Thursday, August 31, 2006

Violent Crime is a Symptom of Insanity

This entry contains brief but graphic descriptions of non-fictional violence and will be distasteful to some readers.

A particularly ugly criminal case is being tried in Stockholm. The defendant is a bodybuilder of 27 with a steroid habit, sundry other drug habits and a record for violent crime. One Saturday night in May, in his own home, he murdered his twelve-year-old step-daughter with an absurd number of knife stabs. He then spent two hours wrestling with, raping and knifing the girl's thirteen-year-old friend. Finally the knife broke and he fell asleep. Despite many wounds, the surviving girl then escaped the apartment and called the police.

According to both the prosecution and the defense, the man killed his step-daughter for the brilliant reason that he didn't want her to tell anyone that he had raped her friend, as he wished to do. The murderer himself claims to remember nothing about the night in question.

Committing an extremely messy murder in order to cover up a planned rape, all in one's own apartment in a densely populated housing area, is hardly the actions of a sane man. Such hyper-violent and unbelievably stupid behaviour is typical of a steroid psychosis brought on by alcohol. Yet the trial is all about whether the murderer was sane at the time or not. Duh, say I.

Questions of the perpetrators' sanity in cases of violent crime always have me shaking my head. To my mind, the ability to commit a highly violent crime is, in itself, a symptom of insanity for all societal intents and purposes. Insanity is defined by violent behaviour among other things. And as we have no sure methods of curing such insanity, we must simply keep violent madmen locked up and sedated indefinitely for safety's sake. Whether this is called a jail sentence or a one-way commitment to a mental hospital is to my mind irrelevant. But that anyone wishes to suggest that the murderer currently on trial might have been sane makes me worry about that person's mental health.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jim Benton on Divine Free Will

The problem of theodicy means that if you believe in a god, then it can't logically be both omnipotent (all-powerful) and care much about people. Because as we know, a lot of bad shit happens to people. Rationalists see theodicy as a very strong argument that there ain't nobody up there.

Now, guest blogger Jim Benton of Brooklyn, NY has sent me some really good observations on the logical consequences if someone believes in a god that's omniscient (all-knowing).

Prup's Paradox -- God and Free Will
By Jim Benton

No, this isn't about the old questions. Yes, I believe we have free will, or at least have to act as if we believe we do. And yes, I will concede that the believers are right that it is possible to accept free will and an omniscient god -- even though I don't accept the latter.

It's a matter of different "frames of reference". Thus, tomorrow it is possible that PZ Myers would get a donation-seeking letter from a Creationist Institute, Orac would get one from the Institute for Historical Revisionism, and I would get one from the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Each of us would be acting totally "freely" in deciding whether or not to send money. (Yes, our experiences, knowledge and beliefs would affect our choice, because we aren't total "blank slates" but I don't see that this would make our choices unfree.) Yet anyone who knows us would be able to state to a high degree of certainty that we would not send the groups any money. (Anyone who knows me, and my own finances, would know I don't/can't send money even to causes I believe in.) Different frames of reference, no conflict.

No, the question I am raising is different.

Does God -- an omniscient God -- have free will?

Believers talk a lot about the "Will of God". But is this, given what they believe about their own deity, sensible?

Free will is about choices, between two or more courses of action, or between action and non-action. But we are free to make such choices because we don't know the results of our actions.

Thus, I can choose whether to check the "Scratch and Match" card the daily newspaper sends me or not, because I don't know if it is a winning card or not. If I knew, somehow, that it was a winning card, I would be considerably less free to choose not to scratch the numbers off. I can imagine very unlikely situations where I would choose not to, because such an action would not go along with some plan of my life, but they are unlikely.

God -- your favorite monotheistic omniscient deity -- knows, along with everything else, the results of his own actions. And he/she/it/they has a "plan for the Universe." (It isn't reasonable to assume that such a deity is just a spectator, watching to see how things turn out because "he" -- let's make things easy -- knows the answer already.)

But this means that at every "decision point" he knows which choice is the one that will better move this plan to fruition. Answer a prayer, don't answer a prayer, perform a miracle, don't perform a miracle, reveal himself to this Arabian businessman or another one two towns down, cause or don't cause a tsunami. In any of these choices, one is more favorable to the Plan than the other. The difference might be very slight, a matter of the twentieth decimal place (hello Gilbert Gosseyn) but it exists, and God knows it.

Given that, he doesn't have a choice which choice to make. He has to make the choice that favors his plan, unless we see him as totally capricious and insane. But that means he doesn't have free will.

An omniscient god is a pre-programmed automaton, totally helpless, totally unable to change anything, since his choices were made when he first made his creation. In fact, you can argue that the choices were part of the creation, that any omniscient god must be a "deistical" rather than a "theistical" god.

(It is possible to argue, in fact, though I'll save this for another time, that there is no "operational difference" between a deistical god and a self-existent universe, that there is no way of differentiating between them.)

So, the next time a theist argues about the "will of God," just point out that what they are talking about, if he exists, is the Great Robot in the Sky.
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Tech Note: Get Rid Of ICQ Ads

Anyone who uses the chat program ICQ has grumbled over the annoying ad banners that clutter up the various windows. Always something moving on the screen, distracting like hell. I just found an excellent Polish hack that gets rid of the ads and the boxes they come in! And according to my system protection software, it doesn't involve any malware. (Via Subtitles.)

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

E-mail Migration Blues

Picture a man of the 1980s. Or the 1880s. Or the 1780s. He keeps an active correspondence. Today he's getting new furniture for his study. He empties the drawers of his old desk and lines up the contents on the sideboard. He lifts the mail folders out of the file cabinet and stacks them on the floor along one wall. With the aid of some strong helper, he then gets rid of the old desk and file cabinet, and puts the new ones into place. Half an hour later he's working again. Everything's in place, not one old letter or draft lost. He can do this any number of times through his working years, and his papers will still be in order. Some of them will one day make an historian very happy.

My dad has an old HP laptop that sounds like a hair dryer. It runs Windows 2000 and is full of data from his years as a marketing expert with an electronics company. He's quit his job and must now return the computer to his former employer. Not because the asthmatic thing has any monetary value, but for reasons having to do with business secrets.

My dad has no interest in the company's business secrets, but there's a lot of other data on the machine that's useful to him. He's been moving stuff to his desktop machine with the aid of a 256 MB USB drive for the past few days. Now all that's left is his e-mail folders and address book. And he asked me to help him move the stuff.

