Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Salem witch trials.

If you grew up in the US, you’ve probably heard about these in school. If you didn’t, most likely you haven’t. I had heard the name but knew nothing else. Some of the stuff here’s also part of why it’s awesome to live in the present (in a Western, modern society…), apropos the previous post:

“The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. […]
The best-known trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused but not formally pursued by the authorities. All twenty-six who went to trial before this court were convicted. […] The episode is one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and local governmental intrusion on individual liberties.” […]

“In the small Salem Village as in the colony at large, all of life was governed by the precepts of the Church, which was Calvinist in the extreme. Music, dancing, celebration of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, were absolutely forbidden,[19] as they supposedly had roots in Paganism. The only music allowed at all was the unaccompanied singing of hymns—the folk songs of the period glorified human love and nature, and were therefore against God. Toys and especially dolls were also forbidden, and considered a frivolous waste of time.[20] The only schooling for children was in religious doctrine and the Bible, and all the villagers were expected to go to the meeting house for three-hour sermons every Wednesday and Sunday. Village life revolved around the meeting house, and those celebrations permitted, such as those celebrating the harvest, were centered there.[21]” […]

“Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only 4 years old, and when questioned by the magistrates her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother.” […] “Sarah Osborne, one of the first three accused, died in jail on May 10, 1692.” [She was arrested in January or February – so let’s just say ‘natural causes’ is not the most likely explanation, US] […]

“Much, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused was spectral evidence, or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. The theological dispute that ensued about the use of this evidence centered on whether a person had to give permission to the Devil for his/her shape to be used to afflict. Opponents claimed that the Devil was able to use anyone’s shape to afflict people, but the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person’s shape without that person’s permission; therefore, when the afflicted claimed to see the apparition of a specific person, that was accepted as evidence that the accused had been complicit with the Devil.”

ii. Dunbar’s number.

“Dunbar’s number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.[2] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.”

iii. German battleship Scharnhorst

Try to imagine a ship that was almost a quarter of a kilometer long, that weighed more than 6000 elephants and which managed to not get destroyed by airplanes throwing bombs weighing half a ton down on it. The ship also had more people onboard than lived in the town where I grew up.

iv. Cargo cult

“A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional pre-industrial tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices. Cult members believe that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. Cargo cults developed primarily in remote parts of New Guinea and other Melanesian and Micronesian societies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, beginning with the first significant arrivals of Westerners in the 19th century. Similar behaviors have, however, also appeared elsewhere in the world.

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Over the last sixty-five years, most cargo cults have disappeared. However, some cargo cults are still active…” […]

“With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.[5]”

v. Destruction of country houses in 20th-century Britain

“Since 1900, 1,200 country houses have been demolished in England.[7] In Scotland, the figure is proportionally higher. There, 378 architecturally important country houses have been destroyed, 200 of these since 1945.[8][9] Included in the destruction were works by Robert Adam, including Balbardie House and the monumental Hamilton Palace. One firm, Charles Brand of Dundee, demolished at least 56 country houses in Scotland in the 20 years between 1945 and 1965.[10] In England, it has been estimated that one in six of all country houses were demolished during the 20th century.[3]” […]

“Death duties are the taxes most commonly associated with the decline of the British country house. They are not, in fact, a phenomenon peculiar to the 20th century, as they had first been introduced in 1796. “Legacy Duty” was a tax payable on money bequeathed from a personal estate. Next of kin inheriting were exempt from payment, but anyone other than wives and children of the deceased had to pay on an increasing scale depending on the distance of the relationship from the deceased. These taxes gradually increased not only the percentage of the estate that had to be paid, but also to include closer heirs liable to payment. By 1815, the tax was payable by all except the spouse of the deceased.[36]

In 1853, a new tax was introduced, “Succession duty.” This not only resulted in tax being payable on all forms of inheritance, but also removed several loopholes to avoid paying inheritance taxes.[36] In 1881 “Probate Duty” became payable on all personal property bequeathed at death. The wording personal property meant that for the first time not only the house and its estate were taxed but also the contents of the house including jewellery – these were often of greater value than the estate itself. By 1884 Estate Duty taxed property of any manner bequeathed at death, but even when the Liberal government in 1894 reformed and tidied the complicated system at 8% on properties valued at over one million pounds, they were not punitive to a social class able to live comfortably off inherited wealth far below that sum. Death duties, however, slowly increased and became a serious problem for the country estate throughout the first half of the 20th century, reaching a zenith when assisting in the funding of World War II. This proved to be the deciding factor for many families when in 1940 death duties were raised from 50% to 65%, and following the cessation of hostilities they were twice raised further between 1946 and 1949. Attempts by some families to avoid paying death duties backfired. Some estate owners had given their properties to their heirs in advance of their own deaths to escape duties; when subsequently the heir was killed fighting, death duties became immediately payable and the estate would then pass back to the elderly former owner, who in turn would die before the first death duties had been paid. In this way some estates were financially exhausted.”

