Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘history

Through Thick and Thin 2013

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Welcome new readers! Apparently one of my old posts made the front page of Reddit on 6 January, and I received over 200,000 hits in the days that followed. Typically I only get about a thousand hits a day, so for Doug’s Darkworld this was pretty crazy. The good kind of crazy. And of course I’d like to thank whoever posted on Reddit for me in the first place, I probably could figure it out if I looked, but I’m a writer, not an Internet geek. Hell, I didn’t even know what Reddit was until a few days ago and I looked it up on Wikipedia. In any event it’s a good way to start the year, and this is a good time to set course in 2013. What’s in store for Doug’s Darkworld?

For one thing, it’s not going to be quite so dark this year. I’m going to be posting less about politics and current events, and more about science and history. I enjoy writing the later more, but am more compelled to rant about the former. Still, being a grown-up (“There are no adults.”) means controlling  one’s impulses. I plan on more movie reviews too,  again, because it gives me pleasure to both watch a movie, and to deconstruct it afterwards. Granted my movie reviews tend to be dated, as I usually wait for the CD to watch a movie, but the good things in life are worth waiting for. I may blog more on current cultural events. I was tickled pink by the Gangnam Style phenomena last year, and also amazed by the negative reaction to it in some quarters. Lastly I will also try to add a bit more levity this year. Try likely being the operative word, my humor tends to go over a lot of people’s heads. Or under or around. Like the image above, it still makes me smile.

As always, I am open to suggestions about topics to write about. Sometimes I get to them promptly. Sometimes not. I still plan a post about the battle of Pegasus Bridge for example, and that was suggested years ago. Comments are always welcome as well, as long as they are reasonably polite. Granted I have had very few comments over the years that fell into “We’re you raised in a barn?” category. I think that speaks highly of my readers. (The spam-catcher isn’t perfect, if someone’s highly crafted comment doesn’t post, it was misidentified as spam. Fire me an email and I will rectify the situation.) Also I suspect that I piss off the type of people who would make such comments, they rarely seem to follow my blog for long. I’m not complaining.

Fortunately, aside from the ongoing collapse of the US Empire, we still live in a  Golden Age of science and space exploration. Endless fodder for blog posts. And new discoveries in archeology and paleontology give new insight into our past all the time.  It’s safe to say that there has never been an era where humans were discovering so  such about the universe around us, and our own past and place in it. Even as a child it filled me with wonder, and as I have grown older, the wonder at same has increased. For me I’m perpetually a ten year on Christmas,  science puts new presents under the tree every day. It’s a dream come true, how could I not write about it?

Have a great 2013 all, old readers and new!

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, its use here in no conceivable way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image, and arguably Tardar Sauce is a historically significant figure. Yes, that was a joke. See what I mean about my sense of humor? Credit and copyright: Tardar Sauce. Did I mention I will post more cat posts?)


Written by unitedcats

January 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm

The greatest empire in history, and the USA hasn’t won a war since 1945?

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Being all too focused on America’s endless wars, I sometimes lose track of the big picture. This little factoid was brought to my attention recently, and as all bloggers do, I thought, “This will be a cool blog topic!” Even better, I remembered it. Yes, despite the fact that we have more firepower than God, a network of global bases and fleets, and staggering spending on our military by any standard … the past few decades of military history has been pretty dismal. At least in terms of wars where the USA was fighting a substantial adversary, “wars” like Grenada and Panama don’t count. Let’s review, from most recent wars back to World War Two …

Afghanistan. Um, longest war in America’s history. Our enemy is as strong as ever. I guess it could still turn into a win, but right now it’s a very very expensive draw at best. Libya. Well, we’re claiming it as some sort of win, but the jury’s still out. And, well, our ambassador being killed like a dog is not exactly normally associated with victorious wars. Iraq. Right. Only people with surgically induced tunnel vision claim that as a win. No WMDs, Iraq now aligned with Iran, Iraq now a world class terrorist haven, Russia and China got their oil. We didn’t even get T-shirts. Then there’s the Serbian war, where we “freed” Kosovo. Except ten years later it’s still a criminal haven that hasn’t even been able to qualify for independence, with ethnic violence all too common.

Back to the eighties, there’s Iraq war I and Kuwait, where we saved a feudal Monarchy from a tin pot dictator in a “war” that we engineered. Kuwait had a farce democracy for a few years after the war, but that was it. Saddam was still around, Al-Qaeda was created, and the stage was set for the disastrous second Iraq war and occupation. Some might claim the Cold War as a victory, but it’s pretty hard to make the case. The USSR collapsed because large scale centrally run economies don’t work, and they thought they could invade and occupy Afghanistan. In any event the Cold War hardly fits any reasonable definition of war.

Then we get to Vietnam. I think I can safely say this was a draw at best. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City. The Korean War? Well, technically it’s not over yet. And the North Koreans, whatever else they may be, are armed to the teeth including nuclear weapons. Hardly a win. No, one has to go back to 1945, and Japan and Germany’s unconditional surrender to the USA to find a clear cut American victory. And even that is not without its critics, Eastern Europe was thrown to the wolves after the war for starters. Still, that’s 1945, it’s been some 67 years ago and 12 administrations without a Vday moment. Now I begin to see why Obama claimed that the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was one of the greatest military operations in US history, by recent standards, maybe it was.

Does this mean anything? I think it does. It hardly goes with American’s seemingly unshakeable conviction in their military might. Granted American’s being out of touch with reality is nothing new, but it would be nice if more of them recognized the limits of military power. That’s the main lesson in this, since World War Two there have been limits to what can be accomplished with military might. Yet Americans and the American government persist in thinking and acting upon the idea that military power can accomplish anything. Even worse, as a government and a nation we appear to be oblivious to the fact that not only are there limits to military power, waging war almost always has unintended negative consequences.

