Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ricardo's Rule of Comparative Advantage

Economists have a tool called Ricardo's Rule for Comparative Advantage.  This rule states that instead of each country's trying to become self-sufficient in the production of all goods, it is better for each country to specialize in the production of those products where it possesses a material or cultural advantage.

Simply put, it is better for all three countries if Italy produces fashionable clothes, if Argentina produces meat products, and if Japan makes electronics.  In an open market, through specialization, each country would be able to afford more purchases of all three products than if each country tried to become self-sufficient in all three.  The reverse is just not practicalit is difficult to imagine any gaucho pants-wearing multitudes driving their Lamborghinis to drive-thru restaurants named Jap-In-The-Box for orders of Kobe beef to go.

Ricardo’s Rule works and it has applications far outside the world of international economics.  I propose that, since universities are also large businesses, it is time for small cash-strapped states to apply this rule to their state universities.  Let me explain....no, there is too much.  Let me sum up..

Universities employ two types of professors: tenure track and adjunct.  Tenure track professors are employed to teach classes, to conduct research and to publish their research.  It doesn't matter if the professor is a chemist or a choir director, an engineer or an English professorthey all have to conduct research, publish their research, and teach.  After 6 years, a committee of their peers reviews their work to see how well all these jobs have been done. 

If the committee approves, the faculty member is given tenuremeaning he or she has a lifetime employment contract.  This is to ensure that every tenured faculty member can maintain academic freedom.  That is, the tenured faculty is freed to pursue knowledge, publish, and teach without fear of being fired for publishing or researching "politically incorrect" ideas.  

Of course, it is also common knowledge that having "politically incorrect ideas" is the surest route to failing to obtain tenure these days, so the issue of having politically incorrect ideas AFTER gaining tenure is actually pretty much a moot point.  Even more to the point, no one cares what any professor says in a classroom anymore.

The other type of professorsadjunctsare hired sołely to teach.  They are not required to do research or to publish, and they have no job security whatsoever.  While they are incredibly poorly paid, they teach their asses off:  they frequently teach twice as many classes (with often a larger class size) than the average tenure track or tenured professor teaches.  In their non-existent free time, they scavenge through supermarkets in search of Bottom Ramen.  

This is the model that is followed by most universities, both public and private.  But should it be like this?  A state agricultural college in a poor state may want to excel in all fields, but can it afford to? 

Mention university research to someone not employed at a university, and what comes to mind is probably the mad scientist in a test tube-filled laboratory, working through the night to breed a mosquito that will suck fat instead of blood.  The truth is closer to someone who's sitting in an office, writing yet another article on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  (An article that almost no one will ever read.)

Last year, in just the sciences, over 1.5 million scholarly articles were published in 23,500 journals.  Remember, that astonishing number is just for the scholarly science articles.  This doesn't count the articles written about art, history, anthropology, sociology, etc.  There are other journals for those articles.

Last year, over 1500 scholarly articles were written about "Hamlet", alone.  How many baby seals would have died and how much of the polar ice caps would have melted if society were missing just one of those articles?  (How many trees were sacrificed to print those articles?Alert the Druids!)

Let’s take a hypothetical example:  Professor Carrabosse does research on popular culture.  After she was hired, she began a lengthy period of research on the historical inaccuracies found in Disneyland’s Frontierland.  It turns out that the Magic Kingdom’s version of Davy Crockett is not an accurate representation of the American West.

Eventually, with the help of a kindly editor who just "happened" to be her brother, Professor Carabosse published her research in a thin volume.  Despite the fact that there are about as many albino dwarves playing in the NBA as people who actually read her book, she was given tenure and a hefty pay raise.

Twenty years later, she is still teaching (though judging by the relatively few students in her class, somewhat badly).  Sadly, this does not really matter, as her annual evaluations are based mainly on her continued research.

And her sole book?  It turns out to be one of the most expensive books ever purchased by the state of New Mexico.  In salary, pensions, and employment benefits to Professor Carabosse, it cost the state well in excess of two million dollars. 

This is roughly the same amount that Christie's received the last time it auctioned off an entire Gutenberg Bible.  Save the funds from two such professors and you can buy a First Folio Shakespeare.  And it will even include "Hamlet".

And since Professor Carabosse is not a talented teacher, she influences relatively few students.  Nor could the department afford to replace her, she is tenured. 

Does every department in a state university need to hire research professors? 

Can New Mexico really afford this?  Does an agricultural college in an impoverished state have to pretend it is Harvard?  Does every faculty member have to be a researcher?

The sad truth is that no one who has worked in academia has ever heard of any professor—at any university—who has been denied tenure on the basis of bad teaching.  Nor has anyone ever heard of a professor's being tenured for good teaching. Sadly, there is no connection between good research and good teaching, either.

Every university claims that teaching is important, that it is respected, and that those who do it are rewarded, but this is more of a mantra than a statement of fact.  Sadly, teaching is one of the least important activities at a university.  If tenure must be given, then is time to hire some professors whose only goal is to teach, to tenure the outstanding ones, and to pay them adequately.

