Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Depths of Folly

After the assassination of the heir to the throne in Sarajevo by Serbian extremists, the Austrian hawks had the excuse for war that they had been clamoring for. As in the case of the 9/11 attack almost a century later, the Austrians had abetted the attackers by their reckless disregard of clear warnings. The depth of the Austrian folly can be grasped in the reaction of the chief of the general staff and principal Austrian warmonger.

Conrad, who as chief of the general staff had been clamoring for war ever since the Bosnian crisis in 1908, heard the news as he changed trains in Zagreb. He wrote immediately to his beloved Gina. Serbia was clearly behind the assassinations and Austria-Hungary should have dealt with it long since. The future of the Dual Monarchy now looked grim, he went on: Russia would probably support Serbia and Rumania would have to be counted as an enemy as well. Nevertheless, he told Gina, war there must be: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so old a Monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously.”

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 10389-10395). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

These words would suggest that he had some appreciation of the folly he was bent on committing his nation, and, as it happened, the world to.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

War and Terror: 1914

MacMillan on the Serbian terrorists who lit the fuse:

The act which was going to send Europe on the final leg of its journey towards the Great War was the work of fanatical Slav nationalists, the Young Bosnians, and their shadowy backers in Serbia. The assassins themselves and their immediate circle 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...


The leader of the assassination plot was a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, the slight, introverted and sensitive son of a hardworking farmer. Princip, who had longings to be a poet, had gone from one school to another without conspicuous success. “Wherever I went, people took me for a weakling,” he told the police after he was arrested on June 28, “and I pretended that I was a weak person, even though I was not.” 7 In 1911 he was drawn into the subterranean world of revolutionary politics. He and several of his friends who were to become his co-conspirators dedicated themselves to acts of terror against important targets, whether the old Emperor himself, or someone close to him. In the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the victories of Serbia and the great increase in its territories inspired them afresh to think that the final triumph of the South Slavs was not far off. 8 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.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 10271-10283). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Some Books

...Are magical attractants for a kind of ignorant hysteria. You can usually identify them on Amazon by a couple of traits: they have large proportions of the highest and lowest ratings, with little in between, and the negative ratings come overwhelmingly from those who are not Amazon verified purchasers. The latter circumstance is hardly proof that they haven't read the book, but it is a clue.

Of course any book advocating a polarizing position is likely to attract both hostility and support, but the distinguishing characteristic is whether any cogent arguments are brought to the case. The distinguishing characteristic of what I tend to think of as the ignorant non-reader review is the one sentence slam with no particulars, like this canonical example:

Lousy book - very biased and without much research. tendency to twist facts and research to push own conclusions.

Said of a book with several thousand specific citations of original documents.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Gathering of Jackals

The death spasms of the ancient Ottoman Empire were a major factor in precipitating World War One. That empire was dying, and much of Europe wanted a piece. Britain had grabbed Egypt, France had gobbled up several North African territories, and Russia and Austria Hungary had major ambitions in Europe. Germany wanted a piece of the African action, and so did Italy, but the most fraught struggle was in the Balkans.

The major powers were not the only ones engaged in trying to gnaw off pieces of the not yet dead Ottoman corpse. Various Balkan provinces had briefly united to throw off Ottoman rule, but promptly turned on each other afterwards, each trying to grab more of the common pie. Hundreds of years of imperial rule had shaken, stirred, and mixed the various ethnicities, but rising nationalist sentiment everywhere was undoing the mix. Then, as now, every tinpot imperialist could claim to be intervening to protect their fellow Christians, Catholics, Orthodox, fellow Slavs, Serbs or whatever.

The most powerful and aggressive Balkan country was Serbia, and Serbia's Russian ambassador was inciting its extremists even while his bosses, the Foreign Minister and the Tsar were urging them to dial it back. Russia's big stake was preservation of its access through the straights connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the world. Austria Hungary feared Serbia, which was already agitating among the Slavs of its Empire, and desperately did not want it to get territory and a seaport on the Adriatic.

