how the state's governor, John Adams Dix, a hero of the Civil War, had tracked and killed the escaped Bengal tiger.  The same edition listed other animals that had escaped from the zoo, including snakes, sheep, monkeys, and a white-haired porcupine—and included perhaps the most gruesome story yet:  a graphic account of a grizzly bear's devouring an elderly woman inside the Church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue.
 
Unfortunately, few people read to the very end of the story, where the closing paragraphs explained that the story was false, but could one day be true if the city did not allocate enough funds to renovate and repair the Central Park Zoo.  The story was the brainchild of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and powerful (and crazier than a bucket of frogs) owner and editor of the Herald—the largest and most influential newspaper of the world.
 
Bennet had built his newspaper on sensation and good writing.  Though he regularly featured the works of the best writers in America—men like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane—Bennet did not hesitate to create news when necessary.  It was Bennet who sent Stanley to locate Livingston in Africa.  The dispatches from Stanley, prominently published in the Herald, were carefully edited to hide the fact that Livingston was neither lost nor in need of "locating"!
 
Now, Bennet had fabricated a story that aimed to push the city into improving a zoo, and establishing an organized emergency plan for the city.  He was successful in both—the latter idea proved necessary after thousands of New Yorkers, believing the story to be true, rushed the piers and demanded transportation off the island.  Thousands more, stayed home in terror, while a few hardier souls carried rifles into the wooded park in search of escaped animals.
 
While Bennet's bogus zoo escape is all but forgotten today, several times in the last two weeks—while watching the latest manufactured political news on television—I have been reminded of the event.  Surely, a few of the politicians currently running for president should be rounded up and put back into their cages.
 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

It Really Was That Hot

Depending on who you talk to, my wife and I have been trying to kill each other for years.  To be specific, my wife claims I am trying to poison her, while I know for a fact that she is attempting to freeze me to death.

In summer, The Doc will set the thermostat down below my age, wear hideous wool pajamas and a sweater to bed, wait until I am asleep, steal the blankets, and then turn on the ceiling fan.  Right about the time the room has reached the perfect temperature for aging steaks, she will move to the living room and sleep under a blanket. 

In winter, she regularly turns off the heater, opens a bedroom window, steals all the blankets, then relocates to the warmer living room.  I could save myself a lot of misery if I just relocated our bed to the living room.

Not only does my wife regularly steal all the blankets, but in the morning, she accuses me of having deposited them on her side of the bed.  According to The Doc, I am one of the few people in the world with the amazing super power of being able to push a blanket.  This is a skill I probably picked up from the Maya while I was doing research in the jungles of Belize.   I don't actually remember this, but this could be the result of malaria or eating too many overripe bananas. 

Note.  I just did a Google search and discovered that I wrote about The Doc trying to murder me with the thermostat six years ago.  You can read about it here.   This evidently means that not only is The Doc a fairly incompetent murderer, but that my memory loss must be progressive—an early victim of Old Timerz Disease.  Eventually, not only will I be able to enjoy reading my own blog for the first time, but I will only need to own one mystery book.

Meanwhile, The Doc claims that I am attempting to kill her with spicy food.  This is a claim that is obviously false, since we are both Texans: she should know there is actually no such thing as spicy food.

Evidently, there is some form of genetic mutation in my wife's Texas heritage.  That sounds cruel, so let's call it phenotypic plasticity that arises in Texans of Scandihoovian ancestry.  (I like that.  It turns out there is a way—at least verbally—to pick up a turd by the clean end.)  The Doc thinks that black pepper is too spicy to consume.  I think I was married before I discovered that black pepper was a spice and not just an attractive way to decorate scrambled eggs.

This means that on a regular basis, she claims that the meal I have just cooked is painful to eat, while I am yelling back, "It's not that hot!"  The Doc claims that she is going to use that as the epitaph on my tombstone.  If she actually does, please have the coroner check my corpse for frostbite.

This forces me to either cook two version of the same dish, or remove her serving from the pan before I add any normal seasonings.  For the last forty-odd years, I have been trying to build up her tolerance to what is—at least for this part of the country—normal food by slowly adding mild amounts of seasonings to her meals.  This has been a total failure—she could have acquired an immunity to Iocane Powder by now.

The only thing I have to show for my efforts is my wife's unfounded accusations that I am trying to poison her food.

Lately, I have been baking a lot of bread, especially Parmesan cheese bread and the assorted loaf of focaccia.  I don't actually eat much of the bread, but I enjoy baking it.  Perhaps it is the kneading of the dough I enjoy—it works out a certain amount of frustration I get from working at Enema U. 

