Wikipedia articles of interest

Because of computer problems I have not spent much time on wikipedia lately, so quite a few of these are related to the book I’m reading at the moment – but I lost a post to stupidity (what I had written was not publishable, nor could it be turned into something that was) and I thought I should at least post something, as I’m leaving town tomorrow (it’s my birthday in a few days’ time) and don’t know at this point if I’ll have time and opportunity to post anything for the next few days.

i. Insect morphology.

Some of the images in that article (‘examples of mandibles’) would probably have given me nightmares if I’d been shown them at an early age. It’s a pretty neat article.

ii. Uniformitarianism.

“Uniformitarianism is the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now, have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe. It has included the gradualistic concept that “the present is the key to the past” and is functioning at the same rates. Uniformitarianism has been a key principle of geology and virtually all fields of science, but naturalism’s modern geologists, while accepting that geology has occurred across deep time, no longer hold to a strict gradualism.”

iii. Oceanic trench.

“The oceanic trenches are hemispheric-scale long but narrow topographic depressions of the sea floor. They are also the deepest parts of the ocean floor.

Trenches are found at the boundary between two lithospheric plates. There are three types of lithospheric plate boundaries: divergent (where lithosphere and oceanic crust is created at mid-ocean ridges), convergent (where one lithospheric plate sinks beneath another and returns to the mantle), and transform (where two lithospheric plates slide past each other).”

iv. White stork (featured).

“The White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) is a large bird in the stork family Ciconiidae. Its plumage is mainly white, with black on its wings. Adults have long red legs and long pointed red beaks, and measure on average 100–115 cm (39–45 in) from beak tip to end of tail, with a 155–215 cm (61–85 in) wingspan. The two subspecies, which differ slightly in size, breed in Europe (north to Finland), northwestern Africa, southwestern Asia (east to southern Kazakhstan), and southern Africa. The White Stork is a long-distance migrant, wintering in Africa from tropical Sub-Saharan Africa to as far south as South Africa, or on the Indian subcontinent. When migrating between Europe and Africa, it avoids crossing the Mediterranean Sea and detours via the Levant in the east or the Strait of Gibraltar in the west, because the air thermals on which it depends do not form over water.

A carnivore, the White Stork eats a wide range of animal prey, including insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and small birds. It takes most of its food from the ground, among low vegetation, and from shallow water. It is a monogamous breeder, but does not pair for life. Both members of the pair build a large stick nest, which may be used for several years. Each year the female can lay one clutch of usually four eggs, which hatch asynchronously 33–34 days after being laid. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and both feed the young. The young leave the nest 58–64 days after hatching, and continue to be fed by the parents for a further 7–20 days.”

v. Weathering.

“Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soils and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, biota and waters. Weathering occurs in situ, or “with no movement”, and thus should not be confused with erosion, which involves the movement of rocks and minerals by agents such as water, ice, snow, wind and gravity.

Two important classifications of weathering processes exist – physical and chemical weathering. Mechanical or physical weathering involves the breakdown of rocks and soils through direct contact with atmospheric conditions, such as heat, water, ice and pressure. The second classification, chemical weathering, involves the direct effect of atmospheric chemicals or biologically produced chemicals (also known as biological weathering) in the breakdown of rocks, soils and minerals.[1]

The materials left over after the rock breaks down combined with organic material creates soil. The mineral content of the soil is determined by the parent material, thus a soil derived from a single rock type can often be deficient in one or more minerals for good fertility, while a soil weathered from a mix of rock types (as in glacial, aeolian or alluvial sediments) often makes more fertile soil. In addition many of Earth’s landforms and landscapes are the result of weathering processes combined with erosion and re-deposition.”

vi. Soil.

Soil is a natural body that consists of layers (soil horizons), composed primarily of minerals that differ from their parent materials in their texture, structure, consistency, color, chemical, biological and other physical characteristics.[1] The result, soil, is the end product of the influence of the climate (temperature, precipitation), relief (slope), organisms (flora and fauna), parent materials (original minerals), temperature, and time. In engineering, soil is referred to as regolith, or loose rock material. Strictly speaking, soil is the depth of regolith that influences and has been influenced by plant roots and may range in depth from centimeters to many meters.

Soil is composed of particles of broken rock (parent materials) that have been altered by chemical and mechanical processes that include weathering (disintegration) with associated erosion (movement). Soil is altered from its parent material by the interactions between the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.[2] It is a mixture of mineral and organic materials that are in the form of solids, gasses and liquids.[3][4] Soil is commonly referred to as “earth” or “dirt“; technically, the term “dirt” should be restricted to displaced soil.[5]

Soil forms a structure filled with pore spaces and can be thought of as a mixture of solids, water, and air (gas).[6] Accordingly, soils are often treated as a three-state system.[7] Most soils have a density between 1 and 2 g/cm³.[8] Little of the soil of planet Earth is older than the Tertiary and none is older than the Pleistocene.[9]” (the article has a lot more)

vii. Troxler’s fading

Troxler’s fading or Troxler’s effect is a phenomenon of visual perception. When one fixates a particular point, after about 20 seconds or so, a stimulus away from the fixation point, in peripheral vision, will fade away and disappear. The effect is enhanced if the stimulus is small, is of low contrast or equiluminant, or is blurred. The effect is enhanced the further the stimulus is away from the fixation point.” (there’s a neat example in the article which you shouldn’t miss).

viii. Kuiper belt (featured).

July 30, 2012 Posted by | astronomy, biology, Geology, wikipedia | 4 Comments

In defence of textbooks

After completing THP I felt for a bit of time that I had to write some sort of ‘and this is what you should know from that book…’-post. In the end I decided against writing such a ‘big, all-encompassing post’ and this post was where I ended up instead. Part of the reason was that I didn’t really think it was necessary to write much more about the the book; I’ve already covered it in some detail and I know that I have already written quite a few posts about it already. In one of them I ‘even’ did more than just quote or link to other stuff. The many posts reflect how much work you need to put into a book like this.

If you want to really learn something, you need to put in some hours and some work. Mind you, the ‘work’ you put in should be (very) different from what I’d term ‘ordinary work’ – work you only do because you’re paid for it. Accumulating knowledge should be fun, or at least enjoyable, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong. And if you really want to learn something about something, you need a strong foundation and you need to be able to connect the dots, rather than have to remember unconnected bits of information. You need to read the right books.

I’d argue that often these books are textbooks. Because that’s exactly what most textbooks are trying to do; teach you the basics of whatever it is the book is about and help you connect the dots. I have shifted away from ‘standard publications’ over the last year or so, so that I now read almost exclusively university press publications and/or textbooks (aside from the occasional novel). I’ve done this because I’ve found that they make for much better reading and for much better learning. This is true not only when comparing them to ‘standard publications’ but also, arguably, when comparing them to many alternative online sources.

Textbooks will vary widely when it comes to how much a reader is expected to know beforehand, and if you pick the wrong (too advanced) textbook many of the advantages they have go out the window, because you’ll once again have to struggle to remember unconnected bits of information as you don’t have the foundation you need to understand the material. But there are a lot of introductionary textbooks out there and there’s no shame in reading an introductionary textbook about a subject you know very little about – indeed, this seems by far to be the most sensible approach. I knew a bit about anthropology and archaeology before I started reading THP (e.g. I’d read Clark), but I probably would have done just fine if I hadn’t – it’s very accessible. I’ve gotten reasonably well away with reading textbooks about human microbiology and genetics, though I haven’t read either of them from cover to cover like I did THP. Currently I’m, as mentioned on the twittter, reading a geology textbook, Earth, which is an introductionary textbook as well and will cause me no kinds of ‘this is too hard’-problems. The point being: Just because a book is a university publication/textbook about subject X, that doesn’t mean that you need to attend lectures about X at a university – or anything remotely like that – to read the book and gain a lot of insights from it.

