Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Cosmically Aware Technical Appendix



I honestly don't know how I came to the idea that cosmic rays were boring. It's a tribute to an undergraduate education, maybe? High energy photons are emitted from your mundane spinning galactic cores, supernovas, and the odd black hole, impact the Earth's atmosphere, lock free some subatomic particles, including a few with goofy names like "muon" and "meson," which kind of have to be fake, considering that there are guns in Traveller that shoot them, and that, anyway, you don't need to know about for chemistry class. (Or Physics 420, come to that.)

And then there's this:

 I don't know if you're following Agent Carter  or not. I mean, Bench Grass obviously isn't. Like the back pages of Whittaker Chamber's Time, we may seem unusually interested in physical culturalists and Gypsy Rose Lee, but, in fact, we concern ourselves with Great Art and Fine Literature. However, we hear that it is a fun television show. 



More importantly, the premise is that, in the summer of 1947, defence contractor Isodyne has done its own run of atomic bomb testing (as if), and, unexpectedly, discovered a goopy, black stuff that recalls episodes of Agents of Shield and characters such as Darkstar and Cloak and Dagger. Instead of calling it "the dark force," though, because that would be silly, they're calling it "zero matter," and it is something with enormous potential to blah blah. Cloak, notably, uses his dark stuff to teleport, which could be a link with Agents of Shield. Someone who watches that show might find out. And have age-inappropriate reactions to Chloe Bennett. 

And now for a completely irrelevant thumbnail photo to illustrate the post before the jump.



Saturday, January 30, 2016

Postblogging Technology, December 1945, II: Journey to the West

My Lord:

Our best wishes, and profound gratitude to you this Christmas, or, rather this Twelfth Day. "Miss V.C." has given me a full account of the Berlin negotiations, and your handsome letter, signed by the General (and Mr. H., in advance!) So the mortgage is extended, and I shall take the good news up to the "junior college" as soon as American academia awakens itself from its Christmas nap. I am sure that they will be glad enough to have a budget for next year that there will be no problem with discrete archival access.

I honestly still have my doubts that the arrangement. The University's reputation will be as badly damaged as the Engineer's if any details of his father's arrangements emerge, and those details are what Grace expects to find. I know that she wants to tiptoe around this, simply hold it over his head; but we have already been visited by assassins. The Soongs do not play the game like gentlemen! However, with civil war in the offing in China, we cannot spare a weapon. 

As I say, Twelfth Night, which I mention because of your telegram of concern, which I have passed on to "Miss V.C.," who has written you a thank you note, which, since it goes by surface mail, will probably reach you with the first swallow of spring. The reason we celebrate the Nativity so late, as you guessed, is that she was caught in the storm that shut the railroads down in the East on the 18th.  

I do not know if "Miss V.C." told you, however, but there is more to the story. It was not just the young lady stranded by the road, but a full house for Christmas Eve in Cleveland Central Station.

Very well, the details.  The original plan was for her to fly to California, joining her parents in San Francisco for Christmas, and then to visit with us. She would be accompanied by my half-brother, who is in college in Boston, who would take the train up to Montreal and fly back with her. Her parents found the idea of winter flying to be ridiculously dangerous, although, given the state of the trains, an argument could be made either way. So, just to be safe, they asked the young man that Grace likes to refer to as "Lieutenant A." to escort her. As I am sure she told you, she and the young lieutenant are all but formally engaged, though this does not dim my brother's hopeless attraction to her a wit. 

The odd thing about this is, even though "Miss V.C." treats my brother with the utmost propriety, and assures all that she has no feelings for him, her parents still seem concerned. A family marriage --even though they are only third cousins!-- is out of the question. An admiral's son is just the sort they are looking for, especially as his career seems to be flourishing in Washington. (Oddly enough, given that Admiral Nimitz detests him, and for good reason, I have to say.) 

So, "Miss V.C." the young lieutenant, who was to turn around for Texas as soon as he saw his almost-intended safely to San Francisco, and my brother as third wheel. Put that way, it sounds worse than a storm! But it was at this point in the planning that the Engineer's youngest got involved. As you will have heard, he is a minor Hollywood star, and somewhat at loose ends after leaving the Army, as his studio has not offered him anything but a supporting role in a "comeback" film for one its stars next year. So he conceived a plan to visit the Canadian film board in Montreal, and to earn a little cash by conducting a tour for the 4H-Club at Santa Clara, which I cannot even begin to imagine explaining to you --the salient point being that our former housekeeper is a member, and was one of the teen companions in their late adventures here in California. 

Now, I have to admit that I am at a loss to explain all of this. My father has a simple explanation. He has somehow convinced himself that not only does "Miss V.C." carry a secret torch for my brother, but that the lieutenant only keeps up his end because it gives him an excuse to visit with our former housekeeper, who really is the prettiest thing, in that blonde Californian way, but of rather too low a stock for his mother's ambitions. (At least, as long as "Miss V.C." is in play.)

