guns and butter
volume two

  > previous
  > next
  > archive
Coming in February

The next issue of Your Pocket Guide will present the very most pressing information about Smoke and Mirrors, and the long-promised Combinatorial Engine will be made available for your enjoyment. Additionally, a slender new section will appear in an out-of-the-way little corner, where the curious reader may discover Reviews of Things That Never Were. In the meantime, anticipate a brief delay as the editorial staff attends to some other matters.

Of Cannons, Clerks, and Capons

Enterprising young people of today, in the face of a depressed economy and the prospect of competing with your fellows over pathetic, enervating clerkships, I invite you to consider the novel and praiseworthy career of the human cannonball. The field offers both cunning engineering and a noble history, and there are more job openings now than ever before -- while the feat once was limited to a select few, technology and training have progressed to the point that all manner of independent agents have taken up the mantle. The Zacchini launching mechanism, once clothed in secrecy, is said to have been achieved by a burst of compressed air; nowadays, most ballistic aerialists prefer to use elastic bungee cords. The latter method is, as it happens, something a throwback to the earliest days of the art, for the very first human cannonball was the lovely young lady known as "Zazel," whose 1877 act was launched by means of an "elastic spring"-loaded catapult. Alas, Zazel's career was cut short when she missed her safety net and broke her back, after which she spent the rest of her life in a steel corset, unable to pursue further aerial adventures.

Note that humans are not the only creatures that may be propelled from cannons. The Federal Aviation Commission truly does require that every aircraft engine must pass a "bird ingestion" test, wherein dead birds of various sizes are shot at the engine to determine its avian tolerance. The Federal Aviation Regulation on this subject is such a masterpiece of form that I hardly know which excerpts to present here. Students of engineering should know, of course, that in performing bird ingestion tests,"the impact to the front of the engine from the single large bird and the single largest medium bird which can enter the inlet must be evaluated," but a true sense of the thoroughness and detail of this regulation is best conveyed in a slightly longer selection:

Medium bird engine tests shall be conducted so as to simulate a flock encounter, and will use the bird weights and quantities specified in Table 2. When only one bird is specified, that bird will be aimed at the engine core primary flow path; the other critical locations on the engine face area must be addressed, as necessary, by appropriate tests or analysis, or both. When two or more birds are specified in Table 2, the largest of those birds must be aimed at the engine core primary flow path, and a second bird must be aimed at the most critical exposed location on the first stage rotor blades. Any remaining birds must be evenly distributed over the engine face area.

Rest assured that the above is merely part (c)(2) of the section dealing with this exciting question of airworthiness, and that the entire section will amaze and delight the reader who goes so far as to read it for himself.

Mad Cows on Toast

If you are a safety-minded sort, you may already have wondered about your risk of contracting a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (that's mad cow disease to you) from your dairy products. You might anticipate that the answer depends upon where you live, as the legislation history is different in every country, and so the cutoff age for cows who might have been running about in earlier, devil-may-care times will vary accordingly. For example, the UK banned the use of ruminant proteins in the preparation of animal feed in 1988, and a bit later extended the legislation to prevent any offal or potentially-diseased tissue from entering any human or animal food chain--which is to say that you can't go to the grocer's and get calves' brains like you used to, but also that dubious animal bits can't be left about where the buzzards might get at them. 1998 UK legislation requires slaughtering any infected animal, including sheep and goats, and the EU took up similar sweeping regulations the same year. In the meantime, while countries without nasty outbreaks of TSEs haven't been inclined to ship in the goods from countries that have, they also tend to put off the preventative regulation until they get a scare of their own. However, you'll be happy to know that all these varying risks notwithstanding, the World Health Organization finds that there is no risk of transmitting TSEs through milk, so you may feel free to consume Danish, British, or American dairy products entirely free of concern that they may lead to your later development of uncomfortable holes in the brain.

