Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gather the Bones, XVI: Shiftless Spaniards, the Eanna of Uruk, and My Terrible Grasp of Logic, I

Just a jeux d'esprit today.

Some countries are rich, and some countries are poor. For some reason, economic historians who live in rich countries like to blame the people who live in poor countries. For example, although the reasons change with the season, it's always been pretty clear why Latin America's economic development lags behind North America's.

It's because the people down there are, well, you know. I'm sorry, you didn't quite catch that? I'll repeat myself: "you know." No, really. You know. Look, if you really need me to spell this out for you, get me drunk down in the quiet corner of the Arbutus Club.

Just maybe make sure that no waitress you actually like is working that shift.

Okay, enough of being arch. I have a late Landes in my collection that shows the persistence of this kind of thinking in some places. David Landes' mind, anyway. The fact that I picked it up off a pile of garbage on the curb the week after the August-moving-to-Toronto-to-go-to-graduate-school-disillusionment-can-wait-for-later festival here in Kitsilano is probably a more accurate reflection of just how widely the view that Third World poverty is down to Third Worlders being [you couldn't quite catch me mutter this word]ly defective in some way. That's not the point.

The point is that in the great expansion of the Age of Reconnaissance, the peoples of the north Atlantic basin expanded in all directions. The received view is that in North America, they encountered virgin forest, recently miraculously depopulated of a people who gardened and hunted in a [cue the third parenthetical culture war in six short paragraphs over choice of adjective here] relationship with nature. In Africa they encountered proto-states in Mali and Congo that, like the would-be colonisation drive itself, failed to thrive until the Nineteenth Century. In East and South Asia they encountered states in crisis that restored themselves before, again, falling partially or completely to a second wave of colonialism much later.

And in Latin America, they encountered vast and populous empires that fell easily and at once under Spanish hegemony and yet which still failed to thrive, and have continued to fair to thrive up to the present, at least compared with the supposed settler states of North America. My point in my snide parentheses is that we're less astonished by this than we should be because we have been too ready to embrace theories about how societies become wealthy that are psychologically satisfying rather than logically defensible.

There's another way to take this, however. Things have changed a lot in the days since people had to genuinely fear famine, and there's not many economic writers I trust to have a finger-tip's feel of the issues at stake in such an economy. Good thing that I have a copy of an incredibly digressive and (for its time learned) book by one such author to type from!

"Even the Peruvians, the more civilised [of the pre-Columbian states encountered by the conquistadors], though they made use of gold and silver as ornaments, had no coined money of any kind. Their whole commerce was carried on by barter, and there was accordingly scarce any division of labour among them. Those who cultivated the ground were obliged to build their own houses, to make their own household furniture, their own clothes, shoes and instruments of agriculture. The few artificers among them are said to have been all maintained by the sovereign, the nobles, and their priests, and were probably their servants or slaves. All of the ancient arts of Mexico and Peru never furnished on single manufacture to Euorpe. The Spanish armies, though they scarce ever exceeded five hundred men, and frequently did not amount to half that number, found almost every-where great difficulty in procuring subsistence. The famines which they are said to have occasioned almost wherever they went, in countries too which at the same time are represented as very populous and well cultivated, sufficiently demonstrate that the story of this populousness and high cultivation is in a great measure fabulous." (Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1: 226).

Adam Smith goes on to tell us that although Spanish institutions are defective, cheapness of land makes up for much. He quotes the Scottish business traveller Frezier and "Ulloa" on the population of Lima in 1713 and 1740: twenty-five thousand have given way to more than 50. The authorities cited are a little slight, but, Smith concludes, the growth rate of Peru is "scarcely less" than that of the English colonies. For Smith, there is no mystery here. Latin America is growing at about the same rate from about the same level as the English colonies. a fuller account would bear down on the "about" and inquire into whether another century of colonialism in the southern continent counts as a "head start" or the reverse, although the last question would opened up an inquiry into the specifics of how North America might have begun its entry into the Atlantic world a century or more before the Mayflower, and wouldn't that be awkward.

