Monday, June 23, 2008

Dear Louisiana Legislature,


A Voter

(H/T to CB Forgotston)


I was in London a few ago representing a client at an engineering firm. I had spent several months there working closely with several of their key design people. We got to know each other quite well.

Their Environmental Engineer was a 30 something woman of Indian heritage. She was able to get cheap theater tickets and sometimes arranged for us culturally deprived Americans to see a show. She was the most outgoing of the lot and we enjoyed her company and her access to cheap tickets.

One day, the office conversation turned to guns. I don’t know why or how but that’s how things go sometimes. One topic blends into another and pretty soon you’re talking about guns. Our Environmental Engineer friend turned to me and another American on the team (A Texan) and said, “But you guys don’t own any guns, do you?” I guess she thought because we were both college educated family men who didn’t look like the Brit stereotype of The American Redneck Gun Lover, that we would eschew the ownership of firearms. We then proceeded to list the firearms we had at home. It included long guns, both high powered bolt action rifles and shotguns, several handguns of various calibers: both semi-automatic and revolver, and the odd Evil Black Rifle.

Her mouth hit the floor. She was speechless. Her concept of Genus Americanus Gun Owner was totally shattered. Even more so when I told her that I will sometimes carry a concealed weapon. I don’t think she ever thought about us in the same light ever again. Such is the status of the Hoplophobia epidemic in the UK.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Drill, Drill, Drill....And Then Drill Some More

PE has learned that the recent terrorism alert in Dubai resulted from nothing more than a conversation between two drunk Arabs. It made for an exiting couple of days in the Sandbox but it may have caused a few people to be a little more prepared should the real thing happen. As one of the evacuees from Katina, I can attest that it is good to have a plan before the emergency instead of making it up as you go along. The hard corps guys will even tell you how to pack a BOB, or Bug Out Bag. (Its the bag you grab when it's time to get out of Dodge and there is no time to pack.)

PE has been in some parts of the world where the company has had to devise Bug Out plans for their employees. If you go to Korea, the US military has elaborate plans for the evacuation of dependents - and they drill it once a year. I found it while browsing the military web sites for Korea. Good stuff to know in a country that 's still at war with the NKs (and withing 30 miles of the border).

In Nigeria, the company had a plan which involved getting to a boat and then evacuating to the sea where (hopefully) you will be picked up. IMHO, anytime you are in a country where travel involves armed guards, its a good idea to have an escape plan.

Hell, we even start engineering meetings with a summary of the location of fire escapes and muster areas. With the start of hurricane season, the local news has been filled with recommendations to prepare a personal hurricane plan. Its just good sense to take a few minutes and really note the location of those exits the next time you are on an airplane. Look for the fire exits the next time you are at the game and tell the family where you'll meet up if you get separated.

One of the things we do as engineers is study failures. One thing we learn is that the really bad things are caused by a chain of failures - not just one thing. That chain is easily broken and disaster often can averted by the someone doing the smallest things. Hopefully, the recent alert in Dubai will make people more aware, at least for a few months, and maybe that awareness can help stop a more serious situation in the future.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Offshore Attack on Nigerian Oil Field

In a dangerous escalation of their activities, Nigerian militants attacked Royal Dutch Shell's Bonga FPSO (Floating Production, Storage and Offloading) vessel offshore Nigeria yesterday. Bonga is 75 miles offshore and is capable of producing 225,000 BOPD, or about 10% of Nigeria's production. While there has been militant activity for years in the Niger Delta region, this is the first time a major offshore oil facility has been attacked. Bonga is capable of offloading oil directly to tankers thereby eliminating any need to go into dangerous ports. It was thought that this type of development would be protected from attack by virtue of its distance from shore. Although several people were injured, the militants failed to gain access to the control room. They then kidnapped an American captain of a supply vessel on their return to shore.

Nigeria is a major oil supplier to the US. No matter what the Dimmocrats think, the price of oil will not decrease as long as stuff like this is going on. Not only do we need to start developing our own energy sources, but we will need to protect our interests in producing fields around the world.

PE spent some time in Lagos several years ago helping to set up the Bonga operations offices for Shell. I also went to Port Harcourt to check on facilities there. Everywhere you look, there were young men hanging out with nothing to do. Just the sort of guys that will follow anyone who will give them an AK and a meal. Folks, expect trouble from here soon.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Arrividerce Venice!

