Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Postblogging April, 1944: Technical Appendix: The Road to Mandalay

I'm stealing images from Google Earth again. Credit is to Prabin Pebam, and the original is very evocative of what an evening in Imphal must be like. I am tempted to tick "original size," but I'd probably get into trouble. And totally commission Pebam for any design work that you might have.  

As I'm taking the Sun to be low in the southwest, it follows that we're looking north through  towards the valley of Assam, not south through the mountains towards the holy mountain of Mandalay on the banks of the Irrawaddy. 

That is

I did not intend to talk about this road today, or even this year. General Slim is going to lead the Fourteenth Army over the mountains and down into the valley of the Chindwin on his way to Rangoon after the monsoon. The victory of 1945 can be construed as one of a British (Indian) army over the m main forces of an enemy in a continental war, not since Wellington, etc etc. That strikes me as logic good for someone high on Mackinder*, and the real point that we would do well to focus on is that Slim replaced Monty as CIGS after Viscount Alamein's short and stormy tenure, and in defiance of Monty's recommendation that he be succeeded by Crocker. So there's some interesting politics right there, with Slim being inferentially the more Labour-friendly CIGS. Is he there to deal with the political firestorm that National Service has turned out to be? Is his retrospective reputation burnished by his political indispensability? What does the retrospective narrative of Fourteenth Army tell us about politics and arms at mid-century? I have not concealed my preference for engineers and artillerists at Chief of Staff over career staff officers like Slim, be they ever so attractive and successful commanders. The last thing we need in the commanding heights of society is even more "managers" than get there on their own.  

 I have thoughts about Fourteenth Army's victorious advance into Burma, I am saying, thoughts that I have barely begun to formulate, and next year would have been a good time to talk about the Army's Main Line of Communications.

But here's the thing: the logic of doing a "technical appendix" to my techblogging is to follow up the leads as they occur in the moment, and in the last one, we ran into Stabinol. I linked to the Highways Department Final Report on Chemical Soil Stabilizers [1975], so you will know that Stabinol was one of a number of products advertised as soil additives that will turn poor-wearing compacted soil beds into hard-wearing ones, thereby greatly reduced the cost of road building and maintenance. You know that it did not pass the tests, and, if you did the same Google search that I did to find the PDF, you know that the named, "Stabinol," has been recycled for a proprietary formulation of chlorpropamide, an adult diabetes treatment drug. 

It was a technological blind alley, is what I am saying. But that is not nearly the end of the story. This blog has very lightly touched on the good, soft Earth, once bound by a tight grass sod, now by concrete turned to bitumin. It is a bit of a miracle that we can do the things we do on this Earth, fly off great airliners and move millions of tons of stuff on tractor trailers. It is because of the quotidian miracle of civil engineering, which makes the countryside roadable. 

I call this miracle "quotidian" because it is a polite way of saying "boring." That is, we erect might superstructures of history of technology in order to tell the kinds of stories that interest us. (The politics of right now! And, also, what about this "economic insecurity" thing?) Those foundations do not shift, which is important; but we do not care to investigate just why this is the case. But should we be using history of technology if we do not know this stuff? I think not. 

So, now, the Road to Mandalay.

That's Sinatra. Mouth wide, tweaking all over the stage, and rewriting the lyrics to turn a "Burma girl" into a "Burma broad." Stay classy, Frank!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Postblogging Technology, March 1944, II: A Pinch In Time Saves Nine

Mother and babies resting comfortably.

Actually, Mrs. Cook is flat out, with the twins by her, and the new Turkish nanny looking out for both. Funny how a Turkish girl looks Chinese and talks American with a Chinese accent.

Hi. You probably never heard of me, but this is Vince Murphy here. The babies were on their way when I left for my double shift, and they came an hour after I got back.  Not as long a delivery as my Mammy's first, but hard on everyone. Mrs. Judith put a brandy in the landlord and set  him to bed before settling down herself. My Mammie has a little one of her own to look after, came last week, the Captain's on a slow cruise on some lame-duck carrier coming back from Hawaii, Larry's driving the doctor home, and that leaves me as the adult of the house. And now I have this here courier at the door to pick up your mail. I scraped up what's on the desk in the Landlord's study, but I remember how my Dad worried out a furrow on the floor, and figure I'd add my own touch, which, well, you see. I figure this is on the first page, not that I read Chinese any to know.

