Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Technical Appendix: Postblogging December 1943: The Owl of Minerva Flies At Dusk

December is the darkest month. You either set the Yule log alight, or celebrate the darkness. This could just as easily have been the title of my birthday posting for modern electronic warfare, but, if you were young when I was (and, statistically speaking, it is likely that you were: welcome to roughly the biggest birth cohort ever, he said, 49 years too late!), you remember this:

Spy stories were just tired enough for gentle network parody. I was too young to get that it was gentle parody. To nine-year-old me, that clip was as mysterious as The Prisoner still is. With the difference that the point of the mysteries of The Prisoner is that they are mysteries, while Get Smart was mysterious because I was too young to get it. The Prisoner isn't meant to be solved. Get Smart is just another network parody. 

Where, not to push the epistemic point too far while my original point likes fallow, funny spies run around saying pompous things like, "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk." Which is why I went with a hotlink to Kim Carnes' Crazy in the Night instead.

The epistemic point is not going away, though. A big book in the blogosphere right now is Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's The Second Machine Age. As a Boseruppian, I am predisposed to dislike this book --which I may or may not eventually get around to reading. My basic thesis is that we are hitting the bottom of a long downhill, the end of a storing-up of technological capital centering on the era of the last world war. If this is true, absolutely the last thing we have to worry about is robots taking our jobs. The robots (and slaves) will be doing the work because the (relatively few) people who could be doing it have all gone Croatan (1,2). 

Never mind  crazy theorising, though. If I am to offer anything to the conversation, it is going to be history of technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee do start with history of technology, of course. The introductions to their book that I have read focus on the "delayed" start of the Steam Age. The fact that there were steam engines in 1712 gives anyone who loves him some Vernor Vinge since the 1990s and is waiting for the Singularity like some characters in a Beckett play --and Oh God in the New Year's eve morning darkness I see nightmares of first year English again --- where was I? 

Oh, yeah. All the over--produced American lawyers of the last few years are making a living doing doc review and are worried that the Google is coming to take away their jobs. And if first them, moments later it'll be all the knowledge workers. It will be like when slide rules got rid of all the engineers, or when printing got rid of the historians by making all the old scrolls and codices available to everyone so that some idle English gentleman could produce a bigger and better history of ancient times than Herodotus, who was actually able to travel and cultivate the owners of all those scrolls in ancient times and become a real historian. 

That's sarcasm, there, of course. The job of the historian did not go away with printing, or with the railroads and the telegrams and such that allowed Ranke to outdo Gibbon, or with the ---but I am going to try not to get ahead of myself again, here. This is supposed to be a technical appendix, and I will get to the technology that rises to the surface in December of 1943 in a moment. First, though, some historical nuance, because that is what you look for from a historian.

I have objected to the basic thesis before. An usurpation took place in Britain in 1688, placing an uneasy dynasty on the throne of England. Thereafter, it would be fair to call every war of the Eighteenth Century down to the Napoleonic wars a "war of the English Succession." That made the regime willing to spend to win, and one of the things that they had to do in the 1700--1715 round was maintain an army in the low Countries, which meant earning foreign exchange in the Low Countries. To do that, they had to export to that market, and to do that, they had to subsidise export industries such as coal. As the price of coal went up, it became feasible to cut coal at the bottom of flooded colleries by pumping out the water with steam engines. Of course the Savery and Newcomen engines were inefficient! One of the big problems of operating them was that they had to be securely seated in the midst of great mounds of highly flammable coal slack at the bottom of pits! Because while coal slack cannot be sold on the market, it is a dangerous, highly flammable material that gets in the way of mining operations and has to be got rid of somehow. For example, you can burn it. In a contained stove, of course, for safety reasons. Not that those safety reasons are met by using a stove in isolation, but you can always cool it by putting a pot of water on top. Which then evolves lots of steam. You see where I am going, here? With all due respect to them, Savery and Newcomen were patent trolls, taking credit for a technology that circumstances essentially forced our way.

Now let's move ahead sixty years. Somehow, in spite of having a massive public debt hanging over it, the British economy manages to expand like topsy. There's a "navigation" craze. Basically, canals thread the countryside, taking products such as, for example, coal, to market. Their locks are pumped by water mills in one of those operations that pretty much forces a person to think about the laws of conservation of energy. At this point, the limit on the economy is becoming the amount of water that can be pumped back up the runs by "engines." It is limiting the amount of coal that can be brought to market. So now we want to pump the water back up into the mill pond using the minimum amount of coal. . . 

Let me now quote myself, a paragraph gone: "Somehow, in spite of having a massive public debt hanging over it, the British economy manages to expand like topsy." That's your lede: not James Watt inventing the condensor. Ask yourself: what endogenous trends within the economy are driving technological adoption? Do not look around for heroic innovation to change it from outside. 

But, but, what about knowledge work, you ask yourself. What about those lawyers, whose research is now being done by "brilliant machines?"

Now it's technological appendix time.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Postblogging Technology, December 19443: I'll Be Home For Christmas

Happy Christmas from Santa Clara!

I apologise for including snapshots of the neighbours, but the pictures that I include are a great deal easier to parse than the family writing!

My Dearest Reggie:

I know that it is my invariable practice to wrap up the family news with an overlong restatement of my investment strategy, buttressed with the last month's news in scientific progress ("research and development" as we are saying now) and such economic, military and political news as seems relevant. You will find, as far as precendent goes, that this is a somewhat truncated entry due to my having left my copies of Fortune, Aviation and the month's run of The Economist in a certain library just to our north in a state of high dudgeon a week ago, but there is more than enough material for the boring parts, as you shall see.

As for habits, they are made to be broken. After a long and difficult month, I am finally in the Christmas spirit this holiday eve, and with a variegated feathered flock a-roast in the back under the supervision of your wife (Bill and David are most grateful for their Christmas gift), I shall endeavour to share the celebrations with you.

All of this was inspired in part by Mrs. J. C.'s blessed event, in part by potentially more dispiriting war news, which I think I will reserve a few weeks in the hopes that it will blow over. The long and the short of it is that we will have the Captain and Mrs. here with us on the West Coast for an indefinite extension, as the Engineer Vice-Admiral has conceived a lively concern about his newest pets that will only be assuaged by investigations on the ground. I am torn between rejoicing and trepidations, but I repeat myself, and I really should finish this letter. The indomitable mother-to-be has led the youngsters on a hike up the mountain. I have begged off with the excuse of fearing a recurrence of gout.

