Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Talking Around Technology Appendix To Postblogging Technology, September, 1948: Malthus, Soil and Farming

Last time around, I emphasised that there was a "culture-involved talking around technology" issue bound up the discussion of Malthus, ecological collapse, and agricultural productivity in 1948. I could probably frame this in a satisfactorily academic way if I kept up with the literature better, but I'm only human, and, specifically, a human being who worked thirteen of the last fourteen days. Specifically, of course, this is a discussion of agricultural technology. Sorry, no jet fighters. 

"Malthus" here, it seems to me, is, whatever else we make of him as an economic theorist, a way of saying "brown people upset me" without actually saying it. This is a tough thing to say, given that Malthus is also an economic theorist with horse sense to share about what "Hard Times" are, and how they come around. Which is good, considering that there's a tendency in economics to be objectively pro-Hard Times.

"Broke, baby sick and car trouble." By Dorothy Lange

As you might guess, I'm playing with "Hard Times" as a synonym for "a business cycle depression," because I am referencing Stephen Foster's Hard Times Come Again No More. Because I am old, and do not do the Youtube thing very well, it was news to me that  is now the iconic American air. But it is, and I am shoving that amazing fact in the face of fellow old people by embedding the orchestral version from Civilisation VI. Which I will play the moment they get rid of that off-putting, cartoonish art style. 

I do, however, have a faintly logical argument for trying to rehistoricise the concept of a recession, here. After five years of following the business news of the 1940s, it is hardly any surprise that the Malthus/ecological catastrophe nexus that was explored at the American Association for the Advancement of Science is framed by "the Dust Bowl." When the crops failed and the soil flew across a vast area of the southern plains (and not the northern plains, so please try to dissociate "Kansas" and "Dust Bowl") "Hard Times" were forever defined and redefined in the American mind. It was not just the hardships of the actual Dust Bowl. It was also the fact that the  "Okies" fled to California. It is taking all that I have to refrain from embedding either the intro to The Beverley Hillbillies or Al Jolson singing "California Here I Come," ideally in blackface, here. What a conjunction of American myth!

Myth is a powerful tool for integrating the past into a comprehensible narrative. I swear that Conan the Conqueror is a retelling of the 1934 California gubernatorial election, with Xaltotun standing in for Upton Sinclair and Conan for FDR. (Hoover only got to be Kull, which is why Kull is so lame.) I sense that this might be a hard argument to make, but it's something you can do with myth. 

What you should not do with myth is use it as a way of thinking about science.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Partly Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, September, 1948: Peanuts and People

Jute stalks, drying. By Auyon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
We have a bunch of things going on this month on the technology, science, science and technology related politics, and "culture surrounding technology and stuff that influences technology policy" areas of topical interest. (That last probably needs to be punched up into academese.) First, there's straight science and technology, including alternative heating arrangements, a real whole Earth Catalog kind of field about which we've heard ever so much for our entire lives; and artificial fibres from the pre-petroleum age that seem hopelessly old-fashioned and retro. I grew up in a cellulose pulp mill town, so this makes me sad. 

In politics, we have the ongoing "grand schemes of human improvement" thing, which has fixed itself on Africa and focussed on the global shortage of edible fats, to be addressed by a government-sponsored project to erect a commercial peanut agriculture in the inland highlands of what is now Tanzania; and related to this but reaching far beyond it, plans to improve commercial access to those highlands through rail lines running down to the coast in southern Tanzania and the port towns of the former Italian colony of Eritrea.

In science, we have a seemingly coordinated blitz by "Malthusians"/environmentalists at the British and American annual meetings of the Associations for the Advancement of Science. 

Finally, as always in the fall of an American presidential year, we have a great accretion of cruft related to the campaigns, which is sometimes not always recognisable as cruft, and can have serious consequences. Insofar as we recognise them today, the focus is always on anti-communism and the spy scare.Not to spoil future installments, but this Senator McCarthy fellow is going places. However! One of the problems with politically-crafted stories is that we may fail to recognise them in a way that renders them invisible. America is still coming to terms with race and the '48 campaign, which includes not only the Dixiecrat presidential run, but Palestine. And, by "coming to terms with," I apparently mean, "Ignoring real hard." 

This brief meditation on the politics of 70 years ago brings my attention back around to the question of the allocation of the former Italian colonies. This clearly was a political story, because Dewey made a campaign issue of it. It is also related to the "grand schemes" theme. The question is, is there more to it than that? Joseph Philips, of Newsweek, thought so, pointed to what seemed to him a very clear link between the colony question and the Malthusian blitz. As much as I like to make fun of Newsweek's bylined columnists (except Hazlitt, whom I just staight out  hate), this is solid and interesting reporting, and I am going to follow up below.  

I know I promised peanuts, but jute has come up, with a last minute export credit fix to get the jute crop out of "Pakistan," modern Bangladesh. I'm going with jute rather than peanuts in my thumbnail because whenever the subject turns to population, I am reminded of P. J. O'Rourke's 1995 take on overpopulation. The gist of it is that Bangladesh has the same population density as Fresno, California, but is deemed to be overpopulated because it is full of brown people. (Yes, typhoons threaten Bangladesh due to its low relief; but, then, forest fires, Fresno.) O'Rourke makes a hilarious visit to the Ministry of Jute and comes away thinking that Golden Bengal's problems started when bureaucracy was invented. On the other hand, he's at least fair and honest enough to note that jute doesn't sell the way that it did.

