Archive for 2008

A lode of manure… sheds

17 November 2008
Categories: Research

Years ago—in 2003 to be exact—while I was first placing online my Brief History of East Lansing, I included among its pages a footnote I privately (and facetiously) refer to as “The Historian’s Lament”:

The difficulty in charting the lives of buildings such as barns and greenhouses lies in their purely utilitarian nature. A spiffy new structure, even a minor one, will often get a bit of fanfare from an historian, especially if it incorporated some important new technology (e.g., the school’s first underground grain silo, as mundane as that may seem today). However, these same historians are much less likely to mention the demise of these. The buildings become run down from heavy use; they are referred to by different names as their purposes change; they make way for much more spectacular edifices. (Or, as in the case of the greenhouses behind Old Horticulture in 1998, they are ignominiously removed to expand a parking lot.) In any case, it becomes a matter of connecting the dots: e.g., botany greenhouses were built in 1867, 1874, and 1892; but which of these, if any, was the greenhouse demolished in 1955 for the Main Library? In the absence of solid facts, one can only strive to avoid spurious assumptions.

Yes, it’s true that the mainline historians will fail to mention the demise of utilitarian buildings. Kuhn hardly mentioned barns at all. Lautner went for the larger scope of campus land use (as well as some interesting political machinations) and glossed over the less permanent buildings. And Beal—heck, Professor Beal seems not to have been able to admit to himself, let alone put into print, that his own Botany Lab had burned to the ground. When it came to the farm, he deferred to others for most of what he included in his book.

However, I have come to discover that I have been looking in completely the wrong place. Of course these historians are going to give the big picture overview. Yet just because they find a building too mundane or utilitarian to mention its demise, that’s no reason to assume that no one found it interesting, or described its fate in excruciating detail.

While attempting to determine the date of a photo of the second boiler house that I received via e-mail from a fellow alumnus (thank you Tom!), I got to wondering about the barn in the background—and took that as an excuse to attempt, once again, a catalogue of all campus buildings, including the barns and greenhouses. As I tabulated the maps I had on hand, I noticed in the 1899 map a notation for B. O. Longyear’s house on College Delta, which intrigued me.

Why it intrigued me is a tale for another time. It was in a Google search for biographical data on Longyear that I stumbled across an online treasure trove—the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan. Between Google Books and Internet Archive, nearly a complete set of the reports from 1862 through 1920 are available in several formats. (Unfortunately, the first report, from 1861, still eludes me.) Since the Board of Agriculture’s principal bailiwick was the Michigan Agricultural College, these reports tell of the school’s inner workings, often in painstaking detail—all the way down to minutiae like the cost of chalk and erasers for the classrooms.

I had been trying to figure out what all the barns had been in the original compound (around where Ag Hall is now, and east and south of there). I wanted to know when the newer compound (around where Hannah Administration and the Computer Center are now) was created, and which barns in it were new and which were moves and/or reconstructions. I knew I was getting close when I found the following comment in the Forty-Seventh Annual Report (1908) by Dean of Agriculture (and future President) Robert S. Shaw:

The farm building equipment work is now practically complete and a full description of the regrouping, remodeling, and refitting of the various buildings has been given in Station Bulletin № 250, with the exception of a manure shed erected since this report was issued.

…a Bulletin that is included, in its entirety, on page 211 of the same Annual Report.

Jackpot! If I wanted to reconstruct the farm compound exactly as it appeared in 1908, accurate down to the last timber, cupola, fence post, and horse stall, I need look no further than Experiment Station Bulletin № 250. Its level of detail is mind-boggling—in part because the College’s intent with its bulletins was to help the state’s farmers learn from the mistakes that the College farm had made. A map of the old compound as it appeared in 1902 is included, and descriptions and diagrams of each barn’s modifications as it was moved or repurposed to the new compound carry on for some seventy pages in all.

Now, to write the article for my site…

The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore

10 October 2008

coverThe excellent 1971 film of The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, has been running quite frequently on the Fox Movie Channel of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s usually on late at night, so my focus is fuzzy, but there’s a major plot point in it that always had me confused.

The brown Lincoln Continental is brought into the country, loaded with concealed heroin, by the French connection. Then Sal Boca, the American connection, takes the car from a hotel parking ramp and parks it overnight on a seedy waterfront street, where it is nearly stripped by a roving chop shop gang. Popeye has the car impounded, the cops (finally, after hours of searching) discover the drug cache, then they close it back up good as new and return it to—the French connection, who later takes it to a desolate island in the East River for the deal to go down with Sal.

So here lies the confusion: why does Sal take possession of the car, full of drugs, before the deal—and then abandon it in a bad area? Why doesn’t he just off-load the drugs right then?

The answer lies in Robin Moore’s terrific non-fiction tale of, as he hyperbolically puts it, “the most crucial single victory to date in the ceaseless, frustrating war against the import of vicious narcotics into our country.” As Moore explains, the car (in reality a tan 1960 Buick Invicta) was left by the American connection on that waterfront street because at that point it was loaded, not with drugs, but with the cash payoff from a previous import. The car soon disappeared from the street, picked up by an unseen accomplice, and returned to Montréal (and ultimately France) to begin the next, even bigger, drug smuggling operation.

The stake-out scene in the movie is tense and dramatic, and it makes sense that it was included virtually unchanged from the book. But because the filmmakers have conflated two separate deals into one big deal, the chain of events ceases to make any sense at all. I find this ironic, considering that The French Connection is one of the films that is lauded for its gritty realism, a hallmark of American cinema in the 1970s. It’s a great movie—if for nothing else than the classic, nay, iconic chase scene between Popeye in a borrowed Pontiac Le Mans and his intended assassin in a commandeered elevated train—yet its five Academy Awards completely overshadow its excellent, worthy source material: Robin Moore’s 1969 book.

