Thursday, January 19, 2017

An Agro-Technical Appendix, V: Evil as Strategy

Someone had to go and make Rimmer an admiral, didn't they?

Unlike apparently every other person on Earth, I've really got no problem with the Empire building one death star after another, and getting them blown up, one after another. It's a dysfunctional regime, guys. That's what dysfunctional regimes do. If you need an explanation, just borrow a cynical line about someone's interest/income, whatever. If the Dark Side is all about evil and genocide, then regimes dominated by the Dark Side are going to be impervious to the idea that genocide is bad policy. Dark Siders like doing genocide: Rationalisation to follow.

The Third Reich wasn't dominated by Sith lords because Sith lords don't exist. So what's going on? The leadership's dysfunction is easily explained. They were the usual lot of over-promoted narcissists. The two questions are: how did people like that achieve power; and; Why genocide? The answer is that the Nazis promised to do stuff for people that other parties wouldn't. Weimar struggled for years over (agricultural) land reform because big owners and small had divergent interests. The Nazis promised to give both big and small what they wanted --and a pony! This is a trick that narcissists can do, because they don't give a shit about anything but postive reinforcement right now now now now. Since the big farmers largely wanted their  old Polish estates back, the outlines of policy were clear enough. The problem was not having stuff that belonged to foreigners, so the solution was taking stuff from foreigners. What would happen to the foreigners? They would, like all the other "useless mouths" and whatever other pejorative label we like today, just go away. (They're crude and nasty and backwards, so it's practically a good deed to shoot them in the back of the head. Am I being subtle enough here?)

There. No more subtle.

So, no Sith, but, nevertheless, a policy of genocide. I doubt that my summary of an argument about the roots of Nazi genocidal policy is going to sound anything more than glib and unconvincing tot he vast number of scholars who investigate these questions, so take my contribution for what it is worth. Where I can possibly push forward is by  asking how evil as strategy worked out. Not very well, is the well-known answer, but there's some interesting details in the corners of the situation.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Against Mass Production in Post-Modernity: A Tractable Problem

There was a thing on Twitter, the other day to the effect that the Allies won World War II because Britain provided the time; the Soviet Union, the blood; and America, the treasure. I don't disagree, but I've been looking at various things of late. One is the shambles of the postwar British economy; the other, the M4 Sherman tank. The latter has treated me to a strong dose of the idea of American mass production. And while the M4 is a piss poor standard bearer for this argument given the collapse of production rates in 1944 after the completion of the capacity build out [pdf], the other corollary to the idea that mass production is that the Allies defeated better German tanks with human wave tactics, and, well, that's acceptable. And yet. It might be supposed that the Allies had an opportunity to end WWII in the fall of 1944 instead of the spring of 1945 by closing down the Normandy campaign with an even more complete victory than they, in fact, achieved. The larger consequences might or might not follow, but substitute a sufficiently good tank for the Shermans actually used in operations TOTALISE and TRACTABLE , and the larger operational victory was certainly in reach. Even in the final days of chaotic fighting around the Polish blocking positions outside of Falaise, a better tank might have made a difference. I've suggested before that Britain's last wartime cruiser tank, the Comet, would have made the decisive difference. But it seems at leasst worth arguing that the older Cromwell which would have replaced the Shermans of August in the absence of the 1943 production agreement would have sufficed.  "Good enough" is NOT good enough. 

This is a side profile view of the Sherman's precursor, the M3 Lee/Grant. It's intended to make you scratch your head at the weird machine and draw the inference that the US Army's Ordnance Service didn't know what it was doing in 1940.

As for the larger consequences, the official historians seem to think that ending the war a few months earlier would have had a salutary effect on the British economy. It would certainly have saved a great many lives. Is there a lesson about mass production here? Sure. Why not? It'll do for a subject this week, but I want to motivate this post a little more, so I'll briefly talk about counterfactuals, and the last stand of the BCRs, often written about in that way that demonstrates that historians do counterfactuals even when they think they don't.

Why would historians do counterfactuals? Because we do them all the time. At the end of OPERATION TOTALISE, a battlegroup consisting of an armoured regiment and mechanised infantry battalion, under the command of the BCRs' Lt. Col. Donald Worthington ended up stranded, deep in the German position, where it was destroyed during the daylight hours of 8 August 1944. The official history says that Worthington made an indefensible error of navigation on the difficult night march towards his actual objective, ending up six km away. He compounded this initial mistake by failing to acknowledge it, depriving his command of reinforcement and artillery support. This versin of events ought to motivate Vancouerites quite strongly, since Colonel Worthington was a scion of Vancouver elites (who lived two blocks from me), and the British Columbia Regiment is one of the city's two militia regiments. That disastrous last stand cost this city, and ought to have been a matter for the ballot box. See? There is a reason for counterfactuals! They tell us not to vote for the NPA.  (Not actually a disendorsement.)

