Thursday, September 27, 2012


When last we parted ways, gentle reader, I had returned from an interventionist mission to the Empire of Texas, and ended up with a twelve-foot-tall living machine for a house guest.

The original colonists from Earth - mainly from Texas, Oklahoma, and surrounds - had been transported millions of light years and thirteen thousand years into the past. These people had, through the intervening millennia, transformed themselves into superhuman beings, gone all crazy and dangerous, and had fortunately been repressed by their former operating system/machine servants. The godlike trans-human Texans are now trapped - like evil djinns - as collections of contorted photons running at near zero speeds in ultra cold and attenuated gases enclosed in vacuum flasks.

Clear enough summary? Good.

Our expendable intervention team came to an agreement with the Empire of Texas - live and let live. They wouldn't force their technologically-advanced civilization upon humanity, and humanity, in return, would not go extinct from exposure. One visitor was allowed from the Empire of Texas - my house guest, Edward Hopper. Well, Edward Hopper, the twelve-foot-tall robot, and unknown to us at the time, a myriad and variegated mechanical support bestiary orbiting about and upon his person like a bad case of crabs. Which Edward proceeded to give to pretty much the entire ecosystem of Alterra - even after he and I spending a month in the isolation dorm up on Sessus (the smaller moon of Alterra).

Oh, did I not mention that my adopted planet, the one out Hercules Way, was named Alterra? I thought I had.  Well, Alterra was first settled back in 1996, and primarily by folks from Pacific Northwest coast of the USA - mainly Seattle, Portland, Northern California, some from San Francisco. The colonists were pretty much people trying to get away from the chronically depressed economic conditions that exist there.

The survey biologists characterized the planet as being about the same as Earth during the middle Miocene, perhaps the Serravallian stage (13.8  - 11.6 million years ago). They were gobsmacked, much as European explorers to the New World, by the sheer immensity of numbers of living creatures there. Not to mention lush plant life. The planet has extensive woodlands. Kelp forests and grasslands were recent additions to the pageant of life. In the sea, sharks as big as whales, and shark-toothed whales big enough to eat other whales. Big animals on Alterra are in general are twice as big as on Earth. On Alterra, there are pelicans with 15-20 foot wingspans, as well as flightless predatory terror birds, some 10 to 12 feet tall. There are saber-toothed lions and tigers, giant running bears, herd animals the size of dump trucks. Not surprising, as no intelligent killers evolved there.

In short, Alterra is - for outdoorsy types - Paradise. And it worked out well for the colonists, what with plenty of pristine wilderness to despoil. Of course, due to the tree-hugging Left Coast influence, and a healthy influx of Finns, not as much despoilation as you might expect from Americans has occurred. The seas are filthy with life, and the extant megafauna pretty much left unmolested.

Spiral City was founded on a northern pointing peninsula of a very nice navigable bay on the west coast of the largest continent. Surrounded by the analogs of giant redwood and sequoia, oak and pine, and to the east a large mountain range with snow-capped peaks, the place was similar enough to make more than one colonist's eyes well up with tears of homesickness.

Seeing as the downtown of Spiral City was hastily built from native wood and rock, and then almost immediately declared a historical preservation site, it has a frontier quality about it. The strip malls downtown may be strip malls, but they are crafted from rough-hewn timbers, and collected boulders and rocks.  A conscious choice was made to built the rest of the city different, and so, aside from the spiral road plan, much of the outer city looks like it was given over to Antoni Gaudi's imagination. There's a playful quality to almost every building - regardless of its use.

In short, when I visited back in 2001, I said to myself "This is a really cool place, with really nice people, and I think I will stay".

The first time I met a kraken was at Sam's Pub in Spiral City, I thought it was a pile of fur coats splayed on a couch. Only when it opened it's eyes, and extended a partially fur-covered, leathery brown, hook-taloned tentacular limb, did I realize it was not. I also almost quite literally jumped out of my shoes.

Scientists prefer that laypeople call them teuthids, but they are not squids. Nor are they cuttlefish,  or terrestrial octopi. Kraken are large, furry, alien monsters that have eight limbs. They spawned on a world hundreds of millions of light years from Earth, and at least a billion years before primates appeared.

