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21 January 2013 @ 01:15 pm
I decided to move my blog posts across from Livejournal to a site of my own - partly as an excuse to play around with a new website design (it'd been 6 years since the last overhaul I gave my site). Finally got the last few fiddly details sorted out yesterday, so it's now live. The new address is:


I hope some of you who read this follow me over! I've copied the last few months worth of posts (although not comments) so it should look rather familiar.

(There is an RSS feed for it, so it should be possible to set it up so you can read on your LJ friends page if you wish - I think it needs a paid account to set up on the LJ side, but anyone can "friend" the RSS feed, let me know if you want me to set up the account.)
18 January 2013 @ 02:56 pm
The second episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was all about Homo erectus, and they were building a model of Nariokotome Boy. This is a 1.5 million year old near complete Homo erectus skeleton & the most complete one ever found. They started off with context, again - Homo erectus only died out relatively recently, but was around for 2 million years, which is the longest of any human species. It's also one of the first hominids that can be thought of as human, and we and all the other ones that were around in the recent (geologically speaking) past are descended from them. They also lived outside Africa, and were the first hominids to do so.

Homo erectus co-existed with several different hominid species over time - they talked in detail about one, Paranthropus boisei. The skull they showed had a massive jaw, a skull ridge and very flared cheekbones to fit the chewing muscles behind. A diet of particularly solid things seems plausible, like nuts and seeds. As well as that sort of food there's evidence of wear from grasses on their teeth.

They showed us research into the climate over the time period - I loved this bit, there's just something so neat about being able to find out what the world was like so long ago with such a simple concept. They do it using samples taken of the sediment on the ocean floor. It's laid down layer upon layer over time, and you can look at things like the sort of mud it is and the sorts of plant seeds/pollen you find in it to build up an idea of what the weather and landscape was like on nearby continents. We got shown a particular example of a core where you could see a colour change in the mud from top (~5000 years ago) to bottom (~10,000 years ago), and told us that the changes correspond to a change in the nearby climate (East Africa, if I remember right) from wetter to more dry. Over the 2 million years that Homo erectus existed the climate seems to've undergone lots of swings between hotter & colder or wetter & dryer conditions and they speculate that why Homo erectus survived and the other hominids didn't is that Homo erectus was more adaptable.

And that they were more adaptable because of their bigger brains and because of the different way they interacted with the environment around them. There's evidence that Homo erectus used fire, and they cooked their food (at least at the end of the time period, I wasn't clear if there was no evidence from earlier on or if they hadn't done the analysis (yet)). Their tools are more sophisticated than earlier hominid tools - instead of just breaking rocks for a sharp edge their tools are carefully shaped and show evidence of being planned and involving skill to make. So Homo erectus seems to've had the cognitive ability to shape the environment to suit themselves, rather than put up with the environment they find themselves in. There's also evidence that they took care of older members of their groups - a skull has been found where the individual lost their teeth a few years before death, and quite clearly wouldn't've survived without help.

Because of the model building the programme also spent some time discussing the probable physique of Nariokotome Boy. Homo erectus show many adaptions for running, and were probably lean and hairless (to the extent that modern humans are hairless, I mean). Because of the lack of hair they'd've had dark skins to protect themselves from the UV of the African sun - and this limited their spread north, they don't seem to've got the low melanin mutation that permitted us to live in more northern climates. Also in this section they showed us evidence that Homo erectus may've suffered from tuberculosis, which is astonishing - it is a disease that we get from cattle originally, and was assumed to've become a human disease only more recently when modern humans started living in close proximity to cattle because they'd become herders. The marks and signs on the Homo erectus skull they were looking at (not Nariokotome Boy, another one) were very similar to the ones on a modern human who'd died of TB, so seemed convincing evidence. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions.

We also watched the last episode of Wartime Farm, which unsurprisingly covered 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war, as well as wrapping up with a "what we've learnt" segment. So they were mostly concentrating on the fact that once the war was won, that didn't mean life returned to how it had been pre-war - not only did people still need fed, but in some ways the situation was even more precarious because Britain was close to bankrupt and couldn't afford to import food yet the fields were becoming less fertile due to a lack of manure and from being over-farmed. They also talked about the celebrations that people had (and the thing they dramatised was a firework elephant, which was awesome :D ). And they harvested the wheat crop they'd spent the year growing, using a brand new combine harvester (well, 70 year old one ...).

This was a good series, although I've struggled to write more than a paragraph per episode. I'm not quite sure why, but I guess partly because there was a lot of "look at how we did things" which isn't easy to transform into text. I did feel that they spread it all too thin, perhaps they couldn't do it half the number of episodes, but I do think they could've cut it down a bit. The format of half-dramatising, half-telling still feels like it shouldn't've worked, but they pulled it off very well.
17 January 2013 @ 12:27 pm
I read an excerpt from the sequel to "The Desert of Souls" on tor.com & was intrigued enough to reserve this one at the library. And then a bit startled when it came in coz it had been long enough that I forgot I'd reserved it :)

It's set primarily in the Baghdad of the 8th Century, during the time of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and our protagonists are part of the household of Jaffar, son of the Vizier. Jaffar & Haroun are historical figures (as are some of the others), and they are also protagonists in some of the stories in the Arabian Nights. This story is a kind of modern story of that type, with ancient magic & djinn. There's also some of the feel of Sherlock Holmes & Watson to the main two characters.

Everything is told to us by Captain Asim, the man in charge of Jaffar's household guards. He organises a diversion for Jaffar after his pet bird has died - they go out into the market place in disguise, accompanied by the scholar Dabir. While Jaffar enjoys pretending to be a common person they go and have their fortunes told, and shortly afterwards a man being chased through the streets trying to reach Jaffar dies in front of them carrying an elaborate door pull. The two main plot lines of the book are thus launched - Dabir is tasked to find out what is so important about the door pull, and Asim is to guard him particularly when this requires travelling to a far away ruined city. Jaffar is also keen to separate Dabir from his erstwhile pupil, Jaffar's niece Sabirah, out of fear that they have fallen in love - said fear being encouraged by the prophecy of the fortune teller. Sabirah is destined for an arranged marriage with someone politically suitable, and far above the station of a scholar/tutor no matter how learned he is.

One thing I really liked about this book is how rooted in the real world it is - even the bits that are fantastical. There's a tale within the tale about a previous adventure of Jaffar, Asim & Dabir and described as an incidental detail in the ancient ruins they visit is what is what seems quite clearly an ancient Assyrian relief of a king in a chariot. The afterword at the end says that Haroun & Jaffar are real, but I was quite pleased I'd figured that out already & I'd looked them up (and the answer to what Jaffar's prophecy means was mentioned in wikipedia too!). Also helping it to feel real was that the characters don't feel like 21st Century Westerners dumped in an exotic setting.
Unification and Expansion: The First Chinese Empires

This chapter of the book covers the Qin Dynasty & the two halves of the Han Dynasty, who ruled China between 221BC and 220AD. The Qin Emperor was the first ruler to unite China under the rule of a central authority rather than the feudal states of previous dynasties. The Han emerged initially as the result of a peasant uprising against the second Qin Emperor, and subsequently ruled over China for about 400 years.

Orientation dates: We're moving out of the time where I try to cross-reference with Egypt, and more into the Roman Empire. The last Egyptian date is the famous Cleopatra, who ruled 69BC to 30BC. For the Romans - the Second Punic War (Hannibal, elephants, etc) happened between 218BC & 202BC, roughly speaking matching the start of the earlier Han Dynasty. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC. Britain (well, bits of) became part of the Roman Empire in 43AD. Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117AD to 138AD, starting to build Hadrian's Wall in 122AD. The Emperor Diocletian ruled from 284AD, so just outside the Han period.

The Qin Dynasty

Before the Qin Emperor was the Warring States period - China divided into 7 different kingdoms who fought amongst themselves, but still had a fair degree of continuity of culture. The Qin state was one of these kingdoms, and it had been a latish addition to the Zhou dynasty's territory. Being on the edge of the country it had expansion prospects that central states didn't, so ended up with a higher population and thus a bigger army than the other states. They'd also lucked out in having a series of rulers that were both long-lived and competant. So over the period of 256BC to 221BC they conquered the other six kingdoms. And the First Emperor ruled the whole of China for the next 11 years until his death.

The way the Qin empire was different from the previous unified states was that it was centralised and not feudal. The pre-existing kingdoms were dismantled and the land divided up into commandaries ruled by centrally appointed bureaucrats. Culture, laws, currency & weights were all standardised across the Empire - by dictat rather than by natural change. There was also a lot of forced labour, doing public works projects like roads & irrigation. And the first incarnation of the Great Wall of China was built during this period using conscript labour. The book had a whole section on the Great Wall which was interesting - I hadn't realised that until modern times the Great Wall was a symbol of oppression and ultimate uselessness (because it didn't actually keep the nomads out for long). I was aware (though only found out recently, via listening to an In Our Time programme) that the Great Wall that we can see today isn't the original, the first incarnation would've been earth ramparts rather than stone walls.

The overall impression I got from the book was that lots of good and useful stuff happened during this decade, that would shape the future of united China. But it was achieved via a lot of oppression & cruelty, so it's not a surprise that the First Emperor's dynasty didn't long outlast him. He died in 210BC, probably from taking mercury pills that were supposed to make him live forever (which is the sort of detail that feels like it should be in a fairytale as The Moral). His tomb was described in the ancient texts & is supposed to be spectacular & to include a scale model of the world complete with rivers of mercury. The only bit that's been excavated is the Terracotta Army, the rest is waiting until the archaeologists are sure they won't damage anything. But the tales of mercury rivers might well be accurate - apparently the soil in the region contains higher levels of mercury than other places nearby.

The First Emperor was suceeded by one of his sons - not the one he might've prefered, but the one that was there when he died. He sounds incompetant, and was persuaded to start off his reign by striking fear into the hearts of the people. Which didn't work out all that well for him as they promptly rebelled!

The Former Han Dynasty

(I don't much like this nomenclature for this bit of the Han Dynasty, but it's what the book uses - except in the Chronology appendix which calls them the Western Han Dynasty like I'd seen other places. "Former Han" just sounds to me like this is people who once were Han but now are not, rather than the first half of the Han.)

The very beginning of the rebellion against the Second Emperor was a group of men who were on their way to the northern frontier for garrison duty, but were unavoidably delayed by poor weather making the roads impassable. Given that the punishment for being late was death one of them, Chen She started a rebellion instead of going quietly to his death. He died after only 6 months, but the rebellion gathered force, and eventually there were two men in charge of it, Xiang Yu (a former general) and Liu Bang (a peasant). They were succesful in over-throwing the Qin dynasty and re-uniting China, but fell out over who would rule what. Liu Bang won in the end, and came to the throne as the first emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202BC.

The book talks a bit about the reign of Liu Bang (as Emperor Gaozu), and I think it turns into hagiography at this point. But it does explain that a lot of the actual apparatus of the state was the same as under the Qin Emperor, there's even been law books found from both the early Han period and the Qin period, which have been compared and are much the same in terms of what there are laws about. The differences are more about tone - the Han did away with a lot of the crueller punishments, and forced labour. They also were more respectful of Confucian scholars, and in fact set up the education system for both bureaucrats and the general population along Confucian principles. Which would get them better press from later historians (who tended to be Confucian educated scholars ...). They even went back to the system of bureaucrat run commandaries for dividing up the country - having originally given out kingships to allies during the revolution over time these were taken back again (as they got more rebellious against the Han). In general, if the Shang was the era that set up a lot of the traditional material culture of China, the Qin & early Han Dynasty was where the state apparatus and culture was formed.

It wasn't all sunshine & roses, though - after the death of the first Han Emperor his wife ruled as regent for his son, and after her death her relatives rose up to seize power. This appears to've been aristocratic infighting rather than popular revolt (and resolved in favour of the Emperor's descendents rather than his wife's relatives). Wives for Emperors were often chosen from families with few male relatives to avoid this sort of thing, and from more humble families (after all it's not like the Emperor had any peers, everyone was more lowly). The end of the Western Han came in 9AD when a regent (and relative of the late Empress) took the throne himself, establishing the Xin dynasty. And if it had stayed aristocratic infighting then this might've been the next Dynasty to rule China. However environmental disaster, caused by the Yellow River changing course, lead to thousands of refugees and chaos in the country. This popular uprising eventually lead to the downfall of the Emperor, and relatives of the earlier Han Dynasty took over again in 25AD forming the Later Han (or Eastern Han) Dynasty.

The Later Han Dynasty

The book is laid out partly in chronological order & partly in themes, and while there's a place for both I'm not sure the balance is always right. I mention this here because there's not actually much about the chronology of the 200 years of the later Han Dynasty. What there is is part of the section on the power of eunuchs, rather than separated out into its own section.

One of the themes they cover is the status & role of women in the Han dynasty period - which is interestingly sometimes more progressive than you might expect but in other ways is just as depressingly sexist as expected. It was during this period that the traditional role of women in China as inferior to men was articulated & laid down - they were supposed to be tranquil, submissive, do all the proper women's work about the house without complaint, to subordinate all their interests to their husband (or father). This was the Confucian ideal of womanhood, and it fits with the general hierarchical nature of Confucian ordering of the world. But high-born women were also frequently well educated - perhaps it was just to enable them to better help their husbands, but even so they got the education. And in the Emperor's harem in particular they had status & influence on the issues of the state. Particularly during the later Han Dynasty when the Emperors spent more time in the harem where there were no men, only eunuchs & women. And there was equal pay for equally ranked women & men - the concubines apparently got ranked on the same scale as the male officials, with the most senior ones being at the same rank as the most senior men and receiving the same pay.

Another of the themes is technology and medicine. There were several advances in both agricultural & military technology over the period, primarily driven by better iron working technology and the abundance of iron ore in China. But in terms of military advances they also had good map making abilities, and some of the maps from the early Han Dynasty correspond well to modern maps. Which is pretty impressive if you think about the things that medieval European mapmakers drew and called "accurate" ;) The biggest thing to happen during this period from a technological point of view was the development of better paper. Paper had possibly been made before (and used by lower class people because silk would be too expensive for them), but in 105AD one of the eunuchs in the service of the later Han Dynasty is credited with making high quality paper, fit for the court and bureaucracy to use.

The later Han Dynasty Emperors would spend most of their time in the harem, and so eunuchs gained more power because of their greater access to the Emperor. But being castrated was a disgrace, and so they weren't held in high regard by the other officials & aristocrats. Which clearly leads to infighting and political manouvering between the eunuchs and the rest of the court. Towards the end of the Han Dynasty this got pretty nasty, with mass demonstrations or riots & murder. Eventually it led to the dis-unification of China & the start of the next period of Chinese history (and the end of this chapter!).

Tangents to follow up on: Mostly I'd like to know a bit more about the Qin and the very beginning of the Han Dynasty, some of the stuff in this book felt a little bit too much like repeating the stories that the traditional histories tell.
14 January 2013 @ 12:22 pm
The Upanishads are some of the sacred texts of Hinduism, originally transmitted orally from father to son in the priest families they were written down in the 6th Century AD. They consist of a series of dialogues about the nature of the universe and the nature of knowledge. And I'd not even heard of them before listening to the In Our Time episode about them. The experts on the programme were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and University of Oxford), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (Lancaster University) and Simon Brodbeck (University of Cardiff).

They started by putting the texts in context - the oral versions date from about 700BC and are the last part of the Vedas, which are the rituals performed by Hindu priests. The Vedas are part of the ancient concept of religion as control of the world - these rituals are spoken in the right way at the right time, with the right ceremonies, and then the gods and world will become ordered in the way you desire. The Upanishads were developed during a time when the tribal societies of the Indian subcontinent were starting to coalesce into kingdoms, with larger urban centres, and are concerned with the meanings and knowledge behind the rituals. They're presented mostly as a series of dialogues between pupil and teacher (with the roles of teacher & pupil being taken by various different people - sometimes father & son, sometimes husband & wife, sometimes King and sage (in either role)). I'm not quite clear on why they started to be written down, perhaps it was just a more general transition from oral to written culture? But even after they were first written down they were still for the priestly class, not for general consumption. Over time commentaries on them were written by religious leaders, and closer to modern times they were translated first into Persian and then into Western languages & became more widely known.

