A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘History’ tag

The United States of Rome

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I’ve been on a huge Roman history kick for the last several months. Currently I’m reading Rubicon by Tom Holland. I’m a bit over 200 pages in and it has been an excellent read. The history itself is fascinating but the various parallels between the twilight of the Roman Republic and the United States are also worth noting. For example, the Romans had a similar strategy when it came to justifying war. From page 152:

The Republic was never so dangerous as when it believed that its security was at stake. The Romans rarely went to war, not even against the most negligible foe, without somehow first convincing themselves that their preemptive strikes were defensive in nature.

Like the Roman Republic, the United States never performs a preemptive strike without first convincing itself that its target is an eminent threat even if there is no plausible threat. Furthermore, the Romans had a similar attitude towards the “rights” of its citizens. From pages 202 and 203:

At stake was the issue of what to do with Catiline’s henchmen. Many were of good family, and it was forbidden by the severest laws of the Republic to execute any citizen without a proper trial. But did the state of emergency entitle Cicero to waive this sacred injunction? Caesar, still nervous that the hysteria might sweep him away, proposed the novel idea that the conspirators should be imprisoned for life; Cato, opposing him, demanded their execution. Here, in the clash between these two men so matched in talent, so opposite in character, was the opening salvo of a struggle that would eventually convulse the Republic. For now, it was Cato who emerged triumphant. A majority in the Senate agreed with him that the safety of Rome was more important than the rights of individual citizens. And besides, who ever heard of imprisonment as a punishment? The conspirators were sentenced to death.

Like in the Roman Republic, the rights of Americans end where the politicians’ perception of safety begins.

The Founding Fathers put a lot of effort into emulating the Roman Republic and that effort wasn’t wasted. As the United States marches into its twilight it continues to emulate the Roman Republic as it marched into its twilight. Perhaps the next stage of the United States will be a monarchy as well.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 9th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Returning to the Moon

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Trump recently announced that the United States will return to the moon:

President Donald Trump signed his administration’s first space policy directive yesterday (Dec. 11), which formally directs NASA to focus on returning humans to the moon.

But the question remains, how will the United States return to the moon without Nazi scientists?

I thought it would be fun to use this announcement to segue into an interesting footnote in history. The interesting parts of history are too often skipped over in school so while most people are familiar with the early space program many people are unaware that the space program received a significant boost from Operation Paperclip. Operation Paperclip was a secret United States program to recruit Nazi scientists after World War II. There was a brain race at the end of the war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides wanted to claim as many Nazi scientists as possible. Many of those claimed by the United States worked in rocketry and aeronautics and they found their way into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

This interesting tidbit of history has lead to some fun jokes. For example, Sputnik is often referred to the time where, “Their Nazi scientists outdid our Nazi scientists.” It also lead to some embarrassing situations such as the Strughold Award, an award named after the pioneer of space medicine that was the highest award that could be granted by the Space Medicine Association, being retired when the Wall Street Journal unveiled that Strughold was a Nazi scientist.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 14th, 2017 at 10:30 am

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Free Akkadian Dictionary

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It probably won’t surprise anybody to find out that I’m a language nerd. Although I’m only fluent in English at this point and have a decent understanding of both Esperanto and Latin, I love to learn about all of the different mechanisms that humans have developed to communicate with one another. I especially love learning about ancient languages. Earlier this year I read a book on cuneiform, the earliest known writing system, and was fascinated by how the systems worked (it’s a real hodgepodge compared to the written alphabet we use for English today).

For the last 90 years scholars at the University of Chicago have been compiling an Akkadian dictionary. That near century of effort has finally bore fruit. The University of Chicago has released its 21 volume Akkadian dictionary and best of all the PDFs are free (buying the physical volumes will set you back over $1,000). If you have any interest in learning about Akkadian, head over to the University of Chicago’s website and start downloading all of the volumes.

Written by Christopher Burg

August 31st, 2017 at 10:00 am

Posted in Science

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Some Things Never Change

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There are certain constants in the universe. Extremely massive bodies will have gravitational pull, for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction, and people will work for beer. A 5,000-year-old table was discovered and translated. What did this ancient tablet have to tell us? That people worked for beer. The tablet, as with many tablets in Mesopotamia, was a receipt:

Writing in New Scientist, Alison George explains what’s written on the 5,000-year-old tablet: “We can see a human head eating from a bowl, meaning ‘ration,’ and a conical vessel, meaning ‘beer.’ Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker.” Beer wages were by no means limited to Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, there are records of people receiving beer for their work—roughly 4 to 5 liters per day for people building the pyramids. And in the Middle Ages, we have several records of the great fourteenth century poet Geoffrey Chaucer being paid in wine. Richard II generously gave Chaucer an annual salary that included a “tonel” of wine per year, which was roughly 252 gallons.