I had reserved a spot for us on the hotel shuttle boat at 3:50 PM. That was the last boat and even though our plane didn't leave until 9:30, I thought it was better to wait in the airport and shop in duty free rather than remain in the clutches of the Westin Luxury Collection hotel mafia. We got back to the hotel after lunch with some time to spare and we sat in the beautiful marble lobby and allowed our body temperatures to return to near normal from their previous heat stroke levels.

All is going smoothly. We can see light at the end of the tunnel, even if the tunnel is a narrow Venice canal. And joy of joys, they have a van to meet the boat to carry us to the airport and a guy actually carries my bag from the boat to the van. Nothing is too good for a departing tourist!

Small European airports operate a little differently than in America. The airlines do not have any permanent check in counters. Each point has a TV screen that tells you what flight they are checking in. They change all the time. Therefore, EasyJet does not have a check in counter open when we arrive. In fact, they won't have one open until about 1-1/2 hours before the flight. This means we can't check in and also that we can't go to duty free heaven on the other side of security and immigration. And don't think that any new European airport, which Marco Polo is, is going to waste any money on seating and food concessions in the check in area. No, no, no. That would be a waste of money. So, we tough it out for several hours until we can check in. I keep my wife supplied with diet cokes and even a salami sandwich (and they aren't going to waste any money on extra salami and dressing, either)

Finally we are free to get to our gate. Having been through the cattle chutes of EasyJet in London, we are prepared. We stay close to the gate and when it looks like someone is even close to letting us through we charge to the front of the herd and squeeze ourselves into the bus. Being travel smart that we are, I tell my wife to stand close to the door of the bus because my engineering mind tells me that there will be no organization when they open the doors and the closer you are to the front, the better chance you have of getting a good seat. Sure enough, they open the doors of the bus and people literally run to the boarding stairs. If getting off the Titanic was like this, it was a wonder that any women and children survived at all. So much for "Women and children first" or "Be British, lads".

Anyway, we make the plane and a short time later we land. We have to undergo the insult of having to fill out a landing card as non EU persons and I have a short melt down at the people milling about (with those God Damn backpacks!!!) who can't figure out how to write their name in the space provided. But, finally we escape the crush and walk out to find our friendly driver ready and waiting. I was never so happy to see a black man.

If you ever need the name of a reliable chauffeur company in London, I will recommend these guys highly. They were the highlight of the trip for being friendly, on time, efficient and a relatively good value. As I was telling someone about the trip, he said, "So, the water taxi was about the same cost as the airline tickets." I realized he was right. The tickets were $125 each way per person! The water taxi was $100. Go figure. I guess I gotta join the Venice water taxi union. If you go to Venice, bring Vaseline.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Monopolies and Gondoliers

So we both are back safely in the hotel and my star is not shining real bright. But after a short rest and a cool down, creeping hunger drives us out into the maze again. Good luck trying to find a restaurant based upon their address. And there is no way we are going to the hotel or any other of the three Westin Luxury Collection hotels in Venice. We start walking in the direction we know (it's night and I no longer can use the sun as a navigation tool) which is the Rialto Bridge. We arrive there pretty quickly because (1) the crowds are smaller and (2) we're not shopping. Anyway, we found another restaurant on the Grand Canal and had an enjoyable meal at a reasonable price. We stroll back to the hotel. As we pass through the square there are two dueling string quartets playing on opposite sides. Several people who don't want to pay $20 for a drink for the privilege to sit at a cafe table are sitting on the stones that make up the pavement. A pavement which is covered in pigeon excrement! I is astounded but I guess some people are so enamored by the beauty of Venice that they don't mind sitting in pigeon shit. We return to the hotel and turn in only to find that we both have so many aches from walking all day that we can't sleep and the air conditioning in the room was definitely not designed for 100 degree ambient temperatures.

After a fitfull night my wife states that she wants to go home (meaning London). By now I am an experienced Venice tourist and I head out to find a cafe where I can buy coffee and by-pass the hotel mafia. They only serve take out coffee in thin plastic cups and I turn into a juggler trying to carry two cups of coffee and a cup of warm milk back to room. But I do it. We now decide to try to get an earlier flight out of town. There is no EasyJet telephone number on the travel information card. There is no phone book in the room. No problem. The concierge will help! I call. His "help" is to suggest I call the operator and they will give me the number. I do that. I get a recording in Italian that I figure is telling me that the office is closed and the office hours are.....Second attempt is to bring the damsel to the concierge, look worried and tell him we have a "situation" and need to get back earlier. He finally pulls up the EasyJet web site to scan the schedule and finds that there is only one flight. OK, we're stuck and we have to deal with it.