There was an interesting division between the experts. Brodbeck seemed to concentrate on how the texts were about knowledge and about how to transmit and to learn that knowledge. And the other two were more interested in what the texts had to say about the Hindu beliefs about the nature of the universe. Interestingly they were saying that the Hindus were not interested so much in "who created the world" like many other religions, but more in what came before there was a world and before there was a creator - this is the concept of Brahman (I think) which is the universal cosmic power & is described using many different analogies in the Upanishads. They also discussed the desire for immortality reflected in what the Upanishads said, and how this is different from the Western concepts of immortality. In our culture immortality is about the continuation of the personality - either living forever or dying and going to an eternal afterlife as yourself. But in the Hindu religion it can be about the immortality of one's lineage - one's children are one's immortality, they carry on the line. Or it can be about the immortality of the Atman (which again is described with many analogies in the Upanishads but roughly translates as the self). And this isn't your personality, if the Atman is reincarnated the new life isn't related to the old one & doesn't remember it or anything, even tho it's the same immortal Atman. And a goal is to die finally and become part of the Brahman, in an immortal existence that has no more personality or suffering like there is in the world.
While we were in Oxford after Christmas we went to the Ashmolean Museum - J looked at the Egyptian stuff and I took the opportunity to visit one of the exhibitions they had on, as well as having a look at the early Chinese gallery to look at the sorts of things mentioned in the book I am reading.

Threads of Silk and Gold

This is an exhibition of embroidery & other textile crafts from Meiji era Japan, which is 1868-1912. During this period there was a lot of European influence on the designs made by Japanese craftspeople, and also a big European market for Japanese textiles. The exhibition had several very fine objects, made with a variety of techniques - embroidery, weaving, appliqué, dying etc. I don't really have much to say about the exhibition, as it was very much a "look at the pretty stuff" sort of thing. And no photography coz it would damage the items.

I would've bought a postcard, but there wasn't one of my favourite object - this was a four-paneled screen with a golden peacock and peahen embroidered on it (link goes to the museum's page for the screen). I like it both for the design (which is very striking) and for the quality of the work. From a distance it looks like gold on lacquer, and it's only when you get up close you can see that it's embroidered. And if you look closely you can see that each feather in the peacock's tail has been stitched in full, no short cuts. So a feather in the back had all its frondy bits coming off the main spine, and then a feather in front stitched over it etc.

The exhibition as a whole made me want to take up stitching again, but I think I've too many projects going on at the moment, perhaps I'll come back to that some time though :) And I should learn something about Japanese history, I had never heard the term "the Meiji period" before.

Other Stuff

I had a look around the earlyish Chinese stuff that they have in the museum - the galleries are split into two, Neolithic to 800AD and 800AD to the present. As I'd been reading about Chinese pre-history & the pre-unification dynasties I looked mostly at that stuff but I did also look at the Tang Dynasty pottery because I like that. And took pictures :) They're up on flickr, as always.

Inscribed Oracle Bronze Ritual Food Vessel Camel

Chicken Headed Ewers
10 January 2013 @ 01:33 pm
Last night we watched the first part of Prehistoric Autopsy which was all about the Neanderthals. This is a three part series presented by Alice Roberts & George McGavin plus a whole team of experts - the format is that they have a "lab" set up with various different experts & they demonstrate some of the research that's been or is being done about three different human/ancestral species and use this knowledge to build a life-size replica of the species in question. It suffers a little from "staged conversations" syndrome & an almost complete lack of on-screen chemistry between the two primary presenters but other than those two niggles it was a fascinating programme.

So they started by giving us context for Neanderthals - not that long ago by palaeontological standards we weren't the only human species on the planet. If you go back to ~70,000 years ago there were 4 species as well as Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis (who died out about 12,000 years ago, which is about the same time as the Chinese were starting to make pottery), Denisova hominin (who I'd never heard of before, wikipedia tells me this is a branch from Neanderthals), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals, died out around 30,000 years ago), Homo erectus (died out around 70,000 years ago). Neanderthals moved out of Africa & lived in Europe, then Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and independently moved into Europe later on.

They then talked us through lots of different evidence for what the Neanderthals looked like & how they lived, whilst at the same time showing us the building of the replica (based on an actual individual skeleton). Lots of fascinating things, quite a lot of stuff I didn't know before, so I shan't try & list everything that made me think "ooh, neat" :) I knew that there'd been work that showed we (northern Europeans) are more related to Neanderthals than you might think, but I hadn't realised that they'd actually sequenced the whole Neanderthal genome. And the data they showed for relatedness was quite impressive - looking at 500 people of West African descent & you see under 2% relatedness to Neanderthals (with a nice normal distribution) and then looking at 500 people of Northern European descent and you see 2-4% relatedness to Neanderthals (again, nice normal distribution that doesn't overlap the West African one). Looks pretty clear there was interbreeding going on in Europe 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals also had more culture than one might've thought - there's a painted shell with a hole that looks like where you'd put one if you were making a pendant, that was found in association with Neanderthal remains. There's also a cave-painting that has had some of the paint dated to ~15,000 years before the first signs of Homo sapiens. They spent some time considering if Neanderthals could talk, too - but that was a little less convincing. They also looked at how Neanderthals hunted, and how they made clothes. You can tell from tools found that they must've scraped hides to make them pliable for making clothes, and you can also tell this from the arm bones of the skeleton. You could also tell from the wear on the teeth that they worked the hides with their teeth too.

Oh, and thinking of teeth - one of the really neat bits was that there's a group that have examined Neanderthal teeth from a skeleton of a young girl, using a synchrotron. The images generated allow them to see and count the growth lines in the teeth - at a resolution of 1 per day. That means they could count up how long the girl had lived since her teeth came in, and instead of the 6 years estimated from the state of the bones it turns out she'd lived for about 3 years. So Neanderthals matured at a much quicker rate than us, and they speculated in the programme that this might be part of why we still exist and are thriving & the Neanderthals aren't. That we have more time to learn while we grow up, and this makes us more adaptable & gives us an edge in competition.

I could ramble on for longer, but I shall stop there. I'm looking forward to the other two programmes when we get to them & I'd definitely recommend watching this one if you have the chance (and are interested in that sort of thing).

The other programme of the evening was the seventh episode of Wartime Farm - covering 1944. We had carrier pigeon training (because they were extensively used during the war in particular to relay messages during the D-Day landing), POWs being used as farm labour (the expert on this segment was a German chap whose Grandad had been one of those POWs which was a neat touch), the troops gathering pre-D-Day, basket making, flax harvesting. Oh and some terrible German bread - bread was never rationed here, but it was in Germany. And in desperation there were recipes for wartime black bread that were appalling - the one they demonstrated was silage, grass clippings, sawdust, fermented rye (better hope for no ergot!) and honey. It looked a bit like black bread once it had been cooked, and they ate it and said it didn't taste too bad - but pretty much it was the sort of thing you'd eat if you were reduced to eating grass, this was at least a palatable way to do it.
09 January 2013 @ 12:59 pm
Next up on the shelf is somewhat of a contrast to the previous one, and bought probably about 10 years ago or so. Again with plans to buy the rest, and I think I did read some from the library although I never got round to buying more. A more positive re-reading experience it has to be said :)

Asher's Polity series are set a few hundred years in the future when humans have colonised many different worlds, with the help of teleportation devices called runcibles. There are lots of AIs - some run the runcibles, some run ships, some run cities, some run planets, they're pretty ubiquitous. And you can be linked into the network to interact directly with these AI (only as a government agent, I think) - which is called being gridlinked. As well as being space opera, I think of this book as having some of the same flavour as William Gibson's earlier stuff - only it's cyberpunk of the 2000s not cyberpunk of the 1980s.

It starts with something I always think of as a Stephen King trick (tho I'm sure lots of other writers use it) - you're in the head of someone & just getting to know them & their story and then they're dead. This is the set-up for the whole story, someone goes through a runcible and it goes wrong, the resulting release of energy is sufficient to blow up the runcible and most of the people on the planet and those who survive are frozen when the terraforming stops happening (it was being fuelled by waste heat from the runcible operations). Sabotage is suspected and one of the best Polity agents, Cormac, is called in to figure it out. As an added complication for him he's been gridlinked for 30 years and this has started to atrophy his ability to interact with and empathise with people. So his superiors not only call him in but also tell him he needs to deactivate his gridlinking before taking on the job (otherwise he can retire - I think it wasn't a threat as much as an acknowledgement that he wasn't fit for duty any more, his retirement wouldn't be a hardship, but he likes his job). As yet another complication he's managed to piss off someone in his last job, who turns out to be more than a little psychotic and follows him across the galaxy to kill him.

Like I said at the start, I enjoyed reading this although I did find the ending a bit hard to follow. I wasn't really sure what happened, but while writing this post I looked on wikipedia and found a link to an alternative version of the ending on Asher's website where it's more spelt out. Having read that I think I can see how all the clues were there, but I do think the original ending is too opaque - much better with a little more explanation.

I liked the way you get to see Cormac from the outside first, which shows how oddly he's coming over to normal people before you see inside his head. And I liked the way that once we're inside his head gridlinked-Cormac feels right for what it'd be like to have the internet (and more) in your head, for instance he looks at something and automatically looks up info on it. I wasn't sure I agreed about what the side-effects of being gridlinked for 30 years would be, but then the withdrawal difficulties that Cormac has made it feel right.

The science in the book was explained just enough for me to hang my suspension of disbelief on, but not enough that I started picking holes in it (of course, not being a physicist helps with this...). The little bits at the start of each chapter were neat - some gave you little bits of useful info about the world of the story and some added another layer to it. Like one tells you about Cormac's superior and it seems somewhat fantastical and they say he's probably legendary. But then another one tells you about Cormac and how he's a legend used to frighten potential Separatist terrorists into behaving ... and yet we know he's "real" coz we're in his head, so how much of the other stuff about his superior is also real? I can't remember much about later books, so I don't know how much of that we get to find out about.

So I'm keeping this one :) Might pick up some of the others, although perhaps not immediately (I know I want to get the rest of the Erikson series & we're behind on the Wheel of Time, so I think perhaps buying even more books right now is not the best idea!).
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The "Three Dynasties": The Ancient Kingdoms

The first Chinese historian, Sima Qian, wrote a history of China around about 100BC and he starts with Five Emperors who're pretty much considered these days to be mythical (although the book says there are attempts to tie them to particular Neolithic groups). After these Emperors he writes of three early Dynasties who ruled "all China" - the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. These were also originally dismissed by Western Europeans as legends, but the Shang and the Zhou have left incontrovertible archaeological evidence for their existence - they had writing and so are historical. The Xia are less solidly identified but there is thought to be some truth to the account of them. These dynasties didn't rule over as wide a territory as later China, and the Xia and the Shang probably didn't directly rule over much territory outside their capitals.

The general model for the history of this whole period from the archaeology is that the Xia, Shang and Zhou all co-existed throughout the period in different areas and the different groups rose to prominence at different times. The Xia were (probably) in the central Yellow River basin, the Zhou in the Wei River valley in the west & the Shang from the eastern Yellow River region.

So this chapter covers the first three dynasties of China, the Xia (2100BC-1600BC), the Shang (1600BC-1046BC) and the Zhou and their aftermath (1046BC-221BC). For context here's some dates of events in other parts of the world, starting with some Ancient Egyptian stuff coz that's probably what I know best in the ancient world (tho I still needed to check the exact dates of them). Khufu (whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Giza) pre-dates the Xia, he reigned from 2470BC to 2447BC. The Middle Kingdom era in Egypt is 2066BC-1650BC roughly concurrent with the Xia. The New Kingdom (1549BC-1044BC) is roughly concurrent with the Shang, and Tutankhamun (1343BC-1333BC) and Ramesses II (1279BC-1212BC) are in the middle of that. After that in Egypt it's the bit that I think of as the complicated bit - but a point of reference is that Alexander the Great ruled Egypt 332BC-323BC. All of those Egyptian dates are taken from "The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt" by Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton (which I had a note of for my post about shabtis from a while ago).

For the rest of the world (er, by this I mean the Mediterranean ...) I'm just going to pull a few dates quickly out of wikipedia (and one thing writing these books up in more detail will hopefully help me do is not have to go to wikipedia for stuff like that - I now have orientation dates for China, for instance). The Minoan civilisation on Crete is approx 2200BC to 1450BC and Linear B script is written (by Mycenean Greeks on Crete) around 1700BC-1500BC. The collapse of several eastern Mediterranean civilisations known as the Bronze Age collapse occurs around 1200BC, and the "Greek Dark Ages" run from then until 750BC. Archaic Greece is the period from 800BC to 480BC (includes Pythagoras), and Classical Greece after that until 323BC. Classical Greece is effectively the bit with most of the names one knows - Plato, Aristotle etc - and it ends with Alexander. Rome is founded in the 8th Century BC (their origin myth states 753BC) - the Roman Republic (as opposed to the initial Roman Kingdom) is formed in 509BC. The first Punic War (Rome v. Carthage) begins in 264BC, so just within our time frame - the second Punic War (Rome v. Carthage round 2, the time of Hannibal) begins in 218BC so just outside this time.

The Xia

Whether or not the Xia as Sima Qian writes about them actually existed is in doubt - they didn't have writing (or at least not any that's been found) and so there's nothing to definitively tie a particular Bronze Age culture to the Xia. There is a site in Erlitou, western Henan, that existed at the right time in the right sort of place so it is identified as the probable Xia. Which seems a little circular to me as evidence for the existence of a Xia dynasty (and the book does point this out - the two double-page spreads on the Xia seem to be dancing carefully around the need to acknowledge both that the Xia are an important part of Chinese cultural identity and the lack of concrete evidence for them). The most compelling bit of evidence that they present (in my eyes) is the bronze ceremonial vessels - 20 of them have been found, and they're a lot simpler than the later Shang & Zhou ones but they have similarities & are more complex and sophisticated than the previous Neolithic bronzes that have been found.

The legend of the Xia ties into and probably creates the narrative paradigm that is used by later Chinese historians to describe the dynastic cycle of later dynasties. It starts with Yu who is all that is good & wise in a ruler and then ends with a terrible tyrant (Jie) who is all that is dreadful in a ruler and who is then overthrown by the start of the next dynasty. So the classical view of the dynastic cycle is "from growth to decline". Yu is the hero who is credited with figuring out how to ameliorate the floods of the Yellow River by digging channels to divert the flow - and is probably almost entirely mythical. The next rulers seem more plausibly real people - with petty scheming and succession struggles as well as more benign stories. Jie is again probably mythical, and the books says the stories of his tyranny & replacement were probably a way for the Zhou dynasty to give a precedent for their own usurpation of the Shang.

The Shang

The Shang definitely existed - in the early 20th Century their oracle bones were discovered. These bones were used in divination rituals by the King, and the results of the divination were then written down on the bone. These provide a wealth of data about the later Shang (which is the period when they were used) because for a while the King didn't make any major decisions without consulting the ancestors first. Sometimes even minor decisions were only taken after consultation. The oracle bones were in some ways astonishingly easy to decipher, in comparison to other ancient texts - this is because the writing system (and written language) used are directly related to modern Chinese script & languages. So a lot easier than getting ancient Egyptian and trying to figure it out. The oracle bones are used during the later Shang period, but towards the very end the range of questions narrows & the use of them starts to die out.

The Shang social/political structure was very much based around kinship & lineages - the King ruled because he was senior member of the senior lineage. Sub-regions of the kingdom were ruled by the next most senior branches of the lineage, sub-regions of these by junior branches of the sub-region's ruling lineage etc etc. They also appear to have had a mechanism to make sure there was always a mature ruler - you get succession to a king's brothers (down the line of seniority) until his son is old enough to rule. Which sounds fascinating because it feels like it shouldn't work (why wouldn't the brother want his own sons to inherit - the rules about seniority must've been very ingrained). The King wasn't just senior in political terms, but also in religious terms. Every lineage could worship its own ancestors but as the King was head of the senior lineage his ancestors were the most important ones. The state wasn't particularly cohesive, but it was bound together by this network of kinship & seniority.

They practiced human sacrifice - some victims buried in tombs, some in foundations of buildings, others in pits that seem to be just to bury victims. The book suggests this was in large part about defining the Shang as "the people" and outsiders (in particular Qiang tribes people who they warred against) as "others" who were fit only for decapitation. The tomb burials were also about providing the recently deceased with a proper retinue for their life after death - death wasn't an end of a person, it was a relocation to the land of the ancestors, so important to send along all one would need. Ritual offerings of food & drink (and human sacrifices) were then used to communicate with the ancestor (as well as the oracle bones used only by the King). The book describes the religion as "increasingly bureaucratic" - the sorts of questions that could be asked were, over time, narrowed down to particular things. The rituals that could be performed were determined by the day of the week etc.

The Shang Dynasty ends with a tyrant, of course - called Zhouxin. Actual evidence from the time period is minimal, most of what's known is later spin designed to make the Zhou look good initially. And in later periods designed to make their own rulers "not as bad as Zhouxin so not worthy of being overthrown" (which is an interesting way that the "current" time affects the writing of history). But the actual evidence is more that the state of the Shang had disintegrated - there are fewer alliances mentioned between the King & outer regions, for instance. So their power was fading and the Zhou rush in to fill the gap.