So, tonight, as I was baking the bread, The Doc called from the grocery store and asked if I needed anything.  I asked for a pound of baby bell peppers, thinking that if I stuffed them with feta cheese, they would make a nice addition to the trout and fresh bread I was planning for dinner.

I like these miniature stuffed peppers, they are fairly easy to make: just add feta cheese, garlic, fresh parsley, and a little olive oil to a food processor and blend it into a smooth paste.  Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and ribs, fill with cheese, and then heat in the oven.  The multi-colored little peppers look attractive, and there are never any leftovers.

The meal went great....that is, right up to the point where The Doc ate her first stuffed pepper, screamed, and ran for the kitchen.  She reemerged from the kitchen, tears in her eyes, gulping down a large glass of milk.  It took a while, but she finally gasped out that the peppers were too hot.

I had already eaten several of them, and they weren't that hot.  As a matter of fact, I had stuffed a couple of jalapeño peppers for my own enjoyment, and since they had their seeds and ribs removed, even they weren't particularly spicy.  Obviously, however, The Doc was in real pain, and she was quite certain that I had 'done it" deliberately.  But, I hadn't, bell peppers aren't hot.

Now, I’ve been married through five decades, two centuries, and two millennialong enough to know that if your wife falsely accuses you of something, and even if you can prove you didn't do it, you should apologize immediately.  So, I did—but from the look of her tear-filled red eyes, she wasn’t believing me.

The only thing I could think of was the bizarre possibility that one of the jalapeños had leaked a little juice on one of the bell peppers while they were heating in the oven.  Or, since I had cut all the peppers with the same knife, maybe a little oil had transferred from one pepper to another.  All of this was a little strange.

As a loving and caring husband, I kept on eating, while The Doc alternated gulping milk and swallowing whole slices of my cheese bread.  I won't say I was laughing—I knew better—but I was entertained.  Suddenly, I noticed that the yellow bell pepper I had just eaten was a little spicier than the rest.  Not hot, mind you, but it was a little strong, noticeably hotter than the jalapeño.  I ate another yellow one, and it was rather strong, too.

Only after I had gone back and examined the unused peppers, and questioned my wife did I understand what had happened.  At the grocery store, The Doc found the baby bell peppers in the produce section, but all the bin contained were red and orange peppers.  The yellow peppers were in a separate but adjacent bin, so my wife selected a nice assortment of all three colors from both bins.

The red and orange peppers were the very mild bell peppers.  The yellow peppers were habanero peppers, each more than forty times as spicy as a jalapeño pepper.  There is a reason that you don't normally see 'Stuffed Habaneros'' on a menu.  Take another look at that picture above, did you notice the habaneros?

Obviously, The Doc was wrong.  Since she had selected the peppers, it wasn't an attempted murder, it was a botched suicide.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Great Moments in Teaching II

Thirty-five years ago, on a small island off the coast of Texas, I taught computer science at a small college.  This is not common knowledge, as for years I have kept this knowledge secret for fear somebody might make me do it again.

It was only a part time job, something I did at night.  My classes were small, the pay was minuscule, but the students were motivated, as this was just at the beginning of the microcomputer revolution.  For most of my students, this class was the first time they had actually touched a computer so, during every class, I was truly covering virgin territory.

Then, I got a call from a major university, one that you have heard of.  And the wanted me, to teach for them—Really!  The job, however, was not on their campus:  they wanted me to teach on their floating campus—a very large commercial ship that had been converted into a sea going laboratory and classroom.  Specifically, they wanted me to teach an intensive course on FORTRAN.  By intensive, they meant several hours a day, every day, for two weeks.

I found out later that something on the ship was being repaired.  Maybe they had to change the bilge oil in the starboard disgrontificator or something.  Whatever it was, the ship would be tied to a dock for two weeks and if they didn't have something to keep the students busy, it would turn into an impromptu spring break on the island's beach.  And as we all know, university administrators live in mortal fear that students might enjoy themselves, so something had to be planned.

I have always wondered what the backup plan was.  If I have been unavailable to teach that course, would the students have been forced to take a lab class in oyster shucking?  Would that have been more useful than FORTRAN?

Fortran (back then it was always FORTRAN) is a programming language that, while still popular in higher number crunching, back then was used extensively by almost all scientists and engineers, so teaching the language to a bunch of budding oceanographers was not a bad idea.  Teaching it on a ship that possessed not a single computer was a bad idea, but I have always operated under one simple business rule:  Tell the customer the truth one time, then shut up and take the money.  I'm honest, but I'm not a fanatic about it.

