Beat the Dealer

I have mentioned this book in a previous post. Fifty years ago I was getting books through a book club, and this book came as a set along with The Compleat Strategist by J.D. Williams. I have retained these books all this time, during my college days, living in Austin, Dallas, New York, Dallas again and now San Antonio. Looking back I see I have not kept wives as steadfastly as I have kept these books. That’s the way it is with books.

The Williams book deals with a subsection of game theory, particularly zero-sum games, and it concentrates on games involving two parties. Blackjack is a card game played in casinos, and it is, in its simplest form, a two-person, zero-sum game. However, blackjack, as played in casinos does not lend itself to game theory.

The reason you can’t apply game theory to blackjack (also known as twenty-one) is that the dealer is not allowed to play a strategy. For any given state of a hand of blackjack, the dealer is not allowed any options. For example and as explained in the book: When the dealer’s hand is 16 or below, the dealer must take another card. When the dealer’s hand is 17 or above, he may not take another card. There are exceptions to this rule, but in all cases the dealer never has any options.

The time was practically at the dawn of the computer age. People did not talk about my computer. They talked about the computer. Very few individuals owned a complete computer.

Edward O. Thorpe was teaching at the University of California Los Angeles when a colleague told him about a paper that dealt with a strategy for playing blackjack. The journal reference is:

Baldwin, Roger; Cantey, Wilbert; Maisel, Herbert; and McDermott, James, “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 51, 429-439 (1956)

The summary of the paper is that a person playing against a casino has a 0.62% edge when a certain strategy is employed. As the book recounts, the authors later found a mistake in their computations, and the players actually have only a 0.32% edge. The book is a bit unclear on this. On page 15 the author states the house edge is 0.62%, but in the footnote at the bottom of the page the house edge is referred to as -0.62%, which would mean a 0.62% edge for the player. Likewise, the footnote corrects the house edge to -0.32%.

To simplify the scheme, on average, when playing against the house, if a player bets the same all the time, the house is going to win. However, if the player keeps track of cards that have been played out of the deck, thereby obtaining knowledge of cards remaining in the deck, then the player can make small bets, and obtain small losses, when the situation is not favorable to him, and he can make large bets, and obtain large gains, when the situation is favorable. Implicit in this is that the player must play every hand to stay in the game. The dealer will reshuffle the deck or obtain a fresh deck anytime a player joins the game. A reshuffle erases any special knowledge the play may have had about the remaining cards to be played.

Beat the Dealer is the story of Thorp, who with the backing of some rich players, played $10,000 and beat the Las Vegas casinos. He also mentions what may be amusing to modern readers, his thanks to M.I.T. Computation Center for the use of an IBM 704 computer. This powerhouse of computation had 18,432 bytes of RAM and could execute up to 4000 instructions per second. How would you like to have one of these babies built into your microwave oven?

If you saw the 1988 movie Rain Man, you will recall the crucial episode is when Charlie Babbitt uses his autistic brother Raymond’s ability to count cards and to take home a sizable amount of cash from the casinos, thus saving his business and the plot. Also, you will recall that in the movie the casinos were less than enthusiastic about losing in a systematic way, and they not very politely disinvited the pair from ever playing in the town again.

Thorp’s was the first use of the strategy to beat the casinos, and they were less polite with them than with the fictional Babbitt brothers. Specifically, prior to forbidding Thorp to play, they brought in cheating dealers to dissuade his endeavors. This after employing frequent reshuffles and multiple decks to defeat card counting. These are, after all, for-profit business, not charities.

Thorp has gone on to greater things since his book. He teamed with Claude Shannon to win additionally at casinos (presumably in disguise). From Wikipedia:

Since the late 1960s, Thorp has used his knowledge of probability and statistics in the stock market by discovering and exploiting a number of pricing anomalies in the securities markets, and he has made a significant fortune. Thorp’s first hedge fund was Princeton/Newport Partners. He is currently the President of Edward O. Thorp & Associates, based in Newport Beach, CA. In May 1998, Thorp reported that his personal investments yielded an annualized 20 percent rate of return averaged over 28.5 years.

The Thing

This has got to be one of my all-time favorite sci-fi flicks. When it came to my small town theater in 1951 my parents would not let me go see it (too scary). I must have seen it anyhow, because this was long before the motion picture industry would allow hot releases to be shown on TV.

The full title is The Thing from Another World, and it is based on a story originally published in 1938 by John W. Campbell, titled Who Goes There? At this point the similarity nearly vanishes. In Campbell’s story The Thing has the ability to absorb other living creatures and to transform itself into their likeness. Scientists isolated at an Antarctic base discover The Thing in a spacecraft locked in ice for the past 20 million years. They thaw it out, and it transforms itself into one of the sled dogs. And then the trouble begins.

Movie poster from Wikipedia

In the 1951 movie the scientists working at an Arctic base summon the Air Force after they observe a UFO crash on the sea ice. The search party finds the crash site and recover the pilot, frozen in the ice. They hack out a block of ice containing the critter and bring it back to their base. An accidental thaw of the ice releases The Thing. And then the trouble begins.

The Thing is different from Campbell’s creature. It is a humanoid, but biologically more plant than animal. It needs blood.

A 1982 remake of the movie swings back to Campbell’s original plot concept, with a minor twist. This movie opens with a Norwegian team chasing and trying to kill a sled dog. The chase arrives at an American base, where people mistake the intent of all the shooting and kill the Norwegian shooter. Then an accident with a weapon destroys the Norwegians’ helicopter and (almost) the truth about the sled dog. The American’s take the dog into their midst. And then the trouble begins.

Back to 1951, the American crew of military and scientists is isolated with a creature from another world a thousand miles from civilization. They are the creature’s only source of blood. The lead scientist (Robert Cornthwaite) wants to preserve the creature, to study it and learn from it. The Air Force captain (Kenneth Tobey) is concerned only with the survival of the human crew and human civilization in general. There is a conflict. While the captain works on schemes to protect the people and to dispose of the creature, the scientist secretly undertakes to grow new copies of the creature using parts of it recovered from its early encounter with the sled dogs. Two of the scientific team are killed and drained of their blood by the creature before things come to a head.

The Air Force captain is a red-blooded American pilot who has the hots for the science crew’s secretary (Margaret Sheridan). She is about as sexy an American girl can be at an Arctic base. I am sure the sales of close-fitting sweaters jumped noticeable in this country by the end of 1951.

