Saturday, December 28, 2013

The New World

For over a century, the scientists had warned of a coming ecological disaster.  Whether it was the burning of fossil fuels, the production of chemical waste products, the ever-increasing acid rain, the constant erosion of top soils, the poisoning of the oceans, the rise in global warming....their warnings all seemed to be ignored.  There had been no political will to change any of the threatening policies until well after a tipping point had been reached and the process was irreversible--their home planet was ruined.

For a while, a few scientists had predicted that planetary feed-back mechanisms would kick in, reversing the process.  Indeed, the current predictions showed that the process might eventually reverse itself--but not for tens of thousands of years. 

If the race were to survive, it would have to be on a new planet.  After decades of searching, a suitable world was discovered.  While it would support life, the new planet did have certain drawbacks: it was colder than home, the gravity was heavy enough to be uncomfortable, and, worst of all, the planet was already occupied by a semi-sentient race. 

The numerous natives were technologically inferior--to such a low degree that it hinted that they would never reach an advanced state of civilization.  On the other hand, they were fecund and violent, and seemed to have little regard for life--even their own.

Only a few thousand lucky individuals were selected to emigrate to the new world--the bare minimum necessary to reproduce their culture, even with the extensive electronic library of literature and reference works they brought with them.  And since the colony would be small and vulnerable for several generations while they struggled to establish their new home, they would have to take special precautions.

The colony would be established in a sparsely-populated portion of the world, in an area where the inhospitable terrain would offer additional protection.  Unfortunately, the most desirable lands in the warmest areas near the equator, were also the lands most populated by the natives--but this could not be helped. 

Using advanced methods of in-vitro fertilization, the colony was planned to become relatively secure within a few generations.  In the meantime, between their advanced technology and the remoteness of the colony location, the colonists believed themselves to be secure from attack by the natives.  While the colonists tried to blend in with their surroundings, they would work hard to establish a working relationship with the indigenous inhabitants,.  If they could coexist with the savages, they could find ways to control them, or else--as a last resort--use their technology to defend themselves.

The natives (at least those close enough to the colony to be observed) used only soft metals such as gold, silver, and copper.  They had no sophisticated tools and possessed no machines--all work was accomplished by muscle power alone.  The aborigines were tribal, superstitious, and almost constantly at war with themselves.  The natives would have been described as child-like, if not for their astonishing cruelty.

And the new world was rich in unexploited resources.  If left alone for only a few generations, the colonists could easily adapt and would eventually dominate the new world and its resources.  If possible, they would share the planet with natives.  If not, the colony would survive even if the natives did not.

Some progress in controlling the natives was already evident.  A simple barter system was established where the natives received food and trinkets in exchange for manual labor.  The make-work labor was pointless as the true goal was to establish control over the childlike creatures, for they were so unsophisticated that  they were put to use making simple designs in the landscape or other useless tasks. 

The colonists were not unduly worried, but there was evidence that distant natives were becoming increasingly aware of their presence.  For what appeared to be the first time, natives from a distant continent were visiting the same continent as the colony.  While this was unusual, there was little to be worried about, as the distant natives were only slightly more sophisticated than the childlike locals.

It is tragic to contemplate the incredible human cost that Spanish exploration caused in the new world.  Isolated for thousands of years, the natives of the new world had no immunities to the diseases that were common in Europe.  This is troubling for today's anthropologists, for the diseases spread so much faster than the explorers did. 

The first sight that most of the conquistadors had of new civilizations was quite often a scene of desolation--of funerals and abandoned settlements.  Even Hernando Cortez wrote that, while riding into the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán for the first time, he observed that it contained many empty buildings.

While major diseases such as malaria, smallpox, plague, and yellow fever killed tens of millions--even common ailments took their toll.  The natives succumbed to chicken pox, measles, and the flu.

Archaeologists working in South America outside of Nasca, Peru, have just started to uncover the extensive site of a hitherto unknown and highly technologically advanced tribe that appears to have perished from the common cold.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lost: Students

Something interesting has happened at Enema U.  We lost a whole bunch of students.  Specifically, somewhere between a gob lot and a shit ton of students have just wandered off.  While the university is currently between semesters, as of right now, there are somewhere over....well....thousands and thousands of students who did not bother to enroll for next semester. 

Maybe they forgot?  They were here last semester, and while they may come back next semester, where are they right now?

If we assume that they are not coming back, I wonder why?  I might come up with a few possible reasons....'Course, I'm just a poor dumb ol' country boy, so I'm probably wrong.

Maybe the students have just have given up hope of ever finding a job in a state that has systematically stifled all expansion of the business sector for decades.  During a recession, university enrollment frequently increases since students are wary of entering a weak job market.  If the recession continues, eventually the students just give up and quit trying.  I know of more than one waitress in town with a master's degree.

Could it be that the students are not as happy at Enema U as they might be?  Little things might be the problem--like the food.  While other universities are attracting students by serving great food at reasonable prices, Enema U has leased out its cafeterias to a corporation that specializes in providing food for prisons, airports, and universities.   While I have no direct evidence, I presume that since people at prisons can't leave and the people at airports eventually escape....well, I suppose our food is better than in the prisons and a little worse than at the airports.

Or, maybe, it is the tuition--we keep raising it and raising it, while we give buckets of the money to support an athletic program that does little more than let our administration relive the 1960's.  Every week, the steadily declining attendance at the games proves to everyone not yearning for the revival of the sock hop that the world has changed and the center of campus life is no longer located between goalposts.

Then, again, perhaps the students are worried about financing.  No one seems to know for certain whether federal funds will continue to finance grants and loans.  Even the funding derived from the state lottery seems to be in question.  (There is a quick fix for the lottery:  since the proceeds go to education, why not let the elementary school kids sell the tickets door-to-door?  Lottery tickets would be preferable to the magazines, cookies, and assorted crapola the little rug rats are currently selling.)

Possibly the students are AWOL because we offer fewer weekend college or night classes.   Then, couple that with a shortage of classrooms, and it is getting increasingly hard for the students to take the courses they want at the times they want to take them.  We have recently built a lot of new buildings on campus, but since no one in Administration ever got hired away by a bigger university for building more classrooms, we have wisely built things like a new abattoir for faculty meetings---and the new set of coaches' offices to replace the previous new set of coaches' offices.

