Sentenced To An Hour Of Beheading

beheadingRemembered a D&D story I heard in the 80s. One of the player characters had stupidly and overtly committed a serious crime – had he attacked the King during a formal audience? – and been sentenced to beheading. Letting this happen is never a fun way to end a character’s career, but I believe both the players and the Dungeon Master were quite young.

The day of the execution dawns, the prisoner is taken out to the chopping block in the town square, the executioner steps up with his sword… And the only way this DM knows to handle situations involving swords is the combat rules. Which don’t really offer any details on combatants lying trussed up and face down on the block. Also, the execution victim is quite a high-level character, while the executioner is a basic man-at-arms.

The executioner could barely hit the victim, and when he occasionally did, he took only a small proportion of the victim’s hit points. It took an hour in the game world and endless dice rolling in our world to behead him.


January Pieces Of My Mind #1


The National Museum in Stockholm has re-opened after a long period of renovations. Endless treasures! Here’s a detail of the background on a 16th century Madonna & Child.

  • Woah. Checking my calendar. I have nothing planned from mid-summer until retirement. Except monthly meetings with the municipal education board.
  • Havande is an old Swedish cognate of having. It means “pregnant”.
  • If you’re the kind of voter who falls for fascist strong & stupid men, what’s the next step if one disappoints you? Abandon strong & stupid men or transfer faith to a new one?
  • Snow dusting in yellow sunshine on the grey gneiss scarp at Stubbsund made it look like limestone. Foreign.
  • You should always consider carefully before building an unstable interdimensional transfer portal. Because as the poet reminds us, “See how the void gates that held back the Chaos foe / Shudder and shatter, an entropy overload”
  • Wonder if the resin caulking rings found as remains of bark boxes in Early Iron Age graves also contain lots of human DNA from a chewing process, as has recently been shown for Mesolithic pitch lumps with tooth marks.
  • Some people think NASA should not call anything Ultima Thule because the Nazis used that name. That’s like refusing to listen to the Beatles’ White Album because the Manson cult did. Ultima Thule was first mentioned by Pytheas in the 4th century BC.
  • Movie: Annihilation. Lovecraft’s “Colour Out Of Space” + Tarkovsky’s Stalker + Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Grade: OK.
  • Wife horrified & scandalised to learn of my perverted hedonistic pleasure: I put some peanut butter and salt in my hot chocolate.
  • Yay! The County Archaeologist in Linköping has agreed to publish my forthcoming book on the Medieval castles of Östergötland!
  • 2019 will be my last year of paying back my study loan. I currently owe SEK 9,600 = USD 1,070 = € 940.
  • Free Swedish lesson! Unlike German, Scandy languages hardly ever pronounce an S as SH. Neither skål nor smörgåsbord has a SH. Repeat after me please: SSSSSCORL. SSSSSMER-GORSE-BOOED. SSSSSS.
  • I once tried sailing my space ship in 80s Elite straight away from the star. After a long while the star simply flipped from being behind me on the scanner to being in front of me. The same star.
  • How to identify a female Medieval scribe’s burial: lapis lazuli powder in her dental calculus.

Bronze Age Cemeteries As Comic Books


Vertical photos of untidy cairn-like structures at the cemeteries of Påljungshage in Helgona and Rogsta in Tystberga.

Cemeteries of the period 1000-300 cal BC around Lake Mälaren display a bewildering variety of ugly, damaged, diffuse stone structures. They usually contain multiple small depositions of potsherds and burnt bones that often do not represent a whole person, and sometimes there’s even just part of an animal. Closed finds are frustratingly rare here, when archaeologists often look to cemeteries to find out about chronology and social roles.

I’ve been reading Anna Röst’s 2016 PhD thesis where she’s drilled down for hundreds of pages into the minutiae of two of these sites. She has a really interesting perspective on them.

Röst suggests that her sites were not governed by the idea of permanent burial that we see so often in eras before and after her study period — including our own. Instead, they were intended for long convoluted multistage ritual processes where people would mess around with the bones, metalwork, stone structures, pottery, fire and animals. The great variation among the structures that we excavate and document now is partly due to varying ideas about the correct script for such a chain of ritual events: two structures may look different today because they were never intended to look the same. But in other cases the variation may be due to a single ritual script being interrupted on different pages: two structures may look different today because they were abandoned at different points along the timeline of a single process.

This recalls Fleming Kaul’s interpretation of the imagery engraved on period bronze razors: he considers each razor to be a panel in the same comic book about sun-ship mythology. You can’t understand a whole comic from one panel. Nor can you understand what people where doing and intending at a Late Bronze Age cemetery in Södermanland by looking at a single structure.

But there’s a big difference between the burials and the razor iconography. We never find a razor with a half-drawn scene on it. If Röst is right, then almost every one of the structures we document today at her kind of cemetery is a half-drawn scene, intended for an audience who were interested in the act of drawing, not in reading the finished comic book.

