Friday, March 31, 2023

Postblogging Technology, December 1952, I: What A Laugh It Would Have Been

Santa Clara,

Dear Father:

I'm told that, some day, I will look back very fondly at long college vacations and having grandparents at my beck and call when the little darling(s) get to be too much. Well, these must be the golden days. We arrived in Chicago on Friday by train, with a beaming Grandpa and Grandma and a silent and stoic driver (and distant cousin on Mother's side) waiting with hugs and kisses for James. Well, not George. That would have been strange. (Prodigal daughter held her tongue and guiltily carried her handbag at least.) Grandma is . . . 

You know what? I am going to leave that sentence, and that thought, behind me. After all, I am calling her "Grandma" now precisely so that I don't slip back into that cold and slithering "Mother" of my teenage days. Chicago is exactly as cold and snowy and windy as I remember, but so what? We're off to get a Christmas tree in an hour and there is a crackling fire in my room and my robe is fleecy and thick. Probably because, like that Warm House scientist says, individual fires make homes colder on net, but I am sure that that is some kind of average across the hallway and the spare room across, and I'm not there, I'm here! All that's missing is Reggie, and he will be  here on Thursday. 

We'll be doing some entertaining later where I will possibly have to be polite to people I don't want to be polite to, but actually to be fair to my parents they've been very careful in their invitations over the weekend, so none of the fabled Ronnie freeze to go with the Lakeshore wind!

If there are at this late date any qualms about Christmas presents for James, I very briefly mentioned some of the wonderful new "industrial toys" out this Christmas. Doepke has a wonderful set, which I haven't succumbed to the temptation to collect because I didn't want to spend my entire allowance and deprive anyone else of the chance to do the same. 

Your Loving Daughter,

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Gathering the Bones, XXV: Albany Regency

 This one's getting a "Zombie Day" tag and rightfully so after my first week as a departmental assistant manager. On the bright side, I'm on vacation this week, so look for more and better, coming soon. 

Blaise Pascal died young, only 39 years old when he went God called his wager on 19 August, 1662, a year into the personal reign of Louis XIV, eleven months after the arrest of Nicholas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle Ile and Viceroy of the Americas. Not entirely uncommonly for an old-fashioned mathematical prodigy, he was largely past active scientific work when, on 23 January, 1656, the first of the, anonymously authored Lettres proviniciales dropped. Presenting themselves as letters from a sophisticated, Paris-based Jesuit to a provincial colleague, it "humorously" attacked the purported Jesuit methods as casuistry. The sneer quotes shouldn't be taken as an attack on Pascal's comedic stylings, but rather on the impact of the First Letter on the Society of Jesus. More positively, the letter presents  Jansenist soteriology, which, for those who care about such things, sounds suspiciously, or, alternatively, auspiciously Protestant. (I'm not going to get any clearer about these matters because I find Seventeenth Century theological debates and their subsequent recapitulations to be so soaked in bad faith, superficial readings that I'd just as rather not.) 

There might be a lesson here to the aspiring transportation disruptor about the mixed consequences of indulging in theological and political controversy, because at the time of his death, Pascal was turning his literary profits into investment capital as the operator of one of the earliest omnibus services, a business that was regulated out of existence within twelve years of his death. He is far from the last "disruptor" we're going to hear about this week. 

The lesson, if I have to spell it out, is that offending people is a bad idea when you're in business. One guy who would have been offended by the First Letter, had he lived to see it, was Isaac Jogues. The Jesuit father with the suspiciously Protestant-sounding name did not, because he had been martyred on 18 October 1646, supposedly at the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, at the current location of Auriesville, New York. It is likely that this was not the precise site of the martyrdom, and "Ossernenon" is problematic, too, but it is not in doubt that Jogues was tortured to death only 40 miles from Albany. 