Douglas Spencer is a news reporter who has come along to cover the UFO story in his greatest movie role ever. James Arness is The Thing in complete disguise. Arness was a decorated veteran of World War II, and at 6 feet seven inches he was ideal to play the huge creature. His role in this film would hardly qualify as a speaking part, and it was about the last time he would have such a minor role. Four years later he started as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke on television.

This production is excellent in quality of the photography and directing.  Christian Nyby is credited as director, but Howard Hawks has his fingerprints all over.

The Thing is now considered by many to be one of the best films of 1951. The film holds an 89% “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that the film “is better than most flying saucer movies, thanks to well-drawn characters and concise, tense plotting”. In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.[19] [20] Additionally, Time magazine named The Thing from Another World “the greatest 1950s sci-fi movie.”

The Naked City

You readers know me too well. You know I am not talking about the TV series. I am talking about the 1948 movie that inspired it and also the tag line “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Of course this movie is in black and white.


For all you Barry Fitzgerald fans, this is your movie. He’s a crusty Irish (what else) cop on the case of a beautiful young model who has been murdered. Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon is assigned to the case and organizes a team of beat cops and investigators. They work through the intrigue behind the murder and uncover the criminal organization behind it.

The story is told in documentary fashion with external shots on location in New York City. It received Academy Awards for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, William H. Daniels; Best Film Editing, Paul Weatherwax.”

I am not sure whether I saw the film when it first came out. I did watch it on Turner Classic Movies and recorded it on DVD. This should be a candidate for the Friday night movie.

The Last Roundup

Git along
little dogie
git along
git along.
Git along
little dogie
git along!
I’m headin’ for the last round up.

The time has come.

This post is mainly for my daughter and my grandson. If you are looking for something news worthy, then skip on to the next post.

Growing up in a small town I never had a real job. I saw my friends working part time in high school and making real money. But not me. I told my dad I wanted to get myself some work, but he said he needed me at home. There was always some kind of construction work going on around the homestead, and I was a cheap source of labor while my dad was off at the airplane factory making some real money.

Then one day somebody offered me a real job. We lived a couple of block from the post office, and one of my duties was to walk up the hill and get the mail. One day a letter was for me. It was from the Navy. They wanted me.

I was finishing up my junior year in high school, but I was old enough. The Navy Reserve would let me finish school before I had any active duty requirement, and in the mean time I would have only one weekend drill at the naval air station a month. But first I had to show them I was qualified.

My dad was agreeable, and he drove me to NAS Dallas for my evaluation. There was a medical exam and an intelligence exam. I had to take a multiple choice test with 85 questions. I got 83. I think it was for this reason they overlooked that my eyesight disqualified me for all but the most routine duties in an aviation squadron.

Anyhow, I started reporting for weekend drills and getting paid. It was also my first time out on my own. After work at the air station I was my own boss, with no parents wanting to know where I was going and what I was going to do. And we had jet airplanes. Airplanes, and fighters in particular, fascinated me. The were really fast, and they had 20mm guns and racks for bombs and missiles. This was unlike any job I could get in my home town, and it was great. Maybe not so great when summer turned into an icy winter. Working on the fighter flight line in the dead of winter gave me an indication I was really earning my pay.

High school graduation rolled around the following year, and I spent most of the summer at a reserve boot camp at the air station.  In the fall I reported for active duty and was assigned to an aircraft carrier. My dream of adventure had come true. The Navy gave me my orders and my plane ticket, and off I went. By the time I got to the Norfolk Navy Base it was dark, and my ship was tied up at pier 12, at the end of a very long quay in the largest naval installation in the world. I walked up to the gangway and was met by the sounds of an immense machine just resting before its next action. The ship was vast and the sounds of machinery came from everywhere. The whole thing vibrated with a constant hum that never stopped. And a few days later we went to sea.

Big hardware in the navy yard

My active duty ended two years later, and it was off to college, my last work break. My first job out of college was at the university, in the Astronomy Department. They had a telescope as big as a house, and they were in the process of building a bigger one. My first assignment was to run a computer program to analyze the bending deflection of the polar axis for the new telescope.

After that I went to work for an engineering company, and we did the design of a tokamak plasma fusion device. Toward the end of that job we developed the design for a machine that unscrambled 20mm ammunition.

Tony Bell's view, Dr. Robson and the tokamak

I never really had a career, just a series of jobs, some not so interesting, but most on the cutting edge of modern technology. At one company I obtained a patent for a mechanism that applied a band around a stack of 100 bills of U.S. currency. It was for the Federal Reserve system.  At another job I headed up a a software team to develop an autonomous acoustic processor (AAP), and we took the system down to St. Croix in the Caribbean in the dead of winter to test it. Later I developed software for guided missile systems and for electronic warfare. I ended up at that job developing new software for the red telephone that the military uses for urgent and secret communications. Then there was a stint at a French company where we working on high-speed optical packet routers and a satellite communication system. I obtained a patent for a scheme to maximize data bandwidth for video transmission systems. That was my last full time employment.

On my own again at 64 I obtained part time work, typically earning more money than when I worked full time. It was back to developing software for guided missiles, software for the sonar system for a Spanish submarine, software for a new airliner, software for F/A-18 flight simulators and software for military GPS receivers. By that time I was winding down and decided to stick close to home and build a new house in San Antonio. I took a job with a computer company a few counties away, so I could come home for weekends. Barbara Jean and I decided last year that this would be the last.

So, last month as I sat in a testing lab the size of a basketball court and crammed with computers, I realized that I was leaving this life forever. I looked around and knew I would never see anything like this again. I would not be wearing an identification badge that would get me into secure places. I would not be going into places that required me to park my cell phone outside. I would not be heading back to the office after sundown while Abrams tanks lit up the hills with gunfire. I would not be driving around with over a million dollars worth of equipment in the back of my Toyota hatchback. I was heading back to the world of the mundane. I was heading for the last roundup.

The Racketeer

My friend Zack lent me the book shortly after I got out of stir. It’s the latest from John Grisham, and it’s about a lawyer doing time for a crime he did not commit (imagine that).

Image from Amazon

Malcolm was a small town attorney who did some legal work for an anonymous client and was subsequently caught up in the net when his client was accused of racketeering. He is halfway through a 10-year sentence in a minimum security (no walls, no bars), when he hits upon an opportunity to get out with a clear record. A federal judge has been murdered, and Bannister knows who did it. He plans to exchange this information for his freedom.

If you read much Grisham you know the plot is not going to be as simple as that. There are mechanizations with the federal attorney’s office, the FBI, the federal judiciary and the witness protection program. There are also plots and schemes, some detective work and masterful evasions. And in the end there is money. A lot of money. Of course there’s sex.

