Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beware the Ides of April!

We have safely passed the Ides of March.  In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, a soothsayer warns the dictator to beware the ides of March.  Although Caesar was very superstitious, he ignored the warning and was assassinated right on schedule in 44 B.C.  Someone should have warned Caesar that it was bad luck to be superstitious.

Ignoring the fact that Caesar had destroyed the Republic and ruled as a dictator, perhaps Caesar deserved to be killed for what he had done to the calendar.  Under the self-named Julian calendar, which Caesar had just imposed on the empire, the days of the month were not counted sequentially, but counted backwards from three points of the month; the nones (roughly the 5th or the 7th day of the month depending on the length of the month), the ides (the 13th or 15th day of the month), and the kalends (the first day of the following month).  So where we would say March 10, the Romans would say “Five days before the ides of March.”  Except of course they said it in Latin and used Roman numerals.  This made writing checks very difficult.

Since Shakespeare has already warned us of the ides of March, I thought I might warn you of the twin dangers of the ides of April—specifically April 14th and April 15th.  Together, these are peculiarly rough days.  I should confess, of course, that since April has fewer days than March, that the true ides of April is April 13, but such honesty is so rare today that we should husband it carefully and not waste it unnecessarily.  Many a good story has been ruined by too much truth.

On April 14, 1861, the Union forces of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor were forced to face the inevitable.  For two days, soldiers under the command of General Beauregard of the newly declared Confederate army fired on the tiny unfinished masonry fort.  After enduring over 3000 artillery rounds, Major Anderson
formally surrendered the fort.  The next day, April 15, all Union forces evacuated the fort.  This first small battle began the four year nightmare of the Civil War.    By the time the Union retook the fort, on April 14, 1865, over 600,000 Americans died—all of them killed by other Americans.

On April 14, 1865, a war weary Abraham Lincoln sat in Ford’s Theater watching a play:  Our American Cousin.  The president, who appeared to have aged a decade in just the previous dozen months, was clearly exhausted, but still elated by the surrender of General Robert E. Lee just five days earlier.  During Act III, Scene II, at 10:25 PM, John Wilkes Booth shot the president and made his escape.

Mortally wounded, Abraham Lincoln was carried on a door across the street to the Petersen Boarding House where the president was placed diagonally on a bed too short for his tall frame.  A series of well-meaning but incompetent doctors attended his wound, each pushing an unwashed finger into the wound to determine the exact position of the bullet—each reopening the wound and pushing the bullet further into the president’s brain.  Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865.

Just twenty minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912, the H.M.S. Titanic was steaming toward New York on her maiden voyage.  The largest passenger liner ever built, the ship carried 2,224 passengers and crew.  Despite having received numerous reports of sea ice in her vicinity, the doomed ship was traveling very close to her maximum speed when she struck an iceberg. 

For two hours and forty minutes, the passengers and crew tried to save themselves.  When the ship sank early in the morning of April 15, over 1500 people died in the frigid waters before a rescue ship arrived an hour and a half too late.  The loss of the Titanic is still one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.

As a historian, all of these events play endlessly in my thoughts as I struggle to gather what remains of last year’s receipts and financial statements.  General inertia, incompetence, and overwhelming sloth will prevent me from actually starting to prepare my taxes until April 14th in order to have the silly form in the mail by the ides of April—April 15th.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Safety in Numbers

Wonder of wonders—the TSA, the government agency in charge of providing security at the nation’s airports--has decided once again to allow passengers to carry small pocket knives aboard airplanes. 

Since I have carried a pocket knife since the third grade—except when specifically denied such a dangerous weapon by an overly protective government—I’m glad for the change.  Now that I think of it, the genuine Barlow that I carried when I was nine is still too large for what the TSA will allow on a plane today.

Since I have previously written on this subject--and proffered the TSA the kind of excellent and creative advice that one would expect from this blog--only to have the agency totally ignore me—this time I will just rejoice in my newly-recovered personal freedom.  I understand why, for the last 12 years, my government has been terrified of my pocket knife.  After all, the most lethal assault weapon in American history, responsible for the most deaths in a single incident, was a 1 inch box cutter in the hand of a terrorist on 9/11.

But that was then, and it is no longer possible for a terrorist to get into the cockpit of a plane with any kind of a knife.  I’m not sure it makes sense to disarm the passengers on planes in any way—remember that the only plane that failed to reach its intended target was stopped by passengers with improvised weapons.  Still, I guess I will have to settle for this one small concession by my government that I am not one of the guilty.  (At least as long as my pocket knife has less than a two-and-a-half inch blade:  three inches, I’m obviously a traitor.)

