Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Fork-Tailed Devil

Because of its climate, New Mexico is considered a flying paradise.  We have on average 300+ VFR (visual flight rules) flight days a year here.  Wide open spaces, few controlled air spaces (except for White Sands) and several left over large WW2 runways provide lots of room for flying adventure.  Add the lack of any appreciable moisture and it is easy to see why the state has a higher ratio of planes to people than almost any other state. 

It helps a little that New Mexico does not charge an ad valorem tax on aircraft—one of the few tax laws New Mexico gets right.  Lots of California companies keep their corporate jets in New Mexico—the cost of flying back and forth to California is less than the property taxes that would be levied if the planes were kept on the west coast.

We have a lot of aging old warbirds hangared here, too.  The Commemorative Air Force (formerly the Confederate Air Force) has quite a few museum quality planes based in our county, one of which is a P-38 Lightning.  Painted completely black, it doesn't fly much, but is in great condition.

Occasionally, however, the museum people do take that hangared "dragon" out of the museum and let it stretch the kinks out of its wings…

So there I was one fine day, cruising along at 5500 feet, flying a 4-seater Cessna—number 738UF to be exact—turning downwind for a landing on runway 26.  (Or, as a flight instructor used to say, “Nothing between me and the ground but a thin blonde...”) 

The wind in Las Cruces is nearly always from the west, and runway 26 means 260 degrees, almost perfectly east/west.  I have made that landing, at that airport, on that runway, hundreds of times.  Unlike at "big city" airports, there is no control tower, so pilots self-announce on a common radio frequency called "Unicom". 

Picking up the microphone, I thumbed the button and announced, "Las Cruces traffic, Cessna 738 Uniform Foxtrot, a Cessna 172, turning base on runway 26, full stop, Las Cruces."

What I had done was to announce to other planes in the area that I was a small plane about 1000 feet above and slightly south of the airport where I intended to land and not take off again (as opposed to a popular practice called a “touch-n-go”, a maneuver that pilots use to practice landings and maintain their proficiency.)

The traffic pattern is a large imaginary rectangle, roughly a thousand feet above the runway.  You enter the pattern—usually, by making a right turn into downwind (the long arm of the rectangle parallel to the runway that you are going to land on).  By the time you turn to base, you should have the plane fairly well trimmed up to land.  As I do this, I mentally go through the time honored GUMPS check.

GUMPS is an acronym for a safety checklist before landing:

Gas—The fuel tank selection is on "Both", and carburetor heat is on.  This is no time to have the engine conk out, as the plane would be too low to recover.  Undercarriage—They say that every pilot, sooner or later, will land with the wheels up.  I don't believe this, if for no other reason than it costs a lot more to rent an airplane with retractable gear.  The particular plane I was in that day had fixed gear, but I glanced out the window to see the left wheel—and, well, I had at least one wheel...  Mixture—The air/fuel mixture should be "full rich".  Propeller—The plane did not have a variable prop, but nevertheless I dutifully checked to see that it was still there.  Seat Belts—Well, I had put it on before I took off, and I damn sure hadn't left the cabin, so it was still on (but I tightened it just a little, to be sure). 

So, I was good for a perfect landing!  When I turned final, the plane would continue its descent to just past "the numbers" onto the beginning of a very long runway.  (Long enough that I could have landed, taken off...and landed again!  Trust me, I've done that, and so has every other pilot who regularly flies out of that airport.)

So, I was going to just drift down to the runway, pull the power, and try to just hold the nose of the plane off the ground as long as possible and just "grease the wheels..."  And then, I heard...

"Las Cruces traffic, this is X-Ray 123 Tango Lima, a Lockheed P-38, on extended final to runway 26, full stop behind the Cessna, in sight.  Las Cruces."

That meant that somewhere east of me (and not that far away) was a P-38 (THE P-38, since there is only one in the south half of the state!)—coming straight in for a landing.  He was not going to enter the pattern, but was going to make a long straight approach to the runway.   This was okay, since it is not a controlled field, and many pilots, especially those flying commercial planes, elect to do this in order to save fuel.  While it's not exactly recommended, every pilot—including me—has done it.

I thought, "There is a P-38 going to land at my airport!  And I am going to miss seeing it land, since there is no rear visibility in a Cessna!"  Even if I hadn't been a little busy (first rule in aviation:  Fly the plane.  Fly the plane.  Fly the plane.), there is no way to see through your own tail.

"Las Cruces traffic.  738 Uniform Foxtrot declaring a missed approach, proceeding upwind runway 26, full stop.  Las Cruces."—That was my next communication with the other air traffic.

No longer landing, I pushed the throttle back in and as the plane responded and began to climb, I began to raise the flaps.  As soon as the plane had regained a little altitude, I turned crosswind—a little too early (it's an uncontrolled field, after all), and shortly afterwards used the radio to announce that I was going to re-enter the downwind pattern, (also just a little too soon). 

