mon, 07-apr-2008, 10:44

London burning, Sep 1940

london burning, sep 1940

The afterword and dedication of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization tells you a lot about the perspective Nicholson Baker has in telling the story of World War II up to January 1942:

This book ends on December 31, 1942. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive. Was it a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?

. . .

I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. The tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.

Whether or not a different approach to the “Great War” would have helped those who needed help cannot be answered, but after reading this book you will truly see how horrifying the war was, and how those who waged it contributed to it’s horrors. That the title of the book refers to the smoke from the incinerators at Auschwitz should be enough to give you pause over whether you want to read this book. It’s pretty devastating. But it does serve as a powerful antidote to the false historical idea that the Allies fought the good fight to liberate the world from the Axis evil. There’s not much good in war, even a “necessary” war like World War II, and there was plenty of evil among all leaders engaged in the struggle.

I found three main threads in the book. First, and probably most important was the nature of the way the war was brought to the citizens of Europe. Cities on both sides were bombed using brutal techniques that typically started with incendiary bombs to set blacked-out targets on fire, followed by high energy exposives targeting the fires themselves (if it’s burning, it must be something worth destroying), and ending with delayed-action bombs “so as to prevent or seriously interfere with fire fighting, repair and general traffic organization” (from a British Air Ministry report on bombing policy, April 24, 1941). Churchill is quoted several times using the phrase “Business before Pleasure” to describe targeting military targets before civilian ones. Despite this intention, the vast majority of British and German bombs fell on citizens, not military targets. The British blockade of Europe also brought the war to Axis countries in the form of famine. Churchill explained that fats make bombs and potatoes make synthetic fuels that would be used against Britain. Herbert Hoover wrote: “The notion that the special type of food we needed for children (milk, chocolate, fats, and meat) would be used for munitions was sheer nonsense.” As in Bush’s war in Iraq, Hoover quotes the old adage: truth is war’s first fatality.

Dresden firebombing, Feb 1945

dresden firebombing, feb 1945

The second main thread concerns the plight of the Jews. It appears from the quotes in this book as though Hitler’s main objective was to remove the Jews from Europe, and when he could find no place to send them (including Palestine, Madagascar and any other country willing to take them), he began his program of extermination. Again, there’s no way to know what might have happened if the Allies had offered refuge to the Jews in Axis countries, but it’s hard to imagine anything worse than what happened.

The final argument working through the book is the ways in which the United States goaded the Japanese into their pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor. Without all the evidence, it’s hard to decide if this is a valid argument, but it is clear that the United States had many opportunities to relax tensions with Japan and prevent a Pacific war. Instead we were supplying the Chinese and Soviets with bombers, fuel, pilots and training, while at the same time, building up our own bases surrounding Japan. Churchill seemed convinced that the United States would enter the war once the Germans started bombing England, and then when France fell, but it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to get us in. Baker’s book has something to say about how that happened.

These three main arguments, and others, weave their way through the book’s chronologically arranged short presentations of facts. It’s a very effective way to make a simple argument about the nature of war, and despite the horrors on the page, it’s an entertaining way to receive history. The problem is that without any objective (or even subjective) interpretation of the passages, or a stated intention toward balance and objectivity, it’s hard to evaluate the arguments that formed in my mind. I have no doubt about the facts Baker includes, but there are likely to be facts that don’t follow the general patterns on display. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in what lead up to the entry of the United States into World War II, or if you have doubts about the heroic storyline presented in the multitude of “Great War” documentaries, this book should be included alongside more traditional historical accounts of the war.

thu, 03-apr-2008, 15:09


chilling devil dog

I’m between jobs right now, so I took advantage of the vacation and spring weather to brew a batch of rye India pale ale, Devil Dog. It’s named after our dog Kiva and is a rich, copper colored beer with lots of alcohol and a nice balance between malt and hops. Three pounds of rye (to twelve pounds of pale malt and a pound and a half of crystal malts) adds a subtle hint of spicy earthiness. This is the third time I’ve brewed it, but I got an unexpectedly good yield, so it’ll be stronger than past incarnations.

My normal brewing efficiency has hovered around 70% for many years, but has been falling over the past five or six batches. I think this was partly due to some bad base malt, and partly due to a worn out mill. I got a new sack of Crisp Maris Otter, and replaced my old mill with a Monster 3-roller Mill. Initially, I was having trouble with whole grains getting stuck between the upper passive roller and the wooden base that supports the mill. When this happened, the mill would seize because the passive roller couldn’t spin. My solution was to cut a piece of sheet metal (a tin can, actually) to span the gap between the base and the passive roller, so that all the grains are fed directly between the two top rollers. So adjusted, the mill is fantastic. My last two batches have had yields of 79 and 81%, and I had no trouble sparging this recipe, even with three pounds of rye malt in the mash.



The top photo shows my current chilling setup. I leave a 55-gallon barrel of water (the barrel up on the deck) out overnight to get cold, and pump this cold water through my plate chiller (on the steps) into a second barrel (the one on the ground). The beer drains by gravity through the other half of the chiller into the fermentation bucket. I monitor the temperature as the wort exits the chiller, and keep an eye on the temperature in the bucket with a digital meat thermometer. In my last batch I had trouble with the chiller cooling the boiling wort to much because the water was very close to freezing. But this time I figured out the correct combination of pump speed and output valve setting so I could adjust the temperature of the chilled wort without stalling the pump. Once the Creek thaws (it’s right behind the cabin), I’ll be able to use it for chilling instead of hauling my own chilling water.

