Review: A World Lit Only by Fire

A World Lit Only by Fire

A World Lit Only by Fire
The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance
Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
366 pages
Little, Brown & Company, New York, 1993

I have recently heard the argument made more and more that the so-called Dark Ages were not that. I think this book stands against that notion. William Manchester leads the reader in a fascinating look at times that truly were the darkest of times. Romantic fiction and movies of that era tend to paint a picture of a relatively quiet life in the pleasant countryside (oftentimes, the plot involves this idyll being disturbed by highwaymen or war). Instead, the author describes a time when murder was so common as to boggle the mind of the modern reader. Indeed, the statistics the author presents from particular locales such as London lead one to wonder that there was anyone left. The puritanical ideas we impose on these times are put to bed when the reader learns that getting pregnant as a means to acquiring a husband was routine. We see not the country cottages of Kinkaid paintings, but rather mud and straw huts shared with pigs and chickens. This was a time when the man clad in rags was the social superior to the man clad in sky. In central Europe. In winter.

As the author presents stories of the conversion to Christianity among the tribes on the Continent and in the British Isles, one gets the distinct impression that this is done by barbarian chieftains with the overt intent of increasing personal power. The storyline of the progress of Christianity necessarily informs the political scene, even as barbarians cling to their more ancient superstitions. As the Church in Rome begins to exercise more and more authority, it begins to serve in the stead of a fully functioning governing body. We see where the politics of all of Europe become deeply entangled with the Papacy, including the purchase of high office. The Borgias and the Medici are only the best known among the intriguers of ecclesiastic power, but their actions echoed throughout Europe. As one not particularly interested in the Church, I thought a bit too much time was spent on the issue. But I understand that it is difficult to understand much of the period absent information on this topic.

I found this a very readable and interesting work, even going as far as getting my wife to read it. For the reader with a reasonably high degree of familiarity with Renaissance Europe, there will be bits of interest even there. But as the time preceding the Renaissance, it is very richly informative.

Languages

I have been a bit of an amateur linguist since high school. Recently, I decided to look into which languages were the most spoken. I made a post on that, based on minimal intertube research. Now that I have a new table plugin (courtesy of Tobias Bäthge), I decided to take another stab at it. This time, I spent a couple of hours on Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook. I included countries whose contributions were over 10,000,000 speakers. For some languages, however, this wasn’t enough. So I also included either the first two countries or the first three if the third was a significant contributor).

LanguageCountrySpeakers
Chinese - MandarinAll Countries1100000000
China940000000
Taiwan23071779
Singapore1659258
EnglishAll Countries900000000
United States267444149
India125226449
Philippines89800000
Nigeria79000000
United Kingdom59600000
Germany46272504
Canada25246220
France23000000
Pakistan18000000
Australia17357833
Italy17000000
The Netherlands14000000
South Africa13673203
Spain12500000
Turkey12000000
Poland11000000
China10000000
HindiAll Countries510000000
India487560891
Pakistan14987418
SpanishAll Countries450000000
Mexico110651490
United States50000000
Spain46624207
Colombia45931584
Argentina40655093
Venezuela29133156
Peru26097668
Chile17280812
Ecuador14034186
Guatemala12712691
Cuba11168448
Dominican Rebublic10184100
ArabicAll Countries350000000
Egypt80117000
Sudan43939598
Algeria34895000
Morocco31649000
Iraq30747000
Saudi Arabia25721000
Yemen23580000
Syria21906000
Tunisia10327800
RussianAll Countries280000000
Russia138739892
Kazakhstan14746254
Ukraine10832330
Belarus6014703
BengaliAll Countries260000000
Bangladesh155399124
India96323005
PortugueseAll Countries240000000
Brazil190755799
Mozambique20366795
Angola15116000
Portugal10555853
FrenchAll Countries180000000
France60578600
Democratic Republic of the Congo24320000
Algeria21000000
Cote d'Ivoire12740000
Morocco10131001
Canada9590700
GermanAll Countries128000000
Germany81471834
Austria7280510
Switzerland4965975
Tai-KadaiAll Countries84000000
Thailand66720153
Laos6477211

.

Unfortunately, the “All Countries” number is only a rough estimate. Someday I may be induced to do an actual study. For now, however, I think this is adequate for informational purposes.

Size Comparison E.U. vs. U.S.