Since the TSA will not listen to me, I have a few suggestions for you—the traveler.  Actually, the internet is already full of travel advice: wear shoes without laces, buy a belt without a metal buckle, how to package your toiletries in small bottles, etc. ad nauseam.  None of this advice will in any way make you safer while you fly; all it will do is get you through airport security a little faster.  Getting through security faster just means that you will sit in the lounge longer.  This is kind of like walking fast on the people movers they have at airports—it just makes you work harder to get to the same place where you will end up waiting longer.

The biggest danger facing today’s traveler is a bomb.  Somewhere, somebody is working on a bomb that can be carried aboard a plane disguised as a rambunctious two year-old child.  Or something.  In the meantime, I suggest that we ban all small children from planes unless they are smaller than two-and-a-half inches tall.  Let’s err on the side of safety.  Or at least check them in as baggage.

The horrible truth is that we can’t keep a bomb off a plane–they are simply too easy to make.  Someone will combine something that looks like mouthwash with what looks like toothpaste, and stir it with what was supposed to be a fountain pen and–BLAM!  God knows, there are already loads of highly dangerous chemicals on board cleverly disguised as airline food.

All TSA can do presently is make it extremely difficult to get a bomb onto a plane.  The odds are supposedly 1 in 10,000 that you will fly on a plane with a bomb.  This is not necessarily frightening: it is at the very heart of my plan to fly safely.  If the odds are 1 in 10,000 that one person on a plane has a bomb, then it must be at least 1 in 1,000,000 that two people on a plane would be carrying bombs.

Obviously, whenever you fly on a plane, you should carry a bomb to improve your odds.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Revolutionary Economics

State and federal budgets are wildly out of whack--we have the kind of budgetary restraints you could expect to find with drunken sailors on shore leave.  Well, actually, no--when sailors run out of money, they generally stop drinking, quit spending, and eventually sober up and go back to work. 

Fortunately, we have no reason to fear.  Both the federal government and the various states have come up with several innovative--if not down right peculiar--ways to increase revenue.

In New York, the state has dramatically increased the tax on yoga studios.  (Really!  If I  came up with shit like that, you would stop reading.)  That should be enough money to make up half the the state's deficit.  And Mayor Bloomingbird has a plan to ban large soft drinks, salt, and headphones for iPods.  While none of this will do a damn thing to end the deficit, it should make the populace so angry they will forget the city's staggering debt. 

If none of this works, the back-up plan is to sell New Amsterdam back to the Dutch.

The deficit in California is staggering under debts that date back to former Governor "Fifty Shades" Gray Davis, who promised to whip the state into shape while actually just screwing the taxpayer.  By now, even the voters of California must realize they chose the least appropriate safe word:  "MORE!"

Now, Governor Brown & the California legislators have a multi-part solution.  First, they outlawed goose liver pate.  While this has not yet provided much financial relief, we all understand that some economic measures take time to be effective.  Second, California has solved the insolvency of the lottery-funded tuition program by diverting half of the proceeds into the purchase of additional California lottery tickets.  While the system is not yet solvent, the dramatically increased sales of the lottery tickets indicates that it is only a matter of time before the system is profitable.

This program is far superior to the New Mexico program.  Under that program, instituted by Governor Martinez, up to 5% of the state government income will be used to purchase lottery tickets from more profitable states.  According to scientists at Enema U, the program should be profitable within 10 years, or well into the term of the next governor.  Longtime resident Shirley MacLaine has been placed in charge of picking the winning lottery numbers.

Both Governor Brown and Governor Martinez have a backup plan:  if all else fails--they plan to annex Texas.

President Obama has identified a heretofore under-taxed pool of great wealth:  Professional Football.  "After we nationalize the two leagues," the president said, "they will be known as the National American Football League and the American National Football League."

"I want to assure Americans that if they already have a favorite team, they can keep it.  But for the millions of Americans who are too poor to have access to a team, or who live in a state that does not pay its fair share by supporting a franchise,  a team will be assigned to them.  Effective immediately, the position of Football Commissioner will be raised to a cabinet-level position."

And, of course, the president has begun a policy called Quantitative Easing to shore up the sale of Treasury Bonds.  The US keeps up the demand for US government-backed securities by purchasing large quantities of the securities with other US government-backed securities.  Currently, we buy $40 billion dollars worth of such funds a month.  (Hell--I didn't make up that nonsense, either!)

Actually, there is a little historical precedent for this last policy.  During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa operated along the US-Mexican border in the Chihuahuan desert.  As the Mexican government fell and every rebel army fought to seize control, the monetary situation of the country became insane.  Villa (and every other general) needed to pay his army and purchase supplies, so eventually every army captured a printing press and issued its own paper money.   Soon there was over a dozen different currencies being issued and begrudgingly accepted by skeptical merchants.  Adding to this chaos were counterfeit bills printed by opportunists with printing presses--with that many currencies floating around, no one could tell which was "real".