In any case, the holy saint and martyr could look down from Heaven to see the omnibus fleet pulled from the road for reasons of class anxiety.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Gathering the Bones, XXIV: The Gardener's Problem and Smith's History of Virginia


It's been more than two years since I've done a "Gathering the Bones" post, and I can report some progress. I've finished reading Fenimore Cooper's Wyandotte: Or, the Hutted Knoll. It's a really good book, Fenimore Cooper continues to be a fascinating person, and the novel is a lot like Wept of Wish-ton-Wish in that it uses distance from the Leatherstocking Cycle to comment on some of the same themes as Deerslayer while being a bit more willing to admit the crime. (The Wyandotte Patent is assigned to the infant product of a private marriage and baptism and so remains the property of a British general while avoiding confiscation during the Revolution by appearing to belong to a local Dutch New York Patriot family.) On the other hand, the question of mixed marriages is handled even more obliquely than in previous novels, much less being explicitly admitted, as in Wish. The heroine, Maud Meredith (Willoughby) is born to her mother in a British army frontier post in 1758, and so her mother is neither British nor a member of American society, in that she is neither home in the United Kingdom nor in Albany. On the other hand, she has  money. So Maud Yeardley comes out of some kind of irregular circumstances that I'm not going to probe any further here, although obviously she is much better born than Judith Hutter of Deerslayer, and what about all that deerslaying?


Sunday, March 12, 2023

A Technological (With Some Real Science and Hardball Politics) Appendix to Postblogging Technology, November 1952: Ivy Mike


In what I was brought up to call the "Bethe Cycle," but which now requires a whole Wikipedia article to describe the various branchings, a presumed homogenous substrate of deuterium (hydrogen atoms with an atomic mass of 2 due to being composed of one neutron and one proton), combined with two electrons, is fused, after multiple intermediate states and the production of "catalysts" of atomic weight up to oxygen, into an atomic weight 4 helium atoms plus 2 electron neutrons and 7 gamma ray photons, with 26.7 MeV free energy.

The CNO cycle occurs in stars, particularly larger ones. It requires less energy to initiate than the naked fusion of two monoatomic hydrogen atoms (in other words, protons), but is also less efficient. Proton-proton fusions dominate stellar processes in smaller stars, but occur at statistically lower rates, causing these stars to burn less hot than larger stars, where the CNO process predominates. By the late 1930s, these facts were understood in vague outline, although given the fact that the neutrino was still at this point a theoretical particle, and its fundamental properties still obscure, physical science's understanding of the process was obviously still incomplete. Note that this not a question of pure scientific curiosity. Neutrinos can, like neutrons, collide with uranium and plutonium nucleii and initiate atomic fission. This happens at a small fraction of the rate of fission events due to free neutrons in atomic explosions, but given that chain reactions are exponential processes, it is something that a responsible weapon designer might want to keep in mind. Ha ha who are we kidding

In the IVY MIKE test explosion of  1 November, 1952, the American Atomic Energy Commission released 10.4 MT of free energy and a whole lot of radioactive fallout, plus a lot of politics. Considering that the explosion occurred  three days before the 1952 Presidential Election, we might on the one  hand say that the explosion occurred in a period of great political uncertainty, on the other hand note that while the media was invested in the idea of the election outcome being open, everyone expected Eisenhower to win; and on the third acknowledge that in fact the composition of the Senate was very much in question, and that while the GOP took a two seat majority in the voting, the defection of Oregon Senator Wayne Morse to sit as an independent, reduced that majority to a potential single vote, with Vice-President Nixon voting to break the tie.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Postblogging Technology, November 1952, II: The Secretary

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

I don't want to alarm anyone, but we're in the middle of Mamie mania and everyone who doesn't like a straight-cut bob has come to realise that we've had two weeks of Eisenhower, enough to be sure that he was some kind of secret Taftite all along, and now our only hope is winning the midterms in 1954 before the inevitable Nixon/McCarthy ticket of 1960. 

Although by that time apparently the Viet Minh will be advancing from Cupertino into Palo Alto, so I shouldn't be worried that much. 

On a more serious note, I get the feeling from this week's coverage that the servo and magnetic amplifier have lost the battle, and the future belongs to the transistor, even if we're not exactly sure what it will be made of just yet. Gallium? Cadmium? Something exotic! The key point is that just as soon as we can build a recorder using these fancy "transistors," the sooner we will reap the profits when everyone in America has nothing better to do than watch television thanks either to ever increasing prosperity, or the Second Great Depression that will follow us running out of copper. Unless we crack the world open with a hydrogen bomb first!

If you're wondering why all this morbid thinking, I was reading Newsweek and ran into this unlikely ad announcing that a plastic eye-doctor-thing would keep your child safe from eye infections. Of course, the unspoken fear under that is your daughter will need glasses. And then, well, firstly, she will never get a man; and, secondly, you'll have to pay for it. No wonder my generation has gone utterly strange (not just scared) and is lashing out in all directions! 

Your Loving (and not at all paranoid) Daughter,

1:47 The Mamie bob so sexy