Kraken do possess a filamentous protein material that is primarily keratin, and so their fur can be rightly called fur. They do have eight limbs. There are times, however, when they move much more similarly to giant tarantulas, and other times when their "tentacles" move in a sinuous, snakelike manner. Taken together - given what some might call humans instinctive fear of snakes and spiders - time spent among the kraken can be quite exhausting, as one is constantly fighting semi-autonomic panic responses from the sight of them, or worse, a sight garnered from the corner of one's eye.

When it comes to danger, evolution has graced us humans with two main pathways in the brain to detect it. One pathway takes the sensory (say, visual) data, and pumps it through the thalamic regions (the ancient lizard brain) to the amygdala - an almond-shaped region of the basal ganglia that processes primary emotions (and most importantly fear) and memory associations. Another pathway takes the sensory data, and sends it along a more leisurely route over the cerebral cortex to the frontal and pre-frontal lobes, where the sensory data is classified, parsed, massaged, categorized, and identified. Thus, if you see something that might be a snake, you unthinkingly react and jump away from it. This actually is a rather mild summary of a whole remarkable cascade of events that causes - among other things - the stomach to tighten, the heart to race, veins and arteries to constrict, blood pressure to rise, pituitary adrenal glands to pump out hormones, the feet and hands to turn clammy, the mouth to go dry, the brain to jump out of its skull, and the muscles to coordinate in an amazing superhuman feat of action.

It is only after the frontal lobes, or perhaps the parietal, have determined that the movement you detected was not a snake, but a stick, or a rope, or something, that you feel like an idiot. Fortunately for me, whatever that titanium spike does that they drove into my skull, it seems to cancel or short-circuit the thalamic fear response. So, I'm quite comfortable around them, having only to deal with the aesthetic response to their unsightly appearance. They have little in the way of a sense of personal space, and so being in a mass of them - often not unlike entering a giant nest of snakes, their long, furry, spiderlike/tentacular limbs pressing up against my body, occasionally pricking me with their kitten-sharp talons - is something I've, well, not exactly grown used to, but have learned to tolerate. Others of my kind get the yammering willies just being around them, so the bar, Sam's Pub, that they frequent here on Alterra is usually not at all crowded.

A few nights ago, Ed Hopper came back into town. He had been sojourning across the Eastern Steppes, which extend just beyond of the Dawn Mountain range all the way to the other end of the continent.  I'd asked him on his last journey, southward to the Great Southern Gulf, what he was doing, and he had replied "Just surveying what an unaltered world looks like".

I'd invited Ed to Sam's Pub to watch me drink, it being a slow afternoon for me, and the early evening nearly upon us. The bar was half empty, a few regulars, and in the corner table, two kraken.

I'd just gotten over a mild case of the flu, or rather, me and half of Spiral City. The other half was just coming down with it. There have been a few cases of pandemic respiratory distress throughout the population ever since this world was settled. I was feeling better, and what better way to complete the recovery than a shot and a beer. I'd just returned to the table when a commotion broke out at the far end of the bar, at the kraken table, a hissing and fizzing and breaking of glass.

I'd seen this happen once before, a kraken fight, and you don't want to be anywhere near it. It is a magnificent sight. It's like being in a giant spider fight straight out of a horror movie. There is really no other way to properly describe it. Both kraken rear up on their hind tentacles, talons out along the full lengths of all their limbs, black fangs dripping foam, vagina dentata mouths spewing stringy snot. They go into a kind of a standing kung fu pose for what seems forever, and then they are just a knot of fur and flesh and claws and teeth that rolls around the bar from wall to wall, chairs and tables cracking and splintering under them. The bar patrons who are smart bolt for the exits during the initial stance. The rest cower in corners or against walls. I sat stock still, full shot glass and beer bottle in either hand. Ed Hopper, taking a cue from me, did the same. The kraken pair rolled around the bar, threatening to wreck the entire place. At one point, they actually rolled over our table and I saw a row of talons impale the wall inches from my face, as they caromed back into the center of the room. The violence ended as quickly as it had started. The kraken separated, paused as if nothing had occurred, and left the building. (I was told that a kraken later delivered the bartender an ingot of pure niobium).

