Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Faithful Executioner

Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F Harrington

Frantz Schmidt's father was an executioner, so Frantz didn't have a lot of choices. The profession put the whole family in the hereditary category of "not respectable:" not quite "untouchable", but it was hard to find spouses for the kids (who couldn't get married in a church), you'd take oaths of service separately from everybody else, and you can probably guess some of the rest. Unless somebody needed medical attention--the executioner was also generally a healer as well.

Healer? Well, the job also required the occasional enhanced interrogation, and that gave the man a certain knowledge of anatomy and the limits of the body--and he was expected to make sure that the convict was healthy enough afterwards to undergo whatever the sentence might be (generally something simple like a caning). But that doesn't explain all of it--executioners were famous for being doctors too, and by Frantz's estimate he worked on 10x as many healings as punishments (and most of the punishments weren't executions)--of the order of one a day.

In fact, in his letter to the emperor requesting that the family status be restored, he wrote that he regarded healer as his vocation. The letter and successful reply were preserved.

So was his diary, on which the book is based--together with Nuremberg official records. Early in his career Frantz decided to be as respectable as he could, eschewing some of the vices common to the era and to executioners--like drunkeness (fortifying yourself to inflict the punishments?)--and was an exemplary public servant.

It will not surprise you to learn that parts of the book are a bit grim, and the author's presence is sometimes a bit intrusive (I grew weary of "he must have deeply felt his low social standing"). But the author makes it clear that the criminal justice system of the era wasn't as callous as it is portrayed: there was room for mercy, and a strong emphasis on repentence. Family and guilds could plead the cause of a murderer, and youths got lenient sentences—whipped, compelled to learn a trade, banishment, and so on—unless they repeatedly offended.

Roving bandits were a threat to people outside the city walls, plague paid visits, and eventually wars started coming by. The "archers" were the city police force--generally a motley and crooked lot. Imprisonment wasn’t one of the usual punishments. The society wasn’t as rich as ours, so they went in for more immediate and varied punishments. It was, the author explains, a complicated time for punishments: the customary laws were being replaced with more centralized codes defining the crimes, procedures, and punishments—and they didn’t have all the bugs worked out.

However, I suspect even opponents of the death penalty might cheer one of his executions (mercifully reduced to beheading): Friedrich Stigler, who had taken on the profession of witch-finder. The Nuremberg authorities were not persuaded by his accusations, and convicted him "on account of having given rise to all kinds of unrest, false suspicion, and strife among the citizenry as well as various superstitious, godless spells and conspiracies and other forbidden magical arts and methods elsewhere." It's a pity more German cities didn't follow their example.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Can't tell the players without a scorecard

I've always had trouble remembering names of things--one of several reasons I did not become a doctor.

So when reading history, I find that the names run together and I can't tell the Dacians from the Thracians (Ok, some argue that's fine) from the Sarmations from the Mosians from the Illyrians. Even closer to home, the Chatti, Chauci, Cherusci, Frisii, Suebi--lump them all and call them germans.

If there are visuals to go with the name: the map, the technology (usually weapons and armor in the triumphant sculptures), the costumes; or some cultural distinctives; something to hang a name on--it's a lot easier.

Or to put it another way, stereotypes make it easier to keep score in history. But they mislead--the german tribes that harassed Rome in the later centuries had adopted a lot of Roman stuff, including military organization, and they traded all over the place (always had). A lot of them had bishops--Arians, but bishops. And, of course, some of their kin were on the Roman side.

It's a bit amusing to look at a book about African tribes and see the traditional costumes. They use much nicer fabrics these days: some of it Western styles and some of it new fashions of their own. I have no idea why "Unisex Clothes" is one of the tags there.

I suppose I need to keep a book of maps handy, and maybe some thumbnail art and descriptions of the tribes, when I read a book of history. But that sounds like web pages, and trying to read and use a computer at the same time is fraught with clumsiness (the book's spine on the keys) and distractions. And the images would be stereotypes--the only remaining Roman sculpture of a warrior has to represent a thousand-year-old nation...

