Friday, July 29, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, VII: A Sea of Islands?

This is a song of my parent's generation, dating to a time when Canada's interaction with Newfoundland and Labrador was rather more offensively colonialist than it is now. The version, or perhaps phantasm, that sticks in my mind from those days is rather different from that of Great Big Sea. According to errant memory, it borrows some of the lyrics of "Spanish Ladies," as well as the tune. (Not that I can find a version of "Spanish Ladies" on Youtube, either.)

Let's just imagine someone, somewhere, singing about a "true Newfoundlander's" voyage ending when he struck soundings off Penzance. Because there was a time when the Newfoundland fleet did aim for the mouth of the channel, and find it, and journey's end, by feeling their way across the shoaling European continental shelf with lead and sinker. That's an old time sailor, with a map of the geography of the sea in his head, of plains of gravel and sand, of dangerous shoals --and a vast wilderness, where the leadsman shouts, "No bottom!"

This wilderness.

Medieval churchmen, of a certain breed, sought God in the wilderness. It's a search that is a great deal easier to prosecute with places to stop. That's a point often made of Saint Brendan's voyages to the Isles of the Blessed, and is an insight that could be applied more closely to both the story of Vinland and early accounts of Plymouth Colony.

This is supposed to be Google Maps satellite view of actual islands in the wilderness. Actually, I've zoomed out far enough that  it's pretty much a Mercator perspective. An actual satellite view doesn't tell us very much. There the Azores are, covering a great deal of sea in extent (600 km northwest by southeast), if not land area (2306 km2), but still out there, all alone. They are not closer than 1500km from the nearest European landfall, in Portugal. The Wikipedia article implies that they are even further from the American continent. The westernmost point in the archipelago, it suggests, is 3880 km from the New World.

 This isn't true, although the Mercadian distortion makes it very difficult to see it. The capital of the 205 square-kilometre northwesternmost island of the Azores, Flores, is at 39° 27′ 18″ N, 31° 7′ 53″ W. Cape Farewell, Greenland, is at 59° 46′ 23″ N, 43° 55′ 21″ W; St. John's, Newfoundland, is at 47° 34′ 3″ N, 52° 42′ 26″ W; and Sable Island, Nova Scotia, is at 43° 57′ 0″ N, 59° 54′ 57″ W. I'd plug these coordinates into a Great Circle Distance calculator for you, but the one I found is giving me those old unhelpful-error-message-make-me-scream-at-the-screen-in-rage blues. Let's just say that it's about 2200km from Saint John's, and let it go at that. The American continent runs southwest-by-northeast, and on the right course, the Azores are half way to the New World.

Parry's "leapfrog" argument is that the Atlantic islands presented themselves to the Portuguese as a series of highly lucrative settlement opportunities. The intersection of politics and trade explains why Portugal jumped into the business in the middle years of the 1400s, and the broad implication is that a self-reinforcing cycle of investment-return-investment explains why they continued in it. Depending on whose claim we take seriously, the sea of business might have begun to wash up on Flores as early as 1451, but we find Columbus' future mother-in-law subletting the island to a Flemish entrepeneur in 1479 in contemporary documents that provide us with a more certain historical starting point.

After all, this version has Columbus in it. We're getting to the New World now, for sure. And we're already half way! Isn't this the logical place from which to discover the Americas?

The traditional sailor's explanation for what happens next is that the winds were wrong. And while sailors can be unreliable witnesses, prone to confabulation in the service of a good story, they aren't wrong about this. Columbus eventually set out from the Canaries (or succeeded because he set out from the Canaries) with a commission from the Castilians, rather from the Azores, because of the winds. Dom Henrique's failure to conquer the Canaries cost Portugal the New World, leaving it with "only" India and Brazil. That's quite the Age of the Renaissance fail, Portuguese player.

So, the winds. Here's that global trade wind system again, per Wikipedia:

Unless you want to laboriously beat your way against the winds, you want to sail west south of 30, and east north of 35 degrees north latitude. The Azores lie in the "horse latitudes" of "variable winds mixed with calm." That actually explains why they were discovered so early. Sailors headed there weren't blown east and away from them, or west and out to sea in a way that would send them beating back to land at first opportunity.

