Monday, May 27, 2019

Revisiting Atlantis

I've recently stumbled across a video called "Visiting Atlantis", by George S. Alexander and Natalis Rosen ("A&R"). The pair advance the hypothesis that the Richat structure (aka "the Eye of Africa", alternately referred to herein as "RS") is the original site of the fabled city of Atlantis.

Actually, this has a lot of merit. And the video does ask the single best question a historian can tackle: "What does this mean for our understanding of ancient civilizations?" That's really the question that I'd like to explore today. In doing so, I'm going to approach this as if  Solon's account of Atlantis given to us via Plato is an accurate retelling. That doesn't mean it definitively is; but we're going to assume it is.

There are two reasons for doing so. First; unless you do, the conversation's over. Second; we don't really have any reason not to. In other places, where Plato uses a parable he simply tells you that. Here, he's claiming to pass on reputable information. He names his source (Solon). He tells you where Solon got that information (Sais, in Egypt). And though Sais is destroyed, at the time of Plato's writing it wasn't. So Plato, at the very least, believed what he wrote.

But, aside from some technical difficulties, there is a methodological problem with Plato's account, and it's a problem that's repeated in modern times by most researchers, including A&R in this documentary. Before I explore that, let's look at the "good stuff". I will neither be complete nor comprehensive here, as I don't have that kind of space or time. But I think I'll hit the important points.


Mauritania, showing the location of the Richat Structure.
From Google Maps

The Richat Structure in satellite imagery
The best explanation for the Richat Structure is that it is a collapsed, eroded dome of rock, caused by volcanism. In any event, it is a natural phenomenon. This shouldn't deter anyone from considering it as a site, as almost all cities are built on natural features. This one is singularly striking.

Plato describes Atlantis in two books: Critias and Timaeus. He claims to have gotten the information from Solon, a distinguished ancestor of his, by means of writings left by Solon. He further claims that Solon got his information from a temple in Sais, where there was a model of Atlantis. The wonderful thing about models and physical artifacts is that they pretty much provide their own description. 

Atlantis as described by Plato in Critias
The RS resembles the description of Atlantis in some very specific ways. Most of the geographic details are spot-on, save one, of which I'll have more to say. The archaeological details... mmmm... we'll have to talk about those.
  1. Atlantis was located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). So is the RS.
  2. Atlantis is sheltered by mountains to the north, and is open to the south in the direction of the sea. So is the RS.
  3. Atlantis is about 23 kilometers across. So is the RS.
  4. Atlantis is arranged as a central island and concentric rings; two of land, three of water. So would the RS, if there were water.
  5. Black, white, and red stones were prevalent in Atlantis. So too at the RS. Well, red and black. The 'white' ones are a judgement call. Let's call grey 'white' and give credit.
  6. There were two springs or wells on the center island, one warm, one cool, which provided fresh water. There is a fresh water well near the center of the RS that provides fresh water, though shallow wells in the surrounding area yield salt water. Other than at the center of the RS you have to dig very deeply to reach fresh water.
  7. The Atlanteans mined copper, tin, and gold. These are still mined in Mauritania today... but they're also mined in a lot of other places.
  8. The date given for Atlantis (10,000 years before Plato's time) coincides with the last African Humid Period. The RS preserves clear evidence of ancient rivers and extensive water erosion.

These are all discussed in the video.

The last geological feature is the elephant in the room: proximity to the sea. Of course, there isn't. In the video, A&R postulate that the ocean levels were some 300 feet higher than at the present, but that's quite a stretch. While there are shells found inland, the age of those shells aren't clear. Shells are basically calcium carbonate: a kind of rock. As such, they don't really need to be fossilized to be preserved. And in my own experience, while digging in the neighborhood of my parent's house in Columbia, South Carolina, I routinely dug up a multitude of seashells, though the ocean hadn't been anywhere near that area since the Mesozoic era. Dinosaurs used the beach formerly located at my parents' house. It's somewhat frustrating that A&R didn't provide the location of some of the features (the shells; a beached ship) that they depicted in the video.

