October 26, 2009

Mathematics in Ancient Iraq, Eleanor Robson

I didn't have time to skim this, let alone read it, but each chapter is coherently summarized both at the beginning and the end. Also, the pictures have good captions. It's a pity to reward this clarity by remembering only scraps.

Still, these are the scraps I have:

It's astounding how long the repetitive, empirical, pre-deductive* mathematical tradition lasted with very little change: more than a millenium, easily, of what has to have been person-to-person transmission. It is not really astounding that surveying was a living tradition that long, but it's surprising in hindsight that there was so little innovation when the techniques were so laborious. This is, I imagine, partly due to legal precedent not wanting innovation, as in the law now; but perhaps it's the necessary 'long tail' to an exponential rate of change. (Dyed linen string, from wild flax, seems to be at least 30,000 years old; possibly one of the things that got us through the Ice Ages.)

There were clearly numerate female workers, and this is often followed up by comments that they may have always worked for women, not for men. But look, that means there were a steady supply of women who owned and ran farms and other businesses (as is clear from some of the records).

The image on the cover is of a woman, a goddess of measurement -- Neal Stephenson fans will recognize the image as 'carrying a 1 and a 0'. Well, no, she's holding a rope and a stick, because geometry came first and good measurement was one measure of a good state.

Officially, one of the things that didn't change was prices and work rates and workers' wages, and many of the surviving records seem to be back-calculating one of these from others. I couldn't tell if the evidence was that wages were actually changing under the table, or unchanging and immiserating various parts of the population, or what.

Spreadsheets got invented in cuneiform! Rather late in its span, and much of the innovation may have been in a very few offices, but still. Row totals checked against column totals, and explanatory comments in some cells. Very clear even in the pictures of the clay tablets.

back to that 'pre-deductive' dig; the last chapters take on the Accepted Belief that all was rote memorization of slightly wrong formulae until the Greeks axiomatized and brought light. I was really skimming at this point, and it seems to be a delicate and contentious argument, but it looked to me as though there was -- very close in time -- the beginnings of innovation among the last of the workers in cuneiform, and evidence that no-one heard what the brilliant Greek dilettantes were doing for a while. Perhaps perhaps it was an age in which innovation was bound to happen, because the exponential curve was ticking upwards (on what process? Trade? Climate change? Accumulation of experience? What?) and it would happen everywhere, as with the calculus.

Find in a Library: Mathematics in Ancient Iraq

Posted by clew at 11:12 PM

Bread in few pots

I've been trying the 'no-knead' bread, with variants towards the poolish or the sponge pattern or whatever. Eh, it's okay; I'm not sure it's easier than making kneaded bread with a stand mixer, but it is a different way of timing the effort.

I don't like forming it up and turning it, risen, into a hot iron pan; in the first place, that's one more thing dirty, and in the second, when I tried it there was a lot of smoke. So today I gave the risen sticky dough a few folds, and lightly greased the iron pan, and put the lump of dough into the cold pan to rise. The whole thing was in the oven to stay out of the way and take advantage of the pilot light, and after half an hour or less I became hungry and turned the oven on.

Pretty glossy crust:

Ting! steaming the crust makes it shiny

and not too burned on the bottom:

slightly scorched loaf

and a smallish crumb, which *I* like because it keeps the jelly on the bread.

Big loaf, small crumb

No harder on the pan than this usually seems to be:

Slightly scorched enameled iron pan

Posted by clew at 10:42 PM
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