Read this book,  and you will be reminded of one or more of Grisham’s other plots. In The Firm Mitchell McDeere is a star law school graduate who takes a job with a law firm only to discover it’s a front for gangsters. That plot involves similar mechanizations as McDeere extricates himself and his wife from the clutches of the mob. The Client also involves a lawyer working to protect a child client and his family from dangerous gangsters despite interference from the law. Similarly The Pelican Brief has a young lawyer running from dangerous criminals while striving all the while to keep just beyond the reach of the law. These have been made into movies, and they are all worth a look, especially The Pelican Brief, which features Julia Roberts, who has the ability to make a film on the basis of charm and looks alone. A Few Good Men is another great Grisham tale, but the film based on the book does not draw out the elaborate plot workings found in the other titles.

All of these Grisham plots have been turned into home run films, except his most recent. Please look for it within the next few years. Because of some of its plot peculiarities I will do a subsequent review of The Pelican Brief. Please return to this blog from time to time and search for the review.

Unless you are totally whacked you have noticed a common theme in all of these Grisham plots. They all involve lawyers, and the plots always display a large body of legalese. Go to the back of the room if you have not already guessed that Grisham is a lawyer. You might also think he has spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, as many of his plots involve numerous trips to the islands and often involve the off-shore banking havens that find a home there. Don’t jump too fast, though. The afterward to The Racketeer contains a disclaimer that the writer does very little outside research for his plots. Geographical names and places are likely to be contrived and the names of real people are seldom used. An exception is in The Racketeer, where the author mentions federal judges who have been murdered, including one here in San Antonio over 30 years ago. That’s a little bit of fact that the author can use to string his plot upon.

As Funny as it Gets

Have you ever had one of those times when step in a great mound of humor and want to figure out some way best to share it with everybody? And then you mull for a few days trying to come up with the best way to present it, and then “bamm,” somebody else beats you to the punch. You never have? Then bear with me while I bathe in my gloom.

A few days back I was watching a Senate panel grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the botched protection for embassy workers in Benghazi. The State Department was taking heat for falling down on the job, and the buck stopped at Clinton’s door.

The 30,000-foot view shows Democrats giving Clinton credit for doing a great job as Secretary with the Republicans looking for fault at every turn. This scene was not without cracks, however. Senator John McCain

after telling Clinton “we are proud of you” and that all over the world “you are viewed with admiration and respect” — delivered a blistering criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the events in Libya.

This was serious business, and there is not much light to be made of it. And this is where Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky comes in. He is what is called a “Tea Party” Republican and came to the Senate in 2010, never before having served before in elected office. Once in office his public comments have reflected a distance from reality that has come to mark his image. Remarking on the current administration’s handling of the BP oil spill he said.

What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP.’ I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business. I’ve heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill. And I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be someone’s fault instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen.

OK, you get the idea. The image of anybody with a boot heel on the throat of BP tugs at the imagination. And calling it un-American to hold big business accountable has the ring of a redefinition of the word American.

The most recent gaff to fall came in the Senate hearings last week:

In his questioning of Clinton Wednesday morning, Sen. Rand Paul, R- Ky., told her, “I’m glad that you’re accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11, and I really mean that. Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post.”

What amused me, and so many watching, was hearing Senator Paul put the word I and the word president in the same sentence.

Rand Paul is outspoken and provocative, and there is talk of a run for the presidency. However, when serious people take a serious look at Paul, his problems begin to stack up:

In October, Paul blocked a bill that would provide $36 million in benefits for elderly and disabled refugees, saying that he was concerned that it could be used to aid domestic terrorists.

OK. Enough said.

Anyhow, I wanted to post a little item on this blog about Rand Paul’s exchange with Clinton, and I was thinking about how to do it, when somebody beat me to it. In the Net scape every little device has a cute name, and there are these graphics that are innocuous in themselves, but the user adds an appropriate caption, and these graphics suddenly tell a great story. I don’t know what this particular device is called, but here is one. Somebody posted it on Facebook:

Yes, you get the idea. Rand Paul just does not have the chops to go one-on-one with Clinton and any other capable contender. Will he soon grow up and start to do serious work for his constituents, or will the voters in Kentucky finally get wise and end their embarrassment? Stay tuned, readers. The suspense is building.

The Desperate Hours

Here is another movie I saw when it first came out. Yes, it’s in black and white.

The Desperate Hours hit the screen in 1955, just two years before Humphrey Bogart died of esophageal cancer. Already viewers in the mid 1950s see that the tough guy of the previous two decades was beginning to weather. This may have been Bogart’s last great performance, and it is worth a look.

Joseph Hayes wrote a novel and a play based on an actual case from 1952, and this was the basis for the movie. In the movie three convicts, led by Bogart, have broken out of prison and invade the home of a family in Indianapolis. They hold the family hostage while they wait for money from the leaders girlfriend to arrive. Fredric March is the father, and Martha Scott is the mother. There are two children living at home. If the home looks familiar to viewers from the outside, it’s because it was later the home of June and Ward Cleaver.

Anyhow, the plot is about how the convicts terrorize the family and how the family fights back. The young son in the movie may remind you a lot of Theodore Cleaver. The father is particularly heroic, and ultimately the convicts are defeated. Enough about  the plot. When you watch the movie you will appreciate the fine direction by William Wyler.

An interesting character is convict Simon Kobish, played by Robert Middleton. He is a brute of a man with the intellect of a grapefruit and seems to be the role model for the Gaear Grimsrud character played by Peter Stormare in Fargo.

I’ve been watching a number of Bogart films recently, so if you are a fan check back during the next few weeks for my recommendations.

Bad Joke of the Week

Jimmy was a crafty burglar. He would sneak into a house at night, steal what was valuable, then sneak out again without being detected.

One night he entered a home through a side window and felt around in the darkness for the door. He always closed the door before using his flashlight. Then in the blackness he heard a voice.

“Jesus is watching you.”

Jimmy froze. He remained completely still, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. Then he heard the voice again.

“Jesus does not like what you are doing. Jesus is going to punish you.”

Jimmy could stand it no longer. He switched on his light and saw a parrot in its beam. The parrot said, “Jesus is watching you.”

Jimmy was both relieved and surprised to find a parrot that could carry on a conversation. “A parrot!” he said. “Are you Jesus?”

The parrot replied, “No, my name is Moses.”

Jimmy was absolutely flabbergasted. “Just who the hell would name a parrot Jesus?” he asked.

The parrot responded, “It’s a very religious family. They named the cat Noah, and they named the Rottweiler Jesus.”

