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Saturday, April 01, 2017

APRIL FOOL

I don’t approve of practical jokes. I see nothing humorous in having my shoes set afire while I am  wearing them. And dribble glasses are not only not practical they are also not funny - especially on “April Fools Day”, when every glass is a dribble glass and every shoe is a potential combustion chamber. And it turns out that this celebration of sociopathic behavior was invented by the French, a nation without humorous inclinations since Moliere slipped on a banana peel in 1673. But the story of April Fool’s Day began over a century before that comedic-tragic event, when in 1564 King Charles IX decided to follow Pope Gregory’s suggestion and begin the calendar on January rather than April. Why the French originally celebrated New Years Day on April 1st, I have no idea.
Now, in the 16th century, France had only one road. It came out of Paris, turned left, looped all the way around the city and re-entered on the other side of town. This tragic design error,(the world’s first Traffic Circle) made communication with the majority of the nation difficult (and introduced the phrase “Out-of-the-Loop”), and when combined with the French telephone system - which was in no better shape in the 16th century than it is today - meant that a lot of peasants never got the King’s memo concerning the calendar adjustment.
So as they had every year, thousands of these ill-informed peasants journeyed to Paris during the last week of March and on what they thought was New Year’s Eve, gathered in Bastille Square to say bonjour to 1565 and watch the guillotine drop on 1566. In unison they gleefully chanted, “Cing, quartre, trios, deux, un” and…No guillotine. No satisfying plop of a head into the basket. No Champagne corks popping. No red faced Anderson Cooper, no naked Kathy Griffith. Instead of cheers and shouts of glee, mass ennui broke out among the masses. Now anyone who has experienced the Parisian version of “good manners” can imagine what came next; the locals mocked the bewildered peasants and made them feel like complete Americans,…ah, I mean,fools. But the way they did it makes the word “odd” seem inadequate.
For reasons beyond understanding the Parisians snuck up behind their confused country cousins, surreptitiously stuck a paper fish to the bumpkin’s backs and then shouted in a loud voice, “Poisson d’Avril!”, which translates as “April Fish!”, and then collapsed in raucous laughter and shouts of “tres bien.”
Why would they shout “April Fish!”? I have no idea. But, perhaps the first Parisian to label his victim an "April Fool” immediately received a mouth full of fist, while calling the victim an "April Fish” confused him just long enough so that the prankster could escape.
I have long thought that this uncharacteristic outbreak of French “humor” was actually inspired by Charles’ Italian Queen, Catherine de Medici, who was already famous throughout Europe for her gastronomical gags,  such as her duck a la cyanide with a hemlock sauce. Only a Medici could see the humor in humiliating the people who handled your food.
But however it started, the Parisians knew a good time when they saw it and they sent peasants on “fool’s errands”, and tricked peasants with “fool’s tales”, until every April 1st, France reverberated with gales of laughter and shouts of “Poisson d’Avril!”  Ah, good times. But eventually the Parisian bullies grew bored with taunting the unresponsive peasants and in 1572 they shifted their attentions to the Huguenots. But by then the tradition of humiliating people for your own amusement on the first day of April had become generally popular. And like Disco music and Special Federal Prosecutors, once invented some institutions have proven impossible to stop.
This holiday for the humor-impaired spread around the globe with the new calendar like a fungus, infecting and evolving a little in each newly afflicted nation. The Germans added the “Kick Me” sign, and a second day which they called “Taily Day”, to further enjoy the frivolity of bruised buttocks. Ahh, those Germans.
In Portugal, today’s innocent victim is hit with flour, sometimes while it is still in the bag - the flour not the victim. In Scotland the target is humiliatingly referred to as an “April Gawk” (?!), in England as a “Noodle” and in Canada as an “American.” I would have expected mental health professionals to call for a stop to this public insanity but evidently they are too busy setting their patients’ shoes on fire.