I was now facing the approaching fighter plane, but to the south of, and several hundred feet above, the aging war bird.  And there it was, a spectacular twin-engine Lockheed fighter plane, a few hundred feet lower and just north and east of my position.  She was sexy enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

Of all the places to watch a P-38 make a perfect landing, the best place is from the air...and it was!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Trip of a Lifetime

The two old ranchers were working in the barn, watching the aoudad munching on grass out on the point overlooking the swollen Brazos River.  Texas never does anything in moderation—as witnessed by the multi-year long drought ending with a flood that had sent the river up over its banks.

Kent reached over to take the can of oil Mike was handing him when he noticed a peculiar white scar on the back of the old rancher's left hand. 

"How’d you get that weird scar on the back of your hand?" Kent asked.

"You want the truth or a good story?" 

"Hell, I never heard any good true stories."

"An Apache Indian stabbed me," Mike answered.

"Okay, now tell me the truth."

"An Apache Indian stabbed me."

Kent put the can of oil back on the workbench and stared at his friend.  "There are no Apache in Texas, and hasn’t been since before your father was born," he said firmly.

"I know that," Mike said"Never said it happened in Texas.  It was in New Mexico.  You can’t just open up the book of my life and start on any fool page and expect it to make sense.  You have to know the whole story."

"Aw’ right, tell me the whole damn story, but I reserve the right to call bullshit on you."

Well," Mike said. "It started with a hunting trip almost 50 years ago.  I was just a teenager on the loose with a nice truck and…"

It was about as cold as bus station stew, and the snow was falling steadily, building up in the drifts between the pine trees to over three feet, and as the sun set, the temperature was dropping rapidly.  Mike was in trouble, and he knew he had to make a decision soon, because the longer he took, the choices remaining open to him narrowed. 

Looking back, this whole hunting trip had started great—a chance to hunt elk on the Mescalero reservation didn’t come along very often.  His father had been offered a cow permit as payment on a debt that he was otherwise unlikely to collect, and when his father could not get away, Mike had eagerly jumped on the chance to take his place.  As a Texas boy, the chance to hunt elk in New Mexico was too tempting to pass up—there were no elk anywhere near the Brazos River, and the average cow elk was more than twice the size of any of the white tail deer he had ever brought down. 

Even the idea of hunting on an Apache Reservation was the most exciting thing he had ever done.  Unfortunately, ever since he had left Palo Pinto County, things had started to go wrong.  Most of the problems had been connected to his ‘63 Ford pickup.  While Mike loved the truck—he hated the damn three-speed column shift. 

He had no idea why Ford had moved the stick shift from the floor, where it belonged, to up on the steering column, but every time he stopped the truck, the stupid linkages locked.  This meant that he had to crawl under the truck and pop the linkages on the transmission back into position.  This wasn't too bad while driving across the Panhandle of Texas, but as soon as he passed Roswell, New Mexico, there was cold wet snow on the side of the road.  Now, he had the heater on full blast trying to dry out his coat, while driving in his shirt sleeves. 

Mike liked the heavy Ford:  he liked the steady straight six cylinder engine...he liked everything about the truck—except that damn shift lever mounted on the steering wheel.  He swore that he would never again buy a truck that didn’t have the stick shift on the floor where it belonged.

Worse yet, he had started having electrical problems:  the lights kept dimming and the starter motor seemed to hesitate every time he restarted the engine.  Shortly after midnight, he pulled over into the deserted parking lot of the Ruidoso racetrack for a nap in the cab of the truck.  By dawn, despite all the blankets he had brought, he was shivering with cold.  As soon as there was light enough to see what he was doing, he dropped the tailgate of the truck and fired up the two burner Coleman stove to make coffee. 

As the water heated, he removed the battery cable, cursing a blue streak when the wrench slipped and caused him to bark his knuckles on the ice-cold battery mount.  Then he began the task of cleaning the battery terminals.  Lacking a brush, he scraped them with his pocket knife, then cleaned them with an old t-shirt soaked in Coca Cola until they were as clean as he could make them. 

After he had reattached the battery terminals, it was time for breakfast.  Digging through the box of food he had brought, he selected a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, removed the lid, and put it on the Coleman stove with the blue flame set as low as it would go and still stay lit.  He actually only had three choices for every meal:  Wolf Brand Chili, Ranch Style Beans, or Dinty Moore Stew.  He preferred the chili, but was rationing that to one can a day.

He should have had enough money to stay in a nice motel and eat a real meal, but at the last moment before leaving, he had given in to temptation and had replaced his aging ’03 Springfield rifle with a second-hand Winchester Model 70.  He had originally purchased the Springfield from Sears and Roebuck for $24.95—having to pass up the optional Monte Carlo stock because he lacked the extra $12.  While the aging weapon dated from the first World War, it had proven to still be incredibly accurate, so he didn’t really need the new rifle….but it was a pre-64 model in .30-06, the same caliber as his old Springfield.  The temptation had proven too strong to resist and now Mike—temporarily impoverished—would be sleeping in his truck and eating out of cans for the duration of the trip.

