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22 October 2012 @ 01:48 pm
This week we listened to the In Our Time programme on the cell while we had our Sunday morning breakfast. This is a subject about which I know rather more than the average educated layperson*, so I was curious to see if it'd hold up as still being interesting. It did :)

In the 45 minutes they managed to cover an impressively large amount of ground. Starting with a brief intro on what a cell is (building block of biological organisms, but just like the atom once you look more closely there's a lot more going on inside than you thought), then moving on to how big (not very) and how many in a person (a lot, but even all those human cells still only add up to 10% of the cells in your body, the rest are bacterial). They then covered in chronological order the three main stages in life on earth (if you're thinking from a cellular perspective). First there were prokaryotes - bacteria are this sort of cell. These are the simplest sort of cell - a membrane bag that makes the important chemicals be more concentrated inside than they are in the sea. They have DNA (the metaphor they used was of a library), RNA (copies of blueprints from the library) and proteins (built from the blueprints), and they make the needed energy to do their internal chemistry by transporting protons across the outside membrane. But they don't have any divisions on the inside of the cell, everything's in the bag together.

Then about a billion years later the eukaryotes appear (an amoeba is a single-celled eukaryote) ... and Melvyn Bragg managed to mispronounce eukaryote more ways than I could count in 45 minutes - the best was when he turned it into something resembling "erotic" ;) Eukaryotic cells have subdivisions inside them - they're named for having a nucleus which is a compartment that holds the DNA, they also have mitochondria which were originally free living prokaryotic bacteria. These are the true determinant of eukaryotic cells - they evolved by one cell type engulfing another type, and then living in a symbiotic relationship where the internal bacteria provide energy for the outer cell. It's thought this arose once and only once. So having more energy and having separate compartments (many of them, not just the two I mentioned) lets them maintain a bigger genome (the fragile DNA is kept away from the rest of the machinery, they have enough energy to do more reactions) and do more complex chemistry.

Next stage (after about another billion years) is the arise of multicellular organisms (like people! tho that took a while) - which are lots of eukaryotic cells stuck together. In this last section they managed to touch on the two sorts of cell division, cell specialisation by controlling which genes are switched on or off, and even some relatively recent research that shows that the control switches for the genes might be quite a long way away on the DNA strand so the way the DNA folds up in the nucleus is important (now that's a hard problem to solve)**. Oh, and also to mention the true distinction between male & female (female gametes provide the mitochondria).

The experts on the programme were Steve Jones from UCL, Nick Lane (also UCL) and Cathie Martin (JIC and UEA). Unfortunately Prof. Martin wasn't quite up to the normal standard - she was both nervous & used too much jargon. Either one alone would've been OK, but the two together made her contributions somewhat confusing to follow. Which is a shame, because she came across as someone who knew her stuff (as did the other two) but wasn't comfortable with explaining it to non-scientists (in contrast to the other two).

But that quibble aside, it was interesting to listen to, and I thought it provided a very good high-level run through a complicated subject. It's always nice when things like this hold up even if you already know what they're talking about, gives you confidence that the ones you don't know are equally accurate :)

*Amusingly one of the further reading suggestions on the Radio 4 website for the programme is for a textbook I had to buy for my first year undergrad - Alberts et. al. "Molecular Biology of the Cell" ... it's the 2nd edition I have on the bookshelf upstairs, seems they're up to a 5th edition now.

**One of the things I was doing during my last post-doc was looking for the β-catenin promoter, so this was particularly interesting. Mapping the 3D structure of the DNA to make sure all the various bits line up with the right genes has got to be complicated. And I bet it changes based on what cell type, which other genes are switched on or off etc.
The fourth episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance - but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can't really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver's 3 part series - the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols - Marr told us some of Temujin's early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire - allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren't really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn't already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more - ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed ...) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land - the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as "the Dark Ages" - concentrating on the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it's right! He's the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo's economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper - which (along with lots of Leonardo's other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn't a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though :) ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV :)

For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We'd been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn't like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I'd feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would've been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain's food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn't continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn't quite've been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The "modernisation" of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses - much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going ... easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who'd been 7 and a farmer's son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer's wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting - and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn't tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it's easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended - it's history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.
18 October 2012 @ 02:02 pm
This has turned out to be a somewhat topical entry, as Hilary Mantel has just won the Booker Prize for "Bring Up the Bodies". It's the second book of what will be a trilogy and is a novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's more well known courtiers. The story can't really be spoilt, as it's following history pretty closely - Cromwell starts from humble beginnings and rises to prominence first as the servant of Cardinal Wolsey, and then manages to survive the Cardinal's downfall going on to work directly for the King. He is important in the engineering of the break with Rome & the dissolution of Henry's first marriage so that Henry can marry Anne Boleyn, then instrumental in the subsequent downfall & death of Anne. After this he first rises higher (and is even granted a title) but then his enemies contrive to bring about his execution after the failure of Henry's fourth marriage (which was to a woman Cromwell had found and put forward as the right candidate).

So that's an extremely simplified potted biography of the main character of the novels. I read the first book ("Wolf Hall", which won the Booker prize in 2009) earlier this year, it covers the time of the Cardinal's fall and Anne Boleyn's rise as well as multiple flash backs to Cromwell's early life. "Bring Up the Bodies" covers much less time - just the last year of Anne Boleyn's life. And I would assume part 3 will take us through to his fall from grace & death.

This is a period of history I'm particularly interested in, so it's not surprising that these books are right up my street. I also liked the style they're written in - it's (mostly) present tense, and while it's (mostly) in third person it's like it's the story Cromwell is telling himself about what's going on around him. As if he's constantly editorialising inside his head about what's happening and what it means. It's also very stylised, which is a constant reminder that this world of the court of the Tudors isn't our world, the people are obviously still people like us but they have different expectations, different ways of behaving, they see the world differently. And a lot of the story happens in the gaps between what people say, or in the meanings behind the words.

Here's a bit from around the middle of the book, when Cromwell has trapped Mark Smeaton into confessing to adultery with Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is deciding who else to arrest from the string of names that Smeaton has given as also guilty and discussing it with Wriothesley (aka Call-Me-Risley). Thomas Wyatt is said to have been a lover of Anne's before her marriage to Henry, and is a friend of Cromwell's:

He turns. 'Call-Me. You're early today?'
'I could not sleep. A word, sir?'
So today the positions are reversed, it is Call-Me-Risley who is taking him aside, frowning. 'You will have to bring in Wyatt, sir. You take it too much to heart, this charge his father laid on you. If it comes to it, you cannot protect him. The court has talked for years about what he may have done with Anne. He stands first in suspicion.'
He nods. It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not simply talk to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.
But he decides to give Wriothesley an explanation he can follow. 'It is not Wyatt,' he says, 'who stands in my way with the king. It is not Wyatt who turns me out of the privy chamber when I need the king's signature. It is not he who is continually dropping slander against me like poison into Henry's ear.'
Mr Wriothesley looks at him speculatively. 'I see. It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you.' He smiles. 'I admire you, sir. You are deft in these matters, and without false compunction.'
He is not sure he wants Wriothesley to admire him. Not on those grounds. He says, 'It may be that any of these gentlemen who are named could disarm suspicion. Or if suspicion remain, they could by some appeal stay the king's hand. Call-Me, we are not priests. We don't want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.'

That shows us both Cromwells, the one inside his own head who's doing good for people, who's got good motivations but who does what is necessary if the king wills it. And that's a truth about him, it is the way he is. But it's also true what he tells Wriothesley, that's also the way that Cromwell is. And even though we see the story through Cromwell's editorialising eyes we still get to see how he must look to the outside world, and how even on the inside he is that calculating despite the stories he tells himself. All through this book, and the last, we see Mantel's Cromwell taking note of every time he's mocked or pushed aside by the gentlemen of court. Put down because he's just a common born man who happens to be useful to the King, by men he considers as worth less than him for all their titles and noble birth. And we see him taking note of those that mock the memory of Cardinal Wolsey. That bit about what a paragon of virtue Wyatt is also shows us what he thinks of the rest of the court, like George Boleyn, Anne's brother. The sudden drop into coarseness there is something that happens often throughout the book and in Henry VIII's court. They might all be putting on a show as honourable chaste & chivalrous knights, but behind that act there's a lot of illicit sex and petty vindictive behaviour. And plenty of gossip and jostling for position & status. Which in the end is what does for Anne Boleyn, whether or not she did commit adultery she didn't act in a way that made it unbelievable so once the mud was flung it stuck.

Anne Boleyn's downfall is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery - the various records from the time or shortly after are contradictory & show their biases. What's known is that four gentlemen of the court (including George Boleyn) and Mark Smeaton, a common born lute player, were tried and executed for adultery with Anne, and she herself was executed for the same crime. High treason, as her alleged adultery put the succession in doubt. Mantel makes the point in her afterword that as no-one now knows what actually happened she's not putting forth "the truth" she's giving us a plausible possibility of how Cromwell saw those events. It certainly feels true to the character she's written and to the times he lived in.

Mantel does a very good job in getting across just how claustrophobic and paranoid this must've made the court, too. Things are dredged up from conversations long ago and cast in a new light by later events. How can you remember everything you might've said that is now not acceptable? If spending time in private conversation with a member of the opposite sex is now sufficient proof of adultery, what might you be accused of? There are two moments in the book where everything suddenly shifts and you can see how precarious the situation is for England or for Cromwell. First the King is injured in a tournament & they think he is dead (and this is in fact the beginning of the end, as it does re-open an old wound on his leg, but the characters don't know this). Elizabeth is but a baby, Anne is pregnant (and not yet disgraced) - will the Boleyns rule in Elizabeth's name? Will part of the country rise up in arms to support the claim of Mary? Civil war looms, chaos is on the horizon. And the king, thankfully, revives. When Anne miscarries shortly afterwards, that's really the first nail in her coffin - Henry has had a stark reminder that he needs a legitimate son (as has the court). If Anne's not providing one, perhaps she isn't the right wife for him.

The second is personal to Cromwell, but has the same shock and fracturing effect in the book (as it is, after all, Cromwell's story). Henry feels Cromwell has overstepped in something, and viciously rants at him, making his displeasure clear. And it's starkly clear just how much Cromwell's career, and even life, are dependent on the King's whim. And how few of the court are his friends in truth. The moment passes, Henry comes as close to apologising as the King ever does - partly by entrusting Cromwell with the task of finding out how to extricate the King from his no longer wanted marriage.

The personal is very much the same as the political. Who is friends with whom, who respects whom, the little things people say when they think they're safe are all the things that shape the political course of the whole country. And Mantel brings that vividly to life, through the eyes of a man who catalogues and weighs up everything to see what it's worth and how it can be of use. In many ways Cromwell is a monster, he engineers the deaths of several people throughout these books in fairly cold blood - but always able to tell himself it's for the good of the country. Yet Mantel still makes him sympathetic, you can see how he does what he has to to survive and to keep his own people safe, and he is doing what his prince requires for the stability of the realm.

