Friday, December 30, 2005

Alternate history of the world #1


Wikipedia lists following as "cascade effect" leading to the disastrous conflagration called World War I:
  • Austria Hungary threatens Serbia
  • Russian treaties with Serbia commit it to mobilise in Serbia's defense
  • France mobilises in sympathy with Russian ally
  • French mobilisation kick starts the Schlieffen Plan, and the eventual invasion of Belgium by Germany
  • Britain's treaty with Belgium commits it to defend Belgium from all aggressors
The Schlieffen Plan called for the German Army to strike through Belgium, swiftly knock out the French Army, and thereby secure Germany's Western flank; they would then be free to invade Russia, the real focus of their attention. A two front war was feared to be suicidal (as, indeed, it turned out to be - in WWI and WWII, as Hitler found out to great cost). It had the unwanted effect, however, of forcing

A two front war was a certainty because France had signed a mutual military assistance treaty with Russia in 1892. Britain also had a treaty with France (and later, Russia, creating the Triple Entente, which as I understand it constituted an alignment rather than an actual treaty), the Entente Cordiale - but this was not a mutual defense treaty, which is why the proximate cause of British entry into WWI was the invasion of Belgium (thereby violating the 1839 Treaty of London, which guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium), although that begs the question whether Britain would have entered the war anyway if Belgium had allowed Germany free congress in it's invasion of France.

Anyway, that's all the background. My question is, what if France had repudiated their treaty with Russia, leaving Germany free to fight the Russians on a single front? I sure we can all see multiple scenarios; one of course is that World War I takes place a little later in time and for different proximate reasons; but the nationalist tensions and grating empires would inevitably have led to a great war. The rest of the history of the 20th century continues not much changed (except that maybe the second world war occurs in the 1950s, featuring the nuclear-armed industrial juggernaut called the Germano-Russian Empire ...).

The second, more hopeful scenario is that a swift victory for Germany in Russia means the there is no Russian Revolution (I'm a quasi-socialist, but by no stretch of the imagination do I see the Russian Revolution as a good thing); no World War II; no holocaust (and thereby no Israel, no occupation, etc)... no cold war. On the flip side, the European empires last vastly longer than they do in our history - perhaps with no great wars to deplete the resources of the empires de-colonisation is fanciful idea (although the collapse of empire seems to be a historical inevitability - economically at least). Or would the socialist revolution happened later, just not in Russia, but maybe in a German Empire weakened by the cost of pacifying Russia (is revolution possible in an industrial society)?

Is it possible that a swift German victory in WWI would have made for a better world?

Or is there a certain amount of historical inevitability that things like the Cold War would occur - that the 20th century would necessarily create two (or more) nuclear armed superpowers or empires, that would necessarily view each other suspiciously purely because irrespective of ideology they were a potential threat to each other's dominance?

Can't we all just get along?


Before I start the second part of my magnum opus, I thought I'd address a subject dear to every man's heart: what they got for christmas (and because I had to ruin Christmas for my mother one year, my birthday).

Things started well with 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
, a gift from the Onslow Road Irregulars, along with Empire : Nozone IX by Nicholas Blechman. We then trotted off to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although there was some distinctly ropey CGI effects, what really set the movie apart was the acting - especially from Georgie Henley (playing Lucy), who I'm finding it hard to believe has never been in a movie before. I wouldn't go so far to call it a classic, but I'm sure it will find it's way into my DVD collection. As many people have noted, Liam Neeson was okay as Aslan, but why wasn't James Earl Jones called?

The next stage of Birthday madness was seeing Kong with my family, preceded by more gifts - Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins and a book of movie money, all important in this day and age when cinemas fuck a person up the ass and don't even have the goddamned common courtesy to give him a reacharound (points for reference). Kong was a fixed affair. It is too long, but it doesn't overtly suffer for that fact - it just means that a sore ass detracts from enjoyment of the movie. CG effects were very, very good, only getting ropey in a couple of segments, like the scene where the dinosaurs are runnings from the raptors. Andy Serkis deserves an oscar for bringing Kong to life, and Naomi Watts looked every inch the film star; but all that screaming was really frigging annoying. I know it's that kind of movie ... but surely they could have toned it down just a little? Another oscar should have gone to the Civic Theatre ... Anyway, aside from a few hokey lines, the film holds together a lot better than it ought to, and I enjoyed it immensely on the big screen ... but, it's strictly an event movie, and I don't think that I would bother buying the DVD (except maybe for the Peter Jackson/Fran Walsh/Philippa Boyens commentary).