But it is only an excuse, as you will have realised by my mention of that certain library, it being you who forwarded the Earl's instructions to seek the Engineer's guidance concerning Cousin H. C.'s persistent requests for investment in his steel plant. See how I nickname him so respectfully? You, who know me so well, will seek out the irony and suspect that I imply that this honour is as empty as every other "achievement" of the life of his (real) father's son.

The Earl, of course, thinks that the son of the man whose oh-so-successful American life we helped launch will owe us dispassionate advice. I dissent on two grounds. First, gratitude is an odd thing, and in the Engineer's father's heart, I suspect that events in Batavia came long ago to be seen not as Great-Great-Grandfather sweeping a hanging crime under the rug, but rather as an excuse for Great-Grandfather's imposture: that the Engineer has aligned himself with our cousins across the divide of 1823.

So much for the incestuous concerns of our house, because, much more importantly, the Engineer is certainly bitter about this Administration, and dear Cousin H. C. owes virtually everything to it. This, at least, is my excuse for maintaining my side in our difficult interview, in which he did his best to encourage me to invest in the steel enterprise before dismissing me on the grounds that he was "busy" With his memoirs, or with coupon clipping, or with what other vital enterprise having to do with his legacy, I do not know. In any case, Wong Lee, whom I took as my driver on some mad impulse, had to lead me to the car by the shoulder, or I think that I should have burst back into the Engineer's study with some "wisdom of the staircase" that might have descended into fisticuffs.

In many ways, Wong Lee is a wiser man than I, hard as it is to tell when one's eyes go first to that kris scar. A more unlikely male nurse it is harder to imagine: but that is why Grandfather kept him around, I suspect, back when Grandfather was still making decisions. And his boy, who accompanied him, is smart as a whip, always with a "Number One Son" quip on his lips, as big as his father and as fair of face as his mother. (You remember Chang Wei, do you not? I believe that we had to make her a Peruvian to get her into the country. . . .)   I suspect that I am meant to conceive a desire to do a favour for the young man, which will be vouchsafed to me at the right moment. I shall not require much persuading.

Enough of this, then, especially as I owe you a month's worth of the "big" magazines yet. I shall even be able to cover the end of the month, in the unlikely event that major war news troubles the week between Christmas and New Years.

Monday, December 16, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: Crazy in the Night

(Now with brutal editorial clarity.)

Fur meine Eltern

Seventy years ago tonight, Bomber Command made its third major raid on the German capital city. 483 Lancasters (and 15 Mosquitos) were despatched. It was a brutally effective raid. The Wikipedia article reports that 1000 wagons (50 trains) bound for the Eastern Front were held up around Berlin for 6 days. It is the kind of blow to the German war effort that the USSBS did not even try to assess, but important for all that military historians do not often try to take such things into account.

On the other hand, this is the raid in which the old Prussian military archives were destroyed. That you will hear about. (Much more, for example, than someone pointing out that the Austrian military archives are fine, and just waiting for someone to use them.)

Petty chiding then falls away at the stark catastrophe so coolly summarised next. Twenty-five Lancasters were lost operationally, and another 28 in recovery due to unexpected low-level cloud over airfields in Britain. It is routine at this point to observe that, above about a 5% loss rate, only a statistically negligible number of bomber crews will survive their tour and go on to train the next generation. This constitutes the great tipping point of air warfare first discovered in WWI, where an air force bleeds experience faster than it can build it up.* Well, the losses over Berlin alone add up to 5.2%.

What is less often observed is that Bomber Command was not just suffering from a human catastrophe. Heavy bombers stand at the apex of industrial effort. The target for  the English Electric and Avro Manchester plants that delivered the Halifax and Lancaster, a target, not often achieved, was 250 planes a month. In January, only 160 would be received, winter being a slack time for industrial deliveries.(1) Bomber Command had just expended over a fifth of that total on a single night. Even given that it did not fly every night, the reason that it did not fly every night was mainly weather. Bomber Command was, in brief,  losing. And the men and women of the Reichsverteidigung were winning. High Wycomb had taken on a job that was beyond the technological capacity of the so-far mobilised work force. One that had to be done, if the Western Front were to be cracked. 

And seventy years and a little less than a month ago, with fully appreciating it, without, certainly, seeing that it had given birth to technological modernity, the Air Staff put the answer in place: 100 Group, Bomber Command.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Postblogging November 19443: Technical Appendix: The Alliance of Thrust and Iron

Wikipedia: The trackless forest of Anderida, where the Royal Navy's gunmakers lived and worked: Unsized because it's so damned evocative.. Obviously it's a bit spoiled by the embedded blog material, but you can go to the original if you like.

Robert Constant opens The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution in the mountains, in the same place that Clint Eastwood opens Pale Rider, with the same powerful vision. Water, under human control, washing down the mountains.

We are in the middle of a mountainside industrial revolution. Not in the Weald, but rather in the Sierra Nevada, this Monitor operator is finding gold with high-pressure water.  In Eastwood's vision, hydraulic mining is an evil thing. The cinematic composition implicates environmental hazard, but the crime that brings the  ghost of death(?) to town to kill all the bad people with guns is that of putting old fashioned panners out of work. In the nostalgic old days, people panned gold in communities. Now the Monitors had come to make their labour obsolete. This part, except for the offensive framing, is hard to swallow at this distance. It is not like panning in hillside shantytowns is a lifestyle that should have been preserved. Worst, behind it, and lurking just below the in-itself-defensible environmental talk is a discussion about  flood control-related public policy in California, where noble, anti-hydraulic mining discourse hides a less benevolent objection to state flood control intervention on the grounds that it would be paid for by taxes on people not directly affected. As time goes on, Pale Rider will be remembered more for Eastwood lifting his story than with an argument over the evils of hydraulic mining that may actually have had more to do with resistance to a. 

Anyway, Constant's take is less the Monitor than the Pelton wheel that was another component of this mining-industrial complex, because if you squint at the facts in the right way, you get to Lester Pelton's invention being the introduction of the "impulse turbine." If you have heard of the Pelton wheel, you have no excuse for being surprised by "the turbojet revolution."

