Saturday, December 26, 2020

Postblogging Technology, September 1950, 2: Pee Before You Go!

Vancouver, Canada.

Dear Father:

September rolls to its end, and with it the peasants' attempt to challenge the mighty United States. I almost feel sorry for them, as though in another world and time it might have been an underdog story. But, in the end, a country of 10 million people couldn't resist the power, and especially air power, of the most powerful country in the world. 

Fortunately for those who like to worry about things, we have the ongoing Menace of Red China, which brings you to your loving daughter-in-law, rusticating in Formosa while we wait for America to do whatever it is going to do here. Besides overfly us and deploy a few hush-hush squadron detachments, that is. With British troops in Korea, it is hard to believe that we're not going to come to some kind of agreement over piracy soon, and then I'll have nothing to do except keep house and write these letters.

Your Loving Daughter,

PS I honestly hope that I get The Economist back soon. I know that I've missed an entire cycle of overtaken predictions of doom, but I'm sure I'll be back in the swing of things in no time. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Postblogging Technology, September 1950, I: "This Calls for Champagne All Around"

Vancouver, Canada

Dear Father:

Here's  your friendly letter from the frontlines of the war-to-come, the land of camphor and oolong tea! If Mao builds a navy, that is. Or needs one, because the Koumintang stops surrendering to the first Red soldier they see. You will be glad to know that we are doing our part. Reggie is pretending to atom bomb China, in hopes that the Reds . . . I don't know. What are we  hoping? That the Reds bomb us first? Meanwhile, I'm a little ahead of the news again, so I've heard of Inchon, which definitely means that America has pulled it out and managed to defeat mighty North Korea. I feel so patriotic! 

Considering some of the things said about Koreans and "Orientals" in the press these last two weeks, I wonder about whether it is some kind of cosmic coincdence that The Black Rose is out, featuring the long ago English hero who brought compasses, gunpowder, and paper to the backwards West. What goes around comes around? Or is this an even more subtle way of belittling Asia? Ronnie has her doubts!

Oh, and you're wondering what I'm doing. Besides doubting, I mean! Learning to cook on a wok and getting to the point where I actually want to see my subscription to The Economist catch up with me. As for yours, I am glad to think that you are already looking ahead to the arrangements for me to resume law school next fall. I've had rumblings from Chicago that my Dad wants to pay for our nanny, and if he wants to be involved, he should be. If not, I will gladly take you up on your offer, although it is early days yet to make plans, tempting fate and all. 

Your Loving Daughter,

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Bishop's Sea: Caithness and the Matter of Alba

Birds of Caithness Twitter.

 So speaking of odd threads dangling out of the whole story of Greenland, how about the "Sinclairs of Greenland and Rattar"?

This is one of those tangles that doesn't really have a starting point as such, so I'm going to begin with a Sixteenth Century Venetian historian, Niccolo Zeno, who in 1558 published a series of letters between one of his ancestors, and his brothers. They described various exciting adventures in vaguely located Atlantic islands, back at the turn of the Fifteenth Century. (The best known of the brothers was a Venetian naval hero active in 1400.) This was an exciting era on the triple borderland between Christianity and Islam, the known world and unknown. It was full of Christian adventurers in Muslim lands, Muslim adventurers in Christian; Of converts both ways, both paladins and saints; and of little taifa states trailing down the coast of what the kings of Morocco declined to allow to be Morocco out of their commitment to the inland caravan trails. 

Of course, it was also an age of entertaining fictions about the same, and as far as we can tell, that's what the Zeno letters were. That is not, however, what Johann Reinhard Foerster, Calvinist divine and former naturalist on James Cook's first Pacific voyage thought when he encountered the letters, mainly because he fastened on a supporting character in the colourful story, one Prince Zichmni, which Foerster decided was a Venetian attempt to render "Sinclair." This would be an odd error on a late medieval Venetian's part, inasmuch as "Sinclair is just a Scottish form of "Saint Clare," and Santa Clara of Assisi, founder of the Poor Claires, is perfectly well rendered into Italian as Santa Clara. 

Foerster's error, if error it was, isn't actually that hard to understand --now that we have Google. The Sinclairs of Greenland and Rattar are an extremely obscure branch of a Scottish noble house that became extinct in 1784. Short of pouring through old genealogies no Nineteenth or Twentieth Century reader is likely to have heard of them before the rise of Google's awesome powers of aggregation. On the other hand, the extinction of the house, which involved its last heir committing suicide in London at the age of 33 two years after being "wounded in the groin" while reconnoitering the works at Yorktown in the company of Lord Cornwallis is not a story that anyone, or, at least, any man, who was alive at the time was likely to be forget! 

So Foerster probably had "John Sinclair,Seventh and Last Lord of Greenland and Rattar" on his mind when he encountered "Prince Zichmni." Foerster had no trouble finding a candidate "Prince Zichmni" in the Sinclair family line, albeit one two centuries before a branch of the family named itself for a farm estate in Caithness that, coincidentally, bore the same name as Greenland's icy mountains. Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Roslyn (c. 1345--c. 1405) was a Scottish/Norwegian nobleman from the strange era of Sottish/Norwegian condominium in the vaguely defined "Northern Islands" that, I guess, a particularly expansive mind might take to include Greenland and Vinland along with the Orkneys. Henry owed fealty to Scotland for minor properties in Lothan, and to Norway for the Orkneys. In respect to Norwegian affairs, he is recorded as a supporter of King Erik. As far as Good King Robert of Scotland was concerned, he was mainly known as a pest about his Lothian properties, and we might speculate, over the reversion of his wife's lands, which originally included the entire suppressed earldom of Strathearn. Then he was "cruelly killed" by invaders of the Orkneys who might have been English seafarers avenging an attack on an English fleet at Aberdeen by ravaging the Orkneys. The rest is pseudo-history, culminating in "Prince Henry" sailing all the way to Nova Scotia to build some matching New World structures to a classic puzzle-structure in the Old, Rosslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh. It has to do with Knights Templars and the Holy Grail, you see

