Sunday, December 31, 2017

Postblogging Technology, November 1947, I: Warmongering


Dear Sir:

You'll pardon me if I'm not my usual, chatty self, as I've just had the news that Mr. Rank's problems (which I notice are not in today's press, but will turn up next time) are somehow our problems. Or, my problems! And I am to fly across the Atlantic as soon as class is out to go up to Marleybone and rescue the money that we only spent in the first place because of the silver opportunity? It's just so silly. I'm not even sure it's the money so much as the legal rights to your grandfather's "story" (As interpreted by S.R.)
Is this offensive or camp?

I know you had nothing to do with this. I have it from my Dad, and even he is apologetic, so I can guess that my Mom is behind it, and the fact that it came out the day after we had our talk about me going back to Chicago for Christmas pretty much seals the deal. She was all on about how A. could stay at the house now that he was my fiancé and all, and it was all I could do to tell her that if she liked the man so much, she could marry him. (Except that she's so taken by the idea of having an admiral's grandson in the family that she probably would. I've tried to explain that he's a Texan, but he's learning to fake an "public school" accent with the best of them, and apparently that washes the Texan right off of you.)

I had so wanted to spend Christmas in Santa Clara with everyone, and now I get to spend it. . . Well, I can't fight my parents, so another holiday season down, another horrid flight across the Atlantic. I hve only one request from you, and it's a small thing. I don't want to fly British this time. Please, please, take an interest with whoever is arranging this, and see that I have a Pan Am booking, preferably a Constellation. I would talk to Uncle George, but then it would . . . Well, anyway, I'm looking to you to be my white knight in this, just as Mr. R. ended up being last year. 

Yrs in desperation,

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, IV: Harness Racing, Equestrianship, Oxhide Ingots and Coins

Olives are the definition of the Mediterranean diet. They also need to be cured in salt or lye. This isn't very relevant to this post, but it is your weekly reminder of the importance of the primordial chemical industry to subsistence agriculture during the EIA.
So my Christmas-New Years schedule is up, and when I started this post, I had some writing time during the down weeks at the store where I am currently working, which serves the UBC community. That took some pressure off in regards to long posts, leaving me to do a progress report towards this "Sacred Spring" series, this week.

Now, of course, I do not. On the bright side, my employer has conceded that it mishandled the process of reallocating employees from two stores that have been closed for renovations. I'm sure you don't want to hear the details, and I will draw a veil over the whole embarrassing exercise by pointing at one of our competitors --a major national corporation, which paid its CEO $8.5 million in 2015-- CEOs with buyouts of $15 million and $25 million paid in the millions-- defending itself on charges by blaming middle management, and fixing the price of bread for the last decade and more by offering everyone a free $25 gift card. It's not that I don't believe that middle management at Loblaws/Weston Bread didn't realise that price coordination is wrong. That seems par for the course in an industry that can take a week and a half to realise that no stores are ordering cranberries at Christmas because of a software issue, and not because it's  a wacky thing that's happening for no reason at all that no-one can fix. It's that I no longer have five days off after New Years to write. And while the company now owes me three weeks off with pay, I have no idea when that's going to happen, or what that means for my writing "schedule."

This would be a good time to nail down the horse problem, at least.

Prevalent from 1500-1200, disappearing after 1000, and cast to be easily carried in a pack saddle. Interesting. By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Technical Appendix to Postblogging, October, II, with Segue to the Early Iron Age Rebirth of the State: Axial Compressors, Smelting and Bullion

In October of 1947, the owners of one of the first industrial axial compressors ever built, donated it to the Science Museum, Kensington, London. After a long and honourable career smelting lead, beginning in 1909, it would have an afterlife enlightening museum visitors on, uhm, axial compressing. 

 This is another axial compressor application, the Bristol Olympus, as used in the Avro Vulcan V and the Aerospatiale Concorde :

CC BY-SA 3.0,
If, like me, you waste valuable morning writing hours dallying on the Internet, you may have encountered Stumbling and Mumbling's discussion of "technological regress," the opposite of technological progress. It uses the Concorde as one example of this regress. You may have also encountered the commentators arguing that it isn't really technological regress, since Concorde was expensive, and now flying is cheap. This, of course, would be a perfectly plausible argument were the Olympus and Concorde incapable of improvement. Which I guess they are! Certainly, we can't afford the R&D and capital investment effort to improve them, so we'll have to settle for being able to use our personal entertainment centre during our twenty hour flights to Asia.

