Archive for the 'Asides' Category

Advancing hordes

[link] Monday, August 11th, 2014


This extraordinary snapshot showing German infantry advancing through crops in a Belgian field captures something of the shock of warfare that — for most people — came more or less out of the blue. I came on it (of course) while I was looking for something else. That’s the Web for you.

Source: Alex Selwyn-Holmes

Google knowledge

[link] Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Nice cartoon in the New Yorker. Wife is mopping up pools of water created by her husband, who is (incompetently) washing up: “Do you really know what you’re doing” she asks, “or do you Google-search know?”

Oh what a complicated war

[link] Friday, August 8th, 2014

I’ve just finished Christopher Clark’s remarkable book about the origins of the First World War. It’s very well-written but it’s not an easy read because Clark’s mill grinds exceedingly fine and he has an astonishing capacity for archival research across a range of languages. So the reader winds up knowing far more than he bargained for about the detailed intricacies of foreign policy and what passed for strategic thinking in a whole range of European governments.

Given that, the sales of the book are nothing short of extraordinary. The Economist claims that it has sold over 300,000 copies, for example. What’s even more extraordinary is that it has sold 130,000 copies in Germany.

This has puzzled some commentators, but I think I know the reason for its popularity there. It is that, whereas the conventional wisdom about responsibility for the war has generally pointed the finger at Germany, Clark’s analysis is more nuanced. One way of interpreting his analysis is that the urge to war was the emergent property of a complex, interactive system, the actors in which were confused, riven by internal contradictions, and had poor information about the intentions and deliberations of all the other players in the game.

Here’s how he puts it in his conclusion:

“The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime. Acknowledging this does not mean that we should minimise the belligerence and imperialist paranoia of the Austrian and German policy-makers that rightfully absorbed the attention of Fritz Fischer and his historiographical allies. But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. But it was also multipolar and genuinely interactive – that is what makes it the most complex event of modern times and that is why the debate over the origins of the First World War continues, one century after Gavrilo Princip fired those two fatal shots on Franz Joseph Street.”

How Hamas does rocketry

[link] Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Interesting video by a journalist with more courage than sense.

History doesn’t repeat itself. But our politicians do.

[link] Monday, August 4th, 2014

Terrific polemic by Simon Jenkins.

The most sensible commemoration of any war is not to repeat it. Hence, presumably, the constant references by this week’s celebrants to “drawing lessons” and “lest we forget”. But this is mere cliche if no lessons are then drawn, or if drawn are then forgotten.

The Great War centenary should indeed have been a festival of lessons. Historians have had a field day arguing over its enduring puzzle – not its conduct or its outcome, but its cause. I have come close to changing my mind with each book I have read, veering from Chris Clark’s cobweb of treaties and tripwires to the majority view that firmly blames the Kaiser and Germany. But I have read precious few lessons.

The truth is that Britain is as bad as America at learning from old wars. The American defence secretary during Vietnam, Robert McNamara, remarked that every lesson of Vietnam was ignored by the invasion of Iraq. In the past decade Britain has waged three unprovoked wars – on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – at a vast cost in lives and destruction, and no obvious benefit to anyone. The invasion of Afghanistan ignored the lesson of all previous conflicts in the region and is duly being lost. The truth is that “drawing lessons” has become code for celebrating victory.

I doubt if any lessons will be drawn next year from the anniversaries of Agincourt (1415) or Waterloo (1815) – and certainly none from the Battle of New Orleans (1815). We will just ring bells, bake cakes and put on costumes.

I particularly like the way he winds it up:

The chief lesson of 1914 must be not recklessly to rattle sabres across the frontiers of Europe until all else is lost. The Germans have learned that. In Ukraine they are still counselling restraint. Britain is doing the opposite, as its leaders gently dust themselves in glory. When Cameron last year allotted £50m to “remembering the lessons” of 1914, he was also planning to go to war on Syria. I wonder what lesson taught him that.

The guns of August

[link] Monday, August 4th, 2014


Last night we had dinner with friends in a hilltop restaurant in Provence. We sat on the terrace, looking down on the valley below, with the blue remembered hills of the Luberon in the distance. It was one of those beautiful Provencal evenings — warm and comforting, with that marvellous light that brought Van Gogh, Cezanne & Co to this part of the world. All around us were the murmurs of conversation from other diners. At a nearby table was a large party of Spanish cyclists who had just returned from climbing Mont Ventoux. It was wonderfully peaceful and convivial, made even better by the company and two nice Cote du Rhone wines.

And then I suddenly thought that on an evening just like this, 100 years ago, there would have been parties of comfortable French bourgeoisie sitting in just such a restaurant as this, enjoying a quiet evening together, with no idea of what was to come, no real appreciation of the horrors that European nations were about to unleash upon one another.

And then I thought: surely it couldn’t happen again. Could it?. See Article 5 of the treaty that set up NATO.

Common sense about guns is, well, uncommon

[link] Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

Terrific NYT column by Nicholas Kristof. Sample:

If we had the same auto fatality rate today that we had in 1921, by my calculations we would have 715,000 Americans dying annually in vehicle accidents.

