LinCon & SweCon 2017

Ascension with its four days off is shaping up to be the geekiest time of the year. This time I had three big events to choose from: the LinCon gaming convention, the Kontur/SweCon scifi convention and the 45th anniversary of the Tolkien Society. Tolkienians do things in nines.

I decided to spend two days at LinCon on the Linköping University campus and one day at Kontur/SweCon in an Uppsala hotel, saving the Sunday for family pastimes.

Here are the games I played at LinCon. And I had lots of free Nepalese tea from the tea bar!

  • Through the Ages II (2015). This update of a 2006 civilisation builder is currently rated second-best game on the planet on Boardgame Geek. I enjoyed playing it though I found it too fiddly and counter-intuitive. Also it took six hours for three players including rules run-down and a lunch break. So it’s not for me.
  • Biblios (2007). This is a short and sweet abstract game with cards, colours and numbers. The theme, about Medieval monks copying books, is thinly but prettily painted onto the mechanics.
  • Innovation (2010). Another civilisation builder, though short and abstract. I taught this favourite of mine to noobs and got beaten twice even though I’ve played the game nearly 40 times.
  • Lovecraftesque RPG (2015). In this interesting short-session role-playing game, the group improvises a horror story in the tradition from H.P. Lovecraft using cards. Participants serve as game master, protagonist and assistant game master(s). After each scene, these functions shift one step clockwise around the table, so that last scene’s protagonist becomes the game master, (one of) the assistant game master(s) becomes the protagonist, etc. We got a really good creepy story together about inheriting a closed-down Civil War veteran’s hospital that has more recently served as a mental asylum. Check it out! The PDF is only £10. Also check out the games designed by Simon Pettersson with whom I played!
  • Star Realms (2014). Space battle deck-building game. Fun!
  • Forbidden Island (2010). Beautifully illustrated re-make of the Pandemic co-op game aimed at kids.

At the convention auction I sold Glass Road, Great Dalmuti, Province, Race For The Galaxy, Space Cadets Dice Duel, Spank The Monkey and Yahtzee. Instead I bought Sid Meier’s Civilization and The Castles Of Mad King Ludwig.

At Kontur/SweCon I chatted with loads of acquaintances, old and new. I also heard interesting interviews with Guests of Honour Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie and Siri Pettersson. Saladin Ahmed couldn’t come as planned but had sent clips of himself answering questions from con goers, which were interesting to listen to. Good academic talks too: Josefine Wälivaara about the relative absence of queer themes in scifi movies and television, and Jesper Stage about the economics of colonialism in scifi. And I bought a Lois McMaster Bujold paperback from the Alvar Appeltofft Foundation’s huge travelling used-books store.

My next con will be nothing less than the Scifi WorldCon 75 in August, in Helsinki! I learned from its organisers in Uppsala that I’m very likely to be giving a talk about Scandinavian pseudo-archaeology at the WorldCon, and I’ll probably also be on some panels. Everyone around the Baltic, you need to go to Helsinki! Not because of me, but because this is an extremely rare event for geeks in the region, pretty much like the Geek Olympics coming to your home town.

2017 was my fifth LinCon and the second one without my kids — see 2016.

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May Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • I don’t know what “the winter of 1473” means. January and February? November and December?
  • Just got home from a sunny bike ride that was also incidentally my least successful geocaching expedition ever. I was in Hammarby Sjöstad, a recently built and densely populated urban area. The only way a geocache survives in such an environment is by extreme stealth. And GPS navigators do really poorly between tall buildings. I simply couldn’t find the little fuckers.
  • Cousin E has taught us the popular old Maoist card game “Fight the Landowner”.
  • Translationale Magnetresonanztomographie. Betriebswirtschaftslehre. Unternehmensbesteuerung.
  • I’m hoping that voters around Europe are paying attention to US news and learning a thing or two about what happens when you elect poorly educated and inexperienced anti-establishment candidates to high office.
  • The Wallenberg/SEB banking family founded Saltsjöbaden in 1892. Now they’re closing their branch office at the little local mall, est. 1969. I haven’t been to a bank office in years.
  • Saw an ad for equity release. I assume that it means mutual orgasm. I’m strongly pro.
  • Almost every one of the 40 participants at the Social Democrat intro course I attended today was either the child of an immigrant, the spouse of an immigrant or an immigrant. A lot of well educated and articulate people. Encouraging both for the party and for society at large.
  • I hate pre-installed apps that can’t be uninstalled.
  • I judge books by their first 50 pages, whether to continue reading. Now I looked at The Lord of the Rings in this way. In its first 50 pp you learn what the Ring really is. Oh yeah.

