Thursday, January 27, 2011

Palin Fails History

That was another one of those WTF moments, when he so often repeated this Sputnik moment that he would aspire Americans to celebrate. And he needs to remember that what happened back then with the former communist USSR and their victory in that race to space, yes, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.

The wrongness, it burns. Like saying:

The British built the first operational aircraft carrier in 1918, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the British Empire.

Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite, was a cheap and simple spacecraft designed to use the Soviet R-7 rocket already being developed as an ICBM to reach orbit before a competing US payload.

The R-7 rocket was not a trivial project. Still, we know that the Soviet Union developed about a dozen other ICBMs, plus many shorter range missiles and several dedicated space launchers, while maintaining enormous conventional military forces, so developing the R-7 was probably a fairly small slice of overall Soviet spending. The current versions of the rocket evolved from the R-7 ICBM still serve as a reliable and competitively priced launcher for Russian and commercial satellites.

What really caused the collapse of the Soviet Union? It was a polyglot multi-ethnic empire cobbled together by the conquest of what used to be other sovereign states during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. As such, it was always unstable, requiring the continual willingness to coerce the constituent republics whenever they wanted their sovereignty back. Ultimately, Russia made a wise decision to let the other republics depart in peace.

That aside, could Russia have survived as a single party state ruled by the communist party? Quite possibly, if the government had moved sooner and farther away from a command economy and more towards a market economy: as quickly, as say, China. The essential problem was that the Soviet command economy worked very badly and was falling further and further behind the west.

Not overspending on a grossly oversized military for the preceding four decades would have given them more time to make the transition. Not invading Afghanistan would also have helped.

After the part of the space race that the Soviets won they did have some expensive and ill conceived projects: the giant, underfunded and cancelled N-1 moon rocket and Buran/Energia. These were a great deal more ambitious than Sputnik and Vostok, and had they never been approved that might have allowed to Soviet Union's finances to hold out a bit longer. It's important to understand the scope of the problem. By 1985 the Soviet union had a hard currency shortfall of $20 billion a year..

At the official exchange rate, the Soviet Union is reported to have spent about $18 billion on Buran/Energia. That's a lot of money, but under those assumptions choosing not to build it would have postponed the collapse of the Soviet union by less than a year. The official exchange rate grossly overvalued the dollar value of the ruble, so the actual impact of making a better decision would probably have been a good deal less.

But that was decades later than the early part of the space race that the Soviets actually won.

So, to recap, according to Palin:

The former communist USSR had a victory in that race to space,


Big government command and control does everything worse than America's small businesses.


If the big government command and control USSR launched an artificial satellite before America's small businesses, it follows that they can only have done so by taking on inevitably suicidal levels of debt.

Ironically, Soviet aerospace was the part of the economy that functioned most like the West; the rockets were built by independent design bureaus that competed with each other for government business, much like western defense contractors. Many have successfully transitioned into joint stock companies.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Review of Muhlberger's Deeds of Arms

In The Medieval Review

Froissart: A Servant Gives Good Service

They fought hand to hand, and Ernauton de Sainte Colombe, an excellent man at arms, was on the point of being killed by a squire of the country called Guillonet de Salenges, who had pushed him so hard that he was quite out of breath, when I will tell you what happened: Ernauton de Sainte Colombe had a servant (un varlet) who was a spectator of the battle, neither attacking nor attacked by any one; but, seeing his master thus distressed, he ran to him, and, wresting the battle-axe from his hands, said, 'Ernauton, go and sit down: recover yourself: you cannot longer continue the battle.' With this battle-axe he advanced upon the squire, and gave him such a blow on the helmet as made him stagger and almost fall down. Guillonet, smarting from the blow, was very wroth, and made for the servant to strike him with his axe on the head; but the varlet avoided it, and grappling with the squire, who was much fatigued, turned him round, and flung him to the ground under him, when he said, 'I will put you to death, if you do not surrender yourself to my master.' 'And who is thy master?' 'Ernauton de Sainte Colombe, with whom you have been so long engaged.' The squire, finding he had not the advantage, being under the servant, who had his dagger ready to strike, surrendered on condition to deliver himself prisoner within fifteen days, at the castle of Lourde, whether rescued or not. Of such service was this servant to his master; and, I must say, sir John, that there was a superabundance of feats of arms that day performed, and many companions were sworn to surrender themselves at Tarbes and at Lourde.

