A few weeks ago, Martin Rundkvist published a light-hearted post on how archaeology spoiled his ability to enjoy dungeon fantasy (the kind of fantasy inspired by D&D, where humans and humans-with-funny-ears venture into underground compounds full of monsters and loot). I think I underwent a similar experience, although it started earlier and the details varied (elementary-school-me worked his way though a library of terrible TSR and Star Trek novels, but teenaged-me never learned the cloak trick). So I have a different perspective on some things than he does. Martin points out that the idea of a handful of heroes assaulting a fortress full of fighters is absurd. But stories about professional dungeon-crawlers and monster-slayers tend to be much more like the Iliad or Beowulf, where a hero can cut through entire armies (with nameless buddies to finish off the wounded) or slay a monster who has ripped up a hall full of warriors, than like our world, where “not even Hercules can fight two.” And everyone knows that dungeons are shaped like that because it is easy to draw on graph paper and copy onto your battle mat, not because it is ‘realistic.’ So this week, I would like to give my historian’s perspective on some of the issues which he looked at from his archaeological perspective.
Although I wanted to post something short and light, today I feel it necessary to answer an allegation.
Obwohl ich lieber etwas leicht schreiben würde, fühle ich mich heute verpflichtet, einen Vorwurf zu antworten.
As you know, I am in the habit of travelling Tirol and taking photos, notes, and sketches of military installations, like this strategic point overlooking the local tennis court.
Als Sie wissen, ist es für mich üblich, um Tirol zu reisen und Bilder, Zetteln, und Skizzen von militarischen Installierungen zu machen.
I also have a professional interest in Austrian military hardware, whether the Landeszeughaus in Graz or this wooden cannon captured by the Bavarians during their temporary rule over Tirol.
Ich habe auch eine Berufsinteresse in den österreichischen Kriegsgeräten, entweder das Landeszeughaus in Graz mit seinem Plattenharnisch aus dem 17. Jahrhundert oder diese Holzkanone, die von der Bayern als Kriegsbeute um 1810 nach München gebracht war.
And of course I travel on short notice to exciting cities like Isfahan, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Venice, and Glasglow and send cryptically labelled money transfers to publishers and artisans across Europe. Such is the life of an orientalist.
Und natürlich reise ich auch kurtzfristig nach spannenden Städten wie Isfahan, St. Petersburg, Wien, Venedig, Glasgow, und schicke kryprische getitelte Geldüberweisungen nach Herausgeber und HandwerkerInnen in ganzen Europa. Solche ist das Leben eines Altorientalistes.
a nightmare attack … a country where 500 counterterrorism investigations are underway at any one time … the resilience that comes with living for years with a severe threat of attack … the attack on democracy was met with defiance … Parliament Buildings all over the democratic world are under threat from those who want to destroy democracy and freedom … “(residents of the city) will never be cowed by terrorism.”
– Some journalistic cliches by someone who should really really know better
As I watch the media cycle repeat itself after the latest assassination, bombing, or mass shooting, I feel compelled to imitate Gwynne Dyer. The modern kind of terrorism did not exist in the ancient world, and I don’t even own a leather jacket. But studying organized violence is my profession, and there are plenty of textbooks for terrorists and counter-terrorists around, as well as books which explain them for beginners. (General Sir Rupert Smith, a retired British general, has published one book for a general audience on the topic and recorded a podcast which summarizes how professionals think about terrorism and insurgency). And I am very concerned that
fifteen almost sixteen (!) years after a local tragedy in New York and Pennsylvania, we are still responding in a way which makes further attacks more likely, and still talking about this problem in a way which is not much more sophisticated than it was then.
I have now been blogging for three years, three months, and a day. Traffic has roughly doubled every year since 2014 to the dizzying heights of 20 unique visitors and 40 page views per day and ten comments a month. My post on learning Sumerian is still popular, as is my outline of “Armour of the English Knight,” my confession of error about the historical fencers, and my posts on whether we have any evidence that the Greeks used glued linen armour and on the scale armour from Golyamata Mogila. No other posts received more than 300 visits in the year.
Amongst people who like to write on the internet in English, there is a meme that 2016 has been an especially bad year. For many people, that is political news and the death of favourite celebrities. For me, it is sickness, a serious illness in my family, and watching people react to that political news in ways which are very human but make the problem worse. From ever-fiercer posturing against evil outsiders, to shouting louder and louder about the meaning of events, to sitting down and writing another column which attempts to predict the future using the same methods which just failed to predict the present, a lot of people are doubling down on strategies which they know do not work. But as I look back, I notice a big contrast between the real world that I live in and the artificial world of the media (from blogs to newspapers).
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.
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.
Odysseus overcame Scylla and Charybdis, Jason the clashing rocks. Cyclists heading towards the Innsbrucker Hauptuni while the streets are torn up to install storm drains face another fearsome challenge, the alley behind the Markthalle. I lost the words to tell stories some time ago, so below the fold I will reveal its horrors in pictures:
It has come to my attention that there is a shortage of pictures of cats on the Internet. Although I am not equipped to deal with most global problems, my trip to Iran has armed me to fight against this one. There are also some dogs and lizards, but my photos of birds on the wing did not turn out very well, and other bloggers seem to have squid covered.
Living in Innsbruck, its hard to ignore the changes in the local waterways over the course of the year. The local rivers are fed by runoff, and these days large areas of the Alps are bare by May. I took these photos on the tenth of March, in a week where snow fell for several days but melted as it hit the ground of the valley.
There are those who say that because most people forget their false predictions and remember their true, it is healthy to make a note when one notices that one was wrong about something. There is a movement variously known as historical European martial arts, Western Martial Arts, or historical fencing. Its central activity is recreating dead martial arts from the manuals which they left behind, although many practitioners also try to recreate ‘prehistoric’ martial arts which died without leaving manuals, or revive obscure but still living European martial arts such as Irish stick-fighting. And my understanding of what it is about, and what sort of people it attracts, has drastically changed over the past few years.