At risk of indulging my worst habits of digression and irrelevance, I want to quote now from a forgettable space opera by the high-powered 50s duo of Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, called Search the Sky. It's up at Project Gutenberg if you want to read the rest of it. 
Ross stood on the traders’ ramp, overlooking the Yards, and the word kept bobbing to the top of his mind.
. . . .
About all of Halsey’s Planet there was the imperceptible reek of decay. The clean, big, bustling, efficient spaceport only made the sensation stronger. From where he stood on the height of the Ramp, he could see the Yards, the spires of Halsey City ten kilometers away—and the tumble-down gray acres of Ghost Town between.
Ross wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t a man given to brooding, but the scent of decay had saturated his nostrils that morning. He had tossed and turned all the night, wrestling with a decision. And he had got up early, so early that the only thing that made sense was to walk to work.
And that meant walking through Ghost Town. He hadn’t done that in a long time, not since childhood. Ghost Town was a wonderful place to play. “Tag,” “Follow My Fuehrer,” “Senators and President”—all the ancient games took on new life when you could dodge and turn among crumbling ruins, dart down unmarked lanes, gallop through sagging shacks where you might stir out a screeching, unexpected recluse.
But it was clear that—in the fifteen years between childhood games and a troubled man’s walk to work—Ghost Town had grown.
2Everybody knew that! Ask the right specialists, and they’d tell you how much and how fast. An acre a year, a street a month, a block a week, the specialists would twinkle at you, convinced that the acre, street, block was under control, since they could measure it.
Ask the right specialists and they would tell you why it was happening. One answer per specialist, with an ironclad guarantee that there would be no overlapping of replies. “A purely psychological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. A vibration of the pendulum toward greater municipal compactness, a huddling, a mature recognition of the facts of interdependence, basically a step forward....”
“A purely biological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. Falling birth rate due to biochemical deficiency of trace elements processed out of our planetary diet. Fortunately the situation has been recognized in time and my bill before the Chamber will provide....”
“A purely technological problem, Mr. Ross. Maintenance of a sprawling city is inevitably less efficient than that of a compact unit. Inevitably there has been a drift back to the central areas and the convenience of air-conditioned walkways, winterized plazas....”
Yes. It was a purely psychological-biological-technological-educational-demographic problem, and it was basically a step forward.
Ross wondered how many Ghost Towns lay corpselike on the surface of Halsey’s Planet. Decay, he thought. Decay.
But it had nothing to do with his problem, the problem that had kept him awake all the night, the problem that blighted the view before him now
I have no idea where Pohl and Kornbluth stole the nightmare of the abandoned blocks of the Ghost Town of Halsey City from, although Fortune's big, wartime articles on "urban blight" come to mind, ahead of the expressways and housing projects that, as it turns out, made it all worse. It's the special miracle of juvenile readings that they stick with you for life, and I am often reminded of the glib specialists of Halsey's Planets when I read that:

 "Concorde was never the future. It was always the last gasp of an outdated conception of blue-riband travel reserved for the elite (which lives on in the space travel dreams of Branson and Musk). Progress in aviation has meant democratisation - more people being able to fly - which has required significant technological progress, just not the sort focused on raw speed or "elegance". 
(Although the rest of his points have merit.)

I am also reminded that there is nothing more normal than for an archaic state to fail. The extraordinary thing about the Late Bronze Age failure of the state and the /Early Iron Age revival, is that the state roared back with a vengeance, on the strength of a dazzling array of innovations. Until I am persuaded otherwise, I am taking iron, and the related/necessary exploitation of temperate, wet forestland, as the key innovation, but that is not the one I am talking about today!  

Archaic Corinthian stater, so old that it spells the city's name with a "Q," as they did back in the day. That is, key point, well before the electrum Lydian issue of Alyattes II that still gets pride of place as the "first" coinage.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Postblogging Technology, October 1947, II: Queen of the Seas

R_. C_.,

Dear Sir:

I've sent along a thank you note through the post, but I that's not enough for such a beautiful present. Vivian and Carole almost died with jealousy when I tried it on for them, not that I noticed such things! If I were not the best dressed girl on campus before, well. . . .

I should also thank you for the chance to wear it out! I doubt A. could have got us invitations there. I don't know what it says that you can be in San Francisco for my 21st, and my parents can't! But you have already heard me out so patiently that I won't bother you again. Nor will I bother you again about what you talked about with A. after dinner. Spy stuff? Don't worry about talking in front of me, I am very discrete, and have almost no friends named Ivan or Katyusha!

Further on spy stuff, Mrs. C. is upset that she has been called back part-time to cover wiretaps of a certain unnamed "institution that is concerned with Pacific affairs at a university whose nickname starts with B." I do not think she is committed in her heart to official secrecy, not that I blame her given that she is being torn away from her baby to type out banal, English conversations. At least, she says, they could find a Russian or Chinese spy to spy back on.

If they have any, she adds, glaring at A. My fiancĂ© shrugs his shoulders at that, and just says, "Washington." No one cares about it now, but if the President's rise in the polls continues through next November, expect to see this stuff back in the news, he says.  

Yrs Sincerely,

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, III: Folk of Bronze and Iron

Kaywoodie Pipes, by S. P. Franks. This link has more details, at least as long as it lasts.
Call this an evidence-marshalling post, collecting up material that will eventually be given a more coherent form in a recap post in, oh, say, 2020, along with any of my wild conjectures that do not turn out to be  hopelessly extravagant and ill-informed. (The others will be silently forgotten, of course.)

Also, call it a concession to reality: there's no way I'm getting my last techblogging post for November ready this week. Evidence-marshalling requires a light editorial hand, so this will be a brief exercise, after which I should be back at sea in no time! 
Before I go, all cryptic-like, below the fold, the evidence here will be archaeological, except insofar as I engage with an extremely bold essay on the Iguvine Tablets by John Wilkins in Malone and Stoddart, eds., Territory, Time and State. Thus this will be a discussion of sites rather than sweeping conclusions, except insofar as I succumb to the temptation to find and highlight evidence to support my notions. And, of course, since he so boldly goes out on so many limbs, of  

The three associated Final Bronze Age sites of Frattesina di Rovigo, Mariconda and Montagnana in Venetia;
The "establishment" at Mailhac in Aude (pdf);
The "proto-historic oppidum" of Roque-de-Viou;
The alpine valley of Gubbio in Umbria, Italy, which last is documented in the already-cited collection, so no convenient links. 