This isn't actually where I started down the rabbit hole. That would be the claim that a Sinclair crest has been found on a tiny bit of jewelry recovered at a dig in Greenland. I don't know. I've been having trouble locating the story online, and if it's in Kirsten Seaver's Frozen Echo, I can't find that, either. (Not to worry, it'll show up on one of my shelves the moment I hit "Post.") It's all pretty irrelevant considering that the old Sinclair crest was a simple saltire cross, so it would be ridiculous to think that a signet ring (or whatever) with a saltire cross on it was a "Sinclair" piece and proof of the doings of Prince Zichnmi. 

The issue is that I carried that factoid into my investigation of Arthur St. Clair, himself a fascinating figure in the primordial days of the plantation of North America, as he was the Governor of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan) in the earliest, pre-Constitution days of the American Republic, and yet is a surprisingly shadowy figure. I mean, there's almost four times as many people in Ohio as there are in British Columbia, and I cannot even begin to imagine how many graduate students at BC history departments would be on the trail of Sir James Douglas if there were half as many loose ends in that fascinating man's back story as there are in that of Arthur St. Clair!

Friday, December 4, 2020

A Techno-Cultural Appendix to Postblogging Technology, August 195): Christmas at Last!


(Because there weren't any big Christmas songs charting in December of 1950, although see below)

Whenever I put a hyphen after "Techno" in the titles to these appendices, I'm afraid that I will be too ambitious and ride of in all directions. But, c'mon. It's the Korean War. It's MASH and the war that Chuck Cunningham must have died in to traumatise his family so much they never even mentioned him again. It's a rich text!

According to Wikipedia, John Clarence Woods was born in Wichita in 1911, enlisted in the US Navy the year he turned 18, went AWOL within months, was found too crazy for the navy, then worked as a general labourer until he was inducted into the army in August of 1943. Soon after he was allowed to volunteer as a hangman on the basis of a claim to have assisted at four hangings in Oklahoma and Texas that could have been disproved by even the slightest research. Sergeant Wood went on to botch at least 11 of the hangings he carried out for the Army (out of only 60 to 7) before he arrived in Nuremberg to add some Nazi war criminals to his list of the slowly strangulated. The Nuremberg trials! I have no words. 

But some anonymous US Army poets do (as reported by Janet Valentine):

Hear the patter of running feet
It's the old First Cav in full retreat
They're moving on; they'll soon be gone
They're haulin' ass, not savin' gas
They'll soon be gone.

Over on that hill there's a Russian
A million Chinks are on my flank
I'm movin' on, I'll soon be gone
With my M-1 broke, it ain't no joke
I'll soon be gone

Million Chinks comin' through the pass
Playin' burp-gun boogie all over my

Standin' in a rice paddy up to my belly
From then on, they called me "Smelly"

I sung this song for the very last time
Gonna get Korea off my mind
I'm moving on; I'll soon be gone
I done my time in the shit and slime
I'm movin' on.
("Well, if they go fast enough, maybe some of them will be home by Christmas" --General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, in unintentional irony)

 A Russian tank and a million "Chinese laundryman" to use the only slightly less racist language emanating from higher headquarters are on the flank, and it's time to bug out all the to the south bank of the Han. (The People's Volunteer Army deployed 6 corps comprising 18 understrength divisions against Eighth Army's 8 and two-thirds divisions, but whatever makes you feel better, man.)

The particular ordeal of the Ch'ongch'on River was a run through a "gauntlet" of enemy harassing fire through a highway cut where the Japanese-built road leaves the valley of the Ch'ongch'on to climb and then descend a bench before arriving in the town of Kunu-ri. Lacking any anti-armour weapons or even much artillery, PVA blocking forces couldn't lay down anything more than a harassing fire, but over the length of the roadblock, casualties were heavy, and broken-down soft-skinned vehicles blocked passage for artillery and heavy engineering equipment that was eventually abandoned to the enemy. Not for the first or last time in the Korean War, US troops suffered heavily for lack of armoured personnel carriers to move infantry and engineering troops, which brings me to my final and actually significant bit of US Army incompetence:

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Postblogging Technology, August 1950, II: The Marines Are Here

R_. C_.,

 Dear Father:

I hope I didn't give the wrong impression last week. I am not some daring aviatrix flying over the entire South Seas. I have just taken a few weekend jaunts to some islands here and there to meet with old friends of the family. It is so sedate that I have met Uncle George along the way! Of course I am trying to shore up the family's business, but my real motive is that it is so boring in Formosa with Reggie up flying around looking for Russian radio waves. (Not much sign of that, by the way.) As my boredom will solve itself soon, no-one needs to worry that I am about to crash the next generation into the vruel sea.

And with that protestation, I seem to have exhausted the space and time I have for this little note. I  hope I don't sound too exasperated at my well-wishing relatives. I even hope to see some out Formosa way this winter!

Your Loving Daughter,

(It really is a cult!)

