Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Patent Trolls Again: High Temperature Steam, Boilers, and World War II.

If you follow the Admiralty's technological progress from Naval Estimate to Naval Estimate through the Nineteenth Century in the popular press, it's easy to end up making jokes about April Fool's Day and drunkard's walks. The Admiralty was always backwards, always conservative, always wrong. The forward looking inventor, like Galileo, can see what no-one else can see. And the Press, unlike the establishment, can see his point.

If you're a contrarian like me (and perhaps only like me), you end up itching to take the establishment's side. Because the innovators can be wrong. If you set up a process where the only way to escape the criticism is to indulge the critic's every whim until something goes transparently wrong, you get the capsizing of the HMS Captain. Who wants to pay a battleship and 500 lives to shut up one obstreperous inventor, much less sacrifice the eldest son of his main institutional patron to shut that man up? And yet, even after Captain went down, people continued to argue. No less a person than Baron Kelvin was called at the inquest, and proved Captain's recklessly dangerous design with numbers. And yet the matter continued to be controversial as long as anyone cared.

You think, you wish, that the gobs end up stopped. Two decades ago, the province of British Columbia dropped a godawful amount of money in a local shipyard for aluminum-hulled high speed catamaran  motor ferries. It was a transparent disaster in the making, complete with the provincial premier suing detractors.  (Wikipedia article.) By 2003, "the fast cats" were a bad memory. Yet a certain major national publisher,  bought a piece of high concept nonsense of the 1421 variety from one of the advisors that sold the premier on the fastcats and flogged it onto the market with great lashings of positive press. The press made a lot of money, the professionally-wrong author made a lot of money. A century from now, historians will have to listen to earnestly crazy people telling them that Francis Drake built a secret English colony on the inshore coast of Vancouver Island.

The professionally wrong can, and do, go on and on. 

I know. My outrage fails to  move you. These things happen. It's just that when Nathan Myhrvold raised his head in public again to babble about how we should respect innovators more, I can at least present a test case to refute the meta-argument.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Plantation of the Atlantic, XIV: Praying For a Pale

So Nathan Myhrvold is in the news again. (Well, Slate, anyway.) And this time the patent troll is arguing about how America just isn't nice enough to inventors. Mad? I'm mad. This happens when you scare governments into "pro-inventor" positions. Now, I'm not going to blog about Cowper Coles, now or next week. At least he had the grace to go down with the ship, and, more importantly, David McGee has already covered it. And if you can't get a copy of his unpublished dissertation, well, a little light on those who've neglected their responsibilities never hurts. I'll talk about something else next week.

First, Praying Towns.

If I had to summarise the conventional wisdom on "King Philip's War," the 1675--6 conflict memorialised by Increase Mather and Daniel Gookin, amongst others, it would be with something like this cut-and-paste from "Links: The International Journal of Socialist Renewal," on the theme of why Thanksgiving is actually bad, and you should feel guilty:

When this war ended, 600 European men, one-eleventh of the adult men of the New England Colonies, had been killed in battle. Hundreds of homes and 13 settlements had been wiped out. But the colonists won.
In their victory, the settlers launched an all-out genocide against the remaining Native people. The Massachusetts government offered 20 shillings bounty for every Indian scalp, and 40 shillings for every prisoner who could be sold into slavery. Soldiers were allowed to enslave any Indian woman or child under 14 they could capture. The “Praying Indians” who had converted to Christianity and fought on the side of the European troops were accused of shooting into the treetops during battles with “hostiles.” They were enslaved or killed. Other “peaceful” Indians of Dartmouth and Dover were invited to negotiate or seek refuge at trading posts–and were sold onto slave ships.
It is not known how many Indians were sold into slavery, but in this campaign, 500 enslaved Indians were shipped from Plymouth alone. Of the 12,000 Indians in the surrounding tribes, probably about half died from battle, massacre and starvation.
After King Philip’s War, there were almost no Indians left free in the northern British colonies. A colonist wrote from Manhattan’s New York colony: “There is now but few Indians upon the island and those few no ways hurtful. It is to be admired how strangely they have decreased by the hand of God, since the English first settled in these parts.”
In Massachusetts, the colonists declared a “day of public thanksgiving” in 1676, saying, “there now scarce remains a name or family of them [the Indians] but are either slain, captivated or fled. [emph. mine.]I

The poor guys at Links are cited because they placed high on my Google Search. They're reporting statistics they have from reliable sources on good faith, and the worse sin committed here is the passive one of confirmation bias. If you want to make King Philip's War a defining moment in America's fall from grace,  it would be as well for it have been the worst war ever.

The only problem being that the numbers are pure crazy town. "One-eleventh of the adult men" implies a New-England "colonist" population in the outside range of 20,000. Our baseline statistic for New England's population growth is 100,000 in 1710.

You see the head scratcher here. That's why the "Plymouth Rock" school historical demographers  put the number of immigrants to New England during the 1630--1640 timeframe at 40,000. Anything less is a problem.

