Saturday, March 28, 2015

Floating Pride

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a ship that, over time, was a warship in service for six different countries.  Today, I want to discuss a ship that was—for a while—the largest ship in the world.  During her lifetime, she had four names, had almost as many nicknames, was owned by three different countries, and was the most magnificent and luxurious ship afloat...and today, few have ever heard of her.

During the end of the Edwardian Era, the major countries of Europe began an informal contest to develop the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ships afloat.  In the minds of many, there was no better symbol of a country's honor and power than the size of her merchant navy.  Kaiser Wilhelm, jealous of (his uncle) King Edward's naval power, was encouraging his country to construct the largest ships ever built.

Germany knew of the soon-to-be-completed Titanic and her sister ships, and began drawing up blueprints for three ships that would surpass her in every regard.  The Europa, was to be larger, longer, faster, and in every regard more impressive.  Curiously, while England and Germany competed with each other, they both fashioned the interiors of their ships after French style, but if the Titanic and the Olympic were to be French villas, the Europa was to be a chateau.

As the entire world knows, the Titanic was launched first, and almost immediately lost, on April 15, 1912.  About the same time, Kaiser Wilhelm had his ship renamed: she was now the Imperator and when launched, she was the largest ship afloat.  Where the Titanic was 882 feet long, the SS Imperator was 919 feet, and where the Titanic could carry 2600 passengers, the Imperator could accommodate 4600.

Almost immediately, the Cunard Line announced that there new ship, the HMS Aquitania would be slightly longer than the Imperator, so a large bronze figurehead of an eagle was added to Imperator's bow, once again capturing the title—only to lose it again a few months later to her sister ships, the Vaterland and the Bismarck.  (No, not that Bismarck.  That ship was a warship sunk in World War II.)

On her major voyage to New York, a few problems were discovered.  The ship was top heavy and took to listing almost uncontrollably.  Irreverent dock workers began referring to her as the 'Limperator.'  Hamburg America, the owners, took drastic action.  The bathrooms of most of the upper staterooms lost their marble fixtures.  In many places, the heavy Louis XVI furniture was replaced with wicker.  When even this was inadequate to fix the problem, the hollow space between the double bottom hulls was filled with 4 million pounds of cement. 

Now repaired, the ship returned to service, and almost immediately was left tied to a dock in Hamburg for the entirety of World War I.  For four years, she was neglected and abandoned.  When the war was over, she was turned over to the Allied Food Service and Finance Commission. 

The ship was taken from Germany as part of the massive reparations that Germany had to pay in apology for having started World War I.  (If you remember, the war was started by when an Austrian inbred Hapsburg was assassinated in Sarajevo by an angry Serbian, prompting Austria to declare war on Serbia, followed by Russia declaring war on Austria, and so forth and so on.  If you find this confusing because Germany is not mentioned in any of the above....well, just remember that last week I told you the Seven Years War lasted nine years.  If we made this shit easy, then just any moron could be a historian.)

The ship was turned over to the Americans and used as a transport ship to help bring home the one and a half million doughboys we had sent to France.  Now, part of the US Navy, we renamed the ship the USS Imperator.  After bringing home roughly 25,000 Americans, we turned the ship over to England.

The Cunard Line had lost her flagship, the RMS Lusitania to the Germans in 1915, so it was deemed only fair for the German Hamburg Line to lose their flagship to Cunard.  Renamed the RMS Berengaria, she was heavily—and expensively—refitted to assume her new role.  The ship still tended to list to one side or the other, so Cunard added a few million pounds of scrap iron as ballast.  (One can only imagine what the now deposed Kaiser thought of this.  Exiled to Holland, he had to watch his ship, designed to humiliate the British, now renamed after a British queen.)

For decades, the Berengaria was the ship of choice for the rich and famous.  The Berengaria was referred to as the 'Millionaire's Ship.'  First class passengers were especially fond of her two-story indoor swimming pool, patterned after the baths of Pompeii.  Evidently, the irony was lost on them.

