Saturday, August 17, 2019

Postblogging Technology, May 1949, II: Wedding Bells for Lili Marlene

R_. C_.,
Shaughnessy, Vancouver,

Dear Father:

The makeup dinner with Ronnie went well. Thanks again for your advice. I just sut up and listened to stories about being a for-real junior buyer and focussed on not saying anything about being a better fit for her than law. Not that that's true, anyway. She's sharp on patents, and the first to admit that she needs to learn it like a lawyer, which is good, because it calms my fears that she'll shoot off her mouth before she's ready. The New Look is dead, baby!

I'm not sure about the stinger about thinking about my career before I open my mouth. I'll be cursing your name when Wallace doesn't make me Chief of the Naval Staff in '53!

Okay, okay, shut up, discretion, valour. Speaking of, as you know, my first appointment is as a liaison with a reserve squadron that's somehow flying Neptunes. The real story is that we're working on flying with the "physics package." It turns out to be a lot more complicated than delivering a regular bomb. First of all, the packages are very, very cranky, and that's just the ones we are practicing with now, which have been used before. (Word to the wise.) The Neptunes are too small to drop regular physics packages, and we don't want to keep using the old ones. So new packages are likely to be even more cranky. 

Wow! You probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Probably for the best. Ahem. We need bombs that produce a lot more neutrons per unit weight, and the ideas for producing it tend to involve doctoring the atom bomb in flight. We're not actually worried about that right now, because it is all moonshine, but we are worried about "drop on discretion." It's a bit much to ask patrol bombers to press their attack against a fast carrier task force, and in practice the exercises we've flown have tended to produce early drops. It's hard to beat human nature, so instead we're looking at beating bomb nature by persuading them to cooperate with being dropped from angles and elevations that aren't fixed right into the firing mechanism. "Fuze," I guess you'd say, although there I go, committing treason again. (They're not actually fuzes.) 

So, anyway, for privacy's sake, we're flying out of Livermore Naval Air Station, which would practically be in the backyard if Grace were talking to me. I've seen a furtive James a few times, and, of course, Uncle George comes and goes as he bloody well pleases. Do you know what Uncle Henry is going to give Ronnie for her birthday? Spoiled! I've brought the old Indian out of the garage, although, frankly, it runs less than a turbocompound.   And leaks oil, too. Where are those silicon rubber gaskets now! (Oops, forgot to mention that in the Engineering roundup. Oh, well, old news, anyway.) 

Your Loving Son,

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Simulating the World: A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, May 1949, I

I'm on vacation in the third week of August, because that's what vacation is for. The schedule of my life therefore calls for the second part of postblogging May this week, followed by some harvesting of low-hanging fruit via the Technological Appendix series over the rest of the month, any book-writing being additional to a long-anticipated bike tour of the Kettle Valley railway right of way, now the Trans-Canada Designated Trans-Canada Bike Holiday For That-Kind-Of-Middle-Class-Person Route. I brunch, therefore I am. Own my authentic self, I say. 

Unfortunately, all of this rational planning reckoned without my employer's grand plan to deal with the fallout of its mass buyout of "high cost" labour. After twenty-one years of complete failure of "low cost" labour to materialise, it might be a bit much to expect trends to change during the worst labour shortage yet, but . . . Well, let's let Wile E. demonstrate:

Other jokes about my employer's labour situation involve the "everything's fine" dog, cars driving off cliffs, General Custer and the Titanic. The upshot is that, because our dairy manager decided to betray the company by having a baby this week, I'll be doing his job tonight and making the big overtime money instead of, I don't know, writing. 

Or sleeping. Sleeping's good, too. So here's some low-hanging fruit., beginning with HMS Amethyst, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Since this post is about Wassily Leontif's Project SCOOP and IBM's SSEC, that is, two obscure bits of the early history of computing that could benefit from a bit of light, talking about the Yangzi Incident is a bit of a stretch. Not, however, an impossible one, because there is some early computing history to the Black Swan-class, too, and also something to be said about communist revolutions and Fortune deciding to publish Louis Ridenour in May of 1949.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Postblogging Technology, May 1949, I: Scuttled


Dear Father:

Well, here I am, back at the epitomiser's desk, substituting for Ronnie because she has to do real work, and I am now just a full-time Navy flyboy, trying out the gadgets on the P2V, including a dust trap that we're hoping to scoop the Air Force with, when Ivan drops his bomb this summer. (At least, we assume that it'll be this summer. It's cold for bomb dropping in Russia in the winter!)

I have been told not to drop any bombs of my own in this letter. I hope that I have been obedient to my instructions, but my blood is boiling over Taft-Hartley repeal. It doesn't help that the business press has been doing a victory lap over it! I've tried telling Ronnie that this is what we get for electing Truman over Wallace, but she has been quite cool to that and perhaps I am pushing my luck. It's hard to believe that business is riding so high in the saddle, and even more so that it is being supported by the Southern bloc. It used to be that you could count on the Klan to at least have no time for Big Business! But now, it turns out that if you're going to fight civil rights, and you have to jettison the Popular Cause to do it, it is okay, because there is a better and higher Popular Cause called, "Keeping the Negro Down." Only they don't say "Negro."

Well, perhaps I should keep myself to myself for as long as I wear Air Force blue, says Ronnie. Given the career I've lined up for myself, it's thirty years out a captain, unless Navy air goes land-based.