With the fight over with, and practically every stick of furniture in the place broken to pieces, I downed the shot and gulped the beer with a pair of shaking hands.

"Does that happen a lot?" Ed Hopper asked.

"Yup" I replied, and then noticed that there was a long gash on Ed's metallic thigh.

"Dude!" I pointed, directing his attention to the torn up mesh and plate, "I thought you were made of super metal or whatever".

Ed Hopper inspected the wound, and probably in much greater detail and analysis than my human senses, for he paused for a long time deep in thought and obviously startled.  I swear, had he been human, he'd have blanched. "It is, as you put it, super metal, and self-healing as well!" he replied in astonishment. The long gash didn't appear to be healing.

Once I'd finished my beer, we departed the bar. The sun was close to setting. Edward Hopper looked pensive, or at least his posture I interpreted as pensive. He kept looking down at his torn-up thigh, as if he expected the gash to disappear, but it wasn't. Finally he bid me good-bye, and headed east out of town. 

About a week went by before I saw Ed again. In the meantime, the flu pandemic had subsided, and word had come down over the Alterranet that every human on every human planet had become ill, but had recovered. Curious, as some worlds had received no visitors, and, generally, strict protocols are in place to prevent the spread of interstellar disease (witness my extended isolation on the moon). 

In any case, Edward Hopper returned to town, and I spotted him as I was leaving Manny's, a literally world-class Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Spiral City. Ed greeted me, and I invited him for a walk, as is my wont to do after a large dinner. We walked in silence for a good half-hour, and I finally took a seat on a boulder to burp and fart happily. We were just in time to see the Big C appear in the western sky, through the clouds, just above the setting sun.

There are a few oddities about Alterra. Take, for just one example, the Big C, the Copyright Nebula. First time visitors are struck stupid by the sight of it in the night sky. It's a nearby planetary nebula, the remains of a supernova explosion, that looks like the copyright symbol. You know, a "c" inside a circle. Why, even during the daytime, especially when it appears from behind clouds, it is often confused with the larger moon Algemina. It's that big and bright. Here's the weird thing about it. It's only ten light years away. The supernova occurred some five thousand years ago. At ten light years away, the gamma ray flux should have completely eliminated my adopted planet's ozone layer, turning the upper layers of the atmosphere into a ugly brown smog, exposed all life to prolonged UV radiation, and at the very least caused some kind of a mass extinction. Alterra should be a dead world. Instead, it's a lovely peaceful, whole and healthy one. What's the explanation? We have none.

Ed Hopper turned to me and said "The kraken are protecting you. And I am but a toy compared to them. I am a primitive and inept bumbler next to them. Not even a savage. Just a dumb animal".

"What are you talking about, Ed?"

Ed jutted his head up a the Big C. "You see that? They did that!"

"The supernova?"

"No, you idiot, the shield, or field, or whatever it was, that kept the supernova from destroying this world. The Teuthids did that."

"Well, wait. That happened thousands of years ago. The kraken didn't even know we were going to settle here".

"No" said Ed, "they did. They saved this world for you. He stared up at the Big C.

"You know that flu bug that swept through the populace?" Ed continued, "That wasn't just a flu bug. That was an engineered teuthid plague to counter the invasion of our little mechanized beasties".

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Honestly, Kurman, how your species ever managed to evolve into beings like me is a mystery sometimes. Look, we infested you humans with our microtechniome, our little mechanical zoo, as a just-in-case measure. You may fear us. But, we fear what you could become. You know, evil godlike superbeings. So the plan was to infest all of you with a control mechanism, all sorts of little critters that could be triggered to keep you in line. Livestock maintenance".

"What?! What a shitty thing to do!"

"Yeah, well, it doesn't matter. The teuthids engineered a suitable countermeasure. Or rather, they had the planet evolve one. All the human worlds evolved one. It's pretty much neutralized our techniome. And, even though they've left them all operational, save with a few exceptions. And I just got a little reminder", as he glanced down at his torn-up thigh, "just where I stand around here. I'm a feral cat, a varmint, allowed to live near the house. But that's about it".

