Why Does Research Clump?


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A wrought silver bowl showing Ajax, Athena, and Odysseus

Since my view of how research works involves a lot of arguing in front of an audience, how about the debate about who should inherit the armour of Achilles? Silver plate in the Hermitage with Ajax and Odysseus competing for the armour of Achilles (number ω-279.) Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Robin Hanson, the economist and futurist with a great deadpan, has been thinking about why academic research tends to clump around particular problems. Like many American thinkers today, he appeals to a theory of mind where most of what people do is really about status and social position and nobody is sincere. In his post Idea Talkers Clump, he puts it thus:

I keep encountering people who are mad at me, indignant even, for studying the wrong scenario. While my book assumes that brain emulations are the first kind of broad human-level AI, they expect more familiar AI, based on explicitly-coded algorithms, to be first.

… I’d estimate that there is now at least one hundred times as much attention given to the scenario of human level AI based on explicit coding (including machine learning code) than to brain emulations.

But I very much doubt that ordinary AI first is over one hundred times as probable as em-based AI first. …

In addition, due to diminishing returns, intellectual attention to future scenarios should probably be spread out more evenly than are probabilities. The first efforts to study each scenario can pick the low hanging fruit to make faster progress. In contrast, after many have worked on a scenario for a while there is less value to be gained from the next marginal effort on that scenario.

Yes, sometimes there can be scale economies to work on a topic; enough people need to do enough work to pass a critical threshold of productivity. But I see little evidence of that here, and much evidence to the contrary. Even within the scope of working on my book I saw sharply diminishing returns to continued efforts. So even if em-based AI had only 1% the chance of the other scenario, we’d want much more than 1% of thinkers to study it. At least we would if our goal were better understanding.

But of course that is not usually the main goal of individual thinkers. We are more eager to jump on bandwagons than to follow roads less travelled. All those fellow travellers validate us and our judgement. We prefer to join and defend a big tribe against outsiders, especially smaller weaker outsiders.

Now, I share his frustration when I see large amounts of attention being devoted to some problems, while others which seem just as interesting are ignored. If smart people have been arguing about something for 200 years, and no new sources or methods have appeared, I have trouble believing that my opinion will add anything to the conversation (this is Daniel Kahneman’s principle “thou shalt respect base rates, and not let thyself make excuses about why this time is different” and Edsger W. Dijkstra’s Third Golden Rule for Scientific Research [EWD 637]). On the other hand, as an ancient historian from Canada, I can think of some other reasons why research tends to clump.
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The Forces of Madness Over-Reach


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The unfinished end of the sleeve of a quilted garment against a cloth background

One cuff of the doublet about to be finished by stitching cloth along the raw edges.

The forces of madness have been on an around-the-world tour, but when they got back and slept off the tasty kebabs, weak bear, and very sweet sweets they discovered that their agent in the Alps had over-reached himself. This particular style of clothing was meant to fit very closely in some areas while standing away from the body in others, and in an excess of enthusiasm, their humble servant cut too much away from the opening of the lower sleeve to finish its edges by rolling or folding and stitching down. Fortunately, there are solutions.
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Greek and Roman Military Manuals in Winnipeg


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Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg.  Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

In October I got to attend the conference on technical military writing at the University of Winnipeg. Aside from giving me a chance to have some A&W and Timbits (somehow Wienerschnitzel and Quarkbällchen are not the same) and catch up on academic gossip, I got to hear a great set of papers.

The presentations focused on Greek texts from Aeneas Tacticus and Xenophon in the early 4th century BCE to emperor Leo VI around 900 CE, with one group of three papers on Vegetius. Three others focused on Xenophon, leaving six on miscellaneous topics and authors, and one on methodology. Only two of the thirteen focused on tactical writing in any language.
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Bonus Content: How Do We Know About the Libraries of Carthage?


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Issue 7 of Ancient History magazine is now heading to subscribers. It contains something which was not quick to write, but which I think is very important: a summary of some studies in German which ask how many words of text in different ancient languages survive. Do you think that there are about twice as many words of Greek because the green Loebs take up twice as much shelf space as the red ones? Or prefer ten to one like Liddell and Scott guessed? How do Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian fit in? This article explores how those German researchers tried to find an answer, and what that answer is. To my knowledge, their work has never been discussed in plain language in English, so check it out! The article had to be trimmed for space, so in this post I would like to give the sources for a statement.
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Armour of the Month: Tatami-dō


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A tatami dô (folding cuirass) with kon (dark blue) lacing.  In a palace in Silesia near Bielsko-Biala, Poland.

A tatami dô (folding cuirass) with kon (dark blue) lacing. In a palace in Silesia near Bielsko-Biala, Poland.

It seems like I have been making a lot of long, wordy, academic posts in the past few months. This week, I would like to focus on pictures of one of the artifacts I have seen in my travels, a Japanese armour imported into Europe at the end of the 19th century. The museum estimates that it was made between 1820 and 1840.

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Remembering Sinuhe and the Women of Sidon


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Egyptian scribes liked to tell the story of Sinuhe, who would have lived around 2000 BCE but is only known through this tale, which is translated by Jenny Carrington and J.J. Herst. Even though it may be a work of fiction, it is one of very few texts in which an Egyptian warrior speaks about his work.