Before I say another word, I'm going to take A&R to task on a point. In the video, they display the following image as they're describing how they encountered "boats beached miles from the water":
Dunedin Star, in Namibia

If they encountered this ship, they took the long way 'round.  The ship is the MV Dunedin Star, which ran aground on Namibia's Skeleton Coast, in the south of Africa, thousands of miles away, but certainly not "miles from the water". Here's CNN's image:
CNN published this image, with proper attestation

This video is full of stuff like that. Images just grabbed from wherever and stuffed into the narrative, as if they were illustrative. In a documentary this is unconscionable. If you were there with cameras and you encountered boats, then you show the boats you saw. You don't grab a stock image from the Web and use that instead. It undermines your credibility and becomes evidence against your position.

In any event, a beached modern ship on one coast does not count as evidence of a shoreline miles inland and 300 feet higher 12,000 years ago on a completely different coast. That shoreline may have been there then, but it may have been a million years ago, or 65 million years ago. It's up to you to put the event at the right time.

Vertical movement of Earth's landmasses
via Wikipedia
Estimating coastlines becomes a tricky scenario when we remember that ocean levels aren't necessarily reflected in the coastlines. Focusing on "sea levels" doesn't always cut it. For example, when a glacier melts, you might expect far more coastal flooding than you could actually get in the local area. Isostatic rebound occurs when the weight of all that water is removed from a landmass. It's due to the plasticity of the Earth, having a molten core and mantle. Water levels rise, but so does the continent itself.  So it's possible for the coastal effects to be felt much more greatly in areas that are nowhere near the site of the glacier. While isostatic rebound is commonly called "post-glacial rebound", let's remember that glaciers are water. We might ask whether the same thing could have occured in north Africa as the Sahara dried out; and if not, why not? In any event, the A&R hypothesis would require that the portion of the north African landmass on which Mauritania sits was far lower 12,000 years ago than it is today. That alone probably wouldn't be enough, unless it were also affected by other events associated with the Younger Dryas. For this hypothesis to hold, the coastline of Mauritania would have had to reach nearly to the town of Atar at the foot of the Adrar Plateau

But there's another possibility. Perhaps Plato, Solon, or the Egyptians just got it wrong, and "direction of the sea", didn't necessarily indicate "proximity to the sea".


Here's where things start to fall down. There are other features which do not match Plato's description at all. These descriptions, given in Critias, are not mentioned in the video.
  1. "First of all they bridged over the zones of sea which surrounded the ancient metropolis, making a road to and from the royal palace." There are no indications of any bridgework whatsoever at the RS.
  2. "And beginning from the sea they bored a canal of three hundred feet in width and one hundred feet in depth and fifty stadia in length, which they carried through to the outermost zone, making a passage from the sea up to this, which became a harbour, and leaving an opening sufficient to enable the largest vessels to find ingress.". There is no indication of boring on this or any other scale at the RS.
  3. "Moreover, they divided at the bridges the zones of land which parted the zones of sea, leaving room for a single trireme to pass out of one zone into another, and they covered over the channels so as to leave a way underneath for the ships; for the banks were raised considerably above the water." Again, there are no indications of any of this at the RS.
  4. "All this including the zones and the bridge, which was the sixth part of a stadium in width, they surrounded by a stone wall on every side, placing towers and gates on the bridges where the sea passed in. The stone which was used in the work they quarried from underneath the centre island, and from underneath the zones, on the outer as well as the inner side." There is no indication of any of this at the RS.
  5. "Some of their buildings were simple, but in others they put together different stones, varying the colour to please the eye, and to be a natural source of delight." -- there are a very few indications of buildings (UPDATE: here, here, and here (thanks Bright Insight)) but no indication of age, and nothing matching Plato's description. 
  6.  "The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum"There is no indication of this at the RS. 
  7. Plato goes on to describe numerous temples, often clad or surrounded in gold, of which not the slightest sign is indicated at the RS.
A&R describe more recent buildings of a primitive nature, built of stone, but chinked with mud rather than mortar, and hypothesize that the cataclysm would have destroyed all traces. I find this less than compelling. Archaeologists find foundations on the weakest of evidence. And here we're not talking about "a house", but "a city". Presumably we should find streets, earthworks, etc. Any long civic habitation should have signs of refuse. But we really have nothing permanent here that we can date to the period in question.

