Saturday, July 25, 2015

How to Teach Small Children To Swim

It's that time of year againswimming season.  The Doc and I have lived in the same house now for thirty years, and since the pool was here when we bought the house, by now, I am an expert in all things poolish.

Evidently, the pool was added by a former Enema U football coach, wholike all the other football coacheshad a losing season and left town (probably before the pool was filled).  According to the realtor, the team had such a losing season that, during one of the games, some disgruntled fan stole a car, and drove it through the wall of the garage.  When I heard this, I had a John Updike moment:  this house was pre-disastered!  So, we bought the house immediately.

Before we get any further in this story, I should tell you thatif you are smartyou do not want a pool.  Well, you may want one, but don't get one.  If you are not convinced, perform a small experiment.  In the center of the most useful section of your backyard, dig a small, but fairly deep, inconvenient pit.  Put about five pounds of rusty rebar and broken glass in the bottom to make it realistically dangerous. After that, at least twice a week, jog around the pit until you are tired and sweaty, then pay every kid in the neighborhood $5 each to come and piss into the pit.  Danger, inconvenience, work, money and urineyep, that about sums up a pool.  Don't get me wrongI have enjoyed (and still enjoy) my pool, but have paid dearly for the privilege.

When we moved in, The Doc and I already had a toddlerWhat's-His-Nameand a second tricycle motorThe-Other-One was on the way.  The Doc took one look at the backyard and immediately decreed that we had to have a security fence all the way around the pool.  I agreed, I didn't want either one of the rug rats to accidentally drown.

So, I got quotes.  Have you ever priced a metal security fence?  You could build a five strand barbed wire fence around all the good grazing land in Southern New Mexicoboth acresfor less money than it takes to put up a cute little four-foot security fence to enclose less land than it takes to make a good tomato garden. 

I told my wife that  I had a better idea, since no fence in the world would keep our sons out of anything, there was only one secure method of keeping the kids safewe would have to teach the boys to swim just as soon as they could walkanything else was too dangerous!

Now, when I said that, it was all bullshitI was just too cheap to pay for that damn security fence.  But, it turned out that I accidentally stumbled into brilliance.  You really can't protect boys from a damn thing.  (If you are still not convinced, read this.)

So, I taught the boys to swim.  I made tons of mistakes, and during the long, loud, and  profane process, most of the neighbors thought I was torturing the boys with power tools.  From the  screaming of those two small children, they were justified in their beliefs.  In the end, both boys really learned how to swimand by the time The-Other-One was about four, his mother would go into hysterics to find him sitting on the drain in the deep end of the pool calmly using my scuba tanks.  The boys damn near developed gills.

Those boys spent so much time in chlorinated water that their hair first tuned white, then a rather strange shade of light green.  I never did solve that pH problem in the pool water, though even this had an unforeseen benefiteven though I am face blind, I could always locate the boys in a crowded room.  There just aren't that many extremely short, deeply-tanned punk rockers.

But, that was not the correct way to teach small children how to swim.  It worked on my two sons, but it took weeks.  However, after 30 years of practice, I have taught enough children to swim that I can now offer you a simple system for teaching children to swim.

Learning to swim does not involve floaties, padded bathing suits, or any form of flotation device.  Seriously, when your child needs to swim, just how likely are they to have these things on?  Sure, kids have fun in them, but they will never learn to swim looking like the Michelin Man taking a bath.  If you won't let your child in the water without these aquatic crutches, you aren't ready for the child to swim.

There are a couple of conditions to the swimming lessons.  First, you have to teach the child without his/her parents around.  If the mother won't drop off the kid for about two hours and leave you in charge, forget it.  As long as Mom is sitting nervously in the backyard, offering advice at every step, the child will never see you as the Authority Figure, and will never learn to swim.  It's as simple as that.

Second, the child must be able to hold his breath and count to five.  If she can't do that, you are wasting your time.  It really doesn't matter how old he is, he just has to be able to hold his breath for five seconds. 

Assuming you still have an attentive student, take him/her to the shallow end of the pool, as there is no need for water deeper than the child's height.  Spend at least fifteen minutes having the child hold her breath, first above the water, then underwater.  Standing in shallow water (or on the steps for younger children), the child bobs up down in the water like a top.  If you can get the child to do this, you have already mastered the hard part:  the child has relaxed enough in the water to pay attention to what you are telling him to do.

During this whole process, be lavish with you praise when the child does something correct, and firm when the chid does not comply.  By the time the new swimmer is asked to do something difficult, she will already be used to obeying you.

