Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Soldier From the Wars Returning: Recap, Part the Second, New Technology, New Jobs

So I don't like doing this, but I lost another writing weekend this week, this time to eldercare issues: I'm going to see if I can write both November tech blogs next week, because, you know, it's only Christmas. This week, because I cannot do anything substantial, again, I want to tackle some recappable issues. Without ruining immersion, it's hard to say more than that tackling postblogging from a contemporary, local perspective makes it hard to step back and say, "Oh, wow, look what I found out!" That can be a little tricky, and never less so than when I discovered Alvin Hanson, somehow transmogrified into "Richards Hansen" in my last recap.

By the way, for the vanishingly small number of readers of this blog who might have heard of, much less seen, the City of Kelowna, new retirement/recreation/medical care centre of the southern interior of British Columbia, the mad, out-of-control building along the highway will be memorable.

A little bit of local history: British Columbia is on the edge of development on this continent, and it has suffered some setbacks have left a very peculiar pattern on its landscapes. The First World War, and the perhaps not-entirely unrelated crash in copper prices left its mark on the countryside.

The crash of 1929 led to a fall in property values and incomes that left our cities more-less unbuilt for thirty years afterwards. The highway through Kelowna from W.A.C. Bennet's floating bridge north towards Vernon led, in my childhood, through neighbourhoods of tiny old bungalows on drainage ditches so wide as to be practically canals. Much further north, it went by an airport with a terminal building approximately the same size as a one-room schoolhouse. By my 20s, the open ditches were gone, but the airport was still the same size. Today, north of 50, I am beyond astonished by the expansion of the airport.

However, our route to the laser surgery outpatient clinic took us up  Sutherland, the next major traffic artery south of the highway:

It turns out that the bungalows aren't gone, and, although I hadn't the patience to find it on Google Streetview, one of the ditches is still there, too. The houses look to be ninety years old, and old Kelowna's canal-sized drainage ditches are still open, although no longer large enough to have boats moored in them. Having lost three days off this week to various ramifications of our ongoing demographic crisis (NB: Author's Opinion), I may be seeing ominous signs where there's nothing to see. That Kelowna's topsy turvy development along the highway strip has not penetrated three blocks in is one of those Ominous Signs. 

Alvin Hanson was right, we have a problem, we should fix it, and the key to fixing it is to be found in the economic history of the war and postwar era. Etc, etc. 

So. Hanson. To refresh everybody's memory, that was way back in 2012, about the time everyone else was rediscovering Hanson, with their own special emphasis, I discovered a guy who detected dire consequences to the ongoing demographic slowdown. That's my guy!Of course, the serious people have entirely different issues, turning on  and well before the Piketty Symposium at Crooked Timber disinterred Piketty's intellectual pedigree and discovered the line of thinking in economics that kept Hanson alive through the dark days of rapid progress and general prosperity that ended in about 1975 for reasons yet to be determined.

So it was easy to choose the topic for my second recap when I ran into Fortune's  article about the dismissal of Hanson from his position at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in September of 1945. I pay a lot of attention to Fortune in this series. Spoiler alert: the Communists are going to win a civil war in China over the next few years, and Fortune publisher Henry Luce is going to go kinda apeshit. I mean, he's a bit apeshit right now. He employs Whittaker Chambers, for Heaven's sake! But "losing China" is going to make him even more so. Luce was not, however, a particularly old-line conservative kind of Republican, so it is a little strange to see his flagship paper lauding the fresh new vocal stylings of one Frederick Hayek of Vienna, and goating about Hanson's exile. We do not, after all, in the fall of 1945, know that Hanson is going to turn out to be a Cassandra. 

Or did he? (Dunh-Dunh-Dunnh.) That's kind of the epiphany I had, way back in the fall of 2012: Maybe Hanson was prematurely correct. The worst kind of correct! Or maybe I'd already picked it  up from Larry Summers. I don't know, and I suspect my memory is giving me too much credit. Either way, the point is that Hanson's 1939 epiphany, and its 1945 denouement, was a perfect opportunity to talk about the economic situation in the United States facing the demobilised, returning veterans. But, of course, the "soldier from the wars returning" was also Hanson, headed out of the Federal Reserve to a well-deserved semi-retirement.

Yeah, yeah, too clever by half. The fall of 1945 belongs to the actual soldiers, so long away, actually being demobilised. Time's perorations are often mocked, and almost as often parodied, but there's something about the one where it talks about how, as summer turns to fall, the soldiers so recently and tumultously greeted in New York are looking anxiously around the next corner on bus, on train, on whatever, waiting for the familiar sight of their real home, and the lives that they are going to resume/rebuild.
I would not be a state trooper of the day for all the tea in China. "First responder" in 1945? Oh. My. God. Now let's throw in some bald tires and an undermaintained car, just because.
Well, I tear up, anyway.

So if you've followed the press clippings I've been posting, the Big Issue, on which Hanson will be proven right or wrong in 1946 is unemployment, and according to Hanson's critics, it will be down to runaway inflation, followed by a crash. [Insert trenchant social commentary on contemporary scene here].  The other concern, the one that exercised Fortune as recently as 1943, is a crisis of underconsumption. 

If you're as old as me, you may remember several books in which Frederick Pohl portrayed a future in which "planned obsolescence" and social pressure to consume had given way to an outright legal obligation to buy stuff to keep the economy going. It's a secondary theme in the book I'm linking to, but that's because the book is easier to google than the older short stories that made it explicit. 

Needless to say, Pohl's picture of people being legally mandated to buy a new living room set every year is not actually how a crisis of underconsumption works, but it does make for more trenchant social commentary than "rich people save too much OMG."  It also leads into what is an interesting thing to think about in the immediate postwar era, one I've already danced around, which is that there were more things to buy. 