Now, as usual, it turns out that calling it a "Pelton wheel" turns out to make us complicit in patent trolling. I wouldn't push this too far. Lester Pelton might have been inspired by, for example, the Fourneyron turbines rather than by a sudden thought that struck him as he looked at a water turbine made by the Knight Foundry. Again, there does seem to be dark deeds done here. The point of Pelton's improvement was to take business share from Knight. It was in no-one's interest to stop tinkerers in the California gold fields with vexatious patent-infringement suits, and even one's sympathy for Knight ought be measured. Pelton was able to build up a corporate interest that made a great deal of perfectly good mining equipment.

If Constant had started with Fourneyron, or with Charles Parsons, we would have missed a chance to see the Sierra Nevada. That he could have started with them is beside the point. He could have started in a great many places. Arguably, he ought to have started with those poor, sad Brown-Boveri salesmen trying to stimulate interest in their promising, new "gas turbine" concept in 1939.   They are the guys who put the technology of the combustion gas turbine out there on the market in the last years before World War II so that, finally, inescapably, it was obvious that the very near future belonged to turbines rotated by jets of combustion gas driving electrical generators, or powershafts, or compressors. Here is an actual industrial combine working to establish first mover advantage in what it clearly perceives to be a growth technology. The reason that we don't is so obvious as to be uninteresting. Brown-Boveri was a Swiss firm, and had no access to the Air Ministries of the great belligerents in an imminent world war. It was those air ministries that would pioneer the combustion gas turbine, because while Brown-Boveri was thinking of locomotives and ships and power regeneration in oil refineries, they missed the most important technology, the one area where buyers might be interested in something other than economic rationality: fighter jets!

By now we understand the problem. In its earliest stages, a combustion gas turbine installation is not likely to be more efficient than one of the highly-polished precursor technologies it is  meant to replace. A great deal of money is required bring the new technology to the point where a gas turbine pushes a freighter around more efficiently than a steam turbine --and steam turbines have never been that popular in mercantile shipping, anyway. On the other hand, as the speed of objects through air reaches a band within about 20% of the speed of sound, the air that it pushes aside ceases to be compressible and becomes incompressible. The rules of aerodynamics change and, unless the shape of the object likewise changes, its effect on the air changes, too. In a propeller-driven aircraft, this happens first at the tip of the screw, and that is why, in spite of ever more powerful engines, the top speeds of the hottest fighters of World War II top out around 460mph. Propel an aircraft with reaction mass out of a nozzle, and you can go much faster, and the "transsonic" limit will be reached by the plane's lifting surfaces instead, at speeds much closer to the local speed of sound. Your fighter jet will comfortably go a hundred miles per hour faster than its propeller-driven rivals, and getting through the transsonic limit to the endless horizons of supersonic flight is a possibility. 

I am throwing a "Patent Troll" tag on this posting in honour of Lester Pelton, but my tergiversations above will suggest that I am a little uncomfortable with this. I am not an impulse turbine expert, to put it mildly. But he's dead, and I don't think that he would mind developing the context of the posting in this manner because I think that there's an important point here. As long as we look at the advance of technology within the framework of heroic inventors, we belong in a conceptual universe such that the public revelation of the existence of jet fighters in early 1944 (spoiler alert!) is all about Ohain or Whittle having a Big Idea. Now that I have set the context, however, it becomes a little more puzzling. Why these two, heroic innovators. Why not everyone?

Here, then, I take you up into those other mountains, the Wealden fastness, to the lands of the charcoal burners and the ironmasters (and the Anglo-Saxon anarcho-syndicalistic commune of swineherds). It is time to contemplate our oldest and greatest communal technological praxis, to talk about blood and rye and salt and iron

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Postblogging Technology, November, 1943: Caesar's New Clothes


My Dearest Wing Commander:

I have received your last, and will try to reply to your questions in --well, I was about to write something grandiloquent about "in the order of their importance," but that is beyond my garrulous nature. I leave the most important to last, let us say.

First, it looks like we will be a houseful for some time. As might have been expected, the Admiralty's decision to build some of the later freighter-aircraft ships as "assault carriers" has evolved in the typical way from the stage at which we cared when naval architects talked about ship stability to the point at which the specialisms have had each their say. Now there are vast amounts of new equipment to be procured and installed, and the vessels are expected to float vaguely upright, and so your eldest has been cut new orders that will keep him on the "West Coast Shuffle" at least through the New Year. At least I can look forward to sharing a berth on the Seattle and Los Angeles trains!

Second, the Santa Clara estate is surprisingly little touched by the ravages of war and old age. There is even a  boy's crashing tread shivering the old timbers. Although your youngest is, of course, rather older than when we left for Greenwich! The western verandah has come out to make way for an outdoor carport, a long overdue "improvement" brought on by your son's attempts on an invalid Lincoln that he inherited from a friend of mine, a minor movie star gone to war. (I draw a curtain over the trip up from Los Angeles, whose details would hasten your graying.)

Once again I salute my wisdom of four years ago in taking the master suite instead of my old bedroom. Not only does it seem so much smaller now, but little could I imagine in 1939 that we would end up hiring out the cabin to no less than three dockyard workers' families! You can imagine the bedlam in the back yard. The long and the short of it is that the outdoor kitchen is running by shifts and the ranch hands take their meals on the back verandah. Michael and Joan have elected for the back bedroom, keeping the hands a little quieter knowing that their boss is overhead and that he speaks Spanish. Joan by the way, is seeing to her mother and the house in Pasadena, where they are to retire to be closer to their grandchildren. 

Of Shiwa Ta-Wan you will have heard from your wife and daughter, and I say no more of the ruinous old pile overlooking us. Your son, and daughter-out-of-law will be staying there. This rather avoided a bit of a scrape for we three bachelors, who received many a stern look on "Mrs. J. C.'s" (if I remember my coy little code from 1939, she was "Miss G. C." then). She seems to have been shocked as much by the amount of food lying around as by the mess. She also took a dim view of the effort put in by the local girl who is acting as our after-school housekeeper. What can I say? Good domestic help is impossible to find, and she is well-mannered and attractive, in that  blonde Californian way. "Mrs. J. C."  has taken it upon herself to organise Grandfather's papers. Thank God. I was not looking forward to trying to find a lawyer in San Francisco who could be trained to read the old Hakka pirate writing! (Not to mention that he would then be equipped to read this correspondence.) 

