Curta Calculators

July 3rd, 2013

Fact of the day: the world's first pocket calculator was designed by a concentration camp inmate.

Curt Herzstark's fate seemed to be sealed in 1943 when the Nazis sent him to Buchenwald concentration camp. But then Herzstark, the son of a Jewish industrialist, received the unexpected opportunity to become an Aryan.

"Look, Herzstark," one of the camp commandants said to him, "we know that you are working on a calculating machine. We will permit you to make drawings. If the thing is worth its salt, we'll give it to the Führer after the final victory. He'll certainly make you an Aryan for that."

The engineer had made a pact with the devil. Night after night, after daily forced labor in the camp, Herzstark made detailed design plans for the world's smallest mechanical calculating machine. He was given special rations as motivation, and he eventually survived the concentration camp. […]

I'd seen a CURTA Calculator before, but I didn't know the story behind it.

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German snipers had had him in their sights but, out of pity for this madman, had not fired.

June 14th, 2013

The Economist's obituary for the D-Day piper, published upon his passing away in 2010 at the age of 88, is worth reading right to the very last line:

ANY reasonable observer might have thought Bill Millin was unarmed as he jumped off the landing ramp at Sword Beach, in Normandy, on June 6th 1944. Unlike his colleagues, the pale 21-year-old held no rifle in his hands. Of course, in full Highland rig as he was, he had his trusty skean dhu, his little dirk, tucked in his right sock. But that was soon under three feet of water as he waded ashore, a weary soldier still smelling his own vomit from a night in a close boat on a choppy sea, and whose kilt in the freezing water was floating prettily round him like a ballerina's skirt.

But Mr Millin was not unarmed; far from it. He held his pipes, high over his head at first to keep them from the wet (for while whisky was said to be good for the bag, salt water wasn't), then cradled in his arms to play. And bagpipes, by long tradition, counted as instruments of war. An English judge had said so after the Scots' great defeat at Culloden in 1746; a piper was a fighter like the rest, and his music was his weapon. […]

[Via Electrolite]

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I like his point about how the British PM is a total Mary Sue.

December 31st, 2012

Plot Holes in World War II:

[There are…] some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".

Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? […]

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human. […]

There's an excellent comment thread at the Straight Dope where users expand upon the original thesis:

davidm

You want to talk about lazy writing? You want to talk about deus ex machina? The whole thing gets suddenly cut short by a new mad scientist invention that is orders of magnitude bigger than anything used up to that point. Why even bother with any fighting to begin with? Just pull a crazy ass big bomb out of your butt and obliterate the other side.

They more or less ended the European part of it with an exciting large scale invasion and takeover, then decided to abruptly end the Pacific part of it with some bad science fiction.

[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]

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Fact of the Day

October 31st, 2011

From the BBC News Magazine's obituaries page:

If it had not been for Annie Penrose, RAF pilots might have found themselves piloting Shrews rather than Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. Her father, Sir Robert McLean, was chairman of Vickers between the wars and worked closely with R J Mitchell who was designing a new single-seater fighter. Mitchell had wanted to call the new plane the Shrew but McLean insisted it was called the Spitfire, the nickname he had bestowed on his somewhat headstrong daughter. After opposition from the Air Ministry he finally got his way. Annie, who was born in India, went on to marry the actor Robert Newton before his drinking and womanising led to divorce. She later married Beakus Penrose and became the chatelaine of the Killiow Estate in Cornwall which she ran well into her 80s.

The Supermarine Shrew just doesn't feel right, somehow.

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The (Non-)Fighting 620th

February 19th, 2011

Tom Ricks on a pro-Nazi US Army unit in WWII:

I know it sounds like the reverse of a Quentin Taratino movie, but it is true: During World War II, the Army intentionally formed a unit chockablock with fascisti and their suspected sympathizers. […]

Young [PFC Dale Maple] spoke many languages. But his favorite, alas, was German. At Harvard he got kicked out of ROTC for being vocally pro-German […] Stymied in his hopes to do post-graduate work in Berlin, which was busy with other things at the time, he enlisted in the Army in 1942. The Army had just the place for him: the 620th Engineer General Service Company, which despite its innocuous name was actually a holding unit for about 200 GIs of suspect loyalty, many of them German-born. The unit, which was not given weapons, was located in Camp Hale, Colorado, which is far from any port, but happened to next to an detachment of German PoWs on a work party.

And thereby hangs this tale. […]

[Via Blood & Treasure]

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Are we quite sure this story isn't just a viral for a new Mel Brooks movie?

January 7th, 2011

Hitler-mocking dog enraged Nazis:

BERLIN – Newly discovered documents have revealed a bizarre footnote to the history of the Second World War: a Finnish mutt whose imitation of the Hitler salute enraged the Nazis so deeply that they started an obsessive campaign against the dog's owner.

Absurdly, a totalitarian state that dominated most of Europe was unable to do much about Jackie and his paw-raising parody of Germany's Fuehrer. […]

Half a dozen screenwriters will be sending their agents outline scripts for the film adaptation before the month is out.

[Via The Awl]

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Lord Moran on Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS

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.

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Not exactly subtle

July 13th, 2010

A nice rant on the sheer implausibility of that 'World War II' show1 that The History Channel keeps showing:

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

[Via Making Light (Particles)]

  1. As a UK-based viewer who only has access to Freeview, I can but assume that this is the same show that keeps popping up on Yesterday. Surely it beggars belief that two producers would have come up with the same bad idea simultaneously.

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"Mail!"

August 2nd, 2008

From an obituary for former OSS agent Roger Hall:

One of his favorite OSS stories involved a colleague sent to occupied France to destroy a seemingly impenetrable German tank at a key crossroads. The French resistance found that grenades were no use.

The OSS man, fluent in German and dressed like a French peasant, walked up to the tank and yelled, "Mail!"

The lid opened, and in went two grenades.

[Via Schneier on Security]

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