Month: December 2016

Month: December 2016

2016 Year-Ender

Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!
Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!

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).

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The Linen Karballatu

A bascinet with a perforated-metal visor wearing a red hood with cheek flaps and a tall comb at the top folded down
I am cautious about posting closeups of my face on the Internet, but while I am visiting my parents I have a convenient surrogate available

Some years ago, I made up one of the famous Persian hoods in red linen cloth. I machine-sewed it and bag-lined it, and did not have sources other than reliefs, the Darius Mosaic, the bonnet from one of the Pazyryk tombs, and an interesting woodcut which Jona Lendering showed me. I used linen because it was available and appropriately light and flowing. I had a feeling that wool would have been more common. Back then, I knew that Strabo said that ordinary Persians wore a rag of sindōn (fine linen? by the middle ages sindon was a delicate silk) about their heads while rich ones wore a tower-like felt hat, so I had one possible source for linen (the original Greek is ῥάκος σινδόνιόν and πίλημα πυργωτόν and the citation is Strabo, Geography, 15.3.19). In the meantime I learned a bit of Greek, and also some Akkadian. It turned out that both of those languages are relevant.
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The Paraskeuastikon of Peter the Son of Jack

A brick fortress with swallowtail battlements, a high tower, and double walls
Since I start this post by talking about an imaginary fortress designed by ignorant people, how about a real fortress designed by people skilled in the art: the Castelvecchio facing what was once outside the medieval town and is now part of the city centre, Verona. The low grey wall and the high red brick wall are separated by a ditch which was once wet.

In December I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A younger self would have used this post to have a good rant about all of the aspects of Jackson’s battles and sieges which just would not work. Tolkien was vague about many things, but he was a combat veteran who knew his classics, and both showed. However, I now realize that if someone with hundreds of millions of dollars at their command can’t be bothered to read a handful of Ospreys, let alone Aeneas Tacticus and Philon of Byzantium and the Old Norse King’s Mirror, or hire an underemployed doctor of ancient history and listen to what they say, there is no point in lecturing to them. Some people just don’t care how they really did it or want to engage with sources (although Jackson did let people who understood material culture and fight direction do their stuff). But watching these films reminds me of one thing which might be right.

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Scythed Chariots

A painting of a scythed chariot with a driver and warrior
A Persian scythed chariot as imagined by the artists at DBA Online http://www.dbaol.com/ I like the style and colour, although someone should have reminded the artist that these chariots just had a driver, no passengers with bows!

As I write a section of the chapter of my dissertation on Greek literature, I have been thinking about how that literature drives ideas about the Achaemenids along certain channels. Achaemenid historians trained as classicists have trouble forgetting a long list of tropes, stereotypes, and traditions which began in the Achaemenid period but were even more vividly expressed in Roman times. A good example is the most famous Persian weapon, the scythed chariot.

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Why Does Research Clump?

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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