Sunday, March 06, 2011

Nasty, brutish and not that short: Medieval warfare was just as terrifying as you might imagine.

THE soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out.

Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.


You've Been Verbed.

Mothers and fathers used to bring up children: now they parent. Critics used to review plays: now they critique them. Athletes podium, executives flipchart, and almost everybody Googles. Watch out—you’ve been verbed.

The English language is in a constant state of flux. New words are formed and old ones fall into disuse. But no trend has been more obtrusive in recent years than the changing of nouns into verbs. “Trend” itself (now used as a verb meaning “change or develop in a general direction”, as in “unemployment has been trending upwards”) is further evidence of—sorry, evidences—this phenomenon.


Friday, March 04, 2011

Medieval England better off than Haiti

Typical medieval peasants engaged in a legal proceeding of some sort.

English per capita income in the late Middle Ages was actually of the order of $1,000 (as expressed in 1990 dollars), compared to modern-day Zaire, where a comparable per capita income is $249. Even on the eve of the Black Death, which first struck in 1348/49, the researchers found a per capita income in England of more than $800 using the same 1990 dollar measure.

Interesting. Apparently in some places, things are so awful a return to the middle ages would be an improvement.

The article is here.

WARNING: The article is safe for work. The rest of the site, not so much.

Japan and the Limits of Keynesianism.

Japan's budget is in a truly terrifying state. Reading about the government's behavior reminds me of the worst accounts of compulsive spenders on the verge of personal bankruptcy--a sort of "What the hell, we're screwed anyway, so let's not think about it and maybe go to Cabo for the weekend." The budget's structural position is what is known technically to economists as "completely hosed"; borrowing now exceeds tax revenue, and debt service costs now eat up almost half of the tax revenue the government collects. "Unsustainable" is too weak to describe the situation; I don't know how they're doing it now.

A cautionary tale.

Girl Chimpanzees May Use Sticks as Dolls.

In a fashion similar to human girls, some young chimpanzees seem to play with sticks as if they were dolls.

The findings, reported in the Dec. 21 Current Biology, are the first documented evidence of boy and girl primates in the wild playing differently with their toys. Though these patterns’ origins will surely be argued, they add to the constellation of behaviors shared by humans with our closest living relative.

“We find that juveniles tend to carry sticks in a manner suggestive of rudimentary doll play and, as in children and captive monkeys, this behavior is more common in females than in males,” wrote anthropologists Richard Wrangham of Harvard University and Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College.

Wrangham’s group has studied chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale National Park since the late 1980s, following in the methodological steps of his mentor, Jane Goodall, whose exhaustive, patient fieldwork first revealed that chimpanzees use tools and are more like humans than once thought.

They are our cousins.


You can safely stick your hand in liquid nitrogen…but you probably shouldn’t.

As Grey explains, he's protected by the Leidenfrost Effect, in which a liquid that comes into contact with something much hotter than itself forms an insulating layer of vapor to prevent the liquid from immediately boiling. (You can read all about the Leidenfrost Effect in our primer on the subject.) This vapor layer provided short-term protection for his hand against the dangerously cold liquid nitrogen, allowing him to safely place his hand in the liquid nitrogen again and again - although only for a split-second each time.

Details here.

If Ikea Made Instructions for Everything.

More here.

Why Can't We Do Big Things Anymore?

We no longer build the world’s tallest buildings – other countries do. We no longer reaching towards the moon – other countries are. And when we do attempt something big – universal health care, alternative energy, improved educational standards, mass transportation – the initiative inevitably snarls up in bad planning, corruption, political pay-offs, lack of leadership, impracticality and just sheer incompetence. The comparatively tiny Lincoln Administration managed to win the Civil War, open up the Great Plains through the Homestead Act, and kick off construction of the transcontinental railroad. . .all in four years.

Why are things so different now? Why can’t we seem to do big things well anymore?

Read the whole thing.

Why Mass Transit is Energy Inefficent.

Yet there are very good reasons why public transit occupancy rates will never rise much above their current levels of about one-fifth full. Suppose you take a bus or train to work during rush hour and it seems full. But it really only seems full as it approaches the center of town. It is likely to be nearly empty when it starts its journey in the suburbs, and be nearly full only when it gets close to the city center. Over a single, one-way journey into town (or out of town in the afternoon), the vehicle is likely to average only about half full.

Plus, that bus or train has to return in the other direction, and then it could be nearly empty. Now the transit line averages just one-quarter full. Add to that all the trips made during non-rush hours, and it is hard to imagine that transit vehicles can possibly average much more than one-fifth full.

More here.