Friday, January 27, 2023

Spinning cores

You probably saw the report that the Earth's inner core changed rotation direction. Color me dubious.

I'm not dubious because there's too much rotational energy involved: it is next to the outer core, which is "liquid" and has its own rotations and vortices, which could conceivably push the inner core one way or another. That has a lot more angular momentum and is, if a cursory read is any guide, fiendishly complicated.

(And the moon apparently makes the inner core's rotation precess--the axis of revolution changes.)

In fact, some calculations suggest that chemical plumes can play a major role in convection--not just thermal ones. The chemical changes come when iron crystallizes out on the inner core, releasing oxygen which gets taken up in other, lighter compounds which (the link suggests) can burst out of the interaction zone when enough accumulate. We don't know the chemistry, or the "burping rate" well at all.

In order to "see" the core, your sound waves have to traverse the crust (easy), the mantle (we sort of understand), and the outer core--and its dynamics are actively debated. Can things change on the time-scale of decades? Unfortunately, papers don't always give the units in forms familiar to me (that one is on convection in the inner core! and Figure 13 shows convection times on the order of at least 10 million years).

One estimate has large-scale flow at the top of the core at about 10km/year. If that's the same at the bottom and all in the same direction (!), and with good coupling to the inner core, it would seem to suggest a "flipping" time of order a few hundred years.

I spent more time than I expected in this really deep rabbit hole, and came up strongly suspecting that the measurement the team made has gigantic error bars, and that the story got publicity for its novelty value.

I don't know how long this visualization of turbulence in the outer core will be up. It's a simulation, of course, salt to taste.

Now I remember what it reminded me of

From 1984
And the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, plays, novels--with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child's spelling-book to a Newspeak dictionary.

And the Ministry had not only to supply the multifarious needs of the party, but also to repeat the whole operation at a lower level for the benefit of the proletariat. There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section--Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak--engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.

It wouldn't have to be just songs, would it? With the proper AI and CGI, you could even crank out sports videos.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Not sure why I was fascinated

I'd forgotten about Cabell, but a post at the Mad Genius Club reminded me that long ago I liked his ironic satire and lively wit. The U of Illinois library had about 4 feet of bookshelf of his books, and I plowed through quite a lot of it before satiation struck and I noticed a deterioration in his work. He dreamed of writing an "adult" Alice in Wonderland--the trilogy that resulted is amazingly bad, but I was of the "finish what you start reading" school at the time.

After I'd been married a few years I tried to re-read one of his better books, and decided that a book of smirking wasn't to my taste. The mockery played better when I knew less, and his jabs at life and women seemed like sour grapes.

His world was too small and self-centered.

To quote wikipedia: "Interest in Cabell declined in the 1930s, a decline that has been attributed in part to his failure to move out of his fantasy niche despite the onset of World War II. Alfred Kazin said that "Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe"."

Irony and mockery are derivative--you could almost say parasitic. They need something solid to push against, and if he had something solid in him, I never saw it. In the meantime the culture changed, and much of his stuff mocks ghosts now.

Meh; skip his books.

Chat openAI

I figured I should give it a shot too--on something hard.

Write a poem in the style of The Barrel-Organ by Alfred Noyes. I invite you to compare the original with the AI imitation--part of the meaning is there, but the style isn't.

The old man played his barrel-organ,
A tune that was sweet and low,
It filled the streets with melody,
And touched the hearts of all who know.

The children danced along the sidewalks,
Their laughter ringing in the air,
The music lifted up their spirits,
And chased away their every care.

The sun was shining bright and golden,
The sky was deep and blue,
The old man played his barrel-organ,
And life was good, it was true.

But as the day began to wane,
And shadows fell across the land,
The old man packed up his barrel-organ,
And headed for another band.

But though he's gone, his music lingers,
A sweet and haunting melody,
That echoes in the hearts of all,
Who heard his barrel-organ play.