After 15 minutes of this, have the child lie face down on the water for five seconds, then stand back up.  This transition takes a little time and patience, but by now the child is so encouraged by the obvious progress, that he will make the transition, and once he complies, it is very simple to have him lie face down, make a stroke or two with his arms and feet, then stand back up. 

The child will be astounded to see that she has actually moved a few feet in the waterthat she has swum.  From this point, it is simply a matter of distance and speed.  He will quickly learn to lift his head out of the water to breathe, and though the tendency at first is to do this every two to three seconds, he is still swimming.

Taking the average of the students I have taught, after two hours the child will be able learn to swim sideways across the pool without touching the bottom.  This really is a simple system.

By the way, if you want kids to really be safe around the pool, you will have to make them practice occasionally with their clothes on, and if the pool is filled during the winter, they will have to swim at least a couple of times when the water is way too cold.  The child should swim at least far enough in cold water to get back to the side of the pool if they accidentally fall in.  This is when the screaming part of the lessons comes back.  (My sons erroneously believe this occurred in January, and The Doc correctly believes I enjoyed chucking them into the cold October water.)

And last of all, listen to The Doc, and build that fence anyway.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ban the Beetles

A strong military is of necessity a diverse force—a combination of different kinds of troops with a wide variety of skills.  Most Americans are unaware of the existence of one of our most effective fighting groups—a numerous and unique force (although the extent of their exploits remains a subject of both rumor and debate).  Our story starts almost 200 years ago.
The success of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition triggered decades of exploration—the United States owned vast territories full of... well, the country didn't really know what the hell was out there.  Multiple expeditions were sent west to draw maps, to meet the Native Americans, to locate landmarks, and (most important) to discover if rivers were navigable and where their headwaters were located.
The 1820 westward expedition was sent to discover the headwaters of the River Platte, and was particularly successful.  Rivers were mapped, Pikes Peak was discovered and climbed, and the vast herds of buffalo were documented in detail.
This was the expedition that extensively explored the Midwest plains—indeed the leader of the expedition called this land the American Desert, a phrase that stuck.  Even the Native Americans of the area felt safe with the explorers, as the land was absolutely unsuitable for farming—at least with the technology of the time.  Ironically, today this is the heartland of American farming, and in part, helps feed the world.
Like most of the expeditions of the time, a naturalist and a botanist accompanied the surveyors and explorers, to document the new fauna and flora that were discovered.  One of the discoveries was the Leptinotarse Decemlineata, or Colorado Beetle.  Thomas Say, the expedition naturalist discovered this distinctive beetle eating nightshade plants.  The beetle is about half an inch long and bright yellow, with five brown stripes on its body (giving it the nickname, the ten-striped spearman—one of several).
When the expedition members returned, they were fairly sure that the land they had explored would stay isolated and unpopulated, as it seemed unsuitable for habitation.  However, technology changed rapidly after the Civil War:  railroads, windmills, and barbed wire helped make the plain states into profitable farm lands.  One invention in particular had a major role in turning the prairies into farms:  a new kind of plow.
The problem was that the traditional iron plow was useless on the dense roots of the sod that made up the plains.  The iron plow could be sharpened easily, but within minutes, the dense sod would dull the blade, making plowing impossible.  While a steel blade would hold an edge much longer, a steel plow would be impossibly expensive.  Besides, at the time, everyone knew that steel poisoned the top soil, making any plants that managed to grow hazardous to eat.  (Isn't it amazing how often the things we all know turn out to be wrong?)
The solution turned out to be the "singing plow"—the marriage of an iron plow with bolt-on steel blades that could be sharpened at night, and then used again the next day.  As the sharp blade cut through the dense matted roots of the sod, it vibrated, making a musical note, giving it the new nickname. 
With new technology, farmers poured into the Midwest all the way to the edge of the Rockies, bringing new plants with them.  The Colorado beetle quickly discovered a new food, a cousin of the nightshade it was already devouring: the potato.  It was simply amazing how fast this beetle could strip the leaves off a potato plant.
It was also astounding how fast the beetle—now called simply the potato bug—spread eastward.  Within fifteen years, the voracious pest made it from Colorado to Pennsylvania, and ten years later, the 'tater bug' was present in the Americas wherever potatoes were grown.
European farmers, still reeling from the potato blight that had destroyed the potato harvest from 1845 to 1852, pushed their governments to enact laws forbidding the importation of American potatoes.  American potatoes stayed out of Europe—for the most part—until the 20th century, when World War I made importation necessary.  Whether the potato bug was introduced into Europe by the shipment of food, or simply hitchhiked on the ships, cargoes, or trucks transported to the European war is still being debated, but the pest quickly spread across the farmlands of Europe and Asia.
In Europe , after World War II, the bug was particularly devastating to agriculture, and in East Germany, after the Russians cut the country off from the rest of Europe, the potato bug became the major threat to one of the chief agriculture crops of a nation already struggling to feed its people.
East Germany began distributing pamphlets to farmers to be on the lookout for the pest.  Several farmers publicly testified about American bombers flying low over their fields, and invariably, the next day their fields were infested by the Colorado Potato Beetle.  East Germany claimed that America was 'bombing' its fields with the pest in order to destroy the economy of the socialist workers paradise.
School children were taken to the fields daily and told to pick the beetles off the plants in a patriotic effort to defeat the Amikafer (Yankee Beetles).  This was difficult to do, since the underside of every leaf had to be checked, and a single beetle can lay up to 800 eggs.  East Germany even complained to the United Nations that the Americans were engaged in agricultural warfare.
It might have been true.  The CIA certainly burned sugar cane fields in Cuba, and the US sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam, and experimented with dropping bomb laden bats in Japan during World War II.  (You can read about this here.)  But, it would be hard to keep silent the huge number of Air Force personnel that mounting such a project would require.  And I have no idea how you could gather enough of the pests to make an effective payload.  Do we have secret bug bombers hidden in Area 51?
This wasn’t the first time that a country had considered drafting the potato beetle for military purposes.  The French had considered using them against the Germans in the World War I, and Germany and England each had proposed using them against the other during World War II, with the Germans going so far as to actually breed the insects and to experiment with dropping them.  As far as we know, however, neither country ever actually used them.
Now, 75 years later, there is still no proof that the United States was responsible for the Cold War infestation of Eastern Germany.  There are a couple of other explanations: one is that there was a shortage of pesticides in the satellite countries that made up the Soviet Union and what few were available were used in Russia.  The potato bug has proven remarkably effective against most forms of natural pesticides (remember that the original food supply of the beetle were varieties of nightshade, a naturally toxic plant).
Another possible explanation goes back to the experiments the Germans had conducted during World War II.  Captured documents show that the Germans painted the beetles to make them easier to locate and recover, and then airdropped 54,000 of the beetles on a German field.  Soldiers recovered fewer than 150 of the bugs,''!  ("Bug painter"—what a job description!)
Today, the bug is still a pest anywhere potatoes are grown.  For a while, the bug was controlled by DDT, but the potato beetle (as befits an enemy whose ancestors lived by dining on deadly nightshade) has proven remarkably adaptive to pesticide use.
Russia is currently the country most seriously affected by the potato beetle.  Is it just a coincidence that this is happening as the "Cold War" is heating up again?  Or have we called the "tater bugs" back to active duty, dropping them from those stealth helicopters now?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Father of Naval Gunnery

