Quotulatiousness

August 24, 2014

200th anniversary of the only foreign occupation of Washington DC

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:14

In History Today, Graeme Garrard tells the tale of the burning of Washington in 1814:

When James Madison, fourth President of the United States and ‘Father of the Constitution’, signed a declaration of war against Britain on June 18th, 1812 he could scarcely have imagined that two years later he would be fleeing from his burning capital before the invading enemy. At the start of the ‘War of 1812’, the first the US had declared on another nation, his friend and predecessor as president, Thomas Jefferson, had smugly declared that the war against Britain’s colonies in what is today Canada would be ‘a mere matter of marching’. As Madison abandoned the White House on horseback with his entourage and raced towards Virginia on August 24th, 1814 he stopped and looked back as he beheld the ruined city of Washington. The smoke from flames that engulfed it could be seen as far away as Baltimore, Maryland. Although he left no personal account of his feelings about these shattering events, the normally imperturbable president must have been deeply shaken by the turn they had taken, as were most Americans. What his many domestic critics had derisively branded ‘Mr Madison’s War’ had led to the only foreign occupation of the US capital in its history. Soldiers and marines under Major-General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn put Washington’s public buildings, including the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, the Treasury building, the State and War Departments, the historic Navy Yard and the President’s House (as the White House was then known), to the torch. Exactly two centuries later, few people in the United States or Britain are aware of this national humiliation, the ‘greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’.

Why were the British so determined to burn the government buildings in Washington? Revenge for the Americans having done the same thing to York the previous year:

The Americans were as dejected and enraged as the British were elated by the effects of the occupation. The reserved and stoical Madison returned to Washington as soon as the British had departed. Unable to live in the President’s House, he took up residence at the home of his brother-in-law. His wife soon joined him, exclaiming when she saw the ruined capital: ‘Such destruction, such devastation!’ The secretary of state James Monroe, Madison’s successor as president, cursed the British troops as ‘all damn’d rascals from highest to lowest’ for torching the capital. He seems to have forgotten that American troops had done much the same in 1813 when they occupied the undefended city of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario). Then they had burned the colony’s legislative and judicial buildings, plundered its public library and destroyed private property. Indeed, the Governor General and military Commander-in-Chief of British North America during the war, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, wrote that, as a ‘just retribution, the proud capital at Washington has experienced a similar fate’. When the news reached London a month later of the British retaliation, guns outside Parliament and the Tower of London boomed a joyous salute, a reaction echoed throughout the colonies of British North America, particularly in York.

Vikings beat Chiefs 30-12 in third preseason game

Filed under: Football — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:41

The Vikings haven’t won a road game in over a year, so last night’s matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs was a good test of the new coaching staff and how well they had prepared the team for the new season. Matt Cassel once again started for the Vikings at quarterback, and played all of the first half and most of the third quarter with the starters. It was a very hot night in Kansas City, so both teams had to watch their players carefully for heat-related issues. Adrian Peterson once again didn’t play (no reason to risk injury in meaningless games: we know he’s automatically on the 53-man roster).

Coming into the game, the starting offensive players are pretty much set (assuming that Matt Cassel has won the quarterback competition over rookie Teddy Bridgewater), but there were still battles going on for starting defensive roles at safety, corner, and middle linebacker. One player saw his chances of winning a starting position go way down was cornerback Josh Robinson, who was flagged for pass interference early in the game.

The Daily Norseman‘s Ted Glover takes us through the start of the game:

The Minnesota Vikings started strong, floundered for a little bit, and then ran away from the Kansas City Chiefs on a hot and humid night at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Vikings won the toss and deferred to the second half, and the Chiefs offense couldn’t get much going, other than a 16 yard pass to RB Knile Davis. A Dustin Colquitt punt pinned the Vikings back to their own three, where they took the ball on their first possession.

And all the Vikings did was march 97 yards on five plays. QB Matt Cassel hit RB Matt Asiata for 31 yards on a short swing pass, and after a couple of non-descript Asiata runs, Cassel uncorked the deep ball and hit Cordarrelle Patterson for 53 yards and a score, putting the Vikings up 7-0 less than three minutes into the game.

(more…)

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part twelve of a series)

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

You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):

  1. Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
  2. Looking back to 1814
  3. Bismarck, his life and works
  4. France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
  5. Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
  6. The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
  7. War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
  8. The First Balkan War
  9. The Second Balkan War
  10. The Entente Cordiale, Moroccan crises, and the influence of public opinion
  11. The Bosnian crisis of 1908

Who’s at the wheel? The less-than-transparent-or-unified governments of 1914

A common reaction (among both modern historians and lay readers) to the apparent incoherence of the decision-making process in the various great powers’ capitals is to ask just who exactly was in command when such-and-such a decision was taken. This reflects on our modern day belief that power has an identifiable source, and that actors had clear direction from a central authority. As Christopher Clark takes pains to outline in The Sleepwalkers this was not true even of the more centralized great powers:

… even a very cursory look at the governments of early twentieth-century Europe reveals that the executive structures from which policies emerged were far from unified. Policy-making was not the prerogative of single sovereign individuals. Initiatives with a bearing on the course of a country’s policy could and did emanate from quite peripheral locations in the political structure. Factional alignments, functional frictions within government, economic or financial constraints and the volatile chemistry of public opinion all exerted a constantly varying pressure on decision-making processes. As the power to shape decisions shifted from one node in the executive structure to another, there were corresponding oscillations in the tone and orientation of policy. This chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitation of the European system during the last pre-war years. It also helps to explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most complex and opaque political crisis of modern times.