Bad Movie of the Week

From time to time I have posted movie reviews, partly to entertain readers and to inform potential viewers. Also partly to show off my deep knowledge of obscure productions. Most of the time these movies have been worth a second look, but I also have a taste for really bad movies. I am not down to the level of Ed Wood yet, but I may get there some day. I need to get past Mars Needs Women first. This week it’s going to have to be The Corpse Came C.O.D.


The movie is from 1947, and, surprise, it’s not in color, but it does have sound. It’s all about Hollywood, and it opens with scenes of the great film studios and cameos of the famous industry gossip columnist of the day, including Hedda Hopper. The main characters are rival columnists, played by George Brent and Joan Blondell. Since they are in constant conflict to get the latest scoop, it is obvious from the start that by the end of the film they are going to get it together.

Anyhow, Hollywood is a town of fantasy and make believe, and as the story starts we see two prisoners escaping from prison and getting machine gunned. However they are only actors, and the scene is being shot on the Palisades Pictures Studio lot. The next scene is a man in a business suit being gunned down by somebody unseen, and it’s not on a movie set.

Next we are at the fabulous home of a beautiful and wealthy actress, and a man in a pickup truck delivers a wooden crate. You get one guess what’s in the crate (look at the title again), and yes, the delivery is C.O.D. The actress’s butler opens the crate, and out falls the dead man, so the actress immediately contacts, no not the police, a Hollywood columnist friend of hers.

The plot sort of goes downhill from here, with the hero and his girl friend rival alternately butting heads, rescuing each other and kissing, all the while looking for the meat of the story and solving the murder mystery. It’s about an hour and a half, at least three smooches, three dead bodies, people getting conked on the head, multiple scuffles and fist fights in darkened rooms before the real killer is revealed. Enjoy. I recorded it from Turner Classic Movies. You can borrow my copy.

School Buses From Hell

OK, I got onto this “from hell” theme due to comments of a politician during last year’s election cycle.

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun said in videotaped remarks that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

So now, in order to punch up a bit of comment that might otherwise be unworthy of mention, I just add “from hell” to catch the reader’s attention. I apologize to Congressman Broun for mocking his remarks, which I am sure were made in earnest and to the best of his intellectual capacity, whatever that may be. However, Congressman Broun said it, and he is going to have to live with it.

With that said, here are today’s school buses from hell.

Three buses passed the stop sign in front of my house on Elizabeth Court in San Antonio this morning. Some stopped. Some did not. I am also posting videos of some of my neighbors heading off to work. I note that almost none stop for the stop sign. I am thinking we recommend the city of San Antonio replace the stop sign with an advertisement for shaving creme. Some practical use needs to be made of this space.






Enemy at the Gates

OK, another movie review. Good news to the younger generation. This one has sound and is in color.

I got interested in this movie because it was supposedly about the Battle of Stalingrad and especially about the legendary sniper wars of that engagement. First, for the younger generation again, here is the historical background.

Adolph Hitler grew up despising Eastern Europeans and especially Asians. Jews, Poles, Czechs and Russians were all targets of his disdain. He considered communism a natural evil, and street fighting between Nazis and communists marked the early rise of the National Socialist Party in post World War I Germany. From the beginning Hitler plotted the destruction of the Soviet Union and the enslavement of eastern peoples. It was never any secret that Hitler and Joseph Stalin bore bitter, personal, mutual animosity.

So, when, in 1939, Hitler set out to make war he first established a non-aggression pact with Stalin. The Germans would invade and occupy western Poland. The Soviets would grab the remainder.

As some of you may know, Great Britain and France had a treaty of protection with Poland, and they made good on their promise three days after the German army invaded Poland. The Brits and the French did not make immediate moves against Germany, but they were a constant irritation with their mechanizations toward Norway, neutral at the time. It became apparent that Germany was willing to spread the war when its army invaded and occupied Norway and Denmark in the spring of 1940. The dominoes continued to fall as the Germans next invaded and occupied The Netherlands and Belgium in May. The onslaught continued as the Wehrmacht rolled onward, invading and quickly defeating France in June. British and French troops trapped against the English Channel in Northern France executed a frantic escape to England with many soldiers surrendering and all heavy equipment lost.

At this point Hitler fully expected Great Britain to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Hitler was not planning on conquering England, just yet. In response to Hitler’s overtures British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a stinging response:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Churchill had thrown the gauntlet. There would be no accommodation. This would be a fight to the finish. Hitler responded by preparing an invasion fleet, and Hermann Göring, commander of the German air force, undertook the destruction of the British air force. He failed. The Luftwaffe was severely blunted in it’s attacks on British fighter fields and English cities. Furthermore, the Brits responded by bombing Berlin. Germany dismantled its invasion fleet and fell back on the systematic bombing of English cities, and the war rolled on into 1941.

Sometime in 1941 Hitler apparently looked at a calendar and said, “Oh, shit. I was supposed to be invading the Soviet Union.” The Wehrmacht turned east, and the nonaggression pact evaporated like a snowflake in the muzzle of a cannon. At this point reality began to set in. The German advance was stopped again. Christmas of 1941 saw German soldiers within sight of the towers of Moscow. They never advanced farther than this in all the war.

The battle on the Easter Front was about the meanest meat grinder of all time. The Germans hated the Russians, and the favor was returned. At first Soviet citizens saw the invaders as liberators. At last they would be free of that animal Stalin. However, the Germans slaughtered conquered civilians wherever convenient and shipped entire food supplies from subjugated regions. Twenty million starved to death. That was round one.

In 1942 Hitler continued his eastern campaign, shifting southeast to capture the oil fields of Romania and the Middle East. In one of his many moments of insanity, Hitler ordered Friedrich Paulus to take his Sixth Army and capture Stalingrad. Stalingrad was previously known as Volgograd (Volga City), because it was on the Volga River. Most believe Hitler’s vanity led to this needless attack on the city named after his arch enemy.

And that brings us to the movie of the day.

I had previously read a book about the Battle of Stalingrad and the sniper wars. Enemy at the Gates features the character of a real person, Vasily Zaytsev, who became famous as one of the Soviet snipers in the battle. From that point on the story becomes almost pure fiction.

In the first scenes Zaytsev and other Soviet troops are herded like cattle into the battle. Armed political officers shoot soldiers who try to evade the murderous German aircraft gunfire by jumping into the Volga. There are not enough rifles for the newly-arrived troops, but all are given an ammunition clip and instructions to get rifles from soldiers who are killed. A frontal assault on a German position results in almost 100% casualties as soldiers who retreat from the slaughter are killed by Soviet troops in place for this purpose. Zaytsev is one of the survivors, and he teams up with a political commissar to wipe out a party of Germans who tarry too long near the field of dead. Zaytsev and the commissar then embark on a program to make Zaytsev famous in order to build morale among the troops.

