Mushroom Harvest


An hour and a half in the woods around little nearby lakelet Knipträsk garnered us a fine harvest of mushrooms. The last time I blogged about a shroom-picking expedition we had ten kinds. Today we had eleven, most of them hedgehogs and boletes:

  • Terracotta hedgehog, Rödgul taggsvamp, Hydnum rufescens
  • Birch bolete, Björksopp, Leccinum scabrum
  • King bolete, Stensopp/Karl Johan, Boletus edulis
  • Velvet bolete, Sandsopp, Suillus variegatus
  • Slippery Jack, Smörsopp, Suillus luteus
  • Gypsy mushroom, Rynkad tofsskivling, Rozites caperata
  • Common puffball, VÃ¥rtig röksvamp, Lycoperdon perlatum
  • Black trumpet, Svart trumpetsvamp, Craterellus cornucopioides
  • Shrimp russula, Sillkremla, Russula xerampelina
  • Red russula, Tegelkremla, Russula decolorans
  • Slimy spike, Citronslemskivling, Gomphidius glutinosus

A funny thing about mushrooms is that they didn’t really have names in Swedish before the dawn of mycology in the 19th century. The serious-minded and practical farmers of the past didn’t eat mushrooms and so had no reason to name individual species. With their almost negligible nutritional value, mushrooms are for pleasure only.

Author and comedian Jonas Gardell once said (and I paraphrase), “Nobody in my family has ever been gay or depressed or a poet or a junkie, because they have always been too busy picking mushrooms”.

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I Lost World War II Today


Continuing our military theme from the other day, I regret to inform you, Dear Reader, that the Axis won World War II. After Pearl Harbour, the US couldn’t decide whether to concentrate its efforts in the Pacific or the Atlantic, and ultimately came to play only a minor role in the war. Britain, meanwhile, defended itself well and harassed the Axis in Northern Africa, but it lost almost all its overseas colonies to the Japanese and never gained a toehold on the Continent. After losing two huge battles against the Germans in the Ukraine, the Russian forces collapsed, and the Axis powers divided Asia between them.

David usually beats me at games, and it was no different with my first go at Axis & Allies today. But I had fun, and next time I’ll know a little more about what to do.

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Book Review: Alsdorf, Auf den Spuren


A few weeks ago, Kai gave me an interesting book on a subject of which I am almost entirely ignorant: recent military history. Auf den Spuren des “Elbe-Kommandos” Rammjäger by Dietrich Alsdorf (2001) deals with an episode toward the end of the Second World War, the so-called “Sonderkommando Elbe“.

Things were grim in the Third Reich in the spring of 1945. Germany had effectively lost control of her own airspace, allowing Allied bomber fleets to operate with murderous efficiency far into Eastern Europe. The Germans had ample numbers of fighter planes and pilots, but hardly any aeroplane fuel. Possessing no oilfields, they had to make their fuel from coal, and the refineries had been high-priority targets for bombing. Furthermore, the development of German piston-engine fighters was lagging behind that of the Allied planes they had to get past in order to have a shot at the bombers. The first jet fighter models, though German, had not been — and would indeed never be — built in significant numbers.

In those end-times, desperate measures were tried. The Japanese had employed kamikaze suicide attacks since October 1944. Colonel Hajo Herrmann (born in 1913 and still with us) hit upon a similar idea for the air war: using fighter planes to ram Allied bombers.

Herrmann envisioned a thousand fighter planes employed in this manner, which might set back the Allies thousands of airmen and give the beleaguered German war machine a much needed reprieve to make fuel, build Düsenjäger jet fighters and train pilots in their use. Himself a seasoned fighter bomber pilot with 350 kills missions to his name, Herrmann understood perfectly well that a pilot’s chances of surviving a ram attack would be slim even if he got out and parachuted before the collision. (Those few ram pilots who did survive tended to do so by staying in their seats, hitting the vulnerable tail end of a bomber and then making an emergency landing.) But Herrmann was/is apparently a batshit Nazi idealist who felt that the end justified the means. After the war and ten years in Soviet prison, he became a lawyer, “focusing his activities mostly on the defence of former Nazis and Neo-Nazis, deniers of the holocaust and political activists of the far-right” as Wikipedia puts it.

