Saturday, April 26, 2014

Is There Always a Fat Sam?

In the ocean, there lives a tiny barnacle that, once born, spends the first part of its life just floating happily around in the water, allowing the currents and tides to sweep it along.  This is the administrative portion of its life.   No!—that cant be right.  Actually, the barnacle (unlike most administrators) has a purpose:  it is searching for a home.  As the little barnacle drifts, it is searching to find the perfect spot to attach itself.  A stationary life form needs an ideal location so that the passing currents will constantly provide it with a rich diet.

Once such a spot has been located, the barnacle secretes a powerful glue to permanently affix itself.  It will spend the rest of its life in this spot.  Once securely fastened, the barnacle begins to eat its own brain, since that organ is no longer needed.  This process is known as getting tenure.

This has been one of those weeks here at Enema U: the end of the semester is always a little hectic, and all the activity frequently stirs up a little slime from the bottom of the swamp.  This week, one of our more obstructionist lumps in the road pried himself up and out of his pothole of self-imposed isolation long enough to annoy his colleagues (and I say colleague in only the most generous sense of the word) who are too good-natured and preoccupied with students to respond to his habitual harassments.

The concept of tenure originated to ensure that faculty members were always free to speak freely in their classrooms, to engage in research that small-minded politicians and powerful donors might find embarrassing, and to publish their opinions regardless of who might wish to censure them.  Tenure is a noble idea, but like all such lofty freedoms, can easily be abused by the lazy and the inept.  What should have been a shining shield, has become a soiled hammock--for this individual at least.

This professor in question uses tenure with so much gusto for the latter purpose, that, perhaps, it is time for the gentle good people of his department to stop ignoring the childish tantrums, the calculated insults and taunts and respond as a group.  I suggest we give this fool the Fat Sam Treatment.

Just a few decades ago, Fat Sam was the resident bully in a small town boarding house.  The landlady was showing a prospective tenant around the house, pointing out the common rooms and the available amenities.  The landlady could tell the newcomer was interested in renting a room, but she struggled as she explained the antics of Fat Sam, her difficult tenant.

“He usually stays in his room,” the landlady finally said.  “It is just at dinnertime the he is really rude.  He has such horrible table manners and he has one particularly disgusting habit.”

 “Whats that?” asked the new tenant.

“When I serve the main course, he looks over the platter until he finds the largest serving, and…and he spits on it!  Then he yells, ‘Thats MINE!”  He does this every night and--no matter how many times I talk to him--I cant get him to stop.”  The landlady was almost in tears.

“Dont worry about it,” said the new tenant.  “Ive dealt with his sort before.  Ill take the room.”

Sure enough, that very night, all the tenants were pleasantly seated at the dinner table when the landlady brought out a large platter of port chops.  Almost immediately, Fat Sam leaned over the tray and peered closely at the steaming meat.

HARRACK-Ptuii! Fat Sam had spit on the largest pork chop. 

“Thats MINE!” Fat Sam yelled to the assembled guests.

The new tenant leaned over the platter.

HARRACK-Ptuii!   HARRACK-Ptuii!  The new tenant had clearly spit, twice, on the same pork chop!

“You can have it.” The new tenant said calmly.

Maybe that is not the way most universities would handle the problem, but do most universities have a Fat Sam?  Here at Enema U, perhaps it is time for us to try something different!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Keep Your Powder Dry

Captain Merriweather Lewis had a problem:  President Jefferson had tasked him with exploring the new lands to the west of the new nation, so Lewis was to lead a party of 38 men across the continent to the Pacific Ocean and return.  Along the way, they were expected to map routes, explore the countryside, live off the land, and secure safe passage through dozens of Indian tribes' territories.

Naturally, this was to be a heavily-armed party: while they certainly did not want to fight hostile Native Americans, they had to be prepared to do so in an emergency, and they would need to kill wild game for food (and protection).  Unfortunately, sufficient amounts of gun powder and lead shot were extra weight that would have to be carried across the continent, and over rivers, mountains and prairies that lacked a single road-- twice.  All in all, this was a logistical nightmare.

Author's Note.  The party was made up of 38 men and one woman: Sacajawea.  Sacajawea was married to the one of the men on the expedition and was, at least for a while, an interpreter and possibly a guide.  Today, she is the only member of the expedition who has been honored by having her likeness on a one dollar coin.  Unfortunately, the coin proved to be unpopular and was soon discontinued.  It is a shame that the US Treasury didn't ask a historian to explain more about the role of Sacajawea on that expedition.  The Native American woman proved to be an excellent companion, in part because she was nursing an infant.  Suspicious Native American tribes were somewhat reassured by the peaceful intentions of a party accompanied by a breast-feeding woman.  If the treasury had put that image on the coin, it would have been much more popular--every teenage boy could be counted on to have at least one in his pocket.

