Where I was Last Weekend…

B-17 In Flight – at the Great American Airshow.

The first big airshow in two years, at Randolph AFB. Part of the air show included a sort-of-recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, with accompanying pyrotechnics. My camera was giving me fits, so I managed to capture some interesting shots with my cellphone. There may have been half a million people coming to the airbase for the show, which included static display aircraft and ground support vehicles from the Army, and the Budweiser Clydesdales and their wagon of beer too. What would the military do without beer! There must have been at least that many people watching the air show from verges, parking lots, open spaces and yards around the edges, too. (More here, from the Express News – their photographer had a much better camera than mine…)
Additional note – <Looks like FaceBook has disappeared that post – I put the pictures on my own website, instead.)

Titanic Metaphors

It’s been 110 years since the RMS Titanic sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.  The event has been a prolific source of books, movies–and metaphors.  Titanic has often been viewed as a metaphor for the complacency and arrogance of Western civilization before 1914, a symbol of technological overreach and hubris.  (The Onion had some fun with the Titanic-as-metaphor theme)

I think that there are a couple of other Titanic-related metaphors which are worth considering in our present era:

‘Working Cape Race’…around noon on April 14, Titanic received wireless messages warning of icebergs. The captain altered course to the south, a path believe to be free of ice, but maintained a speed of 22 knots.  That evening, senior wireless operator Jack Phillips,  was dealing with a flood of messages from passengers to friends ashore, when the SS California attempted to broadcast another ice warning to ships in the area.  The message was broken off by Phillips with “Stop Sending! I am working Cape Race.”  (‘working’ means ‘communicating with’, Cape Race was a Marconi Company shore station)

Not long afterwards, Titanic hit the iceberg.

Apparently the term ‘Working Cape Race’ has been adopted by some people to refer to those who are too preoccupied with the task at hand to perceive very important obstacles and hazards.

The phrase often seems apt these days–for example, when tv networks focus on the Johnny Depp defamation case when there are plenty of truly critical national and world issues to talk about.  I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

Progressive Flooding.  The compartmentalization which made the Titanic supposedly unsinkable obviously did not work.  One reason was that the iceberg was hit at an angle such that multiple compartments were torn open; the other reason was the phenomenon of progressive flooding.  This is a nautical architecture & operations term referring to the phenomenon where one compartment gets flooded…leading not only to the ship settling somewhat in the water, but also to a change in trim, namely, bow down…which can lead to other compartments overtopping their watertight bulkheads and spilling water into previously-safe compartments.

Again, I think the concept is sadly applicable to some of our political and social problems.  Failures in one aspect of society can lead to failures in another aspect…which can feed back to that first aspect, making it still worse…and so one.  Malign positive feedback, that is, a network of interconnected vicious circles.

For example, long-term unemployment can lead to an increase in drug addiction…both of which can lead to dysfunctional families…which drives reduced educational achievement for kids.  That reduced educational achievement drives further unemployment.

Discuss, if so inclined.

 

Our Culture, What There Is of It

This last weekend, I actually went out of my house/neighborhood and did something different. Something interesting and out in the real world, or something that resembled the real world, out there, beyond the keyboard and computer screen. I had a table for my books at a cultural event, the Folkfest in New Braunfels. Historically, New Braunfels was one of the German Verein-founded towns in the Texas Hill Country, one of those that I have written about in my historical series; the main reason that I was invited to the bash under the oak trees at the Heritage Society’s campus on the northern edge of town. The Adelsverein Trilogy touches on the circumstances and reason why more than eight thousand German immigrants ended up on the wild and unsettled Texas frontier in the 1840s. A consortium of German noblemen and princes hoped to make a tidy profit – and to do a good deed for their struggling countrymen – by taking up an entrepreneur grant in the independent Republic of Texas. They were honest in their hope to make the venture advantageous economically for them, which distinguishes them from many other ostensibly charitable enterprises of late. That the Adelsverein went broke within two years had more to do with the princely gentlemen overselling their program to eager potential immigrants and badly underestimating the costs in transporting them to Texas. That it resulted in a godly number of able, educated, independent-minded and patriotic new citizens turned out to be a bonus. It also resulted in Kendal, Gillespie and Comal counties being almost completely German-speaking for better than a hundred years, which explained the prevalence of dirndls and lederhosen worn with cowboy boots at the Folkfest.