Froissart, Jean, and Thomas Johnes. The Chronicles of England, France and Spain: And the Adjoining Countries, from the Latter Part of the Reign of Edward II, to the Coronation of Henry IV. London: William Smith, 1844. Print. Vol. 2. pp 98-99

We should not assume that Ernauton's servant was completely unarmored: valets could be equipped with significant arms and armor, although we cannot assume that Ernauton's servant was, and his role as spectator to the battle before the direct threat to his master's life suggests that he wasn't.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Walt Disney Feature Animation Canon

Loving reviews of every film in the Disney feature animation canon. Written with tough love, in the case of some of the more disappointing films.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pizan or Pisan?

Christine de Pizan spelled her last name with a z. However, for centuries her name was overwhelmingly given as Christine de Pisan. As Google Ngrams show, the original spelling only returned to predominance in 1987 in English works, and in 1996 in French.

She was, incidentally, referred to as Damoiselle Christine de Pizan when she was in her fifties, which shows that damoiselle was more a description of social rank rather than age.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Much Did Medieval Women Care About Deeds of Arms?

Sometimes quite a lot. Christine de Pizan wrote three different balades about the 1402 combat between seven French and seven English. She wrote balades praising Charles d'Albret and others undertaking Boucicaut's Emprise de l'Escu vert à la Dame Blanche and the seneschal of Hainault's deeds of arms "in many distant lands". And her Book of the Duke of True Lovers contains a detailed description of fictional jousts that closely matches other accounts of the actual jousts of the period.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sensible Advice from Sarah Palin

But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

I think we can all agree that manufacturing false claims that Jews have murdered a Christian child to use the child's blood for ritual purposes is reprehensible, particularly within hours of a tragedy unfolding.

John Scalzi is more eloquent than I am on the subject.

Also, see Got medieval for a somewhat depressing review of the need to remember that the Blood Libel was not only a very specific libel against Jews, but that it should not be confused with other very specific libels against Jews.

And Colbert weighs in.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We are primates that evolution has selected to see patterns. Leopard tracks by water-hole + Thag not seen lately = Aaargh! Leopards have eaten Thag! Run away! These are the kind of genes that get passed on. Leopard tracks by water-hole + Thag not seen lately = I will suspend judgment until I have more information, or until I am eaten by a leopard. Not so much.

So when we heard that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and twenty others were shot with six of them dead, our primate brains immediately try to find a pattern. Some prematurely and irresponsibly speculated "that Sarah Palin's now-infamous crosshairs map probably had something to do with the shootings."

But sometimes it turns out that Thag fell off a cliff and the leopard was just passing through. It now looks like the killer, like many assassins in the U.S. in the past, doesn't map particularly well to any coherent major political movement.

It does look more and more like it's probable that corrosive political rhetoric probably wasn't one of the causes of this particular tragedy. And the First Amendment protections of free speech should not be weakened, so that corrosive rhetoric will continue to be legal.

But corrosive rhetoric is still corrosive. I'm not so much concerned with violent metaphors, although the crosshairs were, in retrospect, an unfortunate choice.

The real problem is rhetoric that treats political opponents not as honest people who are mistakenly advocating policies you disagree with, but as actively and knowingly evil. To guess at unprovable motives and declare them wicked. To lump all those you oppose into them and declare that they all share the goals of whichever member of that coalition is most extreme.

For example, this from Rush Limbaugh:

And the first thought, the desperate hope that the losers in November of 2010 had, was that they could revitalize their political fortunes because of this unfortunate shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona. That was the most important thing to them -- and that, to me, is sick. You know that they were rubbing hands together. You know that they were e-mailing and calling each other on the phones saying, "A-ha, this might be the one! This might be the one where we can officially tie it to these guys and shut 'em up and shut 'em down." They want you to believe that sadness was on the order of the day, and I'm sure it was, but the opportunity! They couldn't help themselves. They just couldn't help themselves.

It encourages the thought that those attacked rhetorically are worthy of literal attack. It's the sort of rhetoric that makes political violence more likely. Yes, we've had corrosive rhetoric in the past: The Bush=Hitler thing was odious, and I said so at the time. Likewise some of the more extreme leftist rhetoric during the Vietnam War and anti civil rights rhetoric during the 1960s, and the most extreme anti-Lincoln rhetoric in the 1860s.