Who knows why the students are missing?  There seems to be some kind of an election and the students are voting with their feet.  Something has to be done, and soon--I'm too old and lazy to find honest work.  I have a suggestion to motivate the administration, but first you get this week's history lesson.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Persian king, Xerxes I, decided to invade Greece.  He assembled an immense army and and marched them through what today we would call Turkey.  When he got to the Hellespont--the strait that separates Asia from Europe--he ordered a bridge built across it.  Before his army could cross to the other side, a storm destroyed the bridge.

Enraged, Xerxes ordered the strait to be whipped and that iron restraints to be thrown into the water.  Presumably, the 300 lashes and iron chains would both punish and restrain the waves from future mischief.  With the unruly water properly humbled, Xerxes ordered the bridge rebuilt.

With this in mind, and to properly motivate the administration, I am announcing the Xerxes Prize for Administrative Excellence.  I will be accepting nominations in the weeks to come.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

All Quiet On the Brazos

The cowboy stopped the bay on the point of land where he could overlook the Brazos River 400 feet below. He leaned back on the saddle and let the horse nibble on the small mound of grass available.  Tight-lipped, the cowboy smiled wryly at this; he knew the horse wouldn't find much, as he could see from the droppings that the Barbary Sheep had already grazed the grass on the point fairly well.  The grass would eventually grow back quickly, but not until the next rain--and the drought in that part of Texas showed no sign of ending anytime soon.

Slowly he lifted himself up from the saddle and swung his right leg back and down off the horse.  Throwing the leather stirrup across the seat of the 
saddle, he once again tightened the old leather cinch of the saddle.  He was
very much afraid that the saddle was soon going to have to be replaced--the saddle was almost as old as he was and for over the last ten years he had spent as much money having the saddle repaired as it would have cost to buy a new one. 

As the cowboy looked over the stained leather, he was torn between the desire not to desert an old friend and the nagging little voice somewhere in the back of his head that kept telling him an awful truth, that the saddle tree--the frame of the saddle--was cracked and could not reasonably be repaired.  Pushing gently on the cantle, he could feel the tree move more than it should.  As much as he disliked the idea, it was time to buy a new saddle. 

His son Matt was after him to get one of those new Australian stock saddles.  They were light, they were comfortable, they were easier to clean, and they were much easier on the horse.  All of that was true, but the cowboy could not forget that they were also made of ballistic nylon!  A plastic saddle!  There was no denying the fact that in almost every way, the new saddle was better than the old-style saddle he was using, but the very idea of a plastic saddle left him cold.  His son had told him that some of the saddles could even be cleaned by putting them into a washing machine!  Somehow, the very idea made the prospect of a new saddle so much worse.

The cowboy shook his head and made a decision, he might buy a new saddle, but it would damn sure not be a plastic one.  What was the point of owning a saddle if you couldn't take pride in oiling the seams and working the thick opaque saddle soap deep into the leather?  How could you ever take any pride in maintaining a saddle if all a man had to do was take it out of a washing machine to hang it up and let it dry?

The cowboy swung back up into the saddle, heard the leather creak and knew that tightening the cinch had produced little improvement in the fit of the saddle.  Over time, it would just widen the crack in the saddle tree and hasten the saddle's destruction.  If he didn't watch out, he might go down the side of that cliff faster than one of the damn sheep!

Making his way carefully, he rode along the edge of the cliff that made up the north edge of the point.  It never failed to amaze him that the Barbary Sheep could run up and down the sides of the cliff as if it were flat land.  He doubted he could have made his way down the cliff in less than an hour, and even then he was fairly sure he would slip and fall before he could reach the bottom.

While it was pleasant, the early morning ride in the cold crisp air did have a purpose: the cowboy was checking the five hog traps spaced evenly along the points of land overlooking the river.  The whole state was being overrun with feral pigs and his traps usually caught a few each week.  If he found one, he would dispatch it with the Colt revolver he wore on his hip.  He always felt a little foolish putting the holster on--like he was trying to imitate his childhood hero, Hopalong Cassidy--but he also knew the hogs were too intelligent to leave in the metal traps for long, since they would eventually either escape or damage the trap in the attempt.

The cowboy found the first trap--empty.  The mound of dried corn kernels he had poured out the night before were undisturbed.  He rode past the trap a little way out onto the narrow point of land.  This point had one of the best views of the river on the ranch and the cowboy hoped that someday Matt would build a house here for his family.  That probably wouldn't happen anytime soon, as Matt worked in Fort Worth and barely made it out to the ranch once a month.

The cowboy sat there awhile, watching  the cold mist on the river  below.  Damn--a cigarette would be good right now.  The cowboy hadn't smoked in twenty years, but every now and then the fierce urge still hit him.  A cigarette on a cold morning was surely one of life's pleasures.  Staring at the burning ember on the tip of a cigarette helped a man to think!  It focused his attention, drew him out of the world and allowed him to become immersed in his own thoughts. 

Shreeet!  Shreeet!

Disgusted, the cowboy reached into his pocket and removed his cell phone.  The number told him it was his doctor's office--they undoubtedly wanted to confirm his appointment for the next day.  Ignoring the call, he held the red button down with a gloved thumb until the phone turned off.  Staring down into the palm of his hand, he thought, "More damn plastic!"

Having a cell phone was almost as bad as giving up cigarettes.  How in the Sam Hill does a man have any time to think?  Lately, Sergio, his hired hand, had been sporting a pair of headphones so he could listen to music out of his “walking pod thing” while he worked.  Every car and truck on the property had a radio, the house had a television or a computer screen in almost every room--and he had noticed that lately his wife was carrying that pad computer of hers into the few rooms that didn't.

