Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Flowing Forward: A Technological Appendix for Postblogging August 1946, I.

(Edited 24 September 2016).

Robert Solo was a Professor of Economics at Michigan State University, East Lansing, for many years. His solid research and long publishing record has made him a famous, widely loved figure, in spite of showing some signs of being an arrogant young man, and and a wise and self-reflective old one.

Just kidding!

Apart from the odd little autobiography with which he decides to begin The Philosophy of Science and Economics (1991), this blurb, cut from the top full-text entry on the American wartime synthetic rubber programme in a Google Books search* is the best the Internet will do for me. An edition of Alexis de Tocqueville's Old Regime and Revolution is a higher hit on Google than the requested obituary when I search for "professor robert solo east michigan state obituary." Try searching for his titles, and Google quickly gives up on "Professor Robert Solo" and moves on to "Professor Robert Solow."

EDIT: After reading a paper on competition in the digital economy that laid out a strained argument about how it might pay a monopolistic search engine provider, for example, to deliberately degrade search results, I fired up Bing on my Surface. (It turns out that this was the first time I'd used Edge on it, and the "welcome" page was a bit  needy. Just saying, Redmond. . . ) Anyway, the first result for "Robert Solo Michigan State" is his 2011 obituary. (Which information admittedly now, or perhaps always, shows up in the first Google search item, although much less prominently.)

In the end, I guess that we can blame Professor Solo for choosng not to be named Higginbotham or writing a book about Zamboanga, as opposed to frontiers of technological progress, or accepting a tenured position at a univesity with a music school that holds solo performances. (Or he could be still alive in his late 90s.) It is certainly not his strong connection with unspeakably obscene ideas of the most perverse regions of the netherworld, such as [TRIGGER ALERT STOP WITH THE PRETTY PICTURE AND DON'T CLICK ON THE JUMP IF YOU HAVE PTSD AND STUFF LIKE THAT]
Image Search  result: "Robert Solo synthetic  rubber" (NSFW source)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Postblogging Technology, August 1946, I: Drones and Continuous Flow

Nakusp, Canada

My Dearest Reggie:

Well, your daughter-out-of-law is off to Hong-Kong, and you are stuck with me! Don't expect me to take this task up on a regular basis, though. Nor, I think, when I compare the volume of your replies to Grace's letters to mine, will you be disappointed to hear that.

I have your brief reply to my note about my own forthcoming trip, and I cannot imagine why you would be jealous of me! Remember those days around the fire, speculating about the joys and pleasures of the Leland Hotel, were we only allowed to be there, instead of blankets and saddles for pillows, out under the stars --when it was stars and not the rain? And now, just a few short years (give or take a half century) you are basking in its comforts, while I face the prospect of being crammed into a DC-4, on my way to Tokyo. Oh, I understand that you are bored with Nakusp and waiting for your final permission to return to Vancouver. But, believe me, flying across the Pacific is in no way a vacation. Even across continent is long enough that I've been tempted to ask the crew to bring a can opener to get me out of my seat on landing. Had I not been able to get such a good deal on those war-damaged C3s in the San Francisco auctions. . .

And now it is up to me to find an idle Pacific shipyard with the labour to get those horrid war-builds back into service. There is only one country we can turn to, and, of course, we can turn to it, though it shames me. So the admiral and Nanking and the memory of the kamikazes aside. . .  You know that I only do this for the good of the family. (I will at least make a detour to Seoul, but I am not hopeful.)

Hopefully, by the next letter, not only will James and Grace be back from their holiday, and free at last to make a home together, but Reggie will be in Santa Clara on furlough, and even some of our other far-flung clan. If you want to take a trip down, you can even stay on and attend Homecoming at the "junior college" as "Miss V.C.'s" escort! Wouldn't that have stuck in old Leland's craw? 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

We Are Gone Away to the Air, I: My American Cousin

(Check it out: new label. "Space Race." Expect a few more posts bearing this label between now and 2040 or so.)

My American cousin is a nice lady who runs a very nice bookshop in Boisie. My American Cousin is a sweet little '80s Canadian movie about someone's American cousin driving up from California on Highway 97 to stay with her family in the Okanagan town of Penticton back in the 50s. He's glamorous and has a nice car, and there's much coming of age.