The Wikipedia article is a long and somewhat sad sales pitch for jute fibre. A bast fabric like flax linen, jute is made of long cellulose fibres that form in the outer rind of the stems shown drying into straw, above. Because, unlike cotton, no nitrogenated plant matter is removed from the land, jute has a low demand for fertiliser and it grows on flooding land, making good use of the sacrificial zones that protect the delta's dry ground and paddies. In 1948, vast quantities of jute were delivered to mills in Dundee, Scotland, to be woven mostly into carpet and sackcloth. As the BBC article from which I filched this image says, "tastes have changed," and many of those Dundee mills have closed. It was a problem for Bangladesh in 1995, and it is a problem for it now. Tastes have changed, yes; but, also, plastic.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Postblogging Technology, September 1948, II: Go A-Viking

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

Ronnie emphatically did not miss the Standard Oil strike riot,
but doesn't want Reggie to feel guilty.
Well, here I am! It has been a long summer, full of exciting paper work and two fashion shows, which are something else when you are there as a Real Professional Buyer ('s assistant who is mainly there to fetch coffee). 

But you've heard all about my adventures, and about Miss K., because you have been in town every weekend ferrying mysterious packages (of boring five pound notes). Have I mentioned how honoured I was to fill in for you on the last one? 

In case you are wonder, Wong Lee and I missed the riot squad and the strikers by a good hour or so, although a vagrant wind carried some tear gas to us where we were having lunch. on the Embaradero. 

We would regret the time later, as I scheduled my trip for the last day of our lease, and picked up the last of my things to take them down to Stanford, and I do not know if you have ever moved household with nothing but your own labour, and rather more thanks to Wong Lee, who is such a dear, but it takes a long time, and once again I was on the road after dark, and, once again, the Lincoln developed hurt feelings over my driving on the highway, and, once again, I had the distinct pleasure of being towed into a service station, and after a ridiculous wait while the mechanic was summoned from home --for which, do not get me wrong, I am hugely grateful-- my old car's hurt feelings were relieved by kind words, a gentle hand, and, not to put too much faith in beside manners, a new fuel line. 

I was also relieved of my parting bonus, which has me grumpy. What's worse, and the point of this anecdote, I had my bundle of magazines helpfully located just below the suspected leak in the trunk, covering your little package, because the family business is my business, and we do not want our money to get wet. As a result, two issues of Henry Luce's organ were too soaked to be read, and you are being treated to two issues of Newsweek below. The Lincoln is not being treated to the scrap yard, although men I have never met are coming forward to volunteer the advice that it should be. 

Yours Sincerely,

Too proud to admit to having been put in harm's way, not too proud to hint that she wouldn't mind some help getting a new car. We'll hear more about this, as another uncle steps up. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Postblogging Technology, September 1948, I: First Farnborough

(A little early, but Fortune follows up on the home heating industry this month.)

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

Bet you didn't expect to hear from me! Don't worry, Ronnie will be back next week. I've been delayed in Arcata for an extra week. The Institute knows that I am on urgent Navy business. 

Now if I could only convince myself! I know that I have to share some of the blame, but this whole landing-with-radar thing is Not Working Out. This last week of flying is simply to find out if the radar can spot torpedo boats inshore, because Admiral Burke has nightmares about Guadalcanal. Whatever. It means I'm out on the field at all hours, making sure that the damn gadget doesn't catch fire from not working for too long. 

Ronnie is back to Stanford this week. She'll be living at the hall again, as she says her budget will just support it, if she can keep up her tips. Last year for her, then we have to figure out law school somehow. I'll be out, but tuition will be tough to scrape up on a lieutenant's pay. There might be scholarship help, or we have to face up to family facts. Somehow. Do not read that as saying that I have any idea how to bring her parents around! 

So, a few more days of flying, and then it is "Gaudemus Igitur" and two more semesters, then goodbye to old college days, and say hello to your son the Dashing Aviator. (I promise, no actual dashing.)

I am sorry I missed you in your flying trip to San Francisco, and look forward to seeing you in Boston next month. 

Your Loving Son,

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Bishop's Sea: Brattahlid

This is Tasiusaq, Greenland, from Google Maps. Tasiusaq is a settlement of 90 people, surrounded by three sheep farms, and not exactly full of amateur photographers with Internet access, but  "Monica T.," and her friends went there in 2015, and took some awesome pictures, of which this is one. 

If I had to guess why some outsiders might have been in Tasiusaq, it would be its proximity to Qinngua Valley, about fifteen kilometers away. Qinngua Valley is a 15 km long river valley terminating at Tasersuag Lake, which drains into Tasermuit Ford, and is an honest-to-God Greenland National Forest.
By Th. N. Krabbe, Copenhagen, Photographer - Greenland in the late 19th-early 20th century (Th. N. Krabbe Collection), National Museum of DenmarkUploaded by palnatoke, No restrictions,
The actual woodland is only a few acres in extent, and not unique in Greenland, as the Wikipedia article claims.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Greenland Norse-era history of the area is unknown, in spite of the weather, agricultural possibilities, and its centrality in the old Eastern Settlement, but there is a large Norse site at the bottom of the valley. I was directed to it by Dr. Dayanna Knight's recent Viking Nations: The Development of Medieval North Atlantic Identitieswhich several times obliquely refers to a contrarian thesis that Erik the Red's Brattahlid was located there, rather than the traditionally accepted Qassiarsuk on Tunulliarfik Fjord.

Repeated, unexplained, oblique references in a monograph derived from a doctoral dissertation inspire me with the suspicion that Knight is keen to tell a story that couldn't get by her committee. My subsequent investigation leaves me less confident of this first assumption, but, what the heck, it is what directed me down this road, and Knight's commitment to "practice theory" archaeology is interesting, if not well engaged below. I have some photos and maps to post, so here we are. Specifically, we are at the page break.