Dungeons & Archaeologists

Dungeon map by Tim Hartin (paratime.ca)

The original roleplaying game, 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons, set the template for a hugely popular genre that persists to this day as RPGs, boardgames (such as Descent) and video games (such as World of Warcraft). The core activity in these games is to enter underground complexes of rooms and tunnels (dungeons), defeat their various inhabitants (dragons, if you’re out of luck) and steal their treasure. The player characters who do this are termed adventurers – or, by some these days, murder hobos.

As you may have noticed, there are very few dungeon-like sites in the real world, and real people who behave like D&D adventurers tend to have extremely short careers. Let’s ignore the murder hobos and look at dungeons from an archaeological perspective, to investigate why they are never seen on Earth.

A typical D&D dungeon is located just beyond the edge of a tract of wilderness, at a convenient commuting distance from a friendly settlement such as a semi-isolated farming hamlet. The first question for an archaeologist is whether the dungeon is inhabited by sentient living creatures. If not, it is either an animal warren (basically a very large anthill) or a tomb.

Apart from magpies, animals aren’t interested in collecting treasures. So let’s look at a tomb. A dungeon is always full of treasure when the player characters reach it, which means that the tomb must be extremely well hidden and unknown to the locals. Why else would the treasure still be there? Tutankhamun’s tomb survived almost untouched because it soon got covered by the backfill from a later, much grander tomb – which was robbed at an early date. And it certainly wasn’t possible for a few adventurers to wander into King Tut’s tomb guided by a map they bought from an old fellah at the coffee house. Carter had to employ a large team of farm workers to shift dirt for months opportunistically before they found the entrance.

Another possibility is that everyone around knows where the tomb is, but that it is tightly guarded, either by the authorities or by supernatural (possibly undead) beings. Since the treasure is still there, we may infer (again) that these guards make it too difficult for a few adventurers to wander into the tomb. You need an army. Archaeologists very occasionally do find treasures in unguarded tombs, and in every single case this comes as a surprise to us. Because if anyone had remembered the location of the treasure, they would have removed it a long time ago.

If instead there are sentient beings living in the dungeon, then to an archaeologist it is simply a settlement site, same in principle as the nearby farming hamlet I mentioned. Archaeologists don’t classify sentients into people and monsters, into good and evil. It isn’t clear to us upon arrival whether we can in better conscience raid the hamlet, the dungeon or more likely neither. We are simply dealing with paired settlements on either side of an ecological boundary. One practices agriculture and has few other riches, the other one does not produce much food but possesses great riches. Being so close to each other, the two communities must be aware of each other and in contact. We can see that any conflicts between them haven’t wiped either of them out so far, so most likely they are economically interdependent. The hamlet probably sells food to the dungeon inhabitants in exchange for treasure. Both communities are in all likelihood highly averse to the other getting wiped out by murder hobos. Such an equilibrium proves the farmers to be too weak to rob the dungeon dwellers and the dungeon dwellers unable or unwilling to farm the land. To an archaeologist, this setup is indistinguishable from a hamlet with a nearby stronghold or monastery.

If instead the dungeon’s inhabitants have only very recently settled there, it becomes difficult to explain why there is treasure in the dungeon. Did the new inhabitants bring it? Or did they defeat a group of strong tomb guardians? Either way, the dungeon is now basically an army encampment, and so again, not a place that four hobos can walk into.

There is also the issue of the underground spaces themselves. Most designers of D&D dungeons have a poor understanding of their physical characteristics. Are the underground passages largely natural caves? Then they will have quite a distinct morphology that differs depending on whether it’s a limestone karst system where a stream has eroded the rock away over millennia, a talus cave where fallen stone blocks have stacked on top of each other and left spaces under and between them, or lava tubes in a volcano. Such morphology is hardly ever recognisable on dungeon maps. Instead the spaces typically seem to have been excavated by means of mining technology, which demands enormous amounts of labour and produces spoil dumps nearby whose volume is about twice that of the dungeon or mine itself. Dungeon designers rarely pay much attention to the difference between natural rock sheets left standing in the dungeon, masonry walls and wooden walls.

