April 2013

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

"Before the Golden Age 3" ed. Isaac Asimov. Part of Read All the Fiction, short stories from 1935-1938 plus autobiography of Asimov during those years. Boxed up.

"Isaac Asimov Presents Great SF Stories #9 (1947)" ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg. Anthology of the best short stories of 1947. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

"Control Point" Myke Cole. Military fantasy set mostly in a present day US. Library book.

"The Iron King" Maurice Druon. Fictionalised history of the Capet Dynasty in France in the early 14th Century. Library book.

"Wool" Hugh Howey. Post-apocalypse dystopia with the flavour of a generation ship (without being in a ship). Library book.

"In Great Waters" Kit Whitfield. Fantastical alternate history in Tudor-ish times where the royal families of Europe are hybrids with merpeople. Library book.

Total: 6

Non-Fiction

"China: The World's Oldest Civilisation Revealed" John Makeham. Part of Chapter-by-Chapter, an overview of the sweep of Chinese history from the Paleolithic through to the death of the last Emperor in the 20th Century.

Total: 1

Concerts

Marillion Weekend 2013.

Total: 1

Photos

Brute Force & Ignorance.

Lampstand.

Peel Here.

Turtle.

Total: 4

Radio

Epicureanism. In Our Time episode about the philosophy of Epicurus.

Ice Ages. In Our Time episode about ice ages.

Romulus and Remus. In Our Time episode about Rome's founding myth.

The War of 1812. In Our Time episode about the war between Britain & the US which started in 1812.

Total: 4

Talks

"Farming & Agriculture in the Nile Valley" Victor Blunden. Talk at the EEG meeting in April, about the farming methods of the ancient Egyptians.

Total: 1

Television

Fiction

Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten.

Doctor Who: Cold War.

Doctor Who: Hide.

Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

Total: 4

Non-Fiction

Ancient Egypt - Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings. Programme about the more ordinary Egyptians - those who lived in the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina.

Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War. Programme about the Hundred Years War between England & France, presented by Janina Ramirez.

Egypt's Mystery Chamber. Mini-review of programme about KV63.

A History of Syria with Dan Snow. Documentary about the historical context for the current civil war in Syria.

Howard Goodall's Story of Music. History of Western music presented by Howard Goodall.

Israel: Facing the Future. John Ware visits Israel to talk to the people about the future of the country.

Museum Secrets: Cairo Museum. Mini-review of programme about selected objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Nefertiti. Mini-review of old programme about Nefertiti.

The Other Pompeii: Life & Death in Herculaneum. One-off programme about what we can learn about Roman life from Herculaneum.

Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time. Margaret Mountford presents a programme about the eruption of Vesuvius and how the people of Pompeii & Herculaneum died.

Ramesses III: The Pharaoh Behind the Myth. Mini-review of programme about the harem conspiracy against Ramesses III.

Sun Pharaoh. Mini-review of dreadful documentary about Akhenaten.

Tutankhamun Conspiracies with Bettany Hughes. Mini-review of unfocussed documentary mostly about Tutankhamun.

Wild Arabia. Nature show about the wildlife & people living in Arabia.

Total: 14

Trip

Berlin - we spent a long weekend in Berlin in March.

Total: 1

Tags: Admin

For about 85% of the time that Earth has existed the temperature has been high enough that there have been no polar icecaps - a "greenhouse Earth". The remaining 15% of the time is referred to as "icehouse Earth", and during these longer cooler periods are glacial periods (like 20,000 years ago when the ice sheets reached as far as Germany) and inter-glacial periods like the current time where the ice is just at the poles. The experts discussing ice ages on In Our Time were Jane Francis (University of Leeds), Richard Corfield (Oxford University) and Carrie Lear (Cardiff University).

I looked at Bragg's blog post on the Radio 4 blog for the episode, as I often do before I start writing one up, and was surprised that several people had commented complaining about how the discussion was minimising the impact that climate change and rising temperatures would have on our civilisation. Surprised because J and I came away from the programme with the distinct impression that all three experts thought the planet would be just fine with higher temperatures, and that life would survive as it has done before. But our civilisation? Well, that would be in more trouble.

However that was not the focus of the programme, as In Our Time is not a current affairs programme. Instead the programme was about what an ice age is and how we know about them. My first paragraph is a good summary of what they told us about what an ice age is. Continental drift plays a part in producing the conditions that lead to an icehouse Earth - all 5 that have occurred are correlated with the presence of land at one or both of the poles. When there is open water at both poles then the currents moving the water between the poles and the equator counteract any cooling of polar region - obviously when there's land there this can't be true. I'm not sure if every time there is land at the poles then there is an icehouse Earth, or if the correlation is only the other way round (every icehouse has a landlocked pole). I don't think they said. But this thermal isolation of one of the poles seems to be a requirement to get the process going.

