Quotulatiousness

September 19, 2014

When Royal Navy submarines fly the “Jolly Roger”

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:06

Ali Kefford on the origins of a colourful naval tradition:

Members of the crew of HMS Utmost with their "Jolly Roger" success flag, photographed alongside HMS Forth in Holy Loch, on their return from a year's service in the Mediterranean, 6 February 1942. (via Wikipedia)

Members of the crew of HMS Utmost with their “Jolly Roger” success flag, photographed alongside HMS Forth in Holy Loch, on their return from a year’s service in the Mediterranean, 6 February 1942. (via Wikipedia)

Sir Arthur Wilson was infamous within the Royal Navy for being an admiral with a tetchy temper. His nickname – Old ’Ard ’Art – was a bad joke about his uncaring nature.

Yet a verbal broadside he delivered in 1901 was to spawn one of the Submarine Service’s most loved and deeply ingrained traditions – the flying of the Jolly Roger flag to mark the victorious return from a successful patrol.

Wilson, later a hugely unpopular First Sea Lord, is said to have blasted the innovation of submarines, dubbing the covert way they operated as “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”.

He even went so far as to say: “They’ll never be any use in war and I’ll tell you why. I’m going to get the First Lord to announce that we intend to treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime and that we’ll hang all the crews.”

[...]

One hundred years ago this week, shortly after the start of the Great War, British submarine HMS E9 despatched two torpedoes at close range at Germany’s SMS Hela in a skirmish off Heligoland.

Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, had to dive immediately to avoid return fire, so he did not see the cruiser sink.

But the 13-year-old Silent Service had notched up its very first kill, confirming the deadly effectiveness of sneaking around in the deep then launching a surprise attack on an enemy.

Horton, recalling Admiral Wilson’s words, told his signaller to sew a piratical Jolly Roger flag, which flew proudly from his boat’s periscope as she sailed into Harwich, Essex.

A naval tradition was born, as the skull and crossbones went on to be the Royal Navy Submarine Service’s official emblem.

The tradition continues to today:

September 18, 2014

Forensic report on the death of Richard III

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:55

BBC News has the details:

Richard III death wounds

Sarah Hainsworth, study author and professor of materials engineering, said: “Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period.

“Wounds to the skull suggest he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate he was still armoured at the time of his death.”

Guy Rutty, from the East Midlands pathology unit, said the two fatal injuries to the skull were likely to have been caused by a sword, a staff weapon such as halberd or bill, or the tip of an edged weapon.

He said: “Richard’s head injuries are consistent with some near-contemporary accounts of the battle, which suggest Richard abandoned his horse after it became stuck in a mire and was killed while fighting his enemies.”

QotD: The Columbus Myth

Filed under: Americas, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.

Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past.

I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it.

Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.

David Friedman, “A Modern Conceit”, Ideas, 2014-09-16.

September 14, 2014

The Franklin Expedition discovery as a tool in Canadian claims to the Arctic

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:26

Canada has long claimed sovereignty over the Arctic islands and the waterways around them. The United States disputes that claim, saying that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been using the search for the Franklin Expedition to bolster Canadian claims, and the Guardian‘s Nicky Woolf reports disdainfully:

Apart from these findings, the fate of the expedition remained a mystery for almost 170 years – until this week, when the wreckage of one of the ships was found by a Canadian scientific team. Ryan Harris, one of the lead archaeologists on the expedition, said that finding the ship was “like winning the Stanley Cup”.

The official announcement of the find was made by Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada.

“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” he said, in a bombastic statement to the press. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

The certainty of the statement was perplexing to Suzanne Lalonde, a professor of international law at the University of Montreal. “I’ve been struggling with it – the way Prime Minister Harper announced the find as if there was a monumental confirmation of Canadian sovereignty,” she told the Guardian.