Nikita Khrushchev makes an appearance about this time, as he did in the actual battle, and takes over the defense of the city. This he does after giving the previous commander a pistol and some privacy “to avoid the red tape.” Khrushchev accepts the idea of using icons like Zaytsev to build morale, and Zaytsev continues his career of cutting down Germans who are foolish enough to expose themselves. The plot goes on to develop the story of Zaytsev’s days-long duel with German Major Erwin König, supposedly head of a sniper school who was sent especially to kill Zaytsev.

At this point there is a similarity between the movie and the supposedly factual book I read about the battle. In the book, the final encounter between Zaytsev and König occurs in a destroyed rail yard. Zaytsev determines that König must be hiding beneath a sheet of metal among the debris. He sets up his shot, and a spotter offers the German a fake target of some sort. The German takes the shot, and when he moves his head up to confirm the kill, Zaytsev shoots him between the eyes.

In the movie, Zaytsev’s political commissar friend, despondent over the belief that a girlfriend has been killed, offers his own head for a target. After killing the commissar, König comes out of hiding to confirm the kill and is then killed by Zaytsev.

All well and good and very dramatic, but it never happened. The Stalingrad Battle museum displays König’s telescopic site, but there is no evidence that such a man ever existed or that such a duel ever took place.

All the action in the movie takes place in the fall of 1942. Shortly after, in November, Soviet troops cut off the German troops involved in the battle. Despite Göring’s claim that he could supply the German troops by air, there were never enough supplies delivered, and this route was eventually choked off by Soviet forces. Paulus surrendered all his remaining troops in January 1943 and was treated well by the Soviets. He died in 1957. The Soviets gave Paulus’ troops their standard treatment. Of about 90,000 who surrendered, only about 6000 ever saw Germany again. Vasily Zaytsev survived the war and died a hero in 1991, ten days before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

I once worked with a guy who told me his father had fought in the war. I asked him where he had fought, and he told me, “On the Easter Front.” I told him he was damned lucky to be alive.

The movie is true to one point, as far as it goes. For a sniper sharpshooting is essential. Equally essential, maybe more so, is concealment. There are several episodes featured on The History Channel and other places that tell of the training and exploits of modern snipers. They all emphasize concealment. In a confrontation between military forces it becomes quickly apparent when a sniper starts operating in the area. People start dropping unexpectedly with single, fatal wounds. The first immediate action is that people quit exposing themselves. The second immediate action is to call for sniper teams to hunt down and kill the enemy sniper. The lesson is that a sniper who wants to be around for a while will not take more than one shot from the same position. This is emphasized in the movie.

In the book I previously referenced, a team of Soviet snipers lead by a woman was momentarily careless. They opened up too quickly on a squad of Germans soldiers and failed to kill all of them. A survivor quickly reported their position, and mortar fire killed many of the team before they could make their getaway.

Anyhow, the world of sniper warfare provides high drama and tension enough to keep the viewer seated. The story is by William Craig, who wrote a book of the same title in 1973. This does not appear to be the book I read over 30 years ago. Excerpts on Google Books have more the style of a novel and less of a straight documentary.

Early in my life I was present at a sniper attack, and when I look back I realize I could have learned some valuable lessons if I had seen the movie or read the book first. People continue to point out to me that I am not the sharpest tool in the box, and that day was not one of my better moments. I was completely clueless. My wife and I could hear the gunfire, but neither of us identified it. Somebody had to come into where we were and tell us to take cover.

Of course we did not. I, for one, had to take a peek. How many ways are there to spell “stupid.” While I was taking my peek the sniper killed another person from about three blocks away. At that point it because obvious that if I could see him, he could kill me. It was one of several times in my life I have been scared shitless.

The nearest cover was on the other side of a sunlit street. Naturally we made a dash for it. Stupid again! My thinking at the time was that if I did not pause I would not make a suitable target. And the sniper had a college campus to choose from.

In this case the sniper did not move after taking a shot. He was immobile atop the University of Texas clock tower, and he was suicidal, anyhow. He just kept firing away until police worked there way to his position and killed him at close range. Since the sniper did not move, my wife and I did the only intelligent thing we can report for the day. We got out of the vicinity and listened to the finish on the radio. Some who did not eventually could not.

Jude Law is Vasily Zaytsev. Joseph Fiennes is Commissar Danilov. Rachel Weisz is Tania Chernova. Bob Hoskins is Nikita Khrushchev. First rate actor Ed Harris is Major Erwin König.

Union Station

It’s time to appease all you old-movie fans again. It’s a job, and somebody has to do it. Today I watched Union Station, featuring William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald. I saw it when it first came out, and I was glad to see it making a comeback on Turner Classic Movies, and I recorded it on a DVD. Anyhow, here’s the plot:

Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) is young and good looking, and she is the definition of the word wholesome. As the movie opens she is riding in a chauffeur-driven car, along with the daughter of her (obviously very rich) boss. The daughter is also good looking, and she is blind. This is an important factor, because the blind girl becomes the victim of a kidnapping.

Anyhow, Joyce is dropped off at a train stop and heads off to Union Station in Chicago. The train makes another stop, and two men get on. Joyce notices one of the men has a pistol inside his coat. More so, Joyce first sees the two men together in a car, racing to meet the train. However, when they get about the train, the pretend they don’t know each other, and they sit separately on the train.

Joyce becomes suspicious and has the conductor notify the Union Station police. Head cop at the station is Detective Lt. William Calhoun (William Holden). Already you know Joyce and the railroad cop are destined to become a couple, but that does not happen until the end of the movie, after lots of police and criminal activity. Veteran actor and Irish stereotype Barry Fitzgerald is the Chicago police investigator who handles the public law enforcement side of the action.

The film is a classic crime drama, with bad guys meeting tragic ends and an intricate game of strategy as the kidnappers work their scheme to get the ransom, and the cops counter their moves. There are a few issues I have noticed after watching the film several times:

In the opening scene, the chauffeur is driving the car with the two women to the train stop. Joyce gets on the train, and before the train gets to the next stop, the blind girl has been kidnapped, and two kidnappers arrive at the stop with a suitcase containing samples of the girl’s belongings. It was never explained to me what happened to the chauffeur. If he was not immediately killed by the kidnappers, then he should have been able to report the kidnapping before the crime became apparent at Union Station a few minutes later.