The region is littered with stone tools of a sort that we would expect to find from a stone age culture. We actually find many tools of many different epochs mixed together, and they weren't washed away. Rather, what we see is consistent with what is called "deflation" in archaeology. This is when sand and dust is blown away by persistent winds, leaving the heavier artifacts co-mingled on a harder surface. Rather than seeing the sort of stratification, or layers, that we normally use to date artifacts, the strata have been "deflated", leaving everything jumbled together. That's what happens in north Africa, where many tons of dust are blown into the Atlantic every year. You can see evidence of the scale of this in the satellite photos. But at the RS, we don't see evidence of middens (kitchen waste dumps), building foundations (on the required scale), or any of the mega-engineering projects described by Plato. They just don't exist. And of the many artifacts that have been found, none of them attest to a highly advanced civilization.

In short, I would say that the geography is compelling, but the archaeology is not.

A Crisis of Expectations:

So what does this mean for our understanding of ancient civilizations?

Every avid researcher of Atlantis is looking for an "advanced civilization", however it is they choose to define that term. A&R do the same. They mention alleged Dogon ancient knowledge of the star Sirius (something I take to have been debunked). They depict Atlantis as Plato described it, covered in gleaming metals with bridges and geometrically perfect water channels plied by trireme ships. They depict marble columned temples and colossal statuary dedicated to Poseidon. They show bridges supported by Roman arches.

None of that could be remotely correct.

Remember, Plato relates that Egypt began as a colony of Atlantis. And quite frankly, this might actually be true. The Sahara, as it moistened and dried over the millenia, acted as a sort of "pump" that drove the migrations of humankind, as well as our hominid ancestors. It's not at all incredible that Egyptians were the last migrants out of the Sahara at the end of the last African humid period. It's not at all incredible that they brought stories of a place that geographically resembles Atlantis; after all, such a place exists, and in a place where legend tells us Atlas reigned as its first king.

But we do know something about ancient Egyptians. We know of their building styles, for example. We know about the kinds of boats they built of papyrus reed. We know that the same kinds of boats are found halfway across Africa, in Lake Chad. So we need not look for Hellenistic architecture and Roman arches as today's artists fancifully depict. Such visualization are in no way credible. Nor need we look for any evidence of "Poseidon" as such. As Plato himself began his story,
"Yet, before proceeding further in the narrative, I ought to warn you, that you must not be surprised if you should perhaps hear Hellenic names given to foreigners. I will tell you the reason of this: Solon, who was intending to use the tale for his poem, enquired into the meaning of the names, and found that the early Egyptians in writing them down had translated them into their own language, and he recovered the meaning of the several names and when copying them out again translated them into our language. My great-grandfather, Dropides, had the original writing, which is still in my possession, and was carefully studied by me when I was a child. Therefore if you hear names such as are used in this country, you must not be surprised, for I have told how they came to be introduced."
-- Plato, Critias.
We can reasonably suppose that not only names were translations of translations. So were cultural descriptions. Each recipient of this story has translated the idea of "advanced civilization" into his own concept of what it means to be "advanced". Some people today fantasize that it must surely have included exotic lost technologies that we ourselves are only now beginning to envision. However...

About 12,000 years ago, at the alleged time of Atlantis, agriculture was just beginning to take root (pun intended) in Mesopotamia. At that time, a non-nomadic, sedentary colony was enough to count as being "advanced". If you built a structure at all, even if it be of unshaped stone chinked with mud, having no foundation, it was enough to count as a "palace". If you piled rocks into an altar, even if it be roofless under the stars, that was enough to count as a "temple". If you built a boat that could get you across the water, even if it be made of lashed reeds or animal hide, you had constructed a "ship". If you built a fortification of dirt and timber, you had built a "castle".