Instead, we’ve reduced the fatality rate by more than 95 percent — not by confiscating cars, but by regulating them and their drivers sensibly.

We could have said, “Cars don’t kill people. People kill people,” and there would have been an element of truth to that. Many accidents are a result of alcohol consumption, speeding, road rage or driver distraction. Or we could have said, “It’s pointless because even if you regulate cars, then people will just run each other down with bicycles,” and that, too, would have been partly true.

Yet, instead, we built a system that protects us from ourselves. This saves hundreds of thousands of lives a year and is a model of what we should do with guns in America.

Whenever I write about the need for sensible regulation of guns, some readers jeer: Cars kill people, too, so why not ban cars? Why are you so hypocritical as to try to take away guns from law-abiding people when you don’t seize cars?

That question is a reflection of our national blind spot about guns. The truth is that we regulate cars quite intelligently, instituting evidence-based measures to reduce fatalities. Yet the gun lobby is too strong, or our politicians too craven, to do the same for guns. So guns and cars now each kill more than 30,000 in America every year.

Interesting also that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution (the right to bear arms) was not viewed as being sacrosanct until comparatively recently. Kristof points out that “the paradox is that a bit more than a century ago there was no universally recognised individual right to bear arms in the United States, but there was widely believed to be a ‘right to travel’ that allowed people to drive cars without regulation.”

How you can have too much of a good thing. Or at any rate, too much publicity

[link] Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

I asked a friend the other day whether he had read Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. “No”, he said, “though I’ve bought it”. Since he’s one of the most voracious readers I know, I asked him to explain. “Because I’ve read so many reviews of it”, he replied, “I think I know what I need to know about his argument”.

My friend is a very busy guy, and has to read a lot of stuff for his work, so I could sympathise with his conclusion.

The essence of Piketty’s argument is pretty straightforward — inequalities in wealth, which had declined over the period 1914-1950, are now again rising to Belle Epoque levels– and many of the innumerable reviews summarise it pretty well. But taking that utilitarian view of a book is a bit like straining dumpling soup through a colander. You get the dumplings, sure, but the soup escapes. And the nice thing about the Piketty book is that it’s very well written and in many places a delight to read. (Which of course is partly a tribute to its translator, Arthur Goldhammer.) So Piketty’s literary style, the allusions to fiction, etc. is the analogue of the soup.

Still, at least ‘Capital”s has sold in huge numbers. A couple of years ago, however, I came on another case of a really ‘big’ book: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity. I had an enjoyable conversation with Pinker before it came out, and the book had a huge (and no doubt very expensive) pre-launch PR campaign. For a couple of weeks, Pinker was everywhere. There were dozens of serious reviews. So it looked like it would be a really big deal in publishing terms.

And then a friend who is published by the same publishing house (Penguin) told me that its executives were discombobulated by the book’s poor sales in the UK.

My interpretation was that the publicity campaign had been too successful. As with Piketty’s book, Pinker’s main message — that, in the long view of history, the level of violence in human society has been steadily decreasing over a long period — is both intriguing and straightforward. So people felt that they didn’t need to wade through 1056 pages to get it. And so they didn’t buy the book.

What the (early) scientist saw

[link] Monday, July 28th, 2014


Robert Hooke would have been 379 today. The British Library has marked his birthday with a nice blog post on how he did his remarkable drawings of tiny organisms while peering through a crude microscope. It includes this astonishing drawing of a flea.

Once upon a time…

[link] Monday, July 28th, 2014

… even huge corporations didn’t know about the Internet. Kevin Kelly pointed me to this Wired piece by Joshua Quittner that appeared way back when. This is how it begins:

I’m waiting for a call back from McDonald’s, the hamburger people. They’re trying to find me someone – anyone – within corporate headquarters who knows what the Internet is and can tell me why there are no Golden Arches on the information highway.

It’s true: there is no on the Internet. No either.


“Are you finding that the Internet is a big thing?” asked Jane Hulbert, a helpful McDonald’s media-relations person, with whom I spoke a short while ago.

Yes, I told her. In some quarters, the Internet is a very big thing.

I explained a little bit about what the Big Thing is, and how it works, and about the Net Name Gold Rush that’s going on. I told her how important domain names are on the Internet (“Kind of like a phone number. It’s where you get your e-mail. It’s part of your address.”), and I explained that savvy business folks are racing out and registering any domain name they can think of: their own company names, obviously, and generic names like and, and silly names that might have some kind of speculative value one day, like

“Some companies,” I told Jane Hulbert, “are even registering the names of their competitors.”

“You’re kidding,” she said.

I am not, I told her, recounting the story of The Princeton Review, the Manhattan-based company that sells SAT prep courses, and how it registered the name of its arch-rival, Now the lawyers are working it out in court. Very ugly. (We’ll get to that later.)

“I could register McDonald’s right now,” I said, pointing out that the name is still unclaimed.

“You could?” she asked, then quickly answered my silence: “You could.”

“So could Burger King,” I said, and Jane Hulbert rang off, looking for some MIS person with the answers.

Those were the days.