Harder than it looks

What’s it like to pilot an airship like the Goodyear blimp or the old Navy blimps? It has to be a lot easier than flying an airplane; right? With an airplane, you have to fiddle with the controls constantly to keep the danged thing in the air. And if the engine fails, you’d better hope you can glide someplace soft. If the blimp engine conks out, however, you can just drift around until it’s fixed. Pretty easy, huh?


As it turns out, this view is mostly bunk. I was talking to an ex Navy blimp pilot. The Navy used to use blimps for long range anti submarine patrols, since they could stay aloft much longer than an airplane. He gave me an idea of just how tricky flying an airship can be.

First of all, the thing is huge and lightweight, so you are always fighting wind, which wants you to go someplace you’d rather not. If the engines fail, you won’t crash, but you will start moving in whatever direction the wind is blowing.

You also have to be constantly monitoring the weight of the thing. As you cruise, you burn off fuel, making the airship progressively lighter, so you’ll keep going up if you’re not careful. If you get caught in the rain or a snowstorm, or freezing wet conditions, the opposite occurs; the snow or water will build up on the surface, so you will get heavier and lose altitude. If that happens, you have to drop some ballast (usually water) to compensate. If the sun comes out, the gas in the blimp will expand, making it rise again. Then, just when you have everything balanced, some sudden cloudiness or a cold front can start the cycle all over again.

So next time you see the Goodyear blimp, don’t assume the piot has his feet up and is relaxing with a mint julep. He’s probably working hard.

Air raids; effective…and not

Here’s an obvious question for WWII buffs: Which air attack caused more damage,  the Pearl Harbor attack or the Doolittle raid on Tokyo? Simple, huh? The Pearl Harbor attack involved over 350 airplanes and and wrecked the American Pacific fleet, while the Doolittle raid consisted of only 16 bombers and inflicted very limited damage on Tokyo. Maybe the answer is not as obvious as it seems.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A lot has been written about how the attack backfired because it aroused the Americans to a torrent of fury and war production that doomed the Japanese. This oft-repeated  analysis is certainly true as far as it goes, but the full story is more complex, and more interesting.


The idea of the attack was to knock out the American Pacific fleet so that the Japanese could run wild in the Pacific with little to fear from America. By the time the Americans rebuilt, the theory went, it would be too late because the Japanese would have consolidated their conquests and be impossible to dislodge. The first thing that went wrong for the Japanese was the absence of the American carriers at Pearl Harbor that morning. That meant that an important part of American naval power remained available for a counter blow.

All right, but at least the attack wiped out eight battleships and some cruisers, destroyers and other vessels. That had to be the crippling bow the Japanese were looking for, right? Well, no. Within a couple of months, most of the damaged ships had been repaired and even the sunken ships had been raised and would be restored within the next two years. Only the Arizona the Utah, and the Oklahoma were beyond repair by the war’s end. The other Pearl Harbor ships were back in the war despite the damage they suffered on December 7. When the Japanese delegation was taken to the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay to sign the surrender documents, the Americans made a point of taking them past the anchored USS West Virginia, one of the resurrected Pearl Harbor battleships. So, far from destroying American naval capability, the Pearl Harbor attack only permanently removed three battleships.


On the Japanese side, however, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor was not so good. By the end of the war, every Japanese ship that had participated in the Pearl Harbor attack had been sunk, along with a good number of their crews and pilots. But the worst was yet to come for the Japanese. In addition to getting America solidly into the war, the Pearl Harbor attack roused a burning desire to strike back. The result was the daring Doolittle raid on Tokyo just a few months later. The raid did very little physical damage, but shocked the confident Japanese and made them determined to invade Midway to push their defenses further outward. The result of that decision was the Battle of Midway, the first major defeat of the Japanese navy. They lost four carriers, and those ships would not be raised. From that moment, the Japanese were headed down the road to defeat.


So the massive Japanese attack of over 350 airplanes caused a limited amount of long term damage and was a disaster for the Japanese,  while the much more limited Doolittle raid also caused almost no long-term damage and was also a disaster for the Japanese.

The “It” Girl

Clara Bow was one of the biggest stars of silent films. At the height of her fame, studios fought over her because of the huge audiences she attracted. She once made 15 films in a single year, working up to 15 hour days. At one point she was working on three films simultaneously. Although she never won an Oscar, she starred in Wings, the first movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Known as the “It” girl after one of her movies that referred to an indefinable quality having to do with sex appeal, Clara Bow was an unlikely candidate for movie stardom. She had a nightmarish Brooklyn childhood of poverty, an absent father, and an insane mother who threatened to kill her if she didn’t abandon her dream of show business, and a life where almost everyone she met exploited her.  She was naive and trusting, so her affairs, both financial and otherwise, were always in chaos. The studio hired a woman to act as Clara’s secretary and get her affairs in order. The woman embezzled over $40,000 from Clara, then when caught, published a book of sordid tales of Clara’s sexual exploits. (Stories Clara Bow’s biographer says are entirely fabricated.)

