June 20th, 2012
At BLDGBLOG, evidence that the Swiss take the concept of national security very seriously:
McPhee describes [...] how the Swiss military has, in effect, wired the entire country to blow in the event of foreign invasion. To keep enemy armies out, bridges will be dynamited and, whenever possible, deliberately collapsed onto other roads and bridges below; hills have been weaponized to be activated as valley-sweeping artificial landslides; mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters; and much more.
[Via Bruce Schneier]
April 17th, 2012
This Past Imperfect post about Closing the Pigeon Gap is a fascinating look at how 19th century continental powers made use of networks of carrier pigeons in wartime, and how the British responded to the perceived threat of a Pigeon Gap developing. All good stuff.
And then there's this one passage that reads like a scene from a discarded Blackadder Goes Forth script, recounting a description by Lieutenant Alan Goring of a sticky moment during the Passchendaele offensive of 1917:
[...] I was left with just a handful of men, all that was left out of those three platoons…. We had two pigeons in a basket, but the trouble was that the wretched birds had got soaked when the platoon floundered into the flooded ground. We tried to dry one of them off as best we could, and I wrote a message, attached it to its leg, and sent it off.
To our absolute horror, the bird was so wet that it just flapped into the air and then came straight down again, and started actually walking towards the German line. Well, if that message had got into the Germans' hands, they would have known that we were on our own and we'd have been in real trouble. So we had to try to shoot the pigeon before he got there. A revolver was no good. We had to use rifles, and there we were, all of us, rifles trained over the edge of this muddy breastwork trying to shoot this bird scrambling about in the mud. It hardly presented a target at all.
March 15th, 2012
The Body Counter, or, What Statistical Analysis Can Teach Us about Atrocities…
Traditionally, human rights work has been more akin to investigative reporting, but [Patrick] Ball is the most influential of a handful of people around the world who see that world not in terms of words, but of figures. His specialty is applying quantitative analysis to mountains of anecdotes, finding the correlations that coax out a story that cannot easily be dismissed.
In testifying [during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic], Ball was doing something other human rights workers can only fantasize about: He confronted the accused, presented him with evidence, and watched him being held to account. At that point, Milosevic in his four wars had killed some 125,000 people, more than anyone in Europe since Stalin. But now the Butcher of the Balkans sat in a courtroom that looked rather like a community college classroom, with two Dutch police officers behind him and his cell waiting for him at the end of each day's session, rhetorical bluster his only available weapon against Ball's evidence.
Milosevic died before the trial ended. Ball returned to Washington and then went on to Lima to work for Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission — one of dozens of truth commissions, tribunals, and investigatory bodies where his methods have changed our understanding of war. [...]
June 19th, 2011
This is a few years old now, but still worth a read: David Rees deciphers Cormac Ignatieff's The Road…
Hello everyone! Personal message to all the New Yorkers out there: Did you read Michael Ignatieff's essay in the the NY Times Magazine? If so, contact me ASAP to let me know you're OK. I put your flyer up at Grand Central Station, but have heard no response.
Myself, I'm just making my way out of the debilitating Level-Five Mind Fog that came from reading the thing. Even my "Second Life avatar" has a headache! (Hey young people, did I get that right? Hope so! See you in "Warcraft Worlds!")
The essay is called "Getting Iraq Wrong." And baby, if Michael Ignatieff got Iraq wrong, I don't want him to be right! Because this essay can MAKE LEMONADE IN YOUR MIND. [...]
[Via MeFi user docgonzo, posting to this MetaFilter thread]
May 13th, 2011
John Naughton relates a lovely line from a recent lecture by Peter Hennessy in which he touched upon the issue of how a Prime Minister deals with his or her responsibilities as regards the potential deployment of the UK's nuclear deterrent:
Hennessy was very interesting on this function of the Prime Minister, which he calls "end of the world stuff". The big issue is the instructions that Trident captains are given before embarking on the 90-day patrol during which time they are are largely incommunicado. Each incoming PM is now required to write, on four handwritten sheets of paper, the four options that the commander of the submarine is given. These sheets are then sealed and the envelope lodged in the submarine's safe. Hennessy raised a grim laugh when he claimed that Tony Blair "went white" when this was explained to him, and speculated that one of his concerns was that the trident patrols are not synchronised with the electoral cycle: when Blair arrived in Downing Street, one of the subs was on patrol – with John Major's handwritten instructions in the vessel's safe!