It seemed that there was no such thing left as solitude.  Every minute of the day, the cowboy thought, he was surrounded by machines that just would not shut up.  Machines that blared the news, music, or talk--machines that seemed to fill the day with information, but no thinking.  The day was so full of noise there was no time left to think

Sadly, the cowboy mashed the small green button with his calloused thumb until the gray plastic phone came back to life.  If he didn't, sure as hell his
wife would call and panic when he didn't answer.  As the cowboy stared at his electronic leash, he thought to himself, "If I had any brains, I'd prop this gizmo up on a rock and use it for target practice."

Just what was so dad-blame important that he had to carry a phone, anyways?  It seemed half the conversations he had on the damn phone were a waste of time.   The people with the least to say took the longest to say it. 

The cowboy looked up at the sky and watched a turkey buzzard make slow circles in the sky.  He thought to himself, "A dozen years ago when I didn't carry this damn phone, I don't remember missing anything important.  Hell, the only news I ever get is bad."  Thinking back over the years, the cowboy supposed the trouble had started when his wife talked him into buying an answering machine.  As far as he could remember, that damn device had never given him any good news, either.

A few minutes later, as the cowboy followed the trail along the cliff to the next point of land, he marveled at the silence.  He could hear the wind blowing through the few remaining leaves of the live oak trees, the steady breathing of his horse, and from far away the rhythmic rusty squeak of his windmill and the slap of the pump rod.  "Have to do something about that." he thought.  "Need to get Sergio to climb up there and grease that before it gets so cold his hands freeze-stick to the ladder."

What the cowboy did not hear was the shrill call of his cell phone!  Several hundred yards behind him, the phone was steadily ringing, half-buried in the corn kernels inside the hog trap.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cheaper Military Technology

During World War II, General Patton had the dubious honor of commanding the First US Army Group (FUSAG).  The unit was centered in England and the Germans kept a close watch on its movement, since they believed that Patton's army would have a pivotal role in the upcoming invasion.  Reconnaissance planes regularly noted the position of the tanks, the smoke from the hundreds of stoves, etc.  The Nazis knew that the invasion was unlikely to start until Patton's army moved to the docks.

FUSAG, of course, did not actually exist.  The many tents were empty, the few vehicles that actually moved were driven in circles, and the tanks were an inflatable invention of Goodyear--sort of the ultimate "light" tank, but the ruse fooled the Germans.

The idea was so effective, so why not use it again?  Besides inflatable tanks, why not inflatable aircraft carriers?  Now that I think about it, Congress may have already co-opted this idea--the federal government seems to be full of things that are inflated: budgets, egos, and our currency.    At the same time, most government policies seem to produce nothing but air.  

In these days of tight federal budgets, it is a universal constant that the first budget to be cut is always the military.  Even though the world remains a deadly place, the Defense Department will once again be expected to do more with less.  This will take new, and innovative ideas, so we will have to think outside the padded cell.  Naturally, I have a few suggestions.

Far too much military hardware is way too deadly.  Sure, I know the main purpose of the army is to break things and kill people, but sometimes, you need a measured response, a non-lethal weapon.  For example, suppose that once again our nation is forced to fight France.   There's no need to use real tanks--we could use NERF Tanks.  You know, the foam rubber, soft stuff that lets children play outdoor sports indoors.

Inexpensive NERF Tanks should be easy to make--just take a giant foam rubber NERF body that vaguely resembles a tank (for maximum effect, make them pink) and glue them onto a Chevy Volt.  The government had Gutless Motors build a lot of these useless Go-Karts, and it's not like anyone is actually buying them.   (Yes, I know the Chevrolet Volt is very common in Washington DC, but I no longer care how many people I insult inside the Beltway.  Now that China has stopped blocking my blog, I have more readers in Beijing than in Washington, DC.  Or as we always say in West Texas: 请点击广告!)

We also need to develop Dumb Bombs.  No, I am not suggesting that we return to the technology of WWII, when hundreds of non-guided bombs had to be dropped to hit a single target.  I mean really dumb bombs.  In the event of war, transport planes should fly over enemy territory and parachute in lawyers, university administrators, NPR reporters, and any member of Congress who has lived in Washington for over ten years.  Each of these special troopers should be armed with a portable copying machine and several reams of blank memos.   Suddenly injecting this much stupidity into any country will render it totally incapable of fighting a war, balancing a budget, or setting up a website in less than four years.

This weapon needs to be kept top secret, since if our enemies find out, they will surely object that we are violating both the Hague and Geneva conventions by using weapons that can be categorized as both unusually cruel and a form of biological warfare.

Is there something wrong with our present stealth technology?  Have our enemies developed better radar?  Did Batman successfully sue for copyright infringement?  The Pentaganistagon isn't talking, but I get the sneaky feeling
our enemies have figured out how to spot our stealth planes.  Remember the stealth fighter?  Why was the futuristic F-117 mothballed?  Perhaps we need to develop newer, better stealthiness.

Let's start making fighter planes out of those little plastic dohickeys that hold the end shut on a bag of bread.  I think they are technically called bread clips.  Have you ever noticed, if you put one of those down on a kitchen counter, it completely vanishes?  It's like the only force holding them in this dimension is that plastic bag.  If we start making fighter planes out of these things, our Air Force pilots will have to follow a trail of bread crumbs to find where they parked them.  Our enemies will never find them.

Did you know that the Army has more boats than the Navy?  Or that the Army has more planes than the Air Force?  The Navy has its own army (the Marines), and has ships plumb full of air planes.  Obviously, the mission is to confuse the enemy.  It certainly confuses me.

With this confusion in mind, I propose that the Navy develop a flying submarine.  NO ONE will suspect this.  Enemy navies will waste a lot of time looking for a submarine underwater, but no one will think to look for it hiding in the clouds.  Naturally, this will render obsolete all those subs that can only hide underwater--but once again, I have a suggestion.

To save money, sell one (or more) of those obsolete attack subs to Greenpeace.  They need it, they can use it, and I would laugh my ass off if Greenpeace actually got one.  Instead of playing hide and seek with Japanese whaling ships, they could just suddenly surface (flying a green Jolly Roger Flag, of course!) and torpedo the whaling ship.  (Greenpeace, if you are listening, I'll be happy to donate to that cause!)