UPDATE: A new query: How can Liberia become prosperous? ! An error occurred. If this issue persists please contact us through our help center at help.openai.com.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Tower of Skulls

A History of the Asia-Pacific War: July 1937- May 1942, by Richard B Frank.

It is what the sub-title says. I didn't know a lot about the China part of WW-II. It turns out I didn't know a lot about the South Pacific and IndoChina aspects either.

China got the short end of the stick here, even fighting Japan's 2'nd rank divisions. The Chinese tried to stop a Japanese advance by creating a flood that may have killed half a million Chinese. When Hitler invaded the USSR, more Chinese had been killed than any other group on Earth, and the second-greatest killer was the USSR--it took a while for the Nazis to catch up to the Soviets and the Japanese.

The China war was begun more by the mid-level Japanese officers than anybody on high. Japanese treated POWs worse when the captors were in a small group.

Records suggest that the high-ups knew they couldn't win a war with the USA, but nobody had the courage to say so at official meetings. Japanese Army and Navy were both split with political divisions, in addition to not always talking to each other.

One of the side effects of the Japanese invasion of China and the massive dislocations this created was the development of an assumption that the Chinese central government was responsible for relief, not just for assisting the local authorities to do it.

Frank is not always the most gripping writer, but the book is worth reading.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

What goes in high school?

I can't pin down what I learned in high school that I retained. I suspect it was much more than I imagine, because I had a "'satiable curtiosity" about so many different things that I built on the classroom info (never mind the things I learned outside of class). Most of the historical dates and names slipped away.

I remember some of the things we tried to make sure we taught our kids. I saw/see notable gaps in current high-school grads' knowledge. And I recall some things I should have been shown or refused to be interested in that in retrospect were a lot more important than I thought.

"One size fits all" is probably not the best way to go, but "fits many" has its attraction. The following isn't as random as it looks...

Not everybody should go to college, and Vocational Education is far too small a program in the places I've seen. I think most of us already know this. But as the comments in AVI's link above remind us, just being academics-smart isn't good prep for life, or even for college.

I took drafting and shop in Middle-School/Junior High. Any kind of graphics art would have probably had the same effect as drafting. Shop, however interrupted by malaria, was useful. I had the equivalent of a course in power tools while working at the maintenance shop at Ricks--albeit with some safety shortcuts. Yes, it was also useful to have it very clear that on some things I wasn't the smartest person in the room.

Some schools teach what I'd call "Survival Skills": money management and cooking and sewing and health. I'd add a few more--including some simple woodworking, engine diagnosis (these days you can barely repair them), and keyboarding.

Add a couple more short courses for surviving in a culture of lies: statistics and how to spot propaganda and how to read a news story and figure out what got left out.

I'm not 100% sure that Algebra II is worth a year, and trig is just a month's worth of material.

I don't know that I learned much more in later English classes than the earlier ones, though more exposure to good writing and speaking is a good thing. To be blunt, though, I'm not overwhelmed with confidence that the teachers/school boards are picking good examples.

The student should have at least a little exposure to energy and chemistry and biology--more is better, but I get it that some kids aren't going to master the fields. Still, they need enough to recognize the concepts in the wild.

History: There's more than you can cover in a few years, and more dates than anybody will ever remember. The history of the West, history of the US, with a sketchier parallel history of the MidEast and East, and Africa and the Americas.

Social Studies: Why is our government designed as it is, and how is it supposed to work? How do societies work? How do economies work? What is the role of religion? Unfortunately these questions are currently largely answered by ideologues, for a kind of negative learning.

A foreign language would be good, but I'd schedule that a lot earlier than high school, when it isn't nearly so hard. Maybe some followup courses...

I can't expect to pack into less than half a dozen years what I learned in decades and which my mental foreshortening imagines happened in the week between 7'th grade and yesterday. But some things could maybe be squeezed in.

If only: some of the kids could tackle some of the important questions, and learn about the old debates, like "What is freedom?"