Due to fuel shortages and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Herrmann’s superior, General Karl Koller, only 120-150 fighter planes flew on the single mission that came out of the initiative, on 7 April 1945. Most of the pilots were very young and barely out of basic training. They volunteered for the mission for reasons including a desire to avenge themselves for loved ones lost to bomber raids, unwillingness to be sent as foot soldiers to the Eastern Front, and general end-of-war fatalism. Surviving pilots quoted in Alsdorf’s book emphasise that they had several chances to back out of the mission, that they were ordered to save themselves if they could, and that Sonderkommando Elbe thus should not be seen as “German kamikaze”. But H.M. Kruchem describes his sense of disillusionment when the nature of the secret mission he had signed up for became clear: “… in that moment I knew with absolute certainty that we had lost the war. There was no wonder weapon. There was no atom bomb. We would simply be sent to the slaughter. And only to prolong the rule of the Third Reich’s big boys by minutes. … My world finally fell apart.” (p. 25) Fortunately for him, due to last-minute technical difficulties Kruchem’s fighter plane never got off the ground.

Only about 20 Allied bombers were hit by the ram attacks. Not all of them were destroyed. One ram pilot, Werner Kölsche, was lucky enough to hit a bomber, then hit another, then see one of them crash into a third flying alongside it, and finally make a successful emergency landing. But to put the 20 rammed bombers in perspective, note that the Allies sent over 1300 of them into German airspace on that day.

About a third of the Sonderkommando’s members who started from the airfields died that day. On 17 April the unit was disbanded and the men were allocated variously to infantry units on the Eastern Front or to a final last-ditch effort of Hajo Herrmann’s: the Sonderkommando Bienenstock. German forces across Europe surrendered piecemeal from 29 April to 8 May. Hitler shot himself on 30 April.

The book is full of fascinating details. Many of the pilots were issued with brand-new Messerschmitt fighter planes, straight out of the factory, which had never left the ground before. Some hadn’t even been painted. Yet when they asked to take their machines for a spin over the airfield to make sure everything worked, it turned out that there wasn’t any extra fuel. The mission fuel had in fact largely been collected from other planes. Several pilots died or were forced to land simply because their untested machines didn’t work very well, while others never got into the air at all.

To save weight (and thus fuel), the planes were relieved of their armament. To avoid detection, their radio transmitters were removed. All the pilots could hear in the headphones as they left the airbases was morale-boosting marching-band music, and now and then a female voice reminding them of all the innocent people who had died in Dresden. The pilots’ inability to communicate among themselves proved fatal to several members of the Sonderkommando, as their mates were helpless to warn them of approaching enemy aircraft.

Little thought had been given to the well-being of the pilots. Remembers survivor Werner Zell, “… they gave everyone of us a set of summer gear, known in pilot parlance as ‘the bone bag’. Were we supposed to wear that at more than 11 000 meters? Assurances about cabin heating weren’t convincing, because what would you do if it failed though some technical glitch? … This was pretty depressing. At heights like that we would certainly have to deal with temperatures from minus 40 to 50 centigrade [-58 to -40 Fahrenheit]. As little consolation, electrically heated gloves would keep our hands from going numb …”. But up he went. After his ram attack, when Zell was about to parachute for the first time in his life from his damaged Messerschmitt, he found that the canopy had gotten jammed in place. He only got out of the machine because presently a passing Mustang fighter shot the hood clean off!

The reason that Kai chose this book for my edification wasn’t primarily the historical angle. Alsdorf is not an historian, he’s an archaeologist with the Spurensuche workgroup at the Sandbostel POW camp memorial site. The subtitle of his book is Schicksale – Schauplätze – Funde: “Fates, Battlegrounds, Finds”, and much of it concerns finds made at sites where planes crashed on 7 April 1945 due to the activities of the Sonderkommando Elbe. Finding the sites is tricky, as the final weeks of the war were characterised by what the Germans with a wince and a shudder call Durcheinander, “through-each-other”, that is, disorder. It’s battlefield archaeology on a grand scale, where the traces of an individual battle are found scattered across many kilometres of landscape. In lucky cases, the identity both of the shot-down pilots and of their killers can be ascertained.

Most of the crash sites were excavated by scrap metal collectors shortly after the war or in the 1950s, when the Korean war sent aluminium prices soaring. In the rare cases where an untouched site is found, you will encounter a deep funnel-shaped crater filled with fragments of the plane’s fuselage, and at the bottom, the engine and propeller. In cases where the pilot went down with the machine, you will also find severely fragmented human bones and clothing accessories. The plane’s wings and tailplane usually ended up in pieces on the surface around the crater and rarely remain to be found. Judging from the examples in the book, fieldwork methodology has generally been crude at the crash sites. There are many pictures of mechanical excavators ripping chunks of tortured metal out of the ground while men in rubber boots pick through the debris. No sieves or folding rules there.

I enjoyed the book a lot and learned much, including bits of German aircraft terminology. Dragfläche! Flugzeugtriebwerk! Luftschraubenblatt! However, I’ll end with two points of criticism. First, the archaeology is almost exclusively used to illustrate the historical narrative. The book is full of pictures of young airmen and of wreckage, but the text hardly ever refers directly to them. The book does not actually offer much of the Neuzeit-Archäologie advertised on its cover.