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Postblogging Technology, August 1950, I: Pirate Business

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

Thank you for stepping in with the Junior College. I return my completed application for a year's medical leave enclosed, and make pious offering to the gods that someday my mail will follow me here to my bungalow by the sea. I also enclose Polaroids of our spacious new home for the impatient, who know who they are. It turns out that the squadron will remain on Okinawa, with only the advanced detachment here. but that still gives us some domestic security for the next year or so, fingers crossed, salt tossed, wood knocked. You will see that we have plenty of space for events foreseen and not. Everyone around knows that one tempts the gods by talking about such things, but talk there is, to the point where people show me cribs and the like just, you know, matter of interest. Grr!

In the mean time, and while I still can, I have given the Goose a bit of a work out. Flying into this or that flyspeck island fifty feet above the drink will never get old, but there are lots of people to talk to and we cannot leave it all to Big Deng or we will lose face. The piracy/embargo/blockade situation is a precious chance to make friends and offer favours with Hong Kong shipowners, and they need to know who they owe. Which I tell them. And will continue to tell them while I can still fly! 

Your Loving Daughter,

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, July 1950: Tactical Nuclear Weapons


The M-29 "Davy Crockett Weapon System" is, understandably, the most famous American recoilless rifle of the Cold War era. 

Because, you see, it fired a nuclear bomb. A tiny atom bomb, to be sure, but the only way you can make an atom bomb that gives a 10--1000 ton yield is by letting all the neutrons get out. This was a generation before the whole "neutron bomb" fuss, but the concept seems to have been the same. Other uses of the same warhead include atomic demolition --crater making, but that wasn't the Davy Crockett's job. The Davy Crockett was intended to stop tank armies. For that, a ten ton detonation is not enough, but the estimated instantly lethal radiation flux radius of 500m is. 

The Wikipedia article goes on to point out that Davy Crockett was a particular favourite of Franz Josef Strauss, a name I haven't heard in a long time, perhaps because that particular strain of postwar German thinking is so embarrassing. Strauss thought of it as a force multiplier, says Wikipedia, allowing a single 8" howitzer to control the same amount of terrain as a much larger formation. I'm not sure that thta accurately captures what was going on in Strauss's head, and Wikipedia has evidently conflated the Mk 54-powered M-388 round of the Davy Crockett with the conceptually similar W33/W48 warheads intended to arm first the 203mm howitzer and later even the 155mm weapon. Still, the concept remains the same. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, July 1950: Achtung Panzerski!


Happy My Vacation Week, everybody! Two things this week: First, this whole "Korean War" thing, and specifically the part it played in the Great American Tank Panic of the 1950s, of which I think precisely no-one who is not a tank enthusiast of the first water recalls. Second, Our Alex sends us to Dmitry Yudo's Overlord blog, where Our Host tells us about something exciting he found in the British archives, specifically, "plastic armour." The two things may or may not go together. 

Before I get into anything else, I should mention the Overlord's conclusion, which was that "plastic armour" might disappear from British archives at the end of the war because of a Top Secret rating stamped over it leading into the Burlington/Chobham armours of the 1960s that are such a fascinating and unwritten story of postwar materials science development, with its applications well beyond militariana, to include, for example, semiconductors. The problem with this fascinating thesis that mention of plastic armour stops in 1945, while the first applique composite armours following the Burlington/Chobham scheme do not appear until the 1950s. One would expect some kind of accommodation to applique schemes on, for example, the later marks of Centurion, but the cast armour turret really doesn't seem designed to take an applique plate. 

Ahem. Let's put that dangling, tantalising thought from our minds for a moment and follow the other lead, the Korean police action. 
If you're wondering about the relevance of my vacation to this, I went to see my Mom, and, in my hurry to pack up and leave on Sunday morning, continued to fail to find a book that I had stocked my library with many years ago and ignored ever since: Bruce Cummings' Korea's Place in the Sun. *As a result, I couldn't read it over the week, although I got well into Kim Stanley Robinson's 2150 AD, and there was also a distracting election in a neighbouring third world nation. 

Upon return, in the bright morning sun, Cummings of course practically jumped into my hands, which is just as well considering that the Robinson book has disappeared into the jumble. (Or I lost it on the bus. I hope I lost it on the bus.) I've been feasting on it all morning instead of running various important errands, and it makes a very useful corrective to Halberstam's Coldest Winter, a history of the Korean War that could easily be retitled Kim Il Sung: My Part In His Downfall, by Averill Harriman

The upshot of contemplating the history of the Korean War from the perspective of a historian of Korea rather than that of a historian of Washington office politics is that the way that the Korean War emerged from an ongoing Korean civil war turns out to be in a way that's a lot less easy to understand.

The received account, according to Halberstam, filtered through a lot of contemporary Time magazine reporting, is that the Inmun gun (that's how we professionals say "Korean People's Army") invaded the South in a concerted blitz that massively outnumbered the southern army. 

In fact, it would appear after having to tolerate provocations from the Rhee regime through 1949, the return of the large Korean contingent fighting with the PLA had given Kim Il Sung the capacity to respond to the next provocation with a counterattack. The regime wished to capture the Ongjin peninsula and the holy city of Kaesong, which apart from generalised nationalist aspirations, threatened Pyongyang with a "pincer attack," at least in the professionally paranoid minds of the northern military leadership. Generalised counterattacks along the front were envisioned, since Kim was in no position to deny any of his generals their share of glory, and, in any case, what was the worst that could happen? In particular, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions and 105th Armoured Brigade of the Inmum gun was set to pitch in to the South Korean 1st and 7th Divisions, guarding the direct approach to the capital. 

