Vikings and Climate Change

I remember reading Albion’s Seed and thinking “These waves of migration seem roughly tied to the pulses of Europe’s Little Ica Age. Surely I’m not the only person noting that?” I wasn’t a historian, and I wasn’t prepared to undertake the research required to substantiate such an observation, but I had a sense that I wasn’t alone. Ars Technica has a arstechnica on some recent work exploring the relationship between the great Viking raids at the end of the first millenium CE and possible changes in the climate. What I like about the work being done, as reported here, is that it isn’t a “climate change done it” approach. I have encountered way too many strictly biological or environmental explanations to phenomena that are better considered a mixture of nature and culture at best, if not a very complex cultural dynamic. Could climate change lead to population pressures that might lead to raiding? Sure, but it could also have been “Hey, it sure easier stealing from other people than making our own way.” The truth is almost always somewhere in between.


What a terrific idea: Lincoln Mullen has uploaded [sample data sets for historians learning R][cran]. His note states that “they include population, institutional, religious, military, and prosopographical data suitable for mapping, quantitative analysis, and network analysis.” I would love to see something similar done for folklore studies, and I’ll see what I can to make that happen.

In the mean time, many thanks to Lincoln for doing this. One of the crossroads many at which individuals find themselves when they begin the journey towards computation is not having any material with which to work. Quite often, writers describing their work assume that everyone already has a corpus of material with which to work. Or, we act as though anyone is going to pull stuff off [Project Gutenberg][pg]. A controlled data set gives new users a chance to try things out and get predictable results.


40 Maps

Vox has a great series of *40 Maps That Explain X*. So far they have:

* [40 Maps That Explain the Roman Empire](,
* [40 Maps That Explain World War I](, and
* [40 Maps That Explain the Middle East](

Computer History Museum

I love old product literature from the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties. It’s partly the modernist design impulse; it’s partly the optimism about the future. Mix in the possibility of computation and you have the [Computer History Museum’s collection of brochures](

The Plague of Justinian

Sometimes I enjoy the role that technology can play in science in a very uncritical way, and so I am have not considered what may or may not have been left out, or assumed or left unconsidered, in the [coverage by the Guardian][] of what DNA sequencing of victims of the Plague of Justinian reveals about the origins and vectors of the bubonic plague.

As the Guardian notes, “The Plague of Justinian occurred in the sixth century AD and resulted in more than 100 million deaths by some estimates. Named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the outbreak was one of the first recorded plague pandemics.”

Previous research had already established that the plague was *Yersinia pestis*, but the new research “showed the strains from the [Justinian] plague victims were distinct from those involved in the Black Death, the later pandemic which killed an estimated 60% of the European population.” (Is this a new figure? I thought previous estimates were one-quarter to one-third.)

The conclusion? “The Justinianic strains appear to be an evolutionary “dead end” when compared with modern strains, and most likely originated from Asia and then spread to Europe along trade routes such as the Silk Road.”

[coverage by the Guardian]:

History Repeats Insanity

At the very beginning of _The Tacit Dimension_, Michael Polanyi reminds his reader why he turned to philosophy:

> I first met questions of philosophy when I came up against the Soviet ideology under Stalin which denied justification to the pursuit of science. I remember a conversation I had with [Nikolai] Bukharin in Moscow in 1935. Though he was heading toward his fall and execution three years later, he was still a leading theoretician of the Communist party. When I asked him about the pursuit of pure science in Soviet Russia, he said that pure science was a morbid symptom of a class society; under socialism the conception of science pursued for its own sake would disappear, for the interests of scientists would spontaneously turn to problem of the current Five-Year Plan. [3]

How ironic that modern capitalism seems to be asserting much the same thing. (And now, now it seeks to erode general education in favor of “workforce development”.)

More on [Bukharin]( (Wikipedia).

