Monday, October 20, 2014

From Now On, No More Defeats: Until the Morning Sun

Kim Carnes in the heat of the Battle of Berlin. Victory for the men and women of the air defence command of the German land, defeat for Bomber Command going "crazy in the night." Under the winter moons, Bomber Command lost 2,690 men, another 1000 POWs, seven percent of all of Bomber Command's wartime casualties. On 30/31 March 1944, 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and nine Mosquitos (795 aircraft in total) were vectored on Nuremberg. Ninety-five were shot down. Air Chief Marshal Harris claimed that the losses were acceptable, and Max Hastings mistakenly echoes him, but, incredibly, it was not true. With the full effort of Britain's industrial might behind it, Bomber Command would have to give up its attack on Berlin because it was running out of planes in spite of a monthly output of 250 heavy bombers. That is an unimaginable production run for a heavy bomber both from the perspective of 1924 and of 2014, but it was not enough in 1944. Bomber Command flew shorter missions and enjoyed lighter losses through the spring and summer, gathered its strength, sand came back to "reap the whirlwind" in the Third Reich's last winter. Gloating over the failures of their own nation, a breed of British historians has relished the comparative success of the American daylight offensive, which apparently proves that Britain has too many public schools or something. (Jesus, guys, high school's over.) Actually, the American daylight formula would soon itself fail before the  falcons of Japan, and while I started this post with the thought that --somehow-- I could give a lapidary summary of the failure of airborne remote control gun defences in World War II, it seems like that might be a bit much here

In the heroic version of the myth of Curtis LeMay, it would be that incredibly young general officer, a man of "mixed French and English ancestry" out of a civil engineering  programme in the rusticated Old Northwest who would recognise that, in the special conditions of Japan only, and totally not in Germany, night area bombing was the right way forward for the B-29 force only. You will find the short discussion in the Wikipedia biography of LeMay. Essentially, area bombing was wrong in Europe, where the USAAF did not do it, and right in Japan, where it did do it. The "about face "executed by United States Strategic Bombing Survey says little good about its scholarship, and much about the need to revisit our assumptions. AA defences, and even somewhat less-than-efficient interceptors, in the end, worked --in daylight. It was losses that forced 20th Air Force into the arms of the night, not the wooden, conflagration-prone houses of Japan.  Ultimately, it was also about training hours. Bomber Command was as reluctant to embrace daylight flying in the summer of 1944 because its crews lacked training in formation flying. Eighth could never have shifted to a night bombing offensive in 1943 because it lacked night flying training, and its aircraft were not equipped for it.  Both problems were fixed, at least in the context of 20th Air Force, but a long prewar learning curve that ultimately taught that night bombing was an operational necessity because defences can't see at night is obscured. 

Enough of that, though. The long nights of winter have returned with the lonesome October. The winter-swollen Rhine carries its gold to the sea, and only the Combined Bomber Offensive can range beyond it. Germany will burn until Germans end this war. The boys who look down on the world from their planes that carry images of Hollywood starlets on their noses only want to go home, and Germany isn't letting them, so Germany must be punished. It is an impatient, angry and futile impulse. Germany will not surrender, not until enemy soldiers march into their hometown in a perverse catharsis, a black catharsis, of the wounded passions of 1918. On the other hand, the bombing is intended to stop factories and shut down railways, even if our eyes are fixed on more horrifying results.

On December 19, 1944, cut off on the High Fens in the Forest of Arden, where the old border runs between the Duchy of Luxembourg and the Prince-Archbisophric of Trier and the Wild- and Rhinegaviate of Salm, the 442nd and 443rd Regiments of U.S. 106th Infantry Division surrendered. Six thousand men passed into German captivity, including a former college student turned infantry private, Kurt Vonnegut. He was being held in underground meat cold storage facility Shlachthof Funf in the city of Dresden on 13 February of 1945, when the Combined Bombing Offensive united to destroy the main line of communications supporting the German forces which have just launched a dangerous counterattack against 1st Ukrainian Front's attack into Lower Silesia. Unable to form properly trained infantry cohorts after a long war's brutal casualties, the Red Army needs all the help it can get. 