I tried, but I couldn't. It's often enormously hard to migrate your e-mail from an old computer to a new one.

In my dad's case, the e-mail program Outlook on the laptop was able to export his mail folders and address book to a 160 MB whopper of a file called a PST or a Personal Folder File. And this file could be copied to the desktop machine. And there was a recent version of Outlook on it (though my dad runs Thunderbird at my suggestion). But between the Outlook version shipping with Windows 2000 and the current XP version, somebody apparently decided to change the PST file format. So I couldn't import the data into Outlook on the desktop machine.

Instead, I tried "repairing" the PST file with arcane software, and I tried copying the entire mail directory on the laptop (400 MB zipped) to the desktop machine over Dropload. Of course, my dad's former employer has seen to it that it's impossible to hook the machine up to the home network. And it has no CD burner.

But I don't think it's going to work. The situation is as if our man of the 1980s or 1880s or 1780s had all his old mail and drafts glued to his desk, so that every time he decided to get new furniture his business would suffer instant amnesia. And our digital "desks" age much faster than a good oaken writing desk.

Everybody knows that computers and software gets upgraded every few years. And there's been e-mail in most homes for a decade. By now, there really should be a standard file format for e-mail migration and easy-to-use functions for migration in the e-mail client software. Historians are going to hate the 1990s and 2000s, the brief era before every person has a Gmail-like lifelong central server account where their correspondence accumulates. Our correspondence just evaporates.

Update 31 August: To my surprise, I got it to work! Copied the entire half-gigabyte mail file via a DAV server (not Dropload) from the laptop to the desktop machine, renamed the existing mail file, gave its former name to the laptop file, and it worked for the mail folders. But not for the address book.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Gothenburg Museum Seeks Director

The position as director of the Museum for World Culture in Gothenburg is open for applications. The current director, Jette Sandahl, has been there since January 2001. Her attitude to historical research is, if not downright relativistic, then at least highly pessimistic. Multivocality is one of her favourite words. I wrote about her ideas in Folkvett last year.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Israeli Embassy at Museum?

For reasons of practical politics, few people would feel entirely comfortable if the embassy of Israel became their next-door neighbour. In early 2008, the country's Stockholm embassy is moving to premises in the Diplomats' Quarter on the eastern outskirts of the city. But until that location is prepared for its new use, the Israeli legation needs temporary housing. And, reports Dagens Nyheter, one suggestion that is being seriously considered is a place where I've spent much of my adult life: the Museum of National Antiquities! The former office space of the museum's library and archives is available to let since the opening of the "Information Square" in the Eastern Stable.

This is a bizarre idea for at least two reasons. The obvious one is that the country's greatest collection of archaeological finds and Medieval church art is not well equipped to stand a terrorist bombing.

But there's another more amusing reason. During Kristian Berg's tenure as director, the museum put on a lot of exhibitions of contemporary art that many visitors felt had an at best tenuous relationship to the distant past. In January 2004, one of these works of art, an installation in the museum's atrium that commented on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was vandalised by the Israeli ambassador, a very senior diplomat named Zvi Mazel who has since retired. Few believed him when he said he did this at the spur of the moment: instead it was seen as a piece of political communication. The incident took place only weeks before a conference on genocide in Stockholm, hosted by the prime minister Göran Persson. This was a high-profile project seen as part of attempts by Persson to increase his international stature. Many thus believe that the prime minister's ire was an important reason for Kristian Berg's sacking in 2005.

So, is the Israeli embassy returning to its old haunts? If terrorists don't blow the place sky high, then I suppose we still have to be prepared for acts of vandalism by the embassy staff themselves.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nasty Patrolling Policing Weeders

Per-Anders Forstorp has recently published a long paper in the science studies journal VEST. It's more of an opinion piece than a study: Forstorp comments upon an organisation and a number of books edited and published by its members. He doesn't like them at all.

Science studies are the sociological study of scientists and scientific organisations. Dr Forstorp, somewhat surprisingly, works at the computer science department of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, an engineering college. He teaches courses in communication and sociological aspects of technology. His research interests are mainly about "the conditions for public discourse [...], moral and political discourse, and critical media studies".

Forstorp is a post-modernist critical scholar along the same lines as David Holmes of "microfascism" fame. This shows in the title of the VEST paper, "The construction of pseudo-science. Science patrolling and knowledge policing by academic prefects and weeders". In Forstorp's opinion, pseudoscience does not have recognisable traits of its own: instead the category is "constructed" by skeptics pointing out certain works and beliefs as pseudoscience. Holmes et al.'s paper aims at "Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences" and is all about the power over belief.

The power over belief is also Forstorp's problem. The organisation that his paper criticises is the Swedish Skeptics' Society, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning (VoF), and the author he affords the most critical attention is philosopher Sven Ove Hansson (who also happens to work at the Royal Institute of Technology).

I'm a board member of VoF and I rather like the books Forstorp finds so objectionable. So I was of course curious about what the man had to say.

There is very little concrete criticism in the paper. Forstorp's main problem with VoF seems to be about free speech: he does not see outspoken skepticism as an exercise in free speech, but as a repressive force that attempts to silence it in others. Forstorp finds VoF intolerant, positivistic and patriarchal, three words that are among the most derogatory terms in the entire post-modernist vocabulary. He feels that men and women have different "ways of knowing" and that the male-dominated skeptic movement is repressing female thought about alternative medicine, New Age spirituality etc.

Another problem with VoF in the eyes of Forstorp is his belief that the organisation does not allow social sciences and humanities into its definition of science. He bases this idea on a skewed reading of one of Sven Ove Hansson's books. I'm a humanities PhD, and although there are precious few of us in the organisation, I must say that I've been treated very well. But then, I'm a rationalistic humanist who feels that much of what my colleagues in the humanities do really isn't science at all, but aesthetics and literary criticism.

I am not at all familiar with Forstorp's other work. But as I said at the beginning of this entry, the VEST paper isn't a scientific study to my mind. It's basically critical journalism based on the post-modernist axiom that Thou Shalt Not Tell Anyone That They Are Wrong. But as always in the good old science wars, the post-mod Forstorp can't abide by this rule: his paper in fact tells the world that the skeptic movement is wrong. But he doesn't present any arguments for this opinion, and so is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn't already buy the paper's premise.