But if you wait a time and then tell someone these stories, they will imagine palaces, temples, castles, ships, and harbors in the shape of their own experience. They will add in details of the life not very different from their own. Innovation moved slowly in the ancient world, and the inhabitants didn't really imagine how greatly things could change. When they themselves pass on the inflated stories, they're not lying per se, and they're not including anything of their own invention. Rather, it's their lack of imagination that causes them to include only those descriptions of which they themselves are familiar. They depict "great" in terms they recognize as "greatness". Surely a "great civilization" couldn't be a village, or a tribe! But yes, it could, just as a "king" in ancient but historical times might rule over a single city.

A visualization filled with anachronisms.

A&R fall into this trap as well. They not only mix Egyptian and Roman culture into their visuals, but Babylonian and even modern as well. From their video:

Not. Even. Close. This is Greek, top to bottom.

According to the video, "Folk art depictions of the Nommos show creatures
with humanoid torsos and fishlike tails". This is shown during that narration.
The problem is, this is the Babylonian deity Dagon.
Nommo were not 'a' god like Poseidon, but is a collective noun for a
group of beings,  perhaps inspired by West African manatees.

Let me state though, that visuals aside, this isn't one of my usual debunkings. Alexander & Rosen are by all indications reasonable people who follow the evidence as it is presented to them (even though the evidence they present is suspect). I am probably more skeptical of some evidence than they are, but they do take time to at the very least mention where controversies exist, or where some evidence is problematic. Taking more time on the archaeology would have been nice, but it's their video, not mine.


Have we found Atlantis? Honestly, I think we probably have. But there are no secrets here. No advanced technologies, no lost knowledge. Unless, that is, you count the knowledge that a "golden age" is golden in hindsight, and that an ancient people might be rightly proud of what they accomplished, even if to our eyes it's not terribly noteworthy once the embellishments have been stripped away. But it's not really our eyes that matter, is it? It's theirs.

The story of Atlantis has been continually embellished over the centuries. But embellishments serve a distinct and valuable purpose. They tell us what these meager accomplishments meant to those who actually performed them. Think of what "advanced" means to you. Whatever it is, that's what stone tools and a few stone and mud houses meant to inhabitants of West Africa 12,000 years ago. Their vision was greater than their power, but so too was that of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and ourselves. This is likely to be true of all civilizations for the remainder of history, no matter how powerful they become. So show some respect.

Pin marks the spot.


Another commentator, on the Bright Insight channel on YouTube, sets great store on the fact that the Richat Structure is thought to be a volcanic dome, noting that volcanism can cause landmasses to rise. However, this completely ignores the timeframe. The RS was formed in the neighborhood of 100 million years ago, ± a few million years. This is far too long ago to account for any uplifting of the northwestern coast of Africa. Bright Insight seems to have been led astray by mention of the multiple intrusions and collapses that formed the structure, concluding that this explains the sinking of Atlantis. Sadly, no. This explains the geology of the structure, which existed prior to the alleged sinking. The mantle of the Earth is significant not because it just generally causes land to rise, but because its plasticity means the Earth can in fact regain shape after deformation, as we saw when discussing isostatic rebound.

Bright Insight also brings up the subject of non-fossilized whale skeletons found in "the deserts of Mauritania, and shows a website. Well, I visited that site. The page author was kind enough to have listed the exact latitude and longitude of the photo. (Latitude: 19°56'40.66", Longitude: -16°15'42.57"). Punching these numbers into Google Maps shows us exactly where the find was: Here.

Site of "ancient whale skeletons" "in the desert"

Yes. It's within a stone's throw of the beach, just as is the MV Dunedin Star on a Namibian beach, pictured earlier. What you don't get told is that African deserts go right up to the coastline. 
A reconstruction of Herodotus' map of the world

One other piece of evidence is the Herodotus map of the known (to him) world. I thought it was pretty common knowledge. Only four of Bright Insight's commenters mentioned it, but I think that sample's both weak and self-selecting. Looking outside of that channel there are gobs of references. And no: I don't think that the Nile ever ran east-west across the Sahara. The map attributed to Herodotus is a reconstruction. We have no evidence that he ever actually created a map, though he did discuss them. In that discussion, he reveals the limits of his understanding, which you can read about in this PDF. Also note that in these reconstructions, the map doesn't actually say "Atlantis". Rather, it is "Atlantes"; that is, "Atlanteans". It's not exactly a nit-picky point. Here's what Herodotus actually wrote (emphasis mine):

