Monday, December 29, 2014

How Did Scrooge Get Rich?

Scrooge was rich, and a man of business. What was his business? How did he get so rich?

Our first clue comes in the first paragraph: "...and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to." That is to say, he could easily raise money on the London Stock Exchange, where bonds, commodities and other investments were also traded.

There is one reference to his warehouse. Given his wealth, this implies some wholesale element to his enterprise.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge a young couple who owe him a debt they cannot immediately repay, saved from ruin by his death.

For more information, we might look at Nicholas Nickleby, where Dickens gives us a more detailed view of another greedy and covetous Dickensian businessman, Ralph Nickleby.  His main line of business is stock manipulation. Historically, there were plenty of 19th c. examples:  Drew,  Fisk and Gould will do for starters. The loose rules of the era provided opportunities to cheat even sophisticated and cynical investors like Cornelius Vanderbilt. For the naive or even average investor, so much the worse.

Ralph Nickleby, like Scrooge, also profits from moneylending.  Because of the plot we know some details of one of the debts owed to him: a bit under a thousand pounds, owed by a spendthrift gentleman. It is likely that Scrooge's lending was on a similar scale: a practical man like Scrooge would much rather lend 1,000 pounds to one man than 50 each to twenty.

It would be ludicrous to claim that Scrooge's miserly nature did  "a great deal of good". It simply pushed a bit more money into the already ample market of London capital seeking investment opportunities, at the cost of reducing demand for goods and services.

Some of the investment, like Ralph Nickleby's predatory stock manipulation, was probably actively bad. The purchase of previously issued shares and bonds, or existing ground rents, would only have benefitted the sellers of those assets, typically not very needy. Only when the investment financed an actual productivity improvement was the impact clearly good.

In contrast, redeemed Scrooge immediately puts money into the pocket of a street urchin, a poulterer, and a cabdriver. It did them good, surely, and penny for penny, probably more good than any of unredeemed Scrooge's careful investments.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Why Libertarians Can't Have Nice Things

So, just in time for the holiday, I read another libertarian essay on why the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't so bad:
So, why is Scrooge supposed to be so in need of redemption? Well, he refuses to contribute to the comfort of the poor (and even suggests that they should die, to reduce the surplus population!), he begrudges his clerk a paid vacation at Christmas, and he’s a merciless creditor, demanding payment when it’s due from his debtors. And he shuns the company of his fellow man, except to the extent required for him to be in good standing with the business community. 
But these are hardly serious moral failings. 
Well, actually, they are. In Christian terms, Scrooge at the time of the visitations is entirely lacking in charity. Not just in the common sense of giving to the poor when you can bloody well afford it, but in the broader Christian sense of loving others as himself. He has no friends. His clerk's wages, working conditions and benefits are the worst he can get away with. He doesn't tip Christmas Carolers. He repeatedly snubs his nephew, apparently his only living relative. Earlier, his fiancee has released him from their engagement because she believed he loves wealth more than her, and he does not contradict her. Children know better than to ask him the time of day on the street, and seeing-eye dogs drag their blind masters out of his path. If he continues on this track he's going to die alone and unloved.

So, the Gospels, St. Paul, and Dickens are in broad agreement that his pre-visitation afterlife prospects are not good. The lack of charity is pretty much a show-stopper.

But, you may say, that's just Christian dogma, which I reject.

Look, going in, you knew it was A Christmas Carol, not An Objectivist Carol. You were warned.

Second, the Golden Rule is so broadly believed among so many different religious and ethical traditions that it may well be a valid moral intuition. At least, it will do till something better comes along, even if you don't believe in Yahweh, Jesus or Mohammad.

And unredeemed Scrooge is an epic fail at the Golden Rule.

One of his happiest memories is working for a moderately benevolent employer,  Fezziwig.  Fezziwig spends a modest sum on the Christmas party, lets off work early on Christmas eve, and generally treats his employees generously in small ways. It was a golden memory for young Scrooge. When it's his turn to be boss, unredeemed Scrooge does nothing of the sort.

Another happy memory for Scrooge is being rescued from a cheerless boarding school by his younger sister Fan. She died in childbirth, and you might think that he could show some warmth to his nephew, her son, but no.

There's a concept in economics called diminishing marginal utility. If you are $1 away from starving to death, another dollar is immensely valuable. If you are Bill Gates, another dollar isn't worth noticing. Even though the absolute value in money the same.

It then follows that a moderately charitable rich man, like redeemed Scrooge, can improve the net subjective welfare of his society a lot by even a moderate tithe of his wealth to the less fortunate.

But also, if you treat others as you would like to .be treated, they are more likely to respond in kind.

Long story short: don't be unredeemed Scrooge. Be redeemed Scrooge, or Fred, or Bob Cratchit,  or the Fezziwigs.

God bless us, every one.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Good Week in Space

During the first week in December:

On December 1, NASA's Dawn spacecraft captured an image of Ceres. It does not yet rival images from Hubble, but wait for it. Dawn did a spectacular job mapping Vesta, and will do the same for Ceres, if all goes according to plan.

On December 2, (EST) Japan launched their Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to visit an asteroid, drop off landers, and return with a sample.

On December 5, NASA launched their unmanned test flight of an Orion spacecraft on an almost flawless mission to a apogee of 3,600 miles. A spacecraft capable of carrying humans hasn't been this far from Earth since Apollo 17 in 1972.

As a taxpayer, I appreciated the live transmission of images of the receding earth and parachute deployment from inside the spacecraft, and capsule reentry and parachute deployment from a circling drone. I didn't get this during Apollo. This is good policy. I like to see what I am paying for. If I can, I will pay more cheerfully.

On December 6, New Horizons awoke from hibernation on Pluto's doorstep.  Given the vast scale of our Solar System, awaking on Pluto's doorstep means the closest approach will be in July.

We will see amazing things, if we are patient.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


It was excellent, but flawed. I was glad I saw it in a theatre, in IMAX.

It was one of a small class of excellent science fiction movies where the science is important to the story and mostly actual science.


It repeatedly pays tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the few films in the same category. But in 2001 the first and last parts of the movie are about alien science so advanced that they are, for us, indistinguishable from magic. And for the last, so incomprehensible that you can't understand what's going on without buying the book.

The middle third of 2001 does not violate science, except when it does. The moonbus follows a very  unlikely trajectory because that is easier to film.  If such a craft existed, it would have been launched in a ballistic trajectory from launch to destination, with no effort to maintain constant altitude.

According to the book, it was a surface vehicle, with very limited ability to launch over obstacles. Also not easy to film.

Discovery had no radiators because the director thought the audience would mistake them for wings.

Doing good cinema and good science at the same time is hard. I count Contact in this select group, but still  its wormhole opening technology was close to magic.

My biggest complaint about Interstellar is that at times it was hard to understand important words spoken.

There are some plot holes, but fewer than some people think. The ice that astronauts walk on on the second planet is probably unreasonably strong. Keeping the secret space program secret would be difficult if all the launches came from the base used for the final launch, but perhaps there were other, more remote launch sites.

Some have complained that if the Ranger spacecraft can reach orbit with a single reusable stage, why do they need a big two stage chemical rocket to get it into Earth orbit?

It seems that according to the film's site, the landers use both chemical and plasma rockets, and NASA has fusion reactors as a power source. If the reactor uses He-3, the limited supply would explain the two stage chemical rocket to reach Earth orbit.

Mapping Science Fiction in Three Dimensions

I think it is helpful to think of mapping Science Fiction in three dimensions.

