Tuesday, June 18, 2024

World War One

In early 1914 Bethmann Hollweg’s secretary, Kurt Riezler, published (pseudonymously) a book entitled Characteristics of Contemporary World Politics. In it he argued that the unprecedented levels of armament in Europe were ‘perhaps the most controversial, urgent and difficult problem of the present time.’ Sir Edward Grey, always fond of explanations of the war which minimized human agency, would later agree. ‘The enormous growth of armaments in Europe,’ he wrote in his post-war memoirs, ‘the sense of insecurity and fear caused by them—it was these that made war inevitable. This, it seems to me, is the truest reading of history . . . the real and final account of the origins of the Great War.’

Historians seeking great causes for great events are naturally drawn to the pre-war arms race as a possible explanation for the First World War. As David Stevenson has put it: ‘A self-reinforcing cycle of heightened military preparedness . . . was an essential element in the conjuncture that led to disaster . . . The armaments race . . . was a necessary precondition for the outbreak of hostilities.’ David Herrmann goes further: by creating a sense that ‘windows of opportunity for victorious wars’ were closing, ‘the arms race did precipitate the First World War.’ If the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in 1904 or even in 1911, Herrmann speculates, there might have been no war; it was ‘the armaments race . . . and the speculation about imminent or preventive wars’ which made his death in 1914 the trigger for war. Yet, as both Stevenson and Herrmann acknowledge, there is no law of history stating that all arms races end in wars.

The experience of the Cold War shows that an arms race can deter two power blocs from going to war and can ultimately end in the collapse of one side without the need for a full-scale conflagration. Conversely, the 1930s illustrates the danger of not racing: if Britain and France had kept pace with German rearmament after 1933, Hitler would have had far greater difficulty persuading his generals to remilitarize the Rhineland or to risk war over Czechoslovakia. The key to the arms race before 1914 is that one side lost it, or believed that it was losing it. It was this belief which persuaded its leaders to gamble on war before they fell too far behind. Riezler erred when he argued that ‘the more the nations arm, the greater must be the superiority of one over the other if the calculation is to fall out in favour of war.’ On the contrary: the margin of disadvantage had to be exceedingly small—perhaps, indeed, only a projected margin of disadvantage—for the side losing the arms race to risk a war. The paradox is that the power which found itself in this position of incipient defeat in the arms race was the power with the greatest reputation for excessive militarism—Germany.

Sir Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (82-83). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Monday, June 17, 2024


 ENIAC, one of the first “modern” computers, debuted in 1946. It weighed 27 tons, required 240 square feet (22.3 square meters) of floor space, and needed 174,000 watts (174 kilowatts) of power, enough to (allegedly) dim all the lights in Philadelphia when turned on. In 1949, Popular Mechanics predicted that one day a computer might weigh less than 1.5 tons. In the early 1970s, Seymour Cray, known as the “father of the supercomputer,” revolutionized the computer industry. His Cray-1 system supercomputer shocked the industry with a world-record speed of 160 million floating-point operations per second, an 8-megabyte main memory, no wires longer than four feet, and its ability to fit into a small room. The Los Alamos National Laboratory purchased it in 1976 for $8.8 million, or $36.9 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars.

But as predicted by Moore’s Law (the number of transistors that can fit on a microchip will double roughly every twenty-four months), modern computing has improved and spread beyond even the wildest speculations of people living at the time of any of these computers (certain science fiction excepted). A team of University of Pennsylvania students in 1996 put ENIAC’s capabilities onto a single 64-square-millimeter microchip that required 0.5 watts, making it about 1/350,000th the size of the original ENIAC. And that was twenty years ago. Popular Mechanics’ prediction proved correct, though a bit of an (understandable) understatement.

Still, try telling its 1949 editorial staff that today we hold computers in our hands, place them in our pockets, and rest them on our laps. Laptop computers with 750 times the memory, 1,000 times the calculating power, and essentially an infinitely greater amount of general capabilities as the Cray-1 are now available at Walmart for less than $500. Bearing out the Iron Sky comparison, a smartphone with 16 gigabytes of memory has 250,000 times the capacity of the Apollo 11 guidance computer that enabled the first moon landing. A life’s wages in 1975 could have bought you the computing power of a pocket calculator in 2000. In 1997, $450 could have bought you 5 gigabytes of hard-drive storage that is free today. A MacBook Pro with 8 gigabytes of RAM has 1.6 million times more RAM than MANIAC, a 1951 “supercomputer.” Forget angels on the head of a pin: Intel can fit more than six million transistors onto the period at the end of this sentence.