The Zhou

The whole rest of this period is lumped in as "the Zhou dynasty" but actually only the first bit of it fits into the concept of a dynasty as I'd normally think about it - the rest of the time it's fractured into small states which war between themselves in various combinations. The Zhou seem to've started out as a polity on the fringes of the Shang ruled area, who took on the culture & religion of the Shang. When the Shang started to disintegrate they took advantage and overthrew the Shang. While their culture was mostly the same they stopped the large scale human sacrifice & stopped using oracle bones for divination. Another departure was that their religion had a supreme deity "Heaven" which legitimised the rulers not based on their lineage but based on their worthiness. This legitimised the overthrow of the last Shang King, but later when the rule of the Zhou was beginning to collapse it meant that the people expected a new morally upright leader to emerge and to overthrow the Zhou.

After about 300 years this Western Zhou regime collapsed (there is a tyrant "responsible" for it but it's not that simple) and over the next five centuries various states occupied the Chinese territory. The first period is the "Spring and Autumn Period", and there are two main superpowers with lots of smaller allied states - the Jin in the north & the Chu in the south. Even tho they warred and were different countries there was still continuity of culture across the aristocracy of all of what had been the Zhou lands. This period lasted for 300 years and then the Jin collapsed into smaller states, and this period of about 200 years is known as the Warring States Period. During this time the small states coalesced into 7 large states. These expanded to cover between them the whole of the territory that would become China.

The Warring States Period moved from the kinship based state apparatus & hierarchy to a bureaucratic one - the beginning of what we might think of as how the Chinese state works. There was more social mobility, as officials were appointed based more on merit than ancestry, and because they were paid in money rather than land the positions didn't tend towards becoming hereditary as they had before. This diluted the aristocratic culture that had characterised the Spring and Autumn Period, but there were still cultural norms that were common across the seven states due to contact between them including officials moving to work in other states.

This period was one of the formative periods of what we now think of as typical Chinese culture - Confucius and Laozi (the founder of Daoism) were both products of the rich intellectual life of the era. There was a great emphasis on the practical in the philosophies of the time, because of the way this is a period of both collapse of the old order & rising of a new one. And the fragmented political situation also led to development of philosophies of warfare - Sun Tzu wrote his "Art of War" during this time, and the development of conscript armies changed the way wars were fought. The need for lots of peasant conscripts also meant that states encouraged people to breed (by taxing unmarried youths) and to encourage immigration.

It is also the time during which cities started to grow. Previously cities in China had been more religious and political centres but during this time they also became the sort of economic hubs that we expect when we think of a city, and had many more people living in them. The Iron Age began during the Spring and Autumn Period, but it was in the Warring States Period that it developed to its full - the book says that the Chinese were casting high quality iron tools a millennium and a half before the rest of the world. I guess that's carefully chosen phrasing - obviously the Iron Age starts everywhere around this time, but these must've been a particular level of technique or craftsmanship that the Chinese reached at this time before anywhere else.

Coins began to be minted during this period, with each of the seven states having their own particular coins. Several states moved to collecting their taxes in coin rather than goods, which revolutionised the economy. And despite having different currencies for each state they did all recognise each other's coins as valid - so another way that despite being fragmented there was still a common culture across the region.

Tangents to follow up: Not really any as such, but the Shang sound interesting to know more about ... sometime when I'm done with several of the other books I have lined up I shall pick up a book on them.
03 January 2013 @ 03:48 pm
I've decided to read my way through all the fiction we have on our shelves, which'll take a while coz there's on the order of 500 books, and also coz I'm still reading the various non-fiction books I've stacked up in the queue :)

First book up is "Bitten" by Kelley Armstrong - I'm pretty sure I bought this with a book token 5 or 6 years ago, then was going to get the rest of the series so I must've liked it at the time. I never did get round to buying the others, and I'm not sure how many I read from the library before I lost interest.

Re-reading it I'm not entirely sure why I liked it in the first place :/ I guess partly I've just read a lot more Urban Fantasy since then and it doesn't feel as fresh as it maybe did before. It is fairly standard - our heroine is a werewolf, the only female one in existence, she's in a love triangle and goes around being sarcastic & kicking ass. Unfortunately I didn't like her much - very self-centred in a spoilt brat sort of way rather than in any interesting way. The back story (orphaned, been in foster homes & abused, had her "one chance of a normal life" snatched away by being made a werewolf) didn't stop me wanting her to grow up and think about something outside her own desires every once in a while.

I also really wasn't convinced by the love interests - one so bland I almost wanted him to turn out to have a dark secret just to make him more interesting (maybe he does in later books, but I had the impression from this one he's just as bland as he looked). The other one actually is a sociopath and SPOILER: [Spoiler (click to open)]he's the one that turned her into a werewolf against her will which I would've thought was a complete deal breaker, but she just can't resist his manly, er, werewolfy charms.

Having failed to particularly empathise with the characters I didn't find the plot engaging enough to make up for it - territorial disputes between the Pack and some rogue wolves, to do with rogues challenging the status quo.

Despite the overwhelming negative tone of this post there's nothing actually wrong with the book - just it's not for me. I was still entertained enough to finish the book to see what did happen in the end (partly hoping I'd misremembered and Mr Bland turned out to be more interesting). But off to the charity shop it goes, no need to keep it about to read another time.
26 December 2012 @ 05:52 pm
Christmas Doctor Who! As is now traditional, although given the way they're splitting the season it does feel like part of the season more than it used to. Which is a good thing, I think.

Spoilers ahead!spoilersCollapse )
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24 December 2012 @ 01:59 pm
The Anarchy is a 19th Century term for a period of civil war in England in the 12th Century. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were John Gillingham (London School of Economics and Political Science), Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University) and David Carpenter (Kings College London). It turned out to be quite a lively discussion - Gillingham and Carpenter in particular seemed to disagree quite vigorously over how poor (or otherwise) a king Stephen was.

The period of time in question is about 80 years after the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror was succeeded by his son William Rufus. Who in turn was succeeded by his brother Henry I. Henry had only two legitimate children (and about 20 illegitimate ones) - William and Matilda. William died young, drowned when the White Ship sank in the English Channel in 1120, and so Henry had no male heir. He promptly re-married but that marriage had no children. So he reluctantly designated Matilda as his heir, and made his nobles swear an oath to support her as heir.

Matilda had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor, she was sent to Germany at the age of 8 and educated there. When she married at the age of 12 she started to take on the role of Empress - in Germany the wife of the ruler was to some degree a co-ruler, so she granted charters etc. Wilkinson was saying that when Matilda was 12 her exercise of power was probably under the guidance of the Emperor's advisers as part of her education, part of her training to rule. Once the Emperor died in 1125 she was summoned to return to England by her father to be designated as his heir, and re-married to Geoffrey d'Anjou in the hopes that this second marriage would produce offspring (it did).

Despite saying that she was his heir it seems that Henry didn't really do much to make sure she had a chance of holding the throne. All three experts were in agreement that he didn't let her establish a power base of any sort in England - he assigned her no lands, no castles. So really he was responsible for what happened after he died in 1135 - instead of Matilda inheriting, the throne was seized by her cousin Stephen de Blois. And the nobles in England were all perfectly happy to let this happen. The nobles in Normandy would've preferred his older brother to take the throne, but no-one was really on Matilda's side (or at least not publicly). This was partly because she was a woman, and partly because she was foreign-educated. She was also widely regarded as proud and arrogant - Wilkinson was clear that she thought this was primarily because Matilda was a woman. That the same characteristics and actions as a man would've brought Matilda praise. The other two seemed to think that there was more truth to this than that - that Matilda might've been able to make life easier for herself if she'd been a little less concerned with her status as Empress.

Stephen was the sort of man who got along with everyone - he'd not been intended to be King & in many ways stayed more first-among-equals with the Barons, rather than their ruler. Carpenter was fairly anti-Stephen, he thought that he showed poor judgement in choosing who to please, whose side to take in disputes. Gillingham felt rather that Stephen had inherited a bad situation, and did as well as he could. But whichever is true, after a while Robert Earl of Gloucester (one of Henry's illegitimate children) went over to Matilda's side. He escorted her to England and his holdings gave her the power base she'd not had before. Stephen had the chance to capture Matilda at one point during this journey, but didn't do so - which Gillingham thought was the right course of action due to the potential effects on Stephen's reputation, but Carpenter thought was a ludicrous mistake.

The conflict dragged out for nearly 20 years, although there weren't many actual battles. Stephen's wife, another Matilda, was instrumental in both the negotiations and in raising armies particularly during a period where Stephen had been captured by the Empress. She wasn't regarded with as much distaste by the nobles, because she managed to do this while still behaving femininely enough for the standards of the time. Despite the lack of battles the war had a lot of effect on the country - hence the later name of the Anarchy. One of the standard strategies in warfare at the time was to ravage the lands around your opponents castles - so burn the crops, burn the villages, ruin the economy of the area as well as deny the fortresses food. Gillingham and Carpenter disagreed on how much and how widespread this was. Carpenter was presenting a picture of the whole country in flames and turmoil, but Gillingham felt that outside a few areas it was pretty much business as usual for the peasantry.

The war was finally over when Stephen and Matilda's son Henry came to an agreement that once Stephen died then Henry would be heir.
I've decided to write up notes on the non-fiction books I'm reading in chunks, coz frequently that's how I read them - in sections, with fiction in between to clear the palate, so's to speak :)

The book I've just started was a birthday present from my parents and is an overview of the history of China from pre-Homo sapiens right through to the last Emperor who died in 1967. So quite a lot of ground to cover there! It's part of a Thames & Hudson series of books called Ancient Civilisations and is written with contributions from 17 people, but lists John Makeham as "Chief Consultant" so I'm putting him down as the author. It's a big glossy book with lots of illustrations & the format (like the others in the series) is that within the chapters each double-page spread covers a particular topic.

Introducing China

The first chapter is a brief overview of China as a whole - 5 double-pages covering the geography, art and science associated with the region. And also the history of archaeology in China. Oddly there isn't an overall map of China - I would've expected one in this section particularly when they were talking about the geography, I had to use google maps to let me figure out where they were talking about. The take home message about the geography is that China is big enough to have noticeably different climates in north & south, with different advantages & challenges for living in & feeding people. The three great rivers are also important (and I confess I didn't previously know the name of the Pearl River, which is the southern one, although I knew the Yellow River (north) and Yangzi River (central) existed). For art & other cultural treasures of China they mention silk, porcelain, lacquer & paper in particular, all dating back startlingly far. In terms of agriculture I knew about rice (obviously), but I didn't realise that in the north of China (particularly the Yellow River valley) the staple crop is millet. Until the Mongols took over (13th Century AD) China was the innovator for new scientific & technological advances - but once more global trading of ideas & devices took place the Chinese ideas helped to kick-start the European Renaissance which eventually led to Europe pulling ahead in innovation. It didn't mention it here but I guess the Chinese also have to have become more hidebound as well.

Proto-archaeology, ie the sort of collection of antiquities equivalent to the sorts of things happening in the Enlightenment era in Europe started relatively early in China's history - by the 7th Century AD. But it didn't develop into any sort of science of archaeology that we'd recognise until the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Origins: Prehistoric China

They start with some discussion of Palaeolithic China - there were definitely hominids in China before Homo sapiens, Peking Man is a famous Homo erectus skeleton discovered near Beijing. And then there's archaic modern humans - like Neanderthals (which it says are European only - I didn't know that before), but not Neanderthals. And then after that we get fully modern humans. I thought the prevailing theory was that Homo sapiens was a different species to Homo erectus, and that the separateness of the Neanderthals was in doubt (ie Homo sapiens may've been able to interbreed with them). But this book is saying that it's also possible that Homo erectus is the same species as us - and then modern humans evolved in multiple places with interbreeding between the populations - the evidence is in anatomical features in Homo erectus that're different in different geographical areas and are similarly different in the Homo sapiens skeletons from these different areas.

The Neolithic is the period of pre-history where ancient peoples settled down, started to farm, started to make pottery. China's one of the places that independently developed agriculture, and the Neolithic revolution happened in a different order here to that in the Middle East - something I didn't know before. In the Middle East the sequence is settle down -> agriculture -> pottery. Whereas in China it was pottery -> agriculture -> settle down. I was astonished how much of the stuff that is quintessentially Chinese was developed during the Neolithic - high quality pottery, silkworms were domesticated & silk was made, jade was used for grave goods/ritual items, even dragon imagery. Agriculture was possibly developed twice - millet grown on dry land in the Yellow River valley and rice grown in wet paddy-fields in the Yangzi River valley. It was a slow process getting from nomadic hunter/gatherers without pottery to fully sedentary agrarian villages with pottery - starting around or before 10,000-11,000BC (there are pottery fragments dating to this time), and really only fully developed around 5000BC. I've got 6000BC in my head for agriculture being developed in the Middle East, so definitely sounds like the Chinese were starting the process a lot earlier. I know that one of the things shifting to agriculture for food production does is to free up some people's time to spend on other things - dedicated artisans, and ruling elites, start to exist. This happens in China too - early Neolithic villages have houses that all look similar, and the graves of the people are all much the same. But later Neolithic villages have evidence of a hierarchy in their buildings, and in the grave goods of the people. The book says that some of the features distinguishing the houses are common through Chinese history - enclosures around the elite buildings, and significant buildings on platforms.

Writing is also starting to be developed by the end of this period, but it's not clear if the systems seen are actually related to the writing system that later developed. What's seen is seen on pots and stone objects, but there's later textual evidence that perishable surfaces might've been used for writing (bundles of bamboo strips).

Tangents to follow up on: Homo sapiens evolution. Middle Eastern development of agriculture/Neolithic era technology. Conveniently I think I've got books in the queue already that deal with both of those :)
The fourth & last programme in Dan Snow's series about the British Navy talked about how we got from the total domination of the seas in the aftermath of Trafalgar, to the on or below par situation in the First World War.

Once Nelson & the fleet had won at Trafalgar there wasn't an intact navy left that could challenge the British Navy. The French did try & build back up, but the British managed to always go one better & build more or better ships - this was the first "arms race". The Empire used this naval superiority to behave badly and make money, in much the same way that the Empire used any other sort of technological edge they had. As an example - once they'd their steam driven gunboats to slaughter the Chinese fleet, the British annexed the island of Hong Kong and always kept a few gunboats sitting in the harbour there to make sure to remind the Chinese government what would happen if they got any funny ideas about stopping trade with Britain. This is the origin of the term "gunboat diplomacy".

But the lack of any challenge had a detrimental effect on the Navy over time - after a while there was no-one who'd actually had to fight in a real war. And in peace time it was harder to rise from the ranks to become an officer, as the traditional way to do so was to demonstrate valour in combat. This meant the hierarchy fossilised - the officers came from the "right families" and no matter how talented a rating was he wasn't getting promoted. The best demonstration of how big a problem this was is the collision between HMS Victoria & HMS Camperdown. The fleet in the Mediterranean were doing manoeuvres and the senior officer (commanding the Victoria) signalled for a particular course change, the officer in charge of the Camperdown hesitated because it looked unsafe (due to the proximity of the battleships and the size of their turning circles) but was signalled to get on with it. He obeyed his orders, and the two ships collided - more than 450 lives were lost, including the commander on the Victoria. The subsequent court martial didn't completely clear the commander of the Camperdown of blame, but did say that the vast majority of the blame fell on the shoulders of the senior officer because "of course" the other officer should have followed orders. (Reading wikipedia about it while writing this post it's become obvious that the programme simplified things almost to the point of being wrong - I was left with the impression after watching it that the commander of the Camperdown was regarded as having done the right thing in obeying orders, but the situation appears to be a lot more nuanced than that).

By the start of the 20th century there was a new enemy - the Germans were starting to build up their fleet to try & challenge the might of the British Navy. This lead to a new arms race, and the British designed & built the first dreadnoughts. Counter-intuitively these powerful ships actually levelled the playing field - they were so much better than the older ships that all that mattered was how many dreadnoughts you had. And everyone was starting from a point of having few or none. The British did manage to ramp up production of the ships, and by the start of the First World War had twice as many ships as the Germans. The two fleets met in battle off the coast of Denmark - the last great battle involving battleships. The British lost. In large part due to their own mistakes. One of these was that the ships had radio but this wasn't used because it was too new-fangled for old fashioned commanders who'd rather rely on flag signals. The conditions weren't good for visibility (hardly surprising when every ship is belching out smoke) and the misinterpreted or un-understandable signals caused confusion. There were also losses of ships that could have been avoided - safety hatches in the ships were left open between the guns and the ammo stores, and several ships blew up when German shells dropped straight down into the ammo and ignited it.

