Thursday, August 27, 2015

Master of Horses: Gallic Invasions and State Mobilisations in the Third Century, BC.

Well. Someone didn't get to the library until 1PM Tuesday; and it so happens that it closes at 5 on Tuesdays, and that there turns out to be a lot more to say about technology in the second half of July than I expected. Did you know that a 24lb "disintegrating uranium" bomb is as effective as a 1-ton V2? Just as well the Germans didn't finish theirs before the end of the war, don't you think? 

(Also, I lost a good three hours work mishandling OneDrive. Stupid cloud.)

So, something else, today.

The Stickpin Fire has now burnt out a thousand square kilometers of Washington state, approaching within 4 km of the Canadian border at Grand Forks, where evacuation alerts have been issued to districts southeast of the rivers. My Dad's retirement home is, fortunately,not in the alerted areas. 

But who knows what will happen if "extreme events" force the firefighters to "cease suppression efforts" and abandon the wall of firebreaks they have  built to contain this historic fire. It will be a sad ending to a summer of heroic mobilisation if the wildfires enter the Town of Grand Forks.

Fortunately, relief may be on the way, as the first of what is hoped will be a long series of equinoctal storms makes landfall in the Lower Mainland early tomorrow before extending inland. The seasons are turning. The day is not far off when the firefighters come down from the ranges to rejoin civil society. 

For this year, anyway. Meanwhile, from Calgary, where air quality is now officially worse than Beijing's due to a fire 700km away, Deborah Yedlin denounced yesterday any attempt to discuss global warming in hearings over a new pipeline proposal on the grounds that "economists" say that it would be a "compositional fallacy." "You can't talk about that. It's illogical!"

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Not Terribly Technical Appendix: Bats in the Belfry

Yes, it's a repeat, but some things are a classic for a reason.
There have been many crazy inventors, and many things to point at and laugh. But there has only been one "Bat bomb."

At this late date, it's probably not even vaguely possible to add something to the story of the Marine Corps (Yes, the Marine Corps. Who let them play with all that money?) $3 million plan to burn the "paper cities" of Japan to the ground with incendiary bats.  

It turns out, however, that you can add something to the story of "Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams," Not surprisingly, the plan to set arsonist bats loose in nsuch belfries as Japan has,* originated with someone who --never mind, low-hanging fruit, to the point where you have to wonder if someone didn't authorise this just to make the joke.

My inspiration for posting on this comes from the left-hand side. That is, I was all-too aware of Adams from his incomprehensible ability to get funding, or at least attention, for his other crazy schemes before I realised that he was the Bat Bomb guy. Once I did, following up on him at The Atlantic piece which summarises the recent book on the Bat Bomb actually introduced me to aspects of his career of which I was unaware. Probably because they were late in life, and I am thinking of the fried chicken vending machine, here. This is a technology which apparently now works, although as a guy on the periphery of just this business, I could suggests some reasons why Dr. Adams' invention of the late Forties might not have been an entire success. I'm not going to do that, though, because there is more than enough material for this post in his patented (actually, multiple patents) method(s) for non-stop airmail pick-up  

Snipped from The Atlantic article. He does look a little like Colonel Sanders!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Postblogging Technology, July 1945, I: Something Smells Off


Group Captain R_. C_., RCAFVR, OBE, DSO, DFC (Bar),
RAAF Richmond,

Dear Father:

Your letter finds us well, but anxious in the West Coast, where the casualty lists from Okinawa are beginning to sink in. It sometimes seems as though California has given the Marine Corps all the blood it can, and obviously John's death has hit Michael and Judith very hard. Michael actually punched a hand who apparently suggested (in Spanish), that he had grandsons enough that he wouldn't miss one. 