In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan writes:

Old institutions and values were under attack and new ways and new attitudes were emerging. Their world was changing, perhaps too fast, and they had to attempt to make sense of it. “What were they thinking?” is a question often asked about the Europeans who went to war in 1914. The ideas that influenced their view of the world, what they took for granted without discussion (what the historian James Joll called “unspoken assumptions”), what was changing and what was not, all are important parts of the context within which war, even a general European war, became a possible option in 1914.

The uneasy state of the Serbian state

Serbia had been practically an independent state since shrugging off the last Ottoman military occupation in 1867 and that independence was formally recognized by the great powers in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin which was the peace conference called to end the Russo-Turkish War (which we briefly looked at in part two). One of the provisions of the treaty that strongly displeased the Serbs was that they were forbidden to take over Bosnia, which instead was placed in the care of the Austro-Hungarian empire: the Serbs had gone to war with the Ottomans in 1876 by proclaiming a union with Bosnia. The Austrians and the other great powers preferred a weakened Ottoman empire to retain titular possession of Bosnia than to allow an upstart principality to claim it.

King Milan of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Milan of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

Serbia became a kingdom in 1882 under King Milan I. Milan had been adopted into the ruling Obrenović family after the death of his father in combat against the Ottomans. When Prince Mihailo Obrenović was assassinated in 1868, Milan was the eventual choice to succeed his adopted father. Milan remained king until he unexpectedly abdicated the throne in favour of his son Alexander in 1889. Despite having given up the throne, he returned to Serbia and eventually was appointed commander-in-chief of the Serbian army. He left that post in protest at his son’s marriage to Draga Mašin in 1900 and was banished for his pains. He died in 1901.

King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Alexander I did not long survive his father, being assassinated by members of an army conspiracy in 1903. The King had been ruling ever more harshly, creating much resentment through his arbitrary decrees and proclamations. The conspiracy was lead by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević (nicknamed “Apis”), who would also later found the secret organization Ujedinjenje ili smrt! known as the Black Hand. The assassinations were so gory that Quentin Tarantino might have directed the scene if it was written by George R.R. Martin (as described by Christopher Clark):

According to one account, the king, flabby, bespectacled and incongruously dressed in his red silk shirt, emerged with his arms around the queen. The couple were cut down in a hail of shots at point-blank range. Petrović [the king's adjutant], who drew a concealed revolver in a final hopeless bid to protect his master (or so it was later claimed), was also killed. An orgy of gratuitous violence followed. The corpses were stabbed with swords, torn with a bayonet, partially dismembered and hacked with an axe until they were mutilated beyond recognition, according to the later testimony of the king’s traumatized Italian barber, who was ordered to collect the bodies and dress them for burial. The body of the queen was hoisted to the railing of the bedroom window and tossed, virtually naked and slimy with gore, into the gardens. It was reported that as the assassins attempted to do the same with Alexandar, one of his hands closed momentarily around the railing. An officer hacked through the fist with a sabre and the body fell, with a sprinkle of severed digits, to the earth. By the time the assassins had gathered in the gardens to have a smoke and inspect the results of their handiwork, it had begun to rain.

King Peter I of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Peter I of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Alexander and Queen Draga had no children and the Queen’s brother was widely assumed to be the heir-presumptive. Both of the queen’s brothers and several government officials were killed in the purge following the assassinations. These actions ended the Obrenović dynasty, as Alexander was succeeded by King Peter I, of the Karađorđević dynasty (Serbia had the misfortune of having two rival royal families from the early 1800′s to the assassination of Alexander I). King Peter’s father had been Prince of Serbia until his abdication in 1858, after which the family lived in exile. Under the pseudonym Pierre or Peter Kara, Peter had served as a junior officer on the French side in the Franco-Prussian War. Using a different pseudonym, he lead a guerilla unit against Ottoman troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1875 and 1878. In 1883, he married the eldest daughter of the King of Montenegro. Through the connection between the royal families of Russia and Montenegro, two of his sons were enrolled in the Russian military academy.