"...Near this salt hill is a mountain named Atlas, which is small in circuit and rounded on every side; and so exceedingly lofty is it said to be, that it is not possible to see its summits, for clouds never leave them either in the summer or in the winter. This the natives say is the pillar of the heaven. After this mountain these men got their name, for they are called Atlantians; and it is said that they neither eat anything that has life nor have any dreams." -- The History Of Herodotus Volume 1 (of 2) Translator: G. C. Macaulay
In other words, Herodotus' description has precious little to do with the lost city of Atlantis. It's an accident of linguistics, and getting too excited about it is analogous to wondering whether "martial law" is imposed by Martians.

Bright Insight is a personable enough fellow, and he has a lot of enthusiasm. I think he's letting that enthusiasm run away with him a bit. It's necessary to follow the evidence. All of it, not just confirmational evidence. Especially when it comes to subjects like this, you have to consider the source of the evidence; not just taking it at face value, but actually going to the source and seeing for yourself, to the extent possible. As I state above, I too think that the Richat Structure may have been the site described as 'Atlantis'. However, I think that a lot of our ancient sources are simply wrong on some important details, the reasons for which I give. At the earliest, our sources are 10,000 years more recent than Atlantis, after all. Then again, I'm of that age where the more excited someone is when making a 'find', the more motivated I am to invite them to ponder what exactly it is they found.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

I am sick to death of "firsts" that aren't

If you're going to claim to be "first" with some invention, try -- just for a change -- to actually be first.

There is a decided trend toward hype, hype, and over-hype regarding the originality of inventions. More than anywhere else, you'll see this on Kickstarter. And more often than not, it's bogus. Even if it's a great idea, even if it's very cool, I tend to give these things a pass, because I simply can't stand the disingenuous self-aggrandizement that's taking place. I refuse to fund those particular lies.

Let's look at a couple:

SQUARE OFF: World's first robotic chessboard

This was the product that got me paying attention to this trend. In October 2018 there was an ad on Facebook describing it as the world's "first robotic chessboard". They subsequently backed off that claim. It was toned down to the world's first telerobotic chessboard, and now it's described as the world's smartest chessboard.

The reason for my ire was simple. The Fidelity Phantom models played on a physical board back in the 1980s. Dedicated chess computers were all the rage back then. The patent for the Phantom expired in 2000. Obviously, the cool factor of moving pieces around by moving magnets under the board is as wonderful and impressive now as it was "back in the day". But while the Phantom was a very cool device, it didn't change the world as the hype for the Square Off claims for itself. In the real world, the Square Off probably has the same chance of changing the world as the Phantom had.

Respect to Square Off for ditching the "first" claims. I was genuinely mad at them when the ads first came out, and I'm very happy to see them reign it back. I wish them well. Nevertheless, this was the bit of hype that set me off.

ECOAC: World’s first desktop thermoelectric cooler/heater
Here's the Kickstarter

Bullshit. This device operates on the Peltier effect. It's a well-known principle of thermocoupling that was invented in 1834 by Jean Charles Athanase Peltier. That's 185 years ago. Do you think somebody might have thought to try this out as a portable A/C unit since then? Just maybe?

Of course they have! You can even search YouTube and other websites for plans to build your own. You can buy the frakking thermocouples. But guess what you can't do? You can't really cool anything down beyond blowing a bit of cool air on your face, and you certainly can't pat yourself on the back about being "eco-friendly" while you're doing it. In fact, there are clear reasons why this hasn't caught on as an A/C option. And there are other reasons why putting an unvented A/C unit on your desk won't do what you're promised. The two biggest reasons are science and math.

BTW, can it work? 
Of course it can; it's a real effect. You're going to feel some cool air if you're close to it and it's pointed at you. And in reverse you'd get a little warm if you're close to it and it's pointed at you... but no more than if you were heating yourself with a 60 watt light bulb. For that, it's consuming 100 watts of electricity (and I'm seriously doubtful about the power claims, but they don't get very specific). Certainly it can't give you more energy than it can draw out of the heat sink (water tank ). It also can't cool down anything once the heat sink (water tank) is saturated. Does it use a chemical coolant? Absolutely yes; it uses water (a very abundant and safe chemical). But the tank doesn't have much capacity. So you'll spend a lot of time either waiting for the water to cool down/heat up or you'll have to change out the water. And because it consumes energy, and the Laws of Thermodynamics have not been repealed, it will always have the effect of a net raising of the temperature in any environment, regardless of whether it's used to generate cool or warm air.

