Friday, December 25, 2015

Postblogging Technology, November 1945, I: Home for the Holidays

Mr. R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

Thank you! A million times thank you! What a Thanksgiving this will be! James walked in our door this Thursday last, done, we hope, with the Admiralty and the Engineering Branch forever. He met his daughter for the first time, 
Not exactly as pictured, but I work with what I have
And walked the twins over to Fanny the next morning. 

He will be meeting with his solicitor and some friends in San Francisco later in the week, and has been down to see Bill and David amongst other of our friends of the water, and was happily tinkering with an "8 track writer head" when I stopped in to collect him for lunch. I do not know what you told people, although Major Blackburn's revelation to the press that "there existed a device which, coupled to an aircraft, will reveal with certainty atomic bomb development," is, I take it, a hint about your old unit's more successful recent work. Have you been promising Russian atomic secrets in high places? Is it really so impossible to make U-235 and plutonium without venting radioisotopes into the air? I am going to guess that the scheme of detecting fissioning uranium from whizzing neutrons hasn't gone very far!

I am pleased, if surprised, to hear that the Earl will be flying over to Germany to assist "Miss V_.C_." in her meeting with the General. I suppose that this means that he will be buying German steel for the contracts. The price must have been very competitive. I am packing along a fine, antiquarian copy of the generals' great-grandfather's book, interleaved with a Chinese translation, signed by the author, with Great-Uncle's chop. I hope it will buy us a few extra tons of steel!

Speaking of young ladies with a secret, "Miss v. Q.," as I suppose I will say instead of "Mrs. Chow," has been summoned at the double to Virginia on a matter that has her smiling from ear to ear, and dropping heavy hints of secrets none can know. Under the circumstances I do not think it safe to transliterate the name, but the substance is that the FBI has just had a Washington courier of the Cheka walk in to them with the  names of various persons of the Roosevelt Administration who were providing the Cheka with information. The idea is that with the information this person has provided, the papers Wong Lee removed from the legation might reveal some of their secrets. Reading one-time writing out of the cribs of other documents ought not be possible, but perhaps the Cheka got careless. 

Mr. Johnston, you may have heard, is having a somewhat more consequential term in office than I, or anyone, expected. So if anyone asks why Uncle George isn't approaching him over the matter of his friend, it is because the last thing we want to do is appear in the press under the heading of the strike or the anti-trust case, or his friend. It might all wash out in favour of his friend, but Uncle George thinks that discretion is the order of the day. 


Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Soldier From the Wars Returning: Recap, Part the Second, New Technology, New Jobs

So I don't like doing this, but I lost another writing weekend this week, this time to eldercare issues: I'm going to see if I can write both November tech blogs next week, because, you know, it's only Christmas. This week, because I cannot do anything substantial, again, I want to tackle some recappable issues. Without ruining immersion, it's hard to say more than that tackling postblogging from a contemporary, local perspective makes it hard to step back and say, "Oh, wow, look what I found out!" That can be a little tricky, and never less so than when I discovered Alvin Hanson, somehow transmogrified into "Richards Hansen" in my last recap.

By the way, for the vanishingly small number of readers of this blog who might have heard of, much less seen, the City of Kelowna, new retirement/recreation/medical care centre of the southern interior of British Columbia, the mad, out-of-control building along the highway will be memorable.

A little bit of local history: British Columbia is on the edge of development on this continent, and it has suffered some setbacks have left a very peculiar pattern on its landscapes. The First World War, and the perhaps not-entirely unrelated crash in copper prices left its mark on the countryside.

The crash of 1929 led to a fall in property values and incomes that left our cities more-less unbuilt for thirty years afterwards. The highway through Kelowna from W.A.C. Bennet's floating bridge north towards Vernon led, in my childhood, through neighbourhoods of tiny old bungalows on drainage ditches so wide as to be practically canals. Much further north, it went by an airport with a terminal building approximately the same size as a one-room schoolhouse. By my 20s, the open ditches were gone, but the airport was still the same size. Today, north of 50, I am beyond astonished by the expansion of the airport.

However, our route to the laser surgery outpatient clinic took us up  Sutherland, the next major traffic artery south of the highway:

It turns out that the bungalows aren't gone, and, although I hadn't the patience to find it on Google Streetview, one of the ditches is still there, too. The houses look to be ninety years old, and old Kelowna's canal-sized drainage ditches are still open, although no longer large enough to have boats moored in them. Having lost three days off this week to various ramifications of our ongoing demographic crisis (NB: Author's Opinion), I may be seeing ominous signs where there's nothing to see. That Kelowna's topsy turvy development along the highway strip has not penetrated three blocks in is one of those Ominous Signs. 

