Archive for category America

American Institutions #7 : The FAA

‘Welcome aboard Southwest Flight 666 to Hell and Below. To operate your seatbelt, insert the metal tab into the buckle, and pull tight. It works just like every other seatbelt, and if you don’t know how to operate one, you probably shouldn’t be out in public unsupervised. In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a small child travelling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are travelling with two small children, decide now which one you love more.’

Whilst Americans are now totally aware of the many factors which can cause an


airplane to crash – e.g. Afghans OR Taliban OR Iranians OR Iraqis OR Cubans OR Communists OR Domestic Terrorists OR Africans

OR pilot error
OR computer failure
OR operator error
OR Air Traffic Control error / overload / meltdown (anywhere in the world)

... and those of you on the right of the aircraft, please look left!

OR weather balloons (military, civil, Mythbusters)
OR flocks of birds / skeins of geese
OR volcano ash
OR The Day After Tomorrow

What they might not know is that, all that aside, the ONLY thing stopping them from a fiery exothermic explosion

Isaac Newton produces a reaction

10 times worse than Napalm-with-fairy-liquid-extra-from-a-great-height type of death, is  an uneasy coalition of semi-proven British and Italian Science, to wit a “Law” of Newton and a “Principle” of  Bernoulli (you can tell which is which as Italians don’t have laws and the English don’t have principles)

The Law of Newton’s at work here (his third, for those of you who are sufficiently relaxed to count – or care), is what provides the forward thrust. It involves lots and lots of barely controlled exploding unstable chemicals, loosely directed towards the rear or the aircraft, which provide the action to which the forward thrust of the plane is the opposite (and equal, give or take), reaction. These explosions are courtesy of aviation “fuel” which is stored in those slightly curved longish structures left and right which are the only thing between you and an abject lesson in terminal velocity (remember the one with the cannonball  and the feather? – substitute fiery ball of molten metal and your head).


Of course, with all those pesky uneven surfaces between one place and another (rivers, mountains, freeways, cities etc.), some elevation is required. This is where the Italians come in. Those curved longish fuel tanks (a.k.a. “wings”),  are curved for a reason. The distance from the front of the wing to back is longer on the top (the curved bit) than the bottom, and if one thing travels a further distance than another in the same time, it follows that the first thing must be travelling at a faster speed. In this case, the first thing is the air above the wing, and the second is the air below it.

This causes a lower pressure region above the wing and a higher pressure below, which, in turn,  produces lift. There are other factors, but basically that’s it.

As scary as that may sound, the good news is that the science seems to hold good most of the time, and the laws of physics are more resilient than most laws you’ll fall foul of during the course of your day.

So there it is:  on the average flight all you’ll have to worry about are the drunken, bored, sensory+sleep deprived morons (the passengers), the fascist waitresses (‘Dinner’ – ‘What are my choices?’ ‘Yes or No’) excuse me hostesses excuse me “flight attendants”, the failed window-dressers who “like to pack” and the altogether too relaxed pilot  (‘Folks, we have reached our cruising altitude now, so I am going to switch the seat belt sign off. Feel free to move about as you wish, but please stay inside the plane till we land.’) …




.. and provided that none of the (vital) parts are non-genuine “economy” parts fitted by Big Mel in Manilla (or Seoul, or Mexico City or Toronto or …)

… and the navigation system wasn’t really designed by Microsoft …

… then

‘Thank you for flying Delta Business Express. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride and the next time you get the insane urge to go blasting through the skies in a pressurized metal tube, we hope you’ll think of us.’ .

I'm sure you'll be fine




American Institutions #4 : The Daily Planet

A Spanish Omelette

The root of all evil

The slide from the republican ideals of the Declaration of Independence picked up momentum in the dying years of the nineteenth century. After nearly eight decades of internal strife over the lost war with Britain (which resulted in the British shelling Washington), the first ‘hawks’ peeked over their broken eggshell and spied Spanish territory, there for the taking.

