Of Galleons and Guitars

Back in the 1600s, Spain was pretty much looting the New World. Galleons would sail for Spain in convoys loaded down with gold and silver extracted from the Aztecs and the Incas. These fleets, called Plate Fleets after the Spanish word for silver, also carried people, supplies and trade goods, but it was the return journey with the treasure that really paid the bills. With so much wealth literally floating about, the Spanish government naturally had to and make sure they got their cut. Accordingly, the Spanish Crown came out with a blizzard of paperwork regulating every aspect of the trade, including scheduling, accounting, permits, and exactly how the cargo was to be divvied up, all assuring the King got his piece of the action. The penalties for irregularities were severe, so, among the sailors, Conquistadors, and assorted adventurers on these voyages, each expedition carried a clerk/inspector whose sole job was keeping track of the paperwork, the permissions, the licenses, and the disposition of the cargo to make sure all the mountain of regulations were being obeyed. No doubt it was a full time job. (Monty Python’s famous sketch of swashbuckling seagoing chartered accountants comes to mind.)

Big Island Chronicle | Island Art — A Spanish Galleon Sights ...

Today, most of us are familiar with the extensive reporting and coding requirements of Medicare, and some insurance companies. Even small family practitioners now have been forced to create an office position for someone to keep track of all the intricacies of modern government regulations and requirements. Of course, many people find it necessary to hire a service to help with the thicket of income tax regulations each year as well. These are annoyances of modern life we have come to accept grudgingly, but we may not be aware of just how much is involved in simply figuring out just what is required and keeping one step ahead of regulatory demands in the business world. I was reminded of this the other day when I went on a tour of a local guitar factory.

The Paul Reed Smith Guitar company is the third largest guitar manufacturer in America, and uses a combination of modern production techniques, innovative design features, and meticulous craftsmanship to produce guitars that are not only superb musical instruments, but works of art as well. At one point, I asked the tour guide about the infamous Gibson Guitar raid of 2011. Gibson Guitar’s Memphis factory was raided by a 30 man SWAT team from Homeland Security and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Didn’t know Fish and Wildlife had a SWAT team, did you? For that matter, why is Homeland Security chasing domestic guitar  manufacturers?)

Gibson Guitar Raid

Homeland Security keeping us safe-Note the sidearms

The raiders said they had a warrant, but said it was “sealed” and could not be seen. They herded the employees outside, shut down the factory, and carted off half a million dollar’s worth of wood and guitars as “evidence”. When the dust settled, Gibson was told they were in violation of an old law against importing endangered animals that had recently been amended to include plants and wood. At issue was some mahogany imported from Madagascar whose documentation was apparently suspect.  It was the old “Your papers are not in order” routine. Gibson claimed the wood in question was actually from India, but documenting each individual strip of wood was difficult. After years of wrangling and leaks to the press, thousands in lost income from the factory shutdown, and mounting legal fees, Gibson was forced to settle by paying a fine of $250,000 and make a $50,000 “contribution” to an environmental activist group !!!! (No word on whether this was the same activist group that lobbied to have the law expanded in the first place.)

Although the alleged violation was apparently serious enough to warrant a SWAT raid and $300,000 in fines, no charges were ever filed, and the confiscated  guitars and suspect wood were all returned to Gibson. Apparently there was no endangered wood there after all, but the ransom still had to be paid. Gibson got a tiny measure of revenge by using the returned wood to build a line of guitars they called their “Government series” ! The full story  is here.

Back to my conversation at the PRS plant: The PRS person said they were well aware of the Gibson case and in response, had employed a full time person to continuously monitor the laws, permits, documentation and all the complex regulatory requirements that go with making a product that incorporates exotic woods. Think about that a moment; a full time person just to keep the SWAT teams from  the door. It’s the Spanish Plate Fleet all over again, with the threat of  the Spanish Inquisition thrown in.

... Guitars PRS Private Stock Paul's Guitar #40, Copperhead Burst

PRS Guitar

And wood is not the only regulatory pitfall. PRS has stopped using Ivory for the tiny fretboard bird inlays on its lower end models, and has gone to plastic. African elephant Ivory is illegal, of course, but Mammoth Ivory from old Mammoth tusks that PRS used, is completely legal. The problem was providing documentation to be able to prove that every tiny piece of ivory on every location on every fingerboard was not the wrong sort. It just wasn’t practical, so plastic is now used.

PRS have come up with a variation of their bird-inlays for the ...

