Guppy Trailer, part 1: the basic concept

This summer Lizzie wants to go on a grand-loop road-trip around the U.S. with the kids. We have thought about various ways to do this, and we have decided upon building a teardrop-type trailer which we will tow behind our VW Golf (a.k.a. Glove). Why? 1. We need something convenient to camp in. At first I was not sure that I was going to go on the trip (I tried to get back to Kabul for August), and Lizzie wanted a secure place to sleep. 2. Buying another vehicle would have cost far more, even if it were an ancient VW Microbus.

I researched teardrop trailers online, and found out two important things. First: teardrop trailers emerged during the Depression, as families could not afford to stay in hotels. So our choice to build a teardrop is historically consistent. Second: it is very difficult to get plans of a teardrop trailer (for free). However, these trailers emerged at about the time that plywood became available, and for many D.I.Y. families, the 4′ x 8′ module of the plywood sheet was the standard-unit basis for the design. Here is my version:


Initially my design had a simple sloped back like other teardrops, the shape that gives them their name. Then I decided to add a swallow-tail to the galley hatch to separate laminar airflow over the trailer from backdraft turbulence behind it. Most recent cars have some version of this lip, so my hunch is that this will work better. Sophia looked at the new design-shape and said it looked like a guppy. And so this design was named!

But what would the Guppy sit on? I was not familiar with trailers, but our neighbors are. We took a look at a flatbed trailer parked nearby, made by Carson. From the manufacturer’s labeling on the trailer I realized that the flatbed has a VIN, and is engineered to comply with DOT standards. Essentially, the steel flatbed trailer is the vehicle, and the Guppy is merely the cargo, or payload that sits on the trailer. So I ordered a ‘flatbed mini’ from Carson, with a 4′ x 8′ frame, and an axle assembly rated at 2000 lbs. For this trip to work, the Guppy must weigh far less that 2000 lbs; maybe 300 lbs max. Part of the reason to design and build my own is to make it as light as possible.

And how would we tow this trailer with a Golf? We had to order a trailer hitch. Fortunately JC Whitney sells Curt trailer-hitch frames that fit a 1998 Golf, at $225. Installation was a pain, because the Golf is a unibody construction so there is no chassis nor any pre-made attachment points. I had to bore out 3/8″ bold-holes on some very irregular, compound-curve surfaces to mount the hitch frame.

Custom frabrication and the 90% rule

I am a prototyper. I finally came up with this self-description when trolling the aisles of a plumbing-supply store, browsing the fittings to see what might be useful. [Consider the hose-clamp and its many uses: better than duct tape]. The owner asked what I was looking for. At that moment I was getting parts to fix our kitchen sink; but to explain my wider survey of the hardware in the store, I had to explain that I make peculiar things or customize everyday objects in peculiar ways. It is a method of meditative relaxation for me; something like knitting or crossword-puzzles for others.

Time permitting, I will post some of my peculiar “mods:” the plywood bike trailer; the carabiners-as-bike-trailer-hitch; the bike shack built into a parking space; the futon covers that strap to the frame; the clip-on climbing treads for randonee skiing; the plywood carry-boxes. My current project, which I will certainly write about in the coming weeks, is a “Guppy Trailer” for our car, to enable us to take some serious road trips.

Increasingly, as I get older, I try to avoid rediscovering the wheel whenever possible; editing existing designs and materials is so much more efficient! Which is where I came up with the 90% rule. The delightful thing about living in a mass-production society is that many necessary things are really inexpensive. Cloth, stainless-steel kitchenware, plywood, screws. Each of these four items is fantastically useful, and I appreciate them especially from an historical perspective. For example: metal fasteners used to be so difficult to produce that Europeans would burn ruined houses and sift through the ashes to recover the nails and hinges! Then came wire-cut nails in the 1830s, and a revolution in construction. As for stainless-steel knives and forks? Medieval smiths would have regarded them as near-miraculous products.

Factory-made cloth is the better-known modern material. During the Industrial Revolution, spinning-jennys and power-looms reduced the cost of cloth by about two orders of magnitude. I believe it was Dolores Hayden who noted that this led to a rise in literacy among women, because they did not have to spend so much of their time carding, spinning, and weaving. They still had to hand-sew clothes; but toward the end of the 19th century, sewing machines sped that up that process as well.

So I enjoy the marvels of the industrial world, even as I draw attention to inequalities and exploitations in the production process. We can have the efficiencies and marvels of modernity without screwing over the workers. Furthermore, we can fine-tune much of what we buy because it is made in a generic way; for instance, off-the-rack clothing can be adjusted for far less cost than clothing custom-sewn from a pattern. What mass-production provides is stuff that we can consider at least 90% satisfactory. Tweaking it that last 10% is satisfying in itself, but it also takes far less time.

Kora Paddy Cultivation

May 29 edit: Oops! In the PDF posted on April 30, I accidentally skipped pages 2-3 (Sorry Dommo!). This scan has all the pages, and was scanned at 200 dpi, so it is only 10 MB.
KoraPaddyCultivation_1953. [with all the pages included]
I have left the incomplete file below because it was scanned at 300 dpi, and if anyone wants to extract the photos, the scan-resolution is as high as the original halftone resolution of the publication (meaning you can’t get better images out of this document).

April 30: This post is a placeholder for downloading Kora paddy cultivation: Japanese method as experimented improved and developed at Kora centre [PAGES 2 AND 3 MISSING]. (Bombay: Gandhi Smarak Hidhi, Krishni Vistar Vibhag, January 1953). It is a fascinating document of international cooperation in the early post-war years of ‘modernizing development.