The US Army has started to de-emphasize the bayonet.  I guess the thinking is that you don't need to bring a knife to a drone fight.  Personally, I think they are wrong--we need bayonets--they still work.  It was only two years ago that Col. Gaddafi was killed by a bayonet when it was violently inserted into his brain.  (As a matter of fact, he was "assinated."  See this blog for deeper explanation.). Bayonets are not obsolete and they are cheap, but they need to be "rebranded."

Years ago, I had a student who was struggling on a final exam to tell me what Colonel Joshua Chamberlain did on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Out of ammo, Colonel Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for ordering a bayonet charge against a larger Confederate force.  The poor student remembered the events, named the significant players....but simply could not remember the word 'bayonet.'  So, she wrote about a courageous infantry charge with the 'stabby things.'  

I thought that was a magnificent answer.  And a fantastic name.  Any enemy would have to think twice about attacking an army equipped with Stabby Things.  Big Stabby Things. 

If you doubt that simply changing the name of something can make an army stronger, I have another story for you.  Almost fifty years ago, a small Latin American country got a new El Jefe.   Surprisingly, the dictator happily accepted the US State Department's offer of foreign aid in the form of the Peace Corps.  Unfortunately, when the Peace Corps actually arrived in the Banana Republic, the dictator became irate.

It turned out to be a vocabulary problem.  To the State Department, the Peace Corps consisted of three hippies and a retired music teacher, who would teach the locals how to plant tomatoes.  The dictator, however, had been expecting a real Corps--25,000 soldiers--to help hold the "peace." 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Park Benches

There are some great benches in the world--benches where you can sit and read or simply watch the world go by.  I'm not talking about the benches put
up for people waiting for buses--those are for tired people and loiterers.  I mean the bench placed in a spot designed for contemplation and deep thought.

My wife, The Doc's, favorite bench is in Pershore, England.  The local park, formally known as the King George V Playing Field, was donated to the town by William Chapman.  There is a great bench placed, presumably for the enjoyment of women and girls, where you can sit and read the sexist plaque and contemplate how much the world has changed since Mr. Chapman could get away with being a sexist pig.

I have a couple of favorite benches, too.  My absolute favorite is in Fort Worth, Texas--a town that pretends to be grown up, but is secretly a freckle-faced boy playing cowboy.  The town always wears chaps and a big hat two sizes too large.

It is surprising how many people get this backwards--grownups don't pretend to be children, it is always the other way around.  It is kind of like Halloween: every October 31st, we wear costumes for one day so that other people can get a glimpse of how we see ourselves all year long.

In Fort Worth, on the banks of the Trinity River, there is a bench with a life size statue of Mark Twain.  He sits there, watching the river and probably dreams of the Mississippi.  He has a copy of Huckleberry Finn in his hands, but he is watching the river.  The wry smile on his face is undoubtedly humor directed at what Texans call a river.  I can almost hear his voice:

"Back when there were real cowboys in this town, they probably amused themselves by leaping back and forth across it until they plumb tuckered out and then quenched their thirst by drinking it dry."

Tourists don't come across the bench very often, but enough locals come and bother Twain that it is easy to understand why he is only halfway done with that book.  They usually sit down next to him and then get some other fool to take their pictures.  Invariably, the author takes pity on their rudeness and doesn't say a word.  I left him alone, but while he was contemplating the current of the river, I quietly took his picture.

I know of another good bench that sits near an interesting statue.  It is far away, in Tegucigalpa, the capitol of Honduras.  Like almost every other town in Latin America built during the colonial period, Tegucigalpa follows the standard plan.  There is a plaza in front of a cathedral, surrounded by narrow streets and broad sidewalks.  This plan was set down by a Spanish regulatory agency called the Council of the Indies and was--quite literally--the law.  The Council was composed of qualified experts, a phrase which, when translated from legal lingo, means they were mostly lawyers who had never been to the new world. 

In the center of the plaza is a tall stone base topped by a beautiful statue of Francisco Morazán, the Honduran heroic revolutionary leader who briefly united all of the Central American Republics.  Today, the plaza is covered with men who will obligingly sell you lottery tickets from all over the world.  Honduras has always been obsessed with lotteries; at one point the Louisiana State Lottery was officially--and legally--operated out of Honduras.  (I could tell you why and how this came to pass, but that will have to wait for another day.  Or, you could just take my class on Modern Latin America that starts in January.  As I write this, there are two seats left.)

Damn it!  My mind has wandered off again, let me read the above and see where I was....okay.  Back in the plaza of Tegucigalpa, if you sit on the bench and ask politely--and purchase a lottery ticket--the ticket vendors will tell you the story of the statue of Francisco Morazán.

Back in the last days of the nineteenth century, Honduras had so many revolutions the phrase "Banana Republic" was originally invented to describe it.  During a brief period of relative peace, the businessmen of Tegucigalpa became interested in civic improvement and wanted to modernize the city.  Eventually, they decided on erecting a statue of their famous hero.

The business men donated money, held lavish dinners for potential contributors, and eventually held--naturally--a lotteria to raise the money.  The funds were entrusted to a prominent business man who hurried off to Paris to commission a bronze statue.  Unfortunately, neither the statue nor the businessman ever returned to Honduras.  I've been to Paris and I've been to Tegucigalpa, and I'm not terribly surprised.

The city fathers were understandably disappointed, but undaunted.  They started the fundraising project all over with more rubber chicken fundraising dinners and another lottery.  Understandably, this time, they didn't raise quite as much money as on the previous attempt, but they thought they had enough for the job.  And instead of sending one representative, they sent three men whose property holdings in Honduras would act as a guarantee that, this time, the money would not simply vanish into the bars and various other playgrounds of Paris.

Unfortunately, when the three men arrived in Paris, they discovered that statues were priced slightly above their ability to pay.  They offered the contract to many sculptors, but no one was willing to accept the commission.  They did, however, come up with a creative solution.

French politics change faster than French underwear, (or to paraphrase Mark Twain, "The French are wonderful people.  It is not their fault they are governed by prostitutes.") and when governments change, so do the statues in parks.  While I am sure that a lot of them are melted down for new statues, at least one of them emigrated to Honduras.