I thoroughly recommend the book (but read "Wolf Hall" first!).
16 October 2012 @ 12:48 pm
We went to see Prometheus at the cinema ages ago, but I'm reminded of it again because the blu-ray J bought has just arrived & J spent a large chunk of the weekend watching the extras & commentaries (as well as re-watching the film). I've seen quite a few people in various places online saying how crap the film was, but to be honest I completely disagree with that. I suppose I should point out that I see very few films, so perhaps I'm just not as jaded as the general cinema-going population. Also I haven't actually seen the Aliens films (although I'm aware of the plots of them and have seen clips/bits over J's shoulder, and have read some of the spin-off & tie-in novels). Even above & beyond my general dislike of narrative entertainment in visual form I'm particularly not keen on seeing gruesome things so sci-fi horror isn't really my thing. But that does mean I didn't go into watching Prometheus expecting it to be another instalment in a franchise that was dear to me (like I think a lot of people did) - so I didn't have to reset my expectations to the reality of the film. Although that did also mean I spent more of it watching from behind my hands than I'd expected, coz J had said in advance he didn't think it'd be that gory ;) But equally I think the real reason I liked it better than other people I've seen comment on it is likely to boil down to it being my sort of story & not theirs, and that's perfectly reasonable.

This isn't a review, it's more a collection of thoughts & impressions. spoilersCollapse )
15 October 2012 @ 01:33 pm
This Sunday we listened to the last part of the In Our Time series on the Written Word. This covered the impact writing, and printing, has on science. As was a theme throughout the series they started with someone telling us how the Mesopotamians did it first, followed up by someone telling us how Egypt actually got there are least as early if not earlier ;)

The first scientific writings that we know of (from either culture...) are astronomical observations, applied arithmetic (for things like building pyramids, as well as accountancy) and medical observations & treatments. The Greeks then took this further by systematising & analysing data on many different things, biological as well as physical & chemical. The programme made the point that a lot of our words for scientific processes come from the Greek - analyse, theory etc. This Greek knowledge & process was then transmitted via the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe and taken forward by new scientists in the Enlightenment era.

They spent a while looking at Newton's notebooks, which are kept at Cambridge. These (and other scientists' notebooks) evolved from the commonplace books that educated people would keep at this time into something closer to a modern lab book. Commonplace books were notebooks where someone would write down facts & quotations & such that caught their interest or that they wanted to remember. Newton's books started off like this, but soon became places where he wrote down what experiments he'd performed & what he'd observed - like diagrams of a particular prism set up & details of what he saw. Or an experiment where he stuck a wooden bodkin in behind his eyeball and deformed the curvature of the eyeball and recorded what that did to his vision ...

So the handwritten word was (and still is) important in the doing of science, in recording what you tried, what happened, what you think that means & what you'll do next. The printed word is important in the dissemination of scientific knowledge - relatively large numbers of identical books can be produced, and then not only can more people read them but also discussions can refer to specific things & be sure they're the same in the book their correspondent has.

Overall this was an interesting series, although at times it felt far too Euro- or British-centric. I guess this was partly because he was visiting British places that held early writings, and those collections are bound to be biased towards more local things.
Started off the evening with the third episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World - this one was about the Word and the Sword, basically the rise and spread of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam with a few side stories. He started off with the story of Ashoka who killed and conquered his way to ruling an empire that covers most of modern India. But then after witnessing the appalling slaughter he himself had caused he converted to Buddhism and spent the rest of his (long) reign promoting peace and tolerance throughout his land and actively spread Buddhism as a religion.

The first of the side stories was about the First Emperor of China - who came to power around the same time as Ashoka and in much the same murderous way. But he had no moment of conversion, instead ruling his newly unified China with an iron fist. His mausoleum is apparently enormous - the only part that has been excavated is the Terracotta Army, but there's a palace extending back beneath the hill behind where that lies. After his death (of mercury poisoning from an "elixir of immortality" which was anything but) the Han Dynasty ruled over China for about the same time period as the Roman Empire existed - and this was the next topic.

Well, sort of. What he actually covered was the final fall of Egypt, Cleopatra & Caesar's relationship and then their deaths (skipping quite quickly over the Mark Anthony bit) and Egypt's assimilation into the Roman Empire. The spin he was putting on this was that Caesar effectively saw that Cleopatra was worshipped as a god in Egypt and thought this was a good idea so went home to Rome to do the same. Leading to the Senate not being happy and murdering him (but actually all his successors were worshipped as gods, so the idea took hold). And then he cast the rise of Christianity as being partly a reaction against this politicised religion in the empire, people going back to a faith in something that was more personal to them. This wasn't quite the spin I was expecting, so it ended up feeling like he'd kinda skewed things to make it fit his theme for the programme.

Early Christianity through to its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire was told through the lens of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent spreading of the gospel throughout the empire, and Perpetua's imprisonment and martyrdom for her faith. And ending with the Romans having effectively assimilated the faith into their political & military structures.

The feeling of stretching to fit the theme was not helped by the next side-story which really did seem shoehorned in. We had a brief trip across to the Americas, and the Nazca people. These are the people who made the massive line drawings on their land, and their civilisation collapsed around 600AD due to human exacerbated environmental disaster. Basically they were cutting down trees to create more arable land, but then when they had 30 years of excessive rain the lack of trees meant the soil was washed away. Which made the succeeding 30 years of drought even less survivable than it otherwise would've been. This didn't really fit the theme, but it happened in this time period so they told us about it anyway, with some reference to the religion and the increased numbers of human sacrifices during the end of the civilisation as they frantically tried to appease their gods.

And then it was back to the theme - with the meteoric rise and spread of Islam. They did another good job of juxtaposing the stories told to highlight the similarities between the different topics. In this case we had the almost martyrdom of Bilal to mirror Perpetua's martyrdom as the entry point for the story of early Islam. Bilal survived, however, to become the first muezzin. And the spread of Islam by conquest was contrasted with the slower spread of Christianity by the travels of the Paul and the Apostles.

We were running late this week, so only had time for a half hour programme for the second one of the evening. We have had a couple of episodes from the middle of a series called In Search of Medieval Britain sitting on the PVR for ages, so we watched one of them. The premise of this series is Alixe Bovey (a lecturer in medieval history at Kent) travelling about the country following the Gough Map (a map dating to 1355-1366 which was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1809). In the episode we watched she visited Melton Mowbray, Lincoln and Sherwood Forest. In Melton Mowbray she helped make an authentic pork pie from the era. In Lincoln she visited the cathedral, which for 200 years held the title of tallest building in the world. Then the spire fell down in the 1500s (probably because the wood frame rotted) and it was no longer taller than the Great Pyramid. It was still the tallest point in Lincolnshire though. And finally in Sherwood Forest she told us about real outlaws (who were a much more murderous and unpleasant bunch than the fictional Robin Hood), and visited the oldest pub in the country. She also talked to some people who were making authentic medieval beer - with hissop instead of hops as the bittering agent. It was amusing to see her not drink any on camera, the "oh it's delicious" after the camera panned away from her was pretty fake I think ;)

I wish we'd managed to record all of these, this one was quite fun :)
11 October 2012 @ 12:35 pm
Saturday was another bright & sunny day, so we headed off to Thetford Forest to try & find some more geocaches. We sort of misjudged the times, we'd originally planned to have lunch at home but then realised it would take longer to drive there than we'd thought so left earlier with a plan of getting lunch somewhere near Thetford. Which was successful, but perhaps taking a picnic lunch and leaving even earlier would've meant we could do the whole walk we'd planned. Still, it was a nice lunch at a pub seemingly attached to a Premier Inn in Thetford.

Day 11

day 11 map

We parked in Santon Downham with the idea that we'd do the circular walk that took in the 11 caches in the Santon Downham set ("Santon Circular 1" etc) and 3 Church Micro caches - a 4.5 mile walk with 14 caches, which seemed like it would work out. In the end though we did about half of the walk, including looking for caches 1, 2, 3, 9, 10 & 11 of the circular set and 2 of the church ones ("Church Micro 1486 - Santon Downham" and "Church Micro 1485 - All Saints Santon"). This truncation was because we spent so long looking for numbers 1 & 2 in the circular walk (and failing to find them :( ) that at about 5pm we decided to cut back towards the car rather than head even further away. It was still half 6 by the time we got there tho! The bit I could record on My Tracks (my battery started to run out part way round) was 3.8 miles so I suspect we still did about 4.5 miles what with the faffing about and the completely wrong turn we took at one point as well.

It felt like a disappointing day, but actually we found 6 of the 8 we looked for. The problem was that we started off by not searching for one because there were too many people there (that was actually number 11 and we went back and found that at the very end), then of the next 3 we only found 1 despite spending over an hour looking between the other two. The guy who'd put these caches down was very very good at hiding them - perhaps too good for us. But having said that, we did find all the next ones we looked for - hidden in the ends of sticks or little painted magnetic button sized ones. Well camoflaged. I think we may need to return with reinforcements sometime!

The walk was good, too, although I was a bit cold having misjudged the temperature of the sunny looking day. And I got a few pics :)

Swans Swans Old Post Box Santon Downham, in the Domesday Book St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham River All Saints Santon Flower Getting Dark Getting Dark Amusing Sign
Sunday was the October meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and our speaker this month was Joyce Filer. She used to be the Curator of Human and Animal Remains at the British Museum, and for one of her masters degrees her dissertation subject was cats in Egypt which is what she was talking to us about.

Her talk covered quite a lot of ground during the hour & a half she was speaking. Part of it was about the more modern representations of Egyptian cats - quite a few 19th Century oil paintings scattered through her slides, all with black cats in and the occasional tiger skin. One of her main themes was how this was actually a completely unrealistic depiction of what ancient Egyptian cats would have been like. She showed us pictures of a few species of wild cats that are prevalent in the area, most of them are sandy coloured with stripy markings. Which is a much better colour scheme if you're trying to blend into the desert or marshes of Egypt. And if you look at cat mummies that have been unwrapped then the remaining fur is generally of that sort of colour. The solid black or solid white colour of more modern cats is actually an artefact of breeding. And she made a point that the perception of Egyptian cats as black is heavily influenced by the statues we've found - most of which are bronze and have corroded to a blackish/greenish colour. At the time they were made, they'd've been a brown colour much more like the cats themselves.

She also showed us a lot of depictions of cats in Egyptian art. These (as with all Egyptian art) are both representative & symbolic. There are scenes which show cats as part of the family - trustingly sitting near people, allowing their kittens near people. Wearing collars and jewellery (did they really wear earrings? Who knows, but they're often shown with earrings). But the symbolic side of it comes from how the cats are often shown as sat beneath a woman's chair - they are a symbol of fertility, associated with the feminine.

She didn't just talk about domestic cats, she also talked about the bigger cats that are seen in Egyptian art. Leopard, cheetah and possibly serval skins are part of the regalia of high-ranking priests, and so are often shown in tomb paintings. Lions are obviously part of Egyptian symbolism - sphinxes with lion bodies, gods & goddesses with lion heads (like Sekhmet). And depicted being brought as presents to Pharaohs, or being hunted by Pharaohs. But not tigers, because tigers are native to India (which is probably why they show up in 19th Century artistic representations of ancient Egypt - they are painting the exotic lands they actually know, rather than thinking about what the reality would be).

As well as this she showed us some of the evidence from mummified cats. And made the point that these can show us what species were definitely mummified, but not rule out anything else being mummified because a large number of cat mummies were destroyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for fertiliser or as fuel for steam trains! The mummies that remain do show some striking similarities - cats were generally either 4 to 5 months old or 9 to 12 months old. And most have had their necks wrung. She made the point that this suggests that cats were "farmed" for mummification, both to get the large numbers required and to get the right ages.

