Saturday, October 14, 2017

An Intermittently Technical Appendix to Thalassocracy, 3: Bonanza Farms, Smokeless Powder and Endorheic Basins

This is a post about asymmetries of power, the globalisation of the grain trade, and the parts of the world where waters flow down to inland seas. It's less polished than I'd like it to be, because I have to go and put Driscoll Farms-brand strawberries out now. They're being shipped from California in big trucks, and since we can't stop the supply pipeline, we have to keep pushing, or they'll fill up our cooler. And we need the space! The Central Valley is, admittedly, not an endorheic basin, but close enough.
Anyway. . . 
Farmer's two-novel "Opar" series has a disproportionately long Wikipedia article, for those feeling nostalgic.
It's been a long time since I've read Philip Jose Farmer's Hadon of Ancient Opar books, but I do remember that they're a riff on a rationalisation of the lost city of Opar in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. Burroughs' Opar is a former Atlantean (the original thalassocracy!) colony stuck in the middle of Africa, somehow. Tarzan goes there from time to time and . . has adventures. Adventures that allow Burroughs to comment on race in America in interesting ways. I'd say more, but I wasn't kidding about the length and detail of the Wikipedia articles on the subject. Nostalgia for the win! Anyway, Farmer's novels explain Opar by proposing that Atlantis was actually a prehistoric civilisation established around inland seas that once existed in two enormous  endorheic basins in the interior of northern Africa. Again, I'm a little hazy on the details, but I think that Farmer proposes that the water impounded in the basins eventually found its way to the Atlantic, causing Atlantis to be destroyed, not by flooding, but by having its sea drained away? Something like that is supposed to have happened in the intramontane Great Basin of the American West at the end of the last Ice Age, although, as far as I know, geologists do not currently believe that the Lake Chad Basin and adjacent endorheic basins in northern Africa were ever flooded (Map below the fold). Though eyewitness accounts of  pre-50-million-years-ago period are sparse and unreliable. 

The endorheic basins of Africa, whether flooded or not, are natural formations rather than largescale geoengineering. There are two reasons that I'm starting out with Farmer, anyway. The first is that it gives me an excuse to have some Roy Krenkel art in the thumbnail. The other is that I'm pretty sure that the first book starts with an historical introduction that describes a conjectured former channel connecting a sub-sea level depression within these larger endorheic basins to the Atlantic. I'm not entirely sure, but this sounds like Donald Mackenzie's 1877 scheme for an artificial inland sea in the southern Sahara, created by dredging out the sand blocking the channel at the coast in the region of "El Djouf." (Like a great many other African geological fantasias of the age, El Djouf barely exists.) I don't know anything about the Mackenzie scheme apart from what Wikipedia has told me, but, again, Roy Krenkel art.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

On Thalassocracy, III: Warrior And Wheat

Lake Sidi Ali, in the Moroccan Atlas, 2000m above sea level. So not quite the Sahara Sea.
Thucydides said, early in his Peloponnesian War, that Minos of Crete was first of those to exert thalassocracy, a rulership of the seas. I--

Oh. You're wondering why I'm on about this. October is Thanksgiving month in Canada, and I'm not going to be able to do any techblogging unless I win some time by reusing old material, and it happens I have a grotesquely self-indulgent, 72pp chapter on technology and science and the Nineteenth Century and stuff that I think I can trim down into an interesting post about bonanza wheat lands. Since it also happens that there was a minor flurry of activity around my last "thalassocracy" post, it's a sequel. (Also, I'm eagerly waiting for a "thalassocracy" to make its appearance in Graydon's Commonweal series, so consider this a bit of a fan tribute, even if my take on sea power is unlikely to be his.)

Technology! Maybe someone's riff on the Theseus black sail/white sail myth?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Surprisingly Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, August 194: Sealion Away!

Pearl Primus: Please pretend this amazing picture is somehow relevant to coal shortages in the United Kingdom in 1947. 
Operation Sealion was the German "plan" for invading the United Kingdom in the summer of 1940, of which all that needs to be said, was said to me long ago by Mr. Kristiansen: "Shut up, kid." Millwrights may not know counterfactual history, but they've been around enough fights in their time to know what's what, best army versus best navy department. 

