Monday, September 28, 2009

Hey There Cthulu

And you're in your sunken city
and we'll sing a song that's pretty....

Velociraptors: Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong

You probably bought into the conventional wisdom that Velociraptors liked to lurk in the underbrush so they could leap out and disembowel you with their razor sharp sickle-shaped claws while hopping on one leg.

Wrong! Scientists now believe that Velociraptors used those claws like organic crampons to climb trees and leap on their victims from above.

Stay tuned for later updates, when scientists will reveal that they now think that Velociraptors used their mad tree-climbing skillz only to sneak up on Pterodactyl, Pterosaur and Pteranodon nests to devour their young.

Still More on the Staffordshire Hoard: Another Scenario

Then the lord, the mighty Mercian
takes the bag of burnished booty
glistening gold torn from the sword-hilts
of the foe-men that have fallen
from the thegns that thought to fight him
and then lost their war-like wager
gives it to his own sworn servant
greasy Grima, oft called Worm-Tongue.
"Take this hoard and hold it, servant"
says the lord, the mighty Mercian.
"Like it was my own, my master"
Says the servant, greasy Grima,
licks his lips and sidles sideways.
And he edges for the exit
with the bag of burnished booty.
Do you think the trusted treasure
made it to the master's mead-hall?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on the Staffordshire Hoard

In comments on the previous post, a reader asks if the sword fittings might be pre-installation rather than post-removal, and whether this might be the hoard of a goldsmith.

I think this is very unlikely. The hoard contains no ingots, and only small fragments of wire and sheet. I would expect a goldsmith to have a significant amount of otherwise unworked wire and sheet on hand. I would expect that hilt and buckle plates would not yet have rivets in place, but several of the finds show this. 67 gold sword pommels is an insane amount of bullion tied up in inventory for a working goldsmith. How may swords with gold hilts could he hope to sell in the course of a year? And if you look at the photos of the finds, many of the hilt plates show exactly the sort of damage you'd expect if someone was trying to dismount them in the field with inadequate tools and time.

I also doubt that the hoard ever had time to mingle with the general treasury of the person who possessed it when it was buried. A reasonably successful warlord would have other wealth in their treasury at home: coins, and vessels and spoons of precious metal at least. And probably ingots and more jewelry, both female and male. All of these were absent from the hoard.

Here is what I think happened. A Mercian warlord, who may have been the king of Mercia himself, went on campaign, and won one or more battles. He killed or captured several hundred thegns on the other side, as well as lesser men unworthy of mention. To avoid discord or dissension in his own army, he immediately stripped all the gold and silver from his booty and shared it out by weight according to custom. We don't know what the custom was then, but in the army of Henry V it was a third for the Sovereign, a third for the captain, and a third for the other fighting men. I'd be surprised if the proportion was very different when the hoard was buried.

And now the luck of the Mercian warlord turns against him, and other enemies threaten him, and he wonders if he can get his booty home. So he takes his share of the loot he has won so far, which rides in his saddlebags. He owns a very nice large gold cross: perhaps his chaplain uses it, perhaps it was booty. Until now it had its own wood or leather case, but the case won't fit in the bag. With regret he folds it into a more compact configuration and stuffs it in, and buries it with the rest. And carefully remembers where he buried it, so he can come back for it later.

But he never comes back, so perhaps something unfortunate happened to him.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What Sort of Person Has 67 Gold Sword Pommels?

And removes them from the swords, and buries them in the ground, along with a lot of other pieces of precious metal and never comes back for them? In 7th or early 8th century Mercia?

Whoever buried the Staffordshire Hoard.

The catalogue on the Hoard website says there were 67 gold pommels in the hoard.

Now the thing that strikes me is that the kind of people who owned swords with gold pommels in 7th to early 8th c. Mercia probably took a dim view of other people taking their swords and prying the pommels off. Let's call this class of individual elite thegns.

Here's one scenario. Somebody wipes out a force including at least 67 elite thegns, or several forces resulting in the same total. However, this happens in the middle of a war or other conflict and the issue is in doubt, so they strip the precious metal from the loot and bury it, with the hope of coming back later, but the other side wins. Everyone who knows where the loot is buried dies. Interesting.