There is, however, another version, in which Worthington was a gallant beau sabreur, who made an understandable mistake that ended with his command being in an excellent, if unforeseen position, from which, better supported, he could have led 2nd Canadian Corps to the closing of the Falaise Gap. Exactly why this support was not forthcoming is not clear, but David Bechtold very strongly implies that circumstantial evidence points up the chain of command.  then we need to look to higher headquarters, and have at the sacred cows of the Canadian army.

Whatever be the case, there is an interesting technical question here. I know, I know. No-one wants to hear some git prattling on about how, if the RAF had developed the Windsor, Whirlwind and Henley instead of the Halifax, Typhoon and Battle, Britain could have won World War II more! But when we can frame it as "Cromwells instead of Shermans SAVE THE WORLD," then the argument is motivated. (Becaue it's a critique of narrative tropes of mass production, you see.) If Worthington had better tanks, then TOTALISE might have accomplished what TRACTABLE set out to do. (Or, on the other hand, if all of 1st Polish had Cromwells, and not just the armoured reconnaissance regiment.) I'm narrowing donw the claim. Just the Cromwell, so close, in so many ways, to the M4.

Monday, January 2, 2017

An Agro-Technical Appendix, IV: It's Always And Will Forever Be 1846

Have you, dear reader, ever read a history of the Thirty Years War? Remember the breathless excitement as Thomas, Chevalier of Savoy, jousts with the Duc de la Force before St. Omer? 

The Relief ot St. OmerOh, the Habsburgs and Savoys/They was wild mountain boys

Of course not. No-one's ever read a history of the Thirty Years War past the death of Wallenstein, and even that was a struggle. That's the part where you skip the last, thick chunk of pages. It's amazing that anyone ever even managed to write those pages, and I am not going to absolutely guarantee that they're not blank. No-one knows the end of the Thirty Years War. Or the Hundred Years War, or the Italian Wars, for that matter. The last history of that last that I've tried to tackle starts out with exactly that observation, wondering who would still be with him in 1557. (Not I, as it turns out, although I really liked the bits I read. Only $46 for the Kindle edition!)

This is why, in British economic history, it is always and will forever be 1846. Famine in Ireland! Corn Law repeal! Peel splitting the Conservative Party! Chartism! Something something Second Reform Bill, and, in the midst of it all, the disgraceful capitulation to America over the Oregion Boundary. 

Not that I'm bitter or anything.

The siege of St. Omer is a pretty good example of this, actually. The linked Wiki article seems to have been written out of an old Spanish account, and has mind-numbing detail of the difficulties that late Thirty-Years-War armies had in mastering the complex systems of canalisation and reclamation with which local authorities had tamed the surrounding marshlands into irrigated farmland and convertible water meadows. We can see how agricultural investment is transforming the landscape and dragging military practice along with it. Then, all this was forgotten in pieties about "Cabinet War" and the more recent "OMG they make fortresses shaped like stars, help Po-Mo Man you're our only hope." Farms and fortresses; it would make a good study.

Farming! That's what I'm talking about!
Writing about Lord Woolton's war requires pictures of Land Army girls driving tractors, so here you are. You'll notice that this is a caterpillar tractor (small "c" caterpillar), of which we haven't heard much so far in this series, since they tend to be big and expensive for modern collectors and their websites. Also, per David Perren, British agriculture just wasn't that into caterpillar tractors, on account of the soft-bottomed land being under permanent grass.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Postblogging Technology, November 1946, II: To the Moon in '48!

R_. C._, 

Dear Father:

You will be glad to know that I  have approved both Miss M. and Miss J. It would have been most inconvenient to everyone if I had packed them back off on the train to Montreal! They seem compatible with the local nurses and with Fanny, and have given me a combined brief on the course of therapy for Vickie. Miss M. in particular is firmly confident that Vickie will grow up fully normal. I could not help thanking merciful Heaven at that, and got the queerest look. She is a very bright woman, and I wonder if she has guessed the nature of the household into which she has arrived? It would be a very difficult thing to keep secret from an inquisitive soul, short of throwing the tarps back over the floors in the main hall and the Whale Man. 