There came a hero of Syria
who challenged me in my tent
He was an unrivalled champion,
Who had prevailed over the entire region
He said he would fight me,
He intended to smite me,
He planned to carry off my cattle before the council of his clan

I went to rest, tied my bow, sharpened my arrows,
Whetted the blade of my dagger, arrayed my weapons
At dawn Syria came, it roused its people,
It assembled the hill-lands on either side,
For it knew of this fight
He came toward me as I stood
And I placed myself next to him
Every heart was burning for me
Women and men pounding
Every mind was willing me on,
‘is there any hero that can fight against him?’

And then his shield, his dagger, his armour, his holder of spears fell,
As I approached his weapons
I made my face dodge
And his weapons were wasted as nothing
Each piled on the next
Then he made his charge against me
He imagined he would strike my arm
As he moved over me, I shot him,
My arrow lodged in his neck,
He cried out, and fell on his nose,
I felled him with his dagger
I uttered my war-cry on his back,
Every Asiatic lowing
I gave praise to Montu
As his servants mourned for him

This ruler Amunenshi took me into his embrace,
Then I brought away his goods, I carried off his cattle,
What he had planned to do to me, I did to him,
I seized what was in his camp, and uncovered his tent
There I was in greatness, I was broad in my standing,
I enjoyed wealth in cattle

More than a thousand years later, someone in Babylonia was reading a chronicle and stopped for a moment to copy a few entries onto a clay tablet. That copy has survived while the longer work it was part of has been lost.

Chronicle of Artaxerxes III, transcription Grayson (in Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles), translation Manning

The fourteenth year of Umasu, who is called by the name Artaxerxes, 7th month: The captives, who the king captured [in the land of Si]don, [came] to Babylon and Susa.

The same month, 13th day: The few troops [… out of] their middle entered Babylon.

16th day: The weak/noble women, captives of the land of Sidon which the king had sent to Babylon, on this day they entered the palace of the king.

Some Important New Books


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Whitehead, David. Philo Mechanicus: On Sieges. Translated with introduction and commentary. Historia. Einzelschriften, 243. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 510 p. € 84.00. ISBN 9783515113434.

Technical military writing does not have much place in the work of ancient historians today, unless they can mine it for anecdotes (Onasander, Frontinus) or it is written by an accepted ‘literary’ author (Xenophon). Sieges and catapults are usually left to a small community of archaeologists who measure gateways or publish papers on ‘in-swinging’ and ‘out-swinging’ catapults. But after the fourth century BCE, every serious Greek or Roman soldier had at least a general idea of how to conduct or resist a siege and the tools involved. In the military reform after Chaeronaea, all Athenian citizens were required to learn to use catapults and defend the border forts as part of their period of military service.

Willekes, Carolyn. The horse in the ancient world: from Bucephalus to the Hippodrome. Library of classical studies, 10. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016. 304 p. $95.00. ISBN 9781784533663.

If you want a book on ancient horses by an experienced rider who is not caught up in upper-class horse politics about Thoroughbreds and Arabians, this should be it.

Heckel, Waldemar. Alexander’s marshals: a study of the Makedonian aristocracy and the politics of military leadership. Second edition (first edition 1993). London; New York: Routledge, 2016. xxvi, 372 p. $160.00. ISBN 9781138934696.

Rathmann, Michael. Diodor und seine Bibliotheke: Weltgeschichte aus der Provinz. KLIO. Beihefte. Neue Folge, 27. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. ix, 431 p. $140.00. ISBN 9783110478358.

Diodorus is also another very important author who is not always treated as seriously as he deserves. Plucking details off his shelves, and casually attributing them to the author who is presumed to have been his main source for that section, can beg some important questions. In my master’s thesis, I cite some of the researchers who I think have a better approach to his work.

Have you heard of any new books on ancient history which you would like to read?

From BMCR. Hoc libros non vidi.

The Information Density of Cuneiform Tablets


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A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of 1 mm graph-paper

Tablet HS 643 in Jena.

When I was visiting the tablet collection in Jena (as one does) my mind naturally turned to fact-checking GURPS books. Back in 2007, some of the thoughtful writers at Steve Jackson Games put together an article “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” on the density of information from medieval manuscripts to modern printed books in words per square metre, words per kg, and words per cartload. They included some guesses about Greek papyri and cuneiform tablets, but did not seem to have as much data for those. Their house style discourages mentioning sources, but I am pretty sure that their medieval data comes from a survey of all surviving medieval European manuscripts which a professor mentioned in my undergraduate days. Today, I would like to put together some evidence on the size and capacity of small cuneiform tablets to help them fill in the gaps.
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Gadal-iama, Part 4: English Translation


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In another part of the Achaemenid empire, a cavalryman in hood and body armour rides down his enemies with a spear.  Cropped from a photo y Dan Diffendale https://www.flickr.com/photos/dandiffendale/10506953106 under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

In another part of the Achaemenid empire, a cavalryman in hood and body armour rides down his enemies with a spear. Cropped from a photo by Dan Diffendale https://www.flickr.com/photos/dandiffendale/10506953106 under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Although many translations and summaries of the contract between Gadal-iama and Rimut-Ninurta have been printed, most of the English ones are based on earlier translations into French or German rather than on the difficult original text. As part of my dissertation I have read this text, and I thought that I should provide a translation too. The following text and translation is based on my poster at Melammu Symposium 10, Societies at War, presented on 27 September 2016 with one or two typos and careless choices of word corrected. I hope that I have not inserted any more mistakes in converting from PDF to HTML.
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