Part of what is cool about reading textbooks about many different subjects is that you get a greater appreciation of the various ways people can/tend to think about the world. An economist might think about human behaviour in terms of the impacts of institutions or perhaps in some instances he’ll observe behaviour through a game theoretic lense. He may be more cautious about drawing conclusions about causal inferences than are people less skilled in statistics. An archaeologist on the other hand will probably see the world in a completely different way; his focus will be more based on how the world looked like in the past and how the past is different from the present, which ideas we as a species have gotten over time and how and when we got them, how those ideas impacted human societies, how different various human cultures are and why that is. A geologist will not see a rock, he will see a glaucophane schist. He will have a much greater knowledge about ‘how the Earth works’ – he’ll know a lot of stuff about processes like weathering and erosion, mineralogy, seismology, volcanism, etc. – and the way he appreciates and interacts with the world will be impacted by his knowledge. An important part of why people with different educational backgrounds have different ways of perceiving the world is because very often different angles are required to appreciate different aspects of the human existence and the world around us. What you know impacts your Weltanschauung, so knowing more about X doesn’t just teach you about X – it will always also teach you something about the people who know stuff about X. But even if it didn’t; when you read a textbook and you suddenly start appreciating things you didn’t even think about before, or become able to see connections between phenomena you had no clue were connected before – well, that’s an awesome feeling.

Textbooks vary in quality, yes, but so do all other books and generally the quality is high. Textbooks are expensive, but in terms of price/hour spent reading, they’re some of the cheapest books available.

As I mentioned above: “Accumulating knowledge should be fun, or at least enjoyable, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong.” So if you truly don’t like textbooks, don’t read textbooks. But at least give that type of reading a chance before you reject it – reading textbooks can be an enjoyable experience. And if you make reading these sorts of books a habit, the human mind is set up in this convenient way that reading them will become more enjoyable over time than it was in the beginning.

July 28, 2012 Posted by | books, random stuff | 5 Comments


i. “Example is always more efficacious than precept.” (Samuel Johnson)

ii. “Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” (-ll-)

iii. “Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.” (-ll-)

iv. “It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.” (-ll-. Modern medicine has arguably made this quote less true today than it was.)

v. “Always, Sir, set a high value on spontaneous kindness. He whose inclination prompts him to cultivate your friendship of his own accord, will love you more than one whom you have been at pains to attach to you.” (-ll-)

vi. “As I know more of mankind, I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.” (-ll-)

vii. “Cations that have similar coordination numbers and similar ionic radii tend to substitute for each other and make mixed compounds that we call solid solutions, which are analogous in every way to common liquid solutions. Natural olivines are solid solutions of variable amounts of iron and magnesium silicates. The pure magnesium olivine is Mg2SiO4, forsterite; the pure iron olivine is Fe2SiO4, fayalite.” (from Earth, p.64. I primarily included this quote here as a sort of very brief explanation for why I probably will not quote very much from this book. I’ve read the first 4 chapters (100 pages) so far.)

viii. “I am skeptical when someone says that a biological genetic grouping corroborates a historical linguistic grouping or vice versa for a simple reason: genetic material and language are transmitted by different mechanisms (I’ll skip my usual joke about this), so in principle a one-to-one correspondence should be surprising.” (Bruce Mannheim, via Razib Khan)

ix. “That virtue which requires to be ever guarded is scarce worth the sentinel.” (Oliver Goldsmith)

x. “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” (Otto von Bismarck)

xi. “The happier the time, the quicker it passes.” (Pliny the Younger – the original quote in Latin: “Tanto brevius omne, quanto felicius tempus”)

xii. “With books, as with companions, it is of more consequence to know which to avoid, than which to choose; for good books are as scarce as good companions.” (Charles Caleb Colton)

xiii. “Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason; they made no such demand upon those who wrote them.” (-ll-)

xiv. “Hunger is sharper than the sword.” (Beaumont and Fletcher)

xv. “The inevitableness, the idealism, and the blessing of war, as an indispensable and stimulating law of development, must be repeatedly emphasized. […] it is not only a biological law but a moral obligation and, as such, an indispensable factor in civilization.” (Friedrich von Bernhardi, Germany and the next War (1911))

xvi. “By the laws of England, by the laws of Christianity, and by the constitution of society, when there is a difference of opinion between husband and wife, it is the duty of the wife to submit to the husband.” (wikiquote provides the following source for the quote: Molina, V.-C., In re Agar-Ellis; Agar-Ellis v. Lascelles (1878), L. R. 10 C. D. 55.)

xvii. “No woman marries for money: they are all clever enough, before marrying a millionaire, to fall in love with him.” (Cesare Pavese)

xviii. “All sins have their origin in a sense of inferiority, otherwise called ambition.” (-ll-)

xix. “Idleness makes hours pass slowly and years swiftly. Activity makes the hours short and the years long.”

July 26, 2012 Posted by | books, quotes | Leave a comment

‘Mezoamerican civilization’ and ‘From village to empire in South America’

“…the really significant development in the evolution of any civilization is the increase of societal size and internal heterogeneity, that is, the emergence of class and occupational divisions; and this is a process, not an invention to be diffused from place to place” (Sanders 1972, 152)”

The title of the post is a combination of the titles of chapters 16 and 17 in THP, and the quote above is from the first page of chapter 16 (no, it doesn’t mean that e.g. technological diffusion doesn’t matter – the importance of diffusion was underlined immediately before this quote in the text, and I omitted one word from the quote, the word ‘But’ which was right in front of it). Anyway, I’ve almost finished the book now (one chapter to go), and so this may be my last post about the book – unless I can’t find anything else to write about in the next days, in which case I’ll probably add a post about ‘Complex Societies in North America’ or some other similarly silly subject. I read Métraux a while back so not all of the stuff covered in chapter 17 was new to me – but a lot of it was. Even so, it’s nice to have some context – it makes it easier to remember stuff and to arrange things in the right order. It’s hard to get the big picture from wikipedia articles like the ones below alone, but they’re also rather meant to just spark interest; there’s a huge amount of interesting stuff covered in the book, and if you wanted to I’m sure you could spend years reading about all these things (without even paying much for it, unlike a lot of the people who choose to do just that at universities around the world).

Some articles about stuff covered to some degree in the two chapters:

i. Mesoamerican chronology (also have links to many of the articles below).
ii. Teotihuacan. (this doesn’t have a ‘good article’ rank, but it is a good article)
iii. Olmec.
iv. Lost-wax casting.
v. Maya civilization.
vi. Tikal (‘good article’).
vii. Aztec.
viii. Human sacrifice in Aztec culture.

And from the chapter about South America:
ix. Cultural periods of Peru (not good, but the tables are better than nothing. Only the later preceramic periods are covered in this chapter; a previous chapter dealt with the earlier periods mentioned. The article contains links to some of the articles below).
x. Tiwanaku.
xi. Moche.
xii. Nazca Lines.
xiii. Sican (/Lambayeque) culture.
xiv. Chan Chan.
xv. Inca empire.
xvi. Swidden agriculture.
xvii. Terra preta.

July 24, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history | Leave a comment

Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia

The post title is the title of chapter 15 in The Human Past. I read it a while ago but I figured I might as well write a post about it. Well, when I say ‘write a post about it’, I mean…

Some links that deal with stuff covered in that chapter:

Chinese characters.
Oracle bone.
Longshan culture.
Shi Ji.
Lower Xiajiadian culture.
Xia Dynasty.
Shang Dynasty.
(Early history of) Zhengzhou.
Changjiang culture.
Zhou Dynasty.
Spring and Autumn period.
Chinese bronze age.
Liangzhu Culture.
Great Wall of China.
The three Kingdoms of Korea.
Yamato period.
The Silk Road.
The Dvaravati.
Art of Champa.

July 20, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history | Leave a comment

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

The quote is printed in the book, on the page which comes before the first page of the first chapter. According to Wikiquote, this quote was the source for the title of the book.