A strange Star Wars pondering

1 July 2008
Categories: Star Wars

A couple of weeks ago my Lego Star Wars X-wing took a tumble off its display shelf. (I suspect a mild earthquake that morning was the culprit.) The X-wing dove off the shelf, bounced hard off the printer, and landed, shattered into major constituent pieces, on the floor near the paper shredder.

The destruction was substantial, although luckily the individual pieces (in particular the rare-if-not-unique clear cockpit canopy) were not damaged. All four wings tore off, and inexplicably the upper left and lower right wings split in two while their equally flimsy counterparts remained intact. The wingtip laser cannons went flying, one landing on a windowsill behind the curtain where it went undiscovered for more than a week. The nose section, which is an independent sub-assembly that snaps onto the main fuselage, split into three major parts; while the aft end of the fuselage evidently took a major shot because it was blasted apart, leaving only the rugged, central gearbox assembly that actuates the “S-foil” motion.

Yet, as I arranged the parts on the coffee table for post-crash analysis, I noticed that the R2 unit stayed nestled in its socket, and the cockpit section held together. In fact, in spite of the considerable disintegration of the X-wing, I got the impression that this could have been a survivable impact, much like a Formula One racer crumples when it hits the wall but leaves its monocoque safely surrounding the driver.

That led me to this strange notion…

Imagine a rebel pilot, during the attack on the Death Star, who for whatever reason—shot down, engine trouble, pilot error, etc.—crashes into the surface of the space station without dying. (Obviously, we’re not talking about Porkins here.) What could that pilot do?

He’s not wearing a pressure suit, so unless he’s carrying some kind of emergency suit he’s stuck in his ship. Even if he can get out, then what?

There were no search-and-rescue ships sent out along with the rebel fleet, just the thirty X- and Y-Wing attack fighters—each a single-seater with no room for a passenger.

His R2 unit might have rocket packs (R2-D2 did in Episode III) but would that be sufficient to launch them far enough away from the impending blast? I doubt it.

Otherwise, the pilot’s only option is to sit and wait for the ground beneath him to explode into oblivion. If any pilots did survive a crash, this is exactly what would have happened, as no pilots survived the battle without flying out of it in their own ships.

What a weird, horrifying thought.

Unexpected results

4 April 2008
Categories: Uncategorized

Google reports the following results for the term “search engine”:

    1. AltaVista
    2. Dogpile
    3. Wikipedia’s article on “Web search engine”
    4. Yahoo
    5. An optimization company
    6. A CBC Radio show called “Search Engine”
    7—11. More optimization companies
    13. Live Search
    14. Mamma Metasearch
    15. Google… UK!

What’s going on here? Are the optimization companies starting to figure out Google’s arcane secrets, or is it that Google’s expanding horizons are distancing it from its search engine roots?

Tough love for Moo U

2 April 2008
Categories: Research

Over the past couple of years, ever since I first heard about it in Walter Adams’ excellent memoir The Test, I have been fascinated with the Michigan State University Group, a technical assistance project that MSU provided to South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962. Part of the reason it intrigued me was the fact that up until two years ago, I had never heard of the project—and I’d even worked for one of the participating MSU departments for seven years (albeit thirty years after the project ended). I know I’m not alone in this; MSU seems perfectly happy to forget it ever happened.

The thing is, all I could find online on the subject was a reprint of the Ramparts article (“The University on the Make”) that had generated such controversy and campus uproar. In reading John Ernst’s even-handed 1998 history Forging a Fateful Alliance, and more recently Scigliano and Fox’s “official” 1965 overview Technical Assistance in Vietnam, I could see how one-sided the Ramparts article was. Yes, it raised some valid questions about the project, its motivations, and its CIA connection. But it did so by deliberately ignoring any positive benefit that MSUG might have had for the people of Vietnam.

This hardly seemed fair to me. After all, the people who had initiated and participated in MSUG had done so with (mostly) good intentions. That the results were less than stellar was pretty much par for the course in that era of overseas technical projects run by American universities, as Adams and Garraty so deftly illustrated in their book Is the World Our Campus? (1960).

Most people are unlikely to do as I did and take out interlibrary loans of dusty, seldom-used, sun-faded volumes from such far-flung locales as Southern Illinois University and the former Northeastern Illinois State College (as one book’s stamp reads). For them, the sum total of MSUG history on the Internet was a possibly spurious, certainly unsubstantiated tale of cloak-and-dagger nefariousness. History is written by the victors, and in this case the victors were the conspiracy theorists.

I’m not trying to defend the project. Diem was a complete bastard, the U.S. was wrong for backing him at all (much less as long as we did), and MSU managed to piss away a lot of its intellectual capital and new-found respectability by playing along. But the University’s motives were not 100% craven, and MSUG was not merely a CIA front.

So, to provide a more even rendition of the history to a wider audience, I wrote an article for Wikipedia. (My other, more personal, motivation was that it allowed me to finally get the story out of my head, where it had been bouncing around without a proper audience for months.) Before posting it, I ran it past my wife, who called it “tough love” for my alma mater; and one of my closest friends, who suggested I run it past my dad, who remains active in the University community.

Dad was very supportive: not only did he purchase and send me another book on the subject, but he also contacted a fellow retired professor who had run the MSU international programs office for many years. (This professor begged off the question by reminding Dad that he had started in that role several years after the end of MSUG, belying the fact that he had of course worked closely with nearly everyone involved. This may be seen as an indication of how the subject remains a sore spot with the MSU administration.) The professor read the article and offered only minor copy edits and a few vague suggestions, and said he thought I should submit the article to a magazine or scholarly journal for publication. That was a pretty clear sign that I had nailed it.