January 24, 2009

The Jewel House, Deborah E. Harkness

Harkness opens with four pages of justification for calling her subjects' studies science; if I understand correctly, the word is used contemporaneously for investigations into the natural world, but "scientist" is not used, and also there's some resistance to calling just-pre-Royal-Society work "science" because they were Natural Philosophers, and not empiricists, etc etc.

But! The strain of this book is that the Royal Society rooted in, even fed off parasitically, a broad and deep community of investigators of all kinds; just not reliably English gentlemen. Cities in the sixteenth century had many immigrants; England called them "Strangers", who could win their way to "denizen". And many of these people were traders in useful or artistic or natural wonders, and exchanged descriptions and specimens with colleagues and relatives across Europe as well as new colleagues in all stations in England. At this stage they're still putting together a pointillist picture of the world, discovering that some accepted truths are fables and others understate the wierdness of reality; plants and insects are brought across continents in what, saddlebags?, it's amazing any of them grew; and even collecting and ordering and copying others' knowledge is hard and useful, since print culture is just getting started.

But London, and traders, are not the strongest power in England, and combinations of courtiership and self-aggrandizement by better-born Englishmen -- sometimes much worse scientists -- shouldered aside the Strangers. From this vantage (I'm exaggerating Harkness' argument considerably), the Royal Society was a step backward, freezing out foreigners and hands-on experimenters in its insistence on making science gentle.

This argument is embodied on pp. 212-213. Hugh Plat was a brewers' son (and a lawyer) and rich but London-y, not courtly; his book Jewell house of art and nature is practical and tested knowledge, gathered from many walks of England; applied science, but how not science? On the other hand, Francis Bacon, son of a courtier (and a lawyer) wrote The New Atlantis, which sets up all science in a gorgeously funded, but centralized and presumably controlled, campus.

But Salomon's House was not a wishful romance. Instead, it was a dressed-up representation of the real world of science in Elizabethan London. The streets of the City already boasted several libraries, James Garret's fantastic tulip garden, James Cole's curiosity cabinet, and Giovan Battista Agnello's elaborate chemical laboratories and furnaces. St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where Clowes and Baker worked alongside other physicians and nurses, was known throughout Europe for its cutting-edge medicine, and John Hester's shop on St. Pauls' Wharf belched out all sorts of aromatic fumes as he made powerful new chemical medicines and herbal concoctions for hs urban clientele. The City's workshops produced delicate clocks and mathematical instruments, as well as perpetual-motion machines and large engineering devices. The City of London was already engaged in the study of nature, and [...] did not need Bacon's encouragement [...]

Much later (p. 250):

Those who commented at all tended to criticize Bacon for his unwillingness to do the work of science, as well as for his lack of appreciation for what was already being done.

Find in a Library: The Jewel House

Or the original The jewel house of art and nature..., if you have academic access.

Posted by clew at 11:30 PM

Marinship at War, Charles Wollenberg

Subtitle: Shipbuilding and Social Change in Wartime Sausalito

The Bay Area had a fair number of shipyards before WWII, but the buildout during WWII was amazing -- expansions in Oakland and Hunters Point, and new yards entirely at Richmond (Kaiser) and Sausalito (Bechtel).

The Sausalito yards required blowing the small-farm hills into the inshore to make all that lovely flat land -- that began less than two months after the government asked for a bid. Rail, power, deep-water dredging, were all brought in as fast; the first ship launched in less than six months. This yard built its ships by line production, with flying squads of especially skilled workers, and Liberty ships and tankers roared out of it.

Workers had to be brought in too; the factories wouldn't have kept running without female and black workers. A lot of shipbuilding is skilled work, so was unionized, and the federal government spent a lot of the war negotiating and litigating some of the unions into accepting black workers. The compromise position of the Boilermakers Local 6, for instance, was that black workers would have to join and pay dues to an auxiliary, but would not be full members. Some unions -- maybe the ones in less skilled fields? -- already had black and Asian members.

I don't remember anything about the women being in the union, or not, and can't find it on reskimming. There is a black woman in headscarf and welder's helmet smiling through a raw porthole; 'it was Hitler "that got us out of the kitchen."', says the caption.

Now, one of these things is not like the others: Richmond, Oakland, Hunters Point, Sausalito. The whole Bay Area apparently got a lot of its black population during the late war, but left them last-hired first-fired, and since Oakland at least was already a rough town one can see how all the displacement and unemployment was hard to absorb. But at least Oakland had been a city to start with; Sausalito barely was.

The wartime housing at Marin City had tiny houses and terrible drainage, but some self-government, some of which was staunchly integrationist; but the war wasn't over before Sausalito and Marin City got into a fight over school-board representation, which eventually led to Marin City being appended to Sausalito as public housing, not it seems very happily.

One happy inheritance is the enormous building for the US Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model, an enormous actual model -- fresh and salt water in recognizable channels -- of the Bay and the Delta and some other bits, with clever hydrological tricks to get the scaling to come out right. The tours are a heap of nerdy fun; also, if I remember correctly, the model was vital in thwarting a megalomaniac plan to dam Suisun entirely to, I dunno, freshen up the Delta. Something.

Find in a Library: Marinship at War

Posted by clew at 10:36 PM

January 22, 2009

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein

Very Late Victorian Holocausts, q.v. (in Amartya Sen's review, or related to the Great Hedge of India).

The literal connection to shock therapy is grimly elegant; and if you become too sad to read the whole book through, do try the Conclusion, "Shock Wears Off".

