Modern

Posts on events in the last few hundred years

Warning: Facebook Privacy Settings

Many nerdy people use Facebook. Until recently, Facebook let you set the visibility of posts to “Friends” by default so only people whose friend request you had accepted could see them. This was very important for people who face stalking or harassment but wanted to keep in touch with people they knew through social media. Sometime in the past few months, Facebook changed that setting to “Friends (+)” which allows friends of friends. This roughly squares the potential audience of a post, and means that a stalker, harrasser, doxer, or identity thief just has to become Facebook friends with one of your friends to start seeing your posts! Almost anyone knows someone who accepts random Friend or Follow requests on corporate social media. If they mean “friends of friends of the people tagged” then tagging someone still doubles the number of people who can see a post. Stalkers, tabloid journalists, and other nuisances often follow their target’s contacts on social media in hopes of picking up information.

I’m not an expert on corporate social media, but the only way to limit post visibility seems to be to create a list of Friends and share with them. The option “just people whose Friend request I have accepted” seems to be gone. I can’t find any offline documentation of this change. If you use Facebook and are concerned about privacy, you should probably check your settings and think whether you want to change what you post (and especially who you tag, because tagging someone definitely makes a “Friends +” post visible to their friends). My approach to corporate social media focuses on harm reduction rather than expecting everyone to be a privacy geek. Screenshots are below the fold.

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Uncertainties Regarding Historical Facts

Over on Andrew Gelmans’s blog, there is a discussion about my post writing for the curious.

One thing I did not spell out is that people with training in history, archaeology, or similar rarely make the key decisions about historical documentaries. Old Media documentaries are businesses like any other film or TV show. They are run by business people and drama people who want return on investment and artistic fulfillment. Scholars may be interviewed and provide sound bites, but what they say is scripted or edited to fit a message chosen by those business people and drama people. Because TV and film are big money, they face big pressure. For example, Zahi Hawass features in almost any documentary about ancient Egypt, not because of his expertise, but because he is very well connected and documentaries which don’t give him airtime have problem after problem with the Egyptian government. Often, a documentary is based on one or two popular books or press releases, so its well downstream of original research. Business people and drama people don’t have the skills or inclination to dig too far into “how do we know that?” so they tend to compare experts and pick the one who sounds most convincing or most exciting. Everyone has to do this sometimes, but trained historians are much better equipped to deal with questions like this.

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Books Read in 2022

a wooden bookcase stained dark brown about half full of softcover and hardcover fiction and nonfiction
We got some beautiful solid wood bookcases this year, unlike my old Ikea bookcases in Austria

I’ve never been sure how to do these since I switched from reading like a novel-lover (reading books in my native language from cover to cover then sending them back to the library) to reading like a scholar (dipping in and out of books, reading in languages I am not fluent in). Should magazines count? Individual short stories read online? Books and stories heard over the radio or on a mobile computer? And there is no sense making this into another piece of unpaid work keeping records of what I read! But I feel like doing one at the end of this year.

I err on the side of including things which don’t appear in my academic notes and reading list so might otherwise be unrecorded.

I am not including books which I read in manuscript.

This post might include some things from the last week of 2021. See previous discussion about unpaid work!

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The USSR and Allied Victory in WW II

After a war the winners start to argue about credit, whether the Athenians and the Spartans arguing about who saved Hellas from the Mede, or the Allies arguing about who did more to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And while these debates are nominally about the past, the different positions tend to correspond to different views about who should be honoured and respected in the present. Within Athens there was a debate about the contribution of leisured hoplites and working-class rowers at the same time that advocates of a narrow democracy and a wide democracy were fighting. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet contribution became better acknowledged in the North Atlantic world (although Soviet failures which had been covered up were also uncovered after the archives opened and the censors had to get real jobs). In the past ten years, a new view has emerged which argues that the US, UK, Germany, and Japan all put a majority of their manufacturing capacity into air forces and gave ground forces second or third priority. To them:

The Germans lost more infantry on the Eastern Front, but they lost far, far more of their equipment (and best trained forces) fighting the British and Americans. This is because the German Army as I have pointed out, received relatively little German production compared to the Air Force/Navy. Basically, because the Germans could afford to send so little equipment to the Eastern Front, they tried to get by using unsupported soldiers. Actually, the ‘vast bulk’ of German losses were caused fighting the western Allies, and its not close.