He looked at me with, for lack of a better word, fear, and I have to admit, I liked it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The View from 600,000 Feet

Karl Rove is often criticized for providing political analysis as he flies over the country at 60,000 feet.

Which is to say, out of touch with reality. Fair enough. Considering his agenda was to put the Republican party in control of the nation in perpetuity, I guess we have to analyze him as that guy that fell over, took a shit, hit the Lifealert button, and is writhing in pain - at 60,000 feet.

I however, being little more forward looking (hopefully) would prefer a view from the ISS. (And actually, given the current condition of the world, and that NASA is investigating the possibility of a warp drive, would kind of more prefer the view from Alpha Centauri).

Mitt Romney's True Inner Soul
Actually, I'm guessing Mitt Romney would prefer the view from Alpha Centauri, or already does - seeing as he increasingly seems to be from Outer Space, kind of like Mormon Jesus. Some people thought, well, Romney's got a good heart right? Now, we know, this was no gaffe, this was his true allegiance to the upper half against the bottom. Romney has, in case you weren't paying attention, finally come out of the Montgomery J. Burns closet, gleefully rubbing his greedy little hands together.

Poor old Mitt Romney. On matters of immigration policy, could someone tell him how to say, in Spanish, "Put a fork in me. I'm done"? Someone really should shake this narcissist awake from his solipsist's nightmare and let him to go home to his elevator car castle. And while we are it, someone either tell Paul Ryan to put the PeeWee Herman red bow-tie and white shoes on, or give up on the bad impersonations already. Because It's Just Not Fucking Working Out For You.

Of course, after the circus clown car fiasco of the Republican primaries, pretty much any strategist who had his shit together must have realized there was no fucking way the country could vote for this mess of a ticket. And so, quite naturally, the challenge shifted towards Republican capture of the Senate.

Despite the candidate's best efforts, there's a good chance the Republicans will gain a majority in the Senate (which because of the current rules doesn't really mean shit), and retain the majority in the House. Many analysts have assumed that, with a good spanking in the presidential race, Republican politicians might return to some form of sanity. This is unrealistic.

When, like the Whigs of 1856, you've painted yourself into a demographic corner, you do exactly the Republicans have done after every defeat, which is dig in your heels, and double down again on batshit crazy. Which, since doubling down is a geometric progression, means the Republicans are now at least 32 times as batshit insane as they were in 1980. And if you will recall, they were already living in the 1890s under Reagan.

So, the word for the next four years is "same shit, different day", continued political kabuki theater, perhaps with any luck a Vietnamese underwater puppet show this time out.

Hurry up with that warp drive, you guys!  

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Mechanical Zoo

The Atlantic had a fluff piece about the future of mobiles (I make a conscious effort to call them 'mobiles' now, as opposed to mobile phones). I call it a fluff piece because: 1) any news article that is not about a scientific discovery is not really news, as in new information, and therefore, fluff; and 2) the fact that the majority of the article is speculation based upon current trends and events which, let's face it, will be viewed as quaint and uninformed 'zeppelin in every garage' kind of talk in ten year's time. Did I say ten? Four.

I'll try to avoid all of the gee-whiz-ain't-the-future-gonna-be-cool blather myself, and concentrate on the basic issues.

Back in the 1970s, when Bruce Sterling first started writing a series of science fiction stories about his Shaper/Mechanist universe, he foresaw a time when humans would enhance themselves either biologically or through cybernetics. He envisioned the Shapers, the modifiers via biological means, to be enhanced solely through genetic modifications. He can be forgiven that his observation that the Shapers had eliminated intestinal bacteria from their bodies, and looked down upon other who had not done so as 'primitives'. His limited vision involving modifications only to the human genome was a sign of the times. Now, we know better, or actually, are starting to know better, about the true and vital interconnectedness of life forms (via our own personal bacterial/viral/fungal residents - our microbiome, and also the shared health through the network-of-networks community of our ecosystem, up  to and including the whole Earth). Were Bruce to re-imagine these stories today, the plots may not have changed much, but the space habitats and inhabitants would be vastly more rich and varied. 