Joyce Filer is a good speaker, and this was a good talk - not only informative but also containing many entertaining anecdotes about her own cats, and her time working at the British Museum.
08 October 2012 @ 01:34 pm
This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories - both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it ... and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with "and also known as the Father of Lies" ;) I did wonder what the Chinese might've had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don't know but I rather suspect that they'll've had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history - history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don't know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China - he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England - both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one - the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you'd hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them ...) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.
05 October 2012 @ 01:09 pm
We watched the third & last episode of Vikings last night. This one was split into two - firstly Oliver covered the Vikings' exploration to the West and then in the second half he looked at how the Vikings stopped being Vikings. So the programme started off by looking at Viking ocean-going ships, and a bit of sailing & rowing in a replica, and talked about how you had to be a bit flexible in your destination given their navigational technology. And sometimes when you were heading for Shetland you might end up in Orkney, but that's OK. And sometimes you might end up somewhere completely different - as happened when a boat blown off-course discovered Iceland. I think he was saying that Iceland was a complete accident, but after they found out there might be new lands out in the ocean they deliberately went looking for them. So they settled Greenland and even made it to the east coast of North America. The further flung colonies died off, but the Icelandic people are descended from those Viking colonisers and even some of their traditions lasted into modern times (like their government was a proto-democracy from as long ago as the Viking era). There was an amusing segment of Oliver having to eat various traditional Viking "delicacies" (in a restuarant in Iceland that has this as its theme), like "rotten shark" and various bits of a sheep one doesn't normally eat (testicles, brains). Accompanied by descriptions from an Icelandic man who was dressed up like a Viking and very much in "torment the foreigner" mode ;)

The second half looked at how and why the Vikings stopped being what we think of as Vikings. Some of this came down to conversion to Christianity - while there'd been Christians in Denmark from fairly early on in the Viking era it wasn't until the late 900s that Harald Bluetooth (the King of Denmark) converted and made Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. This was apparently largely for political reasons, as it made it less possible for the Holy Roman Emperor to add Denmark to his territories if that meant he was attacking a fellow Christian ruler rather than a godless heathen people. Other rulers in Scandinavia followed suit, and the differences between the old religion and the new changed the focus of the people. No longer was life all about heroic deeds and gaining enough glory so that when you died in battle you went to Valhalla. Now you should focus on living as good (and meek & mild) a life as possible to avoid eternal damnation in the hereafter.

And it finished up by looking at the re-conquest of England by Canute (grandson of Harald Bluetooth), and how his empire of most of Scandinavia and England gave him social status within Europe to a degree where the son of the Holy Roman Emperor married Canute's daughter. I was vaguely entertained by them spelling Canute like that, as I thought we spelt it "Cnut" these days ... perhaps that's easily mis-read? ;)

A good series overall :) I think it's a shame it was done in three episodes, it made some of it feel quite shallow. In particular I think this episode could have been split into two and filled out an hour for each very easily. I'd've liked to hear more about the Greenland and Newfoundland colonies in the first half, and seen some of the evidence for them. And I'd've liked a bit more about the legacy of the Vikings in the second half - a particular thing I felt was missing was that the Normans are descended from Vikings (if I remember correctly) and this wasn't even mentioned.

The second episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World covered "the Age of Empires", starting with the Assyrians and stopping just short of the Romans ... which seemed an odd choice of stopping point given the title, but I guess we cover the Romans next time. As well as the Assyrians it covered the Persians, Alexander the Great, Athens & their democracy, and a very well juxtaposed series of segments on the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates. The primary theme was how this era was defined largely by war and brutal conflicts between peoples, and how this wasn't unmitigatedly bad for society. Teachings & innovations that are still followed today grew out of people dealing with this violence.

So he looked at how both the Persians and later Alexander the Great tried to integrate their empires of disparate peoples, which could be viewed as the first attempts at a multicultural society (after the violence & slaughter that lead to the empires). Obviously the democracy of Athens was held up as the birth of the government type most in use throughout the West - but he didn't shy away from pointing out how it wasn't quite what we think of as democracy, and in many ways only worked because those who could vote had free time to do so because their slaves were doing the work. And Marr also highlighted the accidental nature of history here - if the Persians had conquered Athens like they tried to do then perhaps we'd have a different form of government now, at the very least it wouldn't be called democracy. Another accident of this sort is that the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jews from their exile in Babylon, and this had a large impact on the development of Judaism. Were Cyrus not to have conquered Babylon, or not to've sent the Jews home, then again the world might be very different today.

The pieces about the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates looked at how these men had such different impacts on their societies but started in many ways from similar places. All were a reaction of sorts to the violent world around them. The Buddha went out from his privileged life, and sought answers to what the meaning of life was and how one should best live. He reached Enlightenment and taught and promoted a peaceful inward looking religion with no hierarchy or restrictions on who could follow it. Confucious also went out from a privileged life to walk and teach among the people, but his message was about creating a peaceful well-ordered society by conforming to the rules for appropriate behaviour. Heavy on respect and outward appearances, focused on the good of the whole people rather than the salvation of a single person. Socrates wasn't leaving a life of privilege but he was reacting to the violent and uncertain world around him - Athens and in particular its democratic form of government felt under threat. But he didn't react by conforming, or by retreating from the world to seek inner peace, he reacted by questioning and pushing at the boundaries of what was proper or traditional. Trying to shape a better world by never being satisfied with the easy answers. And then this lead to his death, executed as a traitor in a situation which no society since has had answers to either - if you allow free speech, at what point do the needs of the society outweigh this? What should society do when someone's right to question runs into the society as a whole's needs?

While I enjoyed most of the episode, and also found it thought provoking in places, there was one bit that made me roll my eyes a bit. There was a segment on the development of the alphabet, which managed to make it seem like the Phoenicians were the first (and only) people ever to connect what was written down with the sounds that were made. So it ignored completely the evidence of syllabic writing systems (like Linear B where every sign is a particular consonant+vowel combination), which can also be read back by sounding out the symbols. The difference with the alphabet as we use it is the flexibility it gives, where you can phonetically write down languages not constructed in the same way as the language the alphabet was originally designed for (this is harder to do with syllabic systems if the syllables are not the same across the languages - think about Linear B and then think of how English isn't always consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel). I guess that segment was just very simplified, but it was almost to the point of being wrong.

The dramatic reconstructions continue to amuse me with their irreverence and melodrama. Croesus about to be burnt to death was particularly amusingly done. I'm really not normally a fan of playacting bits in history programmes, so I feel the need to mention again how entertaining they are :)
04 October 2012 @ 12:12 pm
Good weather again at the weekend, so we went out on another walk. This time there wasn't nearly as much wildlife to photograph, because Rendlesham Forest appears to be more visited than Sudbourne Marshes are. But still, got a few photos and another 7 geocaches :)

Day 9

I remembered I had the My Tracks app on my phone not long after we set off, so I used that to map where we walked:

day 9 map

The app said it was a 4.5 mile walk (and our pace was slow because we kept stopping to look for the caches). The caches we found were the 6 ones of the Daisys Walk set ("Daisys Walk 1" etc), and "Friday Street" which is the name of the tiny village near where we parked the car. These caches were a bit more hidden than the ones we did around Sudbourne the weekend before, probably because the area is busier and so there'd be more risk of them being stumbled over by people who didn't know what they were.

J Into the Forest Graffiti Boo! J Birdhouse Crow Fungus

Day 10

That wasn't the only trip out at the weekend - it was about time we took our empty bottles to the tip, so J wanted to reward himself for this virtuousness by going and getting a few more caches. There's a brand new one near the Tescos at Martlesham ("Cache N Shop!"), and a couple in the woods nearby ("Burnt Tree" and "Fallen Tree"). I didn't realise there were woods so near that Tescos, and as we walked to the caches there we saw a map & leaflets for a 5 mile circular walk round Martlesham & the surrounding area. (Checked when we got home & there's not many caches for me to bribe J out on the walk with, but I'd still like to do it at some point - could get the bus out to Tescos then get a pub lunch at the Red Lion halfway round.) And on the way home we also stopped off at Brightwell for the last of the weekend ("Church Micro 2825 - Brightwell").
02 October 2012 @ 12:35 pm
I reserved this at the library due to a recommendation in passing in a review of something else, but I can no longer remember where I read it or who it was. I do remember that the recommendation was for if you found Mieville a bit hit & miss then this one would probably be a hit, and I think I would agree with that. I've previously read "Perdido Street Station" and "The Scar" both of which I liked, and failed to finish "Iron Council" (I can't remember why, but I think I got bored). And although I put this one down for a week or two in the middle I did come back to it and finish it, and I enjoyed reading it :)

The story is set in the far future where humanity has spread out across the galaxy living on other worlds & meeting other intelligent species. All the action is set on other planets, and mostly on Arieka, the planet where Embassytown is. The story is told by Avice, who grew up in Embassytown but left to travel and crew on spaceships. The first half of the book is split alternating between her present when she's returned to Arieka and flashbacks to her upbringing and youth. And then once the past catches up to the present it moves on as a single narrative (and this structure is probably symbolic of the structure of the story too).

Humans are not the only intelligent lifeforms on Arieka - the Hosts are the alien species who evolved there. They speak Language, forming words simultaneously with their two mouths. Somehow the structure of the language & of their thoughts means that it is not possible for them to lie. They also in some way need the presence of a single sentience behind the words to be able to comprehend it as Language, so the only humans that can speak to them are pairs of identical clones trained from birth to form the two vocalisations of Language with a single thought behind them. These Ambassadors also wear links, electronic devices that enhanced their natural empathy. And when they speak human languages to humans they complete each other's sentences - they are as much as possible one mind in two bodies.

One of the themes of the book is unintended consequences. The planet from which Arieka was colonised have sent their own Ambassador to talk to the Hosts, who is not a pair of identical clones and this has world shattering consequences. Avice comes home and brings her current husband to see where she grew up - he's a linguist and fascinated by Language. His presence during the crisis also has repercussions that could not have been expected. Also humans just by existing on the planet have changed how the Hosts behave and think.

Another theme is that the language we speak affects the way we think. Most obviously in the Hosts, whose Language doesn't permit them to lie - and they have to create actual real things to use as similes. So Avice acted out something for the Hosts when she was a child and she is immortalised in Language as "There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a while", shortened over time to "the girl who ate what was given her". So then the Hosts can refer to something as "like the girl who ate what was given her". And the plot hinges round this nature of the Hosts & their Language in a satisfying way - it is both integral to the crisis and to the resolution of it.

Those similes are obviously translations, and another theme that runs through the book is how translation hides meaning. You turn the words of one language into the words of another, and you think & hope that you now understand what the first one was saying. But you don't necessarily, meanings can be lost and changed by the act of translation. And having turned it into words you do understand you don't notice any of the lost things any more because you think you understand it. Even if you're speaking the same language you bring the baggage of your past experiences along with it - there's a bit near the end where Avice reflects that Scile (her husband) wouldn't've done or said the things he did if he'd been from Arieka or another more recent colony because he would've known what it meant.

I definitely enjoyed reading this on a surface level - the story carried me along, I sympathised with the characters who I was supposed to etc. But I have a feeling there was a lot more going on underneath the surface than I really got out of it. Perhaps partly because I did have a longish break in the middle of reading it.
01 October 2012 @ 02:09 pm
This third part of the series on the Written Word was covering how books and writing helped the spread of global religions during the first millennium AD. And also how the needs of the religions helped spread literacy & printing. It was split into 3 sections - covering Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Common to all three is the way that once the words are written down it's easier for prospective converts to find out about the religion in question, so it's easier for it to spread. And also theologians can more easily debate & discuss the finer points of detail if those details are written down and the same for everyone.

Christian writings have been in the form of bound codices from early on. This format was partly used because of the desire to restrict what was canon in the scriptures - so if you had your bound copy of the Bible then you had the books that you were supposed to and no more or less.