May 6th, 2011
Do you know what a "mercy dog" was? I didn't:
[In World War I...] These dogs walked among the troops on a battlefield, after the fighting had simmered down, carrying saddlebags of first-aid supplies. Wounded soldiers could call the dogs over and then help themselves whatever they needed. Those who were more gravely wounded could call the dogs over so they could embrace them and have their company while they died.
January 2nd, 2011
The Wellcome Library blog has a fascinating post about newly-released papers written by Churchill's personal physician, Lord Moran:
Churchill himself is examined closely, in passages written towards the end of the conflict when Moran takes stock of the traits of character that both helped and obstructed the war effort: the supreme self-confidence that enabled Churchill to take on and hold the responsibility of wartime leadership leading also to problems in his management of his subordinates. In a particularly revealing file, PP/CMW/K.5/5/1, we read
While he could concentrate for six hours at a stretch on intricate documents and feel at the end of it that he was just beginning the night's work … he also had grave disabilities which added to the strain. He had no gift of devolution. He liked a finger in every pie. Rowan [Leslie Rowan, Churchill's private secretary] complained at Potsdam that he could not get the P.M. to read important papers and yet he would not hand over anything…
Perhaps Winston found that when he did choose a man to do a job of work he so often let him down. For he had no gift of picking people. It was his Achilles heel… he is always losing opportunities of learning by his desire to instruct, or at any rate by his urge to lay down some proposition. That is the secret of his inability to pick the right right people, he isn't interested in them.
October 24th, 2010
Joshua Casteel on Call of Duty: Gaming and Reality in Modern Warfare…
[Playing in 'The Pit', an introductory section of 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2' designed to get the player used to the game mechanics...] The reflexes come back to you. Pop-ups painted like Zarqawi and bin Laden spring up from behind concrete road blocks, sandbags, petroleum barrels, interspersed between pop-ups of fat old men with glasses who look like professors, and women in burkas and hijabs, and kids with backpacks. A few pop-ups that look like leftovers from the Eighties and Nineties – more IRA than al-Qaida – sometimes make it into the rotation. They stutter your trigger rhythms. But the civilian pop-ups, Irish or Arab, look as scared as the enemy ones look scary. That gut contrast is critical. You gotta stay general. If you stop too long to look, trying to spot the visual differences between a ski mask and a kefia, you're done. You gotta just see, like you're seeing with your stomach, so you're not looking, you're seeing, and once you're seeing, you're firing, which means they're dead and you're not. You can't trust details. The moment passes. And you remember. And it's not like you don't already know it, but you do have to remind yourself. This is just a game. So you remember: you did the real thing.
My deployment to Iraq, June 2004: I'm the only one to raise a hand when my convoy commander – a sunglass-wearing, steely-jawed stereotype of himself – asks who's never done this before. [...]
[Via Give Me Something To Read]
August 2nd, 2010
Daniel Drezner's Night of the Living Wonks: Toward an international relations theory of zombies is all sorts of fun:
II. Unite-to-Fight-Zombie Liberals
Like realism, there are many varieties of liberalism. All liberals nevertheless share a belief that cooperation is still possible in a world of anarchy. Liberals look at world politics as a non-zero-sum game. Working together, whether on international trade, nuclear nonproliferation, or disease prevention, can yield global public goods on a massive scale. Major actors in world politics have an incentive to realize the gains that come from long-term mutual cooperation and avoid the costs that come with mutual defection.
A second glance reveals that the liberal paradigm offers some significant analytical bite. Romantic zombie comedies — rom-zom-coms for short — contain both implicit and explicit elements of liberalism. The 2009 film Zombieland is about the articulation of and adherence to well-defined rules for surviving in a zombie-infested landscape. Its central message — beyond the need for cardio workouts — is the need for disparate individuals to credibly commit to each other.
