Atholl Brose

To my surprise, I found that the Cocteau Twins’ 1988 song “Athol-Brose” is not named after a comet but after a Scottish drink consisting of oatmeal, honey, whiskey and cream. I’d like a Bose-Einstein condensate with mine, please.



It’s been more than four years since the first time I blogged about how cool it is to have broadband on a train. But I still haven’t gotten over it. Trainblogging again! The sun is shining and Södermanland zips past outside the window.

I’m on my way to Linköping to drop off finds at the County Museum and teach a class on Late Iron Age elite settlement in Östergötland. The finds drop-off is one of the loose threads that remain for me to tie up after my last book project. Backpack and a cardboard box full of goodies from Sättuna in Kaga and other great sites!

BTW, is anybody reading this in Birmingham? I’m going to be there from Sunday to Wednesday for a workshop. Drop me a line if you’re feeling gregarious!

And let it be universally known that WIndows 7 has no native support for DAV drives, an important part of “cloud computing”. Go Linux!

Banal Sex

One of H.P. Lovecraft’s least successful horror stories is “Medusa’s Coil“, a 1930 collaboration with Zealia Bishop. The story builds to one of the hideous final denouements that Lovecraft liked to end his stories with.

Nor was it right that the neighbours should know that other horror which my strange host of the night could not bring himself to tell me–that horror which he must have learned, as I learned it, from details in the lost masterpiece of poor Frank Marsh.

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside–the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation–was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba–for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.


Modern liberal readers of course find “Medusa’s Coil” laughable rather than horrific. The reason is that we are neither the misogynists nor the racists that the story presupposes. Lovecraft probably never stopped to think that he might one day be read by African American women or by anyone who considers such women to be people worthy of common respect.

I was reminded the other day of “Medusa’s Coil” by the ending of the five-part TV miniseries Criminal Justice 2. It’s the story of a woman who murders her husband over some dark secret between the two of them. Throughout there are enigmatic hints about some sort of violence or oppression she has suffered from her husband. But the viewer is left to wonder up to the last moment. Before the dramatic conclusion, in the court room, we learn that the husband had made a habit of raping his wife. And then, as the camera pans along the ranks of horrified jurors, we are finally told the shocking truth: it was anal sex!!!

Oh. OK. So the big thing here isn’t that she kept getting raped by her husband, but where, specifically, he put it in her. Are we to take it that if he had just used more conventional means to commit those rapes, then she wouldn’t have been driven to kill him?

Of course, forced entry hurts your bottom more than your vagina. But, beyond the physical pain involved, screen writer Peter Moffat clearly expected a strong sodomy taboo among the viewers. In 2009. Moffat very correctly judged that it would have been completely ineffective to use vanilla domestic sexual coercion as a plot twist. We’re supposed to be shocked not so much because the woman’s bottom hurts, not because she kept getting raped over and over again, but because she has been forced to take part in a Forbidden Act.

Nerve Magazine ran a “The Mainstreaming of Anal Sex” article in 1999. Slate ran theirs in 2005. To readers of Cosmopolitan Magazine and fans of the Sex and the City TV show, anal sex is about as controversial as Pilates. Mainstream on-line book stores offer many handbooks on the subject of how you might enjoy your own male or female little tush sexually. It’s optional: it’s your bottom and you decide what you’d like to try and what you’d then like to try again — or not. Everybody knows that the basic rule in bed is “consenting adults”. Therefore the Criminal Justice miniseries ends in anticlimax: when we learn that the long-withheld secret is rape we find it sad but banal. Even though it was anal.

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On Moral Relativism

In the context of religion versus atheism. Dear Reader Jason has expressed a need for moral absolutes that is quite common among conservatives. Wrote he,

“The bane of atheistic thought based on naturalism is that it cannot account for objective moral absolutes. All that is left is societal ideals and individual preference.”

“There are two tribes, A and B. Tribe A is composed of hunters and warriors; however, within the community itself they are loving and caring to one another. Tribe is B is composed of farmers and gatherers; they are peaceful and loving to one another. Tribe A decides that Tribe B has some things it wants, so it attacks. Tribe B is decimated; men killed, women raped, children either killed or brought in as slaves.

Is Tribe A wrong? If they have no remorse, or no feelings of guilt toward the brutality, perhaps it’s because they didn’t know them and were more concerned about their own needs. What do you do with these types of situations?”

My view is that morals are collectively negotiated and enforced constructs. It works fine since mentally healthy people are basically decent by nature and have a strong innate capacity for empathy and solidarity.

Jason rightly points out above that with my approach to morals, it is impossible to judge tribe A’s behaviour as essentially evil by any independent universal standard. But I don’t see the need for such a universal moral standard. I don’t claim the right to judge tribes A and B from any other perspective than that negotiated in my own tribe.

As for his question, “What do you do with these types of situations?”, it’s a separate issue. My reply is “If I have enough resources, I send peace-keeping troops and educators to teach tribe A my own tribe’s opinion that we are all brothers”.

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A Modest Proposal to Eradicate Square Dance

In many of the world’s most affluent countries, the population is shrinking because people aren’t having enough children to replace the folks who die. This offers some hope to solve global overpopulation, though unfortunately the solution involves eradicating poverty and establishing global ecological sustainability, which ain’t exactly easy.

These shrinking populations become demographically top-heavy, with few young people to support the elderly. Luckily, health care is so good in e.g. Japan and Scandinavia that old folks are in much better shape than they were two generations ago. Therefore everyone agrees that the age of retirement has to be raised here. Allowing all Swedish 65-y-os to retire is ridiculous. It’s like allowing all 50-y-os in 1940 to retire.