I'm going to simplify this, but remember, it's generating 60W, consuming 100W, and wasting that other 40W. You might be thinking, 60W cool - 40W heat = 20W net cooling. Not really. That 20W is the capacity of your heat sink. After that it stops working, and then the heat is re-released into the room as your water cools down. Net result: on A/C the room ends up warmer than you started. You're better off pushing the heat out of your environment than trying to capture it right there on your desk. This is why even though other people have built portable Peltier units (making the ECOAC not the first) the tech has not really caught on commercially. For what it's worth, it makes more sense to vent warm air outside than use the water heat sink, but this is marketed as a desktop unit.

The marketing is there not to sell you on numbers, but on feelz. You're told it's eco-friendly, so you're supposed to believe it is, even if you're sucking 100W from a coal-fired generator in the next county. Honestly, if they really wanted to make it eco-friendly, they wouldn't put unnecessary power-wasters on it like Bluetooth and speakers. So don't think about that... just feeeeelz.

More World's Firsts

Try it yourself: search Google for world's firsts on Kickstarter. I got 833,000 results. See how many promise to "change the way you think about [yadda yadda yadda]". It has become a bit of a tired meme among Kickstarter projects. Obviously, people think that their projects will not become successful unless they adopt a standard sales template over-hyping innovative, game-changing aspects of whatever it is they're selling. In almost all of the cases I've seen, it's just a convenient label that tells me to stay far, far away from the decidedly non-world-changing thingamabob being marketed.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

No they didn't (part 2)

This was reported by today:

The article describes a paper by Gerard Cheshire which claims to have determined that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a proto-Romance language using an unfamiliar alphabet. This hypothetical language is presented as the precursor of modern Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. This would basically make the document a substitution cypher of Vulgar Latin.
Gerard Cheshire, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, Romance Studies (2019). DOI: 10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566
Here's a link to the paper itself.

My response is, "not bloody likely". Here's why:

There is no single 'proto-Romance language' other than Latin. To be more precise, there's no such single language that is the common precursor of today's Romance languages. Each of today's Romance languages began as a pidgin-turned-creole of Latin mixed with the local languages of the conquered areas and further corrupted by time, much as English is a creole of Germanic and French influences on the aboriginal languages of Britain. 'Vulgar Latin' (a somewhat obsolete term used interchangeably with 'proto-Romance' by Cheshire) is not 'a language' either. It's a description of any of the many corrupt dialects spoken locally. And this makes the "lateral thinking" of Cheshire highly suspect, to put it kindly.

There was a tower in Babylon,
but it looked nothing like this.
And "proto-Romance" looked
nothing like the Voynich Manuscript.
Much like the Biblical account,
Latin fractured into many languages
spread far and wide.
What Cheshire does, which is linguistically -- well -- wrong, is to drag in a bunch of words from disparate localities, implying that they were all in the proto-language. Actually, the hypothetical proto-language itself would be a corruption of Latin. And that's what happened with Old French, Old Spanish, etc. Where Cheshire fails spectacularly is in implying that these changes were homogenous within the tatters of the Roman Empire. They weren't. They were localized, and became French, Spanish, etc. because of said localization. You just can't take a word of Romanian, a word of Castilian, and a word of French that resemble the letters you've decided to lay out in your two whole weeks of 'lateral thinking', put them all together in a sentence and claim that this represents a heretofore unknown common dead language.

Another problem with Cheshire's theory is that Latin did not die out. You read that right... Latin is not a dead language. It survived as a language of liturgy, scholarship, and official communication for centuries past the demise of the Roman empire. In fact, it survived well into the modern era. I myself took four years of Latin in high school, and it was within my lifetime that the Roman Catholic Church in America started using the vernacular instead of Latin in the rituals of the Mass. The differences between classical and late Latin works, as well as ecclesiastical Latin, are pronounced and recognizable. The point is, for the most part we know what happened to Latin. While the spoken vernacular diverged from written Latin, it did so according to linguistic rules.