The first is science truth. At one extreme, all of the science agrees with we now know about science, and no science is violated in the telling of the story. This hardly ever happens in Science Fiction movies, except in science docudramas, like Apollo13, or The Right Stuff. Which you should watch if you haven't yet done so.

Even the hardest of Science Fiction cinema almost always contains some dramatic license.

At the middle of the range, there's speculation about science that isn't obviously impossible, and if the story presents some speculation as fact, the story respects the logical conclusions from the speculation.

At the other extreme, the story completely contradicts what we actually think we know about our universe. For example, the story proposes that all of Earth's plant life is extinct, except in greenhouses in space.  Just outside the orbit of Saturn.  Yes, Silent Running, I'm looking at you. Or yarns in which radioactivity creates giant ants or web-slinging superheroes.

The second dimension is science relevance. If the story assumes that science will somehow allow us to make artificial people and that has an important impact on the narrative, that's one end of the scale. For example, Bladerunner.

If science allows us to make blasters that are remarkably similar to modern firearms except for the pewpewpew and the bright bolts of light, that's the other.

The third is narrative quality. Is it a good story, or not?

Sticking to movies, you can have a film that is excellent at science truth and science relevance, but mediocre at narrative, such as 2010: a Space Odyssey.

Or the reverse, such as the first two Star Wars movies.

You can also have a movie in which the science truth has gone stale with time, like Destination Moon.

A strong enough narrative can carry a story with poor science truth and science relevance. A Scanner Darkly is essentially a story about 1970s drug culture with some very speculative Science Fiction chrome bolted on. It's still a good movie.

Monday, December 01, 2014

My Pitch for a Buck Rogers Remake

Buck Rogers is put into suspended animation after being overcome by a mysterious gas while exploring a mineshaft/being frozen after crashing on a glacier/mumblemumble. He awakens in the 25th century to discover a world just beginning to claw its way back to advanced civilization after the centuries of barbarism that followed the collapse of society after the SpamBot Wars.

Little has survived from the old civilization, and much of it irrelevant to recreating modern technology. Among the most treasured of the Historical Documents is a series of illustrated texts that show the technology of the the 20th century: rockets with tail fins, analog gauges and vacuum tube electronics, rocket belts, leather flying helmets, and so on.

The engineers of the reborn civilization use the Historical Documents to recreate the technology of the past, tail fins and all. They quickly discover that single stage spaceships could not achieve interplanetary travel, or the flying belts the performance shown in the texts, through chemical rocket power alone. They deduce that the rockets were used only for maneuvering and rapid acceleration: the ancients must have had some other form of of primary propulsion!

This spurs them on to the research that accomplishes what they believe be the rediscovery of the Reactionless Drive. (Like the most practical form of artificial gravity it's something of a misnomer, but the important thing is that you don't need to carry reaction mass on board. Newton is not dissed.)

Dieselpunk hijinks ensue.

No Twiki.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Not all those who wander are lost"

Wanderers - a short film by Erik Wernquist.

A CGI video, with narration written and spoken by the late Carl Sagan.

Here is  a gallery of stills from the video.

I do not think we will get our meat bodies to these places anytime soon.  But if and when we do, it will be splendid.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Better Technology for Space Exploration

There are two kinds of technology that would make space exploration easier.

The first will come without government support. Anyone that figures out how to make a lighter solar cell, or how to deliver payload to earth orbit cheaper than their competition will do well without help in existing markets. If you can build a solar array that is lower mass for the same power, plenty of commercial ComSat companies will pay extra for that.

The second is more difficult.  There are technologies that NASA would really like to have: more powerful electric propulsion, or an Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, but there is no current commercial market for these. Aerocapture beyond Earth orbit would also be good to have. It would be very valuable to have a rotating orbital habitat to simulate the term long effect of Lunar and Mars gravity on living terrestrial organisms like us.

We should spend more on advancing the second kind of technology.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

And Now, For Our Next Trick...

So, we landed on a comet. What do we do for an encore?

Well, eventually we land on another comet, and do it even better.  But it will take time to figure out why what went wrong went wrong, and design and fund another mission, and get there. This will take years, but comets will still be there when we are ready to launch. We can, and must, and will be patient. We will play the long game. When we do it again it will be easier to do better because we will have learned in the interim.

In the meantime, I will quote the admirable Emily Lakdawalla, who did good service covering the Philae landing on twitter.
Coming up soon: Japan launches Hayabusa 2, an asteroid sample return mission, on November 30. New Horizons wakes up to begin encounter science for its Pluto flyby on December 6 (the flyby itself is next July). Dawn will get its first images of Ceres in February, and they'll already be better than Hubble's. Curiosity is doing the kind of science it was intended to do for only the third time on its mission, at a spot called Pahrump Hills in Gale crater. Opportunity is very close to the peak of the mountainous crater rim it's been climbing for a couple of years. Cassini has been on a high-inclination orbit at Saturn for a long time, but will soon be switching into an equatorial orbit that means lots more views and close flybys of Saturn's mid-sized icy moons. There's a lot going on!! But some sad things are coming -- both MESSENGER at Mercury and Venus Express at Venus are expected to crash into their respective planets within the next few months, ending those long missions (they've both nearly run out of maneuvering fuel).
Less immediately, in 2016 Juno arrives at Jupiter. And OSIRIS-REx launches, also intended to visit an asteroid and bring back samples.

We launch, and launch again. It's a great life, if you don't weaken.

These are the days of miracle and wonder...

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Comets Are Weird

So this week, humans landed a robot on a comet. And when I say landed, I mean we bounced it off the comet twice, until it came to rest.

Philae was one of two robot spacecraft launched over ten years ago. Rosetta was the larger of the two, and still orbits Comet 67P.

Philae bounced twice, and landed in a place that was mostly in shadow and so starved for solar  power  It continued to transmit data until only enough power was left from her batteries to put the craft in hibernation, and it uploaded quite a lot. Plucky robot.

It gave us images of the surface. The one above is the strangest landscape beyond Earth's surface I have seen to date.

But wait, there's more.

We have known for some time that the nucleus of the typical comet is mostly fluffy; typically about half the density of water. They have been described dirty snowballs or snowy dirt balls.

But wait! Some of the uploaded data already show a more complicated picture than we thought. One of Philae's experiments, MUPUS, was designed to hammer one of its sensors into the surface of the comet. The surface turned out to be much harder than expected, and apparently broke the probe.

Perhaps we should think of comets not simply as dirty snowballs, but dirty snowballs that a cosmic prankster dipped in water and then left at subzero temperature until the exterior was as hard as rock. Alternatively, this might be a condition peculiar to impact craters on comets, and Philae happened to fall into one. But Philae also bounced pretty hard at the first landing site.

Or one might think of the comet as a a deep space Mallomar, or in this case a chocolate dipped Peep: a hard crust around a fluffy interior. But the reality is probably still more complex than that, with all but the most recent crater floors dusted with ejecta from later impacts.

And  even the fluffy parts of the comet might include large chunks of less fluffy matter: dirt, rocks  or ice.

Update:  As of November 18, ESA scientists say the data received so far suggests 4-8 inches of dust over hard ice, and a fluffy porous interior below that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Humans Continue to Play the Long Game in Space

Today, the European Space Agency successfully landed a robot spacecraft on a comet for the first time in human history. Well done! It was launched ten years ago.

It was intended to launch even longer ago, to a different comet in January of 2003. A 2002 launch failure of the intended launch vehicle required a change in plans.