There was nothing remarkable about her appearance. She was attractive, but did not stop traffic. Average in height and build, Clara was maybe a little on the heavy side for an actress. She had no acting training or experience. She got her first movie role as a result of winning a contest when she was only 16. In her first movie role, she had to borrow money from a relative to buy two more dresses to wear. (She only owned two at the time). After all that, her minor part was cut from the final film. She had to go from studio to studio looking for parts before finally getting another minor one.

So if it wasn’t looks and it wasn’t training, and it wasn’t influential connections and it certainly wasn’t luck, what made Clara Bow a movie star? What did she have going for her? The answer is simple; for all her lack of sophistication and disadvantaged background, when Clara Bow was on the screen, she was dazzling. The poor girl from Brooklyn had a screen presence that overwhelmed anyone else in the scene. Variety Magazine said that when Clara Bow was in a scene, nothing else mattered. Another reviewer said  “Clara Bow lingers in the eye long after the picture is gone”. Her gestures, body language, and facial expressions spoke volumes, and her energy and personality were part of every role she played. Even when she was playing a “bad girl”, audiences loved her. There was nobody like Clara Bow.

See for yourself. Pay particular attention to the scene on the boat from 2.06 to 2.23, where Clara Bow is playing the banjo/ukelele, then read the rest of this post.

If you saw the sequence between 2.06 and 2.23, can you answer the following questions?

—–How many people were in the scene with Clara Bow?

—–How many were women?

—–Can you describe the other women?

—–Can you describe any of the other women?

See what I mean? When Clara Bow was in a scene, no one else mattered.

History’s attics- Collecting in the Internet Age

Did you ever wonder what happens to the artifacts of history? We know about the big ones; the Declaration of Independence, the Crown Jewels, the Wright Brothers plane, the Mona Lisa, and such, but what about the smaller, human-interest stuff? What ever became of Harry Truman’s hat, or Elvis’s sunglasses, or Hitler’s footstool, or Evil Knievel’s jacket, or Eisenhower’s golf clubs, or Eva Braun’s lingerie? How about JFK’s boxer shorts, Charlie Chaplin’s pajamas, General Patton’s razor, a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s splint, complete with bloodstains, Jack Ruby’s notebook, Marilyn Monroe’s bra, or the .44 magnum Elvis used to shoot his TV? So where is all this stuff? Not the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian wishes it had some of this stuff.
Would you believe this is all in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania?
The Gettyburg Museum of History occupies a non-descript brick house in the center of town and is crammed with the most amazing collection of relics of wars, presidents, and celebrities you could imagine. Possibly the most amazing thing about this collection is that it was accumulated by one man, the curator, Erik Dorr. Almost as amazing is the fact that Mr. Dorr operates the museum at no charge to the public and gets no funding from any foundation or similar source. That makes the American History Museum the best bargain in Gettysburg, as well as one of the most interesting. The Museum has been featured on several TV shows, including American Pickers. Erik Knorr has feelers out all over the world for new acquisitions, so you never know what you’ll find.


Lincoln memorabilia in the low glass case. Hitler’s footstool in the back


Mamie Eisenhower’s hat, her husband’s golf clubs, a lock of Napoleon’s hair, and much more.










One nice feature of the museum is how crowded with objects it is. There is no room for the kind of slick audiovisual special effects, or life-sized dioramas so beloved by bigger “institutional” museums, just lots of fascinating objects cheek by jowl, waiting to be discovered. A trip to The Gettysburg Museum of History is like rummaging around in history’s attic. So where did he get all this stuff? Well, apparently, a lot of it was from buying up private collections of various sorts. It seems there is a network of collectors who know, watch each each other constantly, and bid against each other when items become available. The Internet makes it easy to locate and purchase items that a collector would have to search for previously.


Another case in point: I recently met Edward Petruskevich, a collector from the Delmarva section of Virginia. He has an impressive collection relating to a great maritime disaster; a luxury cruise liner that sank on a cold night and took most of its passengers with it. He has programs, menus, scrapbooks, a life vest, and even a blanket one passenger wrapped around himself as protection from the cold. Oh, did I mention the name of the doomed ship?

No, it wasn’t the Titanic.