The book feels reasonably long, not just because of the page count (490 pages in this edition) but also because of the way it’s structured. Considering that it’s a book about stuff taking place during a civil war, some people might be surprised at how relatively little actually ‘happens’ – though it’s hard to have it differently, considering that the main story spans only a few days. Much of the ‘action’ described in the book is stuff that happened to the people involved at some point in the past. It’s probably part of what makes the book good; people engaged in warfare one way or the other spend a lot of time waiting, and that waiting is an important part of this life. I did find in particular some of the Roberto/Maria sequences tiresome to read though. One thing worth noting here also is that I really didn’t like most of the people portrayed in the book. I’m not sure you’re supposed to, but to the extent that you are Hemingway missed his mark.

I read it in a couple of days and I didn’t read anything else while I was reading it, so it never got boring enough for me to ‘put it away for a while’. Some parts of the book is really great, some parts are not, and some of the great parts are hard to quote. I’ll only quote from the relatively good/great parts below, not the others, and I’ve left some of the best stuff out deliberately in part because some of it is just very hard to quote without including a lot of stuff to provide context:

“He would not think about that. That was not his business. That was Golz’s business. He had only one thing to do and that was what he should think about and he must think it out clearly and take everything as it came along, and not worry. To worry was as bad as to be afraid. It simply made things more difficult.”

“‘And this foreigner with the rare name, how did he die?’
‘He was captured and he killed himself.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘He was wounded and he did not wish to be a prisoner.’
‘What were the details?’
‘I don’t know,’ he lied. He knew the details very well and he knew they would not make good talking now.”

“He was violating the second rule of the two rules for getting on well with people that speak Spanish; give the men tobacco and leave the women alone; and he realized, very suddenly, that he did not care.”

“‘You do not like to hunt?’
‘No,’ said Robert Jordan. ‘I do not like to kill animals.’
‘With me it is the opposite,’ the old man said. ‘I do not like to kill men.’
‘Nobody does except those who are disturbed in the head,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘But I feel nothing against it when it is necessary. When it is for the cause.'”

“I was born ugly. All my life I have been ugly. You, Inglés, who know nothing about women. Do you know how an ugly woman feels? Do you know what it is to be ugly all your life and inside to feel that you are beautiful? […] Look at that ugliness. Yet one has a feeling within one that blinds a man while he loves you. You, with that feeling, blind him, and blind yourself. Then one day, for no reason, he sees you ugly as you really are and he is not blind any more and then you see yourself as ugly as he sees you and you lose your man and your feeling. […] ‘After a while, when you are as ugly as I am, as ugly as women can be, then, as I say, after a while the feeling, the idiotic feeling that you are beautiful, grows slowly in one again. It grows like a cabbage. And then, when the feeling is grown, another man sees you and thinks you are beautiful and it is all to do over. Now I think I am past it, but it still might come.”

“‘”What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.
‘”Shoot thee,” Pablo said.
‘”When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.
‘”Now,” said Pablo.
‘”Where?” asked the man.
‘”Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. […]
‘”Kneel, I say,” Pablo said. “Get down and kneel.”
‘”How does it seem to you, Paco?” one civil said to the tallest, who had spoken with Pablo about the pistol. He wore a corporal’s stripes on his sleeves and was sweating very much although the early morning was still cool.
‘”It is as well to kneel,” he answered. “It is of no importance.”
‘”It is closer to the earth,” the first one who had spoken said, trying to make a joke, but they were all too grave for a joke and no one smiled.
‘”Then let us kneel,” the first civil said, and the four knelt, looking very awkward with their heads against the wall and their hands by their sides, and Pablo passed behind them and shot each in turn in the back of the head with the pistol, going from one to another and putting the barrel of the pistol against the back of their heads, each man slipping down as he fired. I can hear the pistol still, sharp and yet muffled, and see the barrel jerk and the head of the man drop forward. One held his head still when the pistol touched it. One pushed his head forward and pressed his forehead against the stone. One shivered in his whole body and his head was shaking. Only one put his hands in front of his eyes, and he was the last one, and the four bodies were slumped against the wall when Pablo turned away from them and came toward us with the pistol still in his hand. […] ‘”Now let us go and get coffee,” I said.
‘”Good, Pilar, good,” he said. And we went up into the town to the Plaza, and those were the last people who were shot in the village.’
‘What happened to the others?’ Robert Jordan asked. ‘Were there no other fascists in the village?’
Qué va, were there no other fascists? There were more than twenty. But none was shot.’
‘What was done?’
‘Pablo had them beaten to death with flails and thrown from the top of the cliff into the river.'” [actually it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but don’t worry – she gives a very detailed account of what happened in the book. I won’t quote from that, but that part is very well written and it makes the execution scene quoted above look like a walk in the park in comparison.]

“‘That’s my town,’ Joaquín said. ‘What a fine town but how the buena gente, the good people of that town, have suffered in this way.’ Then, his face grave, ‘There they shot my father. My mother. My brother-in-law and now my sister.’
‘What barbarians,’ Robert Jordan said.
How many times had he heard this? How many times had he watched people say it with difficulty? How many times had he seen their eyes fill and their throats harden with the difficulty of saying my father, or my brother, or my mother, or my sister? He could not remember how many times he had heard them mention their dead in this way. Nearly always they spoke as this boy did now; suddenly and apropos of the mention of the town and always you said, ‘What barbarians.’
You only heard the statement of the loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream. You knew the father died in some courtyard, or against some wall, or in some field or orchard, or at night, in the lights of a truck, beside some road. You had seen the lights of the car from the hills and heard the shooting and afterwards you had come down to the road and found the bodies. You did not see the mother shot, nor the sister, nor the brother. You heard about it; you heard the shots; and you saw the bodies. Pilar had made him see it in that town. […]

Because of our mobility and because we did not have to stay afterwards to take the punishment we never knew how anything really ended, he thought. You stayed with a peasant and his family. You came at night and ate with them. In the day you were hidden and the next night you were gone. You did your job and cleared out. The next time you came that way you heard that they had been shot. It was as simple as that.
But you were always gone when it happened. The partizans did their damage and pulled out. The peasants stayed and took the punishment. I’ve always known about the other, he thought. What we did to them at the start. I’ve always known it and hated it and I have heard it mentioned shamelessly and shamefully, bragged of, boasted of, defended, explained and denied. But that damned woman made me see it as though I had been there.”

“At either of those places you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. […] It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. […] It had seemed just and right and necessary that the men who ran were shot. There was nothing wrong about it. Their running was selfishness.”

“He is a Christian. Something very rare in Catholic countries.”

“wouldn’t it be a luxury to fight in a war some time where, when you are surrounded, you could surrender? Estamos copados. We are surrounded. That was the great panic cry of this war. The next thing was that you were shot; with nothing bad before if you were lucky.”

“My [Maria’s] father was the Mayor of the village and an honorable man. My mother was an honorable woman and a good Catholic and they shot her with my father because of the politics of my father who was a Republican. I saw both of them shot and my father said, “Viva la República,” when they shot him standing against a wall of the slaughterhouse of our village.
‘My mother standing against the same wall said, “Viva my husband who was the Mayor of this village,” and I hoped they would shoot me too and I was going to say “Viva la República y vivan mis padres,” but instead there was no shooting but instead the doing of things. […]
I will not talk of that which is bad.”