Not even a war could snap the world out of this cruel insanity. In what may have been the first time a practical joke qualified as a war crime, on April 1, 1915 a French pilot buzzed the German trenches and dropped a huge bomb, which bounced. Four years later the citizens of Venice awoke on April 1, to discover their sidewalks littered with cow manure, the "gag" of a visiting Englishman, Horace de Vere Cole, with too much time on his hands and too much money in his pockets. But then what can you expect from a man who would honeymoon on April Fool's day? Bad humor moved into the electronic age in 1957 when BBC Television News broadcast a report about the successful and bountiful Swiss harvest of spaghetti.  On April Fool's Day in 1992, National Public Radio in the United States, broadcast the announcement that Richard Nixon was coming out of retirement to run again for President, under the slogan, "I didn't do anything wrong and I won't do it again."
Some years later, ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Company, carried a report that the nation was about to switch to "Metric Time". The next morning would begin at midnight, but each minute would be made up of 100 milidays, each hour of 100 centedays, and each day would consist of 20 decadays. It is alleged that  the following morning nobody in Australia showed up for work on time, but it is unclear if that was because the April Fools joke worked, or merely because everybody in Australia still had a hangover, mate  
Admit it; there is no defense against April Fool tomfoolery, except a preemptive strike. So button up your top button, zip up your pants, tie your shoes and look out for that cat. Load up your water gun, warm up your fart cushion and repeat after me; “Poison d’Avril, sucker!”
Funny, huh?
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Friday, March 31, 2017

WHAT'S EATING YOU

I wonder of Superman ever has a creepy crawly moment, just before he steps into the shower, when out of the corner of his X-Ray Super vision he notices a bunch of little buggies crawling over his skin. Of course his skin is "super" and never wears out, meaning he does not support a menagerie of livestock, grazing on his desiccated flesh, like we do. And I've got to say, that makes Superman a little less Super. Because compared to your personal zoo of Dematophagoisdes pternyssinus, AKA the Mighty Dusts Mite (actually some 15 species) grazing on your body at this very moment like vast microscopic herds of minuscule buffalo, Super Villains are a minor annoyance.
Feel the sudden urge to scratch? Don’t bother; scratching just creates tiny Alps of dead skin for these buggies to feast upon. The truth is we don’t merely live on this planet; this planet also lives on us. Louis Pasture had it right; even fleas have fleas. And so do we, and so do our fleas and so do the fleas starving on the desert that must be the empty plains of Superman's flesh.
Despite their small size (three of them could fit in the period at the end of a sentence and about 42,000 of them live in every once of dust) these driven little arthropods have a massive impact, because the Dust Mite does not eat dust – ah, would that dusting had such a dedicated helpmate. Rather they feast on the 50 million flakes (about 1 ½ grams) of skin we shed each and every day. About 80 % of the “dust” you can see floating in a beam of sunlight is your own dead skin, and fodder for these microscopic herbivores. These are the bugs that give spiders the heeby-jeebies!
Our mighty mite companions also enjoy munching on hair, pollen grains, fungal spores and bacteria, as well as cigarette ash and tobacco, clothing fibers, fingernail clippings and filings, food crumbs, glue, insect parts, paint chips, salt and sugar crystals and even graphite; in short everything and anything we are, use or touch, they eat and regurgitate and re-eat and re-regurgitate, etc., etc. (Dust mites have no digestive tracts).
When you sleep (we spend about 1/3 of our lives in bed) your body and bedding is transformed into an Acaroliocal Park (acarology being the study of dust mites) which makes Michael Crichton’s "Jurassic Park" look like it had been stepped on by an Apatasaurous. As much as half the weight in your ten year old mattress could be the 10 million mites who live there and depend on you for their dinner each time you lay you down and go to sleep. Mites don’t like sunlight and they love high humidity, meaning when you climb into bed tonight they will be there to welcome you, waiting for you to exhale and pull the covers up.
They also love rugs and carpets, dusty bookshelves and dusty books and nooks and crannies on fabric covered furniture. And they are completely harmless – except that their poop and their desiccated corpses are a source of human allergies and likely a cause of asthma. During a mite’s lifetime of 3 to 4 weeks she can produce 200 times her own weight in mighty pop and leave 300 cream colored mighty mite eggs, all capable of taking your breath away. A dehumidifier helps with the allergies (dust mite populations drop at anything below 50% humidity) and regular vacuuming can help keep their populations under control. But there are studies showing that carpet or mattress shampooing or even using a Hepafilter on your vacuum cleaner merely increases the resident population because it moistens it and scatters it. 