Likewise, his Mechanists were limited to machine enhancements and prosthetics, couched upon the human form. Though there has not been much 'new' (Moore's Rule of Thumb not withstanding) engineering in this field, one would think that Bruce would perhaps give the Mechanists something similar - a mechanical analog to the microbiome, a techniome

And that's where I figure mobiles are going. I really can't see a plastic box you hold in your hand ten years from now. Currently, at least as the vision of the future is shaped by Apple, the mobile is a toy, a Vegas distraction, a prelude to a Brave New World of easy control through consumption. Something to occupy your thumbs. Something to get your brain lazy. 

The Apple vision of the mobile is a toaster. Which is to say, do you really need toast? You can get by with bread. If you want toast, do you need a toaster? No, you can use an oven, or a toaster oven, or a stove, or a fire for that matter.  And that is where it stands at the moment. Commenting on his own site to comments I made upon this subject, Craig Nulan put it this way:
"There is a significant joke embedded in the name "I" phone,pad, pod, etc....,
The Android, OTOH, is an integrated utilitarian portal into the googlesphere. Having stood up a few hundred of each device in a mobile device management framework, the Android is virtually seamless instrument of borg orchestration and synthesis. The I-toy, on the other hand, is an infinitely personalizable hot-mess, never intended for any kind of coordinated collective use.
There is remarkable irony in the Apple vs Samsung, soon to be Apple vs. Google intellectual property lawsuits when you reflect on the profound differences separating the intended application and use of I-toys vs. the intended application and use of Androids."
And I think he's right. Google has very long-term plans that look beyond market share and stock price. That's my take. They are looking at things like mobiles, and banks and banks of server farms, Big Data living in the Cloud, the Internet-of-Things, drones, robots, droids, fablabs, 3D printers, printable electronics, open source living, not strictly in anticipation of the Singularity, but rather, defining the limits and protocols for the larger technological ecology for which we already have a very good model - Nature herself. 

And why not? This is all a product of biology, so it's just a continuation. But there are things coming soon not found in Nature, and I mean that in a good way.

I do see a future where, beyond just my personal techniome of repurposed jewelry and clothes, all packed to the gills with chips and sensors, and possibly a hat (or will it be Hat capitalized?) which I presume will contain my brain/machine interface connection, or even my mechanical zoo, ala Dr. Suess, in which I use any particular animal I need from the Internet of Things to do stuff, will be something larger than the sum of its parts.

What do I mean by that? Well, I sure don't need to own all sorts of things, but I see distinct advantages to partnering up with a mechanical bestiary (virtual animals that have a real-life mechanical opposite number). I don't need to own a bulldozer all the time, in fact, I barely use my electric drill, so why not borrow from the zoo? In fact, I start to question ownership of a lot of things that I use. (Clearly, there are some things I would keep to private use, but many I do not). So, why not share a zoo with other folks?

I don't see this heading towards the Star Trek Borg future. I do see it heading towards fairy tales, and magical creatures, and a return to the open fields system. Maybe that's not the way it will go. But I have a suspicion, if we wish to continue as a viable social species, we will have to learn how to share and play nice - a lot better than we are currently doing.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Latest Cast Glass

This wall piece isn't particularly striking or spectacular, but it isn't really meant to be that. Subtle. That's what I was going for. So, the deal behind this one is kind of a convoluted story. When I turned fifty-five, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois informed me I was now in a whole new health risk bracket, and bumped up my health insurance with a 14% increase.

Seeing as I pay for my own health insurance, and really can't afford the two regular jobs I have, and my third job making sculpture is earning me negative numbers, I was in for a bit of a cash crunch for September. So, hat in hand, I got a temporary loan from my Mom to cover the difference. I'm not proud of admitting this, but on the other hand, since the circumstances are of my own choice, I 'm not going to be dishonest about it.

Besides, all my other siblings have borrowed or taken monies from Mom at one point or another. And I'm rather proud of the fact that I've probably taken the least - despite my self-inflicted straightened circumstances.

Look, I could have continued with my boring real job and lived a very comfortable life. I knew that the chances of me making a living at making art - or pursuing any artisanal craft lifestyle - were slim to none. I knew the gamble. I took the chance. So far, I'm losing. I got no problem with that.