A tangent: Naturally, Slate has chosen to run a story on TSEs on the very day I wrote this post. Isn't that always the way? In this article, David Plotz points out a few ways that TSE-related fear has made Europeans more wary of the European Union, as it highlights the the pitfalls of the EU's ultraconnectivity. He also gets a wee bit excessive in his characterization of Europe as a great big crowd of nail-biting Greens, saying that every culture gets the disease it deserves (mad cow disease being perfect for Europe because of the European anxiety over genetically modified foods and all that) and that "Europe is a continent of Naderites." Perhaps compared to some people...

To digress further, Plotz's article also mentions that at least one European insurer offers discounts to vegetarians. This reminded me of my immediate, if heartless, thoughts, upon reading the latest news story about Nathaniel Bar-Jonah, the Montana man accused of kidnapping and molesting several children, and eventually killing one and serving him to his neighbors. The dishing up of the victim is described in his diary in evocative phrases such as "little boy potpie" and "lunch is served on the patio with roasted child;" the guests, according to the New York Times, "commented that the meat in dishes he made for them tasted strange," and were told it was venison Bar-Jonah killed and dressed himself. My thought: You see, there's another excellent reason to be a vegetarian--no one will trick you into eating little boy meat.

Superguns to Space

Gerald Bull had a dream of a big, big gun. Though he never served in the military or even owned a handgun, this mild-mannered Canadian engineer was so attached to the haunting prospect of building an aerodynamically superior supergun that he worked for some of the world's most unpleasant regimes in pursuit of it. Along the way he served time for illegal arms dealing, was forced to emigrate to Belgium, convinced foreign powers to invest in an entirely new use for projectile weaponry, and generally supported his engineering habit by any means necessary until he was killed by Israeli assassins in 1990. You can read all about him and other engineers who died for their craft on John Redford's Doomed Engineers site, where you can also acquaint yourself with such luminaries as Mitrofan Nedelin, a Soviet rocket engineer who died of "Excessive devotion to schedule" and Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, who drowned himself in the English channel in response to harsh criticism in engineering journals--apparently his theories about how his engine worked were not as impressive as the invention itself--and losing control over how his engine was developed.

But what about the supergun? Ever since his involvement with CARDE (the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment) in the 1950s, Bull had been interested in the notion of a possible ballistic solution to supersonic aerodynamics for aircraft and missiles; that is, he wanted to develop a gigantic howitzer that could propel satellites into space or send aircraft or missiles thousands of miles into enemy territory. In 1962, he set up the High Altitude Research Program, a center funded by both Canada and the Pentagon for the study of big guns and high-altitude ballistics, where he could really get to work on his pet project. Alas, in a few years, the international political situation led the Canadian government to feel less enthusiastic about joint projects with the Pentagon, and HARP's funding was terminated. At this point, his research well underway, Bull was determined to continue his work. He managed to convert the HARP infrastructure into his personal corporation, the funding for which would come from consulting to any country that came a-calling, a list that would eventually include China, Chile, Libya, and South Africa.

Bull's driving interest in finding a market for his research contributed significantly to Iraq's position as a military power. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompting the Persian Gulf War, Iraq's arsonal included three hundred G-5 howitzers, all versions of a gun Bull developed in the 1970s; the G-5 delivers a standard 155mm howitzer shell, but also can fire chemical shells or a tactical nuclear warhead. Bull also designed advanced self-propelled artillery systems and modified missile warheads to extend the range of Iraq's Scud missiles. His real baby, however, was Project Babylon, where he hoped to finally realize his dream of designing a supergun that would a projectile into orbit; he had convinced Iraq that their only hope of becoming a true superpower was to launch their own satellites into space. Under this project, several superguns were constructed, including one that could potentially fire its projectile up to 1,000 kilometers. Bull seemed to be in the final leg of his lifelong project. The supergun, as Bull was developing it, was not particularly appropriate for combat situations, though it would be stratigically handy if it could be used for the satellite launches Bull had in mind. The Iraqis wanted something more immediately useful. In return for their support of the supergun, Iraq required Bull's help on a new long-range missile launcher.

