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.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hard to Book a Mover

It is moving time.  Thankfully, not for me, but for my son, Not What's-His-Name, but The-Other-One.  He and his family have set something of a record for the most moves in the shortest time.  He just barely moved back to his hometown, and now, his company is moving him again. 

I feel sorry for himwell; at least I would if I weren't so angry at his company for moving him again.  It is unfair of them for exploiting our well-known family weakness:  they waved more money under his nose.  So he gets a promotion and a transfer to another state.  I wouldn't mind so much, but he insists on taking his wife and my grandchildren with him.  Hardly seems fair!

Movingthe whole packing, loading a truck, unloading the truck, and so forth is just about my least favorite activity.  And for some reason, every time my son moves, it seems to be raining.  If you have never experienced the pure panic of pushing a large refrigerator up a wet slippery ramp without near enough help...

Perhaps this is why The Doc and I no longer move.  We are as stationary as stalactites.  My goal is to eventually be buried in the back yard with all the pets I told the boys had gone to live in the country at the Happy Farm.  We've lived in the same location now for 30 years, and as far as I'm concerned, the house and I are having a contest to see which of us can last the longest.  While we both have a little dry rot in the attic, my plumbing is better.

Moving for The Doc and me has always been a nightmare.  We own books.  Thousands and thousands and thousands of books.  About the only thing of value the two of us possess are books.  Once, several years ago, we bought the entire contents of a book store.  The house is filled to overflowing with books, and they are a total nightmare to move.

In all these years, we have only lived in one house that was actually suited for our collection.  While we lived in Galveston, we lived in one of those old Victorian homes that look so picturesque, but are actually a total nightmare to live in.  The ceilings were 14 feet high, the floors were masterpieces of wood, and the impossibly high stairway to the second floor was wrapped around three walls.  The house looked great.

It was also an ancient, drafty old barn with almost no heat in the winter, with a thousand generations of inbred mice, and a plumbing system that had been installed by people who had personally fought in the Civil War.  Once, in an effort to repair an electrical short, I opened a section of wall only to discover that the wiring was wrapped in cotton cloth.  Equally surprising was to discover the walls still had the pipes that had once supplied the house with gas lighting.  Trust me, museums are more fun to visit than actually live in.

One feature the house did have, to its credit, was a library.  On the second floor, there was an actual room intended to be a library.  Beautiful built-in wooden bookcases, eight feet tall, lined all four walls.  It is the only house my wife and I have ever lived in where every book we owned could be displayed all at the same time.  Sure, we still had bookcases in several other rooms, but the vast majority of our books were in the library room. 

Good seafood and that library are the only things we really miss from living on that island.  Mostly.

When it came time to finally move to New Mexico, we did something we had never done beforewe called a moving company.  This time, I would not have to rent a Uhaul truck:  I would not have to load a truck because we were going to leave the moving to Bekins.  I called the moving company and it sent a representative.

I am still not sure exactly what that guy was doing.   As I led him from room to room, he made little notes on his clipboard and made enigmatic remarks like, "Living room, plus two.  Kitchen, upright freezer, plus one."

Finally, I led him up the long twisting stairs to the second floor.  We started with my pride and joy, the library.  The man from the moving company stood in the middle of the large room, silently staring at the bookcases that covered every inch of the four walls.  After a long minute, staring at the thousands of books the room contained, he turned back to look at me.

"Fuck you," he said.  And left without saying another word.

We eventually found a moving company that would move us, even though we had a library on the second floor.  Bekins never called back.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Mexico Got Its Own Eiffel


The story starts in the 18th century: the King of Spain, anxious to convert the natives of New Spain (Mexico) to Catholicism, sent soldiers to guard the priests.  One of these soldiers was sent to a remote location in  Baja California Sur, where he elected to stay after the end of his military service and start a ranch.  A century and a half later, one of his descendants, José Rosas Villavicencio, discovered blue-green spheres of copper—technically called boleos—simply lying on top of the ground.

Gathering up a few of the boleos, he arranged to have them shipped across the Sea of Cortez to Guaymas, where the ore was analyzed and found to be high grade copper—so high, in fact, that the ore required no processing before smelting.   For the meager sum of 16 pesos, José disclosed the location of the copper ore.

For a few years, there was just a little general prospecting (nothing too elaborate), and, then, Porfirio Díaz became President of Mexico.  It is a strange irony that a man who came to prominence fighting against the French invaders, eventually decided to be French.  He dressed in French fashions, ate French food, learned the French language and tried as much as possible to rebuild Mexico in the French model.  And when the people had had enough of this brutal tyrant, he ran away from Mexico and lived the remainder of his life in Paris.