But hold on there for a moment. These are coordinates that apply to the sea. Let's track them onto land for a second. Cape Bojador, traditional ne plus ultra on the southward track around Africa lies at 26° 8′ 0″ N, 14° 30′ 0″ W. New York, we're occasionally told, is virtually the same latitude as Rome. That means that Charleston is south of Morocco, while London lies at 51 degrees north, in the same latitude as Labrador.

I don't think we absorb this fact as well as we ought. For all the talk of the distorting effect of the Mercator projection, it is this modification that really informs our understanding of the world. Like is grouped with like, so north Europe must be in the same latitude as the old Union.

Well, fine; apart from the occasional frustration of explaining to the old "it's all about clocks" folks that the experience of dawn and sunset in old Europe was very different from that in New York or Toronto or Los Angeles, I can't see the harm of forgetting this point.* Until it comes to the point that, in historic times, if you wanted to sail between the hemispheres, your route took you by the Barbary Coast, certainly westbound, and perhaps eastbound, too. But I'm not at the point where I want to take that anywhere just yet. I just want to stand on Flores and look west and north.

*The point, such as it is, being that since early clocks were less accurate than just looking at the Sun, and since non-Europeans didn't go in for them, medieval Europeans must have embraced them/had them inflicted upon them as part of some vast cultural transformation. Which might even be true if the length of the solar hour didn't change at roughly one second/day in, say, London.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Innovation and Trolls: The Auld Alliance

My internet buddy Brett Holman was musing about counterfactual history today. Specifically, that one about steam engines in the Roman Empire, which, to be fair, sounds  reasonable and gets a great deal of play in science fiction. (I was going to find a few examples, but someone's gone to a great deal of the necessary effort already.)

But, well, this is the problem with counterfactuals. You like the ones you like, and you pitch a fit about the ones you don't. And, truly, the haggis is in the fire in this one. That's a reference to one of Star Trek's Lieutenant-Commander Montgomery Scott's more excessive stage-Scottish moments. Although there's probably complicated sociological reasons that we associate Scots with ship's engineers (I'll let you know if I ever extract something useful from my prosopographic sample  of Institution of Mechanical Engineers obituaries), a lot of it does come back to James Watt and the steam engine.

As the title suggests, I've got some issues here. By now any regular reader will suspect that I see Scotland and Scottishness as a Trojan Horse in many dimensions. So here's my take on what actually happened with the steam engine, in a season when we're talking about how we can never, never, raise tax rates, lest it do awful things, like stop innovation.

But first, some Nineteenth Century American music, as interpreted by a Star Fleet engineer played by an actual Irishman for someone with a Scottish name who fell for a Trojan horse.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Running Away to the Air, 5: Failing Forward

"Failing forward" is the process by which a complex line of technical development is often driven forward by failure. As we have seen in our rush into the new information age, competitive advantage often goes to firms that are willing to push forward through failed iterations (Google Buzz/Wave) until they get to something that works. (Google+, we're thinking?)* Sorting out the complicated process by which the RAF ended up fighting the Second World War with Hurricanes and Spitfires, as opposed to, say, Gloster F.5/34 or Martin-Baker MB. 2 gives us a historical context.

And, speaking of moronic, I've been bottling this up since the last Canadian federal election, which saw a brave attempt by the Liberal Party to make the former Liberal government's decision to buy the F-23 as Canada's next generation jet fighter into an election issue. Say what you will about Michael Ignatieff, but he never missed a chance to miss a chance, which is why Canada now has a Conservative majority government that will bloody well buy the F-23 (Edit: F-35, obviously) contract, unless, as is likely, but not guaranteed, to be the case, it ends up significantly more expensive than expected.

The problem here, as air forces keep pointing out, is that shortened production runs leads to more expensive planes. If only the politicians would just order more planes, they'd be relatively cheaper. Making this argument would be easier, though, if the planes actually did what politicians need them to do. Since this appears to be spreading peace and friendship through sufficiently protracted bombing campaigns, one can see why the F-23 currently has the inside track.