Pancho Villa was no exception.  His first attempt at printing currency was rather primitive--it looked like someone had used a rubber stamp on a piece of brown paper that had been used to clean a frying pan.  I imagine that the only way Villa could get anyone to accept that money was to have the army "persuade" them.

Eventually, Villa got the American Banknote Company of New York to print some money for him.  These bills are beautiful, and I have a couple of examples framed in my office.  They are real works of art and look, feel, and even smell like real money. 

When the American Banknote Company delivered a boxcar of the new paper currency--along with a sizable invoice for its work--Villa promptly paid for it with the new money.  Presumably the ever persuasive army was near by.  If you think about it, the company could hardly complain that its own handiwork wasn't real.

Who knew that Pancho Villa, the father of modern economic theory, invented Quantitative Easing?   

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Menger Hotel

San Antonio, one of my favorite places in Texas, is huge.  Somehow, that sleepy little mission town in Texas grew to the eighth largest city in the US.  The center of the town is built around the old Alamo, and nearby is the Riverwalk.  I like the way the San Antonio River meanders around downtown like a toddler playing in a parent's office.  In particular, I like the Menger Hotel.

Like a lot of good stories (including this blog) the hotel got its start because of beer.  William Menger was born in Hessen, Germany and migrated to Texas along with a wave of other German settlers.  If you find anything in Texas over a hundred years old and it's still standing, chances are that it was built by Germans.  William landed in Galveston and spent six weeks by wagon train traveling to San Antonio.  I've traveled that same distance in three hours by car. 

By trade, William Menger was a cooper--a barrel maker--a good profession in a frontier town.  It didn't take Bill (as he was called in Texas) long to marry a good German girl and start a business.  He imported hops and malt from New York and soon the people of Texas could buy Menger beer by the barrel.  Two years later, Bill and his wife opened a tavern for the customers who wanted to buy beer by the stein and not by the barrel.  That beer must have been rather strong, for it didn't take too long for the Mengers to realize that some of their customers needed a place to spend the night.

Their hotel is old--it was built in 1859, just 23 years after the Alamo battle.  The first guests of the hotel could cross the street and wander the ruins of the old adobe mission and still smell the acrid burnt gunpowder. 

The hotel immediately was a great success--and it became the place to stay if you were in Texas.  Sam Houston, Ulysses Grant, Phil Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Robert E. Lee all stayed in the hotel.  According to Menger family legend, Lee rode Traveler into the lobby of the hotel, scooped up Bill Menger's daughter and gave her a gold necklace.  While it might be hard to imagine the stately General Lee riding his  horse into a hotel, the Menger family still has the gold necklace.  Who knows?  Lee was only a Lt. Colonel at the time, maybe he was a little wilder before the war.

Menger got rich running that hotel and eventually he took his wife on holiday to Europe.  While there, he watched a modern fire department battle a house fire using a modern pumper truck.  When Bill returned to Texas, he brought a pumper with him--the first in the state.   Naturally, the device was named 'The Alamo,'

For years, the hotel was the center of Texas society.  Lily Langtry stayed at the hotel, as did Buffalo Bill Cody, and Annie Oakley.  William Sydney Porter--better known as O. Henry--wrote several of his short stories while staying in the hotel, and he mentioned the hotel in several others.  Unfortunately, Porter had to depart the hotel in a hurry--he fled to South America to temporarily avoid being arrested for embezzling.  Porter wasn't the only thief to stay at the hotel; it was home--at least temporarily--to Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, News Carver, Ben "The Tall Texan" Kilpatrick, and Frank James.

The hotel predates the nearby military base, so Patton, Doolittle, and Pershing all stayed there.  Colonel Tommy Tompkins, the legendary leader of the Seventh Cavalry, lived in the hotel for years.  According to legend, Bill Menger helped pick the site for Fort Sam Houston. 

Many presidents have signed the register, including Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, and Benjamin Harrison.  (This is, of course, if Benjamin Harrison ever actually existed.)  The hotel arranged a parade for President Harrison, and when he was delayed, the hotel went ahead and held the parade without him!  That's not much of a parade--but then Harrison wasn't much of a president.

There is one President who will forever linked be to the Menger:  Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1898, at the beginning of the Spanish American War, Teddy used the bar of the Menger as the recruiting headquarters for the famous Rough Riders.  The bar had just been remodeled in mahogany and the finest crystal glasses had been obtained.  Ice was shipped in from Boston and the specialty of the house was a chilled mint julep served in a frosted sterling silver goblet.  Seven years later, Teddy and the boys staged a reunion in the bar.

The hotel has an extraordinary list of ghosts that haunt it and all the usual stories of wild parties through the years.  One dusty cowboy came in off the trail and refreshed himself by filling a bathtub with champagne.  Another guest checked in with his pet alligator, but when he checked out he was short the cash to pay his bill.  He left his pet as collateral, and Bill (the gator was named after the hotel's founder) lived in the hotel garden outside the bar for the next fifty years.

