Wednesday, June 14, 2017

God Speed the Plough! Recapping Two Collapses of Complex Society in Light of Planting and Hoarding


Lotus bread; Or, actually, a raw bread made with oat flour, sunflower meal, hemp and chia seeds as well as lotus root.  Recipe at Shokuikuaustralia (Current website for Melbourne raw food enthusiasts.)

First off, apologies all around, because Nymphaea caerula, the blue lotus, one of the three species present in the Nile, contains " [an] aporphine having activity as a non-selective dopamine agonist," and it is a controlled substance in the Baltic states. That being said, some people get high by chewing an entire sheet of Zantac, and I kind of doubt that the Early Iron Age had a blue-lotus-related public health emergency going on.

It most certainly did have a problem with people who were tempted to take off into the marshes and get away from it all.

"A happy day, as we go down to the water-meadow
As we snare birds and catch many fish in Two-Waters [Fayum]
And the catcher and the harpooner come to us
As we draw the nets full of fowl
We moor our skiff at the thicket
And put offerings on the fire For Sobek, Lord of the Lake"
. . . I would do as my heart desires
When the country was my town
When the top of the water-meadow was my dwelling
No one could part me from the people my desires and from my friends
I would spend the day in the place of my longing
In the . . and the papyrus clumps
When it was dawn, I would have a snack
And be far away, walking in the place of my heart [Fragment of a New Kingdom poem; quoted in part from Blouin, trans. Parkinson, 1998, but lifted from here; reconstruction indications omitted] 


These are thoughts related to last week's inadvertently meaty post, thanks to Katherine Blouin, who has given us so much to think about. So it's good that I need to get a low-effort post out of the way. (Work on the postblogging posts will coincide with a trip to 100 Mile House for my youngest niece's elementary school graduation. Go Aly!)

The collapse of complex societies used to be big! With drama! Cities left to ruin; economies transformed, technologies changed. None of this dragging-out "secular stagnation" thing for the Ancients, no sir! Lay yourself down a nice "destruction/dark earth" layer, and go off and live in the mountains or the swamp or wherever. 

With some exceptions: Egypt made it through the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Fall of the Roman Empire well enough. It looks as though the country was uniquely suited to complex society (no need to spell out why, I suppose). It didn't go entirely unscathed, however. Egyptologists divide the Ancient Egyptian past into three periods of high monarchy, and three "Intermediate Periods," although, as the maths of group theory will suggest, one of those Intermediate periods can't have been Intermediate. (The trick is that we don't count the Persian-Ptolemaic-Roman interlude as an Egyptian monarchy; so the Third Intermediate can also be the last period --unless we throw in a brief phase of Egyptian revival in the Classical Period, as we can if we want, for we are licensed historians. 

What made Egypt special, in comparison with, say Roman Britain? My conclusions probably aren't worth the electrons they're written on, but the evidence I rely on is building up, and really ought to be accounted for in a good theory.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lotus Eaters: Flights and Fragments of the Year 251

Rubens, Consacration of Decius Mus
As the story goes, Publius Decius Mus, consul for 340 BC, was so eager for victory over the Sabines in battle that he consacrated ("dedicated/devoted himself") to the Dii Manes and the Earth.  His life was then duly exacted on the battlefield by the chthonic gods of earth, which seems like a bit of a cheat in terms of assessing the sincerity of his commitment, but at least meant that the gods didn't have to worry about organising a re-battle. This was deemed to be a sufficiently edifying example of old Roman patriotism that it passed Livy's not very high critical standards for choosing old family stories for the History of Rome. Or, he made it up at the behest of his boss, Augustus, as part of the first emperor's programmed of religious reforms disguised as restorations. This seems less likely, but, either way, those old Romans were weird.

The relevance here is that Trajan Decius was Emperor from 249 to 251, and died in battle with an army of Goths invading Rome's Balkan provinces in the last year. This was the first time that a Roman emperor died in a losing battle with a 'barbarian' enemy. It's hard to emphasise just what a cataclysmic event this was. Back in the day chief executives fought battles, they rarely lost, and even more rarely died. Skillful handlers knew how to choose battles, and when to bundle the boss off the field.

On the other hand, what do you do with a chief executive you can't handle? You might notice a big caveat to my generalisation, above. In old English and more recent Moghul civil wars, the losing king pretty much always died. I'm going to suggest that that is because there was a different political dynamic at work in which death-in-battle was part of the succession process, and those handlers stood ready at hand to facilitate the unfolding of political life.
Game of Thrones hasn't yet given us a scene of summary murder on the battlefield, probably because it's anticlimactic, and wild dogs devouring infants has a higher Q rating. 

Exactly that has been inferred about Decius' death.

Thanks to the recent publication of additional restored fragments of a history of the period, we are now positioned for another dive into the moment. A couple of additional pages of the history of an entire empire over a generation are transformative!

