May the Best Technology . . . Lose

Posted on 24 Mar 2009 09:58 am
Convenience and marketing over good technology is an historic story, on which perhaps I should do some research.

Here are some very recent examples, confined, for the moment, to consumer computer technology:

  • VHS over Beta (Betamax tapes were more compact, taking up less storage space)
  • USB over Firewire (how can everyone go for a connector where you can't tell which way to insert it into the port?)
  • the entire recorded music thing: CDs over LPs (yes, records sound better, period), little stereo speakers over big ones (ditto), MP3 over AIFF (worse than CDs)
  • the entire visual image and video thing: digital over film photos and movies (they still look tacky, even at 5 megapixels or High Definition), digital over cable/antenna (I'd rather have fuzz than pixelation or "no signal"), flat screen and LCD over CRT (going green would have been better spent figuring out how to get a film-like image)

And we all know the best software Microsoft ever produced was Word 5.1a, and the best printer was Apple's Personal Laserwriter 300.

It took me years to figure out that the newest version of something was not only not always better, but that it could have lost wonderful features previous versions had. As I struggle to get iMovie 8 to retain its chapter markings going into iDVD (so stupidly difficult), and create macros to get Word to do things I could do with one click in ProDOS in 1988, I am reminded that there must be so many areas where the good technology died out, and the bad one took over. Just like with birth control. Anyone who cooks knows that gas stoves are better than electric. Old sewing machines break fewer needles, old Maytag dryers need fewer repairs, old cars can be fixed in the driveway. I know not all old technologies were better, as the American Film Institute and others can tell you as they spend millions trying to restore silver nitrate film. But still.

Perhaps this is an entire research field: discovering the old technologies which worked better but were discarded. I'll have to consider that, while I refuse to buy a new iMac because the screen is glossy instead of matte....

Author: llane

Google and Water Power

Posted on 04 Nov 2008 04:51 pm
During the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, water power was used for the first time to industrialize industrial processes. As indicated in my recent class lecture on medieval economics and technology, this created a medieval industrial revolution.1 As I wrote in my masters' thesis years ago2, the most significant use of this technology was the fulling mill, which created the mass production of woollen cloth that fueled medieval economic expansion. What made this possible was the cam, a protrusion of the waterwheel shaft that could push a similiar protrusion on a hammer end up and down. This changes the natural rotary motion of the waterwheel shaft to reciprocal (back and forth) motion.

During the more popular Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, steam power was similarly used to turn a wheel (or turbine), either for rotary or reciprocal motion. Almost all forms of power use the same method invented in the Middle Ages. Your car has a camshaft that does just this to open and close valves in the engine. Even nuclear power plants, those consumers of highly dangerous nuclear fuels, use those fuels to turn a turbine for power.

What the nineteenth century steam engine did that was different, though, was make it possible for factories to be situated anywhere. Water, to be an efficient source of power, requires good velocity. Thus places with fast-moving, crashing waterfalls were better sources of power than towns with slow-moving rivers. As a result, the efficient water-power factories prior to the 19th century were situated where there was falling water, such as in mountainous or hilly areas. These regions were usually subject to higher elevations and colder winters, which would freeze the water and thus stop the mills. Steam powered factories, however, could be built anywhere and run year-round. Factories could move away from the rivers and to any location where it was convenient to ship in fuel (usually coal) and ship out manufactured goods. Towns sprung up around these locations, often, as we know, with horrendous living conditions as the result of lousy urban planning.

But power had become portable, for good or ill. As detailed in Nicolas Carr's new book, the advent of electricity at the turn of the 20th century brought the construction of small power plants near urban factories or business buildings. Carr details how electric companies and innovators used economies of scale to provide electricity as a utility from big plants instead. Thus our world of coal, oil and nuclear power plants, run by utilities with power purchased by unit, began.3

In 2006, Google began building a massive computer complex at The Dalles, the U.S. heart of its plan for controlling information search technology around the world.The Google complex is built in Oregon along the Columbia River. Carr points out that Google is the biggest challenger to Microsoft, whose main plant is located not all that far away in Redmond, Washington.