And as these consequences manifest, our response is often more war! This is a huge part of the reason why the Middle East and North Africa are spiralling out of control, for decades the USA and Israel have been waging war in the region in a quixotic attempt to reshape the region into a compliant western oil field. Every war creates new enemies and often strengthens old ones. I fear now that World War Three has already begun and not only are we blind to it, we have trapped ourselves in a spiral where our leaders are just going expand the war. We need new leadership with a  new vision for America’s role in the world, because our cowboy foreign policy isn’t working. Ain’t gonna happen this election though.

“He who defends everything, defends nothing.”    — Frederick III

(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law  as it was produced by a Federal Employee in the course of their duties. It’s the Japanese delegation arriving on the US Missouri to sign the unconditional surrender of Japan, ending World War Two. The guy on the front left actually argued vociferously against the war, and was demoted to postmaster somewhere in China two days before the war. They brought him back into the government in time to sign the surrender papers, but Stalin had him jailed as a war criminal anywise.)

Written by unitedcats

October 6, 2012 at 11:36 am

Ten World War Two Allied military blunders (Part 2)

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This is the second part of ten Allied military blunders of World War Two. The comments I made at the beginning of the first article still apply. The only thing I would add is that I have tried to select lesser known blunders, especially ones that made for an interesting story. With no further ado:

6. The British campaign in Norway. This one is complicated. Basically at the beginning of World War Two Germany invaded Norway to secure important bases and transport routes for Swedish iron ore. The British (and French) hastily assembled forces to prevent the Germans from occupying all of Norway. Carefully laid plan vs hasty slapdash plan, guess who won? While the Germans lost ships they could ill afford to lose, British losses were significant too. And, basically, pointless. Wikipedia: Allied Campaign in Norway

7. The sinking of the HMS Glorious. This one is still a mystery. The British Aircraft Carrier Glorious was ferrying planes out of Norway after the failed British intervention there, and was given permission to travel essentially alone back to Britain through an area where German surface ships might be operating, no convincing explanation of why this was allowed has ever surfaced. More puzzling, even though visibility was excellent, the Glorious had no planes in the air, and didn’t even have anyone in its crow’s nest to scan the horizon! And as a result, they were caught completely by surprise by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The two escorting British destroyers made basically suicidal attacks to lay smoke screens and delay the Germans so that the Glorious could get some planes in the air, they were both blown out of the water as destroyers are simply no match for battlecruisers. And the Scharnhorst’s gunner then made a direct hit on the Glorious at a distance of nearly 15 miles, one of the longest range hits ever made with naval guns, destroying the two planes that were being readied and blowing a big hole in the carrier’s flight deck and making it impossible to launch planes. Within two ours of sighting the Germans, the Glorious and its escorts ere sunk, with a loss of over 1500 men, fewer than 50 survived. As one last clusterfuck, either the Glorious didn’t radio for help, or no one received the message, because the British didn’t know the Glorious had been sunk until they heard it on German news broadcasts. Wikipedia: The sinking of the HMS Glorious

8. Operation Menace. After the fall of France one of the major issues was where would France’s colonies go, with the Free French or with the German installed Vichy government in France. Dakar, an important West African port in the now nation of Senegal went with the Vichy government. De Gaulle insisted that the French forces there would quickly come over to the Free French if he showed up, Churchill believed him, and a hastily assembled force was sent to Dakar: Operation Menace. It was a comedy of errors from the beginning, secrecy as so poorly kept that African natives in fishing boats called out “You’re going to Dakar?” to the fleet as it passed by. When they arrived, it turned out their maps were hopelessly out of date and the French defenders were far better armed than had been thought. And they had no intention of surrendering to a British fleet, De Gaulle, or anyone. Even after the British had arrived, a small fleet of French ships was able to slip by and reinforce the defenders! For several days the British tried to knock out the French shore batteries and a French battleship that was operating as a floating gun battery in the harbour. Several small ships and a few French subs were sunk, but the French defenders kept fighting. An invasion force landed, but in the face of strong resistence it as withdrawn, as De Gaulle wisely didn’t want Frenchmen killing Frenchmen. The fight ended when a French sub managed to torpedo and heavily damage a key British ship, a heavy cruiser. De Gaulle’s reputation was badly tarnished by the whole pointless affair. Wikipedia: Operation Menace

As an aside to this story, a few years later the captain of the French submarine, now fighting for the Allies, was personally decorated by the captain of the British cruiser he had torpedoed at Dakar. He mentioned this during the ceremony, and in a wonderful example of British aplomb, the cruiser captain’s reply was “Good shot!”

9. The British intervention in Greece. One would think that the failure of the intervention in Norway would have taught the British a lesson. Nope. When Germany and Italy invaded Greece, Churchill insisted that the bulk of forces in North Africa be rushed to Greece. Yes, a handful of British troops would stop the by then massive German armies; it was, basically nuts. The British forces in Greece were routed, and large numbers of them captured. And worse, the British forces in North Africa had just routed the Italians and were poised to capture all of Italian North Africa. Instead, their withdrawal meant the Germans had time to send Rommel and the Afrika Corps to Libya, and the rest is history. Wikipedia: Operation Lustre

10. Exercise Tiger. OK, four mistakes where Churchill was partly (or wholly) responsible for is enough, now one where Churchill wasn’t involved, Exercise Tiger. This took place in April 1944, and a was full scale practice run for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach two months later, as Eisenhower thought that the troops needed realistic training. Well, they got it. Blunders were made from the start. The British and Americans were using different radio frequencies for one, and communication between the two sides was compromised. So that when one of the two British warships escorting the invasion convoy broke down, the American troop ships weren’t informed. The other British ship led the convoy in a line, making them an easy target for German torpedo boats, or E-boats as they were called. One reference even states that when the E-boats were sighted, they were mistaken for friendlies. The E-boats attacked, and sank several troop ships. It gets worse, of the nearly seven hundred men who died, hundreds drowned becasue they hadn’t been trained on how to properly wear their life vests, so that when they inflated their vests, they were flipped upside down and drowned. The exercise continued, and as part of the realism, Eisenhower had ships using live fire shelling the beach past where the invading troops were supposed to go. There was some confusion at this point, because another nearly 300 men were killed by this fire. Basically nearly a thousand men died rehearsing the landing on Utah beach … where only about 200 men died. There’s a rumour that the survivors were sworn to secrecy forever, which isn’t true. They were sworn to secrecy for the duration of the war, but the news was quietly released even before the end of the war. The whole embarrassing mess isn’t very well documented, but the reasons for that seem pretty obvious to me. No one wants to remember a world class screw up. Wikipedia: Exercise Tiger.

