never there

In Our Time: The Anarchy

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.
never there

"China: The World's Oldest Civilisation Revealed" John Makeham (Part 1)

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 :)
never there

Empire of the Seas; The Unthanks: A Very English Winter

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 :)
never there

The Death of Ramesses III and Revisiting Tutankhamun's Family

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.
northumberland, walk


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.)
never there

In Our Time: Fermat's Last Theorem

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.
northumberland, walk

"The Dirty Streets of Heaven" Tad Williams

I got this out of the library because I read a review of it on 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.
never there

"A History of Christianity" Diarmaid MacCulloch

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.