At the climax of Shaun of the Dead, Shaun rallies his friends and relations with a stirring paean to liberalism: "As Bertrand Russell once said, 'The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.' I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that now." [...]
[Via Ben Hammersley's return to old-fashioned blogging]
July 20th, 2010
The Battle of Britain, Day by Day:
Day 11 – July 20th 1940
Weather: Thunderstorms in the Channel, patchy clouds over Dover.
A large convoy was attacked opposite Dover. In a dogfight above this convoy, 2 Hurricanes were lost and 4 damaged. There was a major dogfight when 50 Me109s and Me110s clashed with some 24 Hurricanes and Spitfires. The RAF lost that day 3 aircraft against 9 German aircraft destroyed which included 5 Me109s. The day's performance made up for the previous day's disappointing tally.
PO DH Wissler – Diary, 20 July
It was my evening off and Brigid managed to get a pass so we went out to the "Red Lion" near Duxford and had dinner together in F/L Quinn's car. A very nice evening.
[Via Ben Hammersley's return to old-fashioned blogging]
May 16th, 2010
See the cake that inspired what Time magazine described as "probably the harshest words ever spoken of a dessert."
[Via Blood & Treasure]
April 11th, 2010
Adam Curtis on history repeating itself in Afghanistan:
There is a growing sense in the West that we no longer know what we are fighting for in Afghanistan. The question that is almost never asked is what they are fighting for? What do the Taliban want?
We are told that we are fighting to prevent terrorist attacks in Europe and America. But the reality is that the Taliban have no interest in attacking the West. In the public imagination and in much journalism the Taliban are seen as exactly the same as political Islamists such as bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. The truth is that they are the very opposite of each other. [...]
The truth is that we may be fighting an enemy in Helmand – and soon in Kandahar too – that also no longer knows what it is fighting for. Both sides are locked together in a nihilistic war.
But the fascinating thing is that we, the British, have been through all this before in Afghanistan.
In 1919 there was a grand attempt to create a modern Islamist state in Afghanistan. But it collapsed into civil war and horror and led to the resurgence of old Islam coupled with the most traditional and reactionary forces in the country. And the Royal Air Force and British army was left fighting a futile, pointless war in the mountains of Waziristan. [...]
February 23rd, 2010
September 13th, 2009
After World War II, St Nazaire on France's Atlantic coast was left with a huge concrete eyesore: a U-boat base big enough to house 19 subs and built to survive Allied bombs. The question is, what can you do with 480,000m3 of concrete?:
In the former U-boat pens you can find the Base Bar, the tourist information center for St. Nazaire, a theatre, exhibition space, a museum of Trans-Atlantic ship travel, a night club/performance space, and just some kick-ass concrete caverns. It makes under-the-freeway spaces look pretty tame.
The photos at the linked article are impressive, not least the shot taken directly in front of the U-boat pens that turned out to be so big it had to be posted sideways.
August 26th, 2009
To anyone who lived through the Cold War, it's not really a surprise that the Soviet Union had prepared meticulous plans for conducting an invasion of the UK.
It's the little details that pique your interest:
1974 was a terrible year for Manchester, with United relegated to the second division for the first time in four decades and power cuts forced by the three-day week declared by Edward Heath's collapsing Tory government.
But the city would have been even more jittery had it known that in Moscow Soviet generals were eyeing the A56 between Deansgate and Stretford and checking that T-72 battle tanks could use the Mancunian Way.
The maps were analysed to get a sense of Soviet spies' efficiency, which fell down on the intricacies of the then-developing industrial estate at Trafford Park. Like many local visitors, the mapmakers got lost in the maze of new factories, and decided to steer their tanks past on the A57 and the Chester Road.
It's enough to make you wonder whether the occasional wacky set of travel directions from Google Maps or the AA Route Planner is part of a campaign of misinformation rather than a consequence of an inadequate algorithm or shortcomings in their mapping data.