By the Thirties, the ship's glamour was beginning to fade.  She was replaced as the flagship by one of her sister ships, the former Bismarck, now renamed the RMS Majestic.  No longer sought after by the rich and famous, in her later years, she did short cruises from New York for passengers seeking a legal way to get around Prohibition.  Now, she was nicknamed 'Bargain Area.'

When Cunard finally retired her, they introduced a new queen, the Queen Mary.  The ship built to humiliate the British was brought back to England and scrapped.  And much of the salvaged metal was used to fight Germany in the next war.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Punctuated Equilibrium and Brown Bess

There is a funny quirk about technological progress and living in the 21st century.  We have a unique vantage point—from our perspective the progress seems to be not only continuous, but charging ahead like a stabbed rat.

For most of human history, technological progress was almost nonexistent.  For thousands of years, there were few, if any, improvements.  Then, suddenly, somewhere, someone made a breakthrough.  The wheel, the club, a clay pot or basket—some technological breakthrough occurred that revolutionized civilization.  This new breakthrough would then be followed by another long period of technological stagnation. 

Anthropologists call this process: punctuated equilibrium.  Viewed as a graph, this process would look something like this.

Interestingly, each advance on this time line seems to occur after less time than the previous interval.  Early man wasn't likely to live long enough to see a single such event.  Today, the intervals occur so rapidly they appear to be continuous.  You aren't aware of it, but while you were wasting your time reading this blog, someone just changed the world by inventing multimurphs.  By the time you learn about it, Apple will probably be selling the iMurph.

But this period of multiple rapid changes is actually a relatively recent development—it hasn't been that long since changes were still rare.  Let's look at an example.

Gunpowder weapons reached Europe about 1300 AD and immediately revolutionized warfare—countries that used such weapons tended to win their battles and those who did not didn’t make the history books.  But after gunpowder was introduced, these weapons did not change much for centuries. 

Ian V. Hogg, the noted historian of artillery and all things that go “BANG,” suggested that if one of Edward II’s gunners were lifted from the battle of Crecy in 1346 and dropped into the middle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he would have soon felt at home, for the level of technology had made only insignificant advances in the interim.

In 1690, Great Britain developed the official Land Pattern Musket.  This was a large, heavy musket kept in the Tower of London where various manufacturers could measure it, examine it, and manufacture exact replicas.  While reliable, this gun could never be described as accurate--it didn't even have sights.  According to British Colonel Hangar, "I do maintain and will prove whenever called upon that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common musket by the person who aimed at him."

Soldiers quickly nicknamed the gun the Brown Bess, either as a corruption of the German phrase "braun buss" or strong gun or (and this is more likely) the British soldier followed a custom as old as warfare itself and named his weapon after a woman.  In common parlance at that time, Brown Bess was a wanton prostitute.

Soldiers loved the gun—it was sturdy, reliable, and long enough to hold a bayonet.  (Despite what you have seen in movies, until the American Civil War, during most battles, more men died of wounds from cutting implements than from gunpowder weapons.)

So Great Britain kept making the guns.  They used them during the War of Austrian Succession, in several wars in India, in the Seven Years Wars (Which lasted nine years and in America was called this the French and Indian War—we do this just to make history difficult.), and at Lexington and Concord.  Since many of the colonists were required to own their own Brown Bess muskets and serve in militias, quite a few of the colonists shot back at the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord with the same weapon. 

England used a metric shit ton of the muskets fighting Napoleon, and after the victory at Waterloo, began selling off a few of the surplus muskets to other countries.  A newly-independent Mexico bought enough of them that Santa Ana used them against Americans at both the Alamo and during the Mexican American War.  When the Marines stormed the "halls of Montezuma,” they were facing troops armed with old Brown Bess muskets.