This brings me to two final and more sensitive matters. First, Grandfather was apparently roused to a rare moment of coherence upon hearing your letter read. (Congratulations on receiving the RAF "contract" by the way!) Bill and David were summoned up to the big house to give a seminar. Grandfather had lapsed by the time they arrived, of course. Fortunately, they are well-used to their patron's eccentricities, and took in stride receiving instructions from his "translator." It does not hurt that she was looking very fetching indeed in a beige linen dress! They recommended --but enough of that for now.

Second, or, as I think in this rambling pile of digressions I have quite lost the thread, most importantly, there are the Earl's rather pointed questions about my dissent from our cousin-in-law's business plans. I understand his anxiety. As much as you have disabused him about "H. C.'s" legendary (alleged) business genius, he still speaks very much the received West Coast wisdom. Given our inherited real estate profile, the future of a very large share of the family's fortune is  linked to the prosperity of the Pacific Slope. So why do I dissent? 

Ordinarily, I would give my answer in the financial newsletter appended. However, I did not feel comfortable rendering Bill and David's recommendations even in Hakka characters, so have hauled out the family one-time pad, and given that I was transcribing anyway, this month's newsletter brings England up-to-date on the sordid side of our real estate business. That being said, just because I was "feeling like" transcribing does not mean that I was feeling like waxing eloquent, so I have appended my argument with "H.C" to the end of my news roundup. Knowing my tendency to wax on, I take the liberty of bolding those bits of news and comment of special relevance.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Plantation of the Atlantic, XX: A Crisis of Growth?

So, today, because I did not realise that I had missed the 75th anniversary of the foundation of 100 Group RAF last Saturday (looks like your card is going to be about a month late. I blame Canada Post) during my enormously restful vacation, we will be talking about Alex's challenge.* Why did things get better after Rome fell?

"So perhaps you've got a Marxist explanation here: the social relations of production, i.e. the Roman political economy, are holding back the material relations of production, i.e. the productive potential of the Roman periphery, by forcing it to produce grain inefficiently to serve the interests of the elite, when it could be doing something more like classic British mixed farming or just a shit load of livestock. As a dialectical materialist, the Marxist would say that the material forces of technology always prevail in the end. And then a revolution happens. This is basically a Latin American dependencia historian's view.

There's a passage somewhere, about how in the summer the young folk of the village would go up to the high places, the boys to shepherd the cattle, the girls to milk them and make the cheese (gender essentialism!), about how the milkmaids would have skin like the Milky Way, and that they  would lie out under the stars on a summer night, their elders a thousand feet below.

...As it turns out, "sexy milkmaid" is not a very useful Google search.

Anyway, Heidi Klum, everybody. (Important safety note: Do not wear open-toes around cows.) Also, The Silencers.

There's a passage somewhere, about how in the summer the young folk of the village would go up to the high places, the boys to shepherd the cattle, the girls to milk them and make the cheese (gender essentialism!), about how the milkmaids would have skin like the Milky Way, and that they  would lie out under the stars on a summer night, their elders a thousand feet below.

...As it turns out, "sexy milkmaid" is not a very useful Google search.

Anyway, Heidi Klum, everybody. (Important safety note: Do not wear open-toes around cows.) Also, The Silencers.

I call this an investigation, by the way, because I want to hang a great, big epistemic caution on it. A blog post is not the place for a turgid, thesis-style "historiography and methods" chapter, but this is a subject that calls forth grand explanatory structures that float well clear of the facts.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Fall of Rome, VI: Under the Green Cover


Cold buckwheat noodle soup is the number one summertime dish in Korea, per aeriskitchen.com. I'm sure it's better than it looks, and that Koreans have fond childhood memories.

But. . .

How to make sausages eggplant and buckwheat "sandwiches."
Words fail me. 

One of the ways that we write about technology in an "I never thought of that" vein is to conjure up existential crises out of our dinner plates. Supposedly, in an era where in much of the world the total cultivated acreage is in decline, we are on the verge of a subsistence crisis by virtue of running out of inputs such as water or artificially fixed nitrogen, as though in two hundred thousand years of experimentation with landscape curation the human race has not developed a pretty extensive set of solutions to those problems, that the real problem is the very limited amount of buckwheat (and peas, vetch, millet, etc) that people can be persuaded to eat. 

As I have blogged before, Fagopyrum esculentum, is one of three species collectively known as "buckwheat" in genus Fagopyrum of family Polygonaceae which also contains sorrel, rhubarb and sea grape, as well as some of the nastiest and most persistent field weeds, such as the various knotweeds. With a short growing season, the heat-tolerant buckwheat fits into a larger family of plants that the poet tells us that we should sow on the wheat fields in June, "when all hope is gone."

 In other words, it is a food crop that you can plant after it is clear that your wheat or barley has failed. By the end of August, the field will be covered by purple flowers overshadowing black seed clusters. While harvesting a crop of buckwheat risks establishing it in the soil as a weed, buckwheat is tolerant of high nitrogen content, while using little of it or of residual soil moisture. It draws up other ions into the soil. In the tradition, it grows on "the moors," or is grown by "Moors," which in this context I take to be dirty poor folk on the fringes of civilised life in a parish-ordered Early Modern Europe. Buckwheat may not pay the tax bills of highly-capitalised farmers, but having food, however awful it looks, is better than not.

The complication here is that buckwheat's attributes also make it a good "green cover" crop. "Green cover," like "green manure," is one of those complications of agriculture-as-it-is-actually done that make our simple stories about it so unhelpful. Basically, if you sow buckwheat on a ruined field in June, you might be intending to take a food crop off it. If you are the landlord of tenants who do this, you might reasonably be concerned about that because of the whole establishing-a-field-weed-that-makes-bad-hay thing. However, you might also intend to plough the buckwheat right back into the soil. The point of planting the buckwheat in the first place was to conserve the soil moisture, vegetable fibre and nitrogenous material that would be lost otherwise. A vain crop of buckwheat this year means far more market grain next. 