It's a distillation of an icon and an age, in other words. "The Fifties." Those were days when everyone wanted to be an Americano. Days when Canadians associated Americans with cars, the open road and glamouor. Oh, so much glamour. It's not a real age, being vaguely defined as starting some time before Korea and ending with the last pop song that played on the radio before the first Beatles song.
(This is not that song, because it's not an actual song. But it is a hit of the era, it does play on the loop at my home store, and come on, the video's got the Gipper!)

The question is, how did this happen? The idea is that my American cousin happened on his own, because Americans like cars and "the fifties" were sunshiney days of infinite possibilities. (Insert mandatory comment about there never being a "the Fifties" for women and minorities.) We're willing to let the government be involved with the interstates, Eisenhower-era American government being weird like that, what with the A-bombs and the bomb shelters and all. Besides that, though, it[s all free enterprise.

This paternity test on "the Fifties" points the finger elsewhere. First, from the Land of the Lost, the scenery of a forgotten land. No, seriously, it's a forgotten land. 300 kilometers and more up and around the Great Bend of the Columbia, tracing the route of the old Astoria fur brigades, past abandoned gold rush towns. No-one lives, or drives, here anymore.

The Big Bend Highway, officially in use from 1940 to 1962, but drivable from at least 1932. The road follows the "big bend" of the Columbiaaround from  Revelstoke to Golden, a more-than-300km diversion trhough basically howling wildernss. Clearly people took it, or there wouldn't be postcards on sale in Banff. but there can't have been that many. It's possible, given the route's importance to the old Astoria fur brigades, that the people who did take it had family connections rather than some insane desire to drive to Banff from the west. Who knows?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Erik the Red Was An Eskimo: Some insect-Related Evidence

Whoever "Erik the Red," the apical ancestor of Bishops Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Brandur Saemundsson, fourth bishop of Holar, and namesake of so many places around Norse Greenland,* he was probably a Dorset Paleo-Eskimo.

Why? Start with this  view of the "Blair Witch Forest," as Kenowclimber calls it. (Well, not exactly, but it's the best picture.)

Kernowclimber: on the way up Mt. Nalumasortoq at the head of Tasermiut Fjord,  southwest Greenland.
The coastal waters off southern Greenland are usually crammed with ice in the springing of the year.  Landings down east, towards Cape Farewell, are better done from mid-July. If you want to go to Greenland in the early summer, you want to sail further north, to Nuuk. This is why Hans Egede, and Claus Paarss and for that matter Erik the Red, made their first landings there, and part of the reason that Nuuk has gone on to be the capital of modern Greenland. 

But while Erik the Red started at Nuuk, for some reason he made his settlement down east.  (Weather is cited as the reason, but, again, there is a reason Nuuk is the capital now.)

According to Ari the Wise's Book of the Icelanders, [1123/4], about twelve years before Olaf Trygvasson of Norway sent the Saxon priest, Thangbrand, to Iceland as a missionary, Erik led a fleet of ten chieftains in 25 ships from Iceland to Greenland. Eleven ships are lost to the ice, but the remaining 14 landed and took up at Brattahlid, Gardar, Hvalsey and Herjolfsnes, farm complexes in the Eastern Settlement --that is, in the far south and east of the west coast of Greenland. That would presumably include Klosterdalen, Kernowclimber's "Blair Witch Forest."

Erik and his fellow chieftains did not necessarily face dense, impenetrable scrub everywhere they landed. Graah describes finding natural meadow along the southeast coast as he proceeded north. However, this scrub ecology is the default state of the dry arable land of the Greenland littoral, and Nineteenth Century farmers often had to clear it to bring the old Nrse farms back into production. More importantly, Greenland's bogs like natural water meadows pretty much everywhere, produce luxuriant browse, and would have been convenient locations for opportunistic settlement.

Eriophorum (cottongrass); along with bog-bean the most striking native plant in Greenland bogs. It seems very unlikely, Ari the Wise aside, that either reindeer or Dorsets would ignore these habitats in the summers. By Rob Bendall, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30205024

The traditional assumption is that the Norse burned the dryland scrub on arrival. While this thesis is no longer archaeologically supported, burning is an obvious, if stupid, strategy for speeding up the land-taking. They might have done it, if they had arrived in a massive fleet all in one summer. Then, of course, they would have died, because burning wouldn't speed up the process enough. You cannot clear a far, build shelters, and take a hay crop in a single year. And even medieval Norse weren't dumb enough (actually,weren't dumb at all) to think that they could, an so sign on to the project.