At this point, Cummings, although no friend of the regime, becomes downright elliptical, completely evading, for example, the notorious prison massacres carried out by the Rhee regime while speaking of the "some" who believe that there "was an element of fifth column" activity in the defending South Korean force. It is more commonly asserted, as Time proposes, that the defenders were outnumbered and lacked any antitank assets. About antitank assets it is  hard to speak clearly, considering the random assortment of equipment that the occupying Americans had left in Korea --the southerners wer certainly not short of artillery, for example; but it seems clear that the Inmun gun was outnumbered. On the other hand, it had air supremacy, something of which modern military historians attached to land forces never seem to be quick to comment upon.

The way in which mid-century land forces without air superiority consistently collapse for mysterious reasons of morale and leadership really is quite striking. But, of course, we're not here to hear about boring old Yak fighters and Ilyushin light bombers that only exist because mad air marshals want to strategically bomb nations into oblivion. (Not that that isn't a thing by Korea, but anyway.) We're here to hear about Panzer panic! American generals reduced to leading tank-hunting parties because their soft and undertrained troops have lost faith in their bazookas!

And, as the hitherto uncommented-upon marginal pictures suggest, the absolute wig-out conducted by the American armoured forces during the 1950s. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the industrial side of this story. The short design histories of the American tanks of the era discuss the manufacturers, factories, Congressional hearings and scandals that flowed from the tank panic. In instantiated terms, we have the M26 Pershing; the M41 Walker light tank; three tank designs named for General Patton, the M46, M47, M48 (Pattons); the M103 heavy tank, which never got named after anyone; and the T69,
which seems to be the only one of three different T-series prototypes to get its picture in the news. That is a lot of new tank designs for a half-decade or so! From these we get a pretty clear view of what armoured forces designers considered important in the mid-Fifties, and alas for Overlord's blog, it is not unconventional armoured schemes. 

Well, that's not entirely true, at least of the Americans. A composite fused silica armour applique was proposed for the M48. It was mainly favoured for protection against HEAT and HEP, that is, against thermal gas jet penetration modalities rather than kinetic, but at least the turret was to be manufactured of the new material, so there was considerable faith in its ability to withstand 85mm penetration. (The main Red Army kinetic-kill antitank weapons being still thought to be the 76 and 85mm guns, with the monstrous 122mm of the JS-series intended to defeat thick German wartime armours by throwing a giant blob of shell at them.) This was shelved because the contractors, "OTAC and Carnegie Institute of Technology" were hopelessly behind, and not by revelations about the existence of the T54/55's 100mm and succeeding 114mm guns. However, the fused silica armour remained in development until 1958, and might well have been dropped due to word out of Beddington/Chobham. I don't know! 

Unfortunately for Overlord, this work started in 1952, still leaving a seven year gap in which there is no particular reason for Plastic Armour to be secret. You can see the traces of a conceptual line, but I suspect that, if it were secret, it doesn't run through tank stuff, but rather the main line of Big Secrets that the military industrial complex was worrying itself over at the time. 
Boom! Like this, only with more radiation. 

So the problem that's facing the Plastic Armour guys in the mid-war years is that Plastic Armour gets more effective the faster the projectile that is fired at it; but, also, it seems unreasonably effective against the jets of high energy plasma produced by directed-explosion weapons like your bazooka: The High Explosive Anti Tank round. This raises fascinating questions of material science. The traditional explanation for how armour works is that materials can be hard but brittle; or soft but tough. Hard armour is resistant to penetration and may shatter projectiles. It is particularly good at stopping fast shells. Tough but soft materials give way before shells, but in elastic deformation --they snap back. They are good against heavy but slower-moving penetrators. Nathan Okun's much-frequented arms and armour pages give a good overview of how this traditional approach to material science.  This approach breaks down as we get microscopic. The real explanation of materials resistance to impact turns out to be all quantum mechanical (n and p crystal holes dislocating, electrons moving about). Insofar as we have a model for understanding penetration --or, for that the piston rod hitting the crankshaft-- it is all about thermal energy and conductance. 

The reason you don't go ahead and put plastic armour on tanks is probably that it degrades quickly when it is hit. It stops the first round, but is used up in doing it, probably because the shell ends up melting the the hard bits out of the tarry matric. (To explain for those who don't care to follow the link, plastic armour is chunks of road gravel embedded in a solid coal tar matrix. The gravel defeats the penetrant instead of sproinging out of the way because it is held in place by the gluey mass of the tar. the energy of penetration heats the gravel up to a zillion degrees, and the armour melts.) 

If you're going to use this scheme, you need to understand how it works, and, in particular, understand the instantaneous physics of energy conductance through these materials. Given that we're dealing with semi-conducting crystallines, I think you can see why I think that there was eventually a crossover to computing science. In the short term, however, understanding the instantaneous consequences of an explosive jet impinging on material has the more militarily important implication of allowing the design of better atom bombs. The Mark 5 atom bomb was the weapon that really made WWIII practicable, and the improvement over WWII's cumbersome makes  was entirely in terms of a more efficient arrangement of the explosives that compressed the core. The levitated pit design, first tested in 1948 and independently discovered by the British and Soviets, is often described in homely terms as giving the explosion a rolling start at compressing the core, or some such; but we need to beware of homely analogies because they often mislead us in the realm of the quantum mechanical. I'm not going to try to explain what I think is going on, because I'm frankly working mostly from intuition here, but I am going to suggest that it is science derived from HEAT penetrations of armour. 

And that, I think, is where all the thinking about armour and armour penetration has disappeared to between 1945 and 1950, only to come crashing back into the mainstream as a "peasant army" defeats the mighty Americans. 

