Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Flowing Forward: A Technological Appendix for Postblogging August 1946, I.

(Edited 24 September 2016).

Robert Solo was a Professor of Economics at Michigan State University, East Lansing, for many years. His solid research and long publishing record has made him a famous, widely loved figure, in spite of showing some signs of being an arrogant young man, and and a wise and self-reflective old one.

Just kidding!

Apart from the odd little autobiography with which he decides to begin The Philosophy of Science and Economics (1991), this blurb, cut from the top full-text entry on the American wartime synthetic rubber programme in a Google Books search* is the best the Internet will do for me. An edition of Alexis de Tocqueville's Old Regime and Revolution is a higher hit on Google than the requested obituary when I search for "professor robert solo east michigan state obituary." Try searching for his titles, and Google quickly gives up on "Professor Robert Solo" and moves on to "Professor Robert Solow."

EDIT: After reading a paper on competition in the digital economy that laid out a strained argument about how it might pay a monopolistic search engine provider, for example, to deliberately degrade search results, I fired up Bing on my Surface. (It turns out that this was the first time I'd used Edge on it, and the "welcome" page was a bit  needy. Just saying, Redmond. . . ) Anyway, the first result for "Robert Solo Michigan State" is his 2011 obituary. (Which information admittedly now, or perhaps always, shows up in the first Google search item, although much less prominently.)

In the end, I guess that we can blame Professor Solo for choosng not to be named Higginbotham or writing a book about Zamboanga, as opposed to frontiers of technological progress, or accepting a tenured position at a univesity with a music school that holds solo performances. (Or he could be still alive in his late 90s.) It is certainly not his strong connection with unspeakably obscene ideas of the most perverse regions of the netherworld, such as [TRIGGER ALERT STOP WITH THE PRETTY PICTURE AND DON'T CLICK ON THE JUMP IF YOU HAVE PTSD AND STUFF LIKE THAT]
Image Search  result: "Robert Solo synthetic  rubber" (NSFW source)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Postblogging Technology, August 1946, I: Drones and Continuous Flow

Nakusp, Canada

My Dearest Reggie:

Well, your daughter-out-of-law is off to Hong-Kong, and you are stuck with me! Don't expect me to take this task up on a regular basis, though. Nor, I think, when I compare the volume of your replies to Grace's letters to mine, will you be disappointed to hear that.

I have your brief reply to my note about my own forthcoming trip, and I cannot imagine why you would be jealous of me! Remember those days around the fire, speculating about the joys and pleasures of the Leland Hotel, were we only allowed to be there, instead of blankets and saddles for pillows, out under the stars --when it was stars and not the rain? And now, just a few short years (give or take a half century) you are basking in its comforts, while I face the prospect of being crammed into a DC-4, on my way to Tokyo. Oh, I understand that you are bored with Nakusp and waiting for your final permission to return to Vancouver. But, believe me, flying across the Pacific is in no way a vacation. Even across continent is long enough that I've been tempted to ask the crew to bring a can opener to get me out of my seat on landing. Had I not been able to get such a good deal on those war-damaged C3s in the San Francisco auctions. . .

And now it is up to me to find an idle Pacific shipyard with the labour to get those horrid war-builds back into service. There is only one country we can turn to, and, of course, we can turn to it, though it shames me. So the admiral and Nanking and the memory of the kamikazes aside. . .  You know that I only do this for the good of the family. (I will at least make a detour to Seoul, but I am not hopeful.)

Hopefully, by the next letter, not only will James and Grace be back from their holiday, and free at last to make a home together, but Reggie will be in Santa Clara on furlough, and even some of our other far-flung clan. If you want to take a trip down, you can even stay on and attend Homecoming at the "junior college" as "Miss V.C.'s" escort! Wouldn't that have stuck in old Leland's craw? 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

We Are Gone Away to the Air, I: My American Cousin

(Check it out: new label. "Space Race." Expect a few more posts bearing this label between now and 2040 or so.)

My American cousin is a nice lady who runs a very nice bookshop in Boisie. My American Cousin is a sweet little '80s Canadian movie about someone's American cousin driving up from California on Highway 97 to stay with her family in the Okanagan town of Penticton back in the 50s. He's glamorous and has a nice car, and there's much coming of age.