Eventually (roughly 1840) the venerable Brown Bess was obsolete and was retired—there had been another technological breakthrough.  The last time--as far as I can determine—that a Brown Bess was used in a major battle was the Battle of Shiloh, and I pity the poor infantryman who went off to battle with an antique.

For 150 years, the Brown Bess musket in various forms ruled battlefields everywhere the British Army wandered, and that pretty much means the entire world.  It is probably close to impossible to determine how many men were killed by this weapon.

Remember the concept of punctuated equilibrium?  The length of time from the adoption of Brown Bess to the weapon's retirement is roughly the same period of time from the weapon’s retirement to the development of the Stealth Fighter.

I don’t want to give you nightmares, but the next technological revolution in warfare is probably overdue.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Richardson Papers

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has just announced that he will be donating his papers to the University of Texas at Austin.  While this might seem to be an incredible insult to New Mexico, it turns out that it was just an innocent mistake.

Bill evidently thought that Austin was part of New Mexico.  Remember, this is the same governor who set a record for absenteeism from his official state duties—no mean feat when you consider that a few of our former governors returned back east to fight in the Civil War.  Bill was absent from the state for a different kind of fight—he spent a lot of time running for President in 2008.   You are excused if you dont remember that he was a candidate.  To quote Joe Pesci, a.k.a Vinny Gambini, “Youse were serious about dat?”

For the first six months of 2007, Richardson spent more time in Iowa, New Hampshire, or Wisconsin than he did in the state of New Mexico.  Few in the Land of Enchantment missed him--probably because we saw him on television so often.  Each of five years, he rode a float in the annual Rose Bowl Parade emblazoned with a huge sign:  “BILL RICHARDSON!”  On a Post-it note near the back bumper, the sign continued: “….says visit new mexico.”  In total, the five floats cost the state over a million dollars.

This small confusion with geography was obvious while Bill was governor and would explain why, while governor, Bill had the state buy a jet for him to use while traveling around the state.  Now, New Mexico is not that large geographically, but such a plane might be quite useful for traveling to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, or even New York.

Perhaps Bill used the plane to examine the large billboards the state had put up in places like Times Square, where Bill's smiling face (no less than three-stories tall) urged people to visit the state...Or maybe urged them to consider voting for him?  The taxpayers of New Mexico were sure getting a bargain for their tax money.  (And beautifying New York with New Mexico scenery!)  Come to think of it, didn’t Governor Bill order every Department of Motor Vehicles office in the state to have his portrait on the wall?  I wonder what happened to all those portraits. 

At the University of Texas, the newly-gifted Richardson papers will be part of the Dolph Briscoe Library and Hair Salon, where they will be part of a prestigious collection.  Bill Richardson was proud to announce that his papers will be housed right alongside the papers of Willie Nelson (pictured to the right).

Evidently, none of the universities in New Mexico expressed much interest in his papers after learning that he had already finished coloring them.

Still, no one can argue that BR didn't leave his own distinctive mark on New Mexico.  Who can forget the money he spent putting talking urinal cakes in the restrooms of the state's bars?  When...'activated' these devices not only urged the...'patrons' not to drive drunk but to remember 'their future was in their hands'. 

That last line was Bill's way of saying that he was the only one allowed to screw New Mexico.

Equally unforgettable is Bill's silly and hideously expensive creation, New Mexico's own little cargo cult, the Spaceport.  Governor Richardson promised that this project would propel New Mexico into the future, would bring jobs and wealth, and would revitalize our sagging economy.  He not only promised this, he campaigned on the issue.  So the state raised taxes, created a special sales tax, and has--to date--spent over $200 million on a Buck-Rogers-in-the-desert scheme that has done absolutely nothing.  Hell, we can't even use the silly project as a half-assed airport since it was built far from any community and is located so close to the White Sands Missile Range that it is in a restricted air space.  Oops!