These tiny bugs have evolved so closely with us that there are no conditions or chemicals that will kill them without doing the same thing to us. So basically, the best we can hope for in our war with dust mites is a draw, because the world of the dust mite is a familiar yet strange place where air behaves more like water and a each human hair supports an isolated ethos.
And as every Ying has its Yang, and every Superman has his Bizzaro Superman, the herbivore dust mite has engendered the family Cheyletidae, the micro-predatory dust mite, which can be 6 – 8% of the total mighty mite population. These minuscule lions and tigers and bears stalk their prey every night, even migrating with them onto and off your body, unseen and largely un-felt, pouncing with vicious crushing microscopic jaws. They are no less heartless for their lack of a heart. Some digest their food inside its own shell (something to think about the next time you eat crab) by injecting masticating juices, and some of these tiny predators even consume the shell, reducing their meals to a tiny pile of mush before consuming it.
It even seems that our current  mighty mites are the survivors of a once more varied population of “guest workers”, as was attested to by the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, just before vespers on December 29, 1170. What was amazing was what happened to the Archbishop’s corpse, as described in Hans Zinsser’s 1935 epic book, “Rats, Lice and History”, beginning with Zinsser’s description of the dead Archbishop’s robes of office. 
When he was murdered Becket was wearing, “…a large brown mantle; under it, a white surplice; below that, a lamb’s wool coat; then another woolen coat; and a third woolen coat below this; under this, there was the black, …robe of the Benedictine Order; under this, a shirt; and next to the body, a curious hair-cloth, covered with linen.” 
As Becket’s corpse grew cold the successive layers of robes also cooled, and all the little creatures that had been living within the folds and pleats started looking for a new home. Wave after wave of various fleas, ticks, spiders, pincher bugs, and other creatures flowed out from the corpse, “…like water in a simmering cauldron” producing in the hushed mourners gathered in the dim cathedral, “…alternate weeping and laughter…’”. Those Saxons; they sure knew humor when they saw it, skittering across the blood stained marble floor. And the unseen mites must have been far more numerous and just as desperate to find their meal ticket suddenly giving then the cold shoulder.
 Not only did the dead Becket popularize the hair shirt, but his corpse offered an abject lesson in the realty of life before the invention of the water heater. Without easy access to warm water people tended not to bathe. And that made them much more intimate with their pests and parasites than we of the hygienic era. But despite our best efforts we still live with the mighty Dust Mite. In fact, if you listen very carefully, you can probably hear them marching across your flesh right now, and everything you touch during an average day, looking for a snack.
Sleep tight, and don't let the dust mites bite. And Trick or Treat and bon appetit.
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Thursday, March 30, 2017

LOOKING FOR A SOLUTION

I think if you think you have a problem, then you have a problem. The reverse is not always true, but most problems are not really the problem we are think they are. They are a different problem. And that's the real problem. And, by way of illustration, the problem I'd like you to think about is how a World War Two American submarine captain sank an enemy ship.
First, he had to find it in the 165 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, then get his 300 foot long “pig boat” within half a mile of the target, close enough to see it in his periscope and identify it in his silhouette manuals. These gave the height of the mast, which,  with a little geometry, would give an estimated range to the target. The target speed would be estimated, and its course relative to the submarine, or “angle on the bow”. All these estimates would be entered into the mechanical Target Data Computer (TDC). And only then could the captain actually try to sink the target ship.
The method chosen by the U.S Naval Bureau of Ordnance (AKA BuOrd), for sinking a ship, was to detonate 643 pounds of “Torpex” explosive close to its hull. That required every member of the 50 to 70 man crew to aim and fire the 3,300 pound, 20 foot long, 21” diameter Mark 14 torpedo (above), which would carry the Torpex at 46 knots to the target. 
