But looking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghten, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.
No doubt Thomas Hughes would find it significant that in such a disaster I would emerge with fame, honour, and distinction — all quite unworthily acquired. But you, having followed my progress so far, won’t be surprised at all.
Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth century — Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan — I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.
Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.
George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.
January 24, 2015
January 22, 2015
Ah, well, I haven’t ridden this old hobby horse for a while, so let’s just let Tim Worstall explain why this time, we might be able to get a bit of perspective from the otherwise unreliable official Chinese government economic figures:
Many observers have been slightly sceptical of Chinese GDP numbers for some years now. Regional GDP numbers don’t seem to quite match with other regional numbers (say, oil consumption, other proxies for economic activity) and national numbers don’t necessarily reflect the sum of all of those regional numbers either. There’s absolutely no doubt at all that the place has been getting richer but whether quite so much or quite in the manner being reported is another matter. And then there’s another group of observers (this one including myself) who have some experience of how communists report economic numbers. There’s a plan, the Communist Party is in charge of executing that plan and, amazingly, the plan is always reported to have either worked or been exceeded. Anything less would reflected badly on said Communist Party. As I’ve also been exposed to the old Soviet accounting systems I’m more sceptical than most on this point.
So, there’s that slight worry that a slowing China (or one not growing at the former breakneck pace perhaps) will also lower growth in other countries. We’re pretty sure that’s going to happen. But we’ve also got this other thing to ponder. If the Communist Party is allowing the reporting of numbers that don’t meet the plan then what’s going on with that?
Is this some sea change in the management of the numbers? They’re actually reporting the correct numbers? Or are those suspected massages of the numbers still going on but they underlying reality is so bad that they just couldn’t get up to the planned target? This is, I agree, all wild surmise. But it is a surprise that the numbers came in below target because that’s just not what we’ve come to expect in such a political system. And that could be very bad news indeed.
In a Forbes post from a few years back, Warren Meyer looks at the appeal of the megaproject to those inclined to think that what society really needs is someone in control:
What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects? Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.
Writers like Thomas Friedman and Joel Epstein in the Huffington Post have eulogized China and its monumental spending projects. These are the same folks who, generations ago, tried disastrously to emulate Mussolini’s “forward-thinking” economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act. These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI’s management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession). These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was un-breathable. These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens. To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.
These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff than we do. We are “asleep.” Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occurred when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry — all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.
In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.
Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.
January 18, 2015
Indian troops suffer a particularly bad experiment in local sourcing of equipment:
In 1999, the Indian Army fought a three-month-long undeclared war with Pakistan. It was also the combat debut of India’s new INSAS battle rifle.
The INSAS is a very bad rifle.
During the conflict — waged over the disputed and mountainous Kargil district in the province of Kashmir — the Indian troops’ rifles jammed up, and their cheap, 20-round plastic magazines cracked in the cold weather.
Designed to shoot in semi-automatic and three-round burst modes, some soldiers would pull the trigger, and the gun would unexpectedly spray rounds like a fully automatic.
Soldiers also preferred the heavier 7.62-millimeter rounds in the FAL rifle, which the INSAS and its 5.56-millimeter rounds replaced.
Then in 2005, Maoist rebels attacked a Nepalese army base. The Nepalese troops had INSAS rifles bought from India. During the 10-hour-long battle, the rifles overheated and stopped working. The Maoists overran the base and killed 43 soldiers.
“Maybe the weapons we were using were not designed for a long fight,” Nepalese army Brig. Gen. Deepak Gurung said after the battle. “They malfunctioned.”
January 17, 2015
Joey DeVilla posted a few images comparing the dystopian future envisioned in Blade Runner with the modern cityscape of Beijing:
The crowded, dirty Los Angeles of 2019 featured in the 1982 film Blade Runner looks rather pristine compared to the real-life Beijing of 2015.
January 16, 2015
Margaret Cho gets into hot water with the perpetually offended for dressing up as a North Korean general:
Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho did an impression of a North Korean general at the Golden Globes that many on Liberal Twitter attacked as racist because apparently not even people of Korean descent are allowed to make fun of Kim Jong Un.
In one of many jokes aimed at the recent Sony cyber-hack, Cho wore a Korean general costume and made fun of the lack of spectacle at the event:
“You no have thousand baby playing guitar at the same time. You no have people holding up many card to make one big picture,” she said in a thick accent. “You no have Dennis Rodman.”
Predictably, people went nuts.
The Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said Cho was “like, totes racist.” Time deputy tech editor Alex Fitzpatrick questioned how anyone could have seen the bit as anything but “broadly racist.” The International Business Times managing editor called the decision to allow it a “bad call.” And that’s just to name a few.
Cho defended herself, tweeting: “I’m of mixed North/South Korean descent — you imprison, starve and brainwash my people you get made fun of by me #hatersgonhate.”