Lewis, and his partner Clarke, came up with several clever ideas.  One was to carry the gunpowder in lead foil casks.  As the gunpowder was used, the foil casks could be melted down and cast into bullets.  The journals of the expedition do not give much of a description of this, but the expense records still exist, and show that Lewis bought 420 pounds of sheet lead and paid a plumber to fashion 52 canisters, each weighing 8 pounds and holding 4 pounds of gunpowder.  After a lot of trial and error, historians have estimated that each was about 4 inches wide and 10 inches tall.

It would seem that about half the gunpowder was carried this way, with the rest being carried in the usual heavily tarred 24 pound barrels.  Still, the expedition found another way to conserve its precious gunpowder: they took along--and frequently used--an air-powered rifle.
The gun they took along was a far cry from a traditional BB-Gun.  This was a real weapon.   It was accurate, powerful, much quieter than a normal rifle, had very little recoil, and could fire about a dozen times a minute.  Where did this wonder weapon come from?

Toward the end of the 18th century, a Tyrolian master gunsmith, Bartolomeo Girandoni, had created a weapon that was an engineering marvel: The Girandoni air rifle.  Using a hand pump, the shooter could pressurize a tank in the butt of the rifle sufficiently for the firearm to fire a .46 caliber ball up to 80 times before the air tank had to be recharged.  Accurate out to about 150 feet, at fifty feet it was accurate enough to put ten rounds in a group about the size of a quarter.  The Austrian Army actually used the weapon in combat against the Turks.  How such a weapon made its way across the ocean to America is still a mystery.

The weapon could be fired rapidly since the rifle held 22 balls in a tubular magazine.  In all, the rifle was a marvel--the only drawback was that the rifle was a little fragile and recharging the air tank required that a hand pump had to be stroked 1500 times!  And for normal military use, the weapon had a significant disadvantage:  it was far too delicate to mount a bayonet.  Until the middle of the 19th century, traditional military doctrine held that the firearm was used to develop a hole in the line that was exploited by the bayonet.  In almost all such engagements, far more casualties were cut or stabbed than shot.

While there is no record of the expedition's actually hunting with the rifle, it did prove extremely useful.  When the expedition encountered a new band of Native Americans, the group staged a demonstration of the air rifle.   In particular, they demonstrated how rapidly the gun could be fired.  This subtly gave the natives at least the suggestion that all the men on the expedition might be similarly armed.  If 38 men could each fire 22 times...  Well, it was certainly a powerful hint that it might be best to leave the expedition alone!  (They presumably never demonstrated how long it took to recharge that air tank!)

Lewis recorded in his journal that the rifle was demonstrated every time a new tribe was encountered.  Only after that were the various gifts and trade goods distributed among the natives.  

“My Air-gun…astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend its shooting so often and without powder…”  -Meriwether Lewis, Jan. 24, 1806

Every history book tells us that the expedition was successful and remarkably peaceful.  How much of this was due to the demonstration of the charms of Sacajawea and how much was due to the impression made by the weapons of the party, I leave to you.  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

General Yellow Jack

The most effective general in the history of Russia is probably General January.  The horrible cold, the snow and the ice have defeated invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler when the peasant armies could not.  No matter the size of your army, the quality of its guns, or even the size of its artillery, General January has always been the ultimate victor.

Less well-known, however, is that there is an equally formidable military protagonist in North America:  General Yellow Jack.

Ships coming into harbor carrying yellow fever would anchor off-shore and would hoist a yellow flag or "jack" to warn off other ships.  This self-imposed quarantine had devastating consequences for the isolated crews--sometimes the entire crew would perish.

Yellow Fever is a viral disease that killed one out of five people stricken with the mysterious illness.  Victims complained of intense headaches, fevers, chills, and frequent vomiting.  The patient’s skin turned yellow as the liver slowly ceased to function.  Dark bruises appeared on the victim’s skin and the more severely afflicted began to cough up what looked like coffee grounds—in reality coagulated blood as the victim began to drown in his own blood.

Every year, successive yellow fever epidemics would sweep across the US and some cities suffered almost annually, devastating the population.  Between 1693 and 1901, ninety-five epidemics swept the country.   Poor Philadelphia was hit eleven times, with one epidemic killing one out of ten people in the city. 

Unfortunately, how the disease spread, what caused it, and even any means to effectively treat it were completely unknown.  The most popular theory was that the disease was caused by an "imbalance of humors" and the result of "bad air".  A common prevention was to open more windows and let in more good air (and a few more mosquitoes).  It is the blackest ironic humor to consider that this disease (like malaria and several others) probably came to the new world in the water barrels of slave ships.  The Amazon rainforest was not a mystery well into the twentieth century because travel to it was difficult--it was because travel in the mosquito-infested wetlands would kill you with the diseases that the Europeans had brought there.