Rough diagram of Luna South Pole development

Recent American and Japanese missions have begun to map and sample the south pole of the moon, since it is currently considered the best candidate for a permanent Lunar base. Here I present a sketch of the south pole, with steps in Lunar base development:

Luna south pole, development concept

On the diagram I describe five steps in base development. The first step is to settle on Malapert Mountain, since this mountain seems to be permanently in sunlight. It is the best place to set up transmitters and solar panels brought from Earth.

The second step is to develop a landing site some distance from Malapert peak. Since the moon as (almost) no atmosphere, landings will be powered, and will kick up dust. So an early test of crude refining will be to create pavers for a landing-area to minimize dust-blow. The next problem is to figure out a regular transport system that optimizes a) simplicity of construction, b) minimal energy consumption, and c) speed of movement. Perhaps a monorail would actually be a good idea for once?

The third step is to develop a major electric generation, storage, and distribution system. Solar power, thermoelectric, and charged-particle harvesting are all potential significant sources of electricity. Storage? Angular momentum in massive flywheels spinning on superconductor maglev bearings. The mass of the flywheels could be lunar rocks held in metal nets. Most of the basic activities of the base will require large amounts of continuous, on-demand electricity, so this system needs to be developed early.

The fourth step, in concurrence with steps 2 and 3, is to research the area intensively, before disrupting it through industrial development. I think a lot of research scientists would cringe at the prospect of disrupting the South Pole with industrialization. But for long-term development of a human presence in space (and other major research projects), I think the pristine condition of Luna’s south pole needs to be sacrificed. We need the site for mining, refining, manufacturing, and launching products into Earth-Lunar space. I would much prefer to have toxic industrial processes carried out on Luna than on Earth. I would prefer that we obtain rare-earth metals from a Lunar strip-mine than poison aquifers in poorer regions of the Earth (such as New Guinea). I hope that we can agree on areas and rules of Lunar exploitation through the United Nations.

Speaking of treaties, the fifth step will need to be carefully monitored. A high-capacity mass-driver on the moon could be used as a major weapon. So terrestrial governments will have a persistent interest in restraining it from ever being used thus. The peaceful, intended purpose of the mass-driver is to use electricity to launch products off the moon: water separated into hydrogen and oxygen, refined silica wafers and electronics components, etc. For delivery to Earth, products could be packed into a simple drop-glider with an ablative heat-shield made of silica.

Colonizing Luna: from engineering to planning

Here is an example of an item that we need to develop and test extensively: spinning habitats. Herman Potocnik suggested this system of creating false gravity through spin in 1929, and the ‘wheel-in-the-sky’ space station became a popular motif of pulp sci-fi book and magazine covers in the 1950s. But so far as I know, no space agency has ever actually implemented this idea. We know that living in microgravity conditions is seriously harmful to humans; we now have decades of research on that. We suppose that a spinning habitat will solve that problem. But a spinning habitat is also a practical problem: What is the minimum radius? Can we get most of the benefits from, say, 0.8g centripetal acceleration? How do we dock with a spinning habitat? What is the lowest-mass configuration we can design? For example, a ‘spinning bolo’ of two pods–perhaps one is the occupied capsule and the other is a service module–might be less-massive than the Apollo-era configuration for going to the moon.

My overall point, with this spin-gravity example, is that we still need to develop practical experience with a variety of systems to keep humans healthy offworld. We imagined them long ago, but all the variables of a real-world system cannot be anticipated in hypothetical designs.

Here, I am arguing that we step out from the engineering approach to the urban planner approach. Engineers (rightly) try to pre-anticipate every contingency. Therefore engineers need to work with relatively simple, bounded systems compared to the open and indeterminate complexity of a city. Urban planners think very differently about problem-solving because the complexity of cities cannot be ‘accounted for’ in any totalizing model. Emergent conditions are typical within open, complex systems such as cities–in other words, they generate their own indeterminacy. Thus, risks cannot be fully modeled and forecasted ahead of time. Riskiness and other aspects of a complex system have to be actively managed in-process, as new conditions emerge from the system itself.

If we develop larger, long-term extraterrestrial habitats where crews perform many tasks over extended periods of time, these habitats will move from the manageable complexity of singular missions to the open complexity of human communities. Therefore, the mode of thinking needed to manage the process of human expansion into space will need to move away from an engineering-paradigm and towards an urban-policy paradigm. Perhaps the most nerve-wracking aspect of this shift will be the management of risk. We will need organizational structures, expectations, and ethical understandings to cope with non-military environments that are totally artificial, and in which there will be accidents with major fatalities. Consider a remote outpost where something goes wrong with the power or life-support system and the entire crew is lost before they can be rescued. When that happens (it will), the institution must be designed so that human error is acknowledged, but the primary consequence is learning. The dying crew’s primary responsibility will be to study the failure as it is occurring, so that as David Brin argued, they can pass on the lesson about what killed them.

If Americans are to participate in this new phase of human expansion into space, we need to get over our cultural phobia about mortality. It may be that astronauts should all be grandparents who can say goodbye to their families with some comfort. In ships with lighter radiation-shielding we may contract lethal forms of cancer, but until we can get enough fuel and shielding-material available outside of Earth’s gravity-well, we should consider relying on people willing to face known hazards in order to blaze the trail.

Throughout most of human history, humans have faced these sorts of risks. I have watched Afghan families take far greater risks on a regular basis. What we need is a ethic that allows an organization to strengthen and learn under conditions of lethal risk. Since about 1950, Americans have only tolerated such risk in military service, as a part of patriotic sacrifice. Industrializing the Moon does not fit the military-heroic ethical framework. We will need to develop an ethic of risk-tolerance for human spaceflight that allows for experimentation, innovation, and deaths in the somewhat prosaic process of offworld industrial development.