Secondly, this is pretty much dead-end popularisation. It offers no pointers on where to go next if you want to learn more. It contains sporadic references to an apparently quite extensive literature, usually just the surname of an author and a page number. But there is no list of cited works for the reader who would like to dig deeper.

The main reasons to study these air battle remains, and I don’t mean to say that they are necessarily poor reasons, seem to be a) to lay to rest the memory of individual airmen who disappeared in the war, b) the excitement and glamour inherent in military aircraft. Archaeology has added a few interesting details to our knowledge of the Sonderkommano Elbe’s single hopeless mission, but it has not changed, and cannot change, the picture dramatically. Maybe, one day in the very distant future when today’s historical knowledge has been obliterated by the grind of the millennia, these crash sites will come into their own as important sources of knowledge about a forgotten war fought way back in the 20th century.

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Anthro Blog Carnival

The forty-eighth Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Tangled Up In Blue Guy. Archaeology and anthropology, and all about various aspects of Hrodgaud of Friuli!

Hrodgaud or Rodgand was Duke of Friuli from 774 to 776. Probably he was already duke under Desiderius, even if some Frankish sources, such as the Einhardis annales, say that Charlemagne put him in power after the Siege of Pavia.

Submissions for the next carnival will be sent to Brutha Carl at A Hot Cup Of Joe, not to the old submissions address. The next open hosting slot is on 22 October. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me for hosting. No need to be an anthro pro. But you must, at least according to some sources, have been put in power by Charlemagne after the Siege of Pavia. Like me.

And dontcha miss out on the latest Skeptics’ Circle!

Chinese Model Dragon Kit


Back in October I picked up a couple of wooden model kits in a mall near the Drum Tower in Beijing. Yesterday my daughter and I finished the first one, an Imperial Chinese dragon (count the toes), brought to life by a talented but uncredited kitmaker. I built one of these kits, an apatosaurus, when I was a teen. And now a grand-daughter of the Empire is eager to start building our second kit, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven.



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Roman Coin Prank


For many years, the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm was strictly a custodian and exhibitor of archaeological finds, performing no excavations of its own. Recently, however, its staff has resumed excavations on a small scale. The unusual nature of this fieldwork identifies it as inspired by post-modernist trends in museology.

I have already blogged a bit about the museum’s reverse excavations, an “incavation”. But my colleagues there are excavating as well. They started with their own back yard a few years back. The museum grounds are on the erstwhile site of a cavalry regiment in a part of Stockholm that was on the city’s semi-rural outskirts until the 1890s. The regiment moved out in 1928 and the museum’s additions to its buildings were finished in 1939. So the back yard trench yielded 18th and 19th century refuse (much like the stuff my friends at Djurhamn and I dug up to our disappointment this past June) plus remains of the museum’s popularisation work in the past half-century. Until the other day, the funniest finding was a fake Viking Period cremation grave with replica bronze jewellery and beads.

Now museum staff is trial-excavating the nearby remains of a scale reconstruction of Medieval Stockholm, built for the 1897 Stockholm exhibition. The characteristically post-modernist slant to these two fieldwork projects lies in their pre-occupation with meta-archaeology: digging the diggers of the past. The project directors want to study how people in the past (the 1890s and post-WW2) thought about their past (the Middle Ages and all of Prehistory). To my mind, the results of their efforts may be of some interest to Late Modern historians and museologists. And, of course, to all the museum visitors who get to take part in the excavation of these non-critical remains. Punters are being entertained.

A recent find from the trench in the museum grounds is very likely a wry gift from an archaeologist wishing to remind the museum staff of why most of their colleagues dig. A little Swiss girl picked up a bronze dupondius struck for Emperor Nero in AD 66-68. Coins of that era are almost unkown in Sweden, and it is in my opinion completely out of the question that it would have happened to lie around the museum’s site since antiquity and happened to end up right in the trench. Poor specimens of bronze issues like these are cheap on eBay. Maybe the finder’s parents (they’re from the Empire’s territory, after all) seeded the trench to entertain their daughter. Or maybe, just maybe, and I’m speculating wildly here, it might have been dropped by a visiting coin collector in the decades after WW2.

Sadly, my old buddy from grad school, Marie Svedin, suggests on the project blog that the coin would have been part of an ancient burial deposit on site. She bases this on a few 1st Millennium potsherds also found in the trench. But ugly household pottery of this type is a common find whereever you dig in agricultural Sweden. It is nowhere near enough to allow us to postulate a destroyed burial or settlement deposit with a unique coin. Ockham’s razor: the find must be treated as entirely spurious.

Come on now, guys. You know that most field archaeologists think your back-yard digging is pretty much a waste of time to begin with. Can you really afford to be taken in by pranks as well?

