The Gun – the story of the AK-47

I just finished reading C.J. Chivers’ The Gun – The story of the AK-47. The Gun - CJ Chivers. The book is history, not a gun primer. Chivers spends little time discussion the variants of the AK, how it works (some diagrams would have been helpful) or comparisons with other guns apart from the US M16. Instead he charts a history of where the AK came from, and how it became the symbol it is today. It’s well researched, and despite occasionally jumping around topics is well written.

He starts with Gatling’s first manually operated gun which was followed by Hiram Maxim’s fully automatic one, the first real “machine gun”. Maxim happily sold guns, plans and manufacturing rights to all the powers before 1914. Unfortunately most of them didn’t realise what they had, and they hadn’t much updated tactics which dated from the Napoleonic era.

It’s not like they wouldn’t have known any better. There had been several battles, in colonial Africa and the Russo-Japanese war which had shown how effective machine guns could be. Huge formations of natives were cut down when taking on western Armies in pitched battles in the open. The similarity between a spear waving Zulu and a bayonet wielding Tommy seems to have evaded many first world war Generals.

The middle of the book focuses on the development of the AK-47 and it’s famous inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Chivers admits a combination of Soviet secrecy, Kalashnikov’s unreliability (he has told different versions of the story in at least 4 different biographies) and the passage of time means the full story of the world’s most common small arm will never really be known. He is pretty clear the legend of the sole genius overlooks the contributions of many others.

Chivers does take a chapter to look at how the US responded to the AK47 with their M16. He is scathing about how a rushed process, greed, lies from salesmen and a cover-up created a gun that wasn’t ready when it was given to soldiers fighting in Vietnam. And as a result a lot of them died when it failed in action.

The final third of the book describes how the AK47 became the icon that it is. A central plank of Soviet military standardisation, it was shipped all around the world. Simple and reliable, some of the ones being used in Afghanistan today came from the original production runs in the early 1950′s! The fact that the gun was supplied to insurgents like the Viet Cong, who then went up against ill-equipped US troops meant that in 100 years there was a flip. Now the peasants and hicks were the ones equipped with equal or greater fire power than the western nation. That made the AK a leveller.

The huge numbers produced and handed out means that it has ended up in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and dubious “liberation” movements. A problem became a catastrophe when the Soviet union collapsed. Vast stocks of guns held for a war in Europe ended up sold across the globe, stoking conflict throughout the developing world. An average cost in an arms bazaar today is about $200. The UN estimates small arms (of which the AK is the most common with over 100m of the 600m in existence) killed most of the people in 46 of the 49 wars fought since 1990. There have been over 4m dead, and 90% of those were civilians.

To bring it down to human terms Chivers tells the story of one man, Karzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish body guard maimed and nearly killed by an AK. Mahmoud asked how can Kalashnikov live with himself knowing what he has created, and the horrors it has lead to. In his book Chivers answers that question, and tells that Kalashnikov himself says:

“The constructor is not the owner of the weapon-it is the state… they spread the weapon not because I wanted them to… I made it to protect the Motherland, then it… began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want”

Kalashnikov says he sleeps soundly.

P.S. I wanted to add links to to videos from The Lord of War. But YouTube or the film makers won’t allow them to be embedded. So instead:

Survivalism – ready for what?

Maybe it was hearing about Zombie walk yesterday in Dublin, or maybe it was worrying about the consequences of the US’ upcoming self inflicted economic meltdown, but I found myself reading about Survivalism on Wikipedia. This is the whole idea of being prepared for the worst if/when civilization takes a tumble. As a movement I guess the extreme is a paranoid stockpiling several years of food in his bunkers beside the gun collections as he waits for the end of civilization from one of various means (Y2K, nuclear war, peak oil, economic collapse, zombies, etc).

There is a more rational side to survivalism though. In a lot of places around the world people are advised to have temporary stockpiles for the worst. The standard seems to be to have a Bug Out Bag (BOB) good for you and your family for 72 hours. You would fill it with food, basic medicine, and nick-nacks like radio, flash light, batteries and so on.