Forstorp, P-A. 2006 (antedated to 2005). The construction of pseudo-science. Science patrolling and knowledge policing by academic prefects and weeders. VEST. Journal for science and technology studies 18:3-4. Gothenburg / Oslo.
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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bang the Tank to Make It Go

I am computer literate in a small way, enough that there are lots of people in my circle of acquaintance who know a bit less than me. So I get to do a bit of user support now and then. My favourite computer repair was accomplished with the aid of a large plumber's wrench and a belt knife. Somebody had stuck the removable hard drive into its chassis upside down, and the thing had got stuck. I unscrewed the chassis with the wrench, removed the drive and carved some plastic off of one edge with the knife to keep the drive from sticking again. Very hands-on.

Earlier today, my dad helped me get the car to start with a similar method. Symptoms: starter motor ran nicely but no ignition occurred. He called my brother, who is even wiser in the ways of the motor car, and got some interesting advice. Apparently, these symptoms occur mainly due to trouble with the fuel pump. And yes, it was actually uncommonly silent.

The thing to do to a SAAB in cases like this, says my brother, is to knock the pump out of its meditative mode by simply banging on the gas tank. So my father turned the key to the lit-lamps-but-no-ignition position, got out of the car, crouched behind it with a hammer, and gave the tank a few thumps. When he turned the ignition, the car started. Beautiful simplicity! Without help, I'd have had to get the thing towed to the repair shop.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Skepticality Joins Skeptic Magazine

Skeptical podcast Skepticality is back with a new instalment after half a year's hiatus. The come-back issue is kind of low on the signal-to-noise ratio, but it contains an interesting piece of information: Skeptic Magazine has picked up Skepticality as its official podcast, and there's a phone interview with Michael Shermer to prove it. Don't know about you, but I am a dawg who'll keep an ear open for the next instalment.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Strong Book Sales in Sweden

Today, my wife is staffing the Swedish-Chinese Association's book table, one of 500 at the world's longest book table in central Stockholm.

Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's main daily newspaper, reports that the country's book sales are at an all-time high. Sales have grown by more than 40% since 1999, both as regards the number of books and as regards profits. Paperbacks, children's books and non-fiction are the strongest-growing categories.

Reasons for the boom given by people in the know are the lowering of the sales tax on books in 2002 and the availability of books through new channels including grocery stores.

But don't thank me, guys. I buy my English books from eBay and Amazon, and I borrow my Swedish ones from the library.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006


Everybody's heard of serial killers. They commit at worst a dozen murders or two over a decade or so. Well, have you heard of the feminicidios in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico? The place is more like a warzone than the hunting ground of a stealthy psychotic murderer. A small army of young women has been found dead there over a period of 13 years.

Says Amnesty International, "... since 1993 more than 370 young women and girls have been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua -- at least a third suffering sexual violence -- without the authorities taking proper measures to investigate and address the problem".

The story of how Mexican authorities have tried and failed to solve the crimes is long and convoluted. Many believe that police corruption and involvement with organised crime is the reason for this failure. But the question remains: who's killing all of these women, and why? It can't be a single maniac -- it would be a full-time job for him. And with so many murders, the likelihood of one intended victim surviving and leading the police to the man should be close to 100%.

I can't help but think of this in archaeological terms. What are 370 shallow graves containing mutilated young women? They are, of course, the material record of a cultural custom. Not individual insanity -- cultural insanity. A considerable number of people in Ciudad Juárez clearly cultivate a custom that entails the kidnapping, torture and murder of poor young female factory workers from the countryside. A rationally chosen demographic: the only people likely to miss the women have very little influence in society. And of the people involved with the custom, only a few are likely to commit the actual atrocities. The rest protect them.

So, who are the bearers of this insane subculture? Well, according to the media, there are rumours of coke-fuelled revels among the local mob when big business deals have been closed and delivered. What better time to initiate new members with the special sacrament that ties them securely into the group?

I'm a cultural darwinist. Cultures are experiments. Sometimes the random mutations we love to make up turn up traits that aren't adaptive in the long term. In Ciudad Juárez, this process has produced a particularly ugly cultural mutant.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Jim Benton Recommends SF

Jim Benton (keeper of two interesting blogs) sent me some science fiction reading suggestions. I promptly and unilaterally deputised him as the second guest blogger on Salto sobrius.
"Have you read much Theodore Sturgeon? Of all the writers found by Campbell, he might be the best short-story writer, and stories such as "Bulkhead", "The Comedian's Children", and especially "Mr. Costello, Hero" are among the best in the field. "Mr.Costello, Hero", in fact, would get my choice, even over Asimov's "Nightfall", for the best sf short ever done.

If you've never read Algis Budrys, Rogue Moon is one of the great ones, as is Who? -- very little of his work is not worth reading, including his short stories, but these, particularly Rogue Moon, are exceptional.

Since you like Fritz Leiber, have you read his You're All Alone? Not great but fun. I actually had it in the original pulp magazine version -- many, many years and at least three lost libraries ago -- and the cover was so striking that it was later used on an obscure rock album by a group called Giant. There's another interconnected group of novelettes he did that were woven into a novel, which included the story "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" that predicted the PDA -- but he missed on transistors so it wound up being a machine that followed a person everywhere. It has a beautiful section where a group of revolutionaries complain that the government has put a manic-depressive in charge of the economy. Someone explains to them that this is the one thing the government should be praised for -- this guy could definitely deal with the ups and downs of the business cycle.

I assume you've read Gordon Dickson's Dorsai cycle. Much of Gordy's work gets very repetitive, but the first few books are really major work. (And Gordy makes me think of Poul Anderson and some of his work, particularly Brain Wave -- which I've been tempted to point to 'in reverse' because if you reverse the premise, it at least makes some sense out of the idiocies of American politics -- which fortunately you don't have to deal with directly.)

And finally one short story that will take some digging in early anthologies, especially since I'm not sure of the writer -- I think it was J.J. Coupling (pen name for John R. Pierce). It's called "Invariant", and while I don't scare easily, this is a true sf nightmare.

I don't know if this is sf or not, but have you seen the British TV show Life on Mars? The title has nothing to do with the planet but refers to a Bowie song. A present-day detective has an auto accident and "wakes up" in 1973 (as the standard introduction goes "I am either mad, in a coma, or in the past"). One of the stranger and more interesting TV shows I've come across, and one much worth checking out.
Thanks Jim! Lots of stuff to check out. I did read Leiber's You're All Alone and "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" recently, and found them to be strong paranoid precursors of P.K. Dick. I haven't read the other ones you mention or seen that TV show, though. Sounds promising!