Here Bull's story intersects with the US's own role in supplying arms to Iraq: in 1989, when the US Commerce Department approved an application by a Pennsylvania firm, Swanson Analysis Systems, to export ANSYS engineering software to Gerald Bull's Space Research Corporation (Bull was by then working out of Belgium); Swanson Analysis indicated in the application that SRC was a defense contractor and that the software would be used for analyzing artillery and satellites, but apparantly no one noticed that Iraq was one of SRC's clients. Whoops. With the computers and software in hand, the Iraqis were able to develop the Al Abid, a long-range, multi-stage missile launcher constructed out of Scud parts. Alas, while the supergun aroused minimal anxiety from Iraq's neighbors--Babylon weighed over 2,000 tons, so it was pretty much stuck in place, where it could be easily eliminated in time of need by a single air strike--Israel felt deeply threatened by Iraq's missile capabilities. After several months of sporadic warnings, Bull was killed in March 1990 by five shots to the back of the head; the general consensus is that the Mossad (perhaps in collaboration with other organizations) were the assassins. If this account of one engineer's tragic demise strikes you as excessively thrilleresque, by the way, you should probably avoid HBO's 1994 version of events, The Doomsday Gun, in which, according to a fan site, "The CIA and the British Secret Service join a lone Israeli Mossad agent in a tense, highly politicized effort to stop 'Babylon' from being built." Kevin Spacey is the "CIA agent with a heart," while the Mossad agent is played by Alan Arkin, of all people. Yow.

Butter? Parkaaaaay.

Commercials featuring a talking tub of Parkay margarine and its wacky tabletop arguments were introduced in 1973 and ran through the early 1980s, making them one of the longest-running television advertising campaigns ever. Perhaps the eventual demise of the campaign came in response to a series of studies--initiated through the work of Mary Enig, then a grad student at my own beloved University of Maryland--indicating that trans fats contribute to heart disease and cancer, contrary to recommendations of the 1973-1977 McGovern Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Butter contains about 4 percent trans-fatty acid, while most margarines contain about 31 percent. Parkay, on the other hand, contains up to 45 percent, a number that might make its manufacturers feel a little less cheerful about direct comparisons to butter. If trans fat made butter a blushworthy foil back in the eighties, however, nostalgia ruled the day a decade and a half later. In 1999 Parkay reintroduced the talking-tub series with an ad featuring Al Franken and a baked potato. Al's part in this adventure may be a post-postmodern statement about America, honesty, and the meaning of endorsements, depending who you ask. The talking potato, however, created by the same puppeteers who brought us the Budweiser frogs, has never been credited with any such lofty philosophical statements.

In the original run, the voice of the Parkay tub was portrayed by more than one performer: Michael Bell, the voice of Drew Pickles on Rugrats, was the original voice, and other voice talents who are advertised as having played that gig include Larry Moran, the Energizer Bunny Ad announcer, and Al Gates, heard in various places including spots for the Gore2000 campaign. This time around, Parkay ran a nationwide search, attracting more than 40,000 applicants for the position. At long last, they selected San Antonio morning radio personality Sonny Melendrez for the coveted position. I'd like to review all these performances personally, but it would be difficult to find the complete set, even given the local reference offerings. If I lived in L.A., I could go to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, where they have many of these classic commericals on videotape, but as it is, I can only piece together a sketch of the rich history of the trope.

A note: Interacting with the ConAgra site in the course of researching this topic reminds me of the time I spent working on a series of educational CDs that vast multinational food conglomerate put out for their meat distributor clients. The CDs were actually very well designed and impressive, for what they were: interactive collections of far more information than you ever imagined wanting to know about different cuts of meat, meat storage safety, serving suggestions ("This cut is suitable for roasting, grilling, and institutional use," the very deadpan and professional voiceover might advise), pricing schemes, and "fabrication," which is the industry term for just how a given cut of meat is removed from the dead animal as a whole. There were many Quicktime videos of white-coated men carving up large pieces of meat--this was for meat distributors, remember, the people who sell the meat to the people who only later cut it up into the pieces of the size that people take home. One of my tasks on the project was QA, which involved watching each video many times. It was a strange job for a vegetarian, and I wished many times that I was a video artist, that I might steal the material and do something fascinating with it.