Finally the issue of structural longevity. Archaeologists hardly ever encounter underground spaces that haven’t filled up with dirt or rubble. But there is often a sense in D&D that the dungeon is old. Since it is an open volume of air full of functioning doors and traps and hasn’t been flooded by groundwater, there must be magic at work unless someone is there to do continual upkeep and drainage work. And if, as seems to be the rule, the passages are artificial, then the integrity of the ceiling supports is of paramount importance. This is particularly true if the dungeon has been burrowed into earth or forms the basement of a masonry building. The basement of a ruinous castle quickly fills up with rubble unless masonry vaulting has been put in, and then the vaulting is likely groaning under the weight of rubble on the ground floor for which the structure was never engineered.

As you can see, studying archaeology is a pretty effective way to lose the ability to enjoy fantasy literature and roleplaying games not written and designed by archaeologists. But I believe that there are nevertheless pieces of archaeological information that can be used to add verisimilitude to your game scenarios, without making them hopelessly mundane.

Activities and Roles at the Castle

I’m writing an interdisciplinary book about lifestyles at Medieval strongholds in Östergötland province, Sweden. The central chapter “Activities and roles” is currently 8,900 words. Here are the section headers.

  • Agriculture at arm’s length
  • Baking bread
  • Brewing
  • Animal husbandry and the eating of meat
  • Hunting and the eating of game and wildfowl
  • Fishing and the eating of fish
  • Cooking
  • Dining and drinking
  • Waste disposal
  • Relieving oneself
  • Lighting
  • Keeping warm
  • Healthcare and personal grooming
  • Fashion and jewellery
  • Ladyship
  • Chivalry and horsemanship
  • Love affairs
  • Weddings
  • Growing up
  • Religion
  • Music
  • Gambling and boardgames
  • Writing
  • Taxation, customs collection, rent collection
  • Trade and other coin use
  • Soldiering
  • Imprisonment
  • Slavery
  • Keeping pets
  • Smithwork
  • Crafts in perishable materials
  • Fur production
  • Shipbuilding

Meal Remains From Castles: 2016 Osteology Reports

Supported by a grant from the King Gustavus Adolphus VI Foundation For Swedish Culture, osteologist Lena Nilsson has analysed the bones we collected during excavations last year at two Medieval strongholds. Two weeks with 19 fieldworkers at Birgittas udde produced only 0.4 kg of bones, because the site has no culture layers to speak of and the sandy ground has been unkind. But from the following two weeks at Skällvik Castle we brought home 32.7 kg of bones! And now Lena has looked at them all. Here are her reports:

The reports are in Swedish, but the species names and anatomical terms are given in Latin. Birgittas udde was occupied briefly in the 1270s but then seems to have been vacant, though kept in repair long into the following century. Skällvik Castle was occupied from 1330 to 1356 or shortly thereafter.

Lena is available for more work, and I’ll be happy to help readers get in contact with this seasoned osteologist.

Update 29 May: And here’s Lena’s report on the bones from Landsjö Castle 2015.

Underwater Burial Cairn In Huskvarna Bay

Archaeological sites in Lake Vättern off Huskvarna

The latest inland ice was 3 km thick and its weight left a big dent in Scandinavia. Since deglaciation (which is, on the geological time scale, a current event) the dent has been straightening out. This causes land uplift. But just outside the edge of the dent, it causes the land to sink. Southernmost Scandinavia is losing land to the sea, not gaining it.

The fulcrum of this see-saw crosses Lake Vättern right at its southernmost point. The lake is receding at one end and encroaching at the other. This is why there is an Early Bronze Age burial cairn (Raä 140:3) and sacrificial bog (Raä 140:4) on the lake bottom off the town of Huskvarna . The cairn was originally built about 1400 cal BC on a hilltop above the lakeshore, in a location where it would be widely visible from boats. It didn’t turn out that way.

Later the cairn was joined on the lake bottom by Sanda parish’s Medieval church.

I’ve written before about Huskvarna on the subject of the substance abuse epidemic that decimated two generations of the town’s industrial workers in the 20th century.

Update following day: my knowledgeable colleagues Staffan von Arbin and Claes Pettersson point out that only one cairn is actually known at present, not several as I implied in the original wording.