The disease has, indeed, been a powerful force in military history.  In 1793, a slave revolt broke out against the Grand Blancs who were quite literally working their slaves to death in their sugar camps.  The riot was brutally violent, with horrible atrocities committed on both sides.  Napoleon, then the emperor of France, sent a large army to put down the rebellion. 

Napoleon's army arrived in Haiti just in time to meet General Yellow Jack in a full-blown epidemic.  Of the 25,000 troops sent there, only 3,000 survived.  Among the dead was Napoleon's son-in-law, General LeClerc.  Shortly after this, diplomats from the United States showed up, wanting to buy the port city of New Orleans.  Napoleon, still reeling with the loss of his army in Haiti, had just heard that a fresh yellow fever epidemic had broken out in New Orleans.  Disgusted with the entirety of the pestilent New World, he decided to sell to the American ambassadors all of Louisiana for roughly the price the diplomats were willing to pay for just New Orleans.  General Yellow Jack had just doubled the size of the United States.

Back in Haiti, the French abandoned the island.  Because of General Yellow Jack, Haiti had the only successful slave revolt in history to result in an independent state.

Almost 50 years later, the United States was at war with Mexico.  General Winfield Scott was to lead an Army to Mexico City, capture the capital, thus ending the war.  To do this, he had to capture the port city of Veracruz.  The city was almost impregnable due to heavy fortifications on an island in the harbor.  The fort's guns pointed toward the city, while the city's guns faced the harbor.  Enemy ships sailing between the guns would be destroyed long before they could reach the docks in order to unload.

General Scott landed his troops south of the city, marched them north and inland, and then used his artillery to shell Veracruz from the inland.  After a full day of barrage, the town was ablaze, the hospital destroyed, and more civilians than soldiers had been killed.  European diplomats left the town under a flag of truce, to plead with General Scott to stop the bombardment, but Scott refused.

The next day, the shelling continued for hours, until the town finally surrendered.  By this time, over 6,700 rounds had been fired into the city.  These artillery rounds were far, far from being smart bombs: they had killed over 1500 people, over a third of whom were civilians. 

General Scott had a reason to commit what was, at best, an act of total warfare, and, at worst, a war crime.  No one knew why, but the city experienced annual yellow fever epidemics starting in spring--roughly in the middle of April.  Scott had landed in late March, and  knew that if he could get off the beach and move his army farther inland fast enough, he could save the army by moving across the "fever line" on a map.  What Scott did not know, was that that line on the map indicated where the terrain became too high and dry for mosquitoes.

Within months, Scott's army took Mexico City, Mexico surrendered, and it sold half its territory to the US for a pittance.  While Mexico shrunk by half, the United States--with the aid of General Yellow Jack--grew by a third.  The cost of this conquest was high:  1,192 men were killed in action, but 11,155 more soldiers died of disease.

General Yellow Jack--in cooperation with his colleague, General Malaria--easily defeated the French attempt to dig the first Panama Canal.  After successfully completing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to build a 75 mile-long canal across the swamps and mountains of Central America.  In 1884, 500 young French engineers began supervising what was thought to be a project of three years.  None of the engineers lived long enough to collect their first month's paycheck.

When the Panama project was inspected by the crew of a British warship, the entire crew died of yellow fever.

The European work force, which eventually numbered over 20,000, battled insects as much as they did the mud and dirt.  The legs of tables, chairs, and beds were placed into pots of water to prevent the insects from crawling up the furniture.  The disease-carrying mosquitoes didn’t really need these improvised breeding grounds as the Europeans also left the windows open wide for the ventilation they believed would prevent disease. 

After the mosquitoes had killed a third of the work force, the French (predictably) surrendered and sold the construction rights to the United States.  Armed with the knowledge we had acquired from fighting in Cuba, the US finally knew what caused the disease.  After a tremendous effort where the U.S. Army declared war on General Yellow Jack, the canal was completed in 1914.

Some of the battles were still close.  A yellow fever epidemic in 1904 killed so many of the workers that their coffins stacked up faster in the railroad depots along the canal than the trains could haul them away.

Many people believe that General Yellow Jack has been retired, no: he and his fellow veterans--General Malaria and Field Marshall Plague--are just waiting in the reserves for an opportunity to do fresh battle.  While they wait, they have welcomed new recruits:  Lieutenant Ebola and Captain Lassa have joined the ranks.  We win battles, eventually they win the wars.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Tequila: A Health Drink?

On a regular basis, students interrupt me during class in my History of Mexico course.  Right in the middle of my fascinating lecture on how the French invasion resulted in a humiliating defeat at the hands of a Mexican army...

"Can you explain the different types of tequila?" asks some student.

