This blog is in its fourth year, and I have posted almost every week. But in this fifth year (my years start in September), I have a dissertation to finish and some issues in my private life to deal with. For the past few months, writing a post every week has felt like a burden. So I am moving to an irregular schedule, with probably two or three posts a month. I may let myself post more lighthearted things about whatever inspires my whimsy, and not try so hard to balance different themes every month.
I hope to have some academic publications to announce and pictures of cats to share in the coming months. Thanks to everyone who stops by!
Quite a few people seem to be finding their way to my post about why I drifted away from the historical fencing movement. While I think it needed to be said, it might leave someone wondering what I found attractive about that world in the first place. Some of the reasons seemed obvious: the historical fencing movement gives people the chance to learn horse archery in Vancouver and a reason to get happy and sweaty with a group of friends (sometimes leading to to other more private happy-sweaty times). Those are wonderful things! And while I am not sure how much we can know about how ancient Greeks or Viking Age Norwegians used their shields, I think that someone who wants to know would be wise to get one and spend time moving it (because Thucydides and Snorri Stirluson wrote for an audience who had all used spear and shield). So this week, I would like to talk about some good things which the community does in 2017.
Dr. Jerry E. Pournelle died a few days ago. As someone who only knew him through his work, its hard for me to express what a brilliant, multitalented, frustrating individual he was. The summary of his career on Wikipedia gives some idea: born poor in Louisiana, conscripted into the US Army and sent to Korea as an artillery officer, he made his way through university by keeping a pot constantly simmering in his one-room apartment and got a doctorate in Political Science. Having just gotten started, he moved to Southern California and filled his life with political advocacy, academic work on the strategy of technology and operations research, hobbyist and professional wargaming, science-fiction fandom and the early SCA, fiction writing, a technology column for the early home computer movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually a blog (not to mention marrying and having two children, one a multi-talented academic and another who prefers a quiet life). Like some other Catholic intellectuals in rich English-speaking countries, he was a contrarian by nature and loved a good rant. Throughout his life he was fearless in expressing his political opinions and attacking his political opponents, but since he had very different convictions than I do, particularly later in his life, I will say no more about that here. He did his best to save the world from communism and his country from its most threatening neighbours, and his writings were an important influence on my thought in my teens and early twenties.
On Friday a book arrived from the Magazin, which is what Austrians call the closed stacks or off-site storage of a library. Unlike other things which come from a magazine, it was not packed in an airtight box and covered in oil or grease, but I did have to do something else before it was ready for action: cut the pages open. The top and lateral edges of many pages were still solidly fixed to their neighbours, and I had to separate them a flick of my trusty Laguiole.
The book answered my question about shipbuilding terms, and helped me finish a footnote. But how long, Sandahl, did you wait for me? Seventy years, from the half-built times after the war, through years of revolt that turned into drugged smugness, then haughty pride growing across the sea as enemies blustered and clashed until suddenly there was only one which claimed the victor’s name but was strangely transformed as kings raged in Babylon and methane bubbled upwards from the Arctic depths like a beating heart beneath the floorboards. Thy author perished. The handwritten cards and typed slips from which thou wert born were reckoned quaint, yet no-one came to read the ‘checker’s rolls for which thy author had waited patient while the torpedoes and fire-bombs were falling. And all that time, nobody opened thee to “rivet” and read. How many patient librarians kept thee from dust and water? When wert thou banished to thy exile in the Magazin? And all so that thou wouldst be there when I summoned thee.
I am not the most adventurous person, and it is possible to strip the romance from anything if you look at it the wrong way. But I can call dead men from the vasty deep, and they answer when I call them. While that brings madness, I am not sure how much of my world is sane.
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.