Critics of such a change would lament that I am proposing to turn research centers into trade schools.  Possibly.  Or perhaps, I am just saying that it is time for a fiscally constrained state to stop purchasing what it doesn't need.

Poor states like New Mexico need universities: they need them to help lift their citizens out of poverty and to create the economic opportunities that other states enjoy.  This means that the state universities should focus on education first, not researchat least not in every department with every faculty member.

Let New Mexico universities excel in those areas where they naturally have an advantage:  agriculture, energy, international business, and border studies, among others.  

And if New Mexico isn't a world-renowned center for research on "Hamlet" and that one extra scholarly article is never written?  Then I guess we will just have to let the ice caps melt and allow the baby seals to die.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Lincoln's Favorite Rifle

When it comes to rifles, most men are predictably conservative.  Tell me which gun someone first learned to shoot well, and I'll tell you what he considers the finest rifle ever made.

Take that guy who has shot 70-pound white tail deer in the hill country of Texas with his Daddy's old .30-30: he's going to be hard to convince that he needs a rifle with a little more authority when he crosses the border into New Mexico in search of Rocky Mountain elk.  He will never even consider replacing that antique lever action.

Interestingly, this rule works the same way for military rifles.

In the late 1930's, the Marine Corps started issuing a new combat rifle, the M1 Garand.  In  hindsight, there is now fairly universal agreement that this was the finest rifle of the Second World War, but at the time, the Marines hated it.  About the nicest name the Jarheads had for the rifle (and certainly the only one I can put in this blog) was "the Mickey Mouse rifle."

The Marines had been using the Springfield Rifle since 1903 and had used it in the First World War, the Philippines, and Nicaragua.  It worked, they trusted it, and they knew exactly how to use it.  The Marines--more than any of the other services--consider themselves riflemen, and they treasured the '03 Springfield, and refused to consider a replacement.

Guadalcanal changed their minds.  The Mickey Mouse rifle did a great job--it was accurate, it was reliable, and it could fire eight times as fast as you could pull the trigger, so it didn't take long for the Marines to fall in love again:  with a new, treasured rifle.

An even more extreme example can be seen a decade before the Civil War.    This was a period when firearms were starting to change dramatically and there was pressure for the US Army to modernize.  A cavalry unit stationed at Fort Stanton, New Mexico was issued Sharp's Rifles to evaluate.

The Sharp's was a breech-loading rifle that could be easily loaded and fired accurately while mounted on horseback.  These cavalrymen had been using the Model 1841 carbine.  Not only was the musket clumsy and so inaccurate that they couldn't hit the side of a barn unless they were inside it, but the muzzleloader was almost impossible to reload on horseback.  (You can imagine the difficulties of trying to use a musket's ramrod while on a moving horse!)

It’s easy to understand the difference this new rifle made to the soldiers.  They loved the Sharp's Rifles, and when the testing period was over, enthusiastically encouraged the military's adoption of the rifle for all mounted troops.

When this endorsement reached a general higher up in the chain of a command, he rejected the new rifle, claiming that the new firearm was "a breech-loading toy."  This general knew that the M1841--a gun he had used during the war in Mexico--was the better firearm and wouldn't even consider a new firearm, so the cavalry never got the better rifle.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had heard of a new "super rifle".  Not only could it accurately fire seven rounds without reloading, but was easy to operate and maintain in the field.  While most muskets and rifles of this period used paper cartridges that were extremely sensitive to even the slightest moisture, this rifle used metallic cartridges impervious to moisture.  This weapon could even be used reliably in a driving rain! 

With paper cartridges, even the lightest rain forced soldiers to fight with bayonets, knives, or even their hands.  At the Civil War Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the two armies fought for 18 hours in a heavy rain that made gunpowder all but useless.  The fighting was the worst at the Bloody Angle, where the men fought until the muddy earthworks had become so slippery with blood that the men could hardly stand.

Lincoln had heard of the new rifle and wanted to test it for himself.  Now, these days, the idea of a head of state personally firing a military firearm seems ludicrous.  (Hell, I still can’t believe that President Obama shoots skeet!)

In Lincoln’s time, however, it was actually fairly common.  Honest Abe was fairly besieged by inventors--each promising that his newfangled gizmo would win the way by the end of the year. 

So many of these crackpot inventors wanted to demonstrate some form of bullet-proof armor that Lincoln finally established a new rule:  anyone wishing to demonstrate body armor had to wear it, himself, while Lincoln personally tested it by firing a rifle at the inventor.  This rule considerably thinned the herd.

So, in August of 1863, it wasn’t all that surprising when Lincoln met Christopher Spencer on a small hill close to the partially constructed Washington Monument.  Aiming at a target 40 yards away, Lincoln fired and hit the target seven times in just a few seconds.  Impressed, Lincoln wanted the new lever action rifle for all of his troops.