And that’s that. No, I didn’t get all my information from Wikipedia, I just provided those links so people curious to know more have a place to start. As always when talking about historical events, they are subject to interpretation and debate. I’ve noticed that sometimes historians weigh in and correct or add information my history posts, such comments are welcome and appreciated.

(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law as far as I can tell. It’s the HMS Glorious under fire taken from the deck f the Scharnhorst. People are dying in this photo, an aspect of wars that isn’t appreciated enough.)

The Ten Most Influential People in History?

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I saw this question on Yahoo Answers and it got me thinking. So my post about UFOs, Chilean Miners, the American Elections, Robert Gates and gays, and the nightmare in Mexico is going to have to wait. Who are the most influential people in history is a very debatable question, and honestly my knowledge of history simply isn’t what it should be to answer it properly.  Still, I know enough to take a stab at it, so here goes.

First of all, by influential person in history, I mean people whom if they hadn’t lived, history would almost certainly be vastly different than the one we know.  For example, this means Gutenberg isn’t on my list, yes, the printing press changed history. However, if Gutenberg hadn’t invented it, someone else would have. Same goes for the Wright brothers and numerous other inventors. The second codicil is that I’m pretty much disqualifying anyone in the last few centuries simply because it’s too soon to really tell for sure. And lastly I’m leaving off ancient personages about whom our knowledge is to sketchy to be sure. Moses or Abraham for example, since they may not have actually existed and we really know very little about their eras, are not in consideration.

Number one of course is that Jesus fellow. While his contemporary influence was minor, a good case can be made that he set in motion forces that changed history in innumerable ways, and are still unfolding to this day. Mohammad, Martin Luther, and Buddha fall into the same category. Buddha may be debatable, but without him I think Christianity/Islam would have made vastly greater inroads into Asia. So that’s numbers one to four. See, this is easy!

Then there’s the classical giants so to speak. I’m going with Julius Caesar, Alexander of Macedon, and Aristotle. Caesar ended the Roman republic and ushered in an era of Roman history that lasted for a thousand years, without him Rome might very well have been a footnote in history. And the whole history of Europe and the near east would be wildly different. Alexander of Macedon (I can’t in good conscience call one of the bloodiest butchers in history “great”) was possibly the only person in history to personally start a dark age. His destruction of the Phoenician city states alone ended a thousand year period of pirate free trading in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that was just one of many civilizations Alexander destroyed. And Aristotle guided western thought (or wildly constrained it more accurately) until the Renaissance. A case can also be made for Qin Shi Huang, the man who unified China in 221 BC. There might not be a China without him.

So that’s five through eight, only two to go. So many candidates, so hard to chose. Naw, not true. Columbus is a shoe-in for number nine. While the New World would have been discovered sooner or later, the timing of his voyages changed almost everything that followed. If the New World had been discovered a hundred (arguably even a  decade) earlier or later, it’s almost a certainty we would live in a  completely different world.

That leaves the last spot, who is the tenth most influential person in history? George Washington, without whom there would likely be no USA? Ben Franklin, whose invention of the lightning rod dealt a blow to Christianity that rivals Martin Luther’s? Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, without whom the pinnacle of human adult animation would be The Flintstones? Nope. I’m going with Galileo. More than any other person, I think he is responsible for the end of Aristotelian “science” and ushering in the modern scientific era. And there’s no doubt that the modern scientific era has sent history down strange new paths.

To recap, Doug’s Darkworld’s Ten Most Influential People in history, in order of appearance:

  1. Buddha
  2. Alexander of Macedon
  3. Aristotle
  4. Qin Shi Huang
  5. Julius Caesar
  6. Jesus Christ
  7. Muhammad
  8. Christopher Columbus
  9. Martin Luther
  10. Galileo Galilei

And that’s that. What does it mean? Nothing really, since it’s all pretty subjective and depends on exactly how one is measuring “influence” on history. The fact that there are no women on the list is probably the most salient characteristic of the list. I don’t think it’s a reflection on women, it’s more a reflection on human culture in general. And not a nice reflection. The list is almost certainly weighted towards westerners, that’s where my limited knowledge of history comes into play.

Sometime this weekend I’ll post a general post on the past week’s news and events, this little side trip just struck my fancy so here it is. Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the list. I was unable to even locate the copyright holder so sadly I cannot give credit where credit is due. It’s an image of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. He’s the guy with the terracotta army. I selected him simply because he’s likely the least familiar face to my typical reader. How accurate is the likeness? Beats me, while the Chinese in so many cases invented things a thousand or more years before they were reinvented in the west, photography was not one of them.)



The Mystery of the Dog Legged Gate?

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History is full of mysteries, and this is one of them. Granted it’s not a very big mystery, as mysteries go it’s pretty minor. In fact if the importance of this mystery was turned into gasoline, it wouldn’t drive an ant’s motorcycle halfway around the inside of a cheerio. (I’ve been waiting more than three decades to use that line, my life is now complete.) That’s of course assuming the mystery even exists at all. Yes, it’s the mystery of the dog legged gate. What the hell is a dog legged gate? One is helpfully illustrated above. And in fact gates very similar to this appear in a number of paintings and prints from about 1500 to 1600, by a number of different artists. If it was just one artist that showed the dog legged gate, maybe it was just a  quirk of his art, but no, a number of artists show these gates for over a century. The dog legged gate was a real gate.