A Calculator and a Gentleman

Before there were adding machines and electronic calculators, there were log tables and slide rules. Slide rules, as some readers may recall, are etched with a number of logarithmic scales, as well as trigonometric and other mathematical progressions. Calculations are performed by aligning points on one scale or another and reading the appropriate result; for example, to multiply two numbers, set the index of the "C" scale on one factor (that is, slide the rule itself to align the index point with your first factor), and move the cursor to the second factor, then read the product where the cursor falls on the "D" scale. Similar machinations allow the user to determine squares, square roots, cubes, cube roots, selected other powers and roots, measures in radians, sines and tangents, natural logs, and more, depending on the sophistication of the individual slide rule.

The precursor to all this scale-based calculation was Edmund Gunter's development of Gunter's Scale. His innovation was to contrive a physical arrangement of John Napier's recently-discovered logarithm that would assist in making navigational calculations. Gunter invented the sector, a mathematical instrument consisting of two hinged arms, one of which is engraved with a logarithmic scale in which the position of the numbers is proportional to their logarithms. The rule is also engraved with a scale of sines and tangents, while the opposing arm is engraved with two regular scales, the scale of inches (marked, as you might guess, in inches) and the scale of decimals (marked in tenths and hundredths of the total length of the rule). By making various measurements with the assistance of a pair of compasses, this instrument allows the user to multiply, divide, calculate plane angles, obtaining trigonometric functions, and so on.

This invention and its various uses for navigation, surveying, and astronomical calculation are detailed in Gunter's 1624 work Description and Use of the Sector, the Crosse-staffe and other Instruments. Later, William Oughtred would develop the innovation of putting the two rules together in a sliding orientation, eliminating the need for compasses, which were unwieldy and demanding of extremely fine manual dexterity, and furthermore tended to damage the scales with their sharp little points. I fear, however, that even the sharpest of compasses cannot compare to the prick of faint praise Gunter receives in the Galileo Project's Catalog of the Scientific Community: "Gunter is known as a competent but unoriginal mathematician, whose work was largely of a practical nature." Ouch.

What's in a Gunny Name

"Gun" purportedly derives from the woman's name Gunilda--"Gonne" for short. Then, as now, it was common to name weapons after women, and it seems that at least one seige engine (the precursor to the cannon) was named Gunilda; there is a recorded instance of a Cornish seige engine named the Domina Gunilda in 1330, and variations on the word gun first appear in the English record not long after. The name Gunilda is itself a variation on an Old Norse name, Gunnhildr, which is composed of two roots meaning, roughly, to strike or kill (gwhen) and war (hildr), making it a particularly appropriate choice for the occasion.

Ah, I hear you asking, but is it an appropriate name for the fruit of mine own loins? According to the numerological calculations of the Kabalarian Philosophy, a child named Gunilda is destined to the following fate:
Your first name of Gunilda has made you desire system and order and to progress step by step, yet you are taken into new experiences, turmoil, and change and rarely can you fully complete an undertaking to your satisfaction. You are extremely analytical and sometimes critical of both others and of yourself, and must guard against sarcastic speech and temper. At times you feel torn between your desire for system and order, and your need for change and new experiences. You do not accept new ideas readily and do not appreciate unsolicited advice. You tend to be impulsive and could attract accidents as a result. The opposing forces in your nature affect your nervous system, causing tension in the solar plexus, indigestion, ulcers, or growths, and moods of depression. You have not found the happiness nor the settled conditions you desire.