This is how you do it: with patience!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Humans Prepare to Land a Robot on a Comet Shaped Like a Rubber Duck

Well, they are and it is. The pictures remind me of an Alp in space, because that's more or less what comets are. There's a lot of snow.

But, I read that the comet itself is quite dark, like a lump of coal.

These are the days of miracle and wonder.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Ansari and Orteig: The Hard Going to the Stars

On Friday, October 31, Spaceship Two, Virgin Galactic's suborbital manned rocket, broke up in flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other, and providing another harsh reminder of the risks of space flight.  Following the loss of an Antares rocket on October 28, it was a bad week for the launch industry.

I'll repeat what several other people has have said this week: space is hard.  Getting to space requires harnessing enormous energies with very light hardware. The Space Shuttle high pressure fuel pumps
each produced about 71,000 hp, equal to 15 large diesel locomotives, yet they were not much bigger than an automobile engine. They had a power to weight ratio of over 100 hp/pound: .5 hp/pound is typical for an automobile engine.

Ed Kyle puts it well:
Modern rocketry is a frightening balancing act. To accelerate from a dead stop to more than seven times faster than a rifle bullet in a few minutes, an orbital launch vehicle must create, contain, and endure extreme pressures, temperatures, and forces. All it takes to trip up the process is one loose connection, one small piece of sand or rust, a bad bit of metal or insulation, a misplaced bit in a control program, or an unexpected vibration.
Suborbital is technically a lot easier. 2,500 mph is probably enough to reach space briefly on a suborbital flight, compared to about 18,000 for orbital. And six times the velocity requires 36 times the energy, and much better shielding on reentry.

SpaceShipOne had the enough volume and payload to carry three humans to at least 100 km in altitude.  SS1 was less than four metric tonnes, fully loaded. It was launched from the White Knight One carrier aircraft, probably similar in mass fueled but not including the SS1 payload.

The closest orbital comparison is the Soyuz launcher and manned spacecraft, over 300 metric tonnes fully fueled and capable of carrying three humans to orbit and back.  And that's for an expendable launcher, while SSI and WK1 were reusable except for the SS1 motor.

But. While suborbital space flight is technically a lot easier than orbital, its economics are far more challenging. Commercial satellites are so profitable that their owners are willing to pay tens of millions of dollars to get one launched. The most capable launchers can charge over $100 million for an orbital payload.

If Virgin Galactic fills six passenger seats on SS2 per flight at their announced price of $250,000, that's only $1.5 million. A brief suborbital flight measured in minutes is simply a lot less valuable than an orbital flight that can last as long as you have supplies for.

And building a reusable rocket plane capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2 is not a trivial task at all.

One that carries six passengers is even harder. SS1 had a theoretical capacity of only two passengers. The supersonic X-planes carried only a pilot.

Compare the Orteig prize to the Ansari X Prize.

The first offered a prize of $25,000 in 1919, worth about $340,000 in 2014, for "the first aviator of any Allied Country" to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, or vice versa. To win required an aircraft that could fly the required distance at about 100 mph. Lindbergh won, but there were several other entrants that could have won if history had been somewhat different. They included a Wright-Bellanca WB-2 and a Fokker C-2 Trimotor, both of which became successful commercial aircraft, although operating in an environment of subsidized mail transport.

Linbergh's plane was a unique variant designed for the stole purpose of winning the Orteig Prize, but still part of a successful family of Ryan monoplanes.

In contrast, when SpaceShipOne attempted the Ansari X Prize in 2004, there were no rivals remotely ready to fly,  Building a rocket-powered airframe that can fly to the edge of space at over twice the speed of sound and return safely is much, much harder than flying nonstop from New York to Paris.

When only one company has shown that they can fly a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers into space, if that company blunders in building their operational vehicle, there's no one to provide an alternative.

Yes, there's XCOR and their Lynx spaceplane. I wish them well, but they haven't flown it yet.

I believe the people responsible for SpaceShip Two have made at least major mistakes. The first was in making a jump to a spaceplane twice the size of the one that one went to the Smithsonian, instead of following it with a SpaceShip 1.1 for further flight tests followed by operational flights.  The second is choosing and sticking to the immature technology of hybrid rocket motors.

I think it's fair to say that entrepreneurs like Branson are rather more prone to hubris than the  average mortal. But it's a mistake to think that NASA administrators are quite free of hubris: pre-Challenger estimates of Space Shuttle reliability and the decision to launch Challenger in 1986 would both seem to qualify.

And government space agencies have their own unique failure modes: particularly, making important technical decisions influenced by jobs at stake in key Congressional districts, or the non-US equivalent.

I believe that some version of SpaceShip Two can be made operational, perhaps with significant modifications, and be relatively safe by the standards of dangerous pursuits like climbing Everest. Unless the investors lose faith in the project.

But remember: space is hard.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Bridport Muster: 1457

The Bridport muster  roll gives an unusually complete record of one of the musters held by the Lancastrians in 1457. Held at Bridport in Dorset, it records the arms owned, or that should have been owned, or in 82 cases were not owned, by 201 named individuals. Frequently the contraction ordinab occurs, probably for the Latin ordinabitur, or "he was instructed". Presumably it reflects equipment the individual should have had, but didn't bring to the muster. It's unclear how many of them the authorities expected to actually make good the deficiency, and how many would simply by fined.

For those that actually had bow and arrows, the most common kit was was jack, sallet, bow and arrows, often with a sword and dagger, for 33 individuals. Two had jack, sallet and habergeon: the 1473 Burgundian ordinance of St. Maximin de Tréves expected mounted archers to wear a a habergeon beneath their jack. One had jack, wallet and leg harness. One had a sallet and habergeon. 20 had bow and arrow, but no armor. 7 of the archers had a sallet as their only armor.  5 had a jack but no sallet.  Two had brigandines but no sallet.

This is somewhat at variance with Le Fèvre and Waurin's report that most of the English archers at Agincourt were unarmored: one would expect an expeditionary force to be better equipped than a local muster. Probably the many Welsh foot archers were less likely to have armor, and so brought down the average prevalence of armor among the archers as a whole.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The English Archers' Equipment at Agincourt

The archers were for the most part without armor, in their pourpoints, with their hose rolled down, with hatchets and axes hanging from their belts, or long swords.  Some were completely barefoot, and some wore hunettes (huvettes in Waurin) or cappelines of boiled leather, and some of osier reinforced with iron (sur lesquelz avoit une croisure de fer: covered with pitch or leather in Waurin )
Jean Le Fèvre and Jean Waurin were both present at that battle, and both wrote chronicles that described what happened at Agincourt. Their accounts were not independent: they essentially compared notes after the battle and their two versions of what happened were very similar. I have translated Le Fèvre above, with significant variations in Waurin noted.

Hunettes/huvettes and cappelins were head defenses.  Huvettes  could be made of boiled leather, but also iron, scales and plates, and were sometimes described as small and round.  Cappelins seem to have been a sort of helmet favored by infantry and light cavalry. Le Fèvre and Waurin seem to be describing some of the English archers wearing small helmets with lower, less pointed crowns than the bascinet of the contemporary man at arms.

Le Fèvre de Saint-Remy, Jean, and François Morand. 1876. Chronique de Jean Le Fèvre, seigneur de Saint-Rémy, transcrite d'un manuscrit appartenant à la bibliothèque de Boulogne-sur-Mer. Paris: Loones.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Dunning-Krugerrand Effect

This is a cognitive bias in which incompetent individuals overestimate their own competence, and so make excessive investments in a bright and shiny commodity metal, in the false belief that it is undervalued compared to other investments.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We Lost a Rocket Last Night

We lost an Antares rocket and a Cygnus spacecraft, bound for ISS, last night. About twelve seconds off the pad something went wrong. There seems to have been rapid unscheduled disassembly at the aft end of the launcher, and then the rocket fell back to the ground and exploded.

