What Acilius has been up to lately

Over the last couple of days, I’ve posted several little things in several places.  I put several links on Twitter, including these:

A post on Secular Right complaining about an Episcopalian bishop who wrote an essay called “Budgets, Leadership, and Public Service” led me to post two comments.  In this one, I expressed the opinion that one of the great advantages is that its founder’s political opinions are unknowable.  The bishop seemed to be throwing that advantage away by attributing an extremely detailed set of political opinions to Jesus.   In this one, I replied to a commenter who pointed out that Jesus seems to have been convinced that the end of the world was coming soon by saying that any number of political positions are compatible with that conviction.  Another immense number of positions are incompatible with it, of course, but by itself the idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker doesn’t tell us what his political opinions might have been.

Also, here’s a nice cool jazz number by Jane Ira Bloom, called “Freud’s Convertible.”


Helen Scales

Helen Scales

A new book about seahorses has appeared; the author is a marine biologist named Helen Scales.  In its review, The Economist grants that “Scales” is an apt name for a person interested in fish. 



Emily Hornett

Emily Hornett

Some new discoveries have come from examinations of old collections of butterflies; the lead researcher is a biologist named Emily Hornett.  In his note about these findings, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science mentions that Hornett is a “great name for an entomologist.” 


A name that is especially suited to the profession of its owner is sometimes called an “aptronym.”  The Wikipedia page for aptronyms lists some famous cases of this coincidence, including such ironic examples as the sometime primate of the Philippines, Jaime, Cardinal Sin.  According to blogger and aptronym maven Nancy Friedman of the “Fritinancy” blog, the American Name Society had a panel about aptronyms at its annual session this January.  Friedman cites a New York Times blog that had a little contest a couple of years ago for best aptronym; the winners included Peru, Indiana’s Eikenberry funeral home.  Friedman also mentions that Slate has posted lists of aptronyms from time, including lawyer Soo Yoo, psychiatrist William Dement, and former White House press secretaries Larry Speakes, who spoke, and Tony Snow, who snowed ’em under.  Here is a list of 180 aptronyms, including such worthies as a financial-services scammer named Robin Banks.  Some aptronyms are really quite eloquent, as for example in the anti-Apartheid activism of actress Honor Blackman


Weighty matters

An artist's conception of the field pack ancient Roman soldiers wore

An artist's conception of the field pack ancient Roman soldiers wore

About seven years ago, I read G. R. Watson’s The Roman Soldier (originally published by Cornell University in 1969; I read a copy of the 1985 paperback reissue), a handbook summarizing what scholars in 1969 knew about life in the ancient Roman army.  One point Watson made that I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the book had to do with the field packs Roman soldiers wore.  Some scholars in Germany had tended to give very high estimates of the amount of weight that Roman soldiers had to carry, in some cases solemnly asserting that a legionary would march about all day with over a hundred pounds of equipment on his back.  Dismissing these estimates as a self-evident absurdity, Watson tries to figure out just how heavy the pack might have been (in the 1985 reissue, that discussion is on pages 62-66, continued in note 140 on pages 175-176.)  The best estimate he can come up with puts the average weight of the Roman soldier’s pack at 30 kilograms (66 pounds,)which happens to be identical to the standard for most modern armies. 

Watson’s evidence suggests that throughout history armies have tended to increase the amount of weight soldiers have to carry, until the kit becomes so heavy that the high command has no choice but to cut it down to something weighing about 30 kilograms.  I suppose that the obvious reason for this tendency is that many people are involved in deciding what it is essential that a soldier should carry in the field.  Each of those people has ideas about items that should be on that list, and each sees the addition of his or her favorite item as a victory.  When no one involved in decision-making at that level has to wear a full field pack on a regular basis, the decision makers have no immediate incentive to deny each other their little victories.     

I wonder if there might not be a second, less obvious reason for this tendency.  Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on a psychological experiment which indicates that people who are holding heavy objects tend to take matters more seriously than the same people do when they are not holding heavy objects.  If this tendency is and has long been general among all humans everywhere, then we would expect that people who are interested in human behavior would have noticed it.  Military commanders are interested in human behavior.  Perhaps, noticing the overlap between the category “people holding heavy objects” and the category “people showing seriousness,” commanders have formed the idea that they could induce ever greater seriousness in their subordinates by weighing them down with ever more heavily loaded field packs. 

If there’s anything to this speculation of mine, perhaps it is also part of the reason why there is so little protest against the spine-damagingly heavy backpacks that so many American children are forced to lug to and from school every day.  Of course, many people are involved in deciding what a student should learn and do in school, and that is an obvious reason why the collection of textbooks and other materials students must transport on their persons tend to grow so heavy. 

heavy backpackBut perhaps a belief that the weight of the physical burden one carries correlates directly with the seriousness of one’s attitude is also part of it.  We want children to take school seriously.  We have observed that people holding heavy objects tend to be serious.  If holding heavy objects translates into seriousness, maybe holding even heavier objects will translate into even more seriousness!  It will definitely translate into more back injuries, but isn’t that a small price to pay for keeping the wee ones doubled over for much of the day?

Knowledge is its own reward

In Consultation, by Joseph Schippers

In Consultation, by Joseph Schippers

Dostoevsky sometimes had his intellectual characters ask each other if they would rather be clever and miserable or stupid and happy.  If they claimed they would rather be stupid and happy, he had them jeer at each other.  “You’d have me believe that you could be like the simplest peasant woman, believe everything she believes, if it meant happiness?”  Evidently he thought that clever people needed cleverness more than they needed happiness.

It seems that Dostoevsky would have been at home among rhesus monkeys.  Ed Yong reports on an experiment in which rhesus monkeys were offered varying amounts of water and the opportunity to know how much water they were about to be offered.   The monkeys showed an interest in knowing how much water they were about to be offered that had no connection with the water itself.

Fast-talking furriners

john moschittaFrom Ed Yong’s “Not Exactly Rocket Science,” a report on a recent study of turn-taking conventions among speakers of various languages.  The surprising thing is how little variation there seems to be from culture to culture.  It seems that every language group prizes speed of communication; nowhere is it the norm to pause noticeably between speakers.   While I’m posting about Ed Yong’s coverage of linguistics, I should note that a few days ago he posted this piece about a study that seems to show that five-month old babies can recognize their native languages when they hear unfamiliar speakers use them.