Abalone inlays

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Plastic inlays

The upshot of this story is that there is a hidden cost of regulation as time, energy, and resources that could have been applied to improving products or services, or  lowering prices, are diverted to defensive regulatory compliance. When regulatory laws are written, it seems doubtful anyone takes these hidden costs into account, but as long as regulatory agencies have the power to demand exorbitant fines for unproven, and even unfounded charges, this will continue.

A blast from the past

If someone asked if you’d like to “fire Brown Bess”, you might wonder exactly who Brown Bess is and what she did to  deserve being fired…especially since she’s such a big shot. That’s right; Brown Bess is a firearm. Specifically, the famous Tower musket, a muzzle loading flintlock that was the standard weapon of the British armed forces from 1722 to 1838.  It was simple, rugged, and deadly. At .75 caliber, it threw a chunk of lead almost the size of a marble, and woe to anyone who got in front of it. So what was it like to actually fire one of these cannons? Well, now you can find out.

At Colonial Williamsburg, you can now fire one of these historical monsters yourself  instead of just watching reinactors do it. For a fee, instructors will take you to the range and instruct you on the loading, handling, and firing of the Brown Bess, along with a somewhat smaller hunting piece. You get about 10 shots at paper targets, and the right to brag that you are one of the few modern day people to have fired a flintlock.

Of course, it’s not quite the same experience that the old  British redcoat had. Aside from the fact that no one was shooting back, you have to wear eye protection, sound deadening “Micky Mouse ears”, plus a very baggy and garish colonial overshirt to protect against sparks and black powder residue. These babies are messy. The instructors all had small holes burned in their sleeves.

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The modern shooter with eye protection, and ear protection. The very ugly shirt is supposed to protect against sparks and black powder burns, but the way I shot, I think it was so no one would recognize me.

The first thing you notice is just how heavy the blasted thing is, and how long. Once the musket is loaded, primed, and cocked, you aim and fire. There is a slight delay, then the powder in the pan goes off in a blinding flash and a puff of smoke, then the slug is on its way. For such a big caliber, there isn’t much of a kick, possibly because of the weight. Accuracy, however, proves elusive, thanks to the smooth bore of the barrel,the time delay between trigger pull and firing, and my no-longer-young eyes.

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the musket is firing or exploding.

Anyway, it was a great experience for anyone who wants to feel a little closer to history. So how did I do? Well, if I am ever attacked by paper targets, I will be in big trouble.

Exploiting children for fun and profit

For some, panhandling has become a way of life, paying better than hard to find steady employment. With the competition, and public wariness, many panhandlers have become more creative, and have worked out sympathetic, but realistic-sounding hard luck stories. I encountered one of them in a gas station in New Orleans while I was filling up. He approached me, introduced himself and welcomed me to New Orleans. (A nice touch, intended to generate empathy) Then he said he worked installing tiles and had just finished a nearby job.Unfortunately, he would not be paid until next week and needed a few bucks for gas so he could get home. This tale of being stranded would have been more convincing if he hadn’t been holding a cell phone at the time. No sale.

A few days later, however, a more unsettling scam was being practiced elsewhere. As we were getting out of the car on a shopping center parking lot near Nashville, a woman approached us with a young girl in tow. The woman appeared to be in her 40s and the girl was maybe 10 or so. This woman’s story was that she needed nine dollars to have enough for a hotel room for herself and her daughter. There were a few obvious problems with this tale; there was no hotel within miles, the couple had no possessions with them, and no means of transportation. How did they get there?  How would they get to the supposed hotel? Plus, the woman seemed too old to have a child that age. And why was the girl  wearing a bright colored dress instead of something more practical for living on the street? Well, that one was easy; to make her look more innocent and helpless, and less like a grifter-in-training.

We didn’t give them anything and they disappeared back among the parked cars as we shook our heads at the callousness of people dragging children into their con games. If we had any doubt the whole thing was a shameless, child-exploiting scam, they were dispelled a short time later when we returned to the car and saw the same pair walking toward the outer edge of the parking lot. There, under a shade tree was a late model red SUV with a waiting driver. The woman with the child looked at the driver and shrugged, as if to say “Slim pickings, today.” The woman and the child turned off to a place out of sight, and the SUV followed a minute later.

As we left the shopping center, we found ourselves directly behind the red SUV, and were not surprised to find that the woman and the child were now passengers. The car pulled on to the highway, went about two blocks, then pulled in to the next shopping center, no doubt hoping for more gullible shoppers at this new location. The child, who should have been in school, was no doubt learning a trade instead. Maybe one day, she will have a phony child of her own to exploit.