So it was then that, in the quest for a greater volume of newspaper sales, Randolf Hearst (“You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war”) manipulated the U.S. government towards a course of action that would take it and America first into WWI (the ‘WW’ in this case standing for Woodrow Wilson) and then (as the U.S. brokered peace came before the Germans had been defeated on the battlefield) into WWII to do battle with another mad-as-a-hat-stand media mogul.

communist jackboot

Nazi Jackboot

Unfortunately, by the time the Americans had figured out exactly where the war was (there was some recollection that it was “over there”) the Nazis weren’t the only power-drunk idealists on the continent. The Russians had got a (steel-tipped) toe-hold into Europe (and Asia come to that) and weren’t about to re-cross the Volga empty-handed, which left the new boys from America and Britain little choice but to bend-over at Yalta and leave the Poles, the Czechs, The Hungarians (not to mention the Estonians, the Latvians, the Ukrainians, the Georgians) to a fate that the rest of Europe had just spent had just spent 6 (and America 3) years fighting and dying for.
Still, having ruined their economies, their cities and wasted a good portion of their populations, no European Country was in a position to challenge America’s position at the head of the Western ‘alliance’ table (and neither would they ever be), so something good came out of it after all.

Of course those unlucky enough to live in those now suddenly communist countries of eastern europe, had to endure another 40 years of oppression, suppression, poverty, starvation, privation, torture and death, but at least America was OK (The war had even  jump-started the US economy out of the depression – something Britain would still be paying for 50 years later). So everything was hunky-dory there as well; of course Stalin was now be able to form an ‘Eastern Bloc’  and international communism was on a roll which would spark a cold war and a nuclear arms race that would nearly destroy the Earth on several occasions, but that’s a small price to pay for US supremacy, right?  No, no problem there at all.

So, no Randolf Hearst, no imperialist policies, no US involvement in WWI, no Hitler, no Yalta no international communism (probably no Vietnam), no nuclear arms race, no Ronald Reagan and no George Bush.

Just a peaceful, clean, beautiful, drug-free country with a high standard of living, good schools, first-class medical care and good relations with every other country in the world. Who the hell wants that?

(Tim Shreeve)


American Institutions #3 : The Theme Park

An absolutely true and complete history of Hawaii.

The Best Theme Park in America

Sometimes gambling comes up trumps. The Earl of Sandwich, being too engrossed in his game to leave the gaming table, ordered meat to be brought betwixt rounds of bread: hence the sandwich. When Captain Cook arrived at the Polynesian’s table he didn’t forget his manners and named all after the Earl. Captain Cook was later killed at Kona, coffee was planted in his honour (at least on his grave) and, with the addition of Spanish pineapples, ship-jumping Chinese and Tom Selleck, Hawaii was ready to go.

After some faffing around with local royalty, Hawaii eventually came to it’s senses and became an American state, supplying Macadamia nuts to every hotel in America worth a couple of stars, as well as a theme tune you just can’t get out of your head.

(Tim Shreeve)

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American Institutions #2 : The Racist

It has long been a mystery why this particular president has been so popular with black Americans. As well as being the very first Republican president, he was also definitively racist. Elucidating his thoughts on the future direction of American society, Mr. Lincoln informed a small group of educated black men that he considered all black people (free or enslaved) to be a pollution of American culture that should be forcibly expatriated to Guatemala (or somewhere similar recently acquired by America in the name of freedom).

Fortunately, a newly appointed White House correspondent (Mr. G Vidal) was there to record the (somewhat one-sided) exchange.

So Lincoln decides to invite three educated, free black men in to his office (oblivious to the fact that what he is about to say, that what, to him, is stating the obvious, what he fully expects to be their point of view as well as his, might, in actual fact be something of a nasty surprise) and what he explains is this: the black man has polluted american culture, the american way of life (wouldn’t you agree?) – being to no-one’s advantage (obviously) wouldn’t it (of course) be so much better if all black people were exported to somewhere more suitable (i.e. anywhere that was not here). Educated men such as yourselves could lead those who have not been so fortunate (education-wise, freedom-wise) … build, farm (do blacks have farming skills?), breed and what have you. Of course you’ve probably worked this out for yourselves so what I’m really doing here today is merely informing you that you can be sure that you’ll have my full support and , once the union, the republicans, the true americans have won this terrible war, then you (and all your kind) will be loaded on to ships (you’ll probably appreciate the expediency of this mode of transport) and taken to somewhere you can call home. Guatemala ok? Fine, ok then well if you’d like to pack …

… had it happened: no-one in the north to kill themselves in those nasty machines, no-one in the south with any farming skills

… so, yet again, a night out at the theatre proves to be the catalyst for the survival or destruction of an entire race (king kong was not so lucky).


American Institutions #1 : The Hooker

Although an able enough soldier in the field (when drunk), Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, spent more time in Washington on R&R than he did fighting the rebels.

In fact, so fond of the war-time salons were he and his

men,  the ladies of the night were renamed “hookers” – a moniker they’ve retained to this day.

Whilst the orgins of vampire hookers are less clear, it would seem that Vlad wasn’t the only one taken with impaling.