Throwing hardware out of our gravity well is really, really hard, and this is a reminder. The energies required are immense, yet the builder is required to make the rocket as light as possible

But, we know this is hard. So the United States can also reach ISS with completely different hardware: SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and Falcon launcher. Russia, the European Union and Japan all have their own spacecraft and launchers as well. Our bench strength is deep.

To watch the launch I stepped out on the patio with my phone to point the way to due south and my laptop to watch the launch until it climbed above the horizon. Space travel is still hard, but we do live in an age of marvels.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Great Docudramatist of the 16th Century

It is well to remember, in watching any of Shakespeare's histories, that he was always a playwright first. Whenever he had to choose between good drama and good history, drama would win.  And he was working from Holinshed, at least one remove from the primary sources.

Shakespeare was in the business of writing seductive untruths for a living. Remember that when you watch his Henry V, or any of his histories.

Warm Bodies

R and Julie are remarkably less stupid than their Shakespearean prototypes although R is a lot less articulate. Still, the road to true love is not smooth.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reorganization at Harfleur: 1415

Anne Curry has noted that several retinues who lost men from illness during the siege of Harfleur in 1415 managed to find replacements for some of their losses before they marched away to fight at Agincourt. Where did these men come from?

Curry argues that either extra men crossed with the original force or reinforcements arrived later, but I think there is a better explanation.

We know that dysentery killed  some leaders like the earl of Suffolk, and sent the duke of Clarence, the Earl Marshal and the earls of March and Arundel home as invalids.

Suffolk had a son and heir to take command, and the Earl Marshal and earl of March had trustworthy subordinates who preserved their retinues as ongoing units.

What happened to the Clarence and Arundel retinues after their leaders went home as invalids is unclear.

But it seems very plausible that some retinues lost enough of their upper command that they could no longer continue as independent contractors. This was particularly likely when the retinue was small, and some consisted of only a man at arms and three archers. The remaining fighting men would have sought and found employment in continuing units with vacancies.

The Frustrating Documentation of the Agincourt Campaign.

At first glance, it might seem that the English army in during the Agincourt Campaign is quite well documented. The Soldier in later Medieval England has 11,285 records for 1415.

But. In theory, every man at arms that fought at Agincourt should be listed three times: in a pre-departure muster, a post campaign accounting, and the Agincourt Roll copied by heralds in the late 16th and early 17th century. Since the herald weren't interested in common archers, the number per retinue is given but not their names in the Agincourt roll, so archers at the battle should be listed twice. Men invalided home should be listed both in the initial muster and a muster of invalids.

In practice, it is possible for the same man to be listed more often: some post campaign accounting also listed men who died at Harfleur or were sent home as invalids, distinguished in the list but not in the database They could have been on an invalid list as well. In addition, the Agincourt Roll double counts at least one retinue, that of Sir Henry Huse, both as part of a larger retinue and as an independent listing. It also lists the names of some men who died or were still sick at Harfleur, had been sent home, or were killed before the battle.

So there are less than half as many records as we would expect if all the documentation had survived. The Agincourt Roll is clearly incomplete: it conspicuously omits the Duke of York, who died in the battle, and his retinue, and only accounts for 2,496 archers in an army that at the lowest estimate had twice as many.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Iain M. Banks' Inversions is a covert Culture novel. Set on a quasi-medieval world, two of the characters are secretly from the technologically advanced Culture in which most of his other SF novels are set. They conceal their origins, but the clues are there.

The book is both artful and subtle. Like Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass, inversions are a recurring theme. A mirror image is a reversed image. Like Carrol, Banks uses a game very like chess as an extended metaphor. The story is set in two opposed nations, told in alternating chapters. Like the pieces of a game of chess, we see symmetrical but opposite figures on both sides. In Haspidus, a king rules, in Tassesen a republican usurper. In Haspidus the king is assisted by the merciful and skilled Dr. Vossil, in Tassesen, the Protector is protected by an efficient black-clad assassin of assassins, of obscure origins, DeWar. Kindly Dr. Vossil leaves a trail of corpses in her wake, and the grim DeWar reveals a remarkably soft heart.

Banks rings the changes on inversion throughout the book: when must you be cruel to be kind? And look for how often a figure in the Haspidus narrative has an inverted counterpart in Tassasen.

Both of the parallel tales are told by unreliable narrators, and I think that is another theme of the book. Neither narrator knows more of the story than what they know from personal knowledge, so they are missing some important information that the reader knows, and they are reticent in sharing what they do know.

The teller of the Tassesen narrative explicitly hides their identity. Consider who could know the story they tell, personally or from reliable informants they would know.

This is one of my favorite Banks.


This as a grim and mordant Iain M. Banks short story in The State of the Art which a man and his sentient spacesuit, both damaged, are forced down on a barren planet. Their best hope is a long forced march towards a base that may already have been destroyed.

It's a good example how the best SF can use speculative hardware and setting to write movingly about the human condition.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Colonial Plantation's Medieval Event: October 2014

Rain on Saturday depressed attendance for Medieval Days, but Sunday's lovely October weather brought a good turnout, although the human living history groups had to compete with the charismatic farm animals for attention. My group, La Belle Compagnie, was winnowed down by schedule conflicts, sickness, logistic issues and weather to one.

I brought the complete harness of an English man-at-arms ca. 1414, with both a grand bascinet and a kettle hat. I love it when the visitors ask "Why would you want to be able to wear more than one helmet?" Why, thank you for asking. And my sword ca 1385, and my grandfather's for comparison. And a rondel dagger, to demonstrate how acute points can curb your enthusiasm, even when you are wearing mail everywhere you don't wear plate.

I like to display my armor on a table, because you can easily pick up any particular piece and show how it works. Also, it's an authentic way to do it: you can see armor laid out in just this way in the 15th c. treatise on How a man schall be armyd. Also, if you have a tablecloth you can conceal less authentic kit below the table.

Ideally, I would have brought a longer table to display more of the armor at table height, but I was grateful for the shorter table borrowed from a friend.

For refreshment, I brought for drink a full pitcher of water and a beaker of water, and a modern bottle of wine decanted into a hand-blown bottle of wine and a pewter costrel. This was sufficient for the five hours ordained.

For meat I brought cold venison,  a portion of a loaf of bread, apples, dried unsulphured apricots and pistachios. This was also sufficient.

Next time I do a tent less presentation, I must remember to bring my broad-brimmed hat to wear between visitors.

My neighbors on one side were portraying Irish in German service about 1521, based on Durer's water color of that year:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reproduction Bascinet with a Pomme: 1410-1414

This helmet, seen earlier here, now has a pomme, a ball of gilded wood to hold feathers, just like Hector's. (Yes, that's Hector of Troy). I think it adds a note of style.

Vane for a Pavilion

This vane was made from brass sheet by Robert MacPherson. The wooden knob it rests on is topped with a brass washer so that the vane may turn more easily. The pole below the vane, like the ball, were turned from wood and gilded.

The ball was originally topped with a silk pennoncel. After a total of a little over three weeks cumulative exposure to the weather, the original finish on the top of the ball showed significant wear.  I surmise that the pennon when drooping in a low wind rubbed against the top of the ball. This will avoid that problem and also display much better in a calm.

The vane is based on a surviving weathervane at Etchingham.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Medieval Days at Colonial Plantation, 2014

October 11-12.