Which, by the way, now that we understand that the Inmun gun was totally unprepared for Seoul to actually fall, and had to take a good long two weeks to reorganise and mobilise for the drive south, could easily not have happened in the first place. As it is, SCAP --and Washington-- had just enough time to organise a response that could be humiliatingly brushed aside in the drive south before securing Pusan and making a fight of it. It's also something of a comedown for us MacArthur haters --pretty much the whole world at this point, I think-- that the American Shogun actually had a pretty good handle on the situation. Perhaps accidentally, but something about generals having to be lucky before they can be smart something. 

 And speaking of American narcissists, I guess Floating Tom Hutter really has taken his last dive. Now I should probably be realistic and go buy another copy of 2150AD. 

*My copy of Cumming's is a Book Warehouse remaindered copy of the 2005 edition that I probably picked up before 2010, the Book Warehouse having been pretty much gone for at least that long. We're all getting old, and apparently cribbing a book out of Averill Harriman's memoirs gets you a lot more sales than carefully researching the history of Korea for an entire career.  

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Postblogging Technology, July 1950, II: Bug Out Boys of Company B

R_. C_.
Dear Father:

This is the second installment of "Things I wrote on my Honeymoon When I Should Have Been Having Fun." Good thing Reggie is here to make sure I have fun. And I did! Now darkness is falling and in a moment the Goose is going to come in and it's back to the real world, or what passes for it in the Gitmo's Formosa and at the studio. 

Writing with a bamboo shoot (or maybe drinking through it),
Your Daughter,

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Postblogging Technology, July 1950, I: A Constructively Unexpected War

The Ah Ma Temple by Eleanora Fernandez, and not a villa in Macao, but we can dream

79 Av de Harmonia,

Dear Father:

I take the liberty of including your thank you note. It's one of these little pains that society has decided that newlyweds should suffer through. I shudder to think about how much the brides who are lucky enough to plan their weddings suffer through. As is, with just two weeks to put this together, I still have to write seventy more of these things, and mostly in my shaky calligraphy, at that. (Maybe the High Court of Inter-Cultural Affairs could rule that I don't have to? I didn't think so.) 

Again and again, thank you for being here, and thank you for arranging for my parents' flight. You were half right, by the way. Dad was the picture of charm at the reception afterwards. Mom, though, made it clear that her prodigal daughter is not yet forgiven by the old-fashioned trick of not talking to me. (Auntie Bess --or more likely Mary, writing for her-- says that Mom was very clear that she only cacme to be there for Dad, and she didn't care "who knew." That's me. "Who.")

The honeymoon is wonderful. Reggie is almost back to normal after a week away from the runaround in Formosa getting the field ready for his squadron. In a way, it's a good thing that the ceremony was so quick. If we'd waited until his brother officers were in the East, we'd have had to invite them and maybe even explain exactly where we're honeymooning. Hmm. No need to be mysterious. Just say Cam Ranh Bay and stick to it. It is a bay, it is on the South China Sea. Good enough. The real trick would have been explaining the guests. "Oh, yes, this is my real Dad, not the guy I pay to pretend to be him." Oh what a tangled web we weave, etc. 

I am,
Your Daughter,
Ronnie (Reminding herself again not to show off her clever college girl references in front of engineers)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Bishop's Sea: Fishing and "The Feudal Anarchy of the Year 1000:" Or 2020, Even


From January through October of this year, and most especially through the Canadian lockdown, I helped operate a "corner store" concept for my company --4000 sq feet of grocery attached to a pharmacy in the Oakridge shopping mall. An unwelcome legacy of the old Oakridge store was a queue of items that had gone out of stock just before the old store shut off automatic replenishment. Unless we manually removed them from outgoing orders, we got a very eclectic set of items, again and again. 

Yes, they included an  item identified as kippered herring, although as far as I can tell it's not quite the same preparation as the kippered herring that comes in cans. These particular kippered herrings had to be stored frozen and cooked before eating. I bought a couple and they were . . okay. Products of the Scottish herring fishery, they are Relevant to events of today, as fishing rights come up under Brexit. Foreigners fish some fishing grounds in British waters, and it is perhaps a matter of urgency that they be made to stop. Because of conservation. Or jobs. The fact that the British are great fishers but terrible seafood enthusiasts is a very interesting subtext to the discussion, and perhaps a historical question of some significance. 

Getting back to the fish I ate (not a normal part of my diet, either), Alison Mary Locker explains that these short-life preservation techniques came into vogue in Nineteenth Century London because the fish would last long enough to be distributed by costermonger, but didn't ask too much in the way of cooking equipment and time. She's probably not the only historian to explain such things, but, in comparison with agrarian history, there's a bit of shortage of fishing/salt industry historians. In spite of that, there's been some movement in the field in the last few decades, perhaps not entirely synthesised yet. (I keep finding references to Kurlansky's Salt in academic monographs. Surely if there was something less popular, it would be cited instead?)

(By some kind of miracle I actually found one of the songs that CBC Radio wakes me up with)

Friday, October 9, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, June 1950: Pointing the Way

Pretty cool and historical that the USAF specified that its 1956 fighters should be capable of remote control via the Sperry Zero Reader directing the autopilot, right? Hopelessly precious, to be sure, but even that is grist for the historian's mill. Anyway. What's a Zero Reader?

Stop giving me those pitying looks. I figured it out.  The Sperry Zero Reader is just a flight director. I feel dumb not figuring it out, or at least not pursuing the question far enough to find someone to explain it lucidly. 