What this all means for the consumer is an unprecedented spread of technology. Today’s cell phones exceed the computing power of machines that required rooms mere decades ago. Nearly half the world uses the Internet, up from essentially zero in 1990. Today, then, computers are better, faster, smarter, more prevalent, and more connective than ever before. In the 1990s, progressive policy makers fretted over something called “the digital divide.” They convinced themselves that, absent government intervention, the Internet would be a plaything for the wealthy. They raised new taxes, transferred wealth, paid off some constituents, and claimed victory. But the truth is that the Internet was always going to be for everyone, because that is what the market does. It introduces luxuries for the wealthy, and the wealthy subsidize innovations that turn luxuries—cell phones, cars, medicine, computers, nutritious food, comfortable homes, etc.—into necessities. It is the greatest triumph of alchemy in all of human experience, and the response from many in every generation is ingratitude and entitlement.

Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy (352). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


 The Free Press

17 June 2024

 Meritocracy now! DEI is on the way out, and not a day too soon. But what should replace it? When it comes to recruitment, the short answer is surely: hire the best person for the job. One person sticking to this once uncontroversial, now edgy proposition is Alexandr Wang, the 27-year-old who became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire after he dropped out of MIT to co-found AI firm Scale in 2016. In a memo announcing the company’s new hiring policy, Wang writes “Scale is a meritocracy, and we must always remain one.” The guiding principle, he notes, is “MEI: merit, excellence, and intelligence.” He continues:  

That means we hire only the best person for the job, we seek out and demand excellence, and we unapologetically prefer people who are very smart.

We treat everyone as an individual. We do not unfairly stereotype, tokenize, or otherwise treat anyone as a member of a demographic group rather than as an individual. 

We believe that people should be judged by the content of their character—and, as colleagues, be additionally judged by their talent, skills, and work ethic.

There is a mistaken belief that meritocracy somehow conflicts with diversity. I strongly disagree. No group has a monopoly on excellence. A hiring process based on merit will naturally yield a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas. Achieving this requires casting a wide net for talent and then objectively selecting the best, without bias in any direction. We will not pick winners and losers based on someone being the “right” or “wrong” race, gender, and so on. It should be needless to say, and yet it needs saying: doing so would be racist and sexist, not to mention illegal.

Upholding meritocracy is good for business and is the right thing to do.

Friday, May 24, 2024


Sir Ernest Shackleton when he was about to set out on one of his expeditions, printed a statement in the papers, to this effect:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey to the South Pole. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington Street.” [May 15, 1913]

In response to his posted ad, Shackleton was supposedly flooded with 5,000 responses, men clamoring to take their chances on the icy southern continent. [September 10, 1913]


(When the survivors returned, WWI was on, so they joined the military.)

Monday, May 13, 2024


 “The things that are now before us,” said the Princess, “require attention, and deserve it. What have I to do with the heroes or the monuments of ancient times—with times which can never return, and heroes whose form of life was different from all that the present condition of mankind requires or allows?”

“To know anything,” returned the poet, “we must know its effects; to see men, we must see their works, that we may learn what reason has dictated or passion has excited, and find what are the most powerful motives of action. To judge rightly of the present, we must oppose it to the past; for all judgment is comparative, and of the future nothing can be known. The truth is that no mind is much employed upon the present; recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments. Our passions are joy and grief, love and hatred, hope and fear. Of joy and grief, the past is the object, and the future of hope and fear; even love and hatred respect the past, for the cause must have been before the effect.

“The present state of things is the consequence of the former; and it is natural to inquire what were the sources of the good that we enjoy, or the evils that we suffer. If we act only for ourselves, to neglect the study of history is not prudent. If we are entrusted with the care of others, it is not just. Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may properly be charged with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it.