I will be doing a one person 1414 presentation, Sunday only.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Highland Dress in 1652

The 1652 state of John Speed's map of Scotland show a Highland man and women that appear to be wrapped in plaid blankets. Not very Mel Gibson Braveheart.

Bruges Back in Transportation News after 500 Years

Bruges was an important port in the 14th and 15th century. The wealth that trade bought allowed the city to afford some lovely art and architecture. Then the channel silted up, and the city couldn't afford to replace those old buildings with something newer. If you have the opportunity it's well worth a visit.

Bruges is back in transportation news with a planned underground beer pipeline.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The No True Muslim Fallacy

The archetype of this is the No True Scotsman fallacy. A blanket claim is made about a certain group, such as saying that no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.  The counterargument that Hamish McDonald from Aberdeen puts sugar on his porridge and likes it just fine is rejected by saying that Hamish is clearly not a true Scotsman.

So, Bill Maher made some extreme claims about Muslim countries:
...if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.
Reza Aslan pushed back, noting that some Muslim countries have a fairly benign view of what the state can impose on individuals. Of course, there was a response to that.

The response seems to be saying that whenever a Muslim majority country accepts a mostly secular structure of governance, like Turkey, Albania or Kosovo, it doesn't count, because No True Scotsman.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Boucicaut's Training Regime

Jean le Maingre, called Boucicaut, (1366-1421) was known for his rigorous physical training.
And now he began to test himself by jumping onto a courser in full armor. At other times he would run or hike for a long way on foot, to train himself not to get out of breath and to endure long efforts. At other times he would strike with an axe or hammer for a long time to be able to hold out well in armor, and so his arms and hands would endure striking for a long time, and train himself to nimbly lift his arms. By these means he trained himself so well that at that time you couldn't find another gentleman in equal physical condition. He would do a somersault armed in all his armor except his bascinet, and dance armed in a mail shirt... 
When he was at his lodgings he would never ceased to test himself with the other squires at throwing the lance or other tests of war.
Froissart, Jean, Jean Alexandre C. Buchon, and Jean Froissart. Vol. 3 1812. Les chroniques de Sire Jean Froissart... / [Et du] Livre des faits du bon Messire Jean le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut. Paris: Soc. du Panthéon litt. Tr. Will McLean 2014

I should point out that Boucicaut's training was exemplary rather than typical.

I was reminded of Boucicaut when I read this.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Scabbard Making in Diderot's Encyclopedia

The wood used for scabbards comes from Villers-Coterets; hardly anything but beechwood is employed, it is bought in boards four pouces wide and two or three lines thick. After having been dressed with rasps it is cut with a knife along a steel rule in order to reduce it and also to divide it into strips suitable for the blade which is to be closed in it. These beechwood veneers are sold by the hundred.  
No other mandril for making scabbards is used except the actual blade, upon which the wood is fitted as a preliminary operation, after which it is covered with linen, and finally with well pasted leather which is sewn on. After the whole assembly is well fastened together a metal end is put on the bottom and a hook on the top. 
Later, the process is described in greater detail:
They are made of beech wood, which comes to us in veneers from the environs of Villers-Coterets and a few other places, and are covered first of all with linen and afterwards with leather, shagreen, fish skin, shark skin, or some other material, in black, yellow, white, green, and other colors, well glued down. 
Article by Jacques-Raymond Lucotte, translated by J.D Aylward

The pouce was the French inch, about 6.6% longer than the English inch, the line 1/12 of that.

The 18th century technology of that article is a better starting for understanding medieval scabbard making than trying to deduce how they were made from first principles using our 21st century knowledge and intellects.

If you are trying to recreate the technology of, say, 1380, Diderot is closer chronologically than Sutton Hoo.  And also closer than today.

Some excavated Anglo-Saxon scabbards used poplar or willow. The scabbard of so called Sword of St. Maurice in Vienna, probably from the last quarter of the 11th century, had an olive wood sheath.

Friday, October 03, 2014

How Many Knights in England: 1324-1436?

The number of knights in England between 1324 and 1436 turns out to be a difficult question to answer, because it changed greatly over time.

In 1324, there was a major effort to determine how many knights were available for military service in England. Unfortunately, some county reports have been lost, and some knights with holdings in more than one county were counted more than once. About 1,200 knights seems to be a fair estimate based on that evidence.

In 1436 there was a lay subsidy that attempted to count lay land holders with lands with more than five pounds a year in rental value. This should have captured most of the individuals wealthy enough to be a knight.  The number of knights recorded were about  a seventh of the 1324 number when like counties can be compared.

In the army that Edward III sent to besiege Calais in 1346-47, about a fifth of the men-at-arms were knights. When Henry V sent an army to besiege Harfleur in 1415, the knights had shrunk to about 7% of the total number of men-at-arms.

Knights in 14th and 15th c. England were expected to perform burdensome unpaid duties in local government.  In the early 14th c., the crown worked to provide positive incentives to counteract that burden. In 1306 at the Feast of the Swans, Edward I offered to provide all the necessary military and ceremonial equipment to all presenting themselves to be knighted.  Later, the government apparently concluded that the rank of knighthood was a less important measure of military strength than the number of men having the equipment required to serve as a man-at-arms. With reduced incentives to serve, the number of knights shrank.

The numbers of named knights cited above could  be high or low. A father and son that served in the same decade could be counted  as two different names, even though the number of knights who served in any given year could  have been one or less. And some knights must have been uncaptured by any historical record.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Umbrellas Against the Machine

Hong Kong deserves a better government.


Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote: "Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian."

On the other hand, maybe it had something to do with Spain having ports on the Atlantic. Because even more people speak English, in spite of England building some very nice cathedrals.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Reasons Why You’re Too Dumb to Vote

1) You read arguments written by Lena Dunham, a "distinctly unappealing actress". This is an important consideration, which is why I mention it. Her lack of appeal eliminates any need to consider her arguments on their merits. I, on the other hand, shave my skull with a razor and my beard with a fork. My hotness makes my arguments incontestable.

 2) Psephelogical. I use obscure words because I can. You googled it, didn't you?  I could have said "pertaining to elections" but that would not have demonstrated your ignorance relative to my Jovian vocabulary.

3) "As a procedure for sorting out complex policy issues, voting is of distinctly limited value". Fortunately, I have a practical alternative. Consent to the policies I prefer. Because you're too dumb to vote.

4) Shut up. Because you're too dumb to vote.

5) Shut up, you ignorant slut. Because you're too dumb to vote. If you read Lena Dunham instead of my brilliant subpontine essays, you are unfitted to exercise your homeopathic voting rights. If only you were a responsible citizen of the republic, you might have justly exercised those same practically homeopathic voting rights in favor of enlightened policies I support, such as hanging women that have abortions from the neck until dead.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Congratulations to India

Earlier this week India put a spacecraft in Martian orbit,  joining an elite international club.  Getting even a robot to Martian orbit is challenging. Of 40 spacecraft launched towards Mars' orbit or surface, only 19 have succeeded.

Not only has India succeeded where Russia, Japan and China have failed, but it has done so at a remarkably low cost: reportedly only $74-75 million. Admittedly,  the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a lot less capable than the NASA and European Space Agency orbiters, but it is still an accomplishment that India can be proud of. India was wise to plan an austere mission for their first flight to Mars: now they can build on that success for their next mission.

With the arrival of NASA's MAVEN, also earlier this week, the flotilla of operational orbiters has grown to five, with two operational rovers on the surface. Five orbiters from three different space agencies: this is how you play the long game!