In addition to Carr's thesis that Google's plant is the beginning of providing internet service as a utility that will replace desktop software (and most of our hardware), what I find fascinating is the use of water. Google has deliberately built their plant at this location for similar reasons to medieval water mills, with a twist. The water power in this case is cheap hydroelectric power provided by the Dalles Dam, but the water itself is also needed for cooling the massive computer racks that would otherwise require massive amounts of electric air conditioning.3 The site contains two giant cooling towers for water, similar to a nuclear plant.

Thus, as we move into the future, we move back toward needed to site plants near rivers.


1 Gimpel, Jean. The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages New York, Penguin Books, 1977.

2 Lane, L. M. (1989). Problems in English textile history: Case studies in the techniques of medieval and early modern woollen manufacture. Thesis (M.A.)--University of California, Santa Barbara, 1989.

3 Carr, Nicholas. The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

Author: llane

Courtesans and Wall Street

Posted on 06 Oct 2008 12:39 pm
In this week's issue of The Week,'s Sudhir Venkatesh (a sociologist who studies sex workers) reports that high-class call girls are struggling with the economic downturn. Their Wall Street customers are depressed and business is declining. Venkatesh reports that these women are responding by providing what I would call psychological services, being encouraging companions and trying to raise the self-esteem of their customers.

This has been the role of the courtesan throughout history. Prostitution at the elite levels has never been only about sex. Courtesans (hetairai) in ancient Athens, for example, were trained in music, communication and deportment, to provide their men with elegant and sympathetic companions as well as sexual pleasure. They were schooled in good conversation, in getting a man to talk about himself and his worries.

Possibly the most famous of these was Aspasia, courtesan to Pericles of Athens. She was highly educated (good conversationalists must be, yes?) and they were so close that it's possible she may have written some of his speeches. Geishas in Japan also performed similar functions, assisting elite men with their troubles and providing an environment where they could feel confident and pampered.

As experienced, influential and highly-paid advisors, perhaps the prostitutes on Wall Street could encourage a better system of ethics for their clientele. It certainly wouldn't hurt to try.

Author: llane

A Tale of Two Scorpions

Posted on 26 Aug 2008 10:35 pm

I haven't been to the Queen Mary since I was a child, so this summer I decided to go. But before I even got onto the big boat, I saw a large sign saying Russian Scorpion, referring to a Soviet submarine where I could actually go aboard. I was so excited I didn't care much about the details, like how the sub got to the U.S. or when.

Sometimes you just have to immerse (or in this case submerse) yourself in history, without intellectualism or analysis. I've had that feeling of being where the history was before. The first time was probably when I went to the Yorktown battle field.

Flickr photo: Ken Lund
I could just sense what had happened, especially after reading the signs and walking around. When you walk on worn stones at an ancient site, or climb the stairs at an old castle, you feel the history and don't need to be told about it, though that's fun also.

The Scorpion was much bigger than I'd imagined a Soviet sub to be, although it apparently could host a crew of 78. It seemed to have countless rooms and stations. Whoever got it ready for the public had helpfully (not) made all the dials and handles unworkable. But they had realistic lighting and some audio of the kind of sounds you'd hear, and it was easy to realize in every room that there was just a metal hull between you and the water. Everything was larger than I thought it would be, especially the officer's mess. It looked like something out of The Hunt for Red October. Everyone there was convinced it had been used in the movie (and there was even a photo of Sean Connery in the gift shop), but I can't find any evidence that it was used for the film. At one point walking (well, walking isn't the right word for maneuvering my person through those round hatch things every 20 feet) through, I turned to the guy behind me (who was about my age) and said, "Would you have thought 25 years ago that we'd be in Long Beach touring a Russian attack sub?" It seemed incredible.

Oh yeah, the other scorpion. This one, like the sub, was officially dead, but nevertheless surprising. The San Elijo campus of MiraCosta is situated between a bluff and a wildlife lagoon that links to the sea. I have been working there since 1989. We have lots of wildlife, of course: I've seen snakes and rabbits and lizards and hawks and sandpipers. There are egrets and herons down at the bottom of the parking lot, standing on one leg in the water-filled ditch next to the road. But until last week I'd never seen a scorpion. Evidence for global warming as far as I'm concerned.