For myself, I had considered moving into the Grant Avenue rooms to be closer to my doctor for the last few weeks; but Judith is firm on the point that there is no need for unfamiliar surroundings at this late date. She also has the fixed idea that Chinatown is dirty. In fact, we have brought Mrs(!) Wong down to stay in the ranch house, close to her inlaws without being too close. Tommy will be in town for two weeks at the end of July, after which all leaves at his station are cancelled through the end of August for very hush-hush reasons. We hope the event will be then. James has written separately, pleading with me to hold off another month, as though I had any say in the matter. So whatever the hush-hush reasons are, they mean early leaves for fleet engineers, no leaves for aircraft instrument men in Alaska.

Miss v. Q., unexpectedly, has been in touch with her cousin. Not the rocket-man, the other one. The explanation, insofar as it can be trusted to me even by Miss v. Q., is that modern code work uses booklets of specially figured numbers in their new-fangled "book codes," instead of astronomy chapbooks, as we do. This is all very well from the point of view of defeating the Black Chamber (as they say in the trade), unless for some reason the lists of numbers are recycled, as the Russians apparently fell into the habit of doing during the war. One way or another, this offers some hope of reading Russian diplomatic ciphers. The Germans were working on it, and her cousin has taken the liberty of supplying their materials to the Americans, for very patriotic reasons involving all the nice things that American dollars can buy. (Miss v. Q. loves her cousin without having a very high opinion of his honesty.) Now the American army and the FBI have put all hands on deck in an attempt to read the codes. From my other source in the matter, our young Lieutenant A_., I have it that there is some hope that the New Deal will finally be proved to have been communising all this time. 

I am not so sure. The Engineer must with the desire to expose the rot, and surely Mr. Luce would like to see the communists out of the State Department, where they are sure to hand China over to Yunnan. Unless Soong does it himself in the Moscow talks. recent election in Britain, but my brain trust at the University points out that the Laski Affair in Britain shows the limits of this. One wants to follow, not try to lead, public opinion in these matters, the Provost says. Look at the Zinoviev Letter, he says. Not a single Labour voter changed his mind, but it swept the Liberals from the field and gave the Tories their majority, anyway. (I forgot to look this up so that I could explain it, but I think it is a  reference to a scandal in a British general election in the 1920s, in which case I would sound like a pompous fool explaining it to you, and Santa Clara's faculty is full up already. 

I'm sorry, that was mean. I love the generality of my old Jesuits. It is just that I do not love sending my drapes out to the dry cleaners. (Cigars, to be discussed below. Would St. Francis approve of cigars? I shall have to ask, next time I host the Fathers.)

Speaking of the Moscow talks, where Macnhria's fate seems settled and the issue has turned to Turkestan, one bit of alarming news you may not have heard. Fat Chow was finally prevailed upon to travel there to meet with his pan-Turanian friends. He is flying out in an Army bomber with some dubious Japanese officers to no purpose I can imagine. 

Your son was in town very briefly on his way to his ship, which he will join in the last week of July. "Miss V.C." and Lieutenant A_. drove down from Idaho to meet them, and made a foursome on the town with our housekeeper, just like old times, young heads bobbing in an open Lincoln in the California evening sun. Blonde, brunette, redhead, another brunette. . . I wish I were seven years younger. . . 

Next morning, she even volunteered to drive him down to the docks. A hug from me, a brisk handshake from "Miss V.C.", and he stepped into the launch. It was all rather ruined when I had to give her a talking-to about reckless driving at home. At least she's growing up: whatever she wanted to say about my scolding, she held her tongue.

Though she did spend the rest of the day listening to sad songs on the radio.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Closed Sea: Planting the Pacific: Or, Three Centuries on the Stoop

"Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific –– and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise ––
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

Balboa (not Cortes, as everyone always points out) is a big deal to some people, John Keats cared more about a nice translation of Homer, but the poem comes down to us for its wild surmise, in that moment when you crest the hill and see the vast Pacific before you. One can hope, even in 2015, that tomorrow's world will have larger horizons, if we only patiently wait for the beginning of the Pacific Century. 