In Islam the tradition is that the Prophet Mohammed was illiterate, and thus the teachings in the Koran were initially preserved orally and subsequently written down by scribes. Writing has a dual significance - in the temporal world it was used pre-Islam for contracts and other things where the details needed to be fixed, and this is why the Koran was written down. In the spiritual sense it is also a metaphor for how Allah fixes what is happening in creation.

And Buddhism helped to drive the invention of printing in China. The belief is that there is virtue in repetition - making repeated images of the Buddha will gain you merit, for instance. So writing down the teachings of Buddhism and printing multiple copies of them will not just provide people with their own copy of the text but is inherently a religious undertaking.

Incidentally, I'm always mildly surprised that radio shows like this work - you can't see anything obviously, but the experts & Bragg describe things and you can normally visualise them and understand the point of what's going on.
30 September 2012 @ 08:19 pm
End of the half season, so no more Doctor Who till Christmas. I don't think I've much non-spoilery to say so I shall fill up the bit that'll show up on facebook/G+ with a bit of meaningless wittering, like so. Perhaps after this sentence that'll be sufficient? Spoilers ahead:

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28 September 2012 @ 12:40 pm
Started off TV night with the second episode of Vikings - it's only a 3 episode series, which seems a shame. This middle one talked about the Vikings as traders which is something more Anglo-centric views of the Vikings tend to forget. He started by telling us about the eastern Vikings (from what's now Sweden) and how they spread through Russia setting up small settlements on the way. They traded as far afield as Constantinople and with parts of the Islamic world. One of the things we were shown was an Arabic book describing the appearance of the Vikings (both men & women on these trading missions) and calling them Rus (I think he said it meant "rowers") - which is where the word Russia comes from. They were allowed to trade in Constantinople, which was hard to get permission to do and some clearly settled there. He also showed us some graffiti in the Hagia Sophia from the 9th Century in Viking runes, which apparently says something like "Halfdan was here" :) The Vikings brought silks and spices and other luxury goods back from the east, to places like Birka (near Stockholm) where grave goods etc that have been found show that this was a wealthy market town. The Vikings exported amber & furs which are found in abundance in the north, but also slaves. The programme made a big big deal out of that, but I didn't think it was that surprising. I guess the story we tell about Vikings is normally more kill-rape-plunder not kill-capture-plunder-sell.

The second half of the programme expanded on that - the western Vikings (from what's now Norway) and their settlements in Dublin in particular (an important hub of their slave trade). And then moved a bit away from their trading activities to talk about their conquest & settlement of a large part of England. This being different to what they had done in Russia & in Ireland, because the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the time in England were wealthier and more organised. So it wasn't so much a case of setting up a settlement and being the most sophisticated group in the area, more that they first had to fight to take the places and then live there in greater numbers & with a more organised occupation of the area. It felt a little odd the way we suddenly went Anglo-centric again after focusing so much on the Viking point of view earlier, but I guess it is a big part of the Viking story.

Second programme of the evening is another one we're not timeshifting much! Andrew Marr is doing a series about the whole history of the world, in 8 one hour episodes. Which is quite a tall order, as the article on bbc news that alerted us to this admitted. So part of the interest is seeing just how they manage it :) And also we've liked Marr's previous serieses that we've watched - two about the history of the last 100 years in Britain, one about mega-cities and one about the Queen. This feels like a big budget programme, there are a lot of dramatic re-enactments and a lot of CGI as well as exotic locations. The re-enactments I thought had just the right level of irreverence, given particularly at the beginning they're not exactly going to be accurate representations of a particular event so instead they're little vignettes with a degree of melodrama or humour. Which fit well with Marr's narration, being as that was full of snark and cynical one-liners as well as facts.

This first episode covered a vast swathe of time, from the first humans leaving Africa approximately 70,000 years ago through to the end of the Minoan civilisation about 3500 years ago. Which is pretty impressive when you think about it ;) The title was "Survival" and the theme was exactly that - we had people spreading out and surviving against all the odds no matter what nature flung at us. The broad sweep of the story is something I already know, but the stories picked out did highlight things I didn't know or cast a different light on things I do. For instance I hadn't really thought about how the development of the needle was a great step forward in hunting technology in the Ice Age, because fitted clothes in layers protect against the weather better than just wrapping an animal skin round you. So you can stay out longer in the Ice Age weather while hunting. And the retelling of a Chinese legend about the man who organised a great civil engineering programme to dig channels to dissipate the force of the Yellow River floods which damaged so much of the land & people was completely new to me.

The programme didn't present it as all progress all the time, either - stressing, for instance, how agriculture is good for feeding extra mouths but the consequences of doing the work of farming and living closer to each other & to the livestock actually reduces people's life spans. And how while our tribalism was our great strength as hunter-gatherers (enabling us to work together in groups of the right size for survival), it's not so good once we start to settle down and perhaps need to work together with other tribes to get things done.

Oh, and bonus Egypt - telling the story of a trial in Deir El Medina in the time when that village was the place where the workers on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings lived. The vignette for that was particularly hammed up I thought (and well done, too), making it seem almost more soap opera-ish than it already was.

A good programme, looking forward to the rest of the series :)
27 September 2012 @ 01:13 pm
At the weekend we took advantage of the nice weather and headed off to a village near Aldeburgh to do a longish circular walk with several geocaches on it. That wasn't actually our next geocaching trip, we had gone out one evening during the week to look for (and fail to find again) the one in Alexandra Park and also the puzzle one near the Dove ("Speed dating at the Dove" which we found :) And so had a celebratory pint at the pub, coz it'd be rude not to really ;)

Day 8

On Saturday we started off by driving to Aldeburgh and buying ourselves some fish & chips to eat by the sea - Aldeburgh has a very good chippy that's always very busy, even on a Saturday in September. There's only one geocache in Aldeburgh itself, "Church Micro 1071 St Peter and Paul Aldeburgh", so we walked up and got that before heading off to Sudbourne which is a small village on the other side of the river Alde. The walk itself was in the marshes to the east of the village, starting at a farm and heading out towards the river.

map of route

I used gmaps-pedometer to map out the route above, and it tells me it was just short of 4 miles (3.98) so given I guessed at precisely where we parked the car then 4 miles is probably right enough :) We found a big enough layby to park the car that wasn't the entrance to a field and still had space for other cars to use it as a passing place, then set off on foot. Started at the marker with the central dot, then the mile markers show you which way round the route we went - after picking up the cache just past the 3 mile point we doubled back on ourselves to get to the car. The nine caches were all part of a route called "Sudbourne Marsh 1" etc, and so were all put down by the same person. Who had a knack for hidden but still findable locations - some very clever places which had us searching just long enough to feel a sense of satisfaction when we figured it out :)

And I'm convinced this person works in a lab - the tubes used to hold the logs were all fairly recognisable. There was an eppendorf, there were several universals (with blue lids, I'm used to universals having white lids, guess it must be a different brand), and a tube I feel like I ought to recognise but didn't (Corning branded, bit bigger than a cryovial, something's niggling at the back of my head but I can't put my finger on it). I guess my noticing that just goes to show you can take the woman out of the lab, but getting the lab out of the woman is more difficult ;)

It was a good walk, in a really quiet area. We saw a very small handful of other people near the start and end when we were on the roads, but otherwise no-one. Which meant there was a lot of wildlife, including dozens of dragonflies. And quite a lot of startled pheasants (I think they were pheasants anyway).

Horses Pheasant? Dragonfly Dragonfly Out for a Stroll Dragonfly Dragonfly Dragonfly Dragonfly Dragonfly Dragonfly Toad Toad Toad

As you can tell, I took the camera out with me. I'd put the longer lens on it (55-200) before we got out of the car and whilst I lugged the other one around with me in the bag I didn't want to faff about changing it. I did think at a few times that maybe I should've done so, but actually both closeups of insects and the landscapes came out OK (or enough of them did), so that's OK :)

Due to the way the land is - i.e. flat - there were banks built up near the river, to keep the farmland from flooding. That caused an entertaining illusion that there were land boats sailing past the houses in the distance. Well, it kept us amused for quite a while anyway ;)

Middle of Nowhere Martello Tower J Made by Browns of Ipswich Martello Tower FooTPatH Land Boats and Martello Tower Land Boats Marsh Marsh Land Boats Marsh Not Land Boats After All J
25 September 2012 @ 01:27 pm
While J looked at Egyptian stuff in the British Museum on our most recent trip to London I took the camera & went and looked at the Chinese Galleries again. The right hand side of the room is laid out chronologically so I started here with the Neolithic period. Even that early jade was still an important and symbolic material for the Chinese.

Jade Hair Ornament Jade Dragon Ceremonial Jade Axe

The Shang Dynasty is the next period in Chinese history, moving into the Bronze Age - it was during this time that writing was invented in China, and the tradition of using bronze ritual vessels to offer food and drink to the ancestors was started. These vessels were based on the shapes of Neolithic pottery vessels.

Jade Spearhead with Turquoise Inlaid Bronze Fittings Carved Antler & Ivory Bronze Ritual Food Vessel Bronze Ritual Food Vessel Bronze Chariot Fittings Bronze Chariot Fittings Bronze Chariot Fittings Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel Bronze Ritual Vessel

The Zhou conquered the lands ruled by the Shang - they kept many of the same traditions, including the bronze vessels and the writing system. During this period it was fashionable to inscribe your bronze vessels with a historical note about when the vessel was made or entered the family, which is invaluable to later historians. It was intended at the time to be a historical document, these vessels weren't buried with the dead they were kept by the living. The latter part of this period was known as the Warring States period, and is immediately before the unification of China under the First Emperor. Confucious lived during this time and his ideal of harmony and service to the state was developed with the backdrop of war between the various Chinese states.

Bronze Ritual Water Basin Bronze Ritual Vessel Inscription Inside a Bronze Ritual Vessel Dragon Handle to a Ritual Vessel Bronze Bell Sword Blade, With Inscription Chariot Fitting in the Shape of a Bulls Head Bronze Fittings from a Crossbow

As well as items from China proper the museum has things from the area around China as well. These two plaques are from nomadic tribes from the region that's now Mongolia, and show evidence of Middle Eastern influences in their designs:

A Horse Being Attacked By a Tiger Two Winged Horses

The First Emperor's Dynasty consisted solely of himself, and after his death there was a brief period of civil war before the Han Dynasty took over and ruled for about 400 years. These are the rulers who were featured in the exhibition we went to at the Fitzwilliam Museum earlier this month. Their court was very opulent and rich - lots of fine gilt objects.

Gilt Bronze Dragon Shaped Furniture Stands Gilt Bronze Rearing Beast Gilt Bronze Finial Chariot Parasol Fitting Belt Hooks Belt Hook

And I think next time I go to the museum I need to start over again with this next section and make a bit more sense of it! I have photos of a couple of things from the sort of time when Buddhism spread into China, displacing Confucianism as the primary religion, but that's all between the end of the Han & the start of the Tang Dynasty and I think that means I've missed some stuff as that's quite a long period of time (4 centuries or so). I am rather fond of the Tang pottery, with its distinctive bright colours and stylish designs.

Yue Ware Water Vessel Moulded Plaque of the Buddha Pottery Tomb Guardian Pottery Tomb Guardian Tang Dynasty Pottery Tang Dynasty Pottery Tang Dynasty Pottery Tang Dynasty Pottery Tang Dynasty Pottery Liao Dynasty Pottery Lion Supporting a Tray

And after that we get into the time when the Chinese developed porcelain. And also some gorgeous purple and green dishes, called Jun Ware.

