Saturday, July 2, 2022

The Defense of Federal City

Anyone who has driven through Washington D.C. can probably tell a personal horror story about the citys numerous traffic circles.  Tourists frequently get caught in DuPont Circle, destined to make multiple trips around the central fountain erected by Admiral Francis Du Pont, the Mexican-American War hero who captured San Diego.

Note.  The biggest problem with driving in the capital seems to be the large number of cabs driven by people who apparently have arrived in the country the previous week and have only a rudimentary understanding of either the city or our traffic laws.  A couple of years ago, I caught a yellow cab and asked to be taken to the Argentine Embassy.  When the driver said he didnt know the address, I told him to just go to the White House and I would direct him from there.  To which the cabbie answered, The White House?  Wheres that?”

If you havent been to the capital, the city is laid out in a grid with streets named after letters running East/West, and streets running north/South named after numbers.  To this perfectly understandable system, wide thoroughfares running at strange diagonals crisscross the city and wherever two of these avenues cross, there are multi-lane traffic circles with cars circling counter clockwise endlessly searching for the exit they just passed.

Note.  Traffic circles are all the rage right now with city planners.  There is ample evidence that traffic circles move vehicles through an intersection faster than traffic lights and result in fewer traffic fatalities.  What the city planners never say is that, while fatal accidents decrease because colliding cars hit at a slight angle, the frequency of these non-fatal accidents actually increase.  And with traffic circles with numerous lanes, that increase is dramatic.

With a few modifications, the city plan was laid out by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, an associate of Lafayette who served on General Washingtons staff during the American Revolution.  After the war, President Washington gave LEnfant the task of drawing up the plans for the new capital which was at that time being called Federal City.  Far exceeding his directive to come up with a city plan, LEnfant took it upon himself to help fix the location of the city, design the city plan, secure leases at quarries for stone, and even specify the size of the government buildings.  His design for the Presidents Palace, for example, was for a residence five times the size of the current building.  In todays world of mega-mansions, that doesnt sound that impressive, but when the Executive Mansion was finally constructed—it wasnt called the White House until the 20th century—it was the largest American residence in history.

The Federal District was to be a square rotated 45°, ten miles to a side, straddling the Potomac River and more or less equally located on land ceded by Maryland and Virginia.  This location was a compromise between the northern location desired by Alexander Hamilton and a Southern site that Thomas Jefferson wanted.  (And yes, the basis of the argument was slavery.  If George Washington, a Virginian, had not been president when the Resident Act was finally passed, the site would probably have been farther to the north.)

There is a consistent and stubborn myth that LEnfant designed the citys circles as defensive positions due to his experiences during the French Revolution.  Supposedly, the circles were positioned so that cannons placed there would have interlocking fields of fire down avenues of approach preventing invading armies or mobs of revolutionaries from reaching the capitol buildings.  There are several problems with this urban legend.  First, LEnfant never saw the French Revolution because he remained in New York after the American Revolution, where he established a profitable engineering firm.  And while I suppose you could use the circles as a place for artillery batteries, most of the circles are located in the south side of the lopsided square that forms the capital, where the Potomac River south of the city forms a natural defensive line.

A much larger problem for this myth is the fact that LEnfant did not design circles at the intersections, but large rectangles.  And inside each of the rectangles, LEnfant planned for each state to set up an informal embassy representing their economic interests.  The senators and representatives from each state would build their homes around these plazas, developing little communities that promoted the commerce and culture of their states.  In the center of the rectangles would be fountains and statues erected by the state honoring their distinguished citizens and historic events.

LEnfant positioned each of the public squares within sight of at least two other squares, promoting a sense of unity and cooperation between the states.  Unfortunately, this plan for a city to emerge from a collection of walking communitieswas never realized, as none of the states expended any money or any tangible effort to establish any kind of presence within their squares.  Over the years, most of the land originally inside the squares came to be owned privately.

There is one last, final nail in the coffin of the circles as defensive zonestheory.  In 1861, the capital was actually under threat of attack by the Confederacy.  Directly across the Potomac River was Virginia, not only part of the Confederacy but containing the rebel capital of Richmond, only a hundred miles from Washington, DC.  (If you are wondering what happened to the Virginia land directly across the Potomac, that originally was part of the federal district, it was ceded back to Virginia in 1847 due to the citizens south of the river complaining about the loss of voting rights in national elections.  Originally 100 square miles, with the retrocession, the capital shrank by a third.)