Canada’s position is that the North-West Passage is already Canadian. In an official statement to the Guardian, Christine Constantin, a spokeswoman for the Canadian embassy in Washington, said: “All waters of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, including the various waterways known as the ‘North-West Passage’, are internal waters of Canada … Canada’s sovereignty over its waters in the Arctic is longstanding and well established.

“No one disputes that the various waterways known as the ‘North-West Passage’ are Canadian waters.”

The routes usually taken to constitute the North-West Passage pass between Canada’s mainland territory and its Arctic islands.

September 10, 2014

Ruining royal reputations – it didn’t start on Fleet Street

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

In Maclean’s, Patricia Treble reviews a new book by Jonathan Beckman, called How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair:

Three years before revolutionaries toppled Louis XVI and his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, France was mesmerized with a different tumult. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, scion of one of the nation’s grandest families, was in court, accused of stealing a famously expensive necklace from jewellers who’d created it. He claimed he’d acted at the behest of the queen, who then reneged on paying for the gaudy 2,800-carat piece. The resultant scandal solidified Marie Antoinette’s reputation for unbounded extravagance.

Yet, as Jonathan Beckman, explains in a masterful new account of the diamond necklace affair, nothing is as it appeared. There are fake royals, forged letters and disappearing gems as well as kidnappings, trysts and even a duel involving poisoned pigs. If the tale was fictional, it would be dismissed as an overwrought fantasy, yet in Beckman’s hands, its machinations unfold as an audacious caper that will enthrall readers much as the original events captivated Europe.

September 9, 2014

One of the lost Franklin Expedition ships of 1845 has been located

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

In Canadian Geographic, an interesting find in the Canadian Arctic:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today the discovery of one of the shipwrecks of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845-48 British Arctic Expedition. At this time it is not clear which of the two ships, HMS Terror or Erebus, has been found because of similarities of the two vessels; however, the ship’s authenticity has been confirmed.

The discovery of the wreck was confirmed on Sunday, Sept. 7, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada. Details of where exactly the ship was found have not yet been released.

“I’m delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries,” said Harper in a release.

“I would like to congratulate and pay tribute to all partners involved in this year’s momentous Victoria Strait Expedition, including Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Government of Nunavut.”

And everyone’s a comedian:

BBC News linked this map, showing the approximate locations for the two ships when abandoned, plus the search areas:

Franklin Expedition search areas

UK re-runs Canada’s 1995 near-death experience

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:32

Andrew Coyne points out some of the parallels between the 1995 referendum in Quebec and this month’s referendum in Scotland:

It has been an entertaining, if unnerving, couple of weeks, recalling the referendum of 1995 and speculating about what would have happened had the separatists won. Now, thanks to the Scots, we may be about to find out.

Next week’s referendum on Scottish independence is indeed looking eerily reminiscent of the 1995 near-disaster: the same early complacency in the No camp, the same unbridled panic as the Yes side surges in the polls; the same unappealing mix of threats (“one million jobs”) and accounting on the No side, the same fraudulent claims (“we’re subsidizing the English”) and utopian fantasies on the Yes; the same blurring of the lines on both sides, independence made to look like the status quo (“we’ll keep the pound”) even as the status quo is made to look like independence (“devo-max” is the British term for special status). Add a charismatic Yes leader and an unpopular, seemingly disengaged prime minister, and the picture is complete.

Learning nothing from our experience, the Brits made all the same strategic errors we did, first conferring an unwarranted legitimacy on the separatist project, then attempting to pacify it with powers and money, only to watch it grow more ravenous in response. They have ended up in the same game of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose: a No vote simply marks the launch of the next campaign, while a Yes, supposedly, is forever.

[...]

We should not underestimate how much of separatism’s decline in this country can be explained by sheer exhaustion, especially post-Clarity Act. A great many soft nationalists, for whom it retains a romantic appeal, were persuaded it was simply too arduous an undertaking, full of too much uncertainty and upheaval. But if that premise appeared to have been debunked — if the British pull off the same quick divorce that the Czechs and Slovaks did in the 1990s — we might yet see the issue resurface. You see, the Parti Quebecois would crow? It is just as we told you. And Britain, of all places, has proved it.