But then what about that Inca Empire? (No Aztecs today: I've quite enough to do in this post without going back to Aztlan.) Empires and colonialism go together. You know when the first person ever sneered about how the natives were shiftless and lazy, and let their women do all the work?

The Uruk Expansion: From the Hacinebi Project at Northwestern.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gather the Bones, XV: Inauguration, 1828

Andrew Jackson, lawyer turned governor turned general, national hero and senator (i, ii), entered into the Presidency of the United States four years late, taking the oath of office on March 4, 1828. The Oxford Press owes Daniel Walker Howe a significant debt, I think: I've bought two mediocre volumes in their History of America series on the strength of What Hath God Wrought, but Howe's treatment of the inauguration is not one of the strong points of the book, which is something worth saying only because it illustrates to what extent the politics of the day can still catch fire in a scholarly monograph today.

Andrew Jackson was a divisive figure, is what I'm saying. To turn to my weird little touchstone, scholarship seems agreed that James Fenimore Cooper knew nothing about American Indians except what he read in Heckwelder. Leaving aside, just barely and for the moment, the valence that the Moravian missionary's name would have had on educated Americans (1,2 a) and b), 3), this assessment is based on the only review of Cooper's work ever published in North American Review. Just to put this as baldly as possible, America's pre-eminent antebellum literary journal only reviewed its bestselling author once. Specifically, it wrote, in 1828, no less, that he knew nothing about Indians, and ought to stick to writing sailing adventures. This isn't surprising, in that the Review was Whig and Cooper was Democrat, and 1828 was the year that, well. . . .

 But why hasn't anyone noticed? Why are people still adopting the Whig perspective? Because the Whigs were right about a lot of things? But it is only in party politics that we also embrace bad ideas because they are supported by a party that generally has the right ones. 

I think that something else is going on. The debate has become transparent in the same way that air is to breathers. People take sides without noticing the cause to which they are committing. Betty versus Veronica: homespun, blonde Cooper versus brunette, vivacious Lodge.

This is an auspicious time to be talking about the first man to take the oath of office in public in front of a mass of "ordinary citizens" crowding the mall. It's in the news! It's also worth the scare quotes. There's nothing ordinary, I would expect, about people who could afford to make the trip into Washington to witness the inaugural, and Howe's grumpy assessment is that the famously "democratic" crowd that pushed its way into the White House were all office seekers, is probably correct. 

Whatever: that's how politics works. You support a man you identify with, at some cost to yourself, you expect to get the local Post Office. How else are you going to come through with the promises that you made in his name?

A small question, then, just to start things out: why did people identify with Andrew Jackson? Oh, I know you know what I'll say, but to make a short story long, take a look at this census series (per Wikipedia): 

As rapid as it is, the growth rate of the American population begins to fall below its historic "doubling every generation" rate in the years after 1820. Something is happening, something is changing in the America of Andrew Jackson.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege, 3: Metacentric Heights

This is not a real submarine.

 Neither are these, (1, 2, 3, , 4, 5, 6), but they're a good place to start the discussion. Since time immemorial, man has longed to travel underwater. I don't know for sure about women, but I'm thinking of asking my niece. She's 7, so she should have some insight. It started being vaguely safe with the introduction of electric motors with the Gymnote of 1888, although as usual it is obligatory to pretend that a Nineteenth Century American inventor produced the first submarine, because patent trolls.**

That is a pretty short interval between the introduction of a technology and its first use in action, and the Royal Navy's attempts to use the things show a certain, uhm, experimental flair. Besides the gigantic steam-powered "K" class and the 12" gun-equipped "M" class monitors already noted, check out this incredibly precocious hunter-killer type.