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You don’t read Raymond Chandler for the plots …

Setting the scene

We’re a big, rough, rich, wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organised crime is the price we pay for organisation.

The Places

The room was big, very big and everything about it was designed to make it seem bigger. When the visitor got the nod from the secretary, the sign on the door bade here enter and she edged her way toward it. When she was a step away from breaking an eyelash the door clicked open.

The sort of room where anything could happen except work.The houses on one side looked expensive and not new, the houses on the other side looked very new and still not cheap.

The Dames

She was wearing a white wool skirt, a burgundy silk blouse and a black velvet over-jacket with short sleeves. Her hair was a hot sunset. She wore a golden topaz bracelet and topaz ear-rings and a topaz dinner ring in the shape of a shield. Her fingernails matched her blouse exactly. It looked like it would take a couple of weeks to get her dressed.

She was drunk and not a very nice person sober.

She tried to sit in my lap and didn’t let the fact I was standing up stop her.

She has a heart of gold but it’s buried good and deep.

From 30 feet away she looked like class; from 10 feet away she looked like somethingmade up to look good at 30 feet.

Neither of them commented on my entrance although only one of them was dead.
He’ll get used to you. He’ll probably have to.

The Bad Guys

He had a sort of dry musty smell, like a fairly clean chinaman.

… and he looked liked he robbed gas stations to get his heart started in the morning.

… he looked like he’s just come from a funeral and he was the corpse

… He looked as though it would cost a thousand bucks to shake hands with him

The Peeper

I’m 33 years old. I went to college once and can speak English if there’s any demand for it.

I left the room, leaving his mouth open.

Remind me to laugh on my day off.

The ones (girls) I’d like to maybe marry – well, I haven’t what they need. The others you don’t have to marry. You just seduce them – if they don’t beat you to it.

On the way out I caught sight of my face in the mirror. I looked as though I’d just decided to drive off a cliff.

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American Institutions #6 : Las Vegas

A Fertile Desert

Human beings may have been invented by water to transport it uphill, but when there’s a sea of money, water is quite capable of flowing uphill all by itself. The biggest and most famous sea of money is smack bang in the middle of the Nevada desert. Where else can you witness a performing pack of rats, a living legend, a mob execution and a nuclear test, whilst watching your life float away on a river of craps, slots and venereal disease. Viva Las Vegas.

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A Double Date with Death

As the needle went in, he felt a release. Although the effect of the drug wasn’t instantaneous, the bolt was now shot (so as to speak) and he could stop worrying about being interrupted. His wife had been as good as her word, and he felt her hand on his cheek. Although he could no longer see (he’d been blind for some time), he knew well enough what his wife looked like, felt like, smelt like. He waited for the onset of the drug. He had managed to transcend the pain and had finally managed to accept what was about to happen to him – that he would be no more. That had been the hardest thing to accept, dying being the most selfish, egocentric thing that’s likely to happen to anyone. He had managed to accept it with enough grace (he thought): he had resisted killing someone (a temptation he hadn’t anticipated) and was happy that he would end his life in a dignified fashion,  in a manner of his choosing. As recently as a few days ago he had been able to take solace in the fact that his books would survive him but now all he cared about was another tomorrow. As the drug cut in, he drifted off … off to a jungle full of screams, full of fire, full of death … a vision of a child running towards him, her back on fire … and then a shot – and more books, lots of books.

[Tim Shreeve]



American Institutions #5 : The Statue of Liberty

War & Pieces – Liberty New York Style

In a single hundred year period, France declared war on England six times. Each and every time they lost, horribly. They lost their ships, most of their colonies, the odd general and their king’s head. On the plus side they ended up with liberty (being freed from the French), equality (with other French people) and fraternity (position vacant).

So it was then, with a view to filling the undersubscribed position of fraternity, French head-hunters stretched their necks towards New York, the some-time capital of the conquerors of the British. To show how much they valued their own freedom from oppression (from themselves), the French proposed to present the former colonists with a symbol of liberty on the 100 year anniversay of American independence. (As liberty has always needed something to stand on, the French first prevailed on the Americans to construct a suitable set of shoulders.) As further evidence of their seriousness of intent, the French then set about raising the money for the monument by means of “entertainment”, a prize fight and a lottery.

In 1886 the statue arrived in New York harbour, in 350 individual pieces, ten years late. Thus it was that as 4000 people looked on (the first reality show), liberty in the United States of America was assembled from a jigsaw of many parts, before being retired to it’s own island as a hollow tourist attraction.

[Tim Shreeve]

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