Speaking of family obligations, with the nursery sorted out, we attended the Big Game against Berkeley with "Miss V.C." and Lieutenant A. this last weekend. One team or another won, and Fat Wong was able to meet discreetly with "Miss Ch." and receive a package, which I have forwarded to Father. I am informed that several Soong couriers have passed through the airport on their way east since the election, and I was sorely tempted to demand drastic action. The least they could do is fly via Europe!

You've asked about investments. This month's news leaves me feeling vindicated about steel and aircraft. The aviation industry is clearly stepping back from their more ambitious plans. There will be no sales of the Constitution, and it is beginning to look as though the Rainbow is in trouble as well. (Although look for that to change if the Army really does send a rocket to the Moon. 

Uncle Henry was with us at the game, and soon rather grandly invited James and Uncle George off to whet their whistle and talk about how one or the other of Berkeley or the junior college placed the porkskin in the forks, as they say in football. But, really, he wanted to pester them about about magnesium.   

With autos, you will have heard about the scandal over the disposal of the Chicago Aircraft Engine plant. With Willow Run in the hands of our family con artist, someone at the War Assets Administration found another one to take on that white elephant. It is certainly not good news for the machine tool industry that the big auto firms are scaling back. It is even worse when entire buildings full of new capital equipment are going for a song. 

There's more. What this person did not know is that Wilson Wyatt already had plans for the plant. Specifically, he wants it for building prefabricated homes. I assume that this will mean metal buildings rather than concrete, wood, plastic, or viscose or asbestos or whatever else, and so will absorb some of the machine tools already installed there. 

That seems like an invitation to jump back into steel and light metals, but James thinks that, attractive as the idea of replacing our vast home construction industry with efficient, factory-made products is, it is just not on. How do you keep a metal house heated? How do you keep it from rusting? Yes, I know, aluminum and magnesium do not rust. They do catch fire, though! The point is, whatever happens at Chicago Dodge, it is not likely to include an enormous plant turning metal sheets into houses.

And I say that without even noticing that, after striking out (they do that in football, do they not?) with James and Uncle George, Uncle Henry pestered me about magnesium and autos. Only to give it a feminine touch, he talked about how light a magnesium perambulator would be.

Worst. Baby. Stroller. Ever.

Uncle Henry's antics aside, I think Uncle George continues to be right. Electronics is where we need to concentrate. The sky really is the limit, and I do not just mean radio stations on the Moon!  Where the more traditional sectors cannot possibly absorb much more capital equipment, all of the new FM and television stations will have to be completely equipped, and there is the tantalising possibility of region-, or even nationwide rebroadcasting facilities for the television networks. If that does not come true, then there is all the more prospect for magnetic tape recording. James says that the Philco board is ecstatic about the success of Uncle George's friend's new show, and the wider potential of tape distribution of recorded shows. Replacing live radio is one thing; taped soap operas are quite another.


If pre-recording means that Bing can go off speed, he might actually be able to sit down and enjoy some music.

Friday, December 23, 2016

An Agro-Technical Appendix, III: The American System

David Hounshell is the David M. Roderick Professor at Carnegie-Mellon and the author of  From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States [1985]. You should read one copy and buy two.
I started this series with a discussion that rambled on about farming, tractors, and ended with a discussion of the strategic consequences of human resources shortfalls on the Eastern Front. To some extent, that was a petulance. 

All honour to the mighty Red Army of Workers and Peasants!

Anyone can get irritated by fanboy enthusiasm. Talking about the deep operational art of Soviet forces, equipped with the world’s best tank, winning WWII while the Allies footled about out west  sure beats getting excited about the way that the superior fighting qualities of the Waffen SS reflect its racial purity! It does have consequences, however. The first, a dead issue now, is the idea of an unstoppable Red Army rolling over NATO to reach the Channel in three days. In the dead politics of the 1980s, such talk had consequences, even if those seem pretty harmless in retrospect. 
Maybe it helped get Thatcher elected? Although even that doesn't do much for the thesis considering that the Russians lost.

What's not important is the permanent misunderstanding that basically asserts that “Asiatic” or “Eastern” countries are exempt from the basic arithmetic of demographics because reasons. (Cloning tanks?) If Russia only had so many working age men and women, how did they keep the Army up to strength while manufacturing tanks and growing food? The answer is, first, that it didn’t, and, second, Allied aid. Throwing up either answer, seems to require being realistic about demographics and economics, and since that might lead us to uncomfortable places, well, why not talk about the Russian steamroller, instead?