Colonizing Luna: Economies of Risk

Eight years ago I wrote a series of short essays about different elements of a permanent base on Luna. I have just re-posted those essays, back-dated to when I wrote them. Reading them, I am struck by how much has changed in 8 years: the U.S. has retired the Shuttle program, so for the moment we no longer have the capacity for human spaceflight; however a series of private companies are in the process of re-developing that capability at much lower cost. SpaceX actually achieved this capability last year with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. The system is not yet approved by NASA for human spaceflight, but that seems to be primarily a question of risk-evaluation.

Which brings me to the theme of today’s essay: our need to re-think risk in relation to human expansion into space. During the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet human spaceflight programs were primarily about political prestige. That meant that both governments put a high priority on preventing mission failure. A risk-assessment professor at UC Berkeley once described NASA’s risk-calculus for the Shuttle program as designed for a 100:1 chance of failure. Over 135 missions, two were lost; so outcomes were consistent with design-expectations.

For a pragmatic development of space, that is too cautious. 400 years ago, European countries faced an analogous problem: How to use sea-routes to get around Africa (0r South America) to reach the spice islands of Java and the Moluccas? The routes were known; the Portugese had been doing this since 1511. By 1600, the Dutch, Brits, Danes, and French had a pretty good idea of how risky it was: they estimated somewhere between a 30% and 50% risk of loss of ships. Outcomes matched those expectations for the first decades of the 1600s, until European maritime technology improved.

I am not arguing that we should shift from a 1% risk to a 50% risk in the design of human spaceflight systems, but maybe a relaxation from 1% to 5% or 10%. For readers unfamiliar with risk-analysis, this might sound callous. For 100 years Americans have fought to make workplaces safe, and I strongly support this. Today, for example, NPR has been broadcasting an investigative series on the deaths of workers in grain-silos. There are two crucial differences between this failure of regular workplace safety and the risk-considerations for practical human spaceflight: 1) I do not think anyone’s life should be put at risk knocking down grain from the inside of silos when other, far safer methods can easily be implemented. 2) I absolutely oppose putting workers’ lives at risk without informing them of the risk.

So: would I be willing to suit up for a spaceflight on a vehicle with a 1 in 10 chance that I would be killed? When my kids are old enough, yes. In 2010 the Journal of Cosmology received hundreds of unsolicited emails from Americans volunteering for a one-way mission to Mars. Chance of fatality? 100%. Motivations? Multiple; on the individualist end of the spectrum is near-certainty of lasting fame. On the grand-vison end of the spectrum, I think many of us are motivated by new learning, by new possibilities.

For my part, I am an urban planner for a reason: I like to think more about lasting infrastructure and making things feasible. I think a capsule-based first trip to Mars is an important stunt, but I want to see humans work out all the steps to persistent, deep-space exploration. In the long run, the Moon is our primary first step out of the Earth’s gravity-well. I would also prefer that we mine rare metals on the Moon for our electronics components, rather than pay Congolese warlords for the coltan that they strip off the land of victimized farmers. Lunar development must also be very sensitive to terrestrial politics and questions of social justice; I will write more on this issue in subsequent posts.

A practical sequence of steps to industrialize the Moon will be a very different path from the nationalist theatricality of a first human trip to Mars. Lunar development will require simpler, cost-effective technology. In the first phases, the creative focus will be to design “bootstrap packages” that can set the foundation for increasingly large-scale industrialization. We have some sense of the mid-range goal: to refine metals, silica, water, oxygen, and fuel on the surface of the Moon, to be used for further space-based activities and for high-value products on Earth. This mid-state level of production will involve a lot of heavy equipment on the Moon. As much as possible, the heavy equipment should be built on the Moon. But the seed for this process needs to be a minimum set of equipment built on Earth; the initial equipment needs to be able to “bootstrap” the process of Lunar industrialization, like the way a BIOS chip starts the boot-up process of a computer operating system.

To me, the development of a bootstrapping process of Lunar industrialization is a fascinating design problem, but it is very different from a first-trip-to-Mars problem. Most of the development process will be done with remotes–what we now call drones, rather than semi-autonomous robots. Luna is only 1.26 light-seconds from Earth, so simple remote operations can be controlled from Earth with the 2.5 second round-trip signal delay. But that misses a crucial point. I do think we should make better photovoltaic cells, electronics, and medical products in space, but I don’t think we should abandon the process of learning how to live and explore out there. Even if Lunar industrialization is funded largely by mobile-phone manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, we should also use this project as a test-site for space-suits, field-repair training, and long-term life-support systems–including human social interaction in offworld environments. And that will involve risk, and probable fatalities.

Institutionally, we need to look back again at the rationale for corporations. Once upon a time–actually only 150 years ago–governments allowed the creation of corporations only when their profitable activity also served a beneficial public purpose (in fact this stipulation is still codified in most state regulations, and I think that Goldman-Sachs should have been seized and liquidated by New York State in early 2009 based on their deliberate financial malfeasance. But that is another blog-post). Corporations can be designed with public oversight and accountability, such as public utility commissions. The great advantage of a corporate institutional structure is how it can endure through risk and loss; that is why the Brits and Dutch set up East India Companies in the early 1600s. As we re-think the sort of corporation that might govern and support the development of a permanent human infrastructure in space, we can re-visit the role that corporations should play in our terrestrial political economies as well.

Congressional deadlock of self-segregated American communities

Americans have been deeply divided along political lines in the past: the film Lincoln is all about the brutal factionalism preceding the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Why is the current Congress so divided and ineffective? I suggest that a major factor is the pattern of urbanization and voluntary self-segregation of households over the past generation.