That's the theory. I don't believe a word of it. But the important point is that the Engineer's son may. Grace is convinced that, although he is charming and convivial to the bone, he is repressing some malicious impulses. My father takes this on board, and adds one last flourish to his theory. It is all deliberate. Our B-movie actor friend is trying to throw a wrench in our Chicago relatives' carefully-laid matrimonial plans for their daughter. 

I worry about my father. Uncle George has been expecting him to have a breakdown under the press of the war for years now, but he has not needed a rest cure since 1939. Perhaps his next spell is at hand?

It is far too late to say that I will be brief, but I do leave to your imagination a gaggle of young folk celebrating Christmas Eve with what they could find at the Harveys Restaurant in the Central Station.  
And that was the Christmas adventure that you sent "Miss V.C." into. If now I were to say that I would be brief, it would be end by saying that you should have no regrets, that all is well that ends well, and that it all makes me wish that I were young again. 






Your Humble & Obedient Servant,
James.



Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Postblogging Technology, December 19454, I: A Little Bit of Sugar


My Lord:

Merry Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year! You are probably wondering why you are receiving this, in lieu of a card or whatnot, and especially about all the deciphering being demanded of you in this season of celebration. Well, with my father on his way from Vancouver to join us for the holidays, we were not going to produce one of these notes. But it was represented to us that you took some pleasure from them, and now that I have been able to go to Davao, you are certainly owed some kind of casting of accounts. We certainly do not wish to offend you, not when you have taken the German matter in hand!

Since you have seen the others, you will know that they have been the hobby of my Uncle George and my wife, Grace. Uncle George is still refusing to do anything that smacks of work, and my wife is only a week past her surgery, still on powerfull pain medication, and in no condition to do anything requiring sitting.

This also raises a rather sensitive matter. My father has dropped some hints, and I cannot find a way of politely disabusing him of the notion that I will need to make provisions, now that my wife has, well, suffice it to say that Victoria Claire's delivery was unfortunately abrupt. Someone needs to put his mind to rest! Dr. Rivers is a very good surgeon, and assures that me that no marital difficulties will ensue.

You will probably be disappointed by the scantiness of the accounts. The problem is that I am looking into an extremely unclear crystal ball. In the matter of real estate, we have already disposed of the old feedlot. Uncle Henry is developing it according to his own schemes. The land in Palo Alto has not attracted the same kind of attention. Frankly, I hope to see it as some kind of commuter's suburb, too, but one not entangled with Kaiser-style schemes. The orchards south of oSanta Clara will probably have to go, eventually, too, but I want to see the land around them start to move, first, as this will bid the price up. With the exception of the houselots which Grace has already carved out. Who knows? They may even get the ball rolling. I can visualise trailer homes on the Spokane lands --if there is enough population growth to encourage it, but in Couer d'Alene and the lower bend of the river in Canada, I think we can safely abandon hope of anything more than expropriation if the dam ever goes through. 

As for the money we have invested "on the water," we will have a better sense of its value when our friends finally get around to incorporating. Unfortunately, no-one is in a hurry to launch stock issues in America right now --there is just not the need. If the tape-recording machine were ready for consumer use, then perhaps Bill and David, or their assignees (the preferred scheme) would hurry to the market, but it is not, and we continue to have misgivings about associating them with it, anyway. If it is not to be their "breakthrough" product, then we are back to their original schemes, according to which incorporation might be a decade(!) away. Hopefully, the Russian will before that.

Obviously, assessing the value of our stock portfolio is just a matter of subscribing to the business press. We stand ready to help you repatriate the money if you need it, but I hope you do not, as the end of exchange controls are imminent. 

As for the Davao visit, the news is not the worst that can be imagined, but it is not good, either. The effect of heat and humidity on the papers is very noticeable. When I imagine what it must have been like to take them down the river, under the eyes of the Five Banners and the British alike, one can well appreciate why so many of the other Hongs burned their family documents, instead. And now they are rotting in the tropical air. I know we had always hoped that if ever family ties frayed to the point where we had need of a magistrate, it would be in Canton, where the bench could be trusted not to inquire as to what other names might attach to someone appearing before them "in their own proper person." 

Looking at the situation in China now, I do not think that that is not going to be possible for a very long time. And, obviously, there should be no question of, for example, the original capitulation between the Admiral and the Lady being produced before a British judge. But if the papers are to be left in Davao for another century, something must be done about the climate. I am inquiring, very carefully, inquiring about air conditioning. We shall have to see. I have no idea how we would keep that secret from the neighbours and avoid gossip, but I am going to see what some Californian rice (as see below) might secure. Besides a bizarre story, related to me with a straight face by a Delta grower, to the effect that American agronomists discovered the best way to grow rice twenty years ago! 