However! Sealion was only a "plan" because the German navy and air force already had a plan, which was to place the entire United Kingdom under strategic siege and strangle it to death. On 21 August 1947, came irrefutable evidence that the strategy was working, as Britain abruptly cancelled the first steps already made to full convertibility from pounds sterling to dollars [pdf].  A year later, devaluation of the pound would signal Raeder and Goering's final victory. Three years after the end of the war.
Good hustle!
We know the basic outlines of the crisis: Britain was not earning enough dollars from exports to pay for imports from the hard currency dollar countries. In spite of the firm conventional wisdom that American manufacturing was hypertrophied at the end of the war due to the collapse of the competition, in fact Britain was going into debt buying mainly food and tobacco, while trying to pay for it by exporting machinery.* Britain would have been a great deal better off if it still had the robust coal exports that had enriched the nation in Victorian times, especially since a European coal shortage made for a robust market. It would also have been better off if it could  have run its domestic manufacturing sector at full bore, but in the winter of 1947, a domestic coal shortage wreaked havoc on industrial production. One of the reasons for drastic action in August of 1947 was the fear that the misery of the previous winter would recur. 

Infant sitting on a coal wagon. Alex J. Robertson, The Bleak Midwinter 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Nimrod Was The First Of Those Who Were Mighty On the Earth: The 77mm HV, Technological Progress, And the 1940 Counterfactual

History is, as I never tire of saying, a floating referent. It's never entirely clear where to start, and, in the case of a counterfactual, it is even harder. Hypothetical questions about historical counterfactuals are happening right now, over on Quora.Com, so they are very much questions of 2017. (Just to remind you, the framing counterfactual for this occasional series is,  "What if the Commonwealth armed forces of 1940 were armed like the 21st Army Group on 11 May 1945?") (Also.)

On the other hand, the response is very much to Correlli Barnett's Audit of War, a book that came out in March of 1986, per Paul Addison's review, much linked to from here as an explanation of that book, which the reader may  have forgotten about, or never known. On the other hand again, Audit signifies around here as a programmatic manifesto of Thatcherism, and Dame Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, seven years before Audit was published. On the other hand again, Thatcher was famously "a research chemist before she became a barrister," while Barnett had been a military historian/media pundit since the 1960s. Although you'll have to take my word for this, since I am not going to engage the ideas behind Audit in any more detail than is necessary to trace its impact, Audit was exactly what an English research-chemist-turned-barrister born in 1924 in the Midlands would have produced had she turned into an ancestral voice prophesying war, as opposed to, say, a Prime Minister. 

 Finally, just to throw on one more guiding metaphor onto an already unwieldy mass, I have talked about the idea of "Technology Levels," as used in the classic 1977 tabletop roleplaying game, Traveller. I'll come back to "Tech Levels" at the end of this discussion. For now, suffice it to say that they were originally intended to be descriptive. Your party lands on a planet; do the natives, who know you Pappenheimers, shoot back with bows and arrows, or hand-carried fusion blasters? A single number in the planet's descriptor tells you! However, they tend to become prescriptive. A blender from a Tech Level 9 world will be 1/16th (don't ask) more effective at blending than one from a Tech Level 8 world. 
The Zhodani are alien humans (don't ask some more) who are very advanced and psionic and stuff; but they're assholes, for RPG balance. Anyway, they invade the Imperium with their high tech ships, which are just better on account of being higher tech level than Imperium ships. 

Traveller comes before Audit, but Barnett's treatment of World War II is a lot like this. Brits used to say (I take Barnett as saying) that they fought World War II at Tech Level, oh, say, 6.5, compared to Germany's 6. In reality, it was 5.5 versus 6.5, Barnett says. He then adds that, had WWII been fought in 1850, instead, it would have been Britain at Tech Level 5 versus Germany at Tech Level 4, and Britain would have won the war even more than it did. 

So, Britain has gone from a Tech Level advantage of 1, to a disadvantage of 0.5 --in my interpretation, of course. Audit purports to show that this is actually the case, while at the same time fingering the culprits. It's a very ambitious book --far too ambitious, in fact. But it does give us a way to think about technological change. My 1940 counterfactual seems, at least to me, like an elegant way to test this idea about technological change.