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Blog Name Explained

I've been waiting for someone to ask about the blog's name. But nobody asked, and I actually didn't know much detail about the background, so I did some digging out of curiosity. Here goes.

Salto sobrius is Latin and means "I dance when sober". I assumed it as a motto to go with my heraldic arms (on azure, a badger argent) when I was dubbed a knight of the Forodrim (the Stockholm Tolkien Society) in the early 90s. It alludes to something Cicero once wrote, to the effect that nobody dances when sober unless they're out of their minds. Nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit. I do dance when sober: in fact, I always do everything in a sober state. The idea of the motto was that I really enjoy living in this world even though I try to look at it with as unclouded an eye as possible. Besides, my friends tell me that they're really grateful that I don't drink, given my psychedelic behaviour when sober.

But why did this Roman make the observation about sobriety and dancing? Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) was a master of rhetoric, and a number of his surviving works are speeches made during court hearings. (Cicero was very conscious of his stature as a public speaker, and published his speeches after performing them. Publishing at this time of course meant to lend the manuscript to someone who ran a hand-copying business staffed with slaves.) The bit about dancing is from his 63 BC defence speech for a certain Lucius Licinius Murena, a fellow politician prosecuted for bribery at the instigation of Cato the Younger. Cicero got him off and Murena went on to serve as consul of Rome the following year.
"Cato calls Lucius Murena a dancer. If this be imputed to him truly, it is the reproach of a violent accuser; but if falsely, it is the abuse of a scurrilous railer. Wherefore, as you are a person of such influence, you ought not, O Marcus Cato, to pick up abusive expressions out of the streets, or out of some quarrel of buffoons; you ought not rashly to call a consul of the Roman people a dancer; but to consider with what other vices besides that man must be tainted to whom that can with truth be imputed.

For no man, one may almost say, ever dances when sober, unless perhaps he be a madman, nor in solitude, nor in a moderate and sober party; dancing is the last companion of prolonged feasting, of luxurious situation, and of many refinements.

You charge me with that which must necessarily be the last of all vices, you say nothing of those things without which this vice absolutely cannot exist: no shameless feasting, no improper love, no carousing, no lust, no extravagance is alleged; and when those things which have the name of pleasure, and which are vicious, are not found, do you think that you will find the shadow of luxury in that man in whom you cannot find the luxury itself?" (Cic. Mur. 6 [Latin text])
So, Cicero brings up dancing because Cato has called the man whom Cicero's defending a dancer, and because this is not a compliment. "Dancing is simply decadent", says 43-year-old Cicero, "and if you're going to accuse him of that you should be aware that it entails a much wider accusation regarding the man's entire lifestyle and state of mental health". And such an accusation, that Murena was a crazed and decadent party animal, would apparently have been an evident falsehood.

I dropped out of the Forodrim in 1998 when my first wife and I split up, but I still like my old motto and coat of arms. The silver badger is on my bookplate, and when I needed to come up with a name for the blog I decided I might as well dust off the motto. The content of this blog cannot be blamed on any chemical enhancements.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

His Name Ain't Authalf

From the murky depths of my memory, the name Authalf came floating up. I didn't remember much about him: he was a Migration Period German leader of some kind, and his memory was glorious enough that his name is still in use as Adolf.

To Swedes, Adolf isn't just an unsavoury 20th century Austrian politician. He's also a successful 17th century warrior king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, of whom it has famously been written that han blev med tiden tämligen fet, "with time he grew quite fat". Under his reign, Sweden's brief tenure as a North European superpower began, for which nationalists still remember him fondly.

Many male names are made popular by heroic warriors and leaders, that is, people who have ended up on the winning side in some bygone struggle. The Germans thus have Hermann after Arminius, the Roman-trained Cheruscan chieftain under whose leadership the northward expansion of Imperial Rome was quelled in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. They have Dietrich after Theodoric the Great, king of the Goths at Ravenna in the early 6th century. They have Otto after Otto the Great, (more or less) Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Saxony in the 10th century. And they have Adolf, after this elusive character, Authalf.

If you google Authalf, all you get is a lot of spam sites with mangled fragments of the following single piece of text.
"Bonifatius († 432) war ein römischer General. Er tat sich 413 bei der Verteidigung von Marseille gegen Authalf hervor." That is,

"Bonifacius († 432) was a Roman general. He made himself noted in 413 during the Battle of Marseille against Authalf." [Link]
I was surprised that so little about this character had made it onto the net. He did seem like an important person of his time. I was actually resigning myself to looking the guy up in an actual printed encyclopedia the next time I go to the library, just to put my mind at ease and be able to write this blog entry.

And then, on a hunch, I googled Bonifacius and Marseille.

As it turns out, there are about 12900 Google hits on Athaulf, and 15000 on Ataulf. My memory had served me up with a stinkin' typo. The man was king of the Visigoths and married to Galla Placidia, which is about as famous as a German around AD 400 can get.

The name, by the way, would be Edelwolf in modern German. It means Noble Wolf. You can find anything on the net if only you know how to spell it.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lovecraft On-Line

Now and then I've mentioned or alluded to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the inter-war era New England writer of horror and fantasy. Today I discovered that almost all the man's fiction and poetry, along with a few essays and letters, is available on-line in both HTML and neatly laid-out PDF format. Great for reference purposes and as reading matter when travelling with a computer.

If you're new to Lovecraft, I suggest you start with his stories The Outsider (it's gospel to us geeks) and The Strange High House in the Mist.

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Gresham's Geocache

In geocaching, you have the opportunity to trade little objects with the caches. You may for instance take a key ring out of the box and leave a marble. Kids love it. But you rarely find anything really nice in a geocache that's been in place for more than a few months. There's a lot of stuff in the box, all right, but it's mostly just cheap junk. This is because of Gresham's Law.

Gresham's Law is an observation made in national economy regarding the quality of coinage: "Bad money drives good money out of circulation". It only operates when coinage has intrinsic value, most commonly because it consists at least partly of silver or gold. This is called commodity money, whereas today's coins and bills are called fiat ("let there be") money and has hardly any intrinsic value at all. For the law to work, money must also be governed by legal tender legislation, as it is today. Such legislation states for instance that merchants must accept pennies with the current king's portrait regardless of the individual pennies' quality.