Personality Type(s)

Just to see where, or what, I am now, I took a redacted version of the Myers-Briggs Inventory, the one available over at [HumanMetrics]( I think I scored pretty close to what I scored on the complete inventory when I took it back in the late 90s: [INFP](

* Introverted (11%)
* iNtuitive (38%)
* Feeling (12%)
* Perceiving (11%)

Maybe I was INTJ last time, but I was equally borderline. The only strong tendency here is **intuitive**, which I think was also the case a decade and a half ago.

So, apparently, sensing is out.

Find out for yourself.


[The Historian’s Macroscope](, a self-described “experiment in writing in public, one page at a time, by S. Graham, I. Milligan, & S. Weingart” is well worth a read. For now, its focus is on topic modeling and network studies. Combine that with William Turkle’s and Adam Crymble’s [The Programming Historian]( and you’ve got a reasonably good foundation for getting started.

Conference Announcement: “What Affordance Affords”

November 25-27, 2013 – Darmstadt, Germany

The interdisciplinary conference features contributions from the
perspectives of philosophy, sociology, psychology, science studies,
economics, architecture and design. It investigates the concept
‘affordance’, its history and transformations as it traveled through
different research fields and disciplines. The notion of affordance
originates and is frequently identified with ecological thinking, it
appears in considerations about interdependencies and interactions,
about relational configurations and ontologies. Digital objects, smart
materials, chemical devices, robots and the human body, geographical
information systems and neuronal activity, hydrological infrastructure
and landscape parks – all of these are presented and discussed as
providing or being affordances. A variety of epistemological positions
will be defended, different ontological claims advanced and relevant
background theories invoked. There will be advocates of the notion and
its heuristic value, and skeptics seeking to critique its current

Conference Website:

Twinned Movies

Someone has done a fantastic job of [pairing the posters of movies]( that came out at the same time, often in the same year, that would appear to be on much the same topic. The pairings are:

* 1986: _Top Gun_ and _Iron Eagle_
* 1989: _Abyss_ and _Leviathan_
* 1989: _Turner and Hooch_ and _K-9_
* 1993/1994: _Tombstone_ and _Wyatt Earp_
* 1993/1994: _Rookie of the Year_ and _Little Big League_
* 1995: _Babe_ and _Gordy_
* 1995/1996: _Powder_ and _Phenomenon_
* 1995/1996: _Showgirls_ and _Striptease_
* 1997: _Volcano_ and _Dante’s Peak_
* 1998: _Antz_ and _A Bug’s Life_
* 1998: _Armageddon_ and _Deep Impact_
* 1998/1999: _The Truman Show_ and _Ed TV_
* 1999/2001: _Centennial Man_ and _A.I._
* 2000: _Red Planet_ and _Mission to Mars_
* 2002: _Stealing Harvard_ and _Orange County_
* 2003/2004: _Finding Nemow_ and _Shark Tale_
* 2004: _Chasing Liberty_ and _First Daughter_
* 2005: _The Cave_ and _The Descent_
* 2005/2006: _Wild_ and _Madagascar_
* 2006: _Capote_ and _Infamous_
* 2006: _The Prestige_ and _The Illusionist_
* 2006: _Open Season_ and _Over the Hedge_
* 2006/2007: _Happy Feet_ and _Surf’s Up_
* 2008/2012: _Taken_ and _Stolen_
* 2009: _Observe and Report_ and _Mall Cop_
* 2010: _Megamind_ and _Despicable Me_
* 2011: _Friends with Benefits_ and _No Strings Attached_
* 2012: _Mirror Mirror_ and _Snow White and the Huntsman_
* 2013: _After Earth_ and _Oblivion_
* 2013: _Olympus Has Fallen_ and _White House Down_

Given such a history, the question then is how much of this is zeitgeist and how much is the fact that scripts probably circulate somewhat widely and people see something in a script on which they pass that then gets them thinking about a version of the story on their own. We don’t need to assume outright copying at all. Or, alternatively, if we assume copying, it’s still the case that there is something larger, be “the times being what they are” or the marketplace, has increased the viability of certain projects / topics over others.