Personally I have 2 questions about a BOB. What would I need one for, and then what should go in it? Living in Ireland we are pretty spoiled when it comes to the risks of the natural world. We don’t have to worry about earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami, governmental instability or invasion. Our storms rarely cause much significant disruption and people tend to get good notice to be prepared. Can you remember the last time you had difficulty getting bread or milk after an Atlantic blow? It’s probably only snow that we need to worry about. It’s rare enough an event that if we get a big dump the country can go to pieces. And remembering the big snow of 1982 I can see how having 3 days of food stockpiled would remove one thing to worry about.

The next thing then is what to hold. I’d start by putting all my camping gear into one or two boxes, for quick transport to the car if I did need to do a runner. Then there is the question of food. You can get lists and so on talking about the general items – radios, batteries, food, drink etc. But the practicalities of it intrigue me. Take water – 3 litres per person per day for drinking, and 2 for washing. Family of 4 for 3 days – 60 litres. But can you really leave it there for 6 months without it spoiling? Then there is food. What would you pick that will feed you for 3 days, is not too bulky, is relatively easy to prepare, and will keep for about 12 months? The militaries of the world have done plenty of work there, and you can get MREs with enough food for one for a day or so for about €10, cheaper if you buy by the box. Except while I am not fussy I don’t think the ladies of my house would be too keen on eating that sort of food for 3 days. I can see my BOB containing pasta, cereals, tins, and dried fruit. Better make sure there is a good can opener, and plenty of loo roll in there too then so.

Spring in Vienna

Spring is officially underway in Vienna. This means 20°C days, eating and drinking outside like civilized people (or barbarians depending on your level of technological advancement), and wearing less clothes. Though the last one is more on an Irish thing at the moment. I think the Austrians will only really start to ditch jackets and hats, and embrace short sleeve and showing off their legs when things go over 25°C.

Anyway today Laura and I took the opportunity to enjoy what would be an Irish summer’s day (22°C), on the 2nd of April. We needed some meat and some stuff for a picnic tomorrow so we went to the Naschmarkt. While there we took the opportunity to have a nice fish lunch and I had my first Aperol Spritzer of the season.

Aperol Spritzer in Vienna

Aperol Spritzer in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro, SK.

It seems to be something of a signature Vienna summer drink. It was much later in the summer when I discovered them last year. They are a nice alternative to beer, and in a little while I will put a recipe for one up here.

Guildford and Libya

I am in the UK for two days at the moment, in wonderful Guildford. Because curry isn’t really an option in Vienna (its not a noted Austrian speciality, and my good lady is not fond of curry) I get my UK work colleagues to recommend a place. They sent me to Maloncho which was pretty good.

Being a business traveller on my own I sat there quietly reading my book (Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad“) and enjoying my lamb jalfrezi. Being a Monday night I couldn’t help overhearing what was begin discussed at the three tables around me. The topics of conversation was pretty similar, England’s thrashing by Ireland in the rugby at the weekend, the royal family (a particular obsession with 3 of the blue rinse brigade at one table), holiday travel and cinema.

Funnily enough each table covered at least 2 of these 4 topics in the hour and a half I was there. What surprised me was that no one talked about Libya. Considering the RAF started bombing the place over the weekend I was a bit surprised. Is it really that unimportant to the people of middle England, Surrey being about as English as you can get? Is bombing someones country of less interest than what you thought of “The Kings Speech”? Or is it an English reserve thing that it’s not polite to talk politics over dinner – one would be rather rude to raise the fact that one has sent Tornados, Typhoons and cruise missiles into action. Or is it that after nearly 10 years of war in the middle east, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the people of England are bored of war and don’t give a shit any more?


I was looking at the Big Picture’s photos of the aftermath of the quake and tsunami in Japan. Looking at photo 18 it occurred to me that in the event of a disaster a “smart” phone would be a liability. A lot of mobile base stations have uninterruptible power supplies, and/or generators. So much of the mobile network may remain in operation. It may be overloaded initially, and public safety provisions mean capacity can be reserved for the emergency services. But in the days afterwards there should be some coverage. But how many smart phones will still be running after 48 hours without being charged? Good thing I keep a “feature” phone around the house as a backup.

