Musings from Southern New Mexico

Month: January 2012 (Page 1 of 3)

Newt Channeling Uncle Arthur

The Spanish Inquisitor had up a recent picture of Newt. With that expression, I got it stuck in my head that he looked a lot like Uncle Arthur from the 60s TV show “Bewitched.”

For some reason, I wasn’t able to find an Uncle Arthur (actor Paul Lynde, by the way) picture with just that expression.

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.


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).

[table id=3 /]


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:

[table id=2 /]


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.

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