The ship was the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German passenger ship sunk by a Russian submarine in World War II. The Gustloff was carrying over 10,000 German refugees and wounded soldiers in the Baltic one night in January of 1945, trying to escape the advancing Red Army. The ship was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sank with the loss of 9,343 people. It was the worst maritime disaster of a single ship in history. To put this staggering loss in perspective, the death toll from the Titanic was 1,500. The death toll on the Gustloff was SIX TIMES as high!

Petruskevich has performed a great service in keeping the memory of this amazing incident alive. Although he easily has enough to have his own museum, Petruskevich has instead created a virtual museum via a website. On it, you will find pictures and information about the history of the Gustloff and its sister ship, the Robert Ley. There are also numerous photos of the artifacts. A visitor can spend hours here, entering and marveling at a world he never knew existed.


The Wilhelm Gustloff

According to the website, it appears that Petruskevich amassed this impressive collection in much the same way Erik Knorr assembled the exhibits in the Gettysburg Museum of History; by  searching across the Internet for private collections or objects. Of course, there is a lot more to collecting than just web surfing and bidding. There are auctions, searching paper archives, etc., but the Internet has given collectors access to a wider selection of objects for their collections than ever before.

So as a history fan, I salute two men who are doing much to preserve and protect the memories of the past. Do yourself a favor and visit both museums, the real and the virtual. Here are the links:

The Gettyburg Museum of History

The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum

Too close to history

There was nothing special about Harry Wheeler. He lived in the Bronx and made his living as a furrier. Nothing too exciting ever happened to Harry…until 1927. In May of that year, Harry Wheeler traveled to Paris to buy rabbit pelts for his business. While he was there, he heard that an American named Charles Lindbergh was attempting to be the first person to fly the Atlantic to Paris solo. Thinking that would be something interesting to see, and that he would be a part of history, Wheeler made his way to Le Bourget airport to see Lindbergh land. Unfortunately, thousands of others had the same idea, and the place was wall to wall people. So crowded was the field that Lindbergh at first thought he had the wrong place.

When Lindbergh finally landed, the mob was in a frenzy. They grabbed the aviator and carried him, all the while grabbing pieces of his clothing as souvenirs. His flying hat was snatched off his head and was never found. Lindy was finally rescued by some fellow aviators and spirited away from the crowds. Much of the mob was unaware of this development and was looking around for a tall, thin, American with thick sandy hair.

By an unfortunate coincidence, that description fit Harry Wheeler perfectly.

Thinking he was Charles Lindbergh, the mob then turned its attention to the hapless furrier from the Bronx. The protesting Wheeler was carried and manhandled all around the field, finally being passed through a shattered window missing his coat, his belt, and half of his shirt. What clothing he had left was hanging in torn strips.  Harry Wheeler suffered no permanent damage, and emerged with a story to tell, but just the same, was glad it was over.

Being part of history wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.


Revolution vs Evolution

In my last post, I visited an Amazon Fulfillment Center and marveled at the level of sophisticated setup and process of turning around thousands of shipments a day. Every detail of the center has been designed to enhance the process and make it function better. The slow but steady development of this system made me think of the French Revolution.

Come again? Let me explain.

Throughout history, groups of people have taken it upon themselves to overthrow the established order (government, usually) and replacing it with something else. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. After all, the established order can become repressive and tyrannical. It certainly was in France in 1789, with a bloated aristocracy bleeding the rest of the country dry to sustain itself in luxury. When one of these revolutions is successful, the revolutionaries rejoice and congratulate each other.

The problem arises when the time comes to put something in place of what the revolution just destroyed. Instead of simply creating a structure carefully designed to eliminate the old abuses, a task that is difficult enough in itself, too many revolutionaries set out to totally remake society and everyone in it. The feeling seems to be “Hey; we just overthrew the government. We are obviously enlightened and superior beings, so why not remake the world while we are at it?” Alas, the skills necessary for getting rid of a government versus creating a better one are two different things. The skills required for overthrowing a government and the skills necessary for remaking society from the ground up are two extremely different things. What most these schemes have in common is a massive expansion of government power over and intrusiveness into the lives of the people the revolution was supposed to be liberating.


Thus, we have the French revolutionaries, having overthrown the monarchy, creating a Reign of Terror to remake citizens into “rational” beings ready to serve the state. They attacked religion in all its forms, and sold off churches for use as stables or warehouses. After all, they thought, we can’t allow people to think that this God character might know as much as we do.  In Russia and China, Lenin and Mao had pretty much the same idea; we know better, and will force you to conform for your own good. In all three cases, efforts to force everyone into the “enlightened ” mold resulted in repression and mass murder, what one writer has called “Death by Government.” The American Revolution managed to avoid this homicidal delusion, concentrating on securing individual rights by limiting the power of government rather than making it all encompassing. Some Loyalists fled to Canada, England or the Bahamas, but there was no Reign of Terror or mass executions. Most other revolutionary countries haven’t been so fortunate.