September 8, 2014

QotD: The Economist‘s whitewash of the “Great Leap Forward”

Filed under: China, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

When Mao died, The Economist wrote:

    “In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.” (emphasis mine)

The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death. Critics questioning that figure have suggested that the number might have been as low as two and half million.

I am curious — has the Economist ever published an explicit apology or an explanation of how they got the facts so completely backwards, crediting the man responsible for what was probably the worst famine in history with creating a state “where nobody starves?” Is it known who wrote that passage, and has anyone ever asked him how he could have gotten the facts so terribly wrong?

David D. Friedman, “A Small Mistake”, Ideas, 2014-09-07.

September 4, 2014

The very essence of government is a monopoly on violence

Filed under: Government, History, Middle East — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

Matt Ridley on how governments came about historically and how ISIS is trying to do exactly the same thing:

Nobody seems to agree whether Islamic State is best described as a gang of criminals, a terrorist organisation or a religious movement. It clearly has a bit of all three. But don’t forget that it aspires, for better or worse, to be a government. A brutal, bigoted and murderous government, its appeal is at least partly that it seems capable of imposing its version of “order” on the territory it controls, however briefly. It reminds us that the origin and defining characteristic of all government is that it is an organisation with a monopoly on violence.

The deal implicit in being governed is at root a simple one: we allow the people who govern us to have an exclusive right to commit violence, so long as they direct it at other countries and at criminals. In almost every nation, if you go back far enough, government began as a group of thugs who, as Pope Gregory VII put it in 1081, “raised themselves up above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short by every kind of crime”.

Was Canute, or William the Conqueror, or Oliver Cromwell really much different from the Islamic State? They got to the top by violence and then violently dealt with anybody who rebelled. The American writer Albert Jay Nock in 1939 observed: “The idea that the state originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation — that is to say, in crime … No state known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose.”

Henry VII, the monarch who managed, after a century of gang warfare, to establish a monopolistic central government in England, funded his administration largely by extorting money from rich merchants with the threat of violence. That is to say, he ran a protection racket as blatant as any mafia don or IRA commander: pay up or lose your kneecaps.

A deluge of public domain images

Filed under: Business, Cancon, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick alerted me to a new source of old images:

Here’s some nice news. Kalev Leetaru has been liberating a ton of public domain images from books and putting them all on Flickr. He’s been going through Internet Archive scans of old, public domain books, isolating the images, and turning them into individual images. Because, while the books and images are all public domain, very few of the images have been separated from the books and released in a digital format.

There are all sorts of images in this stream, so you never know what you’ll find when you dive in. Here, for example is an image used in Canadian grocer January-June 1908:

Crown illustration from Canadian Grocer 1908

Which, if you follow the link to the original publication, was isolated from this page of ads:

Full page from Canadian Grocer 1908

Or the rather impressive works of George White & Sons in London, Ontario:

George White and Sons, London Ontario 1913

This image appeared in Canadian Machinery and Manufacturing News (January-June 1913), illustrating a “Staff article” about the company:

A description of the works of an old established firm building threshing machinery, traction engines, etc. The plant has been gradually built up to its present size, the foundry being the latest addition. The company maintain two branches in the West and have agencies in all the principal cities and towns in the grain growing districts of Canada.

September 3, 2014

Economic growth as a language extinction factor

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: — Nicholas Russon @ 10:01

In Forbes, Tim Worstall talks about a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society which notes that minority languages are at greater threat of extinction as the speakers of that language experience economic prosperity:

Here’s an interesting little economic finding: the extinction of minority languages seems to be largely driven by economic growth and success. It’s perhaps not one of those explanations that we would immediately think of but once it has been brought to our attention it seems obvious enough given what is actually economic growth. In terms of public policy this perhaps means that we shouldn’t worry too much about languages disappearing: because that is a signal that economic development is happening, people are becoming less poor. But people ceasing to use a language because it no longer fits their needs is one thing: we should still study, analyse and record those languages as they’re all part of our shared human experience.

