Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Building Committee

A little over a hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to show the world that America was a new and great naval power by sending the entire U.S. Navy on a round the world voyage to “show the flag”.  Such an expedition was a costly affair, and a frugal Congress strongly disagreed with the waste of taxpayer money, and promptly cut the annual naval budget in half, to prevent just such a voyage.

Undeterred, Teddy promptly sent the fleet off to circle the globe, telling Congress, “I have enough funds to send them halfway around the world.  If you want the fleet back, come up with the other half of the money.” 

I’ve always wondered if that was what the President of Enema U had in mind a decade ago when the university requested from the state legislature enough funds to replace the aging and cramped old library building.  The politicians knew that the library still possessed plenty of books that the football team had not yet colored, so they gave the Athletic Department a new electronic scoreboard and a crate of new crayons, and gave the administration roughly half the amount necessary to construct a new library.

Since the university president (like all administrators) suffered with a near-terminal case of Edifice Complex, the university constructed a new hemi-library, about a block away from the old library.  The books were cleverly divided between the two buildings in such a feat of legerdemain that it was always necessary to trudge back and forth between the two buildings to conduct any research.  Naturally, it cost twice as much to run two such buildings instead of a single library, but evidently that was the intent of the design specified by the building committee, since the new library was deliberately constructed in such a way that it was impossible to expand it with future construction.

Who knows, in another decade or two, they may add a third library building.  (It will probably include a basketball court).

This is the way universities usually design new buildings—stupidly.  This process is all but guaranteed by using committees, and since I once had the honor of serving on such a committee, I can tell you exactly how the process works.

First, the university ignores all actual needs and decides to erect a new building.  Since the true purpose of any new building is to enhance the résumé of the university president in order for him to move to a larger university with a more successful football program, the project must be something large and impressive.  A new art building, a new performing arts building, or a new semi-library—these are perfect projects.  Since no one would be impressed with a new classroom building, no matter how desperately needed, such mundane structures are rarely constructed.  

It is the stated goal of all universities that as much education as possible should be done online, not actually in a building that requires costly upkeep.  In a future and perfect world, the student will be able to stay home and just send money off to college—a place that will consist of several large multi-story administration buildings.   And a stadium.

After the decision is made to construct a new building, a committee must be appointed to decide on the details.  Most of the members are department heads, faculty members, and assorted administrative toadies—almost none of whom have had any actual experience in construction, design, or engineering, or who will ever actually work in the future building.  At least, that was true of the committee I served on.

The university has whole departments full of engineers, draftsmen, and people with real construction experience—almost none of whom will ever be asked to serve on such a committee.  My committee had two students, a nurse, and several people who didn’t know the difference between concrete and steer manure, and they were the people who monopolized the meetings.

Our first task was to select an architect from the numerous applicants, each of whom had submitted impressive stacks of photographs and drawings of similar buildings that had been built at a rival university.  On several occasions, the committee members actually traveled to other universities and inspected the sample buildings.  All of this was a waste of time, since the architect selected is almost invariably from a firm doing business as far from the local university as possible.  (Remember, the definition of a consultant is someone with an advanced degree who lives out of town.)

Now the newly selected architect will spend hours and hours with the committee, making lists of the required features.  Most of the suggestions will be idiotic or contradictory, and the architect will promise to include them all.  Of course, the new building will be “green” and energy efficient.  Of course, the new building will blend in with the campus, be beautiful, and attractive…  And so forth.  In the end, the actual building will be a stuccoed concrete horror with tiny windows that don’t open, closely resembling a bus station or a prison, and surrounded by landscaping selected by morons who have never lived in New Mexico.

Take that new demi-library building:  for some reason the architect decided that a new building erected in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert should be surrounded by palm trees.  Evidently, he thought all that local sand was a beach.  To be fair, I will grudgingly admit that a building surrounded by tumbleweeds might not look attractive on the photos shown by our recent president at his next university.

The new building that my committee was tasked with designing was actually remodeling and combining two existing buildings and adding a few desperately needed classrooms.  The committee met for weeks and heard ideas of what the new classrooms should look like.  Most of the talking was done by people who had no recent experience in teaching—a universal requirement for administrators.  These same administrators were never going to teach in the new building, either.

The traditional design of large classrooms is fairly simple:  long rectangular spaces with the floor sloping downward to the front of the room, where raised platforms holds a lectern and the walls hold blackboards.  The rooms contain either desks or tables at which the students can sit and take notes.  Lately, modernized classrooms contain computerized projectors, white boards, and large screens, but the basic design has not really changed since  the days of Socrates.

President Garfield once defined the ideal college as a log with Mark Hopkins (his mentor) on one end and a student on the other end.  I wish to hell Garfield had been on my committee.

No, it turned out that both President Garfield and I were wrong.  Over and over again, experts told the committee that the “Sage on the Stage was dead.”  Lecturing was out and education now was cooperative learning in a reciprocal environment that would lend itself to group work.  The floor would be flat (no raised stage), the desks would be on wheels for ease of rearrangement into different groupings, and “every wall would be a learning wall.”

“Imagine,” I said, “that you are a history professor with one hour to explain the Protestant Reformation to eighty freshmen who took high school history from a football coach who thought the Renaissance was a casino in Vegas.  How the hell do you do that in a room where every other desk is facing the wrong way while students are staring at a learning wall, waiting for a movie to start?”

I never did get an answer.  

None of this deterred my committee and we rarely agreed on anything.  It was at this point that the goals and aims of the committee began falling apart like a leper on a pogo stick.  It turned out that only one voice mattered—the dean.  She appointed enough new committee members from her staff she got what she wanted—including a machine that would generate the smell of fresh baked bread.  The building wouldn’t get the actual bread, just the smell.

We were tasked with designing a horse and in due course provided a blue print for a two-headed camel.  The design was to connect the existing two buildings with lots of open interactive spaces where professors could mentor students after class, with study corners, and with new offices for administration where there had once been several serviceable, if old, classrooms.  The resulting new building would have been a nightmare to construct, would have been as ugly as a mud fence, and would have been about half as useful as the two original buildings had been.  Frankly, the state could have saved a ton of money by simply updating the existing two buildings, but that was never even contemplated.