For this I went to grad school?  I am eminently qualified to teach a course about Mexico:  I have traveled extensively in the country, I have degrees in History, Anthropology, and Latin American Studies, and most important of all, I meet the standards for the Sarah Palin International Diplomacy Test:  I can see Mexico from my house.

"Yes, I can." I calmly answer.  And shortly, you will be able to, as well.

First off, real tequila comes from Mexico and is made from the Blue Agave plant.  Some scoundrels have smuggled plants out of Mexico to start farms in Australia and South Africa.  I don't know what they will call their beverage (Aborigine Piss?  Cactus Crud?) but real tequila comes only from the area surrounding the Mexican city of Tequila. 

Supposedly, the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their prized brandy relatively soon after theyconquered the Aztecs in 1521.  Without sufficient wine to distill to make brandy, they turned to the local Aztec alcoholic beverage, pulque.  Today, pulque is considered a drink for the lower classes, and is decidedly unhygienic.  It is not exactly pasteurized:  I have held glasses of it up to the light and actually seen things swimming in there!  No sane person would drink it.  I love it.

The Spanish distilled the pulque and produced tequila.  By 1600, it was being mass-produced.  And--predictably--within a few years, it was being taxed by the state. 

Today, they still gather the root ball of the blue agave, roast it, mash it, and place the agave juice in a vat to allow natural fermentation.  This lightly-fermented juice is then distilled and the end product is tequila.  If you age this for less than two months (if at all), and then bottle it, you have Plata (silver) or Blanco (white) tequila.  This is the cheapest brand or quality, and is suitable for mixed drinks, where the kind of tequila you use absolutely doesn't matter.

Well...actually some companies color and flavor Plata with caramel and the resulting concoction is called Oro (gold) or Joven (young) tequila.  This is the perfect tequila to never  buy or drink under any circumstances.  It is also the most popular.  With Morons.

If you bottle the tequila in oaken barrels, for anywhere from two months to a year, you have reposado (rested) tequila.  This is a fine "sipping" liquor, with flavors that vary from very sweet (indicating the agave plant is from the highlands), to a complex, herbaceous flavor.  This is my favorite tequila. 

A good reposado is a great tequila to enjoy while talking with friends.  I recommend trying it in Zacatecas at my favorite bar; Quince Letras (pictured).  Go late at night and contemplate the history of this old silver mining town nestled in the high sierras.  Men were sitting in that bar when Pancho Villa attacked the town a hundred years ago, and they will probably be doing the same thing in another hundred years.  Somewhere around midnight, you may hear a shrill whistle outside the bar.  A street vendor with a an old steam-powered calliope on a cart makes the rounds of the bars and restaurants.  For practically nothing, he will sell you a steam-cooked sweet potato covered in cinnamon to enjoy with your tequila.  I miss Zacatecas...

Back to the distillery.  If you let your tequila age in a fine oaken barrel (the best ones are second-hand bourbon barrels purchased from the Jack Daniels distillery) for anywhere from one to three years, the result is añejo (aged) tequila.  Age it longer than three years and you get Extra Añejo--and the price goes up exponentially.

The longer a liquor is aged in wood, the less harsh the alcohol flavor and the milder and smoother the taste.  In my own humble opinion, the añejo tequila loses some of the distinctive flavors I like--perhaps it has been aged too much.  I like good strong-flavored liquor and spicy food--after all, if the taste is too mild, how can I be sure it's bad for me?

While I personally buy reposado, I will be happy to drink your añejo.

There are two popular misconceptions about tequila that need to die.  First, there is no worm in the bottom of a bottle of tequila--unless you have stumbled onto some tourist crap especially produced for pendejo gringos (Spanish for rich tourist).  You can find worms in the bottom of Mezcal  (Spanish for "turpentine").  If you see a bottle of Herradura for sale with a red worm in the bottom of the bottle, you will not be the first person to have pulled that cork.

The other misconception is that whole "lick-shoot-suck" nonsense.  You might need salt and lime to cut the alcohol taste of mezcal, but you do not need it for a shot of reposado.  Have you ever seen someone suck a lime after drinking expensive cognac?  No!  And for exactly the same reason.  People who use salt and lime while drinking fine tequila are no better than those people who use ketchup in a fine French restaurant.  (But, if you do use ketchup, the French waiters will surrender.)

This discussion is much more important than you might think.  Researchers in Mexico have just discovered that the natural sugars found in agave juice, called agavins, are natural inhibitors of diabetes and obesity.  Yes, this research actually shows that drinking tequila can help prevent weight gain.  Who knows, doctors just might start prescribing a nice reposado for your health.  It would certainly help sell Obamacare.

And, as an expert on Mexico, I know it works. After all, none of us has ever seen a fat Mexican.