Assuming the yeast is up to the task of this 1.086 gravity wort, I should be enjoying a pint of Devil Dog in six to eight weeks.

wed, 02-apr-2008, 08:39

Deuce with a bowl

deuce with a bowl

The weather is turning toward spring: there’s water on the Creek, the snow is melting away, and every day it seems like the days are noticeably longer. The sled dogs always go a bit crazy at this time of year because the dog yard is still covered with snow, but their racing season is over. This appears to have affected Deuce more than the other sled dogs. He’s always played with “his” food bowl in the dog yard, but in the last few days he’s started picking up the dog bowls in the house and carrying them around. The photo shows him pacing back and forth in front of the couch with one of the bowls. It’s very cute.

Hopefully once the snow melts and we can spread the wood chips around again, they’ll get into lazy summer mode and Deuce will relax.

tags: Deuce  dog mushing  spring 
sun, 30-mar-2008, 10:29

recharging glycol

recharging glycol

When we first moved into our new house I was pleased that the system for keeping the water and waste water lines running in winter was based on circulating warmed glycol, rather than electrical heat tape. Heat tape is known to fail without warning, and sometimes even shorts out and starts a fire.

Unfortunately, the setup is quite peculiar. We’ve got a small heating-oil-fired boiler (the white box on the left of the photo) that heats an internal five gallon water tank. A circulating pump from this tank runs into a plate heat exchanger with the hot water on one side and circulating glycol on the other. A second circulating pump circulates glycol out to the water tank, and back around to the discharge pipe running to the sewage treatment plant. With the boiler set around 165°F, the glycol stays between 80–100°F, depending on the temperature outside. The guy who built the place also ran lines to all the bedrooms and the living room so that hot water or glycol could be used to heat the house, rather than using the small, self-contained Monitor heater we’re using now.

There are a couple problems with this system. In order for the boiler to keep the glycol warm enough via the exchanger, the water temperature has to be quite a bit warmer than is usual for a domestic hot water supply. That’s dangerous for someone not familiar with how hot the water will be when it comes out of the tap, and it’s not all that efficient to keep the hot water at such a high temperature. It also seems like this high temperature is necessary to provide for enough hot water that a normal-length shower will stay warm throughout. And there’s no way the boiler would be up to the task of heating radiators throughout the house, in addition to what it’s doing now.

But the more immediate problem is that the glycol lines were accidentally cut and then improperly repaired before we moved in. We were told that the repair was successful, but when the temperature got cold this winter, glycol started leaking out of the repair. Since the glycol lines are plastic, there’s no way to fix the leak during winter. And even when the lines aren’t leaking at low temperatures, air is slowly drawn into the lines through the same faulty repair. After a couple months, the amount of air in the circulating lines is large enough that the lines become really noisy.

The way to get all the air out of the lines is to recharge the glycol, a procedure I performed for the third time this weekend. This involves connecting a transfer pump to the two sides of the circulating loop with a bucket of glycol in the middle. The procedure is to hook up the transfer pump, turn off the circulating pump, turn on the transfer pump, open the system and allow the transfer pump to circulate glycol for fifteen or twenty minutes until the air has been removed. Then close the return side of the glycol lines and allow a bit of pressure to develop before closing the supply side and turning off the transfer pump. Since the system doesn’t need any pressure at all to operate, the last step before turning on the circulating pump is to carefully open one side of the glycol system and allow most of the pressure in the system to force out the remaining glycol. It’s possible that leaving pressure in the lines might force a bit of glycol out of the leak, rather than allowing air into the system, but I’d rather recharge the lines every couple months than deal with a glycol spill.

This weekend is the Home Show, where a bunch of vendors get together in the Carlson Center and show off their products. I’m hoping we can get some suggestions and ideas from people about a better setup for the house. I have a feeling that a larger boiler, combined with a small hot water storage tank might be a better system. The boiler would be heating water or glycol for the outdoor lines, water for radiators in the house, as well as keeping the hot water storage tank warm for our hot water supply. The space we have available (in the photo) isn’t very large, so we may need to build a small bump out on the back of the house to accommodate the new equipment. Anyway, I’m hoping we can come up with something and maybe even get it installed this summer so we can go through next winter without worrying about what will happen when our small boiler fails (which it did at one point this winter).

sat, 29-mar-2008, 13:39

In Defense of Food

406 cubicle zero, akasofu building, 2002

You may have noticed that this blog (and the rest of my site) has moved to a commercial web hosting provider. After nine years and three months, I’m leaving my job at IARC for a new position at ABR, Inc. ABR is an environmental consulting firm that has been in business in Fairbanks for more than 30 years. They’ve got an excellent reputation in Fairbanks for being a great place to work, and they take their responsibilities toward their employees and the environment very seriously. The new job is much the same as my job at IARC: supporting scientists in their work, and trying to find ways to use technology to help them do their jobs more effectively.

It’s very exciting for me, but at the same time, leaving my office and my co-workers at IARC has been very difficult. After nine years of working with the same group of people, I’ve come to consider many of them my good friends and it is going to be a real struggle to walk out on April 1st. Add to that, this is the first professional job I’ve ever had. I’ve had a lot of jobs (graduate student, teaching assistant, warehouse worker, office director, short-order cook, etc.), but IARC is the place where I learned to be an IT professional, and it’s because of IARC that I was able to get the job at ABR.

Changes: Hard + Good.

tags: friends  IARC  job  moving  work 

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