When I pointed out that the relative difficulty in teaching a programming course without a single computer was not dissimilar to teaching Chopin without a piano, no one thought this was a major difficulty, and as it turned out, it wasn't.  By this, I mean their check cleared.

I prepared my lessons, printed out quite a few tutorials for the students, and headed off to class.  The ship was huge.  I knew nothing about ships (for further proof of my ignorance, read this), and had never been on anything more nautical than the ferry boat that connected the island to the mainland. 

Eventually, I found my way to my classroom, which—despite being in a seagoing vessel—was about the size of my classroom at the local college.  The desks were about the same, the blackboards were the same, but the students were different:  All male, all relatively young, and all as bright as new pennies.  I thought to myself, "This is going to be a fun course."

And the first hour of the class was fantastic—right up to the time where I got horribly seasick.

I still maintain that this is not funny.  God knows, I wasn't laughing.  My students were howling, however.  More than once, one of them pointed out to me that I was on a large ship, tied to a dock, on the protected side of the island, and on a day with absolutely no weather whatsoever.

I wanted to throw up the cake from the birthday party my parents gave me when I turned eight years old.  And every single damn thing I had eaten since then.  The students were laughing so hard I was terribly afraid they wouldn't die—while I watched.  What is so all-fired funny about watching someone else being seasick?

I finished the class.  The second hour was done on the dock, after I had the students relocate one of the portable blackboards.  I seem to remember doing at least part of that remaining hour while lying flat on my back in the middle of the pier, but only until the dock stopped moving.    The students seemed to enjoy the first class, and not just for the entertainment value of their instructor's misery.

The second day, I was ready and prepared.  I had told my wife, The Doc, about my problem, and she helped me obtain the right medicine to prevent a reoccurrence.  I took the pill—can't remember what it was—about twenty minutes before I boarded the ship.  And that's about all I remember.

Either I took too large a dose, or I had a bad reaction to it.  My students later said it was their favorite class in the whole series, but refused to elaborate other than to say that the entire class had been taught not on the dock, but in the classroom.   I suspect that I had passed the entire two hours talking nonsense and gobbledygook, but I can't prove it.  The students did their homework, so I must have done something right.

By the third class, I finally had my act together.  I was taking about a third of the seasick medicine, seemed to stay coherent, and my students got fairly proficient in writing code in FORTRAN.  I had even brought a microcomputer aboard and let them play a little with BASIC (a much smaller programing language that had started as a subset of FORTRAN).

I never heard from the university again.  The ship sailed, and I have no idea what happened to it, or the students on it.  I doubt that any of them ever wrote another line of code in FORTRAN.  But, I bet all of them never forgot the class.

I'm probably the only person in the world who ever got paid to teach FORTRAN while lying on a dock.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dig This

Innovation usually occurs where it will be most rewarded.  Or as Emerson said, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." 

Emerson, of course, actually never said any such thing.  In the 1880's, a couple of writers evidently lost their notes, and dramatically condensed what Emerson actually said, "If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

However condensed and turned tawdry with mice, the sentiment is true.  Innovation leads to lower production cost, and higher profits.

The potential profit drove Captain John Ames to break British Law.  As a resident of Massachusetts in 1774, he was well aware that the 13 colonies were prohibited from manufacturing industrial products that would compete with the mother country.  Great Britain was a strict adherent to the mercantile system—colonies were to manufacture nothing and export only raw materials in exchange for the manufactured goods that the mother country would produce.  For England, this meant cheap raw materials and a ready market for its finished products. 

For the colonists, however, it meant a chronic shortage of goods that could only be purchased at a high price.  The only alternatives, were poor quality  products that were made by hand.  In a colony that was largely agricultural, this meant a lot of poor quality farming implements—including shovels.

Shovels are some of the oldest gardening tools in the world, dating back thousands of years.  Archaeologists believe that the first shovels were the scapulae of oxen and bison.  Today, some of the Inuit—the people formerly known as Eskimo—still believe that the best shovels for snow are fashioned from walrus scapulae. 

Drawings of wooden shovels date back thousands of years, and the remains of Bronze Age shovels at least 3100 years old have been found.  All of these shovels have one thing in common: they are really poor shovels.  It is not until about 500 years ago, when iron could be reliably tempered, that lightweight, sharp metal shovels were first made.  However, few of these made their way to America since by the time they crossed the Atlantic, they were far too valuable to use in the damp soil.

This created a perfect opportunity for Ames to reap a profit.  Fashioning a trip hammer powered by a water wheel, he hammered metal shovels out of iron bars.  The business was instantly profitable.  Within a few years, General Washington asked Ames to provide shovels to the Continental Army, and while it would be stretching things to say it the Ames shovel was responsible for the American victory over England, I can safely say that Britain would have refused to sell the Revolutionary Army a single spade.