And then one has the classes I hated the most: PE and music. I wasn't much good in either, and resisted practicing for either. My foolishness; both are important. Dance would be a good compromise--not that I cared for that either. Regular team sports are part of PE.

Hmm. There isn't much room for electives in this. Maybe with a 5-year program, scheduling some of the shop and whatnot in Middle School... there's some elasticity in the programming; some courses don't need a full semester.

What would you put in? Or take out...

Friday, January 20, 2023

Cultural appropriation

I ignored the complaints when Disney got griped at about Moana. I figured it wasn't my circus, but if Disney was being careless with the Maori gods they should expect some push-back from the Maori.

The gripes about a university "mis-appropriating Chinese cuisine" or fielding complaints that anglos were wearing sombreros I just laughed at. Spoiler: I still do.

I'm a big fan of splitting the big fuzzy ideas into small bits. Three subcategories come to mind here.

Invidious mockery: picking some feature of a group that puts them in a bad light, and making that central to your project. Sometimes this is richly deserved, and the group members will often refer to this themselves when telling jokes. Examples: jokes about corruption in Chicago, or the uselessness of British Anglican clergy. You can usually tell when it's meanly meant, but sometimes even good intentions trip over stereotypes into unintended mockery. Dr Dolittle was a fun character, but the Jolliginki were not. It isn't exactly "cultural appropriation", but it turns up in the discussions often enough that it needs to be separated out.

"Cult"-ural appropriation: if you take aspects of someone's religion and reimplement them in another form--ignorant blasphemy--expect that you will get some angry pushback. This isn't the same as deliberately denying or insulting the religion: there's a time and place for that. And this isn't the same as persistently portraying a religion in terms of its nastiest characters, as most TV and movie producers do. It is ignorant blasphemy.

Adapting or copying aspects of a different culture that aren't the kinds of things you center your life around (if you're sane): cuisine, games, costumes, technologies. This sort of complaint is simply unhinged. Adapting a dish is an improvement from the point of view of the new culture, and a degradation from the point of view of the old country cooks--and I refuse to give that difference the respect a religious war requires. I say that iced tea with sugar is fulfilled, my wife says it is polluted. To the Karen Taylor complained about in the link: don't be snotty, it's just an adaptation; to the Jean Paik who wrote it: grow up.

Do I support suppressing invidious mockery? No. It can be useful, definitions are hopelessly subjective, and the purported harm is also subjective. Do I think Disney did the right thing in eliding some characters from Fantasia? Yes. Do I want to edit Huckleberry Finn? No. I'd wish the reasons were obvious to all, but they don't seem to be. "Go not to the elves for counsel"

Thursday, January 19, 2023


by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, on a piano peice of about 4 1/2 hours:

"To the everlasting glory of those few men blessed and sanctified in the curses and execrations of those many whose praise is eternal damnation."

I have a dark suspicion that he meant the dedication as a complaint about people who didn't appreciate his music, but one is tempted to see wider application. But resist the temptation to apply it to your opponents.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Little Norway

AVI posted about a 75-year-old travelogue about New Hampshire and suggested that there might be some for other states.

Yes, there was one from about 15 years later. (No, the Badger State was not named after the animal badger, but the mining kind.) It claimed that Little Norway was close to Madison, which seemed odd since I've never been there.

It was a tourist farm centered around a building built by Norway for the 1893 Columbia Exhibition, which was moved to Wisconsin. "After the end of World War II, the owners had offered to sell the facility the State of Wisconsin for $1 but the state didn't want to take on the maintenance of the property." What with upkeep and taxes the facility couldn't make it go, so they closed.

If I still want to visit it I can, but it's more of an adventure--"a delegation from Orkdal" bought the place, raised private and public funds to move it, and it is back where it started 124 years before.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Statistical or systematic error?

Druze genetics: various studies indicate that they might have come from eastern Anatolia, had a huge variety of different lineages, be roughly genetically continuous with ancient Canaanaite and modern Syrians (more than half of their ancestry), be related to the Lebanese and the Mizrahi Jews, and so on.