Today you can buy the assistance of friends to help fix your vehicle, move your stuff, or perform other forms of manual labor using this ancient tradition of paying in beer.

One of my interests as of late is the history of human languages. Cuneiform, the writing used for the beer receipt, was the first writing system we’re aware of. Interestingly enough it, like most things, was a product of the market:

The Sumerians first invented writing as a means of long-distance communication which was necessitated by trade. With the rise of the cities in Mesopotamia, and the need for resources which were lacking in the region, long-distance trade developed and, with it, the need to be able to communicate across the expanses between cities or regions.

Trade is the mother of invention. Remember what I said about many of these tablets being receipts? This is because Cuneiform was originally developed as a method of communicating trade information over long distances. Many of the tablets recovered from Mesopotamia discuss business transactions. Over time writing became used in more areas of life and today we plaster our languages over everything.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 29th, 2016 at 10:00 am

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When Kodak Accidentally Discovered A-Bomb Testing

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I was busy with a CryptoParty meeting last night so I didn’t have time to write up any posts. To compensate you fine reader I’ll leave you with this fascinating story about how Kodak accidentally discovered atomic bomb testing:

The ground shook, a brilliant white flash enveloped the sky, and the world changed forever. Code name “Trinity,” the bomb test at dawn on July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico was the first large-scale atomic weapons testing in history. Only three weeks later two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.

More than 1,900 miles away from Alamogordo, at the Rochester, NY headquarters of Eastman Kodak, a flood of complaints came in from business customers who had recently purchased sensitive X-ray film from the company. Black exposed spots on the film, or “fogging,” had rendered it unusable. This perplexed many Kodak scientists, who had gone to great lengths to prevent contaminations like this.

Julian H. Webb, a physicist in Kodak’s research department, took it upon himself to dig deeper and test the destroyed film. What he uncovered was shocking. The fogging of Kodak’s film and the Trinity test in New Mexico were eerily connected, revealing some chilling secrets about the nuclear age.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 22nd, 2016 at 10:00 am

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This Flag Shit is Out of Hand

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I’ve tried to ignore the recent Internet controversy surrounding the Confederate flag. It’s the exact same argument as last time and my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. Flying the Confederate flag is stupid for the exact same reasons flying the United States flag is. But this time the controversy has reached some stupendously stupid levels.

Remember the Dukes of Hazzard? Not the shitty remake but the original show. It started the General Lee and some humans nobody cared about. The General Lee was an orange Dodge Charger that had a Confederate flag pained on the roof (because the show took place in the rural South which is otherwise indistinguishable from the rural North). There was nothing racist about the show. But the powers that be at Warner Brothers has decided to cease production of all toy General Lees. I can’t wait for the next Dukes of Hazzard remake where the General Lee is replaced with the General Sherman, a car with a United States flag painted on the roof.

Toys aren’t the only thing getting pulled. Do you like historical strategy games that strive for accuracy? Too bad! Apple has pulled Civil War strategy games on account of Confederate sides displaying, get this, Confederate flags. I bet people are really going to flip their shit when they find out that there are World War II strategy games that let you play as Germany.

Of course no controversy would be complete without somebody at Slate writing an absolutely idiotic piece. It’s titled The Confederate Flag Doesn’t Belong in a Museum and it’s stupid because the Confederate flag does belong in a museum because that’s exactly what museums exist for. The title is clickbait though because the author feels that the Confederate flag could be put in a museum but only if a mountain of conditions are met:

What might such an exhibit look like? It would need to tell the history behind the flag. It is a symbol of white supremacy, and museums should acknowledge it as such. The designer for the second national flag of the Confederacy described it as a representation of the fight to “maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” The exhibit should also acknowledge the role the flag played in South Carolina’s past. The flag that’s captured national attention this week came to Columbia in 1962, as a reaction to black people fighting for and winning rights during the civil rights era.

Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?

Furthermore, a complete interpretation of the Confederate flag would need to make clear that black people have always resisted white supremacy and fought for the demise of institutional racism.