Calhoun has a shootout with one of the criminals early on. The crook has a revolver, and I assume it is six-shots. And it is! After I counted six shots, the crook attempted to fire the weapon again. He only got a click for his efforts, and that was the end of him. For Hollywood, this is wonderful attention to detail.

The police apprehend one of the kidnappers at Union Station and they extract information from him by threatening to toss him in front of a moving train. This may or may not have been police practice 60 years ago.

In a final shootout with the crime boss, Calhoun takes a round through the left shoulder. It’s always in the shoulder for scenes like this, because anything else would take the hero out of action for the rest of the movie. You can tell where Calhoun was hit by the blood stain on his shirt. I am no medical doctor, but that wound should have put Calhoun down for several hours. At the very least his white shirt should have been soaked with blood by the end of the protracted gun battle, but there is still that same patch of blood. Hey! If Calhoun had not been around to save the blind girl at the end, then he would not have come off as so heroic. In the end, Joyce is taking care that Calhoun is getting some medical attention, and viewers are sure the railroad cop is going to score sooner or later.

Watch it if you can. You can borrow my copy.

Bad Joke of the Week

This one is really bad, but it illustrates a worthwhile lesson.

It was back in the old days when farmers drove wagons, and farmer Bill was driving his wagon down a country lane when he met farmer Sy  coming the other way. He said, “Hold up there, Sy.”

Sy said, “Whoa,” and stopped his wagon.

Bill said, “Sy, my mule is sick. What did you give your mule when she was sick?”

Sy said, “Turpentine. Giddy up,” and went on his way.

A week later farmer Bill was again driving along the country lane when he met farmer Sy coming the other way. He said, “Hold up there, Sy.”

Sy said, “Whoa,” and stopped his wagon.

Bill said, “Sy, I gave my mule turpentine, and it killed it.”

Sy said, “Killed mine, too. Giddy up.”


I’m going to start this post off with an old joke. I’m not going to save this one for the bad joke of the week.

Two women friends, who had not seen each other for several years met one day on the street. One admired the other’s new fur coat. “Doris, that’s a gorgeous coat. Where did you get it?”

“My new boyfriend gave it to me. He loves me, and he respects me. He doesn’t expect me to do anything for him in return,” Doris replied.

Betty was impressed. “Why, Doris, that’s fantastic. Simply fantastic!”

“But tell me, Betty,” Doris asked. “What have you been doing with yourself.”

Betty responded, “I’ve been working to improve myself. I’ve been taking courses to improve my people skills. I even went to charm school.”

Doris was amazed. “Girl, what’s with this charm school? What can that possibly do for you?”

Betty explained, “Charm school taught me many social skills, including the proper thing to say for any occasion. For exampled, I’ve learned to say fantastic instead of bullshit.”

So, I never went to charm school. It’s likely too late for me. However, I have worked to refine my sense of expression. For example, when confronted with a load of bullshit I have decided to take a deep breath and respond in amazement, “Really?” It would go something like this:

He says: “Obama is working with the United Nations to take away all our guns.”

I respond: “Really?” “Really!?” “Really!” “Bullshit!”

OK, I’m still working on it, and I am going to link back to this post every time I feel the urge the type “bullshit.” I should not have to wait very long.


This is one of those posts that tells you something that you never cared to know, but you are going to know it after you finish reading.

The fact is, you are a little heat engine. You eat food, the food metabolizes, your body generates heat, the heat goes out into your surroundings, you generate more heat to replace that. The question is “how much?” How much energy in the form of heat to you put out for a given time.

Recall from Physics 101 that energy divided by time is power. I am going to work with watts as a unit of power.

You put out 100 watts. Imagine a 100-watt incandescent lamp. It consumes electric power at a level of 100 watts, and it puts out energy at a rate of 100 watts in the form of light and heat, mostly heat.

OK, the 100 watts is for an “average” person sitting, watching TV. Get up, walk around, talk, go for a jog, you’re going to burn more energy per second (more watts). Take a nap, and you’re going to burn less. Bigger people burn more energy. Smaller people less. In a cold room you’re going to pump out more heat, because your surroundings are going to suck more out of you, and your metabolism is going to go into overdrive to make up the slack. Anyhow, say 100 watts.

How is this power consumption (and output) apportioned to the parts of the body? With no physical activity the internal organs are the factory floor for power consumption. And the winner is: The brain. This piece of meat the size of a large grapefruit pumps out 25 watts, about one fourth of the total body output. OK, this source says 20 watts, but those people probably voted Republican.

So, this is remarkable if you think about it. And I am sure you will be thinking about it now. And chewing up the world’s limited supply of available energy.

Pursuit of the Graf Spee

This is one of my series of 70th anniversary series posts. Since I did not get started with the blog until about a year ago, many of the actual anniversary dates were missed. So, I’m making up for lost time.

All this happened before I was born, so I missed the original news reports. I am relying on the historical record and some fictional accounts for my information. Anyhow, as you who were there will recall, by 1939 Adolf Hitler had decided on a plan of European conquest. Germany, he had announced, needed lebensraum—literally, living space. He decided to start with Poland.

Just prior to initiating military action, Hitler entered into a secret agreement with his bitter enemy, Joseph Stalin, and the two agreed to allow Germany to invade Poland, as long as the Soviet Union would be allowed to take over the eastern part of Poland. The first day of September was chosen by Hitler for the start of the invasion, and some of his Nazi subordinates dressed prisoners in military uniforms and killed them. They would later announce that Poland had provoked the war, and they used the bodies of the unfortunates to demonstrate their claim. Hitler needn’t have bothered. Nobody believed the hoax, except most of the German populace, and they were the only ones that mattered.

I have provided all of this historical background, because the Battle of the River Plate (Rio Plata) was a proximate consequence of Hitler’s battle plan.

Knowing well in advance when the war would start, Hitler ordered the German pocket battleship Graf Spee out of German waters and into the Atlantic well in advance. Take a look at a map. In the early part of the war Germany would have no routes into the Atlantic that would not be threatened by the British Navy. Also, for those language purists, Graf Spee is pronounced graf shpay and is more properly called the Admiral Graf Spee, named after Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee. What the Germans called a pocket battleship, the United States Navy would call a heavy cruiser.

Anyhow, the Graf Spee’s mission was to prowl the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans and sink commercial shipping. The Graf Spee, according to the Michael Powel movie Pursuit of the Graf Spee, adopted several disguises to enable surprise when encountering targeted vessels. Operating under the prize rules laid down by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Graf Spee’s captain Hans Langsdorff would evacuate civilian crews before sinking merchant ships. The movie shows, and history bears out, that civilian crews were either liberated or treated well. Recall, this was during the early weeks of the war, before things got really nasty.