Obviously, the Union had to build fortifications to defend the nations capital.  Ignoring the various circles, the Union Army built 68 forts, 93 artillery batteries with 807 cannons, 13 miles of rifle trenches, and 32 miles of military roads linking the fortifications.  Not a single one of these fortifications involved one of the squares/circles.  (The Xs on the map indicate the location of the forts.)

The proof of the effectiveness of the forts came in June 1864 after General Grant moved many of the seasoned troops out of Washington to replace the troops he had lost chasing General Lee.  As the forts were now manned by new recruits and men recovering from battle wounds, Lee saw an opportunity to strike the Union capital, and sent General Jubal Early and his army to capture the city.  The battle raged for several days and the Confederates penetrated the outer defenses as far as the present site of Walter Reed Medical Center before General Early conceded that the Union defenses were simply too formidable to continue the attack.  The fighting never got close to the inner city.

During the battle, President Lincoln came to observe the battle personally.  The tall president was easily recognizable—standing on a parapet, wearing his customary stovepipe hat.  A Confederate sharpshooter fired a round at Lincoln, striking a surgeon standing next to the president.  So far, Lincoln is the only serving US president to have been shot at during a battle.

One last point.  When Lincoln was shot at, a Union officer yelled, Get down, you fool!”  Ive always thought that advice should be given to every president.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Real Drug War

As both a historian and a Texan, I obviously love a good story.  Once a week for the last decade and a half, I’ve written a new story (totaling hundreds of them), and if there was a common thread (other than the number of times I have mentioned Napoleon or the Titanic) it might be how frequently those stories mention alcohol.  There are hundreds of stories that begin with someone saying, Hold my beer and watch this.”

Unfortunately, there are essentially no great stories that start with someone eating a salad.

Even stories about warfare are frequently the direct result of armies using—and abusing—high levels of alcohol and drugs.  The same governments that would hand out harsh punishments for driving the family car while impaired” have ordered pilots and tank commanders to use those same substances during warfare.  I mean that literally, since the Nazi Panzerkorps used to give their tank commanders something called Tank Chocolate” that was actually amphetamines.

For the Greeks, the drug of choice was wine, drunk by the gallons just before battle, while the Vikings fermented a potent drink made from Amanita mushrooms.  Military commanders from the earliest of times have realized that drugs could change ordinary men into the ruthless army necessary to win victories.  Simply put, drugs allowed men to do the horrific and heroic acts that sober men would never consider.

An 18th century historian, who witnessed the warriors of Mindanao in action, wrote that after consuming sugapa”, a psychedelic root plant, He who eats it is made beside himself, and rendered so furious that while its effect lasts he cares not for dangers, nor even hesitates to rush into the midst of pikes and swords….and by eating it at the time of the attack, they enter the battle like furious wild beasts, without turning back even when their force is cut to pieces; on the other hand, even when one of them is pierced from side to side with a lance, he will raise himself by that very lance in order to strike at him who had pierced him.”

That pretty well sums up why armies continued to use large amounts of otherwise illegal drugs to push men to their limits.  During World War I, both the German and English armies issued codeine to their troops for both medical use and as a stimulant.  The English distributed codeine tables known as Forced March that promised to increase endurance while suppressing hunger.  Commanders also noted that the use of codeine calmed agitated” troops.

It was during World War II that the use of drugs really became a standardized item.  Germany issued its soldiers a drug called Pervitin, considered at the time an ideal war drug, as it could keep pilots alert for long periods of time, and kept entire armies euphoric despite hazardous duties…As well it should, since the drug was actually an early form of crystal meth.

Part of the reason for the German Armys success in the early days of the war was this drug.  During the Blitzkrieg, soldiers under the effects of Pervitin could march for 3 days without sleep, carrying heavy loads, and still remaining alert with a positive morale.

Pervitin was everywhere, even Hitler himself was injected with a liquid form of the drug.  The 3 mg pill form was distributed by the Wehrmacht (the German Army) extensively.  By the end of the war, more than 35 million doses had been distributed.  Since the drug was habit forming, soldiers frequently wrote home asking their families to purchase it over the counter to send to them.

Allied soldiers hearing about the wondrous Super Pill” of the Nazis began experimenting with Pervitin, too.  The results for the early tests of the drug were positive, bomber crews could remain alert for extended periods of time.  It did not take long, however, for the negative effects to appear.  After prolonged use, long periods of rest did not seem to compensate for the loss of sleep.  Otherwise healthy young soldiers who used the drug died of heart failure, while others committed suicide during psychotic phases. And those who became addicted to the drug developed the usual symptoms of addiction and withdrawal: sweating, dizziness, hallucination, and depression.  (Just think of any episode of Breaking Bad, but replace the entire cast with Nazis.)