“There is no part of history so generally useful as that which relates to the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of reason, the successive advances of science, the vicissitudes of learning and ignorance (which are the light and darkness of thinking beings), the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and the revolutions of the intellectual world. If accounts of battles and invasions are peculiarly the business of princes, the useful or elegant arts are not to be neglected; those who have kingdoms to govern have understandings to cultivate.

“Example is always more efficacious than precept. A soldier is formed in war, and a painter must copy pictures. In this, contemplative life has the advantage. Great actions are seldom seen, but the labours of art are always at hand for those who desire to know what art has been able to perform.

“When the eye or the imagination is struck with any uncommon work, the next transition of an active mind is to the means by which it was performed. Here begins the true use of such contemplation. We enlarge our comprehension by new ideas, and perhaps recover some art lost to mankind, or learn what is less perfectly known in our own country. At least we compare our own with former times, and either rejoice at our improvements, or, what is the first motion towards good, discover our defects.”

Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (42-43) [1759]. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, May 9, 2024


How many “kulaks” died in the course of “de-kulakization”? On 1 January 1932, the GPU carried out a general census of all deportees: it listed 1,317,022 people. We know, by the same police sources, that nearly 1.8 million “kulaks” were deported during the two main deportation waves in 1930 and 1931. Losses accordingly numbered close to half a million people, or nearly 30% of all deportees. Undoubtedly, a not insignificant proportion of those had escaped. In 1932, the GPU komandatury, which actually managed to keep accurate records of the deportees they were supposed to keep watch over, counted no less than 207,000 escapes (38,000 runaways were recaptured); in 1933, the number of escapes was 216,000 (54,000 recaptured). Considering a number of local GPU reports (for different periods in 1930 and 1931) on the flights of deported “kulaks”, we can extrapolate that around 200,000-250,000 deportees managed to escape in 1930-1931. This still leaves us with approximately 250,000-300,000 deaths. 

A number of local reports confirm the very high mortality rates among the deportees, especially among children and elderly people. In 1931, the mortality rate was 1.3% per month (16% per annum) among the deportees to Kazakhstan, and 0.8% per month (10% per annum) for those to western Siberia. Infant mortality oscillated between 8% and 12% per month, and peaked at 15% per month in Magnitogorsk. From June 1931 to June 1932, the mortality rate among deportees in the region of Narym, in Western Siberia, reached 11.7%. In 1932, the overall number of deaths among deportees was over 90,000 (annual death rate: 6.8%); in 1933, it was 151,600 (annual death rate: 13.3%). Altogether, more than half a million deportees died in 1930-1933, or 22% of the 2.3 million people deported during those years. Most of them died untimely deaths, of general exhaustion and hunger (Zemskov, 2003; Danilov & Krasilnikov, 1993, 1994, Viola, 2007).

Nicholas Werth, SciencesPo, 23 September 2011

Monday, May 6, 2024


But the greatest lesson was one learned from the enemy: to hate. Word of the Malmédy Massacre, of the massacres of civilians at Stavelot, Trois Points, and Bande, passed from man to man, and from unit to unit. Until the Ardennes the GI had fought a civilian’s war. Now he was learning to kill without remorse or pity.

John Toland, Battle: The Story of the Bulge
New York: Random House, 1959, pp. 329-331

    Reports from men drifting back from the front were alarming. Entire units, claimed many wild-eyed refugees, had been cut off and were being wiped out. Back at Division, General Grow had no clear idea of how great his casualties were. But he did know that it was the worst day in the history of his 6th Armored Division.

    The retreat of the 6th Armored wasn’t the only reverse on George Patton’s front. For the savage meeting engagement was at its climax. Violent German attacks had struck all along the Bastogne front. In particular the 17th Airborne Division, in their first real day of action a few miles west of town, had been dealt shocking casualties, some battalions losing 40 per cent of their men.

    Ordinarily the most optimistic of American generals, Patton was now in a despondent mood. Each man lost that day weighed heavily on him. He sat at a desk and wrote in his diary, “We can still lose this war.”