Also, setting himself on fire in public doesn't seem to have attracted the world's attention to Dr. Wilkins, so no handy link there.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Postblogging Technology, October 1947, I: The Farmer Feeds Them All

R_. C_.

Dearest Uncle:

You write to ask how I am settling in here in the Tall Trees, and to inquire after my fiance. I'm sure that you've heard that A. was in town to escort me at Homecoming, and make a show for my friends: the tall and handsome, red-headed Navy hero turned international man of mystery and all, but then the tipped punch bowl told the story of the same old A., however. I'm afraid that I stormed off in some anger and left poor B. to help him clean up. 

B., if you were wondering, was in town because she and I  went up to San Francisco for some shopping earlier in the day. The Lincoln is acting up, and so I was most grateful for the ride. We met Mrs. C. and had quite an enjoyable afternoon doing girl's stuff, before she had to dash home to relieve the babysitter. Queenie wasn't up for joining us, but we had lunch with her in Chinatown.

DIM SUM! How could I live to see "21," and not know about this? In my family! Who is responsible for this horrible neglect? Who? Then, as is my all-too common habit, I dashed into the "morgue" far too close to closing, so I can't be sure there is an obituary I didn't find, but "Puter" is not a common name. Now I wonder where else I should look. Oregon? Canada?

Yours Sincerely,

P.S. Just heard about Reggie being invited to the course at London! So exciting! I've asked him not to fly over --New Years is just far too late in the year for Atlantic flying-- but it wouldn't hurt for him to hear it from his father, as well.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, II: How Far Can We Go? Collapses and Populations

This material largely revisits earlier discussions, but if I restate, I hope that I do so more clearly, and lay down the cards upon which I hope to win the hand.

Struggling with a labour shortage is not a new thing for my employer, but the last time was before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and I do not recall it being anything like so bad. We were having problems finding cashiers, then, and "not enough cashiers" is a very, very different problem from not having the staff to open departments. So, even though last week's post was motivated by a probe of the old soap making industry that led from glycerine recovery boilers to the potash and soda trades, it was the idea of talking about  the Early Iron Age recovery from the Late Bronze Age Collapse that inspired me to take a hand. On the one hand, if "secular stagnation" is a recurrent phenomena, perhaps something that happened repeatedly in the earliest states on very short timeframes, as James Scott and Norman Yoffee have argued, then there is something to be said for interrogating past episodes of recovery.

This is a particularly interesting episode. Historiography has never been entirely comfortable with a clean slate beginning, even if it has to elide into cosmogony. So even though we might think that we are to be left with archaeology, there is always some kind of accounting, and this is particularly true, and particularly interesting, for the Early Iron Age.

From Dido and Aeneas: A Choreographic Opera: The art credits "Reuben Willcox, Virgis Puodziunas, Michal Mualem," which is interesting, considering that they're all boys, and I think I see a girl, something I'm actually fairly good at doing, male gaze and all that. (On the basis of the IMDB credits, I think she might be Clementine Deluy?)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Soap, Ash and Hope Chests: The Iron Age Revival of the State

It was, perhaps, just before Year 1 of the New Era of Ramesses XI, the age of the Whm Mswt, the Era of the Renaissance, that the foreigner, Nessamun, cozened a few gullible masons into joining him in breaking into the tomb of Ramesses VI and removing a cauldron of bronze and three bronze washing bowls. I say "perhaps," because it is likely that the trial was the cause celebre leading to the purges that lie behind the New Era. It certainly wasn't about protecting the tombs, which would be systematically opened and their goods removed, with the sacred mummies deposited in the Deir el-Bahri cache, along with an apology so unctuous that clarified butter would not melt in its mouth. 

When a civil war needs to be funded, piety has to take a back seat; and a civil war that has no end, has no resolution, because there is no state to resolve it. Not until Adad-nirani succeeded to the throne of his father in 911BC did a state arise to trouble the nucleated, strong-man ruled cities of the Middle East, each with their vague spheres of influence. I do not doubt that I am putting things too strongly, but it does remain the case that for two and almost three centuries, human society in the Mediterranean basin had done without the states that had arisen in the Late Bronze Age to make war and diplomacy against each other. I also do not doubt that this stateless era was something short of a paradise.

I do, however, know that I am going in this afternoon to work the third of eight shifts in a row at a grocery store that can no longer open its produce department with its own staff during vacation weeks. Nor can I complain about my shift to a manager who is called in during her own vacations. Since this is a grocery store situated square at the University of British Columbia's gates, and dependent on student labour for decades, I would be inclined to point a finger at my alma mater's deceptive enrollment practices, were it not for hearing the same complaints from Control Temp people and the Frito-Lay sales rep. Either we find a catchy label to reconceptualise our times and make our problems go away, or we loot Pharaoh's tomb and call it a country. 