Take America: Just today, Amazon was trhing to sell me another book about Pearl Harbour, with a subtitle something like “Awakening the Sleeping Giant.” [?] This is, of course, a perfectly clear account of exactly what happened. That 's why Admiral Yamamoto might have said it! The issue is, what made America a “sleeping giant?” Because if the answer is demographic –that America in 1941 had a population of 137 millions compared with Japan’s 73 (not counting Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria), then why is the comparison not: “Japan picks on a country that is a little less than twice as powerful as it, but, then, one that also had to fight Germany (and Italy, if it counts, and then all those Balkan countries and Finland, so there’s that, and, besides, Thailand was allied to Japan, so, wait, why the heck not, maybe China counted for more than you’d think?”)

The answer, as far as Japan goes (besides China --"March of the Volunteers" link) is that being a “giant” counts for more than population. America had a higher GDP/person, reflecting higher individual productivity. I’m told that economists of the day then explained this in terms of a higher ratio of capital investment to labour, but, if so, the advanced thinking of economists hadn’t percolated to all sectors of informed opinion, because your average Fortune editorial writer was aware that American productivity/person had been rising steadily since at least 1870, and did not always correlate with changes in capital investment rates. They would talk about the higher natural endowment of land and resources enjoyed by American workers, and also invention and technology, puzzles then as now.

This is not the place to answer profound questions about technological change, innovation and productivity increases. I mean, everybody is answering those questions these days! Maybe, though, it's a good place to ask those questions. Eventually, such an exercise might even be useful for those who prefer answering to questioning.*

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Postblogging Technology, November, 1946, I: Thirty Miles of Coal Smoke


Dear Father:

Again, thank you for all that you have done. In your reply to my telegraph, you ask why I veto Miss B., but am fine with Miss M. Yes, Miss M. is an eccentric. I know that a man isn't expected to notice these things, but If you look closely at the photograph, you will see that her "odd" dress is actually a safety-pinned window curtain! It would be one thing if her shoes were not so expensive, but as they are, I'm left to conclude that she thinks that she is being "creative." Which you could read between the lines in her letters of recommendation, anyway.

I'm sorry, I can't  explain, but my instincts are warning me about Miss B., while Miss M. strikes me as perfectly satisfactory as a physiotherapist. We're not hiring her as a lady's  maid! (Although she'd be much more economical if we did. Hmm. . . No, never mind.) Actually, I am confident that she is the best of the lot --even better than the highly recommended Miss J. I look forward to meeting them both at the train on Wednesday.

Vickie is doing well. She longs for more of her mother's touch than the iron lung will allow, although it is a very nice iron lung (something I need to remind myself of, whenever I fume about Uncle Henry's latest adventures), with room enough for me to crawl in with her for short periods. Fanny, with her girlish figure, is positively comfortable in there.

You write that you have been getting nowhere in the matter of Mr. and Mrs. Easton, and neither has the Earl. We simply must do better than that. Perhaps the civil war is all over but the shouting, but I cannot for the life of me believe that anything the Soongs put their hand to would ever turn out so well. If and when the Communists do advance across the Yang-tse, the Eastons must be able to enter Hong Kong, and I cannot believe that we have not made enough money for that side of the family for them not to bend on this matter.

If Uncle George reads this, do please find some way of reminding him that he is only human. He has been so full of himself about his friend and Philco!



PS: Speaking of, Uncle George is off to the new Western capital of sin for a weekend in the company of his friend --and to have a look at this matter of the hotel.

Las Vegas has no idea how to advertise itself. Fishing? Cowboys? Girls? (Gambling?)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

No Other Eye: A Recovering From the Flu Extra

1040 Marine Drive is one of "30 homes listed for sale in Port Alice [British Columbia]" at this website.

If it seems a little charmless, it's probably in this visual field:

Asserted copyright, Wild Blue Crusing Blog, 2010
The front of the house looks so bare because there's not much gardening being done. Port Alice is, or was, a beautifully leafy town, but with the population that has fallen by half since I left to go to university in 1982, there's no-one there to do the work.

So, yes, I thought I'd share my recovery of personal continence by talking about holography, and, specifically, Sean Johnston's "The Parallax View: The Military Origins of Holography," currently up on Academia. edu.