As soon as the sun was up, Mike cleaned up and made his way to the address he had been given on the reservation to pick up his guide.  The house he was looking for was on Highway 70 just past Apache Summit.  Outsiders weren’t allowed to hunt on the reservation without a guide, and Mike was hoping that his guide would be an experienced hunter—a lifelong resident of the mountain forest that made up the reservation.  Unfortunately, when Mike finally found the house, he was a little disappointed to discover that his guide was a 15 year-old Native American named Janet, who knew the reservation's dirt roads and trails, but knew very little about hunting.

The next several hours of hunting turned out to be fruitless, as they had driven all over remote parts of the reservation, had stopped frequently to look for signs of elk—but to no avail.  Eventually, in a last ditch effort to find an elk before the sun set, they had driven up the side of Sierra Blanca, up a trail that according to a sign would lead to “Cow Camp 3".

As the sun set, Mike and Janet decided it was time to turn the truck around and slowly make their way down off the mountain.  Even as Mike turned the truck around, the snow had started to fall again, so Mike switched on the truck’s headlights.  Almost immediately, the glow from the lights started to dim, which was soon followed by the truck’s engine suddenly quitting. 

As Mike tried unsuccessfully to restart the truck, he realized that what he had thought was a problem of corroded battery cables was actually a dying generator.  Unfortunately, the realization came a little late.

This was why Mike was forced to make that decision pretty quickly.  The temperature was dropping fast, and the snow was still coming down.  He doubted (and Janet confirmed his doubt) that anyone knew where they were hunting, so that help was unlikely to find them anytime soon.  They could either spend a miserable night in the freezing truck, or they could try to walk out.

The best Mike could figure, they were about two miles east of Highway 70 as the crow flies, (Janet had told them the Apache referred to the crows as “Air Dogs”), and more than five miles from the highway if they tried to stay on the twisting dirt trails they had used coming up the mountain. 

To Mike, it seemed that the best method would be to walk out, heading due east until they hit the highway.  Heading out cross-country would be a harder journey, but they could not help but eventually hit the highway.  If they tried to follow the dirt roads back, it would be far too easy to take a wrong turn and wander around endlessly in the wilderness area.  With the snow coming down, the tracks his truck had left coming up the mountain would disappear soon.

Besides, Mike thought, Janet was an Apache, born on the reservation, raised to live in harmony with nature:  she should be perfectly at home in the forest and all he had to do was follow her down the mountain.  Hell, this would be an adventure that he could tell his future kids about…

Mike stopped telling Kent the story and went to refill his coffee cup.  The aoudad outside the barn saw him moving through the open barn door and started to disappear over the rim of the point.

“That’s it?” Kent said.  “You’re going to stop there?  With your Indian guide leading you down a dark mountain in a snowstorm?  What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Mike said.  “It turned out Janet knew less about that mountain than anyone on the reservation.  If I had let her pick the path, we’d still be circling that Ford truck.  That was the clumsiest woman I ever met—she must have tripped over every branch and rock all the way down that mountain.  I spent the better part of the night picking her up all the times she face-planted herself in the snow.”

“Then what happened?”

“Her uncle gave me a ride into town where I bought a rebuilt generator, we used jumper cables to start the Ford, and I drove down the mountain,” Mike said.

“What the hell has any of this got to do with that scar on your hand” Kent asked.

“Well, later that day, Janet guided me to a new spot, where I finally shot an elk.   When she tried to help me field dress the elk before I loaded it into the back of the truck, she tripped and stabbed me in the hand.”

“Why the hell didn’t you just say that?  All I wanted to know was how you got the damn scar!” Kent said.

“Nope,” Mike answered.  “You said you wanted a story.  You got one!—I told you the parts I remembered best.”

“Did any of those parts happen to be true?”

“Every damn word,” Mike said.  “Give or take a lie or two.”

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Plywood Ark

“Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us,” said President Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Andrew Jackson Higgins started out in the international lumber transport business, where he bought exotic hardwoods from overseas and transported them back to the United States.  Like most such businesses, his went bankrupt early in the Great Depression when nations began erecting high tariffs to protect their domestic employment.  These barriers triggered worldwide trade wars that all but stopped international trade.

Higgins started a new business: he designed a new boat, the Eureka, a shallow draft boat that was perfect for beaching on sandy shores and muddy river banks.  This plywood boat could operate in just 18 inches of water, and with its propeller protected in a tube beneath its hull, the blunt bow could power over driftwood or floating logs, punch through vegetation, and land on rocky beaches.  As shown to the left, Higgins used to demonstrate the boat’s capabilities by ramming it onto the concrete seawall of Lake Pontchartrain. 