Röst, Anna. 2016. Fragmenterade platser, ting och människor. Stenkonstruktioner och depositioner på två gravfältslokaler i Södermanland ca 1000-300 f Kr. Stockholm University. [Full text available online]

Most-Played Boardgames of 2018

hiveHere are the eleven boardgames that I played more than thrice during 2018. The year’s total was 74 different games.

  • Hive (2001)
  • No Thanks! (2004)
  • Gaia Project (2017)
  • Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
  • Azul (2017)
  • Plato 3000 (2012)
  • Tichu / Zheng fen (1991)
  • Innovation (2010)
  • Keltis (2008, travel version)
  • Patchwork (2014)
  • Heimlich & Co (1984)

As always, the games on the list are mostly short ones that you can play repeatedly in one evening. But my new acquisitions Gaia Project and Tichu are way longer, full-evening games. All eleven highly recommended!

Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2018?

Stats courtesy of Boardgame Geek. And here’s my list for 2017.

Best Reads of 2018

rtlHere are my best reads in English during 2018. The total was only 39 books (when 40-45 is my normal number), mainly because I slogged through a lot of borderline-bad Swedish paperback novels. They became my lot in life for months after the local historical society gave me a book token for a shop that hardly stocks any English titles. Even giving them each a 50-page chance was quite the chore.

Seven of the books I read were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol 2. Richard Francis Burton 1857.
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. H.P. Lovecraft 1927.
  • Maskerade. Terry Pratchett 1995.
  • Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Damon Runyon.
  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Mark Levinson 2006.
  • Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Michael Chabon 2008.
  • The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4). Jonathan L. Howard 2014.
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jon Ronson 2004.
  • Salt. Adam Roberts 2000.
  • A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. Mary S. Lovell 1998.
  • Air. Geoff Ryman 2004.
  • A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, #4). 1960s.
  • Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond #4). Ian Fleming 1956.
  • The Door into Summer. Robert A. Heinlein 1956.
  • The Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain 1869.
  • Pistols at Dawn: a History of Duelling. Richard Hopton 2007.
  • Spinning Silver. Naomi Novik 2018.

Here’s my list for 2017.

2018 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards


Fråga Lund

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2018.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to the pop-sci TV show Fråga Lund. The show answers viewers’ questions about science and research in an accessible way by recruiting scientists and other experts in various fields. Through its format that mixes facts and playfulness the programme attracts a different – and far larger – viewership than the purely fact-based science programming that Swedish public service TV also offers.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award goes to the writer and speaker Thomas Erikson for his best-selling amateur psychology books and lecture events where he touts simplistic personality tests without basis in real psychological research. Erikson was soundly taken down at feature length in the long-read magazine Filter already last summer.

December Pieces Of My Mind #3


Long walk through sunlit winter woods to Bollmora for cake.

  • I dream of a future with no spectator sports.
  • I’ve been lucky with my genealogy. I just found my first “father unknown”, a man in generation 5 born probably around 1800.
  • Movie: Green Book. Italian American bouncer as driver and bodyguard for a highly refined black pianist on a 1962 tour of the Deep South. Buddy movie across a racial divide. Grade: Excellent!
  • I’ve never watched Die Hard and the concept of a Christmas movie is unfamiliar to me.
  • People spray “1983” on walls in Šibenik. Local pride: that was the year when the town’s basketball team won the Yugoslavian nationals to everyone’s surprise.
  • Exchanged some thoughts with this guy about Israeli politics. Came to think about my kids. Listing only the religious affiliations that we know of, their ancestors have been Scandy pagans, Finnish pagans, Catholics, Lutherans, Russian Orthodox, Jews, Taoists, Buddhists and Maoists. And now these young folks have no stake in either of these creeds.
  • Remember deep fried parsley? Senseless 80s food fad.
  • I’m having a Kickstarter to buy myself the Agri decumates.
  • Heard of “purity balls”? It’s when you’ve recently washed your scrotum.
  • On the boat from Zlarin back to Šibenik was a loud cheerful older lady with a prominent black moustache. She looked just like Monty Python’s Terry Jones in drag.
  • I may have to go on the dole in January. I’ve decided to treat it as a study grant to read up on the Pre-Roman Iron Age in the Lake Mälaren area.
  • Tolkien understood something that many later fantasists (including Peter Jackson) have not: the land outside a Medieval town wall is used for agriculture and poor people’s housing.
  • My wife was concerned about the spruce needles raining off the Christmas tree. I told her not to worry. “They smell nice. Just think if we had gotten a tree made from raw chicken.”
  • Movie: Lady Bird. High school senior has various troubled relationships, notably with her mother. Grade: OK.
  • What if there’s fossil fuel on Mars?
  • The Smithereens should by rights have consisted of leftover musicians from the breakup of the Smiths.
  • “… Irish sources speak of warriors taking out the brains of their defeated victims and mixing them with lime to form a ‘brain ball’ that could be used as a weapon or displayed as a trophy” Enc Celtic Mythology & Folklore, P. Monaghan 2003, p. 242
  • I keep returning to this: perse means “asshole” in Finnish, and it is always worth replacing the expression “per se” with “asshole” when reading academic writing.
  • Everybody remembering to listen to the Christmas Oratorio?
  • I love love love my kids’ academic and archaic turns of phrase.
  • You own one knife and one fork that have so far never been used together for eating. You will never know which ones they are.
  • Hay-on-Wye is known as a book town. It has had a hugely popular annual literary festival since 1988 and used to have ~40 used book stores (currently ~2 dozens). I’ve known about the place for something like 30 years and been convinced that it’s in Cornwall. Recently I met the Hay Festival’s sustainability officer and learned that it’s in southern Wales.