I'd strain at some kind of argument about how an era doesn't recognise its pyramids until they're pointed out by foreign tourists, but instead I'll just post another picture of the Vancouver School of Theology-turned-School-of-Economics. Even back in the day when I used to look at the back side of this place from my Gage Tower window, VST mainly subsisted as a residence hall for people kicked out of the official UBC system. Since they were usually disciplinary issues, living at what was ostensibly a theological college, the mind boggles, the more so since I actually knew some of them. Since I don't think that UBC Residences can afford to have disciplinary cases any more, it's understandable that the Administration would want VST off their land. The president's statement in the linked press release has the familiar tone of "we need a new asset portfolio as we moves into the not-actually-existing phase of our institutional existence," which is not an uncommon problem in these sad, latter days. On the other hand,  obviously the Economics Department deserves to hang out in a cathedral in the "theological area" of campus. Good God, guys. 

Or we could solve the problem. Given that that seems unpossible in this diminished day and age, it's look at one place where it was solved. Just to simplify things, and to use some reading I've done anyway, since the whole point of belabouring my work schedule is to rationalise a time-saving post, let's look at Provence, from the last third of the Eighth Century to the late Fifth. (730--480BC, more-or-less.)

That means that I'm cheating, inasmuch as there is no pre-existing state order in the area to reconstruct, but of course I'm cheating. This post is not going to get done if I linger. (Possible LBA/EIA proto-states in Provence: (1, 2, 3).

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Postblogging Technology, September 1947, II: Parthogenetic Drones

R_., C.,
Vancouver, Canada

Dearest Uncle:

I think Reggie told you that I was taking these letters over for the winter? He's off in far away Massama --Massachatus --Massassa --however you spell it! And he found these letters too much of a drag on his studies, whereas I'm flitting through the Moderns here at a junior college where they don't even give out degrees. (Kidding, and if you ever make fun of Stanford back to me, I may not be able to guarantee being a member of the gentle sex!) So I am on the job until May! I'd tell you all about my exciting life, but it would boil down to my fiance and I having a very tense meeting with my parents, followed by the red-eye back to San Francisco, followed by Wong Lee very kindly driving me down to campus so that I could take in my very first lecture of the second week of classes. French literature. By a pompous --Oh, I just could --Well, a proper girl doesn't use those words! So I haven't much to report on that score. This weekend, hopefully, I will have time to get up to the city and see everybody, and I will have a complete report on how everyone is doing for you next time!

Yours sincerely,


I've never liked the "Yours Sincerely" close because of the way that it implies the possibility that the writer is being insincere. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, August 1947: The Science of Cozy

Because honestly, The Engineer: Who wants to hear about heating houses in August? Or a really hot, summery Vancouver September, for that matter.

Speaking of the month of school starts and new beginnings: September, 1945. "The last corner before home."

The "last corner" a returning veteran rounds before seeing his actual home, after all those long, weary weeks of travel back from Europe/Okinawa/practically anywhere on Earth.*

At the time this picture appeared, people were probably looking forward to the biggest and wildest American holiday season, ever. If so, they were disappointed. Retail spending numbers were good, but the story was one of silence: houses bright and warm, but for family, not wassail. Maybe it was the suffering experienced by so much of the rest of the planet that put a damper on the festivities.

Maybe it is just a perception born of the first signs of the post-cost-plus advertising crunch. What I'm going for in this introduction is the idea that Thanksgiving and Christmas '45 were intensely private, bourgeois affairs: a moment to gather around a hot stove and bridge those lost Best Years of Our Lives. Private --and warm.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Postblogging Technnology, September 1947: Drilling Sideways

R_. C_.,
_. Roxborough Crescent,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Dad:

I hope that you're not too surprised to get this addressed from Hawaii, although it looks like I'll be putting a Denver postmark on it, as I'm not going to be done with Fortune much before then. 

The reason is that I was kept late to do some silly experiments with rockets on water skis that I think might be going on the Navy's answer to the Saro SR.A/1. As for why the Navy needs an answer to the Saro SR.A/1, maybe they're tired of all the "dashes" in the plane names and want to try a slanty slash? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. Fortunately, it counts as class credit or something, and all I have to worry about now is missing the first four(!) partial differential equation lectures. I've looked at the textbook (when I'm not looking at a fascinating article about tapping the oil reserves of shalebeds by drilling into them horizontally), and it looks like I'm going to regret this b.s.

If you're wondering why I'm missing four lectures in the first week of classes, it is because I am changing trains so that I can drop off a package with V.N., who will be taking over these letters for the school year so that I can focus on mystery maths. 

Oh: And I told you not to worry. The bear-cub-in-the-president's-house is being dismissed as a prank, and even if the College Man catalogues his private papers sometime soon, he's not even going to notice that he's missing a page from the Agent's letterbook because it's not one he cares about. (Leafing through, I see that he hasn't destroyed the telegram to the school about his departure. Without something from the other side, we can't exactly prove that the College Man arrived at his uncle's school from the Colville  Reservation and not Iowa, but I don't think we care about that, do we?) With the page we do have, we can now prove that Mr. Johnston's mother was. . . 