Phillips P. O’Brien https://phillipspobrien.substack.com/p/misunderstanding-soviet-power-in-761

Since my readers are human beings, I hope they can see the one fundamental problem with this argument!

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2022 Year-Ender

a cleared section of concrete or asphalt with deep snow on either side. Something with cloven hooves has walked along the path and left prints in the blown snow
This path through the snow from the Salish Sea Blizzard of 2022 is not just for two-footed creatures!

The year 2022 is being escorted away by 200 soldiers and 70 horsemen and 200 ambidextrous soldiers so that the locals don’t do it an injury.[1] What on earth can I say about it?

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Left-Handed Soldiers in Elizabethan England

a greytone painting of men with swords killing fallen knights in armour
A rare picture of a left-handed fighter with a longsword in a medieval MS (third from the left). BNF Français 167 Bible Moralisée (painted c. 1345-1355 at Paris, France) fol. 235v https://manuscriptminiatures.com/5187/16534http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8447300c/f15.planchecontact

Technical military literature before the 19th century is always worth reading, and one of the technical writers I often return to is Sir John Smythe who died at Little Badow in England in 1607. Smythe was a diletante and a crank who believed that the military art had been perfected on the day he turned 18, but he followed the wars and had thoughts on different ways of doing things. One of the things he talks about is militia recruits who are left-handed. The history of left-handedness is kind of like the history of queerness, in that some societies loved to talk and theorize about it, while left-handers (or queer people) got on with their lives, found solutions that worked for them, and did not leave many traces or worry too much about those talkers and theorists.

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Academic Mastodon Lists and Groups

a manuscript illumination of a dragon confronting an elephant
Sjoerd Levelt https://scholar.social/@slevelt@hcommons.social thinks that the symbol of the clash between birdsite and Mastodon should be the clash between the elephant and the dragon in ancient philosophers and medieval bestiaries

In November 2022 many academics have created accounts on Mastodon, a federated microblogging service. Mastodon is decentralized like the old forums and mailing lists, but you can easily cross-post from one Mastodon server to another and search across servers with hashtags to find posts of common interest. Because each instance is moderated by members, it can set its own standard for acceptable behaviour rather than trying to get Germans and Americans to agree whether the Horst-Wesel-Lied is protected speech (although two of the biggest mastodon instances are barely moderated at all, so careful where you post! Mastodon is open-source software like WordPress or bulletin board software, so it gets used by people who say and do things you hate). Because its hard to find old Mastodon posts and I delete them after a few months anyways, here is a one-stop shop for the new instances, lists of accounts with a common theme, and groups I have found (Mastodon groups work like mailing lists, they take incoming messages and broadcast them to subscribers).

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Birdsite Was a Parade

Apparently twitter is in trouble (for readers in the future, twitter was a microblogging service especially popular from 2016 to 2022 with hundreds of millions of users, heavy representation among thinky talky Anglos and elected officials posting under their real names, where who people followed and clicked on and most of their posts were public; users were showed a feed of posts selected by a secret algorithm). Internet communities tend to be pompous about themselves, and pompous twitter users pronounce that it is a public square or a town square. I have another simile.

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Some Thoughts on Nevala-Lee’s “Astounding” and Carter’s “Sex and Rockets”

a closeup photo of red applies and green apple leaves silhouetted against a bue sky
The last days of fall in our apple orchard, at the start of October. A month later the first rain had fallen, by early November there was snow and frost. Photo by S. Manning, 1 October 2022

Alec Nevala-Lee, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street, 2018)

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

The world is full of wonders / terrors, and the most wonderful / terrible is mankind

Choral speech on the wonders of technology, Sophokles, Antigone, line 334 (Perseus Project)

Astounding is a feminist prosopography of John W. Campbell Jr‘s circle from the Second World War. It is a prosopography because it is a group biography which focuses on the connections between people, what they did at different life stages, and how their careers resemble the careers of other people with similar backgrounds. And it is feminist because he says out loud that many writing and editing teams of the time were a family business, with the husband out front speaking to fans and the wife revising, suggesting plots, and administering the business in the background. E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith split his cheque for The Skylark of Space with a Mrs. Garby because they had started to write the novel together (Goulart’s Informal History of the Pulp Magazines p. 163). The role of women was acknowledged at the time but tended to get forgotten as marriages ended and fandom grew.

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Writing for the Curious

a green and yellow maple leaf fallen on wet woodchips
A fallen leaf, 28 October 2022

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.

or

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?

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