Quotulatiousness

May 23, 2015

The Hitch

Filed under: Britain,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

H/T to Open Culture.

A quick note: Kristoffer Seland Hellesmark was looking for a documentary on Christopher Hitchens to watch, but could never find one. So, after waiting a while, he said to himself, “Why don’t I just make one?” The result is the 80-minute documentary about Hitchens, lovingly entitled The Hitch, which features clips from his speeches and interviews.

May 22, 2015

Przemyśl Falls Again – Winston Churchill Gets Fired I THE GREAT WAR Week 43

Filed under: Britain,Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 21 May 2015

The big success of the Gallipoli Campaign never came, thousands of soldiers died and so Winston Churchill is forced to resign. At the same time August von Mackensen is pushing back the Russians and forcing them to hide in Przemyśl fortress – the same fortress they just conquered from the Austro-Hungarians a few weeks earlier.

Al Stewart – Trains

Filed under: Britain,Europe,History,Railways — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 19 Mar 2013

In the sapling years of the post-war world in an English market town
I do believe we travelled in schoolboy blue, the cap upon the crown
Books on knee; our faces pressed against the dusty railway carriage panes
As all our lives went rolling on the clicking wheels of trains

The school years passed like eternity and at last were left behind
And it seemed the city was calling me to see what I might find
Almost grown, I stood before horizons made of dreams
I think I stole a kiss or two, while rolling on the clicking wheels of trains

Trains…
All our lives were a whistle stop affair; no ties or chains
Throwing words like fireworks in the air, not much remains
A photograph in your memory, through the colored lens of time
All our lives were just a smudge of smoke against the sky

The silver rails spread far and wide through the nineteenth century
Some straight and true, some serpentine, from the cities to the sea
And out of sight of those who rode in style, there worked the military mind
On through the night to plot and chart the twisting paths of trains

On the day they buried Jean Jaures, World War One broke free
Like an angry river overflowing its banks impatiently
While mile on mile the soldiers filled the railway stations’ arteries and veins
I see them now go laughing on the clicking wheels of trains

Trains…
Rolling off to the front across the narrow Russian gauge
Weeks turn into months and the enthusiasm wanes
Sacrifices in seas of mud, and still you don’t know why
All their lives are just a puff of smoke against the sky

Then came surrender; then came the peace
Then revolution out of the east
Then came the crash; then came the tears
Then came the thirties, the nightmare years
Then came the same thing over again
Mad as the moon, that watches over the plain
Oh, driven insane

But oh, what kind of trains are these, that I never saw before
Snatching up the refugees from the ghettoes of the war
To stand confused, with all their worldly goods, beneath the watching guards’ disdain
As young and old go rolling on the clicking wheels of trains

And the driver only does this job with vodka in his coat
And he turns around and he makes a sign with his hand across his throat
For days on end, through sun and snow, the destination still remains the same
For those who ride with death above the clicking wheels of trains

Trains…
What became of the innocence they had in childhood games
Painted red or blue, when I was young they all had names
Who’ll remember the ones who only rode in them to die
All their lives are just a smudge of smoke against the sky

Now forty years have come and gone and I’m far away from there
And I ride the Amtrak from New York City to Philadelphia
And there’s a man to bring you food and drink
And sometimes passengers exchange a smile or two rolling on the humming wheels
But I can’t tell you if it’s them or if it’s only me
But I believe when they look outside they don’t see what I see
Over there, beyond the trees, it seems that I can just make out the stained
Fields of Poland calling out to all the passing trains

Trains…
I suppose that there’s nothing in this life remains the same
Everything is governed by the losses and the gains
Still sometimes I get caught up in the past, I can’t say why
All our lives are just a smudge of smoke, or just a breath of wind against the sky

May 21, 2015

This year will be the last in the air for XH558, the last of the Avro Vulcan bombers

Filed under: Britain,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At The Register, Lester Haines explains why the trust that operates XH558 is having to ground the aircraft permanently:

RAF Vulcan XH558

The Vulcan To The Sky Trust has announced “with considerable sadness” that this summer will be the public’s last chance to catch Avro Vulcan XH558 thundering through British skies, as the legendary V-bomber will be permanently grounded at the end of this flying season.

The trust explains that the axe will fall because “three expert companies on whom we depend – known as the ‘technical authorities’ – have together decided to cease their support at the end of this flying season”.

It elaborates:

    At the heart of their decision are two factors. First, although we are all confident that XH558 is currently as safe as any aircraft flying today, her structure and systems are already more than ten percent beyond the flying hours of any other Vulcan, so knowing where to look for any possible failure is becoming more difficult. These can be thought of as the ‘unknown unknown’ issues, which can be impossible to predict with any accuracy. Second, maintaining her superb safety record requires expertise that is increasingly difficult to find.