John Ames employed his neighbors—mostly farmers—to make his shovels between the October harvest and the May planting.  It took twenty men to heat the metal, hammer the shovel shape, reheat the metal, temper the metal to the correct hardness, and fashion a handle.  The Ames company prospered and expanded over time, making it one of the oldest manufacturing companies in the United States.

Ames, of course, had competition.  The shape of the simple iron shovel dates back to Roman times, and there was little different between Ames' shovel and that of any of his competition—until, of course, Ames came up with the 'Ames Bend.'

Since the first wooden shovel, the shovel and handle had been straight.  John Ames saw that mechanically, this was a bad design and fashioned a machine that would bend the rear portion of the shovel—the part where the handle attached.  This increased the leverage of the handle, making the shovel more powerful and more easier to handle.  The world began beating a path to the Ames factory.  The Ames Bend is revolutionary, making an ancient tool far more productive.

About the same time, the company began using higher grades of iron, and then, eventually, steel.  With better metal and better tempering, the shovel blade could be lighter, thinner, and more flexible.  Where the shovel blades used to break, now, they just bent slightly, and then sprang back to their original shape.

The company grew steadily until the 1860's, when once again, a war provided the company with new opportunities.  This time, it was President Lincoln who personally asked Oakes Ames (grandson of John Ames) to provide the Union Army with shovels.  And at the conclusion of the war, as Americans poured into the West, they took the Ames shovel with them to farm, build railroads, and mine for gold.

By 1870, the Ames Company and its 500 employees made 60% of the shovels sold anywhere in the world—And the shovels went everywhere.  They helped build canals and construct the transcontinental railroad; they went with Perry to the North Pole, they were present at the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal, they were used at Mount Rushmore, and NASA bought more than one specialty tool from the company.  During World War II, the company produced 11 million entrenching tools for the American Army.  The company redesigned the shovel for the Korean War, and once again for the war in Viet Nam.

Have you ever wondered how the footing for a telegraph pole was dug before there was heavy machinery?  Ames sold two tools for the job: a shovel for digging and a spoon for dirt removal—each with a ten-foot handle.  (That's not your everyday teaspoon!)

At the end of the nineteenth century, American industry was being revitalized by the new science of time and motion studies.  Bethlehem Steel and the Ames Company cooperated in one such study.  It turns out that the optimum load for a shovel is 21 pounds, and the dish of a shovel should be designed so that it can accommodate such a load—depending on the material being...well, dug.

The 1926 catalog was 80 pages long and listed hundreds of models, of various grades—all with ash handles and the finest tempered metals.  There are snow shovels, coal shovels, manure shovels, ice shovels, ash shovels, and even shovels and spades especially designed for the use of boys.  Appropriately for the time, there were no such shovels for girls.

Ames is still in existence, still making its famous shovel with the Ames Bend—though it would be hard these days to find a shovel for sale by even its competitors without the distinctive bend. 

No one yet makes the shovel I really need—the one that will put itself back into the garden shed (no matter where my sons have left it).  I also need one that will clean the damp dirt off its own dish, and one that will resharpen itself, no matter how many rocks have dulled it.

No company makes such a shovel, yet, but when it is finally available, it will undoubtedly be an Ames.
 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

How to Teach Small Children To Swim

It's that time of year againswimming season.  The Doc and I have lived in the same house now for thirty years, and since the pool was here when we bought the house, by now, I am an expert in all things poolish.

Evidently, the pool was added by a former Enema U football coach, wholike all the other football coacheshad a losing season and left town (probably before the pool was filled).  According to the realtor, the team had such a losing season that, during one of the games, some disgruntled fan stole a car, and drove it through the wall of the garage.  When I heard this, I had a John Updike moment:  this house was pre-disastered!  So, we bought the house immediately.

Before we get any further in this story, I should tell you thatif you are smartyou do not want a pool.  Well, you may want one, but don't get one.  If you are not convinced, perform a small experiment.  In the center of the most useful section of your backyard, dig a small, but fairly deep, inconvenient pit.  Put about five pounds of rusty rebar and broken glass in the bottom to make it realistically dangerous. After that, at least twice a week, jog around the pit until you are tired and sweaty, then pay every kid in the neighborhood $5 each to come and piss into the pit.  Danger, inconvenience, work, money and urineyep, that about sums up a pool.  Don't get me wrongI have enjoyed (and still enjoy) my pool, but have paid dearly for the privilege.