Over time, the combat effectiveness of the units using the drug declined to the point that some military commanders recommended that the German Army discontinue prescribing it to soldiers.  Nevertheless, the drug was not only used for the duration of the war, but the West German Army, the Bundeswehr, continued to maintain stockpiles of the drug until the 1980s.  On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the East German National Peoples Army did not discontinue use of the drug until 1988.

While various armies continued to use various forms of the drug for decades—including the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War—you have to wonder what might have happened if the German Army had perfected its miracle weapon, a Super Duper Pill.

Nazi scientists, using political prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp as test subjects, were developing an enhanced endurance pill.  Mixing 5 mg of Cocaine, 3 mg of Methamphetamine, and 5 mg of Oxycodone with various other stimulants, the scientists developed a compound called D-IX.  After being dosed with the compound, political prisoners could march 65 miles while carrying 45 pounds of equipment without rest.  Considering the general physical condition of prisoners in a German concentration camp, these results are remarkable.  The drug would be capable of turning ordinary soldiers into near supermen.  (It should be noted that the efficient Nazi scientists took advantage of the experiments to simultaneously test new forms of military boots.)

Fortunately for the prisoners (and perhaps, for the rest of the world), the war ended before the compound was perfected.  But, Im sure someone, somewhere, is working on it.  If it is not ready for the next war, I'm sure it will soon be for sale in your neighborhood.

Saturday, June 18, 2022


The chance that a sitting president will run for reelection is almost a dead certainty.  The chances that he will win reelection, using history as a guide, are better than even.  The chance that a president will seek reelection only to be denied the opportunity to do so by his party is remote.  If history is a guide, a sitting president, regardless of his lack of popularity, can almost always count on his party’s nomination.  Almost.

Note.  Obviously, I’m referring to President Biden’s apparent desire to run for another term in 2024—a move that many in his own party now seem to oppose.  To be fair, I suppose that I should disclose that in the last presidential election, I did not support either of the two dominant parties’ candidates.  The following had nothing to do with President Biden and is just my feeble attempt to provide historical context to current events.

Any president is considered to be the head of his political party, and as such, wields enormous power and influence over the rest of the party membership.  Through political favors, campaign assistance, and most importantly, by control of the party’s sizeable campaign funds, a president can reward his supporters and punish disloyal party members, easily insuring sufficient support to insure his party’s nomination for a second term.   

Sometimes, however, it just doesn’t work.

The exception to all this party nonsense was George Washington, who had the good sense to run for office before the development of political parties.  His successor, John Adams was not quite so fortunate.  When Adams ran for reelection in 1800, the two parties immediately began a campaign so incredibly dirty—claims of insanity, treason, marital infidelity, serial bedwetting, etc., etc.—that it has  become the norm for every campaign since.  Despite the fighting between the parties, Adams wanted the support of the Federal Party for a second term and his party supported him.

The first sitting president to fail to receive his party’s nomination for reelection was Franklin Pierce.  Elected in 1852, Pierce’s presidency literally derailed even before his inauguration.  Traveling from Boston after the election, the railroad car containing the president-elect, his wife, and their 11-year-old son Benny, leapt from the track, rolling down an embankment.  Before his parents’ horrified eyes, the boy was crushed and nearly decapitated.  Pierce, obviously suffering from prolonged depression, never really recovered, and the First Lady publicly wondered if the accident was divine punishment for the sin of hubris.  The four years of the Pierce administration were more of a continual wake than an active presidency. 

Though unpopular with voters, President Pierce still expected to run again in 1856 and sought his party’s nomination.  The other two popular candidates within the Democratic Party, James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas, forged an agreement where Buchanan would get the nomination in 1856 and Douglas would run in 1860.  By pooling their support, Pierce was denied the chance to run for reelection.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson tried to secure the Democratic nomination, but this was almost impossible.  Johnson had served as Vice-President to Republican Abraham Lincoln, who had selected the Southern Democrat as a measure to unify a nation embroiled in the Civil War.  While Johnson was popular with Southern Whites, he was extremely unpopular in the North.  On the 22nd ballot, the Democratic Party selected Horatio Seymour, a New Yorker, while Johnson received only four ballots—those of the delegates from his home state of Tennessee. 

