Meditations on a Homespun Blanket

An undyed woolen blanket and a plate of vegetable matter and plastic which was removed from it

A homespun wool blanket from handwovenwool.com

I have some camping planned for later this summer, so I bought a woolen blanket from Adam Henzl at https://handwovenwool.com/ It was probably woven in the Achaemenid empire, and the price was similar to a 100% wool blanket from sellers of Heimtextilien in Innsbruck. The wool is soft and well-woven with strong selvages. When I spread it over my lap and worked it, I found it very educational.

As you can see, the wool still contained a significant amount of burrs, grasses, wood chips and windblown debris. Much of this was not easily visible but appeared under my hands and my tweezers.

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Cross-Post: Reddit Breaks Without Javascript

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Seems functional at first, but none of the links work and that big sidebar at the left won’t go away! reddit in late April 2018 without scripts.

Sometime in mid-April 2018, Reddit joined the crowd of sites which don’t work without Javascript. Its pages do not appear blank, but none of the links work, and the start of each line in the main part of the page is covered by an almost completely empty column at the left which cannot be removed.

A number of blog hosts have joined this trend recently. Here is Confessions of a Community College Dean at https://suburbdad.blogspot.co.at/

Confessions of a Community College Dean without scripts, Note how the body text overlaps the sidebar rather than wrapping at the end of the column. Long paragraphs extend outside the browser window entirely so that only the first 100 or so characters are visible.


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Horse Troops and Troops of the Bow

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A dome of baked bricks with arches below

The architecture of holy places in the Middle East has changed a bit since the glory days of the Ebabbar, but how about this photo of a mosque in Isfahan?

A tablet from Sippar with the forgettable names BM 57222 and CT 57, 82 contains the following lines:

“(6) 1/2 mina 8 shekels silver to Šamaš-iddin (7) and the horse troops (8) who returned from the city of Egypt (9) 1 mina 50 shekels silver for mountain garments (10) and širannū for troop[s] (11) of the bow …”

Even though it is damaged, it tells us important things. The Ebabbar, the house of Šamaš at Sippar, was sending troops to Egypt in the fourth year of some king. Since the archive ends suddenly early in the second year of of Xexes, and since Cambyses had not yet conquered Egypt in his fourth year, this is probably the fourth year of Darius. It is usually thought that Darius visited Egypt a few years after his Putsch, although I don’t understand the arguments that his visit was in a specific Gregorian year. But in any case, it shows that conscripts could be sent all the way to Egypt, wearing the same clothing they were issued in other texts which do not specify what they were doing. Conscripts sometimes spent their time in service dredging out canals in Elam or improving roads near Nippur, but sometimes they went much farther.

Cross-Post: Science for the People Needs Patrons

A treestump on a riverbank with the marks of an adze or teeth below a chainsaw cut

Skillful axeman or a plucky castor fiber? Whoever or whatever felled this tree on the Inn near Hall in Tirol, I think it counts as Canadian content!

Science for the People, the great Canadian radio show and podcast on science, is looking for more patrons to help pay for their costs. Making an episode requires hours of skilled work and expensive equipment or software even if the interviewers volunteer their time. Starting in May:

Once a year, for Patreon supporters donating $5 per month or higher, we’ll send you a card celebrating an important – but lesser known – scientist on their birthday. This lovely birthday card will include custom commissioned artwork and a delightful poem about the scientist’s life and achievements.

Every year we’ll pick a different scientist whose birthday we’re celebrating: this year, if you want to be guaranteed to receive your own scientist birthday card, you’ll need to sign up to donate $5/month on Patreon by no later than May 15.

$10/month patreons will also get a Science Birthday magnet in addition to the birthday card, so they can be reminded of a brilliant scientist every time they open their fridge.

$25/month patreons will also get a sweet, stylish, Science for the People logo tote bag to carry their Science Birthday magnet and card around in to show off to their friends.