When we moved in, The Doc and I already had a toddlerWhat's-His-Nameand a second tricycle motorThe-Other-One was on the way.  The Doc took one look at the backyard and immediately decreed that we had to have a security fence all the way around the pool.  I agreed, I didn't want either one of the rug rats to accidentally drown.

So, I got quotes.  Have you ever priced a metal security fence?  You could build a five strand barbed wire fence around all the good grazing land in Southern New Mexicoboth acresfor less money than it takes to put up a cute little four-foot security fence to enclose less land than it takes to make a good tomato garden. 

I told my wife that  I had a better idea, since no fence in the world would keep our sons out of anything, there was only one secure method of keeping the kids safewe would have to teach the boys to swim just as soon as they could walkanything else was too dangerous!

Now, when I said that, it was all bullshitI was just too cheap to pay for that damn security fence.  But, it turned out that I accidentally stumbled into brilliance.  You really can't protect boys from a damn thing.  (If you are still not convinced, read this.)

So, I taught the boys to swim.  I made tons of mistakes, and during the long, loud, and  profane process, most of the neighbors thought I was torturing the boys with power tools.  From the  screaming of those two small children, they were justified in their beliefs.  In the end, both boys really learned how to swimand by the time The-Other-One was about four, his mother would go into hysterics to find him sitting on the drain in the deep end of the pool calmly using my scuba tanks.  The boys damn near developed gills.

Those boys spent so much time in chlorinated water that their hair first tuned white, then a rather strange shade of light green.  I never did solve that pH problem in the pool water, though even this had an unforeseen benefiteven though I am face blind, I could always locate the boys in a crowded room.  There just aren't that many extremely short, deeply-tanned punk rockers.

But, that was not the correct way to teach small children how to swim.  It worked on my two sons, but it took weeks.  However, after 30 years of practice, I have taught enough children to swim that I can now offer you a simple system for teaching children to swim.

Learning to swim does not involve floaties, padded bathing suits, or any form of flotation device.  Seriously, when your child needs to swim, just how likely are they to have these things on?  Sure, kids have fun in them, but they will never learn to swim looking like the Michelin Man taking a bath.  If you won't let your child in the water without these aquatic crutches, you aren't ready for the child to swim.

There are a couple of conditions to the swimming lessons.  First, you have to teach the child without his/her parents around.  If the mother won't drop off the kid for about two hours and leave you in charge, forget it.  As long as Mom is sitting nervously in the backyard, offering advice at every step, the child will never see you as the Authority Figure, and will never learn to swim.  It's as simple as that.

Second, the child must be able to hold his breath and count to five.  If she can't do that, you are wasting your time.  It really doesn't matter how old he is, he just has to be able to hold his breath for five seconds. 

Assuming you still have an attentive student, take him/her to the shallow end of the pool, as there is no need for water deeper than the child's height.  Spend at least fifteen minutes having the child hold her breath, first above the water, then underwater.  Standing in shallow water (or on the steps for younger children), the child bobs up down in the water like a top.  If you can get the child to do this, you have already mastered the hard part:  the child has relaxed enough in the water to pay attention to what you are telling him to do.

During this whole process, be lavish with you praise when the child does something correct, and firm when the chid does not comply.  By the time the new swimmer is asked to do something difficult, she will already be used to obeying you.

After 15 minutes of this, have the child lie face down on the water for five seconds, then stand back up.  This transition takes a little time and patience, but by now the child is so encouraged by the obvious progress, that he will make the transition, and once he complies, it is very simple to have him lie face down, make a stroke or two with his arms and feet, then stand back up. 

The child will be astounded to see that she has actually moved a few feet in the waterthat she has swum.  From this point, it is simply a matter of distance and speed.  He will quickly learn to lift his head out of the water to breathe, and though the tendency at first is to do this every two to three seconds, he is still swimming.

Taking the average of the students I have taught, after two hours the child will be able learn to swim sideways across the pool without touching the bottom.  This really is a simple system.

By the way, if you want kids to really be safe around the pool, you will have to make them practice occasionally with their clothes on, and if the pool is filled during the winter, they will have to swim at least a couple of times when the water is way too cold.  The child should swim at least far enough in cold water to get back to the side of the pool if they accidentally fall in.  This is when the screaming part of the lessons comes back.  (My sons erroneously believe this occurred in January, and The Doc correctly believes I enjoyed chucking them into the cold October water.)