It's not that the colonisation is impossible. Small numbers of homesteaders could not have settled on suitable wetlands and rely on store food for the first winter or two. They would take awful attrition from scurvy the first few years, as Egede and Paarss did, however. More likely, the astonishing success of the Mennonites underlines a successful strategy, which is to come in small numbers and rely on winter hunting and fishing to make up the ascorbic acid deficit in store food. For that to be possible, you probably need the support of congenial local hunters, as well, and so a store of trade goods, but given what historic Greenlanders were willing to trade for iron needles, that isn't much of a barrier. From there you could build up to a supply of hay, adult animals, storage space, a tradable surplus of cream and whey, and from there a labour surplus sufficient to make your way by spinning and weaving, as the Mennonites did.

Not that these observations are in any way limited to Greenland. That first winter is a problem with all stories of largescale initial "land-takings." Surviving the first winter in large numbers is a challenge because relying on store food leads to scurvy. A "rapid" landtaking is certainly allowed, but only at the rate at which cattle generations mature --so perhaps a generation or so.

And it only gets worse on closer inspection. Our picture of early Icelandic society is one with a shortage of timber, hence ships. (Otherwise, it is hard to salvage any sense from the story of Erik the Red's exile.) The availability of a fleet capable of carrying a thousand humans and their adult(!) animals contradicts this picture. Nothing daunted, Robert Ferguson acknowleddges the issues by first reporting all the details as straight up Wie es eigentlich gewesen, then observing that the 25 ships must have been heirlooms from the first settlement of Iceland, a century before. One can only imagine the recriminations back in Iceland when this fleet of painstakingly preserved heirlooms was thrown away in the Western ice --and wonder about the motivations of such such powerful and predominant chieftains.  

So I find this story unlikely. There is more. Ari's work, written at the behest of the  bishops of Skalholt and Holar, and, yes, quite possibly the same ones who claimed Erik the Red as an ancestor, is based on "the traditions of a small number of families, and expresses a clear ideological stance."[pdf, x] All stories about "landtakings" are intended to legitimate existing landholding families. Oral genealogy dating back past two centuries exists only to "maintain taboo," and it probably suffices to understand its ideological charge to point out that we haven't genealogies for the eleventh century Imperial German nobility of the Investitute Crisis of the era. The historians simply do not transmit this information, probably that it would make the self-interested motivations of all the main actors obvious. More, Ari edits the traditions of the landtaking he receives, at least if comparison with the Book of Settlement and the Christians' Saga is any evidence. Ari's intention is to consciously create a "myth of origins for the Icelanders involving migration over the sea and settlement in a 'promised' land." More particularly, it is a myth of origins for some of the prominent godar families who then monopolised both local power and parish livings. His narrative centres on Christian leaders appointed by Norwegian kings, and Norway becomes central to the narrative beyond any supportable reading of other texts. In the context of the conversion, the role of the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen is written out. Nor does Erik the Red enter the story accidentaly. His emigration makes Iceland centre instead of  periphery, source of, as well as destination of, migrations. The abandoned settlements of the skraelings in Greenland are consciously paralleled to the abandoned settlements of papars (Irish monks) in Iceland [xxv--vi], an approach that ought to be familiar from any of the numerous pre-modern historians who like the "migration" line. Formorians, Tyrrhenians, Tuniit --the function of the autochthone is either to vanish or to be the ancestors of the master race, hegemonically sprung from the soil. 

Is there an alternative explanation to a single large fleet in 985? Yes! The Mennonites! It is exactly like, as I keep saying, the establishment of small agricultural colonies, often by self-identified Scandinavians, and at other times by mainly Catholic missions, on the northwest coast of North America.

Oh, sure, Erik, you say: that's how it happened in your neck of the woods. But is there a reason, hopeless contrarianism aside, to move from "just asking questions" to a statement of fact?

Let's see.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Postblogging Technology, July 1946, II: Accumulated Negligence

General Delivery,
Nakusp, Canada

Dear Father:

As you can see from the news, we've come off a lot more lightly than we deserve this week. First of all, the Redin trial ended in a "Not Guilty" verdict, and the Lieutenant off to Moscow, none apparently the wiser, and especially not his wife. The last thing we want the Cheka to hear is that the Benevolent Association was interested in placing their own as cleaners of the safe room at the consulate, as it might lead them to realise . . Well, you know. 