The Eureka was constructed of both steel and plywood and was supposedly designed for trappers and wildcatting oil men, and I have no doubt that Higgins sold several for these purposes.  It might just be a coincidence, but this would also have been the perfect boat to bring a few cases of alcohol into the Gulf swamps and bayous during Prohibition.

By 1939, Higgins could see that war was inevitable—a war that would trigger a new boom in the boat-building industry, and with an inevitable shortage of metal, this would mean that a lot of those new boats would be made of wood.  Higgins believed this so strongly that he took all the profits he had made selling boats to affluent trappers and bought that year's entire mahogany crop from the Philippines.

Now, he just had to convince the Navy to purchase his boat.  The Navy knew it needed some way to get men and equipment ashore, but it had yet to select a boat that could accomplish the mission.  When Higgins first attempted to sell his design, the Bureau of Ships refused to even consider a radical design from some Cajun Redneck down in the swamps of Louisiana.

Higgins did not give up, and since the Navy was ready to award a contract for landing craft, the Navy eventually allowed Higgins' boat to compete with three other designs (one of which was designed by the Bureau of Ships).  Of the four boats, the Eureka was the only one with a flat bottom, a blunt bow, and a protected propeller.  The Eureka outperformed all the other craft, whose V-hulls would not allow them to operate close to the shore.  Still, the Navy refused to award the contract, requiring a final test.

The next year, 1940, the Eureka competed with a redesigned ship from the Bureau of Ships—one that clearly had been rebuilt using several features “borrowed” from Higgins.  (It is not called "theft" when the government does it—it is "appropriation".)   However, despite the rebuild, the Bureau of Ships boat could not even finish the test. 

The Bureau of Ships still refused to award the contract to Higgins, and that is where this story might end if not for the United States Marines.  The Marines desperately needed landing craft, and frankly, they liked the no-nonsense, hard-drinking Andrew Jackson Higgins.  This was the start of a professional partnership between Higgins and the Marines.

The Marines liked the boats, too, but they had two reservations.  First, could Higgins lengthen his boat to be 36 feet long?  Increasing the length would dramatically increase the carrying capacity of the craft. The Navy, however, insisted that the boat be shorter than 30 feet—necessitating a dramatic cut in carrying capacity.

After weeks of fruitless arguments with both services, a frustrated Higgins asked the Navy, "Why does the boat have to be shorter than 30 feet?"

"Because," said the Navy representative. "That's how far apart we designed the davits."

More than a little angry, Higgins answered, "Maybe we should design davits to fit boats instead of designing boats to fit davits."  As it turned out, the davits only had to be moved to allow the longer boat.

The second concern the Marines had was regarding the difficulty of unloading the boat once it was ashore.  Climbing over the side of a landing craft on a hostile shore while under enemy fire was a guaranteed way to lose a battle.  The Marines were very interested in a Japanese boat that had a ramp at the bow that would drop after the boat was run up onto the shore.  The British Navy had taken photos of the boat in Shanghai before the war started.

After studying the photos in Washington, Higgins phoned his foreman and described the prototype ramp he wanted to see by the time he returned to Louisiana.  The resulting craft, with a 7 foot steel ramp became the LCVP—the Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel. 

Capable of carrying 36 troops, 12 men and a jeep, or 8,000 pounds of cargo, the LCVP became the most common boat of World War II.  At one point, it was estimated that over 75% of the vessels comprising the US Navy was built by Higgins.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of what many people simply referred to as the "Higgins Boat".  The Allied strategy for winning the war—even in Europe—was a series of invasions against hostile shores.  These amphibious landings are among the hardest and most difficult tasks of the wartime military.

Between 1942 and 1945, Higgins made 23,358 of these boats and by the end of the war, Higgins was making several models of landing craft, as well as PT boats and several types of high speed boats.

The LCVP was the perfect boat for the job, landing men, vehicles, and supplies on every type of beach imaginable—everything from shores of sand to volcanic ash to rocks.  It landed on coral atolls, on islands, and on the shores of continents, and in locations ranging from the tropics to the Arctic.  The LCVP participated in every single amphibious assault of the war, including some on beaches that were heavily-mined and stoutly-defended.

Socially, Higgins and his company were ahead of the times. Higgins Industries employed over 20,000 people: blacks and whites, men and women, paying them all equally. In turn, the workers produced a world class product that helped win the war.   Or, as President Eisenhower said, “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” 

Perhaps the best praise for Higgins was a left-handed compliment from Adolf Hitler, who referred to the Cajun boat-builder as the “New Noah”.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Anchor, Baby

The classroom was divided equally into two sections by an aisle running down the middle of the room.  Students have been free since the beginning of the semester to sit where they want, and they generally spread themselves out fairly equally, creating two fairly similar sample groups. 