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Ocular Character Recognition


Ever since individual personal computers first came on-line in large numbers, they have been utilised as a huge opt-in distributed computing array by projects such as SETI at Home and Folding at Home.

But there are information processing tasks that can be distributed yet are still impossible to perform with computers. The Stardust at Home project uses the unparalleled image-recognition capabilities of the human brain to process data from an interplanetary sample collection mission. People all around the world take part in their spare time.

Auntie Beeb’s weekly program on the worldwide use of digital tech, Digital Planet, now reports on another innovative scheme to harness the eyes and noggins of computer users.

You know when a web site displays squiggly text against a blurry background and asks you to type in the characters to prove that you are not a spambot? The CAPTCHA project at Carnegie-Mellon uses this to correct the character recognition of scanned old books.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is pretty good these days, partly because the algorithms now use dictionaries and word-frequency tables to improve their guesswork. But the technology is still far more error-prone than a human reader. And OCR can apparently identify which words it’s having problems with. So the CAPTCHA project does something very smart.

When you need to pass a spambot test at a participating website, the project’s server feeds you two words from books it’s working on. One is a word it knows. One is a word it’s having trouble identifying. It doesn’t tell you which is which. You type in both words to gain access to the web site in question. The server thus collects a number of interpretations of each tricky word, and when a certain interpretation gets enough human “votes”, it is accepted as correct. Beautiful! People around the net take hundreds of thousands of these tests every day. Instead of asking people to devote spare time to the project, like Stardust at Home, the CAPTCHA project uses brain time that would otherwise just go to waste.

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Cosmic Miroslav Provod

i-7030d6721acf147ec8c6f0bb9325857a-Kondenzatry 1.jpg

I get a small amount of crank e-mail, and I usually don’t blog about it. In the case of Miroslav Provod, however, I’ve been mildly mailbombed for some time, and today he attached the above enigmatic image (titled “Kondenzátry 1”). Since his brand of whack physics is so whacky and also archaeology-related, I have now decided to inflict some excerpts from Mr. Provod’s latest boilerplate missive on you, Dear Reader.

I gradually found in further research that the phenomenon that I describe as “Cosmic energy” is actually static electricity.

The imbalance of surface charge shows that objects feel attractive or repulsive forces. It is known that static electricity is caused by friction of different materials. This piece of knowledge inspired me to observe and do research with water quells and other water streams. In this way I found properties of static electricity that had been unknown.

These are three energetic parts – aura, zones and interzones. These are described in the article called “diagrams”. Yet unexplained energy of a field is caused by water flow and it’s friction with rock; it’s immeasurable with available measuring devices and metres. This energy goes through the surface of the earth and penetrates metals, concrete and also other hardly penetrable materials.

I am aware that everything that I have published and will describe is only a small hint towards what needs to be explored. As an example I can write about findings from the experiments with groups of capacitors. The first finding is the fact that their charges have three energetic parts and these parts may be altered by changing the charge stored on the capacitors. I have further found that that by the contact of auras of more capacitors, a common aura is formed, whose volume is equal to the sum of volumes of auras of the individual capacitors. However, this is not true in all cases. Why – I don’t know yet.

Nothing that is stated here is made up. I just copy the knowledge of engineers that built Stonehenge and other megalithic structures. Nobody will doubt the existence of static electricity in the ancient times and therefore we have to look at megalithic structures in this way as well.

The most important piece of knowledge found in my research is the fact that it’s possible to alter the charge on cellular membranes of organisms by the use of capacitors. It is also applicable in this case that the energy transferred could be chemically changed as needed. I won’t describe this effect in detail because it may be misused.

The research of cosmic energy could be faster if sceptics stop doubting its existence and pointing away from its further research in this way.

Note, Dear Reader, that nothing that is stated here is made up!

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Watch That Windshield


I got my driver’s licence late, at age 22, because I wasn’t interested in cars and didn’t want to support automotive culture. When I finally did get myself a licence, it was because I was starting to feel embarrassed at being driven everywhere by my wife and my colleagues. I didn’t buy a car of my own until I was 33.

But long before trying out any real cars, I learned a thing or two about them from the 1987 computer game Test Drive. Most importantly, I learned what the gears are for. They are there because a car’s engine can’t stand an infinitely high rate of revolution. And, I also learned, if you rev up the engine too far, your windshield will crack.

We laughed a lot about this. Thing was, in Test Drive there were many ways to crash your car, such as hitting other cars or driving off the edge of the road, and in each case the game called the same sub-routine: show a cracked windshield and print “Game Over”. However, if you revved up too far and bust your engine, the program also called that same sub-routine.

So, Dear Reader, listen to your engine and keep an eye on your RPMs: you need to be careful about your windshield.