Book and Sword
felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

Book and Sword

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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Founder Effects

A screenshot from the computer game “Dwarf Fortress” (2006 to present) care of

Some people make fun of stories about generation ships because they often follow in the mould of Heinlein’s Universe (1941): if there is a story about a generation ship, it will suffer a disaster while the crew inside descend into barbarism and self-destruction. Sometimes monsters devour the crew, sometimes a plague kills all the adults, and sometimes radiation turns the voyagers into monstrosities. Geneticists would call that a founder effect: the first story (or the first few members of a species to reproduce in an environment) has a disproportionate influence on everything after. Is there a wider context the critics are overlooking?

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A Cunning Plan for Basilike Stamatopoulou’s PhD Thesis

Basilike G. Stamatopoulou wrote a whole PhD thesis on the Argive shield (the domed shields with a rim used by Carians, Dorians, and even Etruscans). That thesis is online as photos of individual pages. Since few people outside Greece can read Modern Greek well enough to handle a 500-page PhD thesis, this is not available to most of us. Paul Bardunias and Giannis Kadoglou published a two-page English summary but it leaves many questions unanswered. I have a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.

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The Back and Forth of Research, or, The Tatbeet Seam

a photo of a seam in orange thread on two pieces of coarse white linen cloth against a blue background
The so-called aketon seam (see bellow): finish the edges, then place right side to right side, join the two finished edges with a whipped or overcast stitch, and unfold to reveal a smooth seam without excess bulk

A challenge in dress and textile history is that people use names for stitches or seams and do not define them or sketch them. Since people use different names for the same thing, and the same name for different things, it can be hard to understand what they mean. An Egyptologist says that seams on garments from Bronze Age Egypt are “mainly of the flat (‘tatbeet’) type, and the very similar run and fell seam … was used for children’s sleeves.” (Rosalind Janssen née Hall, Egyptian Textiles, Shire Publications: Princes Risborough UK, 2001, pp. 57, 58) There are no pictures so what did she mean?

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Turning Victory into Conquest

a colour photo of a piece of wood 85 cm long and 2.5 cm thick clamped in a vice being sawed lengthwise
I am not conquering this offcut of wood as I turn it into two laths for a scabbard core but I hope to get something lasting and valuable out of it

In 2023, Assyriologists specialized in the Achaemenid and Neo-Assyrian empires such as Christopher W. Jones and historians of warfare since 1500 such as Wayne E. Lee are interested in the mechanics of conquest. In the USA this may grow out of their failed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (link), while in Europe its part of the attempt to build support for the study of the ancient world. This post contains a bibliography on how people try to turn military success into lasting gains, whether by conquering and governing new subjects, terrorizing the inhabitants into giving periodic tribute, depopulating an area and settling it with their own people, or carrying off slaves and precious goods.

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The Orlat Battle Plaques

line drawing of two engraved bone belt-ends.  One shows archers on horseback chasing assorted ungulates, while the others shows a battle between cataphracts
Drawing of the Orlat Plaques after Jangar Ya. Ilyasov and Dimitry V. Rusanov, “A Study on the Bone Plaques from Orlat,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 5 (1997–98), pl. IV:1. care of

A lot of history forums and subreddits confuse me, but the main thing I got out of them was pointer to sources I did not know about. One of those sources that I learned about in 2009 was the Orlat Battle Plaques. These are polished bone belt-ends from a grave near Samarkand dating sometime between the 2nd and 4th century CE. On the right plaque mounted archers chase ungulates, while on the left plaque cataphracts battle with swords, lances, and piercing axes / sagareis.

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The Loneliness Economy

two whitetail deer, one eating grass and the other raising its back right leg to scratch itself
The local deer don’t live in an economy and they don’t seem lonely. Photo by author, 16 May 2023

This post is not about all the terrible people on the Internet and social media who make their money giving the lonely someone to blame. It is about changes in rich economies over the past 20 years which make it possible to do more and more things without interacting with another human being beyond “how much?” or “oh, one last can of that wet food!” (and corps are pushing self-checkout to reduce the first).

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Greek Swords and Akhenaten’s Family Tree, Some Recent Publications

While many aspects of my life hobble along, some of my print publications have been coming out like arrows in a Scythian battle over the past few months! I wrote about the family of Akhenaten, swords in archaic Greece, reviewed Matthew Waters’ book on Cyrus the Great, and turned my first book into an article which is more concise and focused on giving my best guesses at answers rather than on why its really hard to know about the armies of the Teispids and Achaemenids.

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War Between Societies, Violence Within Societies

Simon James is not the most prolific researcher, but his words are always worth carefully considering. A few years ago he had this to say:

In discourse on the European Iron Age, the terms ‘war’ and ‘warrior’ are rarely examined or defined. ‘War’ (except ‘civil war’) is commonly understood to connote organized collective armed violence between polities. Yet in many historically attested societies, possessing, displaying and using lethal weaponry are/were not about war, primarily and sometimes hardly at all. Rather weapons may articulate social dynamics, mutual fear and conflict within a polity – as exemplified by the contemporary United States.

Simon James (in press) “Ch. 30: Arms, the armed, and armed violence.” In Colin C. Haselgrove, Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, and Peter S. Wells (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the European Iron Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
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Dating Bronze Age Shields

the front of a round bronze centergrip shield with a boss and a decoration of alternate solid ribs and rings of embossed dots
A Yetholm type shield from Rhyd-y-Gorse, Wales. Currently dated 1200-900 BCE. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

Most archaeologists focus on metal, stone, and ceramic objects which are common and easy to conserve, but this has problems! Back in 1962 John Coles studied European Bronze Age shields by beginning with complete bronze shields (or shield covers) from Cyprus, the Aegean, southern Germany, Czechia, Denmark, and the British Isles. Because the oldest finds in the Aegean could be dated to around 850 BCE, Coles created an elaborate theory that the surviving wooden and hide shields and shield moulds from Ireland were copies of Southwest Spanish copies of the shields from the Aegean and Cyprus. Because the shields from Ireland were found loose in bogs, there was no way to date them by the other objects they were found with. Then in 1991 specialists started to collect radiocarbon dates from the Irish shields and shield-moulds, and consistently got dates before 1000 BCE! Since most parts of Europe don’t have as many peat bogs as Ireland, and ancient wood and hide rarely survive outside of bogs, this sparked some rethinking!

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