Whether through fear of suffering the same kind of violent death as his predecessor or through a genuine belief in liberalization, King Peter’s early reign was marked by a return to more democratic representation and parliamentary control of the government. The Austrian government had been on relatively good terms with the former king, and viewed the increasing democratization in Serbia as a dangerous trend (for fear it would give more impetus to demands for autonomy not only in Bosnia, but also in other Slavic areas of the empire). The Wikipedia entry for King Peter’s reign is just a tad over-enthusiastic:

The Western-educated King attempted to liberalize Serbia with the goal of creating a Western-style constitutional monarchy. King Petar I became gradually very popular for his commitment to parliamentary democracy that, in spite of certain influence of military cliques in political life, functioned properly. The 1903 Constitution was a revised version of 1888 Constitution, based on the Belgian Constitution of 1831, considered as one of the most liberal in Europe.The governments were chosen from the parliamentary majority, mostly from People’s Radical Party (Narodna radikalna stranka) led by Nikola P. Pašić and Independent Radical Party (Samostalna radikalna stranka), led by Ljubomir Stojanović. King Peter himself was in favor of a broader coalition government that would boost Serbian democracy and help pursue an independent course in foreign policy. In contrast to Austrophile Obrenović dynasty, King Peter I was relying on Russia and France, which provoked rising hostility from expansionist-minded Austria-Hungary. King Peter I of Serbia paid two solemn visits to Saint-Petersbourg and Paris in 1910 and 1911 respectively, greeted as a hero of both democracy and national independence in the troublesome Balkans.

The reign of King Peter I Karadjordjević from 1903 to 1914, is remembered as the “Golden Age of Serbia” or the “Era of Pericles in Serbia”, due to the unrestricted political freedoms, free press, and cultural ascendancy among South Slavs who finally saw in democratic Serbia a Piedmont of South Slavs. King Peter I was supportive to the movement of Yugoslav unification, hosting in Belgrade various cultural gatherings. Grand School of Belgrade was upgraded into Belgrade University in 1905, with scholars of international renown such as Jovan Cvijić, Mihailo Petrović, Slobodan Jovanović, Jovan M. Žujović, Bogdan Popović, Jovan Skerlić, Sima Lozanić, Branislav Petronijević and several others.

The Black Hand: Serbia’s “plausibly deniable” interference in Bosnian affairs

The leader of the 1903 coup d’etat, former Captain, now Colonel Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević was in a key position indeed — he was the head of the Serbian Military Intelligence service in 1914. From that important post, he was able to conduct covert operations against the neighbouring empires with an eye to destabilization and eventual military action. In 1911, Apis established Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (the Black Hand) to enable him to conduct operations separate from — but with goals aligned with — the formal state organization. Another semi-secret pan-Slavic organization set up a few years earlier became a very valuable tool in the hands of Apis: Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia).

Margaret MacMillan in The War That Ended Peace describes the kind of operations “Apis” set up and operated against Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans:

Within Serbia itself there was considerable support for the Young Bosnians and their activities. For a decade or more, parts of the Serbian government had encouraged the activities of quasi-military and conspiratorial organizations on the soil of Serbia’s enemies, whether the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary. The army provided money and weapons for armed Serbian bands in Macedonia and smuggled weapons into Bosnia much as Iran does today with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Margaret MacMillan describes the typical members of the Young Bosnians, who were of a type that we probably recognize more readily now than at any time since 1914:

[They] were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse. They hated Austria-Hungary in part because they blamed it for corrupting its South Slav subjects. Few of the Young Bosnians had regular jobs. Rather they depended on handouts from their families, with whom they had usually quarreled. They shared their few possessions, slept on each other’s floors, and spent hours over a single cup of coffee in cheap cafés arguing about life and politics. They were idealistic, and passionately committed to liberating Bosnia from foreign rule and to building a new and fairer world. Strongly influenced by the great Russian revolutionaries and anarchists, the Young Bosnians believed that they could only achieve their goals through violence and, if necessary, the sacrifice of their own lives.

Apis and his Bosnian operators were determined to take advantage of the announced visit by Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in June, 1914. The Archduke was the heir-presumptive to the throne of the Dual Monarchy and (contrary to what a lot of people believed at the time) a moderate who hoped to use his visit to reduce tension between the monarchy and the Slavic people in the southern fringe of the empire. He had already spoken against the empire taking military action against Serbia on more than one occasion after provocation … if he were not on the scene, Apis calculated, the chances of war went up significantly.

The stage is set, the pieces are starting to fall into place, and the curtain is about to go up.

QotD: Hypochondria

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

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch — hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into — some fearful, devastating scourge, I know — and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever — read the symptoms — discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it — wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance — found, as I expected, that I had that too, — began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically — read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals,” if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.