And for those heroic listeners who want to expand their science coffee mug collection, we’ll also be sending $50/month patreons a coffee mug with the Science Birthday artwork, in addition to the magnet, the birthday card, and the tote. Take it to work, and anytime someone asks who’s on your mug, edu-tain your coworkers by reading them a poem about a scientist we guarantee they’ve never heard of!

Now, Science for the People is not about the kind of science which I do, so you will find episodes on contraception, forest fires, and the psychology of habit but not old languages or swords. But they do good work. You can find their website, with links for your favourite podcast feed, at http://www.scienceforthepeople.ca/news/shakin-up-our-patreon-rewards and their Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/scienceforthepeople

Bonus Content: Trecento Sources for Concealed Armour

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Are scale caps and aventails just a fantasy of the artist who painted these ruffians looting a house? Check out Medieval Warfare VIII-1 and find out! Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Another of my writing projects brings us to the 14th century AD, and the burning question “what kind of concealed armour could you buy in the Avignon of the Babylonian Captivity?” If you think that concealed armour is just for Assassin’s Creed and 16th century bravos, you might want to check out Medieval Warfare VIII-1!

But what if you want the original source? Medieval Warfare does not have room for sources in the original, so this week, I have pasted them from my rough draft of the article:

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Bow Estates Already Under Nebuchadnezzar

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Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

Vocabulary
rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

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The Ancient Story of Stephen Hawking’s Tombstone

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One of the graves of the kings of Elam at Tschoga Zanbil in Iran. If you haven’t invented any new mathematics, and are thinking of rounding up a gang of forced labourers to build a fancy tomb to give you immortal fame, keep in mind that the Assyrians may come around and dig up your bones! Photo by author, May 2016.

Stephen Hawking died on the 14th of March. I don’t have much to say about that, because there are worse lives than discovering a property of black holes, writing a best-selling book, taking a ride on the Vomit Comet, and guest starring on half a dozen nerdy TV shows before dying in your own bed at the age of 76. As Achilles said to Lycaon (Iliad 21.150) “ah, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?” This week I thought of an ancient aspect of his story which many people do not seem to have noticed.

At a workshop to celebrate his 60th birthday, Hawking heard that Ludwig Boltzmann the 19th century physicist had his eponymous formula for entropy engraved on his tombstone, and suggested that he would like the equation which describes Hawking radiation engraved on his own tomb (Dennis Overbye, New York Times, 22 January 2002 https://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/22/science/hawking-s-breakthrough-is-still-an-enigma.html But this story goes a lot further back than königlich- und kaiserlich Vienna.

There is a story that Archimedes was buried under a tomb marked with a cylinder and a sphere and an inscription describing their relative proportions which he had discovered. For Plutarch, this is proof that even though Archimedes was a practical engineer, his true love was pure mathematics:

And although he made many excellent discoveries, he is said to have asked his kinsmen and friends to place over the grave where he should be buried a cylinder enclosing a sphere, with an inscription giving the proportion by which the containing solid exceeds the contained

Plutarch, Marcellus, 17.7 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Marcellus*.html#17.7

Now, a Neo-Platonist aristocrat like Plutarch had reasons for insisting that Archimedes was not a grubby tradesman, but he did not invent this story. In his Tusculan Dispositions, Cicero claimed to have found this tomb overgrown with brush outside the Akragas Gate of Syracuse, so we have an independent source within 150 years of Archimedes’ death. And because he and Plutarch retold it, the story about Archimedes’ tomb has never been forgotten. I know people before Archimedes who boasted of military victories or public offices on their tombs, but I can’t think of any who boasted of scientific or technical discoveries.