The problem here is pretty clear. The Gustave Zede was developed as a submersible torpedo boat. The point of torpedo boats in French naval strategic thinking is that they sneak up on blockading battleships and poke holes in their hulls with torpedoes, weapons with an unparalleled potential for mission-killing a battleship in an asymmetric encounter. You just have to get close, hence the "sneaking" part. Torpedo boats were good at sneaking, because they were small and close to the water. At night, their silhouettes would be small, and they would be hard to spot.

This is all well and good, but the design effort breaks down quickly. You want a torpedo boat with a big enough torpedo to have an effect, and a big engine to push it through the water quickly, while the whole "too small to see" thing pushes it down in size. Small boats are also hard to fight in a seaway.

The result of the dialectic, well known in military technology in general, is to push the size of "small" units up to the point of diminishing returns, and, let the hands on the reins relax, well beyond. Then someone comes along and takes the left-hand path, does the outside-the-box thinking, and comes up with a new paradigm. Boats that go underwater are really good at sneaking up on battleships!

Well, okay, electric motors are pretty dinky, so it's hard to catch up with a battleship that's actuallly moving. But they're really good at sneaking up on battleships that are swinging at anchor off Le Havre. In somewhat baddish weather. When they're not likely to be swinging at anchor. But, hey, work the wrinkles out and maybe you've got something there, you think.

Just what, exactly, would be what the Ks and the Ms were about. Electric motors are just a way of transforming potential into kinetic energy, and electric batteries are far less efficient than oxidising engines, and always will be, because half of the fuel mass of an oxidising engine is pulled in from the air, which submarines can never, never do.  So the Ks had a steam power plant, that made them quite fast on the surface. That allowed them to tag along with the battleships until they got to the battle, and then sneak up on the enemy battleline while it was busy fighting. Only the "Ks" kept getting run over by friendly ships, and the whole steam plant thing proved a little dicey when they were submerging, a lengthy and laborious process.

Next after the "Ks" came the "Ms." Once it was admitted that submarines weren't going to be chasing battleships down, the obvious solution became a weapon that covered more space. (Ammunition storage was also an issue. No matter how big the shell and propellant, they were still smaller than a torpedo.) A 12" gun was big enough, it was thought, or anyway a submarine big enough to fire something larger than a 12" round was thought too ambitious, or somewhere in there the naval architects wrestled the parameters into this particular design.

If only they had been so successful in defeating reality! The "Ms" had tragic careers, and certainly never shot a German battleship with a 12" round.

The next major experiment in very large submarines came from the French. The Surcouf is a legend that sprang from straightforward, if cracked reasoning.

i) It may be assumed that ships that are large enough not to go plunging and rolling about will be armed with guns if they are threatened by commerce raiders, or (obviously) intended to fight commerce raiders.
ii) It may be assumed that the easiest way of doing this is with a gun that doesn't require any special loading arrangements.
iii) Therefore, it will carry a 100lb round, as that is the biggest round that a seaman can stagger about with, at least on a ship that isn't rolling, plunging and etc. This is a 6" gun.
iv) Then we build a long range submarine with 8" guns!
v) . . .  .
vi) Profit!

Is that facetious? It's facetious. The suppressed (because incoherent or simply nonexistent) step is not obviously problematic in my story to this point. Obviously the idea behind the Surcouf is that it runs around the world bombarding armed freighters from a safe range and thereby obviating the huge effort that the Admiralty has undertaken to arm freighters with guns that are bigger than submarine deck guns and thus drive off the submarine freighter-sinkers that somehow bubbled up from the froth of the World War to become the actual submarine killer app. Forcing submarines to rely on their torpedoes greatly reduces their effectiveness, for reasons to be discussed above and beyond the question of ammunition supply, so a guns-versus-guns race has some merit for a navy that wants to put pepper on the Admiralty's tail. Supposedly, the Surcouf was so awesome that Admiral King hated it and stuff, and eventually he personally bombed it and it sank and stuff.

Why am I being so facetious? Do I hate conspiracy theorists? No, I hate ...well, let's get on with this.