Read more

Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

(This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Castlebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

Deliberate Disempowerment

Here’s the great French scientist Sadi Carnot, writing in 1824:

To take away England’s steam engines to-day would amount to robbing her of her iron and coal, to drying up her sources of wealth, to ruining her means of prosperity and destroying her great power. The destruction of her shipping, commonly regarded as her source of strength, would perhaps be less disastrous for her.

The wealth and power of a country are strongly related to its energy resources, whether those resources take the form of human slaves, steam engines, hydroelectric dams, oil and gas wells, or nuclear reactors.  The fact that Russia possesses energy resources on which many other countries depend has been an enormous factor in that country’s ability to invade Ukraine and in Putin’s belief that the world will let him get away with it.

Wealth and power are sought, in one form or another, by most people.  Showing James Boswell around the Boulton & Watt steam engine factory in 1776, Matthew Boulton summed up his business one simple phrase:

I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have–POWER.

Yet the leaders of the West have, with few exceptions, chosen to reduce the relative power of their countries through their opposition to fossil fuel production and use combined with hostility toward further development of nuclear energy—or even the continued operation of existing nuclear plants.  There has been little evidence of serious thinking about realistic limitations of intermittent power sources, even as countries have rushed to make themselves dependent on such sources…nor is there much evidence of serious thinking about the critical-mineral dependencies created by a large-scale switch to wind, solar, and batteries.

So what explains the choice of this path? Has mechanical power ceased to be an important factor in political power, in the destinies of nations?  Hardly, as the Russia/Ukraine example makes clear.  Or do we somehow have a generation of leaders who don’t care about political power?  That, clearly, is also not the case…at least as far as the personal political power of those leaders goes.

I think there are several factors at work:

First, there is the widespread scientific and technical ignorance among political leaders and influential media people.  I’ve noticed, for example, that American media coverage of energy storage projects almost always refers to kilowatts, megawatts, and gigawatts as if these terms indicate the storage capacity of a battery or other storage system. They do not.   (A 100 megawatt storage system may provide 1 hour, 4 hours, or 20 hours worth of 100-megawatt electricity depending on its megawatt-hour rating. Measuring electrical storage capacity in megawatts is like measuring the capacity of your car’s gas tank in horsepower.)   More generally, there is a widespread failure to comprehend just how difficult and expensive it is to store large quantities of electricity and an assumption that if we invest enough in wind and solar, the power will be available on winter nights and in the middle of prolonged snowstorms, ‘somehow’.

Second, there has been a general de-emphasis on the physical attributes of the economy under the belief that we are now in a ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’, or ‘post-industrial’ age. Enterprises and people dealing with physical things have lost political power relative to those that deal in words, images, and code. The Western leaders of 1950, or even 1970, would have been a lot more cautious about deliberately creating energy dependency on a likely-hostile power.

Third, many politicians–and many of the academics and other “experts” advising them–simply do not identify closely with their own nations and with the people and culture of those nations. This is also true of a high proportion of influential media figures.  There is a strong thread of belief in the U.S. Democratic Party that America is too wealthy, too powerful, too dangerous–that it is country that is “just downright mean,” in the words of a former First Lady. The same is true of much of the Left in other Western countries.  And if you think these things about a country and its people, you’re not likely to want to increase–or even sustain–its power.

That’s true especially if you decouple the power of your country from your own personal power and well-being. And I think “progressive” politicians, and many members of academic and even business elites, often do see themselves as inhabiting a transnational space in which their personal well-being is not strongly coupled to that of their countries.

Fourth, in a world in which organized religion has become increasingly marginal, there are a lot of people looking for causes in which to believe. ‘Green energy’ is such a cause, and the specter of Climate Change gives it apocalyptic power.  And when people believe they are facing the apocalypse—that the planet is soon going to burn—they’re not likely to look too carefully at those things advertised to avoid the burning.

Fifth, societies across the western world have become much more risk-averse.  The question of why this shift has occurred, and of its positive and negative attributes, merits a separate article—but it’s pretty obvious that it has happened.  And the consequences for energy development have been very significant, particularly in the case of nuclear energy.

Read more