When in doubt, eat. Meanwhile, my wife has discovered the store in the hotel where at least the girl behind the counter is friendly and helpful. We decide to go back to our cafe at Rialto Bridge where we are welcomed with open arms and complimentary drinks and cookies for desert. OK, Venice may not be all bad. Some of the people are nice. While we are eating, My wife had a slight urge to take a gondola ride. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped to eavesdrop on a couple that were negotiating with one of the gondoliers. 118 euros for 30 minutes! These guys have a hell of a union. Hookers don't get paid as much! That quells the interest in the gondola. We got pictures and that's good enough.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lost in Venice

So we had breakfast and are now ready to explore beautiful Venice. The hotel told us to check with the concierge and he would give us a map and directions. He does..and he also offers a complimentary water taxi ride to the island of Murano where they make glass. My wife always wanted to go there so this is good. It also happens to be the Venice equivalent of the get a free meal and listen to a condo sales pitch game. But it was low pressure and enjoyable and my wife was able to buy some Christmas presents and we got to ride through the canals.

The water taxi drops us off in front of the Piazza San Marco. We look at the beautiful buildings. We see the bell tower. We see the Bridge of Sighs. We see the Doges Palace. We see the pigeons. We see the pigeon shit! People feed the birds so they make more shit. We look at the long lines waiting to get into the cathedral. We feel the heat. Even living in New Orleans doesn't prepare you for this kind of heat. It makes you want to change clothes after 5 minutes. Arid Extra Dry was never tested in Venice. Anyway, we wander off in the general direction of the Rialto Bridge. I say general because there are no straight routes to anywhere. Once you get out of the piazza, it's like walking in a maze. The buildings are 50' high and you can't see but 20' in front of you. You have to look for arrows painted on the buildings to guide you to a landmark. Then, if you are good, you get within hand grenade distance of where you want to be and can see it from the canal. You can't ask a taxi driver. There are none.

In addition, the maze has hazards along the way. These hazards take the form of every designer shop you would expect to see on Rodeo Drive. (Dolce and Gabbano, Bruno Magli, Versace, Prada......) So as we are trying to find our way, my wife is also ducking into these shops and disappearing on me. Thankfully she was wearing a big straw hat and she was easy to spot when she came out again.

So we get to Rialto Bridge. Beautiful! And look at all the shops! We found a nice little cafe at the foot of the bridge called "Al Busco". The food was very good, the prices reasonable, and they treated us very well. The only bad thing was that my wife got splashed on the leg (probably from a pigeon that was under our table near the water) and the water must have had some stinging critters in it because she developed an itchy rash that looked like a jelly fish sting. Lesson: don't dangle your hand in canals of Venice!

So it's shop, shop , shop all afternoon. As we get back to the Piazza San Marco, I want to pop over and get a picture of the Bridge of Sighs. My wife doesn't want to make the walk and says she'll head down the side of the square and meet me at the corner. BIG MISTAKE. Never split up! If you do, designate a landmark to meet. The "end of the square" isn't specific enough. But I'm delerious in the heat and not thinking straight and I head off to the Bridge of Sighs. Stop, shoot, got it, and I'm back in 10 minutes. I expect to find my wife strolling along window shopping. And she's wearing that big straw hat and nobody in Venice wears hats so she'll be easy to spot. Wrong. Get to the corner and no wife. OK, I'm thinking she headed in the direction of the hotel so I go after her trail. Through the alleys, I come to a small square with a bridge over a canal. I stand at the top of the bridge and do the indian lookout thing trying to see that damn hat. No joy. I now figure she decided to go to the hotel and get a cold $10 diet coke. So, if I go there, I'll either find her or I can at least dump all the stuff I'm carrying and travel fast and light as I go on the hunt for my wife. The room is empty. Dumping the stuff, I now back track my route like a good boy scout. What's that? A hat! Oops. There is one other woman wearing a straw hat and it isn't my wife. I work my way back to the square and as I scan the square what do I see but my wife waving the hat over her head like a flag. She is not a happy camper and the only thing I can say is why aren't you wearing the hat?

