Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | September 14, 2014

Sunday Link Collection

Mount Ben Bulben on a cloudy day, County Sligo, Ireland

1. The Loeb Classical Library is now on-line. Huzzah! (H/T: Tyler Cowen.)

2. These things take a while: Vali Nasr: the Arab world is still trying to sort out the unfinished business of the Ottoman Empire. (H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

3. Chris Blattman looks at recent Spanish history and uses that as a springboard to talk about the evolution of electoral, democratic political systems:

Most Western democracies doled out the right to vote very slowly. Maybe more correct: middle classes seized the vote where and when they could. Not Spain. The case of Spain looks more like new democracies today, where everyone suddenly (and sometimes unexpectedly) gets the the right to vote.

The tricky part with this: the people who choose the leaders (the masses) aren’t the ones who control the wealth or weapons or other institutions, and they might have little education or civic organization. So the people who are powerful remain powerful, but now have to work through the quasi-democratic system and the masses, who now have a little more power than before. Thus you get patronage and party boss systems, or the rolling back of rights from the least powerful. At least for a time.

Some people use this as an argument for autocracy. I don’t. I’d rather see rights with corruption than no rights at all.

4. Last month, the Iranian-born Stanford Professor Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to share the Fields Medal. Wired has this profile.

5. Could we be approaching the end of Moore’s law? Writing in Ars Technica, John Timmer looks at whether microprocessors are running up against physical limits.

6. “When She Talks, Banks Shudder”: Binyamin Appelbaum has a profile in the NYT of Stanford finance professor Anat Admati, who thinks that banks should be forced to rely less on borrowed money: “Ms. Admati’s simple message is that the government is overlooking the best way to strengthen the financial system. Regulators, she says, need to worry less about what banks do with their money, and more about where the money comes from. … Ms. Admati says large banks should be required to raise at least 30 percent of their funding in the form of equity, about six times more than the current average for the largest American banks. This would not affect the ability of banks to accept deposits; it would not even affect their borrowing from other sources. Instead, she says, banks should be required to suspend dividend payments, thus increasing their equity by retaining their profits, until they are sufficiently capitalized.” (H/T: Mark Thoma.)

7. A map of the most affluent town in each state, as measured by median income.

8. Chris Attaway on his unorthodox path to rediscovering Jesus: “It was Nietzsche who saved me and who is saving me. He opened my eyes to the dead god and its sepulchers. He challenged me to desire power and to create a new world which sees desire as a good thing. Unintentionally, he dispelled the old myths and reintroduced me to Jesus. And this Jesus subverted man’s attempts at playing favorites by declaring that humanity itself, not just this or that culture or tribe, had value.”

Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors - Google Art Project

9. I saw Calvary on Friday evening. This dark comedy, set in County Sligo on the northwestern coast of Ireland, follows a week in the life of a Catholic priest, played by Brendan Gleeson. Slate and the Guardian have reviews. It’s a pretty funny movie. Gleeson is excellent in the lead, and there are good performances from Kelly Reilly and Marie-Josée Croze. A number of the other performances seemed like caricatures or cliches, unfortunately — including that of Aiden Gillen (he of Game of Thrones and The Wire), who plays a physician. The cinematography is quite well done; the scenery is often beautiful, and director John Michael McDonagh and his cinematographer, Larry Smith, have a nice way of playing with light. Recommended.

Image Credits: (1) Mount Ben Bulben, County Sligo, Ireland. Photo by John Sullivan, June 2002. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Currently hanging in the National Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Friday, I mentioned my regard for Joseph Persico’s book the the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial. (Persico passed away at the end of August, occasioning the post.) It is a book full of interesting tidbits of history, including much background on the preparations for the trials and the negotiations among the Allied powers leading up to the trials. (The Soviets were hampered in their ability to shape the form and procedures of the trials because most of the major German prisoners were in British or American custody.) Persico provides well-written portraits of such figures as Robert Jackson (who took a leave of absence from the US Supreme Court to serve as the chief American prosecutor), Gustav Gilbert (an American Army psychologist who interviewed the defendants), Burton Andrus (the prison commandant) — and of a number of the defendants. Besides giving an overview of the course of the trials and the evidence produced and defenses offered, the book discusses, for example, the difficulties of the German, Russian, and French attorneys in adapting to Anglo-Saxon style cross-examination of witnesses.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27798, Nürnberger Prozess, Verhandlungssaal

Photograph showing the basic setup of the courtroom of the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, Germany, September 1946. The defendants are in the dock at the left of the picture, with their guards standing behind them. Defense counsel sit at the tables just in front of the dock, facing the judges’s bench at far right. The judges’ clerks and other staff are sitting in front of the bench. The prosecutors’s tables are in the foreground. The witness stand is against the far wall, and the interpreters’ booth, shielded by glass, is in the left corner, behind the dock.