So, after a year of hard work, the committee was thanked for its work, was congratulated for the finished product, and was dismissed.  The state had appropriated a set sum of money to remodel two existing buildings and add more classrooms, and my committee had done—mostly—its job.

Then the administration threw away the plans, bulldozed down both buildings and erected a new one with fewer classrooms capable of seating fewer students. 


Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Bull Rider

The Brazos River Boys were sitting in the corner of the local cantina, playing their favorite game—watching the various patrons.  Over a couple of cold Mexican beers, they had ignored the young men playing pool and the grizzled old regulars who could be found hunched over the bar in any booze joint in the world, who had been quietly nursing drinks from the moment the bar had opened until closing time.  What caught the attention of the two old cowboys was a group of men sitting at a table in the middle of the bar, loudly discussing the recent Palo Pinto County Rodeo.

Pointing at the table, where a man was standing and waving his arms, and smiling as he talked, Mike said, “Looks like Jack is wound up about something.”

“Yeah, once he gets going, Old Jack can talk the ears off a wooden Indian,” agreed Kent.  Let’s go over and see what he’s got to say today.”

As the two old cowboys moved over to the next table and sat in a pair of empty chairs, Jack kept on with his story.

“…was a pretty good rodeo all around—the Livestock Association puts on a great show.  I really liked this year's clowns; those boys do a job I wouldn’t touch for love nor money.  I liked the bull riders the best, but the boys today aren't near as good as they were back in my day—“

“Who was the best bull rider you ever saw?” interrupted Mike.  Having learned a long time ago that Jack told his best yarns when challenged, Mike had decided to test the man’s creativity and see what he came up with.

“Well, that’s a good question.  I saw Freckles Brown in his prime, and he was damn good.  And in ’82 I watched Lane Frost win in Fort Worth—I think he could've been the best there ever was—if that bull hadn’t killed him in Cheyenne.  But, my favorite all-around bull rider never even competed in a rodeo.”

“How’d ya know he was any good if he never competed?” urged Kent.  Like his friend, Kent knew that Jack needed a little periodic encouragement to spin a really good yarn.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” continued Jack.  “Back in 1979, I was working on offshore oil rigs out of Galveston.  The boats would take you out for a week, then bring you back ashore for a week.  We made more money on those rigs than we could spend ashore, but God knows, we tried.  The biggest bar in the world was Gilley's, about 20 miles up the highway in Pasadena, and they had a mechanical bull—“

“Yeah,” interrupted Mike.  “We saw that damn fool movie, Urban Cowboy.  Because of John Travolta, half the country thought Texans had a New Jersey accent.  That movie was horse shit.”

“You ain’t fixin’ to tell us about a mechanical bull?  I thought we were talkin' rodeos,” demanded Kent.  “The difference between a toy mechanical bull and real  bull riding is like the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit!”

“I didn’t say nothing about no damn rodeo!  I’m telling you about my favorite bull rider, the best I ever saw.  And this was more than a year before that fool movie come out.  After the movie, Gilley's was crawling with so many Yankees in designer jeans that no oilfield worker could squeeze in the door.  'Sides, that ain’t even the bar I’m talking about.”

Satisfied that he had quieted the hecklers, Jack continued.  “No, Gilley's made the mechanical bull popular, so a place opened up further down the highway on Galveston island.  Called ‘The Country’, it was about half the size of Gilley's, it was closer to where we lived and it was a lot cheaper...And they had the same mechanical bull.”

“The guys used to come in, hoping to ride a cowgirl, and when they failed to find a willing partner they'd pay good money to sit on that contraption as it spun, bucked and spun again.  Actually, since that machine could change direction so fast, spin and buck, jerking around, it might have been almost as hard to ride as a real bull.  'Course, instead of hitting the ground, in the bar you landed on soft foam padding, and the bull couldn’t trample you or gore you.  That’s what had killed Lane Frost that day in Cheyenne:  the bull turned and gored him after he had hit the ground.”

At this the men sitting around the table looked at each other and nodded.  An angry bull was just about the most dangerous animal around and a cowboy didn’t have to attempt to ride one for eight seconds to have the beast kill you.  A mechanical bull, by comparison, was a toy.

“Well, guys used to bet who could ride that fool thang the longest, so they had regular contests and some real money changed hands.  Every now and then, some tall, lanky boy with an empty Stetson would challenge the reigning champ—a waitress named Lucy.  (Leastways, that’s what we called her.).  She was Vietnamese and nobody could pronounce her real name, but she told me it meant jade.”

“Now, this was right about the time there were all those fights about the Vietnamese shrimpers moving in, and those city cowboys—all hat and no cattle—they just couldn’t believe that the champ bull rider was a little girl that didn’t know John Wayne from Tom Mix, so they were more than willing to put a little money on the proposition.  About once a week, somebody wearing a belt buckle the size of a hubcap would pony up a couple of hundred bucks and challenge Lucy.”

“Being the defending champ, Lucy always let the challenger go first, and he’d sit atop that bull, get a death grip on the rope and holler ‘Let ‘er Rip!’  As that bull twisted and jerked, the cowboy would wave his hat in air, whooping and shouting until the bull would go one way while he went the other and he’d be jerked clean off it.  If the kid was any good, it usually took about twenty seconds before his butt hit the floor.  Then it was Lucy’s turn.”

“Lucy was no bigger than a minute, a couple of inches shorter than five foot, all of 90 pounds soaking wet, and most of that was in her hips and legs.  While she looked like a frail little girl, Lucy had been trained as a gymnast and had a body hard enough to roller skate on and legs so powerful she could‘ve cracked pecans between her thighs.  She’d get on that mechanical critter, squeezing it tight with her legs, firmly locking the rope in an iron underhanded grip, holding her body as low as possible, and then—when the bull started gyrating-she’d kind of let her upper body go limp.  Hell, her center of gravity was probably lower than the top of the bull.  Every time that bull leaned forward, she’d lean back, never leaning more than a few inches one way or the other to stay centered.”