“He sat there, his moustache and his eyes focused on the map, on the map that he never truly understood, on the brown tracing of the contours that were traced fine and concentric as a spider’s web. He could see the heights and the valleys from the contours but he never really understood why it should be this height and why this valley was the one. But at the General Staff where, because of the system of Political Commissars, he could intervene as the political head of the Brigades, he would put his finger on such and such a numbered, brown-thin-lined encircled spot among the greens of woods cut by the lines of road that parallel the never casual winding of a river and say, ‘There. This is the point of weakness.’
Gall and Copic, who were men of politics and of ambition, would agree and later, men who never saw the map, but heard the number of the hill before they left their starting place and had the earth of diggings on it pointed out, would climb its side to find their death along its slope or, being halted by machine guns placed in olive groves would never get up it at all. Or on other fronts they might scale it easily and be no better off than they had been before. But when Marty put his finger on the map in Golz’s staff the scar-headed, white-faced General’s jaw muscles would tighten and he would think, ‘I should shoot you, André Marty, before I let you put that gray rotten finger on a contour map of mine. Damn you to hell for all the men you’ve killed by interfering in matters you know nothing of. […]
But instead of saying that Golz would only lean back away from the leaning bulk, the pushing finger, the watery gray eyes, the gray-white moustache and the bad breath and say, ‘Yes, Comrade Marty. I see your point. It is not well taken, however, and I do not agree. You can make it a Party matter as you say. But I do not agree.'”

July 19, 2012 Posted by | books | 3 Comments


I’ve been postponing writing a post like this about the book for ages. I didn’t really know how best to approach it. In the end I decided that I had to at least post something, and the stuff below’s where I ended up:

I guess the first thing to note is that the book is not just about ‘the fall of Rome’, even though I’ve frequently mentioned the book in that context here on the blog. Mostly it’s a book about migration patterns. The place is Europe, the time-frame covered is from the last part of the (western) Roman Empire up to the end of the first millenium. The (very) short version of the first 2-300 (?) pages is this:

(it’s the very short version!)

Keyword: Völkerwanderung (Danish: folkevandring). Before going any further, do read Razib Khan’s review of the book here (the image is from that post).

After Heather is finished talking about the migration patterns of Germanic ‘peoples’ (it’s necessary to add the ‘…’ He spends quite a bit of time talking about what the migration units most likely looked like, but I’ll not spend time on that here); Goths, Vandals, Franks etc. – I’d never even heard about half of the groups he mentions in the first part of the book – he talks about Slavic migration patterns, and after that he also spends quite a bit of time on the behaviour of the Vikings. I really liked part of the last bit of the book, the part about the early state formations in Central Europe (and beyond) and how these, according to him, were linked to immigration and development. I don’t know if Heather has read Mancur Olson, but he certainly reads as if he has and this most certainly does not make me like the book any less. As mentioned Heather’s treatment stops around the end of the millenium, though he does talk a little about later medieval migration patterns and -developments. Technically, the way I started out the paragraph could give you the wrong idea about how the book is structured so I should clarify. Heather rarely completely stops talking about group X or Y after he’s moved on to group Z, rather he always keeps coming back to stuff he’s previously covered, comparing the patterns observed; making arguments for why and how the experiences of groups X and Y were similar, which motivational factors the groups shared or didn’t share, or perhaps how the consequences of the different (?) migration strategies compared to each other. Sometimes it becomes a little repetitive, but he’s very thorough, and I liked that aspect because it also made it easier to remember the differences between Lombards, Sueves, Heruli and Sarmatians, to name but a few of the groups in question.

As I was reading the book, one thought that frequently crossed my mind was: ‘you have to start somewhere.’ The truth is that I know nothing about most of the stuff covered in the book – how much do you know about the migration patterns of Early Medieval Europe? – and I’ve only read one book now, so I still don’t know much. There’s a little overlap with other stuff I’ve read, but not much – The Classical World stops at Hadrian, and that’s a long time before the Goths really started taking to the road. Heather was a place to start, and I don’t think it’s a bad place to start. But it’s hard to evaluate the accuracy of an account when you don’t know which sources the author has excluded and basically don’t really know anything about the subject matter – you need to take some stuff on faith, and that’s harder to do when the evidence is sparse. And the evidence you need to rely upon when covering stuff during this period of European history is, it turns out, not what most historians would call optimal – as Heather puts it himself:

“The archaeological reflections of many first-millenium migratory processes […] will often be straightforwardly ambiguous in the sense that you could not be absolutely certain, just on the basis of archaeology alone, that migration had occurred.”

And often, archaeological evidence is almost all you have, even though we’re dealing with stuff taking place little more than 1000 years ago. I did not know that so few historical sources exist, but that’s apparently the way it is. Sometimes the most detailed piece of evidence that you have available for analysis is a description written by the worst enemies of the group you’re interested in knowing more about; a description written by someone who most likely was never neither within 500 kilometres nor within 100 years of any of the people whom he described. Most parts of Slavic Europe was basically prehistoric until some time after the end of the first millenium, something I most certainly didn’t know.

Heather’s account is compelling, though some parts of it I find more compelling than others; like Razib I feel a bit uncertain about the proposed link between the proportion of females within the migratory unit and long-run language transmission, but then again linguistics is yet another subject I know next to nothing about so that link may be eminently plausible to people more well-versed in such matters. I also find it a bit hard to see why the link between pottery types and language should be as strong as he would like to make it, making some of the conclusions he draws less certain than he’ll have them be. I consider this to be more of a minor point though, because it’s not obvious to me either why language similarities should necessarily carry more weight than should similarities in material culture when thinking about how to model and stratify populations of the past optimally; it depends on what you want to achieve with your model. Stated another way, I don’t see why it’s all that important which languages the people implementing the Korchak material culture spoke; the cultural diffusion was significant whether the people involved were at that point Germanic speaking or Slavs. Heather includes a few genetic data in his treatment of the western Viking diasporas, but he doesn’t even mention DNA evidence when dealing with the Slavs, which I find problematic (full disclosure: The comment #3 at Razib’s post linked to above was close to making me not buy the book). You get the feeling that Heather has set out to tell a Grand Narrative, and a natural inference to make then is that this means that he’s probably also subconsciously weighing the evidence in a manner that makes his Grand Narrative more likely to be true and, vice versa, competing models less likely to be true. But people who’ll be complaining for many years to come about what he’s supposedly written in his great work will likely get a lot of things wrong, because the argument he’s trying to make is in fact not as strong as you’d probably think from just reading about it – as he puts it himself in his last concluding chapter:

“migration should generally be given only a secondary position behind social, economic, and political transformation when explaining how it was that barbarian Europe evolved into non-existence in the course of the millenium.”

Heather is not the ‘migration is everything’-strawman that will likely be knocked down many times in the years to come, he’s not denying that a lot of other factors were likely even more important than migration – he states this fact explicitly in his book! But his book also just happens to be about migration, because he thinks immigration was important too. And to someone who does not know a lot about the subject matter, he makes a strong case for that general point. Though people who know more about the period may find his arguments less convincing than I did.

The book is well written and even though I’d have liked to read more about e.g. the material culture of the various migration units, the book is probably long enough as it is (618 pages + 76 pages of maps and notes). If you want to know more about ‘why people migrate today, in the year 2012’ this may not be the best book to get (on the other hand you could also do a lot worse), but it does contain a rather neat description of the (‘a?’) theoretical framework of modern migration studies as well as several examples of how to apply the framework in question. I’ll quote a few key passages related to this point from the last part of the book below:

“Comparative studies provide two basic points of orientation when thinking about the likely causes of any observable migration flow. First, it is overwhelmingly likely that a substantial difference in levels of economic development between adjacent areas will generate a flow between the two, from the less-developed towards its richer neighbour. […] The second point is equally basic. In the vast majority of cases, the precise motivation of any individual migrant will be a complex mixture of free-will and constraint, of economic and political motives. […] Taken together, what both of these observations stress above all is that migration will almost always need to be understood against prevailing patterns of economic and political development. […] Understood properly, and this is the central message screaming out from the comparative literature, migration is not a separate and competing form of explanation to social and economic transformation, but the complementary other side of the same coin. Patterns of migration are dictated by prevailing economic and political conditions, and another dimension in fact of their evolution; they both reflects existing inequalities, and sometimes even help to equalize them, and it is only when viewed from this perspective that the real significance of migratory phenomena can begin to emerge.”

