Thursday, May 28, 2020

Postblogging Technology, February 1950, 2: I Have A List

R_. C_.,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Father:

Almost exactly a month since we last mailed the Palo Alto public health officer at home, we have still not received a reply. We have also received subsequent letters returned from the Post Office as "undeliverable," apparently because the officer is not taking mail because letters are just riddled with cold germs. Not to worry, though.  The officer is still spending tax dollars on things like eating, so I'm just sure he's going to start actually doing his job any minute now.

Ronnie is talking about stopping by and pistol-whipping the man, but I think she's secretly relieved, because she's got to catch up with classes after missing four weeks. In the mean time, we're still not sure exactly what I'm doing
here. Lately, as the pay situation gets sorted out, and it's less likely I end my flight in Shanghai, I've been going up with the Koumintang lads. I can spot Aurora from the air, but I have to admit I can't tell the difference between a Russian tanker and a regular old tanker, and my suspicion is that the flag might be less important than the value of the cargo. Oh, well, not the first time the family's got tangled up with legitimist pirates in these waters. I find it hard to believe that we're going to put up with it for very long, but Washington is all tied up over facing up to the Koumintang without being labelled anti-anti-communist.

Speaking of which, notice how I talk about American political news for the back half of February without mentioning Senator McCarthy once? It's because I'm following Time, which has yet to give  him a word in edgewise. 

Yeah, that's a bit mean. But there's a cashier with emphysema at the grocery store that fills his orders. What makes him so special?  (Her name is June. I checked.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Postblogging Technology, February, 1950, I: Princess (RPN) of Mars


Dear Father:

Well, you will have noticed that even though Ronnie is out of quarantine and working madly to catch up in class, this packet is still awful slim. What's up, you ask? (I know you do.) It's because she may be clear, but her mail isn't. I mean, it should be clear. Magazines mailed from back East don't have diptheria! Unfortunately, it goes through the Palo Alto office of public health, which is one man, who is working from his house, because he has Emphysema and he will die if he ever sees another living soul. Also, it turns out, his mail will kill him if he dares to look at it. We actually posted him on the 28th last that he could release Ronnie's mail, and still haven't heard a peep. One month. Good thing he's not being paid by the taxpayer, or I'd be beginning to think that my money was going down the drain! Or to Montgomery Ward and the Safeway delivery driver.

If I have to do this for very much longer, at least I'm set up with a reference library, thanks to Uncle George, who showed up on my doorstep on his way to Singapore courtesy of BOAC. Why is it that he flies, and you don't. Not that the books came by air, that would be too expensive. He  just timed the delivery right.

I don't know how much more I've got to say to you. It's my way to make excuses for not having family doings to report, truth being that I never remember the good gossip, and blurt out the worst when I try. Well, this time I have a better excuse, which is that I am in Gosh-darned Formosa, which is about as far from California as Mars, just to get in a reference below, and the only family nearby are some insects that remind me of Hoover's youngest ---

Okay, that's not fair, even considering that he's not exactly my favourite distant cousin. But I wanted to work it in because he's got a bit of a comeback film out, which I hear might do good business, and best of luck to him. Another reference!

Your Loving Son,

Page from Vaucouleurs, Physics of the Planet Mars: An Introduction to Areophysics [1954]

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

A Technological But Also Relentlessly Pure Science Appendix to Postblogging January, 1950, II: Beyond Uranus

As an undergraduate, it was a given that, if the Tsar Bomba was the biggest bomb ever, a californium bomb would be the smallest. I'm just going to lift from Wikipedia, because this is too much, man!

Atomic six-gun, baby! The Wikipedia article indicates that the critical mass of californium is 6kg. Although it's a pretty dense element, Popular Mechanics is probably referring to urban legends that the mass is much lower, in the order of a few grams, which would make your atomic six gun a much more practical sidearm.

 On the other hand again, you probably wouldn't want to carry a six-gun loaded with six rounds of gun-type californium rounds unless you really, really like the taste of neutrons. 

I think it's fair to say that we're all hugely disappointed that no-one has graced the Internet with a picture of an atomic six-shooter, perhaps because the "atomic hand grenade" and related jokes have already been done to death. So here's Zazie Beetz with a gun, because in the comics Domino hangs out with the Very Biggest Gun Wielder of the 90s, Cable! Cable probably has some californium rounds kicking around.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Plantation of the Atlantic: The City of Regret

By Jerzy Strzelecki - Own work,
CC BY 3.0,
Al-Idrisi (1100--1165) tells us that the city of Safi is so-called from "Asafi," the local pronunciation, which is from Arabic "Asaf," meaning "regret." It gets this name, the illustrious geographer tells us, from the sorrows of a ship's crew of "wanderers" [mughrarin] of Lisbon in al-Andalus, who sailed in search of the ends of the Atlantic Ocean, only to end up at Safi. When told that they were two months sail from their homeland, one of the crew said that he had regrets. 

It's generally not a good idea to take a twelfth century geographer's word on etymology, even if he was the official geographer to Roger II of Sicily, a man of a certain reputation even setting aside his assumption of the title of (Norman) King of Africa and a 1926 opera.
(Never let it be said that I wouldn't go the extra mile and do a Youtube search for you!)

"Asafi,' we're told, is the Berber word for river estuary. And while I'm tolerably certain that there's no such language as "Berber," I have the complete confidence of an ignoramus that "fey/sfi/sfey" is the common root for the verb "to flood" in the Afro-Asiatic languages of Morocco. 

So what I can salvage from all of this is that the name of this town on the central Moroccan coast is linked by a distinguished medieval scholar with one of many stories anticipating Columbus. You cannot sail directly from al-Andalus to the end of the Atlantic, but I can certainly see you ending up in the mouth of the Chaabi River if you try. Rounding out the Wikipedia-reading, Safi is historically a centre of the Moroccan weaving industry and sardine fishery. (The Chaabi isn't mentioned in the skeletal Wiki. I add value!) 

Given that Marrakesh itself was only founded about this time, it is unlikely that the city settlement of Safi is much older than the mention in al-Idrisi, so it is unfortunate that the enthusiasm for plumbing the depths of the Atlantic in southerly latitudes apparently lapsed at the mouth of the Chaaba. Had Asafi been founded on the Draa, instead, we would have been getting somewhere.