Duck Duck Book

58 – history of the world in 6 glasses
12.1.2008, 8:02 pm
Filed under: social sciences

A history of the world in 6 glasses / Tom Standage.
New York : Walker & Co. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, c2005.
[MCL call number: 394.12 S785h 2005; six copies, three holds]

Being animals, humans need to drink to survive. Being social animals, we have gone to some trouble to craft rituals, traditions, and practices that rest on drinking, preparing drink, offering drink to others, and accepting drinks offered to us. Certain drinks mean certain things. In my own culture, for example: A strong cup of coffee helps us shake off sleep but also marks the beginning of the work day. Cocktails go before a meal, and milk is the appropriate companion for an afternoon cookie. Champagne, espresso, or sparkling water in an elegant glass mark special occasions. And sharing is important as well — we drink a toast at a wedding, we offer a cup of tea to a guest, we share a drink with coworkers at the end of a trying week.

Tom Standage set out to examine the history of significant drinks in different periods of Western history. In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, beer. In Greece and its Mediterranean neighbors about 3,000 years ago, wine. In Europe and its colonies beginning about the 15th century, spirits. In the European Age of Reason, coffee. Shortly after that, tea. And finally, in late 19th century America, Coca-Cola. Standage explains how each beverage developed, considers why it became popular, and how it affected cultural trends. How were these drinks made? How did they come to be popular? Were they stored, shipped, or traded? In what circumstances were they drunk, and by whom? Did people choose these drinks because they held particular cultural meanings, because they were identified with strength or fertility or civilization or graciousness? It is a very compelling narrative, full of fascinating detail, and Standage displays a rare gift for explaining the development of technology and its role in commerce and culture without being at all boring.

I am frustrated, however, that he has given in to the widespread tendency to cast important developments in the history of Western civilization as universal. The book is called A History of the World in 6 Glasses. A history of the world. But it is really a history of the West. When Standage discusses the importance of tea in the history of China and the development of the tea ceremony in medieval Japan, he is providing background, not telling his central story. When he mentions that the Inca and Aztecs used quite beer-like beverages in religious ritual, it is almost off-hand, a nod to the fact that far-flung cultures shared similar elements. This doesn’t make it a bad book — on the contrary it is an excellent book. But it would have been an even better one if Standage had plainly acknowledged the true scope and focus of his story.

At the close of the book, there are two particularly nice bits of end matter. One is the notes to the main text, which are themselves written in a narrative style that acts more as an annotated bibliography for readers who have an interest in exploring the source material more fully. The end notes are helpful and readable, rare and welcome qualities for notes and bibliographies both.

The second piece of end matter is an appendix, “In Search of Ancient Drinks,” which directs readers to beverages that are as close to the ancient variety as possible. Here we learn, for example, that traditional folk beers found in sub-Saharan Africa are probably the closest modern equivalent to Neolithic beer; while King Cnut Ale from the British brewer St. Peters and Sahti, a Finnish folk beer, are quite similar to Egyptian or Mesopotamian unhopped beers. Fascinating!


58 – new york’s forgotten substations
12.1.2008, 8:01 pm
Filed under: technology

New York’s forgotten substations : the power behind the subway / Christopher Payne.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 625.4 P346n 2002; two copies, no holds]

Does it not seem that everything about a big city’s subway system should be underground? All the machinery and all the mechanisms to control the subway surely ought to fit neatly below the streets, as the stations and tunnels do. Even the transit system control room that sometimes features in action films is in a windowless room and therefore, filmgoers imagine, is probably underground along with all the other subway infrastructure.

But not everything that makes the trains go fits under the earth. Notwithstanding suburban lines and stations that are wholly aboveground, the power that electrifies the third rail or the overhead wire has to come from somewhere — usually somewhere well away from the tunnels and the tracks. In New York City, the subway system was built with strategically placed power substations near each line. In each one, electrical power from generating stations around the region was converted from high voltage alternating current to low voltage direct current, which ran the trains. In the early 20th century, each of these substations was filled with giant round machines called rotary converters, as well as a quantity of other mechanical equipment like switches, busses, gauges, and breakers.

These substations have now been taken out of service, or had their equipment replaced with more modern technology — but in the late 1990s as the last manual substations were being scrapped, photographer Christopher Payne visited as many as he could, and took pictures of the buildings and their equipment. In this slim volume, some substations are shown with modern electronic equipment side by side with out-of-date manual equipment. Some are disused hulks filled with crumbling machinery, weeds, and peeling paint. Some photographs focus on the incredible workmanship and decorative detail in utilitarian structures like cast iron staircases, window frames, and building facades. All of Payne’s pictures highlight the inherent beauty of the machines and their environment.

Payne introduces his photographs with a series of short essays on the history of New York City’s transit substations, the machines they employed, the methods of their operation, and the basics of how they worked. The essays are supported by dozens of historical and contemporary photographs of substation buildings and workers running the power conversion machinery, and many diagrams explaining the layout of the machinery and the principles by which it operated. Payne’s history and technical explanations are fantastically clear, and his own photographs are both beautiful and interesting. So you should find the book educational, if you want to learn more about the power that runs the trains; and should also find it engaging, if you are interested in the beauty that can be found in practical things.