December 19, 2014
Mark Steyn is never one to hold back an opinion:
I was barely aware of The Interview until, while sitting through a trailer for what seemed like just another idiotic leaden comedy, my youngest informed me that the North Koreans had denounced the film as “an act of war”. If it is, they seem to have won it fairly decisively: Kim Jong-Un has just vaporized a Hollywood blockbuster as totally as if one of his No Dong missiles had taken out the studio. As it is, the fellows with no dong turned out to be the executives of Sony Pictures.
I wouldn’t mind but this is the same industry that congratulates itself endlessly — not least in its annual six-hour awards ceremony — on its artists’ courage and bravery. Called on to show some for the first time in their lives, they folded like a cheap suit. As opposed to the bank-breaking suit their lawyers advised them they’d be looking at if they released the film and someone put anthrax in the popcorn. I think of all the occasions in recent years when I’ve found myself sharing a stage with obscure Europeans who’ve fallen afoul of Islam — Swedish artists, Danish cartoonists, Norwegian comediennes, all of whom showed more courage than these Beverly Hills bigshots.
While I often find Mark Steyn’s comments amusing and insightful, the real lesson here may not be the spineless response of Sony, but the impact of a legal system on the otherwise free actions of individuals and organizations: if Sony had gone ahead with the release and someone did attack one or more of the theatres where the movie was being shown, how would the legal system treat the situation? As an act of war by an external enemy or as an act of gross negligence by Sony and the theatre owners that would bankrupt every single company in the distribution chain (and probably lead to criminal charges against individual theatre managers and corporate officers)? While I disagree with Sony’s decision to fold under the pressure, I can’t imagine any corporate board being comfortable with that kind of stark legal threat … Sony’s executives may have been presented with no choice at all.
I see that, following the disappearance of The Interview, a Texan movie theater replaced it with a screening of Team America. That film wouldn’t get made today, either.
Hollywood has spent the 21st century retreating from storytelling into a glossy, expensive CGI playground in which nothing real is at stake. That’s all we’ll be getting from now on. Oh, and occasional Oscar bait about embattled screenwriters who stood up to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee six decades ago, even as their successors cave to, of all things, Kim’s UnKorean Activities Committee. American pop culture — supposedly the most powerful and influential force on the planet – has just surrendered to a one-man psycho-state economic basket-case that starves its own population.
Eugene Volokh makes some of the same points that Steyn raises:
Deadline Hollywood mentions several such theater chains. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security stated that there was “no credible intelligence” that such threatened terrorist attacks would take place, but unsurprisingly, some chains are being extra cautious here.
I sympathize with the theaters’ situation — they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.
But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.
December 7, 2014
I watched Tora! Tora! Tora! recently. That movie is supposed to be the most historically accurate and truthful ever made about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an entertaining and informative movie packed with good performances and some of the most spectacular plane crashes and stunts on an airfield I’ve ever seen.
And at the same time, the sequence of events that led up to the Japanese attack were almost inconceivable. The level of incompetence, stupidity, bad luck, mistake-making, and almost deliberate failure to let the Japanese attack be so successful defies imagination. This was one of those legendary sequences where truth is stranger than fiction.
When the radar crew (which stayed longer than their night shift required) spotted the incoming Japanese planes, they were mistaken for B-17s being delivered to the airbase and the radar station was told “yeah? Well don’t worry about it.”
When intelligence services using cracked Japanese codes figured that an attack was imminent, they were unable to radio Hawaii about it because the atmospheric conditions were bad. So they sent a telegram, which was shelved for eventual delivery because it wasn’t marked “urgent.”
On and on it went, delays, mistakes, confusion, circumstances, almost a perfect set of events that if you read about them in a book you’d complain was too contrived and unbelievable. That would never happen! you’d cry and close the book in disgust.
But that’s what really happened.
Christopher Taylor, “TORA TORA 9-11″, Word Around the Net, 2014-09-10.
November 24, 2014
In The Diplomat, Ankit Panda talks about the prevalence of modern slavery in India:
The 2014 Global Slavery Report, conducted by the Walk Free Foundation, estimates that India has the highest number of individuals living in slavery out of any country worldwide. The report finds that out of an estimated 35.8 million men, women and children around the world living under conditions of modern slavery, 14 million are in India (followed by 3 million in China and 2 million in Pakistan). India ranked first in terms of absolute numbers of people in modern slavery, and fifth overall in terms of percentage of its total population (1.14 percent) living in modern slavery (Mauritania, Uzbekistan, Haiti, and Qatar ranked above India, in that order). The total number of slaves in India is 20 percent higher than the 2013 report because of a change in methodology.
