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History off the press (October ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Ancient, Books, Economics, European, War by Alex L. on November 22, 2011

New history books header, October 2011

Swords to plowshares

President Obama recently announced that the United States will recall all of its armed forces personnel from Iraq by the end of 2011. This is a strange outcome for those of us who remember the seemingly insurmountable setbacks created by the insurgency before the 2007 surge of American troops unraveled the extremists’ grip on the country. It was hard to see back then that the situation in Iraq could improve. But it did. The following books explore in a unique way the nature of organized violence in the contemporary world.

Book coverAlthough we may not realize it from all of the news dispatches dripping with depressing forebodings of disaster either due to economic or glacial meltdown, there are reasons to be optimistic about the current state of the world. Joshua S. Goldstein, in a new book called Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, makes the case that the human race is freer from war now than it has ever been. The facts tell a counterintuitive but inspiring story: there are currently no nations at war in the world (only civil wars are going on) and last year had one of the lowest death rates from armed conflict in history.

Along similar lines, Steven Pinker has just published a similar work. Pinker makes the same observation – “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence” – but approaches the subject from the perspective of psychology, his field of study, rather than international affairs. Both of these perspectives are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a pundit on cable news or a sensationalistic author prophesying apocalypse for Western civilization just to get your attention. (more…)

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Driving at the speed of flight

Posted in Blogs, European, Just for Fun, Technology by Alex L. on November 4, 2011

Instrument panel for Jay Leno's 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine CarI can’t say I enjoy Jay Leno’s jokes as much as I do the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman. But man does the guy have an awesome car collection.

I know next to nothing about vintage car restoration, but I can appreciate a sleek-looking and rumble-producing automobile. When I came across Jay Leno’s video of his 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine Car restoration (see part 1, part 2 and part 3), though, I almost started drooling. The reason is because the restored car combines in an engaging package some things that, well, just make me salivate like a dog sensing dinner: aviation, World War I history, craftsmanship, and speed.

The 1915 machine is no ordinary automobile. It’s fitted with an engine taken from a World War I fighter airplane. As Wikipedia informed me, after the First World War ended, surplus airplane engines were relatively cheap and vastly more powerful than what cars were then using. Some auto engineers decided not to let this opportunity pass and created cars with automobile chassis and airplane engines. Such aero-engined cars were a brief trend in auto racing during the inter-war period.

The Hispano-Suiza engine is the motor that was used to power the S.E.5, a British fighter plane during World War I. This was the primary aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC (Royal Flying Corps), the famous unit of expert flyers and warriors—such as James McCudden, Albert Ball, and Cecil Lewis (the last of whom wrote a now-rare but fascinating and honest memoir of his war years, titled Sagittarius Rising)—who helped defeat the imperial German air force. (more…)