The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and can be found here:

    By contrast, recent speaker declines have mainly occurred at high latitudes and are strongly linked to high economic growth. Threatened languages are numerous in the tropics, the Himalayas and northwestern North America. These results indicate that small-population languages remaining in economically developed regions are seriously threatened by continued speaker declines. However, risks of future language losses are especially high in the tropics and in the Himalayas, as these regions harbour many small-population languages and are undergoing rapid economic growth.

Worth thinking through the different types of economic growth that we traditionally identify. The first is Malthusian growth. Here an advance in technology (say, a new, higher productivity, farming method) leads to there being more resources to support the new generation. More of them survive to then have their own children and the population increases. At some point in the future living standards return to where they were given that larger population. This is a reasonable description of near all economic growth before 1750 or so (and made the Rev. Malthus correct in his gloomy predictions about economic growth for pretty much all of history before he sat down to write had indeed been like this). Malthusian growth is likely to increase the population speaking whatever language it is that that society speaks. For the obvious reason that the growth is morphing into more people to speak that language.

The second form of growth is Smithian growth. Here, growth is coming from the division and specialisation of labour and the resultant trade in the increased production this enables. Almost by definition this requires that the network of people that one is trading with, dividing labour with, expands. To the point that one is, at some point, going to start doing so with people outside one’s clan, tribe or language. The cooperation of trade requires that there be some ability to converse and therefore there’s pressure to adopt some language which is mutually compatible. As large groups meet large groups then we might find some synthesis of language going on: as say English is an obvious synthesis of Romance and Germanic languages. Where small groups are meeting larger and trading with them then we’re more likely to see the adoption of the larger group language and the extinction of the smaller.

Hand-to-hand combat is “viciously sexist”

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:55

In many video games, especially MMOs, you can do the same kind of combat with a male or female avatar (in other words, from a gaming perspective, the differences are literally cosmetic). This is not a reflection of physical reality, although it is a nod to sexual equality in other areas. That being said, it is silly to pretend that before gunpowder came along to diminish the advantages that upper body strength confers in hand-to-hand combat, women could be equally effective in combat. ESR calls bullshit on a recent article that goes out of its way to imply that half of Viking warriors were actually female:

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

[...]

Supporting this, there is only very scant archeological evidence for female warriors (burials with weapons). There is almost no such evidence from Viking cultures, and what little we have is disputed; the Scythians and earlier Germanics from the Migration period have substantially more burials that might have been warrior women. Tellingly, they are almost always archers.

I’m excluding personal daggers for self-defense here and speaking of the battlefield contact weapons that go with the shieldmaidens of myth and legend. I also acknowledge that a very few exceptionally able women can fight on equal terms with men. My circle of friends contains several such exceptional women; alas, this tells us nothing about woman as a class but much about how I select my friends.

But it is a very few. And if a pre-industrial culture has chosen to train more than a tiny fraction of its women as shieldmaidens, it would have lost out to a culture that protected and used their reproductive capacity to birth more male warriors. Brynhilde may be a sexy idea, but she’s a bioenergetic gamble that is near certain to be a net waste.

Firearms changes all this, of course – some of the physiological differences that make them inferior with contact weapons are actual advantages at shooting (again I speak from experience, as I teach women to shoot). So much so that anyone who wants to suppress personal firearms is objectively anti-female and automatically oppressive of women.

QotD: The relative size of the Chinese economy, historically speaking

Filed under: China, Economics, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

People seem to want to get freaked out about China passing the US in terms of the size of its economy. But in the history of Civilization there have probably been barely 200 years in the last 4000 that China hasn’t been the largest economy in the world. It probably only lost that title in the early 19th century and is just now getting it back. We are in some senses ending an unusual period, not starting one.