Chester A. Arthur became president after the assassination of James Garfield, at a time when the Republican Party had split into two rival camps.  Arthur had been chosen for the post of Vice-President primarily because he was a centrist, a compromise candidate.  As president, Arthur tried to win the support of both camps, and might have been successful had not the news of his medical condition become public knowledge.  Suffering from Bright’s disease (called nephritis today), Arthur appeared weak and his party gave the nomination to James Blaine.  When Blaine lost the election to Grover Cleveland, he blamed the loss on Arthur’s refusal to support his campaign.

The most contentious Party fight was for the Republican candidacy for the 1912 election.  President Theodore Roosevelt had selected William Howard Taft to be his replacement in 1908, and Taft’s victory had been largely been due to Roosevelt’s endorsement and tireless campaigning.  After leaving office, Roosevelt had spent 18 months traveling outside the United States with no communication with the new president.  Upon Roosevelt’s return, he found that Taft had abandoned many of Roosevelt’s Progressive policies.  As Republicans across the country began to urge the former president to run in 1912, Roosevelt announced that the tradition of presidents serving only two terms—a tradition begun by George Washington—only applied to two consecutive terms.

Taft had never really wanted to be president, but he was the president and decided to act like one.  Refusing to step down, he ran against Roosevelt in the party primaries of 1912.  While Roosevelt won the majority of the delegates that were selected by ballot, Taft won the majority of delegates that were selected by the state party committees, giving Taft the nomination after a contentious fight at the 1912 Republican Convention. 

The rift between the two men might have been avoided if Archibald Butt, a Republican leader who had served in the administrations of both Roosevelt and Taft not perished on April 15, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic.  Without Butt, there was no one to broker a compromise between the two presidents.

Theodore Roosevelt, believing—mostly correctly—that the nomination had been stolen from both him and the voters by deceitful maneuvering of Taft and the convention president, bolted the Republican Party, forming the Progressive Party (informally known as the Bull Moose Party).  The Democrats ran Woodrow Wilson.

Taft never really stood a chance of being reelected, due to party defections to Roosevelt, and the sitting president wasn’t even on the ballots in California and South Dakota.  Taft received 23% of the vote, Roosevelt received 27%, and Wilson won with 42% of the vote.  Without a doubt, had either Taft or Roosevelt bowed out of the election, the remaining Republican candidate would have defeated Woodrow Wilson.

There is no better teacher than witnessing utter failure, so since 1912, both political parties have refrained from allowing party arguments creation of third parties.  (Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1996 wasn’t really a spinoff from the Republican Party, but it did probably allow Bill Clinton to defeat George Bush.)  While a few party members have wished to steal the nomination from an incumbent president (like Ted Kennedy in 1980), no political party has ever allowed such a challenge to actually prevent a president to run for reelection since 1892.

Will 2024 be the year that breaks that tradition?

Saturday, June 11, 2022

London’s Smallest Sculpture

As a culture, we don’t erect enough public statues, and considering the recent political climate, we may be tearing down more statues than we are currently erecting.  Worse, far too many of the recent public art works are so difficult to interpret and so abstract that it is almost impossible to understand what the artist is trying to convey.

I like art that tells me a story.  If you are kind, you might say this is only natural because I’m a historian.  If you are honest, you would probably say that I’m just a poor dumb ol’ country boy who lacks the sophistication needed to appreciate any art that doesn’t hit me upside the head with its meaning.  Like Blanche Dubois, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

If the artwork does have a message, I prefer the meaning to have a little humor—perhaps a little satire—that is revealed through some study of the art’s back story (such as the story about the statue honoring Francisco Morazán in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  You can read the story here.)  I want to look at statues that make me laugh.  (Or you can read this one.  Or this one.)  Look at how the people of Chicago used the statue of Marilyn Monroe before the 26 foot tall piece was moved to Palm Springs.  (Where the citizens have been arguing for years about the kitschy and misogynistic work.  If it rained more often in Palm Springs maybe the people could agree on where to place the piece.)

If you want fun statues, there is no better place in the world than London.  The Brits know how to enjoy their monuments—as evidenced by the large number they have appropriated from all over the world.  The city that hides a solar laboratory under Nelson’s Column, gave a nude statue of Napoleon to the Duke of Wellington so he could hang umbrellas on it and built hidden, roomy chambers under everything (including some extensive rooms below the Albert Memorial)…well, this is a city that knows how to have fun with its public statues.

One of the largest statues in London is the Albert Memorial, but today I want to tell you a story about the smallest statue….One that has no plaque, no marker, and no signs.  You could walk past it a dozen times and never see it.