The oldest of the orbiters, Mars Odyssey, was launched in 2001.

We are getting better at this. Not only have we been wringing the bugs out of our hardware and software and mastering new technologies, but we have been growing a richer world in which six different space agencies can afford to launch interplanetary missions. It's no longer a game with only two players.

The flotilla is more than the sum of its parts. Mars Odyssey has relayed data from rovers that either could not reach Earth themselves, or could only have transmitted a fraction of what they found. MAVEN will take on that role from the aging spacecraft. The orbiters have imaged landers making the perilous dive into the atmosphere and tracked rovers on the surface.

God willing, we will build on this beginning.

Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Lie About a Member of Congress and a Journalist Being Innumerate?

Tyson has claimed that:

1) at least one member of Congress didn't understand the difference between 180 degrees and 360 degrees, and,

2) at least one journalist wrongly thought that “Half the schools in the district are below average." was newsworthy.

In 1998, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) said of Republican Rep. Henry Hyde “You have done a 360-degree turn,” Waters told Hyde. “I’m a little disappointed. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that you would have such a conflict in views about perjury and lying.”

Tyson's quote of an unnamed member of Congress was: "I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.” Not an accurate quote, but it's hard to see it as a complete fabrication. The key point is that the speaker thought that turning 360 degrees left you facing in the opposite direction.

Here is a quote remarkably close to #2: But it doesn't exactly follow the wording of "Half the schools in the district are below average." so Tyson's opponents can claim that he invented the quote.

Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Lie About President Bush?

Sean Davis, writing in the Federalist, accuses Tyson of fabricating a quote of President George W. Bush. Tyson is quoted as follows:
TYSON: Here’s what happens. George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] gave us a speech attempting to distinguish we from they. And who are they? These were sort of the Muslim fundamentalists. And he wants to distinguish we from they. And how does he do it?  
 He says, “Our God” — of course it’s actually the same God, but that’s a detail, let’s hold that minor fact aside for the moment. Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. So, but let’s hold that aside. He says, “Our God is the God” — he’s loosely quoting Genesis, biblical Genesis — “Our God is the God who named the stars.”
To quote Tyson more directly, from the Hayden Planetarium site:
After the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush, in a speech aimed at distinguishing the U.S. from the Muslim fundamentalists, said, "Our God is the God who named the stars". The problem is two-thirds of all the stars that have names, have Arabic names. I don't think he knew this. This would confound the point that he was making.
Now, did Bush attempt to distinguish we from they within a week of 9/11? On September 20, he told Congress "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." That's nine days, not seven, but that's a quibble.

A year after 9/11, President Bush said:
Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a Creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality. More than anything else, this separates us from the enemy we fight. We value every life; our enemies value none -- not even the innocent, not even their own. And we seek the freedom and opportunity that give meaning and value to life. 
There is a line in our time, and in every time, between those who believe all men are created equal, and those who believe that some men and women and children are expendable in the pursuit of power. There is a line in our time, and in every time, between the defenders of human liberty and those who seek to master the minds and souls of others. Our generation has now heard history's call, and we will answer it.
Did Bush try to "distinguish we from them"?  Between those who would intentionaly murder innocents and those who would not? Between freedom and fear, justice and cruelty? Why yes, he did.

Did he think that God was on the side of freedom, justice, life, equality and liberty? And that the other side, "sort of Muslim fundamentalists", were against those things, and that their concept of God's will was a false and evil delusion and perversion? Yes. Read his words and you know this to be true.

Now, as far I can tell, Bush did not talk of "the God who named the stars" in the context of 9/11. But in 2003, after the Columbia disaster, he did say:
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."  
The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.
Now, which  is likelier? That Tyson deliberately fabricated a false quote, or that he incorrectly remembered the context of something Bush actually said? Against the first theory, if he knew that Bush didn't say it as a rebuke of murderous Muslim fundamentalists, shouldn't he also have known that he was running a considerable risk that someone would notice the falsehood?

That said, it's pretty careless to quote a public figure as saying specific things based on your own imperfect recollection of what he said, when it is not so very difficult to find out what he actually said.

And aside from the misquote, Tyson's argument is logically flawed. If there is an omniscient personal deity, as Bush and apparently most Americans believe, then he does in fact know all the stars and has some means of identifying every single one.  The question of which human culture gave human names to the nearest and brightest stars is irrelevant to that belief.

On the other hand, Bush was pretty careless in suggesting in 2001 that "we" all believe in a divine creator from whom our rights to life and liberty flowed. Or, in 2003, that he could could console all of us by referring to the God of Isaiah and the Psalms. Or, if he wasn't speaking to all of us, the exceptions were unimportant.

As far as I can tell, a significant minority of US  citizens do not share his beliefs in a personal Judeo-Christian god.

Update: Tyson has now conceded that he conflated President Bush's speech after the Columbia disaster with what he said after 9/11:
Good to see that the Bush quote was found. Thanks to all who did the searching. I transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote. Perhaps that’s a measure of how upset I was in both cases. The mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed.
He has apologized.
And I here publicly apologize to the President for casting his quote in the context of contrasting religions rather than as a poetic reference to the lost souls of Columbia. I have no excuse for this, other than both events-- so close to one another -- upset me greatly.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Subdividing History in the 14th Century

How did 14th century people think about periods of history? They obviously didn’t think they were living in the Middle Ages.

Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, written in the early 14th c. and translated into Middle English by Trevisa in 1387, gives one Anglocentric structure for organizing the past.

Following St. Augustine he divides pre-Christian history into five ages. The first runs from the
Creation to the Deluge, the second from the Flood to the birth of Abraham, the third from Abraham to the death of Saul, and the fourth from David’s reign to the Babylonian Captivity. These form Higden’s second book, his first book having been devoted to geography.

Higden’s third book covers the fifth age of man, ending with the advent of Christ. Augustine’s sixth age was expected to run from the coming of Christ to his Second Coming, but by Higden’s day, with the Second Coming less imminent than originally expected, shorter periods were more convenient for historians of the Christian era.

Higden’s fourth book ended with the coming of the Saxons, his fifth with the coming of the Danes, his sixth with the Norman Conquest, and his seventh brought history up to his present.

Higden, following a tradition leading back to Eusebius, also interwove other chronologies with the Biblical one, placing the siege of Troy and the foundation of Britain by the eponymous Brutus in the third age and Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in the fifth. King Arthur was an important figure in Higden’s fifth book.

Educated but less learned contemporaries might not have recognized Higden’s Augustinian ages, but they would have recognized the historical landmarks that defined them.

Christine de Pizan, writing slightly later, drew a distinction between “the ancients” and later times. She clearly considered Vegitius, writing between 383 and 450 AD, part of the ancient world. The most common modern date for the beginning of the Middle Ages is the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476. This somewhat arbitrary date seems to have not have been considered a big deal at the time, but Higden’s coming of the Saxons, dated to 449 by the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, is in the same historical ballpark. A French historian might have chosen the coronation of Childeric I, the first Merovingian, in 457, or Clovis I, first king of the Franks in 509, with similar results.

For more recent events, an individual might refer to family oral history to speak of events in his father’s or grandfathers’ time. Both my grandfathers served in WWI, and one in WWII. I still have heirlooms from my great-grandfather.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Recreating Medieval Combat

Recreating medieval combat is hard, and there are a lot of ways to skin that particular cat.

It's a three dimensional trade space. Authenticity, affordability and safety are competing goods. Actually, it's even more complex, because even it authenticity is your primary goal, different aspects of authenticity also compete. The more realistic you make your pollaxe simulator in mass and materials, the less you can use it with the full force blows used in actual combat.