Many analysts are focusing on ideological disagreements. However, compared to decades past, the range of policy options being proposed by leaders is quite small. Consider that income tax was first passed under Teddy Roosevelt in 1913; his nephew Franklin raised the top rate to 70% only 20 years later. And twenty years after that, Dwight Eisenhower raised the top rate to 91% to pay down the war debt! Compared to those massive new federal programs implemented by both Republican and Democratic administrations, Barack Obama’s proposals are extremely modest; he wants to perpetuate George W. Bush’s low tax rates for 98% of Americans. Even the ‘public option’ briefly supported in healthcare reform was fiscally modest. It was “socialist” if we think of Singapore and Britain as Socialist. It bore no resemblance to Soviet policies.

Denigration of the opposing party’s policies is an inevitable feature of open democracy; but the vilification of anything associated with Obama is remarkably intense today. I was most impressed when House Republicans were so intractable over the standard deficit-ceiling bill in 2012 that they actually damaged the credit-rating of the U.S. Treasury. What normally tempers extremist behavior is the need to remain electable. In this system, politicians were considered courageous when they stuck to principles that might cost them re-election. But today, rigidly ideological conservative Republicans stick to principle without apparent fear of electoral repercussions, even if they do damage to the country as a whole. Why not?

A big factor seems to be voluntary self-sorting of Americans into “like-minded communities.” Bill Bishop (2008) observed increasing voluntary self-segregation affecting elections in 2000 and 2004. Though both presidential elections were very close at the national level, there were very few local jurisdictions where the votes were close. Most jurisdictions—counties or cities—had majority/minority splits of 20% or more. What this means for Representatives in the House is that most are in “safe seats.” What it also means is that their constituents rarely know people who hold differing political views.

A recent indication of this pronounced mutual segregation was the apparent cognitive disconnect of Republicans at the loss of Mitt Romney/Ron Paul in the fall of 2012. Romney did not even write a concession speech. I suspect many of his supporters could not imagine that any one would vote for Obama/Biden, because no one they knew would vote for Obama/Biden. Likewise, such constituents might know that their representative is refusing to compromise on legislation, but the legislation might be seen as so ‘wrong’ that it is appropriate to stand on principle, even if it harms the economy and opposes the majority-opinion of the country as a whole. ‘Prevailing national sentiment’ is an abstract concept when is differs from the opinion of everyone you know and respect.

Media segregation parallels spatial segregation. In a world of subscription channels and internet ‘thincasting,’ there is no longer any unified national media. Thus, a person of any particular political stripe can ‘adjust their media channels’ to tune in those whom they agree with, and tune out those with whom they disagree.

This trend has serious implications for the American political future. At the moment, the issues of disagreement are minor (consider the 1865 question of the legality of slavery compared to current questions of revenue/expenditures and gay marriage). Will it be possible to accommodate substantially different policies for different jurisdictions, and remain a single country? If California passes single-payer health care, should Arizonans be denied medical care until they pay a hefty tax? The likely sticking point is the Fourth Article of the Constitution, by which states must recognize property and contracts from other states. But should we consider a national agenda that compels Americans to experience political plurality in order to promote a sense of citizenship?

Watt, innovation, and the Industrial Revolution

In my courses I try to tell the story of urban modernity through a series of sub-stories. One of these is about how the Industrial Revolution happened. In 2012 I explained the Industrial Revolution thus: the key technology of the Industrial Revolution was the steam-engine; the key innovator of the steam-engine was Watt; and the key instrument for funding Watt’s innovations was the patent. So: the creation of patents—the creation of intellectual property as a new form of property-right—was the vital ingredient that triggered the Industrial Revolution.

I based this story on James Vance’s arguments in This Scene of Man (1977). Vance taught me Urban Geography in 1986. But I knew I needed to take a closer look at the emergence of intellectual property in the 1700s; it was the one part of the story I had not seen verified by other sources. What had changed? Did it become easier to get patents? Did the laws change so that commoners (like Watt) could get patents? Or did non-aristocrats gain increased access to the courts to defend their patents?

It turns out that Eric Robinson, an historian of Watt, had the same concerns. In 1972, Robinson wrote “James Watt and the Law of Patents” where he describes an unexpected finding: there was no substantial change in patent laws nor practices in the late 1700s. Lord Mansfield, who adjudicated the patent-fights of Watt and his contemporaries, makes no remarks about changes in the law of patents. Robinson had to go through Watt’s own letters to find comments about patent law and practice. Though Watt proposed some improvements to patent law, these were never implemented.

In fact, the critical change to patent law happened 150 years before Watt started improving the steam-engine. The Statute of Monopolies, passed in 1623, banned all monopolies with the exception of temporary monopolies defined by ‘letters patent’ (meaning open, public documentation of the right-to-ownership). The next major intervention in patent law began with Parliament’s Select Committee on Patents in 1829—a full two centuries after the Statute of Monopolies, and fifty years after Watt’s major patents were filed.

So patents were a key ingredient in the development of steam-engines, but not a ‘proximate trigger’ of the Industrial Revolution.

Before proceeding with the story of Watt and steam-engines in the late 1700s, I want to note an important political-economy lesson from the struggle that led to the Statute of Monopolies. English aristocracy became concerned about monopolies in the late 1500s. The Statute of Monopolies in 1623 was the result of a long-running fight between Parliament and the monarchs from Mary (1553-1558) through Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and James I (1567-1625). At the time it was only monarchs who granted monopolies, so the 1623 Statute was both a political restriction on the monarch and an economic restriction on the monarch’s favored friends.