P. Vincent Murphy. (That's me.)

My Dearest Reggie:

I am a little  hurt that the Earl has so little faith in my judgement. I understand that he is  inclined to be impatient when I make snide little comments in the face of the recommendation of the Economist itself that we invest in "Cousin H.C." I believe that The Economist is wrong about this, and surely their California correspondent's silly comments about water rights should underline his credibility?

In my defence, I offer the events of the past few weeks. I refer to them cryptically, I admit, but you know my business of the last few weeks, and most of my trip's consequences are playing out in the news. If "Cousin H.C." and "E. F.," if you know who I mean, trust my judgement....

As for my little game with "Miss V.C.," whatever you have heard from her mother, that is all it is. She is very disappointed that her investigations at Sacramento turned up no further information about her "McKee" forebears, but, nothing daunted, brings me the Yerba Buena indenture book to point out a name with eyebrows cocked. I dissemble: "Chinese family names come first," I say. "It is a coincidence."

"I know," she answers. Then she pulls out the popular biography and points to the alias that Bing Oh Mah took his Hudson's Bay Company indenture under. It is ironic that a half-caste guttersnape from old Canton could come out on top of his crew here in America; but, after all, he probably took after his EIC sailor father enough to be Black Irish in all but accent.

"Coincidence," I repeat, but she only puts a dinner club napkin from my Chicago visit down on the desk without comment.

I thought that I had left that lying out for nothing! A blank stare back is but a snare draws the young lady ever closer.

One thing, though. Do you know from your sources if the old man left the country at some point? Because his grandson once told me over too many drinks that he first came to the Coast in Gold Rush days....

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kohima: Boulders Lush with Moss

The mighty son of Brahama is not to be tamed.

The Brahamaputra does not get the respect it deserves. Like Rhine, Adige and Danube (more accurately, the Iller), the great rivers of India rise close to each other, at the fault between the Himalayan fold and the Tibetan plateau. the Indus at first flows north by northwest, the Ganges plunges through a water gap, and the Brahmaputra cuts what might be the deepest and longest canyons on Earth on its way long and circuitous path to the sea, ultimately cutting its way through the Himalayas and entering Arunachal Pradesh state on its way to Assam, Bengal, and a humiliating juncture with the Ganges that makes it, in a technical sense, a tributary of the Mother of India.  

I had supposed that the proximity of the sources of the three great rivers had been made some kind of metaphysical point by romantic Indian nationalists, but thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that the upper course of the Brahamputra had long been a mystery, due to its cutting the impenetrable Yarlang Tsanpo Canyon.

This lack of respect for a mighty river leads to lack of respect for the soldiers of Japan, of India and of Britain, who were dying, seventy years ago today, above the valley of the river in the heights of Manipur, around the town of Imphal and north of it at Kohima. It also obscures the overarching failure of the Roosevelt Administration's attempt to support the Nationalist Chinese regime, and the sheer magnitude of the failure of this episode in the persistent fantasy of "foreign policy as mission." 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Postblogging Technology, March 1944, I: Pulling In the Horns

My Dearest Reggie:

It has been so good for all of us to hear from you. Your gifts were much appreciated. I cannot imagine where you obtained the measurements for the nursery suite,  but it is perfect! (No, strike that, I am sure you were informed through Wong Lee.) I cannot believe your choice of a theme in the decoration, however. Wait until "Miss V. C." sees it!

I do not speak lightly, either. I was in Chicago, last week, and had occasion to visit with the "N.C.s" and was subjected to a most unpleasant dressing down, made all the more difficult by the fact that I was of necessity seeing some unsavory types. You will have heard by now that I am proposing to go to war in the guise of the civilian master of an Australian naval auxiliary, with Sparrow in the guise of a landing craft tender. (Perhaps I repeat myself? I should really check, but am too lazy.) 