Early Porcelain Early Porcelain Jun Ware Jun Ware Jun Ware

Pictures are, as always, on flickr - click through to see larger versions :)
24 September 2012 @ 12:09 pm
On Sunday morning we listened to the next episode in the In Our time series on the Written Word. This one was all about books, from the earliest known ones through to the development of the printing press. And the secondary theme was how the various changes in writing technology revolutionised time and time again the availabilty of the knowledge that was written down.

Before the 1st century AD most writing was on papyrus & in scrolls, but each time you open a scroll the actual fabric that is written upon gets damaged. So once the idea of how to bind books was developed this took over as the standard format for preserving writing & knowledge. Bound books could also use parchment or vellum as their surface for writing (I think this is because if you have a long continuous roll then it's easier to make when using papyrus), and this is more durable in damp climates. And books are more easily put in one's pocket and carried about.

The next change that was mentioned was the putting of spaces between words - invented by Irish monks, apparently, to make it easier to learn to read a language than none of them were native speakers of (latin). And then we moved on to the development of paper, which was originally invented by the Chinese and came to Western Europe via Islamic Arabs. Paper is much cheaper and easier to make than parchment and vellum, and this made books more available to scholars. And once the material was cheaper mass production systems were set up to make more books more quickly - so one way this was done was to break a master copy of a book into sections and then give these to several different scribes, each would then write his part in a few days and the sections would then be bound together. Each copy was then made direct from a master copy so more accurate as well as much more quickly than one scribe copying out a whole work. One of the experts Bragg talked to pointed out that even though it's hard to tell from actual book prices what the effect was it's possible to tell by looking at the numbers of books people had. So in Chaucer there is a tale of a scholar who is very proud of having 10 books, but once these mass produced paper books were available even undergraduate students could have twice as many.

Then comes the printing press & the Gutenberg Bible. Printing again was an invention of the Chinese, several centuries earlier, and I'm not quite sure if the idea made its way to Western Europe or if this was an independent invention. But even if he got the idea from somewhere else the revolutionary thing was movable type, to allow you to do many different pages with the same equipment. And this then made books even more easily available (and cheaper again) than they had been. One of the experts refered to it as "the Internet of its day", meaning that it was as revolutionising to the society then as the Internet is to us in terms of ease of sharing of knowledge & scholarship.

It was a very Western centric episode, even though China and the Middle East were mentioned, it was only in relation to developments in Western Europe. So that seemed a shame, but there are still 3 episodes so they may redress the balance a bit.
23 September 2012 @ 03:53 pm
More Doctor Who - fourth of five episodes, I'm really not that keen on this splitting up of the season that they are doing these days. It feels a bit like you barely get started and then it's finishing up again. I'm not sure I really have much to say about this episode, despite enjoying it. Spoilers in the rest of this post.

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21 September 2012 @ 12:43 pm
The first TV night for a while, since we've been away or J's been out or we've both been out on a Wednesday for several weeks. We started off with the last in the Britain's Secret Treasures series that was broadcast on ITV a while ago. A technical niggle first - I don't know if it's our PVR or if it's the channel itself, but the sound and images on ITV HD always seem just slightly out of sync. I noticed it during the World Cup and now with this series, it's not a problem most of the time but with close-ups of people talking it's a little disorienting.

The series was looking at the top 50 objects that have been found in recentish years by members of the public, chosen and ordered by Bettany Hughes and a panel of fellow experts. The programmes were presented primarily by Bettany Hughes & Michael Buerk ... and I'm not entirely clear why Michael Buerk. He didn't seem to've been involved in the choice or anything, effectively he was there to be a "pretty face" (or alternatively to provide an authoritative male figure for those who'd think Hughes too female to count?). Perhaps I'm over cynical here. Each object then had a short segment of film where some tenuously linked celebrity (like Michael Portillo looked at a Roman coin because it had an emperor on it and Portillo used to be the Defense Secretary so that's all the same sort of thing - seriously, that's what they said!) or an expert in the subject went off to the site it was found, and/or somewhere relevant, and told us about the object and why it was significant, and maybe interviewed some experts on the subject.

The best thing about the series was the chance to see all these lovely things, and to hear the stories about the lucky finds. And in general I thought the objects were well chosen - I don't know if they'd be my top 50, not only am I not an expert but I don't know what the choice was from, but I thought they were a good top 50 if that makes sense. And I don't regret watching the programmes.

But - and you could tell there was a "but" coming, couldn't you? But I think there were some odd choices in the presentation of the series. By necessity it was a shallow look at the objects, but some choices of what to dwell on and what to gloss over were odd. The one that sticks particularly in my mind is the programme where we had a 5 minute segment of Hughes scuba diving in a river looking for coins (the objects this was related to had been covered earlier for 5 minutes already), and there was at least one object in that programme that got about 2 sentences & moved away from. Personally I'd've skipped the diving and looked at the actual objects more. There were also some odd choices of experts - particularly this last programme where both J and I were spluttering over the choice of a priest to talk about a 4000 year old gold cup. Yes, it was found in what was probably a temple, but I don't think a spiritual leader of Christianity has any special insight into possible religious practices of people who lived in Britain around 2000BC, and leaping from how the rituals around the chalice in Christianity are about both communion with God and communion with the community to how this cup must've also been part of a communion ritual seemed like a very good example of bringing one's own cultural blinkers along. (I'm not saying it's not true, I don't actually know anything about the subject, but I am saying I thought it was a poor argument.)

So in summary, good to have seen but at times eye-rolling to listen to.

Our second programme of the evening was the first episode of Neil Oliver's new series, Vikings. This is actually only timeshifted by a little over a week, quite prompt for us!

I'll start with the negative, and get it out of the way - I don't like the stylistic choices of the director and/or cameraperson for this and the other recent Neil Oliver serieses (the one about the Bronze Age and before & the one about the Iron Age, I can't remember what they were called). Basically they make me notice the camera too much, my preference for a documentary is for it not to try too hard to be "arty". They do stuff like when they're showing you an object they have a narrow depth of field and shift the focal plane around - and I just want to see the whole thing, damnit. Also shaky cam while he's walking along talking to the camera, which I think is supposed to make it feel intimate but just reminds me there's a cameraperson there. Having said that - both of those were toned down from the previous serieses. They'd added a new trick though, shots that made everything look minature - street shots where it looked like little mobile dolls walking between dolls houses. Which I found deeply deeply creepy in a visceral fashion.

However, that's enough bitching about the filming. The programme itself was interesting, and it promises to be an enjoyable series. The premise is to look at the Vikings from the Viking point of view & this first programme was setting the scene. First we had a brief section reminding us of the things "we all know" about Vikings, just to get us all on the same page at the start. So he spent a little bit of time in York with a few wee toy models of Vikings and some kids dressed up with helmets & swords playfighting, pointing out that most of this is later myth. And then we were off to Scandinavia to look at both the land the Vikings came from, and their history before the first raids on Europe.

The land obviously shapes the society that lives in it - and particularly in the far north of Scandinavia, like Norway, there isn't much arable land. Clearly over time this leads to population pressure, so a culture of young men going out adventuring would ease this both by killing some of them off and by having them bring back wealth from other more fertile regions. This and the amount of coast also makes seafaring important - during the sort of time period that Stonehenge was built, the people on Gotland were building stone ship shapes. An integral part of their culture even in the Bronze Age.

He also made the point that Scandinavia was never part of the Roman Empire, and this shaped the people & culture by not shaping them. The Scandinavians kept their old gods, rather than being integrated into Roman religion and then later into Christianity. And their gods and religion emphasised that while you will inevitably die your reputation will live forever. I wish I could remember the exact words - there was a segment of the programme where he talked to a scholar who was an expert on the old religion & she read out some of what I think was an Old Norse book about it, and translated it into English for us. It was much more poetic than how I phrased it. And what mattered to a Viking about his reputation was that he wasn't a coward - honour and glory were what would keep your memory alive.

As well as keeping their own religion they also weren't urbanised by the Romans - so while the south of Scandinavia (Denmark) had wealthy individuals and even regional kings, they weren't organised in towns. I think the point here was that this is a contrast to the way that the ex-Roman Empire parts of Europe thought that a society was automatically organised. As part of this section he also showed us objects that demonstrated that the southern Vikings at least did have trade connections to quite far afield. Some very impressive silver cups which I think were from the Mediterranean and were decorated in a Roman style with scenes from the Iliad. Also the bones of two women from a ship burial just before the time of the first Viking raids on Britain - and one of these women DNA analysis has shown that she may've had some connection to Middle Eastern peoples. (I was unclear if he meant that she herself was from the Middle East or if she had ancestors from the Middle East, perhaps because that's not actually known.)

So that was a fairly brisk sweep through a vast swathe of history & geography to give us a flavour of where the Vikings came from both culturally & physically. Next I guess we're on to what the Vikings actually did :)
20 September 2012 @ 12:55 pm
Marillion did a (fairly short) UK tour just after the new album came out and we went to the show in London on 16th Sept. We did a bit of museuming beforehand (which I'll write up another time), then met Ady & Pete at Kentish Town to find dinner before the show. Paul was supposed to join us too, but his trains were all screwed up so he had to give it a miss :( Ended up eating in Nandos, which I haven't done in probably a decade ... and it would've been that Nandos last time too, before a Marillion gig!

Unusually I had a camera with me, a few years ago most concerts tried to stop you taking photos but things have moved on a bit. Didn't take the big camera, obviously, if nothing else it's awfully hard to take photos at arms length above my head with that one. And despite taking quite a lot of photos (coz only a few would come out) I didn't watch the whole show through the viewfinder either ;) All the pics are on flickr, so click through for a larger version.

The support band for the evening were DeeExpus - Mark Kelly (keyboards in Marillion) plays on the album, but didn't come out and play on stage with them. We do actually have the album, but I haven't listened to it much so I didn't know the songs. They sounded good at the time, but haven't really stuck in my head at all.

DeeExpus DeeExpus DeeExpus DeeExpus DeeExpus

And then on to the main act! They started with a little fake-out of the intro to Splintering Heart, followed by explosions and then into Gaza - the opening track off the new album (which is called "Sounds That Can't Be Made"). A bit of a politically charged song, as it's about the humanitarian side of the situation in Gaza, and it made for a powerful start to the show.

Logo for the New Album Steve Hogarth Steve Hogarth

I think I've said before I'm bad at remembering setlists. As well as four songs off the new album, this one had some old classics like This Town and Great Escape, some of the newer classics like Neverland and You're Gone. Oh and a rendition of A Few Words for the Dead where h waved a gun around, with a flower in it for the bit where the lyrics kick in with "or you could love".

Steve Hogarth Steve Hogarth Steve Hogarth

The (last) encore was Sugar Mice which is a favourite of mine (starting with a slightly ropey crowd sing-along), and in a nice touch the final song - Estonia - was dedicated to Neil Armstrong. The show was recorded, and they'd organised it so that you could buy the CD after the show, which was kinda neat :)

Pete Trewavas Steve Rothery Mark Kelly Ian Mosley Marillion Mark Kelly Steve Hogarth Steve Rothery Pete Trewavas Marillion Steve Hogarth Steve Hogarth Pete Trewavas Steve Rothery Marillion Mark Kelly Steve Rothery Steve Rothery Marillion Marillion
19 September 2012 @ 12:22 pm
We've been to find a few caches in Ipswich since coming back from Northumberland, but with a lower success rate. The first trip in Ipswich was a complete failure - we were only looking for one cache, which is in the park near our house. Unfortunately when we got to the rough area of the site we discovered it's completely overgrown with nettles, and despite J's best efforts at looking we had no luck at all. J got very stung by the nettles, tho :( (I had a skirt on & bare legs, so didn't venture into the nettles at all!)

However our next trip was better.