From Surcouf my list of submarine follies moves on to the famed I-400s, the largest pre-nuclear submarines ever built.

Traditionally, this has been written off to the fact that they are hard to see, but that's only part of the story.

The rest of it, regrettably, involves math.

*Publicity still from Lorelei (2005). Directed by Shinji Higuchi and Cellin Gluck
**Note that Holland doesn't invent the submarine in this patent. He invents an "armoured caisson at the centre of the ship" that carries an air shaft, conning position and valves, i.e., a conning tower. As far as I can tell, the Gymnote's successor, the Gustave Zede, had not at this point been equipped with a conning tower, but I'll happily eat a hat if no-one was talking about them in 1892Notice that the principals of the Electric Boat Company were wealthy lawyers.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gather the Bones, XIV: Down From the Shimmering Sky

I had not meant to return to the shingled beach, but an obvious enough (in retrospect) web genealogy search has led me back to the raincoast again, because it unexpectedly answered a question that I had.

What do the words "auto court" mean to you?

To me, they mean the kind of fusty old motel complex that sprouted back in the days when "auto touring" was a thing. There was room in the parking lot for what North Americans still needed to call a "motor trailer," and all mod cons in the suite for the missus. They stayed in auto courts in those long summer vacations that they had, back in the day (mainly an alternate universe version of the 30s, full of star system celebrities who still might drive to their their vacations, with glorious talkies and no hardship at all). One of the places they went was the shores of the Salish Sea, and one of the things that they did there was fish.

Anyway, that's a story. What I know from working at the Deep Bay Auto Court in the late 1980s is that the people who took the cabins there were long term vacationers who spent months there in the summer, husband out fishing, and wives canning the salmon in the same kind of mason jars that you will see in saner households, filled with preserves and pickles. They did this so that they could take this canned salmon back to  California with them, and give them this: you certainly wouldn't mistake those glass jars stuffed with pressure-cooked fish in salmon pink and silver-grey with the canned version that you can get at any supermarket. The natural question was, "For God's Sake, why?" 

The answer has been slowly dawning on me of late.

Friday, January 4, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege, 2: Towards the Atlantic Climax: Technical Appendix

A long time ago, things were different. We said hello to each other in the streets and didn't lock our doors, and people wore a lot of flannel. It was the 90s, and it would have been a clever insight if I'd ever thought to say in a public place that you can't "invent" radar when Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves in 1886 by using radar. Now, that thought introduces the history section of the Wikipedia article on radar.

The development of radar is one of the biggest, and best covered threads of the technological history of World War II. Indeed, it is probably given disproportionate importance, especially compared with complementary technologies such as radio navigation and direction finding. That is probably in part because of the way that we prefer to tell the story of the Battle of Britain as the comeuppance of the mighty Nazi war machine, rather than of a smaller air force trying to beat a bigger one after handing it the home field advantage; but that just opens the first box.It goes all the way down, guys. We tell it in the context of the Battle of Britain because, long ago, Robert Watson-Watt gave us a packaged technological history of radar. Were it not for his deft guidance, we would soon be lost in the thickets. There are histories of radar (Guerlac and Brown) but they cover a subject that's even more abstruse than aeroengines. The details just don't sink in.

Inevitably, when these kinds of discussions come up, there is a professional historian about to denounce it as "rivet counting." Which it is. Let's be frank here; any history that is written out of the Journal of the Institute of Electrical Engineers is going to a bit on the technical side. Unfortunately, if you leave it to the technicians, you are helpless in the face of a highly polished argument neatly freighted with Vast Significance: to wit, that the Air Staff's strategic blindness is demonstrated by their willingness to fly bombers with centimetric radar sets over Germany months before the same technology was available to go to sea with ASW aircraft, thereby giving the Germans a precious opportunity to develop centimetric radar warning receivers for their submarines, which they fortunately did not take up.