*Look, he's trying to add relevance!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, VI: Synchronous Waning and Salt Fish

On a September of 1408, at Hvalsey Farm in the East Settlement of Greenland, the Icelandic heiress, Sigrid Björnsdaughter married a family friend named Thorstein Olafsson who had come from Iceland to woo her. A short time later, Sigrid was Iceland-bound, leaving behind her an outpost too far, sinking into extinction.
Six years later, a massive fleet of Portuguese ships and chartered foreign vessels deposited an army of as many as 10,000 men before the fortified port of Ceuta on the Moroccan shore of the Straits of Gibraltar. The crusaders of Portugal were about to launch themselves into the first (overseas) imperialist morass. It's always darkest

Cardinal Biggles! Comic genius.

before the dawn, and we are looking here at the last star of night. Columbus, Luther, all that jazz, are about to come. A light born in  the observatories of the astronomers would lead an "Age of  Reconnaissance. as much as of Reformation.

All I'm missing now is the Renaissance! Hmm... "With one foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages, Petrarch saluted the Renaissance with the other." Sometimes, the old material is the best material.

Well, okay, but isn't there a rather trenchant criticism to be made here? As someone, perhaps Cohn, here, points out, it's recycling. The waning of the Middle Ages recycles Reformation-era arguments, which would be fine if they were a solid, however old, explanation for a clearly delineated trend. But that's not the case here. On the contrary, this is poetics all the way down, shaped in the trenches of Tudor political infighting. Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being separated from it. Poetics means an argument crafted to fit. Impressed by Bill McNeill's scientific take on epidemics? Teratology before it was science. Does a story of decline resonate for you? People like a good waning. Again, I'm seeing a heuristic that predates the evidence used for it today.
Whatever.  Cherry-picked evidence isn't necessarily wrong. Poetics can be recruited to support valid hypotheses. There's a bit of currently relevant politics in the enduring myth of the "Little Ice Age," but my only concern here is not to buy exogeneity-in-a-poke. No heroic inventions. No great men, just work of the hand.

Can I make it work? I don't have to, smarter men than I have done so, long ago. All I need to do is gild the lily with other recent work by historians who, unlike me, can afford to do primary source research. One of the many strengths of Parry's treatment of the "Reconnaissance" is that he gets rid of the whole "all of sudden" thing. Parry gives us an incremental picture,  and Peter Russell's (comparatively) recent biography of Prince Henry "the Navigator" gives it another dimension, so that the heroic age of Discovery was born in a fit of absence of mind; an accidental outcome of the capture of Ceuta. The advantage of this version is that the process is, at least as I see it, about the way that new work forces are recruited and learn new skills.

Again, so much is princes/entrepeneurs, so much the nurturing of a floating proletariat. The marriage, the tenants; the princes, the sailors.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, II, Part Two: Demand, Technology, and the Rise of the LBA States States.

On Thursday, I briefly considered a more accurate subtitle for this post:  "Or, Geebus, I didn't start writing this 'till 10, and I Have to go to work at 1:30." By the time I did go to work, I was well-launched into something overly-ambitious and underformed. I guess that there's an upside as well as a downside to installing Sid Meier's Colonization on your laptop. The downside is that you don't finish posts on schedule. The upside is that that gives you an opportunity to meditate and refine. And to consider really digging in and refining a hypothesis.

I'll start with excuses about discussing the Late Bronze Age collapse. (Apart from being ever-so-slowly at work on a history of the world). After all, I'm not an expert, and I put forward here is intended to be "provocative," (you know, like this) leaving the "masterly synthesis" to the experts. Why is this a live issue?

The (modern) problem, as I see it, is that the LBA yokes the idea of an Indo-European invasion to the idea that the collapse of early civilisations occurs due to exogenous factors. The connection was made during the earliest stages of "Indo-European studies"(lazily defined as German Romantics linking the newly discovered language family to the Trojan War, see, more laziness, Wikipedia here and the actually quite interestingly here.) That the battleaxe-waving, chariot-riding Indo-European barbarian persists after two centuries of research and revision, still as a hypothesis, looks like a case of conservation of a poetic image, although warm Imre Lakatos might defend it as legitimate science. I've been as rude and unpleasant as I can imagine on this subject, because I associate it with unfortunate political tendencies, sometimes expressed in a very unpleasant way, but that's just pique, and I have more substantive concerns that the "Indo-European invader" idea continues to associate race, language, and culture into an unravelable ball of bad ideas.