And so I leave off with one more round of best wishes of the season, feeling more than a little queer in pivoting from tropical heat to a Merry Christmas, even here in sunny California!

Your Humble & Obedient Servant,

James.





Saturday, January 16, 2016

Walrus Ranching: Early Settlement of the Norse High Atlantic?

Well, finally dragged myself into the library at 3PM the other day, and that's just not going to cut it when I'm working morning shifts. I am pleased to report that I've got probably the most egregious single defence of high unemployment yet uttered by Geoffrey Crowther* of The Economist lined up for you when December, I, goes live, but that'll be next week, hopefully.

After the jump, the headline graphic is a boring table, which is boring, so I'm going to introduce this piece

 --Wait. Actually, I'm going to introduce it with an apology to Christian Keller of the University of Oslo, who has been pushing the "walrus hunters settled Iceland, Greenland and Vinland" angle since at least 2008--

Okay, I'm going to introduce this piece, as far as Google search image results goes, with some nice scenery very tenuously linked to the actual subject. Which, in case you are wondering, is the possibility of pre-871 settlement of Iceland, either a live issue in Icelandic archaeology, per the indefatigable Margret Hermanns-Audardottir, or something almost too gauche to be discussed, per everyone else, although the taboo may be breaking down



Look! It's the Pemberton Valley, courtesy of Pemberton Valley Lodge. It's twenty minutes past Whistler, Vancouver's favourite snow-and-snow destination (think Aspen, only more provincial), and cheaper to stay in.

The relevance here is --Okay, let's see if I can make this brief. Back in the day, people wanted to build railways across North America from the East Coast, where all the people were, to the West Coast, which is a good place to catch a boat to China. Meanwhile, on the West Coast,  people were alert to the fact that there weren't all that many good places in the mountain country that faces the North American Pacific where you can build cities and there supporting hinterlands. Yet, nevertheless, there were more prospects than railways likely to be built. So how do you make a killing on real estate? by influencing the route so that it goes through, say, Reno instead of Spokane, then buying land, not only in Reno versus Spokane, but San Francisco versus Tacoma. This is an American example, of course: for the Pemberton Valley, the issue is Vancouver on the one hand, and, ultimately, Regina versus Saskatoon --towns in Saskatchewan, if you were wondering-- on the other. (No, I'm not going to explain here: brevity.) 

So here's Google Maps.


The route traced here shows the Cariboo Road, built by Governor James Douglas of British Columbia, to service a gold rush off the map to the north. It later became the route of the first two Canadian intercontinental railways. However, I've centred the map to show an alternate route, which follows the course of the Lillooet River from the head of Harrison Lake --actually a widening of that river-- and over a mountain pass to the upper Fraser River, passing through the Pemberton Valley portion of the Lillooet on the way. This was actually Douglas' originally preferred route. built in 1862, it was quickly abandoned as impractical and replaced with the route shown, which goes up the stupendous gorge cut through the coastal mountains by the Fraser River. 

So, uhm, you gently prod me --relevance? It's simply that Douglas may have been less nuts than he seems. The early history of the Pemberton Valley is a bit obscure, but we do know that Squamish medicine women brought potatoes to the Valley, perhaps in the 1820s, and established farms there that were flourishing in 1860. Given that it was the cost of provisions in the gold fields that was driving agitation for a wagon road, it might have seemed logical to Douglas that a road connecting them with the coast should run through the largest active farming area of the period on the mainland. I'm saying "may" because, of course, this runs into the race issue. We generally don't like our First Nations actors jumping out of the box marked "noble savage" and into the one marked "early settler," a running theme on this blog that I won't pursue here because the same issues are going to come up after the jump. Douglas, embarrassed though his descendants may be to admit it, was mixed-race himself, and married a high status First Nations woman. She wasn't a Squamish --that would have been too on-the-nose-- but we shouldn't entirely exclude the possibility that someone in Douglas' circle had an interest in the Pemberton Valley. 

The question remains, on this theory, "Why Pemberton?" The answer, I think, is clear enough. Go to Google Maps yourself and zoom in, and you'll see that the valley's farmland was formed by the internal estuary of the Lillooet at the head of Lillooet Lake. This means that it was probably meadow land, and did not need to be cleared before it could be farmed. Later generations would realise that the amount of farmland in the Valley was utterly dwarfed by that in the Fraser Valley along the later route: but most of that land had to be logged, first. It's this logic, the difference between the value of forested farm land once cleared, and marginal, flooding land kept naturally unforested, which is going to play a part in the settlement-of-Iceland question. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Into The Wheelhouse: Research Notes Towards Saying Goodbye to the Vikings

Lameen sends me a link to an interesting article suggesting that Malayo-Polynesian spread across Island south Asia and the Pacific much more recently than the standard model assumes, and by ethnogenesis rather than by demic advance at the leading edge of agriculture. I'd comment more on this in this post (it's a question of reconciling the supposedly radically earlier spread of settlement in the island Pacific to the island Atlantic), exccept that I'm still trying to assimilate it. 