Some of the houses that didn’t make it:


October 28, 2011 - Posted by | History, Psychology, Wikipedia


  1. I have seen the Scharnhorst article because some military sci-fi novel mentioned her in the context of “don’t rely too much on speed”. It was apparently referencing the battle with HMS Renown, where Scharnhorst and Gneisenau fled at full speed, and the displaced ocean water flooded and disabled Scharnhorst’s front turret.

    There is so much we civilians cannot comprehend about naval warfare (and warfare in general). For example, until recently, I was not aware that during WW2, many (most?) ships were under standing orders to not sail in a straight line, but zigzag unpredictably in order to avoid being torpedoed. This, in and of itself, is kind of fascinating, but I found the rationale even more so. The torpedoes of those days could not home in on a target – you could give a torpedo a direction and a depth; the idea was to get the torpedo under the keel of the target, where a magnetic trigger detonated it, and cavitation damaged the ship – armor was sufficient to protect against torpedoes aimed directly at a ship’s side.

    Torpedoes took time to get to target. For example, the German WW2 G7es torpedo traveled at 44km/h, or 12.2 m/s, and had a range of 5,700 meters, which means, at the top of its range, it took 466 seconds to get to target – over 7.5 minutes. The direction and depth (together called a “solution”) was provided by manual calculation – electro-mechanical calculators were available, but not that common on subs. It took time to come up with, and included as inputs both the target’s and the launcher’s speed, location, and direction. Hence, a zigzagging ship could foil the solution – direction being easier and cheaper for a ship to change than speed. Further factors: submarines could turn much more slowly than ships; they could only show their periscopes infrequently (risk of detection), while a ship has non-stop observability of her surroundings; and most likely many others.

    I so wish courses at military academies were available in the Khan academy format – even if it’s only the historical stuff, which is no military secret.

    Comment by Plamus | October 29, 2011 | Reply

    • Another thing: Submarines were nearly blind when travelling below the surface, and they’d pretty much always attack only after they’d surfaced. The speed of a u-boat travelling under the surface was also significantly lower than the speed that could be obtained by travelling surfaced, so unless they were going through an area where the opponent dominated the skies (u-boats were very vulnerable to airplanes), they’d travel with the top of the boat above the water line. Another thing probably unknown to many people is the fact that these vessels were simply no match for destroyers in one-on-one combat – U-boat captains would do whatever they could to either make sure they had surprise on their side and a reasonably clear shot (preferably in the back), or simply never engage if there was an alternative, which of course most often there was. That is, U-boat captains who returned home and could people about what they had done; quite a few inexperienced ones were less cautious and as a result went down with the ship, just like the rest of the crew. When attacking convoys, the common strategy for u-boats was to attack a straggler from the surface, sink the ship with a few torpedos and perhaps some shots with the main gun to finish it off, then most often the ship would quickly submerge afterwards and flee before the defending patrol boat(/s) would show up. Then they’d repeat the procedure later on if they had the chance. At the beginning of the war, a single submarine would attack on its own – later on, they’d make coordinated attacks – but the battle tactics described above didn’t change much. A submarine would attack a destroyer only at a significant distance and given the element of surprise, if at all. (I read The Battle of the Atlantic by Andrew Williams a while ago on this subject, the above is some of the stuff I remember from it)

      You’re right that a lot of the stuff that takes/took place during (naval) warfare is difficult stuff to understand if you have no experience or a theoretical foundation. However there are a lot of areas that aren’t covered in Khan Academy; I’m not sure I’d put military theory/history high on the list. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be cool if he – or someone else – put up some stuff on this subject as well.

      Comment by US | October 30, 2011 | Reply

  2. I thought a lot of non-US-citizens would have heard of the Salem trials through the works of Arthur Miller and Winona Ryder: At least that’s where I first heard of them (as far as I can recall) – and I’m definitely not a Miller-fan.

    But according to it only sold 1.522 tickets in danish theaters and it took ten years before it made the dvd market. I am very surprised.

    Comment by info | October 29, 2011 | Reply

    • I’ve never heard about that movie. Not surprising, given the number of tickets sold.

      Comment by US | October 29, 2011 | Reply

      • It is originally a play, and Det Kongelige Teater performed it in 1953. I obviously didn’t see that version .-)

        Comment by info | October 29, 2011

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