Admittedly, the way that the Red-baiters are running amok this week (Implying that Colonel Roosevelt is a Communist? Seriously?), I feel a little guilty about abetting the Director's work. On the other hand, we've given him a tool to find actual facts, as opposed to allegations.

The other big news is that the Maritime Commission didn't keep any records for Congress to turn up. That's it, I say, case closed. Nothing to be done here, time to close that book and move on! And, speaking of money in the pocket, waiting to be spent, what do you think of this whole atomic power thing? Chances are that General Electric will dominate the field, so that we are already as invested as we can be. On the other hand, there's a possibility of another Airresearch story, where a small company becomes --I hope-- a big one on the strength of being first in the field. (There's still the matter of investing when the company isn't ready to offer stocks, but that is why there are private contacts.) 

Thank you for the reservations, by the way. I was afraid to make them myself, lest I lead Soong men to my Father, and not only are your arrangements clever, I have loved the Peninsula since the last time I stayed there. No doubt I shall have bittersweet moments after four years of occupation, but the twins will have no memories of better days to hold up against the shabbiness of the postwar city. Sadly, they will probably have no memories at all, but with the risks that Father is taking, best that he see his grandchildren when he has the chance.  

Speaking of Fatheris interest, is there any word  about Kuan's placement at Cambridge? Surely something can be done, and while the Earl is reluctant to admit defeat, I think that he has blundered into some kind of difficulty with the cousins. I know that you cannot exactly fly over to London right now, but perhaps you have your own resources, less tied to the old feud? His aunt is enormously disappointed that he was not able to get in, and Father would very much like to stand well in her eyes.


Someone might take this as an oblique criticism of the mistake that led me to think that I had the weekend off until 5PM on Thursday night. Someone else might take that sentence to be a bit passive-aggressive.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Recapping The Bishops' Sea

I have a point when I talk about how the early settlement of the Atlantic took place in a "bishop's sea." It is, in the first instance, that before there were states or even capitalists, there were bishops promoting the settlement of remote places and the Christianising of faraway pagans. The second point is that in the English-language historiography, we tend to handle bishops with far too much kindness. We choose not to see them, as German historiography sees them, as politicians and statesmen, often bloody-handed and always liars and cynics. If we allow full reign for dark and bloody acts of politics, and then suppose that the worst of these acts are swept under the rug for the Good of the Church, we create a darkness and a mystery in which smaller and more human histories can be hidden.
C. Wellwood Beall, of Boeing. In spite of his importance to Boeing, contemporary fame, large fortune, and extensive family, he does not have a Wikipedia article. It's almost like the family doesn't want to call attention to itself for some reason.

When I went into this question last time, it was with a blog post entitled "Christ Stops at Kingcome."  In his 1945 memoir of his Fascist-era internal exile, teaching in two remote towns in the mountains of southern Italy, Carlo Levi promoted a powerful, although, as James Scott points out, actually fairly stereotyped idea. The idea that "Christ stopped at Eboli," the terminus of the railway on the plains far below, is that not Christianity, nor morality,even history itself, had penetrated any further than the last railway station. Substitute the names of assorted tribal communities of upland South Asia, and you get the old saw that Scott is criticising  in his History of Not Being Governed, and, as fresh as the idea may have been to Levi, he could have picked it up in casual conversation in any Qing commandery of the south, or in the palaces of any of fifty or so of the "paddy states" which have now been swept into Assam, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Mostly Thailand, actually.  

In my experience, oblivious to Scott, you can take this literally without your head exploding. An old Italian navy officer I knew in my MA programme, did. He would lustily explain that the fires of the high mountain villages visible as you sailed in and out of Taranto were lit by inexperessibly primitive people who never came down to the plain, and who presumably still spoke Samnite and worshipped Mars and Saturn, although in the last bits I am putting words in his mouth, and I am not all sure that the Samnite branches of Italic were ever spoken that far south. The point is, it didn't hurt Tullio Vidoni's historical acumen any. When he wasn't reminiscing about the old days, he had quite a sophisticated take about how the Viking voyages out of Greenland could only have been going "south," by their understanding of geography, and so needed to be understood as part of the genre of wonder stories about Africa and the tropics, and not about some New World which did not, yet, conceptually exist.