America is a huge naval power today, but how did we get to be the foremost naval power?  Largely because of the Spanish-American War.

For most of the 19th century, the American Navy was preposterously weak, especially during the years between wars.  With a few notable exceptions, most of the ships of our navy were of poor quality, smaller than needed, and too old to be effective.  Far too often, the ships were simply left tied to a dock while they slowly rotted.  One naval officer summed it up in the 1870's rather simply:  "We are more of a danger to ourselves than to an enemy."

America's naval history went something like this:  We never had a navy until the war started, then rushed to catch up after hostilities commenced, only to cancel the construction of the yet-to-be-completed ships at the end of the war.  In many ways we were like the little boy on the roof  who tripped and began to slide off the roof. 

"Oh God!" he cried  "Save me!"

Just as he said those words, his slide was stopped when an exposed nail snagged his jeans.

"Never mind, God," the boy said.  "A nail saved me."

And so it was for the U.S. Navy: it was abandoned during times of peace, then would begin furious expansion plans during war, that were then usually not completed by the end of the conflict.  The brief exception was during the Civil War when, in order to effectively blockade the southern states, the Navy expanded dramatically until by the war's end, we had the largest coastal defense navy in the world.  However, this was largely not a blue water navy, since most of the ships could not leave the relative protection of the coastal waters.  During Reconstruction, even this fleet was allowed to fade away.

Steam power would change all of this:  America could no longer wait until a war started to begin rebuilding her sea power.  Not only did it take longer to build the ships, but the days of Able-bodied Seamen, who could do every necessary task on the ship, were over because the new machinery required specialized training and more experience.  Only in the last decade of the 19th century did America begin quickly building a truly modern, sophisticated standing navy.