And, yes, I can even see being this objective in my own recent experience of discovering a parallel project to my own, but I’ll have more to say on that a little later — I’m working on a post tentatively entitled *On Credit*.

774 CE

In June of this year, Japanese researchers published their findings that cedar trees in Japan indicated a surge in Carbon-14 production. This particular Carbon isotope is produced when energetic particles from space transform atmospheric nitrogen into carbon. A UCSD student found the following reference in the [The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle][]:

> A.D. 774. This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

The find won him a published [note][] in the pages of Nature. Scientists debated whether a solar flare could have been the cause, if only because the solar flare would necessarily be so large as to cause other, very obvious, and probably fatal problems. Perhaps a supernova? No, the consensus seems to be back to [solar flare][].

I would love to stumble across some historical event like this that has such convergences. (I would also like it if the humanities would adopt the DOI scheme as soon as possible.)

**DOIs** for this note:

Japanese Cedar Tree Research: [10.1038/nature11123](
The Red Crucifix: [10.1038/nature.2012.10898](
Solar Flare Explanation: [10.1038/nature11695](

[The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle]:
[solar flare]:

German Expulsions after the Second World War

There’s a terrific [excerpt][1] from R. M. Douglas’s new book _Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War_ on the Chronicle. Perhaps even better than the book is the following comment from one of the readers:

> Having grown up with this story, I am fully aware both of the horrors of that period, and also the lack of attention it has received in histories of, and discussions about, the end of World War II. But I have two critical clarifications to make: language does not equal ethnicity, and ethnicity is rarely homogeneous, particularly in a heterogeneous country such as the former Czechoslovakia. In some points of the article, Mr. Douglas refers to the deportees as “German-speaking” but then conflates that with being ethnically German or just German. German-speaking is also conflated with being sympathetic to the political cause of the state of Germany during the war, and, by association, the Holocaust. Neither characterization is true.

> Taking my own family as an example, while primarily German-speaking (family members spoke both German and Czech) genealogy traced back to the 15th century shows both Slavic and Germanic heritage, along with a variety of other ethnicities. The labelling of any group of individuals, as one singular ethnicity based on their language, hair color, or any other aspect is a slippery slope, as DNA testing is increasingly showing.

> Politics loves simplicity, so by characterizing a group of individuals based on their language, it is easy to set one group against a recognizable “other.” But historical analysis, in striving to clarify the the wrongs of policy and in an attempt to prevent it from happening again, should strive for clarity. Deportations and executions during the periods of mass expulsion were cloaked in “German-ness” but were really an excuse for the political forces in power to rid themselves of those they felt we undesirable in one way or another. Many citizens, with only a tenuous link to “German-ness” or really no link at all, were either executed or expelled in those post-war years when combat had ceased and peace supposedly reigned.


The Medieval Machinist

As I continue to work on Genius Loci, I thought I would share some of my notes. Below is something of a summary I wrote after reading Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine (Henry Holt, 1975), but I am also thinking it might be useful as the beginning of a section of the book later on:

In The Medieval Machine, Jean Gimpel chronicles the brief flowering of technological and scientific expertise that occurred in what is now known as the High Middle Ages, a period that most historians frame as occurring from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. It was a period during which the great works of antiquity first achieved wide-spread interest, but, instead of the later focus by the Renaissance on the arts, the focus during this period was on philosophy and technology. It would be the interest in philosophy that would, in part, herald their downfall.