But where should we draw the line? Experience shows that arbitrarily deciding on a certain minimum retirement age forces us to change the rules very few decades. Instead we might look at skill levels. Swedish retirees squander their considerable energies on a range of pointless and demeaning pastimes. I propose that anyone who is physically fit enough to play golf or do square dance, and intellectually fit enough to perform genealogical research or follow a lecture organised by the local historical society, has not yet reached retirement age.

Such a reform would benefit public finances immensely, and also rescue the dignity of countless Baby Boomers who in their youth very rightly scoffed at any suggestion of square dance. Imagine them being able to look their grandchildren in the eye again! It would heighten national pride no end if we could eradicate genealogical research. And golf!

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Why Am I Not Agnostic About Gods?

The comment thread on the entry about the shroud of Turin grows daily and is (perhaps not surprisingly) mainly not about the shroud but about Christianity and atheism. Some people are praying for me and my family, others are calling me names, just because I identify as an atheist and offer the scientific consensus view of that piece of Medieval linen along with some hypotheses about its context of manufacture.

Henrik commented that anybody who is not agnostic about gods has an unscientific attitude to the question. Owlmirror simply and wisely replied “Parsimony”. This is in my opinion worth a few extra words of explanation.

To my mind, atheism, defined as “not believing in any gods”, is the standard scientific attitude. The reason that I am not agnostic about gods, invisible pink unicorns etc. is a central scientific principle known as Ockham’s razor. It states that when attempting to explain observations, a person should be parsimonious, frugal, economic in their hypotheses. Do not hypothesise more things than necessary. No observation of the world demands the existence of gods or invisible unicorns in order to be explained. Science is doing fine without those hypotheses. Thus there is no reason to believe that they exist.

But note also that being a secularised Swede, I am not emotionally invested in the issue of gods. I believe equally little in gods, invisible unicorns, Santa Claus, Bilbo Baggins and Bigfoot. And I see no reason to treat the question of gods separately from other scientific issues. (I mean, if there were immensely powerful incorporeal consciousnesses out there, they would be a hot research topic in any number of scientific disciplines.) The reason that I identify as an atheist in my byline top left isn’t that I spend lots of time thinking about my unbelief. It’s that most Sb readers are in the US. And I know that in the religiously crazed United States, atheists are a beleaguered, even hated, minority. But they’re my peeps, and I support them as best I can. The right to freedom of religion is a fine thing. And so is the right to freedom from religion.

Melliferax has recently treated the same question at greater length and given a somewhat different reply.

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De Profundis


Three cool pieces of science have been retrieved from the depths.

  • In the L’Atalante basin, one of the Mediterranean sea’s deep hypersaline anoxic basins, anoxic metazoans have been discovered. That means multicellular beings like you, Dear Reader, who live without oxygen. They’re loriciferans, Sw. korsettdjur, each less than a millimetre long. Instead of breathing like you, aided by endosymbiotic mitochondria, these beasties have another kind of power plant inside their cells similar to hydrogenosomes, that is, they’re chemotrophic.
  • In a bog on the high wooded hills of temperate Hanveden near Stockholm, my Mesolithic friends have now lifted sediment drill cores in which a paleobotanist has found seeds of Alpine mouse-ear chickweed, Cerastium alpinum, fjällarv. In a letter, Roger Wikell remarks that when those little flowers bloomed, the hilltop was a island in the Yoldia sea, part of an archipelago far from the mainland, and the retreating edge of the inland ice was not far away. Today, Alpine mouse-ear chickweed is a common feature of the mountain flora in northernmost Sweden around the polar circle. The various names of the plant all speak of frigid mountaintops.
  • From a cave in South Africa, two specimens of a new fossil hominin species.

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I Don’t Like My Philips Shaver

After about twelve years of regular use my Braun 5515 sounded like a chainsaw, so I decided to buy a new electric shaver. Mind you, I had repeatedly replaced all the bits I could: the mesh, often; the knife, several times; once even the accumulator pack. But I figured that having someone replace the worn-out bearings (Sw. lager) of the motor would be more expensive than getting a new shaver. I poked around on the net, looked at reviews and ordered a mid-price Philips HQ7360/17.

The two shavers look pretty different. The Braun is designed to move only to and fro along one axis, preferably against the direction your stubble is pointing. This makes its action similar to that of a disposable razor. The Philips looks like a three-headed microphone and allows you to figure-skate it around your face in whatever curlicues you like. I figured it would take some time to get used to a different machine after all these years. But I’ve been an increasingly unhappy Philips user now for almost four months, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the Philips is simply not a very good electric shaver.

Every non-bearded man wants a 1) quick 2) close shave that 3) doesn’t lacerate or bruise his skin. And I’ll say this for the Philips: it’s quick (on the parts of you where it works at all). And you can rinse it under the tap when you’re done. But my list of complaints is longer than that.

The Philips is absolutely useless on your throat, your upper sideburns and other soft concave surfaces. You can shave until your skin is red and still your throat will be not just stubbly, but fucking hirsute. This has forced me to take up non-electric shaving again with all its concomitant gore just to get my throat done.

Though it works pretty well above the jaw line, the Philips is sloppy. Hours after shaving you’ll sit at your desk at work and grab your chin or lip in thought, and suddenly you’ll find a long hair sticking out of an otherwise clean-shaven area. I’ve started to carry a disposable razor around in my jacket pocket for these emergencies.

In my face, the Philips encourages ingrown beard hairs, “razor bumps”. This, to you boys and ladies, is when a hair is lopped off at the surface of the skin, retracts somewhat, loses track of its exit hole, and proceeds to develop subcutaneously, forming an unsightly pimple. When the pimple is ripe, you then find something long and curly that would make a Hasid proud rolled up inside.

I’ve got to buy a new shaver. Dear Reader, if you’re a Europid guy with dark curly beard hairs, and if you have a shaver that works well for you, I’d like to know brand and model please.

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