To one side of the room, I gave each student a small slip of paper containing two questions:
  1. Do you believe that Benito Juarez was more than 114 years old when he died?
  2. Guesstimate the age of Benito Juarez when he died.

The other side of the room got a slip of paper with only one question:
  1. Guesstimate the age of Benito Juarez when he died.
The class has been studying Mexican history, and while we had been discussing Juarez, we had not yet reached the period when he dies suddenly of a heart attack, nor does the textbook mention his age when he dies.  What was point of the quiz?

Actually, the point had very little to do with history—Mexican or otherwise.  The quiz was not even graded; instead, I asked a student on each side of the room to gather the slips on their side, then average the answers on the estimated age of Juarez when he died.

The results were rather shocking:  among the students with two questions to answer, both the average answer and the range of answers were significantly higher than those of students who only had to answer a single question.  Why?

Actually, I was repeating a famous experiment published by Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  Kahneman, a pioneer in the field of behavioral economics and a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, calls this the anchoring effect—the tendency to allow a piece of information to influence decision making.  In the example above, I suggested to my students the utterly preposterous notion that President Juarez might have lived to be over 114 years old.

Or, as Kahneman put it, “Any number that you are asked to consider as a possible solution to an estimation problem will induce an anchoring effect.”

In his book, Kahneman gives an example that I wasn’t quite able to duplicate in my classroom (and sooner or later, I really did have to talk about Mexico…).  A wheel of fortune was rigged so that it would only stop on either 10 or 65.  Then the experiment participants were asked the following questions:
  1. Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number indicated?
  2. What is your best guess for the percentage of African nations in the UN?

The average answer of those who saw 10 and 65 were 25% and 45%, respectively.

Want another example?  Visitors to the San Francisco Exploratorium were given two questions:
  1. Is the height of the tallest redwood tree more or less than 1,200 feet?
  2. What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?

In this example, the average estimate was 844 feet.  But, when the height in the first question was lowered to 120 feet, the average estimate of the tallest redwood decreased to 282 feet, a drop of 562 feet, a difference of much more than 380 feet—the actual height of the tallest redwood! 

This kind of influence happens so frequently that it is amazing that it is only recently that we have a name for it.  Kahneman gave a perfect example of this in real estate.  Trained professionals—experts in evaluating real estate—consistently gave higher estimates of a property’s value after being told the seller was asking an outlandishly high price for the property. 

It may be almost impossible to have a business negotiation of any kind without the anchoring effect having some effect on the transaction.  It explains why opening bids are exaggerated, why television hucksters establish a phony value for the schlock they are selling before revealing the true price, and why states with ceilings on liability lawsuits never see a reduction in insurance rates—it just pushes the amounts awarded up to the maximum.  The amount of the ceiling becomes the anchor.

That the anchoring effect works is obvious, but what distresses me is that even information that we immediately recognize as false—still influences us!  Remember the experiment that I did with my students?  None of them—not even the education majors—believed for a second that President Juarez lived to be over 114 years old.  The idea was preposterous, but it still affected their answers.

In an election year, I do find this distressing.  More than I should, I watch television, I read things on the internet, and I read the occasional blog that is neither footnoted nor peer-reviewed.  (Of course, the one you are reading right now is okay, but all the other blogs are pure shit!  Trust me, I’m 487% reliable and somewhere in the right hand column is the very large number of readers this month who agree with me.)

I wonder how many of my opinions have been shifted by nonsense that I knew was false, but it still shifted my decision making.  On the other hand, all of this does help explain this bizarre election year—sort of.

Oh, and President Juarez died at the age of 66...Or 114.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Old School

There is an expression that seems to have fallen out of use today, old school.  For way too many people, this just means “uncool” or “old”.  To me, saying that someone is old school implies that that he possesses a work ethic, a sense of honor, an attention to detail, that produces work of higher quality than the norm of today.

Almost daily, I am reminded that university degrees are not proof that someone is intelligent.  Wisdom and kindness are not something learned at a university, they are the result of a much harsher kind of school, from which there is no graduation.

Every age has had its practitioners of old school.  The Roman Army used to deploy its men in four ranks.  The front rank were the velites, meaning literally the fast ones—the teenagers who still thought they were immortal.  The second and third ranks were the hastati and the principes, progressively older veterans who could be counted on to hold the line.  But, if all else failed, the enemy would encounter the fourth rank—the triarii, the grizzled old veterans who were all old school.  Relatively few in number, though the triarii were the thinnest rank, these badass old men did not break rank.   The Romans even had a saying, Res ad triarios rediit (It has come down to the Triari), meaning it was serious business.

Another fine example of old school was President Ulysses S. Grant.  Shortly after he left office in 1881, Grant became penniless after his life savings vanished with the collapse of an investment house he had unwisely started with questionable partners.  Within days of the bankruptcy, he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. 