There's a little more to be said about its gyroscopic magic, and it wouldn't be Fifties-era militariana if it weren't a little sinister in a nuclear-holocaust-sort-of-way. I'm also going to touch base with a classic of history of technology, Donald MacKenzie's Inventing Accuracy. Looking back a generation later, it does seem to me that MacKenzie's pioneering work  ought to have been the starting point of a historiography rather than all the profession has written on the subject. There's a lot going on here that historians could pull into perspective so that we could understand this world of ours before we run head on into slow motion disasters like the 737Max grounding.

But what do I know? I'm just a historian. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Postblogging Technology, June 1950, II: Fall of the Air Horse

R_. C_.,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Father:

Scene Does Not Appear in Novel

I could get to love Hong Kong eventually! If it ever cools down. Best of all, my father threw an absolute fit over my refusing to book a ticket east the day after the war started. ("It's not safe," and "It's that boy!") Well, yes, Dad. It is the boy. You know, my fiance. Who has interests that need looking after whilst he is busy flying in the war. If "snooper" missions over the Straits of Formosa count as war, which I think they do! In fact, I'd like to be in Formosa, but apparently it's no place for an American girl. Of course, you don't want to know what the kind of people who say that, think of Hong Kong. Well, a big raspberry to them. Where else can you go out to a dim sum lunch with movie stars? And admittedly also pay for it, because Hong Kong movie stars can't afford dim sum. 

Yes, these reports will continue to be written out of Time and Aviation Week for the foresseable future, as the sad days of normality from B.D, "Before Diphtheria," seem like they will never return. 

Yours Sincerely,

PS: If you like your science with extra science-fiction check out the Air Force's call for bids for the interceptor-escort fighter, which requires a provision for "automatic control via radio link with the automatic pilot" by the time it becomes practical in 1955. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Postblogging Technology, June 1950, I: No Coke

R_. C_.,
Shaughnessy, Vancouver,

Dear Father:

You will have heard from Uncle George, but I'm still going to repeat what he told me. The North Koreans --and not the Russians or Chinese-- are going to invade the South in the first week of summer. This is through the family network, although I'm sure Uncle George told you more than he did me about sources! He also didn't share how he passed on the information, but I'm not surprised to hear that he didn't get a hearing from MacArthur's staff or the Generalissimo. Other quarters of the Koumintang are a different matter, but basically everyone who is in the know on Formosa, which isn't a long list, sees this as a last minute reprieve. I do wonder if someone has got it out, because there's a long story in Time about how the South Koreans are ready to receive the north and send it home. Uncle George's sources don't agree, but it goes beyond that, because he figures  the South Korean army will fold like the Koumintang, for the same reason. The officers are a lot more attached to the skim than to their "careers."  That's why Uncle George is staying in Hong Kong, and why he's telling me to dig in for a long stay. 

I really hope that I'm not running mining missions against Shanghai any time soon. The latest Russian fighters are pretty hot stuff, and that's not even getting into their fighter jets, which as usual with the hottest new ships might be a far off vista at the flight development unit, or in service by the dozens. 

Your Loving Son,

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, May 1950: "No Way Out"

 Well, the UBC Library system has taken the perfectly reasonable and in no way money-saving step of extending its whole library-free university experiment into the Fall semester. Yay. Because, really, what kind of university lets its precious monetary fluids be sapped by researchers who seek to consume its essence? (Technically, the kids can get a book or two or maybe some photocopies if they ask politely a week in advance and it's not too much work, but alumni and other community users can go suck it. I'd recruit my nephew, but periodicals and other ephemera definitely count as "too much work.")

I will get on June, 1950 next week. In the mean time, there's a bit more to be said about spinning things. Because while I'm upset at UBC, there is still something to be said for looking at a project that you've gotten yourself into, and just deciding that it's too hard, and shutting it down. It might not be what we're told to do by children's programming television, but look how many lives Armstrong Whitworth must have saved by giving up on the Apollo!

In 1950's No Way Out, Sidney Poitier and Mildred Joanne Smith play nice Black hospital people who have to deal with a White racist criminal patient. Smith's promising career was cut short on 11 February, 1952, when she was aboard National Airlines Flight 101, a DC-6 departing Newark Airport, when, it suddenly began to veer left while losing altitude. Two minutes later, it clipped an apartment building and plunged into the ground, "narrowly missing an orphanage," says Wikipedia, and bursting into flames. Twenty-nine of 63 people aboard perished, along with another four from the apartment building. Smith survived, but with severe injuries, including a broken back. 

The CAB determined that the cause of the accident was the accidental reversal of the propeller of the No. 3 engine. Coupled with the crew's mistaken decision to feather the No. 4 engine, Flight 101 was pretty much a brick. This was three weeks after the crash of an American Airlines Convair 240,  with the loss of all onboard and two girls associated with the girl's school near which it crashed, and two months after the crash of a Miami Airlines Curtiss C-46 with the loss of all onboard, again with additional losses on the ground in spite of managing to crash into a warehouse district. Neither of the earlier two accidents go to  the subject of this post, which overworked postwar airscrews, turbines, rotors and closely associated spinning things, but they are a pretty good reminder of just how dangerous postwar civil aviation actually was. Having the propellers of a major airliner be subject to three separate Airworthiness Directives in four years, warning of separation of neoprene layers in the propeller core, overspeeding, and engine overheating issues doesn't help. (That's the Stratocruiser, if you were wondering. The poor British taxpayer just can't catch a break.) 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, May 1950: Jetliner Dreams


Early jets tended to lack a bit of oomph coming off the runway.