Day 5

map for geocaching day 5

We met up with some of J's work colleagues (Kerry, Peter, Anna & Adam), near the College, and headed off to find some caches. All three we were looking for were puzzle ones - you have to solve the puzzle on the website to get the actual co-ordinates of the cache (it does give you wrong-but-close co-ordinates to get you to the vague vicinity). I'd not actually done any of the solving myself (to be honest with the geocaching stuff I'm pretty much just along for the ride, it's a good excuse for a walk and to be sociable). The first one we were looking for was "Ipswich Haven Marina" and we failed with that one :( Peter had been a couple of times before & failed to find it, too. The cache owner got in touch with J and with Kerry after they logged DNFs, so we now know that we do have the right co-ords and that the cache is still there (he checked for us). So another trip another day! (Peter has already gone back and found it, so it's definitely definitely there ;) )

The next two were successful! One near the New Wolsey Theatre ("What a Performance") and one a little way up Bramford Road ("A Cachers Melody"). Both found without much trouble, despite it being dark by the time we got to them.

And after that we headed back into town to get some food, ending up at the Kwan Thai partly by virtue of it still being open at 9:30pm. And partly because it's a nice resturant :)

Day 6

map for geocaching day 6

J and I went back out on Saturday afternoon, and promptly discovered the "Ipswich Haven Marina" cache - not quite sure how we all missed it before, to be honest.

We then (via a coffee in Cafe Nero) headed off to look for "A hard one ..." which J and Anna had solved the puzzle for the day before. We searched for quite a while, but in the end had to admit defeat on that one :( We did check the co-ordinates with the cache owner once we got home & apparently we're right so perhaps it's vanished or perhaps we just need to look harder!
18 September 2012 @ 01:07 pm
Back in January there was a five part series on the Written Word as part of the In Our Time series, which is what we've chosen to listen to next. This is a slightly different format in that instead of 3 guests in the studio Bragg is going to museums etc & talking to the curators & experts there.

This programme covered the initial development both of writing itself, and of the alphabetic system we use today. He went and looked at (and described to us) examples of early cuneiform writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese oracle bones, which are three of the four independent inventions of writing. It's interesting that something so fundamental to modern civilisation was invented so few times - as well as the three I listed there's also an independent development on the American continent, but all other writing systems were developed from other systems or directly inspired by other systems.

(It's actually a little controversial to say that Egyptian writing was developed independently like I did in the preceding paragraph - it may've been inspired by cuneiform, however the earliest known Egyptian writing is getting to be early enough that it's more likely to be independent. Also J's been reading a book about the development of writing, and it also makes the point that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems developed for different reasons - Mesopotamian writing was proto-book keeping, Egyptian writing had religious significance. So probably independent origin.)

I actually found the Chinese stuff the most interesting as it was completely new to me - in ancient China (in the Shang Dynasty) the rulers read oracles in the pattern of cracks that you get by using a hot poker on ox shoulder bones. These oracles were then recorded on the bones by scribes in the earliest known forms of modern Chinese characters, which makes the Chinese system the longest consecutively used modern writing system.

The programme also name checked Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B (a syllabic system that was an early way to write Greek), and then moved on to the development of our more familiar alphabet. It made the point that the Greek alphabet was the first to write down vowels - previous alphabetic systems were for Semitic languages and due to the way those languages are structured the consonant sequences are less ambiguous (as I understand it). So to a native speaker it's a lot more obvious in context what a word is than it would be in English (or presumably Greek).
17 September 2012 @ 01:20 pm
We were out all day yesterday, so I'm a day late writing this up - probably going to end up rather more disjointed than I might wish ;) Spoilers galore in the rest of the post.

spoilers!Collapse )
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14 September 2012 @ 12:47 pm
J got interested in geocaching, coz some of his work colleagues are into it. So while we were up north for the bank holiday weekend we went to find some caches.

Day 1

map for geocaching day 1

We picked up two caches on our first trip out - "Stonehinge" & "Snow White", both of which are in Shildon Woods to the north of Blanchland.

Noah is Not Entirely Convinced I Think It's This Way? Found It!

After lunch we then headed out for another two, "Baybridge Beans" & "Faerie Glen", which are to the southwest of Blanchland. It was threatening rain, so I didn't take my camera - just well, because it started to rain when we were about a quarter of the way round the walk and we ended up completely and utterly soaked! Well, all of us except for Noah who had his own little roof (on the carry thingy).

Day 2

map for geocaching day 2

The weather the next day was also pretty miserable, so we drove to 4 round the edges of Derwent Reservoir - "Sheep Rabbits & Water", "Tree-mendous", "Cache Hill Stream" and "Sheila's Tree Cache" (the latter two being in the same rough area). Obviously we drove round, rather than through, the reservoir despite what Google Latitude seems to think we did.

Day 3

map for geocaching day 3

Jo, Chris & Noah went home the next day, but J and I did another batch of caches once they'd gone. First we headed to Hexham, picking up "The Hollybush - Jacobite Rising" on the way.

map for geocaching day 3, in Hexham

And in Hexham itself we found "The Sele" and "Hexham House of Correction". The latter was in the remnants of a Victorian House of Correction - there's just one bit of the building left, rather incongrously tucked into a housing estate next to a bus garage.

After we'd got back to Blanchland and had some lunch we headed off on a couple more walks:

map for geocaching day 3, in the hills

The theme for the afternoon appeared to be derelict buildings, first we went up on the moors to Belmount Farm for "Murder Most Foul".

On Top of the World Dramatic Sky Rock Heap Belmount Farm On Top of the World Pony Only the Occasional Cow

And then we walked down a steep valley from Hunstanworth and back up the other side to Gibraltar for "Gibraltar (Co. Durham)". We'll have to go back there sometime, as we discovered subsequently that J's Dad has a copy of a photo from when that cottage was inhabited, and that would be a nice thing to leave in the cache for people to see.

On the Way to Gibraltar Gibraltar Cottage Gibraltar Cottage

A 100% success rate for our first few trips, not bad :)
13 September 2012 @ 12:33 pm
The cycling race the Tour of Britain started its first leg in Ipswich down at the Waterfront area on Sunday, so we got up early and headed down there to have a look and to take a few photos. We should probably have gone down quite a lot earlier than we did, as by the time we got there half an hour before the start it was really very busy. Eventually we managed to find a spot where we could see and I could kinda almost get some pictures!

To be honest, I'm not 100% happy with any of the photos. But some have come out well enough to share & I've put them up on flickr, here, and below are a few taster images.

Just before the race started they had some people cycle round that bit of the route - advertising cycling clubs I think. And the actual racers were also riding up & down a bit to warm-up.


Then it was time for the race!


Tour of Britain

Tour of Britain

Afterwards we headed into town to get some breakfast, and noticed that there was a "fun ride" type thing going on round the town centre:

Fun Bike Ride
12 September 2012 @ 01:44 pm
We've developed a tradition of listening to a podcast of a recent In Our Time episode while we eat our breakfast on Sundays. This week we moved it to Saturday morning as we were off to see the Tour of Britain start on Sunday (of which more another time), and the programme we listened to was about Scepticism.

A brief note on the format, in case you haven't listened to any of the In Our Time programmes - it's a BBC Radio 4 series where each week Melvyn Bragg invites 3 experts on a particular subject to come on the programme and they discuss that subject live on air for 45 minutes. The subjects cover all sorts of things - philosophy, history, the sciences, art etc. It's generally presented at a level where you don't need to know anything about the subject in advance, but it still feels like it gets into the details. Some programmes are very narrowly focused (someone's life & works, or a particular event in history, or a particular concept), some are more broad - like this one about the philosophical idea of Scepticism.

The experts this week were Peter Millican (Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford), Melissa Lane (Professor of Politics at Princeton University) and Jill Kraye (Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy and Librarian at the Warburg Institute, University of London). They started the programme by discussing what the philosophical concept of Scepticism actually is - the idea that it isn't possible to be certain about anything, including whether or not the external world is real. They then moved on to discuss the origins of the philosophy in ancient Greece, and how it is opposed to more dogmatic movements that insist that some things can be assumed to be truth. The second half of the programme followed the rediscovery of this philosophy in medieval Europe & the impact that this had on the Renaissance & Enlightment eras (and on our own world). For instance Descartes philosophy (the man who decided "I think, therefore I am") came from an examination of Sceptic ideas. And modern science is heavily influenced by Scepticism - instead of dogmatically insisting one "knows" something, to come up with hypotheses that fit what's been observed & then keep asking questions, being sceptical.
11 September 2012 @ 12:48 pm
The new Rock Band game came out on my birthday! :) It's a return to more of the pre-Guitar Hero gameplay from Amplitude which was a game Harmonix released about 10 years ago - I remember we were playing it on the New Year's holiday we took with Rachel, Ellen, Gordon & Ainsley and that was New Year '03 iirc. So there are no fancy controllers needed, you play it with the standard PS3 (or Xbox) controller, and it's a single player game as far as the actual playing experience goes.

photo of J playing Rock Band Blitz

Dreadful quality picture of J playing Rock Band Blitz.

You move between the different tracks (drums, guitar etc), and on each track you have to press the two buttons in time with the displayed pattern (which is generated to feel "right" for the sound of the part). Unlike Amplitude all the parts are playing all the time, with the track you're on being higher in the mix. As you play notes in a track you increase the multiplier up to the cap for that track. Then at a checkpoint the multiplier cap is raised based on how far up the lowest track is - so you try to make sure each track multiplier is maxed out before the checkpoints. And you score for every note correctly hit - so you try & play tracks with lots of notes. There's no concept of failing, it's just higher or lower scores at the end.

At the end of a track you get your stars/points for the track and also "Coins" and "Blitz Credit". The credit just unlocks the power-ups you can choose from, and that seemed to happen quite quickly, and I don't really see the point of it after that. Coins are more interesting and are tied in with the power-ups. You have 3 power-up slots for 3 different types, and before starting a song you decide whether to use a power-up in each slot, and if so which. It costs coins to assign a power-up to a slot, and at the end of the song each star earns you 100 coins. So you have the choice of not using any power-ups and getting a lower score but gaining more coins, or using power-ups so getting a better score but maybe still losing coins. They can tweak that economy server-side (and have done so already) so they can find a balance between having to grind too much or having power-ups be too cheap (and thus coins irrelevant).

The three sorts of power-up are those you have to build up energy to use, those that rely on you hitting specific special notes & those that increase the score of notes on a particular track. My current loadout tends to be the Bandmate energy power-up (set it off on one track and play another, earn points from both while the power-up runs); Flame notes (hey, I'm a pyro - but it's also high scoring if you get it right, hit a flame note & get a score bonus and also set fire to another one, perhaps on a different track, hit that & get a higher bonus and set fire to another one etc); and a points-increaser on whichever track has most notes.

It comes with a set of tracks, and it works with all the Rock Band DLC or exported songs from previous games. That means J & I have ~500 songs to choose from right away. The Blitz tracks will also work in Rock Band 3 (tho we've not been to play them in that yet). The only thing you don't get is the Rock Band 3 tracks to play in it, as there's no way to export them (yet?). It also gives a different perspective on buying more DLC tracks, as there's some where we like the song but haven't bought the DLC because it looks like a pain in the arse to play in Rock Band, but now we can get them for Blitz.