It's a distillation of an icon and an age, in other words. "The Fifties." Those were days when everyone wanted to be an Americano. Days when Canadians associated Americans with cars, the open road and glamouor. Oh, so much glamour. It's not a real age, being vaguely defined as starting some time before Korea and ending with the last pop song that played on the radio before the first Beatles song.
(This is not that song, because it's not an actual song. But it is a hit of the era, it does play on the loop at my home store, and come on, the video's got the Gipper!)

The question is, how did this happen? The idea is that my American cousin happened on his own, because Americans like cars and "the fifties" were sunshiney days of infinite possibilities. (Insert mandatory comment about there never being a "the Fifties" for women and minorities.) We're willing to let the government be involved with the interstates, Eisenhower-era American government being weird like that, what with the A-bombs and the bomb shelters and all. Besides that, though, it[s all free enterprise.

This paternity test on "the Fifties" points the finger elsewhere. First, from the Land of the Lost, the scenery of a forgotten land. No, seriously, it's a forgotten land. 300 kilometers and more up and around the Great Bend of the Columbia, tracing the route of the old Astoria fur brigades, past abandoned gold rush towns. No-one lives, or drives, here anymore.

The Big Bend Highway, officially in use from 1940 to 1962, but drivable from at least 1932. The road follows the "big bend" of the Columbiaaround from  Revelstoke to Golden, a more-than-300km diversion trhough basically howling wildernss. Clearly people took it, or there wouldn't be postcards on sale in Banff. but there can't have been that many. It's possible, given the route's importance to the old Astoria fur brigades, that the people who did take it had family connections rather than some insane desire to drive to Banff from the west. Who knows?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Erik the Red Was An Eskimo: Some insect-Related Evidence

Whoever "Erik the Red," the apical ancestor of Bishops Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Brandur Saemundsson, fourth bishop of Holar, and namesake of so many places around Norse Greenland,* he was probably a Dorset Paleo-Eskimo.

Why? Start with this  view of the "Blair Witch Forest," as Kenowclimber calls it. (Well, not exactly, but it's the best picture.)

Kernowclimber: on the way up Mt. Nalumasortoq at the head of Tasermiut Fjord,  southwest Greenland.
The coastal waters off southern Greenland are usually crammed with ice in the springing of the year.  Landings down east, towards Cape Farewell, are better done from mid-July. If you want to go to Greenland in the early summer, you want to sail further north, to Nuuk. This is why Hans Egede, and Claus Paarss and for that matter Erik the Red, made their first landings there, and part of the reason that Nuuk has gone on to be the capital of modern Greenland. 

But while Erik the Red started at Nuuk, for some reason he made his settlement down east.  (Weather is cited as the reason, but, again, there is a reason Nuuk is the capital now.)

According to Ari the Wise's Book of the Icelanders, [1123/4], about twelve years before Olaf Trygvasson of Norway sent the Saxon priest, Thangbrand, to Iceland as a missionary, Erik led a fleet of ten chieftains in 25 ships from Iceland to Greenland. Eleven ships are lost to the ice, but the remaining 14 landed and took up at Brattahlid, Gardar, Hvalsey and Herjolfsnes, farm complexes in the Eastern Settlement --that is, in the far south and east of the west coast of Greenland. That would presumably include Klosterdalen, Kernowclimber's "Blair Witch Forest."

Erik and his fellow chieftains did not necessarily face dense, impenetrable scrub everywhere they landed. Graah describes finding natural meadow along the southeast coast as he proceeded north. However, this scrub ecology is the default state of the dry arable land of the Greenland littoral, and Nineteenth Century farmers often had to clear it to bring the old Nrse farms back into production. More importantly, Greenland's bogs like natural water meadows pretty much everywhere, produce luxuriant browse, and would have been convenient locations for opportunistic settlement.

Eriophorum (cottongrass); along with bog-bean the most striking native plant in Greenland bogs. It seems very unlikely, Ari the Wise aside, that either reindeer or Dorsets would ignore these habitats in the summers. By Rob Bendall, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30205024

The traditional assumption is that the Norse burned the dryland scrub on arrival. While this thesis is no longer archaeologically supported, burning is an obvious, if stupid, strategy for speeding up the land-taking. They might have done it, if they had arrived in a massive fleet all in one summer. Then, of course, they would have died, because burning wouldn't speed up the process enough. You cannot clear a far, build shelters, and take a hay crop in a single year. And even medieval Norse weren't dumb enough (actually,weren't dumb at all) to think that they could, an so sign on to the project.