Snow then finished up the programme with a brief trot through the overall shape of the Navy's history - from collection of ships barely working together through to a fleet that was if anything too regimented & regulated. He briefly mentioned the more modern role of the Navy in protecting shipping and providing mobile aircraft bases, but really what he'd been interested in telling us about in this series was the big naval battles phase of history. When our investment into the Navy allowed a small island to control an enormous empire, before technology moved on and left us behind again.

The second programme we watched was presented by Rachel & Rebecca Unthank, the singers in The Unthanks, called "The Unthanks: A Very English Winter". The two women travelled around the country attending traditional events associated with dates in the winter. So for instance for Bonfire Night they went to Lewes, where they take the whole thing very seriously indeed! Imagine Mardi Gras, but with a lot of fire & politics. There are still Mummer's Plays done in various places throughout the year, and they had longsword dancing and molly dancers (not morris dancers though, but this was clearly the same type of thing). A programme to watch for the spectacle and the songs, and also coz it's nice to see there are still some old-fashioned traditions carrying on into the present day :)
20 December 2012 @ 02:51 pm
Here be spoilers! Read at own risk ;) It also probably won't make much sense if you haven't seen the film yet, as I'm not doing a plot synopsis.

spoilers for The HobbitCollapse )
A couple of days ago BMJ published a paper about the death of Ramesses III (Revisiting the harem conspiracy and death of Ramesses III: anthropological, forensic, radiological, and genetic study. Zahi Hawass, Somaia Ismail, Ashraf Selim, Sahar N Saleem, Dina Fathalla, Sally Wasef, Ahmed Z Gad, Rama Saad, Suzan Fares, Hany Amer, Paul Gostner, Yehia Z Gad, Carsten M Pusch, Albert R Zink. BMJ 2012;345:e8268). This uses techniques similar to the 2010 paper which gave details about the health at death and the familial relationships between several of the late 18th Dynasty Pharaohs (Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family. Zahi Hawass, Yehia Z. Gad, Somaia Ismail, Rabab Khairat, Dina Fathalla, Naglaa Hasan, Amal Ahmed, Hisham Elleithy, Markus Ball, Fawzi Gaballah, Sally Wasef, Mohamed Fateen, Hany Amer, Paul Gostner, Ashraf Selim, Albert Zink, Carsten M. Pusch. JAMA. 10;303(7):638-647). In this case they concentrated primarily on one mummy, that of Ramesses III, and investigated his cause of death. They also looked at whether or not another mummy could be a son of Ramesses III.

Ramesses III was a 20th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh, ruling for around 30 years in the 12th Century BC. It's known from ancient Egyptian texts that there was a conspiracy against Ramesses III, a plot to assassinate him and for his son Pentawere to become Pharaoh. The documents record the trials and punishments for the conspirators, and it is clear that the coup failed. It isn't clear from the text whether or not Ramesses III was actually killed. The Egyptians believed that writing things down was magic and that it made a statement true. They are often rather ambiguous about things like the death of a Pharaoh, particularly a violent one, so the lack of explicit mention of Ramesses III's death doesn't really give us much information about whether he did die or not. One of the reasons this paper is interesting is because we already know so much about this piece of politics from 3000 years ago, and there's still more we can learn with new technology.

The mummy of Ramesses III had previously been inspected for signs of a violent death but none had been seen with the techniques available at the time. This paper uses CT scans of the mummy and shows that underneath the bandaging around the throat there is a large cut (7cm across, gaping 3cm wide and cuts through all the soft tissue from the front right through to the vertebrae at the back). If it was done to him while he was living it killed him. Not only is the neck heavily bandaged to hold it together but also there is an Eye of Horus amulet in the wound (which would be a healing charm). The authors conclude from the evidence that it was almost certainly the cause of death, rather than being inflicted during the embalming procedure. And they speculate that the amulet is there to enable the king to heal as he enters the afterlife.

They also looked at another mummy - which hasn't been mummified "properly" and was wrapped in a goat skin (which is a ritually impure way to do things). Yet he was still preserved (and even moved to the cache of royal mummies in Deir el Bahri, so treated with some respect). They were interested in seeing if this was Pentawere, was this a part of his punishment for conspiring to kill the Pharaoh. They did use CT scans to look at the body, it is that of a young man age 18-20 and there are signs of a death by suffocation or perhaps strangulation although this is not clear because of the poor state of the body. It's known from the trial records that Pentawere was found guilty and condemned to kill himself, which doesn't quite match with suffocation/strangulation but perhaps he hung himself? But they say that none of this is really clear. They also did genetic analysis on the two mummies, and showed that they are potentially father & son. Because they don't have the mummy of Pentawere's mother (Tiy) available they couldn't show anything for sure - but it seems likely from the data that this is a son of Ramesses III and from the way the body was treated it only really makes sense for it to be Pentawere (based on what we know).

I'm particularly interested in the genetic data because it can be used to answer one of my criticisms of the 2010 Tutankhamun paper (I wrote about the paper at length here). The methods in the 2012 paper state that the analysis was done the same way as in the 2010 paper, and I actually wonder if it was done at the same time (but that's pure speculation on my part).

I had a few criticisms of the way the data was reported in that earlier paper - there are no controls shown for the autosomal markers, the total number of usable samples for each mummy is not shown (nor the places they were taken from) and the number of samples giving the same data point is not shown (ie are 16 out of 30 in agreement, or 29 out of 30? both count as "majority" but one is more convincing than the other). Unfortunately most of these criticisms still hold true for the 2012 paper - one that doesn't quite is that they do list the places on the mummy where the samples were taken, although they still don't indicate which and how many samples actually yielded usable DNA.

The lack of controls in this 2012 paper for the autosomal data is particularly poor, because they publish some controls for the Y chromosome data (the control from the kit they use for the markers, plus 3 of the team members). It would be good if they also used another mummy for a control, but it's still better than the data presented for the autosomal markers. However, taking the two papers together you can use them as controls for each other (to some extent, it'd be nice to have data from the same run of experiments but this is better than nothing).

A quick run-down of how short tandem repeat analysis works (copied from my previous post on the subject). There are sections of DNA that are repeats of short sequences. It doesn't appear to do anything, and as a result these regions mutate more than functional sections of the genome, so can be used to trace familial relationships (unless of course you get a mutation right between two generations of the family you're looking at, but that is still a rare occurrence). For any given marker what they do is look at how many repeats the sample has - there will be 2 numbers of repeats, as chromosomes come in pairs. Brief explanation - the DNA in a person is organised into 46 chromosomes, 22 pairs of non-sex chromosomes normally known by numbers and 2 sex chromosomes (XX for women, XY for men). You inherit one of each pair of chromosomes from your father and one from your mother, and this is randomly organised. So if your mother's chromosomes are labelled A & B, and your Dad's are C & D, you could inherit chromosome 1 as A (from your mother) & C (from your father), chromosome 2 as A&D, chromosome 3 as B&D, chromosome 4 as A&D and so on; a full sibling of yours would get a different random selection, ie 1 B&D, 2 A&D, 3 B&C, 4 A&C. And importantly you MUST get one in each pair from each parent, you'll never have 1 A&B for instance.

So with the STR analysis you get a bunch of numbers for repeats of the short section for each marker, and you use markers spread across the chromosomes so that they are independently inherited. To look at one of the markers for Tutankhamun's family (a marker called FGA), Tutankhamun has 23 repeats on both chromosomes. Amenhotep III has 23/31, KV35EL (Tiye) has 20/26. So Tutankhamun cannot be the child of those two people - where would he get the second 23 from? KV55 has 20/23 - so you see he can be son of Amenhotep III/Tiye, and KV35YL has 20/23 as well (so she can be a daughter). And Tutankhamun can be the son of KV55/KV35YL because he can get one 23 from each of them.

Basically you do this sort of comparison across all the markers you look at - 8 in this case. And calculate probabilities for each trio (mother/father/child), they say 99.73% is the accepted standard for "practical proving" the relationship.

But this does rely on the population you're looking at not being so inbred that some markers are more similar within the population than you'd expect. You could possibly mis-identify a familial relationship - and that's why you should have negative controls from a non-related member of the same population. In the case of these papers the best control of all would be a selection of mummies from the elite population of the same time period as the test subjects, but not part of their family. But the rarity of finding named & dated mummies means that settling for an unrelated mummy from the elite population of a different era would likely be the best one could do.

And it does irritate me a bit that they didn't use a sample from the already published 18th Dynasty mummies as a negative control for these 20th Dynasty ones. Ramesses III ruled about 150 years after Tutankhamun died, and there's a couple of breaks in the line of succession during this time that means he's not directly related to Tutankhamun. But clearly still from a family that is part of the elite population. So I did the comparisons myself:

 D13S317D7S820D2S1338 D21S11D16S539 D18S51CSF1POFGA
Ramesses III vs ThuyaMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMatchMatchMatchMatch
Ramesses III vs YuyaMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatch
Ramesses III vs KV35ELMatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Ramesses III vs Amenhotep IIIMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Ramesses III vs KV55MatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Ramesses III vs KV35YLMatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Ramesses III vs TutankhamunMatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Ramesses III vs KV21AMismatch       
Ramesses III vs KV21B  Mismatch Match   
Ramesses III vs Fetus 1MatchMismatch      
Ramesses III vs Fetus 2 Match MatchMatchMismatch  
Unknown Man E vs ThuyaMatchMatchMatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMatch
Unknown Man E vs YuyaMatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatch
Unknown Man E vs KV35ELMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMatch
Unknown Man E vs Amenhotep IIIMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Unknown Man E vs KV55MismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Unknown Man E vs KV35YLMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Unknown Man E vs TutankhamunMismatchMismatchMismatchMismatchMatchMismatchMismatchMismatch
Unknown Man E vs KV21AMismatch       
Unknown Man E vs KV21B  Mismatch Mismatch   
Unknown Man E vs Fetus 1MismatchMatch      
Unknown Man E vs Fetus 2 Match MatchMatchMismatch  

I compared Ramesses III and "Unknown Man E"'s data to each of the other mummies in turn, and colour coded the mismatches. If a given mummy didn't have data for both chromosomes then I skipped that marker because you can't tell. In a few cases I wasn't sure what counted as a mismatch - this isn't quite my field, and so I'm not sure exactly what 29.2 repeats means and if it's significantly distinct from 29 repeats. So those mismatches aren't coloured red.

You can easily see there's no way you could identify any of the pairs of mummies as in a parent/child relationship. So that's nice to see, and makes the data they do show in each paper a bit more convincing. It also makes the statement that they make in the 2010 paper, that Tutankhamun is possibly the father of the two fetuses buried in his tomb a bit more interesting - even with the patchy data available they don't match the controls.

If you're looking at that and thinking it's awfully dull, you're right. This doesn't tell us anything interesting, but I think it's important to know that the control data isn't interesting. And I do wish they'd actually published the controls with the data.
18 December 2012 @ 03:18 pm
Last Tuesday we got a new PS3 game. On Saturday we got our bass guitar fixed. These two facts are related.

Rocksmith is a music game, in the same genre as Rock Band, but it's also a guitar tutor. You plug your electric guitar, or bass, directly into the console with a special cable that comes in the box and you play along with the music, playing the notes that come down a highway towards you. You work your way up through various "events" and the game organises your playlists in order of difficulty. Do well enough & you get an encore track, do very well and you get 2! And you score points, which then lead to levelling up and unlocking stuff like new venues or new tracks (tho I think most are already available from the start). So that's the game side of it.

The tutor side of it is that it's actually teaching you how to play the instrument. As well as being able to rehearse or play songs straight through there is also a tutorial mode with a selection of "technique challenges" which each have a little intro video telling you what you're supposed to be doing and what you're supposed to be learning, and then a shortish piece of music to play along with that that involves that technique. The three I've played so far (for bass) have been about basic plucking, using two fingers alternately and playing syncopated rhythms. There's another couple of dozen I haven't even looked at.

There's also the riff repeater mode, which breaks a song down into its constituent parts. You then play that section over & over till you get it right, so next time when you play the song hopefully you can get it right there too. You've got a choice of modes within that - the one I've played most often is "leveller". In that you start off at a low difficulty level (which is also the case when you first play a song), maybe there's a note every bar or so. Then if you get it right it increases the difficulty, and repeat until you're playing the actual phrase as played on record. There's also "free time", where you start out at the most complex but it waits at every note until you've fretted it right and played it right - you succeed when you play through with no pauses. And there's "accelerator" where you start slow & work up to full speed.

And I discovered that if you manage to score well (ie hit most notes) when you've got 100% mastery of every phrase in a song it opens up a new mode to play the song in - Master Mode. Where it doesn't show you the notes, you have to play it from memory. Frankly that's a bit scary and I haven't tried it yet ;)

Obviously you only get out of it what you put into it - it's not going to make anyone a super guitar player in a week or anything like that. I do wonder if it's maybe a little too forgiving, I'm sure in the stuff I've played so far I've messed stuff up but had it register as OK. That might be because I'm in the early stages of the game side of it - perhaps the bigger (higher level) venues are more demanding, we'll see. It's also not a replacement for a teacher if you're serious about playing properly - it has no idea how you're plucking the strings for instance - so clearly you can pick up bad habits without realising it (or due to gaming the way it registers notes, I guess).

I don't know if I can judge how well it would work if you were coming at the game "fresh" - in addition to having had lessons on a variety of woodwind at school I've also played around on our bass off & on over the last decade & a half, so I've got a fair idea of what I'm trying to do even if I can't do it (if that makes sense). J says he finds the game a little more overwhelming than I do (too many notes coming at him too fast). He's still got a musical background but he's played on the bass less than I have, which may mean that if you're really new to music playing and/or to the guitar/bass then you'll find it all a bit too much. But then it does ramp up and down the difficulty as you play depending on how well you do, so perhaps you just wouldn't get to the "too many notes" stage until you were ready enough for it.

The obvious comparison is with pro-mode in Rock Band 3. I think Rocksmith might come out slightly ahead as a means of teaching the instrument based on my playing so far. Playing on an actual instrument means you're more likely to be able to transfer the skills learnt from the game to reality (given you're pretty much there already), combined with the Master Mode it means you can end up actually able to play the song without the cues of the game. And you don't need to buy a special peripheral or guitar for Rocksmith, which makes it a much cheaper option (if you already have a guitar or bass, but you're probably not interested in the game if you don't already own or are soon to own an instrument). But Rock Band 3 pro-mode has the advantage that the peripheral or special guitar has technology to detect where your fingers are, so the feedback for finger positioning is more instant.

(Oh, and the bass didn't need much fixing - it just needed the socket replaced coz the connection has always been a little dodgy when plugging it into an amp. And I got it re-strung at the same time coz I'm pretty sure it still had the same strings on it as were on it when we bought it in 1998. The local music shop (Jack White Music Store) did it in an hour on Saturday afternoon.)
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17 December 2012 @ 02:12 pm
Fermat was a 17th century lawyer who did maths in his spare time, corresponding with many other mathematicians around Europe. He had a habit of setting little challenges to his correspondents - "I can prove this, can you?". He's famous now for an annotation he made in a book - that he had found a proof that an + bn = cn has no positive integer solutions when n>2 "which this margin is too narrow to contain". The guests on the episode of In Our Time that discussed it were Marcus du Sautoy (University of Oxford), Vicky Neale (University of Cambridge) and Samir Siksek (University of Warwick).

They started off by setting the theorem in context. It's a generalised form of Pythagorean Theorem - the one we all (probably!) learnt at school. For a right-angled triangle the sum of the squares of the two shorter sides is equal to the square of the longer side (the hypotenuse). And du Sautoy pointed out that this has a very practical application - if you have a rope with equally spaced knots in it and you arrange it into a triangle with sides 3, 4 and 5 then you are guaranteed a right-angle between the sides of length 3 & 4. Useful for building pyramids. And other things you want the corners to be right-angles on. So for n=2 we know there are some positive integer solutions.

It's also a sort of equation called a Diophantine Equation - these are polynomials that only have positive integer values of their variables. So other examples are things like x2=y3-2 (which has at least one solution - 52=33-2). Some Diophantine Equations have no solutions, some have finite numbers of solutions, some have infinite. And the question is what sort of equation Fermat's Last Theorem is.

Fermat never wrote his proof down anywhere, and the experts were suggesting that perhaps he never actually had a generalised one. That his proof by infinite reduction of the case where n=4 was all he'd done (and then was suggesting that must be the case for all the other possible values). The equation itself isn't a particularly interesting one and hasn't any direct practical applications, but it became famous because no-one could find the proof that Fermat said he had. Various famous (and otherwise) mathematicians tried to find the proof - the one that they discussed that I particularly remember is Sophie Germain, who was a French mathematician in the late 18th/early 19th Century. At that time she couldn't study mathematics formally because she was a woman, so she was self-taught & corresponded with other mathematicians using a male pen-name. She found a way to inspect particular values for n to show that there were no solutions - and used this to prove the theorem for values of n up to 100. Neale clearly found Germain particularly interesting as she nearly got side-tracked into a bio of her before being pulled back to the subject at hand :)

During the 19th & 20th Centuries there were several monetary prizes on offer to people who found a proof, but no-one did until Andrew Wiles in 1997 (just before the time limit on that particular competition). They did discuss a bit about what his proof was, but I didn't follow it well enough to remember it well enough to explain it - it had something to do with mapping these sorts of algebraic equations to elliptic curves, and if you could show there was no possible curve then there must be no solutions to the equation.