After his victory at Fort Donelson in 1862, the newspapers reported he had won the battle with a cigar clamped between his teeth.  A grateful nation, eager for a victory after a seemingly endless stream of Northern defeats, sent the general thousands of boxes of cigars.  Eventually, Grant must have smoked each and every one of those stogies—later admitting to a habit of smoking at least twenty cigars a day.

Grant, with perhaps a year left in his life, was caught in a dilemma—how to provide for his family after his death, while having few resources(There were no pensions for former presidents until 1958.)  His military pension was far too little, and after the bankruptcy of his business, he had no substantial property left to sell.

As early as 1881, Mark Twain had encouraged the general to write his memoirs, to which Grant had replied, “No one is interested in me.”  Indeed, two previous biographies about Grant (written by men who had served closely with him) had failed miserably, and there was every sign that a war-weary public would not purchase another book based on a conflict whose wounds had yet to be healed.

Now, in May of 1884, Twain offered to print his memoirs from a publishing company that he had just started, and offered terms that were beyond generous:  a ten-thousand dollar advance and a 20% gross royalty against 75% of the net profits.  Largely because of Twain’s original encouragement in 1881, Grant agreed.

Grant worked tirelessly, despite the increasing pain from his advanced and advancing cancer.  He quickly learned that while cocaine and laudanum would dull the pain, they had a similar effect on his brain, making the writing all but impossible.  Wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold in a cancer-wracked body, he daily struggled for 6-7 hours, writing from 25 to 50 pages a day, using stubby pencils on a yellow legal pad with blue ink lines.  Finally, overcome with pain at the end of a hard day, he would accept laudanum from a bottle that is still on display in his former home in Mount McGregor, located in upstate New York.

A lesser man, having already been paid, would have written the minimum required to satisfy his publisher.  Being old school, Grant’s two volume work of over 700 pages begins with his childhood, addresses his days at West Point, and has a brilliantly detailed account of his involvement in the Mexican-American War. that I still require my students to read. 

Grant gives details about the battles that only he could have known.  He frankly criticizes his mistakes and even debunks a few of the myths that had already began to be told about the old soldier.  At one point, discussing a popular account of a battle, he writes, "Like many other stories, it would be very good if it were only true."

When Grant could no longer write, he whispered into the ear of his aide—whispering despite the fact that the cancer that was killing him had so constricted his throat he could no longer swallow solid food and frequently left him feeling that he was choking to death.

Meanwhile, Mark Twain sent ten thousand agents into the field to sell subscriptions for Grant’s book.  Wearing their old faded blue uniforms, bemedaled with campaign ribbons showing that they had been at Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, or Shiloh, these veterans knocked on doors across the nation pleading with gray-haired veterans to help the general win just one more battle.

These men responded, in part because General Grant was telling their story, a story they could leave for their children.  With a dollar down, they could subscribe to the book in one of three bindings; the balance would be paid upon the delivery of the book.

By the end of June, 1885, Grant dictated the last pages of his book, already secure in the knowledge that tens of thousands of paid subscriptions had guaranteed the success of his memoirs.  Hardly able to write or even whisper, he struggled to finish editing the galley proofs, a job that was finally finished on June 17, 1885.  President Grant died just five days later.

The memoir, of course, was a phenomenal success, selling over 300,000 of the two-volume sets in just the first printing.  Mark Twain would hand Julia Grant the largest royalty check ever paid up to that time, $200,000.  Eventually, she would receive a total of over $450,000—a sum in advance of $10 million in today’s money.  The book itself was a masterpiece, read not only by historians but by anyone interested in the war.  The book has never been out of print, and probably never will be.

I am reminded of Grant, and of the qualities of being "old school", this week by one of my colleagues who learned of the passing of her mother yesterday while preparing for class.  Despite being of an age at which most would have already retired, she continues to work for both the pure joy of teaching, and for a genuine love of her students.  Few of those students know that she is teaching many of the classes they attend with no salary, since the university would not come up with the funds to offer the course...so she volunteered.  It's who she is.

Despite having learned of her mother’s death, she—being "old school"—taught her classes yesterday.  She was bright, cheerful, and absolutely brilliant—a perfect example of what every professor ought to be (and damn few ever are).  Her last class let out well after dark last night, and I am certain that not a single student had any clue as to how difficult that day must have been for her.

As I drove away from the campus last night, I could see her feeding the stray cats outside the building before she left for the funeral home.  She was sitting on the grass while the feral cats—who will not allow anyone else within fifty feet of them—climbed into her lap for some individual attention. They, too, recognize "old school".

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Pump Handle

Cholera is one of those diseases that the major industrialized Western countries no longer remember:  it is a malady of the third world or a long-forgotten past. 

The United States still has a few dozen reported cases every year, but no one has died from it in years.  We no longer remember the years in which over a hundred thousand succumbed annually, or that it was the disease that killed former President Polk.  Outbreaks in third world countries rarely make the news, since this is a problem no longer relevant to us.