It's a little eye-raising that it's still hard to establish who was emperor when in the middle of the Third Century, when we also know the ownership and use of long lists of farms in the districts of the Mendesian theme of the Province of Egypt at the turn of the Fourth Century, about fifty years later. It is true that this has a great deal to do with accidents of survival; but here's the thing. Historians use what they have, not what they wish they had, or what they make up. In a ground-breaking recent study, Katherine Blouin has used papyrus documents from a fiscal archive in that theme to reconstruct a significant juncture of rebellion and social collapse in the northeastern corner of the "triangular landscape" of the Nile delta in a way that might shed some light on the crisis of 250.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Postblogging Technology, April 1947, II: Pluperfect Hell


R_.C.
Oriental Club,
London,
England

Dear Father:

I hope that I find you well. You find me perfectly, perfectly well, because I am wrapped up in a cocoon like the tiniest caterpillar, about to burst . . . Well, men never want to hear about that, and I do not think that you are the one to start. I would share all the news of the extended family with you, but there is a telephone strike on. (Imagine me making my fiercest face.) James somehow avoided being involved in a Gangland shooting in Los Angeles, as it turns out that Uncle Henry's mysterious benefactor at the dam is the same man he fingered for extortion, and the bad blood between them has resumed. He has even become so reckless as to have a Hearst man beaten up for Uncle's friend's colleague. Wong Lee is flying east to seek permission, after which this thing will be resolved once and for all. 

You should see the doll that James brought back from Los Angeles --Not really a doll at all, or, rather, more of a three-dimensional paper doll than anything else. Of course, the attraction is obvious, since once you sell the doll, you can go on selling little doll outfits indefinitely! Very intriguing. . . 


"GRACE."


Already released, even if it won't hit the top of the charts until August

A wish for long life in peach blossom time.

[NSFW Warning: I've included a picture of the Grace Moore crash scene, complete with burned bodies, that I took from Life today, because I think that it's an interesting historical fact that it could be printed, and because it gives a little perspective to the "drop off in air passengers." It's about two thirds of the way down and small, if you want to scroll past it.]

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Postblogging Technology, April 1947, I: Britain's Through




R_.C._,
The Oriental Club,
London,
England

Dear Father:


Thank you so very much for the parcel of books. I am now quite reconciled to another five weeks of bed rest, she lied unconvincingly. The Wang Yang-ming, in particular, is gorgeous, and I cannot believe that you found it on sale in London. (Although Liz-Liz has her eye on it, so I must be vigilant in "preserving antiquity" against a three year-old's ever grubby fingers. ) 

As regards business, you will have heard that the New York price of silver is up on London demand. This is because most of the silver being moved in London for non-industrial purposes is ostensibly going to India, and that little Belgian stunt shows just how much money can be made that way, so I suppose that I should strike through the "ostensibly." Or not. Perhaps it is just feminine caution, but I don't think that we should be calculating on the price differential to hold. I am sure that we are not the only ones to have seized on silver as a way of moving money out of England and into the hard money countries.

It turns out that arrangements for showing your expert around were quite easy to make, as "Miss V.C." is eager to spend the summer on the coast, and thinks that she can fit a tour of ancestral locations into a search for good pulp-milling sites readily enough. I told her that Nootka is not likely to be a good location on account of water supply, but she points out that there are fast rivers running into all of the bays and inlets around the island that fit your ideal description. 

This will place most of the younger generation on the old sealing triangle, with your son on Hawaii and Tommy Wong on detached duty on a radio survey mission for a potential radar network across Canada,   

To round off this survey of your nearest and dearest, I am pleased to report that we are now using the iron lung only two or three times a week, less pleased to report that James has been persuaded to take a tour of Fontana next week while he is the south to meet with the principals of AiResearch and to seek out a doll that your grand-daughter absolutely must have. Uncle Henry will be there with a "very important client," and he has been uncharacteristically restrained about the identity of this mysterious benefactor of his business. I hope that we are not in the way of getting another "opportunity" to invest in West Coast steel!




"GRACE."

Rescue workers preparing to enter 5 Shaft, Centralia, Illinois, 25 March 1947


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Looking Back at the Siege of Britain, I:Small Boats, Small Ports, Small Coals

"Tree-"class minesweeper HMS Bronington, lying derelict in the Mersey
This post should be "Postblogging Technology, April 1947, I;" but my rotation off night shift was marked by a spell of 11 days working out of 13 (some of them in particularly grueling duties), and I was not feeling the motivation over my last two days off. Arguably, I should have just shook it off

Maybe this will help. Although a weekend in might help more.
but that's not how fatigue works. On the other, hand, I did do some things with my weekend, and while I am perhaps reading too much into my random consumption of popular culture.
The backer's-only "O-Chul" story dropped on Monday night. 

it might be that the time has come for a meditation on fatigue, responsibility, especially managerial responsibility, and diligence. 