Joan of Arc’s wardrobe malfunction?

If you have ever been to the St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, you have no doubt been thrilled at the majesty and beauty of its interior spaces.

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IMG_1461 The  cathedral is dedicated to Louis of France, and to the woman who made it  possible, the maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc. The story is remarkable and Joan has earned her place in the cathedral many times over. A  life sized statue of her, donated in 1920, stands in a place of honor by the front entrance. It is a remarkably lifelike statue and seems about to speak. Every detail of her face, hair and pose seem natural and realistic…except one; the armor.

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At first  glance, the armor looks great. The arm and leg coverings are done in great and accurate detail, although the breastplate features slight protrusions for breasts, something that would certainly be useless since plate armor was warn over a heavy padded jacket. The outfit includes a long, slit skirt, no doubt a bit of artistic license to make the figure a bit more feminine. It may not be accurate, but it’s a nice touch.

But the part that seems out of place is a sort of steel miniskirt at the base of the breastplate. This piece is actually common on plate armor and is called a fauld. (armor  parts tended to have French names), and was used to hang plates on each side to protect  the upper legs. O.K. So what’s the problem? The problem is the shape. In what might be another attempt to soften the masculinity of the armor, the sculptor made the fauld pointed in the center. So with that point in the center, how does Joan ride a horse? The motion of riding would cause the saddle  to constantly bang the pointed end, shoving the whole breastplate assembly up under Joan’s chin with every step. If you have ever seen pictures of plate armor,  you can see that the fauld is either flat across, or even indented in the center to allow mounting a horse. This one goes the opposite way. Maybe it’s hinged.

The statue is great, but I wonder if this detail is accurate or a bit of artistic license. So does anyone know?

 

Red White and Blue Barbecue

There are many things that make America great; the rule of law, economic opportunity, an open and tolerant culture, respect for property rights, and individual liberties. Naturally, all these things are under constant attack by those who, against all evidence, consider themselves enlightened. Still, enough remains to make people all over the world long to come here. This is why illegal immigration is a far bigger problem here than in places such as Albania, Rwanda, North Korea, and Yemen. There are places people want to get to and places people want to get away from. America is solidly in the first group.

One of the signs of America’s wide-open,  innovative, and dynamic culture is barbecue.

Barbecue?

Barbecue wasn’t even invented in America; it came from the Caribbean, where Indians would slow cook meats over smoky fires. But barbecue was adopted, improved, and expanded by many people of many backgrounds over the years, and is now part of American culture. (Next time  you hear someone pontificating about “cultural appropriation”,  be grateful cultures do adopt and expand each other’s ideas.)

Today, each region has its own techniques and ingredients, and people from all races and backgrounds are constantly competing and learning from each other. And don’t get a barbecue fanatic started on the relative merit of dry-rub vs wet rub.

On a recent trip to the southern states, we saw some firsthand examples of just how individual and innovative barbecue can be. The south, of course, is prime barbecue country, with home cooks from the Carolinas to Texas smoking 24/7.  Among the examples was a BBQ place in Alabama. Now, Alabama takes its BBQ seriously, and small, shack-like restaurants are everywhere. They don’t go in for clever names such as, say, Piggy Place, or Rib-O-Rama, or Smokers, or Pork Pullerz, or Brisket Basket. Most independent BBQ restaurants in the south are simply named for their owners, or whoever started the place, names such as Henry’s, or Big Jim’s, or Bubba’s, or Miller’s. The names are usually simple, down-home, and unpretentious. But we found two places that violated this rule in a big way.

One day, we passed a typical place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, expecting it to be called Zeke’s of maybe Bob’s, but the sign on the place said Archibald and Woodrow’s! Archibald and Woodrow’s? There in the deep south was a barbecue place with a name that would not have been out of place on Masterpiece Theater. Maybe it was served by a butler, we thought. We found out later that Archibald was actually a family name, for the lady who cooked up fabulous dishes in her modest kitchen and gave or sold  them to neighbors years before. Woodrow  is Woodrow Washington, the current owner. Archibald’s is a local legend and was a favorite of famous Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Here is their Facebook page.

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Not long afterwards, we crossed the Georgia line and came upon another aspect of BBQ culture, the roadside stand, where someone will cook and sell in the open air from the side of the road. This is not unusual, but the cooker was. Instead of a cooker that looked as if it had been made from an old oil drum, this one was stainless steel and was in the shape of a giant revolver!