“Lucy made riding that fool contraption look easy.   And it probably was if you were only 90 pounds of solid muscle.  I never did see her get thrown—she’d just sit on that gyrating critter until she had busted the challenger’s time and then tell the operator to flip the switch on the beast.  She’d collect her winnings and go right back to waiting tables.  I think she only worked there so she could challenge those citified cowboys.  I know for certain she made more money on the bull than she did serving beer.”

“What happened to her?” questioned one of the men sitting at the table.

“Nothing happened to her,” answered Jack.  “When Hurricane Alicia flattened the bar like road-kill, she made a deal with the bar’s owner.  Last I saw of her, she was driving a pickup west into the sunset, over the bridge towards Houston.  The bull was tied securely in the bed of the truck.  For all I know she’s either found another bar, or she’s trying to cross breed the damn thing with a riding lawn mower.”

Finished, Jack picked up his beer, draining what was left, staring at the men sitting around him as if to challenge any of them that dared to doubt his story.

Kent leaned over to his friend and whispered, “Well, when you ask a man for a bullshit story, you generally get a bullshit story.”

“Yeah,” Mike answered.  “Though this is a first:  A mechanical bullshit story.”

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Two Lucky Women

And the men who profited from their luck.

Historically, the major difference between successful exploration and failure is frequently simply luck.  In the case of two such explorations, that luck came in the form of women whose contributions (and women's role in exploration is usually overlooked) meant the difference between life and an untimely death.  As clues to understanding the exploration of North America, the stories of these two women have much in common, even though their travels occurred 300 years apart .

By 1519, the Spanish had thoroughly explored and  tamed the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, but knew almost nothing about the mainland to the north and west. The island natives had told many tales about lands with abundant gold just a few days sailing to the west and explorers had briefly landed on the coast of Vera Cruz, but the contact with the natives had been brief and violent.  Finally, Governor Velazquez of Cuba decided to send a large expedition westward.  Velazquez thought he had just the man for the job, a bright Spaniard who exhibited initiative and leadership:  Hernan Cortés.

Cortés threw himself into the work of preparing the expedition.  As he prepared eleven small ships, he hired men, gathered arms and supplies, and worked tirelessly to ready the expedition.  Cortés worked so hard that Velazquez soon realized the central problem with funding expeditions—If Cortés were successful, it would be Cortés who profited, not Velazquez.

When Velazquez sent word to Cortés to delay sailing off in his search for gold, fame, and glory (with the emphasis on gold), Cortés immediately confirmed the governor’s suspicions by ordering his men to set sail and embark immediately.  By defying Velazquez, Cortés was taking a desperate gamble:  if his expedition was not wildly successful, he would either be killed by the natives or executed by Velazquez.

When Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico, almost immediately he discovered that two lost Spaniards, all that remained of an errant Spanish ship wrecked on the Mexican coast by a passing hurricane, had been forced to live with the Mayans long enough to learn the local language.  One of these shipwrecked survivors, had married and “gone native”, with no desire to leave, but the other survivor, Gerome de Aguilar, was desperate to be rescued. 

It is difficult to imagine the incredible luck for Cortés, to discover an interpreter almost immediately upon landing on the coast of a foreign and unexplored land.  It is through the efforts of Gerome that Cortés is able to make peace with the Mayans, who gifted the Spaniard with twenty young maidens, among whom was Malinche.

Malinche had been born the daughter of a local chief of one of the Nahua tribes on the outskirt of the Aztec Empire.  After her father died, she had been gifted to another tribe as a child, then in turn was either given or traded to the Mayans.  By the time she met Cortés, she was roughly twenty years old and was described as graceful and beautiful.  We don’t know whether Cortés chose her for her beauty or for her ability to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl—the language of the Aztecs—and he also took the young woman for his mistress.  (Officially, Cortés chose her to be the companion of one of his men—one that he "coincidentally" chose to send as an emissary back to King Charles of Spain.)

The best eyewitness account of Cortés's conquest of the Aztec Empire was written by Bernal Dias del Castillo, who wrote that, next to God, it was Marina—the name Malinche took after she had been baptized into the Christian Faith—who was most responsible for the success of the expedition.  She not only acted as translator for Cortés, she told him about the Aztecs, their way of life, their way of war, and the gold they possessed. 

Malinche stayed by Cortés throughout the conquest, so much so that all of the surviving Aztec codices depicting Cortés, show Malinche by his side.  The Aztecs even referred to Cortés and Malinche with a single collective word—Malintzin.  Without the contributions of Malinche, it is doubtful that Cortés would have ever successfully traveled far enough into the interior of Mexico to even meet Montezuma, much less conquer his empire.

After the conquest, Malinche bore Cortés a son, Martin Cortés, and lived in comfort for the rest of her life in a house that Cortés provided.  In Mexico, her memory is, at best, mixed.  Her son is considered to be the first mestizo and so she is regarded as either the mother of modern Mexico or a traitor to her people. 

Three hundred years later, an expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase also depended on a woman for success. 

When President Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, the nation acquired a little over 828,000 square miles for just over four cents an acre.  While historians are still arguing whether the sale was legal—Napoleon didn’t have a clear title and the U. S. Constitution doesn’t mention the power of a president to buy new territory—it’s ours because we occupied it.  However, before settlers could move in, somebody had to find out what was there.

Jefferson asked Congress for $2500 to fund an expedition, then he hired Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark to explore and map the territory.  (And, as we discussed last week, to look for a few wooly mammoths.)  This being a government activity, the two eventually spent merely twenty times what they had been budgeted, but considering what they accomplished, it is still chump change.

Shortly after the expedition started in 1804, they wintered over in present-day North Dakota and began looking for local trappers who might be able to guide them up the Missouri River as soon as the spring came and the ice melted.  Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper was hired, along with his wife, Sacagawea. 

Sacagawea had been born in present-day Idaho into the Shoshone tribe.  As a young girl, a raiding party of Crow had kidnapped her, eventually selling her, against her will, to Charbonneau as a wife.  By the time she joined the Lewis and Clark expedition, she was pregnant with her first child, and gave birth just before the explorers began their journey up the Missouri River.