We've been waiting, let it be said, for a very long time, from 1512 to, well, now? But the usual practice is to blame the insular and the ineffectual. Were China and Japan not closed societies, had the Spanish not tried to "close" the Pacific while neglecting their own exploratory duty to Science. 

Had-- Well, let me stop here and put Sam Bawlf on the stage. In a beyond-embarrassing episode fifteen years ago, the former provincial politician, best known for his role in the epic fiasco of the Fast Ferries, was featured in all the major Canadian west coast papers with a new theory about what Francis Drake did in the summer of 1579. We know from the official history that he made his way to the Pacific coast of Spanish America, found nothing there worth pirating, made his way up the coast a-ways, and then headed westward on a short and trouble-free circumnavigation of the Pacific and home with a big old load of gold. Tradition takes the northing as far as California, because, you know, it's California. Bawlf decided to bring Drake to British Columbia, with plans to establish a secret colony, and somehow got all four of the major Canadian west coast papers to do big stories presenting his wacky ideas as fact.

Why all the caring? Drake gives the anglophone world an anchor on the region.In 1507, Albequerque forced open the western door by taking Malacca. In 1640, the Russians reached the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk.  That's your first Pacific Century, and between that and your preferred end date (Captain Cook? San Francisco? Nootka Sound?) there is at least a century, perhaps two, of . . . nothing. History not happening. The Pacific has marched up to the doorstep, reaches for the doorbell and pauses. For at least a century, and perhaps two. 

It's embarrassing. Aren't we important? Wouldn't this be a nice place for a New Albion? So why the delay? The answer, I think, is pretty simple. Planting requires plantations, something to do. 

Take it back now, a moment, to the Cortes-Balboa confusion. Balboa came to the New World eight years after Columbus departed, leaving his mysteriously disappearing colony behind him; and that he died a sordid death on the execution block a month before Hernando Cortes landed at Veracruz to begin the conquest of Mexico. Balboa falls in the twenty-seven years between Columbus and Cortes in which the Spanish settled the Caribbean and the Isthmus of Panama, hears of the Incas, and even launched their first marine explorations of the Pacific. It's a history that we rush over in our haste to get to Aztecs and Incas. Not, in fact, really a history at all, even if full of names of towns founded and countries ancestered. We would know all about it if the histories of Panama, Colombia and Venezuala were things we cared about, but they are not. The rest of the world cares very little about boring, small countries.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Postblogging Technology, June, 1945, II: The Defence Advances

Group Captain R_. C_., RCAFVR, OBE, DSO, DFC (Bar),
RAAF Richmond,

Dearest Father:

It is I, Dame Grace, writing this to congratulate you on your appearance in the Birthday Honours. Does that sound stilted? Because one is given to understand that Dames write about themselves in the third person in English, and this is the closest one can achieve. Not that one is calling one's attention to the fact that the correct appellation in English is now "Dame Grace." One would never be so over the moon at . . . 

I shall stop. And I shall not kiss the lips of my husband any the more fervently when I see him for his being now "Sir James." Though I shall be ever so grateful for the new styling, if it means not having to field the line about "Captain C_., eh? Any relation to the Captain C_.?" "Well, yes," one would reply. And then. . .

To be fair, most Americans --most people, I should say-- are unaware that no children of his marriage lived to adulthood.  So they would not know that they were being whimsical --or hitting on an unacknowledged truth. And so one danced around the facts, and the implications of the answer, depending on what one wanted to imply, and to whom, especially, of course, about the mother. 

How did I get on to that? Perhaps it is that I am giddy; or that I am tired and out of time for having my time and schedule abruptly reversed by the sudden retirement of our housekeeper's father from his position at FMC. As he says, he has money enough to live comfortably, and a farm to keep up, and, I suspect, the same burgeoning dreams of subdivision (on a much smaller scale) as we. What it means for me, and poor Fanny, is more domestic work than we are used to doing, at least until things settle down over there. I am almost tempted --almost-- to broach the subject with the Wongs. But I shall be strong. Their daughter is to improve herself through education, and not be immured in domestic service. It may begin as "temporary," but who knows when it would end. If making breakfast for myself is the cost of keeping the Wongs' loyalty, I can manage it, although a man, before judging, should try it with the load which I am carrying around with me. 