I know what you're going to say! After we blackmailed the poor man about his father, is it really sporting to do the same over his mother? Point is, we're not. We're going to produce the letter as evidence that "A.'s" source for warmed over gossip about Hollywood Communists is from Johnston, and not Mr. Brookstein denouncing old Trotskyites. If anyone cares (because all "A.s" bosses want is to be able to discredit Hoover's boys if they get anything juicy. I mean, honestly. Actors and makeup artists who used to be communists? Yawn.) The point is, because A.'s "connection" is to Stanford, V.N. has to go back there! Wouldn't want to jeopardise the future son-in-law's career, now, would you?

I know, I know. Seems dashed clever to me, too.

Yr Loving Son,

Saturday, October 14, 2017

An Intermittently Technical Appendix to Thalassocracy, 3: Bonanza Farms, Smokeless Powder and Endorheic Basins

This is a post about asymmetries of power, the globalisation of the grain trade, and the parts of the world where waters flow down to inland seas. It's less polished than I'd like it to be, because I have to go and put Driscoll Farms-brand strawberries out now. They're being shipped from California in big trucks, and since we can't stop the supply pipeline, we have to keep pushing, or they'll fill up our cooler. And we need the space! The Central Valley is, admittedly, not an endorheic basin, but close enough.
Anyway. . . 
Farmer's two-novel "Opar" series has a disproportionately long Wikipedia article, for those feeling nostalgic.
It's been a long time since I've read Philip Jose Farmer's Hadon of Ancient Opar books, but I do remember that they're a riff on a rationalisation of the lost city of Opar in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. Burroughs' Opar is a former Atlantean (the original thalassocracy!) colony stuck in the middle of Africa, somehow. Tarzan goes there from time to time and . . has adventures. Adventures that allow Burroughs to comment on race in America in interesting ways. I'd say more, but I wasn't kidding about the length and detail of the Wikipedia articles on the subject. Nostalgia for the win! Anyway, Farmer's novels explain Opar by proposing that Atlantis was actually a prehistoric civilisation established around inland seas that once existed in two enormous  endorheic basins in the interior of northern Africa. Again, I'm a little hazy on the details, but I think that Farmer proposes that the water impounded in the basins eventually found its way to the Atlantic, causing Atlantis to be destroyed, not by flooding, but by having its sea drained away? Something like that is supposed to have happened in the intramontane Great Basin of the American West at the end of the last Ice Age, although, as far as I know, geologists do not currently believe that the Lake Chad Basin and adjacent endorheic basins in northern Africa were ever flooded (Map below the fold). Though eyewitness accounts of  pre-50-million-years-ago period are sparse and unreliable. 

The endorheic basins of Africa, whether flooded or not, are natural formations rather than largescale geoengineering. There are two reasons that I'm starting out with Farmer, anyway. The first is that it gives me an excuse to have some Roy Krenkel art in the thumbnail. The other is that I'm pretty sure that the first book starts with an historical introduction that describes a conjectured former channel connecting a sub-sea level depression within these larger endorheic basins to the Atlantic. I'm not entirely sure, but this sounds like Donald Mackenzie's 1877 scheme for an artificial inland sea in the southern Sahara, created by dredging out the sand blocking the channel at the coast in the region of "El Djouf." (Like a great many other African geological fantasias of the age, El Djouf barely exists.) I don't know anything about the Mackenzie scheme apart from what Wikipedia has told me, but, again, Roy Krenkel art.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

On Thalassocracy, III: Warrior And Wheat

Lake Sidi Ali, in the Moroccan Atlas, 2000m above sea level. So not quite the Sahara Sea.
Thucydides said, early in his Peloponnesian War, that Minos of Crete was first of those to exert thalassocracy, a rulership of the seas. I--

Oh. You're wondering why I'm on about this. October is Thanksgiving month in Canada, and I'm not going to be able to do any techblogging unless I win some time by reusing old material, and it happens I have a grotesquely self-indulgent, 72pp chapter on technology and science and the Nineteenth Century and stuff that I think I can trim down into an interesting post about bonanza wheat lands. Since it also happens that there was a minor flurry of activity around my last "thalassocracy" post, it's a sequel. (Also, I'm eagerly waiting for a "thalassocracy" to make its appearance in Graydon's Commonweal series, so consider this a bit of a fan tribute, even if my take on sea power is unlikely to be his.)

Technology! Maybe someone's riff on the Theseus black sail/white sail myth?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Surprisingly Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, August 194: Sealion Away!

Pearl Primus: Please pretend this amazing picture is somehow relevant to coal shortages in the United Kingdom in 1947. 
Operation Sealion was the German "plan" for invading the United Kingdom in the summer of 1940, of which all that needs to be said, was said to me long ago by Mr. Kristiansen: "Shut up, kid." Millwrights may not know counterfactual history, but they've been around enough fights in their time to know what's what, best army versus best navy department. 

However! Sealion was only a "plan" because the German navy and air force already had a plan, which was to place the entire United Kingdom under strategic siege and strangle it to death. On 21 August 1947, came irrefutable evidence that the strategy was working, as Britain abruptly cancelled the first steps already made to full convertibility from pounds sterling to dollars [pdf].  A year later, devaluation of the pound would signal Raeder and Goering's final victory. Three years after the end of the war.
Good hustle!
We know the basic outlines of the crisis: Britain was not earning enough dollars from exports to pay for imports from the hard currency dollar countries. In spite of the firm conventional wisdom that American manufacturing was hypertrophied at the end of the war due to the collapse of the competition, in fact Britain was going into debt buying mainly food and tobacco, while trying to pay for it by exporting machinery.* Britain would have been a great deal better off if it still had the robust coal exports that had enriched the nation in Victorian times, especially since a European coal shortage made for a robust market. It would also have been better off if it could  have run its domestic manufacturing sector at full bore, but in the winter of 1947, a domestic coal shortage wreaked havoc on industrial production. One of the reasons for drastic action in August of 1947 was the fear that the misery of the previous winter would recur. 