Then I wondered how long I had to live. I tried to examine myself. I felt my pulse. I could not at first feel any pulse at all. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off. I pulled out my watch and timed it. I made it a hundred and forty-seven to the minute. I tried to feel my heart. I could not feel my heart. It had stopped beating. I have since been induced to come to the opinion that it must have been there all the time, and must have been beating, but I cannot account for it. I patted myself all over my front, from what I call my waist up to my head, and I went a bit round each side, and a little way up the back. But I could not feel or hear anything. I tried to look at my tongue. I stuck it out as far as ever it would go, and I shut one eye, and tried to examine it with the other. I could only see the tip, and the only thing that I could gain from that was to feel more certain than before that I had scarlet fever.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

August 23, 2014

Pennsylvania police to destroy rare wine collection

Filed under: Law, USA, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:14

Michelle Minton tells the sad tale of a rare wine fan who got too greedy (as the state tells it) or a state that got too greedy (as Pennsylvania wine fans tell it):

In the fifth century BCE, famous Greek tragedian Euripides supposedly said, “where this no wine there is no love.” This certainly holds true in present day Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation’s strictest alcohol regulatory regimes. And according to Tom Wark, executive director for the American Wine Consumer Coalition, Pennsylvania is “the worst state to live in if you’re a wine lover.” In Philadelphia, one man surely isn’t feeling the brotherly love after police raided his home and seized 2,426 bottles of rare wine—with an estimated value of more than $125,000—that the police reportedly plan to “destroy.”

Arthur Goldman, a 50-year-old lawyer, alleged ran afoul of Pennsylvania’s archaic wine laws by purchasing and selling through unapproved channels. In Pennsylvania, one of ten states that doesn’t allow direct shipping of wine to consumers, the only place one can purchase wine is through state-owned liquor stores. For wine connoisseurs looking for a bottle unavailable for purchase in state stores, the only other option is to order their wine through one of the sanctioned “direct wine shippers” and have it sent to a state store. Of course, this adds a certain cost to the purchase (shipping charge, plus $4.50 handling, the state’s 18 percent Johnstown Flood tax, 6 percent sales tax, and an addition 2 percent Philadelphia tax). With an average shipping rate of $7 per bottle or $22 per case, this means that a typical $50 bottle of wine would end up costing $74. A case of that wine, which would have cost $600 could cost around $832 after jumping through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s hoops. Of course, Goldman was likely purchasing much rarer and more expensive wines—the tax and shipping costs, assuming the approved direct shipping companies had the wines he wanted—could have been astronomical.

Cops paint a picture of a sophisticated racket meant to make Goldman a lot of money, but his lawyer asserts it was more like a group of 15-20 wine connoisseurs for whom Goldman would procure bottles unavailable in the state, only charging them for his costs.

Defining the “best tank of World War 2″

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:14

Nigel Davies revisits one of the perpetual debates among amateur WW2 historians:

Let us start with the issue of tanks from the perspective of propaganda. More rubbish has been written about who had the best tanks during the Second World War than about any other topic to do with that war. Again and again you get supposedly serious historians talking about how the Germans started the Second World War with overwhelming tank superiority; that the Allies were only brought back into the race by the arrival of the Sherman tank; and how German technology leapt ahead again at the end of the Second World War to give them unrivalled vehicles. All these statements are of course completely incorrect.

One of the problems of course, is ‘best tank when, and for what?’

Comparing what was available in 1939/40 to what was being produced in 1945 (say a Panzer III or Matilda II with a Centurion or Stalin), is worse than useless. There is no comparison. Only the Panzer IV was actually produced throughout the war: and the heavily armoured final version of the tank — with a long barrelled 75mm gun capable of taking on almost every tank yet operational in mid 1945 — bore only a passing resemblance to the lightly armoured tank with a short barrelled infantry support gun — of with minimal ability to do more than scratch the paint of a CharB in 1939/40.

SOMUA 35 tank at Bovington Tank Museum (via Wikipedia)

SOMUA 35 tank at Bovington Tank Museum (via Wikipedia)

It’s relatively easy to do a quick measurables test comparing one tank against another: thickness and location of the armour, size and muzzle velocity of the main gun, engine horsepower, road speed, etc., but the very best tank on all of those measurements could still be beaten by an enemy using better combat tactics: the French SOMUA 35 and the British Matilda II were the best tanks in the world in 1939 and 1940 respectively (according to Davies). In spite of the superior measurables, the SOMUA 35 was incredibly limited by having the tank commander also be the gunner and loader and it lacked a radio for communication (and even if they had been so equipped, the already overworked tank commander would have had to be the radio operator, too). The Matilda was designed as an infantry tank, so it was very heavily armoured, but relatively slow and somewhat undergunned (the 40mm main gun only had solid shot for anti-armour use: there was no high explosive round for softer targets).