This was a sound decision.  In time, the Spencer Rifle was the most sought after rifle in the Union Army.  Besides being a superb combat weapon, it had a little known extra advantage:  if captured by the Confederates, the weapon became all but useless.  The southern states were suffering a copper shortage so severe that the moonshine stills of Kentucky and Tennessee temporarily vanished.  When Southerners give up Bourbon, you know there wasn't enough copper to manufacture ammunition for the Spencer, either.

After the war, Major General James Wilson wrote: “There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral.  Our best officers estimate that one man armed with [is] the equivalent to three with any other arm.”

Today, some historians have argued that if the Spencer Rifle had been issued to Union troops, the Civil War might have been concluded two years earlier.  So, why wasn't it used?

Brigadier General James Wolfe Ripley, the Army’s Chief of Ordnance, refused to purchase breech loading rifles.  His arguments included the fact that the North had large supplies of older muzzle loaders in warehouses that could be used and that rapid firing rifles would encourage the soldiers to waste ammunition.  His arguments delayed the large scale purchase of better weapons for years.

By the end of the war, the North had purchased only 12,472 Spencer rifles.  This is a pitifully small number when you consider that 2,896,537 men were mustered into the Union army.

After the war, The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was sold, eventually being bought by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company which still manufactures lever action rifles.

And Christopher Spencer?  He went on to make quite a few other things.  The first successful pump shotgun, a steam powered horseless carriage, a sewing machine, and the first automated machine to manufacture metal screws.  By the time he died in 1922, he held 42 patents, and despite being 88, was taking flying lessons.

And what happened to General James Wolfe Ripley?  Who cares?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

President Hottentot

Forty years ago, I worked for Bantam Books.  It was a fantastic job: I finally had a boss who would let me read on the job. 

And I actually met my boss, Ian Ballantine, on more than one occasion.   Ballantine was one of the most fascinating men I have ever met.  The founder of Penguin Books, Ballantine Books, and Bantam Books—he probably put more books into the hands of the common man than anyone else since Gutenberg.  I had several long conversations with this genius, and I have to say that he was always far more kind to me than I deserved.

On one occasion, the company brought me to New York for a conference that was postponed so often that, eventually, no one could remember why it was originally scheduled.  Besides a wonderful week exploring New York, I got taken on a brief tour of the corporate offices by Ballantine himself.  I was astounded by the artwork on his office walls--particularly a couple of M. C. Escher prints.

Naively, I asked how he could come to possess so many incredible originals.  Ballantine smiled and told me a trade secret: the publishing houses looked for prolific, young, and not yet well known artists who could be put under contract.  Some, but not all, of their work would be used for book cover illustrations.  After a few years, the company would produce a coffee-table book of the collected work of the artist, then begin selling off the collected pieces.

The fact that the art world could be…manipulated…to create a market was astounding to a poor dumb ol' Texas boy.  I guess I thought the art world was regulated by pixies or elves or something.  (Come to think of it, Ian Ballantine did look like a large pixie.) 

“Who have you done this with?" I asked.

Ballantine just pointed to the work hanging on his office wall.  The works of  Frazetta, Froud, and Escher were easily recognizable, even to a country hick like me.

Years later, the famous editor founded yet another publishing house:  Rufus Publications.  Ian, acting exactly like a real pixie, named it after his wifes dog.  This new company put together illustrated art and fantasy books, like "Faeries," by Brian Froud, as well as the 1992 best seller "Dinotopia," by James Gurney.  (You probably own one of these.)

But that was decades ago--a lot of decades ago--and I am no longer a poor dumb olcountry boy.  (Now, Im no longer a "boy"!).  And, despite knowing better, I was shocked at the recently declassified  government records that revealed that a lot of popular modern art from the fifties and sixties was a result of—wait for it--the CIA.  (Writing that last sentence gave me giggles.  I feel like an Arkansas conspiracy nut!)

“Them durn black helicopters is puttin' mind-controlling chemicals up thar in them sky contrails—.”  Shit!--I cant even joke about that crap--theres a couple of professors here at Enema U that actually believe that nonsense!  Lately, you wouldnt believe some of the whoppers professors tell about each other!  (I've even heard that one professor thinks that people sneak into her office in the middle of the night and... no, I'll save that nonsensical story for another night.)

The CIA was founded in 1947, during the Cold War.  For those of you under the age of 40, the Cold War was a period when both the United States and the Soviet Union were the only two Superpowers and we disagreed on everything.  (Mostly, there was a lot more shouting than shooting.)  The rivalry was as intense as it was...well...stupid.

What was the American policy on bananas?  I don't remember, but it was the polar opposite of the Soviet Union's.  So when the land of Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, and Tolstoy declared that America was a cultural wasteland, we had to prove that we weren't.  Painting--as with most art in the Soviet Union--had become locked in an ideological straight jacket.  New styles of painting were not going to be accepted by the Communist Party.

So what was the polar opposite?  The CIA embraced, funded, and (more than occasionally) bought paintings in order to artificially support the price of Abstract Expressionist artwork, such as the works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.