Here in the 21st century, in an era of monopolistic corporate power, deregulation, and economic decline, it is worth noting that the fight against unfair economic advantage has been waged for more than 400 years. When neoliberals recite their blind faith in ‘free markets’ and claim Adam Smith as patron saint, it is worth reminding our present world that Adam Smith spoke out against monopoly-power. Smith wanted competitive markets, and argued that freedom-of-contract needed to be tempered by courts and regulations that maintained the competitiveness of markets. What Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen make clear—building explicitly on Smith’s work—is that there is no such thing as a ‘free market.’ There are competitive markets and monopolistic markets. Strong regulatory governments—US, Europe, East Asia—can push back against dominating firms to keep markets competitive. Weaker governments—Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo—cannot regulate (or cannot enforce the regulations they have), so their ‘unfettered’ economies become monopolistic. Unregulated, monopolistic economies may be extremely lucrative for the top tenth of 1% in a country. But for overall national output and wealth, monopolistic markets tend to be both unproductive and violent. I have argued this before; but it is worth noting that the breakup of monopolies (and resulting economic growth) of the U.S. from 1901-1980 was not the only time when governments intervened to bust monopolies for the benefit of broad-based economic growth. The anti-monopoly struggle has a multi-century history.

Okay, back to Watt and steam-engines: the only short story I can identify through this weeks’ research is a story of institutional learning. In this narration, equal credit goes to Matthew Boulton, Watt’s business-partner for many years. Watt was technically and theoretically brilliant, but he was a poor businessman, he was depressive, and he had few influential contacts. Boulton was a successful businessman with numerous and diverse contacts, and many resources. Boulton was also wise enough to recognize the value of Watt’s innovations and insight. Here is Thurston’s 1901 summary of their relationship:

In the new firm, Boulton took charge of the general business, and Watt superintended the design, construction, and erection of their engines. Boulton’s business capacity, with Watt’s wonderful mechanical ability—Boulton’s physical health, and his vigor and courage, offsetting Watt’s feeble health and depression of spirits—and, more than all, Boulton’s pecuniary resources, both in his own purse and in those of his friends, enabled the firm to conquer all difficulties, whether in finance, in litigation, or in engineering (Thurston 1901:103).

So: a combination of elements had to come into place to make the steam-engine possible. First, the technology itself. Worcester, Huygens, Savery, Papin, and Newcomen had all invented crucial components of the steam-engine between 1628 and 1712 (Thurston, 1901, ch.1, sec.2). In fact Boulton and Watt first made a profit based only on an improved Newcomen engine; they charged license-fees based on the increased efficiency of their steam-pump over the Newcomen pump.

Second, the existence of the Statute of Monopolies did matter. It meant that commoners (and aristocrats) could claim property-rights to their ideas. But it took a long time for this new regime of intellectual property to yield results. Watt & Boulton had essentially the same rights as all their predecessors back to 1623.

Third, there was the experience of business-practice. Boulton was a successful industrialist even before he met Watt. As a commoner under Common Law, Boulton was able to manufacture and market small metal products and become wealthy. When he partnered with Watt, he was also able to lobby Parliament to extend Watt’s 1769 “Fire-Engine” patent in 1775. He was able to fund patent-litigation against William Bull. Boulton was even able to subcontract out the fabrication of the first steam-engines, before Boulon & Watt could build all the parts in-house. This segmentation of a production process was complex. It required Boulton’s prior experience with the business of industrial production. This is a form of institutional learning.

Fourth, freedom of contract meant that commoners could negotiate tens or hundreds of contracts for products and services without the slow and fraught process of gaining royal approval. I need to research this further. Adam Smith argued for this right to private contracts in 1776, but I don’t know the state of those rights in the late 1700s, nor when and how they changed. I do know that James Watt personally knew Adam Smith. Maybe Smith’s arguments were directly influenced by acquaintance with the struggles and frequent failures of inventors and entrepreneurs. And I know that the license-negotiations for intellectual property are a crucial component of private contracting.

Fifth, the promotion of scientific research—known then as inquiries into natural philosophy—was critical. The historical marker-point was the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660. Apparently Charles II not only signed off in the creation of the Royal Society, but he was actually personally enthusiastic about the advancement of science. This formal, public affirmation of scientific discovery made a huge difference over the next century. While patents made technological R&D profitable, the Society promoted a more general theoretical comprehension of nature.

Another way to stitch this story together is to emphasize how different modes of thinking were necessary to produce and implement technical innovation. Building on Flyvbjerg’s research (1993, 1998, and 2001) I argue that humans think rationally in multiple modes. One of these modes is episteme—logical reasoning based on abstract, unchanging principles. Scientific understandings of steam and thermodynamics are examples of episteme, and Watt was famous for his theoretical brilliance. Second is techne—the ability to understand how to get things done, how things go together. Watt was also famous for this ability; he was a fine builder of working prototypes. Third is phronesis—the ability to make effective judgement-calls. Here was Boulton’s strength, as both a businessman and as a political lobbyist. Fourth is sophia—wisdom based on reflexive experience. Again this was Boulton’s strength, and the reason why institutional learning is a concise way of understanding this story. It took business-experience, from logistics through management to social contacts, to make this all work. Boulton could think in a way that Watt could not; Boulton could pull off the elaborate productive choreography of building a new device with subcontractor-manufacturers, while fending off patent-infringers, and negotiating profitable contracts with mine-owners who wanted a more efficient pump than the Newcomen engine.

It may help to illustrate this story with a 21st-century parallel. Steve Jobs did not invent the mobile-phone, nor the smart-phone. In fact, Palm was a brilliant innovator with the ‘Palm Pilot.’ The smart-phone of 2012 is a fusion of the 1990s technologies of Palm Pilots and mobile-phones. So Apple entered a market that was already quite fully developed before the iPhone was even introduced. Likewise, Watt did not invent the steam-engine. In fact his first profitable model was only a more-efficient pump that entered into the existing, 60-year-old market of Newcomen pumping-engines. Boulton and Watt actually made their first profits off of fuel-efficiency, a lesson worth noting for the 21st century. Once Boulton & Watt got going, they also provoked competition and increased the market by making steam-pumps more cost-effective. Furthermore, by subcontracting component-fabrication, they improved the competence of English machinists–especially in the ability to bore large piston-cylinders. But as Selgin & Turner (2009) argue, even the Boulton & Watt double-action steam-engine was a low-power, low-efficiency condensing engine. It was one of their competitors—Richard Trevithick—who developed the high-pressure steam engine in 1803 that would power the mills, locomotives, and steam-boats of the 19th century.