Back when European states had commodity money, people hung on to coins with a lot of precious metal in them, preferring to use bad coins (recognisable because they were lighter or had the green tint of copper) for transactions. This meant that the bad coins circulated far more than the good ones.

The trade items in geocaching fulfil the prerequisites of Gresham's Law. They are commodity money, and different items have different values. But there is a "legal tender law" in the game, stating that if you take one item out of the box, then you have to replace it with another item. Even if you take a tamagotchi and replace it with a wood screw. So the reason that there are so few really good items in geocaches is not simply that people loot them. They generally follow the rules and put something in the box, but it's rarely as valuable as the item taken.

Frands Herschend has demonstrated that Gresham's Law operated in Viking Period Scandinavia. Coins found in large hoards of the time are heavier on average than coins found in small hoards. This means that Scandinavians were at least sometimes using the coins under a legal tender system, at home or abroad, and that in such situations they preferred to use as poor coins as possible for payments. The richest people had the most opportunities to acquire and accumulate heavy coins. This tendency was accentuated by the fact that in most of Scandinavia, there was no recognised legal tender. Instead, silver bullion was weighed on little balances. And in such a case, the face value of a coin struck in some far-off English city was irrelevant. But both participants in a transaction were keenly aware of its weight.

Herschend, F. 1989. Vikings following Gresham's Law. Larsson, T.B. (ed.). New approaches in Swedish archaeology. B.A.R. 500. Oxford.
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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Treetop Drummers

Just came home from a sunset swim in Lake Lundsjön. An arm of the Baltic is much nearer, but also much colder. Lundsjön is beautiful and well worth the bike ride past the golf course.

On my way through the woods to the cliff where myself and my wife like to jump in, I heard the drumming of a woodpecker from a Scotch pine. Stealing closer to the tree, I noticed that there were two Great Spotted Woodpeckers up there (Dendrocopos major, Sw. större hackspett). They paid no attention to an earthbound creature like me. I embraced the tree and put my ear to the bark, feeling and listening to the haphazard counterpoint of their drumming. First time I've tried that, and I look forward to doing it again!

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Chopstick Wrapper Engrish

Here's a scan of a chopstick wrapper from a Chinese restaurant where we had dim sum yesterday. Lovely Engrish!
Welcome to Chinese Restaurant
Thank you.
please try your Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks
OK, I will.
the traditional and typical of Chinese GLORIOUS history.
What? Chopsticks are typical for Chinese history? What about the rest of East Asia? And who is the guy with the ugly font who insists on making that history GLORIOUS?
Oh, CULTURAL, I guess it's OK then.

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Skamby Grave Plan Digitised

The excellent Markus Andersson has digitised the plan of the 9th century boat grave that myself and Howard Williams excavated a year ago. I've blogged a lot about it here before:I really like Marcus's plan. Look at all the little clench nails from the boat! Preservation was too crappy at the centre of the trench for any nails to survive there.

On a technical note, it should be observed that the outline of the grave cut is drawn at the level where it entered the natural subsoil. This is because the top fill of the cut was indistinguishable from the Early Iron Age culture layer that surrounded it. So the trench dug by the slaves of the Viking Period mourners was somewhat wider and longer at the top than can be seen on the plan.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Game Review: Arkham Horror

It's 1926. For a few years, Mandy Thompson has been research assistant to a number of professors in the little New England college town of Arkham. A busty, bespectacled redhead, Mandy is not only a painstaking researcher but also a crack shot. The interests of her employers have taken her far into areas of inquiry that most God-fearing New Englanders know little of. Indeed, they would prefer to stay ignorant. But Mandy has become keenly aware of how thin the veneer of sanity and normality is that separates the sunlit world from a howling abyss of cosmic horror. And certain Signs indicate that breaches are forming in that veneer...

I played the new Arkham Horror boardgame for the first time today at my friend Asko's place. Set in the worlds of Jazz Age horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, it has the players cooperating against a sudden onslaught of horrific beings from far planets and alien dimensions. Interdimensional gates start opening in secluded places around town, and squamous, rugose nightmares stalk the streets at night. The players must try to defeat the monsters and close all the gates before a Really Big Meanie makes it through one of them.

The first things to note about the game is that it's not scary and that most of its subject matter will be incomprehensible to anyone who's never read Lovecraft. Secondly, you might want to note that the game has lots of different card stacks, various little paper chits, a gaming board that looks like a moldy flowchart for a widget manufacturing plant, and a long complicated rule book. It's a nerdy game.

Unfortunately, it's not a very fun one. My main problem with it is that the story soon descends into horror spoof slapstick. Just look at what Mandy, my character in the game (no, I didn't make her a busty redhead, she comes like that out of the box), went through in five hours of game play.

Fearing the worst, Mandy loaded her rifle and took to patrolling the streets of Arkham with a few other brave souls [the other players' characters, an archaeologist with a bullwhip and a hard-boiled private eye]. Outside the Arkham Historical Society she shot a cultist of the Great Old Ones dead in the street. Evading a Dimensional Shambler, she entered the legendary Witch House and promptly fell through an interdimensional portal.

Finding herself in Earth's Dreamlands, a realm where powerful dreamers have nocturnal adventures that can last for centuries in one night's sleep, she was attacked by an insane man whom she also shot and killed. After befriending a tribe of furry zoogs, who gave her a gourd of invigorating moon wine to drink, she returned to the Witch House through the portal, which she then closed for ever.

Onward Mandy went through the night to the graveyard. There, she ran into a suave-yet-sinister Egyptian warlock whom she shot and killed. She then entered a newly opened portal leading to the Plateau of Leng
[a horror version of Tibet], where she had a strengthening vacation [!] and met a group of horned, wide-mouthed traders, whom she politely ignored. Back to Arkham Cemetery and close the portal.

Mandy hurried to the Miskatonic University campus where a risky experiment in transdimensional studies had gone horribly wrong, leading to a particularly nasty monster infestation. She encountered a Night Gaunt and yet another cultist, whom she, yes, shot dead. She then for a change managed to sneak past a homicidal maniac in the street and entered the town's other infamous haunted house, The Unnameable. Here she dropped through a portal into the Abyss, came out again and closed the gate.

Sneaking back past the raving, axe-wielding man out front, she went to Indepedence Square and entered a newly formed portal, ending up at Celeano.
[This is actually a consistently misspelled version of Celaeno, a harpy in ancient Greek mythology, who has given its name to one of the stars in the Pleiades, on one of whose planets there is, according to Lovecraft epigone August Derleth, a library of forbidden lore.] Here she received the blessing of an old sage who liked her debating style.