The multiplayer, and replay value, of the game comes in the competitive scoring. As well as always making it clear what the rankings are among your console friends, it also has Score Wars - for these you challenge a friend (or a random stranger) on a particular song, and over the next 3 days you each try to beat the other's score. You get Coins & Credit for doing so - and a lesser amount for losing. If the other person never plays then that one is forfeit & no-one gets anything. These are pretty good for getting you to replay a track several times looking for the ways to squeeze just a few more points out to beat the other guy - J & I have done several so far (he normally wins, but I've got one at the moment where I think he's not going to beat me ("I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon) as I'm ~40k points ahead of him and we're #1 & #2 on the worldwide PS3 scoreboard at the moment ;) (OK, there's only ~120 people on the scoreboard for PS3+Xbox combined & it's an easy song, but still, I think I got bragging rights ;) ).

It also hooks into a Facebook app, that lets you see stats & such (which is where I got the number of people on the combined scoreboard for that Spoon song from). And that also lets you set "goals" which earn you more coins when you complete them (like get 12 stars in a particular genre across as many songs as you wish). And it lets you set up score wars with your facebook friends (if they're on the same platform).

Like all Harmonix games it seems to've fallen down just a little bit on the social/multiplayer side of it, I don't know how come they consistently seem to just not quite make it work well, but once again they've mananged it. My niggles are that from the game itself you can only start Score Wars with the person & song it's recommending - and it doesn't seem to perform any check for if they have the full game or have just played the demo. And it doesn't perform any check for if they own the song you are challenging them on. So the automation actually means you have a decent chance of filling up your Score War slots (you can only have 10 at any time) with useless ones. At least they only last 3 days before they expire. It also seems fixated on some of our songs - almost all the recommendations I'm getting are for Spoon songs and Bob Marley songs, sometimes repeating one that J & I have had a score war on before. You'd think with 500 songs there'd be a bit more variety (perhaps it shouldn't actually be random, perhaps they should've weighted it towards things you haven't played before or haven't played recently). Some way of manually choosing person and song would be good, you can on the facebook app so they've thought of it in one context, just not this one.

As well as this the facebook app doesn't seem to quite work properly - you should be able to join together to do a goal in a group, and when J & I tried that it didn't actually seem to work, it put us in seperate groups. And once you've started a goal you can't join someone else's group to do it. That may've been fixed, Score War display in the app seems less flaky now than it was on release so perhaps some work happened behind the scenes.

However, niggles aside this is a good game! Both J & I have been playing a lot since we got it. And at under £10 we've had our money's worth several times over :) Definitely recommended if you're at all into music/rhythm games.
10 September 2012 @ 12:20 pm
This is the image I am currently using as my desktop background, it's made from 3 pictures I took in the Japanese Galleries at the British Museum on Monday. In the middle is Monju Bosatsu (Boddhisatva Manjusri), whose lion roars with the sound of Buddhist law. To the left is the deity Fudõ Myõ-õ whose fierce appearance shows his intolerance of wickedness. To the right is Aizen Myõ-õ who has the power to crush desire.

Boddhisatva and Deities

I've put more pictures from the Japanese galleries up on flickr, here.
09 September 2012 @ 02:08 pm
We went out for dinner last night, but recorded Doctor Who so we could watch it when we got home. Spoilers in the rest of this post :)

Spoilers ahoy!Collapse )
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08 September 2012 @ 12:53 pm
Monday evening was the September British Museum Members Open Evening & this was really why we'd come into London that day. We'd booked on the gallery talk about Chinese horses, given by Carol Michaelson, a (partially?) retired curator at the museum. She gave us a 45 minute overview of a vast swathe of Chinese history from prehistoric times through to the Tang dynasty (~9th Century AD), focusing on horses. Apparently because the Chinese have very little pasture land they never actually managed to successfully maintain a breeding population of fast horses (the Arabian type of horse that the Horse exhibition had been about) despite needing them for cavalry soldiers to defend against the northern & western nomadic tribes that frequently attacked the Chinese Empire. So one of the reasons for the Silk Route being an important part of Chinese trade was that the Chinese were frequently needing to buy more horses from the area in the Middle East that was breeding them.

The museum doesn't actually have many models of horses from China, so instead she mostly showed us pieces of chariots & horse tack, and pictures of things from other collections. And recommended the Han exhibition that we'd just been to on Friday.

Tang dynasty model horses

This was an interesting talk - these gallery talks are always pretty fascinating, because it's not formal at all it's just an expert in some field talking about something they're enthusiastic about (and generally only sticking fairly loosely to the advertised theme). And she was a good speaker too.

After the talk we decided to take a look at the new Members Room that was opening for the first time that evening, and to relax with a nice glass of wine (we'd got the train so J could have one too). And a small spot of retail therapy - J got a fluffy Ankh that he's threatening to hang from the car rearview mirror, and we picked up books for the exhibitions we'd been to.
On Monday afternoon we went to look at the free exhibition the British Museum have on till the end of September about horses. To be honest I was much less interested in this in advance than other exhibitions we've been to, but it turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected.


This exhibition was part of commemorating the Diamond Jubilee, and as such I think part of the context was "The Queen likes & owns race horses". And the Saudia Arabian royal family were involved in sponsoring it, so even the broader view than thoroughbred race horses was still fairly focused on Arabian horses.

The Exhibition

It felt very much like an exhibition of two halves, and of the two I much prefered the first which focused more generally on horses in the ancient Middle East. The three rooms devoted to this covered a time period from the earliest references to horses about 5000 years ago to the medieval Islamic Middle East. The ancient era section had a few iconic items - like the Royal Standard of Ur, and some of the Amarna letters - as well as several Assyrian wall fragments (decorated with horses, and lion hunts) and pieces of ancient horse tack. Particularly striking in this section was the model horse head with the pieces of bridle etc put in their proper places, as a non-horsey person I appreciated the chance to see what things actually were rather than relying on my understanding of the technical terms.

It was also interesting to see how some of Egyptian culture clearly permeated through other parts of the Middle East - there were some Phoenician horse cheek guards which had lotus flowers or eyes of Horus on them. And model chariots or horses seemed to frequently have Bes faces (an Egyptian protective deity) on them.

The last room of this half had a model horse & rider in Sassanian style, in metal armour. And also some textile armour for both people & horses in the Islamic medieval period - as J said this looked like a horse-cosy, very like a tea-cosy! There were also some Korans (I'm not entirely sure why), and several paintings of people on horses from Islamic Middle Eastern countries.

And then the next room went back to prehistoric times, but this time in the Arabian peninsula, with a display of rock carvings of horses & neolithic Arabian tools loosely connected with horses. I think it would've been more interesting if this part and the bit with the Korans had been replaced with a bit about the horse in British society in general - as the next parts were about racehorses and Arabian purebred horses in the UK.

I didn't know before this exhibition but pretty much all racehorses these days are thoroughbreds descended from 3 Arabian sires brought to the UK in around the 17th century and bred with native mares. These crosses turned out to be faster than the other horses in the races and came to dominate the racing scene. This part of the exhibition contained several paintings of famous horses, some pedigrees of particular lines and several things loaned by Her Majesty the Queen - like a set of silks (the jockey's racing gear). I was particularly amused to see the paintings of the horse Pot8os - so named because when the groom was asked to write the name "potatoes" on the horse's stall he wrote "Pot oooo oooo" and the owner was sufficiently amused to keep it as the actual name. The first ever txtspk! (in Victorian times, iirc.)

I spent a while at the end sitting infront of the small film of "horses in action" that they had, while I was waiting for J to catch up ... particularly amusing (second only to the dancing horses of dressage) was the Queen jumping up in delight as her horse won something in 1954 and the gentleman next to her looked like he stood up because you can't sit while the Queen stands, not for any other reason.

Other Stuff

Retail: We dithered about whether or not to pick up the book of the exhibition, but in the end decided we would. We also got a mug with a picture of Sassanian horses on it, and I looked at (but didn't buy) lots of other nice but expensive things.

Other exhibits: We had a quick look at the Olympic medals display in the museum - this has the medals for this year plus a short explanation of the design & manufacture of them. And some medals and memorabilia of previous London games. I've got a small selection of photos up on flickr, of which this is a taster:

2012 Olympic Medals

Also while J went back to the Shakespeare exhibition and then looked at Egyptian stuff, I went to look at the Japanese galleries more for the purpose of taking photos than looking at the labels. Photos to come at some future date :)

Other things: Dinner at Pizza Express, then back to the museum for the Members Open Evening, of which more another time.
No-Man are one of those bands that I like, but never really listen to much on record unless J plays it. For ages they didn't tour, but the last few years they've played about a gig a year in the UK and I think J & I have been to all of them. This one was at the Islington Assembly Hall which isn't a venue I've been to before, quite nice inside although not terribly memorable. It did have good beer on offer, though - bottles of Hobgoblin, Adnams Bitter or Fursty Ferret. As it was a seated gig without assigned seats we'd organised to meet Paul in the queue about half an hour before doors, he got there just a little before us & had got a spot nearish the front of the queue. We ended up a couple of rows from the front :) Surprisingly so, as it was apparently a sold out gig but most people hadn't shown up early it seems.

The support act was one of the guys from Anathema, Danny Cavanagh. I've never bought a ticket specifically to see Anathema but nonetheless I've seen them or members of them nearly a dozen times doing support slots for various bands (mostly Steven Wilson related ones in some sense, like this one as he's in No-Man). I do like some of their stuff, but not enough to want to go see them play so for a while I'd got rather burnt out on having them as the support act. But I've got over that, and this was just the one guy with a guitar so it felt quite different. It was a good set, and he did some neat stuff with loops to provide percussion & additional layers of guitar. And ended with a cover of a Pink Floyd song :)

Then it was No-Man, who were awesome. I thought they seemed more relaxed as a band this gig - probably because this was at the end of a (short) European tour, rather than the first gig for several months. Their aesthetic for the evening was clearly black-shirts-with-dark-trousers, and the simplicity of that fits the music which I tend to think of as sparse even tho often it's not. (I don't know if that makes sense outside my head ;) ). There weren't any flashy visuals or showy lights, just the band playing - but they still kept everyone's attention focused through the gig.

I'm not good at remembering set-lists for gigs (I'm generally not good at naming songs even if I know them well ...), but I do remember that they played "Time Travel in Texas" which is one of my favourite tracks live. Here's a youtube vid of it recorded at their gig in 2011:

They also played a brand new track, which sounded very promising for whenever they next release an album.

A good evening :)
The exhibition we went to on Sunday was one of the two currently on at the British Museum - this one was the Shakespeare related one & it's on till mid-November.


Shakespeare was actually the context for this exhibition not the subject. So his life (1564-1616) and works were the background to a collection of objects that told us about the people who came to see the plays, and the things that were going on in the world around him that informed his choice of subject matter.

The Exhibition

The exhibition itself felt very information dense (in a good way) - a combination of history lesson, insight into the way the people of the time thought of the world around them, insight into the ideas the plays were trying to convey, excerpts from the plays to listen to (and watch) and lots of paintings to admire.

I wasn't expecting the large number of paintings, and they were a highlight for me. In particular the iconic image of Richard II (in the room focusing on the history plays) which I've seen many times in books but I don't think I've seen the real thing before. Another one which especially caught my eye was the diptych showing old St Paul's Cathedral - on the back of the left painting was James VI & I processing to church, then the left panel showed the Bishop preaching to the crowd in front of the King & Cathedral, and the right hand panel showed the Bishop's vision of a restored Cathedral with angels all around. The spire of the Cathedral had been damaged some time prior, but we know with the hindsight of history that it wasn't ever replaced and in fact old St Paul's itself was replaced after the Great Fire of London (1666) with the current cathedral designed by Wren. In the painting one detail that amused me was the words coming from the angels' mouths were written forwards or backwards depending which way the angel was facing!