In 1861, workmen began construction of a five story building on the corner of Eastcheap and Philpot.  While the building had a relatively small footprint, it was five stories tall, with more than sufficient space to house the spice merchants Messrs. Hunt and Crombie.  These guys must have had a great sense of humor because the building at 23 Eastcheap has polychromatic bricks, barley twist window columns, and carved figures of animal heads in the eaves.  The style is called Lombardic Gothic and, personally, I wonder why we don’t erect more buildings like this.  (The equally interesting buildings nearby on Eastcheap are examples of Victorian Gothic.)  The photo at left really doesn’t do the building justice, I suggest you use Google Earth Street View and examine it for yourself.  Or just go there and see the coffee shop it houses today, called Joe the Juice.  London is wonderful in June.

During construction, two men, employed by the architect, John Young, were working on a scaffold high above the street.  When the two men paused work for lunch, they noticed that their cheese sandwiches were missing and each man blamed the other for the theft of their meal.  As the two men argued, both became increasingly angry and soon harsh words were replaced with shoves, then blows.  Inevitably, both men fell from the scaffold, losing their lives on the stone street of Philpot Lane.

Shortly after the two fell to their death, other workmen discovered neither man had been responsible for the theft of the lunch, the actual culprits were a pair of mice who had attracted by the smell of the cheese.

No one is sure who commissioned the memorial, it could have been the spice merchants Hunt and Crombie who had already paid to have the building decorated with the likenesses of sheep and pigs’ heads.  It might have been the architect, since the two men had worked for him.  Personally, I like to think it was the other workmen, the stone masons and brick layers who knew the two men, who created the work in memory of their two lost friends.

If you walk down Eastcheap, you can turn up Philpot Lane, a street that only extends a single block.  To your left is the enormous top-heavy monstrosity of an office building known locally as the Walkie Talkie for its resemblance to a brick-like cell phone.  But if you turn to your right, just above the first floor towards the back of the building, you can see what is inarguably London’s smallest sculpture:  two mice fighting over a piece of cheese, known as the Philpot Mice.

If you go there, please do me a favor.  Go into the coffee shop and ask the good folks at Joe the Juice if they sell cheese sandwiches in honor of the two workmen.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

A Cheap Summer Reading List

Thirteen years ago when I began to write this weekly blog, I selected the title of Random Thoughtsbecause I didnt want to be restricted to a single subject or field.  Occasionally, Ive thought a better title might have been Apropos of Nothing Whatsoever” or Yet Another Non Sequitur”. 

Over the years, Ive written about history, art, economics, a little archaeology, the peculiarities of working at Enema U (a poor football team with a small university attached), a few feeble attempts at fiction, and whatever tickled my fancy on a Friday night as I sat before my computer with a bottle of beer.  A few of the posts have gone viral, a couple have been banned in certain countries that still exercise a draconian form of censorship, and just this week, Facebook decided that a history piece I wrote eight years ago does not meet its community standards.  While this banishment doesnt completely show that the fact checkers at Facebook are ignorant, it does prove that they read slowly.

This is the first of June—the start of a new summer—and it is my usual practice between semesters to binge read the books I was too busy to read during the school year.  This year, the pickings of new good books seem a little sparse (perhaps some lingering effect of the pandemic).  At the same time, inflation is making everyone a little hesitant to spend money.  This gave me the idea of putting together, just this once, a list of good books to read this summer.  What makes this list different is that every book on the list has been published for years, meaning that good used copies can be found at Abebooks.som or at a good used book store.  Most of the books listed can be purchased for your Kindle for under $10 an edition.

Presented in no particular order:

Science Fiction.  Old Mans War by John Scalzi.  Scalzi was obviously partially inspired by Robert Heinleins Starship Troopers:  both books attempt to tell the story of what infantry warfare will be like in the future, only Scalzi does it better.  Both Scalzi’s characters and the story are so compelling that he wrote several more books, turning one book into a series, and since Netflix has bought the movie rights to the entire series, eventually you may see the story on television.  Since good books are nearly always changed by cretinous Hollywood directors, you should read the book first.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov.  I have no idea why books by Asimov are not still constantly available in bookstores….well, thats a stupid sentence.   I should just say I have no idea why there arent more bookstores selling good books.  In The Caves of Steel, Asimov moves the classic murder mystery far into the future and pairs an urban hardnosed detective with a robot.  Asimov is famous for his robot stories, particularly I, Robot, but that novel has already been ruined by a cretinous director (see above) and while this book was used for a British television show starring Peter Cushing, only a small portion of the film survives.