Why the hell isn’t the United States flag subjected to these same conditions? That flag not only represents slavery, racism, and war but it also represents the almost complete extermination of this country’s indigenous people, dropping nuclear weapons on civilian populations, placing people in concentration camps because of their race, and a whole lot of other really shitty things.

It’s one thing to say the Confederate flag shouldn’t be flown in front of government buildings (but hypocritical if the advocate doesn’t believe the United States flag should also be taken down) but it’s an entirely different thing to attempt to erase it from history. To quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Written by Christopher Burg

June 26th, 2015 at 10:00 am

History of Crypto War I

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In its zeal to preserve the power to spy on its citizens members of the United States government have begun pushing to prohibit civilians from using strong cryptography. While proponents of this prohibition try to scare you with words such as terrorists, drug cartels, and pedophiles let’s take a moment to remember the last time this war was waged:

Encryption is a method by which two parties can communicate securely. Although it has been used for centuries by the military and intelligence communities to send sensitive messages, the debate over the public’s right to use encryption began after the discovery of “public key cryptography” in 1976. In a seminal paper on the subject, two researchers named Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman demonstrated how ordinary individuals and businesses could securely communicate data over modern communications networks, challenging the government’s longstanding domestic monopoly on the use of electronic ciphers and its ability to prevent encryption from spreading around the world. By the late 1970s, individuals within the U.S. government were already discussing how to solve the “problem” of the growing individual and commercial use of strong encryption. War was coming.

The act that truly launched the Crypto Wars was the White House’s introduction of the “Clipper Chip” in 1993. The Clipper Chip was a state-of-the-art microchip developed by government engineers which could be inserted into consumer hardware telephones, providing the public with strong cryptographic tools without sacrificing the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access unencrypted versions of those communications. The technology relied on a system of “key escrow,” in which a copy of each chip’s unique encryption key would be stored by the government. Although White House officials mobilized both political and technical allies in support of the proposal, it faced immediate backlash from technical experts, privacy advocates, and industry leaders, who were concerned about the security and economic impact of the technology in addition to obvious civil liberties concerns. As the battle wore on throughout 1993 and into 1994, leaders from across the political spectrum joined the fray, supported by a broad coalition that opposed the Clipper Chip. When computer scientist Matt Blaze discovered a flaw in the system in May 1994, it proved to be the final death blow: the Clipper Chip was dead.

The battlefield today reflects the battlefield of Crypto War I. Members of the government are again arguing that all civilian cryptography should be weakened by mandating the use of key escrow that allows the government to gain access to any device at any time. As with the last war, where the government proposed Clipper Chip was proven to be completely insecure, this war must be looked at through the eye of government security practices or, more specifically, lack of security practices. It was only last week that we learned some of the government’s networks are not secure, which lead to the leaking of every federal employee’s personal information. How long do you think it would take before a hack of a government network lead to the leaking of every escrow key? I’d imagine it would take less than a week. After that happened every device would be rendered entirely insecure by anybody who downloaded the leaked escrow keys.

What everybody should take away from this is that the government is willing to put each and every one of us at risk just so it can maintain the power to spy on use with impunity. But its failure to win Crypto War I proved that the world wouldn’t come to an end if the government couldn’t spy on us with impunity. Since Crypto War I the power of law enforcement agents to acquire evidence of wrongdoing (according to the state) didn’t suddenly stop, terrorist attacks didn’t suddenly become a nightly occurrence, and children being abducted by pedophiles didn’t suddenly become a fact of everyday life.

Crypto War II is likely inevitable but it can be won just as the last one was. The first step to victory is not allowing yourself to be suckered by government lies.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 23rd, 2015 at 11:00 am

The United States Can’t Do Anything Cool

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I don’t want to beat this dead horse much longer but I believe it’s necessary for me to point out how lame American politics is. People are upset about the 47 senators who wrote a vague threat to the Iranian government.

What we have here are 47 government officials writing a stinkin’ letter to prove how pissed off at Iran they are. This just goes to show that the United States can’t do anything cool. The last time 47 government officials in Japan were pissed off shit went down.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 11th, 2015 at 11:30 am

Posted in Side Notes

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Why I Hate Public School History Courses

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I love history. In fact I’m writing this post after spending about an hour reading The Secret History of the Mongol Queens (it’s a great book and if you have an interest in Mongol history I highly recommend it). This love didn’t develop until well after I graduated. During my public career I didn’t give two shits about history. It wasn’t not because I was lazy, it was because none of the history we learned was interesting. The most interesting history is the controversial history but that’s what they avoid teaching in public schools like the plague (which, interestingly enough, was likely introduce to Europe by the Mongols). I believe this is because the people drawing up the history curriculum want to avoid dealing with the idiot politicians who chomp at the bit whenever something slightly different from their party’s ideology is taught.