Infant sitting on a coal wagon. Alex J. Robertson, The Bleak Midwinter 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Nimrod Was The First Of Those Who Were Mighty On the Earth: The 77mm HV, Technological Progress, And the 1940 Counterfactual

History is, as I never tire of saying, a floating referent. It's never entirely clear where to start, and, in the case of a counterfactual, it is even harder. Hypothetical questions about historical counterfactuals are happening right now, over on Quora.Com, so they are very much questions of 2017. (Just to remind you, the framing counterfactual for this occasional series is,  "What if the Commonwealth armed forces of 1940 were armed like the 21st Army Group on 11 May 1945?") (Also.)

On the other hand, the response is very much to Correlli Barnett's Audit of War, a book that came out in March of 1986, per Paul Addison's review, much linked to from here as an explanation of that book, which the reader may  have forgotten about, or never known. On the other hand again, Audit signifies around here as a programmatic manifesto of Thatcherism, and Dame Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, seven years before Audit was published. On the other hand again, Thatcher was famously "a research chemist before she became a barrister," while Barnett had been a military historian/media pundit since the 1960s. Although you'll have to take my word for this, since I am not going to engage the ideas behind Audit in any more detail than is necessary to trace its impact, Audit was exactly what an English research-chemist-turned-barrister born in 1924 in the Midlands would have produced had she turned into an ancestral voice prophesying war, as opposed to, say, a Prime Minister. 

 Finally, just to throw on one more guiding metaphor onto an already unwieldy mass, I have talked about the idea of "Technology Levels," as used in the classic 1977 tabletop roleplaying game, Traveller. I'll come back to "Tech Levels" at the end of this discussion. For now, suffice it to say that they were originally intended to be descriptive. Your party lands on a planet; do the natives, who know you Pappenheimers, shoot back with bows and arrows, or hand-carried fusion blasters? A single number in the planet's descriptor tells you! However, they tend to become prescriptive. A blender from a Tech Level 9 world will be 1/16th (don't ask) more effective at blending than one from a Tech Level 8 world. 
The Zhodani are alien humans (don't ask some more) who are very advanced and psionic and stuff; but they're assholes, for RPG balance. Anyway, they invade the Imperium with their high tech ships, which are just better on account of being higher tech level than Imperium ships. 

Traveller comes before Audit, but Barnett's treatment of World War II is a lot like this. Brits used to say (I take Barnett as saying) that they fought World War II at Tech Level, oh, say, 6.5, compared to Germany's 6. In reality, it was 5.5 versus 6.5, Barnett says. He then adds that, had WWII been fought in 1850, instead, it would have been Britain at Tech Level 5 versus Germany at Tech Level 4, and Britain would have won the war even more than it did. 

So, Britain has gone from a Tech Level advantage of 1, to a disadvantage of 0.5 --in my interpretation, of course. Audit purports to show that this is actually the case, while at the same time fingering the culprits. It's a very ambitious book --far too ambitious, in fact. But it does give us a way to think about technological change. My 1940 counterfactual seems, at least to me, like an elegant way to test this idea about technological change.

And by "test," I mean, stuff the demolition chamber with enough RDX to blow up a planet. (Which, by a wacky coincidence, is more-or-less what we're doing.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Postblogging Technology, August 1947, II: At the Stroke of the Midnight Hour

R. C.,
_. Roxborough Crescent,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Dad:

Based on the last package, this will get to you before an envelope, and, anyway, I'm kind of worried about what might happen with a postal letter, so I'll just say this. We (Tommy and me) have a brilliant plan that requires a blond bear cub and those sedatives. I understand that it's easy to overdose a bear and have it die on you, but it needs to be really quiet while we're moving it around, and we need it now. Half the Stanford is off on summer vacation, and the N.s took V. around to the University of Chicago to see about registering and transferring credits. Miss Ch. has arranged things so that her registration rolls over at Stanford, but her parents' cheque needs to be in the mail by the middle of next month. (I'm not even going to get into the idea of someone else paying. It would kill her parents.) 

We could also use any files the family might have from the heist at Colville by return courier. It's even more urgent than the bear. We've been through the stuff that Bancroft got, and V.'s been through the library at Santa Clara and Coeur d'Alene, but we've never had a complete look at your stuff. Professor K. says that you can often reconstruct the missing parts of an archive from what you actually have. If we know what we're looking for, we can be in and out a lot faster. Maybe we won't even need the bear! 