Specifically, there were "new technologies." There is honestly a question of whether or not technical progress had stopped. When it surfaced in the last decade, it was formulated around what I still consider to be a provocative question: "What was the last brand new kitchen technology?" Various bloggers proceeded to run around with immersion heaters --and other stuff I guess?-- in an effort to figure out whether they were really as transformative as an old-timey microwave. 

Nowadays, it's all devolved into debates about whether Uber is going to change our lives. Yeah, yeah, computers are learning to think, or possibly drive. But where's the new microwave?

194Q? It was literally overrun with new "microwaves." Including the microwave, of course, although the microwave didn't really get going until the late 60s, as it turns out that the early ones had a habit of exploding if they were turned on while empty. Note also that I need my "Patent Troll" tag again to do justice to Litton's success in patenting microwave cooking in 1947. "LOL I got away with patenting the idea that blasting something with 1200kW of microwave radiation heats them up. Patent Office U R dum."

So, yeah, the "microwaves of 1946." Let's have a look! First, above all, television, which used to be a big thing before Netflix. You've already heard something about TV on this blog, and will hear more, the ongoing Canadian demographic crisis permitting. Here's the inevitable link to the "history" section of the Wikipedia article. It gets a bit past "first there was radar

And then, bam! There were bad 1950s TV shows. (Although the science is a lot more solid than Star Trek in the two minutes I could bear to watch.)

Buy Post Sugar Crisp! Also, watch Captain Video on this station. It's terrible television, but apparently you're supporting Jack Vance, amongst other early science fiction names with writing credits.

Technically, television has shown up here mainly as a problem in distribution. Television signals are shorter-ranged than radio, and the cost of producing a television show is higher than for an equivalent amount of radio programming, and can easily be much higher. Recall that Bing Crosby is, seventy years ago today, sitting out his contract with Columbia because the network refuses to budge in the issue of recording his show. Although there is no doubt that the CBS-to-be is concerned that the perceived lack of spontaneity in prerecorded broadcasts will hurt ratings, it has a reasonable argument that it is technically impractical to record this kind of radio show. We're at the threshold of even being able to record electronic entertainment, and we're forced to confront the need to distribute programming across the country! I really do intend to replace Aero Digest with Radio News in  my rotation, and in the first issue postblogged, you will find an article on microwave links. This is one way of showing Captain Video from coast-to-coast, albeit not the most important one. It establishes how much harder this is to implement than top-down Western Electric ads suggest; and also informs us that facsimile machines (seriously!) are a key complementary technology.  

I could go on: when we're talking about TV jobs for returning veterans, we're talking about something more than control rooms full of dials and buttons.

We're talking about scene dressers and makeup artists, stuntmen and studio musicians. Consuming technology turns out to be way more complicated than valves and antennae.

The same might be said about aviation. The aviation writers I report on think that civil aviation is worth talking about, but that making passenger airplanes is going to be a sideline to military aviation for years to come. True, of course, but military-industrial production is, I suspect, substitutable. The way people consume civil aviation is going to be important. Is it just an impression from a David Lodge novel, or is there an actual thing called "tourist studies" that focusses on just how much air vacations have changed us?

Given that, with British official civil aviation barrrelling towards the catastrophe of the Brabazon, a shout-out here to the one, absolutely, unambiguously successful postwar British  airliner:

Noise features as a feature in the experts' discussions of the future of passenger airliners, but who knew that when faced with the alternative of hanging between four Merlilns and four Darts, noise would be the only factor? The customer, he crazy. I suspect, when all the experts who know about this stuff have weighed in, noise and vibration will turn out to have been an important factor in pushing civil aviation into the jet age before the builders were really ready.

And, and . ., . Look, I'll be honest here. I'm wrapping this post up because it's Saturday, and I have to go to work. It is really, super-incomplete without a discussion of refrigeration, which at least I've talked about, and cybernetics, which I've farted around talking about. People consumed refrigeration much more than "cybernetics" in the late 1940s, but there's a whole Third Fleet's worth of returning veterans having nightmares about kamikazes right now. Their concerns are driving the computer age, in the form of automatic AA fire control directors, forward.

In the mean time, from Fortune, June of 1944, the cloudy future of milk fat:

“$275 million in Snacks” “US cheese eaters will get a little less cheese this year than they got in the depression year of 1932 –a mere 540 million lbs.” This is because their record production is largely taken up by the Army, Red Cross, etc. After the war, cheese will go from a dietary supplement (Americans ate no more than 6lbs/year per capita) to something rather more than that, if production totals hold. Moreoever, only 20% of the population ate 80% of the cheese, so broadening the base of consumpdtion also promises an expanded market. As a broad guideline, some Europeans eat four times that much; so could Americans. This is of course, unliukely. The business is not expanding on the basis of cheese becoming a staple, just a more important snack than it is now."

Americans eat far less cheese than Europeans: as a grocer, I'm going to suggest that, if you're one of those North American non-cheeseheads, you should give the Black Diamond and Cracker Barrel a by, and go try your deli cheese table. That being said, the salvation of the dairy industry turned out to be, of course, ice cream: the social and economic influences of refrigeration have barely begun to be teased out.

and they won't be further teased out here, because, again, going to work. 


  1. Some time ago, we knew a young lady from Kelowna. We nicknamed her forty foot Sandy, after the apparently no longer standing advertisement (forty foot Fred) for the Bedrock-themed amusement park.

  2. I remember that "roadside attraction." There was another one at Hope, down the road a (very long) way. There's a joke in there somewhere. . .
    And here's someone's home movie, from Youtube by someone who, unlike my family, actually stopped.