"Oh, Lord!" cried Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt.  "If only the people who are ignorant about our navy could see those great warships in all their majesty and beauty, and could realize how well they are handled, and how well fitted to uphold the honor of America, I don't think we would encounter such opposition in building up the Navy to its proper standard." 

When politicians talk about weapons and honor, it's time to grab your wallet and be worried. 

And since we had a navy, we used it.  It didn't take us long to become involved an unnecessary and useless war.  Luckily, we picked an enemy we could beat: Spain.  During the Spanish American War, there were two dramatic naval battles:  we destroyed the Spanish fleets, first in a battle in Manila Bay in the far-off Philippine Islands, followed by a running fight with the remainder of the Spanish fleet as the ships tried to flee from the harbor of Santiago, Cuba.

When the United States Navy forced the Spanish cruiser Cristobal Colón to beach herself on the coast of Cuba, the war was over, and so was the Spanish Empire.  Think of the irony: five hundred years after Columbus, the Spanish Empire ended back in the Caribbean where it had started, with the loss of a ship named after Columbus.

America, suddenly an Imperial power with conquered territory scattered around the globe, reveled in our new powerful navy.  One man, a rather low ranking naval officer, disagreed.

William S. Sims later recalled that the jingoistic American press liked to depict the Navy of the day as “the hottest stuff that ever came down the pike, that every ship we built was the last expression of naval architecture, and that our personnel was the best in the world.” 

Sims knew otherwise, for he had studied the French, British, and Russian navies as the naval attaché in Paris for a year and a half before the hostilities with Spain.  His tart assessment was that “we were not in it at all, either in design or in marksmanship.”

Sims had some ideas, but his superiors in the Navy refused to listen to him.  So Captain Sims wrote directly to the President of the United States.  Today, such an idea would be almost unthinkablebreaking the chain of command is unforgivableand it would be almost impossible for such a letter to even reach the desk of the President.

Teddy Roosevelt came home from Cuba a war hero, and quickly used his new fame to win the governorship of New York.  This brash, young Roosevelt worried the leadership of the Republican Party, so a new, and safer position, had to be found for the rambunctious Rooseveltthey convinced him to join the McKinley reelection campaign as the President's new Vice President. 

The job of Vice President is considered a "safe" position, as the job has almost no authority, has no power, and has few responsibilities.  But, when McKinley was assassinated just six months into his new term, suddenly the unpredictable Teddy became president.  As President, he listened to Sims' ideas, and made him the new Director of Naval Marksmanship. 

The US Navy went back to the site of the two naval battles of the Spanish-American War.  Since both battles took place in relatively shallow water, the wrecked Spanish ships could be examined in minute detail.  They examined, measured, and counted every artillery hit on the destroyed vessels, and the results were compared to the naval records of how many artillery shells had been fired.  The results were staggering.

At Manila, in the Philippines, the Spanish ships had elected to fight at anchor, and the weather had been so mild that the sea was as flat as a mill pond.  The navy had fired slightly over 6000 rounds and scored 142 hits.  At Santiago, Cuba, where the conditions were only slightly more challenging, the Navy had fired 9400 rounds and scored 122 hits.

These are accuracy rates of 2.3% and 1.3%.  There is an old naval term used to describe this.  Technically, it is called "missing"!

Sims (pictured at left, after he was made an admiral by Roosevelt) discovered that part of the problem was that while great strides had been made in the design of naval artillery, the method of firing naval guns had not improved as rapidly as the guns themselves.  Gunners still fired them the same way they had during the sea battles of the Napoleonic campaigns a hundred years earlier.

A gunner looked down the barrel of his cannon and waited until the roll of the ship brought the target in line, then fired the gun as the target lined up.  In other words, you tried to fire as the ship rolled up and down instead of aiming the gun up and down at the target.  This was called “firing on the weather roll.”  If the shot missed, maybe the shot would ricochet off the water and still hit the target.   Compounding the errors of this method was a man’s reaction time, something that could deteriorate during times of stress.

Sims was concerned about American warship design and how well US ships really stacked up against European ships.  While stationed in Hong Kong, Sims met a Scottish captain whose ship consistently scored 20% higher than the other British ships in gunnery practice.  (And much higher than the scores for US gunnery!)

The Scottish captain had replaced the ancient open iron sights on cannons with a heavily padded telescopic sight equipped with crosshairs—an American invention that the US Navy had rejected.  Further, his ship did not wait until the target rolled in front of the gun.  Instead, the gunner, assisted by the new hydraulic systems that moved the new massive artillery, continually rotated the aiming wheel, keeping the gun aimed at the target even as the ship rolled.  This was the system of “continuous aiming” and this small change immediately transformed naval gunnery.