Again, I am focussing on buckwheat because it is Heidenkorn, and I am playing to the whole "Moor" angle where it is (very arguably) the crop of the marginalised and the illegible. There are plenty of plantings that will do what buckwheat does, and it is quite possible that if I actually were an off-the-grid peasant in late medieval Europe trying to eat without drawing attention to myself, I would plant one of them. Buckwheat is not a good "green manure." You want vetch for that. If the soil is already nitrogen rich, you might want a better haying crop. Pearl millet is recommended by the Australian Northern Territory Government website. Interestingly,  I learned this by following up on the traditional recipe for couscous. This signature North African staple used to be made of pearl millet before semolina took its place. This at least suggests that if the original Moors needed a crop that was illegible to the state, they looked to pearl millet rather than buckwheat. The angle that I am aiming for, obviously, is the metaphor. How better to concretise this analogy than with the image of someone pulling a green cover over the landscape, and what better crop than Heidenkorn? And with that I am going to leave off making fun of earnest foodies. In the post-Apocalyptic future, we may all be eating buckwheat groats.

So. On to the green cover I have detected this week. 376, the Emperor Valens was defeated at Adrianople by an army of Goths. After a brief interregnum, the Spanish general Theodosius supplanted the dynasty of Valentinian and Valens, marrying into the family to heal wounds, fought a civil war, had the first recorded Canossa moment with Augustine's patron, Ambrose of Milan, and died, leaving two boys, Honorius and Arcadius, to be imperial colleagues. Arcadius died young in 408 in Istanbul, while Honorius made it to 423, pepetuating his dynasty. In a moment of turmoil during the reign of Honorius, there was a mass barbarian invasion, famously crossing the frozen Rhine at Main on New Year's Even, 405. From this eruption we trace the ultimate establishment of the "successor" kingdoms: Vandals in Africa, Visigoths in Spain; Burgundians in . . . Burgundy, Franks in France, Ostrogoths in Italy, Isaurians in Anatolia.

I throw that last one in as a bit of a joke. Attentive readers will already know that the Goths, Burgundians and Franks did not cross the frozen Rhine in 405, and once we reach the point of discussing an alleged barbarian invasion that originates in the Hittite heartland, we see that, in the famous words of every academic historian everywhere and in every time, "something more complicated is going on."

One attempt to solve this mystery has focussed, amazingly enough, on what the Romans said about it, which was that the barbarian armies were, in general, welcomed as, or subjected to, the status of foederati and settled on abandoned land. This has been formulated as everything from barbarians seizing land to farm to a version of "quartering" troops to, most controversially in the writings of Walter Goffart, to the pure allocation of tax farms to the support of units of the Roman army. 

Obviously, I intend my prolonged discussion of green cover and green manure crops to problematise the idea of "abandoned land." You may suspect by  now that I am likely to bring back horses. And, of course, I am going to make a big deal of The Amazing Thing I Learned On Wikipedia This Week. After the break, of course.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Postblogging October 1943: An Artificially Aged Technological Appendix

It turns out that I'm not the first person of our Modern Intertubes Era to be struck by the Bohn Aluminium and Brass Company's futuristic ads of the 1940s. Jim Edwards, of Business Insider, pointed out back in 2010 that "These Magnificent Paintings Of 'The Future' From 70 Years Ago Got Everything Hopelessly Wrong." That might be a little snarky. Lawnmowers are made of aluminum these days, and it's not the biggest mistake in the world to imagine them designed with an art deco touch back when art deco was still cool. 

Edwards should have substituted the aluminum high rise with button-adjustable room sizes for the lawnmower. Again, the vision is  not completely wrong, in that aluminum houses many North Americans today, and they are fairly modular and easily adjusted. As a young high school dropout at my employer pointed out the day that she was qualified as a cake decorator, "Now I can afford some class and get a double-wide." Which was not her exact phrasing, and, believe me, ex-con boyfriend, fake fingernails and all, she still had her tongue in cheek. No-one is so confused as to think that trailer parks are classy. As temporary housing, the old building codes here in British Columbia used to let you build them on the flood plains on the far side of the dykes. Hint hint, insert tornado joke here. Aluminum may have been cool once, but, like plastics, it has been "deglamorized."

After the jump, though, back with plane porn!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Postblogging Technological History: October, 1943: Labour at the Limit: Martha's Burden Is Lightened By Speed

Welcome to Yorkshire!

My Dearest Wing Commander:

Congratulations on your promotion, Reggie! As you will suspect from the arrival of the familiar courier and the heft of the package, this correspondence is a response to the Earl's anxious inquiries. Resuming my practice from the spring of 1939, I provide commentary at the head before financials in the hopes that this will help him understand the choices we have made with the money he dare not own. 

As I look back at the older letters, I marvel at how much has changed in four short years. Then, you were lying low in Vancouver in disgrace. Now you are back in RCAF uniform in dear old Blighty, putting your experience to the benefit of Brittania. Or Canadia? It does not quite seem to roll off the tongue, and I remain in exile amongst the orange groves of Santa Clara County, under standing invitation from Scotland Yard to assist them in inquiries. 

Being that your son now wears his Captain's rings, and can expect his broad pennant in due time (although not, alas, the Vice-Admiralship, thanks in no small part to his just-ended South Pacific 'exile'), it stands to reason that the family that you disgraced so long ago is no longer inclined to press the issue.  Meanwhile, so long as our cousin refuses correspondence with his daughter, I stand suspect of the most lurid imaginable crimes. You will find enclosed, by the way, another package from Chungking with photographs of the grandchildren.  Now that you and he are near-colleagues in war billets, I can even dream of you somehow persuading him to look at them. If not, film footage might be more compelling. It is expected, although unfortunately not soon, for our courier has chosen to reach civilisation via the wilds of Central Asia. What the Red Fort and the NKVD do not know, cannot hurt us.  

Speaking of your son, he arrived on the West Coast at the beginning of the month. One may infer goings-on at Scapa Flow if his services are no longer required in New Caledonia. I will be his host while he pokes about some nooks and crannies for the Admiralty. Amusingly, your boy, who currently rejoices in his after-school status as a Navy dispatch rider, picked him up at the wharf. I was in Seattle at the time, and somehow, someone (and by this I mean Grandfather, who at 103 has not entirely lost his sense of humour) got the idea that a man who had just flown across the Pacific in a PBY might enjoy being harried through the streets of San Francisco like Dundee's bonnet by a seventeen year old on his monstrous American motorcyle. Although, diplomatically, "Captain (E)  J. C." only emphasises that he enjoyed his first opportunity to meet his half-brother.  Had he only been delayed another day, and I could probably have arranged for his wife to do so in something more closely approaching a satisfactory number of wheels, but she was on a train somewhere west of Denver due to bad flying weather in the Rockies. 