From this I gather that with genetic population mapping, the devil is in the details of the analysis, and that homeland extrapolations sometimes need some large error bars.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Brain and fluid intelligence

Cipolotti et al took an interesting approach to looking for locations in the brain on which fluid intelligence relies. Instead of trying a phrenological approach or looking for relatively larger regions in the brain (or relatively more connected), they looked at what happened with brain lesions. They aren't the first, but other studies were smaller. "Patients with non-frontal lesions were indistinguishable from controls and showed no modulation by laterality." But right frontal damage did show an effect: "prominently highlighting a right frontal network involving middle and inferior frontal gyrus, pre- and post-central gyri, with a weak contribution from right superior parietal lobule".

The study had 165 control and 227 injured patients. I'm not familiar with some of the jargon, but assuming the analysis is OK, a couple of things do appear. No brain damage is good for you (surprise), but right frontal is worse. The Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrix score dropped by about a standard deviation--about 25%.

I'd have to dig awhile to figure out what confounding factors there might be (lethality of lesions in other locations?--but the non-frontal part suggests that may not be a big effect), and I have some higher priority projects.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Balance of powers

From Tower of Skulls A history of the Asia-Pacific War July 1937-May 1942:
Yet another Japanese policymaking participant exerted power outside the constitution: the elite bureaucracy. Its power rested in its functions: drafting legislation, controlling information reaching cabinet members, and implementing laws. Some of its most senior members would even become cabinet members. Supposedly a neutral body of "officials of the emperor," in practice the bureaucracy became politicized.

That sounds familiar. I wonder if that's ever not the trajectory of a large bureaucracy.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Prison in Ethiopia

On BBC: Escaped Ethiopia prisoners immobilise guards with chilli. They sprayed chilli pepper in the eyes of the guards escorting them back to prison. Two escaped, one was injured and another died.

The one who died "was facing another charge of throwing a grenade at police officers while in prison."

Interesting what you can get ahold of in an Ethiopian prison.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Pulling your leg

At least I hope so: Lileks reports on "transage" et seq. "Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam Verbum hominis" ("They that have despised the Word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away")

Friday, January 06, 2023

Weapons imports

I was warned that travel to Liberia this year would be unwise on two counts: the crime rate is through the roof, and upcoming electioneering stood a good chance of becoming kinetic. BBC reports that the Liberian police, acting on a tip, found a container containing weapons and ammunition. They sealed the container for security reasons (I'll bet some of the material has already gone walkies), but some of the ammunition doesn't match the machines they have, so there's probably more. The receipient's home had weapons in the ceiling.

BBC: "The cache includes Omega 15 assault rifles, Rock River LAR guns, and double-barrel automatic machine guns which were displayed to journalists." The first two seem to be civilian non-automatic models.

Front Page Africa:

at least 15 assorted riffles have been discovered so far. “But those 15 weapons if you get them you can destabilize this country because those are high-ferocity-powered firing weapons. We’re talking about weapons that use 20-caliber rounds, 30-caliber rounds – those are not joking weapons,” Col Sudue said. Several ammunitions were also discovered.


During the search of the consignee’s home (Boye Baker) in Brewersville, more weapons were discovered in the ceiling. Also found hiding in the ceiling is a man identified as Tamba who is also in police custody.

While the police have beef-up up scrutiny due to concerns as to how this ammunition have being smuggled into the country, with fear of consequences it may have on the pending elections if tough security measure is not put into place, the LNP has announced a major inspection of vehicle across the country to avoid security threats.

As part of security parole, LNP said it will remove unauthorized security features from vehicles across the country.

Thursday security seizure uncovered over ten document-preserved boxes loaded with the stock of the rifles discovered according to security sources mounted with long-range lance glasses including M203 launcher gadgets, American-made M16, and AK47, among others.

There's a bit of inconsistency in the descriptions, but the photos suggest a bit of a hodge-podge.