So what’s the mystery? Well, the mystery is that’s a very bad way to support a gate. Gates tend to sag, and normally one places the cross beam with the bottom side on the hinge side, like this: Gate ajar. (Yes, I know, it’s a metal gate, but it’s the best public pic I could find.) For a gate braced like this to sag, the crosspiece would have to compress or buckle. For a gate braced the wrong way, and one sees a surprising number of them in the typical suburb, for the gate to sag all that has to happen is for some nails to loosen. I dare say almost everyone has seen a sagging wooden gate that had to be dragged on the ground to open.

And with the above gate, the problem is even worse. See the point at the top where the two angled pieces of wood join at a right angle? That joint is going to be under great strain as the gate tries to sag, and even with modern metal attachments making a joint like that that could resist deforming under the strain would be impossible. Now granted there is something called a yeoman gate where the crosspiece does run the “wrong” way, but it differs in key respects from the dog legged gate shown above. Basically it doesn’t have the angled joints of the dog legged gate, and would be quite resistant to sagging.

Many more illustrations of dog legged gates can be found here, this in fact is the site that brought this mystery to my attention. And a discussion of the problem can be found here, though I didn’t find it terribly enlightening. So what the heck is going on with these dog legged gates? Why were they apparently standard for a hundred years or so and then replaced with more “modern” designs? Historians are baffled. OK, maybe historians aren’t baffled, but it’s still an interesting question. And drawing on my vast knowledge of history and the fact that I’ve been fixing gates for 30 years, I think I have an answer. If the gentle reader wants to mull this problem themselves, best to stop reading for a moment as I am about to reveal the awesome secret of the dog legged gate.


Got it figured out? I think the answer lies in the era which these gates were common. This was in the very early days of the modern era, and iron fittings for things like gate latches and gate hinges would have been pricey and rare. Would peasant spend a month’s salary on a few pieces of iron to make a nice modern gate to keep his cow in the pasture? Seems unlikely, especially since thieves would likely make off with the gate hinges as they were more valuable than the cows. No, I think the answer is twofold. A gate like this would require nothing more complicated than a few nails to make, and it could indeed be made with wooden pegs. OK then, so why not use a design that wouldn’t sag? Simple, because they wanted the gate to sag. A gate like this would always sag, and thus the far end would always touch the ground when at rest. So basically the gate would stay closed or stay open of it’s own accord, no latch of any kind required! And it would be flexible enough that it could easily be opened or closed without dragging it on the ground.

So that’s my answer. The dog legged gate was a simple way to make a practical gate out of the most basic of materials without using any iron fittings at all. It wouldn’t even require hinges, the hinged end could be attached to the pole with rope and it would work. I strongly suspect that’s the reason why these gates were common for a long time, they were an elegant  economical solution to a problem using the materials available in their day. There’s a lot of stuff in history like that, it’s easy to look back and say “Wow, they were sure dumb then.” No, they weren’t, they just didn’t live in the same era as us and had to do things differently.

Is there any big point to this post? Nope, just a  fun post. I’m not even sure how serious the original dog legged gate post was, I detect some tongue-in-cheek elements. I just thought it was an interesting diversion from more serious topics. Tomorrow, who knows, whatever rattles out of my head tonight I suppose.

(The above image is the painting “The Prodigal Son” by Hieronymus Bosch. As he died in 1516 I think I can safely say that this image is Public Domain under all known copyright law. I tried to find a medieval joke to end this with, but apparently telling jokes wasn’t common in the Middle Ages. The closest they seem to come to modern jokes is repeating funny incidents. Like one about a knight who cut off a man’s head as he was running away … and his body continued to run for some paces before collapsing, astounding the other knights who witnessed it. Or the one where barbarians won a battle, and finding a cocked crossbow one of them hung it around his neck, never having seen such a thing before. His friends were also amazed, and upon examining it, one of them set it off, and the bowstring fatally cut the wearer’s throat. Yeah, funny times the Middle Ages.)

Written by unitedcats

September 28, 2010 at 8:29 am

Posted in History

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McCain Proposes Indefinite Detention Without Trial for Citizens … and Why I Still Think We Would All Be Better Off If He Had Won the Election

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Still, this proposed law is scary. The whole concept is so foreign to the principles the country was founded upon that it’s like being in a bad dream and not being able to wake up. This proposed law basically turns the Constitution and the Bill of Rights into a piece of toilet paper and gives the President dictatorial powers to have anyone he likes locked up, permanently. I wonder if it has occurred to the good Senator that a future president could simply have Congress detained if the president was frustrated by them? I doubt it, Congress has so long gotten away with exempting themselves from their own laws that I don’t think it even crossed his mind. On the other hand, laws like this have made it onto the books before without people being locked up as a result. So who knows what this means, incipient fascist police state, or politicians pandering to the law and order sheep? It’s just one more piece in the puzzle, and there’s no box lid with a picture to see how it’s supposed to all turn out.

In any event, I’m more convinced than ever that we all would have been much better off if McCain had won the election. Well, maybe better off is not quite the word, but if McCain had won, there would still be hope. There would still be hope, because there’d still be an opposition movement to the “borrow and spend” and “war forever” insanity that is making a tiny number of people very very rich, while impoverishing the rest of us. I mean, Obama has not only continued Bush’s policies, in most cases he’s actually expanded on them. He really is the Manchurian candidate, though not in the silly way the Tea Partiers and such espouse, he’s no socialist or Muslim. He’s simply the complete political tool utterly craven to the rich and powerful who have been running the country as their own company town for the past few decades (at least.) Far from being an opposition party, the Democrats are now just the other face of the Republicans. Both are big business, big military, and big war supporters. For those of a literary bent, we are living in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the pigs and the farmers just merged.