Cholera is an infection of the intestines by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.  While the incubation period can be anywhere from just a few hours to several days after exposure, and the symptoms may vary greatly, in the most severe cases the victims die of dehydration after experiencing days of vomiting and copious watery diarrhea.

The disease is actually a hazard of urbanization and overcrowding.  Its spread is a result of the rapid rise of urban populations and the associated concentration of human waste.  And, of course, the eradication of cholera in the cities turned out to be a by-product of the solution to the urban human waste problem.  Having solved that waste problem, of course, we have forgotten exactly what happened.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, London was already a city of over two million people, who were crammed into a impossibly small amount of real estate—the most populous city on earth.  And it stunk...Literally stunk.  With no centralized sewage system, every building in the town had its own cesspool, all of which overflowed with human waste and were sporadically emptied—by buckets—into waste carts that simply dumped their contents into the Thames River.  The Thames, of course, was also the source of drinking water for London—so convenient!.

None of this particularly worried the health officials, who knew that disease was spread by "bad air"—the miasma theory.  Every educated person for millennia had known that harmful vapors that  were the result of rotting organic matter spread diseases like the plague, cholera, and chlamydia.  (By the days of Victorian England, some physicians were blaming obesity on the effect of inhaling the odor of food!)

In 1849, there was yet another outbreak of cholera in London, which began with the death of only twelve people.  A physician, John Snow, noticed something interesting about the outbreak.  The first case was a seaman who had just come from Asia.  A week later, the second case was a man who lived in the same room at the same boarding house cottage.  In total, all the victims lived in a row of cottages that shared a single well.  Snow reasoned it was highly unlikely that the "bad air" had hung around in the same room and the same buildings for a week. 

On examination, he discovered that a drainage channel for waste water ran in front of the house.  Despite the fact that the rock-lined channel had visible cracks that allowed the waste water to seep into the well, the cottage tenants continued to use the channel for an open cesspool.  While Snow had absolutely no idea how the disease spread (this was more than a decade before Pasteur would postulate his germ theory) Snow reasoned that the disease was spread by the contaminated water.

He published a paper on the subject—a paper that was almost completely ignored.  The city's health officials absolutely believed in the miasma theory of disease.  ('Hell, you could smell the filth in the air...')  Not surprisingly, the cholera outbreak spread, eventually killing 14,137 people in 1849.

In 1854, London suffered another outbreak in Soho.  While today this is a delightful area of town, noted for its galleries, trendy nightclubs, pubs, and small expensive boutiques, in 1854, it was a slum so packed with people that each room in the buildings housed an average of four people.  Centuries-old overflowing cesspools lay just a few feet away from public water pumps. 

The first case of cholera in this outbreak was a six month-old infant.  In the next three days, another 127 people died.  This triggered a panic and residents of London began fleeing the city in numbers not seen since the Great Plague of 1666.  Within a week, three-quarters of Soho had fled.  The Soho outbreak was far worse than average:  the area around Broad Street was quite literally decimated—one-tenth of the population died.

Snow lived in Soho, and he began interviewing the victims' families.  He also began marking a map with the location of the victims' homes and it did not take long for a distinctive pattern to emerge.  Almost all of the victims lived near a specific public water pump on Broad Street.  The infant who had succumbed first lived in a house with an overflowing cesspool located  just three feet from the well.

Unexpectedly, several of the victims lived closer to public pumps other than the one on Broad Street and there were no cholera cases among the workers at a large brewery adjacent to the pump.

Snow continued his interviews and discovered that the workers at the brewery were offered free ale while they worked, so they did not drink the water.  (Water from the well was used to make the ale, but the fermentation process killed the cholera germs.)  And the water from the contaminated Broad Street pump was popular with many Soho residents who, despite living closer to other public pumps, walked the extra distance because the "water tasted better".

Snow took his evidence to the public health officials who all but laughed at his novel ideas.  Still—if only to help pacify the hysteria—they ordered the removal of the pump's handle, effectively shutting down the well.

The popular story is that this immediately stopped the epidemic and public officials immediately recognized that Snow was correct.  Neither of these stories is actually correct.  By the time the well handle was removed, the epidemic was all but over, the contamination within the well was probably flushed out by this time.

Nor did the public officials change their minds about miasma.  Following the epidemic, public officials scoured Soho looking for the reason the outbreak had been so violent.  They focused their attentions on ventilation of homes, adequate windows, and looking for peculiar smells and odors.  It was only decades later than Snow's work began to be appreciated.  Today it is recognized as the beginning of the study of epidemiology.

Even less well remembered is that while Snow's insistence on having the pump handle removed did not really stop the cholera outbreak, it probably did stop the "next outbreak".  The very day the pump handle was removed, the infant's father came down with cholera.  And that cesspool was still leaking into the well.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Just what is Fascism, Anyway?