58 – chaining oregon
12.1.2008, 8:00 pm
Filed under: history & geography

Chaining Oregon : surveying the public lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855 / by Kay Atwood.
Blacksburg, VA : McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, 2008.
[MCL call number: 917.9504 A887c 2008; one copy, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

When the United States expanded west, it was a major element of public policy to encourage settlers to go out there and carve their names into the land. Farming, ranching, and even mining all marked the territory as belonging to settlers — and land controlled by settlers was more American, in a cultural sense as well as a political one. Measuring the land, marking boundaries, and drawing maps showing what was there and who controlled each piece were important foundational steps that helped transform what was seen as wild space into a civilized, productive, and law-abiding nation. The first U.S. maps elucidating land ownership were drawn by draftsmen working for the General Land Office (later absorbed by the Bureau of Land Management), and they worked from measurements and notes taken by surveyors. The first surveyors in what is now Oregon and Washington began their work in 1851 after the passage of the Oregon Donation Land Act.

Land surveyors in the 1850s did much the same sort of work surveyors do now — except that these first surveyors in the Oregon and Washington territories were the pioneers of mapping in our region. If you look at a modern map showing land use and ownership in any part of Oregon or Washington, you’ll see properties measured with lines that were originally drawn by General Land Office surveyors in the 1850s. And here’s how they did it: they took basic (though often delicate) mechanical measuring equipment out into the valleys and the wilderness and measured. Teams of about five to eight men surveyed by hand, mostly in the rain and mud, often working from dawn till dusk. They walked survey lines in an area twelve to sixty miles wide from the southern end of the Puget Sound south to the California border in the space of five years. Chaining Oregon is a history of this project. Kay Atwood carefully and clearly explains the scientific and institutional history of the first surveys of the Oregon Territory — the bureaucracy, the technical challenges, local and national politics, the difficulties of weather and staffing and getting paid, and interactions between settlers and Oregon’s Surveyor General — while at the same time sharing relevant pieces of the broader history of Oregon.

In addition to their work of measuring and describing the land, surveyors kept detailed journals of their field work. These journals included notes about the weather, names of people they met or lodged with, conversations they had, meals they ate, and so on, as well as subjects more germane to the work, like where fences were, the quality of the soils, and the prevailing species of timber in forested areas. The bits more clearly connected to the work of surveying often show up on the maps — for example, a great swath of what is now east Portland is described on the map of Township 1N Range 1E Willamette Meridian as: “Land gently rolling soil good rate clay loam / Timber Fir a little Maple Cedar and Hemlock.” Atwood uses the whole range of information in the surveyor’s field notes (not just the businesslike parts), as well as the first survey maps and the correspondence and other records of the office of Oregon’s Surveyor General to build the core of a riveting history of a specific part of the Pacific Northwest’s past. She connects her basic source material to other documentation of life and civilization in early Oregon, and to secondary histories of the region and its people, but her most remarkable achievement is that she has made a largely technical story read like a completely human one.

The men who did the actual work, and those who administered it, are Atwood’s chief characters. The places they traveled and the land they described are also important to her story. Atwood did not set out to relate any of the many other interesting stories that are secondary to this central thread — the development of urban centers in Oregon, for example, or the struggles settlers faced when their individual situations did not neatly line up with federal land claim regulations. But she does make modest reflection on many of these other stories an important part of her narrative. Her descriptions of daily life in the towns of Oregon City, Portland, and Jacksonville are vivid. She clearly explains local and national party politics (normally an exceedingly confusing topic) in so far as they affected the project of surveying Oregon. And Atwood’s quotes from surveyors’ field notes about physical features of a specific spot are often followed by a brief but careful discussion of how white settlers had already irrevocably changed that piece land, and how this affected the lifeways and future prospects of the Indians who already lived there.

Many readers, even those interested in Oregon’s history, might expect a history of the state’s first land surveys to be dry and uninteresting. Perhaps other histories of surveying projects are indeed dry, but Chaining Oregon is engaging and clear, and reading it invites further study of many interesting facets of our region’s past and the people and events that shaped it.

Chaining Oregon is supplemented by extensive endnotes, a thorough if somewhat dry bibliography, and an index. As usual, I think the index is only minimally useful — it has almost no entries for surveying equipment and techniques, and neglects to provide access points for memorable subjects that are secondary to the narrative but which are so often the parts readers will remember later. However, the index provides adequate access to proper nouns and it is better than nothing.

* * *

The University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library has a lovely collection of General Land Office maps of Oregon on its website. You can’t view the maps online; instead you have to download them. But they’re pretty small files and it doesn’t take too long for them to download.

The Portland Planning Bureau has the two earliest General Land Office maps showing the townships were central Portland is now, in pdf form, as a part of its collection of online historic resources. Township 1N Range 1E is the map I quoted from above; Township 1S Range 1E shows the area south of what is now SE Stark St. (which used to be called Baseline Road, because it follows the Willamette Baseline!).