After returning to Arkham and closing the portal, Mandy sneaked past a threatening cultist into Hibb's Road House, a diner in which a portal had appeared. It took her back again to the library in the Pleiades, from which she then promptly returned to Arkham.

And then I left. After five hours without a meal break. The others took over Mandy's reins and continued without me. Next time I'm going to invite the guys over to my place to play RoboRally.

Update 14 August: Asko tells me the game ended in an ugly way. Shub-Niggurath, an Elder God, broke through into our world and fought briefly with the player characters, stomping them into the ground. Mandy was the last one to bite the grass. "Then, crushing what it chanced to mould in play, the Idiot Chaos blew Earth's dust away". The entire game lasted 5½ hours.

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Truth, Power, Fascism and Silly Buggers

When I talk to people in the natural sciences and engineering about post-modern hyper-relativism, they often stare at me in disbelief. "Knowledge is 100% socially constructed? Airplanes can fly just because we've all agreed to believe that they can? What are these people on, and where can I get some?!".

But every now and then a few postmods manage to break out of the humanities wing and publish in real science journals. Dear non-humanities Reader, a golden opportunity to find out what this is all about has just come on-line as a pre-print of a paper in the September issue of the International Journal of Evidence-based Healthcare.

Ottawa-based Foucaultian nursing researcher Dave Holmes and three co-authors have written a paper with the telling title "Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism". Read it here, if you can stomach it.
"The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm – that of post-positivism – but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure."
The co-authors are the rhetoric PhD editor of media studies e-journal Mediatropes, a doctoral student in medical ethics and a professor who did her PhD on kinesiology and describes herself as a "feminist critic of body-related institutions (e.g., sport, cultural media, health systems) [who] favours feminist cultural studies, poststructuralist and postcolonial approaches." Quite a dream team!

Alun alerted me to this thing, and scathing blogger commentary is here and here. Mind you, all criticism of the paper in question is of course just fascistic mind control by the establishment's lackeys.

Update 14 August: Says Dan Larhammar: "The International Journal of Evidence-based Healthcare has only been issued since 2003. It is not yet on the ISI Web of Knowledge where journal citation reports are collated for the calculation of citation impact." So blogger criticism is giving an obscure paper unexpected exposure.

Update 28 August: the kinesiologist among the co-authors has not worked with the quack therapy applied kinesiology. Says Wikipedia, "Kinesiology encompasses human anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, biochemistry, biomechanics, exercise psychology and sociology of sport."

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Printer Gone Blind

The family printer is a 1993 HP Laserjet 4L that I bought used and which has served us well since January '03. Now it's broken down: it complains of a paper outage even though we load it with paper. After reading up a bit, I think I know what's wrong with it. It's gone blind and is too stupid to realise this. Anything the printer can't see doesn't exist to it, even if the reason is that its eyes have stopped working.

Printers and copiers keep track of the contents of their paper trays with photoreceptors, little electronic eyes. Our printer's eye has apparently broken, so it can't see the paper. I wish I could convince it that it's lost its eyesight. "Go ahead and print -- paper will be provided, honest!" Instead, the silly machine just blinks an orange indicator lamp at me. Obstinately. Ceaselessly. Infuriatingly.

Update 2 September: I feel silly now. I was going to try JHP's advice and hand-feed paper into the printer, when I discovered that... the printer... kinda... had a paper jam. The machine has only a few LEDs for communication with the user, and it blinks the same one for "paper out" and "paper jam". So forget what I said.

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Slap It Up Da Wall

My sister-in-law taught me something useful the other day.

Kids tend to slip a lot in the bathtub. There's a danger that they might bang their heads and drown. So when giving them a bath, you put a rubber mat in the tub. It sticks in place with a myriad rubber suckers, and it keeps the kids from slipping. But where do you store it afterwards? We've had ours clumsily folded on top of the washing machine for years.

My sis-in-law just sticks the the mat onto the tiles above the bathtub!

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Gold Bracteate Chronology

Before the summer holidays, I made a few deeply satisfying, although geeky, discoveries in the course of my research. It's about gold bracteates. They're beautiful little things, not well known except to hardcore archaeology enthusiasts, found mostly in Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway. Made in the later part of the Migration Period (about AD 450 to 540), gold bracteates are little pendants bearing detailed mythological images, including the first recognisable scenes from the Scandinavian polytheistic mythology codified much later by Snorri Sturluson. Bracteate imagery borrows heavily from Roman medals of the 4th century, but is full of Scandinavian idiosyncrasies.

One of the most common motifs has a quadruped looking a bit like a horse, with a huge bodiless man's head sitting on its back. We call them "C bracteates". The man's lips often touches the horse's ear, and according to one interpretation the scene depicts Odinn in his role as healer of Balder's collapsed horse. This idea comes down to us through the Merseburg Incantations.

Bracteates are very nice, but I didn't really look into them for their own sake. The reason had more to do about my general ideas of archaeological methodology, and there was a personal reason too.

One of the books that has had the strongest influence on my way of thinking about archaeology is Mats Malmer's 1963 collection of essays Metodproblem inom järnålderns konsthistoria, "Problems in the Methodology of Iron Age Art-Historical Studies". A main point argued there is that no scholarly statement is worth anything unless the terms used are well defined and unambiguous -- for instance, when an archaeologist assigns source material to various types. Another important section analyses and establishes the theoretical background of typological seriation, one of the main tools used by archaeologists to order finds and sites in chronological phases. The book's central case study, where Malmer demonstrates how he thinks things should be done, concerns the chronology of the gold bracteates.

Ever since the 60s, many archaeologists have felt that while Malmer's ideas are sound in principle, and though he applied them successfully in other studies, still there's something wrong with his bracteate chronology. And since the late 70s, Danish scholar Morten Axboe has been studying the bracteates, with their chronology being a central line of inquiry. I've known since 1999 that Axboe's results aren't at all compatible with Malmer's, even though he uses an updated, computer-supported version of Malmer's methodology. And since then, I've been itching to find out why.

I know Malmer and Axboe, both are really nice guys, very supportive of younger colleagues such as myself, and I have the greatest respect for them as scholars. Malmer is in fact my number one archaeological hero. So I really needed to find out what was wrong.