This was surprisingly easy to do in the fifties, since the boards of major art museums read like a roster of the founding fathers of both the CIA and the OSS (the WWII precursor to the CIA).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded by Nelson Rockefeller, who chaired the board of directors for the museum.  The CIA set up a dummy organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom--which was a collection of historians, artists, jazz musicians, and writers--that eventually had offices in 35 nations.  Funded secretly by the CIA, it exported American culture, including Abstract Expressionist artwork.

While this program certainly elevated the public acceptance of abstract art, it would be impossible to ever determine how successful this artistic school would have become without the infusion of government support and funding. 

It would be wrong to say that the CIA invented Abstract Expressionist art, however, it would be entirely correct to say they made it popular and helped create a market for it.

The movement did have its detractors: at the very beginning, the President of the United States, declared that he didn't like the new art.  "If this is art," declared Harry Truman, "then I'm a Hottentot."

The program was more successful than the CIA had ever hoped and American culture flourished across Europe and Asia.  To what extent this was due to our clandestine efforts will never be known. 

To be honest, I have to admit that--like Truman--I have never really understood the works of Jackson Pollock.  I've always wondered: if I were to turn any one of my four granddaughters loose on one of Pollock's masterpieces, armed with a brush and similarly colored paint--after 5 minutes could anyone tell any difference?  Could even Jackson Pollock?

I sure as hell couldn't.  But then, I'm just a poor, dumb ol' country boy.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

La Cuetlaxochitl

Emperor Agustin I of Mexico had a problem--he was out of money.  If it had cost only a dollar to go around the world, he couldn't have made it out of Mexico City.

This should have been an unlikely problem for the ruling monarch of Mexico to have to face:  for centuries, Mexico had been the primary source of the gold and silver that supported literally the entire Spanish Empire.  In addition, in order to maximize profits, Spain had not allowed Mexico to develop a manufacturing base.

Mexico was expected to export raw materials--primarily gold and silver--then purchase its manufactured goods from the mother country.  This was calculated to keep the colony weak and dependent while making Spain rich (at least that was the plan).  In reality, Spain didn't bother to expand its own industrial base and simply purchased the necessary goods from neighboring European countries.  Why bother to develop a textile industry when the fabric was available at such cheap prices from Flanders?

So the gold and silver just flowed right through Spain and on into the rest of Europe, where it fueled wars, expansion, and world domination for centuries.  Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican historian, said it best:  "The wealth that made Spain rich made Spain poor."

Now, the ruling monarch of Mexico had just barely enough remaining gold and silver to mint a limited number of coins bearing his likeness.  Pitifully few in numbers, these coins were pleasing to the royal ego, but inadequate to jump start his nation's shattered economy.  The turbulent years of revolution had brought Mexico independence, but had also left her treasury looted, her mines flooded, and her economy destroyed.

Emperor Agustin needed help, and he needed it in the form of hard currency, so  he tried to borrow a few measly million dollars from the United States. 

President Monroe was a little uncomfortable with the idea of America's propping up a monarchy, even if it was a neighbor.  While Madison never did send the desired money, he did send a special envoy to Mexico to enhance the relationship between the two countries.  (Why not an ambassador?  The United States did not start appointing ambassadors until 1896.)

So, the American envoy went to Mexico and explained to the monarch why he wasn't going to get any financial help.  Then he stayed in Mexico for years while Mexico deposed its king and went through a series of Presidents.

While in Mexico, the American representative traveled south of the capital to Taxco de Alarcon.  An amateur naturalist, he became enamored with a plant the Aztecs called Cuetlaxochitl (ket-la-sho-she).  The strange looking plant--which only bloomed during the winter--had a different name among the Spanish in the area: Flor de Noche Buena or the Christmas Eve Flower.  This plant had bright red leaves and had long been used by Franciscan monks to decorate altars during Christmas.

Naturally, when he returned to the United States, he brought the damn plant with him and started giving cuttings to his friends.  For reasons that escape me, this envoy--Joel Poinsett--wasn't tried for treason.  Within a few years, the plant was known (at least in the United States) as the Poinsettia. 

As you can probably tell, I'm not exactly fond of the damn plant.  My reasons are something that Emperor Agustin could understand--the cost.  The damn plants are fairly expensive and every damn December, my wife starts buying the damn things until the house is lousy with them--paying about $10 each for something that is considered an obnoxious weed in Southern Mexico!

If you really want the silly plants, buy the seeds mail order.  Then, if you plant them in August, within a few months, you will have a healthy looking plant with normal green leaves.  About Thanksgiving, the "leaves" (actually, these are "bracts") turn red.  Many people mistakenly believe that this is the blossom, but in late December, the real blossoms appear as tiny red and yellow berries.

Personally, I don't think the plants are very pretty:  those red "leaves" just look wrong and the plants look unhealthy.  But what I really dislike is the fact that the damn plants die rapidly.  I think our house's personal record is keeping one alive about a month.  Then, suddenly, all the leaves fall off at once and we have a $10 collection of ugly, knobby sticks. 