Tokyo street

A video I shot from a cafe window when I was there the year before last. It is 5 minutes of not much happening, just street life, so don’t expect robots, rampaging monsters, bizzarely costumed youths or anything like that. I just liked the idea of taking a snapshot of total normality. That may be more valuable to people in 100 years than the weird stuff.

Tokyo street from a cafe near the Asakusa shrine. Kodak Zi8, SK.

And no, no earthquakes either. I wasn’t aware of the big one in Japan this morning when I uploaded the video to youtube.

Belief and images.

Clearing my RSS feeds this morning I came across this video.

It’s a standard enough peace in the battle between free thought, and reason and the opposing perspective of faith, credulity and religious coercion. The song (lyrics here) is harmless enough.

What originally caught my eye though was the question: “What do we believe”. I have been asked it myself by the religiously inclined. The assumption behind the question being that if you don’t believe in God you don’t believe in anything. Well, I believe in lots of things. God(s) just don’t happen to be among them. I’d agree with the sentiment in the video which I would summarise as “no truth without proof”. Though when asked by the particularly insistent type of faith peddler I say “I believe people should think for themselves”.

The other thing that caught my eye in the video was about 4 seconds of imagery at 2:10 into the video. It is a clip of the second plane slamming into the Twin Towers. Nearly 10 years on that is still a shocking sight. Maybe it’s that specific clip, but the speed of the impact, and understanding of the physical size of the aircraft and the huge building make it so arresting. Seeing it again stopped me in my tracks*.

In one way it is scary to think we live in a world where people believe their religion gives them justification to do such a thing**. And on the flip side, you also have to look at the outcome of that event as well. It could have been a trigger for change, an opportunity to turn a tragedy into a wake up call, and a movement to a better world. Instead it was squandered for personal and political gain by so many and led to a decade of fear, and war.

Still, looking at events in Tunisia and Egypt, there is hope that people can make things better. Despite the fears of worst case outcomes you have to hope for the best, and bet that the values we believe in most strongly will win out in the long run. What are those beliefs? I would say:

I believe that people have the right to personal freedom, and to be let find their own way in life, without coercion from dictators, fundamentalists, or others who think they know better.

Looking at the long course of human history, despite occasional setbacks, that is the way humanity been going – to greater freedom. And that’s why I remain an optimist.

* It also reminded me of a pithy quote I collected in the years since:

“I’m not convinced that faith can move mountains, but I’ve seen what it can do to skyscrapers.” — William Gascoyne

** I’d never make a suicide bomber myself. Apart from the fact I don’t have strong enough convictions, and I believe it’s more important to live for a cause that to kill/die for it, I would be too curious to find out what was the fallout of my actions.

Of wood floors, Afghanistan and my vices.

Houses in Vienna seem to all be fitted with wood floors. Carpets mean rugs, so there are plenty of Afghan/Persian rug shops around town. The rugs in our house come in two varieties. Cheap as (and probably made from) sackcloth ones out of Ikea, and a big 3m^2 genuine Afghan rug which was acquired in that country and given to us as a sort of wedding gift*.

Now I think I have mentioned before that I am something of a cheapskate, and I really don’t have any self indulgent vices. Anyone who knows me and comes to our house would know straight away that the paintings on the walls have to be Laura’s, and that the rug couldn’t have come from me.

Lately I have developed a bit of an interest in all thing Afghanistan. I have been reading books, wathing films and so on. I even have developed a terrible desire to visit the country. Though not great enough a desire to risk life and limb doing so. Anyway, Laura tipped me off about a nearby shop which sells Afghani merchanise. I thought I would drop in this morning.

The owner was down the back playing a zitar when I arrived which was a nice touch. To the front was jewelry, hats, some furniture, and down the back he had carpets. He spoke good English and we got to chatting. I have a vague idea that maybe I might get a cheap prayer mat to use when doing my back exercises. The irony of an athiest prostrating themselves on an Islamic prayer rug daily amuses me greatly.