It's also a great example of selection bias. f you type "600 eleventh King Phillip's War" into the Google search window, you get:

i) Someone's amateur website of every massacre ever.
ii) Wikipedia, which is pretty sound and sensible on the subject, as it usually is these days. (I donated a twenty again this month!)


iii) Mayflowerfamilies.com: " The horrors and devastation of Philip's war have no parallel in our history. The Revolution was a struggle for freedom; the contest with Philip was for existence. The war lasted only about fourteen months; and yet the towns of Brookfield, Lancaster, Marlborough, Medfield, Sudbury, Groton, Deerfield, Hatfield, Hadley, Northfield, Sprigfield, Weymouth, Chelmsford, Andover, Scituate, Bridgewater, Playmouth, and several other places were wholly or partially destroyed, and many of the inhabitants were massacred or carried into captivity. During this short period, six hundred of our brave men, the flower and strength of the Colony, had fallen, and six hundred dwelling houses were consumed. Every eleventh family was houseless, and every eleventh soldier had sunk to his grave." Charles Hudson: A History of Marlborough

This is some guy writing back in the 1840s. I have my doubts about his numbers, which are very.symmetrical, but they aren't the modern, accepted numbers. You can see where the error comes in, and that, again, theory is driving the facts. 

Now, the last thing I want to do is deny that King Philip's War happened, or that it was pretty traumatic event. I just want to suggest that there's an agenda here, and it's not a subtle one, either. To repeat the quote bloc:

After King Philip’s War, there were almost no Indians left free in the northern British colonies. A colonist wrote from Manhattan’s New York colony: “There is now but few Indians upon the island and those few no ways hurtful. It is to be admired how strangely they have decreased by the hand of God, since the English first settled in these parts.”

You'd have to think that someone, somewhere, would be a little shy about reporting genocidal ethnic cleansing, that it would be some kind of secret with a bodyguard of lies, at least until Rutger Hauer discovers the horrifying truth. (That Neo-Nazi Youtube commenters will sit through very boring trailers).

I'm no Rutger Hauer, but I'll give it a whirl. Short version farmed out to Gene Autry. Sorry 'bout the cows.
(Going into the file of secrets that can be shared in state songs.)*

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Plantation of the Atlantic, XIII: What the "Leaky Pump" Means

I know that I promised to reconstruct and post my research on Praying Towns here. That basically means that I'm going to run down some Internet-accessible research on these self-governing communities of Christian Indians established on the recommendation of John Eliot between 1661 and 1675, as well as parallel communities in Connecticut and discuss what the dreadfully-neglected Alltagsgeschichte of these communities shows in the case of some excellent, web-accessible PhD theses, or at least summaries thereof.

But that sounds like work, and I get to be substitute store manager this week,* and consequently am a little out of it. Instead, I'm going to trot some concrete research data about the makeup of mid-Seventeenth Century New England communities out just to put some methodological depth to my gestures to the Newfoundland fishery's "leaking pump" of transatlantic labour migration flows and allegedly consequential claims about the actual composition of those communities.

First, though, I'll rehearse some historiographic reflections. Remember Bishop Samuel Wilberforce's comments about how there were in New England in 1640 supposedly 4,000 Puritans, who “are said in fifty years to have multiplied to 100,000” (59)? Sure, Soapy Sam is an unlikely authority. After all, he's the guy that opposed Darwinism in that famous session with Huxley in the summer 1860 meeting of the BAAS and gave rise to the "better an ape as an ancestor than a bishop." On the one hand, that establishes a historical vector connecting the Plymouth Rock myth to Creationism. That's got to lead to some interesting reflections on where those ideas have gone in American politics since. On the other hand, it leaves Wilberforce a pretty unlikely martyr of truth. His defenders try to make his nickname refer to his obsessive-compulsive hand-wringing, but pretty much everyone else thinks that it's an accurate reflection on his somewhat casual approach to the truth.

That means that while Wilberforce, the man who rediscovered Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation in the library of the bishop of London and used it in this book, may have been working with the facts about migration to New England that were certainly at hand in London in the late 1830s. If so, someone had synthesised those facts and made the conclusions available, and other people, or at least the Bishop of London, was willing to gloss them in print in a book highly critical of American society in other contexts. But it might also mean that he's seen the "40,000" figure often cited for the Great Migration and lost a zero in his enthusiasm for Yank-bashing. Still, it's interesting that he went there. and used it, unlike any other modern reader, for its list of civil marriages in the back as well as Bradford’s narrative.

Second, much of this information, and my original inspiration, started with an exchange with my buddy Charleycarp over at the lately-lamented-but-now-back Edge of the American West. I'm not going to go out on a limb on the accuracy of the claim that Elizabeth Cable, wife of Jehu Burr and thus great-grandmother of the Aaron Burr was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1600,  but there it is, sourced to some old family records in the hands of the Latter Day Saints. Charley challenged it, and I went to Robert Charles Anderson, and here's what I found in that synthetic summary of two centuries of genealogical research:

Or something like that, anyway.