Truthfully, it is probably not the plant's fault, but it is probably because The Doc and I are the most absent-minded people in the world.  We once left a bouquet of Valentine's Day roses in a vase on top of the television for three years.  Even then, the only reason we "noticed" them was because a guest in our home commented on the "unusual" arrangement of dried flowers.

Poinsettias, however, don't just die, they damn near self-destruct.  Now before any of you write me with bogus stories about how you have one that has been alive for 5 years, let me warn you that I know better--and so did the Aztecs.  Their name for the ugly weed, Cuetlaxochitl, translates to "flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.”

So about a year ago, I decided to take matters into my own hands and keep the damn plants alive long enough so that my wife wouldn't replace them before Christmas.  I religiously watered the half dozen ugly weeds my wife had bought to decorate our house.  Every damn day, before I left for work, I watered the poinsettias.  I even left myself notes on my computer keyboard to remind me--this year, I was going to get one of the stupid plants to survive at least into the new year.

And it worked:  as I watered the plants day after day, the ugly red things looked (if not good) at least as healthy as the day The Doc had brought them home.  I had succeeded!--by  the time New Years rolled in, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

And that's when my wife finally admitted to me that she had bought plastic poinsettias that year!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Dinner

Another Christmas has come and gone and it seems like I have gone full circle.  Four decades ago, my new wife and I traveled over half of Texas during the holidays, visiting relatives.  It was Thanksgiving in San Antonio followed with Christmas in Wichita Falls, one year, and the reverse the next year.  Holidays became synonymous with long-distance driving.

On one of those trips, I tried to outrun a southbound blizzard and got trapped in a little Mom and Pop motel on the outskirts of Stephenville after the Texas state troopers shut down Highway 281 for three days.  I had a tiny little room with frozen water pipes and woefully inadequate heat.  For three days I wore all of the clothes I had with me while lying covered-up in bed.  I could touch all four walls, adjust which of the two channels the television received, and lock the door, without leaving the tiny bed.   Eventually, the roads opened and I made it back to The Doc, my wife, who forty years later has still not forgiven me for having consumed (during my forced confinement) all of the Christmas cookies her grandmother had sent with me.

Evidently, The Doc believes that my starving to death in that frozen crypt would have been a better ending to the story.

Then, there were a few decades where we had small kids and didn't travel during the Holidays.  It was important for the kids to establish their own Christmas traditions--ones that did not involve spending all day in the backseats of cars and eating at truck stops.  It was a lot of fun to spend the holidays at home.  Sadly, those years passed unbelievably quickly. 

Now the boys--What's-His-Name and the The-Other-One--are married and have their own kids, who should stay at home on holidays, so, the now grandparents (once again) must take to the road.  I've come full circle and I'm back to eating lunch at truck stops.  I saw snow today and fully expected to be stuck in another tiny little motel, but this time, I was prepared:  I travel with my Kindle.

There is another Christmas tradition that I can't seem to escape:  Cranberry Jelly.  Why does this stuff exist?  And if--as some people claim--it tastes good, why do we only eat it at Christmas and Thanksgiving?  And why don't we jelly other fruits?  After all, you can't buy jellied grapefruit sauce--some pinkish block of quivering gelatinous mess that just lies on a plate, still shaped like the can it oozed out of.

At one point in my life, I think I actually enjoyed eating the stuff.  But that was before The Doc went to medical school.  That experience definitely changed my mind.  I can explain.

Medical school is expensive.  Damn, we were poor!  I had a job, but I think it paid only a hair more than her tuition.  We had an apartment and no children--and would have been all right financially if we hadn't had  the unfortunate habit of eating.  Eating was definitely a problem. 

My brother worked for Carnation and luckily he could give us a lot of samples.  We made a lot of soup out of Carnation Contadina canned tomatoes.  And, thankfully, Carnation had introduced something called Spreadables.  This was a version of tuna salad in a can.  Evidently, no one bought any, as my brother had lots of samples.  The Doc and I damn near lived on the stuff.

My brother also gave us a couple of cases of something called "Weiner Wraps".  This was dough in a can that you were supposed to wrap around a hot dog and bake.  I think my wife and I were the only people in the country who ever ate them.  Since we couldn't afford the hot dogs, we opened a lot of them and made pizzas topped with tomatoes and tuna salad.  Remember, hunger is the best sauce.

Thank goodness you can go hunting in Texas.  In season, we had some meat on the table.  (And a few times when it wasn't exactly in season: the deer can't read a calendar either.)  One hunting trip, all I brought back was a javelina.  Other than the back strap, javelina are not "good eating".  Just in case one of you ever happens to shoot one of the varmints, let me explain how to cook it:  Chop the meat into coarse cubes and place it in an earthenware pot with an equal amount of chopped onions.  Cover everything with cheap red wine and refrigerate for two days.  Then carefully pour off the wine, drink it, and throw the meat away.

The local grocery store had a cart in the back of the store where cans with no labels could be purchased for a dime each.  The other half of our diet came from that cart.  I usually would just wheel the whole cart to the checkout line and buy the whole shebang.  (What happened to that cart?  I haven't seen one in the store lately.  Do the labels not fall off anymore?  Did some heartless bastard invent better glue?)