So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I don’t think this fall’s elections really mean a damn thing. Even if the Tea Partiers are swept into power, they will deviate as much from the course we are already on as Obama. Anyone who seriously thinks that any Republican or Democrat is going to shrink government and cut government spending is living in a dream world. Well, a propaganda world more precisely. A world where the rich are victims, and the poor and immigrants are the source of all our problems. A world where blowing up brown woman and children on the other side of the planet in droves isn’t even newsworthy, but some guy lights his pants on fire on a  plane and it’s an existential threat to the USA. I have to admit I never ever thought when I was a a kid that I’d grow up and find myself living in a world that was sillier than the comic books I was reading.

Where this is all going is anyone’s guess. The current situation is frighteningly similar to Rome at its height. An empire basically grown too large to manage, and hollowed out at the core by corruption and greed. An empire that is surviving by debasing its currency and looting foreign lands. Neither is a good long term strategy for a nation or an empire, but boy, a tiny number of people get rich beyond imagining. Sooner or later it will all fall apart, maybe with a whimper, maybe with a bang. It’s the bang that scares me most. A single event in the US even remotely like 9/11 and the country will go cuckoo bananas. Literally. And sooner or later one of our ever increasing number of enemies, or even one of our “friends,” is going to pull it off. It’s inevitable, 9/11 wasn’t the first terrorist attack in the USA and it won’t be the last. It’s the first one though where a rudderless administration seized upon it to make terror mongering a structural part of US politics and society. Yes, now we’re stuck with 9/11 mania forever, thank you Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.

Lastly, while my assessment of the overall situation is bleak, it has to be balanced by the fact that throughout history, no matter what great events and catastrophes were raging, most people in most places managed to live out their lives. I dare to say that most cities in the Roman Empire are still cities today. I was reading the other day there’s one of the grand villas (palaces) built by a Roman emperor that’s still remarkably well preserved today, because a local village grew into it and used (and preserved) its buildings. I plan to live my life and enjoy the company of my friends and loved ones no matter what, as long as people do that, ultimately the bastards will never win.

(The above image of Diocletian’s Palace. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Credit and copyright: Rialfver at nl.wikipedia. If I was a better artist I’d create an image of the ruins of Washington being viewed by tourists 2,000 years from now. And I don’t mean any of this in a  bad way, American simply fell prey to the same sorts of greed and corruption that have destroyed so many prior empires. It’s been a hell of a ride, and it’s not over yet by a long shot. Parts of the Roman Empire for example carried right on for a thousand years after the fall of Rome.)

Written by unitedcats

September 27, 2010 at 9:43 am

What Makes the Modern Era Different than the Dark Ages?

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I’m fond of saying that modern times is just like the Middle Ages with better weapons. And if we’re talking politics and basic human nature and the greed of the the rich and powerful, absolutely for sure, nothing has changed since the Roman era when the whole concept of exceptionalism was invented. That however is fodder for another day, the curse of Rome.  I spend a lot of time thinking about history and how it relates to today, another curse. Today I’m focusing on change, what makes today different that life in the past. And I mean what things have actually changed society and culture, and not just just simply been new trappings. This is my current list of what is really different about today’s world. Some of these changes have profoundly changed everything about civilization, some of them only threaten to do so, but all of them are very recent in any historical context, and their implications and effects are still unfolding. I don’t know where it’s all going, but these are some of the central  forces at work.

Lastly, this is just one amateur historian’s opinion, and presented more as fodder for thought and discussion than anything else. I am listing them in their order of appearance in the historical time-line:

1. Gunpowder and smokeless gunpowder. Gunpowder was one of the most, if not the most, important equalizers in history. It literally ended feudalism, a way of life for most of the human race throughout much of history. Under feudalism a tiny class of knights and royalty could rule a nation pretty much as they pleased, and there was little anyone could do about it. Once guns became widely available any peasant could pick up a gun and kill the greatest knight in the land. With a gun, one person could fight ten people and have a chance. And smokeless gunpowder accelerated this process, it made it possible for one person to fight a hundred people. Since so much, if not all, of our culture revolves around violence, the changes wrought by gunpowder are deep seated and still evolving.

2. Industrialization. This one is both very obvious, and completely misunderstood. For all of human history human labour was the backbone of human society. Whatever we built or had was produced by people with very few exceptions. This is why slaves and serfs existed, when everything is the product of human labour, humans are the basic unit of wealth. Industrialization ended all that, we didn’t give up slavery or serfdom because they were bad, we gave them up because they didn’t make sense in an industrialized world. They’ve been replaced by grinding mind-numbing poverty in the third world, where people are less than serfs or slaves, but most of us in the west don’t see that or don’t want to see that.

3. The modern media. Propaganda and advertising are two of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century, and their influence and effects run deep and as with gunpowder, are still evolving. Leaders have always used propaganda of course, but it has been elevated to a science in this century. Few people know it or will admit it, but many of our beliefs, social norms, lifestyles, and buying habits have been deliberately programmed into us to either make money or garner support for war and politics. The implications of this are profound, but that’s something the powers that be go to great lengths to avoid teaching us.

4. The steamship and the railroad. Since around 1900 it’s been possible for the industrialized world to feed, cloth, and house everyone on Earth. The wealth is there because of industrialization, and the means to move it around is there because of steamships and railroads. No one on Earth has died from lack of food, shelter, or medical care since about 1900 because such wasn’t available. Granted this hasn’t changed the world the way it could have, but the point is that the billions of desperately poor people that live on Earth now are doing so because of culture and politics and greed, not because we don’t have the means to take care of them. The potential for great change is here, but it hasn’t been realized yet.