The Brits put forth a squadron of three ships to hunt down the Graf Spee. In early December 1939 the merchantman Doric Star got out a radio alert before being sunk off the coast of South Africa. Commodore Henry Harwood, commander of the British squadron, correctly concluded that Graf Spee would head next for the Rio Plata estuary on the eastern coast of South America. He was correct and on the morning of 13 December the three British ships spotted the Graf Spee just at dawn. The four ships converged in a horrific surface battle the likes of which were to become rare from that day forward.

The Graf Spee sported 11-inch guns while the most the Brits could muster were 8-inch guns. For the uninitiated concerning large weapons, the eleven inches is the diameter of the gun’s projectile. With a muzzle velocity of a .50 caliber machine gun but weighing hundreds of pounds, these shells were effective at ranges of ten miles and more. The British ships closed as quickly as possible, and what ensued was a slug fest at close range.

The movie attempts to depict the effect of these shells hitting a ship, but dramatizations cannot come close to the actual event. A shell that exploded on the surface of the ocean killed the torpedo crew of the Exeter, destroyed the ship’s float plane, and did considerable other damage to the ship’s superstructure. A book about the battle describes the effect of an 8-inch shell impacting one of the British ships. The shell did not explode, but it penetrated into one of the ship’s compartments, where it rattled off the bulkheads, killing one of the occupants. In a battle later in the war the German battleship Bismarck was hit by British gunfire. One survivor of the Bismarck described traveling through the ship during the battle. He passed through one compartment, and when he turned back to the compartment it had been completely wrecked and everybody inside killed.

In the battle involving the Graf Spee, the German ship suffered several damaging hits and could not continue its patrol. It broke off contact with the enemy and entered the harbor at Montevideo, Uruguay, where it sought temporary shelter in the neutral port.

Here the movie develops the plot by the Brits to confuse the German captain and defeat the Graf Spee. Under the rules of neutrality, the German ship was not allowed to repair its fighting capability and would be required to leave port within 48 hours. The Brits did not have the ability to stop the German ship if it decided to leave port, so British agents on shore leaked false information about a strong force about to arrive shortly. Captain Langsdorff, seeing only doom in the near future, headed out of harbor then evacuated a skeleton crew before demolition charges put the battleship to the bottom of estuary. He killed himself on 19 December.

That was practically the end of the German surface navy for the war. In 1941 the Germans again attempted to put forth a major surface warship. In May the Bismarck left port in Germany, bound for the Atlantic Ocean. By the end of the month it was at the bottom of the ocean, south of Ireland.

Following the story it is impossible to avoid a sense of déjà vu. On 8 December 1914, four months into The Great War, Admiral von Spee’s squadron, freshly victorious over the British in the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile, was attempting to raid the coaling station in the Falkland Islands. The British Navy surprised the Germans, and Admiral von Spee, and his flagship, the Scharnhorst, along with all but two of his remaining ships were sunk. There were no survivors on the Scharnhorst, and von Spee and two of his sons on other ships were killed. Of the two remaining German ships, one was subsequently interned, and the other was scuttled by its crew after another battle. It was a lesson from the German Imperial Navy that the navy of the Third Reich apparently did not learn.

I recorded the Michael Powell movie, subsequently re-titled The Battle of the River Plate, on DVD, and I am willing to share.

In a previous life I spent some time in the Navy Reserve serving on aircraft carriers, and I gave some thought to the reality of naval warfare. I volunteered for service in the Navy Reserve because I liked the idea of mechanized warfare as opposed to grubbing around in the dirt, engaging soldiers on a one-on-one basis. I also liked the idea of sleeping in a warm bunk and getting hot meals every day. The facts turned out that the bunk was not always warm (in the winter) and cool (in the summer). Also the reality is that navies shoot at each other with large-caliber, high-explosive ammunition. Quite often the ship goes down, and everybody dies. William Tecumseh Sherman supposedly said “War is hell,” possibly because he is one of those who made it so.

Replacement Parts

Forty years ago Lee Majors hit the screen as The Six Million Dollar Man. In the series an astronaut test pilot suffers horrific injuries in a crash and is rebuilt with mechanical parts. As a result he is better, faster, stronger.

It was all fiction, of course, but fiction has a way of becoming reality. I recently took Barbara Jean into the shop, and the technician (doctor) told me, “One of her carbon life form ocular subsystems has developed a problem. We are going to have to replace its refraction component. But don’t worry. The rebuilt ocular subsystem is going to be better, faster, stronger when we are finished.”

Today I took Barbara Jean back to the shop, and after a bit of preamble, she was retrofitted. The process only took about fifteen minutes. Some day I expect this procedure will be completely automated so we can eliminate any needless human intervention. Here’s Barbara Jean, waiting for the chance to show off her new ocular subsystem. Isn’t science wonderful?

The Legacy of Sam Sheppard

Whenever I hear or read reference to something like “alleged shooter,” I recall Dr. Sam Sheppard.

When the initial case unfolded I was a juvenile and likely was not following the news. But here it is:

Samuel Holmes Sheppard, D.O. (December 29, 1923 – April 6, 1970) was an American osteopathic physician who was involved in an infamous and controversial murder trial. He was convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn Reese Sheppard, in 1954 while residing in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Sheppard served almost a decade in the Ohio Penitentiary before his conviction was overturned. In 1966, he was acquitted in a new trial. In the year 2000, Sheppard’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard, who was seven at the time of his mother’s murder, sued the State of Ohio for his father’s alleged wrongful imprisonment. After a ten-week trial, a civil jury returned a unanimous verdict that Samuel Sheppard had failed to prove his father had been wrongfully imprisoned.

The treatment of the case by the news media was completely appalling by today’s standards.

Some newspapers and other media in Ohio were accused of bias against Sheppard and inflammatory coverage of the case, and were criticized for immediately labeling Sheppard as the only viable suspect. Some believe that a specific headline from the Cleveland Press, “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?”, clearly indicated the bias of the media against Sheppard.

You don’t see this kind of thing anymore, and this case (and possibly a few additional ones) is the reason why. The jury was not sequestered. Members were allowed to read all the arguments against Sheppard. It was unlikely they were not influenced. Today this would be cause for a mistrial.

In a retrial Sheppard was acquitted after serving ten years in prison. He lived four more years after his acquittal, becoming for a time a professional wrestler and finally dying of liver failure, most likely due to heavy drinking.