Despite the fact that the Spaceport is an obvious failure, the citizens of New Mexico are still paying taxes for it--and will for some time to come.  All of this wouldn't rankle so much if it weren’t for the irritating fact that today, Bill Richardson is being paid by the state of California to help develop, and sell, yet another Spaceport--this one in the Mojave Desert.  Perhaps Bill thinks that California is part of New Mexico, too!

No--the state of New Mexico will not soon forget Governor Bill!  This state will remember how cash transfers from the Permanent Fund were used to pay for a ballooning budget.  And how monies from the state retirement fund were invested with Bernie Madoff.  And how the federal investigations of numerous 'Pay to Play' allegations were quickly dropped for political reasons shortly after President Obama took office.

The universities of New Mexico will do just fine without Bill's papers.  It is actually a rather small price to pay to finally be done with Bill.  For many here, there was always a niggling fear that Bill just might return to the state and run for the Senate or something.  His last act of disloyalty should finally put that fear to rest.

Perhaps, however, we need to warn the rest of the country to watch Bill carefully!  There are a few early warning signs that can tip you off when Bill is getting ready for a fresh campaign:  First, he shaves off that mustache, and then he suddenly loses weight like a leper on a pogo stick.  Between elections, Bill likes to eat and while he was governor--despite this being a state so poor that one in five of the citizens collects food stamps (New Mexico is second only to Mississippi in family assistance usage)--Bill had two chefs on the state payroll at the governor's mansion.

If a skinny and clean-shaven Bill Richardson suddenly shows up in your neighborhood--put your hand over your wallet and hang on!  You're about to get a Spaceport. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hoist by Your Own Lies

For over thirty years, Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico with such an iron hand that the people of Mexico began referring to him as Don Perpetuo. 

Before Diaz, President Juarez had forsworn business dealings with his rich neighbor to the north, fearing that such dealings would inevitably lead to American economic domination of Mexico.  "Between the weak and the strong, there should always be a desert." said Juarez.

After Juarez died of a heart attack, Diaz had seized the country and changed the country's foreign policy.  He told the people of Mexico to look at a map—Mexico was shaped like a cornucopia spilling its riches towards the United States.

And, for decades, that is exactly what Mexico did.  The United States bought up the resources that Mexico sold it, with Diaz raking in a hefty percentage of everything.  Copper, oil, silver—American industries flourished.  While some grew rich, most of the people of Mexico lived in such poverty, they would have been better living under the rule of the Aztecs, some 400 years earlier.

When the Mexicans began chanting, "Mexico for Mexicans," the remark angered President Theodore Roosevelt.  "Mexico for Mexicans?  I would like to know for who else it would be for, if not the Mexicans." thundered our president.

The sad truth was that foreign industries were simply not playing fair.  They routinely undervalued property in order to avoid paying taxes, they paid Mexican workers less than foreign workers, and rarely promoted Mexican workers regardless of experience.  The foreign corporations could do this because of the bribes and kickbacks that they regularly paid to Diaz.

By 1910, the excesses of Porfirio Diaz at long last touched off a horrendously violent revolution that killed a million Mexicans and drove another million to emigrate.  Remember that Mexico was a small country that shrank from 14 million to 12 million due to this violence.  By the time that the revolution was over, Mexico had a new constitution that gave ownership of all subsoil riches—whether ore, mineral, or petroleum—to the Mexican government.  However, since the only source of hard currency the struggling government received was from foreign corporations, Mexico continued to honor the leases held by the foreign corporations.

This should have been the end of the story, but of course it wasn't.  All the foreign corporations had to do was simply play fair and they might still be operating in Mexico today.  Or even play just close to fair, for the presidents of Mexico after the revolution rather quickly became just as corrupt and easy to bribe as Porfirio Diaz had been—at least, until Lazaro Cardenas became president in 1934.

Lazaro Cardenas was a different kind of president, who took a lot of the ideals of the revolution seriously—including the new constitution.  Cardenas began by preparing for the day when Mexico would control its own resources, by first taking an inventory of Mexico's most valuable asset—the talented workers of the Mexican oil fields. 