I've covered the outline of the early passenger jet here before. The De Havilland Comet seemed to have the market to itself at first, but then was pinched out by the Boeing 707, which was developed from a jet-powered tanker that the USAF eventually decided it needed to support its B-47 fleet. The Comet plays an important part in the British narrative that says that Britain's postwar aviation subsidy programme was a big waste of money. Meanwhile, the USAF order for 250 KC-135 Stratotankers cushioned Boeing's 707 project and suggests that Cold War military spending played an important role in the transition to jet transports. 

But is there more to say about this? In a quiet week before, hopefully, the UBC Library reopens, I take my inspiration where I find it, and Brad DeLong has posted a lecture online suggesting that the historic expansion of the British economy through 1870 might have run up against a renewed Malthusian world but for a bunch of exogenous factors that accelerated "innovation." 

It's modern economics latest surrender to the implacable grasp of the "free lunch" school of technological progress, according to which "innovation" comes from outside the economic process, and that the human species is forever vulnerable to a return to a Malthusian world of subsistence economics at any arbitrary level of technological achievement if we ever fail in our continuing propitiation of the mad gods of invention. 

As, away back in May of 1950, the American aviation industry plays with the idea that a transition to jets is impossible, barring some kind of "socialist" intervention to pay the costs of developing a jetliner out of the taxpayers' pocket, I'm inclined to stop and meditate on exogeneity.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Postblogging Technology, May 1950, II: Is The World Warming Up?

R_. C_.,
Vancouver, Canada.

Dear Father:

Not much to report from steamy Formosa, where all the news is about Koumintang evacuations of offshore islands and everyone is waiting for Congress to come through. Chiang apparently thinks that he can twist MacArthur round his little finger, same as Chennault. The connection is probably GOP politics, which the Madame plays like a maestro. 

I know, I know. No-one reads this for my political opinions. I'd like to update you on the latest family news, but I'm down here on Formosa and I'm as much in the dark as you! Or more! 

Your Loving Son,

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Travel Notes, II: Tashme

 Here I am, back at my comfortable computer station in Vancouver, as from 9:40 last night. With the ergonomic issues --and the fatigue that comes from riding six hour+ stages-- I could write something more substantial, but I'm not going to, because I have a very small but personal matter in my teeth, and I am going to get it out!

A large part of high school Canadian history, at least in my day, was dedicated to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  I am not even sure that it is possible to argue that this is wrong, and offer a revisionist "People's History of Canada." It's not that there's not counter-narratives --that is, in fact, what I'll be writing about today-- but there is a very strong case that there would not be a Canada without the "iron road from the sea to the sea." I'm going to waffle all over that claim (I think it's wrong but am utterly unprepared to do the work needed to sustain a counterargument), but it's hard to argue against the economic and geographical logic. 

Hardrock miners on the porch of the Deadwood Store,
Greenwood, BC, c. 1900. It's hard to understate how strong
the completely unexamined notion that white Britons were 
the first "outsiders" in this province

The old-time historians and commentators were not modest about our ancestral achievement.  Firm that the "natural" lines of North American communication ran north-south, so that the railway realigned the geopolitics of a continent in line with the sociopolitical preferences of the infant nation. It was even, at least by the 1970s, the fashion to acknowledge some non-White participation, with dutiful Chinese labourers and misunderstood Metis, as well as the usual lot of "Indian guides."

Leaving everything else aside, there was a strong British Columbia connection to the generation that gave us this history, starting with Pierre Berton himself. For them, much of this argument was intuitive. It is hard to get from Vancouver to the interior of the province of British Columbia, and, more specifically, to travel between the Okanagan Valley and the Coast. For my grandfather's generation, you could take either I-95 or I-97 south until they joined away down south, at which point San Francisco --heck, Tijuana-- were as close as the other part of your native province, or the arduous but patriotic alternative of wagon road down the Fraser Canyon. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Travel Notes: Thoughts on Sugarloaf Summit

 The Crow's Nest Highway, Number 3, along which I stumbled and bumbled on my vacation last summer presents the Hope-Princeton as the first challenge for the avid bicyclist out of Vancouver, and it is a pretty meaty one. 

The way mountain roads are supposed to be, the road ascends a watercourse on one side, reaches the water parting at a "pass," and descends the other side. You might not know that the St. Bernard Pass is reached from a tributary of the Rhone that runs into Lake Geneva, on the one side, and a tributary of the Po on the other, but you know that's how it works.

The Hope-Princeton, on the other hand, ascends a left bank tributary of the Fraser, then switches to climb a significant hill to Sunshine Valley, of which I would have a vacation picture if my motel wireless were up to it. 

Stealing from Wikipedia is faster, and hardly a crime at all.

The Valley in the Sunshine is carved by the Sumallo River, a tributary of the Skagit and of little consequence unless you live in Bellingham, Washington, where the Skagit enters Puget Sound.

From the end of the Sumallo/Skagit uplands, the highway ascends rapidly to the valley of the Similkameen, a tributary of the Okanagan, which falls into the Columbia far to the south in Washington State. Mount Allison summit, the highest on the route, marks the entry in the Columbia's enormous watershed, and since Princeton is on the Vermilion forks of the Similkameen, it's all downhill from there. 

Or would be if the highway didn't depart the Similkameen and climb its merry way up Sugarloaf Sumnit in order to avoid some unspecified hold up in the valley of the river. 

While I was not intellectually unaware of the existence of Sugarloaf Sunmit, I encountered it at 7:30 on Friday night, after departing Hope at 7:30 that morning. I summited, and made the hair raising glide down into Princeton in the dark (barring a few mild climbs that had me cursing the perversities of our sublunary world, but I only arrived at the Sandman Motel in Princeton at 9:45, after more than fourteen hours on the road. 