And by "test," I mean, stuff the demolition chamber with enough RDX to blow up a planet. (Which, by a wacky coincidence, is more-or-less what we're doing.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Postblogging Technology, August 1947, II: At the Stroke of the Midnight Hour

R. C.,
_. Roxborough Crescent,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Dad:

Based on the last package, this will get to you before an envelope, and, anyway, I'm kind of worried about what might happen with a postal letter, so I'll just say this. We (Tommy and me) have a brilliant plan that requires a blond bear cub and those sedatives. I understand that it's easy to overdose a bear and have it die on you, but it needs to be really quiet while we're moving it around, and we need it now. Half the Stanford is off on summer vacation, and the N.s took V. around to the University of Chicago to see about registering and transferring credits. Miss Ch. has arranged things so that her registration rolls over at Stanford, but her parents' cheque needs to be in the mail by the middle of next month. (I'm not even going to get into the idea of someone else paying. It would kill her parents.) 

We could also use any files the family might have from the heist at Colville by return courier. It's even more urgent than the bear. We've been through the stuff that Bancroft got, and V.'s been through the library at Santa Clara and Coeur d'Alene, but we've never had a complete look at your stuff. Professor K. says that you can often reconstruct the missing parts of an archive from what you actually have. If we know what we're looking for, we can be in and out a lot faster. Maybe we won't even need the bear! 

Your Loving Son,

Friday, September 8, 2017

Postblogging Technology, August 1947, I: "Atmosphere of Slackness"

R_. C_.,
__ Roxborough Crescent,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Dad:

I posted you from Waikiki as soon as I got in, so it's a race between the package and the US Mail. We'll see whether the Hawaiian side of things is as fast as Newhitty! Sounds more exciting than squadron work. While some of my fellow flyboys get to do nothing but see how much power our new ship has, I've been stuck trying to get results out of this wackadoodle magnet-thingie that's supposed to detect submarines! Maybe I'll even break super top-secret when we get the electronics working, but as of right now we haven't even got the trace recorder working in the air! I'd ask them to bring you over, but that'd just get me the old eye roll from the Old Man, so I've requested Tommy, instead. We may not be able to pry him loose of Alaska Command for good, but he should have this thing sitting up and begging for treats in a week or two. 

I don't know if you'd had anything from Newhitty lately? About how Mr. Brookstein is doing, say, or whether V. went back to Chicago with her folks? I hear that A. went down to Vancouver with W.B, who is supposed to be spending time with the future father-in-law. Now that I can't picture, a man's man like him putting up with W.B.'s act for very long! But I hear Mrs. likes him, which is good. I especially need to get in touch with A. Or, anyway, Tommy does, as we have an angle that might help him out in the Service, if you know what I mean. Not Mr. Brookstein (I wouldn't want to put the RCMP) on him, but an angle based on some stories he told me about his LA days. Did  you know he did some work with the SAG? I'm thinking I can call in my favour, get A. a "source." Can't hurt if he's got something he can work with HUAC.

Well, that's it from me for now, Dad. My electronics are ready ---I can smell the smoke at the other end of the ship!

Yr Loving Son,

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Techno-Cultural Appendix to July, 1947: Attack of the Mutants

Sweetbreads poaching for Fried Sweetbreads with Peas and Broad Beans, a recommended recipe for beginners. Google Ads also put Comixology in the sponsored box, which seems to be an authorial decision of which I heartily approve.  (From I'm going to assume that the author's quasi-anonymity is a personal decision.)
Talking about a Legion of Super Heroes story of the 1960s with a particularly obvious homoerotic subtext, Chris Sims once commented on the point where subtext becomes so obvious that it is surtext. As we were reminded this week, what, in connection with hilariously naive comic books is a joke, had an earlier life as the Very Serious Artistic Movement known as Surrealism. 

With surrealism in its death throes in the month that America's middlebrows were introduced to Existentialism as both Very Serious and Very Sexy --the month that the UFO became official, on top of that-- I am very tempted to say something incredibly insightful and pithy about the trends in French intellectual fashion that have washed over North American shores since 1947.