Whether it needs the help described in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is another matter.  The novel, rich with the Zeitgeist of 1969 (the year after Curtis LeMay was defeated in his campaign for the Vice-Presidency for an avowedly segregationist third party) is, as I understand it, defensibly understood as the  autobiography of a man completely dislocated by the  experience of the destruction of the city of Dresden by fire in three raids between the nights of 13/14  and 15/16 February. (So cliched has Dresden become as an emblem of that horrifying winter that Max Hastings uses the attack on Darmstadt on 11/12 September in his Bomber Command. A great many Darmstadts add up to more than one Dresden.)

Before the pinnacle of his fame in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut had the usual struggling writer's career. A job as a technical writer at GE's upstate New York works provided the inspiration for his first novel, which was terrible, but still worth some attention, though not so terrible that it did not inspire a striking tattoo. (At least according to Google Search. I'm not sure I see the connection, but anyway...)

Taylor Public Library
Player Piano presents us with a portrait of technologically-driven unemployment in the world of  1950s conformity. Working at GE, Vonnegut heard about a new computerised numerically controlled milling machine that would replace the machinist who had formerly cut the elaborate shapes of the turbine rotors for GE's new jet engines, and jumped into a future where, in factory after factory, the experts came one day, recorded the motions of the expert machinists, and then replaced them with black boxes controlled by punch cards, In this future,  Illium, New York, is divided into neighbourhoods of unemployed, redundant labourers, and upper middle class managers and engineers, who live in a postwar, suburban paradise, because they have jobs. (But with a catch! Palate cleanser.) There's a revolution, as Random House promises, but it fizzles out, and also the Aga Khan talking to the giant computer in the Carlsbad Caverns that actually runs America, although my memory supplies few non-hazy details. It's been a while.

It's also technical nonsense. CNC milling machines do work, but without close supervision from actual machinists, they just produce "scrap at high speed." David Noble's account of the collapse of this first post-work utopia, might not be prophetic of future techno-utopian dreams, but he does underline the extent to which deskilling can turn out to be a social artefact. Who cares if you get rid of the actual machinists if you get rid of their job description and wages? 

As I said before, my first plan for this posting was going to go into detail on the automatic turret problem --which bears very directly on the CNC machine tool problem-- and contrast it with the other way of escorting bombers to their target, 100 Group's electronic warfare aircraft. That, I now think, is rather much as substance, even if it will do for peroration. Technology is doing, and most successful, to this point, in an agonistic setting, and new technology is emergent, not synthesised. That's an elaborate way of saying that when Bomber Command returned to the fight in the fall of 1944, it was with new weapons, forged in electronics workshops and wielded by 100 Group, and that these weapons were sufficient to carry the night bombers across Germany. It also goes to show that the "CNC" revolution that Vonnegut thought he recognised in 1952 was already being overtaken by a digital one, and that it is the"engineers and managers" of Illium, who dreamed of being promoted to Pittsburgh, who were on the verge of becoming obsolete, while the machinists who opened up the black boxes and reprogrammed them to work were glimpsing a future that would work. It is awesome, and there's probably some kind of social commentary here on how the apparent social stasis of the 1950s turned out to be the parent of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, and even that the most dangerous social moment of the era was not the conformity of suburbs (red-lining racism aside) but rather the moment when Revolution was socialised as a middle class lifestyle.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Techblogging September, 1944, I: Cohorts Gleaming in Purple and Gold

Wing Commander R_.C_., RCAFVR, D.F.C. (Bar),
L_. House,
Isle of Axholme,

Dear Sir:

Your beloved cousin being on the high seas and on his way to resume his old warrior's business of fixing machinery alongside in the fleet anchorage, it falls on your only daughter-in-law to take up the brush again and bring you news, of my house and others, of engineering and of business and of whatever stories Uncle George is following in the press out of his jaded years of experience, plus a little Hollywood gossip to brighten up your days in dank but green Old England.

Congratulations on your recent honour. Your service to your King is as appreciated as that to your clan, who miss you dearly. Included are letters from your sons, and photographic negatives. These are the expense of the poor courier, who complains that he must lie on the packet for eleven hours on the Atlantic crossing. He seems to me to deserve some sweetener for the hardship as the winter weather closes in again. 

Uncle George was in Pearl Harbour long enough to package and forward Fat Chow's apparatus, carried by an unexpected and welcome guest, of whom more in a moment. He enjoyed looking up old friends, some of whom he has not seen since 1918, and met with Felix to describe our plan. He has agreed, with some modifications, notably that he wants our "conversion" attached to his force, and since LCMs have not the speed, it turns out that after all the manoeuvring to be allowed to refit an LCM at the front, Uncle will be working on a submarine chaser, and young Tommy Wong will have a well-deserved promotion. I have obtained facilities from the Fathers to continue work on your apparatus, even if the "invention" must be done at the Front --or in Germany, see below-- to satisfy anyone worrying about official secrets.