--not, it seems, the most salutary of blessings to wish on your little one, though it does make a suprisingly accurate character analysis for a firearm. Perhaps other names in the same family might suit you better. Gunhilds, for example, can expect to have an expressive, fun-loving nature, though they will be irresponsible regarding fiduciary matters. Gunhildas, on the other hand, the Kalabarians assure us, will be patient, meticulous, and constipated.

Buttery Co-op Wholesomeness

Land O'Lakes is a farmer's cooperative, and has been since its inception in 1921, back when it was still called the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association. (Its current name was chosen as the result of a 1924 contest; the winners, Mrs. E.B. Foss and Mr. George L. Swift, won $500 in gold.) A farmer's cooperative, as you can probably tell by the name, is a member-owned corperation made up of many private agricultural producers, from small family farms to large agribusinesses. Members actively participate in the decision-making and policy-setting processes,often through an elected board of directors; contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative, at least part of which is the common property of the group.

The Land O'Lakes cooperative is distinctive in its size and extended success, and it maintains quite a visible profile in agricultural-cooperative circles--quite properly, as one of the generally understood principles of the cooperative movement is a commitment to supporting cooperatives in general. Cooperatives and collectives often have difficulty sustaining their mission, as the social goals of the cooperative movement and the economic pressures of running a successful business can easily come into conflict, and leaders who are strongly dedicated to one may be less naturally adept at handling the other--an inbalance that can be equally unfortunate in either direction. (For an interesting discussion of the relationship between the philosophy of cooperation and the reality of operating a cooperative business, see Dr. Frank Groves' occasional paper "What is Cooperation?") Land O'Lakes is navigating these difficult issues very nicely, however, thank you, perhaps in part because of their rigorous self-auditing system. Every member of their Board of Directors regularly evaluates every other member on his or her performance in the following areas: attitude, priorities, honesty and trustworthiness, listening, politeness, preparedness for meetings, cooperation, acting as a team player, open-mindedness, respect, and responsiveness to change, which all certainly sound like rare enough qualities in a corporate executive to me. Unfortunately, the public record does not seem to indicate how the Land O'Lakes board members stack up, so I must leave the matter to the reader's imagination. I'm personally willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, if only because I'm so sentimental about 1920's-era labor collectivism.

Dairy Industry Scuttlebutt?

Keep up-to-date on butter prices through, where you can also find information on all the latest developments in dairy technology, policy, and business news. Perhaps, for example, you didn't have the leisure to attend this year's Wisconsin Dairy Products Association (WDPA) Cheese and Butter Evaluation Clinic. Fortunately for you, there's no need to remain ignorant of the many advances reported at that event:

Whey today can be found as an ingredient in a number of foods, [Kimberlee J. Burrington of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research] noted at last week's Wisconsin Dairy Products Association (WDPA) Cheese and Butter Evaluation Clinic here. The dairy industry's approach to whey has evolved over the years. At first, the industry "started out with this product and figured out how to get everything out of it, and then gradually figured out how to work some of those ingredients into food products," Burrington noted. When the whey industry started out, she continued, the mindset was, "Okay, we know how to make this, and there's got to be something that we can put this into. We can make it and we can make it cheap, so please somebody put this in their product."

The general-interest articles may not be quite as up-to-the-minute as a true devotee might desire, but for mere dabblers in the dairy arts, their topicality is entirely sufficient. (The "supplier news" section seems to be updated more regularly, so you can read the very latest press releases from, say, brine pump manufacturers.) For a more involved foray into related news, track the ins and outs of the now-resolved dispute between the US Department of Justice and the Dairy Farmers of America Inc. over the threat of excessive butter-production consolidation. Was the DOJ out of line? Was the butter industry in danger? You be the judge! Alternately, you can turn to a critique of the case from the small businessperson's point of view: the main point of contention is the validity of something called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a calculus used to determine whether a market is excessively concentrated; that is, when anti-trust considerations should come into play.