Borrowed from Bucksindian.com/Buck's_bikes
Having, at least obliquely, reintroduced our familiar cast from 1939 (yes, it is Fat Chow who is trying to move those documents from Kashgar to Kabul right now), I should close this ramble and get on with . . . Well, my only slightly more on-topic ramble. Forgive me, I am aging, and garrulous.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Running Away to the Air, 8: Planes for Ships. A Dialogue

I start with an apology. This is a response to an argument that ChrisM put forward in an email. I'll cite below, but there is a pretty severe power imbalance between a correspondent and a Big Giant Blog Writer. On the other hand, I've got long-mouldering Evidence to put out there. So there's that.

So. You say you want to grow up to be First Sea Lord.

I'm listening. I certainly don't want to be the nay-sayer. It's a colourful title that comes with a peerage, a nice pension, and the prospect of interlocking directorates in profitable publicly-traded corporations. What's not to like? A young naval officer should aim for the title. (Unless he is a doctor, accountant, or instructor. Or an engineer? I'm not sure about the last. Have we decided whether they're supposed to aspire to be Engineer Vice-Admiral, First Sea Lord, or both. Will we change our minds?)

And you did such a splendid job of picking your parents, too! Famous, influential at court, an uncle who is an admiral himself, carefully edited out of your Wikipedia biography to avoid clouding the issues. But there's one small roadblock and one huge. The first roadblock is that you've decided against the gunnery specialisation. You've been at Dartmouth long enough to see the numbers that every young man crunches. Your chances are better in Gunnery. That being said, we all know that it is a small roadblock, because if you are good at a valuable specialisation, you will quite likely advance against a weaker set of competitors. Deciding that you are stronger than, say, your Torpedo rivals is harder, although not so much now that they've been handed electrics.  If you are doing your fellows' homework, as opposed to the reverse, you have as good a chance as any other young man who has an uncle for an admiral. We'll strike that last part if you go for the Torpedo branch.

 Oh? Aviation? Hmm. Well, I can see that. You came of age during the war. You were bred up on the romance of the knights of the air, especially the ones who come in navy blue: BowhillCollishaw, DicksonBell-Davies, Longmore.

But here's the big roadblock. Fancy their fame? Too bad. You see, you were born in 1903. The war to end all wars ended before you were ready to end all wars yourself. Those knights of the air? You will never be one of them. Combat piloting is a young man's game, and there is almost exactly zero chance of a shooting war while you are young enough to fly the fleet planes of your generation. You will lust to get into a Nightjar,

and beat up fields or harbours or flight decks or launch rails, or whatever we end up using, on one of these

You'll be the "old man" of a squadron of these

 and you could lead your young men into battle in it. I do not think that likely, however. There will be another war. This peace is a weeping wound on the international body politic, but the nature of the wound will be to require a long half-healing before we are ready for war again. I will say twenty years, less two months, of course, so that the young men and horses can finish the harvest. As long as I am letting the past be the guide to my predictions, I will guess that the next war will go one year longer than the last, because men are getting madder in these latter days. In September of 1938, you will be 35 and a commander. In September of 1944, you will be a captain, looking for your flag. I hope for your sake that you will win your way through the mean trench fighting of postwar retrenchment to three more promotions, but I do not give you long odds.

So that's my cautionary. I'll leave it to this historian of the next century who has just popped by in his Collingwoodian time machine to give you some more solid retrospective insight.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

First Parallel: A Technical Appendix: The Thermodynamics of High Altitude Air-to-Air Combat in the Propeller Age

The "funny" way of talking about the science of aeroengines --thermodynamics-- is to say that "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game." That's three laws, and I only propose to talk about one today: the Second Law. It is one of those hard-to-teach rules, and I am going to throw the "ideal heat engine" formulation up and call it a day: Efficiency=1-Temperature(reaction)/T(sink). The efficiency of the best possible heat engine is less than one hundred percent, and it is less than one hundred percent by the ratio of the temperature in the engine with that of the sink into which it is rejected. You think that engines are about power? I tell you that they are about rejecting waste heat. (Or, amateurs study brake effective horsepower. Professionals study calories rejected.)

If I wanted to turn the laws of thermodynamics into cod philosophy (call me, TV! I will!) then I'd call this the diminishing returns rule. Which reminds me.
Photoshop 1939! From Flight Global Archives for 2/2/39, the first official Air Ministry publicity still of the Boulton Paul Defiant. How many guns in the turret? Ha! We're not telling!

Flight, amplifying what the Air Ministry has to say, points out that sometimes official secrecy makes people nervous. "For the past year or two," the paper tells us, people have been writing in to ask what has been happening on the two-man fighter front. The Hawker Demon has been the RAF's frontline two seat fighter since 1930, and is overdue for replacement. Now, at last, the Air Ministry responds. The Defiant, we are told, is a stressed-skin fighter of all-metal, mainly light alloy construction (so much for the patent Boulton Paul construction system) with flush rivets for an exceptionally smooth surface. The feature of main interest is the compact, power-driven turret, armed with a still-undisclosed number of guns. It is presumed that the Defiant's main mode of use will be to fly slightly ahead of, and below enemy bombers, where they are typically ill-protected, as has been demonstrated by later-model "turret" Demons. Given, the paper speculates, equipment with a Merlin I engine, the Defiant will have a top speed of slightly above 300mph, lower than the Hurricane or Spitfire due to the encumbrance of the turret and because of its slightly larger size. Fitted with a Merlin II, it should be as fast as any comparable aircraft in enemy service, while with a Merline RM2SM, giving 1145hp at 16,500 feet when fuelled with 100 octane, it would have an even higher performance. The airscrew is a 3 bladed variable pitch de Havilland, and the exhaust is of the new ejector stub (i.e. turn your exhaust into rocket fuel) type.

But the point, now that I have buried the lede so thoroughly, is this:

It is October, 1943. The Home Front is bracing for defeat in the air, an ignominious retreat to night bombing that will delay the strategic air offensive by months. Meanwhile the United States Army Eighth Air Force is getting ready to win the most extraordinary victory in the history of air warfare. It will, flying from expeditionary air fields in the United Kingdom, win complete air superiority over the home skies of the world's second largest industrial economy before the first tide of summer.