Almost immediately, Sacagawea proved to be a useful addition to the expedition.  Not only could she translate to the local tribes, but the very presence of a nursing mother proved to the various tribes that this could not possibly be a war party. 

When the explorers finally reached the Shoshone—whose help was an absolute necessity for the success of the expedition— Sacagawea was delighted to discover that in the years since she had been kidnapped, her brother had become chief of the tribe.  As Meriwether Lewis recorded in his journal:

Shortly after Capt. Clark arrived with the Interpreter Charbono, and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait. The meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares and rejoined her nation.

Through the influence of Sacagawea, the Shoshone provided Lewis and Clark with horses and guides over the Rocky Mountains.  Sacagawea could have stayed with her own people, but chose to continue with the expedition not only on to the Pacific Ocean, but returned all the way back to St. Louis, Missouri, where she lived the rest of her life, dying of an unknown fever only a few years later, in 1812.

If it was unlikely that Lewis and Clark could have found a trapper who could speak Crow and it is almost impossible that he would also be married to a woman who could speak both Crow and Shoshone.  If we stretch the odds to make this woman, who had been kidnapped for years from her own people, to just happen to be the younger sister of the chief of the Shoshone, the whole affair becomes preposterous.   This is luck beyond calculation.

It is remarkable that the success of the two most famous explorations of North America were both successful because of the contributions of two very similar young women, the details of both of whose contributions have been largely unknown.  Though both were forced to participate, both became indispensable, both stayed with their expeditions when they could have left, and both have become footnotes in the history of those expeditions.

The sons of both women went on to become educated, traveled to Europe, met royalty, and returned home; both had successful and colorful careers, but those are stories for another time.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Big Cheese

The root of the problem was that Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mammoths. 

It was easy to see evidence of this obsession, as he kept the lower and upper jawbones of a mammoth in the entry hall of Monticello.  (And they are still there.)  While residing in the White House, he turned the largest room—the East Room—into something of a private museum, with bones scattered all over the floor.  In idle times, the president would try to rearrange them into some kind of order.

Jefferson’s obsession with fossilized bones, extending well beyond just those of mammoths, was so intense that today he is often referred to as the father of modern day paleontology.

Besides being b fascinated with paleontology, Jefferson was interested in mammoths because of the writings of the French scientist George Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon.  Buffon was one of the foremost naturalists in the world, and was working on a multi-volume work, the Histoire Naturelle, that would attempt to explain the entire natural world, including descriptions of the world’s plants and animals, of how animals were domesticated, and even of the origin of the solar system. 

In Volume V, Buffon attempted to answer why the animals of the New World were so obviously inferior, at least in size, to those of the Old World.  Buffon had never been to the Americas, and simply accepted the common European view of life in the New World, in which it was widely accepted that there was something unnaturally unhealthy about life in the New World:  Not only was there a dearth of large animals, but what animals did exist were notably smaller, weaker, and less healthy than their counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Asia.  American dogs could not bark as loud as European dogs, European birds could fly better than their American counterpart.

Somehow, it was even the common belief in Europe that the deer of the New World were puny.  Years ago, while traveling in England, my son What’s-His-Name (not The-Other-One) was describing New Mexico mule deer to a young man who had just gone deer hunting near Oxford.  Fascinated, he gave my son a key ring made from the foot of a deer he had recently harvested.  As you can see at left, it is about the size of a rabbit’s foot.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a large portion of the New World had yet to be discovered, and even those areas that had been explored were poorly documented.  The Spanish, in particular had already had extensive experience with wolves, jaguars, mountain lions, grizzly bear, Rocky Mountain elk, and buffalo.  Despite this, the Spanish, too, believed that life in the new world was unhealthy, producing inferior specimens. 

This belief even extended to people born in the New World.  If you had two sons, the one born in Europe would be stronger, smarter, and more capable than the son who happened to be born in the unhealthy New World.  The basis of this belief was due, in part, to the mosquito-borne illnesses prevalent in most of the Spanish ports.  Ironically, these diseases were imported by the Spanish (most likely in the water barrels of slave ships arriving from Africa).  The death rate of Europeans immigrating to the New World once they arrived in these pestilent ports was very high, reaching over a quarter of all new arrivals at times.

Buffon’s work was widely distributed, particularly among the European aristocrats who had both the leisure time and wealth necessary to be  naturalists.  Jefferson was furious that Buffon’s theory was generally accepted as proof that the American “experiment” with democracy was doomed to failure—that Americans were simply too mentally feeble for self-government.  Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, was amused by the notion.  When the topic came up during a diplomatic meeting in Paris, Franklin ordered everyone in the room to stand up, then pointed out that the Americans assembled towered over the diminutive French diplomats.

Despite Jefferson’s repeated written requests, Buffon refused to retract his opinion, so the Virginian sought to provide irrefutable proof.  He arranged to have a moose stuffed and shipped to Europe, but unfortunately the taxidermist did a poor job and it was a putrid rotting unidentifiable carcass that was actually deposited on Buffon’s doorstep.

What Jefferson really wanted as proof was a mammoth.  Not the prehistoric remains of one, Jefferson wanted a live mammoth.  In spite of the fact that they had been extinct for at least 4,000 years in North America, Jefferson fervently hoped that some might still be roaming around somewhere in the unexplored West.  Why not?  No one had been there yet, and there was a popular belief among some naturalists that God would not allow any of his creations to become extinct. 

Jefferson went to great lengths to gather evidence, writing friends and associates to search salt licks and creek bottoms for the skeletal remains of the elephant-like critters.  He collected the molars of mastodons (many of which were shipped at fairly large expense by some of the founding fathers of the country).  He measured bones and collected enough material that he eventually wrote a book, Notes of the State of Virginia, that favorably compared the measurements of animals in Virginia against their counterparts in Europe.  

All of these actions by Jefferson were nothing compared to his secret master plan—to perhaps capture a living mammoth.  When Lewis and Clarke set off to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, they carried secret instructions to be on the lookout for wooly mammoths.  (Jefferson also suspected the existence of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians—but that’s a different story.)  While no pachyderms were sighted, the explorers did identify 178 new plants and 122 new animals.