Someone who has studied Latin generally doesn't have that much trouble recognizing its descendents. Even when corrupt, any reconstruction of a descendent should bridge the gap between Latin and the language that eventually arose from it in a particular area. With a knowledge of Latin you can generally work out any of the Romance languages. Such should be doubly simple when dealing with a vulgar Latin far closer to the classical source. But the Voynich does not appear to be a cipher of corrupt Latin.

Gerard Cheshire argues that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a common-but-forgotten language; using an alphabet that has no precursors, no descendents, and no other examples surviving as either manuscripts or inscriptions. I doubt the document was a plaintext intended to be read and impart homely advice, as Cheshire argues. The more likely conclusion is that the Voynich manuscript is indecipherable because it was intended to be. The illustrations, if intended to give homely advice, should be recognizable; however,  all of the drawings, even of plants, are fanciful in some way. Few are recognizable species. So the document may have been a sincere cipher; but it may have been a hoax (what today we'd call a "troll").

In fact, I'm not convinced that Cheshire's own document is not an elaborate troll itself. I have reasons.

The first is that he spent two weeks on his research. That's just about enough time to write the first draft of the paper itself. Another is that I can't find anything by Cheshire on on any subject other than the Voynich Manuscript. Yet another is that he uses terms such as 'tripthong' (normally used to describe sound) where one would expect 'trigraph' (descriptive of text). This isn't necessarily problematic; it's just weird. Another is the grandiose claims including the 'fact' that the Manuscript is the only example of a proto-Italic script, though we have no intermediate forms among the numerous contemporary documents. Another is the description of his paper as being 'peer-reviewed' with no mention of what the peers think of it. Any trash can be 'peer-reviewed': failing to mention its reception is just a common-literature way of giving it gravitas divorced from merit.

Another is this: remember that thing you can't do? Taking words from different languages and then hypothesizing a common language based on the differences (not the similarities)? Well, he does it. A lot. For instance:
Figure 33 (from Cheshire's paper)
Figure 33 shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. The words describe different temperaments: tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish), noror (cloudy: dull/sad), or aus (golden bird: well behaved), oleios (oiled: slippery). These words survive in Catalan [tozos], Portuguese [orla], Portuguese [tolos], Romanian [noros], Catalan [or aus] and Portuguese [oleio]. The words orla la describe the mood of the woman on the left and may well be the root of the French phrase ‘oh là là’, which has a very similar sentiment.
Can't find the word locally? Then just cast the net wide. Grab any similar word out of any Mediterranean language. And the bit about ‘oh là là’ just reeks of trolling. For what it's worth, ‘oh là là’ is risque in English, but in French it's an interjection that can be widely applied.

Then there's this bit:
Figure 32. Detail from Folio 77 (from Cheshire's paper)

Figure 32
shows a diagrammatic representation of a miscarriage or abortion, as a baby swaddled in bandages and a mass of blood exiting a tube, accompanied by the words ‘omor néna’ (killed/dead baby). The word ‘omor’ survives in Romanian, where it means ‘to murder’. The word ‘néna’ survives in Spanish, where it now means ‘female baby’ [‘néne’ is male baby].
I'm calling bullshit. I happen to have a PDF copy of the Voynich Manuscript. Here's Folio 77:

Folio 77. Click to 'embiggen'

Yeah, I know. The Voynich Manuscript is filled with illustrations ranging from perfectly pedestrian plants to psychedelic fever dreams. And it contains a lot of drawings of fat naked women. You definitely get the feeling that the author wouldn't have shied away from showing an abortion if he or she had wanted to. And if that was the message, he or she probably wouldn't have hooked up the 'vagina' to four other vaginas by means of a common tube at the ends of which two naked humans were showering while some Dr. Seuss shit is going on beneath them. Not even given Medieval schematics such as the T&O maps of the world. But where's that "baby swaddled in bandages" we were promised? It's very much not there. Frankly, this looks to me a lot more like (left to right) Air, Water, Spirit, Fire, and Earth than what Cheshire is imagining.