Matilda II at Yad la-Shiryon Museum (via Wikipedia)

Matilda II at Yad la-Shiryon Museum (via Wikipedia)

The Matilda and its successor the Valentine would probably still the best Allied tanks in the world in early 1941, when they swept Italian forces before them, and several times fought the German African corps to a standstill. The German response to their shocking failures in 1940, had been to upgrade the Panzer III and IV with slightly improved armour, and the short barreled 50 mm gun. But they were still on a losing wicket engaging the British infantry tanks in any sort of close terrain, such as in the siege of Tobruk. Fortunately for Rommel, out in the open terrain of the desert he could deploy his tanks behind screens of high-powered anti-tank guns, which the British tanks lacked the long-range high explosive shells to engage effectively.

It also helped that too many British cavalry officers in the desert war still had a “tally ho!” attitude and were frequently drawn into unsupported tank charges against German or Italian tanks who were able to draw the fast but lightly armoured British cruisers into easy killing range of their anti-tank guns.

M4A1 Sherman tank at Canadian Forces Base Borden (via Wikipedia)

M4A1 Sherman tank at Canadian Forces Base Borden (via Wikipedia)

This is where the myth of the value of the Sherman tank comes from. The Sherman arrived at a time when it’s armour and weapon were on a par with the Panzer III and IV tanks that it was facing. Despite the fact that its 75 mm gun was greatly inferior as an anti-tank weapon to the new British six pounder guns that were starting to equip British tanks, the high explosive shell that the Sherman could fire was incredibly useful for engaging Rommel’s 88 mm guns at long-distance in the flat desert terrain.

For several months, it seemed as though the mechanically reliable Sherman would be a war winner, despite its notable tendency to explode in flames whenever it was hit. (Allied troops refer to it as a Ronson — “lights first time every time”. German troops just referred to it as a “Tommy Cooker”.) But this concept was fantasy, which could be easily demonstrated within a few months, though it took the US government another two years to admit it.

[...]

T-34/85 at musée des blindés de Saumur (via Wikipedia)

T-34/85 at musée des blindés de Saumur (via Wikipedia)

In all of this so far, I have barely mentioned the Russians at all. Their T34 tank was possibly the single most effective of the war, and was the breakthrough that forced everyone else to rethink their designs. So we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the T34 was the best tank of the war for almost two years — from the time of Barbarossa (June 22, 1941) until the appearance of the Panther at Kursk (July 5, 1943). It certainly held this title unchallenged by the Sherman and Churchill tanks that appeared during its reign, and probably by the Tiger as well.

The Tiger is a problem for this sort of discussion, because it re-introduces the concept of ‘what for’ into the debate. The Tiger was a far superior heavy infantry support or assault tank to the T34, but a far inferior battlefield manoeuvre or pursuit tank. In fact the Tiger was so slow and limited in cross country ability, that it was actually more effective as a defensive weapon once the Germans were thrown back on that approach, than it had been for re-igniting their Blitzkreig glory days.

He sums up the post with a league table of “best tanks” for given years and purposes:

Having noted the necessary division between medium cruisers and heavy assault/infantry support tanks however, we can still make a fair summary.

So, in contrast to what many history books and documentaries will tell you, the French had the best tanks in 1939, and the British had the best tanks of 1940 and 1945. Also in contrast to what many history books will tell you, the Shermans effective front-line role can best be defined as the few months between the battle of Alamein, and the arrival of Tiger tanks in Tunisia. All attempts to use it after that in Italy or northern France just demonstrated how pathetic it was in modern engagements. Even the British Firefly version with the 17 pounder, was extremely vulnerable to any German tank. In fact it is amusing to note, that they came into their own for the blitzkrieg across open country in pursuit of the defeated German armies across France; which has a direct parallel to the inferior German tanks pursuing the defeated French in 1940. (The equally inadequate British Cromwell tanks, being significantly faster, were actually still better at this pursuit than the Shermans.) The best tank of the Sherman’s period of functional use, of course being the T34.

So our list of ‘best tanks’ could go something like this.
1939 — Best cruiser – Somua 35, Best support – CharB.
1940 — Best support becomes Matilda II.
1941 — Best cruiser initially Panzer III/IV with short 50mm guns, becomes T34 when Russia enters the war.
1942 — Best support is Tiger.
1943 — Best cruiser is Panther.
1944 — Best support is Tiger II.
1945 — Best ‘all purpose’ is Centurion.

SpaceX test launch goes wrong

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:36

As they say, this is why you do the testing: to find out what can go wrong (and hopefully fix the design to prevent that from happening again). The Washington Post‘s Christian Davenport reports:

A new test rocket manufactured by Elon Musk’s upstart space company, SpaceX, blew itself up a few hundred feet over the Texas prairie after a malfunction was detected, the company said in a statement Friday evening.

At its facility in McGregor, Tex., the company was testing a three-engine version of the F9R test vehicle, the successor to its re­usable Grasshopper rocket, which was designed to launch and then land on the same site.

“During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” company spokesman John Taylor said in the statement.

The rocket never veered off course, and there were no injuries or near injuries, the statement said. A representative from the Federal Aviation Administration was on site during the test flight.