I included this quote also to point out just how wrong-headed it can be to look at immigration as an isolated phenomenon that you can just analyze separately from other important societal phenomena. This is part of why immigration is important, and it’s a point Heather repeats again and again – the fact that this variable interacts with and is dependent upon so many other important variables of interest, and that development and immigration patterns in particular are very closely connected. A lot of people implicitly know this to be true, but many people also don’t know that they know this (or don’t know that they know that they know it…).

This is the part I haven’t said yet, but this is probably all you really need to know: I recommend the book. It has a lot of good stuff and you’ll learn a lot from it even though you have little to no background knowledge.


Razib just posted this, which is highly relevant. I’ll have a look at the paper.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, archaeology, books, history, immigration | 3 Comments

Promoting the unknown, a continuing series

I recently ‘discovered’ John Field:

July 15, 2012 Posted by | music | Leave a comment

Cancer statistics, 2011

“Each year, the American Cancer Society estimates the numbers of new cancer cases and deaths expected in the United States in the current year and compiles the most recent data on cancer incidence, mortality, and survival based on incidence data from the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries and mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics. A total of 1,596,670 new cancer cases and 571,950 deaths from cancer are projected to occur in the United States in 2011. Overall cancer incidence rates were stable in men in the most recent time period after decreasing by 1.9% per year from 2001 to 2005; in women, incidence rates have been declining by 0.6% annually since 1998. Overall cancer death rates decreased in all racial/ethnic groups in both men and women from 1998 through 2007, with the exception of American Indian/Alaska Native women, in whom rates were stable. African American and Hispanic men showed the largest annual decreases in cancer death rates during this time period (2.6% and 2.5%, respectively). Lung cancer death rates showed a significant decline in women after continuously increasing since the 1930s. The reduction in the overall cancer death rates since 1990 in men and 1991 in women translates to the avoidance of about 898,000 deaths from cancer. However, this progress has not benefitted all segments of the population equally; cancer death rates for individuals with the least education are more than twice those of the most educated.”

Link to the publication. Some more data (click to view full size):

Sex differences matter a lot for some types of cancers and the differences between the genders are quite significant. Breast cancer cases make up ~30% of all new cancer cases for women and prostate cancer cases make up a similar proportion  of new male cases. Note that it makes a lot of sense to report the ‘new cases’-metric rather than the ‘total people afflicted’ if you want to know about the risk of getting the disease; some types of cancers are much more aggressive than others and death rates vary a lot, and so if you looked at a metric like ‘people afflicted’, relatively harmless cancers (e.g. (some types of) prostate cancer) would in some sense be ‘overrepresented’. As the report puts it, “the lifetime probability of being diagnosed with an invasive cancer is higher for men (44%) than women (38%) […] However, because of the earlier median age of diagnosis for breast cancer compared with other major cancers, women have a slightly higher probability of developing cancer before age 60 years.”

Looking just at the death rate, there’s some variation here; spanning from Utah’s very low death rate of just 135.7 (most likely caused by environmental factors – smoking and drinking in particular) to Kentucky’s 216.5 – the report mentions specifically later on that “lung cancer shows by far the largest geographic variation in cancer occurrence”, which I do not find surprising. Even though the two states mentioned have very different death rates, far most states are in the 170+ range so most inter-state differences aren’t that large especially considering how many different factors impact a variable like this.

When looking at the next table remember to look at the actual percentages as the proportions given are only very rough measures. I think it’s interesting that they included the latter, but it’s probably not a bad idea; to a lot of math-challenged individuals such a fraction may convey significantly more information than do the percentage estimates, and the seemingly much greater degree of ‘precision’ of the probability estimates should not make us forget that these are in fact just that, estimates:

Again, recall that these are averages and averaging can hide important variation in the data. For example, the 6-7% lifetime risk of lung- and bronchial cancers is an measure which both includes heavy smokers and non-smokers. A smoker should rationally assume his risk to be significantly higher than that, and a non-smoker would on the other hand probably get a more accurate risk assessment if he assumes that his/her risk of getting that type of cancer is quite a bit lower than the full-sample estimate.

“Cancer replaced heart disease as the leading cause of death among men and women aged younger than 85 years in 1999 (Fig. 6). The overall cancer death rate decreased by 1.9% per year from 2001 through 2007 in males and by 1.5% in females from 2002 through 2007, compared with smaller declines of 1.5% per year in males from 1993 through 2001 and 0.8% per year in females from 1994 through 2002 (Table 5). Notably, the lung cancer mortality rate in women has begun to decline for the first time in recorded history and more than a decade later than the decline began in men.”

There’s more at the link.

July 14, 2012 Posted by | cancer, data, health, medicine | Leave a comment


i. “Hope is a waking dream.” (Aristotle)

ii. “Nobody talks much that doesn’t say unwise things, — things he did not mean to say; as no person plays much without striking a false note sometimes.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

iii. “Why can’t somebody give us a list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says, and another list of things that everybody says and nobody thinks?”

iv. “Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our fathers have done them or our neighbors do them, and the same is true of a larger part than what we suspect of what we think.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)

v.  “I have neither a building nor a vase nor a costly robe nor a high-priced slave or slave-girl. If there is something I have to use, I use it. If there is not, I do without. […] They blame me because I do without so many things. But I blame them because they are unable to do without.” (Cato the Censor. The quote is from The Classical World, p.333).

vi. “We go and fancy that everybody is thinking of us. But he is not: he is like us; he is thinking of himself.” (Charles Reade)

vii. “The fortunate man is he who, born poor, or nobody, works gradually up to wealth and consideration, and, having got them, dies before he finds they were not worth so much trouble.” (-ll-)

viii. ” There are few things in which we deceive ourselves more than in the esteem we profess to entertain for our friends. It is little better than a piece of quackery. The truth is, we think of them as we please — that is as they please or displease us.” (William Hazlitt)

ix. “Every man, in his own opinion, forms an exception to the ordinary rules of morality.” (-ll-)

x. “We are very much what others think of us. The reception our observations meet with gives us courage to proceed, or damps our efforts.” (-ll-)

xi. “I like a friend the better for having faults that one can talk about.” (-ll-)

xii. “Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life.” (-ll-)

xiii. “We are never deceived; we deceive ourselves.” (Goethe)

xiv. ” He who praises everybody praises nobody.” (Samuel Johnson)

xv. “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.” (-ll-)

xvi. “He that would pass the latter part of life with honour and decency, must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old; and remember, when he is old, that he has once been young.” (-ll-)

xvii. “In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.” (-ll-)

xviii. “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” (-ll-)

xix. “the excellence of aphorisms consists not so much in the expression of some rare or abstruse sentiment, as in the comprehension of some obvious and useful truth in few words. ” (-ll-)

xx. “He that talkes much of his happinesse summons griefe.” (George Herbert)

xxi. “None knows the weight of another’s burthen.” (-ll-)

xxii. “Life is halfe spent before we know what it is.” (-ll-)

xxiii. “The love of money and the love of learning rarely meet.” (-ll-)

July 13, 2012 Posted by | quotes | Leave a comment

How to disagree

Yet another one of Paul Graham’s essays – read it here. As usual, it’s full of good stuff:

“What does it mean to disagree well? Most readers can tell the difference between mere name-calling and a carefully reasoned refutation, but I think it would help to put names on the intermediate stages. So here’s an attempt at a disagreement hierarchy:

DH0. Name-calling. […]

DH1. Ad Hominem. […]

DH2. Responding to Tone […]

DH3. Contradiction […]

DH4. Counterargument. […]

At level 4 we reach the first form of convincing disagreement: counterargument. Forms up to this point can usually be ignored as proving nothing. Counterargument might prove something. The problem is, it’s hard to say exactly what.

Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence. When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But unfortunately it’s common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things. Sometimes they even agree with one another, but are so caught up in their squabble they don’t realize it.[…]

DH5. Refutation.

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.

To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a “smoking gun,” a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken. If you can’t find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.

While refutation generally entails quoting, quoting doesn’t necessarily imply refutation. Some writers quote parts of things they disagree with to give the appearance of legitimate refutation, then follow with a response as low as DH3 or even DH0

DH6. Refuting the Central Point.

The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point.

Even as high as DH5 we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone’s grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one’s opponent.

Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:

               The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says:


               But this is wrong for the following reasons…

The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author’s main point. It’s enough to refute something it depends upon.

What It Means

Now we have a way of classifying forms of disagreement. What good is it? One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. DH levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A DH6 response could still be completely mistaken.

But while DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional. Someone arguing against the tone of something he disagrees with may believe he’s really saying something. Zooming out and seeing his current position on the disagreement hierarchy may inspire him to try moving up to counterargument or refutation.

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.”


July 11, 2012 Posted by | disagreement | Leave a comment

Romeo and Juliet

They did what? They thought doing that would be a good idea? He figured that would be a good way to handle that situation? She is how old? For how long have they known each other again? Her behaviour was not the least bit suspicious to you people?

Some of the questions I was asking myself while reading it. The play is stock full of fools and morons.

It’s easy to read; much, much easier than King Lear. And it was quite fun to read, probably at least in part because the actions of and decisions made by most of the people involved (not just the title characters) are so completely outrageous to a (…well, ‘this’…) ‘modern mind’. If you don’t want to read it and/or don’t want to read a longish (featured) wikipedia-article about it, tvtropes has a very neat plot description and trope collection here – it’s quite easy to summarize… Arguably one could add love makes you dumb and love makes you crazy to the trope list. Regarding my ‘the play is stock full of fools and morons’-comment, this is not just my opinion – on tvtropes they put it like this: “It’s probably easier to list the characters who don’t act like idiots…”

The wikiquote article is here.

July 11, 2012 Posted by | books | Leave a comment

King Lear

“Definition of a classic — something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” (Mark Twain)

Well, I read it today. Plenty of quotes here, no need for me to repeat them here. I liked the last half better than the first half, but it was tough to get through. I started reading it a few years ago, but back then I gave up on it pretty quickly. I’m pretty sure I think All’s Well That Ends Well for me was an easier read (though it is also quite a bit shorter, which helps…).

Actually it was right there in the Wikipedia article all along, but I didn’t know this: “The first Blackadder is named after the treacherous Edmond from Shakespeare’s King Lear.” Makes sense now. Though his name is Edmund.

I plan on reading Romeo and Juliet tomorrow, mostly just to see what all the fuss is about.

July 10, 2012 Posted by | books | 6 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Shannon–Hartley theorem. Muller talked a little bit about this one in one of the lectures, I don’t remember which, but it’s probably one of the wave-lectures. His coverage is less technical than wikipedia’s. I was considering not including this link because I previously linked to wikipedia’s closely-related article about the Noisy-channel coding theorem, but I decided to do it anyway. From the article:

“In information theory, the Shannon–Hartley theorem tells the maximum rate at which information can be transmitted over a communications channel of a specified bandwidth in the presence of noise. It is an application of the noisy channel coding theorem to the archetypal case of a continuous-time analog communications channel subject to Gaussian noise. The theorem establishes Shannon’s channel capacity for such a communication link, a bound on the maximum amount of error-free digital data (that is, information) that can be transmitted with a specified bandwidth in the presence of the noise interference, assuming that the signal power is bounded, and that the Gaussian noise process is characterized by a known power or power spectral density. […]

Considering all possible multi-level and multi-phase encoding techniques, the Shannon–Hartley theorem states the channel capacity C, meaning the theoretical tightest upper bound on the information rate (excluding error correcting codes) of clean (or arbitrarily low bit error rate) data that can be sent with a given average signal power S through an analog communication channel subject to additive white Gaussian noise of power N, is:

 C =  B \log_2 \left( 1+\frac{S}{N} \right)


C is the channel capacity in bits per second;
B is the bandwidth of the channel in hertz (passband bandwidth in case of a modulated signal);
S is the average received signal power over the bandwidth (in case of a modulated signal, often denoted C, i.e. modulated carrier), measured in watts (or volts squared);
N is the average noise or interference power over the bandwidth, measured in watts (or volts squared); and
S/N is the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) or the carrier-to-noise ratio (CNR) of the communication signal to the Gaussian noise interference expressed as a linear power ratio (not as logarithmic decibels).”

ii. Expansion joint. Also covered by Muller, this is important stuff that people don’t think about:

“An expansion joint or movement joint is an assembly designed to safely absorb the heat-induced expansion and contraction of various construction materials, to absorb vibration, to hold certain parts together, or to allow movement due to ground settlement or earthquakes. They are commonly found between sections of sidewalks, bridges, railway tracks, piping systems, ships, and other structures.

Throughout the year, building faces, concrete slabs, and pipelines will expand and contract due to the warming and cooling through seasonal variation, or due to other heat sources. Before expansion joint gaps were built into these structures, they would crack under the stress induced.”

If you have any kind of construction of a significant size/length, thermal expansion will cause problems unless you try to deal with it somehow. To use expansion joints to deal with this problem is another one of those hidden ‘good ideas’ people don’t think about, because they probably weren’t even aware there was a problem to be solved.

iii. Beaufort scale.

iv. Belle Gunness. Not all serial killers are/were male:

“Personal – comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.[2]” […]

“The suitors kept coming, but none, except for Anderson, ever left the Gunness farm. By this time, she had begun ordering huge trunks to be delivered to her home. Hack driver Clyde Sturgis delivered many such trunks to her from La Porte and later remarked how the heavyset woman would lift these enormous trunks “like boxes of marshmallows”, tossing them onto her wide shoulders and carrying them into the house. She kept the shutters of her house closed day and night; farmers traveling past the dwelling at night saw her digging in the hog pen.” Guess what they found buried in the hog pen later?

v. English garden.

“The English garden, also called English landscape park (French: Jardin anglais, Italian: Giardino all’inglese, German: Englischer Landschaftsgarten, Portuguese: Jardim inglês), is a style of Landscape garden which emerged in England in the early 18th century, and spread across Europe, replacing the more formal, symmetrical Garden à la française of the 17th century as the principal gardening style of Europe.[1] The English garden presented an idealized view of nature. They were often inspired by paintings of landscapes by Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, and some were Influenced by the classic Chinese gardens of the East,[2] which had recently been described by European travelers.[2] The English garden usually included a lake, sweeps of gently rolling lawns set against groves of trees, and recreations of classical temples, Gothic ruins, bridges, and other picturesque architecture, designed to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape. By the end of the 18th century the English garden was being imitated by the French landscape garden, and as far away as St. Petersburg, Russia, in Pavlovsk, the gardens of the future Emperor Paul. It also had a major influence on the form of the public parks and gardens which appeared around the world in the 19th century.[3]

A few images from the article (click to view full size):

vi. Aquifer.

“An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, or silt) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well. The study of water flow in aquifers and the characterization of aquifers is called hydrogeology. Related terms include aquitard, which is a bed of low permeability along an aquifer,[1] and aquiclude (or aquifuge), which is a solid, impermeable area underlying or overlying an aquifer. If the impermeable area overlies the aquifer pressure could cause it to become a confined aquifer.” The article has much more.

vii. Great Tit.

“The Great Tit (Parus major) is a passerine bird in the tit family Paridae. It is a widespread and common species throughout Europe, the Middle East, Central and Northern Asia, and parts of North Africa in any sort of woodland. It is generally resident, and most Great Tits do not migrate except in extremely harsh winters. Until 2005 this species was lumped with numerous other subspecies. DNA studies have shown these other subspecies to be distinctive from the Great Tit and these have now been separated as two separate species, the Cinereous Tit of southern Asia, and the Japanese Tit of East Asia. The Great Tit remains the most widespread species in the genus Parus.