There are a lot of different ways to do it, all better in some ways and worse in others. I would say that the whole "My dojo can beat up your dojo" impulse is pretty unproductive, except that there are actually a very few schools where the founder is wallowing in "I AM YOUR SENSEI" narcissism, and should be mocked and scorned.

Mostly, I think, there are just a lot of different approaches with different tradeoffs.

And remember this: any simulation rules you select will be an imperfect model of a real fight. Once you start using the simulation as a game with winners and losers, the players will be tempted to game the system.

The late great Kurosawa illustrated this brilliantly in two duels at the beginning of Seven Samurai, embedded above.

The master swordsman Kyuzo first fights a weaker opponent with bamboo weapons. The final blows land almost at once and the opponent proudly claims a tie.

Kyuzo responds: "No. I won. If we had fought seriously, you'd have been cut and dead."

His opponent unwisely insists on a replay with sharp blades, but it turns out just as Kyuzo said.

Kurosawa does a good job in the second fight of illustrating that once you start fighting with real swords that will kill you dead, the dynamic of the fight changes a lot.

That said, not all simulation rules are equal. Some do a better job reflecting the dynamics of a fight in earnest than others. If you want to understand real combat, the closer your rules come to a real fight the better.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Political Ignorance and a Partial Solution

Political ignorance is a real problem with democracy as it is currently practiced. Unfortunately, it is entirely rational for a voter to spend little effort educating himself on the issues, since his individual vote has only a tiny influence on the outcome.

I have a cunning plan.

Revert to indirect election of senators. They would not be elected by the state legislatures, the method used before the 17th Amendment, since this created problems of corruption and deadlock. Instead, they would be selected by a jury randomly selected from all the citizens of the state.

This would have two advantages. First, each juror would have a lot of influence on the choice, and would have much more incentive to understand the candidates and issues.

Second the candidates wouldn't have to spend so much time raising funds for expensive general election advertising, and the influence of concentrated interests would be reduced.

If the system worked reasonably well for the Senate it could then be extended to the House of Representatives.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The World Fantasy Award Trophy: A Suggestion

There is a movement to replace the current design of the World Fantasy Award trophy, a bust of H. P. Lovecraft by Gahan Wilson. Understandably, a number of the award recipients have been made quite uncomfortable having their achievement memorialized by the image of a venomous racist.

And make no mistake, he was, even by the low standards of the early 20th century, an odious and extreme racist.

And he was influential, but a lot of his best work was presented as science fiction. Much of his pure fantasy was an inferior derivative of Dunsany. To the extent that he did write fantasy, his was only one of the streams that fed the modern genre.

The Hugo, of course, commemorates Hugo Gernsbach, who really did have such a critical role in science fiction as a commercial genre that he has a serious claim to be called the Father of Science Fiction. But they don't use his bust for the trophy, understandably, since he was, as Barry Malzberg has said, "pretty much a crook."

There is a petition to replace Lovecraft's bust with one of Octavia Butler. This is poorly considered.  Picking a single individual to represent the entire genre is probably a mistake, especially since she mostly wrote science fiction, and could plausibly described  as chosen because she was everything Lovecraft despised.

You could say with a straight face that Verne, Wells or Gernsbach was "The Father of Science Fiction".  You can't do that for fantasy. There are too many fathers. And mothers.

I say we replace Lovecraft with the Doors of Durin. It would certainly be an esthetic improvement.  I mean, racism aside, that is one ugly statue. Gahan Wilson is a gifted cartoonist with a taste for the grotesque, but as a sculptor he's a gifted cartoonist with a taste for the grotesque.

Or a chimera. A chimera works for me.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pitfalls in Understanding the Middle Ages: Archaicism

As a general rule, medieval artists portrayed the past as their own present. The Virgin Mary as a very respectable craftsman's wife of the year painted, the soldiers at the crucifixion in the armor of the year painted, and so on.

Except when they didn't.

The past is a different country. Things changed more slowly then, but still some artists noticed that the armor on the old effigies in the churches was different from the current state of the art, and likewise for old manuscripts and pattern books and so on.

For example, consider BNF Français 343 Queste del Saint Graal/Tristan de Léonois, a beautiful Milanese manuscript of 1380-1385. At first glance, it seems like a detailed depiction of contemporary fashion, arms and armor.

Yet the artist has actually taken steps to evoke an earlier age, since the text is of Arthurian legend. The knights are repeatedly shown in crested helms that have, by the 1380s, been abandoned except for jousts and tournaments. The pollaxes that were popular weapons for  men at arms in the actual 1380s are absent. The knights consistently wear sleeveless tightly fitted coat-armors and jupons over their armor, although artwork done at the same time that wasn't so deliberately aimed at evoking the past often show knights in looser garments with full or partial sleeves.

This sort of  deliberate archaicism was not uncommon in art of the 14th and 15th centuries and later. It is well to know what content the artist was depicting, and whether it was far enough in the past to perhaps justify archaic elements. It is also helpful to know of contemporary art where the artist was trying to depict the present or recent past, as a point of comparison

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Our Wile Y. Coyote Constitution

In oral argument before the Supreme Court on March 26, 2013, the following exchange occurred:
JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m curious, when -­ when did — when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted? Sometimes — some time after Baker, where we said it didn’t even raise a substantial Federal question? When — when — when did the law become this?

MR. OLSON: When — may I answer this in the form of a rhetorical question? When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s an easy question, I think, for that one. At — at the time that the Equal Protection Clause was adopted. That’s absolutely true. But don’t give me a question to my question. When do you think it became unconstitutional? Has it always been unconstitutional? . . .
It struck me that Scalia thinks that it is an "easy question" that bans on interracial marriage became unconstitutional in 1868. The Supreme Court failed to affirm this was so until Loving vs. Virginia in 1937, and ruled the other way in Pace vs. Alabama in 1883.  It seems to me that our Supreme Court can spend an inordinately long time before noticing that their current interpretation of the law is hanging in thin air without visible means of support.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Seven Amazing Listicles that Will Totally Blow You Away, According to the Publisher with a Vested Interest in Harvesting Your Clicks

1: 7 highly attractive celebrities that fall into some arbitrary category and are easy to find photographs of.

2: 7 highly attractive less famous people that are married to celebrities that fall into some arbitrary category and are easy to find photographs of.

3: 7 people who were well known young television personalities 40 years ago that, surprisingly, look different 40 years later, and are easy to find photographs of.

4: 7 female celebrities who wore revealing clothing at a recent event where female celebrities are expected to wear revealing clothing and pose for photographs.

5: #1 but with a different arbitrary category.

6 #2, as above.

7: 7 humanitarian crises you should care about. Just kidding, that's too much work. 7 celebrity sideboobs.

Clickety clickety clickety.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Rectangular Tents in Swiss Illuminations: 1478-1513

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.1 Diebold Schilling Sr.: Amtliche Berner Chronik, vol 1 f. 84,  1478-83 Unidentified Swiss illumination, probably from the same family of chronicles, Diebold Schilling Jr. Luzerner Schilling f. 107v and f. f. 108r (details)  1507-1513

Several of these tents are open at at least one end, revealing some of their internal structure. At least the first two are set up as mess tents. The first image has at least one vertical pole concealed by canvas, and probably two or more. The third image shows one of the background pavilions set up as a roof without walls to shelter a horse. The last two images both show camps of the Burgundian opponents of the Swiss. Note that they both show the gaps you might expect if if the tent walls were connected to the roof by toggles and the tent owner loosened some of them for ventilation. Click on the images to enlarge.