Jefferson did, ultimately receive his mammoth, but it wasn’t wooly.  To honor Jefferson’s election, the Baptist parishioners of Cheshire, Massachusetts collected the milk from 900 cows and using a cider press as an improvised cheese press, created a 4’ wide, 1235 pound cheese bearing the inscription “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  To be certain that the cheese was pure, no milk was gathered from cows belonging to supporters of the Federal Party, Jefferson’s political opponents.

The huge cheese took three weeks to transport 500 miles by sleigh, ship, and hired wagon to Washington, where Jefferson promptly put it in the East Room along with his mammoth bones.  Since Jefferson was opposed to the notion of an Imperial Presidency, he insisted on paying for the cheese. 

Federalist politicians, delighted in making fun of the cheese, referring to it as the Mammoth Cheese because of all the bones also to be found in the room.  This was the first time that the word “mammoth” was used as a synonym for “huge”, a practice that continues to this day.  Within weeks, butchers and bakers began shipping to the White House similar items.  Jefferson received a mammoth cake, a mammoth veal, and so forth.

No one is exactly sure what happened to the mammoth cheese, though it was a featured part of a July 4, celebration a year later.  Supposedly it stayed in the East Room for over two years, before the remains were dumped into the Potomac River to make room for the Mammoth Loaf of Bread being presented to Jefferson by the US Navy.

Luckily, the tradition of mammoth gifts died out for a while.  In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was presented with a new, and even larger Mammoth Cheese.  Despite his best efforts to get rid of the cheese, it took Jackson years to dispose of it.  In 1838, the newly elected President Van Buren complained bitterly that the entire White House reeked of cheese.

Since 1835, the White House has rejected all gifts of cheese, regardless of size.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Custom Boots

There was a time when I used to cross the bridge into Mexico frequently.  I could park my car near the bridge, get out and walk across into Mexico, paying the small fee to enter the country and then enjoy a few hours of the carnival atmosphere the border town version of Mexico had to offer to anyone who had a quarter and a couple of hours to spare.

Juarez is certainly a part of Mexico, but it is not typical of the whole country—at least the half-mile wide strip of restaurants, bars, and shops located close to the two bridges connecting El Paso to Juarez isn't.  Those places were designed for tourists, and are about as indicative of what the rest of Mexico is like as the Strip in Las Vegas is of the rest of America. 

While Juarez might not be like my favorite places in Mexico—which are Zacatecas and Puebla—it is still a good place for an inexpensive meal, cheap drinks, and some interesting shopping.  I still keep a few Mexican blankets in my truck, and I have no idea how many bottles of Kahlua and tequila I have brought back over the years.  I enjoy walking through the mercado, and sampling the food.

My favorite store in Juarez is a boot shop about half a mile from the bridge, where I have purchased custom boots for over forty years.  You go in the small dimly-lit shop—it's about ten feet wide and thirty feet deep—and carefully check out a few examples of boots sitting on a rack along one wall.  The whole shop smells of oiled, worked leather, and you can see the men in the back of the shop working by hand, shaping the leather into boots, using ancient tools. 

To buy a pair of custom boots, you select the kind of leather, the color, the type of sole and heel, the stitching, and so forth.  In my case, I always requested a pocket inside the left shaft—an option that cost an additional $4.  And being a little clumsy, I wanted a full rubber sole rather than the usual leather sole. 

Once the style of the boot has been selected, you stand barefooted on a large single sheet of newspaper while the outline of your foot is traced with a black marker.  On the opposite wall from the boot samples are dozens of huge books, bound in black  leather.  Each book is fat with the bound newspaper pages, each containing the information about the desired boot, as well as the number of the claim check.  If you can remember the number from your previous purchase, it is all you need to order an identical pair.

The cost of the boots is $40, with half down and the rest due when you return two weeks later with your claim check.  Over the years, I have bought half a dozen pairs of such boots, and I still wear my last, aging pair occasionally.

Over the last few years, however, my trips across the border have become a little less frequent.  This has been partly due to the recent violence caused by the various cartels fighting each other to see who will control the lucrative drug traffic into the United States, and partly because the Customs Agents on the border have tightened their control, adding lengthy delays and small bureaucratic headaches to the return crossing.

Somewhere along the line, quick trips into Juarez just stopped being something to do for fun on an afternoon.  It was still possible, but The Doc and I just found other things to do.  While we still occasionally traveled south of the border, we flew into the interior and bypassed the border crossings completely.  Unfortunately, we gave up going for lunch in Juarez.

At least, until a colleague of mine passed away.  While he had worked at Enema U, he was going to be buried in the family plot back in Juarez, so several of us decided to attend the funeral.  Once again, we parked our cars in El Paso,  crossed the bridge into Mexico by foot, and continued by taxi to the funeral. 

After the funeral, my friend and I went to our favorite seafood restaurant in Juarez.   The place serves excellent ceviche—a dish made with raw fish cured in lime juice, served with chopped onions and chiles.  If you’re not familiar with Mexican food, you’ll just have to trust me:  it tastes better than it sounds.  And, of course, it is served with ice-cold Tecate, my favorite Mexican beer.

While we sat enjoying our meal, I suddenly remembered the boot shop a few blocks away.  I dug out my wallet and began excavating through the contents.  Like most men's wallets, mine is a cross between a museum and that one drawer in the kitchen where small tools and what-nots go to die (In our house, we call it, "the No-No drawer").  Digging through my wallet, I found a credit card for a gas company that hasn’t existed in a dozen years, an astonishing number of library cards, and finally, a long-forgotten claim check for a pair of boots.

The claim check was eight years-old and while I had paid the initial $24, I had never gotten around to picking up the promised boots.  Would they still be there?

My friend and I finished our dinner and walked to the boot place, passing up countless opportunities to purchase onyx chess sets, artwork featuring Beavis and Butthead on velvet, and t-shirts that were most likely manufactured in China. 

Arriving at the boot shop, I found that nothing had changed.  The boot samples were exactly the same and while there might have been a few more bound books on the wall, in the back of the shop, the men were still making boots using tools and methods that were at least a century old.