And last of all, listen to The Doc, and build that fence anyway.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ban the Beetles

A strong military is of necessity a diverse force—a combination of different kinds of troops with a wide variety of skills.  Most Americans are unaware of the existence of one of our most effective fighting groups—a numerous and unique force (although the extent of their exploits remains a subject of both rumor and debate).  Our story starts almost 200 years ago.
 
The success of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition triggered decades of exploration—the United States owned vast territories full of... well, the country didn't really know what the hell was out there.  Multiple expeditions were sent west to draw maps, to meet the Native Americans, to locate landmarks, and (most important) to discover if rivers were navigable and where their headwaters were located.
 
The 1820 westward expedition was sent to discover the headwaters of the River Platte, and was particularly successful.  Rivers were mapped, Pikes Peak was discovered and climbed, and the vast herds of buffalo were documented in detail.
 
This was the expedition that extensively explored the Midwest plains—indeed the leader of the expedition called this land the American Desert, a phrase that stuck.  Even the Native Americans of the area felt safe with the explorers, as the land was absolutely unsuitable for farming—at least with the technology of the time.  Ironically, today this is the heartland of American farming, and in part, helps feed the world.
 
Like most of the expeditions of the time, a naturalist and a botanist accompanied the surveyors and explorers, to document the new fauna and flora that were discovered.  One of the discoveries was the Leptinotarse Decemlineata, or Colorado Beetle.  Thomas Say, the expedition naturalist discovered this distinctive beetle eating nightshade plants.  The beetle is about half an inch long and bright yellow, with five brown stripes on its body (giving it the nickname, the ten-striped spearman—one of several).
 
When the expedition members returned, they were fairly sure that the land they had explored would stay isolated and unpopulated, as it seemed unsuitable for habitation.  However, technology changed rapidly after the Civil War:  railroads, windmills, and barbed wire helped make the plain states into profitable farm lands.  One invention in particular had a major role in turning the prairies into farms:  a new kind of plow.
 
The problem was that the traditional iron plow was useless on the dense roots of the sod that made up the plains.  The iron plow could be sharpened easily, but within minutes, the dense sod would dull the blade, making plowing impossible.  While a steel blade would hold an edge much longer, a steel plow would be impossibly expensive.  Besides, at the time, everyone knew that steel poisoned the top soil, making any plants that managed to grow hazardous to eat.  (Isn't it amazing how often the things we all know turn out to be wrong?)
 
The solution turned out to be the "singing plow"—the marriage of an iron plow with bolt-on steel blades that could be sharpened at night, and then used again the next day.  As the sharp blade cut through the dense matted roots of the sod, it vibrated, making a musical note, giving it the new nickname. 
 
With new technology, farmers poured into the Midwest all the way to the edge of the Rockies, bringing new plants with them.  The Colorado beetle quickly discovered a new food, a cousin of the nightshade it was already devouring: the potato.  It was simply amazing how fast this beetle could strip the leaves off a potato plant.
 
It was also astounding how fast the beetle—now called simply the potato bug—spread eastward.  Within fifteen years, the voracious pest made it from Colorado to Pennsylvania, and ten years later, the 'tater bug' was present in the Americas wherever potatoes were grown.
 
European farmers, still reeling from the potato blight that had destroyed the potato harvest from 1845 to 1852, pushed their governments to enact laws forbidding the importation of American potatoes.  American potatoes stayed out of Europe—for the most part—until the 20th century, when World War I made importation necessary.  Whether the potato bug was introduced into Europe by the shipment of food, or simply hitchhiked on the ships, cargoes, or trucks transported to the European war is still being debated, but the pest quickly spread across the farmlands of Europe and Asia.
 
In Europe , after World War II, the bug was particularly devastating to agriculture, and in East Germany, after the Russians cut the country off from the rest of Europe, the potato bug became the major threat to one of the chief agriculture crops of a nation already struggling to feed its people.
 
East Germany began distributing pamphlets to farmers to be on the lookout for the pest.  Several farmers publicly testified about American bombers flying low over their fields, and invariably, the next day their fields were infested by the Colorado Potato Beetle.  East Germany claimed that America was 'bombing' its fields with the pest in order to destroy the economy of the socialist workers paradise.
 
School children were taken to the fields daily and told to pick the beetles off the plants in a patriotic effort to defeat the Amikafer (Yankee Beetles).  This was difficult to do, since the underside of every leaf had to be checked, and a single beetle can lay up to 800 eggs.  East Germany even complained to the United Nations that the Americans were engaged in agricultural warfare.
 
It might have been true.  The CIA certainly burned sugar cane fields in Cuba, and the US sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam, and experimented with dropping bomb laden bats in Japan during World War II.  (You can read about this here.)  But, it would be hard to keep silent the huge number of Air Force personnel that mounting such a project would require.  And I have no idea how you could gather enough of the pests to make an effective payload.  Do we have secret bug bombers hidden in Area 51?
 