Your Loving Son,

Friday, September 8, 2017

Postblogging Technology, August 1947, I: "Atmosphere of Slackness"

R_. C_.,
__ Roxborough Crescent,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Dad:

I posted you from Waikiki as soon as I got in, so it's a race between the package and the US Mail. We'll see whether the Hawaiian side of things is as fast as Newhitty! Sounds more exciting than squadron work. While some of my fellow flyboys get to do nothing but see how much power our new ship has, I've been stuck trying to get results out of this wackadoodle magnet-thingie that's supposed to detect submarines! Maybe I'll even break super top-secret when we get the electronics working, but as of right now we haven't even got the trace recorder working in the air! I'd ask them to bring you over, but that'd just get me the old eye roll from the Old Man, so I've requested Tommy, instead. We may not be able to pry him loose of Alaska Command for good, but he should have this thing sitting up and begging for treats in a week or two. 

I don't know if you'd had anything from Newhitty lately? About how Mr. Brookstein is doing, say, or whether V. went back to Chicago with her folks? I hear that A. went down to Vancouver with W.B, who is supposed to be spending time with the future father-in-law. Now that I can't picture, a man's man like him putting up with W.B.'s act for very long! But I hear Mrs. likes him, which is good. I especially need to get in touch with A. Or, anyway, Tommy does, as we have an angle that might help him out in the Service, if you know what I mean. Not Mr. Brookstein (I wouldn't want to put the RCMP) on him, but an angle based on some stories he told me about his LA days. Did  you know he did some work with the SAG? I'm thinking I can call in my favour, get A. a "source." Can't hurt if he's got something he can work with HUAC.

Well, that's it from me for now, Dad. My electronics are ready ---I can smell the smoke at the other end of the ship!

Yr Loving Son,

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Techno-Cultural Appendix to July, 1947: Attack of the Mutants

Sweetbreads poaching for Fried Sweetbreads with Peas and Broad Beans, a recommended recipe for beginners. Google Ads also put Comixology in the sponsored box, which seems to be an authorial decision of which I heartily approve.  (From I'm going to assume that the author's quasi-anonymity is a personal decision.)
Talking about a Legion of Super Heroes story of the 1960s with a particularly obvious homoerotic subtext, Chris Sims once commented on the point where subtext becomes so obvious that it is surtext. As we were reminded this week, what, in connection with hilariously naive comic books is a joke, had an earlier life as the Very Serious Artistic Movement known as Surrealism. 

With surrealism in its death throes in the month that America's middlebrows were introduced to Existentialism as both Very Serious and Very Sexy --the month that the UFO became official, on top of that-- I am very tempted to say something incredibly insightful and pithy about the trends in French intellectual fashion that have washed over North American shores since 1947.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Postblogging Technology, July 1947, II: Apocalypse Real Soon Now!

R_. C_.
__ Roxburgh Crescent,

Dear Dad:

I'll be blowed if I can catch you up on everything that's happened 'round here. The ship turns out to have a cracked spar for sure, so I'm leaving for Hawaii tomorrow via Victoria, but that's the least of it. 

Because who should blow into town last week but A., with the --I know I'm not supposed to give out clues that might blow our code, but I've found a character that won't give the game away if I call V.'s parents, the "Ns." All the "C.s" were getting too gosh-darn confusing! Their story is that they got a  yen to yacht up the Alaska Passage, so naturally they borrowed a boat off of your neighbour. I didn't see anything natural about it at all, and I was a might suspicious to find "W.B." aboard as the deckhand/captain. You may recall him as the lad that Uncle George blackmailed into taking their daughter off their hands, and he really doesn't seem to be the type to swan about Fort Rupert of all places. For the most part he was civil --actually, loads of fun. But when I saw him looking at some of the Chinese and Indian boys, I couldn't help but be glad that Tommy was gone, because I was already thinking something might come up that would remind him that he was Wong Lee's son, and then would all the plans that have been made on W. B.'s head be?

So it turned out to me and Mr. Brookstein who caught W. B. in a boatshed with one of the boys. To his credit, he didn't try to brazen it out, just disintegrated. Turned out Mr. Brookstein knew just the way to put him back together --which should have made me suspicious right there-- while I just followed his line in trying to get the kid somewhere reasonable. It's pretty tough, since neither of us have Cantonese that is what it might be, but in the end I sent him home with a promise not to tell his parents, to recommend him to our local agent, and $60 in his pocket. 

Yes, yes, I do feel pretty low about that, like I've taken my first step down the road to being a brothel keeper, but I honestly couldn't see another way out of it. Then the other shoe dropped, when W. B. came to me that night and told me that Mr. Brookstein was blackmailing him to work for the Cominterm! I should have guessed from how hard the man works with the logger unions . . . 

However, I'm not completely wet behind the ears, so Mr. Brookstein doesn't know that I know A., who, it turns out, arranged the whole trip to recruit W. B. for the American intelligence services! It turns out that they're practically farming out the Mexican office to Mr. N., on the grounds that he's rich and influential and has ties to Mexico and somewhat old money, the meatpacking houses being long forgotten. I'm not sure that's the best qualification for spying on Mexico, but this would make W.B. a potential triple agent (for us!), and I'm not going to quarrel. Another step down the road. . . Well, all of that meant that I had to find a way to buck him up, with all his talk about "God this," and "God that," and I ended up telling him that he'd have to work things out as between God and man for himself.