One part of Persico’s work that I found interesting (one of several such) was his treatment of the development of simultaneous interpretation for the trials. With the defendants and most of their counsel working in German, with the prosecution in three different languages (English, French, Russian), with judges from four countries, and with witnesses testifying in a multitude of languages, the organizers of the trial decided that they needed a system of close-to-real-time interpretation between four languages. At first, the man in charge of the Language Division, charged with making simultaneous interpretation work, was Col. Leon Dostert, US Army:

The colonel, former interpreter for General Eisenhower, champion of the still unproven IBM simultaneous-translation system, had set up a mock courtroom in the attic of the Palace of Justice. … Dostert was testing a job applicant to see if she could keep up with the “witness.” Speed was the acid test. An interpreter could not delay more than eight seconds before starting to translate. Otherwise, too many words backed up. Academics might be able to interpret written passages of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, but often fell apart when the subject was toilet arrangements in a concentration camp. One of Dostert’s assistants, Lieutenant Peter Uiberall, a Viennese-born American, had developed a practical test. Uiberall would ask candidates to reel off in two languages the names of ten trees, ten birds, ten medical terms, ten automobile parts. They were looking for breadth of experience, people with curious minds as much as language mastery. Uiberall was always surprised by the number of city people who could not name ten farm implements in any language.

Dostert had made one basic decision. The best work was done when the interpreter listened in his native tongue and translated into the second language. They found that the interpreter first had to understand perfectly what was being said and then could usually find suitable words in the second language to express the thought.

Their greatest headache was German. Because the verb usually appeared at the end of the sentence, the interpreters never knew which way a thought was headed. Yet they dared not wait too long to start interpreting. The sentence might be, “I deny all knowledge of the existence of the death camps.” But what the interpreter heard in German was “Of the existence of the death camps all knowledge I deny.”

Dostert dispatched his deputy, Alfred Steer, a navy lieutenant commander and a gifted linguist himself, to scour Europe for the talent they needed. Steer raided the League of Nations in Geneva. But he found that many interpreters there were older, accustomed to translating from written documents, and unable to adapt readily to the pressure of interpreting on the spot. Steer had better luck at the Paris international telephone exchange. The operators were used to everyday foreign conversation under time pressure. In the end, whatever the candidate’s background, Steer found that only one prospect in twenty had the mental agility to listen and talk at the same time.

(111-12) Later, during the trial, Dostert left Nuremberg, and Alfred Steer was promoted to full commander and assumed command of the Language Division (262-63):

Steer, thirty-three, an energetic amalgam of man of action and scholar, with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, had inherited a crushing responsibility. Though simultaneous interpretation was complex and just born at Nuremberg, it had quickly been taken for granted. Justice Birkett enjoyed exercising his talent for invective against the interpreters. A speech in the vigorous, masculine Russian of the prosecutor, Rudenko, had been rendered into English by an effete interpreter whom Birkett complained sounded like “a ‘refayned’ decaying cleric, a latecomer making an apology at the vicarage garden party rather than the prosecutor of major war crimes.” Gruff German generals were interpreted by young women with chirpy little voices, diminishing the power of the witnesses’ testimony. On one occasion, after the aristocratic Erwin Lahousen had been interpreted by a barely educated German-American, Birkett asked, “And what language was that?” “Brooklynese,” Steer answered.

The interpreters also faced linguistic booby traps. Germans had a tendency to begin speaking with “Ja.” Interpreted literally, the utterance could amount to an admission of guilt. “Did you realize that what you were doing was criminal?” a prosecutor might ask. “Ja,” the witness would reply, meaning not “Yes,” but a space-filler, more accurately translated as “Well…”

What his critics should know, Steer thought, was how many candidates he rejected. The Pentagon shipped him batches of new interpreters, mostly ill-prepared. When he heard clumsy, made-up cognates such as judgify or tribunalize, he knew he did not have a lingust. The rejects were consigned to an area called “Siberia,” performing menial tasks until they could be shipped back to the States. And when all else ran smoothly, someone was always tripping over the cables that snaked through the courtroom, plunging the interpreting system into silence.