When I presented my aging claim check, there was a brief and fruitless search among the accumulated boots behind the counter.  After a brief conference, the clerk located the bound book containing my footprints, studied the details, and then returned with a smile on his face.

“They are almost ready,” he announced confidently.  “Come back next week.”

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Military Parade

It all started with loans.  During the 1850’s, Mexico borrowed heavily from Europe, using its rich silver mines as collateral.  Unfortunately, this was a decade of political turmoil and civil war that made repaying the loans impossible.

By the time newly-elected President Juarez could bring a little stability to the nation, the silver mines had flooded—in large part because of a shortage of labor as men left the mines for the military—ruining the nation’s economy, and leaving the government broke.  In July, 1861, Juarez announced a moratorium on loan repayments, since the nation needed a little time to stabilize and rebuild its economy.  Note that the Mexican president was not repudiating the loans--he just needed time before he could start repaying them again.

Unfortunately, the timing of this announcement was extremely bad.  In France, Emperor Napoleon III was looking for an opportunity to expand the French Empire, and the curtailment of loan payments gave him an excuse for intervention and expansion into Mexico.  While the United States normally would have vigorously challenged such a move by France as a blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine, America was already deeply involved in its own Civil War.  Simply put, Americans were too busy shooting Americans to shoot Frenchmen. 

The initial European invasion was jointly conducted by England, Spain, and France--supposedly to seize the customs house at Vera Cruz, Mexico’s major port.  Since the import taxes were the main source of the Mexican government's revenue, diverting those funds would easily repay the European debtsHowever, within months of their landing in Mexico, England and Spain withdrew, since by that time, of Emperor Napoleon III's true intentions had become obvious—he wanted to add Mexico to the French Empire.  England and Spain were well aware that, eventually, Americans would stop shooting at each other and do something about the French Army in Mexico.  (And eventually, we did just that, but that’s getting ahead of our story.)

In early 1863, additional French troops landed and the French army began marching towards Mexico City, generally following the same route that had been used by Cortes in 1519 and General Winfield Scott in 1848.  As part of securing supply lines, the French Army laid siege to the town of Puebla and, after a few weeks, the forces around Puebla needed food andammunition, and the French soldiers needed to be paid.

To protect the supply convoy, a company of the French Foreign Legion was to march two hours ahead of the supplies.  The unit selected, the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion was far from combat-ready due to illness.  Napoleon III really should have paid more attention to the way in which the Americans had timed their invasion of Mexico so as to avoid the Yellow Fever season .  Half of the men and all of the officers of this company were on sick call, leaving only 62 men and three volunteer officers, including Captain Danjou, to lead the legionnaires.

Captain Jean Danjou was a veteran of several wars, having fought with distinction in Algiers, Italy, and Morocco.  A decade earlier, while fighting in Algiers, he had lost his left hand when his rifle had exploded, and had replaced it with a painted wooden replica.  Captain Danjou was leading a force that was decidedly understrength.

On the morning of April 30, 1863, the 3rd Company began its march hours before dawn in order  to avoid the heat of the day.  About 7 am, Captain Danjou called for a brief rest stop, and the men began to brew coffee, but before the water began to boil, lookouts reported spotting several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching their position.

Infantrymen in the field, unsupported by artillery, can easily be run down by cavalry.  The classic defense is for the men to form a square, with bayonets facing outward and the center of the square providing protection for the wounded and the supply animals.  Captain Danjou  had his men form such squares repeatedly that morning, and between cavalry charges, the men tried to seek defensive ground.

After repelling repeated charges, Danjou ordered his men to make their way to the remains of a hacienda near the village of Camarón.  The old hacienda had a large house surrounded by a ten-foot wall.  During the dash for safety, the group became divided, resulting in 16 men being captured by the Mexican troops.  Worse, in the confusion, the pack mules carrying the unit’s food, water, and spare ammunition were lost.

The fifty remaining Legionnaires, armed with muskets, took refuge within the hacienda walls, though they were now surrounded by the Mexican Army.  Under a flag of truce, Colonel Francisco Milan offered the French forces a chance to surrender, which Captain Danjou rejected, saying that his men had munitions and would defend their new position to the death.

Over the next hour, several assaults on the hacienda were repulsed.  The adobe walls provided cover from the Mexican infantry while the single gate was too narrow to allow an effective cavalry charge.  Time, however was not on the side of the French forces, as they slowly exhausted their ammunition, and they had neither food nor water.  Meanwhile, the Mexican Army received reinforcements, growing to 2000 men.

Inside the walls, Captain Danjou went to each man, offering encouragement and a small sip from a wine bottle, getting each man to vow to fight to the death.  According to one source, Danjou asked each man to give his vow while placing his right hand on Danjou's wooden prosthetic. 

About noon, during one of the seemingly endless assaults on the hacienda, Danjou was killed by a bullet to the head.  His replacement, Lieutenant Villian, also urged the men to never surrender, even as they fought off repeated attacks on the hacienda walls.  By the late afternoon, when Villian was also killed, only Lieutenant Maudet and a dozen legionnaires were left.  Under a flag of truce, Colonel Milan once again offered to accept the French surrender, only to have his offer refused.

By six p.m., only Lieutenant Maudet and five men were left, and each of the men possessed only a single round of ammunition.  The men loaded their weapons, affixed their bayonets, and lined up with their officer in the center and waited for the next enemy assault.  When the Mexicans next attacked the hacienda, six men appeared at the gate, firing a last volley before commencing a bayonet charge into the much larger Mexican force.

Almost immediately, the men were brought down (it was later claimed that one body had been shot 19 times).  The men were simply overwhelmed, beaten with rifle butts and forced into submission.  They would have almost certainly all have been killed had not a Mexican officer, impressed with their bravery, once again offered surrender terms.  Corporal Maine, the highest ranking NCO accepted, but demanded that the survivors be treated for their wounds, be allowed to keep their arms, and be allowed to return the body of Captain Danjou to France.

Colonel Milan, impressed with the men’s bravery, accepted the offer, saying, “What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.”