Every evening, The Doc and I would select a likely can and--whatever was in there--we'd plan a meal around it.  You would be amazed at the things you can do with creamed corn!  (And I suspect that more than once I made meatloaf from a meat byproduct originally intended for the family pet.)   The Doc and I got pretty good at holding a can up to an ear and shaking it.

"I think it's Chef Boyardee.  Could be spaghetti sauce, but I think it's ravioli."

Then disaster struck.  We got to the Jellied Cranberry Sauce days.  There must have been a mistake at the factory and several cases of the stuff lost their labels.  We must have bought 50 of those consarned cans.  Damn near a never-ending supply of the goop!

We tried.  We really tried.  We cooked the stuff into rice.  We boiled it into pinto beans.  We tried cooking that purplish ooze every way we could think of.  And eventually, we just ended up shaking the can until the slop slid out onto a plate and we sliced it and ate it.

I thought about jellied cranberry sauce a lot this weekend.  There it was on my daughter-in-law's table for Christmas dinner.  And I was offered some.


"No thanks," I said.  "Pass the javelina."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The USS Intelligent Whale

Last semester, I taught a class on the Civil War and a separate course on the History of Naval Warfare.  In both classes, I included a short, mini-lecture (about 10 minutes) on the CSS Hunley.

For those of you who have never heard of it, the Hunley was the first submarine to actually sink another ship.  During the Civil War, the Union Navy blockaded southern ports—allowing neither imports nor exports—in order to economically starve the Confederate States.  The South, with few ships, few shipyards, and even fewer resources, was desperate to break the blockade.  This desperation led them to try extraordinary methods:  ironclads, torpedo vessels, and submarines.

On the night of February 17, 1864, the CSS Hunley cranked toward the 205-foot USS Housatonic, a sail and steam/screw-powered sloop.  I say "cranked" because the Hunley neither steamed nor sailed.  The Hunley was an iron tube 40 feet long, with 8 men inside, seven of whom turned a metal crank that powered the propeller.  (And the poor bastards had to do it in the dark.)  The Housatonic, on the Union side, was a handsome sloop, built to chase and battle blockade runners. 

Despite being seen by the lookouts on the Housatonic, the Hunley was successful in her attack, ramming the pointed spike of a spar torpedo into the side of the Union ship, then backing away (Reverse Crank!) until a pull on a long lanyard exploded the torpedo, sinking the Housatonic—the first ship in history to be sunk by a submarine. 

Unfortunately, the Hunley didn't fare much better.  While the exact cause may never be determined, the sub sank on her way back to the safety of Charleston harbor.  It may have been something as simple as a wave washing over the open conning tower hatch while her captain, Lieutenant Dixon, was trying to set a course to safety.

The Hunley lay on the bottom of the harbor until the novelist, Clive Cussler, led a team that discovered her in 1995.  Five years later, she was raised and is currently being restored at a museum in Charleston.  Nowadays, half the world has heard of her and everyone knows she was both the first submarine and the only submarine of the Civil War.  Except that she was neither.

Alexander the Great supposedly went underwater in a diving bell of sorts, but I'm not sure that counts as a "sub". 

In the 1620's, Cornelius Drebbel built a wood and leather submarine that could stay underwater for hours, that he successfully rowed across the Thames River.  Supposedly, he built several working models and they were so successfully tested that King James I went on a test ride.  Though they undoubtedly worked, no one could think of a practical use them.

During the American Revolution, David Bushnell tried to sink the British ship, HMS Eagle.  Bushnell's ship (which he named The Turtle) was just barely a submarine:  it looked like a barrel.  On a dark night, The Turtle attemptedand failedto attach a bomb to the bottom of the British ship.  The attempt marked the first time in history that a submarine was used offensively.  And while the sub's operator, Ezra Lee, survived—a good thing, so did the British warship—a bad thing. 

There were occasional experiments with submarines, mostly failures, until the American Civil War.  And suddenly, there were lots of experiments.  And while the CSS Hunley was the only sub that actually sank an enemy ship, both sides built and experimented with them.  Altogether, on both sides of the Civil War, there were roughly thirty submarines.  (And that’s not even counting a number of boats that were built so low in the water that a properly-thrown snowball might sink them).  I’m talking about true submarines.

My own favorite has to be the USS Intelligent Whale.  First off, how can you not like the name?  (Though the name does remind me of a certain colleague of mine.)  Second, while the Hunley and the Turtle were interesting, technically they were dead ends.  On the other hand, the Whale's descendants can be found today in the navies of every country in the world.

The Whale was built in New Jersey by the American Submarine Company, which was obviously a little ahead of its time.  One of the owners of this company was a man named Cornelius Bushnella relative of David Bushnell.  Besides being involved with the sub, Cornelius Bushnell was also one of men responsible for the design of the USS Monitorthe North's first ironclad vessel and the ship that spelled the end of wooden warships.