The company stressed that rooting out problems like the one exposed in the flight is the purpose of the test program and said Friday’s test “was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.”

Immutable human nature will not be wished away

Filed under: History, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:07

Charles C. W. Cooke on the evergreen notion that “this time, it’ll be different”:

H. G. Wells’s famous prediction that the First World War would be the “war to end all wars” was met with skepticism by the British prime minister. “This war, like the next war,” David Lloyd George quipped in the summer of 1916, “is a war to end war.” History, he sighed, is not shaped by wishful thinking.

Two decades later, Lloyd George would be proven right. And yet, in the intervening period, it was Wells’s sentiment that prevailed. The horrors of the trenches having made rationalization imperative, a popular and holistic narrative was developed. The Great War, Woodrow Wilson quixotically argued, had finally managed to “make the world safe for democracy” and, in doing so, had served an invaluable purpose. Henceforth, human beings would remember the valuable lesson that had been written in so much blood, coming together in mutual understanding to, as Wells rather dramatically put it, “exorcise a world-madness and end an age.” And that, it was thought, would be that.

In hindsight, it is easy to criticize the idealists. But, historically, their instincts were by no means anomalous. The most successful politicians today remain those who are dispositionally Whiggish, and who possess in abundance the much coveted ability to sell the future as the cure for all ills. Come election time, candidates from both sides of the aisle promise Americans that their country’s “best days are ahead of her” and that it is now “time to move forward.” Customarily, these promises are paired with a series of less optimistic corollaries, most often with the simplistic insistence that we must never, ever “go backwards,” and with the naïve — sometimes spluttering — disbelief that anything bad or primitive could exhibit the temerity to occur in these our enlightened times. “It is amazing,” our jejune political class will say of a current event, “that this could be happening in 2014!” And the audience will nod, sagaciously.

This week, responding to the news that an American journalist had been executed in Syria by the Islamic State, President Obama contended that the group “has no place in the 21st century.” One wonders: What can this mean? Is this a statement of intent, or is it a historical judgment? Certainly, insofar as Obama’s words indicate a willingness to extirpate the outfit from the face of the Earth, they are useful. If, however, they are merely an attempt to shame the group by explaining that in 2014 the good guys no longer behave in this manner, it is abject and it is fruitless. As a matter of regrettable fact, IS does indeed have a place in the 21st century — and, like the barbarians who hypothetically had “no place” in the Roman Empire, it is presently utilizing that place to spread darkness and despair. Assurances that “our best days are ahead of us,” I’d venture, are probably not going to cut it with the mujahideen.

QotD: Seating patterns, historically

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

The second known fact is that people prefer the side of the room to the middle. This is obvious from the way a restaurant fills up. The tables along the left wall are occupied first, then those at the far end, then those along the right wall, and finally (and with reluctance) those in the middle. Such is the human revulsion to the central space that managements often despair of filling it and so create what is termed a dance floor. It will be realized that this behavior pattern could be upset by some extraneous factor, like a view of the waterfall from the end windows. If we exclude cathedrals and glaciers, the restaurant will fill up on the lines indicated, from left to right. Reluctance to occupy the central space derives from prehistoric instincts. The caveman who entered someone else’s cave was doubtful of his reception and wanted to be able to have his back to the wall and yet with some room to maneuver. In the center of the cave he felt too vulnerable. He therefore sidled round the walls of the cave, grunting and fingering his club. Modern man is seen to do much the same thing, muttering to himself and fingering his club tie. The basic trend of movement at a cocktail party is the same as in a restaurant. The tendency is toward the sides of the space, but not actually reaching the wall.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Personality Screen, Or The Cocktail Formula”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

August 22, 2014

This week in Guild Wars 2

Filed under: Gaming — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:26

My weekly Guild Wars 2 community round-up at GuildMag is now online. This has been a very fraught week for (certain parts of) the Guild Wars 2 fan community … and we at GuildMag were accidentally instrumental in heightening tensions. We published an interview with some ArenaNet developers from gamescom in Cologne, with several questions provided by members of the GW2 community. Some of the answers were perhaps not as well phrased as they could be, and in no time the agitators and conspiracy theorists were in full panicked flight. It took a while to begin to subside, and the ruffled feathers are only just settling back into place.

Next week will be the second anniversary of the GW2 release, but so far ArenaNet hasn’t dropped any hints about what celebrations may be scheduled. There will be a short WvW tournament in September, beginning right after the next feature pack is released.

Aside from the post-interview angststorm, there’s the usual assortment of blog posts, videos, podcasts, and fan fiction from around the GW2 community.

GuildMag logo

Broad, bipartisan support for … conspiracy theories?

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:04

In the Washington Post, Alfred Moore, Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski show that it’s not just fringe activists on either side of the divide that indulge in conspiracy theorizing: it really is just as common on the left as it is on the right.