Asimov wrote the novel to prove his theory that science fiction could be adapted to any genre of fiction (in this case, the mystery).  Originally written as a stand-alone novel, Asimov eventually linked the story to his Foundation Trilogy as part of his Future History series of books.  While I would heartily recommend the entire series, this book by itself is a great read.

History/Economics.  A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein.  While this book is primarily about the economics of trade, it is also a wonderful history book.  There was a breakthrough moment a few thousand years ago when agriculture in a few areas was so successful that not everyone had to engage in full time subsistence farming, enabling some people to specialize in the production of other goods.  This division of labor dramatically increased production, creating not only increased wealth, but the necessity of trade.  The book reads like an adventure story…. Well, it does if youre a history/economist nerd.  This is one of those books with ideas that come back to you again and again, forcing you to think about new concepts.  It is also one of those books that I keep nearby on a shelf so I can go back and refer to it.  While I wouldnt categorize this as light reading, it is certainly enjoyable, providing new insight every time I reread it.

Economics.  Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls:  How Not to Fight Inflation by Robert L. Schuettinger and Eamonn F. Butler.  In plain and non-technical language, the authors give a history of the repeated failures of price controls as a method of fighting inflation.  As I write this, such measures have recently been instigated in Italy, Turkey, and Mexico and are once again being considered by morons in Washington.  The book is fascinating and should be required reading for American politicians.

Travel/Art/Literature.  The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims Progress by Mark Twain.  Its by Mark Twain, so how can you go wrong?  In 1867, Twain somehow managed to convince a newspaper to pay his expenses for a five-month excursion through Europe and the Holy Land.  In exchange, Twain sent regular accounts of his adventures back home, which were published in serial form.  Two years after the trip, Twain collected these letters and published them as a book.  Not only was the book an incredible success, but it was the best-selling of his books during his lifetime.

Among the side trips taken by the passengers of the USS Quaker City was an excursion from Marseilles to Paris for the 1867 Paris Exhibition, the second French Worlds Fair as ordered by Emperor Napoleon III.  While you can read the book strictly for the comedy, Twain is actually using satire to compare history with the modern world.  If you have never read the book, Im somewhat envious—Id give almost anything to read a book by Twain for the first time.

Art Crime.  The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney.  What is it about art forgery that is so compelling and fascinating?  In my case, I think part of it is jealousy:  since I cant afford to own my very own Picasso or Vermeer, I like to see the experts accepting a fake as the real thing.  One of the strengths of this book is that it explores the motivation—other than greed—for an artist to create a forgery.  While the layout of the book is unusual, you are unlikely to stop reading once you start.

Mystery.  Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout.  This was the book that introduced Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  Though the book is set in New York during the Great Depression, the reader will hardly notice that nearly a century has passed since the book was published.  Stout wrote the Nero Wolfe stories with timeless characters, literally.  Though Stout wrote 33 books in the series over five decades, the two main characters remain the same age in every book.   Though it has been almost half a century since the last appearance of Nero Wolfe, he remains timeless. 

Whip Hand by Dick Francis.  Francis was a British steeplechase jockey with over 350 winning rides, and at one time he raced horses belonging to Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.  After being injured in a fall, Francis began a long career of writing mysteries set in the world of racing that he knew so well.  Whip Hand, an Edgar Award Winner, is one of his best books.  While a made-for-television movie was based on the book, the movie has rarely been shown outside of the United States.  After writing 40 mysteries dealing with almost every aspect of British racing, Francis died in 2010.  Today, his son, Felix Francis, has followed in his fathers footsteps and is writing similar books.

Runners-up.  Here are some honorable mentions in case your used bookstore cannot find any of the above.  These are all great books that just are not as popular any more, for some obscure reason.

The African Queen, by C.S. Forester

Cautionary Tales by Hillaire Belloc

Diary of a Nobody by John Lawrence

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (Fair Warning:  every time I re-read this book, I talk and write in Pidgin English for a week.  And swear in Chinese.  You have been forewarned!)

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman.  The author mixes interesting mysteries with fascinating theology.

The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle

Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by U.S. Grant

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

The Lost City of Incas by Hiram Bingham.  The book is dated, but it is impossible to read the book and not think about Indiana Jones.  Bingham is also notable for becoming a Congressman who once landed his gyrocopter on the Washington Mall.