Gunpowder Remedies

Are you suffering from blood poisioning? Cure your boils, running sores, poisioned bites, poisioned cuts, sewer-gas poisioning, septic inflamation of the thumb, or blood-poisoning from earthquake dust with a simple preparation of ordinary black gunpowder, advises John Henry Clarke, M.D.'s 1915 pamphlet Gunpowder as a War Remedy. Clarke, it seems, was quite the controversial figure of his time: an early fascist and extremely vigorous crusader against "allopathic" medication (that is, traditional medicine, or, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, "a method of treating disease with remedies that produce effects different from those caused by the disease itself;" the term was invented by prominent early homeopath Samuel Hahnemann and adopted by many alternative practitioners as a descriptive term for medical theories and practices that don't fit into their chosen paradigm). However distasteful you may find his politics or his science, there's no denying the goofy pleasure of reading his prose. From such inarguable statements as "crude gunpowder is neither a convenient nor a pleasant remedy to take, though I have no authority for stating that it would not be efficacious" to anecdotes featuring an oddly rendered dialect of the underclass--

"Why, Harry," he exclaimed, " whatever are you eating? It looks like black cheese."

" No, master," was the reply, " that b'aint black cheese, but that is white cheese kivered with black gunpowder, and that's what keeps out the pison, that's what dew the trick - I never gets no pison."

--the pamphlet makes a quick and lively read for any student of munitions, the history of science, or squirrel bites.

Yak butter

The most perenially useful (or at least most-utilized) churned dairy emulsion must be yak butter. Tibet's terrain and climate may not provide its inhabitants with the most diverse natural resources, but those Tibetans know how to use what they've got. Tibetan nomads consume an average of 5-6 pounds of the stuff, generally in tea and the barley-flour porridge that is the main staple of their diet. But let's forget about the specifics of yak-butter cuisine for a moment, because it turns out that yak butter is far more ubiquitous than that.

Yak butter is a reliable, if pungent, lamp oil. As one may light a candle in devotion at church, so can worshippers at Tibetan monasteries and convents buy plastic bags of yak butter and add the contents to the lamps at the shrine. Yak butter as a fuel is not limited to religious contexts, mind you, by any means; a 1996 report from the US embassy in China expressed some concern about general reliance on the fat in question:

While solar electric energy is well established in China for well-to-do industrial customers, delivery of systems to poor, isolated house holds faces financial, equipment support and quality control challenges in Gansu and Tibet. A U.S. Department of Energy program in Gansu Province is addressing these challenges through revolving funds, training, engineering, testing and U.S. equipment. Prices of commercial systems in Qinghai are comparable to subsidizeded systems sold in Gansu, though quality may not be as good. By replacing yak butter as fuel, solar electric powered lights and solar powered satellite receivers not only will extend the teaching day in boarding schools in nomadic areas but also result in improved nutrition.

I'm not sure quite how the framer of this report expects the change to make a difference in general nutrition -- will there be more yak butter left over for eating, or will Tibetans be weaned from their reliance on it? In either case, what about the other non-food uses of yak butter? It seems to make an acceptable hair oil in the face of the prevailing harsh, dry weather, both for the locals and at least some Westerners trekking in the Himalayas, if not quite every member of that vigorous group. Most impressive of all, perhaps, are the traditional butter sculptures of traditional Tibetan ritual art. Like the better-known sand mandalas, they symbolize impermanence. Traditionally made for the new year and the Butter Festival (part of the "Monlam Chenmo" or Great Prayer Festival), they can be several stories high!

As far as the culinary pleasures of yak butter go, you can experience a pale imitation of it for yourself if you go to Tsampa, a nouveau-Tibetan restaurant in New York. But don't expect to find the real thing. As Yeshi Choden, the restaurant's owner, tells SoWhet Magazine,

SoWhet: Where do you get the yak butter?
Yeshi: There is no yak butter here.

previous volumes

Powered by Blogger