Interpreters section

Interpreters at the Nuremberg trials, March 1946.

The staffing experience of the Language Division was typical of a larger phenomenon that Persico identifies: the American tendency to throw a lot of people at a problem, with the expectation that sheer numbers will minimize the effects of variable quality, and brute force will get the job done. The book contrasts this with, for example, the British approach as exemplified during the trials (226-27) (emphasis added):

The British prosecutors, in their black coats and striped trousers, formed a small, select corps, skilled in their profession and steeped in the historical context of each case. By contrast, as Howard K. Smith noted in a broadcast: “The weakest feature of the case has been Justice Jackson’s staff … their briefs are written for them by assistants and many appear not to have read them over before entering the courtroom. They were probably quite skilled at defending railroads or prosecuting gangsters back home. But with a few brilliant exceptions, they have shown absolutely no knowledge of Nazism.” Janet Flanner, in her January 5 piece for The New Yorker, noted the succinct, reasoned cases the British prosecutors made. But the Americans, she wrote, had managed to make frightful war crimes “dull and incoherent.” Katy Walch, a British researcher working for the Americans, confided to a fellow Briton, “You see, they haven’t had a classical education.”

Jackson’s huge staff was suffering from the inefficiencies of scale. For all the prosecutor’s other strengths, administration was not among them. He was spending almost no time in the courtroom these days; instead, he willingly delegated the prosecution to assistants, who ran competing duchies. Jackson also recognized, too late, that he had made a fundamental mistake. The small corps of British prosecutors constituted a legal elite. Jackson, instead, had taken on phalanxes of American lawyers of mixed talents from the military. Most were civilians in uniform. They would acquire the requisite points for discharge, and within days would be on their way home, with hardly enough time to show their successors where the PX was, much less the intricacies of cases in progress. Jackson found himself begging people not to leave in the middle of a prosecution. Only 13 of his 150 original lawyers were still with him by January. Jackson complained that his staff was melting away.

Perhaps I am overgeneralizing, but that contrast — phalanxes versus a small, select, highly trained team — could probably characterize much about the American approach and the approach of the British (and some other countries and cultures), both in the WWII era and since then, in war and in other fields as well.

Jackson Nuremberg color

Justice Robert Jackson, as chief American prosecutor, addressing the court, 20 November 1945.

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Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | September 12, 2014

Joseph Persico has Passed

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-V01032-3, Nürnberger Prozess, Angeklagte

I was traveling last week, and it was only by happenstance that I saw the New York Times obituary for the author Joseph E. Persico, who passed away on August 30 at age 84.

From the Times obituary:

He wrote 12 books — all but the first after quitting his day job [a speechwriter for Nelson Rockefeller] — including a 2001 best seller, “Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage,” in which he portrayed President Franklin D. Roosevelt as having a Machiavellian, secrecy-obsessed side.

Among his other books were “Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial,” a novelistic 1994 account of the war crimes trials, which was made into an Emmy-winning TNT mini-series in 2000, and well-reviewed biographies of Edward R. Murrow and a former director of central intelligence, William J. Casey.

In 1995, Mr. Persico collaborated with Gen. Colin L. Powell on his autobiography, “My American Journey,” which sold a reported one million copies. General Powell was considered a possible presidential candidate at the time.

Persico’s name jumped out at me because his 1994 book on the trial of the German leaders, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, made a powerful impression on me in high school and was one of the factors that led me to law school.

The Washington Post also has a nice obituary here.


Image Credit: The defendants in the dock before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, late 1945. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-V01032-3 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 Germany, via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | September 2, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging

Vincent van Gogh - Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds - VGM F778

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, 1890.

Van Gogh painted this landscape (one of his last) in the summer of 1890, when he was living in Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France. (He painted The Church at Auvers at about the same time. That painting, of course, featured prominently in a 2010 episode of Doctor Who.)

This may seem like a tenuous connection, but it struck me recently that the fields of northern France probably looked much the same as this 24 years later when the German army was marching towards the Marne.

(All the same, I should note that, to my knowledge, von Kluck’s right wing never passed through Auvers-sur-Oise — which was not a significant military objective at any rate.)