What the heck!  Morazán had died before photographs could be taken, and if put up high enough, and enough pigeons have paid the proper homage, I suppose almost any statue could pass for almost anyone.

So I sat on the bench and the former French military officer turned Central American revolutionary leader...and I contemplated the vicissitudes of political fortune...And I wondered why my official newly-purchased sweepstakes ticket had misspelled 'Ireland'.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Truth About the Assassination

Fifty years ago today, like every other American, I was shocked by the sudden assassination of our  young president.... Boy, I bet everyone is really tired of that line.  Why do we keep repeating that line?  It's not like a lot of people who were older than the president then are still alive now.  Back in 1963, I certainly knew he wasn't that young, hell, he was 46!  I was ten at the time and I knew that 46 was an age where you had probably already picked out your tombstone. 

Apropos of Nothing Whatsoever, (I REALLY wish that 5 years ago, I had picked that for the name of this blog!), Talking about the assassination suddenly reminded me of one of the great moments in education.  I was co-teaching a course with another professor.  I won't mention her name, but she had her sense of humor surgically removed during grad school.

In any case, several of our students had experienced  a vocabulary problem while writing on a test about Phillip II of Macedonia, who had been assassinated in 336 BC, possibly by his son, Alexander the Great.  About half the class wrote that Phillip was "assinated."  The next time the class met, I projected a picture of Phillip II.  I gave a brief, but bloody, description of exactly how he died.  Then I clicked a button on the digital presenter and it showed the next PowerPoint slide, one that showed the same picture with a large caption underneath, "Assassinated."

I let the students view this slide for a while, then showed the next slide, one of Edward the II.  Again I gave a brief description of his unhappy life and his very brutal death.  Extremely disliked, King Eddy was imprisoned and eventually murdered.  According to some accounts, a red hot poker was violently shoved up the royal rectum, possibly because it was rumored that the king was a homosexual.

At this point, I clicked the button for the next slide, one that showed the same picture of Edward II, but underneath was the caption "Assinated."  For several seconds, I flicked back and forth between the two slides:  Assassinated and Assinated.  On the next test, every student got it right.  I won't report the other professor's comments.

Where was I?  Oh yeah, 50 years ago.  Strangely I was in the same town as John F. Kennedy--at least for a little while.  We both woke up that morning in Fort Worth.  While I went to class, the president had breakfast, made a brief speech, declined to wear the cowboy hat presented to him, then drove to Carswell AFB to board Air Force One for the 13-minute flight to Dallas.  Yeah, that's right--thirteen minutes.  Nothing is more presidential than flying in on your own plane.

I want to make it plain (pardon the sort-of pun) that Kennedy left Forth Worth safely.  He got shot in Dallas--an event that, for years, changed the town's official motto from "Where the West Begins" to "We Didn't Shoot Him."

And almost immediately, a cottage industry sprang up.  There have been over a thousand books written on who the "real" assassin was.  For fifty years, nut cases with typewriters (and, more lately, computers) have come up with some of the wildest damn theories you can imagine.  He was shot by Cuban riflemen firing up from the storm drains.  (There are still NO storm drains in Dealey Plaza.)  He was shot by the driver of his own car.  (That cost some nut job author some long green: that secret service agent is still alive and promptly sued the author.)  You name it--it has been written.

And the television documentaries that have been made!  Two weeks ago, I set my Tivo to automatically record any show where the description contained the word "Kennedy Assassination."  As I write this, there are over three dozen shows recorded.  Amazing...

These ghouls should all be ashamed of themselves, endless profiting from the assassination of the young president.   Just because there is ca$h in the a$$a$$  Millions perhaps...How much did Bill O'Reilly make from that book?  And the movie deal?

Well, it is high time to finally tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  I am sure that all of us have seen those horrendous black and white photos of the crowd outside Parkland Hospital when the news was finally released that the President had passed away.  The camera then slowly pans the crowd, showing the raw emotion of the gathered crowd.  At left, is one of those photos taken from the original CBS broadcast of the crowd outside the Dallas hospital.

Notice how this unknown woman carefully places her hand over her face to conceal her appearance.  Trust me, you cannot watch any of those documentaries without seeing her image.  Could this actually be the true assassin coming to the hospital to make sure she had accomplished her mission?  Hiding in plain sight is the most effective method of not being noticed.  How else did this person get to the hospital so quickly?

And just who is she?

For the first time, I can reveal her true identity.  Observe the photo to the right, taken at roughly the same time.  Does it look familiar?  Notice the thin build, the cat's eye glasses, the short brown hair...  Who is this criminal mastermind?  The photo at the right is The Doc, my wife.

Oh sure, she "claims" she was 100 miles away in Wichita Falls--a claim that that has obviously not withstood the test of time.  Today, more than 50 years after the event, and despite several Congressional investigations and the concerted efforts of both the FBI and the Secret Service, not a single shred of evidence has been unearthed that shows my wife was NOT in Dallas that fateful day.

And consider this: The Warren Report, at 1,354 pages, contains not a single reference to my wife.  A coincidence?  I think not.  The failure of the FBI to even consider interviewing her demonstrably proves she is part of the giant conspiracy to conceal the truth. 

This is real proof.  Crystal clear photographs--not blown up sections of a lousy Zapruder film so fuzzy that if you squint your eyes just right you can find an image of anything from a duck to Elvis.  And both of these photos are absolutely provable to have been made in Texas!

I have more details, but I am not revealing them until I have finalized my upcoming book contract.  If something should happen to me in the upcoming weeks, check the thermostat in our home.  Eager to conceal her dark past, The Doc has been trying to freeze me to death for years.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Slamfire Perfection

Every now and then, a piece of technology comes along that is just about perfect.  Either a genius comes up with a wondrous design, a unique group of craftsmen labor over a masterpiece, a product that perfectly reflects the needs and uses of the people of its time,  or something comes along that can never really be improved upon.   Even more rarely, all four things happen at the same time.

It's not very hard to come up with such a list:  the 1957 Chevy Bel Air, the DC-3, the Swiss Army knife, the 1911 Colt .45 automatic, or the original Willy's Jeep.  All of these are classics, all will be useful forever, and for each of them, there is an army of devotees that endlessly think, "Why don't they make that again?"