The New York Times reporter implied that Hawking got the idea from Boltzman, so I don’t know whether he knew the story directly. But I am sure that Ludwig Boltzmann knew his Plutarch. You didn’t get a Doktorat at Vienna in 1866 without a heavy dose of Greek and Latin. Even today, historians of ancient mathematics and natural philosophy are often mathematicians and physicists who study history as a hobby. The ancients had to describe the relationship between a sphere and a cylinder with the same height and diameter with words, but today we have algebraic notation and formulas, which is good if the local masons charge by the line. It hasn’t been announced whether his executors will indeed have such a stone made, but I hope they continue this ancient tradition.

You can learn more about Archimedes at Dr. Chris Rorres’ site https://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/contents.html

Some Thoughts on “The Cosmic Computer”

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A cover painting of infantry in pressure suits crouched behind the wreckage of a crashed jet vehicle and blazing away with automatic weapons against a red sky and purple moon

The cover of the Ace edition of The Cosmic Computer by Michael Whelan c/o http://www.zarthani.net/ Say what you like about the 1970s, but their oil painters could do cover art!

On Canada Day 2017 I finished re-reading the project Gutenberg text of Piper’s Cosmic Computer (my paperback copy with the wonderful red-and-purple cover is back in Canada). I read this novel every few years, and I always learn something new. Quite a few people who grew up on the American science fiction of the 1940s through 1970s have been reading the news, finding something uncomfortably familiar, and looking back to those Silver Age writers to understand some current madness (Phil Paine reread Revolt in 2100 for the same reason). I can’t talk about that here, but I want to talk about some of the things which I found valuable in this novel.
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How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?

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A reconstruction of a Scythian noble with the bowcase on his left hip. I almost wrote nobleman, but that is not a safe guess in the steppes! Probably from Philip De Souza ed., The Ancient World at War. A Global History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).


For a few years now, I have been trying to remember where I learned that Scythian bowcases (Greek gorytos, Babylonian šalṭu) often contained a hundred or more arrows. I have heard it in various places, including in a lecture by a famous classicist in the sunset lands beyond the Ocean, but what is the archaeological evidence?

  • Ellis H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks: A Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1913) p. 68: 200 to 300 arrows in quivers from Scythian graves https://archive.org/details/scythiansgreekss00minn
  • Geo Widengren, “Recherches sur le féodalisme iranien,” Orientalia Suecanica V (1956) p. 152 n. 2: A gorytos in a kurgan at Solokha contained 180 arrows
  • Richard Brzeinski and Mariusz Mielczarek, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450. Men at Arms 373. Osprey Publishing: Botley, 2002. p. 34: 128 arrows with painted shafts in a gorytos in Sholokhovskii kurgan at Rostov-on-Don (-IV); 228 iron heads, 4 bronze, 9 bone in two clumps in a kurgan near Hutor Kascheevka, Rostov-on-Don (-IV or -III)

Now, citing these sources makes me feel a bit dirty, because the ones after the Bolsheviks seized power don’t cite their sources. Unfortunately very few people talk about the Soviet excavations in English, German, or French, and when they do they do not give footnotes. So in the time I have available, these sources will do.
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A Tag from the Bard

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One would think that someone coming this way on a cycle with headlights and reflectors would need to watch out to the right and bear a little bit left, since cyclists coming from the left can see you coming and slow down if they want to make the turn onto the bridge, but anyone coming from the right will only see you as they start turning onto the bridge. But its never a good idea to assume that people can see and think!

On Wednesday evening, I calculated that the cyclist coming from the left like a bat out of the Land of No Return would either continue straight or slow down as he turned onto the bridge. I was wrong, but the Bard always has an apposite quotation!

So he spoke, and balanced the spear far-shadowed, and threw it,
And struck the sevenfold-ox-hide terrible shield of Aias
In the uttermost bronze, which was the eighth layer upon it,
And the unwearying bronze spearhead shore its way through six folds
But was stopped in the seventh ox-hide.

Iliad, 7.244-248, tr. Lattimore

Fleece gloves with a cut through one finger from a cyclist ramming into the wearer

These gloves are just threefold thinsulate, but they will do too