So what does this have  to do with Amazon? Plenty.

Like society in general, Amazon is a large and complex operation with numerous aspects, and every change that is made affects something else, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Yet Amazon has managed to make incremental changes over time that uses and improves on what they learned before. They have evolved and fine-tuned by building on the past until the fulfillment center is a marvel of efficiencies. tweaks, and adjustments that make the whole operate smoothly.

This was not done by a committee of revolutionaries sitting in a coffee shop writing a manifesto, but by thousands of men and women constantly experimenting and learning from experience. No one, and certainly no committee, could have created this level of refinement and functionality from scratch. There are simply too many interrelated parts andsub functions, and too vast a body of knowledge required for anyone to simply create a fully functioning final system in one bite.

This is why evolutionary change is almost always superior to revolutionary upheaval. This isn’t just something I dreamed up; the British statesman Edmund Burke made the same evolution vs revolution argument against the French Revolution at a time when many in England were enthralled by the seeming romance of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in Paris. There was no Amazon at the time, but Burke, who was sympathetic to the American Revolution,nevertheless condemned the French one. He knew the value of evolutionary change building on the experience of the past, and even predicted that, far from enhancing the rights of the citizens, the French Revolution would lead to a military dictatorship. Napoleon appeared shortly thereafter, fulfilling Burke’s prediction.

Amazon: Relentless efficiency in a very large place


I went on a tour of an Amazon “Fulfillment Center” today. That’s a million+ square foot building where Amazon assembles and ships orders.

The Amazon Fulfillment Center is a massive operation, both in size and complexity. Trucks bearing goods from manufacturers are unloaded, the contents categorized and placed in inventory, the location and status of each item is tracked, customer orders are picked, assembled and shipped constantly in a carefully constructed ballet of smoothly coordinated functions.  There are such centers all over the country, and each new one that is constructed builds on what has been learned before. Systems, methods, machinery, and policies or constantly reevaluated and modified to both improve the operation and correct shortcomings. As you go through the Amazon facility, you see hundreds of clever and unexpected tweaks, subsystems, and subroutines that have been developed over time to increase the efficiency and workability of the system. For instance, since the beginning of time, warehouses have been organized by placing objects in categories so they can be located easily. Each cubbyhole (a small segment of shelf space separated by a divider) on the stock shelves of a book warehouse, for instance, would have copies of a single book by category, author name, or file number. A warehouse stocking different products, such as Amazon, would have sections devoted to electronics, household products, clothing, etc, similar to a Sam’s Club. All nice and need and traditional.


But Amazon does it completely differently. If you walk among the inventory shelves in an Amazon fulfillment center, you are shocked to find that the shelves are not organized by any visible system. A cubbyhole  might contain a book, along with a box of baby food, a portable radio, a pair of gloves and a stuffed toy. The place looks like the world’s biggest attic. How can they possible find anything in the chaos? The answer is simple: scanners, bar codes and computers. Amazon realized the the main reason for inventory location by item type was to enable finding the item when needed, but why not let technology do the work? Each item has a bar code and each cubby hole has one as well, so once the item is stocked, the computer knows exactly where it is regardless of what is around it. When an order comes in, the computer finds the picker closest and sends him the item description and its location on the shelves. The item is picked, scanned, and placed in a yellow plastic tub that also has a bar  code. Once the tub is full, it is placed on a conveyor belt to an order assembly area, then to packaging, then to shipping. Along the way, the package is automatically weighed and compared against the expected weight of the items ordered to catch errors in order fulfillment. When items are restocked, the stocker places them on any available open space, then records the location by scanning the bar code on the shelf cubby and the item. The computer will know where to find it when it is ordered.


This system is more efficient than carefully placing items by category, and has other advantages. Multiple identical items wind up scattered all over, but this makes it less likely there will be a bottleneck for more popular items sought by multiple pickers simultaneously. The random stocking makes a more efficient use of shelf space, with less of it sitting empty awaiting replenishment of a specific item. The computer will even prevent you from placing items that are identical, but of different colors in the same or adjacent cubbyholes, to avoid possible confusion when the picker needs them. Of course, the work is repetitive and can be stressful due to pressure to keep up the demanded pace. If you don’t meet the work standards, you could be in trouble.

The computer knows that as well.