Whoever wrote the history curriculum in Oklahoma is learning this valuable lesson. Apparently they decided to cover some of the more sinister, and therefore more interesting, parts of this country’s history because some of that state’s Republicans are flipping their shit:

State Rep. Dan Fisher (R) introduced a bill at the beginning of the month that keeps the state from funding AP U.S. History unless the College Board changes the curriculum. The bill also orders the state Department of Education to establish a U.S. History program that would replace the AP course.

Since the College Board released a new course framework for U.S. history in October 2012, conservative backlash against the course has grown significantly. The Republican National Committee condemned the course and its “consistently negative view of American history” in August. Numerous states and school districts have now taken action to denounce the exam.

Fisher said Monday that the AP U.S. History course emphasizes “what is bad about America” and complained that the framework eliminated the concept of “American exceptionalism,” according to the Tulsa World.

This pisses me off for three reasons. First, the idea of “American exceptionalism” is nationalistic bullshit. The United States, like every other country on the face of the planet, has done some terrible shit. Nothing it has done has been exceptional in regards to the world at large. It really is just another country in the long history of countries. And if you really dig deep enough the United States is little more than a discount Roman Republic.

The second reason this pisses me off is because sweeping the bad parts of American history under the rug prevents the next generation form learning from those mistakes. Slavery, genocide, mass incarceration, institutionalized bigotry, and many other rather nasty things populate American history. If all of those things are just swept under the rug then they won’t be discussed critically and the lessons learned will be forgotten. Forgetting past fuck ups is not smart.

The third reason this pisses me off is because it dissuades teachers from covering controversial history. Without controversy history classes are places where students go to learn names and dates just long enough to pass tests. A lot of people bitch that kids these days don’t know history. Well it’s not their fault. They’re fed a bunch of bland facts with no critical analysis. Since that’s their introduction to history they believe it’s a born area of study and avoid it. If you taught them some of the really good shit they would likely take a real interest in the topic and pursue it.

What makes history interesting are the stories. Interesting people doing interesting shit is the backbone of any story whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But telling interesting historical stories is difficult in a political environment where one or the other major party will jump down your throat because the stories shine a negative light on their bullshit ideology.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 20th, 2015 at 11:00 am

Finnish Sniper

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American Sniper is getting a lot of press. One side sees it as a movie about an American hero who rightly put a bunch of terrorists into graves. The other side sees it as a movie about a murderer and a liar. Based on what I’ve read about Chris Kyle’s life I’m guess we wouldn’t have gotten along. Furthermore the movie seems to be very popular amongst neocons so I won’t bother seeing it because I don’t want to be stuck in a theater with a bunch of people who have a raging erection because they’re watching Muslims being killed left and right.

I am a history nerd though so I want to poke a bit of fun at the tag line, “America’s greatest sniper”. According to Wikipedia Chris Kyle had “160 confirmed kills out of 255 probably kills.” That’s cute. But it also shows that surpassing “America’s greatest sniper” isn’t that high of a bar to jump over.

Enter Simo Häyhä. Simo Häyhä was a Finnish sniper that operated during the Winter War. For those unfamiliar with the Winter War it was an attempt by the Soviet Union to take over Finland. It didn’t end well for the Soviets. Using a modified Mosin-Nagant rifle, that didn’t have any optics I might add, Simo Häyhä managed to get somewhere between 505 sniper kills.

Simo Häyhä is also a more interesting individual in my opinion. First of all he was engaged in a war against an invading force instead of being a member of an invading force. The man was literally protecting his home. Another thing that’s worth noting about Simo Häyhä is that he was a humble man. He didn’t go around bragging about all of the commie he killed, he didn’t start random fights in bars, and he didn’t make up stories about traveling to other places to kill people. After the Soviets were run out of Finland he made a life for himself by moose hunting and dog breeding.

So when I hear people talking about “America’s greatest sniper” I can only chuckle. Chris Kyle, at best, managed roughly half of the kills that Simo Häyhä had, was a jackass if his own accounts of his actions are to be believed, and was helping to expand a tyrannical regime instead of defending against one.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 20th, 2015 at 10:00 am

Posted in Side Notes

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