When the warlords agreed to disarm, I did not hear of anything like enough weapons being collected afterwards--so I assume they either were resold (unlikely) or went into hidden caches. And since logistic s are supposed to be a consideration when planning a war, a hodge-podge isn't what you want.

2 cases seem most likely.

  • The weapons are for one of the criminal gangs in the city
  • They are for a dealer who is supplying people in the city who are worried about those criminal gangs and want their own retainers armed to match them.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Indian Empires

Pekka Hämäläinen wrote Indigenous Continent, about North American Indian powers and how they interacted with each other and the Europeans.
Hämäläinen insists that their warfare was “measured, tactical,” that their use of torture was “political spectacle,” that their captives were actually adoptees, that their switching of sides in wartime and the Iroquois’ selling out of distant client tribes such as the Delaware was a “principled plasticity.” This could almost be an expert on European history talking about the Plantagenets, the Hapsburgs, or Rome.

I haven't seen it yet (I'm still reading Tower of Skulls). Has anybody read it? Empire of the Summer Moon was fascinating.

"Effective" seems to be a flexible word

I was tasked with getting some frozen lima beans, but failed. A vague memory said they could contain toxins that had to be cooked away, which might make them a less-than-safe product to stock in the frozen foods aisle. That turns out to be true, even for the US varieties which have about 30x less cyanide (100-170mg/kg) than those found elsewhere (e.g. Mexico). (Also true for butter beans, apparently.)
Boiling in water for long periods of time (>30 min) in a large excess of water is the most effective method for reducing cyanide (80% of the original cyanide will be removed).

So "effective" means you only have 20-30mg/kg of cyanide in the beans. I used to wonder why the canned limas were so mushy--they must cook the heck out of them.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Happy New Year

It's a curious salutation. What makes a year good? Uninterrupted good luck? A preponderance of happy events?

My 2022--never mind that of the outside world--was, as usual, a mix of ordinary events and choices, some wonderful events, and a couple that were utterly horrible. We're assured that the good and the bad and the ordinary can work together for good, and "all luck is blessed." It sure doesn't feel like it at 3 in the morning. 12 hours later, the year-to-date seems happier.


I wrote about him at his retirement: "I never met Benedict 16, and probably never will this side of eternity. I'm not Catholic either. But I read a little of what he wrote over the years, and he seemed a kindred spirit. His disciplines were quite different from mine, and I gather he is far better in his than I in mine, but something about his approach seemed familiar, though exactly how is hard to make explicit."

Robert Barron helped explain some things about him--it's worth watching/reading-the-transcript (a very nice YouTube feature I should have learned about long ago). One thing Barron picked up on was that Benedict was more Augustinian than Thomist--in other words his thought was based more on a church father that both Catholics and Protestants share.

Re-planting trees

BBC: "Senegal man on a mission to plant five million trees" "The 48-year-old was shocked that in villages that were populated with hundreds of gigantic trees in his youth, only a handful, if any, now remained. "In some villages, you can't find one tree. They cut them but they don't think about planting again," he told the BBC." ... "in this area, along the sweeping expanse of the Casamance River, the trees are more likely to have been cut down for construction purposes like building houses, or to make charcoal."

It's a noble project. But can it be sustained? Why were so many trees taken down in the first place?

I followed a hunch--this popped up as one of the first sites: "To date, Casamance has lost over 10 000 hectares of its forests to illegal logging, representing an estimated 1 million trees. ... This includes rosewood, which is particularly high in demand in China."

An extensive network of actors has been cashing in on large-scale illegal logging and timber trafficking in the region. These include armed groups, Senegalese and Gambian businessmen, foreign actors (particularly from India and China) and also the local population

Diémé's project: "Up to 12 kinds are being planted, from palms and tamarinds to kapoks and lemon trees" seems to focus on fruit or nut-bearing trees, whose wood is probably less in demand in China, and useful enough locally for there to be some resistance to cutting them down.