Alvin Hanson was right, we have a problem, we should fix it, and the key to fixing it is to be found in the economic history of the war and postwar era. Etc, etc. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Rain Follows the Plough: Harappa and the Cultural Defectiveness of Swarthy Foreigners

Edit: Just throwing in the whole crockpot: here's the link to the argument that a Bactrian king, Diodotus I,is the historical Ashoka. Pretty interesting from a linguistic point of view, since it raises the question of whether Sanskrit predates, or postdates the Hellenistic Prakrits.

Not exactly long on time this week, so I'm going to pull some old reading out of my --pants. It is, however, a bit of a response to various provocations. (Lameen sends me here, if you're interested.)

Wallace, Kansas. Source: Photo by Diddleysquat. (Probably not their real name.)
The joke here is that back in the late Nineteenth Century, a supposed "frontier of settlement" that delineated populated America from the "Old West" was passed by wheat farmers headed west. Supposedly, the improvements changes made by settlers would cause the micro-climate to become wetter. Rain would follow the plough, they said. Incorrectly, though there are other reasons for the abandonment of Kansas's numerous ghost towns. I could also make some strained point about the Middle East being dry, and the home of "Islamic extremists," and Kansas being dry, and the home of. . . But who would that be helping? The issue here is that we keep talking about culture (and language), where it wouldn't be unreasonable to start with rainfall.

A week ago, Brad Delong took us on a dive into the superb research of Islamic medievalist Eduardo Manzano, who asks just how medieval Islamic institutions became so different from "Western." The implication is that this is going to  matter for the divergence between "Western" and "Islamic" economies. Why are we European-descended, give or take, people so rich, while Middle Eastern-descended (look, let's just go with it, okay?) so poor? It's because of  Roman law something Benedictine monasticism something feudalism something private property. Or so I imagine the argument. The fun thing about this is that we have someone with a fingertip feel for Islamic history sketching an overly broad and schematic history of medieval Europe, with the ultimate outcome teleologically explaining the outcome of the assorted crisies, reformations, renaissances and revolutions of European history. Well, fine. Once we've excluded other possible factors, surely institutional history is a thing to look at, and Manzano is exquisitely sensitive to precisely the objections I've suggested here, and does his best to guard against it. 

The question is whether we have, actually, excluded other factors.  Like rain. The Middle East is dry, or so I've heard. Not that this is going to be about the Middle East, Islam, and the Clash of Civilisations, because it is actually about something I've researched in the past, which is not that. It is Bench Grassish, though. Notice the new label!

East of the "Middle East," where Islam failed to thrive, lies the the Indian subcontinent, long since split from its Antarctic motherland, collides in slow motion with the Eurasian plate, producing the Himalayas, lies the Punjab, Land of the Five Rivers. (Maahi Ve, by Josh.) Much of the Punjab has been incorporated in the Muslim League's national home for Indian Muslims, Pakistan.

Before that, we are told, between about 2000BC and 1500BC, it was the home of something which we agree to call the Harappan Civilisation, after the archetype, an archaeological site fifteen kilometers west of Sahiwal, on the Lahore-Karachi Railway, on an abandoned bed of the Ravi River. Well-known to locals, who pointed it out to antiquarian Charles Masson, who described it in an 1842 book, Harappa was first excavated in 1925 by a team led by D. R. Sahni, commissioned by the Director-General of the Indian Archaeological Survey, Sir John Marshal. Subsequent digs, especially that led by British '50s television archaeologist, Mortimer Wheeler, have consolidated Harappa's reputation as one of the great Lost Civilisations of antiquity. 

Qualifying the adjectives, the Harappan Civilisation is great because, apparently, it had a lost language, written in an undeciphered script. (Whether there's anything in it about the the Hiss case, we may never know.) It is lost, because, Mortimer Wheeler says, because Indo-Aryan, Veda-reciting, chariot-riding, bronze-axe wielding warriors of the north descended on them and destroyed the mud-brick citadels. 