Which is why this week's blog post is just me checking in to say that Keremeos is a very night place to catch 11 hours of sleep.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Postblogging Technology, May 1950, I: Counting Down

R_., C.,
Shaughnessy, Vancouver,

Dear Father:

Well, it's definite. No Reds. Just like Uncle George said at Thanksgiving, the  typhoons arrived before the Communists were ready for anything like an invasion across the Straits. We've had the first of the season and the Reds have gone for Hainan. We cacn count on no more South Seas invasions till at least, the Fall. At which point, if Hainan is any guide, it'll be curtains for Peanuts and the Koumintang. It's just too much to expect the northerners to cross the mountains in the summer and span the waters in one winter, and this island will be brought beneath communist Heaven under the eyes of the Goddess of Mercy. 

Yes, I'm wasting a lot time around here shooting the breeze with practically everybody but Koumintang officers, including an old folk musician who is tickled that I want to hear the old Hakka songs that Uncle George butchers. I was going to share my version with Ronnie, but got the best glare you can give by trans-Pacific phone call, and fair enough when we're spending our retirement money on the calls.

So, around here, we haven't had a coup, we haven't had (much of a) purge, and we haven't had an invasion. We're all watching the invasion of Hainan, and everyone's calculation is about just when and how to jump. I've been firmly instructed to shut up and soldier (by Uncle George, not my CO, since I know you're worried). So all I can do is look forward to furlough in Hong Kong. I'm trying to wrangle a flight down to Singapore to see the other side. Ronnie's coming out in July, probably just before you, and there's rumblings that our subscriptions might be freed from the Post Office purgatory as soon as next month. 

I know Mother will complain that she's not hearing from me when I have so much time, etc. So I've sent her a big long letter, regular post, with snapshots of picturesque Formosa. And then another one, and . . At that point, I decided to stifle myself, as I've been warned (by Uncle George), that loneliness and inactivity can loosen the tongue and make you say things you regret. 

Your Loving Son,

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Bishops' Sea: Getting Diplomatic

Arnarstarpi on Snaefellsnes By The original uploader was Reykholt at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,

I assume that the village of Arnarstapi has the best view of the spectacular cone of Snaefellsjokul, at the tip of the Snaeffellsnes peninsula,. At least. this photograph is far more impressive than the one that illustrates the article for Helgafell,the place where Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is said to have been buried, and, where, more importantly, the medieval monastery of Helgafell was located. It seems at least likely that both the Flateyjarbok and the Skaholtsbok were produced at Helgafell; although even if not they were both produced in the diocese of Skalholt a generation before. This makes the Helgafell scriptorium the only source for one of the two Vinland Sagas (The Greenlanders' Saga), and probably one of only two sources for the Saga of Erik the Red along with the Hauksbok of approximately a century before.

The issue here is that the Vinland Sagas are often treated as transparent historical sources, even when the skeptical conclusion is that they are useless sources. Yet we owe the foundations of the modern historical method to these same scriptoria and in this same era, as they checked and tested the production of rival scriptoria for the key ecclesiastical purpose of settling real estate disputes. This study of diplomatics seems to have skipped right over the Vinland Sagas, which seems a little odd, all things considered. Fortunately it turns out that "seems" is doing a great deal of work, and in a light blogging week before I get on with postblogging technology for May of 1950 it is worth exploring these studies. 

This is very much a problem-oriented inquiry. The heroine Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir appears in a prominent role in both sagas, albeit more so in the Greenlanders' Saga. She is the mother of Snorri Thorfinnson, and ended her life as the wife of a very prominent chieftain, giving her the means to make a pilgrimage to Rome and to endow, it seems, a convent. While the Greenlandic characters in the two sagas are somewhat obscure, Gudrid is a well known figure who appears in the genealogy of the editor/patron of the Hauksbok, Hauk Elendsson.* She is the grandmother and great-grandmother of a number of early Icelandic bishops, not surprisingly considering her son's leading role in the Christianisation of the island. Given all of this, it seems reasonable that the convent that claimed Gudrid as a patroness would promote her history and seek her beatification by producing a hagiography; and, given that, one's attention is drawn to the Vinland Sagas, and especially the Geenlanders' Saga, as a possible outcome of that effort. 

Moreover, the genealogical descent of the legendary founder of Greenland, Erik the Red, is for the most part extremely obscure. This is all the odder considering that Gudrid has a tangential connection with the family, having been briefly married to Erik's second on. Surely over four centuries some other descendants followed the path back to Iceland, and are worthy of mention somewhere in the Saga of Erik the Red? And yet the closest we come to it is Freydis Eriksdottir, who appears in the Greenlanders' Saga as a foil to Gudrid, making her own voyages to Vinland, where she is involved in dark and bloody work. The saga predicts through the mouth of Leif Erikson, that "her descendants will not get on in the world." In the post-predictive world of the literary prophecy, that has to mean that there are traditions about Freydis' descendants. Making an enormous leap, I've sometimes wondered if those descendants are figurative, and that we might be seeing hints of a rivalry between religious institutions. There were, after all, several convents and monasteries in Greenland, of which we know precisely nothing. 

So that's the problem: Whether the production of the sagas might tell us something about long-dissolved religious communities that might have claimed ownership of the Vinland story in the late 1300s. I'm not sure how far current saga diplomatics gets me down this quixotic path, but it is certainly time to explore the state of the art!