I had long thought that the Sam Sheppard case was the inspiration for the TV series (and movie) The Fugitive, however, the creators of the series have denied this.

Subsequent to the re-opening of the Sheppard case I noticed a turn-around in news coverage of court cases. Previously it was not rare for the news to refer to the accused person as “the robber” or whatever fit the description of the crime. “The robber” has now become “the alleged robber” and so forth. That was not always enough.

In 1996 a terrorist bomb at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta killed a woman. Security guard Richard Jewell discovered the bomb before it went off and was instrumental in saving many lives. However, the FBI grew suspicious of Jewell and watched him closely. They described him to the news media as “a person of interest.” He was not an “alleged bomber,” but the “person of interest” appellation was enough to ruin his life, and he subsequently sued several news outlets and his former employer for libel and was awarded undisclosed amounts prior to his death of heart disease in 2007.

There seems to be no law requiring news organizations to use disclaimers such as “alleged” and “accused.” Most, I am sure, are now more circumspect on the advice of their lawyers, and many have now learned to be more sensitive to the rights of accused persons. At the very least, published inflammatory remarks can enable the defense lawyers to obtain a change of venue and can jeopardize the prosecution’s case. Put bluntly, libeling the defendant can cause a guilty person to go free.

While we appreciate this advance in journalistic propriety, I routinely see overzealous applications. A few weeks ago a woman in India was raped and murdered by a group of men. I don’t have a link, but I am sure a recent news report referred to the woman as the “alleged victim.” I am trying to figure out how this woman could be an “alleged victim.” Did she accidentally penetrate herself with a long metal rod. Did she accidentally beat herself up. Did she accidentally lose her clothing and then accidentally fall off the bus along a deserted road? Did she die of smallpox? Did her companion similarly beat himself up accidentally and fall off the bus without his clothing? What was so “alleged” about these two people being victims.

If the horror were not enough, a similar incident occurred in India last Friday:

Indian bus rider allegedly gang raped
Published: Jan. 13, 2013 at 8:31 AM
NEW DELHI, Jan. 13 (UPI) — Police said they arrested six men who allegedly gang raped a 29-year-old woman after she boarded a bus, the second such incident in India in a month.
The 29-year-old woman said the bus driver and one man on the bus took her to an undisclosed location where five other men joined to rape her throughout the night Friday in Gurdaspur district in Punjab.

Hopefully some alleged law in the alleged country of India will do something to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of these alleged crimes against these alleged citizens. And we may have the alleged Dr. Sam Sheppard to thank.

Bad Joke Of The Week

I’m trying to remember why this one came up, but I thought of it again this week and figured it was time to post another Bad Joke of the Week:

Three guys were having drinks at a bar when another man wandered in and joined them. They introduced themselves around, and one of the original three asked the stranger what he did. The stranger said he was in show business. He had an act. He would bring people in the audience up to the stage and tell them things about themselves.

One of the three voiced the opinion that this was a remarkable skill if the stranger could, indeed, perform. He proposed a test. “Tell me what kind of car do I drive?” he demanded.

The stranger said he could do that, but he needed some information. “What do you do for a living?”

“Well, I own a sign company,” the man responded.

The stranger thought for a moment and then stated, “You must be the owner of that blue Neon out front.”

That was, indeed, true, and a second man demanded, “What kind of car do I drive? I raise horses.”

The stranger shot back, “You drive that two-toned Pinto, right?”

That was correct, and the three were impressed. Then the remaining of the three challenged the stranger. “I bet you can’t guess what I drive. I’m a doctor.”

The stranger was a little puzzled, but he asked for more information. “What kind of doctor are you?”

The man told him he was a proctologist.

Again the stranger appeared puzzled. Then his face lit up. “I know. You’re the driver of that brown Probe.”

The Grand Design

Nothing earth shaking here. Just some comments on the world of engineering.

When I graduated from engineering school I still did not have a job lined up, but I soon got one working for the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas in Austin. We did a lot of interesting things there, and I met people with tales to tell.

Some of the people had previously done engineering work for the Accelerator Lab, which was just down the street on the campus. The accelerator was a Van de Graaff machine that accelerated charged particles in a straight path inside a large vacuum chamber. To perform experiments, what you needed to do was to insert targets into the particle stream. There were ports into the vacuum chamber for inserting targets and instrumentation. You built your apparatus and attached it to a vacuum-tight flange that you then bolted to the seal flange of the vacuum chamber.

So one of the engineers was given the job of designing a piece of apparatus for the accelerator, and he asked for the engineering drawing of the vacuum seal flange. Using the drawing he then designed his part to mate to the flange, and he had the machine shop build the assembly. But there was a problem.

When they had the finished part and attempted to bolt it to the vacuum flange, it did not match. The part they built was a mirror image (reversed left for right) of the proper design. How could this be?

They checked the engineering drawing they had been given and confirmed the part they had built was the correct match. So they inquired of the lab manager, and they were told this: When the generator was built, the vacuum flange was the reverse of what the engineering drawing showed. So, whenever they built something to attach to the flange, they just built the reverse of what the drawing showed. They had not problem with doing this. Of course, they also had no problem handing over the drawing to other people without telling them of the problem, and they had no problem with not correcting the drawing to conform to the flange as-built.

Now, folks, these are highly-paid technical people, not your run of the mill garage mechanics.

There was this guy Don who came to work at the Astronomy Department, and after a while he formed his own engineering company. I left the Astronomy Department and went to work for Don’s company.

Don had designed a mirror mount to attach to one of the telescopes at McDonald Observatory. It had been ordered by a NASA experimenter, and later on he wanted another mount, but with a 45-degree angle instead. The experimenter said he was satisfied with the original design, and we should use that, but with the new angle.

Don assigned me to design the mount, and he gave me the drawings of the previous mount. I took the drawings and made drawings of the new mount. A local machine shop built the part, and we checked over the finished item to be sure it was built according to the drawing. We shipped part off to the observatory in West Texas. Then the shit hit the fan.

The experimenter, whose office was on the East Coast, had scheduled a fixed slice of time on the telescope, and he traveled out to the observatory to run his experiment at the appointed time. The part we sent did not fit the mounting point on the telescope.

We confirmed the new item matched the one Don had previously designed and asked the observatory director what was going on. He said the first one that Don had designed did not fit, so they just built one in their machine shop and used that. They didn’t tell Don, and they didn’t tell the NASA guy.

Once again, these were well-paid, professional people.

If there is a moral, this is it: Don’t just look at the drawings. Walk over and take a look for yourself. Pick up the telephone and ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Is everybody clear on this point?