    But at the front, later that night, a strange thing began to take place where the day’s disaster had been greatest. Men stopped running, and were digging in. Terror was being replaced by anger.
    Not far behind the 6th Armored Division breakthrough area, Colonel John Hines was in a stone house where refugees from the front were thawing out their frozen rifles and frozen bodies.

    One man, his face covered with blood and dirt, his eyes two bitter holes, was saying, “I used to wonder what I was doing in the army. I didn’t have anything personal against the Krauts, even if they were making me live in a freezing, frigging foxhole. But I learned something today. Now I want to kill every goddam Kraut in the world. You know why? To save my own ass.”

    There was a new GI in the Ardennes.

    The good-natured, rather careless, supremely confident GI who had known one victory after another since landing in Normandy; who had assumed he would be well clothed, well fed, and well led; who accepted it as his heritage to outgun and outmachine the enemy, was gone. Since December 16 he’d had few days of the overpowering air support and air cover he’d taken for granted; his clothing didn’t keep out the cold; his boots were traps for trench foot, his tanks were outnumbered; often his machines were immobilized by cold, snow, and terrain.

    He was cold and hungry. He had just fought a humiliating series of retreats where terror roamed far behind the lines. He had tasted defeat.

    But he had learned bitter lessons that were beginning to pay off. In this first major winter battle ever fought by Americans he had learned that the wounded die fast in the zero cold. He had learned in a few weeks that cold is a living enemy and must be fought.

    Medics had learned to tuck frozen morphine Syrettes under their armpits; to put plasma under the hoods of trucks and jeeps. Infantrymen were saving their hands from frostbite by cutting four oversize mitten patterns from blankets and sewing them together. Trench foot, which was cutting down more Americans than bullets, was beaten with muffs made from blankets. At night the men learned to take off their soggy combat boots and socks, massage their feet, and then pull these blanket “Tootsie warmers” on, topped by overshoes. 

    They learned how to dry socks and shoes: heat pebbles in a can; dump the hot pebbles into the wet socks and the socks into the shoes.

    They learned that ordinary field jackets were little protection against the biting winds of the Ardennes. Inner linings were made of blankets sewed to the inside.

    They learned that two wool shirts were equal in warmth—and less bulky to fight in—than a shirt and overcoat. But the shirts had to be switched every night, the one next to the body, wet from perspiration even in the coldest day, taken off and hung up to dry.
    They learned what tramps and people of depression days had long known, that paper was a good insulator. A few sheets of newspaper wrapped around the chest between shirts was a buffer against the rawest wind.

    They also learned to wear shoes and overshoes that were a little too big, for tightness, cutting off circulation, brought on almost instant trench foot. They would stuff paper between shoes and arctics—a trick long used by hunters. The paper not only anchored their misfit footgear but retained body heat.

    They learned to heat food over a  “flambeau”—a wine bottle filled with gas with a wick of twisted rags.

    The facts of cold, long known to men of Minnesota and Maine, were passed on to men from Alabama and Texas. Frozen toes, ears, noses were rubbed gently to start circulation. The old wives’ remedy of rubbing snow on these frozen parts often brought on gangrene. Hands stiff from cold, unable to trigger a gun, were placed under armpits. To survive a night in a freezing foxhole many a man lived by covering his head with a blanket and trapping his own warm breath.

    The GIs learned not to eat snow except in very small doses or their stomachs would become chilled. Tankers learned that their great friend, Calvados, was their great enemy in the cold. For alcohol brought body heat to the surface, causing radiation and deadly chilling.

    They learned that cold metal would sweat when brought indoors, and then quickly freeze when taken outside. All weapons and ammunition were left outdoors, protected only from the falling snow.

    They learned the big lessons too. That their tanks should be whitewashed to blend with the snow; that they should wear sheets like Halloween ghosts.

    Mechanics, with Yankee ingenuity, soon learned how to make their machines work under sub-zero conditions. Where rubber tracks were unavailable for tanks, great metal cleats were welded on steel tracks to conquer ice and snow.
    But the greatest lesson was one learned from the enemy: to hate. Word of the Malmédy Massacre, of the massacres of civilians at Stavelot, Trois Points, and Bande, passed from man to man, and from unit to unit. Until the Ardennes the GI had fought a civilian’s war. Now he was learning to kill without remorse or pity.