Krugman makes a fair point: in moderation conspiracy theories may show healthy skepticism, but in excess they can erode the trust needed for states to fulfill their basic functions and warp the respect for evidence necessary for sound decision making.

Yet Krugman is mostly wrong that nuttiness is found mainly among conservatives, and his misperception actually reveals a great deal about U.S. politics. People of all political persuasions believe their views are objectively right and others hold positions that are arbitrary and asinine. Daniel Kahan finds that partisan commitments make people look for evidence to justify their conclusions. Even when, say, liberals come up with a correct answer, it may not have been because of their high esteem for evidence. They just got lucky. The implication is that people use data like drunks use lampposts: more for support than illumination. Columnist Ezra Klein concurs with Kahan, although he points out the large numbers of Republicans who refuse to accept climate science and wonders whether there is a liberal equivalent to climate change denial.

[...]

In our survey, we also measured respondents’ underlying propensity to believe in conspiracy theories — that is, the general mindset that leads people to accept or reject conspiracy theories. We asked respondents whether they agreed with four statements:

  • “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places,”
  • “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway,”
  • “The people who really ‘run’ the country are not known to the voters.”
  • “Big events like wars, the current recession, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us.”

We combined these questions into one summary measure. This graph shows the percentage of Democrats, Republicans, and independents that showed a strong or medium disposition towards thinking conspiratorially.
Conspiracy theories on the left and the right
The upshot: near symmetry between left and right.

If Republicans and Democrats are equally prone to believing in conspiracy theories, where then is the liberal equivalent of climate change denial? An obvious possibility is the belief that Big Oil conspires to marginalize unfavorable findings or block alternative energies. Our survey, for example, shows that 52 percent of Democrats believe corporations are conspiring against us.

The consent of the governed (or policed)

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:53

Kevin Williamson on the declining trust in government, not just in Ferguson, but across the United States:

The mathematics of civil disobedience has always been pretty straightforward: As Mohandas Gandhi pointed out to the raj, 100,000 government officials cannot control 350 million citizens if the citizens do not cooperate. There are not enough police in St. Louis County to control the people who do not wish to be controlled by the police in St. Louis County, as least as currently constituted. There are two ways to govern: By consent or by terror. In the United States, we govern by consent.

(Mostly.)

We spend altogether too much time talking about sentiment, e.g., polling Americans about whether they feel that the laws of economics apply in any given situation, as though their feelings were relevant to it. But there are occasions upon which sentiment must be considered, and considered seriously. One is the matter of public confidence in institutions, and the other is in the very serious business of consent.

On the matter of confidence, it is difficult to fault the critics of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police authorities. They do not give a very strong impression of competence, and the relationship between police and community appears to be adversarial on both sides. The police have been less than forthcoming, and their release of information has been self-serving. Ferguson already was a relatively high-crime area and economically depressed, meaning, almost by definition, that local institutions were failing to do their jobs. There are looters, adventurers, and opportunists, of course, but the fact is that people in the town of Ferguson, Mo., could be at home watching television or updating their Facebook pages but instead are protesting the performance of their local government. That is not an insignificant fact.

[...]

We have seen withdrawals of consent before, and we will see more in the future. From cracked Texas secessionists and Cliven Bundy to the people throwing rocks at police in Ferguson, such gestures are rarely altogether admirable, but that does not make them necessarily illegitimate. (I must confess that I’d have more sympathy with the protesters in Ferguson if they were setting fire to tax offices rather than convenience stores.) (Not that I’m endorsing setting fire to tax offices.) (At this time.) And there are real reasons to consider the question of consent: From local politicians legally looting their communities to federal government that uses the IRS as a weapon of politics, there are real objections to be made. In practical terms, we have a government that interferes with our lives and livelihoods far more than did the one our Founders threw off.

Which is not a call for revolution — it’s a call for rebalancing, for reestablishing exactly who works for whom.

“Overtime” by Charles Stross

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:11

Another short work from the “Laundry” series by Charles Stross:

All bureaucracies obey certain iron laws, and one of the oldest is this: get your seasonal leave booked early, lest you be trampled in the rush.

I broke the rule this year, and now I’m paying the price. It’s not my fault I failed to book my Christmas leave in time — I was in hospital and heavily sedated. But the ruthless cut and thrust of office politics makes no allowance for those who fall in the line of battle: “You should have foreseen your hospitalization and planned around it” said the memo from HR when I complained. They’re quite right, and I’ve made a note to book in advance next time I’m about to be abducted by murderous cultists or enemy spies.

I briefly considered pulling an extended sickie, but Brenda from Admin has a heart of gold; she pointed out that if I volunteered as Night Duty Officer over the seasonal period I could not only claim triple pay and time off in lieu, I’d also be working three grades above my assigned role. For purposes of gaining experience points in the fast-track promotion game they’ve steering me onto, that’s hard to beat. So here I am, in the office on Christmas Eve, playing bureaucratic Pokémon as the chilly rain drums on the roof.