As it passed under the steel hull, a magnetic detonator (above) would set off the Torpex, or if the torpedo actually hit the hull, the impact would drive a firing pin into the detonator. Either way, the shock wave of the explosion would rip apart the steel hull and sink the ship. The problem was, the target ships were not sinking.
Just one week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on 14 December, the USS Sargo was patrolling off the coast of Vietnam when she spotted two Japanese freighters. Having already lost one target because of a premature detonation, Lieutenant Commander Tyson Jacobs fired three torpedoes with the magnetic detonators disconnected, from 1,000 yards. He recorded no hits. In Christmas day, Jacobs closed to within 900 yards of a target, and fired two more Mark 14's, and again got no hits.
After repeatedly risking his crew's lives and expending a total of 13 torpedoes, at a cost to taxpayers of $130,000 and making no hits, Jacobs was so frustrated he radioed his complaints in the clear back to Pearl Harbor: “The Mark 14...torpedoes are faulty in two respects. First...(the) exploder cannot be relied upon...Second that set depth is not being attained...”
Command made their feelings clear when they stripped the Sargo of her torpedoes and her next mission was to ferry ammunition. Said a crew member, “We all felt Captain Jacobs was being punished for tinkering with the BuOrd torpedo.” And Jacobs was far from the only one. Historian Clay Blair, a submariner himself, would later note, “By the end of March (1942)...every submarine commander...believed the Mark 14 was defective.” But Rear Admiral Robert English (above), Commander, Submarines, Pacific (ComSubPac) decided the problem was with the captains and crews, and not the torpedo. English began transferring captains whom were deemed “not sufficiently aggressive”, out of command. Someone with an nasty sense of humor saw to it that Jacobs was transferred to the BuOrd, back in the states.
Captains, desperate to hurt the enemy, and to protect their careers, began to secretly disconnect the magnetic detonators, and tinker with the depth settings on their Mark 14s. They also began to experiment with firing techniques to find the angle of impact that gave the best chance to detonate the Torpex. Sinkings went up, but Admiral English thought this was because his new captains were more aggressive. 
There were still reports of Mark 14s failing to explode under their targets, then circling back to threaten their own sub, of “clanging” into the target but not exploding, and even of Japanese merchantmen returning to port with un-exploded Mark 14 torpedoes jutting out of their hulls. Because of the ad hoc experimentation during 1942, it was impossible to know which “fixes” if any were actually working. But during that year U.S. subs fired 1,442 torpedoes, but sunk only 211 ships.
Luckily for the United States for three crucial months in early 1942, Admiral Charles “Uncle Charlie” Lockwood (above)  was acting commander of the submarines in the Southwest Pacific, based in Australia – ComSubSoWesPac. At a conference in San Francisco, Lockwood insisted the BuOrd should examine the torpedoes that were not exploding. During a brake in the meeting Rear Admiral “Spike” Blandy, commander of the BurOrd, confronted his old friend. “I didn't know it was part of your mission to discredit the BuOrd”. Lockwood replied, “If anything I have said will get the Bureau off its duff and get some action, I will feel that my trip has not been wasted.” The confrontation ended their friendship, but it did get action.
An expert was dispatched from the Naval Torpedo Station at New Port News, Rhode Island (above). He reported the maintenance on the torpedoes was sloppy, and the depth settings were probably being done incorrectly. Lockwood refused to accept the report and in June 1942, ordered a few torpedoes fired into 500 feet of fishing nets hung in Frenchman's Bay, Australia, These found the Mark 14's were running ten to eleven feet deeper than the depth set on the torpedoes.  Lockwood ordered all the depths reset, and the magnetic detonators disconnected on all the torpedoes in his command.
The BuOrd argued the nets were not hanging properly, and did not give a fair measure of depth  But when Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, read the report, and matched it with similar problems reported by his destroyer captains in the Atlantic with the Mark 14 (above), he “lit a blowtorch under the Bureau of Ordnance". So on first August, 1942, the BuOrd finally agreed the depth control system on the Mark 14 had been “improperly designed and tested.” Admiral English at Pearl Harbor still refused to believe there was any problem with the magnetic detonator, and Lockwood's experimentation played a part in ensuring that “Uncle Charlie” was not given permanent command of ComSubSoWesPac. The man who was, immediately ordered the magnetic detonators reconnected.