Here is another image of f. 92 from the Amtliche Berner Chronik, and here is f. 116.

Three of the images above and the two links give us significant information about the internal structure of a rectangular ten, and all five show a different approach.

Reconstructions of 13th Century Breeches

Two interesting reconstructions of breeches as rolled loincloths by Finnish reenactors.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Rectangular Medieval Tents

Agnolo Gaddi: The Dream of Emperor Heraclius ca. 1385-87. A rectangular tent with a vertical end wall is visible behind the emperor's pavilion. 

Master of the Cite des Dames: Livre du Chevalier Errant by Thomas de Saluces. c.1404 Bibliotheque Nationale MS. Fr. 12559

Detail .BNF Français 261 Titus Livius Ab Urbe Condita f. 25 1400-1410

L'Épître Othéa in The Book of the Queen BL Harley 4431 1410-1414 f. 133

The Encampment of Henry at Marquison 18th c. copy of a 16th c. painting of Henry VIII's Boulogne campaign of 1544.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When May Medieval Gentlemen Display Their Breeches?

Not often, actually.

The lower orders may do so more often.  Laborers in the fields in hot weather may strip to shirt and breeches without reproach. They need to sweat to do their duty. Likewise workers in a bakery serving a hot oven, or those burning heretics, or executioners. Huntsmen on foot pushing through damp underbrush might also strip down to their shirt, shoes and breeches.

Gentlemen rarely have good cause to be so underdressed under ordinary circumstances. The most benign exception might be young gentlemen exercising themselves with sword and buckler with their hose rolled down for limberness, but this was probably done in a somewhat private setting.

Special circumstances present exceptions, of course. A gentleman might be taken prisoner and stripped to his shirt, perhaps to prevent escape, or delivered up for execution,  or required to surrender a town under his authority to a victor eager to humiliate the defender.  Or be visiting a public bathhouse.

Most of the time a gentleman had little reason to walk about with his breeches exposed. Those of us attempting to recreate a medieval gentleman should dress accordingly.

A problem arises when individuals recreating the Middle Ages combine hose attached at a single point with a short outer garment.

The inevitable result is exposed breeches. This is neither authentic, fashionably medieval, nor flattering.

And a lot of the cases of "diaper look" I saw this Pennsic could have been avoided by properly fitted single-point hose worn at the right height. The coat wasn't so very short that the breeches would have been exposed if the hose was long enough. There's no need for the back of your hose to hang lower than your gluteal fold. Except that if off-the-rack hose is sized so that it's wearable by almost everyone in that shoe size, it's shorter than it should be for most wearers. Unless you always wear a long coat, it's worth paying extra for hose that's the right length.

Also, a belt will do a better job of keeping them up than a drawstring. I favor a belt within the breeches casing when wearing long single point hose.

Further, it's important to wear the right kind of breeches. The long and baggy breeches of the Morgan Bible were very poorly suited the shorter hemlines of the late 14th century. Tighter fitted and shorter breeches were increasingly favored by the fashionable, and by the last decades of the century the Tacuinum Sanitatis shows even peasant laborers wearing short, tightly fitted breeches.

Suppliers are not technically being deceptive when they sell as 14th century breeches garments that would have been quite acceptable in 1330. You, as a buyer, need to understand how obsolete such a garment would have been for a fashionable gentleman in 1390. A century is a long time.

Breeches and a Breech-belt

I made these breeches based on a pattern by Robert MacPherson. An earlier version appeared in the second edition of Daily Life in Chaucer's England, but he has since replaced the sinuous upper edge with a straight one. I used a wider casing to accommodate the belt, made of two separate pieces rather than a fold down of the breech fabric, making it easier to finish the two openings in the casing. I also added a modesty panel to the inside of the center front, of two additional layers of linen the same  shape as the front half of the Lengberg g-string. It was pointed out to me that the wear to the Lengberg breeches reveals multiple layers in front, perhaps as many as four. I find the additional layers over my privates more modest and comfortable.

The belt is just long enough that I can slide the belt over my hips with the belt buckled on the last hole, preventing the risk of the casing swallowing the unbuckled ends. Threading the belt through the casing initially is easier if the leather of the belt is not overly supple.

The design was based on the woodcut of St. Sebastian above from 1410-1420, as well as The Parement of Narbonne.

Update: I narrowed the modesty panel at its bottom from what 's shown above for better drape. Originally 6.5", it is now 4". I have a 40" waist. Also, I added an additional layer of linen, for a total of four over the crotch, to match what I think I see on the Lengberg breeches.

Click on the above images to enlarge them.

Banner Weathervanes in the 14th and 15th Century.

What is believed to be the oldest brass weathervane in England is still atop a 14th century parish church in Etchingham. (Update: it now seems to have been moved into the church) The Etchingham arms are pierced into the vane, and unlike later vanes the banner is not balanced by an arrow on the opposite side of the pole. As far as I can tell from the tiny images, this is also true of the banner weathervanes in the Tres Riches Heures.

Several images from 1380-1415 appear to show weathervanes atop tents, and they are explicitly mentioned in the 1496 Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotlandwhere they are made from dowbill platis, which in other references are described as white iron or tinplate.  They were painted by the same painter who painted the king's coat armor. The 1547 inventory of Henry VIII's possessions mentions, associated with his tents, 66 vanes of ironwork "painted and guilted with the  the kings Armes and badges".

A vane associated with the early 17th century pavilion in Basel is dated on the vane to both 1591 and 1736.  This relatively late vane is also unbalanced.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Breeches: 1370-1390

Livy, Ab urbe condita, French translation [Histoire romaine] by Pierre Bersuire Paris Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève Ms 777 f. 143r c. 1370 Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial [Speculum historiale], French translation by Jean de Vignay. vol. III. (Livres XI-XIII). BNF NAF 15941 f. 112v 1370-1380 Aristoteles, Politica [French version (Politiques) by Nicole Oresme] Brussels, KBR, ms. 11201 f. 1v center (oligarchy) and bottom (democracy) 1376; Guiron le Courtois BNF Français 338 Ff 324v & 326 1380-1390

These images show a fairly rapid change in the tailoring of breeches. In the 1370 image the breeches are nearly knee length. The last image from the 1380-1390 Guiron le Courtois shows breeches that are hemmed much higher, and apparently cut tightly enough in the legs that side vents are needed for ease. And these sources may make the change seem more gradual than it was, because the 1370 Livy may be deliberately archaic in portraying the Romans: the armor looks to be pretty old-fashioned compared to contemporary effigies.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Retrofitting Historic Enterprises Breeches

I had the original center front opening for the drawstring sewn up and replaced with two eyelets 3" apart in front. The drawstring now crosses in the front casing so that the left end comes out the right eyelet and vice versa.  The breeches now fit better and the drawstring is easier to tie and untie.

Although the change improves the fit, I don't find the pattern entirely satisfactory for the late 14th century. The legs fit loosely but there's insufficient ease in the seat: I've had three different pairs fail at the center rear seam.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Camping in a Pavilion

A hoop-spread pavilion with separate walls provides  a lot of convenient points to hang s-hooks for stowing things in easy reach, and for a cloths rack for clothes and towels.  Anything you can do to reduce rummaging in chests is good, if like me you find the tops of chests a convenient surface to put things down on. The center pole also has four hanging hooks that press fit into prepared holes, easily removable for packing the pole.

If you can hire good minstrels to play while you eat then I think the joy you get of them will be great compared to the cost of their hire.