So you will be glad to know that your son has not washed out of training, will not wash out of training, indeed, will place high in his class. He sounds only slightly melancholy at his separation from California. Miss v. Q. hangs over word of Fat Chow, who does not have much reason to stay in Japan, one would think. Except for bizarre invitations on a a trip to Turkestan via Manchuria for reasons unclear. Professor L has contacted me about the Amerasia matter, of which more anon.

As for the telephone installation in Couer d'Alene, are you teasing me? I am pretty sure that "Miss V. C." has more on her mind than receiving calls from beaus, as, after all, Lieutenant A was in town last week --I bet many a young officer would want a commission so liberal! (Speaking of, Miss v. Q.'s invitation east is now firm, but she has put it off until after her roommate is couched.)

We are glad to receive your intimation that methods and techniques are afoot to bring the war to a rapid, if not humane conclusion, for, as the Prime Minister puts it, we are looking through now towards the sunny uplands. . .

A vision of the American utopia, brought to you by Pontiac. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Postblogging Technology, June 1945, I: The Inventors

Group Captain R_. C_., RCAFVR, DSO, DFC (Bar),
RAAF Richmond,

Dearest Father:

What a relief! First, the war in Europe is well and definitively over. Second, I am  not to be repudiated by the family! I cannot thank you enough for your support in the matter of assistance. I wish that Uncle George were here, since it strikes me that some naval architectural advice would go far to alleviating the risks involved. The last thing the family would want is another 'white slavery' fiasco. The number of elders of the community determined to provide their grandsons with picture brides is amazing to me, but what am I to say? I shall have to bring up the matter of support and novel ventures again in a moment, but the whole thing is so strange that I shall leave you on the hooks for a moment!

Oh, I am sorry, my manners! I hope that the war finds you well in Australia. One would think that it would! My latest letters from Uncle George and James breathe relief at the end of the dreadful Ryukyus campaign, while it increasingly looks as though the Australian project will come to nothing. While I do not know much about strategy and diplomacy other than what I read in the papers, it seems as though we must look forward to a Japanese peace before my time, the turn of the leaves, or the arrival of British bombers in Okinawa. Next year in California!

"Miss V.C." has gone to the Couer d'Alene house for an extended stay, promising to be on the train the moment she hears of my confinement. She wants to thoroughly investigate the papers there, and has promised in return to supervise some long-pending modernising. Indoor plumbing and replacing the wiring to support something more robust than 60 watt lightbulbs in every room might be a bit much to ask given the lack of labour, but I have a promising lead on an electric furnace, a suitable appliance for the new main we must have anyway --we can then have either radiant heat in the rooms when the house is wired, or persist with the forced air ducting, although it is much too big, I am told, for that to work out well. The same excavation (or wire hanging) can then bring in a  telephone, very much overdue. 

Miss v. Q is in a tizzy over the expected confinements, but much soothed by her rapid progress towards an American driver's license, which apparently she simply must have for teaching in the fall, as life on the Berkeley campus would be, I am told, unthinkable without it. There is also talk of a business visit to a country house in Virginia known to Lieutenant A. --near Washington, I am told with a juvenile wink--. The Lieutenant is here and there and on about the country with manic energy since Wong Lee's little adventure, and not least where "Miss V.C.' is to be found. Although if I find him to be doing the Engineer's business, I shall be cross!

Returning to Miss v. Q., I am not so naive as to wonder whether she needs quite as much practice driving as she claims, but it is a beautiful summer here, and there is so much to see, and Professor K. has invited her to the Napa house several times already. He thinks her a good influence on Miss K., who chatters on about everything except what the good Professor things a young lass should be concerned with. Miss v. Q. takes a more tolerant view, which puts her on good terms with both.   And she does need distraction.