Elementary School Teachers and the Apocalypse

My favorite scene in the Harry Potter series of films happens towards the end of the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, when the very-unlikable Professor Snape finds the three protagonists at the base of the Whomping Willow tree. He is about to bust them for rule-breaking when Ron Weasley points out that another teacher (Lupin) has just turned into a werewolf and is about to attack them. Alan Rickman does a remarkable performance as Snape: in a heartbeat, he turns around to face the advancing horror and shield the children from harm. He even takes a full-on blow from the werewolf before Sirius Black draws off the werewolf.

Snape protects Hermione, Ron, and Harry from Lupin the werewolf

Snape faces imminent death…

The teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not hesitate. They took action immediately, locking doors, sequestering the children, getting them quiet. Apparently the teachers died shielding the children, in the two classrooms where children were killed. Rickman’s portrayal (shown above) has a quality of truth that may be a useful way of explaining the Newtown massacre to children.

Once I could bring myself to read the descriptions of this incident, what surprised me was that Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, was a survivalist. The weapons were legally registered to her, including the Bushmaster rifle (a non-military precursor to the M-16) that Adam used in the massacre. Gender matters little here; what matters is that Nancy Lanza was a ‘Doomsday Prepper,’ fortifying her house against a coming Apocalypse.

However, Apocalypse does not mean ‘doomsday.’ A good translation from the original Greek is ‘revelation,’ or ‘the revealing.’ Since the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans have interpreted this to mean the coming of the end of the world. This sentiment is expressed in the extreme popularity of post-catastrophe films, from Omega Man through the Terminator and Road Warrior franchises to The Postman and I am Legend. Zombies are the most recent addition to this End Times genre. They might be campy, but they still show the prevalence of this American fascination with a sudden and violent collapse of civilization. Survivalists may extremists, but they are only the extreme extension of a very mainstream American sentiment.

This American fascination with the Apocalypse involves dread and anxiety, but also desire. There is almost a hope for a sudden ‘sweeping away’ of modern life’s distractions, complications, and irritations. There is an anticipation for a refreshing, violent renewal. This line of thinking today correlates with a deep suspicion of government, of ‘The State’ as the creeping threat against liberty. It fits with Nancy Lanza’s decision to home-school Adam. For some people, home-schooling is a sound choice. One of the finest students I ever taught had been home-schooled, but then she came to the very public UC Berkeley for her college education. In the case of the Lanzas, and many survivalists, home-schooling is part of a process of secession from society, and a withdrawal from public institutions.

And when Adam went on a rampage, a public institution was the target. What is ‘The Government’ that survivalists hate/fear? In actual practice, it is not a monolithic, conspiratorial syndicate. A very real expression of government is the public schoolteachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Yes, public employees, paid with tax dollars, indoctrinating children with ideas like the 3 Bs: “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible” (I just quoted my nine-year-old son). In reality, in daily practice, ‘The State’ turns out to be a mosaic of very human public servants. This is a very different Revelation. It is a Revelation of the everyday, the mundane, the human. And what do these everyday schoolteachers do in the face of lethal danger? They behave with supreme courage, without hesitation.

Adam was mentally ill; his actions were extreme. But his actions are an extreme expression of a popular American myth. Scepticism about government can be healthy; that is one of the core themes running through the Bill of Rights. However, a desire for the collapse of civilian order is not the same as scepticism about government power. It is a kind of romantic shadow-hope for liberation from the constraints of modern society. A person experiencing a psychotic break often expresses popular sentiment in a disturbing variant; maybe to push for that Apocalypse, try to get it to arrive a little sooner.

I don’t think this Apocalypse-myth is an inevitable psychological counterpoint to the prevailing reality of mundane, civilian order. The fascination with end-times prophecies surged in the first century AD, and before 1000 AD as well. This most recent surge, starting in the 19th century, seems to be unusually persistent and intense. What may be different now is that we can market this story to ourselves through books, film, video-games, and military-grade weapons. We literally sell this myth to ourselves.

In our daily storytelling we need to clarify the distinction between a hoped-for Apocalypse and a healthy scepticism about government power. The Bill of Rights constrains government, but it also is government. Under these guidelines, how do we govern ourselves? It involves the patient work of paying bills, educating children, enduring rush-hour traffic. Even disaster-preparation means building systems where cooperation persists when normal infrastructure suddenly fails. Governments do involve coercive power; but most of the work that modern governments do–meaning most of what we do–is care for each other. Elementary schoolteachers are a quintessential example of such mutual care. We need to recognize that mutual care as our Revelation.

Intellectual Property as key factor in modernity

[This is another political-economy posting, but it does not follow the previous postings as a series. After all, this is a blog; just thinking out loud here]

This morning I had an epiphany about the changing structure of global production, trade, and prestige-politics in the 21st century. The argument: a shift in governing made intellectual property possible about 250 years ago. This new form of property-rights remains the key ingredient of modern political-economies into the 21st century. Industrial production and military technologies are merely effects, not causes in this transformation. And intellectual property is now revealed most explicitly as the underlying framework of 21st-century trade and competition, often described in shorthand as ‘globalization.’ Thus, to make sense out of ‘globalization’ in the 21st century, we need to make a careful enquiry into ‘the nature and causes’ of intellectual property formation.