But don't tell anyone! Almost a decade ago, I watched as official personnel chased a raccoon with intent to kill. And now, we have this rodent trap near my building. The rabbits have mostly disappeared (there used to be lots of them coming out late in the afternoon to nibble the grass -- now you only occasionally see a few pellets). I never saw any rodents there at all, but since the traps came, there are fewer snakes (I assume they have nothing to eat), and so fewer hawks (I once saw one carry a snake off). The lizards are still there, two types of them now, but a lot of wildlife are gone. So don't tell about the scorpion -- just avoid the little field in open-toed shoes.

Author: llane

The Gated Past

Posted on 04 Aug 2008 02:11 pm
I was at a party last weekend and overheard the following exchange, between two 70-year-old women:

"We live in a gated community."

"Oh? I could never live in a gated community. I'd be afraid I couldn't get out!"

"Oh! I like it. I feel safer when it's gated."

One of the women is Japanese, and was a child when the U.S. invaded in World War II. The other is a Polish Jew, who as a child was imprisoned in five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

Who do you think was on each side of this issue?

Author: llane

Blacks versus Women, again

Posted on 28 Jun 2008 09:45 pm
The Week two weeks ago featured a picture of the White House with a "No Girls Allowed" sign in front, bemoaning Hillary Clinton's demise as the Democratic Party Candidate. The text read, "Was It Sexism?" My first thought was, "If it had been Obama rejected, it would have read "Was It Racism?" and the sign would have said "Whites Only".

The pitting of women against AfricanAmericans is not a new thing. As the Civil War was drawing to a close, arguments occurred over whether or not freed slaves should be given the right to vote. Many white, middle class women had been fighting for the vote for a long time, and making headlines since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Why should uneducated freedmen get the vote, and not educated, intelligent women? They would have to wait over 50 years to be able to vote nationally for President.

At the time, there were several arguments against giving women the right to vote. One claimed that, marriage being the staunch tradition it was, wives would only vote the same as their husbands. Another claimed that, female biology and psychology being what it was, women's votes would be emotionally-based rather than reasoned. The overall perception of women was similar to the view we have of children today: they are to be protected because they are not full adults yet. No one would think of allowing a 10-year-old to vote, not matter how well-read and intelligent that child is. (Except me, as it turns out. I was very frustrated by being unable to vote since I was 11 years old, when I first started working on political campaigns. I know several children who are more versed on the issues than many adults I could name.)

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, forbade infringing upon the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or having been a slave. Certainly freedmen were not welcomed at the polls in many places, and the KKK and other organizations infringed upon that right through intimidation. But this amendment had little affect on females. The Fourteenth Amendment, however, did: it said that all people born/naturalilzed in the U.S. were citizens who could not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process. In some states, married women could not own property -- was this not a violation? In 1872, suffragists brought cases to court to show that voting was a right or privilege (as the Amendment put it) of citizens, and therefore they should be able to vote. A UMKC law page gives a brief summary of the fight to the Nineteenth Amendment.

Given the history, it is not surprising that there should have been resentment on both sides of the Democratic Party campaign, and that accusations of sexism and racism would appear. It's important to keep in mind that, as with the Fifteenth Amendment's right to vote, laws do not dictate how people feel. There will be any number of Americans who do not want a black (or worse, half-black) President, just as there are any number who did not want a woman. There will be some who, despite a candidate's positions on important issues, cannot vote for someone who personifies something to which they object, even if that objection is not conscious. And it will be, I fear, more Americans than one might think. I've heard a great many people saying how far we've come, and while that's true, old resentments and habits of hatred or suspicion do not simply disappear.

Author: llane

Jefferson and Postmodernism

Posted on 20 Jun 2008 12:08 am
In February I posted on Mr. Jefferson Maligned, and shortly thereafter heard from Alan Crawford, author of Twilight at Monticello. He very politely invited me to actually read his book, and said he thought I might really like it. I was abashed. I know better than to criticize a text based on its review. I should have read his book myself before attacking it, and I accordingly tendered my apologies. It took quite a while for the college library to obtain a copy (few other libraries seem to have it), but I got it. And now, I'm afraid I was right in the first place, and if this is postmodernist history, it's going to be a long, miserable slog to the next paradigm shift. I almost didn't make it out of the Prologue.