Again and again these conflicts brought Europe to the brink, until the Serbian murder of the Archduke and heir to the Austro Hungarian monarchy pushed it over.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Out of Style

Lately I find myself thinking that Taylor Swift's relentless narcissism is getting just a bit too tedious.

Naturally, I found myself humming Style about 40 minutes later.

Friday, April 10, 2015

GRBs: Astro FOTD

Gamma Ray Bursts, during their brief (seconds or so) existence are the brightest objects in the universe, hundreds or thousands of times as bright as a quasar and millions of times as bright as a supernova. Brilliance and brevity both present related puzzles. If the gamma rays released are thermal, the implied temperatures (trillions of K) are implausible, and the brevity of the emission time is also hard to explain, if we assume that emitting shock wave cools by collision with the interstellar medium.

Both effects are believed to be explained by the ultrarelativistic character of the shock wave, moving at a speed just barely lower than the speed of light. Gamma = sqrt(1/(1-v^2/c^2)) is 1000 or more. This produces a relativistic Doppler effect, which can be considered to be the combination of an ordinary Doppler effect with relativistic time dilation. Because the source is coming rapidly toward us the emitted radiation doesn't get very far ahead of the shock wave that emitted it. This compresses both radiated wavelength and pulse length. As a result, energy released while the shock wave traveled light weeks is compressed into seconds or minutes, and energy radiated at X-ray wavelengths is blue shifted to gamma radiation.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Military Fantasies

A large and influential proportion of the military leaders just prior to World War I had embraced a fantasy version of war, one founded in the tactics and strategy of Napoleon but made utterly obsolete by the machine gun, the long range rifle, and rifled artillery. They imagined a war in which the offense, the infantry and cavalry charges would be quickly decisive.

“It must be accepted as a principle,” said the 1907 British cavalry manual, “that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel.” There was talk too of breeding stronger and faster horses to gallop quicker across the fire zone.

Attack, battles, a war itself, all were to be fast and, crucially, short. “The first great battle,” an officer told the French parliament in 1912, “will decide the whole war, and wars will be short. The idea of offense must penetrate the spirit of our nation.”

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 6348-6353). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This fantasy depended on a combination of wishful thinking and ignoring the lessons of the American Civil War and the Boer War. It should seem bizarre and preposterous to us - as it proved to be - but was it any more preposterous than the American military's infatuation with counter-insurgency tactics in the last 60 years?

Sports Reporting

The lede of the NYT story on the NCAA Finals.

This was a heavyweight fight of a college championship game, with two fine teams, Wisconsin and Duke, trading right crosses, hooks and uppercuts.

I saw some of that, especially from Duke, but I think they played some basketball too.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Spring Offensive?

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark, fresh from a fact finding trip to Ukraine, predicts a Russian offensive in Ukraine this Spring.

Russian-backed separatists are planning a fresh offensive in eastern Ukraine that could come within a matter of months, warns retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander.

“What is happening now is preparations for a renewed offensive from the east,” and this could take place following Orthodox Easter, on April 12, and “most probably” before VE Day on May 8, Clark said on March 30, citing multiple local sources he spoke with on a recent fact-finding mission to Ukraine.

“That’s what all the talking is about right now, preparing the cover for the next attack,” he said.

Peace Partisans

Organized movements to warn against war developed and grew in the decades before World War I. Prescient individuals from Alfred Nobel to the elder Field Marshall von Moltke foresaw the catastrophic effects of war with modern weapons. These movements were a counter current to the growing militarism of the age, and a reaction to arms race that gripped all of Europe and beyond. Their reach was not uniform, however.

The German peace movement never had more than about 10,000 members, who were drawn mainly from the lower middle classes. Unlike Britain, for example, it did not attract eminent professors, leading businessmen or members of the aristocracy. Where senior clergy supported the British or American movements, in Germany the churches generally denounced it on the grounds that war was part of God’s plan for mankind. 25 Nor did liberals take the lead in supporting peace in Germany as they did in other countries such as Britain and France.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 5638-5642). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.