Some people will say that it did not matter, that the only bombing that counts is the kind done in visual range of a foxhole. Some people apparently cannot wait to see the United States Army hump off its entire artillery arm on the USAF (or turn the USAF into the army's artillery replacement). Despite my frustration with them, I cannot say that they deserve to live in America whose only army is light infantry. No-one deserves to live in Breaking Bad America

The P-51 is said to have saved, by itself, the whole of America's industrial strategy. It is the classic example of Joel Mokyr's formulation of technology as a "free lunch," an exogenous input to the economic process, unpredictable and unplanned. One can only lay out a welcome mat on the doorstep, as meritocratic America and miltarist-racial Germany do, and class-ridden Britain does not. I have taken aim at the P-51's status as a magic aeroplane before, and yet its origins were almost entirely serendipitous. North American Aviation had established a relationship with the Air Ministry by selling it the Harvard, so when Sir Henry Self of the British Purchasing Commission approached it about licensing production of the P-40, company president Kindelburger was listened to when he proposed a new fighter, instead. A four gun machine using the Allison engine was proposed. The design was commissioned in March, 1940, and the prototype flew first on 26 October 1941. This is a short development period rather than an unprecedented one, and speaks, as much as anything, to the extent of underemployment in the Los Angeles basin in the spring of 1940. Yet it is also one of the most historically important of all successful rushed technological development programmes.

I have in the past featured the P-51 as a "magic aeroplane," basically as a means of launching into the transformation of the refining industry during World War II. As the cars of 2013 crawl through Vancouver's morning fog this morning, they are carried by the invisible tides of history. But no-one knows about them because they're invisible! Today I shall take another tack, all appropriately autumny, about how we're all trapped in a cellar while the entropic level rises around us ineluctably. 

Second year physics emo is so lame. In ten billion years, we'll all be dead! In your workplace, you might have noticed that a single missed shift has the potential to raise entropy to the eleventy-millionth power. Perhaps you have thought about the war, and imagined a bomb piercing the roof, and either said to yourself, "how could they possibly cope?" Or, alternatively, "How could it have made things worse?"

Or maybe you asked yourself how Erik could possibly have got from the Defiant to the P-51.

Monday, October 14, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: First Parallel

I'm mixing my metaphors. The artillerie du place opening up on the fortress from the first parallel is the opposite of the Charge of the Light Brigade. "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward." (Of many images available on the Net, I take this from a History of Surgery and Anaesthesia page.) Let's compromise on themes. Seventy years ago today, two groups (divisions in 1940s USAAF parlance) of B-17s raided the ball bearing plants of Schweinfurt, the swine ford, in Franconia. Fortresses charging.

It's a juxtaposition that works better with cavalry charges, anyway. Forts are (in our imaginations, anyway), the definition of far sighted, deliberate warmaking. Cavalry charges are the epitome of rash decisions. Blow the horn, and you're stuck with what comes next. If it comes home ugly, you are left to live with yourself. Even someone no worse than a cheerleader might get a little shrill as they try to find a way of blaming the other guy for fighting back. Since I am gesturing to Tennyson, here's Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, admittedly not talking about cavalry charges. (No, tell us how you really feel, Elizabeth.)   

I sense a guilty conscience, is what I am trying say, some way that it might be the universe's fault, that you did the best you could, that it had to happen that way. That's how you get 
 Weird, weird, weird, weird. Oh, and thanks to the Drifting Cowboy, by the way. And that's how I get to Schweinfurt: guilty consciences and thin rationalisations.

By the way, can I just say how awesome is is when there are still things on open shelves for browsing, such as the entire run of The Economist? Pull down a volume, and you can find out how, on 14th October, 1943, Seventy years ago today, 29 B-24s of 2nd Bomber Division, 8th Air Force, and 291 B-17s of 1st and 3rd Bomber Division set out from their British bases, to conduct a "Flying Fortress raid" on the important ball and roller-bearing plants of Kugel Fischer AG and Vereinigte Kugellagerfabriken AG, the large German subsidiary of the Swedish SKF. Photos show that at least half the facilities were destroyed, and Brigadier General Anderson of the USAAF suggests that the plants had been knocked out of production, and that a  restoration of 25% of production is the most that one could hope for in the immediate future. The Economist is not so sanguine. Ball bearings are a pretty quotidian product, and SKF's subsidiaries serve pretty much every national industry. Germany can import from Switzerland and France, as well as from Sweden.(The point of British attempts to tamper with the Swedish ball bearing industry are to keep the most valuable and difficult-to-manufacture types out of German hands.) The Economist does not know the numbers, but there are 524 American heavy bombers serviceable on the fields of Britain this day. It will later be established that there are 964 German single-engined fighters on charge within the borders of the Reich this day, although Richard G. Davis does not make it clear whether these are all serviceable, and I cannot check his source right now. (Hinsley, British Intelligence, III, 1, 296.)

A little further on in the same number of the legendary weekly newspaper for the economically-minded, editorial asks the question we long to hear answered in this October, when flame-red things flutter from the sky. "How is it that journey’s end may not yet be in sight even though most of the mileposts have been passed? Will the war be over in three months, in six, in twelve?" Do we not have threefold air superiority? Are we not bombing relentlessly? 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Postblogging 1939, Final Technical Appendix: The Problem of Control

It turns out that we did not, in fact, have a base on the dark side of the Moon by 9/9/1999. Even the idea seems a little crazy in 2013. But this is then, and Space 1999 was 1974, and people had a somewhat different idea about the likely rate of technological progress in 1974 than they do today. (Just to be upfront about that, I think that this perception is real, and has been explained by Ester Boserup, and would therefore like to nail my colours to the mast: the rate of technological innovation is slowing down.)

But opinions only go so far. How about a photoessay? It is 3 September 1939. This plane

was replaced by this plane,

which is still in frontline service.

It is supposed to be replaced by this plane, although in fact it will soldier on until 1942.

And the Beaufort will be replaced by 

In 1946. (Technically, the Brigand will replace a torpedo variant of the Beaufighter, the Beaufort having long since disappeared.)

The Hawker Horsley was the last all-wood plane designed by Sopwith-become-Hawker, entering service in 1926. The Brigand was a hasty development from 1942, and arguably the last prop-driven RAF strike aircraft to be developed. (We would be having the argument over the Shackleton, I think. Or maybe the Wyvern?) I've italicised the Brigand's vital stats. 