This wasn’t the first time that a country had considered drafting the potato beetle for military purposes.  The French had considered using them against the Germans in the World War I, and Germany and England each had proposed using them against the other during World War II, with the Germans going so far as to actually breed the insects and to experiment with dropping them.  As far as we know, however, neither country ever actually used them.
 
Now, 75 years later, there is still no proof that the United States was responsible for the Cold War infestation of Eastern Germany.  There are a couple of other explanations: one is that there was a shortage of pesticides in the satellite countries that made up the Soviet Union and what few were available were used in Russia.  The potato bug has proven remarkably effective against most forms of natural pesticides (remember that the original food supply of the beetle were varieties of nightshade, a naturally toxic plant).
 
Another possible explanation goes back to the experiments the Germans had conducted during World War II.  Captured documents show that the Germans painted the beetles to make them easier to locate and recover, and then airdropped 54,000 of the beetles on a German field.  Soldiers recovered fewer than 150 of the bugs,''!  ("Bug painter"—what a job description!)
 
Today, the bug is still a pest anywhere potatoes are grown.  For a while, the bug was controlled by DDT, but the potato beetle (as befits an enemy whose ancestors lived by dining on deadly nightshade) has proven remarkably adaptive to pesticide use.
 
Russia is currently the country most seriously affected by the potato beetle.  Is it just a coincidence that this is happening as the "Cold War" is heating up again?  Or have we called the "tater bugs" back to active duty, dropping them from those stealth helicopters now?
 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Father of Naval Gunnery

America is a huge naval power today, but how did we get to be the foremost naval power?  Largely because of the Spanish-American War.

For most of the 19th century, the American Navy was preposterously weak, especially during the years between wars.  With a few notable exceptions, most of the ships of our navy were of poor quality, smaller than needed, and too old to be effective.  Far too often, the ships were simply left tied to a dock while they slowly rotted.  One naval officer summed it up in the 1870's rather simply:  "We are more of a danger to ourselves than to an enemy."

America's naval history went something like this:  We never had a navy until the war started, then rushed to catch up after hostilities commenced, only to cancel the construction of the yet-to-be-completed ships at the end of the war.  In many ways we were like the little boy on the roof  who tripped and began to slide off the roof. 

"Oh God!" he cried  "Save me!"

Just as he said those words, his slide was stopped when an exposed nail snagged his jeans.

"Never mind, God," the boy said.  "A nail saved me."

And so it was for the U.S. Navy: it was abandoned during times of peace, then would begin furious expansion plans during war, that were then usually not completed by the end of the conflict.  The brief exception was during the Civil War when, in order to effectively blockade the southern states, the Navy expanded dramatically until by the war's end, we had the largest coastal defense navy in the world.  However, this was largely not a blue water navy, since most of the ships could not leave the relative protection of the coastal waters.  During Reconstruction, even this fleet was allowed to fade away.

Steam power would change all of this:  America could no longer wait until a war started to begin rebuilding her sea power.  Not only did it take longer to build the ships, but the days of Able-bodied Seamen, who could do every necessary task on the ship, were over because the new machinery required specialized training and more experience.  Only in the last decade of the 19th century did America begin quickly building a truly modern, sophisticated standing navy.

"Oh, Lord!" cried Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt.  "If only the people who are ignorant about our navy could see those great warships in all their majesty and beauty, and could realize how well they are handled, and how well fitted to uphold the honor of America, I don't think we would encounter such opposition in building up the Navy to its proper standard." 

When politicians talk about weapons and honor, it's time to grab your wallet and be worried. 

And since we had a navy, we used it.  It didn't take us long to become involved an unnecessary and useless war.  Luckily, we picked an enemy we could beat: Spain.  During the Spanish American War, there were two dramatic naval battles:  we destroyed the Spanish fleets, first in a battle in Manila Bay in the far-off Philippine Islands, followed by a running fight with the remainder of the Spanish fleet as the ships tried to flee from the harbor of Santiago, Cuba.

When the United States Navy forced the Spanish cruiser Cristobal Colón to beach herself on the coast of Cuba, the war was over, and so was the Spanish Empire.  Think of the irony: five hundred years after Columbus, the Spanish Empire ended back in the Caribbean where it had started, with the loss of a ship named after Columbus.

America, suddenly an Imperial power with conquered territory scattered around the globe, reveled in our new powerful navy.  One man, a rather low ranking naval officer, disagreed.