They summed up the programme (very briefly) by saying that even though the equation isn't itself terribly important the effect of the competition to solve it was to drive forward several other areas of mathematics that do have practical applications.
14 December 2012 @ 12:50 pm
I got this out of the library because I read a review of it on Tor.com and it sounded intriguing, and we own several other novels by Williams so he's an author I've enjoyed reading before. I think my verdict would have to be that I got what was promised and it was fun, but somehow it didn't seem like anything special - I'll probably read the other books in the series when they come out if I see them in the library, but I'm unlikely to reserve them or buy the series.

It's urban fantasy, and our protagonist is an angel called Bobby Dollar - he's an Advocate, an angel who lives & works on Earth. When a person dies they are judged by a higher angel who decides if they're going to Heaven (perhaps via Purgatory) or Hell, and there's an Advocate from Heaven and a Prosecutor from Hell who argue and present the case for each side. Very much like in a modern legal case. Advocates live in real bodies in the real world, despite being angels, and only go up to Heaven to meet with their supervisors. So in many ways Dollar is just like a normal person in the normal world, except for his job is that he gets called up and told where a death is and then he drives to it and steps out of time to argue the case for Heaven. When he's not working he hangs out in a bar with his fellow angels.

Trouble starts when Dollar shows up to a job, but the soul of the deceased is missing. Then the Prosecutor from that case is found dead in a gruesome (and unusually permanent) fashion, everyone thinks Dollar has something belonging to a Duke of Hell, and more souls are going missing. There's also a rookie Advocate, who seems more important than he should be, oh, and there's a stunningly beautiful demon that it would be suicidal for Dollar to fall in love with, but of course he does. Quite possibly there'll be a love triangle thing going on in the later books, because there's also an angel (another Advocate) that Dollar has a thing for/with. The story kept me sucked into it, wanting to know what happened next, with a Chandler-esque atmosphere to some of it. But then somehow the ending disappointed me. Presumably all the interesting questions are going to be resolved in the last book, because there was just one bit that got dealt with here. And yet I wasn't left thinking "can't wait for the next book!". I'm not sure why, though.

I did like the way Heaven was portrayed, that has the potential to be interesting if it is actually important to the plot rather than just background. Although the mythology of the book is very much (Catholic) Christian in nature it's explicitly made clear that this might not be the case throughout the afterlife, that this might be the way it's represented to this batch of angels and demons because that's their cultural mythology - Dollar has never met the Highest and knows of no angel however exalted who has, he's just a small piece of a large machine. None of the souls in Heaven, angels or not, remember who they were in life - they're completely wiped clean of memories. And everyone is cheerful and unquestioningly happy. Dollar knows (or rather has been told) he was once alive on Earth, but he remembers nothing before the 90s when he became an angel. It's clear the happiness in Heaven is externally imposed, too, Dollar mentions resisting it when he goes to report to his supervisor and he talks about having to concentrate to keep questioning things rather than just cheerfully accepting them. And that's all very creepy. Particularly as demons remember their previous lives (or at least the impossibly beautiful Countess of Cold Hands does, or says she does). Hell is clearly bad, and demons are demonic, but Heaven is all a bit Stepford Wives.
13 December 2012 @ 01:59 pm
I think I've been reading this book off and on for most of the year, which is an awfully long time for me to take to read a book! It's subtitled "The First Three Thousand Years" which gives you a hint of the scale of it. Over the thousand pages in the book it covers the development and history of Christianity across the whole world from the Jewish and Greek underpinnings of the time and place that Jesus was born into right up to the beginning of the 21st Century. Given it doesn't just cover the history (both of the Church and of the time period in general) but also goes into the various theological developments (and arguments and schisms) through the history of the Church, it ends up a very information dense book. Which I knew it would be going in, I've read a previous book by MacCulloch about the Reformation which was similarly pitched. This is part of why it took me so long to read - I needed to be in the right frame of mind to digest it properly :) But despite this it was a clearly written & readable book, and I should read it again sometime.

Because it took me so long I've not got a good grasp of the whole thing in my head any more but I am still attempting to write a summary of sorts (and I really wish I'd written up notes after each section, I have a plan to do that with future books, writing about what I've read helps solidify it in my head). It opens with a couple of chapters that set the scene - a brief history of the Greeks & their philosophy (and their conquest by & absorption into the Roman Republic), followed by a brief history of Israel & the Jewish religion & philosophy. The next chapter deals with what can be teased out of the Gospels about the historical person of Jesus, and the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion - in terms of what happened in the very early Church, which at the time was really a branch of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from its Jewish roots comes with Paul (who isn't one of the original disciples), and with the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD which disrupted the still Jewish leaning part of Christianity.

Historical accident or circumstance plays a large role in the early development of the Church, in contrast to later on when the Church has a hand in creating the political history (in Europe, anyway). At first the centre of gravity of the Church was towards the east of the Mediterranean - Egypt, Syria, and even further east to Baghdad & beyond were important centres of Christianity. The westward shift comes from the intertwining of the Church in Rome with the Roman Empire, and then the later rise of Islam in the Middle East which marginalises those Christian communities. Latin & Orthodox Christianity become dominant not because they're closer to the original (they really aren't) but because they get political power and hook themselves into the state apparatus of the Roman Empire & its successors.

A common theme through the whole history of the Church is schisms based on arguments about what the stories in the Bible mean, and what they should teach us to believe & how they should teach us to behave. This starts right at the beginning with Paul and his not-necessarily-Jewish form of Christianity (that ended up completely dominating) and James the brother of Jesus, whose Christianity was a flavour of Judaism. There are splits over the nature of Jesus (both divine and human, but is that mixed or separate within the body of Christ?), splits over the concept of the Trinity, splits over whether icons are permitted or prohibited, splits over the meaning of the Eucharist (literally magical or metaphor), splits over who is in charge (Pope vs monarchs, priests vs elders), splits over the construction of the afterlife (purgatory? or not?), splits over free will or predestination. And more. It seems a bit like every possible stand one can take about the nature of God and of the message that Jesus was preaching, someone has taken and has proclaimed to be a revelation directly from God.

Another strand running throughout the history of Christianity is the imminent arrival of the end of the world. Jesus and his early followers were expecting the End to begin during their own lifetimes - his message was an apocalyptic one. One of the re-adjustments necessary in the mainstream Church after this was a move away from a literal interpretation of the end as nigh to a more metaphorical one where it is "soon" in the time of God not necessarily in human terms. But the idea keeps returning, time and time again various sects and parts of the Church have begun to believe that the End will come in their lifetimes, and time and time again it hasn't. It has survived even into modern times, affecting the political landscape - there is apparently a significant strand of support for the Israeli state that comes from a belief that a Jewish homeland is a necessary pre-requisite for the second coming of Christ. (As an aside, I find it a bit mind-boggling that people are out there trying to encourage the right conditions for the end of the world, I guess if you "know" you're going to go straight to heaven in the Rapture maybe you have a different perspective, but I just don't really understand the point of view that thinks "hey, everyone & everything will die if we just get things organised like this, let's go do it!".)

The book ends on an optimistic note for the future of the Church - the secularisation of Europe gives an impression that numbers of Christians are dwindling and it's dying out, but globally speaking this is not the case. Two of the growth areas that he talks about are South Korea and Africa, the latter being particularly surprising because you might've thought that Christianity would be linked to colonialism and thus not popular with the African peoples. But instead they have developed their own forms of Christianity, derived from but different to the Western Christianities they've grown out of.
11 December 2012 @ 02:04 pm
The printing press was invented in Germany around 1440, and by 1476 had even been brought to the relative backwater of England, by a man named William Caxton. The guests on the episode of In Our Time that talked about this were Richard Gameson (University of Durham), Julia Boffey (Queen Mary, University of London) and David Rundle (University of Oxford). I'd heard of Caxton before, because he's the subject of one of the mini biographies in a book I read earlier this year ("Renaissance People" ed. Robert C. Davis & Beth Lindsmith), but didn't know much about him.

He was in his 40s by the time he became a printer - prior to that he was a mercer, that is a merchant involved in the cloth trade. He was clearly of some importance, he spent time in Bruges (in Burgundy) as the Governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London in Bruges (I think I have the title right) - basically the representative of all the London merchants to the officials in the city & to the other trading nations there. They got side-tracked when talking about it, so I'm not quite sure why Caxton left Bruges and why he changed career, but in his 40s that is what he did. Moving first to Cologne where he got involved in the new trade of printing, then he went back to Bruges (probably) and proceeded to set up shop printing not just Latin & French books (which would have an international readership) but also books in English for import into England (and pretty much nowhere else, because English wasn't an international language).

He then moved to Westminster, where he set up shop as the first printer in England (and he remained the only English printer for some time, other printers were of continental origin). They spent a while discussing why Westminster and not London (and as always I was momentarily taken aback that they aren't the same place - I know this, but I have to remind myself every time). Partly it seems because there was already a book trade in the city of Westminster, so selling print books as well as manuscripts was in some ways more of the same and your customers would already be there. Partly because Westminster had the Abbey and all the religious related printing needs (like indulgences). Partly because the niche that Caxton was trying to fit into was more Westminster oriented than City of London oriented - he wasn't doing legal documents and such, or pamphlets, he was primarily printing books. And partly because there were taxes and restrictions on who could produce books in the City of London, so setting up shop outside gave him more freedom (and lower bills).

So Caxton's clientèle were primarily the religious institutions and the nobility - and a large part of what he printed was books in English, which was unusual. He is most remembered for his editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and they spent a while talking about that on the programme. Caxton is credited with helping to cement Chaucer's status as the première English writer, but they were pointing out that this wasn't a new thing that Caxton did, he was very much building up an existing reputation (partly as a way of marketing his editions of the books).

Caxton is also credited with starting the standardisation of written English. But the guests on this programme were pretty clear that this wasn't really the case - yes, printed books did do this (because you didn't have local scribes copying texts with their local spelling, everyone bought the same edition) but Caxton himself didn't really have much to do with it. They seemed clear that he did edit things, but was inconsistent within his own works. Also early printed books actually used the vagaries of spelling to their advantage, which I didn't know before! So if it was more convenient to have a few letters more on a line to make the edges line up nicely then the typesetter would sprinkle a few "e"s on the ends of words, or double a letter or two. Or if you need some less, perhaps you'd take out a "u" or two.

A lot of what is known about Caxton comes from his editorial work, in particular the prologues & epilogues that he added to his books. They did stress, however, that these are often full of clichés so need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. He was clearly good at being a publisher/editor/printer though, because he didn't go bankrupt which a lot of early printers did. This was due to the high start up costs (you need all the equipment) and because you needed to figure out how many copies of something you wanted in advance, guessing demand right could make the difference between staying in business or going bankrupt. Caxton clearly did, as his business was inherited after his death by his foreman, who gradually moved towards printing things for the legal trade and printing pamphlets. And after a while he moved the business to the City of London - to Fleet Street.

The three guests all seemed very enthusiastic about the subject, and all keen to have their say on every bit, but I did end up feeling a little sorry for Julia Boffey who got talked over more than once. She'd start making a point and one of the others would jump in and she'd be reduced to saying "yes, yes" while they talked.
10 December 2012 @ 01:14 pm
Niyaz are one of the more esoteric bands that J and I listen to - fairly different from our normal rock/pop/metal staples. The core of the group is a trio of musicians who come from the Middle East originally, and play music that is based on the folk music of that part of the world - modernised, but not westernised. Their singer, Azam Ali, has one of the most gorgeous voices I've ever heard. Despite not understanding any of the words I enjoy listening to the music, it's very beautiful.

We didn't think we'd get a chance to see them play without travelling, they don't tour extensively in Europe - Paris & Istanbul are the places we'd heard of them playing before. So when we saw there was a London gig in November we bought tickets immediately :) Rich Mix is a venue we'd not been to before - in the Bethnal Green area of London, to get there we ended up walking past quite a few places that looked far too "cool" for us ;) The venue itself was a nice space - it was a combination of a small cinema and a performance space (and a cafe). And the bar was a step up from a normal venue - much more interesting beers (I had a bottle of Asahi) and they clearly trusted the clientèle because we got real glasses and bottles, not plastic ones. The crowd weren't quite the same sorts of people we see at the concerts we go to - a lot more women, and a lot more people who weren't speaking English or weren't white (or both). It made it rather obvious how non-diverse the average rock crowd is in the UK.

The concert was organised/promoted by a charity that is aiming to build artistic relationships between the Middle East & Europe (called Arts Canteen), so the concert opened with a couple of words from one of their people. There was no support band, so after that Niyaz came on and played for about an hour to an hour & a half. Most of the songs they played were from their most recent album, Sumud. The band are infectiously enthusiastic about the music they are playing and clearly were enjoying themselves, and had soon created a good atmosphere.

They didn't speak much between songs beyond brief introductions, the exceptions were the band introductions at the end and a moment early on in the concert when Azam Ali explained some of her philosophy - that the world would be a much better place if people could concentrate more on the similarities between themselves & their neighbours and not on the differences. That peace comes first from the heart, not from the politicians. As an Iranian born woman, who spent some of her later childhood in India before emigrating to the US (and then to Canada) she has a fairly personal perspective on both the similarities between cultures and the ways that people divide & demonise the "other".Niyaz artwork

I found the visuals projected on the screen behind the band to be fascinating, but they're not on the video I found (from the Paris show a few days before the London one), which is a shame. They were intricate line drawings of abstract patterns that were first built up then stripped back to the initial seed again. Much like the artwork for the album that we have a signed print of but animated. J didn't notice the visuals much at all though, he was watching the musicians too much!

At the end of the concert we got a bonus encore - they invited a fan up on stage with them to play "Beni Beni" again. The fan had previously recorded herself playing along with the song on a bouzouki and the band had liked her playing so much that they'd invited her to play with them if they ever played in her town. It seemed like they hadn't actually met or rehearsed anything with her, they just asked her to get up on stage with them at the end and then played the song - it was really good (and I really like the song so nice to hear it a second time :) ).

And finally here's a video of "Beni Beni" from the Paris gig:

07 December 2012 @ 12:55 pm
The third episode of "Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World" started in the 1770s when the British had just made peace with the French, and went through to the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar (when the British again made peace with the French after a couple more wars). The thread used to tie the whole episode together was the life of Horatio Nelson - who started his career as a midshipman in 1771 at the age of 12, and died as he commanded the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805. (Although we didn't get told that much about Nelson, just that he was mentioned in each segment of the programme.)

At the beginning of this period the Navy was in decline - no wars means less money for the military, and ships were being mothballed. One of the things the Navy was tasked with during this time was to explore the Pacific - Captain Cook's voyages were part of this. They were part scientific expedition, but were also about expanding the British Empire by laying claim to whatever lands they found which turned out to include Australia. A French explorer had nearly discovered Australia the year before Cook, but had turned back at the Great Barrier Reef because it was too dangerous - I imagine he was pretty upset later when he realised he could've claimed a continent for France. Another way the Navy earnt their pay during this time was to enforce the customs duties charged on goods entering the American colonies, which of course lead to the American War of Independence. Dan Snow implied that actually the loss of the colonies that became the US wasn't really that much of a loss - by far the more important part of the war (with France) that started with the Americas was when the French attacked the British colonies in the Caribbean - if the British lost those their economy would've been crippled. The French didn't learn from this defeat any more than the last one, and after the revolution they declared war on England again - this conflict would end with the defeat of the French & Spanish at Trafalgar.

One of the themes of this series is how the needs of the Navy have had an impact on the social, economic & political history of Britain - so in this programme we learnt that income tax was originally instituted as a temporary measure to fund the Navy. And part of the driving force behind the industrialisation of the country was the decision to sheathe the Navy ships in copper - this was proposed as a way to protect merchant ships from ship-worm and the dragging effects of seaweed, and a bureaucrat (Middleton) in charge of the Navy realised that this should also make the ships more manoeuvrable. Middleton persuaded the King that this was a good idea, and the needs of mining enough copper and turning it into sheets to be bolted onto the ships helped drive technological advances for mining (both for copper and coal) and to generate more jobs on land. And then the faster ships were decisive in keeping the Caribbean colonies in British hands.