5. Nuclear weapons. This is the most recent world changing invention, and the one whose implications are still almost unknowable. While humans have created any number of dark ages and destroyed any number of civilizations, it’s never before been possible to fight a war that would end life on Earth as we know it. And since the spread of technology can only be slowed, not stopped, the effect of nuclear weapons in the future can only be guessed at. At some point there will exist personal nuclear weapons, one person could literally fight a million people. To a certain extent nuclear weapons are just an extension of gunpowder,  but their expense and difficulty of manufacture puts them in a class of their own. We’re not going to blow up the Earth with gunpowder, the jury remains out on whether we will blow it up with nuclear weapons.

That’s it for now. I may expand on some or all of these in the future. And I may very well change my thinking and modify the above. This is a post where I encourage people to comment, it’s not just for entertainment. I want to provoke discussion and get feedback. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, and it’s use here in no conceivable way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image, arguably the opposite. It’s from the PC game “Empires: Dawn of the Modern World.” A review is here,  credit and copyright: Activision. I chose it because it appealed to me, a stylized and somewhat creepy representation of some of the madness of the twentieth century. Those British bombers were some of the greatest terror weapons in history, and about as successful as most terror weapons, but that’s grist for another day’s mill.)

Written by unitedcats

September 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Putting Things in Perspective … the Battle of Towton

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Ah, the battle of Towton. One of my favourite battles of all time, and likely the bloodiest battle ever fought in England. And as might be expected, probably the largest battle ever fought in England. Upwards of eighty thousand men met in battle that day, including about half of the Lords in England at the time. Towton  was a decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, an on again and off again war over the crown of England that lasted some 30 years, 1455 to 1485.

So, the battle. 29 March 1461. Palm Sunday in fact. It was a bitterly cold snowy windy day, and most of both armies had spent the night camped in the open. And few of them had any tea, let alone breakfast that morning. No one was in a particularly good mood in other words, and both sides agreed that no quarter would be given. That means this was a fight to the death. On one side, the larger force, the Lancastrians, deployed on a low hill. Facing them, the smaller army of Yorkists, though they had the advantage in that their King, Edward, was young and valliant and led his troops into battle. Henry, the Lancastrian King, while popular, was also sickly and wasn’t at the batttle.

The Lancastrians had the better position, but they hadn’t counted on the weather. A strong cold wind was blowing right into their faces. So when the Yorkist archers advanced and fired, the wind carried their arrows deep into Lancastrian lines. Lancastrian attempts to return fire were described as “laughable,” the headwind meant few of their arrows even reached Yorkist lines. In fact the Yorkists would simply fall back while the Lancastrians fired, then walk up, pick up the Lancastrian arrows, and shoot them back.

This obviously couldn’t go on, so the Lancastrians charged and the battle was joined. And a battle is was. This was sword and armour fighting at its best, while guns existed, none are known to have been used at Towton. England’s wet crappy weather meant that the sword and the arrow reigned there long after guns had become common in warmer drier climes. Well, the hammer and the arrow. Late medieval armour was pretty much immune to slashing and piercing weapons, so the hammer was the preferred weapon of most knights, special war hammers designed to damage armour. Because once a knight’s armour was damaged, their ability to fight was reduced, and usually that was that.

Fighting was so thick that sometimes the men at the front couldn’t even get at the enemy because dead bodies kept erect by the press of fighters got in the way and had to be removed before fighting could continue! And through it all both sides fired hundreds of thousands of arrows, with as many as twenty thousand arrows sometimes being in the air at the same time! Not everyone had full body armour, and even the ones that did had to take off their helms occasionally to cool down. At least one of the Lords that died that day, Lord Dacre, was struck down by an arrow while his helm was removed.

The fighting lasted till early afternoon, when Yorkist reinforcements arrived and attacked the Lancastrian flank. And that did the trick, the Lancastrians began to fall back and then they began to run. And then the true slaughter began, virtually all sources (not to mention archaeological evidence) agree that most of the killing took place during the rout. Most prominently at a place called “bloody meadow” where the fleeing Lancastrians were trapped against a  river. Some were eventually able to escape as the river literally became clogged with dead bodies, and others escaped across a few bridges before the bridges collapsed from the weight of all the people on them. Most Lancastrian Lords escaped, but for the most part their army was slaughtered.

And that, basically, was that. Edward was able to rule England in relative peace for ten years after Towton. For centuries afterwards people picked up armour and other neat stuff from the battlefield. In the  nineteen twenties someone found a “brass” collar that they put on a  dog until they noticed in was encrusted with jewels. Apparently it wasn’t a dog collar after all. In the nineties a mass grave from the battle was discovered, much was learned from it.

There were likely a lot of mass graves after the battle, chroniclers describe bodies everywhere. The best modern guess is that about 28,000 people died that day. Even in an absolute sense that may be the bloodiest day of war deaths in British history. The relative sense is what interests me, and I why the title says putting Towton in perspective. 28,000 dead would mean that in this battle … about one percent of the population in England died. Yerp, on a snowy Palm Sunday in 1461 … one out of every fifty Englishmen was slain. Likely every living person of English descent lost ancestors at Towton.

Fortunately, humans are far smarter than they were in 1461, and a slaughter of this relative magnitude could never happen today.

(The above image is used legally: Jan Kops et al. – Flora Batava – Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber. Source: – Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”. It’s a mysterious rose related to the Battle of Towton, the story of which I will relate tomorrow. I used it because I couldn’t find an image of the battle that didn’t have layers of copyright protection. Even images from 1754. Yes, corporations are  not only perverting the law to steal everything we own, they are stealing our past as well.)

Written by unitedcats

August 18, 2010 at 6:12 am

Posted in History, War

Tagged with ,

The Devil’s Footprints

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The Devil’s Footprints. This was one of my favourite earth mysteries in my youth, right on up there with ancient astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle. And even after the latest two had ceased to be all that mysterious to me, the Devil’s footprints soldiered on. And to this day in fact, the case has never been wholly explained.