Now, the people inspired to political violence by the words of others were accountable for their own actions. But those that inspired them bear some responsibility as well.

And the harm of this sort of rhetoric isn't just the encouragement of violence, it's the hardening of political positions so that beneficial compromises can't be made.

Dial it back, please.

More thoughts on the subject from David Frum.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Order of Chivalry

William Morris' Order of Chivalry is online here.

It contains Caxton's translation of Ramon Lull's Book of the Order of Chivalry, the Old French L'Ordene de Chevalerie, and Morris' translation of the Ordene, The Ordination of Knighthood.

The frontispiece wood-engraving was designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

My thanks to Steve Muhlberger for noting this.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Lost in Translation

There are at least two problems with using translations of historical sources. The simplest is that sometimes the translator will clearly make a mistake. Thomas Johnes, the only man to translate all of Froissart since Lord Berners, did this a lot.

But even a good and scrupulous translator can be confronted with challenges that have no good solution. For example, a word in another language can have multiple meanings, each best translated by a different word in English. Sometimes the choice is clear from context, and sometimes it isn't, and the translator will need to make a decision. Any choice he makes will be false to the original.

Baston can mean club, rod, staff, baton or weapon in medieval French. If the passage is unclear about which the author meant, any one of the English choices will strip away the ambiguity of the original and quite possibly betray the intent of the original author.

So reading the source in the original language can be very valuable if you can do it.

More and more I've taken to noting the original word or phrase when I think my translation may be problematic.

Important Things to Remember About History

You can't trust secondary sources. Not even me.

You can't trust primary sources.

You can't trust eyewitness accounts.

You can't trust translations.

"Distrust any historical anecdote good enough to have survived on its literary merit"

That doesn't mean we can't know anything about the past, but we need to be appropriately skeptical of the frequently unreliable narrators that we are dealing with.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Out of Context Science

Each participant reported being intensely in love, which was confirmed numerically by use of the Passionate Love Scale.

From Out of Context Science

The Luttrel Psalter Film

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Most Dishonest Headline of 2011

So far: New Estate Tax Law Exposes 65,000 Small Businesses and Farms to Estate Tax

Now, when you go to the original article, you see that when the author says exposes or makes "susceptible to", he means the number of estates that would pay the tax if everyone with a big estate died in the same year. That's not going to happen. That's like saying that that current U.S. health care exposes 310 million Americans to death because everybody will die eventually. Technically true, but not helpful.

He then claims that "8,500 households will owe estate taxes in 2011", a much smaller but still dodgy number.

In 2007, 14,700 households paid estate tax..

Estates must file tax returns within nine months of the decedent’s death and taxable estates usually wait as long as possible before filing. Thus, most returns filed in 2007 were for people dying in 2006 when the estate tax exemption was $2 million.

In 2009, when the exemption had risen to $3.5 million, it was estimated that 5,500 tax units paid the estate tax.

Given that the exemption will rise to $5 million in 2011, 8,500 households seems implausibly high.

Next, he estimates that "up to 22,000 farms, 14,000 real estate partnerships and 29,000 privately held corporations will be susceptible to the tax in 2011"

And this is nonsense. For example, he is apparently taking the number of estate tax returns that paid tax, looking at the share that had, for example, some real estate partnership assets, and applying that ratio to 2011 to calculate the "up to" number.

The obvious problem is that the math only works if partnerships have no more than one partner, and corporations only have one shareholder. Which sort of defeats the purpose of having partnerships and corporations.

And the idea that family farms have an average of one owner seems only slightly less stupid.

But that's not all. Privately held corporation = small business? I don't think so. George Steinbrenner seems to have died a billionaire. His assets were in an LLC rather than a publicly traded corporation, but that didn't make it a small business.

We see from this table that out 5,500 estates taxable at the $3.5 million exemption level, 2,6000 have some farm or business assets, but only 380 of them have farm or business assets equal to half or more of the estate. The remainder would include people like George W. Bush and Al Gore, who have some farm and business assets as a sideline, but are mostly invested elsewhere. They could both afford to invest more in their business or farm and still have ample liquid assets to pay their estate tax when necessary, but they choose not too, perhaps because diversification and liquidity are attractive.

Of the 380 taxable estates with mostly business or farm assets, 150 have more than $20 million in assets, and an average of $62 million. Few of these would meet most American's idea of a small business.