It's not that the colonisation is impossible. Small numbers of homesteaders could not have settled on suitable wetlands and rely on store food for the first winter or two. They would take awful attrition from scurvy the first few years, as Egede and Paarss did, however. More likely, the astonishing success of the Mennonites underlines a successful strategy, which is to come in small numbers and rely on winter hunting and fishing to make up the ascorbic acid deficit in store food. For that to be possible, you probably need the support of congenial local hunters, as well, and so a store of trade goods, but given what historic Greenlanders were willing to trade for iron needles, that isn't much of a barrier. From there you could build up to a supply of hay, adult animals, storage space, a tradable surplus of cream and whey, and from there a labour surplus sufficient to make your way by spinning and weaving, as the Mennonites did.

Not that these observations are in any way limited to Greenland. That first winter is a problem with all stories of largescale initial "land-takings." Surviving the first winter in large numbers is a challenge because relying on store food leads to scurvy. A "rapid" landtaking is certainly allowed, but only at the rate at which cattle generations mature --so perhaps a generation or so.

And it only gets worse on closer inspection. Our picture of early Icelandic society is one with a shortage of timber, hence ships. (Otherwise, it is hard to salvage any sense from the story of Erik the Red's exile.) The availability of a fleet capable of carrying a thousand humans and their adult(!) animals contradicts this picture. Nothing daunted, Robert Ferguson acknowleddges the issues by first reporting all the details as straight up Wie es eigentlich gewesen, then observing that the 25 ships must have been heirlooms from the first settlement of Iceland, a century before. One can only imagine the recriminations back in Iceland when this fleet of painstakingly preserved heirlooms was thrown away in the Western ice --and wonder about the motivations of such such powerful and predominant chieftains.  

So I find this story unlikely. There is more. Ari's work, written at the behest of the  bishops of Skalholt and Holar, and, yes, quite possibly the same ones who claimed Erik the Red as an ancestor, is based on "the traditions of a small number of families, and expresses a clear ideological stance."[pdf, x] All stories about "landtakings" are intended to legitimate existing landholding families. Oral genealogy dating back past two centuries exists only to "maintain taboo," and it probably suffices to understand its ideological charge to point out that we haven't genealogies for the eleventh century Imperial German nobility of the Investitute Crisis of the era. The historians simply do not transmit this information, probably that it would make the self-interested motivations of all the main actors obvious. More, Ari edits the traditions of the landtaking he receives, at least if comparison with the Book of Settlement and the Christians' Saga is any evidence. Ari's intention is to consciously create a "myth of origins for the Icelanders involving migration over the sea and settlement in a 'promised' land." More particularly, it is a myth of origins for some of the prominent godar families who then monopolised both local power and parish livings. His narrative centres on Christian leaders appointed by Norwegian kings, and Norway becomes central to the narrative beyond any supportable reading of other texts. In the context of the conversion, the role of the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen is written out. Nor does Erik the Red enter the story accidentaly. His emigration makes Iceland centre instead of  periphery, source of, as well as destination of, migrations. The abandoned settlements of the skraelings in Greenland are consciously paralleled to the abandoned settlements of papars (Irish monks) in Iceland [xxv--vi], an approach that ought to be familiar from any of the numerous pre-modern historians who like the "migration" line. Formorians, Tyrrhenians, Tuniit --the function of the autochthone is either to vanish or to be the ancestors of the master race, hegemonically sprung from the soil. 

Is there an alternative explanation to a single large fleet in 985? Yes! The Mennonites! It is exactly like, as I keep saying, the establishment of small agricultural colonies, often by self-identified Scandinavians, and at other times by mainly Catholic missions, on the northwest coast of North America.

Oh, sure, Erik, you say: that's how it happened in your neck of the woods. But is there a reason, hopeless contrarianism aside, to move from "just asking questions" to a statement of fact?

Let's see.