In my Global Cities course, I spend a fair bit of time explaining the Industrial Revolution. It is an old-school topic that I approach in a revisionist way. Yes, Watt’s refinements to the steam engine made it useable and transformed England: powered mills, then powered boats, then railroad. For an urbanist, this helps explain the monocentric 19th-century city, and sets the context for the classic Engels reading on living conditions in Manchester in 1844.
Then I talk about the psychological experience: the shock-of-the-new that is a distinctive condition of consciousness among moderns. In modern literature this is often mistaken as a singular shock; for many decades, WWII was treated as the disturbing break from the past. But these breaks, these identitarian disruptions, have been a recurrent process; people in 1850 felt that the world of 1800 was difficult to imagine; people in 1900 had a hard time imagining 1850, and so forth. My students have a hard time imagining daily life without mobile-phones and the internet. How did people get anything done before 1994?
It is crucially important that we understand modernity as an experience (thank you Marshall Berman, and Ananya Roy for showing me is writings). But there is also a political-economy dimension to modernity that bears consideration. Here I return to the Industrial Revolution, and explain it as an effect of a modern transformation, not as a cause. What triggered this effect? The emergence of intellectual property (IP) as an enforceable right-of-property. Stated a different way: by about 1760, English commoners could make (and enforce) claims of value for ideas and innovations.

This inverted the guild-system, where technologies remained trade-secrets. Thus there was a lot of opposition to Diderot’s documentation of manufacturing techniques in his Encyclopedie (1750), the first encyclopedia. Diderot’s Encyclopedie was full of explanations of Arts and Crafts like glassblowing and coach design. I keep wondering if Watt’s pressure-regulator valve was invented based on borrowing the negative-feedback principle from other types of mechanisms revealed through the Encyclopedie. Don’t know; future research. But I do know that one aspect of the guild system gets incorporated into this new regime. If you can commodify ideas, you can also commodify reputation in the same way. So “trade-marks” (and later “brands”) were incorporated into this new regime of property-rights enforcement.

So what was the effect? I use two bits of data.
First: Watt used patent-royalties to fund research, development, and refinement of his steam-engine from 1760 to 1789. Watt did not invent the steam-engine (I think Newcomen did in 1715), nor were Watt’s refinements the last and best thing done to steam-engines. No; but Watt made steam engines /practically useable/: lighter, better fuel-to-power ratio, and less prone to lethal explosions. Watt had a benefactor (Richard Arkwright), who was also a waiting customer for these refined engines. Arkwright was a Yorkshire landlord and manufacturer, who had sheep and the spinning-jenny; but lack of machine-power was his bottleneck. Arkwright did not have a labor shortage, because landlords like him had just evicted hundreds of thousands of peasants off of their land, and razed their old villages to make room for profitable sheep. That also meant that hundreds of thousands of landless English (and Irish) commoners made for a massive “reserve” labor-pool in the English Midlands.

But Watt was not merely a private, exclusive employee of Arkwright. He could patent his improvement and sell “Patented Watt steam-engines” to anyone. Arkwright and other Midlanders used the steam-engines immediately to power textile-mills; hence the ‘satanic mills’ of Blake, and the Industrial Revolution as we know and love it. See Danny Boyle’s portrayal of it at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London!

What made it possible for Watt to fund his costly research and design of improvements, beyond Arkwright the angel-investor? Patent royalties. This also meant that others could freely adapt these new steam-engines to mills, boats, and locomotives. The patent-system is an opensystem by definition (the original meaning of patent is still used in the expression ‘patently obvious’). You can only claim your right to royalties (license-fees) in a court of law if you publicly proclaim and explain your invention. Thus, others can learn about the innovations immediately; but the property-holder can enjoy a temporary monopoly position on revenue until the patent expires. Governments like having other inventors examine a new patented technology, because that may provoke yet another idea, a new patent, new economic growth, and thus new tax revenue. It is worth noting here that only strong, regulatory governments with pervasive regimes-of-enforcement can create the conditions in which intellectual property exists at all. A smart software designer in Uzbekistan cannot make any proprietary claims for royalties from her idea within Uzbekistan, because the local regime cannot enforce intellectual property rights. The rise of IP-enforcement in China and southeast Asia may be the most important long-run shift in the global economy right now.

I still don’t understand the fine details of how this new property-regime coalesced around 1760 in England. One component is a change in laws; Timothy Yip pointed me to the Statute of Anne, 1710, that specified enforcement of copyright by the courts. I will look into this in future research. The take-away point, at the moment, is that the emergence of enforceable property-claims to ideas,innovations, and reputation made new technology much more valuable.

Here is my second data-bit: the U.S. formed officially by the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Much of the Constitution was about rights. Americans tend to focus on the personal-liberty rights such as the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 8th Amendments. What we often gloss over are the economic rights such as the Full Faith and Credit clause in Article 4, and the commoner’s right to civil litigation in Amendment 7. But here is one way to highlight the importance of economic rights to the new Republic: its first three creations in 1790 were the U.S. Census, the Post Office, and the Trademarks and Patents Office (USTPO). The Post Office facilitated rapid flows of information across this new, huge, free-trade zone. And the USTPO established the regime of intellectual property. Virtually 100% of the value of Google, Microsoft, and Disney is intellectual property. So, what was that whining I heard about ‘government getting in the way of business’? Business relies on government directly for much of its value across the United States. Even for industries that involved a lot of equipment in the 19th century, the IP property-rights make these enterprises worthwhile: Colt, Morse, Bessemer, Winchester, Edison, Bell, Tesla.