William S. Sims later recalled that the jingoistic American press liked to depict the Navy of the day as “the hottest stuff that ever came down the pike, that every ship we built was the last expression of naval architecture, and that our personnel was the best in the world.” 

Sims knew otherwise, for he had studied the French, British, and Russian navies as the naval attaché in Paris for a year and a half before the hostilities with Spain.  His tart assessment was that “we were not in it at all, either in design or in marksmanship.”

Sims had some ideas, but his superiors in the Navy refused to listen to him.  So Captain Sims wrote directly to the President of the United States.  Today, such an idea would be almost unthinkablebreaking the chain of command is unforgivableand it would be almost impossible for such a letter to even reach the desk of the President.

Teddy Roosevelt came home from Cuba a war hero, and quickly used his new fame to win the governorship of New York.  This brash, young Roosevelt worried the leadership of the Republican Party, so a new, and safer position, had to be found for the rambunctious Rooseveltthey convinced him to join the McKinley reelection campaign as the President's new Vice President. 

The job of Vice President is considered a "safe" position, as the job has almost no authority, has no power, and has few responsibilities.  But, when McKinley was assassinated just six months into his new term, suddenly the unpredictable Teddy became president.  As President, he listened to Sims' ideas, and made him the new Director of Naval Marksmanship. 

The US Navy went back to the site of the two naval battles of the Spanish-American War.  Since both battles took place in relatively shallow water, the wrecked Spanish ships could be examined in minute detail.  They examined, measured, and counted every artillery hit on the destroyed vessels, and the results were compared to the naval records of how many artillery shells had been fired.  The results were staggering.

At Manila, in the Philippines, the Spanish ships had elected to fight at anchor, and the weather had been so mild that the sea was as flat as a mill pond.  The navy had fired slightly over 6000 rounds and scored 142 hits.  At Santiago, Cuba, where the conditions were only slightly more challenging, the Navy had fired 9400 rounds and scored 122 hits.

These are accuracy rates of 2.3% and 1.3%.  There is an old naval term used to describe this.  Technically, it is called "missing"!

Sims (pictured at left, after he was made an admiral by Roosevelt) discovered that part of the problem was that while great strides had been made in the design of naval artillery, the method of firing naval guns had not improved as rapidly as the guns themselves.  Gunners still fired them the same way they had during the sea battles of the Napoleonic campaigns a hundred years earlier.

A gunner looked down the barrel of his cannon and waited until the roll of the ship brought the target in line, then fired the gun as the target lined up.  In other words, you tried to fire as the ship rolled up and down instead of aiming the gun up and down at the target.  This was called “firing on the weather roll.”  If the shot missed, maybe the shot would ricochet off the water and still hit the target.   Compounding the errors of this method was a man’s reaction time, something that could deteriorate during times of stress.

Sims was concerned about American warship design and how well US ships really stacked up against European ships.  While stationed in Hong Kong, Sims met a Scottish captain whose ship consistently scored 20% higher than the other British ships in gunnery practice.  (And much higher than the scores for US gunnery!)

The Scottish captain had replaced the ancient open iron sights on cannons with a heavily padded telescopic sight equipped with crosshairs—an American invention that the US Navy had rejected.  Further, his ship did not wait until the target rolled in front of the gun.  Instead, the gunner, assisted by the new hydraulic systems that moved the new massive artillery, continually rotated the aiming wheel, keeping the gun aimed at the target even as the ship rolled.  This was the system of “continuous aiming” and this small change immediately transformed naval gunnery.

Sims next changed the way that marksmanship was scored.  The important factor was not the percentage of hits versus the number of misses. What was now important was the number of hits per minute.  If you are 95% accurate but only fire a round an hour, you will lose the engagement.

Next, the effective range of the guns were changed.  By 1900, even the vaunted British Navy only used its guns to engage targets out to 2000 yards.  This was scarcely better than Admiral Horatio Nelson and the HMS Victory had done at the Battle of Trafalgar a century earlier.  Yet the modern guns were accurate at many times that range.

The solution lay in how far away a gunner could see his target.  A gunner just twenty feet above the water can only see about 7 miles.  Sims helped design a tall observation tower for an artillery spotter that effectively doubled this distance, which made the warships far more deadly. 

It is a shame that today, few people remember William S. Sims, for he effectively became the father of modern naval gunnery.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that all these improvements were adopted by the navies of every country, just in time for World War I.

US Naval forces in World War I were ably commanded by Admiral Sims.  He later said that his biggest problem during the war was the brash young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a young man name Roosevelt.  Franklin Roosevelt.  But that's a different story.