October 2012

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.

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 :)

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.

JInto the ForestGraffitiBoo!JBirdhouseCrowFungus

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").

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.

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.

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