Carrie Nation, the famous prohibitionist, never stayed in the hotel, but she used to yell in the bar a lot, though thankfully she did not bring her famous hatchett.   Eventually, the bar had to close during Prohibition, but luckily, the owners were willing to bet that the ban on liquor wouldn't last forever, so the bar was carefully packed away.  Every glass and goblet was preserved, and eventually the bar was able to open up again.  Presumably, Bill the Gator waited patiently in his pond.

As the Wild West closed, the hotel attracted it's share of the famous Hollywood stars from the New Wild West. John Wayne drank in the bar.  Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (and even their dog Bullet) stayed in the hotel so long that you can still stay in the suite named for them.  John Wayne drank in the bar.  Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, and Babe Ruth were guests.  John Wayne drank in the bar.

The Duke wasn't the only person who drank in that bar.  In February 1974, my wife and I spent our honeymoon at the Menger. Eventually, I made it down to the mahogany bar and ordered that mint julep.  They served it to me in a frosted silver goblet, just the way Teddy would have wanted one.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

New Rule!

Cecil B. DeMille used to say that they called them "starlets" because piglet was already taken.  The quote immediately came to mind as I read the news story about a Hollowood starlet's being denied a seat on an airline because she insisted that her toy  poodle was actually a "service dog."  I don't even want to contemplate just what service the dog was providing.

Service dogs are everywhere--not just dogs for the blind, but dogs that warn you of pending emotional crises, among other things  I'm still waiting to hear of a service cat.  This will make the news, sooner or later.  Someone will lug a cat around because their therapist will have told them that, periodically, they need someone to tell them to fuck off.  A cat would be good for that.  (Cats are actually angry old women in bad fur coats.)

I am skeptical about most service dogs--I need more information.  I am quite sure that I believe in some working dogs.  Seeing Eye Dogs are real.  Bomb and drug-sniffing dogs are real--I once watched a drug sniffing dog crawl through my truck and accurately locate an unopened half pint of bourbon that I keep in case of snakebite.  The dog did not however, locate the small snake that I keep in case of thirst. 

But the other kinds of dogs?--I need more proof.  As a matter of fact, I have a new rule for testing highly questionable, though popular maladies to see if they are valid: Do they happen to farmers?  That's it--it's a very simple rule.  Farmers are too busy to put up with most bullshit.  If you read about a farmer keeping a dog inside the cab of his tractor to warn him about an impending panic attack--then you can take the trend seriously.

We have all kinds of trendy nonsensical disability fads.  A few years ago, I had several students every semester who were adamant that they could only do well on a test if they were allowed to take the test on purple paper.  Somewhere, there was a social worker or psychologist who had an entire herd of sheople convinced that they had a real disability.  This group was so convincing that the Office of Enforced Uniformity at Enema U sent me directives that failure to comply with this foolishness was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Despite the fact that I was violating a federal law by not using purple paper--I ignored them.  Sure enough, in about a year, the whole fad was proven nonsensical and promptly disappeared.  I wonder how much purple paper the schools still have on hand?

If you stay up past midnight, every other channel on television is trying to sell you medical magnets.  You can cure everything from seasickness to arthritis with magnetic bracelets, shoes, and belly wraps.  This is the twenty-first century version of the chicken bone necklace from the Middle Ages.  This nonsense is embarrassing--you couldn't have sold this crap to farmers two hundred years ago.

And whatever happened to people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)?  You remember--people who wore surgical masks at the mall because they were so hyperallergic/sensitive to changes in the environment that they could die if someone two counties over broke a bottle of bug spray.  Since I never heard of any farmers getting this, I ignored these kooks, too.

I used to have a student who claimed to have severe allergies and suffer from MCS.  I was forced to allow her to show a video to the rest of the class the first day of the semester.  The little movie showed us how to locate and use her Epipen if she should suddenly collapse from her chair due to an allergic reaction to the environment.  And then she handed out pamphlets to everyone in the room advising us that we were forbidden to wear perfume, cologne, smoke a cigarette before class, or handle a wide list of common household products such as all bathroom cleansers on any day we had class with her.  I wondered at the time how the agency that issued this warning thought they could enforce this nonsense--As it turned out, they couldn't.  That college student was as obnoxious and hateful as any four year-old child that I have had to sit next to on a airplane.

Within a month, she was so hated that ever single student was trying to put that kid in the hospital.  The whole classroom stank like a French whorehouse.  Just before class started, people who hadn't lit up in years were just outside the building, chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes.  I personally scrubbed that student's desk with everything from ammonia to Formula 409.  I won't say we were trying to kill her, but the only place we would have shoved that Epipen was in her eye.  And it was all a waste of time--that girl was as healthy as a horse. 

I should have known so--that crap never happens to farmers either.