(Oh, you wondered what Mo thinks of this? She’s off visiting her ditz of a mum down in Glastonbury. After last time we agreed it would be a good idea if I kept a low profile. Christmas: the one time of year when you can’t avoid the nuts in your family muesli. But I digress.)

QotD: More similar than different – Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Over the last year, as Rob Ford’s stock has fallen and Justin Trudeau’s has soared to new media driven heights, your humble correspondent has been fascinated. These men are not, as they seem, polar opposites. They are in fact quite similar. It’s only the surface features that are different. Let’s review:

Neither man is especially bright. Ford has a BA in political science from Carleton which is, only technically, a university. Trudeau did, in fairness, attempt an engineering degree so we’ll give him the edge when it comes to smarts. Perhaps he is one of those men who is cleverer with numbers than with words. Whatever their actual differences in raw intellectual power both men are surprisingly inarticulate.

This is obvious with Rob Ford who treats the English language like a sailor treats a Marseilles whore. With Justin it’s a bit harder to detect because he doesn’t actually sound dumb, he merely says dumb things. It’s a clever trick managed by many practiced politician; the ability to sound more intelligent than you are while disclosing nothing in particular. He speaks mostly in platitudes and when he is forced off the Buy the World a Coke routine he fumbles badly. This suggests that he has been well rehearsed. By whom is a matter of debate.

Then there is the vision thing, to borrow from the Elder Bush. Rob Ford’s vision is to stop the Gravy Train. What is the Gravy Train? As far as can be made out it’s over the top spending at Toronto’s City Hall. This he has mostly accomplished. Beyond the Gravy Train we get a little lost. There is little in the way of a comprehensive program of reform. It’s a kind of inarticulate rage at government that never coalesces into a clear goal. Once the minor privatizations and ritual sackings are done with, what’s next? What is Rob Ford vision for Toronto? Subways are nice but a big city needs more than tunnels to Scarborough.

If Rob Ford is angry at something he can’t really explain, Justin is optimistic about something he has no clue about. This is one of their few real differences. Rob Rages and Justin Soothes. Neither is saying much of anything, but the latter sounds very nice while doing so. The former rants about Fat Cats and the latter about how cute kittens can save the country. Both men are, in sense, speaking in platitudes. The questions is what kind of platitudes do you prefer? Angry or vapid?

Richard Anderson, “Rob vs The Raccoons”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-08-20.

August 21, 2014

Jacques Parizeau planned a unilateral declaration of independence after 1995 Quebec referendum

Filed under: Cancon, History, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:26

In the Montreal Gazette, Don Macpherson discusses a new book by Chantal Hébert to be published soon:

They don’t make sovereignist leaders like they used to. It’s hard to imagine any candidate for the Parti Québécois leadership matching the combination of Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard in the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

That referendum wouldn’t have been held without Parizeau’s single-minded pursuit of sovereignty. And the sovereignists wouldn’t have come within fewer than 55,000 votes of winning if it hadn’t been for Bouchard’s ability to gain voters’ trust.

Yet, as a forthcoming book shows, Bouchard did not trust Parizeau — and with reason.

Not only did Parizeau, who was premier, unscrupulously use Bouchard to deceive voters about his intentions, he intended to shove Bouchard aside after a Yes vote so he could make a unilateral declaration of independence.

The book is The Morning After, written by widely respected Ottawa journalist Chantal Hébert. It’s to be published early next month.

It’s based on recent interviews by Hébert and commentator Jean Lapierre (my fellow CTV Montreal political panellist) with political leaders of the day about what they would have done after a Yes vote in 1995.

Update: Paul Wells says the book also discusses an improbable Saskatchewan separation move if Quebec had left Confederation.

A team of Saskatchewan officials worked quietly to develop contingency plans in the event of a Yes vote in the 1995 Quebec referendum — options that included Saskatchewan following Quebec out of Canada, a new book reveals.

Roy Romanow, the premier of Saskatchewan at the time, never told his full cabinet about the secret committee’s work, Romanow told Chantal Hébert, author of The Morning After: The Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was, to be published by Knopf Canada on Sept. 2. Maclean’s has obtained a copy of the book.

“Filed under the boring title of Constitutional Contingencies — a choice intended to discourage curiosity — [the Saskatchewan committee's] work was funded off the books, outside the provincial Treasury Board process, the better to ensure its secrecy,” Hébert writes.

The committee considered a lot of possibilities for the chaotic period Romanow anticipated after a Yes vote — including Saskatchewan seceding from Canada; a Western union of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia; abandoning the Canadian dollar to use the U.S. greenback; and even annexation of Saskatchewan, and perhaps other provinces, to the United States. “In the eventuality of a Yes vote, clearly you need to examine all your options,” Romanow says in the book.

Apparently 1995 was even more of an existential moment than we knew at the time.

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