The Great Tit is a distinctive bird, with a black head and neck, prominent white cheeks, olive upperparts and yellow underparts, with some variation amongst the numerous subspecies. It is predominantly insectivorous in the summer, but will consume a wider range of food items in the winter months, including small hibernating bats.[2] Like all tits it is a cavity nester, usually nesting in a hole in a tree. The female lays around 12 eggs and incubates them alone, although both parents raise the chicks. In most years the pair will raise two broods. The nests may be raided by woodpeckers, squirrels and weasels and infested with fleas, and adults may be hunted by Sparrowhawks. The Great Tit has adapted well to human changes in the environment and is a common and familiar bird in urban parks and gardens. The Great Tit is also an important study species in ornithology. […]

Great Tits combine dietary versatility with a considerable amount of intelligence and the ability to solve problems with insight learning, that is to solve a problem through insight rather than trial and error.[9] In England, Great Tits learned to break the foil caps of milk bottles delivered at the doorstep of homes to obtain the cream at the top.[24] This behaviour, first noted in 1921, spread rapidly in the next two decades.[25] In 2009, Great Tits were reported killing and eating pipistrelle bats. This is the first time a songbird has been seen to hunt bats. The tits only do this during winter when the bats are hibernating and other food is scarce.[26] They have also been recorded using tools, using a conifer needle in the bill to extract larvae from a hole in a tree.[9] […]

The Great Tit has generally adjusted to human modifications of the environment. It is more common and has better breeding success in areas with undisturbed forest cover, but it has adapted to human modified habitats. It can be very common in urban areas.[9] For example, the breeding population in the city of Sheffield (a city of half a million people) has been estimated at 17,164 individuals.[45] In adapting to human environments its song has been observed to change in noise-polluted urban environments. In areas with low frequency background noise pollution, the song has a higher frequency than in quieter areas.[46]

July 10, 2012 Posted by | biology, Computer science, Geology, history, wikipedia | Leave a comment

A few more physics lectures

Given that I’ve already posted two posts about Muller’s lectures, I’m not posting this because I think you’d otherwise not be able to find these – it’s more of a relatively effortless ‘stuff I’m (also) doing’/’worth remembering’/’I guess I should keep updating the blog even though almost nobody is reading along at this time of year’-post.

July 9, 2012 Posted by | Lectures, Physics | Leave a comment

Scientific knowledge across countries

I’m sure I’ve seen some of this stuff before (Razib Khan may have covered it), but I’m pretty sure I have not blogged it. Link to the source here, click to view the figures/tables in full size:

Of course formal education matters, a lot:

Interestingly, the link also has data related to a recent post:

It seems that public opinion doesn’t change very much over time. I thought this last one was interesting (if anyone knows of any related Danish data, let me know in the comment section):

Note that this is only the “very great prestige”-proportion, so there may be stuff going on we don’t know about. Note how much both ‘teacher’ and ‘military officer’ has changed over time. Something funny may be going on here; ‘farmer’ is more prestigious than ‘Member of Congress’ and ‘Lawyer’ (‘well of course it is,’ you might say, but…).

July 8, 2012 Posted by | Agnotology, data, science | Leave a comment

The Classical World (#?+1)

This will be the last post about the book. I could easily write another, but this will have to do – I should have given you enough by now to make you realize whether you want to read it or not. Quotes from the remaining part of the book:

i.  “The years from 200 to 170 saw a surge of new Roman colonies in Italy which extended up into rich northern farmland near the river Po. It has been estimated that as many as 100,000 settlers were sent out to take up a million acres of land; great Italian sites like modern Parma or Bologna began their ‘Roman’ history in these years.5 The settlements were an outlet for poorer Roman citizens, who were a possible source of social tension at Rome. Once again it was a classic transformation of an ancient economy, in which war multiplied income and assets, and land-settlements changed the conquering state’s social profile. […]

Between 168 and 146 Roman power was forcefully exercised against remaining ‘enemies’, the king of Macedon (Perseus in 168), the Seleucid king in the Near East (Antiochus IV in 165), tribes on the Dalmatian coast (156) and both the Achaean league in Greece and the remaining territory of Carthage in North Africa (146 BC). The most important of these engagements was the defeat of the Macedonians, ending the power which they had enjoyed for nearly two centuries. […] When they declared war (as in 156 BC) they were careful to give out a ‘just’ pretext for public consumption, although the real reasons lay elsewhere. By following these pretexts, modern historians have sometimes argued that Rome was only drawn step by step into Greek affairs, that her attacks were usually in self-defence and that, as she did not immediately form her conquests into new provinces, she began with no fixed aim of exploiting them. Fascinating problems of chronology and evidence can be brought against this interpretation, quite apart from the reported views of contemporaries.”

ii. “Inevitably, the new fashions and new imports [from Greece] activated traditional Roman fears of ‘luxury’. Several laws to limit it are attested within fifty years, although they were not the first in Roman history. They fitted with deeper Roman attitudes. Austerity and parsimony were admired in the stories which were told about the receding seventh to fourth centuries BC. Roman fathers were expected to emulate them and educate their sons in restrained conduct. The censors, two magistrates, had acquired the duty of supervising public morals: when the lists of Roman citizens were periodically drawn up, they could place a ‘black mark’ against anyone whose behaviour had been disgraceful. […] We must remember Cicero’s comment: what Romans disliked was private luxury, whereas public display was munificence, and not disagreeable.”

iii. “During the second century BC Romans developed their rule over conquered peoples by sending out  magistrates as governors with standing armies to help them. These individuals became focal points for their subjects’ petitions and disputes. As always, many cases gravitated to a new source of justice which had suddenly become accessible in their midst. On the other side, however, the individual governors saw new possibilities of enrichment, and their misconduct was still very loosely regulated. Until the 120s the most they might suffer for ‘rapacity’ (‘extortion’) was a ruling that they should repay what they had taken. The new scope for gain abroad would have crucial implications for individuals’ capacity to compete for pre-eminence  back at Rome.

Most Roman warfare abroad in the third and second centuries BC had already had economic motives: one obvious result of victory for Roman individuals was ever more slaves and plunder. […] Collectively, too, Romans began to receive regular yearly tribute from their conquests. […] No single uniform system of tax was imposed as yet on all provinces, but from 146 onwards Rome’s subjects in north Africa are known to have paid a tax on ‘land’ and also a poll tax. Those two taxes would become the mainstays of Roman taxation in the early Empire: they were mainstays under Hadrian too.”

iv. “One result of this populist approach was a reform in the method of voting at Rome. Secret ballots were introduced, first for elections (139 BC), then for public non-capital trials (137 BC) and then for legislation (131/0 BC). […] In the Greek world, at Athens and elsewhere, secret ballots had been the accepted practice for particular types of trial, but the extension of them to votes on law-making is a Roman innovation.”

v. “Some 910,000 adult citizen-males were registered in the census of 69, about three times as many as in the 130s. The composition of the citizenry had also changed markedly. Even in Rome, very few of the citizens had any ancestral link with Roman voters of the fourth or third centuries BC; outside Rome, they now had none.”

vi. “In 51 BC a discontented Cicero found himself sent east to a miserable province, Cilicia, in southern Asia Minor […] through his letters, we have our first prolonged view of a Roman governor at work abroad, applying justice to the local affairs of his province.13 Cicero went on the customary assize-tours round the province’s main towns; he issued the usual ‘edict’ on taking office and chose to base it, wisely, on the edict of an admired predecessor, the lawyer Scaevola. In general, he wished the Greek-speaking locals to settle their disputes between themselves, but if he found that these disputes involved Romans or foreigners or points of importance under Roman law, he would judge them on the lines of the Roman praetors’ edicts at Rome.