My personal favorite would be the Winchester Model 1897 pump shotgun.  This is yet another fantastic firearm evolved from the brilliant designs by John Browning, a man who seems to have designed almost every good gun in history.  It is amazing that guns designed more than a century ago are still being used regularly, despite the fact that Winchester stopped manufacturing them when that Chevy Bel Air I mentioned could still be purchased--new--from your local dealer.

(By this point, I can almost "hear" readers everywhere whining--"Not another blog about guns!"  Relax, it is not really about guns--I promise you won't be subjected to a bucket of boring facts. Stick with me and I'll tell you a story about Roy Rogers.)

This old Winchester was an ugly, heavy brute made of machined steel--this was long before the process of using stamped aluminum parts to lower the weight became standard.  While it could never be called pretty, the gun sported an exposed hammer, could carry 5 rounds in a tube magazine (and one in the chamber), and possessed absolute reliability.  The gun proved so popular, that in 1912, Winchester began making a hammerless version of the gun, called the Model 12.

Hunters loved these guns, and in just a few years, after the start of the World War I, so did the military.

Winchester quickly made a special version of the gun, now universally called the Model 97, just for the army.  It had a shorter barrel, a sling, and a lug to mount the Model 1917 Bayonet.  Called a trench gun or a trench broom,  it was the perfect weapon for the kind of warfare the Doughboys suddenly found themselves thrown into.  Americans were the only soldiers in Europe using shotguns, and the unorthodox weapon quickly proved very effective.  You can imagine the shock of our Allies when soldiers actually used the guns to shoot and deflect the flight of grenades thrown by the Germans!

But it was the American use of these shotguns in the offense that got us into a little comic opera of diplomatic trouble with the Germans.  These guns didn't have a trigger interlock, which meant that soldiers charging an enemy position could hold the trigger back and work the slide as they ran.  This technique, called slam firing, was both frightening and devastatingly effective.  Since the guns were loaded with 6 rounds of 00 buckshot, and each round contained nine .32 caliber bullets, this meant the soldiers  could fire the equivalent of 54 rounds from a .32 caliber pistol in less time than it took to read this sentence. 

One of the "actions" to which the Germans objected occurred on 27 September 1918.  Sergeant Fred Lloyd, using a Model 97, advanced alone into a German-held village and began methodically clearing it, pumping and slam firing the shotgun as he moved. He finally collapsed with exhaustion after routing thirty German soldiers.

Germany, through the neutral Swiss, informed the Americans that they believed we were in violation of The Hague Convention by using illegal weapons capable of inflicting overly harmful wounds during combat!  Further, the Germans announced that, henceforth, any American captured with one of these illegal weapons would be summarily executed.

Illegal weapons?  Shotguns are one of the earliest gunpowder weapons developed by man.  And consider this: the Germans had pioneered the use of poison gas during this war, had introduced portable flamethrowers, had bombarded English coastal towns, and had torpedoed passenger ships from submarines, all of which were specifically banned by the Hague Convention...and they protested the American use of an overgrown bird gun?

Actually, the Hague Convention did not mention shotguns, and in future wars, every army would use them.

General Pershing let it be known that if the Germans executed Americans found carrying shotguns, he would order the execution of captured Germans armed with flamethrowers or knives with saw-blade edges.  The Germans did not respond, and there is no evidence that any Americans so armed were ever executed.

The Model 97 and the Model 12 served with all branches of the military through the Vietnam War, even though Winchester stopped production of the shotgun in 1957.  The gun was still a damn fine weapon, but production costs could no longer compete with cheaper shotguns using aluminum receivers.  Though Winchester stopped making them a long time ago, it is not hard to find these guns nowadays.  They are still regularly being used by hunters about a third the age of the guns they carry.

There is a great story about one of these Winchesters.  I'm not quite sure how accurate the story is, but you should never let a great story be ruined by too much extraneous truth. 

It seems that there was an annual celebrity skeet shoot in Hollywood that was both organized and regularly won by the television actor, Jameson Parker.  Every year, Parker would invite Roy Rogers to come out of semi-retirement and shoot in the tournament, and one year, Roy finally showed up--probably as much to be polite as out of any desire to shoot clay pigeons.

Roy Rogers was a little underarmed, at least as far as style goes.  He brought his Winchester pump shotgun.  Most of the other competitors, including Jameson Parker, were carrying custom-fitted, over and under double-barrel shotguns, specifically designed to murder skeet and other dangerous clay critters.  The cost of such a weapon is in the mid-five figures, and it usually comes with a handmade leather case.

Obviously, Rogers won the match, despite being about twice the age of Parker.  Not only that: he won handily, despite using a shotgun--roughly about the same age as he--that when new sold for about the cost of a good lunch at the club. 

Parker--who had no idea what the gun was--walked over to Roy Rogers and asked, "Roy, where did you get that shotgun?"

Roy Rogers smiled at Parker and answered, "I won it in a poker game from Clark Gable."

It's kind of hard to verify all the details of that story, but I can tell you for certain that next June in Denver, there will be a gun auction that features a Model 12 that used to belong to Roy Rogers.  It seems that the original paperwork that comes with the gun includes a name tag that shows that the original owner was Clark Gable.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Share If You Agree

The chain letter, at long last seems to be dead.  I'm still getting the occasional email from Nigeria telling me that, because of my sterling character (this is usually the point where I know the letter is not for me), some poor widow would like me to help her invest a vast inherited fortune.  I'm curious--Has anyone ever managed to accumulate a vast fortune in Nigeria?  (Other than its present dictator/President?)

Actual chain letters no longer seem to find their way into my email.  About the only vestigial remains that I get are some political nonsense--both left and right--from friends either too lazy or retarded to use Snopes.  The last line of such letters usually ends with "Only 10% of the people who receive this will have the balls to pass this on..."

What exactly do balls have to do with this?  If testicles indicated intelligence, I presume we would have more Nobel prize winners among Nascar drivers.  I can imagine the conversation: "....any consideration of the long-term consequence of these actions--TURN LEFT! --must, of necessity, factor in the hitherto unanalyzed feedback mechanisms--TURN LEFT!--that will arise...."