Modern slaves are defined as individuals subject to forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, forced sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. This is a considerably broader understanding of slavery that addresses issues of human and labor rights beyond the conventional understanding of the term as human property. This is in part why the 2014 report estimates 35.8 million modern slaves worldwide while the International Labor Organization (ILO) counts 21 million worldwide — the ILO estimate focuses on forced labor primarily. According to the Walk Free Foundation, evidence of modern slavery in one form or another was found in all 167 countries surveyed for the 2014 report.
Given the continued de facto importance of caste in Indian society, social factors play a role in poor labor and human security outcomes for certain sections of Indian society. The report in particular highlights the vulnerable position of India’s Dalit caste, noting that they have the “least social protections and are highly vulnerable to severe forms of exploitation and modern slavery.” It also notes the relatively poor state of women’s rights in the country, leading to “significant discrimination and high rates of sexual violence” against women and girls in India.
November 20, 2014
If you’re of a skeptical turn, you may have wondered just what your friend’s new tattoo really says in Chinese, or Russian, or whatever script their tattoo artist just inked into their skin. My suspicion is that at least a significant proportion of the new ‘tats are the equivalent of these Japanese discount store shirts with random English words:
Reddit user k-popstar recently moved to Japan to teach English. Over the last few months he has been wandering into various discount stores and taking photos of shirts with random English words on them. I have to admit, that potato one is pretty sweet!
That second one is almost poetic. If I knew what “thirstry” was.
H/T to Coyote Blog for the link.
November 19, 2014
Vice‘s Brian Blickenstaff smashes Badminton as “the world’s most corrupt sport”:
Late last week, it emerged that Lee Chong Wei, the world’s top badminton player, failed a drug test. A niche sport in the United States, badminton has been part of the Olympics since 1992 and enjoys huge popularity in Asia. Lee is the sport’s Novak Djokovic, a truly dominant force over the past several years. He’s the best player Malaysia, one of the world’s most badminton-mad countries, has ever produced. A two-time Olympic silver-medal winner, Lee is, or was, a favorite for gold in Rio de Janeiro; he faces a two year ban and could miss the Olympics entirely.
But Lee’s drug test isn’t notable simply because sports fans can’t look away when a giant teeters and falls; it’s notable because the incident is one of many scandals to hit badminton over the past year. On current form, badminton might be the world’s most corrupt sport.
In June, during the Japan Open, two Danish players were approached and offered north of 2,500 Euros to fix matches. The alleged fixer was Malaysian. The two players, Kim Astrup Sorenson and Hans Kristian Vittinghus, both reported the incident to authorities. 2,500 Euros might not be a lot of money, but the implications are huge. Vittinghus is the world’s 10th ranked singles player. If people are trying to flip a top-ten athlete, what’s happening lower down the pyramid?
I can attest that I’ve never been offered a bribe to throw a badminton game. Perhaps that’s because I’m not good enough to convincingly throw a game … unlike the Chinese Olympic players in 2012. Oh, wait … they weren’t convincing either.
November 16, 2014
In Kotaku, Luke Plunkett explains why of all the AI leaders in the game, none are more likely to espouse the philosophy “nuke ‘em ’till they glow, then shoot ‘em in the dark” than India’s Gandhi:
In the original Civilization, it was because of a bug. Each leader in the game had an “aggression” rating, and Gandhi – to best reflect his real-world persona – was given the lowest score possible, a 1, so low that he’d rarely if ever go out of his way to declare war on someone.
Only, there was a problem. When a player adopted democracy in Civilization, their aggression would be automatically reduced by 2. Code being code, if Gandhi went democratic his aggression wouldn’t go to -1, it looped back around to the ludicrously high figure of 255, making him as aggressive as a civilization could possibly be.
In later games this bug was obviously not an issue, but as a tribute/easter egg of sorts, parts of his white-hot rage have been kept around. In Civilization V, for example, while Gandhi’s regular diplomatic approach is more peaceful than other leaders, he’s also the most likely to go dropping a-bombs when pushed, with a nuke “rating” of 12 putting him well ahead of the competition (the next three most likely to go nuclear have a rating of 8, with most leaders around the 4-6 region).
Update, 16 November: Fixed the broken link.
October 31, 2014
BBC News provides some information on a massive project currently underway at the British Museum:
A transgender singer hits stardom in Baghdad. Officials scramble to impose order after a Kuwaiti restaurant is found to be selling cat meat. Gulf royals on an official visit to London are left marooned in a drab south London suburb because of a shortage of hotel rooms in the West End.
These are some of the quirky stories hiding in nine miles of shelving at the British Library (BL) that hold the India Office Records — millions of documents recording Britain’s 350-year presence in the sub-continent.
The India Office did not only administer India, it also exercised colonial rule over an area stretching west as far as Aden. That’s why the files cover Persia and Arabia. And the reason the stories are coming to light is that the Qatar Foundation has paid £8.7m for nearly half a million documents relating to the Gulf to be digitised.