In any case, you don't really care about that. The point being I paid back the loan, and am throwing in a nice handmade gift as a thank-you. Here's the piece:
"Cloudscape", approximately 11" x 9" x 2", cast glass and walnut frame

The glass is about 3/4" thick, and the textured 3/16" thick bas-relief surface is against the wall, with a piece of 320 grit wet sanding paper as a backing. At first you think it's slate, but as you get closer, you see the bubbles and realize it is cast glass. So, like I said, subtle, which is where you want to go with Mom's decor. My understanding is it will hang in the office above the computer.

I'm very comfortable casting glass. I've gotten to the point where I feel I have a very good handle on pretty much every technical aspect of casting. I've done a lot of empirical research to get there, and have no problems sharing it. More than half the battle, as it turns out, was the firing schedule for the kiln. That took me a good two months of tweaking one variable at a time. But basically, the answer to a good firing schedule is - go slow on the ramp up. What's your hurry? You probably put a minimum of several hours into the preparation of the piece, so what's the rush firing it?

In any case, like I said, I've gotten very comfortable casting glass and I really should do a lot more of it. Problem is, I'm pretty much out of free casting glass. The remainder of free glass frit that I have, I've promised to students for their projects.

So, I got a bit of a problem here. I got the skills, I got the kilns, I got the time. I got no raw material.

I'll figure something out.

Monday, September 10, 2012

"There's plenty of room at the bottom"

Richard Feynman used this term in a lecture back in 1959, when he challenged the physics and engineering community to get going on the field of nanotechnology. There's a certain irony in the talk, as Feynman himself - and everyone in the room - was a product of a well-tested-and-proven four-billion-year-old version of nanotech we call biology.

Some twenty-seven years later, Eric Drexler again lead the cheer for nanotechnology in a book called "Engines of Creation". How much the field had advanced - and it had, at least, say, in the realm of miniaturized electronics upon silicon substrates - since Feynman's talk was considerable, but still not nearly enough. Many of Drexler's predictions are not even close to coming to pass. Apparently, what Nature hath wrought through dumb luck is a little bit harder than imagined.

In any case, what is interesting about Feynman's lecture is the opening line where he references the quest for the seemingly unlimited limits of cold:
"I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down".
Soon, this will all be on a chip
Of course, Feynman exaggerated. We know there is such a thing as Absolute Zero, a limit that can never be reached, but the asymptotic approach is indeed bottomless. And the closer you get to absolute zero, the more interesting things get. I hate to bore people with this, but the more I read and absorb upon the subject of ultra-low temperature physics, the more my gut tells me there is something absolutely unexpected and technologically disruptive to be found there. There will be some type of remarkable breakthrough in our near future, perhaps not equivalent to nuclear energy or the commodification of information, but certainly up there with air conditioning or the Internet. What it is, I cannot say. Maybe something to do with the words "quantum". Something to do with atom chips, and matter lasers, and Bose-Einstein condensates, and complex optics, and the protean shapes of photons, and perhaps even sub-atomic manipulations.

Or perhaps it will be a change of worldview more than anything else, something along the lines of the resurgence of curiosity and inquiry that occurred back in the 17th century (something which had been generally lacking in Western society for nearly 2,000 years).

Take, for example, the recent work at the Vienna University of Technology (and is there something in the water at Vienna?), which reveals a very interesting intermediate state between chaos and order.

Studies of matter at ultra-low temperatures shows that the process towards thermal equilibrium is much more complex than thought. It appears there is a regime of stable dis-equilibrium that can occur in between. Indeed, couple this with studies of the networking of networks, and it looks as if the concepts of chaos and order need to be tossed out completely. Even the idea of classical equilibrium may be nothing more than a concept - something that does not actually occur in the real world. If so, it may change how we thing about things, from climate change to markets. It may be that there is no such thing as a status quo, and thus, attempting to maintain it may be a fool's errand.