This step was brilliant, because Cardenas needed to know who his future leaders in the industry would be.  There is an old story—possibly apocryphal—about J.P. Morgan:  When the famous financier was asked what his most valuable asset was, the reporter probably expected to hear about a bank, a railroad line, or possibly a factory.  Instead, Morgan answered, "My good men. Take away everything else, but leave me my good men and in five years, I will have it all back."

After inventorying his human capital, Cardenas helped organize a union--The Petroleum Workers Union of Mexico.  This union presented a list of demands to the petroleum companies, asking for equal pay with that of foreign workers, safer working conditions, and an 8-hour workday.  Despite the fact that the demands were entirely modest, the companies refused to either negotiate or to even realistically recognize the workers' right to collective bargaining, so the unions promptly went on strike.

Declaring that the petroleum sector was essential to the Mexican economy, Cardenas promptly exercised the right given to him under the new constitution to refer the matter over to binding arbitration.  (This is essentially the same thing as an American Taft-Hartley Injunction.)  The arbitration board was composed of three members, with the union, the oil companies, and the government each appointing one member.  (Naturally, the arbitration board sided with the union.)

The Oil Companies refused to comply and took the matter to the Mexican Supreme Court, which rather quickly ruled to uphold the arbitration board's decision.  The Oil Companies still refused to comply—obviously, they were doubling down on stupid, but evidently believed they were so powerful that Mexico would be powerless to stop them.

On March 18, 1938, President Cardenas promptly cancelled the oil companies’ leases, effectively nationalizing the holdings of all of the foreign oil companies. 

It is impossible to overemphasize the oil companies' absolute fury.  They demanded that President Roosevelt—not Teddy, but the other one—go to war with Mexico.  Unfortunately, FDR had just announced a new foreign policy initiative for Latin America called "The Good Neighbor Program".  It would have been rather awkward to work a war into being a good neighbor.

The oil companies, for their part, had crippling power to refuse to buy, transport, or refine Mexican oil, and they could help organize an economic boycott on all Mexican goods (including the silver that the US government used to mint money).  This threatened to collapse the entire Mexican economy.

Meanwhile, Mexico had to pay for the assets it had nationalized.  According to the constitution, the payment had to be prompt, effective, and adequate.  The problem was how to interpret those words.
The foreign oil companies were eager to help.  By prompt, they demanded an immediate payment.  Effective meant dollars, gold, or pounds sterling.  And adequate?  It took the oil companies a little time to add up all the costs of the equipment, the pumps, the dock facilities, the holding tanks, and the it $450 million.  (Those are meaningless 1938 dollars from back when you could have bought half of Arkansas for $3.50, so just pretend I said "All the money in the world.")

Mexico had a slightly different interpretation.  "Prompt" meant 10 years of payments, with 3% interest.  "Effective" think I'm getting ready to say Pesos, don't you?  No, effective meant some dollars, but mostly Mexico would pay with oil.  And "adequate"?

Here, Mexico did something completely unexpected.  It paid the amount the oil companies had been reporting as the basis of property taxes—$24 million.  If you listen very carefully, you can still hear the oil companies screaming.

As Penn Jillette says, "There is nothing worse than cheating, and still losing."

Naturally, the oil companies refused the settlement.  They were determined to bankrupt Mexico.  With Mexico's lack of adequate refineries and oil tankers, and its total dependence on the United States as a trading partner—the oil companies would eventually win and Mexico would surely lose this contest, unless someone saved it.

And someone did.  Hitler invaded Poland September 1, 1939, touching off World War II.  Suddenly, there was a severe shortage of petroleum.  Sinclair was the first of the oil companies to accept the settlement and within a year, all of the American oil companies had accepted.   Within ten years, Mexico had paid off the entire settlement, with interest.

It has been said that Lazaro Cardenas gambled the entire Mexican revolution and won.