Posts on events in the last few hundred years

Some Thoughts on Davies’ “Lying for Money” (2018)

the cover of the US edition of "Lying for Money" by Dan Davies. It has a red background, a white and green dollar sign containing some keywords, and an endorsement by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a yellow circle

Dan Davies, Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of the World. US edition (Scribner: New York and London, 2018)

Lying for Money is one part a monograph by someone who has studied and taught a problem for decades, and one part an extended blog post. It is also a bleak book. Davies thinks that fraud grows out of the cost of verifying facts and the techniques by which managers simplify the world to make it comprehensible (legible in James C. Scott’s terms). The cost of auditing or checking references appears every day, but the cost of discovering that one of your nurses never completed high school and one of your suppliers disappeared overseas with your money only comes up occasionally, so people tend to take fewer and fewer precautions until they suffer for it. Whereas some fictional fraudsters target the psychology of individuals, Davies’ fraudersters target the psychology of institutions and cultural expectations about what is trustworthy and authoritative. Very few large frauds are the fraudster’s only attempt: many get out of prison for one fraud and are trusted with other people’s money a few years later. (I would be interested to hear more on why fraudsters are often the victims of other fraudsters, and sometimes throw in money to keep the illusion alive when they could just take it and run).

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Tlusty on Bearing Swords in the Later Middle Ages

the cover of B. Ann Tlusty's book "The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany" with a painting of two men in doublets and hose fighting with swords while a man behind a desk hangs his head in his hands

A classic problem in social history goes like this: in the thirteenth century CE, the heaviest weapon that was commonly worn in European towns was a dagger or long knife with a blade up to 30 cm long. By the sixteenth century CE, towns were full of men wearing swords, particularly in the British Isles, the Low Countries, Germany, and Bohemia (in Italy and Spain wearing swords may have been restricted to gentlemen). How and when did this change happen? This has caught the attention of academics because it is linked to the civilizing process, state formation, and the monopoly on violence and those were fashionable at universities in the twentieth century. Back when I was in contact with them, the people who study German fencing from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tell people that one book shows that medieval Germans wore swords everywhere just like people in the sixteenth century: B. Ann Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Palgrave Macmillan: 2011). What does it actually say about medieval law?

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More Power of Fiction

In the past I have talked about how civilians in Syria see themselves as peasants in Game of Thrones, and soldiers in Ukraine want to be as excellent as characters in first-person shooter Call of Duty. This year I want to record that college-edited commentators like Max Boot are comparing the assassination of condottiere Yevgeniy Prigozhin to their favourite scenes from crime dramas in formal published prose:

The most fitting epitaph for Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin was delivered by the shotgun-wielding hit man Omar Little on “The Wire”: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” There’s still much we don’t know for certain (and might never know), but that pearl of wisdom was confirmed by Prigozhin’s apparent death Wednesday after a private plane he was on reportedly crashed north of Moscow.

Max Boot, “Opinion: Prigozhin appears to be dead — and Putin’s grip on power is stronger than ever,” The Washington Post, 23 August 2023
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Nazis and Radios

The Volksempfänger, the Nazi Party’s cheap radio receiver for listening to propaganda, in its bakelite case. Image from

In July an online talk by Philip Blood (probably this guy) and a pass through Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy made me think of the old debate about the effectiveness of the American, British, and Commonwealth armies in the Second World War. I had not known that Six Armies in Normandy was just Keegan’s second book from 1982, and that my 1994 Penguin edition was a reprint (A.J.P. Taylor wrote a blurb!)

Keegan’s book shows his strengths and weaknesses as a historian: it is beautifully written, expresses his unique view of the world, but rarely acknowledges doubt or explains where his facts and interpretations come from. Keegan gives himself authority by dropping in French and German phrases and alluding to prestigious novelists and playwrights, but not by showing that he understands a mass of evidence and arguments and can argue why his interpretation is best. The maps are inadequate, the photos numerous but ornamental. Because Six Armies in Normandy rarely cites sources, and because I’m not a specialist in WW II, I will not try to review it. But I will use some quotes to show places where I might have been wrong or where I don’t know how to balance two ways of thinking.