Another familiar phrase, "I'm not going to be the one to break this one...." Why not?  If you show the least amount of common sense or even a smidgen of individuality, will Odin smite you?

It is not that chain letters have vanished, it is more like they have caught a virulent strain of cancer, mutated, and metastasized over to Sit On My Facebook, where they have grown even more stupid.  How many times has an acquaintance posted something that says, "Let's see how many likes we can get for this?"  What possible difference does it make?  If we get enough likes, will Lassie get Little Timmy out of the well?  Does Tinkerbelle get to live another day?

Why do people post something that begs for as many people as possible to "like" the post?  Let's put this "like" nonsense into perspective.  I once posted a reasoned and rational letter comparing the foreign policy of Thomas Jefferson to current events and got a dozen likes--mainly from students eager to kiss my ass.  The Doc, my wife, posted a blurry photo of our cat washing his Nascar brains and got 1800 likes in a single day.

On the other hand, just this week, someone posted something that said, "Stop Bullying!  Share if you agree--otherwise you don't care about suffering!"  A perfect example of why Facebook needs a "Dumbass" button.

How many times will people fall for the same tired gag?  "Share and post the word 'One' and you will be amazed at how the picture of a mule changes into a photo of a fairy princess."  If you are gullible enough to comply, the only thing that will change will be that the mule has now been added to your photo album, where it might as well be used as a self-portrait.  How many triangles do you see?  80% of people will first see the word RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PUZZLE.  Can you think of a city whose name doesn't contain an 'E'? 

Or, how about, "GOD LOVES YOU!  Share within 30 seconds and God will reward you."  First, I didn't know that God followed social media that closely, but if he does, does he really work like a slot machine?  This is also why Facebook will never catch on in the Middle East.  "Do you love Allah?  Like and share if you want to stay out of prison!"

Then, there's the popular, "Share if you support prayer in school--ignore if you are a heartless, godless secular humanist who wants to destroy the American way of life."  If I am going to be subjected to pseudo-religion and wacky superstitions, I want to "friend" Pat Robertson.    No one can outdo Pat for total nut-job crazy.  I still remember his quote about the feminism: 

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

That's the kind of crazy that would make Facebook fun.  Share if you agree.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Peremptory Challenge

After recently reading a John Grisham novel, I have been thinking a lot about peremptory challenges; the right for an attorney to reject a limited number of potential jurors without having to give a reason.  This is in addition to the right to reject a juror for cause (an obvious bias that might keep the juror from reaching a fair verdict).

A peremptory challenge is a challenge based on just a hunch, and it is used to eliminate the odd duck who just doesn't fit.  I like this idea, and think that we could use the same principle on a number of occasions, both political and social.  Of course, this power would have to be used wisely, so I volunteer my judgement.  You're welcome!

The Supreme Court.  Probably no single American agrees with the opinions of all of the Supreme Court justices. Today, the country is so politically polarized, that most of us believe that about half the court should be replaced immediately.  Obviously, this can't happen.  For most of the justices on the court, I have to admit that on a regular basis, I am either surprised by how they voted or astounded at the logical arguments they present to back up their opinions.  Except for the two judges for whom I have accurately predicted how they would vote for over a decade.  Not once have they surprised me in the least with either their written opinions or their legal arguments.  Frankly, they are as useless as an Athletic Director, and since they always vote against each other, both can be safely eliminated.  I am, of course, talking about Clarence "Don't Wake Me" Thomas and Ruth "Buzzi" Ginsberg.  From both the right and the left, let's eliminate both of them and start over with two new judges.

The House of Representatives.  Obviously, we must challenge a congressman from each party--But, what should be our selection criteria?  God knows, the entire bunch should be thrown out on the simple basis of common sense--these leeches have turned what was supposed to be a short term opportunity to serve their country into a lifelong sinecure for bloated plutocrats, with a lower turnover rate than that of England's House of Lords.  No, there is only one fair way to exercise a peremptory challenge on two Congressmen: Intelligence.

So many choices and only two challenges....

For the Republicans, it has to be Representative Louie Gohmert from Texas.  To be fair, Gohmert may be more deranged that dumb, but to quote Forrest Gump, "Stupid is as stupid does."  Gohmert seems obsessed with issues that some of us weren't even aware of.  During a House debate on the military's "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy, Gohmert began raving about bestiality and necrophilia!  And Gohmert has frequently warned his constituents to be on the watch for "terror babies"--infants legally born here to visiting Al Qaeda operatives who will take advantage of their legal citizenship to attack America after they are grown up.  I have read his speech about "voting for a black man" several times and have absolutely no idea what he is talking about.  (Probably, neither does Gohmert.)

The Democrat choice must be Sheila Jackson Lee, also from Texas.  Congresswoman Lee (despite having served on the House Subcommittee for Space and Aeronautics), while touring JPL once asked if the Mars Rover could could take pictures of the American flag left there by the astronauts.  One of her ex-staffers once confided that he was astounded she hadn't complained of cost overruns on the Death Star.  Her stock in trade is to denounce something as racist, which she has done to causes as diverse as Pepsi Cola and the names of hurricanes.  A once stalwart defender of Enron, she has supported Iranian military exercises and sales of F-16 parts to Hugo Chavez.  The nation (and both parties) would gain from the exit of these two representatives.

The Senate.  Continuing in the bipartisan spirit, let's drop a senator from each party.  It won't change the political makeup of Washington, the balance of power will stay exactly the same, and we can let each political party pick a replacement.  Let's pick two senators who are both ideologues, two senators whose primary purpose in life seems to consist of endlessly repeating the inane talking points from his political party.  These two men are actually a hazard to anyone standing between them and a working television camera.  I invoke the peremptory challenge to Senators Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz.  It is way past time for both of them to go home and shut the fuck up.

TV Commercials.  What are the opposite ends of the television commercial spectrum?  Personally, it would be so satisfying to simply eliminate all the commercials made by Cancer Center Peg and Mesothelioma Doug.  (They have an illicit love-child who makes commercials for sufferers of Reptile Dysfunction.)