Waiting for the Galactic Bus by Parke Godwin

Saturday, May 28, 2022

On the Button

Two years ago, I wrote about Banksy, the pseudonymous English street artist whose work sells for millions of dollars—indeed, the artist is believed to net $20 million a year for work that is part graffiti and part performance art.

Part of what I wrote was about the incredible high cost of street art and graffiti—that our federal, state, and local governments spend more on cleaning up and removing this unsolicited public art than on all the various artistic endowments, museums, and grants combined.  Graffiti is our most expensive public art program.

Despite this, I love the work by Banksy.  While our politics differ slightly, I admire the satirical humor of the pieces.  I even admire how the artist has managed to remain anonymous—mostly—while earning millions of dollars, publishing books, and holding exhibitions, as well as continuing to create new works of art all over the world. 

That Banksy has managed to remain anonymous for more than 25 years is truly amazing and if you consider that most of his work has been done clandestinely, almost exclusively without the property ownerspermission, and that it has been done in cities with extensive closed circuit television coverage, it is beyond amazing that Banksy’s identity still remains a secret.  On two occasions, part of the performance art was printing large quantities of fake British bank notes (well, technically, they were British Banksy notes) and even though that is against British law, I doubt that MI5 has spent much time trying to find the artist.

There are a lot of theories about Banksys secret identity:  just about every art publication has featured at least one theory.  Seven years ago, HBO produced a documentary that claimed Banksy was actually a team of seven women working together.  The leader, it said, was a blonde, who appeared in many of the artworks.  (Since many of the works are in black and white, we’ll just have to take HBOs word that the woman is a blonde).  You can probably gather all the people who believe this nonsense and fit them inside a Prius.

Seven years ago, the NYPD arrested Richard Pfeiffer almost in the act of creating what was obviously a work by Banksy.  Pfeiffer, a native of Brooklyn, admitted to being an artist and still had the black marker in his possession when arrested.  After six months of investigation, it turned out that Pfeiffer and his fiancé were simply admiring the work and that the marker found in his pocket was not the type used to create the work.  Im not sure exactly what the criminal charge would have been, anyway, since the owner of the property sold the section of the wall containing the graffiti for six figures.  Malicious Wealth Giving?  Felonious Enrichment?

Ignoring all the nonsensical theories, there is one credible candidate.  Students at Londons Queen Mary University used computer mapping to plot 140 known works, along with a criminology theory called geographic profiling, to determine that Banksy was actually a Bristol street artist named Robin Gunningham.  If you google Gunningham + Banksy”, you get over 23,000 links….

Actually, I dont care who Banksy is and I dont really want to know the truth.  It is kind of like watching Penn and Teller do magic tricks.  I am a huge fan of their shows and I have absolutely no idea how they do that bullet catching trick.   Im fairly sure that if I were to spend a few minutes on the internet, I could learn exactly how to do that trick….And never be able to enjoy watching them perform it again.  No thanks!  Im pretty sure that I dont want to know more about Robin Gunningham, either.

There is, however, one man who we can be pretty sure is not Banksy.  (Well, two, since my artistic talent is so advanced that I can almost draw a straight line with a ruler.)   Until recently, William Gannon was a town counselor in the small English town on Pembroke.  Being a politician was only a part-time job:  Gannon earns his livelihood as an artist, producing murals at playgrounds and hospitals that he freely admits are reminiscent of Banksys work. 

Recently, a photo surfaced of Gannon creating a piece of public art” at a skateboard park in the 1980s.  The photo clearly shows the artist, with a spray paint can in hand, creating a piece of graffiti similar to those that made Banksy famous a decade later.  Overnight, newspaper and internet stories shouted that the mystery of Banksys real identity had at last been solved:  Gannon was Banksy.

Besieged by reporters, art dealers, and people hoping that Banksy would spray paint something, anything, on the sides of their buildings (or on themselves), Gannon found it impossible to continue working as a city counselor, so a few days ago, he resigned to focus on his new project:  Convincing people he is not Banksy.  This should be fairly easy, since Gannon is absolutely not Banksy.  There is documented proof that Gannon was in England at the times when new Banksy artworks were created in North America, in Gaza, and in Australia.  And Pest Control, the public art agents that handle all of the commercial details for Banksys art sales, have confirmed that Gannon is not Banksy.

While Gannon might not be Banksy, he has certainly learned a few lessons about profiting from performance art.  Right now, hes producing buttons stating:  I am not Banksy.”