The Prologue in many ways suffices to support my criticism all by itself. The author creatively presents a day in 76-year-old Jefferson's life during the year 1819, revealing to us the great man's thoughts, concerns, and physical condition. I have never seen an author less in love with his subject. This fictitious presentation of Jefferson gives us a man no one would want to know.

Crawford's Jefferson is physically feeble; the author seems at pains to point out Jefferson's infirmities, none of which are particularly rare in older men. Jefferson is "helped into the saddle" (xxiv) -- of course, most gentlemen were, even if healthy. We are introduced in only the third paragraph to the discomfort caused by boils on his buttocks. [In spite of this Jefferson somehow manages to gallop off for a four-mile ride to be by his wounded grandson at the end of the Prologue (xxviii).]

Jefferson's private life is portrayed as ridiculously pampered and sheltered from reality. The "tea and coffee with warm mufffins, served in the dining room" (xv) seem to appear only to make his painful butt condition ridiculous in such comfortable surroundings. Jefferson had an "insatiable appetite for books" (xx) and is shown as preferring ancient history to unpleasant news from his own time. Upon receiving a book of Thucydides, he is quoted as writing a friend that he could "slumber without fear, and review in my dreams the visions of antiquity" (xx). Thucydides, of course, is pretty heavy going, not part of "pleasing reveries" as the author claims. And the perplexities of Greek history were in fact very similar to the difficulties of the early 19th century. His biographer may have missed this point; I doubt Jefferson did. To Jefferson, the acquisition of knowledge was an intense recreational activity, not an escape from reality. Reading history, as any historian knows, serves the purpose of increasing ones understanding of the present.

Benefiting from intellectual cultivation requires mental focus. Yet throughout the Prologue, Jefferson's attention appears to shift suddenly beyond unpleasant thoughts and philosophizing on difficult subjects, to more pleasing and ordinary topics. A passage marking Jefferson's concern over slave mothers not being allowed to spend much time with their babies is followed by one describing his "great delight in sharing his enthusiasm for Nature" with his own pampered grandchildren, and his knowledge of what would bloom next in the garden. (xviii-xix). Surely this portrayal is an invention of the author. Jefferson's intellect was of extraordinary depth and expansiveness, as is very marked in Jefferson's own writing. The narrative here seems determined to portray a Renaissance man as nothing more than a mental gadfly, or an unmedicated case of ADHD.

The issue of slavery appears, of course. When Jefferson goes out to survey his lands "applying, whenever necessary, the small whip that he carried" (xxiv) it is inclear whether this application was to human slaves or his horse. The next paragraph says he had a habit, noted by a visitor, of shaking his whip at slow-working slaves (xxiv-v). When his concern about slavery is noted, it turns out that the problem is slaves who cheat his estate (xvii-xviii). The thoughts about slave mothers and their children proves to center on the issue of efficient slave reproduction. These passages seem calculated to reveal the cruelty inherent in the slave system, and to hold Jefferson to presentist standards of abolitionism and guilt. This has always been a temptation with Jefferson, because he wrote a passage in the Declaration accusing the king of slave trafficking, yet he owned slaves himself. His views, like the economic and humanitarian issues of slavery, were deeply complex. They cannot be summarized in supposed imaginings about good slaves, bad slaves and breeding.

Crawford's main thesis is that Jefferson, in his declining years, was economically delusional. Regarding the conviction that his neighboring planters should adopt more scientific farming methods to alleviate agricultural depression, "[w]ishing would make it so, Jefferson believed -- that and purposeful activity". He then goes on to describe how a determined cheerfulness was necessary in the face of such issues, making purposeful activity something for another day. Throughout the book, Jefferson's concerns about his own finances are repeatedly put aside due to unrealistic Candide-like optimism, until he departs the scene leaving his family in poverty. Incompetent at handling financial matters he might have been, but Jefferson as pollyannish and simplistic simply doesn't jibe. He should not be mocked for believing agriculture would solve his financial woes. His agrarian republicanism may seem utopian in today's post-industrial world, and certainly he struggled with rising commercialism, which he saw as less virtuous than farming. His philosophy was in keeping with many who historically viewed the connection to the soil as the foundation of republicanism (remember Cato?), and commercial interests as presage to imperial and dictatorial government. This controversy arose again in 1819, when the continual imperial ambitions of Britain threatened, and the northeast was becoming increasingly industrialized at the expense of agricultural interests.