The sub was, indeed, somewhat whale-shaped, and could hold 13 menhalf of whom were needed to turn the crank that powered the ship.  And the sub could submerge or surface  by means of ballast tanks that could be flooded for diving or emptied with pumps and blasts of compressed air for surfacing.  The large whale shape held enough air for the men to stay underwater for up to ten hours.

This was a massive submarine.  A little over 28 feet long, 9 feet tall, and constructed with half-inch iron boiler plates.  For her time, she was fairly modern: She sported a compass, a depth gauge, an air pressure gauge and even one tiny little porthole in her stubby conning tower. 

The war was over before the ship could be used in combat, but the Navy continued to test her capabilities.  In general, the sub did prove deadly.  During one test in 1866, an army officer wearing a diving suit, exited through a wooden hatch in the Whale’s hull, planted a bomb on a target boat, and successfully reentered the Whale.  Then the ship moved a safe distance away, exploded the bomb by means of a lanyard, and sank the target boat.

Unfortunately, the Whale also proved equally deadly to the crews who used her.  The Whale sank three times, killing her entire crew each time.  Naval personnel started calling her the “Disastrous Jonah.”  Eventually, the Navy decided that the project was not worth pursuing, and put her in that same vast secret warehouse where they have stashed the Ark of the Covenant.  (Actually, she is on display at the Militia Museum of New Jersey—but—as far as I know—they may also have the Ark of the Covenant there, too.)

While the Intelligent Whale never did make its way into combat, the sub did inspire an Irish immigrant recuperating from a badly broken leg.  Confined to a bed during his recuperation, the immigrant began to design a new sub, roughly the same size and dimensions of the Whale, but with an oil-burning engine.  Eventually, his subs used electric motors to maneuver underwater and were capable of delivering self-propelled torpedoes.

After decades of experimentation, this immigrant—John Holland—designed and sold the first modern military submarines to the United States, Great Britain, and Japan.  While over the last century, his company has split into two divisions and has changed names a few times, today, the former Holland Company is known as General Dynamics (the people who made the F-16 fighter) and the Electric Boat Company (the people who have made America’s submarines for the last 100 years).

And the USS Intelligent Whale still sits in New Jersey, still waiting for a little recognition.  


Note. Today's historians—especially those in England—doubt the veracity of the story about Bushnell's Turtle.  The event does not appear in the log of the Eagle, the design of the Turtle would make it almost impossible to achieve neutral buoyancy, and the hand-crank propeller would have been useless against the strong river current.  Though the event may never have happened, Cornelius Bushnell certainly believed his ancestor had done it.  And his sub, the Intelligent Whale, definitely inspired John Holland. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Last Ride of Man

After he adjusted the cinch, he once again inspected the bit in the horse's mouth.  The horse had a soft mouth and since the new owner would pick up the horse for transport tomorrow, it wouldn't do to bruise the horse's mouth on the last ride.

"Easy Man," he said as he inspected the gentle bit.  Yes, the horse's name was Man.  Everybody has heard of the man called Horse, but...

He climbed onto the back of Man and settled into the saddle.  He had sold the saddle, too.  It was old and he had cared for it a long time.  While part of him hated to part with it after all the long hours he had spent working saddle soap and mink oil into the supple leather--it really made no sense to keep a saddle if you were selling your last horse.

He had thought briefly about painting the saddle turquoise and selling it to some damn fool art gallery in Santa Fe.  Just last summer his wife had dragged him kicking and screaming to the row of galleries on Canyon Road, where each was intensely proud that its multi-million dollar adobe building was still on a gravel road.  Evidently, everyone was trying to ignore the fact that the trendy galleries in the 'City Different' were less than a mile from the state capitol building.

In one of the galleries, he had seen--with his own eyes--an old Tony Lama boot painted purple, with a cactus growing out of the top.  (And they had wanted $500 for it!)    He figured there had to be some damn fool Californian that would pay twice as much for a whole saddle!

He let Man make his own way down the long dirt road they had ridden so many times before.  It was only at the entrance to the large pecan orchard where he reined the tall horse off the beaten path and into the orchard.  He had gotten permission from the farmer to cut across the huge pecan farm.  Since this was his last ride on his own horse, he had planned to make it special--something he had never done before.

It was cool under the endless rows of pecan trees.  To insure maximum efficiency during irrigation, the  ground was as flat as a schoolmarm's chest.  He had heard that the owners used lasers to level the land, but he wasn't sure he believed that.

He had, however, seen the farm workers use something incredible.  This farm had a machine that drove up to the tree and grabbed the trunk with a large mechanical hand.  Then a giant net wrapped around the tree forming a huge funnel under the tree's branches.  Last of all, the mechanical hand shook the Bejeezus out of the tree, causing a gazillion pecans to fall into the funnel.  Within seconds, the net folded back up, the hand released the trunk, and the machine was driven to the next tree. 