Díaz encouraged foreign development of Mexico and believed that the fastest way for Mexico to develop was for it to lose its "Mexican culture" and to adopt European ideals.  Since all mineral rights in Mexico belong to the government—not the owner of the land—in 1885, Díaz sold the copper mining rights for 70 years to a French mining company that was part of the House of Rothschild.

The Boleo Mining Company descended on this isolated area and started building...BIG:  roads, ranches, farms, water lines, a harbor, and housing for the miners.  They literally built the town of Santa Rosalia, building everything miners needed to work—but not much else.  One of the things considered unnecessary was a church—which is ironic if we consider why the Europeans first came to the area!

Meanwhile, back in France, Alexander Gustave Eiffel—yes, that Eiffel—began a company, Le Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel, that was experimenting with new methods of construction.  Using puddled iron (commonly called "wrought iron"), a small number of standardized structural pieces could be created and used in multiple construction projects.  After a lengthy discussion with the French Governor of Cochin-China (a French colony known today as Viet Nam), Eiffel saw the need for prefabricated bridges and buildings.

Eiffel designed these prefabricated pieces to be small enough to be easily transported to even the most remote locations.  A limited number of types of versatile small pieces meant that each piece could be produced quickly and used in multiple projects.

From his factory just four miles from the center of Paris, Eiffel could build the necessary structures, but instead of joining the pieces together with iron rivets, Eiffel used large nuts and bolts.  This would eliminate the need for skilled labor at the construction site.  Then the structure would be carefully dismantled, shipped to the desired location, and reassembled.  Sort of an Erector set (Meccano to you Europeans)—for big boys.

The concept worked, and was used all over the world.  The Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City, a church for an earthquake area of Chile, a bridge over the Nile River, and even the interior frame for the Statue of Liberty—all were prefabricated in France, disassembled and shipped to the construction site.  Eiffel did this with dozens of structures all over the world.

Which brings us to the Eiffel Tower.  (Trust me, we will be back in Mexico right after we go to Panama.  And Egypt.  And Brussels.)

In 1889, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a world's fair.  The event planners wanted something big, something dramatic to serve as the entrance to the fair.  And they wanted something that could be easily demolished when the affair was over Eiffel's company suggested an iron tower with three levels, that was bolted together to facilitate its eventual removal.

Though somewhat dubious about the project, the fair officials gave him the job of erecting a 986 foot tower in just a little over two years.  Once constructed, it would charge admission for 20 years to recoup the cost of construction, and then be removed.  You wouldn't believe the loud opposition to the "monstrosity" by the artistic set of Paris.  The French writer, Guy de Maupassant, supposedly ate lunch in the tower's restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible.

Ignoring his critics, Eiffel built the tower in just 26 months.  (And while he was building it, he created a small, secret, private apartment on the top floor—just for himself.  It is still there, but that is another story.)  When the fair started, Eiffel exhibited, besides the tower, several of his other creations.  One of these was a pre-fabricated metal church that could be easily shipped to remote locations in Africa, and be reassembled without difficulty.  Since the entire building was made of galvanized iron, it would be hardy enough to withstand the fiercest tropical weather.

Unfortunately for Eiffel, shortly after the fair closed, his reputation was damaged by his involvement in the French effort to build the Panama Canal.  Immensely popular after successfully constructing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps wanted to build a canal across Central America.  Unfortunately, building a sea-level canal in the desert sand was much easier than building a canal through the disease-infested jungles of the tropics.

When the de Lesseps' company, The Panama Canal Company, declared bankruptcy, it sent a financial shockwave through Europe.  Even though Eiffel's company had only accepted the contract to build the future locks for the canal, Eiffel was charged with financial fraud, assessed a large fine, and sentenced to two years in jail.  Even though the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, Eiffel resigned from his company, in which he had been forced to make drastic cutbacks because of financial losses.

While most of Paris slowly fell in love with the tower, Eiffel himself devoted the rest of this life to conducting experiments in meteorology and aeronautics.  Working from that secret apartment 900 feet above the ground, some of the data he accumulated was later used by the Wright brothers in designing their Wright Flyer.

Although the prefabricated church had won a prize at the exposition, it never made it to a French colony in Africa.  Instead, it was disassembled, packed in crates, and stored in a Brussels warehouse, where it remained forgotten for years until a French official of the Boleo Mining Company learned of its existence, purchased it cheaply, and had it shipped to Santa Rosalia.

The Eiffel church was reassembled and named 'Iglesia de Santa Barbara'.  The seventy-year lease for the French expired in the early 1950's and since that time, Mexico has sold the lease to a South Korean Company.  The enormous open pit mine is still there, and though it is no longer a tiny village, so is Santa Rosalia, located south of La Paz, on the southern end of the Baja peninsula.