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Special Anniversary Trip

I was on a project in London and I brought my wife along. She wanted to visit Venice, Italy and as it was close to our 25th anniversary, I organized a weekend trip to Venice. Here's how it went.

Friday started off good. Our driver was early and he was correct in his 90 minute estimate to get to Stansted Airport. We arrived in plenty of time and went to check in. First surprise. EasyJet only allow 5 kilos of carryon baggage. My wife's bag was 8. So off we go to another line for checked baggage. The line moved quickly and we checked our bags. We found a restaurant and had dinner while we waited for our 5:55 PM flight. EasyJet is the Southwest Airlines of the UK only they don't have the organization. Boarding was a free for all but we got two seats together and refused to give up the aisle seat. One hour and 40 minutes later (9:05 PM local) we land at Marco Polo Airport after flying over the Italian Alps. Nobody told us that we should now start thinking in terms of Mexico time as it takes 30 minutes for our bags to hit the belt. So now it's off to get some Euros and find a way to the hotel. We find that the dock for water taxis is about a mile from the airport. The water taxi is 80 euros and takes 20 minutes. The vaporetti is much cheaper but takes an hour. No decision there for us. Off we go to a $100 boat ride! Things are a little hectic so they ask us if we would mind sharing the boat. No problem because we are nice people and the other people looked nice to. Now you would think that they cut the fare in half. No way! We got a 20 euro discount for the privilege. (These guys have a monopoly!)

We arrive at our hotel after a scenic night time trip through the canals and into the Grand Canal. Check in was smooth. The lobby is stunning. All is good. We drop the bags in the room and head to the bar to relax. We sit outside with a view of the Church of the Salute and a glass of wine. An Italian gigolo tries to get my wife to join him in singing. About 11:30 it's time to back to the room. We were hungry. The restaurant wasn't serving but there's always room service. I call 'em up only to find that most of the room service menu is not available (although the menu clearly states it should be!) We settle for two ham and cheese sandwiches and two diet cokes. They promised it would be there in 10 minutes. It was. It was also 44 euros! OK, they got me. Won't happen again!

We get up the next morning. The sun is out. The view of the roof of the building next door is just wonderful. I go to the bar to try to get a cup of coffee to bring some back to the room. (four star hotel but no in room coffee pot) "I'm sorry sir, you will need to call room service." Oh no! I've been to that rodeo and I ain't paying $20 for coffee. I try to venture outside the hotel. All I see is an empty square and the alleys leading out of look like a good way to get lost and I don't have any breadcrumbs. I return empty handed and we go down to breakfast.

We have a wonderful view of the Grand Canal and the gondolas. Very nice buffet breakfast but nothing spectacular. They don't even have a guy making omelets. But we enjoy the view and drink coffee and try to protect our plates from the marauding flocks of sparrows. My wife goes back to the room and I call for the check. 100 euros for 2 people. That's $60 for a mediocre fritatta and some bacon!

They did it to me again! And they didn't even use Vaseline!

Friday, June 6, 2008

D Day and DD Tanks

It wasn’t until I was middle aged that I realized I had an uncle that was on Omaha Beach on D Day. I knew I had an uncle that had been killed in the war but nobody ever talked about him. The reasons might have been long lasting grief or that they just didn’t know any details of his service. I happened to be home for a visit and at the some time I was reading Stephen Ambrose’s book on D Day. Someone mentioned that Uncle Philip had been in the 743rd Tank Battalion. Stephen Ambrose’s book had a diagram that showed the landing order of the assault units. The 743rd Tank Battalion was the lead unit, 10 minutes ahead of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division, on the right hand side of Omaha Beach opposite Vierville sur Mer. The beach assigned to his company, Company B, was code named Dog Green.

As I started doing research, I was surprised to find that little was discussed in the popular literature about the 743rd Tank Battalion and their position in the assault on D Day. There was almost nothing about them in the exhibits in the World War II Museum in my own hometown of New Orleans. Yet they were a unique secret weapon that military planners relied upon very heavily for close infantry support. It seemed to me that more should be known about them.