Which, because he's an idiot, came down to a screaming match with V., after she'd politely and gently dismantled some gibberish about  the native word for cow showing that some Indian tribes were actually Welsh, and thus Caucasian. At the end of it, he was yelling about how much he could tell her about "God and Man" at --his college, can I name it? Probably not. Think "locks," though. And she yelled at him that he should write a book, and he yelled back that maybe he would, and half of bloody Fort Rupert must have been listening in. Not that that's the first drunken fight they've heard from the pub, but V. and W.B. are a great deal more genteel than most. 

You've notice that, in that long story, I've not said anything about the Ns. showing up out of nowhere --with A., yet, after I allowed in my letters that I was in the same county as V. You'll also notice that I started another page with the head of that paragraph. This time, no erasures that might be read by flipping the paper over! Yes, I'm encouraging you to read between the lines, and, no, I do not want this page sent on to Auntie Grace. I think our chances of keeping V. in Stanford are sinking pretty low by now already. 

Yr Loving Son,

The era's right, but I'm going to give a modern performer some exposure. Ha. "Exposure."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Postblogging Technology, July 1947, I: Angels Fifteen

Reginald C.,
Biltmore Hotel,
Los Angeles, California

Dear Father:

This is coming to you via George Wallace again, as I'm still stuck in Fort Rupert looking after my ship. Tommy and Jim left for San Francisco with the electronics in a seaplane from Coal Harbour on the weekend. I thought I was going to get an Air Policeman to stand guard, but now that the electronics are gone, the Chief says I should just hire an Indian to watch it, which I did. We did an x-ray of the wing, which was fun. .It was raining, and the aluminum is slippery. The film's going to be developed in California, at which point we'll know for sure whether the spar is broken. If it is, I have a feeling the Navy is just going to leave the old bird to rot. There's just not much on it that's worth salvaging.

Meanwhile, I got in some fishing last week. I'll be spending this week setting up recording gear at Winter Harbour (Newhitty) for Professor K.'s re-interviews.  The guy who did the original ones is dead, so K. has hired a research assistant and I've been helping her I've been helping out.

Your Loving Son, Reggie.

PS: Because of the channels this is going through, you'll be getting this before Auntie Grace for a change. I notice that some of my strikethroughs have soaked through to the backing page. Could you maybe paint them over before you send this on? I don't want to look all sloppy in front of Auntie.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Technical Appendix for June, 1945: Printing Time

In 1681, a young gentleman of Bologna, Luigi Fernando, Count Marsigli (Imperial Free Counts are a dime a dozen in northern Italy) secured a place in the suite of the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Or, as you were allowed to say without a trace of irony back in the day, the Sublime Porte. The appointment did not last very long, for reasons having more to do with high politics than anything Marsigli did. (Given his biography, he probably did a lot of cruising, but he didn't get into trouble over his private life until he was, like, totally old and gross, so who cares?) In the course of looking for his next job, Marsigli happened to drop a remarkable manuscript on the desk of the then-Emperor (His Sacred Imperial Majesty Caesar, by the Grace of God, Elect Roman Emperor, King of the Germans, Archduke of Austria, etc, etc), Leopold I. It was the Stato Militare dell'Impero Ottomano, and although not the up-to-date, ripped-from-the-archives report on the Ottoman army that it purported to be, it was some first class espionage, and got Marsigli that job, and the rest was history. Weird, eccentric, overwrought history, but history. 

But that's not what's important right now, because I'm talking about the report, which became a book: a profusely illustrated, magnificent volume, photostatically reproduced in the mid-70s as much for its beauty as the historical value of its contents. On the page reproduced above, text and graphics are combined by direct engraving on the copperplate by a master artisan, probably Dutch, in 1730. The reproduction is by the magic of Xerox, as mediated by digital camera work, transmitted through the Intertubes as an ASCII file, and so, from Windows 10 to Blogger to you.

That is printing then, printing now. It's amazing that printing images has gone from a high skilled job (engraving) to a low-skilled one (photocopying) and back to a high skilled one. (Coding. Although anyone can blunder along with the help of a high level blogging app.)

Maybe it's all magic?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Technical Appendix for June, 1947: Hermione Giffard Says, "Cool Your Jets!"

I feel very, very old to know that someone named "Hermione" is a postdoc at Utrecht with a very, very good University of Chicago Press book to her name. Dr. Giffard's Making Jet Engines in World War II isn't just an excellent treatment of the early days of jet production. It is also a meditation on the relationship between invention, development and production. In a neat little turn of phrase, she asks whether Allison's move to press forward with producing its own jet engine design might show that it is "Hard to do development without production," flipping what I would take to be still the controversial and out-there position that "It is hard to do production without development," that is, innovating-by-doing, on its head.

That said, I have a bit more on my plate here. Various Great Minds of the last age said that "God is dead," either hopefully or not, with the notion that it was time to prod the world into a post-Christian morality of some or another kind. Nietzsche and Beckett are my exemplars here, because Nietzsche's prophet is the overman, and who doesn't want to identify with an "overman," and because Waiting for Godot is so ludicrously appropriate.

Because we're waiting for Google.

Whatever you think of my potted literary criticism, at least it serves to frame my mad claim that technological innovation is dead.

The Aeroplane, some time in the middle of July, 1939. Yes, I should keep better notes. The top secret gas turbines are being unboxed by private industry in the far right hand corner, while the Mosquito is trying to get its nose in the door on the bottom left.