What has this to do with Chicago? Well, Grandfather would never adventure so without providing for contingencies. Following his old precedent, I took the precaution of placing men within the American Fleet. Under the (racial) circumstances, I chose not to be a slave to tradition, although there was an irresistible opportunity to place a wily old dacoit in the kitchen staff of the New Jersey battleship. Instead, I bought retainers from those "men of respect" with whom I have had to dally in the course of certain relations with our friend. An acquaintance of a friend --but, again, you surely know the story. 

I have always rather liked some aspects of this. It makes me feel quite the benevolent squire when I  relieve the fears of men who have fallen into gangsters' hands. A cynic would add that it wins an extra measure of loyalty. (Unless they have seen those recent Hollywood productions where the suave, rich man is more to be feared than the gangsters who bring you to him.)

Unfortunately, the human material is imperfect. At least they are not truculent tinderboxes, like the run-of-the-mill hoodlum, but they are naive, and I should like to groom them more before placing much reliance on them. Hopefully, I shall not have to do so, and will instead activate the connection in distant years to come for less dangerous matters. For it is hardly clear which way they will jump when they are asked to do things that appear . .  . unpatriotic, and I am not sure I want men who would not scruple so. At least in this employment. Certainly I cannot frankly tell them that, as Grandfather said, he gave up masterminding the  fall of Western Civilization  in the moment he saw the casualty returns for the first day of the Somme, on the grounds that, in the face of the fine job that Western Civilisation was doing of bringing itself down, the family's proper role lay in cushioning the fall for its members.

As to your charge, I sat Mr. Murphy down and we have gone over the finances of the proposed sub-division. I honestly had not considered building on the roadside land. It is rather farther from town than the land I planned on giving over, and Michael has high hopes of restoring its former fertility if we can only control manure runoff in the creek. Still, your wishes are my command, and I was rather impressed with Mr. Murphy's bank statement. 

In retrospect, I should not have been, considering how much overtime he (and his wife, before her confinement) have worked in the last two years. Knowing what he can afford gives me -or us-- something of a guideline for the size of the lots, as well. Now I wonder whether I was too hasty in planning to dispose of the lower land as residential properties. Americans do not like to rent out their houses, and for reasons I will explain below, I am becoming increasingly more anxious about maintaining our rental revenues. Perhaps there is a future in commercial real estate development just outside the city, or in more-easily managed situations, as in a case that I am contemplating now in  Vancouver

As for the Murphys, I am confident that they will be very nice  houses. You can tell that to the person who inspired the request. (Oh, yes, I know the influence at work!) 

This brings me to the final matter about which you were most anxious, Reggie. Your son's trip to Sacramento went well, and there was no scandal. Rather to the contrary, the Lincoln by all accounts ran smoothly and the trip was almost boring. In fact, your son is frustrated, since Lieutenant A.'s ancient roadster broke down, leading to what was by all accounts quite an adventure. Yet, for some reason, the girls appear more taken with Lieutenant A., who comes across the scrappy and resourceful young man, while your son is written off as a spoiled boy, and any protest to the effect that he rebuilt the car with his own hands is deemed "conceited." I try to nod wisely and offer gruff, manly advice about the wisdom of saying less and doing more, but the boy misses his father.

On a more serious matter, a most unexpected turn of events. A bundle of Doctor McLoughlin's papers were indeed in the archives at Sacramento, in papers from the dissolved Indian Affairs agency of Yerba Buena. The largest piece is a bundle of copybooks for letters having to do with the Doctor's official dealings, but Lieutenant A intervened to arrange for a photographic copy of the whole, and I have seen some brief extracts that indicate that there are also copies from the Doctor's patent book and the Company's Yerba Buena indentures. The former have some potential for leveraging difficult land transactions, as you and I and "Cousin H. C." know from using our copies.