Keeping XH558 in the air has been an epic undertaking, and not without wing-and-a-prayer moments involving last-minute injections of cash.

The Brunel Museum

Filed under: Britain,History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Brid-Aine Parnell talks about the Brunels — father, son, and grandson — and their impact on Britain during the industrial revolution:

When you mention Brunel to most people, they think of the one with the funny name – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A few folks will know that his father Marc Isambard Brunel was the first famous engineering Brunel, but not many will know that Isambard’s own son, Henry Marc Brunel, was also an engineer and finished some of Isambard’s projects after his death.

Between the three of them, the Brunels created landmarks all over the UK; perhaps most famously the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset.

That bridge, which Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed and often called his “first child,” wasn’t actually completed until after his death and only came about at all because Isambard was nearly drowned in an accident at the massive project he was working on in London with his father: the Thames Tunnel.

It is this masterpiece of engineering, which invented new methods of tunnelling underground and is why the Brunels are credited with creating underground transportation – and by extension, the modern city itself – that you see if you go along to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, London.

The museum itself is in Marc Brunel’s Engine House, built in 1842, the year before the Thames Tunnel was opened, for the engines that pumped to keep the Tunnel dry. The small exhibition tells the story of the design and construction of the 396-metre-long tunnel, the first to have been successfully built underneath a navigable river. The display panels also detail the innovative tunnelling shield technique invented by Marc and Isambard that’s still used to build tunnels today, although these days it’s machines doing the hard work instead of men. Back then, labourers would spent two hours at a time digging, often while also being gassed and showered with shit.

The River Thames at that time was the sewer of London and the tunnel was constantly waterlogged, leading to a build up of effluent and methane gas. The result was that not only would miners pass out from the gas – even if they didn’t, men who re-surfaced were left senseless after their two-hour shift – but there were also explosions as the gas was set alight by the miners’ candles.

Although it’s a tidy and well-kept little exhibition, it is not really why you come to the museum. You come for the underground chamber below, which was only opened up to the public in 2010 after 150 years of being closed off by the London transportation system. This is the Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel, used in Brunel’s day as a concert hall and fairground and now in the process of being turned into a permanent exhibition.

May 19, 2015

The 1982 amphibious landings at San Carlos Water

Filed under: Americas,Britain,Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Think Defence looks back at the successful amphibious landings in the Falkland Islands by a less-than-fully-prepared British military:

If the amphibious operations in Normandy were unprecedented because of the scale those in 1982 in the Falkland Islands were equally remarkable, nor for scale but for the huge distance involved. Another breathtaking feature of Operation Corporate was the speed in which it was mounted and the degree of improvisation that would in the end, be needed.

One might argue that even taking into account Inchon and Suez it was the worlds most complex and demanding amphibious operation since D-Day.

Since VE day and Suez the UK’s amphibious capabilities had dwindled both in scale and capability, the Royal Marines concentrating on their Northern Europe role.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 the scale of the challenge had many echoes of D-Day; a need for joint service cooperation and a number of technical challenges to overcome for example. What we did not have was the luxury of time, no time to develop new and novel solutions, no time for testing and no time for practice beyond what was available on the journey south.

Due to the short timescales British Rail could not reposition their rolling stock to get the War Material Reserve (about 9,000 tonnes just for 3CDO, 30 days combat supplies and 60 days of general stores) to the ships so instead, a fleet of RCT and civilian trucks were used.

More or less, we went with what we had.

In little over a month from the invasion, the first ships had departed the UK on their 8,000 mile journey South.

There is no need to recount the general history of the campaign but from a ship to shore logistics perspective there were a number of equipment and capabilities available to Commodore Clapp and Brigadier Thompson worth describing.

Earlier posts on the Falklands War can be found here.

May 18, 2015

Death rides a pale horse … called “Binky”

Filed under: Britain,Humour,Liberty,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the June issue of Reason, Scott Shackford talks about the work of the late, great Terry Pratchett:

Terry Pratchett may not have been the first writer to personify Death as a walking, talking skeleton tasked with reaping the souls of the living, but he was the first to give him a horse named Binky and a granddaughter named Susan.

This Death was no less efficient or inevitable despite all the whimsy, of course. As various characters in Pratchett’s long-lasting, wildly popular series of fantasy novels passed on, Death traveled across Discworld — a flat planet resting on the backs of four elephants who stood on a giant turtle that swam through the universe — to ferry the newly deceased to whatever came afterward.