Now let us travel in our minds to 1949, a year that shaped so much of the geopolitics of the next five decades. Westerners were suddenly doubting a hundred-year association of the idea of ‘modernity’ with the idea of ‘progress.’ The massive double-shock of the worldwide Great Depression and WWII revealed and invalidated many assumptions of the modernist worldview, including the optimistic ideal of an ‘upward march of progress.’ Writers start using terms like ‘civilized’ with a wince, rather than as a chest-thump of white people over brown people. When Gandhi retorts that Western Civilization ‘would be a good idea,’ the quip is remembered because it stings. Modernity has just produced extreme material hardship (the Depression) followed by massive brutality including the attempted extermination of whole peoples and the actual incineration of whole cities (Nanjing, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But white people remained more powerful (and the Japanese, early guests into a certain degree of whiteness because of their modernizing imperialism, 1870-1945). So: how to interpret this brave new post-war world?

Harry Truman used the word “develop” in his inaugural speech in 1949. In the cold-war competition that was shaping up between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the Capitalist Western Bloc, Americans sought to win over newly-independent former colonies in Africa and Asia by promoting development. But “development” was a vague term. What really stuck in the 1950s and 1960s was the term “industrialization.” Writers at the time treated the Industrial Revolution itself as modernity, and thus the words modernization and industrialization were used interchangeably in the immediate postwar years. The hierarchy of national status was signified by being either “industrialized” (superior, modern, complete) or “industrializing” (inferior, backward, incomplete). As manufacturing moved out of the U.S. and Europe, and eventually into what had been called “industrializing” countries, that terminology became obsolete and we went back to using “developed” and “developing”, which turned out to be useful because of their vagueness. What does “developed” mean? Whatever the more powerful country decides it will mean, defined by indicators the powerful countries specify in UN and World Bank reports. As James Ferguson points out in Global Shadows, one of the main political functions of the discourse on development is to reinforce national status-hierarchies.

What gets missed in this schoolyard-bully rhetorical discourse is that white, formerly-imperial countries remain relatively wealthy, even though most manufacturing now occurs in low-status, poorer countries. So is Malaysia more ‘developed’ than the U.S. if a higher proportion of their population is working in factories? Commodity-chain analysts like Gary Gereffi and Robert Reich explain that most of the value-adding in commodity-chains does not occur in the act of actually manufacturing the product. Most of the value is in the brand, in the commodified form of reputation. So a pair of Nikes might cost $10 in parts and labor to produce in Viet Nam, but it sells in U.S. malls for $100. Most of that value-difference is captured by Nike through its claims to the Nike Trade-Mark as property.

Ah: so now we get back to the shift in property-rights that produced the Industrial Revolution in the first place. ‘Globalization’ in the form of transnational production and trade involves the extension of intellectual property regimes to a global scale. In fact the degree of lack of globalization of a country roughly parallels its inability/unwillingness to enforce a regime of intellectual property. So the regime is spans the world like an archipelago, not like a comprehensive blanket. You probably need to pay Microsoft and Adobe for licensed software in South Africa; you probably cannot buy a legal copy of Windows or Photoshop in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The “net” metaphor still works, but it is worth noting that nets have holes in them; gaps where whole populations drop through to extreme poverty. But even as a geographically partial system, this transnational regime of IP-enforcement makes the New International Division of Labor possible.

Furthermore, this valuation of reputation is explicitly cultural in how it maintains a hierarchy of international prestige. Raw technical inventions might be ‘culturally neutral’ (though I welcome challenges to this claim), but ‘reputation’ in the form of legally-enforceable trade-mark is explicitly cultural (ooh! Pokemon! Manga! Who gets the profit from these?). And brand-property seems to be far more valued than technology-property in global trade. So in the cultural politics of global trade, the fact that Apple iPhones are judged (by the judge himself!) as “cooler” than Samsung Galaxy phones, that is an act of privileging California product-reputation over South-Korean product-reputation. In terms of technologies, both Samsung and Apple have infringed each other’s patents repeatedly. Mutual patent-infringement is normally a healthy process that promotes rapid technical innovations. In contrast, the ugly spat between Samsung and Apple is a conflict over reputation. Both corporations understand this to be the most significant basis-of-value in world trade.

Technological innovation continues to matter very much in the grim and shadowy realm of military supremacy. Industrial-era imperialism from the Dakotas to the Transvaal to the Ganges plain relied on mass-production of rapid-fire guns (from the Colt revolver through the repeating rifle to the machine gun). Firearms were the key instrument of ‘civilized’ domination over ‘savages.’ Now it is software security and stability in the control of robotic weapons and sensors. Aircraft-carriers are visually impressive, but big ships can be destroyed by little missiles or torpedoes that are the cybernetic ‘arms’ of increasingly cybernetic militaries. So long as the controlling-signal cannot be disrupted nor commandeered, the warrior can extend their “digital ki” over tens of thousands of kilometers to strike at the enemy, or perceive subtle shifts in that enemy’s intentions.

That military supremacy also matters in the creation and enforcement of terms of trade. A truly intimidating country has negotiating leverage even in multilateral negotiations, such as at the WTO. But military asymmetry really shows up in bilateral negotiations. Uncle Sam says: “Hey Haiti! How about lowering import-export duties? Yeah, we know you need the money, but it’s all about the principle of free trade. You feel free, don’t you? Our Marines occupied your country a decade ago (and six decades ago) to make sure you would be free. How’bout those trade-terms?”

To recap: the competition for reputation among corporations, as a fundamental basis-of-value and as a key aspect of global trade, is widely understood; it is playing out in ad campaigns for smart-phones as I write. Development-studies theorists reveal how this ostensibly private competition is linked to the idea of ‘development’ and national prestige. What I want to emphasize is how the commodification of three intangibles–ideas, innovations, and reputation–laid the foundation for most of the political economy and material culture that we experience today. Industrialization is an effect that can be exported or appropriated like technology itself; but intellectual property remains the key basis of value-production and domination. This is not a new emergence of intellectual property in the 21st century; it has been the crucial  ingredient since at least 1760.