He had never asked what this machine was called--he was afraid that it might be something mundane like 'Shaker' or 'Pecan Picker'.  He preferred to call it the Bejeezus Machine.  And he lusted for one. He had looked for one at every farm machinery auction for years without luck.  He didn't own a single pecan tree, but he really wanted to drive the Bejeezus Machine into town and shake the peewiddling crap out of the damn parking meters that were springing up like weeds all over town.

When he told his wife his vision of flying quarters, she'd accused him of being childish.  Maybe so, but he knew Paul Newman would approve.  (Well, at least Cool Hand Luke would!)

There were no Bejeezus Machines present in the orchard today, but he did ride fairly close to the site of old Fort Fillmore.  He reined in his horse and watched a couple of squirrels chase each other under the trees.  However the ground had been leveled and there was nothing left of the old fort.  Looking around, he wondered if old General George Pickett (famous for a failed charge at the Battle of Gettysburg), would recognize anything if he were to come back to the old fort he had once commanded.  Not much recognizable remained, however: the only thing that hadn't changed was the view of the Organ Mountains.

During the Civil War, the fort had been burned.  Despite having more men and a fort, when 300 Texans had attacked from Texas, Major Lynde had led his 500 men out into the desert after destroying the forts stores.  Evidently, some of his men had decided the best way to destroy the forts medicinal whiskey was to run it through their own systems first, so the soldiers filled their canteens with whiskey and marched out into the desert under the hot summer sun.  Baylor Pass is named for the Confederate commander who had captured those parched soldiers when they finally surrendered, at the site where they surrendered.  As far as the rider knew, not a damn thing had been named after Major Lynde.

He let the horse continue his way west, eventually reaching the Old El Paso highway and the railroad tracks that led north.  He turned the horse northward and let the horse walk on the cleared ground between the railroad tracks and the highway.

Within a few minutes, he heard the distant sound the Santa Fe train coming up from El Paso.  Turning the horse, he carefully moved as far away as possible from both the highway and the tracks.  Dismounting, he took a firm hold of Mans reins as the train came closer, than rumbled by.

Man was about as calm and gentle a horse as he had ever owned.  (Personally, he thought the horse had a general and fairly constant air of total boredom.)  He knew the horse was perfectly calm riding near traffic, even ignoring the occasional car horns honkingbut a train was another matter.  He had no intention of being on a horse that panicked and ran out into the middle of a highway.  Or onto a railroad track.

Perhaps, just to show him that he was being foolish, Man turned to watch the train for a few seconds, then lowered his head and began munching on the grass that grew along the fence line.  This calm disposition was why the new owner had wanted to buy the horse: he intended to use him to play polo in El Paso. 

The rider had never played cow pasture pool, and had no idea what made a good polo pony, but he personally doubted that Man would make a suitable mount.  However, that was the next owner's problem, not his.

Slowly, he was approaching the small village of Mesilla.  While the traffic increased slightly, it was not exactly what you would call busy.  It was midday, and the small town had attracted the usual tourists, who mixed with the few locals going about their business.

The tiny village had been founded after the Mexican American War, when Mexico had ceded most of the southwest to the United States.  Mexican citizens, not happy with suddenly becoming Americans, had crossed the Rio Grande and founded a new town in Mexico.   Mexico appreciated the patriotic gesture so much that seven years later, they had sold a parcel of land, the Gadsden Purchase, comprising the bottom strip of present day Arizona and New Mexico, to the United States.  So the citizens of Mesilla suddenly found themselves American citizens, again.

He guided the horse around the old plaza, and just for the fun of it, rode around all four sides of the plaza, before coming back to the El Patio bar.  By now, he was aware that the tourists gathered in the plaza were delighted to see someone on horseback.  He stopped Man in front of the hitching rail located at the bar and dismounted and tied the horse securely.  This hitching rail, his intended destination, was not only the only one left in the plaza, but as far as he knew, the only one left in New Mexico.  He was pretty sure there had to be another one somewhere, but he didn't know where it was.

He sat at a table near the window in the bar and ordered a beer and a burger.  And while he ate, he kept an eye on his horse, and thought about the plaza.  Right out there, they had signed the agreement for the Gadsden Purchase.  The plaza had seen the likes of Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and John Wesley Hardin.  Now, it was crowded with tourists buying genuine Wild West souvenirs from China. 

The Butterfield Stage and the Pony Express used to stop here.  The building at the corner had been the Confederate Capitol of Arizona--at least until the Union retook Mesilla.  Today, tour buses brought tourists to experience a little piece of the real West, each of them looking for John Wayne. 

Half the town depended on the tourist income and the other half were from California and had built "casitas" in trendy southwestern style.  Mesilla was one of those towns in which there were more houses and fewer people every year.  The town survived by selling a little of itself every day. 

He paid for his food and as he left the bar, there was a scattering of small kids admiring his horse.  Smiling at the kids, he untied his horse and swung up into the saddle.  As he did, he was acutely aware of having his picture taken.  It was time to head home and end the last ride.

"Excuse me," one of the tourists asked.  "Do you ride your horse into town often."

He stared at the tourist for a long second as he thought about his answer.

"Every damn day, pilgrim."