Book and Sword
felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

Book and Sword

Sir Charles Oman Missed This Too

One of the most frustrating things about Charles Oman is that he ignores when his medieval sources were alluding to famous ancient texts. At the battle of Benevento in 1266, the army of Charles of Anjou crossed the Apennines in February only to find themselves trapped between the mountains and the swollen River Calore with Manfred of Sicily and his army on the other side. Charles’ men were already reduced to eating fallen pack animals, and it was hard to see how they could go forward or back. But then fortune intervened:

Ricordano Malaspina wonders why Manfred crossed the River Calore at all since if he had waited a day or two, King Charles and his people would have been killed without a blow of a sword through lack of vittles (columns 1002, 1003). Oman wonders whether Manfred was worried about treachery or desertion, and asks whether “perhaps in the spirit of the mediaeval knight, he preferred to beat his adversary by the sword rather than hunger.” But any attentive reader in the 13th century would have seen that beating the enemy with hunger rather than the sword is a strategic principle from the third book of Vegetius on military matters. He mentions it three times: 3.3.1, 3.9.8., 3.26.32. It seems to me that Malaspina was just as unimpressed with Manfred’s strategic decisions as Oman was.

snippet cut from a forthcoming piece in Medieval World (Karwansaray Bv)
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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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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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