Each limited edition button is numbered and autographed by the artist who is not Banksy.  To get one, you have to promise that you are not Banksy, either.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Run Like a Business

For years, I have heard my colleagues alternately either yearn for the university to be run like a business or bemoan the fact that it already was.   And although the administrators at Enema U frequently claimed they were going to run the university on sound business principles”, such claims were always just noise from people who had no idea how a business is run.

There are actually very few people in the university who have run businesses.  This is understandable when you remember that a state university is, despite claims to the contrary, a government agency run by bureaucrats who have little or no experience in the real world.  There are many ways to become a top bureaucrat, but few of them involve competency.

One portion of the university, however, is about to become part of the “business world”, and it appears that no one is noticing.  One element of college football and basketball are about to become semi-capitalist and this is going to drastically change the nature of college athletics:  Male college athletes are going to be paid, and that is going to change everything.

At this point, Im sure that some readers are yelling, No, they arent going to be paid, they can only profit by selling their likenesses to advertise products.”  True enough, but if you think that will not effectively mean the same thing as regular paychecks, you dont understand the way college athletics work.  The NCAA already has a slew of rules to make sure that colleges cant unfairly give benefits to players, and athletic programs have ignored and bypassed those regulations for years.  

Thirty-five years ago, the House of Representatives passed limits on how much a congressman could be paid to deliver a speech, ending a long system of legal bribery whereby a lobbying group could pay the congressman a small fortune to stand up at a rubber chicken dinner and publicly announce, Thank you.”  Jim Wright, the Speaker of the House promptly wrote a very short book containing a few of his speeches, some attempts at prose, and a little corn-pone humor.  At only 117 pages—many of which contained only one word—it was more of a pamphlet than a book.  Nevertheless, lobbying groups and unions immediately bought the bribe…I mean, book, by the case. 

Booster clubs and donors could easily do the same thing with players, perhaps paying a large sum for the right to use the players' images on goods they never intend to produce in quantity.  Several universities (including Enema U) already have private foundations that quietly subsidize coaching salaries, never, ever releasing that information to the public.  Here in New Mexico, various groups have been fighting for decades to have these secret' foundations open their books for public scrutiny, with little success.  Lawyers representing the players will work out many ways to twist the system into what will effectively be salaries.

Currently, the key to having a winning collegiate football team is to have a great coach.  Since the NCAA does not regulate coaching salaries, a handful of schools can offer million dollar contracts to the dozen or so top coaches capable of all but guaranteeing a winning season.  For every team like Texas A&M, Tennessee, Alabama, or Iowa, there were dozens of schools that couldnt afford to bid on winning one of a dozen or so top coaches available.  The rules, however, have changed:  There are far more good players available than there were coaches, and there are many combinations of good players that can make up a winning team.

The race to recruit players based on salary will benefit those schools with deep pocket donors.  Top athletes, represented by agents, may well demand salaries competitive with players on NFL teams.  And under the new NCAA rules, students will be able to open negotiations with schools three separate times during four years of eligibility.  After a school spends a small fortune to attract a star player, you can imagine the pressure some faculty members may find themselves subjected to if that amazing quarterback reads at the third grade level.

While there are several public colleges that have the funds to allow them to spend a few million dollars to hire the best coaches, there are far fewer with the kind of uber-rich donors to enable a team to pay the top dollars necessary to build that winning team.  This will create a wider division between the top schools and those schools with more financially modest donors.

While no one knows exactly how and how much this change will shake up college football, there are two obvious questions.  First, how will colleges reconcile the new money spent on male players with Title IX, which mandates equal spending between sports for men and women?  There are no sports for women that can generate the type of high-dollar donations to pay an equivalent amount to female players, meaning that their salarieswill be much lower.  Im not exactly sure what the basis of the lawsuits will be, but Im confident that lawyers will be able to come up with something.

The second question is what to do about a donor who has unlimited resources.  What if a billionaire (say one of those new crypto currency gazillionaires) decides to build an unbeatable team at his alma mater?  We have recently seen just such a person spend billions on what appears to be a whim, so why not build a winning football program for far less money?  The NCAA allows each university 85 full ride scholarships, so if you spent a $1 million apiece to recruit the top players, throw in another $10 million for a coaching staff, you should be able to have an unbeatable team for about a quarter of what a new yacht would cost.

NFL teams recognized this problem years ago, instituting a cap on wages and locking players into multiyear contracts with strict collective bargaining agreements.  College athletics has no such protections, at least not yet.  Im not sure what all the changes coming to college football will be, but we can be certain that athletic programs are going to spend more money than ever before…and be no more transparent about it than now.