Fisksätra Marina hibernating


Minor Celebrity Ancestors


Otto Kristian Ekman (1791-1866)

I’ve made a lot of genealogical progress lately, greatly aided by the automatic search facilities at I’ve filled every slot in my tree up to generation 5 (OK, except the one “father undisclosed” in that generation) and I’ve got loads of people beyond that, even a few born in the late 1500s.

Almost everyone in my family tree is humble peasantry, farm owners or tenants. But I knew when I started my investigations that my mother’s paternal grandma had a petit-bourgeois background. Her branch shows up really clearly in the tree because they’re the only ones who took and curated photographs. And moving up that branch I’ve found two minor celebrities. They’re in generations 6 and 8, so their contribution to my own genetic makeup is of course negligible. But still fun.

Otto Kristian Ekman (1791-1866) was really a nice surprise, because he was an antiquarian and major collector. Oblivious to any relation, I’ve studied a lot of the finds that he brought together from Öland and Småland provinces, now held by the Swedish History Museum. By profession he was a medical doctor, provinsialläkare in Kalmar. So I’m not actually the first doctor in the family as I’ve thought.

Lars Kockom (1719-90) was a real big shot, an MP för the mössorna party and a town councillor in Malmö. His main business was as head of a pre-steam-age chamois leather workshop.

Otto and Lars were both from the upper middle class in the towns of west Scania. Otto’s daughter married Lars’s great-grandson. In addition to the Ekman and Kockom/Kockum patrilineages, names in this part of my tree include Bothe, Frick, Hammar, Horster, Jyde, Lang, Malm, Malmgren, Ruhe and Thott. I guess it was their cultural legacy that made my grandpa a (rather reluctant) auditor and caused his daughter to advise her son to study business administration. I didn’t listen to her.

Nationalist Complains About Novik

36896898I’m reading Naomi Novik’s excellent recent novel Spinning Silver, which deals with Jews and Christians in a fantasy version of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, apparently in some equivalent of the 16th century.* Much of the plot and recurring themes in the book revolve around money lending and the re-payment of debts. There’s also evil ice faeries, fire demons and spell casting in it. I’ve never read any Jewish historical fantasy before, and I was curious to learn what Jewish readers think about it. So I googled “jewish news review novik spinning”.

The first surprise was pleasant: I had to scroll through lots of general secular news and reviews sites before I found one with a specifically Jewish perspective. This book enjoys wide exposure (including 22,000 ratings on The second surprise was less fun: when I finally found what I was looking for at the Jewish Review of Books, the reviewer Michael Weingrad turned out to be a nationalist grinding his historical axe.

This guy complains that the Christians in this fantasy novel aren’t mean enough to the Jews. He’s unhappy with the degree to which some families from either group are willing to co-exist in a friendly manner. He states incorrectly** that Novik’s fantasy Jews don’t speak Yiddish. “Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place. … none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, express any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation.”

Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism. Spinning Silver does refer repeatedly in passing to pogroms, but Weingrad apparently can’t enjoy (grimly) his Jewish historical fantasy unless it focuses on anti-Semitism in dirty detail, plus some faeries, demons and spells.

But then I’m a 21st-century secular liberal who has little commitment to group identity. I sincerely believe that the world needs a lot less less attachment to peoplehood, religion and nation. I should probably have googled “progressive jewish news novik spinning”. And I recommend the book.

* There’s tobacco, so after 1492, and Lithuania is still independent, so before 1570. But even impoverished peasants drink tea, which wasn’t available to the imperial Russian court until 1638.

** Chapter 18. Wanda, a poor Christian teen who probably speaks fantasy Polish: “I thought at first they were just talking so fast that I couldn’t understand, but then I realized they were saying words that I didn’t understand at all, mixed up with words that I did know.” And in chapter 21, “… I did not care anymore that I did not understand what they were saying.”