OK, so what are the Devil’s Footprints? On the morning of February 9 1855 the residents of Devonshire in southern England woke to a fresh fallen snow. And in the snow there were tracks, mysterious U shaped tracks. Tracks that led through villages and across the countryside, over walls, over houses, across rivers, and even reportedly into and out of pipes with a diameter as small as four inches.  And while there was some wandering, the tracks extended more than 100 miles. People were a little alarmed to say the least, and in Devon there were reports of a devil like creature being seen. This prompted people to arm themselves against the unknown maker of the tracks. The first day was the most extensive, though there are some reports that some tracks were seen here and there on a few subsequent days.

Much speculation followed in the newspapers about what had created the tracks. An escaped kangaroo was one popular theory, with the obvious caveat that it seems odd that a kangaroo could travel over 100 miles without being seen. Chains dangling from a drifting blimp was proposed, although that seems even more ridiculous than the kangaroo theory with a bit of thought. And yes, people ascribed the tracks to supernatural forces, this was an era when many people literally believed in the devil. And while there have been a few isolated similar cases, nothing nearly so extensive or widely reported upon is in the historical record.  To this day it’s a mystery, recycled by modern alien believers ascribing the tracks to alien activity of some sort. One thing is clear though, it’s not a hoax, there’s no way one person or even a team of people could have made such an extensive network of tracks in just a few short hours in the middle of the night and not be seen, we are talking tracks that ran through towns and villages.

Frankly, I was baffled for decades by this case. Sadly, I don’t find it as baffling anymore. Since I first studied these sorts of things some decades back, I’ve learnt a lot. A lot about history, culture, human nature, psychology, and last but not least … logic. And the first thing we have to look at in a case like this, is the facts. And what do we have here? A bunch of nineteenth century newspaper reports. And that, my friends, is that. No one thought to write a book on it. No scientists wrote any papers on the topic. It was all pretty much dismissed as hysterical superstitious nonsense, and life went on. At this point, anyone who knows anything about the history of newspapers should be thinking, “Ub oh, nineteenth century newspapers are the primary source?” As the Jacko or cow in a UFO incident shows, anyone who takes old newspaper reports literally is taking  a leap of faith.

However, since newspapers are all we have, what have we? Well, there’s a lot of letters to the editor about the Devil’s Footprints in those newspapers. In fact, lots of letters from first hand witnesses to the event. And there’s a fair number of very sober letters by reasonable sounding people who said they went outside when they heard the commotion, saw no more than the usual fresh animal tracks in the snow, and don’t understand what the commotion was about. And when we look at the tracks themselves, descriptions of which vary by the way, they are not dissimilar to all sorts of tracks made by a  variety of creatures hopping and prancing about. In other words, a strong case can be made that this is simply a case of mass hysteria of some sort. And it almost goes without saying that the newspapers of the time certainly exaggerated what hysteria there was.

Something to keep in mind is that this was the first generation of a revolution in human communication. For the first time in history people across England were in real time communication with each other. Yes, telegraphy was exploding across the developed world, and by 1855 there were already news agencies operating via telegraph. So that morning when someone somewhere in this whole mess thought they saw strange tracks in the snow, within hours breathless reports were being sent along the wires, and the rest is history. Not to mention that people of that era moved around a lot more than most of us moderns would think, and news could indeed travel quickly. They had horses for God’s sake.

So can it be proved that the devil’s Footprints was a mild case of mass hysteria, exaggerated by newspapers of the time … and modern chroniclers searching for evidence of the trans-mundane? No. It does however strike me as being a perfectly reasonable and rational explanation for what we know of the phenomena.

My alternate theory is that it was some sort of hopping alien unmanned probe. It was small and moving very fast. May not even have been hopping, might have just been extending some sort of sensor downwards to take samples and maybe “ping” the Earth with any number of microwave or other radiation, while reading reflections from same. Even with what we know of the capabilities of robots, a  lot of data could be gathered with a single one track probe like this. And as for its speed, if the aliens are actually robot intelligences, they may think at near light speed and perceive the  world as very “slow,” so to them a probe that’s zipping along at hundreds of miles an hour is painfully slow. Prolly another good reason to avoid aliens. If they are robots, and they are hostile, they would think (and likely move) so much faster than us that there would be no contest.

Alien probe or mass hysteria, that’s my votes. Or something else? Reader’s choice.

(The above image is public domain under US copyright law and pretty much all copyright law since it dates from 1855. It’s not even known which newspaper it came from from what I can tell, since it’s been so copied and distributed in the 150 odd years since it was created. I grew up with snow, I know darn well how many mysterious animal tracks one finds all over the place in fresh fallen snow. Especially since wind and weather conditions can do all sorts of things to tracks.)

Written by unitedcats

July 30, 2010 at 6:59 am

Roswell, the Quintessential UFO Case

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Who hasn’t heard of Roswell? It’s a UFO case so famous that it has become a part of our culture and folklore. Star Trek, DS9 did an episode about it. In fact there was even a short lived sci fi series named “Roswell.” It’s not an exageration to say that the Roswell case is possibly the most important UFO case ever in the USA, and is responsible for a huge percentage of the population not only believing in UFOs, but believing that the government is concealing information about them. Again, cultural references to this are so common as to be essentially mainstream, the scene in the movie Independence Day for example, when it is revealed that the USA has a captured alien spacecraft from Roswell. Roswell is common knowledge.

The basics of the Roswell case are fairly simple. In the summer of 1947 a ranch hand found some strange debris about fifty miles north of Roswell, New Mexico. He brought some to town, the local Air Force base was called, they recovered the debris and announced that a “flying saucer” had been captured. See above headline. To put it mildly, this generated some national interest, and headlines in many papers in the west also announced the capture of the flying saucer. Alas, the next day the Air Force announced it had all been a misunderstanding, and that actually only debris from a  weather balloon had been found. And that was that, for the next thirty years Roswell was forgotten about. Until the late nineteen seventies when some UFO researchers starting looking into the case. They found hundreds of witnesses, and a vast array of stories about a variety of crash sites, recovered alien bodies (or even living aliens,) and evidence of a massive government cover up. Books were written, people got on talk shows, and the rest, shall we say, is history.