Of the last bayonet charge, three of the six legionnaires survived.  Of the original force, 37 had been killed or were missing, 23 wounded were captured, and later, an unconscious drummer boy was found among the dead.  The Mexican forces had lost 190 killed and over 300 wounded.  In the running battle that lasted eleven hours, the French forces had battled an enemy that outnumbered them thirty to one, had fired 4000 rounds, and had killed ten of the enemy for each of their own losses.  The battle pulled all available Mexican soldiers to Camarón, allowing the supply convoy to successfully reach Puebla.

Today, every April 30, on Camerone Day, the French Foreign Legion holds a special mess in Paris, at which the officers prepare and serve coffee to the men in their command, in remembrance of the coffee the men of the 3rd Company never got to drink.  The Legion then ceremonially removes the glass-encased (wooden) hand of Captain Danjou from its museum and that hand leads a parade commemorating the battle.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Flyaway Islands

The legend starts with an invasion.  The Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711, pouring northward into Spain.  Easily defeating the Visigoths, they established their own government and spread the Islamic faith, touching off a seven century long Christian crusade to retake the Iberian Peninsula. 

Faced with the growing threat of living under Islamic rule, seven bishops elected to leave Spain, taking their followers with them…

Note.  There are two interesting points in that sentence.  First, a ł most any legend containing either the number seven or forty is probably deliberately signaling the medieval reader that the story is of great religious significance (the Moors would have used the number eight).  Second, we should note that the story is probably long on emotion and short on facts, since the Moors actually practiced religious tolerance in Spain, not caring who infidels prayed to as long as they paid their taxes. 

The seven bishops set sail in caravels to the West, forever leaving Al-Andalus (as the Muslims called Spain).  (We will ignore the fact that the caravel was actually developed by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, not the Spanish in the eighth century.  The Spanish, like a Texan I know, never let facts get in way of a good story, uh, er…legend.)

This was a perilous voyage into an unknown world.  Day after day the tiny ships sailed into the setting sun, trusting in God that land would be found before the fleeing people starved to death.  Even as they fought strange sea monsters and survived horrendous storms, the bishops and their flocks continued on their journey, praying to God for salvation.

Hearing their prayer, God brought them to Antillia, an island with lush forests teeming with game, with snowcapped mountains, and with rivers of clear water and abundant fish.  Everything the refugees could possibly need for survival was available on the island.

More important for our legends, Antillia was fabulously rich.  Precious jewels could be found in the river beds and gold nuggets were turned up every time a farmer plowed his field.  The beaches were golden, and the mountains were rich in silver.  Wealth beyond imagination could be gathered in an afternoon.

Each of the seven bishops built a city on Antillia for his followers, with each bishop competing to build the largest and most beautiful cathedral.  Over time, the wealth of the cities grew until even the most humble peasant dressed in the finest clothes and lived in luxury denied even to the nobles of Europe.  Because of this wealth, the island also became known as the Seven Cities of Gold.

It is not clear just how the people of Europe knew all of these details about Antilia, since no one had ever returned from the island, but Europeans certainly believed in it—every map of the Atlantic (or of the Ocean Sea as it was then called) showed that Antillia, Brendan’s Island, and a long list of other Phantom Islands lay somewhere far to the West of Europe.  Some maps showed another island close to Antillia, Satanzes—the island of demons where instead of an idyllic Christian life, the inhabitants were subjected to a literal Hell on Earth.

The maps carried by Columbus showed Antillia, which he died believing he had discovered;  he mentioned Antillia often in his correspondence with the Spanish Court.  Even today, World maps frequently refer to the Greater Antilles (the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the surrounding area) and the Lesser Antilles (the Windward and Leeward Islands near Venezuela). 

Long after Columbus, Phantom Islands were depicted on most maps.  Actually, increased exploration fostered more mapmaking, and actually increased the number of fictitious islands shown on maps.  The discovery of lands—particularly those with gold and silver—seemed to give credence to the old legends even while it encouraged the creation of new imaginary islands.

As you can imagine, as soon as possible, the Conquistadors eagerly taught Spanish to the natives in order to be able to interrogate them about the location of more gold and more wealth.  When Moctezuma questioned Hernan Cortes about his unreasonable fixation on a metal the Aztecs referred to as the “excrement of the Gods”, Cortes answered that he and his companions “suffered from a disease of the heart that could only be treated with gold.”

The embattled natives did not always tell the truth.  As you can imagine, when strange well-armed men showed up, raped the women, and robbed the locals of anything worth having, all the while asking about the location of more gold, they were quickly told of gold way over there (said direction always being the opposite of where the strange men had come from).

One of my favorite stories of way over there concerns a pair of mythical islands somewhere in the Caribbean.  One island was inhabited only by men while the other island was inhabited only by women.  Once a year, the men rowed canoes over to the other island for a night of wild partying.  Nine months later, the women rowed over to the other island and left the male children to be raised.  Of course, both islands had gold.  Had the creative native added a tale about artesian springs spouting beer, the story would have been exactly what sailors needed to hear.

A staggering amount of time was spent looking for these islands...Or, at least one of them.

These “flyaway island” stories have continued far longer than you might think.  The Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, gave the imaginary Phélypeaux and Pontchartrain Islands—supposedly located in the middle of Lake Superior—to the United States.  As late as 2005, the National Geographic Atlas of the World showed the islands of Wachusett Reef, Jupiter Reef and Rangitiki Reef—none of which actually exist.  (Oops!!!)

Google Earth as late as 2012, showed Sandy Island located just off of New Zealand on both their maps and satellite photos despite the fact that the island simply never existed.  In reality, the depth of the ocean at the supposed location is a little over 4000 feet deep.  Despite this, Sandy Island still shows up regularly—and falsely—on internet maps.  (Double Oops!!!)

Which brings us to the island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The tiny island, which still shows up on most maps of the region, was mentioned regularly by Spanish explorers, and if searched for on Google Earth, will take you exactly to the supposed location, 22 degrees, 33 minutes north, 91 degrees, 22 minutes west.  However, not even the earliest satellite photos show such an island. 