In much of this book, Jefferson's own words are used out of context, and for Jefferson that context was huge. In a way, his context was the entire Enlightenment and the rationalist mindset it represented. Unfortunately, the author's own intellectual ability and felicity of expression appear to be below that of his subject. Jefferson wrote and expressed ideas beautifully, but is given no opportunity to expose the farce in this book; his views are reduced to discrete quotations from various sources, with the author creating the themes of Jefferson's life. The quotations are invariably short, and his concerns described in simplistic terms (i.e. Jefferson "worried about slavery"). The effort to use colloquial phrases to add immediacy and modernity to the narrative is problematic, since it makes the 19th century language sound overly quaint. Enlightenment rationalism comes off as an antiquated way of looking at the world, rather than something sprung from educated and scientific minds after centuries of unexamined traditionalism and superstition in everything from politics to natural philosophy.

I do not mean to imply that Dr. Crawford is a bad historian. The passages throughout the book (ok, I read more than the Prologue) about the economy of the time are excellent. His focus on the building tensions which would much later lead to civil war (sectionalism was a major concern of Jefferson's, and this is noted) are so clearly written I wanted to lift them to give to my students. He may even be a fine biographer, but I would rather read a work about someone he likes. Good biographers place deficiencies of character into a sympathetic context, instead of inserting misdirected sympathetic elements into a narrative degrading the subject. So why was this approach used?

Reducing historical figures by showing them "warts and all" has been a professional sport since the 1960s. It is of value in offsetting mindless hero-worship. It lets us see that people of the past were flawed, just as we are. But in doing so, it should also demonstrate that those of us who are flawed can still aspire to make a difference in the world, hold to ethical principles, and even lead a nation of great diversity and contrast. Postmodern perspectives see such goals as themselves flawed. Biographies that serve no purpose but to make us sneer at their subjects and feel superior do worse than tear down straw men. They make the very values represented by their subjects the stuff of ridicule, as if the ideas themselves have no clothes. This is the postmodern perspective, to see values as socially constructed, deeply contextual, and thus inherently relative. To put Jefferson in such a setting is to remove him from his own, and diminish his usefulness to us. Thus I find Crawford's book not only a disappointment, but disturbing as an example of postmodern historical biography.

Author: llane

Mortage Madness

Posted on 02 Apr 2008 09:50 pm
Oh, boy, I've had it. I saw a story on CNN today claiming that Americans were up in arms about the Bush administration's "failure to respond to the foreclosure crisis". And now the Congress is trying to create a plan.

You know if you read my stuff that I'm a political radical in a lot of areas, and really believe the government's role is to make sure that people are provided with basic health care, food, clothing and shelter. But a $400,000 cracker-box palace that somebody bought when they couldn't afford it in the first place does not qualify as "shelter".

I understand that historical arguments have been made for bailing out mortgages, which happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But the Great Depression was caused by multiple weakness in the economic infrastructure of this country, and in particular the backing of loans to buy stock. Stockbrokers increased the number of loans backed by businesses (with no collateral) and decreased those backed by banks (which required collateral). John Kenneth Galbraith explored five reasons for the Crash of 1929:

  1. unequal distribution of income
  2. weak corporate structure
  3. poor banking structure
  4. bad international trade balance
  5. poor state of economic intelligence
These are large reasons related to infrastructure, not consumer behavior.

What's happened here is that people without enough income applied for loans they couldn't afford, and got them. Home ownership is the American Dream; it is not a political or social right. Adjustable rate mortgages are gambling; one bets that your income or the housing prices will go up and make it OK once the payments increase. People who avoided this game will now have to help pay for those who "played" the housing market, figuring they could buy a house with a low payment for five years, then sell the house and make money. These weren't people buying a home; they were buying a house, hoping the market increases would make them money with very little effort. They invested poorly, were ill-informed, took stupid risks with their money and housing. I'm sorry.