World War II's longest and most grinding campaign was Grand Admirals Raeder and Doenitz's attempt to choke off the domestic economy of the United Kingdom by the somewhat indirect expedient of stopping the rest of the (free) world, and, ultimately, they were defeated by the world's middle managers, at a terrific cost paid, above all, by the people of Bengal. HMS Bronington, meanwhile, turns out to have a bit of history, having been the WWII-era minesweeper chosen as the Prince of Wales' command in 1976.  While the flaws of Prince Charles' character do not strike me as falling along the axis of irresponsibility, I can think of other leaders and potential leaders of the Free World who might have benefited from a youthful spell in command of a fishing troller.


Friday, May 12, 2017

God Speed the Plough: Swords Into Ploughshares

Because Superman is based on Moses, and Thor is based on, well, Thor. 
At his Temple of A Million Years at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III (r. 1186--1155 BC) celebrates his victory over an enemy who comes from the midst of the sea. No further details are necessary here, since this isn't a discussion of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. What matters here is that some of them appear to be wearing horned helmets.

This isn't a post about Vikings, either. It isn't even about Gaston Maspero, the Paris-born son of Jews of Italian origin, who, after a youth spend assisting a wealthy dilettante seeking the Aryan roots of Peruvian Indian languages, went on to be the long-lasting Director of Antiquities in Egypt and the author of multi-volume histories of the ancient Near East, as well as of an 1881 article that popularised the idea that there existed such a thing as the "Sea Peoples." It's not even about the regional conflicts in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century France about which Maspero was so clearly actually writing. ("Vikings" are "Normans," and there's a big to-do about there being Normans in northern France and not southern France, which shows that the south's relative economic backwardness isn't about policy favouring the north, but rather about race.)

It's about ploughs.



They  had image scraping in 1947, too! I'm sure that this is the Country Life in question. The image comes from F. G. Payne's 1947 article in The Archaeological Journal, "The Plough in Ancient Britain," which is widely available on the Interwebs as a pdf, not that has helped in the slightest.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Technical Appendix: Apollonian Days

I was going to go with "Apollonian Days of Future Past," but too wordy. I'm still going to keep the image of Old Wolverine getting barbecued, even though I'd need to write an essay in this block to explain why. Source
I'm referring to the Armstrong Whitworth Apollo. Two weeks ago, I thought, "Well, before I make a joke about the way that its original name (the Avon) poaches the Rolls Royce "River" theme, I should find out when the Avon [1947/8, as it happens] appeared --and, for that matter, when the themed naming schemes of postwar British engines were finalised." It turns out that naming a plane "the Avon" was perfectly fine in 1947; and, in any event, the plane's name was changed to the "Apollo" well before Armstrong Whitworth slunk away in shame from the "turboprop feeder airliner" market in 1951, leaving this mess on Farnborough airfield for someone else to clean up.

By RuthAS - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34744239
Before I disappear up my own ass, here's my argument and conclusions:

Given that the United Kingdom had bombed out the only viable competition [which is a story about the American engineering industry that hasn't been well told], there was room for its aviation industry to take advantage of first mover advantage and get an effective monopoly on each of the three main types of commercial gas-turbine engines: the turbojet, turboprop, and turbofan. When I started bouncing around after the full story of the Armstrong Whitworth Apollo, I thought I knew the results of this fleeting advantage. It was thrown away in the case of the turbojet,  seized with impressive sales results in the case of the turboprop, and irrelevant in the case of the turbofan, which came after the British lead had evaporated.

This goes to show how little I know about the subject. In my defence, this is a "technical appendix," that is, a hypothesis about an aspect of the history of technology that surprised me as much as I hoped it will you, and which we should keep an eye on as the postblogging series continues.

The inquiry turned up a planned military transport version of the Vickers Valiant, and a proposed commercial variant. The variant, the Vickers VC7, would have been powered by the first viable turbofan engine, the Rolls-Royce Conway. This would have made it the first turbofan commercial airliner by at least a year or two, but it was cancelled in 1955. Questions were asked in Parliament, and the received opinion discovers a "political decision" entangled in the earlier developments. Maybe it's the last moment when the British aviation industry could have been saved. Maybe not.

What can be said is that this brings the British aviation industry's grade down from a gentleman's D (pity marks for the Comet), to a clear fail. It's to be sent down to find a job in the City, where it can laugh at those poor, mucky manufacturers up at least through to Brexit.

So: Is there a profound lesson here about technology policy? Brendan Flynn thinks so. Arguing with someone named "Professor Geels," who has a sociology-of-science explanation about research sites and networks, Flynn proposes that the missing ingredient is state funding. Can Rachel Summers send Kitty Pryde's mind back to the 1980s to put everything right with the one crucial bit of information that a bit more Keynsianism is needed?

 Is this an accurate picture? At this point, who knows?  I'll state it affirmatively, but with mental reservations. I'm really just laying out a programme of research.