Last year, Axboe finally published an extremely solid study of the bracteates' chronology. As soon as I'd read it, I started fiddling with the data. I tweaked Axboe's system a bit to make it work even better, and I juxtaposed it with Malmer's system.

What Malmer said in 1963 is basically that C bracteates can be divided into a) an early group, where the man has one of two particular hairstyles and the horse sometimes has a goatee beard; and b) a late group where a range of other hairstyles are seen, where the horse never has a beard, but where it sometimes throws a hind leg up over its rump. The beard and the thrown-up hind leg hardly ever occur together, and Malmer argued that the only likely explanation was chronology.

Axboe could process a far greater number of details thanks to computer supported multivariate statistics. He only recorded the details of the men's heads in order to be able to study bracteates without any animals as well. I collected data on the horses' beards and hind legs too, stuck them into Axboe's database and re-ran the stats.

What came out was really cool. Turns out that Malmer's two groups are both in fact very long-lived and contemporanous. The reason that horse beards and certain hairstyles cluster together and avoid thrown-up hind legs and other hairstyles must be that the two groups of traits are depictions of two different men, each with his own individual horse. Combining their characteristics would apparently have been like drawing a Disney character with a duckbill and mouse ears. The beard and the hind leg are what art historians call "iconographical attributes".

So my appreciation of both scholars is undiminished. Malmer's principles are indeed sound, he just chose the wrong material to apply them to. Gold bracteates are enormously complicated iconographical objects with lots of details, most of which are not relevant to chronology. And, from an archaeological point of view, they were made during a very short period of time, during which little dramatic change could take place.

Archaeology can usually place an object in the right century on stylistic grounds, but Malmer was trying to subdivide a group of finds that were all made during less than a century. Axboe, thanks to computer support and years of work, finally succeeded in dividing them into four phases.

Axboe, M. 2004. Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit. Herstellungsprobleme und Chronologie. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 38. Berlin.

Malmer, M.P. 1963. Metodproblem inom järnålderns konsthistoria. Acta archaeologica Lundensia, series in octavo 3. Department of Archaeology, University of Lund.
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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Naïve Bible Skepticism

Earlier today someone came here after a Google search on "fiery furnace Daniel scientific explanation". Meanwhile James Cameron is producing a 90 minute documentary on natural causes that might explain the weird goings-on in Exodus. And a recent paper in the Journal of Paleolimnology attempts to explain Jesus's water-walking with a patch of floating ice.

These people are skeptical of supernatural claims, I'll give them that. Very good. But they're doing it all wrong. There is in fact no need to search for natural explanations for any of the supernatural events in the Bible, because they're fiction. From a historian's point of view, the Bible books are mostly just bad source material: not contemporary with the events they describe, not written by knowledgeable observers, badly biased in favour of the supernatural, strongly influenced by literary conventions. Looking for the science behind Exodus is just naïve. James Cameron might as well try to find out how Sauron's ring worked or where Hogwarts School of Magic is located.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lucky Sparrfeldt

In Stockholm and Kalmar are museum exhibitions on two of the great 17th century warships that were named after the regalia, that is, the royal insignia. They're known as regalskepp, "regalia ships", and the ones treated in the exhibitions are Vasen ("The Corn Sheaf", named after the royal dynasty's heraldic symbol) and Stora Kronan ("The Great Crown"). Others were named The Sword, The Sceptre and The Orb. The ships were insanely overdecorated with painted wooden sculpture in a rustic baroque style.

Both The Corn Sheaf and The Great Crown came to ignominious ends. The Sheaf was badly designed because of the king's desire for an extra deck of cannon. She was extremely poorly balanced and sunk in Stockholm on her maiden voyage in 1628. The wreck was salvaged in 1961 -- it's almost entirely intact and is without any serious competition the coolest and most unique thing you can see in Stockholm.

The Crown sailed as a warship for four years until the summer of 1676, when she keeled over during a naval battle against a Dutch fleet due to a clumsy manoeuvre. Her gunpowder stores were accidentally ignited, The Crown blew up and her remains sank. The wreck was located in 1980 and has been excavated for many years, yielding fascinating workaday finds of a kind that the poor Sheaf never had the time to accumulate. See them in Kalmar.

Hundreds of men died when The Crown blew up. But one of the survivors made it in a way that really seems too good to be true. Nevertheless, the historical sources for the event are perfectly good.

Major Anders Sparrfeldt, a 31-year-old army officer, was thrown off The Crown by the blast. He flew over two enemy ships and landed in one of the sails on the Swedish man-o-war The Dragon. Sparrfeldt later went on to pursue an illustrious military career, even becoming a colonel in the Dutch army for a time (alliances changed), and ended up a major general and a county governor before passing away peacefully in 1734 at the ripe old age of 89.

History is always best when there's a story in it.

[Here's a good recent paper by Jan Glete about Swedish naval ship-building in the 17th century. More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]

Monday, August 07, 2006

New Books on Danish Corded Ware

I've spent most of the day translating a paper from Danish to English for a venerable gentleman who has become an incisive archaeological debater in his retirement. It's about the Danish instance of the various Corded Ware cultures that flourished in Europe from about 3200 BC to 2300 BC -- the Battle Axe Culture or Single Grave Culture.

After a lapse of more than a millennium, the Corded Ware gives us the Neolithic's first respectable number of individual furnished burials. This opens opportunities to pursue questions that the preceding Funnel-Beaker Culture with its collective megalithic tombs places out of our reach. The individual becomes visible again as she was in the Late Mesolithic. And the Corded Ware people lived by the rules: theirs was a highly conventionalised culture where a pattern-seeker finds much to hang on to. My friend Jonathan has pondered one of their graves for nearly a decade and a half and is still coming up with new ideas about it.

Two hefty new works about the Danish Battle Axe Culture have recently appeared -- all in all, nearly 2700 pages! Let's hope for some extensive new work about contemporary Swedish sedentary culture too. It all too easily becomes footnotes to immortal Malmer.

Ebbesen, K. 2006. The Battle Axe Period. University of Copenhagen. ISBN 87-7528-620-3.

Hübner, E. 2005. Jungneolithische Gräber auf der Jütischen Halbinsel. Typologische und chronologische Studien zur Einzelgrabkultur. Nordiske fortidsminder B24. Copenhagen. ISBN 87-87483-72-6.
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Sunday, August 06, 2006


Alun Salt of Archaeoastronomy has set me a task, in the same way that I zapped him a few days ago. I'm a bit wary about these "memes", that is, blogging chain letters. They serve to express and cement social bonds between bloggers, they're fun to write, but I'm not sure they're all that fun to read. Anyway, a few chain letter entries like this now and then shouldn't scare off too many readers.