Why was this allowed to happen? The socialist in me says lack of government regulation over mortgage lenders. They had notoriously loose standards for a loan, not checking income and outsourcing application underwriting. Allowing businesses unfettered license was a problem in the 1920s and it's a problem now -- that much is a historical trend. We now have continual pattern of the government not regulating businesses, then having to bail out businesses after things go wrong. [I know I sound like a disgruntled taxpayer, or even a (gasp!) conservative. Or worse, John McCain.]

Alan Greenspan disagrees. He sees a much larger, historically founded phenomenon known as a "bubble". Greenspan's analysis of the crisis, written in December, cited "speculative fever". This is where people and institutions begin creating riskier investments in response to perceived rising prosperity. He blames low-priced exports from developing countries, a decline in interest rates, rising stock values and home valuation, and "the expectations of rising prices" [italics mine]. He claims that even if low ARMs had not been available, people would have still gotten mortgages, but I really don't think there would have been the large number of bogus applications without the low introductory rates of the ARM. For years in San Diego, people were talking about how they bought their home for this amount, and the value had tripled or quadrupled. Looked like the same two-bedroom suburban tract home to me, and I knew it wasn't worth that much in real money. I warned of a crisis coming, as the year fives began to kick in. Sometimes I hate being right.

Author: llane

On My Office Window

Posted on 26 Mar 2008 10:18 am
Sometimes, you need to know some history just to get the joke:

Author: llane

Religion and Diplomacy

Posted on 18 Mar 2008 03:21 am
The current Utne Reader reprints a short article on "Faith in Diplomacy" from Jewish journal Moment Magazine. Marshall Breger's premise is that the U.S. ignores religion in diplomatic negotiations at its peril. Claiming that modernization does not necessarily imply secularism, the author points out the activity of religious leaders in developing peace in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Breger notes that America expresses religion at home, but not abroad. There are surveys indicating that western Europe has become the most secular society on earth, while the U.S. has place religion closer to politics. A 2002 Pew survey showed clearly that Americans consider religion far more appropriate in public life than Europeans. The present administration clearly has faith-based policies and actions, especially in the international forum. Yet Breger says we separate religion from international affairs, seeing it as irrelevant to diplomatic discussion, a personal thing. While not denying the damaging role religion can play in the world (including the Catholic Church's disapproval of condoms to prevent AIDS), he writes, "Only by understanding religion can we mobilize it as a force for reconciliation and as an ally in the search for peaceful solutions."

I agree, up to a point. I would certainly prefer to think that secular Enlightenment rationalism could promote world peace. At the same time, acts of war and genocide seem to me primarily irrational, caused by emotion rather than sense. Similarly, religious impulses (even at their best) are based on non-intellectual response. The religious beliefs of individuals and groups can be corrupted into supporting horrible acts of violence against other human beings. So it makes sense that religion could be used to fight such violence.

On the other hand, I cannot agree with Breger's side-lining of religion-caused horrors in world history. When religion and politics merge, the irrationality of faith combines dangerously with what should be the rationality of politics. And to Americans, politics means democracy. This in itself is a problem, since the U.S. tendency is to promote democracy as if it were a religion. Democracy is a form of government, and in some places it has existed politically while presiding over horrific violations of human rights. India and Israel come to mind as examples of democracies where governments have put their own stability above the lives of their citizens. Thus I find the heavy influence of religion in today's U.S. domestic political system to be frightening rather than evidence of a kinder, gentler, post-modern, spiritually-informed age.

I do not think it necessary, as Breger's article implies, that religous leaders take the main role in international diplomacy. At the same time, I agree whole-heartedly that knowledge of religions is crucial to world diplomacy. Since so much of the world holds religious precepts in such high regard, any diplomat should study the tenets of all the major world religions, and certainly in more depth than a survey course in college. American diplomats should be highly educated in laws derived from the Koran and the Torah. It makes rational sense that one does not go into a diplomatic situation with only a single national mindset. To have extensive knowledge of the cultures one is encountering is basic training for a career in diplomacy. This has not changed, even if the religous aspect is seen as playing a greater role than before.

The solution is not to abandon secularism in favor of religion, but to understand the expressions of faith as an aid to promoting diplomatic conversation and preventing conflict. It is, as Breger notes, a "tool of statecraft".

Author: llane
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