Warren Meyer, “It is Historically Unusual for China NOT to be the Largest Economy on Earth”, Coyote Blog, 2014-08-30.

August 30, 2014

That’s not vintage wine. This is vintage wine.

Filed under: History, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:31

Storing a few old bottles in your cellar? Not as old as these bottles:

Israel isn’t particularly famous for its wine today, but four thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age, vineyards in the region produced vintages that were prized throughout the Mediterranean and imported by the Egyptian elite.

Last summer, archaeologists discovered a rare time capsule of this ancient drinking culture: the world’s oldest known wine cellar, found in the ruins of a sprawling palatial compound in Upper Galilee.

The mud-brick walls of the room seem to have crumbled suddenly, perhaps during an earthquake. Whatever happened, no one came to salvage the 40 wine jars inside after the collapse; luckily for archaeologists, the cellar was left untouched for centuries. [In Images: An Ancient Palace Wine Cellar]

Excavators at the site took samples of the residue inside the jars. In a new study published today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers describe what their chemical analysis turned up: biomarkers of wine and herbal additives that were mixed into the drink, including mint, cinnamon and juniper.

[...]

The residue from all 32 jars sampled in the study contained tartaric acid, one of the main acids in wine. In all but three jars, the researchers found syringic acid, a marker of red wine. The absence of syringic acid in those three jars may indicate that they contained some of the earliest examples of white wine, which got its start later than red wine, Koh said.

The researchers found signatures of pine resin, which has powerful antibacterial properties and was likely added at the vineyard to help preserve the wine. Scientists also found traces of cedar, which may have come from wooden beams used during the wine-pressing process.

The researchers noticed that the cellar’s simplest wines, those with only resin added, were typically found in the jars lined up in a row against the wall near the outdoor entrance to the room. But the wines with the more complex additives were generally found in jars near a platform in the middle of the cellar and two narrow rooms leading to the banquet hall next door. Koh and colleagues believe the wine would have been brought from the countryside into the cellar, where a wine master would have mixed in honey and herbs like juniper and mint before a meal.

As for the taste, Koh said the ancient booze may have resembled modern retsina, a somewhat divisive Greek wine flavored with pine resin — described by detractors as having a note of turpentine. (Koh said he and his colleagues usually hear two different kinds of remarks about the ancient wine: Some say, “I would love to drink this wine,” while others say, “It must have just tasted like vinegar with twigs in it.”)

August 28, 2014

Feeding Tommy Atkins – WW1 food for British troops in the trenches

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:16

In the Express last week, Adrian Lee reports on a new exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London:

They say an army marches on its stomach, so feeding the two million men who were in the trenches at the height of the First World War was some task. It was a great achievement that in the entire conflict not one British soldier starved to death.

Yet no one should think that the Tommies enjoyed the food that was served up by the military. According to the wags on the frontline, the biggest threat to life was not German bullets but the appalling rations.

Most despised was Maconochie, named after the company in Aberdeen that made this concoction of barely recognisable chunks of fatty meat and vegetables in thin gravy.

When served hot, as per the instructions on the tin, it was said to be barely edible. Eaten cold for days on end in the trenches, where a warm meal was usually no more than a fantasy, it was said to be disgusting.

It was the stated aim of the British Army that each soldier should consume 4,000 calories a day. At the frontline, where conditions were frequently appalling, daily rations comprised 9oz of tinned meat (today it would be known as corned beef but during the First World War it was called bully beef) or the hated Maconochie.

Additionally the men received biscuits (made from salt, flour and water and likened by the long-suffering troops to dog biscuits). They were produced under government contract by Huntley & Palmers, which in 1914 was the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer. The notoriously hard biscuits could crack teeth if they were not first soaked in tea or water.

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