The next day (Christmas Eve) was the day I'd been waiting for: two packages arrived from America; one held my ROCC, the other holding two Ringnecks and a Mean Dog. True, I'd paid for them lock, stock and barrel (vast amounts when you factor in exchange rate and shipping), but it sure felt like Christmas to me ...

Speaking of Christmas, here's my haul:

The Great War for Civilisation : The Conquest of the Middle East, By Robert Fisk
Thud!, by Terry Pratchett
The Muppet Show - Season One DVD
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction, directed by Samuel Fuller
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond (wasn't actually a gift, but bought with the copius whitcoulls gift vouchers I got)

I also was the recipient of some quite scrummy homemade chocolates from Span, which I am currently savouring over back episodes of CSI ...

Thud I finished reading on Boxing Day. I think I'll need to re-read it to say whether I liked it or not (or, at least, whether I liked it as much as other Terry Prachett books). It didn't really strike me as being as good as his last effort, Going Postal, but maybe time will tell.

The Muppet Show first season is not as great as I remember later series being ... it's probably not helped by the obscurity of some of the guest stars. But the Swedish chef is there, so I'm happy.

The Great War for Civilisation (TGWFC) is heavy going: at just over 1200 pages I'm going to be reading this well into the new year. Robert Fisk is a better column writer than he is a book writer, as opposed to someone like Gwynne Dyer, who seems to drift effortlessly between the two mediums (one of the best books in my bookshelf is War, written 25 years ago in the middle of the Cold War, but still fantastically relevant). But TGWFC would be heavy going whoever wrote it - Fisk's personal style makes the descriptions of the numerous wars, tortures and genocides all the more gruelling. At some point I'll have to pick up his book on Lebanon. While I'm at it, can anyone recommend a good history of Iran (pre-revolution)?

It's probably not helped that I'm reading Collapse at the same time. Jared Diamond is a very approachable writer, and the subject is fascinating, if somewhat terrifying.

Anyhoo. The latest patch for World of Warcraft (Uldum server) as recently finished downloading (all 287meg of it, bastards), so I'm off to bloody my sword. Watch out for my next installment of the torture debate, tentatively titled: No man is an Island, Hearts and Minds, and Torture makes the Baby Jesus Cry.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Things that make me believe in conspiracies

Read these 4 urban legend posts on

E-mail written by a paramedic details conditions in New Orleans.

E-mails by a volunteer relief worker detail behavior of New Orleans evacuees.

Evacuees verbally abused volunteers trying and trashed a rest stop in Waskom, TX.

Evacuees brought to Utah arrived bearing drugs and guns and immediately proceeded to sell drugs, attempt rapes, and rebuild street gangs.

All four posts purport to be eye-witness accounts of the relief effort after hurricane Katrina; all 4 go out of their way to demonise African-Americans victims of the disaster as greedy, ungrateful rude and violent. All appear to have spread far and wide over the internet.
And all four are of doubtful veracity (Snopes scores two as false and two as undetermined).

To my mind some, if not all of the posts sound as if they were written by the same person. All of which adds up to an interesting propaganda campaign IMHO ...

torturous logic

There's a fine line between busy and lazy; if you're charitable you believe me when I say I've been too tired to post from work stress and/or I've been really thinking hard about the subject of this post ... or if you're a realist you'll believe I've spent the last few weeks playing Battlefield 1942 and GTO: Vice City or watching the dvd boxsets of Criminal Intent, X-files season 3, and The Frighteners. Or all of the above may be true.

Anyway, I thought that I would take a moment from my normal programming to answer a question from Apathy Jack (from the comments):
"Thou shalt not torture"

To analogise this to popular culture, as is the style here:

Did you see that episode of Lost where Sayer was holding out on asthma medication that would save Shannon's life. Jack and Sayeed (indesputably the two alpha-heroes of the show) torture him for the location of the medicine.

On the one hand, it was acknowledged that what they did was wrong, but on the other hand, as they saw it, they didn't have a choice.

Is there ever a morally clear reason?

Good question. I'm of the school of philosophy (a school of philosophy, which, incidentally is newly part of my very own New Zealand Institute of Negotiable Affection, inquire within if you would like to be made the Dean of School) ... the school of philosophy that says that just about anything, no matter how repugnant, will be justifiable in some time or place. You name it, murder, theft, beastiality ... even (shudder) folk-dancing. Call me crazy. Or I can call you betty, but betty, when you call me, you can call me Al.