In the sixth episode of Wartime Farm we were up to 1943, which was just before the turning point in the war. Morale was low, as rationing was getting ever tighter and farmers were trying to grow ever more food even though they had already stretched production far beyond pre-war levels. This programme had segments on such diverse things as hay-making from grass in the churchyard (because the rest of the land was growing crops instead of grass, but the dairy herd still need hay for their winter feed), children who were sent out to camps to provide labour for farms during harvest, collecting herbs to sell to pharmaceutical companies and clothing, make-up & entertainment in the 40s. And other things too. I was particularly struck by the idea that mascara was originally for men's beards, not for ladies' eyelashes!
06 December 2012 @ 01:27 pm
The British Museum currently has an exhibition on the art of drinking in Asia called "Ritual and Revelry" which runs through till 6 January. We visited it on 23 November as we were in London for a concert that evening.

The Exhibition

The bulk of the objects in the exhibition were in a single room in the museum - with just a couple in the room immediately before it. They were laid out in three groups according to their use. On one side were pots, jugs and pictures of these things that were used in ritual & religious contexts. On the the other side were the same types of things but they were used in social contexts. And in the centre were four cases, 3 of which were to do with tea drinking and the last was about bhang drinking. Or you could see it as divided between vessels primarily used for water, vessels used primarily for alcohol and those for tea (listing them in the same order). Each section had objects from right across the sweep of Asia, so you could see the similarities between the areas, and the interconnectedness of the different cultures.

Lota Frog Shaped Kendi Yay Khwet Gyi Kundika Kapala (Skull Cup) Jue

The ritual side of the exhibition was mostly concerned with water containing vessels, such as the Indian lota which were originally made from gourds. The various different pots could be used in a variety of ways, and it seemed most started out as everyday water containing pots made out of gourds. Later they were made out of metal (such as bronze) and also gained religious symbolism. They could be used for drinking water or for pouring water as an offering, or over oneself as a ritual cleansing procedure. There were also some more startling objects - including a cup made with part of a human skull, which is used in some Buddhist rituals. Sometimes filled with human blood! I think, tho the label wasn't clear, that that would be as an offering not as a drink.

Tea Set Brazier Tea cups Tea Brick Jian Ware Tea Bowl and Cup Stand

I didn't know that when tea was first drunk it was made from dried & powdered tea leaves, which were whisked into hot water rather than steeped in a tea pot. Tibetan butter tea is still made like this (using yak butter as well as water and tea, frankly it sounds vile to me but it's probably very nutritious). The tea is imported into Tibet in bricks, just as all tea used to be sold. Steeping tea didn't really take off until the 15th Century, and then a change in apparatus was needed - the more familiar to us teapots and strainers, rather than whisks.

The middle section also included a case with some paintings of people drinking bhang which is a drink I'd never heard of before. It's made from the flowers & leaves of the female cannabis plant, and is hallucinogenic. It can be drunk, or smoked in a hookah.

Brush Washer in the Shape of Li Bai Arrow Vase Elegant Gathering at the Orchard Paviliion Sake Bottle in the Shape of A Young Man Holding a Bottle of Sake Picnic Set

The third section, on the social side of drinking was about alcohol. I was astonished to find out that "toddy" is an actual drink - it's Indian, and mildly alcoholic and made from palm sap. The jugs used by the toddy tappers to collect the palm sap look very like the lotas displayed over in the ritual section - and are still made out of gourds.

A large part of this side of the exhibition concentrated on the Chinese - particularly the Tang era poets called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, who were renowned for producing their greatest work whilst drunk. There were also vases that were used in Chinese tradition drinking games - you aimed arrows at the openings in the pot, and if you failed to hit then you had to have a drink of something alcoholic. Obviously this would be a bit of a vicious circle ;) The Japanese objects here were all to do with sake - I particularly liked the slightly recursive sake bottle in the shape of a young man holding a sake bottle. Sadly you didn't pour the sake out of the bottle opening, instead you took the chap's head off to pour.

I've got more photos up on flickr, in this set.

Other Things

Retail: As it's not a major exhibition there wasn't a dedicated shop immediately after you left, so I'm not even sure if there was particular stuff relating to it. They do normally have tea sets and sake sets in the shop, so perhaps that was it. I should look and see if there's a book next time I'm at the museum.

Stuff I should know more about: More of the history of the countries that make up Asia - I'm starting to rectify my lack of knowledge of Chinese history soon (I have a book to read, anyway), but I still have not much of a feel for Indian history let alone the rest of the continent.

Other exhibits: We also went and looked at the new information they have up about the 3500BC (naturally) mummified man in the Pre-dynastic Egypt gallery. They CT scanned him, and have (possibly temporarily?) got a touch screen display set up where you can look at the pictures this generated. It has a 3D image of the body, and you can move it around, look at various levels (ie skeletal, or with muscles etc). And look at cross sections. It's pretty neat to play with (tho we did have to wait a while before we could look properly), and well labelled. They discovered from the CT scan that he was probably killed by a knife thrust through the back of the left shoulder - so quite probably a murder victim. And once you've seen it on the scan all labelled up it's nice to be able to look at the actual mummy and see it there as well.

Other places: That evening we went to a performance by Niyaz, of which more another time.
On Sunday Rebecca Bradshaw came to the Essex Egyptology Group to give a talk on the archaeology she did in the Delta area of Egypt earlier this year. She's currently a PhD student at the University of London, and she had asked the EEG (and other Egyptology societies) for help with funding her trip to the Delta to get archaeological experience between her MPhil & her PhD (the trip was originally planned for spring 2011, but had to be postponed because of the unrest in Egypt). The group had given her a donation towards her expenses, with the request that she come & talk to us about the work when she was back - and this was that talk. The work she was doing is part of the Western Delta Survey, a long term project that is currently run by Penelope Wilson (Durham University), and was split into two parts - which provided us with a nice place to break in the middle for coffee & cake :)

The Western Delta Survey is aiming to map, catalogue and categorise all the ancient sites in the Delta, both to get a broad overview of the relationships between the sites and to make it easier to decide which sites should get more in depth investigation. The first 6 weeks of Bradshaw's time in Egypt were spent working on the overview side of the project - she and Wilson visited several sites across the Delta and did the basic initial survey. They start with a visual survey of the site, looking for signs of mud brick foundations and at what pottery can be found where. The most time consuming part of this work, and why Wilson needed an extra person along, was the topographical surveying. Bradshaw explained how this is done - one person has a tripod set up in the centre of the area surveyed with a device on it that can record the distance to and height of a prism on a pole that the other person carries to various points. Obviously you need several readings from all over the site, so this can take anything from hours to days depending on the size of the site.

The second 6 weeks were spent at one of the sites that had been identified during a previous year of surveying as being interesting enough to survey further. This is effectively more of the same stuff that they were doing on the overview survey - but done much more thoroughly, and including some different techniques. Bradshaw was again involved mostly in the topographical work, I imagine partly because she was one of the least experienced people in the team and that's an area that requires less of an in depth theoretical background. The team was bigger for this part of the trip - there were ceramicists with them, there was a chap who analysed soil samples (including by tasting the soil?!) which were dug up from various points around the site. They were supposed to have a geophysicist come to survey the site, but unfortunately he had double booked himself so didn't make it. The outcome of this survey was that they had a detailed map of both the landscape and the remains of the structures on the site, and some dates for when the site was occupied - from Ptolemaic times through to the late Roman period. This is interesting in its own right - particularly in terms of how the sites were settled in relation to the landscape, what environmental features they required for a viable town, and in terms of the overall history of that area of Egypt. It's also useful as the preliminary to an actual excavation if it's later decided to be interesting enough for funding to be obtained.

One of the things that was particularly interesting about this talk was to hear about how the work is actually done - Bradshaw being at an early stage of her career wasn't giving us an overview of the high level aims and findings of a project, but instead a personal account of the actual work. You could tell from her talk that even though she found some of it boring (because, frankly, anyone and everyone would find it boring to walk around all day with a pole stopping every metre or so for days on end) she was absolutely fascinated with her subject and excited by the prospect of doing the work & finding out more about the ancient sites she worked on. She also fleshed out her descriptions of the work with anecdotes and pictures of the non-work portions of the trip - the accommodation (first a tiny tiny hotel room for the two of them, later a slightly bigger flat for the whole team), the occasional day trip to Alexandria, the interactions with locals (who always want to come and see what these weird people are doing).
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03 December 2012 @ 02:07 pm
The famous Carthaginian general Hannibal was the subject of the In Our Time episode that we listened to on Sunday ... unfortunately I can't hear the name without thinking of Hannibal the Hamster, the hero of a book I had when I was little (and my pet hamster was his namesake). But I did manage to put that aside, and listen to the story of a much more impressive Hannibal. The experts on the programme were Ellen O'Gorman (University of Bristol), Mark Woolmer (University of Durham) and Louis Rawlings (Cardiff University).

They opened by setting the scene - Rome and Carthage each with an empire facing off across the Mediterranean. The Carthaginian empire had grown from Phoenician trading outposts, and was centred on the western Mediterranean with important holdings in Sicily and Spain as well as their North African heartland. Rome, obviously centred on Italy, were the new kids in town and the first war between Rome & Carthage (the First Punic War) started over control of Sicily. Hannibal's father Hamilcar Barca was the general in charge of the Carthaginian army during the last part of this war - he didn't win, but it seems he was probably never actually expected to win as the army was underprovisioned for that sort of undertaking. Also after the end of the war (Carthage lost) he wasn't punished, which supports this - the Carthaginians had no qualms about executing generals that they felt had failed.

After the First Punic War Carthage's finances were in trouble, which was even more of a problem than you might expect because their army was made up of mercenaries who promptly revolted when they weren't paid. Hamilcar put down this rebellion, and then took the army off to Spain to secure & improve the Spanish holdings - Spain being a major source of wealth for Carthage due to the silver mines. And this is where Hannibal enters the story - he's 9 at this point, and gets taken along with his father to Spain to live and campaign with the army. And this is really where & how he learns to be such a good general - he lives with the army so knows the men and what will motivate them etc. And gets to see how to run campaigns first hand.

Once Hamilcar dies (in battle) Hannibal's brother-in-law takes over the army and gives Hannibal the job of cavalry commander. Once his brother-in-law dies (assassinated) Hannibal gets the job of overall commander - he's only about 25 at this point, but has 16 years of military experience. Then Second Punic War kicks off - starting over control of a particular Spanish settlement which is under the protection of Rome. And right from the outset Hannibal demonstrates some of the genius for which he's remembered - one of his key qualities is the speed at which he (and his army) reacts to events. Rome warned Hannibal off attacking the Spanish settlement, but by the time either Rome or Carthage had reacted Hannibal had already seiged and razed the city.

This is the point where Hannibal starts the journey that he's most remembered for - he marches his 80,000 strong army north through Spain and into Gaul, then east to the Alps and across them to northern Italy. He had to do this because Carthage were no longer the major naval power in the Mediterranean, and if they'd sailed to Rome they would have had even more trouble. They had to fight their way through both Spain and Gaul, and provision the army from the land they march through. Then they crossed the Alps during the winter. This whole journey reduces his army to approximately 26,000 men - through desertions, through leaving garrisons behind en route and through deaths as they cross the Alps. He still has some of the war elephants too! Despite these crippling loses Hannibal goes on to win over 20 battles against Roman armies that outnumber him, due to his superior tactical skills (including paying a lot of attention to and making use of the lay of the land he's fighting on) and the superior mobility of his troops. At one point he has the chance to march on Rome, but doesn't take this opportunity - opinion is divided on whether this was the right decision. Perhaps he might've won the war if he'd marched on Rome then, perhaps he was right and didn't have enough troops to properly seige the city for long enough for it to fall.

Eventually the Romans stopped trying to meet his army on his terms - instead they used delaying tactics to avoid battle but keep the army occupied. And then attacked Carthage itself forcing Hannibal to bring his army back home to save the city. This is the battle he lost, losing the war for Carthage - a while afterwards this was used as an excuse to send him into exile and he lived in a series of provinces/kingdoms that were being threatened by Rome offering them his advice on how to campaign against the Romans. Eventually one of these handed him over as part of their peace treaty with Rome, and rather than be captured he took poison.

Hannibal is still remembered (and respected) today because the Romans were impressed with him, and afraid of him. He was apparently used as a bogeyman for Roman children. And his tactical skill was respected even into modern times.
30 November 2012 @ 12:38 pm
The second episode of "Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World" started with the defeat of the English Navy by the French in 1690 - still one of the most humiliating defeats of the Navy. At this time the French were the dominant sea-going nation, and the programme covered the recovery of the Navy over the following 70 years until in 1759 it really could be said that Britannia ruled the waves.

Along the way it covered how the country reorganised both financially and in terms of industry in order to better support the Navy. I hadn't realised that the Bank of England was initially set up to loan money to the government for the Navy (and as a side note, I really should find myself a (readable) book about economics one of these days because I don't really understand it). The industrial side was entrepreneurs doing things like moving nail production to the north-east where the coal for the forges was, and employing several blacksmiths in workshops near the river Tyne so that the nails were easily shipped to the shipyards in the south.

We also got told about the life of a sailor during this time - mostly unpleasant and full of hard work. The presenter, Dan Snow, tried some of the food that these sailors would've eaten - it looked pretty repulsive (tho the biscuit he had wasn't full of weevils, it wasn't that accurate) and apparently tasted as bad as one would expect. It also wasn't a balanced diet, and one of the challenges that faced the Navy was getting their military campaigns done before the sailors got too ill from disease and malnutrition. He took us on a modern Navy ship to show how it's dealt with these days (walk-in -20°C freezers full of about 90 days worth of food), and told us about a successful campaign where the British fleet blockaded the French Navy's headquarters for 6 months by actually figuring out how to ship fresh food to the fleet and keep the sailors healthy.

Another segment was about the execution of Admiral Byng - which I knew the "catchphrase" from, but had never actually heard the story before. Byng was tasked to come to the aid of the British troops on Minorca who were being attacked by the French in 1756, but felt that an attack was unlikely to succeed so withdrew. He was court-martialed for this, under the regulations against cowardice in battle and executed by firing squad. Voltaire wrote satirically about it (in Candide) - "Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres." ("In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others." - French taken from wikipedia, so hopefully it's accurate). It did indeed encourage the others - the aggression of the Navy was unmatched, and Snow told us about a couple of examples of times when this undid them. But overall the Navy grew from a ruined and bankrupt fleet at the start of the period, to the première naval force in the world.

The fifth episode of Wartime Farm covered what life was like in 1942. Even more shortages of food and petrol meant that ever smaller scraps of land were being reclaimed to grow crops & ever more ingenious solutions were being devised to run vehicles. I was very impressed by the coal burning furnace that they fitted to an old ambulance so that they could use it as a general purpose truck on the farm without using any petrol. Basically they bolted a coal furnace on the front and ran a pipe from the top through another container filled with heather to purify the coal gas produced, then that went into the engine. They also showed us some old footage of vehicles in towns that had been adapted to run off gas from the mains - they had great balloons on top filled with the gas, and we both winced watching the driver light up his cigarette as he got back in the truck after refilling the gas bag. They also told us about the coal miners - Bevin Boys - who were conscripted for the army and ended up working down the mines instead. I knew that happened, but I hadn't realised it was 10% of the recruits for the army that did that.
29 November 2012 @ 02:12 pm
On November 10 the Egypt Exploration Society (of which J is a member) organised a guided tour round 3 Egyptian collections in Oxford. The first of these was the archives in the Griffith Institute (no photography permitted in this one) - they have a large collection of the notes, photographs, drawings etc of several important Egyptologists, including all of Howard Carter's documents. As this is not normally open to the public it was particularly exciting to be shown some of the collection. Two of the staff, Elizabeth Fleming and Catherine Warsi, gave us an hour's talk. First they gave an overview of some of the prominent Egyptologists associated with the Institute and then moved on to a biography of Howard Carter concentrating on his work in Egypt and the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in particular. They showed us several of the watercolours and line drawings he did in his initial jobs in Egypt (copying the Egyptian tomb & temple reliefs for publication), and the correspondence around the diplomatic incident that lead to him resigning his job with the Egyptian Antiquities Service (basically a bunch of French tourists refused to pay and the argument ended with the Egyptian guards and the French exchanging blows, Carter had the audacity to side with the guards because he believed they were in the right. The French concerned were highly enough connected to get their ambassador to make a fuss). The last third or so of the talk was devoted to the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb for which he's most famous - we saw his diary entry for the day concerned, which is the only entry in the book that's not neatly written on the lines, instead it's scribbled practically sideways. We also saw one of the "object cards" for an item in the tomb (the throne (linked photo is of a replica)). These were the 1920s equivalent of a database - each object was numbered, and had several cards (a little smaller than A5, of the sort that fit in a card file) which gave basic description, more detailed description, photos (with annotations and without), drawings of particular areas, measurements, composition etc etc. Basically every fact that they could determine as they took it out of the tomb.