Uncle George says that this is fine, because, as much money as the family has made on land already, there will be new vistas in the 1970s. San Francisco will need commuter suburbs on a new scale by then, and why not the West Side? Our alfalfa lands, covered with houses filled with industrious white-collar workers commuting over the mountains by high speed trains? What a vision!

My own vision, meanwhile, consists of the Navy accepting that aircraft carriers are dangerous and impractical contraptions that don't accomplish anything that patrol aviation can't do better. Which is why, perhaps with the optimisim of youth, I am not ruling out a flag in my future.

Your Loving Son,

(Looking in the wrong direction, Reggie)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Tinplate: An Inquiry for a Vacation Week

I should have taken a landscape portrait,
but it was before breakfast. 

Five weeks ago I went to visit my sister's family in Kamloops, and the familiar landscape of the Okanagan-Shushwap inspired me to respond to a reposting at Brad Delong's joint of some material from Pamela Crone's batshit  "Hagarism" controversy.

I can't say that the sources of ancient tin  have the same personal resonance for me, but the subject did come up over at Delong's, and I do feel that I have to issue a defence and expansion. I do not, personally, have strong opinions about where the ancients got their tin, but scholars I respect have arguments that are not getting their due. And given that the conversation is at an economical history blog, the fact that Niall Sharples ties tin to a "general glut" argument is germane, and ought to earn him some attention. 

It won't, of course, because he wrote a scholarly monograph about Social Relations in Later Prehistory and not some attention grabbing work of debatable generalisation, but all you can do is put it out there and hope it gets some attention.    

As you can see, a solid chunk of cassiterite is conspicuous and valuable in
its own right. By CarlesMillan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Eyes Have It: A Technological Appendix to Postblogging, April 1949

Two things from last month that are obviously much more interesting than Standard Telephone and Cable's version of that new American gizmo, the "transistor."* They are mercerisation, which is one of the more common, yet mysterious, ways of treating cotton textiles, and a complicated Barr and Stroud optical gadget that no-one would call a household device, but which is still interesting from the point of view of trying to understand how a machine can do what it does. I tell you, these "robots" and "automatic machinery" today!

(STC  led to Alam Blumlein, "inventor of stereo," commemorated at "historic Abbey Roads Studio)

And now the fold . . . 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Postblogging Technology, April 1949, II: Prelaxed

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

I can't express how grateful I am to  you, and how happy we all were to hear that you were all right after that call from Wong Lee. I hope that there were no Hakka-speaking FBI eavesdroppers, because even the unflappable Wong Lee . . . 

It is very hard to believe that at 74, Hoover is going to learn the sense that avoided him in his active career, but trying to hijack a peace meeting? Even if we weren't ready for it, it would have been a terrible idea! And now he will have to wear a hearing aid for the rest of his life. Even a tiny little Italian .25 makes a din in a small room! I know I still hear mine going off. What a terrible thing it is!

Perhaps, just perhaps, the ex-President will remember watching while our men bundled two bodies out of that hotel room, and examine his conscience. He could have had our treaty, with no dead men on his conscience, if he hadn't convinced himself that his dime store hoods could outdraw the men Great-Uncle trained. This is the trouble he gets into when there is no Soong standing at his side to supervise. 

At least it wasn't Dragon Tong men, so that the Soongs have to feel that they have lost face. Do we even know where Hoover got those mooks?

So now I am composing the kindest letter I can write to UBC now, explaining that I will be attending Stanford after all. I hope this doesn't cause trouble for you! 

I will be working at Magnin's as an assistant buyer this summer while Mrs. Stanley is taking her daughter around Europe, while Reggie's orders have been cut for Alameda, from where he will be flying a "hush hush" P2V with a filter trap to catch radioactive dust, rumblings being heard from behind the Iron Curtain again. (I wonder if there is a British Standards Specification for Curtains, Iron?) It is so wonderfully convenient for both of us. Reggie expects he will have plenty of time to write these letters over the summer. You can only sieve the North Pacific for Strontium 90 and whatnot for so long. 

Yours Sincerely,

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Postblogging Technology, April 1949, I: A Generation of Pearls

Hyde Park Hotel,
Tampa, Florida,

Dear Father:

This comes to you by the hand of Willie Yeoh, because he does a fine "Wa Yeoh," complete with a real Fu Manchu goatee and a kris that he really has used to dispatch a Japanese soldier and perhaps a rubber planter a time or two. More importantly, if he fails to intimidate, he has quite the trick for smuggling a .25 automatic into meetings like yours. If the other side does cause a breakdown in negotiations, Willie has ended them before. 

Uncle George will give you an oral briefing on our discoveries in respect to third parties that you might use one way or another. Suffice it to say that, as far as the ex-President goes, we found a ledger detailing the Hoover payments in Pegler's lawyer's office, but not whatever material Pegler was holding over him. We have a lively suspicion about where it might be, but none of us has the stomach to torture an eighty-year-old, or the granddaughter, who is probably holding them. She has three children under four!  I sincerely hope that you will be able to bluff Hoover into thinking that we are in some kind of "mutual destruction" situation. Uncle George's information, which obviously must be kept discrete, will perhaps create the impression that all of the blackmail archives are in our hands, and not a single self-destructive letter by a perverted old drunk. 

Yours Sincerely,

PS: I am feeling really uncomfortable about Mr. Flynn paying a blackmailer, as opposed to being in jail. Is there perhaps something that can be done?