So it was highly appropriate that after Pratchett’s death at age 66 on March 12, following a long and deliberately public faceoff with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the novelist’s official Twitter account described his passing as Death gently escorting Pratchett from our rounder, less turtle-dependent world.

But let’s not dwell on Death. Pratchett’s Discworld books, all 40 of them (not counting short stories and related works), teemed with messy, disorganized life. And because he wrote in the fantasy genre, they were also packed with wizards, witches, dwarves, dragons, vampires, zombies, demons, werewolves, and the occasional orangutan. His books were humorous in tone, but tackled weighty matters of self-determination, identity, innovation, and, above all else, liberty.

“Whoever created humanity left in a major design flaw. It was the tendency to bend at the knee.” That piece of insight came from Feet of Clay, a book from right in the middle of his series, published in 1996. The witticism encapsulates a consistent theme in his books approaching how humans (and other sentient species) struggle between the desire to be free and the comfort of letting somebody more powerful or smarter (or claiming to be smarter, anyway) call the shots. In Pratchett’s books, both the heroes and the villains tended to be people in positions of authority. What separated his heroes — people like police commander Samuel Vimes, witch Esme “Granny” Weatherwax, and even Patrician Havelock Vetinari, an assassin turned ruler of the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork — from the villains was their insistence on letting people live their own lives, whatever may come of it, even when they made a mess of things.

Doctor Who Theme – PLAYER PIANO

Filed under: Britain,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 21 Apr 2015

Composer/Pianist Sonya Belousova and Director Tom Grey celebrate over 50 years of Doctor Who by paying tribute to its iconic theme.

May 16, 2015

London on film, 1890-1920

Filed under: Britain,History,Media — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Open Culture posted this video which includes some of the oldest known footage of London:

May 15, 2015

Artillery Crisis on the Western Front – The Fall of Windhoek I THE GREAT WAR Week 42

Filed under: Africa,Britain,Europe,Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 14 May 2015

The 2nd Battle of Ypres is still going but no side can gain a decisive advantage. The main reason on the British side is a lack of artillery ammunition. Even the delivered shells are not working correctly. But even the German supply lines are stretched thin. At the same time German South-West Africa falls to South African troops under Louis Botha.

May 12, 2015

QotD: When advertising becomes propaganda

Filed under: Britain,Humour,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The problem with the posters in the airport was that they resembled the political propaganda of a totalitarian regime, insinuating what could not be dissented from without some danger or personal inconvenience. I do not mean to say that we now live in such a regime in the most literal sense, that we have already to fear the midnight knock on the door, but rather that the posters contribute to a miasma of untruth, the kind of untruth that is becoming socially dangerous, or at least embarrassing, to point out. For if you do dissent from such a slogan you will be immediately cast into the social Gehenna where the reactionaries are sent, whose cries of outrage can be dismissed merely by virtue of who they are. If you say that science does not need women, you will be taken to mean that you think that women should be confined to children, kitchen, and church, and that you are an advocate of the burqa (though actually I would make it compulsory for young English women in the center of English towns and cities on Friday and Saturday nights, though only for aesthetic, not for moral or religious, reasons).

Not to be able to answer back to perceived untruths: such is the powerlessness that can eventually drive people to espouse the worst causes.

Theodore Dalrymple, “A Miasma of Untruth”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-06-29.

May 11, 2015

After 74 years, the remains of HMS Urge discovered off the Libyan coast

Filed under: Britain,History,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Telegraph a report on the discovery of a Royal Navy submarine wreck from 1942:

British U class submarine HMS URGE underway. (via Wikipedia)

British U class submarine HMS Urge underway. (via Wikipedia)

A Royal Navy submarine paid for by a town holding dances and whist drives is believed to have been discovered more than 70 years after it vanished during the Second World War.

The British submarine HMS Urge was paid for by the townspeople of Bridgend, South Wales, but sunk without trace in the Mediterranean in 1942.

It disappeared while making a voyage from the island of Malta to the Egyptian city of Alexandria – and families of the 29 crew and 10 passengers never knew what happened.

For more than 70 years, its resting place has remained a mystery. But a 76-year-old scuba diver claims he has discovered its wreck 160ft (50m) below the waves off the Libyan coast.

HMS Urge sonar image

May 8, 2015

Quantum Insert

Filed under: Britain,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Kim Zetter talks about some of the NSA’s more sneaky ways of intercepting communications:

Among all of the NSA hacking operations exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden over the last two years, one in particular has stood out for its sophistication and stealthiness. Known as Quantum Insert, the man-on-the-side hacking technique has been used to great effect since 2005 by the NSA and its partner spy agency, Britain’s GCHQ, to hack into high-value, hard-to-reach systems and implant malware.