After some serious thought (any thinking done while drinking scotch) and quiet contemplation (while watching Top Gear) I finally realized what the opposite ends of the commercial spectrum would be.  All we have to do is eliminate all advertising for television reality shows that do not guarantee the fiery deaths of at least half of the contestants.  To balance this, we ban any fund-raising commercials to provide care for fly-covered children in Africa.  I see no reason to send any money overseas when there are needy, fly-covered History departments in this country.

Fast Food vs. Fine Dining.  Here, the choices are extremely difficult.  There are so many fast food places that deserved to be destroyed.  At Colonel Sanders, the "Drive Thru Window" sign is clearly a plea for justice.  McDonald's claims to have served billions, yet they are only on their second cow.  But, if we can only eliminate one single fast food restaurant, it has to be Taco Bell. 

Periodically, Taco Bell announces a new menu entrée--usually something along the lines of the Chimi-Grande-Taco-Rita.  Evidently, they believe we are too stupid to notice that every single item on the menu uses the same damn 5 ingredients:  ground meat, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and a tortilla.  I said ground meat, not ground beef, because it doesn't taste like beef and have you noticed that none of us has seen that chihuahua lately?

Besides, as we say here in New Mexico, "La comida Mexicana sin cerveza es como hacer el amor sin  besar."  (For you pendejo gringos, that means "Would you like imitation refried beans with that?")

On the other end of the spectrum, it pains me to say we have to eliminate Ruth's Chris Steak House.  This is a fantastic restaurant, but there is simply no choice.  Not only does a steak there cost more than either of my first two cars, but simply watching the television commercials raises my cholesterol count to dangerous levels.  If I ever decide to commit suicide, I will do it by eating there for a week.  I'll have a heart attack and exhaust my children's inheritance simultaneously.  In the unlikely event I live to eighty, I may live in this restaurant.  Between meals, I'll smoke large fat cigars wrapped in bacon.

I admit that this is a work in progress.  There are so many areas where a peremptory challenge would be useful, but this needs more thought (I'm running out of scotch.)  Would the Humvee be an acceptable choice for the elimination of the Chevy Volt?  Some might point out that production of the Humvee has already been halted, but I think this is still a fair choice as production of the Chevy Volt has never really started.

I'll get back to you as list grows.  (I'll get more scotch.)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

When We Want To— We Can Do It

Before the actual beginning of World War II, the United States began preparing for a war that many thought was inevitable.  We enlarged the army and began stockpiling the supplies that we thought would be necessary to fight the war.  Despite good intentions, these preparation were almost laughable.

When the war started, the army had 37 divisions—about 12% of the size of the eventual army—and we had enough supplies stockpiled for only one division to fight.  This was woefully inadequate, but the government quickly turned to mobilizing our industries to produce the supplies necessary to prosecute the war.

During the next three and a half years, wartime production was astounding.  Do you have any idea what a 1942 Chevrolet looked like?  It looked exactly like a 1942 Ford.  It had treads and a 75mm cannon.  Singer sewing machines came in .45 caliber.  Typewriter companies--many of which had gotten their start producing firearms during the Civil War--returned to their historic roots by making pistols and carbines.  Most existing industries shifted over to producing the materiel the military desperately needed.

The production numbers were staggering.  During the war, this country produced 86,000 tanks and we  built 297,000 airplanes and trained a vast army of young men to fly them.  (To put that number in perspective, that's about 50 times the size of the present US Air Force).  We also built machine guns for those planes and tanks (One estimate puts the total number of machine guns built at 4 million.)  This is in addition to the 15 million rifles we manufactured during the war years.

Besides tanks, we built 2 million army trucks and 640,000 jeeps—about a third of which were donated to our allies.  And of course, we made the tires and parts to maintain those jeeps, too.  To keep up with production, at one point we shipped an entire Ford production plant to Russia, set it up, and began manufacturing vehicles there.

And ships!--did we ever make ships!  During just the war years, we made 64,000 landing craft and 6,500 ships.  We built sixteen aircraft carriers and 288 submarines during the war.  And one man, Henry Kaiser, astounded the world by producing 747 large cargo ships.  Despite the fact that Kaiser knew so little about ship design that even by the end of the war he was still referring to the “left” and “right” sides of a ship, he certainly understood construction and mass production!

Building new shipyards and using innovative methods, he shortened production time to unbelievable levels.  The keel for the USS Robert E. Peary (DE-132, a 306-ft destroyer escort), was laid on Sunday, November 8, 1942 and the ship was launched 4 days, 15 hours later.  This cut almost six days off the previous record, also set by Henry Kaiser.

Those new dockyards attracted workers by the thousands, and health care for these workers also had to be provided.  Here, too, Kaiser was innovative.  He started the first HMO to care for his employees.  Seventy years later, the country’s largest HMO is still Kaiser Permanente.

Clothing companies made uniforms, shoe companies made boots, publishing companies made military manuals—and all of this production was numbered in the tens of millions.  There is simply no way to estimate the number of military bases, camps, and government buildings constructed during the war.  We can note, however, that the Pentagon was started in 1941 and finished in 1942 (no mean task for a building of 3.7 million square feet!).

During those three and a half years, the country created 7 million new jobs and trained the men--and women, whose presence in the work force doubled during the same time—to handle these jobs. (This is in addition to the 16 million men in uniform.)

It is important to remember that all of this production was of very high quality and subject to constant innovation and improvement.  Take the example of aviation:  at the beginning of the war, many military planes were still biplanes and Orville Wright was still alive.  By the end of the war, pilots were flying both jet and rocket planes.  Wright made his last flight during the war--in a Lockheed Constellation--piloted by Howard Hughes.  No one knows if Wright got to take the controls at all, but we do know that he made the observation that the Constellation's wingspan was longer than his first flight had been just 41 years earlier.

But, that was 70 years ago.  What happened?  Today, in slightly more time than the duration of World War II, our government seems to have hit its operational limit at producing a web page which--as I write this--still cannot verify my existence, despite my having paid income taxes for half a century.  I'm not convinced that our nation needs a national health care system, but if we must have one, let's do it superbly.

Where is Henry Kaiser when we need him?