Crew: two, pilot and bombardier/gunner; 3
Length: 38 ft 10 in (11.83 m); 46 ft 5 in (14.2 m)
Wingspan: 56 ft 5¾ in (17.22 m); 72 ft 4 in (22.1 m)
Height: 13 ft 8 in (4.16 m); 16 ft 4 in (5 m)
Wing area: 693 ft² (64.38 m²); 718 ft² (66.7 m²)
Empty weight: 4,760 lb (2,164 kg); 27,500 lb (12,470 kg)
Loaded weight: 7,800 lb (3,545 kg); 38,200 lb (17,320 kg)
Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce Condor III V-12, 650 hp (485 kW); 2 × Bristol Centaurus 57 radial piston engine, 2,165 hp (1,620 kW) each

Maximum speed: 125 mph at 6,000 ft (201 km/h at 1,829 m); 358 mph (576 km/h) at 13,700 ft (4,180 m)
Service ceiling: 14,000 ft (4,267 m); 26,000 ft (7,920 m)

Climb to 10,000 ft (3,045 m) : 14 minutes 20 seconds; 1,500 ft/min (460 m/min)


1 × forward-firing .303 Vickers;  4 x 20 mm Hispano Mk V cannon
1 × rear-mounted .303 Lewis; None.
1,500 lb (680 kg) bombload or 1 × [18"] torpedo; 1 22 in (559 mm) torpedo or 2,000 lb (907 kg) 

That is 20 years from deployment to deployment, but, put it another way, only 10 from the retirement of the Horsley to the specification for the Brigand. 

The bullet point summary could be that technological change, as measured by new generations of military aircraft, was a lot faster in the 1930 and 1940s than it is today.  But I do not think that this summary point is a very helpful one. I certainly would not advance it as an illustration of my Boserupian claim that technological development is a function of population increase, because I have not established that the jump from (say) the F-15 to the F-35 is comparable to that from the Horsley to the Brigand. More likely, it illustrates the harvesting of low-hanging fruit.

I'm reaching for something deeper. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Old Europe: The Young Ones

And now for a short photoessay about life today.


Atmosphere is next to Fuel. It is around the corner from Tractor, which isn't far from Wind. Atmosphere used to be called Coast Mountain, when it wasn't far from the Mountain Equipment Co-op, which was where hippies bought their camping gear, when there were hippies. It is a good place to buy kayaks, which you need if you want to go kayaking.


Anyone want to take on a 28 hour full time  minimum wage job? Anyone? Yes, we know that you can't pay rent in this neighbourhood at that wage, but that's the going rate. It's not like we can afford to pay more. Anyone? I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that people who take these jobs will have to give up on their kayaking-related activities, and perhaps shop at stores that do not have one-word noun names. 

In 269 or in 271, or perhaps in both years, since surviving fragments of Publius Herennius Dexippus clearly identify a "return" to Italy, the Emperor Aurelian encountered the army of a German nation called the "Juthungi," and allies who may or may not have included Swabians, Marcomanni, Alamanni, Vandals and/or Goths, on the loose in northern Italy. Either in both years or in only one, he chased them around the Pianura Padana (I'm opting for the Italian to shake readers out of using "Po Valley" to label a more complex geography, and specifically to highlight the northeastern extension into Friuli that is also typical river valley terrain but which has no association with the Po). Perhaps on the first occasion he overawed the Juthungi with a spectacular embassy, or, perhaps it was in the second invasion, after he defeated them in three battles, chasing them as far as a crossing of the Danube, or of the Po. It could be either. In any case, he conscripted 40,000 cavalry and 80,000 infantry from the Juthungi, whom he then took east to defeat Zenobia. Or, possibly, which he assembled at Aquiliea in anticipation of the Persian war he never fought. It depends on timing. 

It is the same confused story when Galerius, son of legendary Valerian, pursued and defeated "Alamanni" barbarians near Milan. The story of this incursion is continued in a Roman inscription recovered at Augsburg in 1992, which tells us that Marcus Simplicinius Genialis defeated these same "Juthungi" on the north slope of the Alps in April of 261. Probably. Argument continues about whether this happened before, after, or at the same time that Valerian, his army, and his court were captured by the Persians.

Okay. Wait a minute. Dates have meaning. War in April? Now, that link is not going to mean very much to you if you haven't seen Little Big Man. If you have, you know what comes next. Sheridan's Winter Campaign was a more traditional winter campaign than the one that it is implied here, fought in December on the last standing forage. An army that takes the field in late winter or early spring does so out of magazines, usually aiming to besiege and take a particularly exposed or ill-defended place. Only the most powerful and overbearing state can take the field when there is no grass, and even then  it is a reckless thing to do unless a quick end is guaranteed. Suddenly the Juthungi appear to us in a more desperate light, as victims rather than as perpetrators, however the Roman historians wish to spin this.

"Juthungi" has a number of suggested etymologies. As should by now be clear, I am going with the argument that the word references a "youth sodality." Or, to put it more bluntly, it means "The Young Ones." By which I do not mean these guys.

I mean this.

Little Joe the wrangler he'll wrangle never more
His days with the remuda they're all done
It was long about last April he rode into our camp
Just a little Texas stray and all alone

Said he'd try to do the best he could if we'd only give him work
Though he didn't know straight up about a cow
So the boss he cut him out a mount and kinda put him on
And we knew he liked our little stray somehow
Well he taught him how to heard the horses and learned to know 'em all
And to get 'em in by daylight if he could
And to follow the chuck wagon and to always hitch the team
And to help the carsonaro rustle wood

We had driven to Red River and the weather it was fine
We were camped down on the south side of the bend
When a Norther started blowin' we called the extra guard
Cause it took all hands to hold the cattle in
Now little Joe the wrangler was called out like the rest

Between the streaks of lightnin' we could see a horse ahead
It was little Joe the wrangler in the lead
He was riding old Blue Rocket with a slicker o'er his head
And he's trying to check the leaders in their speed.
We finally got'em millin' and they sort of quieted down
The extra guard back to the camp did go
But one of them was missing and we all knew at a glance
Twas our little Texas strayboy wrangler Joe

"Cowboy historian" Don Edwards manages to make a long song even more prolix, and the bowdlerisation of  Hispanicisisms in the Marty Robbins version is suggestive of subtexts in a song that is, ultimately, the same old story of a desperate kid dying in an industrial accident while trying to do the best he could in a job that he knew he was very lucky to get.