On to today's throwing-it-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks.

The Pabbay Stone. The rights on this one are complicated. I scraped the photo from Canmore, where an obligatory copyright notice is posted, but it's a public website, and the original may come from a Nineteenth Century postcard.
Pabbay Island ("island of the papars") is one of the Barra Isles in the Outer Hebrides, on the Mingulay Trail. (Road to the IslesMingulay Boat Song). Abandoned by its crofters in the late Nineteenth Century, it's the property of romantics and ramblers, and the "Pictish picture stone" is a well-known feature of our long failure to explain the history of the Hebrides. The name suggests that Pabbay was once home of a "Scottish" anchorite community in the unfathomably ancient days before the Vikings, but it's not like we know that. We don't know anything.

It may also be explained by the stone itself. The Latin cross at the top seems to have been carved later than the "flower symbol" at the bottom and the "Pictish symbol" above it, per the National Trust of Scotland, a "Crescent-and-V-rod symbol of the 'dome-and-wing' type, ornamented with two small circles. The right terminal is effaced and the other is much worn, but appears to incorporate a circle." And now you know everything there is to know about the Pabbay Stone. Evidence that the Pictish kingdom extended to the Outer Hebrides, or an imitation? Att this point, one hands over to amateur historical linguists trying to find "British," "Gaelic" or"Norse" etymologies for place names, fairly certain that we're not going to get anywhere. Truth to tell, there are too few people on the Hebrides, then and now, to make literary history, no sense to be made, no grand narrative.

Which is a pity, because they are stepping stones to a grand narrative, the grandest, the Story of America. But what do you when all of your stepping stones are too small to bear history? We can turn to the stories we have. That seems safe. The stories, after all, give us a European-centred account. Had we not those stories, what would we be left with? Archaeology and extrapolation: and extrapolation tells us that the  Danish colonisation of the Eighteenth Century consisted of a small number of missionaries and a scarcely larger number of officials and traders creating a trading and agricultural society in Greenland out of the local population, which flocked in form around the North to participate in a small scale farm economy backing a larger, market-oriented hunting society. Archaeology tells us that the population of the European Atlantic was small, and that its surpluses were drawn inward, while the Eskimo population of the Eastern Arctic imploded at the very moment that the settlements of Greenland emerged, then vanished precisely as the Thule, a true Iron age culture, born of the North Pacific trading round, reached the sealing and whaling grounds of Greenland. The inference is . . . challenging. The North American native as noble victim of colonialist aggression is fine: as agent and participant in change. That's a problem.  

But what does archaeology make of the story? Can it save a substantial European migration to Greenland, salvage the key hypothesis? That's a trick question. The answers archaeology provide us are constantly changing. So if you suspect, reading this, that I've found another monograph that makes my crazy ideas sustainable, well, yes, that's the point of this "off week" post.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Postblogging Technology, November, 1945, II: Two Records, Three Nobels

















R_.C_,
Shaugnessy, Vancouver,
Canada.

Dearest Father:

I'm sorry to hear about your cold, endlessly amused by your ongoing feud with your neighbour. You are pulling my leg about his daughter riding around on his race horses, aren't you? I know that the stereotype of an engineer is a man more used to punching horses than riding them, but you had your cowboy days, long ago, if I remember the stories Uncle George used to tell. You must know that your roadster would never be able to edge around a thorougbred, and certainly not when climbing up the Oak Street hill. As for drinking on the back of one, and throwing the glass in the neighbour's hedge. . .
Well, at least she will be at Vassar soon, and you will have your rest from teen-aged parties. Those days are still to come for me!

And, of course, for you. We are very disappointed not to have you at Thanksgiving, but look forward to your arrival next month, from the Christmas Peace to the beginning of the Year of the Dog. I cannot bear the excitement, though I may be a less than energetic hostess, as my surgery is fixed for December 5th.  Yes, I know that I am supposed to be pessimistic about the imminent end of the world due to its being smashed into atomic smithereens, but if anyone is wanting an antidote to fashionable pessimisim, I recommend driving a twenty-year-old to the railway station for her first trip to Europe. 

In short, as we come up on the intercalary month (I looked it up. There's a technical name for the month between one year and the next. This year, we have all of January between solar and lunar new year. It seems to make sense to put it "between" the years.) we know that it marks a pausing point between the last year of war, and the first year of peace. How can it be bad? Look at the miracles ahead of us!



"GRACE."



Friday, December 25, 2015

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





Mr. R_. C_.,
Shaugnessy,
Vancouver,
Canada.

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. 

"GRACE."