In 1990, Mike Godwin, an attorney, stated online that the longer a popular argument continued, the more likely it was that someone would compare something or someone to Hitler or Nazism.  Almost immediately, this became known as Godwin’s Law. 

And almost as fast, people began using the law inappropriately, saying that any mention of Nazi Germany meant that the speaker automatically lost the argument and that the discussion was therefore over.  At Enema U, there is an abundance of those who use this adage as a club designed to censor those they oppose, but pepper their own personal posts in social media with references to brown shirts” and fascists.  (Of course, most of these comments are directed toward the administration, so they are not completely inappropriate.)

Mike Godwin recently stated that in no way should his law be used to stifle thoughtful and informed comparisons to Nazi Germany.  And then, violating his own law, he added, "Or anything said about Donald Trump."

All of this is rather similar to what I call the "Fox News Law"—the more people talk at the same time, the more likely someone will be called a fascist.  The law can also be used with MSNBC, but since someone is called a fascist in damn near every show (and quite a few commercials) reference to it is less impressive since it's such a "target-rich environment.

In light of all of this, it might be useful to actually define fascism.  In an election where hyperbole has already bitten us in the ass, we need to be knowledgeable about our insults.

Defining fascism is a little more difficult than you might think.  Benito Mussolini gave a less than helpful official explanation:

1."Everything in the state".  The Government is supreme and the country is all encompassing, and all within it must conform to the ruling body, often a dictator. 
2."Nothing outside the state".  The country must grow and the implied goal of any fascist nation is to rule the world, and have every human submit to the government. 
3."Nothing against the state".  Any type of questioning the government is not to be tolerated. If you do not see things our way, you are wrong.  If you do not agree with the government, you cannot be allowed to live and taint the minds of the rest of the good citizens. 

This is a little restrictive, so there is a more general definition where fascism is defined as a form of government that generally uses several of a group of traits.  No single trait is absolutely necessary, and while fascist states vary, most have a majority of the following traits:

A Strong Charismatic Leader.  A dictator who has a strong following, not so much because of his intelligence or accomplishments, but because he promises everything to everybody.  Nearly all Fascist leaders promise to return a country to greatness.  This is a leader who understands the anger or disappointment of the masses, and offers improbable solutions.  And this is a little scary, since every politician seeking elected office strives to be exactly this.

Suppression of Democracy.  Fascist leaders go out of their way to outlaw political parties, cancel elections, and declare martial law to remain in power.  The irony in this is that many Fascist dictators—Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Porfirio Diaz—came to power through free and fair elections—And then promptly found ways to stop having them (usually for what they claimed was the good of the people.

Anti-Labor.  Since labor unions are centers of power outside of the state, most fascist leaders find ways to suppress the unions, sometimes by co-opting their power and making labor unions part of the government.

Government Control of the Economy.  Fascist states usually believe in strongly regulating business, harnessing it supposedly for the good of the people, but actually for using it as a means of controlling the masses while enriching themselves.  Competition is not allowed, wages are set by the government, and productivity inevitably drops precipitously.

Super Nationalism.  There is certainly nothing wrong with patriotism, at least not until it blinds you to systemic wrongs and keeps you from making improvements—And when patriotism becomes mandatory, it is always wrong. 

Samuel Johnson's most famous line is "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  I have always understood this to mean that it is only the demagogue, the despot, who seeks to further his cause by appealing to your love of your country. 

Xenophobia.  When someone tells you that all of our problems are caused by outsiders, by people who are different, it is time to put your hand firmly over your wallet and run.  I don't care how reasonable it sounds, this country simply does not need to build a wall along the Canadian border to keep the Frostbacks out. 

This is why the 21 Muslim countries of the Middle East—most of which easily qualify as Fascist states—tell their 350 million people that all of their problems are the result of the 6 million Jews in Israel. 

Collectivity Over Individualism.  This almost sounds good, as it is widely believed that the greatest good for the greatest number is the supreme goal of government.  But, it isn't, otherwise government is simply two wolves and a sheep discussing the dinner menu.  It is the responsibility of the many to protect the rights of the few and we need to be wary of the politician who talks about individuals surrendering rights for the good of society.

That last point was always the most difficult for my students to understand, to understand that protecting individuality is just as important to society as promoting the common good.  To help reinforce this, I used to get freshmen to join me in taking Steve Martin's Non-Conformist Oath.  I get them to stand and raise their right hands and repeat after me:

I promise to be different.  (There is unanimous compliance.)
I promise to be unique.  (By now, one or two students are starting to narrow their eyes and look a little skeptical.  Unfortunately, it is only one or two.)
I promise NOT to repeat things other people say.  (Few make it to the end of this sentence.)


Don't kid yourselves people:  It can happen here, and if it does, it will start in the ballot box.