The next visit was to the Pitt Rivers Museum - this is an anthropological museum and instead of being organised by place or people it's organised by type. It also has an incredible number of objects on display. So you have these fantastic cases that have things like "every flute in our collection", or "all the model boats", and there's always something to see that you hadn't noticed before.

The Pitt Rivers Museum

Our tour here was guided by Alice Stevenson, one of the curators. She first gave us a 15 minute talk in a lecture theatre, this covered an overview of the museum's origins and collections. Pitt Rivers was a Victorian general, who started off collecting rifles of various different types so that he could compare them and possibly extrapolate better ways of making a rifle. But he got obsessed with making collections of all sorts of different objects, and trying to organise them in a sequence from "primitive" to "advanced" - a typically Victorian attitude to comparisons between civilisations and cultures (obviously British was his definition of "advanced"...). The museum has moved on from that philosophy, but still organises their cases by type because it provides you with a different perspective than the typical organisation.

She then took us round the museum to show us a handful of key Egyptian objects in their collection before setting us free to explore. The key items she pointed out were a fragment of a beautifully carved wooden face dating from the New Kingdom, a Middle Kingdom funerary model boat, pottery bowl inscribed on the outside in hieratic and their mummy & coffin set (from the 24th Dynasty). I was particularly amused by the story associated with the latter - when the then Prince of Wales & his wife went out to Egypt for their wedding anniversary in 1869 they visited an excavation site where, gosh!, they just happened to unearth some coffins with mummies in that very day. They were given to the Prince, who brought them back to Britain & donated them to museums. It's unlikely they were actually excavated for real right there & then, but some of them did probably come from the same tomb originally. Egyptian coffins generally have names and genealogies on them, this one (for a woman called Irtaru) is listed as the mother of the one in Manchester and her husband is the one that is now in Edinburgh.

Fragment of a Wooden Face Model Boat Pottery Bowl Inscribed in Hieratic Coffins and Mummy of Irterau

And finally, after a break for lunch, we visited the Ashmolean Museum guided by Liam McNamara, the Assistant Keeper for the Egypt & Sudan department (which means he's the man in charge - the Keeper (now known as the Director) is the person in charge of the whole museum, department heads are Assistant Keepers). This tour was partly about the objects we looked at, and partly about the refurbishment of the museum and the philosophy and ideas behind how the objects are currently being presented. The whole museum has been redeveloped and modernised over the last few years, which has been a great success (particularly in terms of increasing visitor numbers). The Egyptian galleries were some of the more recently re-opened areas and have been extensively modernised - in particular the rooms were previously fairly poorly lit, and some key items were tucked away in corners where you could easily miss them.

The new Egyptian galleries are organised chronologically, starting with a large room of pre-dynastic Egyptian material. The Ashmolean has one of the largest collections of pre-dynastic Egyptian objects outside of Cairo. This is due in large part to the poor judgement of a curator at the British Museum - Petrie excavated two colossal pre-dynastic statues of the god Min and felt that they were significantly important pieces. When he offered them to the BM the then curator, Budge, refused them on the grounds that he thought they were "unhistorical" and not important at all. Petrie took offence, and offered them and all his subsequent finds to the Ashmolean. He went on to excavate a large amount of pre-dynastic material, the bulk of which is at the Ashmolean. They also have some important items from later in Egyptian history - including the Shrine of Taharqa, which is a shrine built for a Nubian Pharoah of Egypt, and a part of a wall painting from Akhetaten (Amarna). Both of which were previously on display, but not well lit.

Colossi of Min Pre-Dynastic Egypt Exhibit Limestone Animals Hierakonpolis Ivories Akhenaten & Nefertiti Egyptian Mummy

In all the rooms they've tried to lay out the cases so that objects are in context - so the pots in the pre-dynastic display are in front of a copy of a cave painting from the right era. The bits of an Amarna doorway are laid out on the wall in the positions they would've been in with statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti positioned as if they were walking out of the door. A big change from the previous cases of things like "all our amulets" (which I quite liked as well, but the new ones are more modern and probably appeal more to visitors who don't already know a fair bit about Egypt).

All in all a very good trip. Particularly nice to see the stuff in the Griffith Institute as it's not possible to just visit there, but the Pitt Rivers & Ashmolean tours were also interesting (and provided a lot of context for understanding why the exhibits in the two museums are laid out the way they are). As well as the photos in this post, I've got a few more on flickr.
28 November 2012 @ 12:35 pm
On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme on Gerald of Wales. The experts on the show were Henrietta Leyser (University of Oxford), Michelle Brown (University of London) and Huw Pryce (Bangor University) and they talked about Gerald of Wales's life & books.

Gerald of Wales lived during the end of the 12th Century and was part-Anglo-Norman, part-Welsh and connected (it seems) to most of the important people of court during his lifetime partly because his grandmother had several children by several different partners, some of whom went on to be involved in the Anglo-Norman colonisation of Ireland, some of whom were part of the Welsh nobility. Gerald was a churchman, and was highly educated - in particular he spent a decade in Paris which was one of the première centres of learning at the time. In terms of a clerical career the job he really wanted but never got was to be Bishop of St. Davids - and he wanted to turn that bishopric into an archbishopric separate from the Church in England. Which is probably why his applications for the job were prevented by both the Archbishop of Canterbury (who didn't want the Church in Wales leaving his jurisdiction) and by the King (who didn't want a separate Church in Wales as that might encourage ideas about political separation).

After his return from Paris Gerald worked for the court in England, as a clerk. And travelled around Ireland (with Prince John) and Wales - and wrote books about these travels which are part narratives about the journey, part description of the lands & peoples, and part scholarly explorations of where the line between human and animal lies. This last was a particular theme of Leyser, and she kept coming back to this during the programme. These books, and his other works (including several autobiographical works) were and, in some cases still are, well read. Whilst full of propaganda (portraying the Irish in particular as barbaric because that justifies the conquest of Ireland) they also contain more mundane descriptions of life at the time. And also fabulous tales (like the Bearded Lady of Limerick, or about beavers biting their own testicles off to prevent hunters from killing them).

The conversation on the programme got quite chaotic, although still always easily followable - it had the feeling of a subject that was too full of good stories to miss anything out. I knew of Gerald of Wales before, because my parents have mugs decorated with a Gerald of Wales themed design - I think they must've been bought in 1988 while we were on holiday in Pembrokeshire as that was the 800th anniversary of his travels around Wales. But all I really remembered was that he wrote a book about Wales, so interesting to learn more about the man.
27 November 2012 @ 01:15 pm
Started TV night off last week with the first episode in a series we'd recorded back in February - "Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World". The theme of the series is the history of Britain over the last 400 years, seen through the lens of the Royal Navy. This first episode (Heart of Oak) started with the growth of the navy from a loose coalition of mostly independent ships through to something that is more akin to the modern navy at the end of the 17th Century. The presenter, Dan Snow, started by telling us about the defeat of the Spanish Armada - or rather by telling us about the context for the Spanish Armada. So he told us about Francis Drake's early career as a slave trader, and of an incident where the Spanish caught him & his cousin trading slaves in Spanish territory in the Americas (which was forbidden to foreigners) and attacked his ships, capturing and executing many of his crew. Drake bore a grudge about this, which he indulged (and was encouraged by the state to indulge) by attacking Spanish shipping and Spanish ports such as Cordoba - and by stealing their treasure. The Armada was thus partly a retaliation for this state sanctioned piracy.

The successful defeat of the Armada encouraged later Stuart adventures such as sending the Navy to harass Cordoba again, but this was an abject failure - because there was no charismatic leader like Drake, and the individual ship captains did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. And this lack of co-ordination, and lack of planning, meant they were not successful. Snow then told us that the first rebellions of Parliament against Charles I were about this poor organisation and funding of the Navy, which isn't something I'd heard before. After the Restoration Samuel Pepys (the man with the diary) was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, which meant he was in charge of all the administration of the Navy. His talent for organisation was instrumental in starting to form the Navy into a professional military organisation rather than a collection of individual vessels.

It's an interestingly different take on the history of this period - as it draws out different aspects of things I already knew about. Like I wasn't aware that Drake had been involved in the slave trade, nor was I aware just how important Pepys was to the Navy. Looking forward to watching the rest of the series.

Episode four of Wartime Farm was primarily about the government inspections of farms during the war to see if they were producing food efficiently enough. By midway through the war the War Agricultural Executive Committees had the power to remove farmers from their land if they weren't productive enough. Apparently 2000 farmers had their farms taken over during the war, and the programme included the story of one man who refused to be put off his land and in the end died after a siege & a shoot out with police. Not at all the sort of thing I associate with WWII.
26 November 2012 @ 02:24 pm
I've finally got my photos sorted out from our visit to the Tower of London at the beginning of November and I've uploaded them to flickr - highlights in this post, more if you click through to flickr.

J in front of Tower Bridge

We'd been meaning to go & visit it for a while - I'm pretty sure I've visited the Tower before, but not since I was a kid and J didn't think he'd ever been. We decided to start with the Yeoman Warder tour (as recommended by one of J's colleagues) so spent 15 minutes or so hanging about after we got there photographing some of the buildings on the other side of the Thames while we waited for the tour to start.

Tower Bridge Globular Building The Shard The Shard

Then it was off for the tour - the one that left shortly before we arrived at the Tower had looked like there was a fair amount of "audience participation" so I was a little dubious. But it was actually really good. In part because the guy who was leading it didn't get a particularly loud response from the group when the first place to cheer came up, so he dialled that down. It was basically a walk through the grounds of the Tower showing us the various buildings (mostly from the outside) and giving us an overview of the history of the place, interspersed with anecdotes & facts about the Yeoman Warders (who are NOT TOUR GUIDES as he told us a couple of times ;) ). We then got to go into the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (no photos unfortunately) - this is only open to people on the Yeoman Warder tours. This is the place where the people executed at the Tower were buried - some have been reburied elsewhere, but Anne Boleyn amongst others is still there. I'd recommend doing the tour if you visit the Tower - it sets everything neatly in context.

Yeoman Warder Tudor Palace Inner Wall Traitors Gate Bloody Tower

After the tour we decided we'd have a break for coffee and a snack (so we could delay lunch until after lunchtime to avoid the busy time). Then we went and looked at the Medieval Palace area of the tour. This was built and lived in by Henry III and Edward I and the "Traitors Gate" was actually the entrance to this palace - it's only later during Tudor times that traitors were brought into the Tower here. My favourite bit of this section was the mock-up of a royal bedchamber that they had. As well as some furniture & wall decorations they also had a chap in there playing recorder (not the King, Edward was in Westminster that day, as he said ;) ), and somehow the atmosphere & everything worked really well. They also had a throne room set up & there was some sort of storyteller thing going on in there, but I was less convinced by that. In one of the towers a bit further along there was also a display of medieval items that they'd excavated from the area of the palace, including a rather fine glass chess piece.

Replica Bedchamber for Edward I Chapel off the King's Bedchamber Recorder Player in the King's Bedchamber Storytellers in the Throne Room Medieval Bowl Medieval Chess Piece Medieval Ivory Carving

Further round the walls there were the towers where people had been imprisoned - one had lots of fine graffiti (all behind glass so nigh on impossible to photograph). Some of it was really very impressive & intricate - including the only one I have a decent photograph of, that's of an astrological table. There was also an exhibition about the Royal Menagerie that used to be kept in the Tower (it later formed the basis of London Zoo). We were particularly struck by the story of the polar bear of Henry III, which was tied on a long rope to the side of the Thames then allowed to swim in the river & fish. And the snakes which were apparently wrapped in blankets and put on the stove to keep warm during winter. As well as the exhibit in one of the buildings the Menagerie was also "illustrated" with a series of wire sculptures by Kendra Haste that were dotted around the site. And another aspect of the Tower - the guards - were represented with metal sculptures (I don't know who by) around the walls.

Graffiti in the Tower Proper Care of Snakes & Bears? Baboons Henry III's Polar Bear Elephant Crossbowman Pikeman

After this we headed off to look at the Crown Jewels - no pictures, they're pretty strict about not allowing photography in there. The great benefit of visiting in November during term time was that there weren't any queues for this bit and we could go up and down the little moving walkways round the regalia more than once to get a decent look. As well as the obvious (the crowns) they also had a whole load of ceremonial maces & ceremonial tableware. The dishes weren't that interesting, but the maces were neat :) Related to this area of the Tower was another exhibit we went to during our walk along the wall from the Medieval Palace - there was a room about the diamonds used in the various crowns, which was more interesting than I expected. It included the neat fact that the diamonds in one of the crowns were hired (one of the George's crowns, I think, no photos so I have no note).

Then we had a break for lunch (the restaurant place on site was nice but pricey) and after that set off to do the White Tower (what I think of as "the Tower proper"). We didn't actually manage to finish looking round this - ran out of time and they were shutting it up before we got a proper look at the top floor. The exhibits in the White Tower that we did look at included some history of the building, and a lot of armour. Perhaps a little overwhelmingly much armour (but I did still look at it all, because it's cool :) ). This ranged from Henry VIII's various suits of armour (ornate yet still practical) to the armour for the Stuart dynasty (ornate for the sake of ornate, particularly in the case of Charles I), and some modern armour too. They also had a variety of weaponry (including a combination mace and gun belonging to Henry VIII which was a thing I had no idea existed), some of which was gifted to the Crown by territories in the Empire or other diplomatic gifts. And they had the model horses (and some model heads) from an old display from the 17th Century of the "Line of Kings". Those horses looked disturbingly manic to me! As I said, we didn't see much of the top floor but notable things that we did see included the block & axe used for the last beheading at the Tower, and a dragon made out of bits of armour(!).

Henry VIII's Armour Henry VIII's Armour Charles I's Armour Toy Cannon King Henry ye 8ths Walking Staff 17th Century Line of Kings 17th Century Line of Kings Dragon Shaped Horse Tailpiece Headsman's Axe & Block

A very good day out :) Well worth a visit if you're in London - budget lots of time for it & don't be put off by the price (we spent 6 hours there and didn't see everything).

The White Tower
20 November 2012 @ 01:18 pm
The episode of In Our Time that we listened to this week was perhaps a little brain-twisting for first thing on Sunday morning, but also in some ways appropriate for a Sunday! In it Melvyn Bragg and his guests (John Haldane (University of St Andrews), Peter Millican (University of Oxford) and Clare Carlisle (Kings College London)) discussed the Ontological Argument. This was put forward by St Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) in the 11th Century to prove the existence of God by logic alone. In this it is different from argument by design (ie the world works so well that it can surely only exist because someone designed it), or the cosmological argument (where the existence of the universe at all requires the existence of something that caused the universe to exist and this First Cause is God). In essence the Ontological Argument is that if God is by definition the greatest and most perfect concept that there can be, then he must exist because if he did not then there would be the possibility of a greater concept namely one that was all that God is but that also existed. So as God is the greatest, then he must exist. I think that's the way it runs, anyway - as I say, somewhat brain-twisting.

It was criticised initially by some of his contemporaries, but continued to fuel others' thought - later it was taken up by philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza & Leibniz and criticised again by thinkers such as Hume & Kant. I was particularly struck by Kant's criticism, which is that existence is not a predicate - he was answering in particular the formation of the argument that is saying that if God is the most perfect incarnation of all things (ie is perfectly knowing, is perfectly powerful etc), then he must necessarily also be perfectly existing as that is a quality that such a being must have. Kant was saying that existence isn't a quality like the others - so you can describe an object, perhaps it is tall, blue and hairy. And then you can ask the question "and does it exist?", this is a separate question to idea of what the object or concept is.

I can see the seductiveness of the Ontological Argument - both to bolster one's own faith and to say to others "but you must believe, see I have proven it's true!". But to be honest it felt circular to me - it involved first defining God in such a way that his existence was part of the definition, and then saying "and therefore he exists". I'm sure there are more subtleties to the idea than that, however, otherwise it wouldn't've occupied so many people's thoughts for so long.
19 November 2012 @ 02:28 pm
TV night last week included the last episode of the Andrew Marr series - this time taking us from the aftermath of World War 1 through to the present day (roughly speaking). So a lot of what it covered were atrocities - we had Nazi atrocities (tho not actually discussed, what was covered was Hitler's rise to power with an emphasis on the fact that not only was he legitimately elected after a failed coup but that he hadn't hidden any of his nastiness beforehand), we had Stalinist Russian atrocities, we had Communist Chinese atrocities, and we had American/Western atrocities (Hiroshima/Nagasaki). To offset that, pretty much all we got was a segment on the pill & how effective and safe contraceptives made such a positive difference to gender equality. And then a segment at the end about the future which was a bit too close to "and we're doooomed!" for comfort ;) I don't want to give the impression that it wasn't an interesting programme - just at times made for difficult watching because he did a good job of personalising the victims of these things.