On the matter of her beloved, in so much more danger than mine, we have good news. Our new agent has returned from his voyage to Vladivostok with the package, a heavy bundle of prewar banknotes, carefully concealed with all of Fat Chow's art. I have passed it on to Cousin E., with strict instructions that Uncle Henry is to buy ten year bonds with it, which seems a long enough time frame for the Oahu project. No car factories, steel mills, airports, flying boats, hospitals, or other brainstorms, in other words! It is distressing to think that we are securing the money of the same clans whose sons now aim their aircraft at my beloved's ships, but they are old, old partners. 

Now, the bizarre matter: we have placed a great deal of trust in our new agent, and, of course, he wants something more than money, or he would have taken his chances in stealing our package! Specifically, he wants to be a science fiction writer. I am no judge of literary merit, but he seems more than talented enough by the standards of the competition, although your youngest writes from Michigan that he is put off by the man's style. On the other hand, a striking and odd style is, I am told, apt to gather a devoted following if delivered well. This said, using family influence to secure a placement in some odd literary magazine would be a spectacular waste of effort. I am open to suggestions.

Finally, with the letter, a puzzled note from Fat Chow, who has been approached to reactivate his pretended role as an exiled Kalmyk prince. Something is going on in far Sinkiang. I assume that it is just a matter of the Russians muscling in, but I can't help recalling Sir Eric's assassination. 


A cloverleaf! How romantic.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Fall of France, XI: Nimrods All the Way Down

This rubs me the wrong way. I'm not sure the subtext is as pro-Nazi as I perceive it to be, but, for me, the perception is there. 

Now, this?

I'd explain in detail, but it wouldn't be Very Serious and Scholarly. So here's the Wikipedia links. Jump on board if Clobbering Time's your thing. 1, 2, 34.*

No more obliqueness. It's time to Put a Clobbering on Global Warming!

Never mind. That's probably getting too non-oblique, far too many leaps of logic all at once. I'm talking here about counterfactuals of 1940. I've done so before, in a whimsical way. Some time later, I returned to the subject when provoked by one of those books that manages to be usefully and provocatively wrong. The Foresight War is a "counterfactual" of World War II which, inexplicably, gets the British Expeditionary Force out of the Battle of France, while focussing on important prewar changes to the interwar trajectory. You know, like getting it an assault rifle. 

I have danced around the real counterfactual before, although I can't find it in my older posts in the time I am willing to commit to the exercise, and, anyway, it is a really, really simple point that bears repeating.

On 10 May 1940, when the balloon went up, there were 7 infantry divisions under the BEF, plus one in strategic reserve in France, plus one rotated under French command in the Maginot Line garrison, plus three divisions brought over as for construction work, plus one created new during the fighting from reinforcement depot troops. Depending on who you're blowing smoke for, you might get away with saying that the BEF actually present in France on the day that the German offensive began was 7 divisions, or 12. Or, heck, 13. I think it's perfectly fair for a historian of the German army to focus on the latter. After all, some of the attacking German armies were at least as unready to fight as the "labour" divisions called into the line to join the BEF. If, on the other hand, you want to emphasise just how small the British land contribution was, the "7" number is equally useful. Even if the GHQ-bound 5th Division was released to the BEF the moment the fighting started, the fact is that on 9 May, the GHQ in Arras thought that it was going to lose the division to a peripheral fight in Norway, and the details of its return to the fight had a disproportionate impact on the BEF's mobile forces.**

The point being made by the latter strawman is that Britain, because it was "small," or because it had a large navy, or because of Culture or as a Matter of Historical and Political Tradition (Cromwell! Boo!), just couldn't have a sufficiently large army to influence matters on the continent. It was pointless to try, and the optimum strategy in Avalon Hill's Third Reich, which is (I'm told) to send the entire BEF to Egypt to wipe out the Italian Empire in North Africa, actually makes sense.

Enough delaying the counterfactual turn is after the cut.