Well, nothing new there, really. Expect the unexpected and all that. But still, I got a weird feeling going on from all this shit...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Subsidize Me

My understanding is that America, while still a small nation huddled upon the shores of the North Atlantic, it's attention focused towards the ocean, possessed a not unimpressive presence as a maritime power. True, it was dwarfed by the powers of Continental Europe, and positively microscopic compared to British maritime might, but before the Civil War, a sizable fleet of clipper ships, whaling ships, and sailing packets plied both the Atlantic and Pacific. But this fleet had been in steady decline up to and including the Gilded Age.

The usual causes listed for the decline are lack of government support, a shortage of private capital, and cheaper, subsidized foreign competition. My suspicion is that the nation's attention was turned towards the vast lands west of the Appalachians, that we were too busy securing a continental Empire to be too concerned with maritime matters. After all, throughout the 19th century, with protective tariffs and a large protective moat of two oceans to insulate us, we were more concerned with internal development than finding a place in the world. Certainly Europe thought very little of America, or Americans, backward, technologically primitive, and we Americans, as usual were playing the distinctly American game known as Catch Up.

Does it seem that I have an overly condescending view of America? Well, for an exceptionalist America, certainly.

You really have to wonder about a country that, coddled, isolated, gifted of a plenitude of unspoiled natural resources, promoted chattel slavery and thus was favored of a cheap labor force, still couldn't seem to break even with a Europe that had only a tenth the advantages. Why, look at Germany, for all practical purposes a medieval society well into the 1860s, still managed to economically, scientifically, and technologically outpace and outperform America in a mere twenty years. Socialist institutions, anyone? You could ask the ghost of the Iron Chancellor.

But medievalism does seem to be the watchword for the first half of 19th century America. This is not to say medievalism is wrong or backward, far from it! Any number of that mechanical inventions and improvements were prevalent. But America, gifted with vast forests and free land, where it was easier and more profitable to be a farmer than an artisan, really had no need to develop an economy of skilled laborers, let alone a specialized work force need for an industrial economy. True, at the Great Exhibition of 1851, American furniture and woodworking craftsmanship was considered unsurpassed, and the quantity of machines for the mass-manufacture of wood products second to none. But America, squandering its forests and talents, soon lost out to other nations.

But getting back to that maritime issue. The most advanced, most complex, most powerful machines on the planet, form the 1860s at least until the 1950s were the ocean liners. The amount of national prestige and pride that could be funded through government coffers made naval architecture the most advanced and most accelerated technological arena of the age. Any and all scientific advances were quickly incorporated into the designs of ocean liners - from steam turbines, to electricity, to radio, to computational physics (in the areas of hull and propellor design).

The latter half of the 19th century, and well into the early 20th saw an accelerated Darwinian arms race of ocean liner building... unless you happened to be America. British liners were top of the line, the Apollo program of the 19th century. It was only when British engineers, perhaps after the development of the Parsons steam turbine, conservatively rested upon their laurels, that they fell behind in the race.

Charles Parsons himself was bedeviled by the conservative mindset of the British Admiralty. More than happy with their clunky reciprocating piston powered engines, Parsons was continually denied an audience to demonstrate his steam turbine. He was forced into the role of cheeky bastard, crashing the 1897 Naval  Review at Spithead, where, in his hundred-foot-long ship Turbinia, ran circles around the plodding battleships and cruisers. Queen Victoria herself took notice.

America did not have the technical know-how, but it did have the money. The asshole cocksucker bankster J.P. Morgan, in an attempt to crush all competitors in the trans-Atlantic trade, bought out the White Star Line in head-to-head competition with the well-established Cunard. Germany's HAPAG, not to be outdone, reneged on it's profit-sharing agreement with White Star. Kaiser Wilhelm II called it a "scheme by the American plutocracy to prostrate Germany, if not Europe itself".

All ocean faring nations promptly provided large government subsidies to promote their industry. Morgan meanwhile, had two ships built for White Star, the Olympic, and ... the Titanic.

J.P. Morgan, a morose and vilified man died in 1913. The last year of his life had seen not only the Titanic disaster, but the antitrust Pujo hearings in Washington. His downfall was certainly not worth the lives lost.

American naval architecture languished throughout this entire period, having to wait for the enlightened and progressive policies of - and substantial government subsidies funneled through - the US Navy.