The area experiences frequent violent storms, but Eiffel's design has proved to be remarkably sturdy and efficient.  After more than a century, the galvanized iron church designed by Gustave Eiffel is still in use.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Burr's Bank (& Water Company)

Two of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, clearly hated each other.  Most Americans are aware that, in the summer of 1804, the two men fought a duel, in which Vice-President Burr killed the former Secretary of the Treasury.  Very few are aware of how the feud between the two patriots started or that there is still tangible evidence of that argument today.

Both men served with distinction in the army during the revolution, and—for a while—were friends.  Burr actually saved Hamilton's life at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse.  Sadly, this friendship did not last for long.

Alexander Hamilton was the consummate politician, and was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Washington, while Hamilton achieved miracles in establishing a firm financial footing for the the new country.  He also established the first political party: The Federalists.  It would be correct to say that Hamilton also invented partisan politics, and this is what started the bad blood between the two men.

Hamilton, with the Federalists, established The First Bank of the United States.  Chartered for 20 years, the bank was to handle the monies of the new government, and both borrow and lend monies.  Almost immediately, it was a powerful tool for the Federalist Party and its supporters.

Just as quickly, the opposition party—the Democratic-Republicans—hated the bank.  The party's leaders, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, fought against the creation of the bank and lost.  The ultimate decision was George Washington's, and the bank was chartered in 1791, so for years, it was the 500-pound banking gorilla in New York.  Between the New York branch of the national bank and Alexander Hamilton's own bank, the Bank of New York, the Federalist party profited from the monopoly on banking and successfully fought against the creation of any other new banks.  (These were the only two banks in the both the city and state of New York).

In 1795, the city of New York saw the onset of a Yellow Fever epidemic that would last for eight years, killing thousands of people.  While every doctor in the city had a pet theory about the cause of the dreaded disease, no one knew for sure, so wild theories were offered:  swamp air, rotting coffee—a few crazy dreamers even blamed mosquitoes!  But everyone could agree on one course of action:  the city's water supply had to be improved.

Aaron Burr, Governor DeWitt Clinton, and few other members of the Democratic-Republican Party proposed a solution:  a modern water supply company.  They successfully petitioned the state assembly to charter the Manhattan Water Company to supply the lower half of Manhattan Island with water.  The company quickly sold $2 million in stock and set up business.

The company was headquartered in a house at 40 Wall Street, and quickly purchased several miles of logs, bored them out, and began using them as water mains.  Wells had to be dug, so  the company secured sites as cheaply as possible—meaning that many of the wells were located in cemeteries, in stockyards, and in feed lots.  In addition, while the company's business was to  supply water to the city, the wooden water lines were laid at first to only the most affluent parts of town. 

Considering the rotting wooden pipes, the potentially tainted locations of the wells, and the total lack of any purification treatment, it is amazing that anyone who actually drank any of the water lived to tell about it!  The few who did, usually added copious amounts of alcohol to the water in the vain hope of making it safe to drink.  (I would love to say this was the birth of the Manhattan cocktail....but it wasn't.  While there are conflicting theories as to the cocktail's origin, it appeared on the scene at least half a century after the water company was chartered.)

Obviously, as a "public utility", the Manhattan Water Company was not really trying too hard.  As a matter of fact, from that original sale of $2 million worth of stock, only $100,000 was used for the water company.   A closer look at the company's corporation charter will reveal what it was actually doing.

Even today, when a new corporation writes its charter application, it pretty much claims that the company will be engaged in every sort of business imaginable, and then waits for the chartering commission to whittle that down.  In the case of the Manhattan company, Aaron Burr had quietly included a clause that allowed the water company "to use surplus capital for banking transaction."

In plain English:  besides selling water, the "water company" could also be a bank.

Since it had only used 5% of its capital for piping bad water to people who wouldn't drink it, the remaining $1.9 million was used to start the bank.  After ten years, the company sold its water assets to the city for an additional $1.9 million.

Alexander Hamilton was furious and never forgave Burr for ending his banking monopoly.  In 1804, when Burr ran for governor of New York, Hamilton denounced him publicly.  Insulted, Burr demanded an apology—which Hamilton refused to give—so the argument was settled in the famous duel on July 11, 1804.

The Bank of the United States didn't last much longer  In 1811, when the charter came up for renewal, the Senate vote was tied, forcing Vice-President Clinton to cast the deciding vote to deny the charter's renewal.  (I'm sure that his being one of the stockholder's in the Manhattan Water Company did not influence his vote.)

The Manhattan Water Company continued as a bank, and since  its charter still called for it to sell water, it continued to offer water for sale until late in the 19th century.  At board meetings, a pitcher of water sat symbolically on the table (though as far as the company records show, no one ever sampled it).

By the turn of the 19th century, the bank bought and merged with other banks, becoming (for a while), the Chase Manhattan Bank with its headquarters still at 40 Wall Street in the Chase Manhattan Building.   Today, the bank is simply known as the Chase Bank, and 40 Wall Street is now called the Trump Tower.