I have said before that many people seem to misunderstand what historians do, even if they are interested in history. Over on Andrew Gelman’s blog, I found people saying things like:
Whenever I see theories about ancient stuff I always feel it is very speculative. “This artifact is a stone ax from a hominid from c. 800,000 BP”. “The Samson story in the book of Judges is based on folk legends about a Hercules-like half-man, half-god figure, but edited to make it conform to a monotheistic worldview”. To the extent that these conclusions really represent the best understanding of experts, they sound to me like a maximum likelihood estimator when the likelihood function is very flat.
I mean, what is the actual evidence Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon? If you look it up there is very little concern for such issues.
If you are active in any of the historical science, you know that discussions between experts are full of questions, alternative explanations, and debates. It is press releases, documentaries, and trade books which usually focus on one interpretation and promote it as hard as possible. Most ancient historians are unsure if they can know anything about the moment when Caesar crossed from his province into Italy or whether the ‘bad emperors’ did the things that salacious stories have them do. But a belief that questions are not being asked or that sinister forces are shutting them down lies behind many conspiratorial and anti-expert movements today. So how are we failing to communicate what we do and what we value?
In my post we the people I pointed out that until the First World War, “the people” normally means free men who can act politically and militarily. It excluded women, children, the poor, and those who were denied political rights such as resident aliens and serfs. On 5 October the Russian media organization TASS showed a remarkable video:
Funds for payments to the mobilized are not enough, admitted authorities in the Omsk region. The authorities of the region agreed with the military registration and enlistment offices to give time to those mobilized to re-register the business (without specifying to whom), TASS reports. The authorities’ statement is related to the public appeal of the mobilized residents of the Omsk region, who complained about the lack of lump-sum payments.
If I understand correctly, this video shows a committee of soldiers demanding that the regional government honour its promises to pay their wives and children an allowance so they can eat. I might be wrong, or this video might be a fake, but this week I want to say the same thing I said in that post another way.
There is now a Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (https://sfdictionary.com/) which got started with help from the Oxford English Dictionary. When I encounter a new historical dictionary or encyclopedia, the first thing I do is check some entries to see if they exist and how good they are.
H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History features two weapons, planet-busters and hellburners. Planet-busters are some especially powerful kind of atomic weapon, like a hydrogen bomb but even more destructive, while hellburners are atomic weapons which create some kind of self-sustaining incendiary reaction (Piper alluded to Hans Bethe’s solar phoenix reaction). Planet-busters go back to a popular article on the hydrogen bomb from 1950 and appear in many writers’ stories, but hellburners are rare outside Piper’s works. In a chat with Jesse Sheidlower, I realized where the name ‘hellburner’ may come from.
My posting is becoming irregular because, well, its 2022. I have heard of some talks which my gentle readers might be interested in. One is definitely online, one I am not sure about. Amanda Podany, “Ea-naṣir, Microhistory, and Popular Interest in Ancient Mesopotamia” Friday 14 October 11.00-13.00 New York time (I think I remember that... Continue reading: Two Upcoming Talks in New York
The war in Ukraine has changed since spring. I thought that some of my readers might be interested in the resources I am currently using to follow it. Since I don’t know Russian or Ukrainian, and since many people have agendas, sorting things out is tricky for me. People following the war like corporate social media with feeds, and on those sites quotes and images float around without attribution. People who like them imply that they hear all kinds of rumours. And because so much is at stake (the future of 200 million people, the energy supply to Europe and grain for the Mediterranean) many people slip into boosting their side rather than provide dispassionate analysis.
Now that Ukraine has much larger armies, and weapons to counter Russian artillery, I expect Ukraine to keep driving Russian forces back until at least spring 2023. The most likely things which could change the situation would be a complete collapse of Russian forces and Russian use of nuclear weapons (which would probably end very badly for Russia, but Putin keeps making stupid decisions and does not live in the same world we live in). Turning recruits into an army takes 3 to 12 months if you have systems for gathering, training, and arming them, and those trainers and vehicles are dead or destroyed in Ukraine. Putin is scared of mass popular movements like the original levée en masse. So until 2023, the main effect of Russian mobilization will be a lot of dead Dagestanis and Buriyats and a lot of rich landlords in Tbilisi and Istanbul.