Overall a good series, I'm pleased I watched it. A few times I had niggles about things being oversimplified when I knew more about the subject, but to be fair here you've got to simplify it otherwise you can't tell the "history of the world" in 8 episodes of an hour each. Despite in general not liking dramatisations of history much I thought the ones here were well done - primarily because they didn't take themselves so seriously. I also thought they did a good job of picking lesser known stories to present, or the beginning of something rather than the end point we all know (see above, about Hitler). And a good job of presenting more than a history of the Western world, although the last two or three programmes did end up there at times (I think inevitably) there always seemed to be an attempt to look at the other perspective rather than the familiar one.

I'll be buying the book, and adding it to my (growing) pile of books to read :)

We're onto the third episode of Wartime Farm, which was focused on evacuees and on Christmas 1940. The perspective on evacuees wasn't the one I'm more used to hearing about, in that it wasn't "oh those poor children sent off on their own", it was more about how the country folk reacted to it. Because after all, suddenly there they were having to find beds and food for a bunch of strangers who had different ways of life and were in many ways a burden. It did gloss over any serious difficulties, though, preferring to concentrate on how in the end it mostly worked out fine. The bits about Christmas were partly tied in with that and partly about how rationing and all the other associated problems made people cling to trying to provide as normal a Christmas as possible. Even if the turkey was actually a "murkey" made out of sausagemeat stuffing shaped like a turkey with roast parsnip legs ... They also showed us pamphlets the government sent out showing how to recycle scraps and rubbish and make them into toys, like a model spitfire made out of old tin cans. Which made me think of something Dad was telling me about when we last visited - he had a toy when he was very little which was a home-made warship to push around the floor, complete with bits of wire for antennae & funnels made out of lead pipe. Made me wonder if whoever had made it for him had got one of these pamphlets.
14 November 2012 @ 02:48 pm
We had a bonus single-programme TV night on Sunday afternoon coz we were worried about the PVR filling up. So we watched the next episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World. In this one he was talking about the Age of Industry - and how the Industrial Revolution was the biggest shift in society since the Agricultural Revolution. The parallels struck me more when watching this than they have before - in both cases the change allowed society as a whole to support more people and can be thought of as "progress". And you definitely can't turn the clock back afterwards. And in both cases the quality of life for the average citizen goes down - most notably poorer health. My life now is only possible because of both of those changes, but the fact that it's a good life is because things have got better since those revolutions.

One of the segments I found most interesting was effectively the origin story of modern Japan - when the US came knocking and insisted they opened up trade with the industrialised West the Japanese looked back at what the British had done to China (hint: it wasn't good for the Chinese) and embraced the industrialisation of their country. This wasn't good for everyone (like the Samurai, who became obsolete in the new Japanese culture), but it meant the change happened on more Japanese terms and meant they got more of the benefits not just the costs of their Industrial Revolution.

This penultimate episode brought us up to the First World War, so the final segment was about both the drawing of the US into the war and the Russian Revolution. Which can be tied together by the hand that the German Foreign Secretary (Arthur Zimmerman had in instigating them. One of the things souring the relationship between the US and Germany (other than bombing their ships ...) was that Zimmerman sent a telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico suggesting they invade the US (and said telegram was not only intercepted but Zimmerman also confirmed that it was legitimate). And for the Russian situation Zimmerman proposed to help Lenin back into the country & promised him money if he would undertake to withdraw from the war when he got power (which Lenin did).
As well as the lecture we also went to a gallery talk at the Open Evening - these are where a curator takes you around some objects of interest in a gallery for 45 minutes or so. The theme of this one tied in with the Shakespeare exhibition, and was in some ways an extension of the central room of the exhibition. Shakespeare set several of his plays in Venice and (as discussed in both the exhibition and this talk) this was for several reasons, including the fact that it allowed him to portray situations that might've got him in trouble if he'd set them in England. Venice was also widely known as an exotic, tolerant place where luxurious goods came from. During the gallery talk she showed us various pieces of ceramics & glassware that had come from Venice around the time of Shakespeare or just before. Shakespeare himself is thought never to've gone to Venice, but he would've known about the place both from reading published works about it, and through objects like the ones she showed us which he would've seen in the houses of the aristocracy.

16th Century Painted Ceramic Plate

One of the things it seems hard to remember is how exotic good quality glass was at the time. The glassware of Venice was famous throughout Europe, and to have a Venetian glass salt cellar or marriage cup really showed how high status & wealthy you were. The glassmakers of Venice were apparently forbidden to leave the city, so that the recipe for their glass remained a secret only known to Venice.

16th Century Venetian Glass Chalice

As well as showing us several objects & setting them in their cultural context she also read us a story from an old guidebook to Venice - which labelled a house as where a man had murdered his wife. I've unfortunately forgotten the names, but the name of the family was reminiscent of "Moor" although they were not Moorish, and the name of the wife was similar to Desdemona. So it's possible that Shakespeare didn't just get an exotic stage set from his reading about Venice, but perhaps also the start of one of his plot lines.

An interesting talk :)

And for a bonus picture - here are the Christmas decorations at the British Museum. They even say something sensible in the hieroglyphs - something like "Beautiful birthday of God's child".

Christmas Decorations
The lecture at this month's British Museum Friends Open Evening ("A Mind Which Could Think Otherwise: Understanding Shakespeare's Creative Intelligence") was tied in with their current major exhibition about Shakespeare (which we went to see a couple of months ago). The lecturer, Neema Parvini, is an academic at the University of Surrey & has written a couple of books about Shakespeare. The subject of his talk was whether or not Shakespeare is some sort of "universal genius who speaks to all of us" or purely a product of his time & place. Or perhaps more accurately the subject of his talk was a survey of the opinions (both popularly and in academia) about that question.

He started with an overview of what Shakespeare means to "the man in the street", which includes the idea of him as somehow timeless with something to say to anyone regardless of race, creed, social status, gender etc. He then took a fairly lengthy digression through the Marxist theories of Louis Althusser, with several lengthy quotes in quite technical language (perhaps technical in a Marxist specific sense, perhaps technical in a more general philosophy sense, I don't know). Eventually he returned to the point, which was the impact of these ideas on literary criticism, and how this ideology of a person as the product solely of their culture and upbringing was brought to the academic discussion about Shakespeare. Essentially the pervailing view in academia became that Shakespeare cannot be understood outside of his specific historical & cultural context, and that he's as sexist, racist etc as any other product of that background. And that the only reason he's regarded as some sort of universal genius is because we've all been indoctrinated during our schooling to believe this.

He then moved on to his own opinion on the subject - which is that while this backlash against the idea of Shakespeare as universal was necessary it has gone too far. He very briefly discussed the scientific work that lead him to this opinion - mentioning Richard Dawkins & Stephen Pinker. The idea here being that while we're products of our culture, there are also fundamentals that are common across all cultures. In Pinker's work this is language in particular, but also other things like emotions like jealousy, fear, love etc. (As an aside, although he didn't mention it in the lecture this is the Nature vs. Nurture debate - and the idea that it's one or the other is generally regarded as a false duality nowadays.) So his opinion is that there are things about Shakespeare's plays that speak across the generations and across cultures, but there are things that are the product of his time and place. He then said he didn't have time for many examples, but gave a few brief instances that demonstrated that Shakespeare was set apart from others of his contemporaries in how he wrote his plays. Shakespeare doesn't often take sides among the characters of his plays - people are rarely completely evil, even the villains are given redeeming features and given human motivations. There are also not the moralising introductions or epilogues that others of his contemporaries would insert where the "lesson" of the play was spelt out. So whilst Shakespeare might well've been just as sexist etc as the rest of his culture, the way he wrote his plays allows one to sympathise with the characters even when our modern perspectives are different to Shakespeare's.

Whilst he was quite a good speaker (although not good at reading out long passages from other's works without stumbling) the subject of his talk wasn't quite what the title and description of it in the booklet for the evening had lead one to believe. And I think the overall structure could've done with some reorganisation or tweaking for the audience - in particular I would personally have cut the lengthy discussion of Althusser's philosophy and presented it more briefly & in a manner that was more clearly related to his point, like he did with the biology later in the talk. And then have had more time to go into a few specific examples, perhaps contrasting different critiques of the same passage from the three perspectives so that we could see as non-academics what the practical outcome of this theorising is. I wouldn't've gone so far as to walk out of the talk (bad manners, if nothing else), but I did have some sympathy with the point of view of the person who did get up and grumpily announce "I thought this was supposed to be about Shakespeare" and leave, slamming the door behind him.
We travelled up north at the weekend to go to a Maxïmo Park gig in Newcastle. Jo and Chris were going with us (and had in fact organised the trip, so thanks to them for that :) ). We headed in to Newcastle itself on Saturday afternoon to get checked into our hotel, then off to Tilleys Bar for a beer or two before grabbing dinner in one of the buffet restaurants in Chinatown. Then on to the gig itself :)

The O2 Academy seemed a good venue to see a band in - J & I decided it was probably the same size as the Cambridge Corn Exchange where we'd seen Maxïmo Park before just differently shaped. We got in just after doors and got a good spot in the centre near the front - only 3 people from the stage, and we could've pushed further through if we'd wanted to I think. I was a little surprised how few people seemed to want to try & be at the front, it didn't properly fill up till Maxïmo Park were on stage even though it was a sold out evening and people weren't pushing past to get the best spots like I would expect.

The support band were called La Femme, and I'd never heard of them before. It turns out they're a Parisian band, who do fairly high energy poppy stuff. And sing in french. Fun, though I don't feel any need to seek out their album.

Between the bands Jo & I pushed out for bar run, and bumped into Ross (a friend of J & Jo's who grew up in the same village as them) which was cool :) He wouldn't come through to the front though, so we didn't get much of a chance to talk to him.

Then it was time for the point of the evening! I know the first Maxïmo Park album the best, so was pleased that they played so much from it. Pretty much all their songs are very high energy & so there was a lot of jumping up and down and a lot of singing (shouting ...) along. The atmosphere where we were was fantastic, everyone seemed really into it and the band looked like they were enjoying it as well. And they even played my favourite song of theirs (Acrobat) so I was happy :)

Here's a youtube vid from some gig in the Netherlands 3 years ago - with both Acrobat & Our Velocity:

After the show we decided to stay in the venue and see what "the country's biggest indie night" was like. The music at first in the upstairs room where you had to be while they cleaned the venue/people left was pretty good, all fairly old school indie. Although the DJ's mixing skills needed some practice. After a bit we moved downstairs back to the main venue hoping to get seats & hopefully better DJing, but the music there turned out to be a lot more boring. I have to confess to not recognising any tracks (except the one Maxïmo Park one they played). After a while we retreated back upstairs but the music there had got crap too (Wu Tang Clan and other such things) so after we finished our drinks we left. Mind you, we had been in there for about an hour & a half after the gig so it wasn't terrible ... just not particularly good either.

Back at the hotel we had a drink in the hotel bar (served by the most inept bar man ever, he didn't know what half the drinks were & couldn't find the ones he did know without looking for ages). And then off to bed. A very good evening out :)
01 November 2012 @ 02:19 pm
We held TV night on Tuesday this week, so that J could play Assassin's Creed III as soon as it arrived yesterday. This also meant we fitted three programmes into the evening & caught up with ourselves with the Andrew Marr one.

The two episodes of the History of the World that we watched covered the birth of capitalism (also including early colonisation of the Americas, the Reformation, British dealings with India & the Dutch and British in Indonesia) and the age of both Enlightenment & Revolution. The problem with having watched two episodes on the same evening (and then neglecting to write about them the day after) is that they've got a bit tangled up in my head. And the bit of my current book that I've just got to is covering the same era from a different perspective so that's tangled in as well. The birth of capitalism as the stated theme for the first of the two felt a little stretched - it's got to be hard to organise a chronological history into episodic themes, but this did feel like one of the weakest so far. I could see what he was trying to do - we started with Columbus "discovering" America and the Spanish moving in to plunder it, and ended in an era where speculative bubbles and stock market trading were an important part of wealth creation and companies as we think of them had begun to exist. So that's a definite shift from gold and land as wealth to something closer to our modern economics. But still, it also felt like the story of exploration that that era is more often cast as. The age of Reason & Revolution worked better as a theme though, and he didn't shy from pointing out the hypocrisy involved in both running a slave trade and claiming "all men are born equal".

And in between those two we watched the second episode of Wartime Farm. Which concentrated on 1940, and on rationing and the black market and on the Land Girls & the WI. The bits that particularly have stuck in my head were how you could take the dye out of red petrol by filtering it through bread - I didn't expect it to work any more than the historian who was doing the experiment did. But it did! The other thing was the story of the black girl who was originally refused entry into the Land Girls because the people in charge said no farmer would hire her so what was the point. But after the story got picked up by the press a farmer came forward to say of course he'd employ her. So it wasn't really the prejudice of the farmers that was as much the problem as the prejudice of the people running the Land Girls.
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30 October 2012 @ 01:37 pm
On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme on Druids which was another high-flying overview, albeit a little hampered in this case by the fact that there are few actual facts known about the Druids. The experts on the programme were Barry Cunliffe (from Oxford University), Miranda Aldhouse-Green (from Cardiff University) and Justin Champion (from Royal Holloway, University of London). The programme was a little confusing at times - I think there were possibly too many angles that they were trying to cram into one programme, as well as the paucity of solid information.

Most of what we know about the Druids comes from the Romans who wrote about them - the Druids existed between about 400BC & 400AD, primarily in the British Isle and also in Gaul (modern France). Early Roman writers (like Julius Caesar) seem to've been impressed by the Druids. They are described as playing extremely important roles in both the secular & religious life of their communities, they were highly organised & hierarchical and held gatherings where knowledge etc was passed between them and presumably some of it back out to their communities. The Druids themselves haven't left us much evidence because they adhered to an oral tradition for communicating their knowledge - the experts speculated that this might be partly for memory training, and partly for restricting the knowledge to those who were supposed to know it. The Romans were impressed with the philosophy of the Druids, and some later authors drew comparisons between Pythagorean ideas (I think about the soul) & Druidic ideas (which is pretty high praise for the Druids given how highly esteemed Greek philosophers were).

Many later Roman writers have a change in tone towards the Druids - much less favourable, and more inclined to see them as troublemakers. Perhaps because when you are conquering somewhere having an organised priesthood that has frequent countrywide meetings to exchange knowledge is effectively having a resistance movement. And the Druids had something to lose - the Romanisation of Gaul & Britain reduced their power & replaced them with Roman administrators and Roman religious temples & priests. Later still, Christianity played a part in stamping out the last remains of Druidic culture in Ireland & Wales even tho early on there was some coexistence between the two.

The respect of the Romans for the Druids is still obvious even in the later times when they are stamping them out. When the Romans went to march on the Isle of Anglesey one of the most holy Druidic sites they took on the order of 20,000 soldiers with them, which is rather a lot for an island populated largely by priests. This happened in the same time frame that Boudicca rose up to revolt against the Romans on the opposite side of the country, and the assault was abandoned to march back to deal with her army. Aldhouse-Green made the point that this is unlikely to be coincidence and she thought it was likely that Boudicca's revolt was timed to prevent the destruction of Anglesey - there is apparently some evidence that Boudicca herself was a Druid.

The programme then jumped to the 17th Century reinvention of Druidism - mostly lead by English clergy, it seems. It's from these people that we get the linkage between Stonehenge & Druidism - because knowledge of the true extent of the history of humans in the British Isles wasn't known in the 17th Century they assumed that anything pre-Roman pretty much happened at the same time. So Stonehenge is pre-Roman and Druids are what were there before the Romans, so therefore Druids built Stonehenge. Which isn't at all the case - Stonehenge pre-dates the Druids by a couple of thousand years! However, Cunliffe did suggest that perhaps the culture that built Stonehenge developed into the culture that had Druids, that there's some continuity there due to some similarities between archaeological evidence for religious practices in the two time frames.

In this segment of the programme they also touched on how the Bardic tradition in Wales & Ireland may've grown out of the Druidic culture - that it's the closest thing to continuity there is between actual Druids & what people in the 17th Century were trying to rediscover. And that that's not much continuity at all. But the Romantic reinvention of the past didn't just give us some colourful stories & myths, it also helped the development of archaeology itself - people bought up sites that were thought to be holy to the Druids to preserve them, and to investigate them.
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29 October 2012 @ 02:57 pm
J's doing well for trips to see films this year - I think this is the third one he's persuaded me to go to the cinema for. Still don't like cinemas ;) The film was pretty good, though :) I'd managed to completely avoid spoilers, so only knew it was the new Bond film & I think that's a good way to come to the story. As always this isn't so much a review as a collection of thoughts, and there are major spoilers ahead in the rest of this post.

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