The high Middle Ages were the period when iron really came into its own as a technological system, producing cannon by its end but also cladding first the feet of horses and then the edges of plows, bolstering the agricultural revolution taking place thanks, in part, to the medieval climate optimum. Bartholomeus Anglicus in his nineteen volume De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) noted that:

Use of iron is more needful to men in many things than use of gold. Though covetous men have more gold than iron, without iron the commonality be not sure against enemies, without dread of iron the common right is not governed; with iron innocent men are defended; and foolhardiness of wicked men is chastened with dread of iron. And well nigh no handiwork is wrought without iron, neither tilling craft used nor building builded without iron. (quoted in Gimpel 63)

Increased agricultural output, a result not only of newly-improved tools but also of new practices like three-field crop rotation, meant a larger population and one enjoying a higher standard of living. The economic rising tide helped create not only demands for individual goods but also for communal goods, like cathedrals, and the masons building them were now carrying iron chisels strengthened with steel edges.

Better agricultural tools meant more land could be cleared, but much of the land was already clear thanks to the aggressive deforestation of many areas in an effort to feed the iron mills that were cropping up everywhere there was ore to supply them. As forests dwindled, alternative energy sources became more important, which led to the exploitation of coal resources, something England possessed in abundance, and which would later give it an advantage in the second industrial revolution. (Coal was so popular, and its quality so varied, that it even makes an appearance in Shakespeare.) More importantly, as productivity rose, so did the kind of ornate hierarchies and the omnipresent march of machines to replace human labor that we find to be the focus of our own reflections over the past two hundred years.

This wide-spread application of technology encouraged a kind of faith in the things of the world that also led to a rise in what we might call experimental science. It may not look much like institutionalized science as we know it now, but leafing through the pages of illustrations of imagined machines and their descriptions found in the notebooks of Villard de Honnecourt or Richard of Wallingford, one cannot be reminded of some fanciful devices of our own time, e.g. the Segway. Many of their drawings would be copied again and again, much as Leonardo da Vinci did in his own time and his own notebook was copied in turn, until the moment when either the world they imagined could be realized, had passed, or had never come to be. Villard, for example, drew a water-powered saw, perhaps the first ever to be imagined. In the drawing, a stream turns a water wheel. The wheel does two things simultaneously: by means of widely-spaced teeth on its edge it operates an escapement that moves a saw blade up and down and by means of a gear attached to its axle it moves a piece of lumber past the blade. It’s a simple device by our standards, really, but it is one of one hundreds, including a machine that would keep an angel pointing its finger towards the sun, all of which poured out of Villard’s imagination.

In his time, Villard could be comfortable with his status as a man of the mechanical arts, in a way a few hundred years later, Leonardo could not. Da Vinci was stung by his repudiation at the hands of Renaissance humanists, who considered him a manual laborer, a technician. Da Vince noted: “They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with the fruits not of their own labors but those of others, And they will not allow me my own.”*

The split between intellectuals and technologists has, it seems, been with us for a very long time. C. P. Snow imagined the divide as being between two cultures.

Jean Gimpel noted that “the men of the Middle Ages were so mechanically minded they could believe that angels were in charge of the mechanisms of the universe” and used as proof a fourteenth-century Provencal manuscript that shows “two winged angels operating the revolving machine of the sky” (147). In addition to a mechanistic understanding of the relationship between physical and metaphysical realms, the medieval imagination of the high period also believed in progress, a belief buoyed up by the significant strides that had been achieved in production of cloth, of iron, and of agricultural goods.

In this moment, then, natural philosophers cum scientists were expected to possess manual skill. In August of 1269, Peter of Maricourt wrote Epistolae de Magnete (Letters on the Magnet), and in it noted:

You must realize, dearest friend, that while the investigator in this subject must understand nature and not be ignorant of celestial motions, he must also be very diligent in the use of his own hands, so that through the operation of this stone he may show wonderful effects. For by his industry he will then in a short time be able to correct an error which he would never do in eternity by his knowledge of natural philosophy and mathematics alone if he lacked carefulness with his hands. (Gimpel 194-5)

Thanks to a notion of progress, thinkers, and workers, like Peter of Maricourt produced magnetic compasses with a high degree of precision, which led the way for the great explorations in the centuries to come.