Find in a Library: Shock Doctrine

Find in a Library: Late Victorian Holocausts

Posted by clew at 10:34 AM

January 18, 2009

Fares Please!, John Anderson Miller

"A Popular History of Trolleys, Streetcars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways"

Pretty much an anorak take on the subject; lots of details of how successive transit vehicles were built (lots of excellent illustrations), some details of economic and legal development, and a general assumption that history is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The copyrights are 1941 and 1960, but 1960 was probably a renewal; the final chapter "Transit in the Modern Age" has nothing later than 1941.

Here's a detail for Seattle and Portland, or anywhere else that had more snow than plows this winter, and disagreement over whether that was dreadful planning:

Nobody had ever thought of removing snow from the public streets until the horse-car came along. Then it had to be done so that the wheels would stay on the rails. This, however, interfered with sleighing. In Boston, the Mayor and Aldermen solved the problem by forbidding the street-railway companies to clear the tracks at all so long as sleighing was good. The companies could operate passenger sleighs, they said, and charge the same fare as on the cars, but the snow had to remain on the tracks until it melted away of its own accord.

Find in a Library: Fares Please!

Posted by clew at 08:16 PM

January 17, 2009

Touchstone cabbage

The New York Times is currently running good cheap winter recipes (not calling for saffron or a charming little Beaujolais, for instance). My favorite so far has been the cabbage and lentil stew; the only issue I have with it is that it's not much food as written. The smallest cabbage I found was more than twice as much as is called for, and you don't want to cook extra cabbage, because it earns its terrible reputation when overcooked or reheated. However, the lentil part of the recipe is easy to double, and the second half of the cabbage will keep in the fridge for a day or two.

I'm always happy to get a new good cabbage recipe; it's wildly nutritious and cheap, and very good when it isn't awful. A while ago I belonged to a Seattle CSA that sent home a page of recipes for each week's produce, and they had a great cabbage stir-fry recipe that I've lost. "Quick!" was the crux, I think.

There are lots of terrible cabbage recipes in the world, usually boiling it and then trying to amend matters with sour cream or meat. I had hopes of The Rustic Table, Constance Snow; the whole point is simple cheap nutritious food. There is one cabbage recipe, "Red Cabbage with Apples, Onions, and Caraway"; and it's a very quick stir-fry, so I'm happy enough.

Other than that, The Rustic Table is pretty good with a quirk of our time. The recipes look good and easy to adapt, and they are almost all laid out without requiring a turned page, which I appreciate. The chatty interludes are set in separate boxes, so it's easy to either scan for them or ignore them. The only thing that bothers me is Snow's attitude towards fat and sugar. Some of these recipes have plenty -- perhaps they were feast-recipes for the original peasants, which would be a useful thing to remind us of. Instead there's regular reference to how terrible fattening food is and also to how deadening it is to think about calories all the time. The combination of these two annoys me; I think a food conversation should avoid high-calorie foods, or accept them, but never indulge and kvetch at once.

Looking up cabbage recipes, I also pulled out Elisabeth Luard's The Old World Kitchen, and my goodness, it's a great cookbook. It would be -- she learned peasant cooking by moving to surviving peasant regions and learning to cook what was there, with the considerable assistance of her baffled neighbors (at the end of a hog-butchering day: "Please forgive me, but did your mother teach you nothing at all?") Even the redoubtable Luard only has a few cabbage recipes -- five or six, perhaps -- but one of them calls for fifty pounds of cabbage at once.

In the introduction, she remarks "Sometimes I have included or rejected a dish on grounds of taste -- my children in particular found that they were testers for more than enough northern cabbage recipes, and pleaded for a week or two on the sweet vegetables of Provence." This is a bit guarded; did Luard herself disdain the cabbage? Or only her tender children?

Saurkraut tomorrow, I think. And I have to admit that I think the Times' cabbage recipe is even better with a thread of saffron and a dash of red wine.

Find in a library: The Rustic Table

Find in a library: The Old-World Kitchen

P.S. -- I am an American. It is a credo of my cuisine that anything good can be put on pizza. And yet... I can imagine a crisp rye crust, and roasted apples, and one of the sweeter saurkrauts; it might be good, it could fit the physical parameters of pizza, but it would clearly be not a pizza but an unzipped pierogi.

Posted by clew at 09:18 PM

January 03, 2009

The Retting of Flax and Hemp, Paul W. Allen

There's a New World flax that makes a pretty cottage garden flower, with pale blue flowers on long tough stems. Tying bundles of these stems to the downspout in winter does not turn them into recognizable flax, alas. But then I didn't know what I was looking for -- this little leaflet has line-drawings of how the stems should be coming apart when the fiber is ready to be freed.

It's a microbial process, of course, eating away everything but the final desirable fiber; no wonder linen is so long-lasting when we get it free.

There are lots of tactics, or were, when it was more done, depending on whether the area was warm or cool, well-watered or frosty or only dewy when the crop came in. Some made it whitest, some strongest. Some required a lot of labor and some more labor than that.

The leaflet was reprinted by the Caber Press, which specializes in reissuing reference works for `material culture', q.v.; there's an 1895 report on hemp culture, if you want to start at the beginning.

You could also get the original Industrial Fermentations, The Chemical Catalog Company, 1926; or U.S.D.A. bulletins 1185 and 669. Maybe.

Posted by clew at 03:42 PM
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