Speaking of secrets, "Miss V.C." is full of herself, mysteries looming in her eyes as she finds the sordid --or romantic, as tastes may vary-- secrets of her family past. I look forward to my briefing when she returns from ransacking the family papers in the Couer d'Alene home on a flying weekend trip. Since hearing from you that our friend does indeed recall his grandfather saying that he came over to work on the Central Pacific, I have begun to wonder about that fortuitous document discovered in Sacramento, and have put in to the archives to have it recalled for me again. There is something suspicious going on here.

Finally, you will have heard, urgently, of Fat Chow's friend, Miss v. Q. It is perhaps not surprising at this late date that a  Foreign Office employee might find herself more congenially employed in private business well away from Berlin, and her parents' death last winter frees her from any connection apart from a cousin  too wrapped up in the death-agonies of the Reich for safety's sake. So she was free, and wanted to see Ferghana, and, Fat Chow tells me apologetically, speaks Russian like a native, greatly improving his chances of passing through the NKVD cordon in northern Persia. Whether she knew how much further she would end up travelling than Kashgar, and with whom, is another matter. She shot her arrow in the air, and where it came down could hardly be her concern! That said, she adjusted well to the Nagasaki connection and did more than her share, I am told. Fat Chow's enthusiasm tells me much (not least that my sister is fated to be disappointed, and that I must smooth matters over with Father.)

As for the Miss, I am going to create a legend (German-Dutch, East Indies internee, escape, I think), and find her employment. College teaching seems obvious, but her connexion with Fat Chow would seem to call for a more Bohemian environ than Santa Clara or Palo Alto. The death-stink of bombs falling on the crumbling masonry of Europe will be washed away by the Berkeley rains.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

On the Origins of the Education-Complex State

Boris Vallejo, paying the rent

This is not a complicated story. It at least seems clear that when you increase the market supply of a scarce commodity, you lower its price. Therefore, increasing the number of college graduates ought to push down the value of a college degree through the bargaining leverage of the "reserve army of the unemployed." Here are six footnotes aggregated over 20 minutes by Googling "X school scam." (1,2, 3456.) I was inspired to do this by Katie Zavadski, who decided last week that   "Pharmacy School Scam" would be a good lede for a New Republic article.  Otherwise I might have written about humanities graduate school, and that would not have been good for anyone.

Of my quickly assembled footnotes, only the last is really important, even if you might enjoy trolling through the same old answers, endlessly repeated. (There is no pharmacist surplus because so many pharmacists are working part time nowadays!) That last link is to "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage." Here I think I have some insight, as a historian of science and technology, and as a product of the STEM mill. (Not as an inadequate student, but as an anthropological observer. Like Bruno Latour.) Someone even tried to recruit me into what I now recognise in retrospect as a "quants" laundry off my department's matriculation list, way back in 1989. This is, in short, going to be a contribution to the origins of the "educational complex state," and not of the modern school scam, which is, in my opinion, part and parcel of how the educational complex state works today. So, sorry about that.

This is not to be construed as an admission that I could not say a great deal more, very specifically, about how it works today. I've somewhat whimsically linked to a private college that spams my Facebook feed above, but this is not a criticism of the idea of charging tuition to teach people to be electricians. I may think that this is the wrong way to go about it, but the social harm that I experience is indirect. The student loans that fund this kind of training may or may not pay off in the students future. Right now, they act as subsidies for entry level employers, who can get away with paying below-maintenance wages because the student, or, more often, their partner, is living off their student loans. But enough about how you can have a generalised labour shortage without wage inflation.* I've probably already said more than I can say out of work.

 What is open to be said here goes to my interests as a historian of science and technology. You will recognise the idea of the "Educational -Complex Statement" as a riff on President Eisenhower's "Farewell Address" to the nation, a speech whose actual contents seem to me questionable. 