At root this is one of those Kantian vs Utilitarian moral arguments (grossly simplied. but you're on the internet and I'm not going to hold your hand). On one hand the importance is placed on means (Kant); on the other the ends (Utilitarianism). You may view torture as always and everywhere wrong, an unpardonable sin; or you may view torture as something that can be used where the benefit outweighs the cost. If you want a good practical discussion of the two different moral viewpoints then check out this argument about the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (this is another snopes discussion): Japan offered surrender in WW2? (it takes a little while to get going, but it's worth the time spent).

But I'm getting way ahead of myself - it's probably best to start at the beginning and roll out a definition of torture. Plucked from

1. a. Infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion.
b. An instrument or a method for inflicting such pain.
2. Excruciating physical or mental pain; agony: the torture of waiting in suspense.
3. Something causing severe pain or anguish.

For today's discussion I'm only really interested in severe physical pain as a means of coercion. I'm guessing that most people are opposed to torture as a means of punishment, but even if you aren't that is an argument for another day. And I'm going to talk about torture in a semi-utilitarian way (if there are any torture-is-always-and-everywhere-wrong absolutists I'd like to hear from you).

So what I would like to talk about here is torture as a tool. That is, you wish for person X to perform an action or provide information. If person X refuses to do what you want then you will inflict severe physical pain until such time as you get what you want.

At the moment the debate about the use of torture is concentrated on its role in "The War on Terror", which so far has followed in the footsteps of its very successful older brother "The War on Drugs" (trust me: this would be a lot funnier if I had been snorting cocaine through hundred dollar bills when I wrote that, but whaddayaknow I'm clean out of hundred dollar bills. btw, speaking on TWOT, Jack made a funny here). The venerable United States of America uses torture to extract information and/or confessions from those it suspects of terrorism - btw I'm not going to pussyfoot around with semantics of whether the US actually perfoms the torture - asking someone else to do it for you just proves nothing more than that you are an arsehole and a lawyer.

The first argument against using torture is that you it has a reputation for being unreliable (No Right Turn has a good example of this). That is, you run a large risk that your torture victim will tell you what they think you want to hear in an effort to stop the torture; as Wikipedia puts it:

One well documented effect of torture is that with rare exceptions people will say or do anything to escape the situation, including untrue "confessions" and implication of others without genuine knowledge, who may well then be tortured in turn.
(FYI, the rest of the Wikipedia article is quite interesting too. If only I had time to visit the link entitled "Torture and the Ayn Rand Institute" - the mind boggles). Of course, if you are an efficient torturer you will not just relying on torture for information, you will be cross-referencing from other intelligence sources; which might lead you to believe that either you have to torture a lot of people to get a critical mass of data, or you can only indulge in torture in a data-rich environment. Complicating matters is the possibility of torturer bias: that, like we've found with over-zealous interviewers of potential child abuse victims, you run the very real risk of distorting your intelligence based on the prejudices of the people using your "tool".

The problem with trying to assess these factors, of course, is that torture is a fairly secretive business. We tend to hear from the victims rather than the perpetrators; therefore it seems to be rather difficult quantify the success or otherwise of the intelligence gathered. How many lives have been saved by the application of torture? Since the US and allies have such a difficult time admitting that they use torture, how can we assess the positive effect claimed for it?

It's now 11pm on a school night, so this is going to turn into another multi-part discussion ...

Book you should read even though it will probably confirm your worst prejudices about religion:
Under the Banner of Heaven : A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Or my preferred title: When Strange Religions Go Really, Really Fucking Bad.

"In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer tells the story of the killers and their crime but also explores the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism from which the two emerged ... In an age where Westerners have trouble comprehending what drives Islamic fundamentalists to kill, Jon Krakauer advises us to look within America's own borders." --John Moe

You always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask:
Did General Motors destroy the LA mass transit system?

Endlessly waiting ...

I hate waiting for packages to come from America: you never know when the buggers will turn up. Small packages (dvds, etc) can take anything from 1-3 weeks to turn up. Bigger items (over 5 pounds) can take anything from 2 weeks to 12. Upgrading to the more expensive shipping options is a bit of a crapshoot, so usually just not worth the extra expense.

Currently I'm waiting on this (warning - there are a lot of pictures so if you're on dial-up it'll take a while). I think we must be about at week 6 or 7. If it turns up in the next week it will definitely make my christmas :)

But enough about my secret shame. Now that I'm out of the closet you can read my next post when I talk about important shit.