May Pieces Of My Mind #1

  • Contraceptives really changed society radically. Prior to them literature is full of references to people being too poor to get married. Because getting married was the same thing as having children.
  • I’m disappointed with streaming movie services. I thought they were like music services, where it’s a rare exception if some older band’s catalogue isn’t available in full. On Netflix and Viaplay it’s in fact the other way around: you’re super lucky if an older movie is available, and you often have to pay extra.
  • Snoop Dogg’s autobiography: The Chronicle.
  • Poetry tip: don’t put the word “the” in a stressed position unless you really want to emphasise it.
  • Just applied for an academic job. Viewed dispassionately I think I’m a really good fit for the position. But I still feel a bit queasy about it. You see, in Scandinavian academe, when you’re turned down for a job you don’t just get a “Thanks for your interest” letter. You get a document where three highly qualified colleagues explain at length why they think you’re crap compared to applicant A and should only be considered if all alternatives are killed by falling grand pianos.
  • A metal detectorist just posted a picture of a recent find on Fb: a 1970s pendant with the Phantom’s protective symbol, the four sabres…
  • Confession: when I saw the May The 4th Be With You tweets I thought to myself “But I don’t care about Trek”.
  • Wonder if we still have access to apex steam locomotive technology. Or if important parts of it died with that generation of engineers.
  • Historical archaeology: I’m not quite sure to what extent I need to cite primary sources and academic discussion among historians. It’s fun but it takes time and is not really my job. I assume that there is room for archaeological research into the material record that uses historians’ results without taking the step itself fully into historical research.
  • The Chronicle of Duke Erik gets even better if you read “dude” for “duke” in it.
  • I haven’t got a Georgian landscape park with follies and a part-time hermit, but I can at least make syllabub.
  • Movie summaries are a huge genre of short films on Chinese YouTube. There are lots of celebrity summarisers. Cousin E thinks there may be several reasons: movies with sexual or political content are forbidden in China, people don’t have much free time, people may think some movies are too scary to actually watch.
  • I haven’t found the Philosopher’s stone. But I’ve synthesised its stereo isomere.
  • It hasn’t made me rich and employers aren’t fighting over me, but I gotta say, I’ve probably had more fun as a scholar than most of my contemporaries. Eight years ago I was finishing a book about Late Iron Age elite settlement. Three years ago, a book about Bronze Age ritual deposition. And now, a book about lifestyles at High Medieval strongholds.
  • Forget about Transylvania. In Myresjö parish, Småland, is a hamlet named Drakulla. On its land is an island in Lake Grumlan with the remains of a modest Medieval manor house. The written sources aren’t strong enough by far for us to exclude the possibility that Vlad Tepesz stayed there.
  • Sunset makes me happy-sad.
  • Our current situation, with only one hominin species on the planet, is recent and unusual.
Baggensfjärden, windy May

Baggensfjärden, windy May

Weekend Fun

Edmund de Waal at Artipelag

Edmund de Waal at Artipelag

It’s been a fun weekend! Here’s what I did.

  • Watched Jrette’s dance show, snappy and lively!
  • Inspired by Kate Feluś’s fine recent book Secret Life of the Georgian Garden, I made syllabub (whipped cream with lemon juice & rind, wine, sugar and a dash of grand marnier), and ate it while checking on the (encouraging) progress of our three tiny rose bushes.
  • Logged nine geocaches and failed to find two. One hadn’t been visited in the past nine months and contained no less than three travel bugs that had been languishing there. I brought them along and placed each in a different cache in a far more frequently visited area.
  • Watched the orange rabbit who has taken to munching for hours on the lawn outside our kitchen window, where hares sat a lot last year.
  • Visited the beautiful and beautifully sited art museum Artipelag, viewed a double-feature of Morando, who obsessively depicted pots, and de Waal, who obsessively mass-produces pots. At least Mrs. Rundkvist liked them.
  • Read Albert Sánchez Piñol’s 2012 historical novel Victus about an 18th century military engineer.
  • Played Yggdrasil (failing to prevent the Twilight of the Gods) and Plato 3000.
  • Scrubbed the carved 1970s sign with my surname on it that sits on the street end of the garden shed. It needs oiling.

What did you do, Dear Reader?

April Pieces Of My Mind #3

  • Movie: Little Big Man. Tragicomedy about the Old West and the fate of the Native Americans. Grade: OK.
  • Submitted my tax returns. Always super easy, which is one of the benefits of having a low income and few assets.
  • I’ve researched my ancestry fully four generations back and found no madman, sorcerer, ape or sea monster. What am I doing wrong?
  • I re-read two random chapters near the end of Peake’s Titus Groan for the first time in 30 years. It’s really, really good stuff.
  • I grieve for the multitudes of Windows users who don’t know what flag-key plus M does.
  • The drumming on “Rock And Roll All Nite” is neat, meticulous, steady, a little fussy. I imagine Gene Simmons’s aunt coming into the studio and laying the track down in one take.
  • Provincial museum in neighbouring country asks me to review two papers for an anthology. I pass one and flunk one. Museum person expresses confusion. A few months later they inform me that two new reviewers have passed the paper I flunked. Apparently the definition of academic peer review varies. /-:
  • Why isn’t Mary Roach’s Grunt available as e-book in Sweden? Not Amazon, not Google, not Kobo.
  • Nope. Tried reading five of the Hugo-nominated novels, didn’t feel like finishing any of them. The sixth nominee is the third book in a series, so I’m not even giving it a try. I guess it’s obvious: these are nominations by the general fan majority, and I already knew that I don’t share the majority taste.
  • Movie: His Girl Friday. Hectic gag-studded 1940 rom-com set among newspaper reporters. Grade: great!