I could drag through the rest of his paper, but that would be tedious. And I don't really want to accuse the guy of being a monumental troll, even though I don't discount it. I'd rather believe he was "not even wrong".

In any case, if you're interested, read his paper (the link's above), apply his alleged cipher to a few sentences of the Voynich Manuscript, and see if you get anything other than cherry picked wishful thinking and post-hoc reasoning applied to the accompanying drawings.


UPDATES: This is an odd thing. Having now done a bit more digging, I found a blog post on this subject by Nick Pelling (who writes like a man after my own heart) written 10 Nov 2017. So why in the almost two years since have I found nothing else written by Cheshire? Curiouser and curiouser. In any event, Pelling tears this theory apart for the same reasons I do, and has some much better detail regarding linguistic analysis.

And it looks like Ars Technica's not convinced either.

Also, this blog post by JK Petersen is just delicious.

The University of Bristol has published a retraction of their news release.

And now has deleted their embarrassing hype-filled article, too. My link to the original article still works, though.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

No they didn't (part 1)

As today's unfortunate headline, I present, from,
Study finds scientific reproducibility does not equate to scientific truth

I call this an unfortunate headline because it's usual with such statements that they don't accurately represent what was actually found.

The referenced study consisted of modeling various scientific communities with a variety of research strategies to discover a modeled "scientific truth"... in this case, the shape of a target polygon. Keep in mind that these were not actual scientific communities, but computer models. As with all such models, certain assumptions are made and biases can be introduced by the programmers. Such models may, but do not necessarily, accurately reflect reality. As is the way with models, the model is extremely simplified. Reality is more variable, and this can muddy the water.

For my part, a statement to be closely considered is the following:
"We found that, within the model, some research strategies that lead to reproducible results could actually slow down the scientific process, meaning reproducibility may not always be the best—or at least the only—indicator of good science," said Erkan Buzbas, U of I assistant professor in the College of Science, Department of Statistical Science and a co-author on the paper. "Insisting on reproducibility as the only criterion might have undesirable consequences for scientific progress."
Notice that what Buzbas says here does not support the headline... not by a long shot.  Buzbas isn't complaining about the insistence on reproducibility: rather, he's opining on the insistence on reproducibility alone... which in practice, nobody does.

We all know from numerous historical examples that scientific discoveries can be made by accident. The discoveries of X-rays and penicillin are two such examples. A careful reading of the above statement reveals nothing more or less.  If you are not rigorous in your method, then you might discover something new more quickly than otherwise. And indeed, the application of rigorous method may slow progress.

However, this says nothing about the value of reproducibility. "Innovative" (let's face it: sloppy) method might get you the correct answer by accident, but it doesn't prove a damned thing. The problem is that with irreproducible experiments, you can't show a definitive cause for the observation you witnessed. Any number of uncontrolled environmental or experimental factors might be the cause. This can skew the researchers' hypotheses and lead to the wrong explanations for observed effects. So long as the research is irreproducible, it has dubious explanatory value and no practical applications. Obviously, you can't reliably use a principle that you can't reliably reproduce. That part of science... the part that leads to engineering... is just common sense.

On the other hand, if you can control and reliably bring into existence an effect based on manipulation of predictable and consistent factors, then you are far more likely to have discovered the truth than if you were to have stumbled across an effect that no one else can observe or make happen.

Far from the implied message of this article, "innovative experiments" do not supplant the value of rigorous, controlled experiments. Every accidental discovery must be followed by rigor if you want to claim that what you discovered is most likely the Truth. And if you cannot reproduce your results, you don't get to shelter under the Umbrella of Laziness and whine that your progress is being impeded.  Oh yes, Mr. Innovator, your discovery of Cold Fusion (or whatever) could change the world... but if and only if you can make it happen on demand.

The history of serendipitous discoveries alone tells us that it is not, nor has it ever been, innovation that is criticized when scientists talk about the replication crisis. Rather, it's the hyping and premature conclusions that are drawn when innovative experiments are not followed up with sound method.

If you truly "fucking love science", avoid