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 31, 2014

A Most Wanted Man


I saw A Most Wanted Man a little while back. I liked it, in no small degree because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance. I would go so far as to say that I liked this film adaptation of the book better than the book itself (which, in fairness, I have engaged only in an abridged audiobook format). I thought that the movie made a smart choice in focusing on the character of Günther Bachmann (played by Hoffman) and paying less attention (compared to the book) to the character of Tommy Brue (played by Willem Dafoe). I have no real complaints about Dafoe’s performance, but the Brue character is just not a great POV character, IMHO. Also (spoilers, sort of), the ending, I thought, felt less anti-climactic in the movie than in the book.

And, it is a credit to the director and his team that they could make a signature party in a bank office suspenseful (indeed, climactic).

I do not claim to be an expert on the fiction of John le Carré. That said, the book A Most Wanted Man did not seem to me to have the same gravitas as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I suspect that, in part, this is a side effect of the end of the Cold War. In those earlier novels, part of the setting and climate of the stories was the background consciousness that the particular plots of the characters were pieces in a much larger conflict between two world superpowers and their spheres of influence — the Eastern Bloc vs. the Western Bloc. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, that background vanishes. It strikes me that the end of the Cold War must have been very hard on writers like John le Carré and Tom Clancy.

Over at Howl at Pluto, LFC was less impressed by the movie than I was. Also worth a read is this Slate review by Dana Stevens (“As he did so many times before, Philip Seymour Hoffman elevates the movie around him”). See also this review by Chris Ryan. Anderson has a short review in this post.

Image Credit: Port of Hamburg. Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 25, 2014

Random Art Blogging

Camille Pissarro, Le verger (The Orchard), 1872

Camille Pissarro, The Orchard, 1872.

Currently at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 23, 2014

How the Brits Speak

For those of us here in the US, Doctor Who returns tonight (with a new actor in the role of the Doctor).

In (tangential) honor of the occasion, here’s a video of Siobhan Thompson sampling 17 different British and Irish accents:

Also, at io9, here’s a list of the ten most ridiculously complicated Doctor Who villain schemes. (Spoilers, of course.)

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 22, 2014


Thus saith Thoreau:

I suppose I should have blogged about all the military gear that the cops brought to bear in Missouri this week. But, honestly, after reading Radley Balk[o] for years, it took me some time to realize that for most Americans it qualifies as actual news when stormtroopers with armored vehicles, rifles, and military uniforms take to the streets and go after American civilians.


Thoreau also points to this post by Jennifer Abel, which is worth reading.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 21, 2014

Blogging World War I: August 21, 1914: Marching Past History

BELGIUM — German forces entered Brussels the previous day. By August 21, 1914, elements of General Karl von Bülow’s Second Army had passed Wavre and were approaching Waterloo. General Karl von Einem, commander of VII Corps of Second Army, noted the occasion in his diary:

99 years ago all those people who today are our enemies defeated Napoleon and his Frenchmen there. We are now on historic ground and today will advance along the same roads that took Blücher and his victorious formations to Waterloo or Belle Alliance.[1]


On the same date, a few miles to the south, the French forces began a general offensive through the Ardennes. Tuchman writes about this particular choice of battlefield on the part of the French high command:

The terrain of the Ardennes is not suitable for the offensive. It is wooded, hilly, and irregular, with the slope running generally uphill from the French side and with declivities between the hills cut by many streams. Caesar, who took ten days to march across it, described the secret, dark forest as a “place full of terrors,” with muddy paths and a perpetual mist rising from the peat bogs. Much of it had since been cleared and cultivated; roads, villages, and two or three large towns had replaced Caesar’s terrors, but large sections were still covered with thick leafy woods where roads were few and ambush easy. French staff officers had examined the terrain on several tours before 1914 and knew its difficulties. In spite of their warnings the Ardennes was chosen as the place of breakthrough because here, at the center, German strength was expected to be least. The French had persuaded themselves of the feasibility of the ground on the theory that its very difficulty made it, as Joffre said, “rather favorable to the side which, like ourselves, had inferiority of heavy artillery but superiority of field guns.”[2]

[1] Diary entry quoted in translation from Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914 (2009), 123.
[2] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962), 235-38.

Image Sources: (1) US Military Academy Department of History; (2) CIA World Factbook via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 21, 2014

Blogging World War I: August 20, 1914: Pope Pius Dies

One hundred years ago this week, Pope Pius X died in Rome. He was 79 at the time and had been pope for 11 years.

Pope St. Pius X

Pius had already suffered a heart attack the previous year, and his health never really recovered. Supposedly, what finally broke his health for good was the stress of watching the nations of Europe fling themselves into the Great War in August 1914.

He was canonized forty years later.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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