Then God, or chance, intervened. On the evening of Wednesday, 20 January, 1943, Admiral English and eight members of his staff left Pearl Harbor in a 4 engine Pan Am flying boat, bound for another briefing in San Francisco. Because of a strong tail wind the old Pan American Clipper arrived over California 3 ½ hours ahead of schedule, just in time to get caught in a violent storm. Conditions prevented a landing on San Francisco Bay, and the Pan Am crew decided to try to make Clearlake, 115 miles north, among the coastal redwoods. But about 7:30 the morning of Thursday, 21 January, the plane slammed into a 2,500 high mountain, killing all 19 on board, and decapitating the staff of ComSubPac.
At the end of August 1943, the new ComSubPac in Pearl Harbor was Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, who set out to prove he had been correct in his year old assessment of the Mark 14.  His first order was to conduct a series of test shots against the 700 foot high vertical cliffs (continuing another 800 feet below the surface) along the east shore Kanapou Island (above), 100 miles east of Pearl Harbor. His second order was to again disconnect the magnetic exploder.
The first two shots against the cliffs exploded, but the third proved a dud. Navy divers managed to raise the weapon, and bring it back for a post mortem. It was the kind of testing that should have been preformed before the Mark 14 had gone into production in 1930, but depression era budget cuts had eliminated. It was discovered the firing pin had indeed retracted on contact with the basalt cliff face, but at 46 knots, the collision had bent the guides intended to ensure the firing pin would contact the detonator charge, preventing detonation. Further testing at the cliffs and dropping warheads from a crane showed that a direct 90 degree hit almost ensured a 70% failure rate.
Lockwood immediately ordered his boats as sea to shoot so as to hit their targets at high angles, and never the text book straight on attack from 90 degrees. Using steel made from the melted propellers of Japanese planes shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December, 1941, a simple rebuild of the guides for the firing pins, cut the failure rate in half. 
The first corrected Mark 14s made their combat patrols in September 1943. For that year, U.S. subs doubled their sinking of enemy ships, sending 335 targets to the bottom. And during the first four months of 1944, they sank another 183. Clearly the corner had been turned.
Over the entire year of 1944, U.S. submarines sank 600 Japanese merchantmen, as well as one battleship, seven aircraft carriers, nine cruisers and numerous destroyers and escorts. But during the first 7 months of 1945, they sank just 190 Japanese ships, only because the Japanese merchant marine had been finally swept from the sea by United States submarines. 
Oil, iron ore, copper, aluminum and food, stolen from the Philippines, China and Indonesia , could no longer reach Japan and feed its people or its war machine. After the war, submariner Paul Schratz admitted he believed it was “a violation of New Mexico scenery to test the A-bomb at Alamogordo when the naval torpedo station(in Newport News) was available.”
In four years of war, 288 American submarines with 16,000 crewmen, just 2% of the U.S. Naval personnel, sank 1,178 Japanese merchant ships and 214 warships, 55% of all Japanese ships sunk in World War Two. 
The cost to the United States Submarine “Silent Service” was 52 boats, and 3,405 officers and men, a casualty rate of 22%,  the highest for any American combat force in World War Two, and 40% of all U.S. Naval casualties in the Pacific. The majority of those deaths occurred during the first two years of the war, when the torpedoes did not work. Had the Mark 14 torpedoes worked from 7 December, 1941 on, it seems likely the Pacific war would have ended two years earlier, when the Japanese war machine ran out of raw materials, and before the fire bombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 in one night, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It turned out, the real problem with the Mark 14 torpedo was not the depth setting, the magnetic detonator, or the faulty firing pin guides or even all three. Nor was it the depression era short sighted budget cuts of testing a new weapon system. Any and all of those things, or other unrelated mistakes were bound to be made. The real problem with American torpedoes was that every invention and belief has been designed and built by fallible, egotistical human beings, who refused to acknowledge that is exactly who they are. Human beings are always the problem. And they are the only ones who can fix that problem.
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