OK, there’s a lot to cover here, but I’m going to simplify it. I’m not going to discuss all the witnesses and such that were discovered or came forward in the nineteen seventies and later. I’m sorry, but human memory is very fallible, and very susceptible to suggestion. And I know it’s hard for some people to fathom, but plenty of people lie and make stuff up all the time to get attention. So trying to wade through the later recollections and figure out what is what is a minefield at best, and since not a single one of these later witnesses had a shred of empirical evidence to back up their stories, I feel justified in saying “who knows” and ignoring them for the scope of this post. The one aspect of the later day witnesses which does seem interesting to me is that the Air Force’s first man on the scene, Major Jesse Marcel, insisted that the material recovered, while superficially resembling that from which a balloon was made, nonetheless had unearthly characteristics. “Paper” and “wood” that wouldn’t burn for example, or metal as thin as tinfoil that couldn’t be bent with a sledgehammer. Curious, nu? And to the day he died he maintained that something unearthly had crashed at Roswell.

With this as our only data set, IE the basic crash and the Major’s insistence, what can we speculate? Well, the “official” version for one. What crashed was a contemporary top secret balloon project the US Army Air Force was conducting, a Project Mogul. The Flying Saucer and then weather balloon story we’re concocted to hide the fact that a rancher had found pieces of a top secret project, put them in a pick up truck, and brought them to town and passed them around. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why the Army might want to be a bit coy about this. And the Major’s insistence the material was extraterrestrial? That was just the army running a disinformation campaign for the benefit of the Soviets. It couldn’t hurt to have the Russians wasting their intelligence efforts seeking non-existent information on a  US recovered flying saucer. That’s the sceptical version in a nutshell, it explains the original evidence, and Occam’s Razor says it is the most likely explanation. I certainly wouldn’t want to debate someone who maintains this position, because logically, it’s the soundest position.

However, and it’s a pretty big however, just because it is the most logical explanation doesn’t mean it is the correct one. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest explanation is the most likely to be correct, but it does not in any way shape or form “prove” that it is correct. It’s like criminal profiling. A suspect may fit the profile of a crime to a T, but that isn’t “proof” of anything, merely an indication that that suspect should be investigated very carefully. This is a point that a lot of people, even very smart and educated people, founder upon. And frankly, if everyone thought this way, we’d still be living naked in the woods eating grubs, because sometimes the simplest most logical approach lacks, shall we say, imagination. And looking outside the lines is how all discoveries are made. Sceptics have their place, but they aren’t always right.

So in that vein, here are my two alternate theories about what may have happened at Roswell. The first is that an alien unmanned probe crashed. And a probe that may very well have been some sort of balloon like device. Instruments suspended from a balloon would be a great way to explore an alien planet. One could explore vast amounts of territory, vastly more than a stationary probe, or even a rover, could explore. And it would avoid hazards on the ground, and could gather data on weather as well. And if such a device was built by aliens who were hundreds or thousands of years ahead of us technologically, we’d learn basically nothing from it. Even if it had wonderful exotic materials in it, we wouldn’t have a clue how to make them. I like this explanation because it also explains all the available evidence, including the good major’s insistence that it was extraterrestrial. And why we haven’t learned anything from it, because trying to figure out anything from the broken pieces of a device vastly in advance of our technology would be hopeless. If for example one dropped a car out of an aeroplane over an ancient Greek or Roman town, would the best scientists of their day be able to glean anything from the pieces? Likely they wouldn’t have a clue. So I like this explanation, and hope that if it’s true, someday a piece of material from the crash site comes to light. We may not learn anything from it, but modern science could at least determine it wasn’t made by humans. And that indeed would be something.

The second possibility is that aliens or alien bodies were recovered. OK, let’s assume that happened. Well, if a couple of alien bodies or even living aliens were recovered, wouldn’t that strongly imply that there was a serious alien presence on Earth? I mean, they wouldn’t just send a couple of fellows on a interstellar voyage would they? It would seem likely that there would be a mother ship or an alien base around if we captured a small ship with a small crew of aliens. And what would these aliens do if such occurred? Especially since we are talking beings who have considerably more advanced technology than us? I would assume that within hours of the capture/crash … alien “special forces” would have recovered the bodies/aliens and  spacecraft debris, likely in ways that we simply wouldn’t even notice, let alone be able to counter. This explanation also has the beauty of neatly explaining all the evidence. I mean, imagine the confusion, Army personnel have what are clearly actual aliens and debris from an alien space craft in their possession … and within hours it all simply vanishes.

Those are my three possible Roswell scenarios. Note than the alien special forces could also account for the lack of evidence in the unmanned alien probe  scenario as well. I will freely admit that my take on aliens here is highly anthropomorphic, but for the purposes of this series of posts, I’m assuming that aliens are somewhat like us. Otherwise, there’s no point even speculating. So yeah, I’m looking where the light is best, but hey, we still might find a key here. And who knows what lock it may fit. Tomorrow, the fourth Roswell possibility. Maybe living aliens were involved, and the incident resulted in contact, possibly ongoing contact, between some alien entity and the US government. I’d say cue Twilight Zone Music, but in this case it is be more accurate to say cue “The Outer Limits” music. Stay tuned.

(The above image is such an iconic and oft reproduced image that I’m sure it falls under the aegis of Fair Use under US copyright law. And yes, I’ve waited years to use “aegis” in a sentence. It’s one of those incredibly cool words, like defenestration or treppenwitz, that almost never get called into play. Moving right along, for the sake of argument, I’m going to claim that all three of my options presented above are possible. The Project Mogul argument, the unmanned probe argument, and the manned crash/alien special forces argument. Prove me wrong.)

Written by unitedcats

July 20, 2010 at 6:48 am