Sims next changed the way that marksmanship was scored.  The important factor was not the percentage of hits versus the number of misses. What was now important was the number of hits per minute.  If you are 95% accurate but only fire a round an hour, you will lose the engagement.

Next, the effective range of the guns were changed.  By 1900, even the vaunted British Navy only used its guns to engage targets out to 2000 yards.  This was scarcely better than Admiral Horatio Nelson and the HMS Victory had done at the Battle of Trafalgar a century earlier.  Yet the modern guns were accurate at many times that range.

The solution lay in how far away a gunner could see his target.  A gunner just twenty feet above the water can only see about 7 miles.  Sims helped design a tall observation tower for an artillery spotter that effectively doubled this distance, which made the warships far more deadly. 

It is a shame that today, few people remember William S. Sims, for he effectively became the father of modern naval gunnery.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that all these improvements were adopted by the navies of every country, just in time for World War I.

US Naval forces in World War I were ably commanded by Admiral Sims.  He later said that his biggest problem during the war was the brash young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a young man name Roosevelt.  Franklin Roosevelt.  But that's a different story.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hard to Book a Mover

It is moving time.  Thankfully, not for me, but for my son, Not What's-His-Name, but The-Other-One.  He and his family have set something of a record for the most moves in the shortest time.  He just barely moved back to his hometown, and now, his company is moving him again. 

I feel sorry for himwell; at least I would if I weren't so angry at his company for moving him again.  It is unfair of them for exploiting our well-known family weakness:  they waved more money under his nose.  So he gets a promotion and a transfer to another state.  I wouldn't mind so much, but he insists on taking his wife and my grandchildren with him.  Hardly seems fair!

Movingthe whole packing, loading a truck, unloading the truck, and so forth is just about my least favorite activity.  And for some reason, every time my son moves, it seems to be raining.  If you have never experienced the pure panic of pushing a large refrigerator up a wet slippery ramp without near enough help...

Perhaps this is why The Doc and I no longer move.  We are as stationary as stalactites.  My goal is to eventually be buried in the back yard with all the pets I told the boys had gone to live in the country at the Happy Farm.  We've lived in the same location now for 30 years, and as far as I'm concerned, the house and I are having a contest to see which of us can last the longest.  While we both have a little dry rot in the attic, my plumbing is better.

Moving for The Doc and me has always been a nightmare.  We own books.  Thousands and thousands and thousands of books.  About the only thing of value the two of us possess are books.  Once, several years ago, we bought the entire contents of a book store.  The house is filled to overflowing with books, and they are a total nightmare to move.

In all these years, we have only lived in one house that was actually suited for our collection.  While we lived in Galveston, we lived in one of those old Victorian homes that look so picturesque, but are actually a total nightmare to live in.  The ceilings were 14 feet high, the floors were masterpieces of wood, and the impossibly high stairway to the second floor was wrapped around three walls.  The house looked great.

It was also an ancient, drafty old barn with almost no heat in the winter, with a thousand generations of inbred mice, and a plumbing system that had been installed by people who had personally fought in the Civil War.  Once, in an effort to repair an electrical short, I opened a section of wall only to discover that the wiring was wrapped in cotton cloth.  Equally surprising was to discover the walls still had the pipes that had once supplied the house with gas lighting.  Trust me, museums are more fun to visit than actually live in.

One feature the house did have, to its credit, was a library.  On the second floor, there was an actual room intended to be a library.  Beautiful built-in wooden bookcases, eight feet tall, lined all four walls.  It is the only house my wife and I have ever lived in where every book we owned could be displayed all at the same time.  Sure, we still had bookcases in several other rooms, but the vast majority of our books were in the library room. 

Good seafood and that library are the only things we really miss from living on that island.  Mostly.

When it came time to finally move to New Mexico, we did something we had never done beforewe called a moving company.  This time, I would not have to rent a Uhaul truck:  I would not have to load a truck because we were going to leave the moving to Bekins.  I called the moving company and it sent a representative.

I am still not sure exactly what that guy was doing.   As I led him from room to room, he made little notes on his clipboard and made enigmatic remarks like, "Living room, plus two.  Kitchen, upright freezer, plus one."

Finally, I led him up the long twisting stairs to the second floor.  We started with my pride and joy, the library.  The man from the moving company stood in the middle of the large room, silently staring at the bookcases that covered every inch of the four walls.  After a long minute, staring at the thousands of books the room contained, he turned back to look at me.

"Fuck you," he said.  And left without saying another word.

We eventually found a moving company that would move us, even though we had a library on the second floor.  Bekins never called back.