korsbar

April Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • There is no year zero in the common era. 1 BC is followed by AD 1. This is because Dionysius Exiguus worked around AD 500, long before the Indian concept of mathematical zero reached European scholars via the Arabs.
  • I don’t quite understand why the guy in Springsteen’s “The River” is so super sad. It’s not in the lyrics.
  • I love Turkish fast food and “Here Comes The Rain Again”.
  • Thorn-stabbed left eye acting up again nine months after that brush-clearing session at Skällvik Castle. Right-hand one showing its sympathy by clouding up too, leaving me unable to read or write much. Annoying. But eye specialist is not worried, so nor am I.
  • I want music discovery algorithms to distinguish between songs I dislike and songs I love but don’t want to hear all the time.
  • Movie: Your Name. Anime feature with beautiful scenery, conventional humans and a confused supernatural time-travel body-exchange motif. Grade: OK.
  • Today’s my 18th anniversary of editing Fornvännen.
  • -thwaite in English place names is cognate with Sw. Tveta, originally having to do with the wood chips produced when felling trees to clear land.
  • DNA has identified a bunch of strangers as my 3rd or 4th cousins. I’ve contacted them and started to work with the interested ones to identify our link. In one case we know which Bohuslän hamlet the couple lived in. In another case we know in which two Värmland parishes they lived. Fun puzzle-solving exercise.
  • Reading Becky Chambers’s Hugo Award finalist novel A Closed And Common Orbit with two parallel narratives. One is about a whiny adolescent android who does nothing much, and it does not interest me. The other is about a 10-y-o Robinson Crusoe scavenging in a huge tech dump. That keeps me reading.
  • It’s kind of hard to play games with secret traitors when Cousin E is involved. He thinks it’s super fun to be allowed to betray the team, so he does it as fast as he can regardless of whether he’s a traitor or not, all while giggling hysterically. This tends to make life easy for the actual traitors.
  • Xlnt weird, dark, druggy song: Timber Timbre’s “Black Water”. Turn up the bass!
  • ResearchGate and LinkedIn do a spectacularly bad job of identifying academic jobs I’m qualified for.
  • Movie: Topsy Turvy. Gilbert & Sullivan and the original production of The Mikado. Grade: Great!
  • Danish encouragement: “Men du er jo selvskrevet til jobbet!! SØG DET, DU VIL VÆRE ET KÆMPE FJOLS HVIS IKKE DU GØR DET!!” Honestly, who wants to be a kæmpe fjols?
  • Saturn’s ocean moon Enceladus has recently been discovered to have environments that would be habitable to Earth’s methanogenic bacteria. If it turns out that there is not in fact indigenous life there, then I think we should seed the place!
  • Dear UK: get a permanent citizen registry and scrap the notion of “registering to vote”. In Sweden I just bring my ID to the polling station.
  • The concepts of “man cold” and “man flu” suggest a traditional masculinity where men shouldn’t show weakness. Very 1950s.
  • Woo-hoo! I lost my cherry on this day in 1987! 30 years a lover!
  • Advice for you ladies: take nerds to bed. As someone so wisely put it — nerds read up, and unlike the jocks they always do their best since they can barely believe that they’re actually getting laid. Nerds like to figure out how stuff works and optimise.
  • Frustrating. In live debates, people often show signs of not listening to what I say, but to their expectations about what someone with my demeanour would say. It’s not that I make long speeches or use unfamiliar words or aggressive ones. I always make an effort to speak briefly, simply, to the point. But time and time again I realise that people I agree with believe that I don’t. I have a vague perception that they may see me as too bossy and confident to really be on their side.
  • The buzz word “digitisation” is used commonly and extremely vaguely in Swedish politics. It seems to mean “Internet and automatisation and scifi stuff”. It is at the same time something good and modern, and something scary that deletes jobs. It is at the same time inevitable and something that deserves political support to happen.