10 years ago: In the summer of 1996 I was two years into my thesis work and still believed that I'd finish it in little more than the stipulated four years. Went to Gotland, dug a little trench, found nothing, did some metal detecting, found nothing, did some surveying with a total station, never used the data. The following summer I dug two graves at the site. Found nothing much, though. My thesis is about extremely cool stuff that others had found before I was born.

5 years ago: In the summer of 2001 YuSie and I got married on the deck outside the summer house, a few meters from where I'm sitting with the laptop now. I was still working on the thesis, based at the Museum of National Antiquities. Completed the first draft in early 2002.

1 year ago: Dug a Viking Period boat grave near Norrköping with my friend Howard and his students. Found cool stuff. Report to be finished real soon now.

5 songs I know all the words to: Tom Lehrer, "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park"; Belly, "Untogether"; Pixies, "Cactus"; of Montreal, "Dreamy Day of Daydreaming of You"; Teenage Fanclub, "Alcoholiday".

5 snacks: cookies, cinnamon buns, potato crisps, chocolate, müsli 'n' milk.

5 things I’d do with $100 million: field archaeology, nice house with a view of the sea, staff to take care of house and garden, travel, summer house in New Zealand.

5 places I’d run away to: New Zealand, Middle-earth, Earthsea, Gormenghast, Västerängsholmen.

5 things I’d never wear: I'd happily try on anything intended for wearing that doesn't require body modification.

5 favourite TV shows: 6 Ft Under, A Touch of Frost, (early) X-Files, Twin Peaks, Monty Python's Flying Circus.

5 greatest joys: my wife, my children, reading, writing, music.

5 favourite toys: my wife, computer, GPS navigator, car, skis.

I'll refrain from tagging anyone this time.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Local Heroes

Me and the kids made the local paper the other day. We got 3/4 of a page about our navigatin', tupperware huntin', global positionin' ways. Check out page 11.

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Geocaching Horror Game

Salto sobrius regular Akhôrahil directed my attention to this Lovecraftian horror game with geocaching. Coordinates man was not meant to know!
"One of the characters is, unaware, the last remaining descendant of John Blackwell. The cult has found him, and they are baiting any hooks they can to lure him back to the scene of the century-old crime. The setup takes the form of a geocaching event - a treasure hunt where people use GPS to locate hidden items. Members of the cult infiltrated the small Texas town long ago, and they lead the characters toward the hidden artifacts."
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Friday, August 04, 2006

Toss a Stick for Luck

Took a trip to Björkö / Birka today with a friend, her charming American guests and sundry kids. Beautiful day, great site of course, and I realised that Björkö actually has a really nice little beach for the children. With fat grey clay, to the limitless delight of the three-year old...

The way to go to Björkö, if (like me) you don't want to spend two hours on the boat from Stockholm Town Hall listening to a guide on a tinny intercom, is by car and ferry. Drive to Munsö and onto the Adelsö ferry, drive to the ancient royal manor at Adelsö church, and take a five-minute boat ride to Björkö. On the way home, me & the kids took five geocaches and had a nice dinner at the old parsonage of Ekerö.

One of the caches was right by an unusual ancient monument: an interactive site with a folk tale!

Fantans hög, "The Mound of the Wife of the Servant / Vagrant", is what folklorists call an offerkast, "a sacrificial toss". It's a big pile of sticks and twigs by the roadside. When you pass by, you're supposed to toss a stick onto the pile to avoid bad luck while travelling. For instance, your horses might run out of control if you don't. It's a bit like a Jewish cemetery, where you're supposed to put pebbles on the headstones.

In the case of this particular offerkast the story was that a woman had murdered her husband (a servant or vagrant), and that she was sentenced to running the gauntlet. She was to run through the woods toward Ekerö church, and once she could see the spire, she was safe. But she didn't make it. She fell, was stoned to death, and then her body was cremated on the spot. Where an offerkast subsequently sprouted.

It was a very popular offerkast, growing so big that in the 19th century the sticks were carted off and burnt twice a year. But in 1947, it was finally removed for an impending road improvement. Luckily, it was excavated by archaeologists first.

In the mound of sticks were found a number of coins, most from the 19th century, the earliest dating from 1577. And under it was an oval stone pavement containing cremated human bone. When I was an undergrad in 1990, we passed by the place on an excursion, and were told that the bones most likely belonged to a criminal, perhaps a witch, cremated in the 16th century. But in 2001, someone sent off a bone fragment from the site for radiocarbon dating, and got a late 1st millennium BC date. So the offerkast was actually placed on top of an Early Iron Age grave, which would seem very unlikely to have happened by chance.

Fantans hög was physically destroyed in the 1940s. But its cognitive imprint among the locals remained untouched. A new offerkast promptly appeared at the side of the new road, and is still there today, probably fed considerably by the nearby informative signpost. My son put two sticks on the pile for us today, and we got home safely.

Coordinates for Fantans hög: N59°16.600, E017°46.100.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Starless and Bible Black

As mentioned before, I'm into astronomical curiosities. And I just learned of a new one: a system consisting of two very large planet-like things orbiting each other in the dark far away from any sun. As the King Crimson song goes, "Starless and Bible Black", indeed!

These things are called planetary mass objects or "planemos". They've been known for some time as partners to stars, but this is the first time that a starless pair is found.
Planemos are objects similar to brown dwarfs, failed stars too small to sustain the nuclear reactions required for stellar ignition. But at only a few times more massive than Jupiter, they resemble planets more than stars.
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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Morning after the Carnival

The carnival has moved on, leaving me to dispose of the soda cans and candy wrappers. But the fun isn't over! A new Tangled Bank is up at Science and Reason. And the carnival is coming back here in December.

Tomorrow a new Skeptics' Circle will be up at Daylight Atheism.

I'm also participating in a new carnival with a really cool theme: The Festival of the Trees. Check it out! The current instalment has some really good pics and quotations.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Stardust Participatory Project

Back in January, I blogged about the Stardust @ Home project. Berkeley scientists are asking for volunteers around the net to look at microscope pics of sample collection gels from a space mission and identify interstellar dust particles.

Today the first pics are released for distributed staring. And here's where you sign up for duty!

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