The old Republican Marshal ("General of the Army," whatever) is worried about the federalisation of research and development and the rise of "a scientific-technological elite" who will dominate public policy with their scientific know-how. I am at a loss to understand how "know-how" is bad for public policy, even though I have seen the argument many, many times. Eisenhower just stands out in fearing "scientific-technical" elites. In previous eras, it might have been Confucian gentlemen, learned caids and ulamas and canon lawyers. For the purposes of this post, it is worth dwelling on the legendary "mandarin," who goes from Eton to Oxbridge to the Civil Service exams and then tries to manage the "white heat" of the modern industrial-technological state with his (of course) grasp of Greek and Latin tags. How absurd! And how absurd that President Eisenhower wanted to reject their technocratic replacements. The rhetoric is familiar, its content malleable, the blatant underlying theme is "Court versus Country," or "Ins" versus "Outs," stripped of the chummy English Settocentism. The insiders claim expertise, so you question the value of their expertise. But you have not been in the old Marshal's shoes, dealing with Curtis LeMay's nuclear planes and pre-emptive strikes that will leave the Earth uninhabitable but who cares because we'll all be living in the asteroid belt anyway. Eisenhower is backward looking and not mistaken. LeMay is borderline insane, but not entirely wrong, either. They are trying to make sense of the educational-complex state in its own terms, sensing that something is wrong without seeing where the intellectual bankruptcy actually lies. 

So we want to float in time, from, when bureaucrats were trained out of the fiqh, or the Five Classics, or Greek and Latin literature, or even out of Woolwich vice Camberly, and to, not the era of the technocratic elite, because that has never really come, but rather to that of the endemic "STEM shortage," and figure out what is actually going on.
Cranfield University. Source

Monday, September 29, 2014

Techblogging August 1944, II: To Sail Beneath the Saffron Flag

Fraternal Brother Liu Chu Wan!

Knowing of old how discretely you vet my cousin's correspondence. I implore your assistance. The matter of self-murder comes up several times in the letter which follows, and I fear my cousin's mood, as he will have heard of the first, the death of Admiral Moon.  There has been a fall in the American female suicide rate this year, which Time magazine attributes to nothing less than prosperity. I do not wish to infect my cousin with mad impulses, but I do believe that this anecdote will illuminate changes in the American mood, changes that confirm to me the odds of a postwar housing boom. The item is on a a separate page, if you deem it best to remove it, I would ask that word of it might be whispered in the ear of my cousin and lord.  

Your Loving Elder Brother, Tay Chao She

My Dearest Reggie:

Just a brief note to append here before I sail. I will left the household in Santa Clara bring you up to date. Sparrow is refit and ready to sail. Fat Chow will join us in Hawaii. As I have hinted several times, our orders take us to the Philippines as part of MacArthur's navy for a landing on Leyte preparatory to the taking of Luzon. The young people are proceeding south with Wong Lee, your youngest to begin his V-12 programme at the University of California, "Miss V.C." to enroll at Stanford, of all places.  She had a busy summer, even managing to reach Nootka, where I relented and had Joseph George take her under his wing and spin tales about the old blackbirding voyages up to Tsawatti. Combine that with Old Liu's tales of Chilcotin cattle drives and Columbia river barges, and she has the old "Red Route" from Whampoa to Spokane. Now she only needs the deeds, to know when and how the ranches along the way came into her family's ownership, to put the rest of the Nootka connection together. As far as I know, those do not exist outside Chicago, but that does not mean that she will not keep looking. 

I am sorry to divert you with my little game at this moment. I cannot, still, believe that I am sailing to war at my age, but all the arrangements have been made, and if the strain prove too much for me, there will at least be some poetic closure of a life spared by Japanese shrapnel so long ago. I am sentimental. 

I would prefer better.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Arnhem:To Make Free On the Land

The title announces Arnhem, the Dutch city where, seventy years ago today, the "Red Devils" of the 1st Airborne Division is slowly being ground down in close combat with 9th and 10th SS Armoured Divisions of II SS Armoured Corps, last encountered in its massive train convoy attempting a Frederican grand operational manoeuvre across the continent of Europe to counterattack and drive the Allies into the sea before the Russians notice that they are gone. The months intervening have not been kind to II SS Armoured Corps. They are currently taking out their frustrations on 1st Airborne.