Quantum Insert is useful for getting at machines that can’t be reached through phishing attacks. It works by hijacking a browser as it’s trying to access web pages and forcing it to visit a malicious web page, rather than the page the target intend to visit. The attackers can then surreptitiously download malware onto the target’s machine from the rogue web page.

Quantum Insert has been used to hack the machines of terrorist suspects in the Middle East, but it was also used in a controversial GCHQ/NSA operation against employees of the Belgian telecom Belgacom and against workers at OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The “highly successful” technique allowed the NSA to place 300 malicious implants on computers around the world in 2010, according to the spy agency’s own internal documents — all while remaining undetected.

But now security researchers with Fox-IT in the Netherlands, who helped investigate that hack against Belgacom, have found a way to detect Quantum Insert attacks using common intrusion detection tools such as Snort, Bro and Suricata.

May 5, 2015

The weirdness of the British political situation

Filed under: Britain,Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Charles Stross calls the current situation a “Scottish Political Singularity”:

The UK is heading for a general election next Thursday, and for once I’m on the edge of my seat because, per Hunter S. Thompson, the going got weird.

The overall electoral picture based on polling UK-wide is ambiguous. South of Scotland — meaning, in England and Wales — the classic two-party duopoly that collapsed during the 1970s, admitting the Liberal Democrats as a third minority force, has eroded further. We are seeing the Labour and Conservative parties polling in the low 30s. It is a racing certainty that neither party will be able to form a working majority, which requires 326 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats lost a lot of support from their soft-left base by going into coalition with the Conservatives, but their electoral heartlands — notably the south-west — are firm enough that while they will lose seats, they will still be a factor after the election; they’re unlikely to return fewer than 15 MPs, although at the last election they peaked around 50.

Getting away from the traditional big three parties, the picture gets more interesting. The homophobic, racist, bigoted scumbags of UKIP (hey, I’m not going to hide my opinions here!) have picked up support haemorrhaging from the right wing of the Conservative party; polling has put them on up to 20%, but they’re unlikely to return more than 2-6 MPs because their base is scattered across England. (Outside England they’re polling as low as 2-4%, suggesting that they’re very much an English nationalist party.) On the opposite pole, the Green party is polling in the 5-10% range, and might pick up an extra MP, taking them to 2 seats. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (who are just as barkingly xenophobic as UKIP) are also set to return a handful of MPs.

And then there’s Scotland.

Having lived through a couple of near-national-death experiences here in Canada, I’m less than enthused that the country of my birth is now having similar threats from the Celtic fringe. I’m a fan of Charlie’s writing, and I think he’s someone who thinks interesting thoughts, but I hope he’s wrong in this area.

QotD: Monarchies and republics

Filed under: Britain,Europe,Government,History,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

When I say monarchy I am not talking about the wishy-washy monarchy we pretend to have in the UK. I am talking about real monarchies, monarchies red in tooth and claw, monarchies that can at minimum hire and fire ministers and start wars.

Now, I can almost hear the pedants shouting “But those are precisely the powers the Queen has” To which I say “Only in theory”. Should the Queen or any of her successors ever attempt to actually exercise those theoretical powers they would be out of office in a matter of nano-seconds. Britain is a republic.

When did it become one? I think we can be pretty precise with the dates: sometime between 1642 and 1694. 1642 is the date of the outbreak of the English Civil War, when Charles I tried to impose his idea of absolute monarchy. 1694 is the date William III accepted that his powers were extremely limited. Since then it has been Parliament that makes the laws and votes funding – without which making war becomes extremely difficult.

But think of what happened in that period: four civil wars, one military dictatorship and a foreign invasion.

You think that was bad? Try the French. Between 1789 and 1871 they saw four monarchies, three republics, three foreign invasions and a 20-year war with the rest of Europe.

And now look at what happened in the 20th century. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, China, Turkey, Spain and Portugal all made the same transition from monarchy to republic. I need not dwell on the German or Russian experiences — they are well enough known but all the others follow a similar pattern. China saw a 20-year civil war followed by Mao’s communist regime; Spain, a monarchy, followed by a republic followed by a civil war followed by a dictatorship followed by a monarchy followed by a democratic republic. Even Portugal saw two revolutions, a dictatorship and a series of bloody colonial wars.

The point is that in every case the transition from monarchy to republic is bloody and protracted.

Patrick Crozier, “What caused the First World War? Part V: Monarchies and Republics”, Samizdata, 2015-04-29.

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