Mexico has really looked for the island.  Several expeditions have searched for it both above and below the water.  They need it, since the location of the island would factor into the boundary line separating US and Mexican offshore oil fields.  If the island does not exist, which the government of Mexico now begrudgingly admits, the boundary line moves 100 miles to the advantage of the United States, vastly reducing the size and the value of the Mexican oilfield.

While Mexico has officially admitted the non-existence of the island, you will probably not be surprised to learn that the popular theory south of the border is that, in order to control more of the world’s oil, the American C.I.A. blew it up. 

Yeah, and I bet those bastards at the C.I.A. knows where that island of women is located, too. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Tax Cuts

Perhaps the hottest financial question today is whether in the recent tax cut will pay for itself.  Proponents of “trickle down economics”  and the Laffer Curve claim it always works while opponents assert it never works.  As you might expect, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Do tax cuts pay for them selves?  Of course, I’m not an economist, but if we look to history, the simple answer is probably not.  I can give examples.

The biggest tax cut that I am familiar with has to be the Bourbon tax reforms of the 18th century Spanish Empire.  (Relax, I will get to American examples soon enough.)  As the last Hapsburg king, Charles II, died, the empire was near economic collapse.  When Philip V, a French Bourbon import, took over, he slowly dismantled the complicated tax system that was strangling his empire.   He loosened trade restrictions, encouraging economic growth in the New World colonies. 

While results were sluggish at first, eventually the economies of the colonies—especially Mexico—rebounded and tax revenues to the mother country actually increased...At least for a while.  The easing of restrictions also drove the colonies to independence, cutting off the major share of Spanish income.  Spain might have been able to stop those independence movements had she not been constantly bankrupt.

What?  If revenues increased, why was Spain bankrupt?  Simply put: as Spain’s income grew, so did her spending.  Spain tried futilely to reverse the Protestant Revolution that was then sweeping across Europe and also tried in vain to stop the French Revolution.   Spain seemed to believe that her income was unlimited, so her spending was also unlimited.  As a result, the empire collapsed, the country was invaded, and the world’s mightiest empire collapsed into a third-rate power.

Moving to American tax cuts, I have somewhat arbitrarily decided to deal with only the major tax cuts of the last century.  There were tax cuts in the 19th century, but I believe that the fiscal policy of a pre-industrial America has little to teach us today.  (But, what do I know?  I’m just a poor, dumb ol’ country boy pretending that history teaches us something about today.)

The first meaningful tax cuts occurred during the 1920’s.  Called the Coolidge tax cuts, they were actually the brain child of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who had been appointed by President Harding.  After Harding’s untimely death in 1923, Mellon continued to hold office for President Coolidge.  The top income tax rate was 77% for all income over $1 million.  Arguing that this rate discouraged investment and hurt jobs, the rate was cut in 1921, 1924, and 1926, eventually dropping the top rate to 24%.  The cuts, like more recent ones, actually made the tax plan more progressive, as the top earners paid a larger share of the total tax collected, and dropped millions of people from the tax rolls altogether.

At first, revenue to the government dropped, in part due to a recession, but as the recession ended, government revenue increased.   For most of the Coolidge years, the government had a surplus, something that ended with the start of the Great Depression.  The net resultsThey are somewhat mixed.  The tax cuts did not cause the depression, they did spur a growth in the economy which did cover part of the loss of revenue from the tax cuts, but the income from a rejuvenated economy did not cover the total cost of the tax cuts.

If the Great Depression had not occurred, would the government eventually have recovered the cost of the tax cuts?  We will never know.

The Kennedy tax cuts are actually misnamed.  Kennedy proposed cutting the top income tax rate from 91% to 65%, but he did not live long enough to see these cuts implemented.  Johnson was successful, in 1964, in reducing the top personal rate to 70% and the corporate rate to 48%.  With a static economy, they reduced government income by $12 billion a year. 

Note.  It is difficult to compare tax rates from the fifties to those of today without also referencing what deductions were allowed.  While the rates were much higher under Eisenhower, so were the deductions.

After the tax cuts, the economy greatly expanded, but there are still arguments whether this was due to the tax cuts or from the expanded government spending during the Vietnam War.  Regardless of the cause, new income from an expanded economy recovered at best only 75% of the revenue due to the tax cuts. 

It important to remember that while the overall income to the government might have dropped because of the tax cuts, there were other benefits.  More people were employed, and their wages were higher.  Standards of living increased.  If all we do is look at the total income of the government, it is easy to forget that the government exists to help people, not the reverse.

The Reagan tax cuts are difficult to analyze because, while Reagan did cut taxes in 1981, he also raised taxes eleven times.  These tax cuts also occurred just as the high inflationary period of the 1970’s ended.  When the first tax cut was being argued in Congress, no one argued that these cuts would produce enough economic activity to be revenue neutral, the bill’s sponsors said it would produce a drop in revenue of over $600 billion over five years.

While there was an initial drop in revenue, total government income over the next decade increased 28% adjusted for inflation.  

While the direct cause and effect can be argued, there are a few facts that can be stated unequivocally.  1.  The lowered taxes increased the incentive to invest and the economy expanded.  2.  Government spending increased faster than income, producing bigger deficits.  3.  The tax code was made more progressive, meaning that the top earners paid a larger share of the government budget.

So what is the bottom line?  First, tax cuts rarely pay for themselves even as they stimulate the economy.  Secondly, unless government spending is cut at the same time as the tax cuts, it is likely that deficits will  increase.  Indeed, even if the tax cuts do increase revenue, this usually encourages the government to spend more. 

Tax cuts do increase jobs.  The Kennedy tax cuts created over nine million new jobs while the Reagan tax cuts are credited with creating over 11 million jobs.  With all of the tax cuts, the economy expanded, more jobs were created, and the standard of living went up even as government income usually decreased.

Are tax cuts a good idea?  It’s up to you, but consider that until the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party was in favor of cutting income tax rates—it was actually the chief party plank that differentiated them from the Republican Party.  As we make these decisions, let’s be sure we are doing so on facts and not just to be contrary to the opposing party.