The title lies: I am talking about XXX Corps' advance down a road, specifically, "Hell's Highway," the old Route 69, now Netherlands Motorway A50, and the post that this one looks back on is rather this very considerable "Technical Appendix." You may or may not notice that I cleaned up some typos this morning, but I also added a video to that post. And also here, so that Faye Wong can help us keep our feet on the dharma-path. (Remember that wisdom is like an orange. You cannot have juice unless you squeeze it.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Techblogging August 1944, I: Ancient Scandals

My Dearest Reggie:

The trip through the Oregon country was as wonderful as ever, although somewhat trying, in that Wong Lee and I were confined in close quarters with three teen-agers with considerably less patience with sweeping coastal vistas. Nor was the impatience much lessened by the experience of the sleepy pace here in Canada. Your youngest is amazed to see the way that time has stopped since he left! Ore perhaps he merely chafes under instructions to be circumspect in looking up old friends. Word is not likely to get back to the police, never mind the FBI or Border Patrol where it is not sought, but even so, I should hate to undo the work of his "midnight rebirth," and his American life will be the easier if there is never occasion to doubt his supposed American birth. 

Turning to your hospitality, I can only repeat my thanks, and apologise for the burden we impose on your wife, who has retired to your summer place on Bowen Island, as I am sure she will let you know. Fortunately, a few more days (and one more newsletter), and I shall be on my way to the South Seas, while Wong Lee adopts the role of teen-ager-wrangler-in-chief and chivvies the young ones back down the coast to California. 

If I can ask one more favour, could  you discretely seek out our friend and put some questions to  him? I distinctly recall him saying, on more than one occasion, that his grandfather came to the country to work on the railroad. Nor was he above the old joke, "Ching, Chang, Chong, the Old Names make the sound of the hammers," although careful to leave his own clan off the list. While I would not put it past the Old Man to lie to us in the matter, I am confident that Grandfather would have sought his own sureties in the matter of purging the relevant  records. Yet it seems certain now that our friend's employer believes that it has in its possession documentary evidence of our friend's grandfather's date of arrival in the country and racial origins. I know that you will regard this as a footling matter, but it is important to me that when discussions turn to breaking off the relationship, we have the upper hand, in the form of an offer to address their technical concerns, and not they, in the form of a breach of the morals clause of the employment contract. (If you are wondering about the fate of your "Christmas present," Bill and David have subcontracted the matter to a Santa Clara engineering student of the utmost discretion.)

Speaking of investigations, and morals concerns, you are correct that the fonds that I have directed "Miss V.C." towards in the Vancouver Archives are related to Old Liu, and, of course, the Honolulu arrests cannot go unmentioned, even after 39 years, as his family's continuing attempt to ignore their ancestor would anyways suggest. Yes, these are not matters that one wishes to discuss with an eighteen-year-old girl, and, yes, her mother's opinion of me can still go lower. However, they are also not a side of life that can be practically withheld from a young lady of her generation, what with the Andrews Sisters and burlesque dancers and worse on every radio and cinema screen. Old Lieu will introduce "Miss V.C." to the specific cargo that the whalers of the old McKee "triangle trade" brought in to Nootka, and the provision that was made to place that cargo on the trail and rails to Chicago. If she does not now think of the issue of the "Prince of Maquinna," it will be because she is diverted into the larger scandal, seeing in the fonds the connection to the Chinatown arrests that the family interest so promptly suppressed. 

And that, apart from the delicious scandal of it all, will, I imagine, bring her back to the rails and the connection with her grandfather on another line of inquiry. 

I suppose. Right now, she is asking for my assistance in reaching Nootka. Naught but disappointment awaits her inquiries there, as you had the good sense to move our landings to more congenial locations in anticipation of the Volstead Act, but I can hardly tell her that! 

As I rather expected, we have seen more of Lieutenant A. than one might have expected. His employment in Seattle seems none too onerous, and his attendance at Pearl Harbour scarcely required, as in practice if not in strict chain of command the refitting of the new flagship's radio arrangements is in other hands. Fortunately or not, it now appears that the young man will continue his remote association with it, too. That is, he will join Nimitz's family in Honolulu, rather than that of his admiral at sea, for the forthcoming campaign, with signals responsibility. It does not appear that military service is  necessarily that onerous if you choose your grandfathers adroitly. It rather makes me wonder how "Sink-Us" got his appointment!   

I do not ignore your inquiries about Fat Chow. We believe that he is going to reach Kashgar via Herat, and when we know more, we will let you know.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Electric City, VI: Royers Lock: Or, the Fall of Antwerp

It's been a long time since I wrote an addition to "The Electric City" series, and they're all old and crappy and digressive Also, this "tag" thing was then foreign to me. (1,2,3, 4). The intent, however, was from the first to build to this. Not the biggest and most important of electric cities, but the one that counted for the most at the critical turn towards modernity: Antwerp, and specifically, Royers Lock.