This is not an issue of scholarship. There's more than enough being done in academia here. It's an issue of art. Bad art can have consequences, as was pointed out long ago and in connection with this same construction. Modern nerd art has embraced these images and ideas, and the kind of academic attack being made on them will not move the modern practitioners of total art, computer game designers an inch. (See, I'm not just a crackpot historian. I'm also a crackpot cultural critic!) I feel that I can reach them where they live, and this post series will be an experiment in that. It will attempt a nerdly explanation for the LBA collapse.

And if I don't wear the cultural critic hat comfortably, I'm not alone in that.

We can't all be the Kinks.

 So now that I've got that off my chest I move on to the second point, which is that the LBA is perhaps our best example of a complete state system, as opposed to unitary state collapse. Intellectuals have had plenty of excuse to apply the idea of a colllapse in demand in the modern context. ("General glut?" Am I choosing my words correctly?)

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, II, Part One: "Nothing is more typical of an ancient civilisation than collapse."

I'm pretty sure that the blog post title  makes up a quote from this chapter of this book:
From, like this image, CUP.
Had I but world enough, and time, I'd track the exact citation down; but that isn't what this post is for. This post is for praising great men, specifically, Norman Yoffee, and throwing out some images. The hard work will be for later.

For now, I pretty much have to confine myself to pointing out the power of this observation. It tells us that the collapses of early historic civilisations are normal. We don't have to invoke either weather or Volkerwanderungen to explain them. We don't have to explain them because they're not interruptions in an ineluctable social evolution from simplicity to complexity, but rather semi-predictable hiccups along the way.

In this, they're like the business cycle, an analogy/identity that I've already tried out. But I want to push this a little further. Specifically, I want to build a complex, yet deceptively simple apparatus that will cross country and do important work. Like this one:

The closest thing to a sketch out of an old-time artillery cadet's workbook I could find: Thanks, Mr. Lovett!

And, yes, this is a complex apparatus for going places. I know that it doesn't look complex. That's probably why people ignore them a lot these days, as I can tell you from googling around far too  much this morning. Ah, well, someday, this book will be up on Google Books.

So why is this apparatus complex? The problem the designer is set is to build a wheeled device that will be yoked to a team of horses, dragged at the gallop across a rocky, rutted field, and repeatedly subjected to the recoil of a massive cannon. And before this can happen, it will be rolled long distances across country, possibly off-road, in all kinds of weather. Obviously it has to be as light as possible, but let's throw in the additional requirement that it be repairable at a field forge. (No trip-hammer forge for you!) And then we'l throw in the additional requirement that it has to be made of  bronze and wood, and put the date of the assignment back a few thousand years. No calculator or tables of mechanical properties for you. Heck, no drafting paper!

Now, it's also not a theoretical apparatus, but rather a pretty grounded technological practice: the Late Bronze Age chariot. But smarter people than I have shown how to dance back and forth across this gap. And while I quail before the idea of imitating them, I'm not assigning me the job. I'm giving it to the me-of-tomorrow. Eh. He's got all day.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fall of France, IV: The Armoured Division, IV: Covenanter? Really?

Two things about the Tank, Cruiser, A13, Mark III. First, it was the first British cruiser tank to get a name: Covenanter. Appropriately militant, an old British military tradition (optional cheese topping); and, lined up with "Cromwell," "Crusader," and "Churchill," good "triangulation," as the cool kids are saying. If you start with a Conservative ministry, you want to be making gestures towards the left. (I'll ignore the Cavalier. Everyone else does.)  This would ground zero of the conflation of the rise of evangelical Protestantism, science and engineering, old Liberalism, and the infantry arm as indices of progress.  Not to beat that drum too often, but I'm not entirely convinced. And it is, I'm just saying, probably the wrong way to go with a cruiser tank.

Second, the Covenanter is another of those British tanks to get a reputation as "the worst tank ever made." (Apologies to other worthy candidates.) Leading me to think that  some people don't know what that word means.