By such piecemeal decisions, the Romans’ own laws on such topics as inheritance or defaulting debtors would come to apply to subjects outside Rome: there was no single act or decree imposing them.”

vi. “In the Italian countryside, the plight of the poor was certainly no better than in Rome, yet here too there were no ‘peasants’ revolts’ in the 50s [BC]. Rather, more and more of the poor were being recruited, or forced, into the army for a long service abroad. Soldiers’ wages, though meagre, did at least exist: the problem was that, once in the army, soldiers looked to their generals, not to any ‘republican’ values. What had ‘the Republic’ ever done for them anyway? Here, indeed, was a cause of crisis. […] tensions arose from the very conquests by which much of this empire was still being won.”

vii. “After the concluding banquet on the fourth day, Caesar, still in slippers, was escorted from his newly planned Forum by a popular crowd and even by elephants bearing torches. It was all hugely expensive, and when a few of his soldiers protested, they were put to death: the heads of two of them were nailed up by priests on the ‘royal house’ in the Forum. So it was as well that there were to be massive payments for the soldiers (an entire lifetime’s pay) and even a payment for every single citizen. Loot from the provinces was paying for them, not least the plunder which had been collected from Spain and Asia in the Civil War of the past two years. The spending was to exceed even the final year of Alexander the Great, a tribute to Caesar’s massive plundering.” [he doesn’t actually sound all that nice, does he?]

viii. I decided to quote quite extensively from chapter 41, ‘Morals and Society’, because stuff like this really makes you realize how much has happened over the last 2000 years, and how different life was like back then:

“The crowning law [of Augustus’ ‘morality laws’] was a notorious law against adultery. Previously, adultery had been a private matter, to be settled by the husband or father within the Roman household. In 18 BC Augustus made it a public crime, which was to be tried in court. The scope of this law is still disputed, but much of the detail is clear enough. The most extreme case was nicely considered. If a father caught his daughter and her boyfriend in the act on family premises, he could legally kill his daughter on the spot. […] Only if the father killed his daughter could he then kill the adulterer too (‘adultery’ is derived from the latin ‘to another person’, ad adulterum, not from ‘adult behaviour’). Husbands’ right to kill was even more restricted. If the husband caught the couple, he could not kill his wife. He could only kill her boyfriend if the offender was of ill-repute. […]

These extreme penalties were more hypothetical than an everyday reality. Much more importantly, the husband had to divorce his wife and prosecute her within sixty days if he had caught her in the act. Even so, without a head-on discovery, it might seem that couples could agree to live privately with their affairs and do nothing. However, a third party could prosecute within another four months if no action was being taken, and the husband could be prosecuted too. […] in some cases, husbands would have been condoning a wife’s affair so that they could take money or favours off her boyfriend in return. That sort of connivance was now made criminal. So was the aiding and abetting of adultery by providing a room, for instance, for the impatient couple. Similar penalties applied to men who had sex with a single woman of respectable status.

What was at stake here was not male fidelity. Like all ancient societies, Rome was highly stratified. If a man had sex with a slave-girl (or a slave-boy), a prostitute or a low-grade woman of infamy, he was not penalized at all. There was a ‘double standard’, one for men, and a stricter one for respectable women. […]

Husbands or wives convicted of adultery lost up to half their property (and part of the wife’s dowry) and were banished to an island. An adulterous wife was forbidden to remarry […]

Reported trials for adultery are quite rare in Tacitus’ histories, but the fact remains that the laws continued to be applied and clarified in connection with the ever-growing number of Roman citizens. In AD 190 more than 3,000 prosecutions for adultery were found to be pending in Rome.”

July 7, 2012 Posted by | anthropology, books, history | Leave a comment

How couples meet

Click to view full-size (the same goes for the data posted below). The figure is from Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary, by Rosenfeld and Thomas.

“we show that gays, lesbians, and middle aged heterosexuals- three groups who inhabit thin markets for romantic partners- are particularly likely to have found their partners online. Individuals are in a thin market for potential partners when the cost of identifying multiple potential partners who meet minimum criteria may be large enough to present a barrier to relationship formation. We propose that for single adults in thin dating markets, improvements in the efficiency of Internet search may be especially useful and important. Conversely, single people (college students, for example) who are fortunate enough to inhabit an environment full of eligible potential partners may not need to actively search for partners at all.”

The last part of that sentence had me laughing, but it’s an interesting paper. Of course in general they’re probably right – in the discussion they note that:

“Young heterosexual adults, who we presume to be among the most technologically savvy people in society, are among the least likely to meet partners online. Young adults have single others all around them which renders the search advantages of the Internet mostly irrelevant. In environments rich with potential partners, old fashioned face-to-face socializing still trumps online search.”

Here’s another interesting observation:

“Searching the personal advertisements in the pre-Internet era meant thumbing through the newspaper classified section by hand. Print advertisements could only be examined one issue at a time. Perhaps that is why only 4 out of 3,009 couples in the dataset reported meeting through the newspaper classifieds (even though a majority of the sample met before the Internet era).”

Lastly, some tables from the paper:

(there’s basically no difference)

Note that there’s again pretty much no difference. Only the ‘met-through-friends’-variable was significant for the adjusted odds ratio measure and maybe that’s just a fluke. The raw ‘met-in-church’ odds ratio is highly significant, but once you control for relationship duration, children, race, religion and other stuff, the effect disappears completely.

July 4, 2012 Posted by | data, dating, demographics, papers | 4 Comments

All’s Well That Ends Well

From this book. No, not exactly that one – but the image of the book in question looks very much like it. Let’s just say that my version is not in German (..who reads a translation of a work like this, that seems to me to defeat the whole purpose of reading it?), and according to this link it was printed some years earlier, in 1958 – but the image looks identical. I think that when you read a play written more than 400 years ago, it somehow adds to the experience to read an older print version – I don’t know, maybe I’m just weird. I remember having a not too dissimilar feeling back when I read Tolstoy’s collected works in a 1928-edition some years ago.

According to wikipedia it’s one of Shakespeare’s ‘lesser-known plays’, and in Hodek’s introduction he calls it a ‘very difficult – though rewarding – play’. I was surprised how long it took me to read it; in the version I have it is but 26 pages long, but I think it took me more than two hours to read it (3? I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention to the time). A few quotes from the play:

i. “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead; excessive grief the enemy of the living.”

ii. “Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able thine enemy
Rather in power than use; and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key: be check’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech.”

iii. “There’s little can be said in’t; ’tis
against the rule of nature. To speak on the
part of virginity is to accuse your mothers;
which is most infallible disobedience. He that
hangs himself is a virgin: virginity murders
itself; and should be buried in highways, out
of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress
against nature. Virginity breeds mites, much
like a cheese; consumes itself to the very par-
ing, and so dies with feeding his own stomach.
Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made
of self-love; which is the most inhibited sin in
the canon. Keep it not; you cannot choose
but lose by’t: out with’t!”

iv. “her father bequeathed
her to me; and she herself, without other ad-
vantage, may lawfully make title to as much
love as she finds: there is more owing her than
is paid; and more shall be paid her than she’ll

v. “war is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife.”

vi. “you have answered to his re-
putation with the duke, and to his valour: what
is his honesty?
Par. He will steal, sir, an egg out of a
cloister; for rapes and ravishments he parallels
Nessus. He professes not keeping of oaths;
in breaking them he is stronger than Hercules.
He will lie, sir, with such volubility that you
would think truth were a fool: drunkenness is
his best virtue, for he will be swine-drunk; and
in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bed-
clothes about him; but they know his conditions
and lay him in straw.”

vii. “All’s well that ends well: still the fine’s the
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.”

July 4, 2012 Posted by | books | 5 Comments

The latest project

July 2, 2012 Posted by | music, personal | Leave a comment