Or you can accuse Levi of being unserious, show that the people of the Basilicata were actually thoroughly involved in the life of the lowlands, as Horden and Purcell do. Fair enough, but my point in substituting the old Catholic mission station on Kingcome Inlet for Eboli.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Zeus, Hurling Comets: A Vacation Extra

(Not quite a vacation: My "accumulated time off" is being purged ahead of back to school.)

One of the more colourful stories about the end of the Hittites is that when they say that when the "Thunder God of Hattusa" smote his people, he literally smote them. With a meteor. I'm not advocating for this theory: I'm reaching for a reference to the Bristol Olympus, but here's a website with lots of nice pictures that deserve to be appreciated without reference to any wackadoodle theories.

I'm not going to offer you any deep insight into the Bristol (Rolls-Royce) Olympus or anything else, here. It's a two-spool axial-flow turbojet engine that began its development cycle in November of 1946, Wikipedia says.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=909212
It found its first use as the engine of the Avro Vulcan, and then was chosen for the BAC TSR-2 and the Concorde. 

The Concorde, as we know, was an exciting new technology that attracted many advanced orders that were subsquently cancelled as various drawbacks became apparent. In the end, a small number were built, and they had a long and reasonably successful operational career, mostly with the United Kingdom's flag or semi-flag airline. 

To this point, the story is all-too familiar. It is basically the same career as the de Havilland Comet or the VC10.

For some reason Wikipedia doesn't insist on attribution, even though the photo is c.'d Adrian Pingstone.
Not every new plane can be a Vickers Viscount, and while the British aviation writer sighs and casts a half-jealous, half-angry eye across the Atlantic, where are the Martin, Convair or Curtiss-Wright airliners? Far gone, our airfleets melt away. . . 

All the same, the 250 Viscounts sold have to count for something in the days of "export or die," and one has to wonder if the world would not be a very different place today if de Havilland had sold 250 Comets. It seems as though de Havilland was much bolder in the 1950s with the use of alternate materials in the manufacture of civil aircraft than the mainstream industry allowed itself to be before the Dreamliner, but that's a pretty trivial observation compared with the trajectory I started out to trace here. 

Which is this: the basic reason that the Concorde won so many orders was that the airline industry expected the 747 and its contemporaries to be the end of the subsonic era. Looking ahead, the B-70 and the TSR-2 represented the military cutting edge of sustained supersonic flight that would lead to supersonic airliners, with the Dyna-Soar

or SR-71 or what-have-you leading to the next generation of hypersonic, ramjet airliners that would be, per schedule, taking off from YVR right now to make a breakfast date in Hong Kong.

It didn't happen, of course. Instead of ramjets, Boeing is just now winding up 747 production. What happened? Well, a lot of things happened, obviously, but one thing that happened was that the highly thermodynamically-efficient Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 wasn't succeeded by a next iteration of the Olympus design that might have addressed the basic Concorde problems of range, cabin size and fuel economy. 

There was a way forward: it was decided not to take it. Would the Olympus have evolved in the direction of the J-58 under the impetus of an extended TSR-2 programme? God knows. I don't. What I do know is that the Olympus went on to make money for Rolls-Royce as a generator for offshore oil platforms, and isn't that the world we live in? 

Bitter reflections on our over-carbonised world aside, I want to meditate on the declining labour inputs of long production lines, and, yes, the declining consumption of whatever-it-is-we-decide-technology-is across the last 50 years or so. We may only have woken up to the fact that productivity is stagnating in the last half-decade or so, but between 1933 and 1973, we went from thinking that commercial jet airliners crossing the Atlantic was impossible science fiction; to thinking that ramjet airliners crossing the Pacific was impossible science fiction. 

I can't help thinking that "impossible science fiction" is doing a lot of work here.  We're never afraid to invoke it to close off the future (usually by announcing that unemployment is about to go to 100% because of automation --and this is as true of 1933 as it is of 2016). O, it is an excuse to lie back and chill, abandoning half-completed projects because they're "too expensive") and wait for technology to swoop in from that exogenous thought-world of "culture" to save us.  

Because you know what? I see no evidence that innovation arrives from outside, and a lot that it comes from being willing to actually go ahead and spend the money to build things like the TSR-2. Something about the perfect being the enemy of the good?