So we had a look though his piles of rugs, I confess I think I was smitten. Many of them were absolutely beautiful. And not just the amazing silk and fine wool ones with 100 stitches per square cm. Even a simply patterned, two colour one from Baluch was attractive. It is just a shame that the cheapest was €150. I am slightly worried that this could become my vice. I mean a good Afghan rug is an investment isn’t it? It would appreciate in value, and just look at the quality. Hmmm, who am I trying to convince here?

I didn’t buy this time, but I did see one or two I quite like. Some self justification and thought will be needed. Back at home I did some research, and I did come across this tale from a Canadian in Afghanistan who sounds a note of caution…

“There is more complexity, contradiction, misinformation, and dishonesty in the carpet trade than any other business I can think of with the exception of mobile phone contracts.”

…but still enjoys the experience of buying his rug in Kabul. If I take the plunge, I doubt my rug buying experience will be as colourful in boring Vienna but I might get some tale from the acquiring anyway.

* Bit of a story there but I would have to check do I have permission to share it first.

Vienna by night, and by snow

Had to fix this one:

Vienna Street in the snow

Vienna street in the snow. Canon EOS300D, SK.

This was a photo I took on the 3rd of December of the street in front of our apartment building. Everywhere was covered in snow (we were told it was unusually heavy amounts of snow for Vienna before the end of the year), the Christmas lights were on, and the streets were empty. If was very festive.

Unfortunately Vienna is subject to foehn winds. These blow down off the eastern side of the Alps and are warm, and dry. They can raise temperatures by 10-15°C in a day. They are fatal for the white stuff, so they are known as “snow eaters”. A foehn a couple of days later melted all the snow, about 25cm of it, in 48 hours. And that was the last we have seen of snow since.

Over Christmas and new year it was cold, still keeping down below zero, and occasionally down to -7°C. But it remained dry, and January has been mild (even days of 12°C) and damp. I miss the snow. It turns out that the snowy conditions which Vienna had last spring were not the norm.

So for now we are stuck with grey gloomy weather, though it is drier than in Ireland. And we should get at least one more dump of snow in Vienna before the winter is out. I guess if if I want a proper snow-on-the-ground-for-3-months winter I will have to go to Sweden. Maybe the next assignment…

Names are important

This was the XKCD cartoon from a few days ago:
XKCD map of the world

XKCD Cartoon from Jan 2011. Randall Munroe.

Mr Munroe did a pretty good job here, but he messed up one part. He lumped Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, all of the former Yugoslav states, Albania and even Greece into “Eastern Europe”. That would get up the noses of 50 million people real quick (and no I am not going to check the exact figure on Wikipedia). Something you learn out here is that all the citizens of those countries are very prickly about being called “Eastern European”. Eastern Europe is the former Soviet Union. This is Central Europe. More than once I have seen a Pole, or Slovak, or Czech correct a clueless Western European. BTW, I don’t mean to pick on Randall about this as I was planning to write about it anyway.

Doing a lot of travel and meeting people from all over the world I try to be sensitive to this sort of thing. It always used bug me in Sweden that I never really found out whether the locals were okay with the term “Scandinavia”. “Nordics” was used often enough, but I rarely heard Scandinavia. And when I asked I got non-committal answers that left me wondering if they were just being polite and didn’t want to show they were offended.

The one I have had to discuss most often with people is the local Irish one – “British Isles“. I argue (usually over a pint or lunch with some work colleagues who will include an inhabitant of our larger neighbour) that the term is redundant and inaccurate. I mean does anyone know where the “Dutch East Indies” are these days? I have enough sense of course not to make a big issue about it, and after stating my piece once it becomes a joke, or a way to try and rise Seamus in future. Interestingly in work, my Swedish company uses the term “North West Europe” or “UK and Ireland” to refer to the two countries.

When I got out here I was aware of the sensitivity about “Eastern Europe”. But that hasn’t stopped me putting my foot in it. In September last year I was introducing myself at a meeting with some potential customers. I had to describe the countries in my area of responsibility (Central Europe) and I jokingly referred to it as “the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Poland”. There was a Czech guy across the table from me, and quick as a flash he corrected me “that’s the Hapsburg Empire”. Woops.

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