The latter are more tricky. Some of the issued indentures are still about, and Wong Lee recalls using them to secure birth certificates for some followers in 1919. The indentures originally simply "invented" acceptable identities for  men of our old crews who wanted to engage to work in the country with all the cynicism of the age. "T'ang Way Kwok, also know as Joseph Maria Gomez," you know the drill. The relevance to the old bureau was, obviously, that some of the new identities were Mexican Californian Indian. The problem in sorting it out is that the indenture books are certainly not organised by the race or religion of the lascars, much less the pretended race! I will not be easy in mind knowing that this document has been sitting in the state archives for seventy years until I have seen the full, developed roll.

Never mind. It matters very little to me that "Miss V.C." has discovered a real lead. I very much doubt that she has the sophistication to use it, and it is absurd to think that she needs it. "Lieutenant A," and the Engineer, are another matter.  Did he suspect the fasicle's existence? How else put the Lieutenant on its trail? This is a mystery, and so is his purpose.

Ah, well. We shall deal with it. Somehow. And I shall endeavour to calm myself by continuing my newsletters.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Postblogging Technology, March 1943: An Appendix About Flooded Basements (Any Port in a Storm)

A Fortune ad. You can tell because there are Black people in it.

I had a friend in graduate school, much smarter than I, who used to love to sing "The Leaving of Liverpool," although he probably was referencing a version with more gravitas than a dance mix. (When the 70s London punk acquired gravitas I leave to the reader. Probably when its fans got old and nostalgic. Btw.) In the end, we'd both have been better to ship off in a "floating hell." At least Captain Burgess is hiring. There is also the matter of the slice-of-life anecdote from Time about the American troops finding favour by draining the basement of a stately home of England and recovering the squire's favourite brass hunting horn. A flooded basement is not good for a house, and it really is telling that there was no alternative to the generosity of some bivuoaced troops. That kind of thing can't be good for the housing stock, although it is not like that sort of thing is unique to Britain. Vanport was swept away in 1948, rather than the spring of 1944, but it has its parallels.  

At this modern dead end, it is well worth contemplating why there's a clipper bound for California in the Liverpool docks for a man to sign onto. Yes, Oregon is not California, but work with me here. 1944 is going to give way to 1947. There will be a housing boom in California, and the loss of the homes of Vanport will just push customers into the Portland market. Meanwhile, a shortage of housing is a crisis in Britain. What makes up the difference? 

For one thing, there is the "X" factor pushing up the building rate in California. What could it be?

It's probably not impossible to guess that I have a theory, and that there's a reason that I punctuate two ads with meditations on graduate school. My provincial premier just announced, for approximately the millionth time, that we have a "looming skills shortage" in this province. It must be true. I'm 49, and I've been hearing it all my life.*

A little sarcasm directed at the "skills shortage" mantra aside, that cannot be the explanation. I want to argue that wartime skills acquisition and new tools  boosted the Californian construction rate to record levels, but have to deal with the difference between the Californian and British experience.

Is the difference real? After all, insert very tired old "Chinese character" joke here. Yes, I think that it is real enough. Emphasis on think here: home building served as a stimulus to the American economy in the late 1940s. It was a major stimulus to the economy of interwar Britain, notably in the southeast, the main target of the Blitz. If a shortage of housing is simply a demand for investment, it ought to be an economic stimulus. The greater the shortage, the greater the stimulus. That it was not tells us something about the nature of the immediate postwar British economy that I am not really qualified to comment upon. 

What is true is that the area was also the communications area for the largest, most costly military campaign in history, that the full implications of this have not even begun to be teased out, that the labour that ought to have been pumping out basements was elsewhere, and that a whole lot of routine maintenance is being neglected. The whole damn thing requires more investigation than it's had. Today's introductory exploration is directed at exploring where the missing labour went. (That is, it is going to be a talk about Overlord logistics when it gets going.) But I find that I have quite a lot of underbrush to clear first, and that, happily, lets me do an image-heavy posting about Cool Stuff instead of whether the amount of concrete consumed by the Mulberry ports was "significant."