Scenario two: a king or warlord has a treasury that includes 67 gold-pommeled swords, available to hand out to followers any time he needs to recruit twenty elite thegns in a hurry. Things go badly, and he needs to condense the treasury and bury it. Also interesting.

Here are more links.
Here is the press pack

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Universal Health Insurance

The Economist's blog Democracy in America, has an illuminating post on how the US political process is turning health care reform into a sausage factory. And how the Netherlands combines mandatory private insurance and universal coverage.

In the Netherlands, the 2006 reform that privatised the entire health-insurance system accomplished most of these tasks through one simple mechanism: a tax-funded risk equalisation fund (REF). The REF subsidises the poor, pays for the subsidies, and equalises the risks to insurers, all at once. The dedicated 7% payroll tax to pay for the REF (paid by employers) covers half the total costs of insurance premiums, so about half of each person's health-insurance premium is paid out of taxes. The system subsidises the poor because they don't pay very much in taxes, while the rich do; in other words, your progressivity comes built into the tax system, rather than through a separate jury-rigged system of health-insurance subsidies funded by unrelated excise taxes, as in the American proposals. With such a large REF, it becomes possible to mandate that all insurance plans must be offered to anyone at exactly the same price, rather than limiting the premium ratio to 5:1, as in the Baucus proposal.

Something like this really seems like a better way to solve the problems of US health care coverage than any of the Frankenstein's monsters of health care bills currently shambling through the US Congress. Read the article, think about it, write your representative.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dinosaurs and Robots

Dinosaurs and Robots is a new blog about objects by Mister Jalopy and Mark Frauenfelder.

Rather than focus on the newest trend, we will seek authentic, handy, rarefied, disgusting, illuminating, delicious, mysterious, intoxicating, commonplace, historic, intensely personal, entertaining and enlightened objects, both priceless heirlooms and exquisite trash.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

Three Cheers for JAXA

JAXA, The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, had an almost perfect first flight of their HTV spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).

The elite club that can deliver payload to ISS has a new member as of Friday, September 18, 2009. This growing redundancy and more robust transport ability is a good thing.

There's a video of the capture here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Paper Automata


Musician Locations at Jousts and Tournaments

In front of gallery on viewer's left:

  • Tournament of the Giant's Pine, Guiron le Courtois (BNF NAF 5243, fol. 55), c. 1370-1380

  • The Beauchamp Pageant, after 1483

    In front of gallery on viewer's left and right:

  • Tournament of Camelot, The Quest for the Holy Grail (BNF Fr. 343, fol. 4v), c. 1380-1385

    In gallery on viewer's right:

  • Tournament, Composition de la Sainte Escriture, 1462

    In gallery on viewer's left:

  • Unidentified 15th c. Illumination

    In each end zone:

  • The competitors are gathered (fols. 97v-98), and the tournament (fols. 100v-101), The book of the tournament of René d'Anjou (BNF Fr. 2695), c. 1460
  • Wednesday, September 09, 2009

    The Last Duel: Channeling Froissart

    Eric Jager's The Last Duel (New York, 2004) is written in the spirit of Froissart. And I don't mean it in a good way. I mean that just like Froissart, Jager likes to present a vivid and compelling narrative full of convincing detail, and he doesn't mind making stuff up to do it. This is from the big fight scene, with Le Gris down and Carrouges trying to finish him off:

    Finally Carrouges stopped and began fumbling instead with the lock that held the visor shut. Le Gris, realizing the knight's aim, struggled all the harder. He rocked from side to side and wrenched his head around to thwart the attempt on the lock, all the while grasping uselessly in the sand for his sword.

    Exciting stuff, but there's nothing like it in the historical documents describing the 1386 combat. Jager is guessing, and guessing badly. No surviving 14th c. helmet visor had a positive mechanical closure.

    The good thing about Froissart was that even if Froissart invented details about a particular medieval deed of arms, he based them on things that he had actually seen.

    That said, the end notes and bibliography in The Last Duel are a useful resource