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Denial of Judgment and Responsibility

a postwar printed document with a sign in capital letters: A compter can never be held responsible, therefore a computer must never make a management decision
IBM understood the issue and the stakes in 1979! This image seems to come from a random social media post by on 17 February 2017 ( via a blog but I am sure I heard the principle in my days in computer science.

Since 2020 I am trying not to talk about corporate social media but I want to record this thought. Authors are seeing books appearing on with their name and titles but a text generated by chatbot. Scammers hope that people will buy these books thinking they are the real thing. People who buy consumer goods on Amazon are seeing a lot of knockoffs with random strings of letters for a brand name; the people who sell these goods focus on search-engine optimization, buying positive reviews and suppressing negative ones, and other marketing tricks rather than on making good products. And of course sites like Facebook gladly sell ads promoting hate, and suggest genocidal propaganda in users’ feeds, while claiming that they are not responsible for what users post and that they carefully vet ads before accepting them.

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Notice to Followers on RSS

Hi all! I am trying to track down the source of heavy traffic to my site this year. Part of it was a misconfigured Cron job, but another source is RSS feeders like and; On suggestion of my web host I tweaked my WordPress settings so that the RSS feed only gets... Continue reading: Notice to Followers on RSS

Somerton Man Identified?

From a happier time: Verona Bikeshare in April 2017

Like many bookish people I grew up with books on Oak Island and ghosts and mysterious disappearances. I don’t think any of them covered Somerton Man, who was found dead on a beach in Australia in 1948 with a scrap of the Rubiyat of Umar Khayum in a pocket. Younger me would certainly not have recognized that 1948 was the perfect time, because many of the things which feed paranormal television today were invented between 1945 and 1975 (Bigfoot, flying saucers, and grey aliens for example; D.B. Cooper also hijacked his airplane in 1971). Things stay in this category because they are inherently hard to understand, so mainstream institutions do not take over investigation. Larry Kusche thought he had solved the Bermuda triangle mystery in 1975, but the sea is so wide and unknown that people who want to see mystery in a lost ship or plane can see it. Following these topics can be frustrating because there are many excited cranks for each new tidbit of information. But one of these cases has moved forward!

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Some Thoughts on Gardner’s “Future Babble” (2010)


the cover of Dan Gardner's "Future Babble" with the title, author, and blurbs in black over a black and white crystal ball with pale yellow rays radiating from it

Dan Gardner’s Future Babble (McClelland and Stewart Ltd.: Toronto, 2010) is a pop book with a structural theory for why so many people get called out to predict the future using methods which fail nine times out of ten, then called back out after one failed prediction to make another. It relies upon earlier trade books (such as Phil Tetlock‘s work on expert judgement and When Prophecy Fails) and the psychology of cognitive biases and heuristics. One of Gardner’s favourite case studies is Paul Ehrlich who like Noam Chomsky spent most of his career repeating ideas he had in the 1960s (but whose ideas were much more easily falsified: the death rate did not rapidly rise from the late 1970s, and people all around the world start having smaller families once women have the ability to chose).

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The Social and Intellectual Context of AI Doomerism

a painted book cover with a man in a pressure suit shooting at a giant anthropomorphic robot
The cover of one version of H. Beam PIper’s “The Cosmic Computer” (Ace Books 1963)

People who speculate about artificial minds have a thought experiment: if you lock a superhuman intelligence in a box, with just a way to ask it questions and a way for it to send back the answers, how do you stop it from persuading someone to let it out? Today some people who read the right parts of the Internet ten years ago are afraid that some terrible ideas have escaped geeky online communities and are commanding money and policy in the wider world. Outsiders don’t have the background knowledge to know why this is a bad idea. But a lot of the criticism is hyperbolic, very personal, and mixes unverified claims with matters of public record. Just below the surface are such baroque ideas and cycles of interpersonal relations that it is exhausting to learn what happened, disturbing to think about it, and hard to explain why this matters to anyone but a few very clever, very strange people who spend a lot of time on the Internet (and maybe social media these days). I found one series of essays that may help.

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