And many more paintings, I think part of why I took quite a while to go round the exhibition was because I kept stopping in front of paintings to admire them :)

The first couple of rooms concentrated on the audience & the city of London, and after that each room focussed on one of the themes running through the plays - for instance the natural world (Shakespeare was, after all, a country boy) or the history of the country (England in earlier plays, Britain in later). Each of the themed rooms had one or more excerpts from a relevant play read by a well known actor (most also with a large video screen of the actor doing the reading). And each of these was also worth standing and paying attention to (increasing the time we spent in the exhibition - J actually had to go back in on Monday to finish it off!).

This era of English history is part of the time period I'm most interested in (roughly Wars of the Roses through to the Civil Wars), so I was already familiar with the broad sweep of events. There were still lots of interesting bits & pieces I wasn't aware of before (like how it was fashionable to be "melancholy" - goths existed even then ;) ). And it was good to see the actual objects. Of the non-paintings some of the highlights for me were the very fine embroidered jacket, the model ship that James VI & I had made to give thanks for not being drowned by witches, an exotic cup set in the shape of a head (you lifted the top of the head off which made one cup and the bulk of the head was another - really quite odd). Also nice was to see the objects that had been featured on the radio series that was on Radio 4 before the exhibition opened (Shakespeare's Restless World).

Other Stuff

Retail: We'd picked up the book of the exhibition earlier this year when there was an extra discount for BM Members at one of the Open Evenings. After seeing the exhibition we didn't really have time to browse the souvenirs (and forgot to go back & look on Monday!), but we did buy ourselves a copy of the RSC edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (which is annotated & has essays on the plays too).

Stuff I should know more about: Shakespeare's plays! Hence the book purchase above - I do know the rough plots of most of them, but hearing the excerpts in the exhibition made it clear how I don't know enough about the details, and I enjoyed listening to the words.

Other places: Dinner at Wagamamas then off to Islington for a No-man gig (of which more another time).
04 September 2012 @ 02:22 pm
New Doctor Who! It snuck up on me a bit, hadn't realised it was quite so soon this autumn - but found out in time. Tho it feels weird having half a series now and half a series next year, even if that is just the same as they did last time. Many spoilers ahead, read at own risk. (And kindly don't spoil things for later episodes in comments here or facebook/G+ coz J's extremely spoilerphobic.)

Spoilers!Collapse )
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Yesterday we went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see their current exhibition of items from the tombs of Han Chinese royalty, which runs until November sometime.

In China: The Han dynasty ruled China from approximately 200BC through to approximately 200AD. Most of the items in the exhibition were from the Western Han period, which was the first 200 years of the Han dynasty. China had been unified about 20 or so years before the Han came to power, under the Qin emperor who ruled for 10 years. After he died there was a period of civil war, followed by the first of the Han emperors taking power. Prior to the Qin emperor was a time called the Warring States Period.

Around the rest of the world: In Egypt we're in the Ptolemaic period, so into the decline of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. In Europe the Romans are doing their thing - the Han era covers the time from around about the end of the wars with Carthage through to the end of the Republic (approximately the same time as the end of the Western Han period). Then the Eastern Han period is across the same time as the Roman Empire proper, until approximately the time of the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus (about 50-100 years before the Roman Empire splits into Western & Eastern parts). Cribbing heavily from Wikipedia here for the Roman bit.

The Exhibition
No illustrations, coz the Fitzwilliam Museum don't let you take pictures in the museum :(

The items on display were nearly all excavated either from tombs of members of the Han royalty or from the tombs of the royalty of the nearby kingdom of Nanyue. Nanyue was semi-automomous in this time period (but assimilated into China later), and their stuff was very clearly modelled on the Han items, but generally not quite as good quality.

The exhibition was laid out roughly following the layout of a tomb - so first was an antechamber with model warriors to protect the occupant. I was particularly struck by these - they even had some that were still painted & each was apparently made as an individual, because they believed that they would come to life in the afterlife so needed to be "people". This area also showed how the tombs were intended to be protected from looting (including door locks & tales of killing all the workers on the tomb to protect the secret).

Next were a couple of rooms that contained items from the "palace rooms" part of the tomb - each tomb contained kitchens & entertainment rooms and even toilets with proper lifesize toilets in. Which I think was the most mindboggling part of the whole thing - their life in the afterlife clearly wasn't going to be idealised, they were still going to need to do the less pleasant parts of real life like excretion! This area of the exhibition also included a lot of kitchenware, including ginger graters as well as several differents sorts of pots. Some of the pots were clearly heirlooms, as they were of older styles than the Han era, which was kinda cool :) Also in this part of the exibition were models of entertainers - dancers & musicians - and models and/or real musical instruments and games. Also in this area of a tomb would be buried servants of the king, like his Food Inspector (and they had their own toilets in the tomb).

The next two rooms were "burial chambers" - one contained some of the funerary goods of a king of Nanyue (including his seals, some of which claimed he was Emperor, which probably didn't go down that well with the Han Emperor who thought Nanyue was a vassal kingdom). The main item was a jade suit, which had contained the body of the king. Jade was both precious & symbolically important. It was thought to interact magically with the spirit world, and to protect the corpse from corruption. As well as this jade suit there were various jade ornaments around the body (and out in the first room there had been jade weapons for the tomb occupant to protect himself against the spirit world, as well as bronze & iron weapons for more mundane threats).

And the final room had the jade suit & jade coffin of a Han Emperor - good to see them in this order, as it immediately became clear that the Han items were much better quality. I admit I was a little underwhelmed by the jade coffin - I think for the Chinese of the time it would be more impressive because it was both magically and extremely expensive, but to me it looked like a tiled box. There were also more funerary goods - like jade ornaments, jade covered "pillows".

I'll criticise a bit here about the labelling - I thought the labels were often not obvious to find & weren't always particularly informative. This is partly my fault, as I'm sure the audio guide had more info but I really dislike audio guides so I don't use them. (Pacing is the problem, mostly, and often it seems to be only extra info on the stuff I wasn't intrigued by.)

Overall a very interesting exhibition, I learnt a lot about that era of Chinese history that I didn't know before & there were some very impressive items. I think my favourites were the painted terracotta warriors & some of the beautifully carved jades.

Other Stuff

Retail: I picked up the book of the exhibition (only available in hardcover, a shame), and some postcards. There were also quite a lot of classy souvenirs too, tho mostly out of my price range for a whim :)

Stuff I should know more about: Chinese history in general - I need to get a book covering the whole sweep of it, I know very little & it's pretty patchy.

Other exhibits: I also went to look at their small exhibition of pottery from medieval Cyprus. Which generally wasn't to my taste, but I thought the display of how the patterns were made and what the glazing techniques were was interesting.

We also looked at the Egyptian stuff (surprise surprise) - in particular the lid of Rameses III's sarcophagus (the base is in the Louvre), and a coffin set from the 21st Dynasty.

Other places: A trip to Cambridge isn't complete with some nostalgia side-trips ... so lunch in Tatties (not the same as it was when we were there), a drink in The Mitre & dinner at Browns :)
Day 1: Oh weird, there's an uncanny valley for shoes! Inspired by the 5 pairs of black shoes in very similar styles spanning the last couple of decades ... the 20 year old pair were almost, but not quite, back in fashion.

Day 2: Woah, how many pairs of black socks does one woman need ... particularly a woman who hasn't worn black socks in over 5 years ... and So what sort of idiot ladders a pair of tights then washes them & puts them back in the drawer?? This was an easy day, if it had holes in it went in the bin.

Day 3: Hey, when did the Ugly Fairy visit those jumpers? Seriously, those were some of my favourite jumpers, over 10 years ago, how come they look so appalling now? But on the flip side, the other thought was So why were these in the "unlikely to wear" drawer? as I discovered a couple of perfectly good t-shirts, amongst other things.

Day 4: Ooooh, that still fits, can't fling it now can I? and My god, the Ugly Fairy went to town on these blouses! So I still have some dresses I'm unlikely to wear (tho some might do nicely as tunic tops these days), but on the flip side I finally had enough space to hang up a bunch of tops (some of which I'd forgotten I owned).

Day 5: So, how'm I going to organise this lot, I'll just clean this necklace while I think ... *time passes* ... wonder when I last cleaned it, if I ever did? ... *time passes* ... you know, this is really fiddly, wish I hadn't started ... *time passes* OK, I'm going to go sit down while I do this and help J with the crossword ... *time passes* It's a silver chain choker, about half a cm wide, and once I'd started cleaning round every link I kinda had to carry on. Took ages tho, but I did get it clean and all the jewellery organised in the end. Pretty much none of that is being got rid of, either - there is some stuff I'll likely never wear, but generally there's some sentimental value to it like who it was a present from (for example my Grandma).

In the end, I managed to get rid of 4 bin bags worth of utterly unwearable stuff (generally structurally unsound), and about half as much again to go to charity (structurally sound, just I won't wear it). Also, I now know I have 57 t-shirts with band logos on, pretty much all bought at gigs. That seems a little OTT, but I bet I still buy a shirt at the merch desk of the next gig I go to ;)

And all my clothes fit in the available space, and we can see the top of the dressing table again. Not bad :)
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: J playing Uncharted 3
15 February 2012 @ 02:18 pm
View from the Window

Finally got Day 2 photos of our Paris trip sorted out & uploaded to flickr & captioned! :) We spent that day mostly in the Louvre, so here are many photos from there. (Day 1 is here, if you missed it.) Hopefully it won't take another 3 months to sort out Day 3 of the photos! ;)
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
15 January 2012 @ 01:21 pm
I decided to stick with manual data-entry rather than scanning & OCRing it (which grahamb had suggested), partly coz scanning everything on a flatbed scanner that lives under my desk wouldn't be terribly much better for my back than typing stuff in ;) Partly coz I haven't got the scanner set up yet (bought a new all-in-one printer just before Christmas when I saw one on offer, to do the Christmas card labels, only bothered to set up the printer so far). And so I'd have to figure that out (probably just works in Win7 tho), and then sort out OCRing it, and then check it handled the 4 different handwriting styles (and the mess that sometimes was made of the data entry). And that all seemed like a lot more work than just typing numbers in (and if I do it a little at a time, it'll not be that bad). And so I typed up the rest of 1986 yesterday :)

More work on the script, too - got it to get rid of the linebreaks (thanks marnanel :) ), got it to handle 0 and empty fields differently (thanks jarel, who also figured out why some of the empty fields were empty & some were undefined :) ). And got it to draw some proof of concept Max/Min graphs, of which this is a representative sample:

Max Min graph for Jan 1986

Obvious flaws - needs scale marking, it's too small, colour choice sucks. But hey, it's a graph! ;) J had to help me figure out some stuff, and I really seriously need to tidy up & abstract the code that draws it coz it's full of numbers (which I found easier to follow at the time but later it's going to be an incomprehensible mess and changing anything is tedious). It's progress though and once I figure out one set of graphs there's several subsets of the data that I can represent with not much more work.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Miles Davies "Kind of Blue"
13 January 2012 @ 02:42 pm
Cat in Pyramid

In lieu of content have a picture of the cat from back in November - the green thing is a pyramid. Well, a carpet covered bit of cardboard which was roughly pyramid shaped with a door (hole) in one side. Worth the ~£1.90 we paid for it, but not worth the original £10 that Focus were trying to sell it for.

The cat squashed it flat pretty quickly, he didn't really fit in it after all. But every so often he does this mad run-round-the-house-like-a-nut thing, and that time he ended up half in his pyramid. I don't think he quite knew where he was, how he got there, or what to do next. So I took a photo ;)
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Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: 10cc "10cc"