The 743rd Tank Battalion was made up of modified Sherman tanks. The tanks were equipped with a double drive unit so that the engine could provide power to the tracks or to two propellers. The tank was also equipped with a canvass flotation shroud that was inflated using a small air compressor. Once erected, the canvass shroud would keep the tank afloat, barely. The idea was that the tanks would use their propellers to drive themselves on the beach. It was hoped that the tanks would look like innocuous rubber boats from the German perspective thereby giving them a big surprise when the tank was revealed. Their mission was to provide close in support to the infantry by engaging machine gun bunkers and other targets of opportunity.

There were two tank battalions on Omaha Beach that day: the 741st and the 743rd. Their orders were to launch from their LCT several miles out to sea and then proceed to the beach. The seas were still rough from the storm the day before. The 741st launched according to their orders and were quickly in a fight for survival against the sea. The tanks had about 1 foot of freeboard and the waves quickly overwhelmed the canvass shroud sending the 35 ton tanks to the bottom. This was observed by the LCT drivers carrying the 743rd. (How they learned of the situation of the 741st is not known. There may have been radio transmissions via tank radio alerting the 743rd to the problem.) The LCT driver made an on the spot decision to ignore orders and take the tanks all the way to the beach. His initiative may have saved many lives that day. (Recently declassified documents indicate that the decision to launch or not was up to the senior Army and Navy personnel on site)

My uncle survived D Day. Elements of his company went to Pont du Hoc to relieve the Rangers on June 9. I’m not sure, but I’d like to think he was part of that. Any letters he may have sent to the family regarding his experiences have been lost, if they ever existed. He was killed in Normandy on July 9 when his company was ambushed by tanks from the 2nd SS Panzer Division.

There is little documented about the independent tank battalions. There were approximately 37 of them in total including a couple of all black units. They were formed for the sole purpose of infantry support and were disbanded after the war. They were not stand alone units but were meant to be attached to infantry units as needed. Tank companies were split up and tanks were often out of contact with their company commander for weeks as they were shuttled between units. They could be fighting with different units on different days which gave them no time to develop coordination procedures with the unit they were fighting with. Ambrose discusses how unit cohesiveness was a key ingredient for building a soldier’s morale. Familiarity with the men you were fighting with gave the soldier a level of confidence as each man knew what the other would do. But Ambrose ignores how the combat vagabonds of the tank battalions coped with being separated from their command structure and shuttled between infantry units. They were dependent upon the kindness of the unit they were attached to for support. It must have been a lonely existence.

I have been to Normandy twice but could find no monument to either of the tank battalions that assaulted Omaha Beach that day, even though they were the first to land. There are almost no examples of DD tanks existing today even though it was considered to be an important secret weapon. (A couple of tanks from the 741st have been recovered and are on display at a museum in Port en Bessen, France. These still have the tubing for the inflation mechanism and pieces of the shroud on them.) And as I said earlier, the World War II Museum in New Orleans, our National WW II museum, has almost nothing about these unique units. Steel Victory: The Heroic Story of America's Independent Tank Battalions at War in Europe is a very good source of information regarding all the tank battalions. The View from the Turret: The 743rd Battalion During World War II is an excellent source for history about the 743rd. The 30th Division Association also has reprints of the unit history, Move Out, Verify.

The survivors of these units are passing from us quickly and a key piece of history will be lost with them. I hope this serves in some small way to keep their memory alive.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Petit Fours and the Four Rules

My wife and I had the Three Amigos (otherwise known as “The Grandsons”) out for lunch one day and the topic of conversation turned to a local specialty bakery. From there it turned to petit fours. As the bakery was known for special orders my wife asked, “Do you think anyone can just walk in and buy petit fours?”

“Of course, honey, we live in a right to own state. Anyone who is not a criminal can buy petit fours.” I replied.

The Three Amigos caught on right away that I was talking about the 2nd Amendment and offered their encouragement by agreeing with me “Yeah, Grandma, we have the right to own petit fours.”

“And if you don’t exercise those rights, you can lose them.” I continued.

The next thing we knew we were on the way to the petit four shop for 2 dozen of the sweet little morsels.

After making the purchase, I schooled the Three Amigos on the 4 Rules:

1) All petit fours are assumed to be loaded
2) Always point your petit four in a safe direction
3) Know the target for your petit four
4) Keep your fingers off the petit four until ready