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This place also violated the “no fancy names” rule and called itself the Smokin’ Gun BBQ with “The taste that will blow you away!” I suppose it featured a sauce that will shoot your mouth off as well.

The owners, ex steamfitters, made the thing themselves and said several cars have run into a ditch when they saw it. The smoke from the coals comes out of the barrel for extra realism.

We  later found out that there is a Smokin’ Guns BBQ restaurant in Kansas City that is not affiliated!

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So, innovation, creativity, hard work and individualism are still alive in the USA, and you can find it in the most unlikely places.

Now pass the hot sauce.

Ignatius J Reilly and the power of persistance

In front of a former department store on Canal Street in the heart of New Orleans stands a life-sized bronze statue of a heavy-set, sloppy man who seems to be glaring at the passers by along the sidewalk. What is even more unusual is the fact that the imposing figure depicts not a president or a general, but a fictional character. The story behind the statue is both tragic and inspiring.

John Kennedy Toole was a teacher who longed to be a writer. For years, he labored on a darkly comic novel set in his native New Orleans and featuring a wild gumbo of local places, people, and peculiarities. The story begins with the protagonist, Ignatius J Reilly, waiting to meet his long-suffering mother in front of the D H Holmes department store in New Orleans. Reilly is an oddball who is nobody’s idea of a hero; he is fat, lazy, arrogant, and selfish, and seems to be in a perpetual state of sputtering outrage against the twentieth century and everyone in it. A suspicious policeman approaches Reilly and a string of chaotic and hilarious events unfolds.

Toole finally finished his novel and set out to have it published. Although there was some interest, a publisher demanded massive revisions, and still rejected the work. Publishers complained that the book wasn’t really about anything. So the manuscript remained unpublished and Toole, defeated and devastated, set it aside. Toole also suffered from depression and at the age of 31, committed suicide. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Two years later, Toole’s mother found the manuscript and set about finding a publisher. She too met with numerous rejections for five more years, but she didn’t give up. Finally, she persuaded a writer teaching at Loyola in New Orleans  to read the manuscript and he was impressed. It took several more years before he was able to get the Louisiana State University Press to publish A Confederacy of Dunces in 1980. Dunces was awarded the  Pulitzer Prize for literature the next year and has sold almost two million copies in 18 languages since then. Some critics have called Dunces one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century and hailed Ignatius J Reilly as one of the most memorable and fascinating characters in literature.

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“In the shadow under the green visor of the cap, Ignatius J Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at D H Holmes Department store for signs of bad taste in dress.”                      John Kennedy Toole…A Confederacy of Dunces


 

Which brings us back to the statue. Today, a life size representation of a bigger than life character, the incomparable Ignatius J Reilly stands in front of the building that formerly housed the DH Holmes Department Store, waiting impatiently for his mother to return….just as he does in the extraordinary novel that almost died except for persistence; the persistence of people who believed in it.

Fowl Play on the Chesapeake Bay: Get your ducks in a row…for free!

If you are looking for a children’s book to read to your kids or grandkids (or if you’re just looking for stories without sex or explosions), consider The Duckworth Papers, featuring eight original stories of the most remarkable duck on the Chesapeake Bay. It’s written for kids, but has just enough sneaky adult references to keep you interested.

So you think ducks on the Chesapeake Bay have a dull life? Then you haven’t met Duckworth and his friends. Why just a few weeks ago, Duckworth and his pal Chuck Duck got captured by watermen, and the Netley sisters came by and grabbed Gooba the cat in their nets, saving Mrs Flapper and the six fuzzy ducklings. Then Cheesy Quacker got mixed up in the Great Crab Race, Duckworth spent a scary night in the haunted marsh to impress Danielle Featherby, and the ducks had a spinnaker bouncing contest that turned into the Great Miles River Duck Riot. Then, just when they thought things had settled down, Buzz Bee Berkeley came by and told them about the mystery at Mumbles Manor.
That’s life for Bosley J. Duckworth, the most remarkable duck on the Chesapeake Bay. And to think that it all started with Mrs. Spudwell’s famous chicken-fried, five spice, three bean, deep dish. Oyster-fritter casserole.

As Old Webfoot always says, life can get weird when you’re a duck.

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And here’s the best part: from Sunday, April 10 through Thursday, April 14, you can download The Duckworth Papers to your Kindle, computer, or phone free! Just go to this link .

And if you like it, why not write a review?