I was looking into going to Germany for vacation. I wanted to see how much of that country I could see. I hadn’t realized how large it is. My research (source: Wikipedia)showed that Germany is over 13% larger than New Mexico (source: Wikipedia). That got me thinking about how various European countries compared with U.S. states. Here is that comparison:

CountryStatesq km
1 Russia17075200
2 Kazakhstan2727300
1Alaska1717854
3 Turkey783562
2Texas695621
4 Ukraine603700
5 France547030
6 Spain505782
7 Sweden449964
3California423970
4Montana380838
8 Germany357021
9 Finland338445
10 Norway323802
5New Mexico314915
11 Poland312685
12 Italy301230
6Arizona295254
7Nevada286351
8Colorado269601
9Oregon254805
10Wyoming253336
11Michigan250494
13 United Kingdom244820
14 Romania238391
12Minnesota225171
13Utah219887
14Idaho216446
15Kansas213096
15 Belarus207600
16Nebraska200345
17South Dakota199731
18Washington184665
19North Dakota183112
20Oklahoma181035
21Missouri180533
22Florida170304
23Wisconsin169639
24Georgia153909
25Illinois149998
26Iowa145743
27New York141299
28North Carolina139389
29Arkansas137732
30Alabama135765
31Louisiana134264
16 Greece131940
32Mississippi125434
33Pennsylvania119283
34Ohio116096
17 Bulgaria110910
35Virginia110785
36Tennessee109151
37Kentucky104659
18 Iceland103000
38Indiana94321
19 Hungary93030
20 Portugal92391
39Maine91646
21 Serbia88361
22 Austria83858
40South Carolina82932
23 Czech Republic78866
24 Ireland70280
25 Georgia69700
26 Lithuania65200
27 Latvia64589
41West Virginia62755
28 Croatia56542
29 Bosnia and Herzegovina51129
30 Slovakia48845
31 Estonia45226
32 Denmark43094
33 Netherlands41526
34 Switzerland41290
35 Moldova33843
42Maryland32133
36 Belgium30510
37 Armenia29743
38 Albania28748
43Hawaii28311
44Massachusetts27336
39 Macedonia25713
45Vermont24901
46New Hamshire24216
47New Jersey22588
40 Slovenia20273
48Connecticut14357
41 Montenegro13812
42 Cyprus9248
49Delaware6447
50Rhode Island4002
43 Luxembourg2586
44 Faroe Islands (Denmark)1399
45 Isle of Man (UK)572
46 Andorra468
47 Malta316
48 Liechtenstein160
51DC177
49 Jersey (UK)116
50 Guernsey (UK)78
51 San Marino61
52 Gibraltar (UK)6
53 Monaco2
54 Vatican City0

.

There are 10 E.U. nations larger than New Mexico? Wow. Of course, I have to question the “European” status of Kazakhstan…

Interesting stuff for weirdos like me.

Note: I tried to enter the table in HTML. It seems WordPress is impressively terrible at that. I found a plugin at Tobias Baethge’s page. I really appreciate it.

Proposal for a Crackpot Limit

An unfortunate practice has come to be an inescapable part of modern journalism. This is the introduction of “false balance” to any subject. I have written about that before, but I have only now really figured out a reasonable counter for it. During this morning’s drive to work, I was listening to the Point of Inquiry podcast. The host, Chris Mooney, was interviewing the head of the National Center for Science Education, Dr. Eugenie Scott. The topic was the recent decision of the NCSE to begin focusing on Climate Change Denial.

As the two discussed the overlap of Climate Change Denialists with Evolution denialists, I wondered about the lack of a means of identifying those individuals who are considered cranks by their peers. There certainly must be a reasonable means for doing so. Absent anything in the literature, I will take a first stab at it (I will call the individual under scrutiny the “test subject”):

First, the field of the test subject should be a recognized field of study. That is to say we should not need to proceed any further once we realize the test subject is a homeopath or astrologer. The bar for this should be fairly low. I say that since there are such pursuits as chiropractic wherein a fairly sizable fraction are non-cranks.

Second, we find whether the test subject is working in his own field. A number of true experts within the bounds of their own fields become crackpots when they leave those bounds. Linus Pauling was a brilliant scientist who became an advocate of curing cancer with vitamins. An unfortunate number of medical doctors and engineers fall victim to extrapolating their abilities into foreign fields of study.

Third, the test subject should be an expert in his subject. He needn’t be particularly well-known, but he should be recognized as an expert by other experts. Note that it often happens that a single instance of apparent crackpottery is enough to damage one’s “expert” credentials for life.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the test subject should not be considered a crackpot by his peers. This one is important. If colleague thinks you’re crazy, maybe it’s him. If you think everybody else is crazy, maybe it’s you.

If such indicators inform a journalist’s treatment of her subject, she will be doing a service to her profession and to her audience.

In all my readings, I only know of two individuals who were “laughed at” yet turned out to be correct.

Alfred Wegener was a respected geophysicist with notable contributions in meteorology and climatology. In his studies, he noticed similarities between creatures, living and fossil, in facing coasts. After much research, he wrote The Origins of Continents and Oceans. Despite his reputation, many reacted negatively to his claims. He would continue to contribute to the the fields of meteorology and geophysics as a professor at the University of Graz until his death during field work. It was only matter of time before geophysics caught up enough to provide a mechanism for Wegener’s continental drift.

The other was a real crank, whose lack of understanding of basic physics proved to be a boon. Guglielmo Marconi’s failure to grasp that electromagnetic radiation travels in straight lines (and thus generally require line-of-sight for transmission) caused him to attempt over-the-horizon transmission by simply increasing the power. Given that he was using spark-gap signal, the power involved was phenomenal. Unbeknownst to himself or competent electrical engineers however, signals may be reflected off atmospheric layers.