Later intepretations favour climate change or systems collapse or what-have-you, and absolve the Aryans on grounds of chronology, because the collapse actually happened about 1900, and everyone knows that the Aryans arrived at the stroke of 1500BC. Just count the generations back from the Trojan War. Uhm, science. Specifically, historical linguistics.  If you are not moved to follow links, pioneering German Indologist, Max Mueller, argued that since the Buddha lived c. 550BC,* and the Vedanga and and Sutra Vedas are in dialogue with him, they must be the latest of the Vedic writings. The chain of listed Brahmanic teachers of these Vedas takes us back to 800BC. The Samhitas, which are before these, must have been composed over, oh, say, 200 years (1000BC). The Vedic hymns were composed over about 200 years. (1200BC), a date confirmed by the date of the Trojan War archaeology's first good date for chariots down in these parts.  

Fine, fine, whatever. I'm not going to be the iconoclast here. As Terence D'Altroy points out, we probably would not infer the existence of Tawatinsuyu from the archaeology of Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, either. Having already used that excuse to suggest that the Uruk Expansion really might have been an empire, I am not going to exclude the idea of a vast, Indus Valley Civilisation/Empire, just because its existence would make modern Hindu nationalists very happy. As for kicking Veda-chanting, Indo-Aryan warriors out of the picture, at least since we realised that Conan the Barbarian isn't real, we haven't been big on the idea that barbarians burn down cities without replacing them, if at all possible. (In other words, our barbarian invaders have to be subordinated to a "systems collapse" model.)

So, uhm, about that "lost" part.

Harappa (1):
Harappa (2):

By Sam Panthakya. Getty Images, scraped from Slate.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Postblogging Technology, October 1945, II:

Source: "Television's Early History"

Mr. R. C.,
Vancouver, British Columbia,

Dear Father:

Before you blanch at the thickness of this week's missive, do take a look down at the bottom. Only a month into the subscription, and already Ziff-Davis has let me down with a July number of Radio News packed in the October sleeve. So it could be worse, is what I am saying. I thought about talking about it (there's a very interesting piece on attempts to establish UHF radio service in Britain, and another on radar, so my last chance to write "Radar is (Secret/Not Secret) This Week," but it isn't topical, and that is the theme of this correspondence, such as there is one.

Now that you're not blanching, may I broach a proposal? You will see below that the General has involved himself in the question of German industry. If I read the story right, the British have thrown in with the idea of reviving the German steel industry, and the General is advocating for it at Eisenhower's headquarters. Now, I do not know the General well enough to know whether he's in Krupp's pocket, but the left press certainly thinks that he is. My question: we, or, rather, the Earl, obviously needs a lot of steel to hit the shipbuilding targets he has set. Could we steer a contract to the Germans via General Draper, in return for getting him to roll over the Harriman papers? I do not think that Averell will care. Admittedly, I am having trouble understanding why I care. The "junior university" can go hang, for all that I care, and the Engineer simply isn't capable of gratitude, in my judgement. 

On the other hand, the Engineer, as we know, arrived at his "uncle's" school under his birth name. It wasn't until Leland, Jr. died, that little "George MacKay" was sent off to be "buried" on the Colville Reservation, and a little Engineer "arrived" to take his place. Now I have word from Fat Chow that he found a scrap of the Agent's letter register: "George MacKay" received an annual statement (or so I conceive it to be) from the Oregon and California Railroad in 1887. (Don't you hate it when a correspondent fails to update his information by letting you know that he has died?) If there are more, they are not in the Agent's fonds in the State archives. But they may be in the papers Great Uncle asked his son to leave to the university, to keep them out of Bancroft's hands. Access to that, and we may yet find proof that the Engineer is the actual beneficiary of some of the university's endowment. Not enough to cover the Earl's friends' losses, so many years ago, but enough for revenge. . . Obviously the Engineer will not go for this, but he is far from the only man to make decisions on campus. 

So with that in mind, and with your permission, I shall bring "Miss V.C." before me and entrust her with a more confidential mission to the General than we had previously imagined. But I need the Earl's permission. Money does not grow on trees, and a sweetener to the General adds to the cost of the ships. (See, I am not a complete ninny about business!)

On travel plans, though, perhaps. . . Now we have news that, due to the strike, the Engineer's son is at loose ends. He is talking about shooting something in Canada, and has gallantly offered to conduct the Santa Clara collegiate 4H to a Christmastime show in Montreal. Our young housekeeper (barely that, as she can only work half a week) is over the Moon about it, understandably, and now there are all sorts of plans afoot to reunite the whole gang --her, "Miss V.C.," your son, Lieutenant A-- in Montreal in December. It seems like an awful lot of travel and trouble, and I am sure that you are going to claim to detect feminine wiles, no matter how many times I tell you that "Miss V.C." is too obedient to her parents' wishes to give in to your son's blandishments. . . No matter how "sweet" she says he is. 


"When praises mean raises!"