Work started in 2012, and many of those documents have now gone online at the Qatar National Library’s digital library portal.
Never formally part of the British Empire, the Gulf nonetheless came under colonial administration after being targeted for trade in the 17th Century by the East India Company. Two centuries later, the government established direct control through the India Office.
But principles of free academic inquiry, which guide the BL’s work, contrast with Freedom House’s assessment of Qatar as “not free”. Amnesty International called Qatar’s new cybercrimes law, passed last month, “a major setback for freedom of expression”, and Qatari writer Mohammed Al-Ajami remains in jail, serving a 15-year sentence for a poem deemed insulting to the monarch.
The BL and Qatar National Library (QNL) both hold copies of the digitised archive but Gibby’s expectation is that the portal – currently hosted by Amazon – will eventually be transferred for hosting in Qatar. That could theoretically expose material to manipulation by Qatari censors.
“That was discussed very clearly right from the beginning,” says Gibby. “Both sides made very clear to each other that there is no suggestion this will be censored. To date that has been borne out. We, the British Library, are trusting [the Qatar Foundation] and our faith is in them.”
H/T to Mark Collins for the link.
October 26, 2014
At The Diplomat, James R. Holmes talks about the recent accident on board the Chinese carrier Liaoning:
Reports of Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s death — or debilitating wounds — are greatly exaggerated. The flattop suffered some sort of steam leak that prompted her crew to stop at sea and conduct repairs before resuming operations. The news comes from Robert Beckhusen of War Is Boring, who relays a Sina.com story that Liaoning suffered a “steam explosion” following “a leak in ‘the machine oven compartment to the water pipes.’”
Beckhusen denies that PLA Navy leaders will decommission the flattop because of mechanical problems. (By raising the possibility, though, he seems to imply they might.) He does speculate that the accident will force the navy to relegate her to training duty.
Would an engineering casualty represent a setback unseen in the annals of naval history? Hardly. All sea services have been there, done that, and will likely find themselves there again. It’s doubtful such travails will induce PLA Navy officials to overreact, demoting Liaoning from whatever plans they have in mind for her. China’s first aircraft carrier is probably destined to serve as a training platform in any event — a ship used to groom China’s first generation of naval aviators, flight-deck crewmen, and air-group commanders. She will remain such despite minor hardware problems belowdecks.
Indeed, if suffering zero engineering casualties were the standard for maritime competence, the briny main would be empty of shipping. Think about what going to sea involves. A warship is a metal box largely encased in an environment hostile to metal — namely seawater and salt air. And it’s a box packed with machinery, flammables and explosives of various sorts, and human bodies. In such surroundings, rare is the seaman without a hair-raising tale to tell about fires or floods, equipment failures, and sundry mishaps.
I could spin a few such yarns myself. One involves a pipe springing a pinhole leak. And spraying fuel. On a steaming boiler. While crewmen are loading ammunition. At anchor. In rough weather. And that was a good-luck ship for the most part. Murphy’s Law — a.k.a. s*#t happens — is an iron law of marine engineering, and of seafaring writ large. When it does happen, you fix the damage, learn whatever lessons there are to learn, and move on.
October 14, 2014
A certain amount of this rings true:
Imagine you’re a college graduate stuck in a perpetually lousy economy. That’s a problem Japanese twenty-somethings have faced for more than 20 years. Two decades of stagnation after the collapse of the 1980s real-estate and stock bubbles — combined with labor laws making it tough to fire older workers — have relegated vast numbers of Japanese young adults to low-paying, temporary contract jobs. Many find themselves living with their parents well into their twenties and beyond, unmarried and childless.
Then again, they do have plenty of time to dress up like wand-wielding sailor girls and cybernetic alchemist soldiers from the colorful world of anime cartoons and manga comics. Indeed, Japan’s Lost Decades have coincided with a major spike in “people escaping to virtual worlds of games, animation, and costume play,” Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, recently told the Financial Times. “Here, even the young and poor can feel as though they are a hero.”
It’s hard to blame them. After all, it’s not that these young adults in Japan are resisting becoming productive members of the economy — it’s that there just aren’t enough opportunities for them. So an increasingly large number of them spend an increasingly large amount of time living in make-believe fantasy worlds, pretending they are someone else, somewhere else. This is a very bad thing for the Japanese economy.
And guess what: America has a growing number of make-believe “cosplay” heroes, too. Many of the 130,000 people who attend the San Diego Comic Con every year invest big bucks in elaborate outfits as a way of showing off their favorite Japanese characters, as well as those from American superhero movies, comics, and “genre” televisions shows such as Game of Thrones. And this trend is growing — the crowd at Comic Con was one-third this size in 2000. In 2013, the SyFy channel even created a reality show about the trend, Heroes of Cosplay.
H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.