Categories: Modern
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Two Ways of Looking at the Russo-Ukrainian War

the winding road up to a stone fortress with a bridge crossing a ditch between the camera level and the next level
The city-side entrance to fortress Hohensalzburg was designed in the 17th century, but many aspects of a 17th century siege would be familiar to a soldier in the Great War or on parts of the front in Ukraine without many drones

In Spring 2024 there were two ways of looking at the war in Ukraine. One was to emphasize that Ukraine was short of troops and artillery ammunition, that Russian forces were capturing a sunflower field here and a village there, and that US aid to Ukraine may end if the Republicans win the next US election. We don’t hear much about the small Ukrainian operations on the east bank of the Dnipro River any more so perhaps they have withdrawn those few hundred men. Ukraine can’t get enough of its young men in uniform, in part because the officials in charge of exemptions and exit permits accept bribes. In this view, Russian forces will grind down Ukrainian forces and force the Ukrainian government to sign over territory. The ground war is not going well for Ukraine. The other way was to emphasize that Ukraine continues to strike Russian naval vessels and ports, destroys Russian aircraft and air defence systems, and launched a strategic bombing campaign against Russian oil refineries. The air and naval war are going better.

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Are 80% of Patreon Pledges Hidden?

a screenshot from the Graphtreon website with charts and statistics about total creations and pledges on Patreon
Graphtreon is awesome! Patreon is awesome! But Patreon is also another giant institution which we are are asked to trust but don’t have a way to verify

Patreon is essential for funding many types of digital creations. Patreon is not the best at processing payments or building and running websites. So a lot of us are very interested in them as a business because they offer an alternative to surveillance advertising and creating merchandise or face-to-face services to sell, but they seem kind of flimsy. Because they are a private business, we have to guess a lot. One of the things we have to guess about is whether they are a $24 million / year business or a $120 million / year business. (All sums in this post are in US dollars).

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Editing and Translation Services

Do you need a second pair of eyes on that book, paper, or project report? I have been editing business and academic writing since 2013. Aside from ancient world studies and medieval studies, I have experience creating software documentation and a background in academic computer science. Because of my time living in Austria, I have experience with the challenges of writing in a second language or a new field.

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Forecasting Future Wars is Hard

the title page of a book printed in black and red with a little print with the publisher's logo
The book that launched a thousand raids and burned the topless towers of Minas Tirith! H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars” the first modern wargame for civilians. Image care of

Since 1805, combat between well-equipped air and naval forces has become rarer and rarer. This is because states which can produce such forces have little to gain from fighting one another, and because it has become harder and harder to sustain such forces at all. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy was usually overwhelmingly superior to everyone else (although the French and the United States sometimes gave it a run for its money). Since the 1950s, the US air force has had a similar advantage over everyone else’s. Small states look at these navies and air forces, decide they can never defeat them, and either stop bothering with their own navies and air forces, or side with one of the big powers, or hide in harbour or in neutral countries when war approaches (the fleet-in-being strategy). Big states do some spectacularly stupid and thoughtless things, but rarely something as stupid as getting into a war with their allies or a nuclear power, and pretty much all the states with sophisticated air forces and navies are either each other’s allies or nuclear powers.

This means that stories about how a future naval or air war would go are fantasies based on speculation and imagination and peacetime tests, not observation and experience of actual warfare.

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Coiled Shields and Helmets

a coiled grass bowl wrapped with light brown and off-white fibres on a vanished wooden tabletop lit by a candle and an electric lamp
A little bowl like this was all my budget could afford, but its still handy for holding my sewing things!

One weekend in May 2023 I did two things on a weekend which involved spending several hours away from home doing things with people I did not know in 2013 other than the day job (!). When I was passing through downtown Victoria I stopped at a stall run by Journey House Actions, a Rwandan charity. They sell bowls, baskets, and jars of coiled grass ropes laced with dyed sisal fibres. As I worked my way through them, I was struck how much they were like the Turkish shields in Schloss Ambras.

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Just Another Grunt

a plain linestone statue of a god with a tall hat on his head, a club or axe in his right hand, and a tombstone-shaped shield in his left hand
A Statue of the Egyptian god Reshef from the Third Intermediate Period in the Metropolitan Museum of Art care of

Early on, the Indy Neidell World War Two documentary split off a series War Against Humanity from its narrative of the ground and surface naval wars. Their story presents the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in December 1944 as a trivial thing, because the allies quickly put forces in place so that German forces could never break through to anywhere really dangerous, and because by the standards of winter 1944/1945 the forces involved were not huge. They even spend lots of time talking about how specific Anglo generals tried to take credit or shift the blame. I feel like that is the wrong story to tell, because the real story is all the ordinary people who ended up dead, or crippled, or frostbitten when they had started to think they would survive the war more or less intact. Here is one of those stories by the late Fred Pohl:

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The Triumph and the Tragedy of Atrocitology

To be honest, though, I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Very few historians have the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.

Matthew White,

Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) lists 100 tragedies, but the 101st tragedy is the book itself. White worked very hard to find numbers for various atrocities, and noticed that often he could find no source for the number in the glossy magazine or the airport book. He noticed that some of the numbers seemed to be just made up, he noticed that some didn’t seem to be meant to be taken literally, and he noticed that often the new book or article relies on the old book or article without correcting its mistakes or asking whether we have learned anything since. When I look at the website which became the book, I see how he came close to agreeing with me that almost all of these numbers before the 19th century say more about other modern numbers than about the past. He could have written a good book about how we just don’t know how many people were killed by Tamurlane, or the An Lushan Rebellion, or the Crusades. But instead he wrote yet another book full of made-up numbers backed with footnotes, and he gave old nonsense a whole new audience when a very famous Canadian psychologist took his numbers and ran with them.

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Books Read in 2023

a polished stone statue of Buddha seated cross-legged on the coils of a serpent whose hood expands to seven heads which cover his head
The naga serpent protects Buddha from the rain for seven days, from the exhibit Angkor: Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia (National Museum of Cambodia at the Royal BC Museum, 2 June 2023 to 14 January 2024). They say this is limestone but it seems awfully fine grained. Photo by Sean Manning, 4 January 2024.

Creating one of these lists is difficult, because scholars don’t read a lot of similar books end to end like novel readers, but dip into a variety of books looking for data. I reserve the right to skip some things I read and decide when a partial read ‘counts.’

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Google Forgets the Old Web

A senior Google Search staffer recently claimed that Google does not downgrade older pages in search results. For the record, it was Tim Bray in 2018 who demonstrated that Google was not returning the only page with a string if that page was more than 5 to 10 years old. He could find that same page with DuckDuckGo. As he put it, Google is losing its memory. He documented the same problem again in February 2022. A Marco Fioretti also found that Google was refusing to return some old pages in 2018.

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2023 Year Ender

group photo in a room with classicizing interior decor and lots of casts of Greek and Roman sculptures
Group photo from the conference on Stadtbelagerung in Innsbruck, October 2023

A lot of things happened in 2023! Because I am tired I am going to list them briefly.

I applied and interviewed for some professional jobs and found one last group of academic possibilities which still seems worth trying.

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