The change from a greenhouse Earth to an icehouse Earth is a slowish process (from a geological point of view) but once it starts there are positive feedback loops that mean the Earth continues to cool. One of these feedback loops is because ice & snow are white and reflect back more of the sun's energy so the land doesn't warm up as much as it would if snow were black. Another is that CO2 gets frozen in the ice caps and so the atmospheric CO2 concentration goes down - and low temperatures, and icehouse Earths, are correlated with low CO2 concentrations. They were mostly just saying things were correlated rather than speculating on causes - but I think Lear said that CO2 levels are a driver of temperature change.

Once in an icehouse Earth there are these oscillations between cold-cold-cold and not-quite-so-cold. These are due in part to Milankovitch cycles - cyclical changes in the Earth's orbit which (effectively) change how cold winter gets compared to summer and how long winter lasts. So when the Milankovitch cycles are in a cold-winter phase then you get a glacial era, and when they're not you get an inter-glacial such as our current climate. I guess in a greenhouse Earth you get tropical and not-so-tropical eras similarly.

The five icehouse epochs have not been identical. One of them only had ice across the southern pole which was where the continent Gondwana was positioned. This comprised of most of the southern landmasses - India, South American, South Africa, Australia etc. The rest of the land on the planet was situated around the equator and had a tropical climate. Another of the icehouse epochs is what was known as Snowball Earth because the icesheets covered the whole of the planet. Bragg was curious as to how the planet had got out of that, the only answer was that it must've involved rising CO2 levels but no clear ideas as to what would've kicked off the rise.

The evidence for these climate changes come from a variety of places. Francis told us about the physical evidence you can see in the geological record, for instance particular rock types that're formed from the bits & pieces that a glacier grinds up and carries with it. There are also distinctive scratches that can be seen where a glacier has been. The problem with this sort of evidence is that it's incomplete. A far more complete picture has been built up using the sediment in the oceans and the ice sheet on Antarctica.

Corfield told us that the old-fashioned way of using sedimentary cores to look at what the climate used to be was to look at the various species of small fossils and see how many were warm water species & how many cold. Lear told us about the more sophisticated techniques that are used now. The first of these is to look at the ratio of 16O and 18O isotopes in the fossils. This reflects the ratio in the water in which they lived, which is dependent on the temperature of the water and the sea levels. As water evaporates from the sea the molecules containing 16O preferentially evaporate. If there is no ice then once the water rains it ends up back in the sea so the ratio stays the same, but if there are ice caps then some of the rain ends up locked up in the icesheets and the ratio in the water is changed. There is also another way of looking at the temperature using magnesium & calcium, but Lear didn't explain what that was. Cores from the icesheets can be used to look at the atmospheric conditions during the current icehouse epoch. As the ice forms there are small bubbles in it, and it's possible to extract these & look at the CO2 levels. For most of the glacial period the CO2 level was around 280ppm, which is pretty low compared to today's 390ppm. In a greenhouse Earth the CO2 levels might be several times that.

Another indicator of ice levels in the past is fossilised coral. Coral always grows pretty close to the surface of the ocean, so where you find the fossils shows you where the coastline was in the past. At the glacial maximum the sea level was a lot lower than now (by about 70m I think they said), during a greenhouse Earth the sea level is a lot higher. Which is where the problems come in for us humans - think of how many important cities are on the coast ... But as I said, the programme didn't dwell on that or spell it out explicitly.

This series of anthologies was published in the 1980s and was a retrospective of the best stories from years gone by as picked out by Isaac Asimov & Martin Greenberg (I possibly unfairly have the impression that Greenberg probably did most of the legwork, then Asimov made final decisions & wrote quirky little intros - no evidence for that tho). I picked up volumes 9 and 10 second hand at some point after I'd bought the "Before the Golden Age" anthologies (my first post about those books) - I don't know if they were even published in the UK as what I have are US editions. I used to look for others of the series in secondhand bookshops but I've never seen any of them (and probably now wouldn't bother buying them).

This volume covers 1947, and there's a little introduction that reminds us of what was going on in that year in "the world outside reality" - i.e. what most of us call the real world - and "the real world" - i.e. the world of SFF publishing. I think when I first read these two I found that switch of "real" designation amusing, but I find it rather twee now.

One thing that struck me while reading these stories this time round was that they feel closer in style to more modern fiction than the anthologies I just read. For instance, gone are the "lone gentleman inventor and his machine" type stories (a la H. G. Wells' "Time Machine") that were still popular in the 1930s. Even when the subject of the story is an invention it still seems to take place in the world rather than off in some secluded mansion somewhere. Of course one thing that's happened in the decade since the end of the 30s is the Second World War, and that does have an impact on the subject matter of these stories - one of the intros notes that of the 14 stories in the anthology 4 of them deal with nuclear warfare & its effects. I remembered this as a higher proportion of the book, I think partly because two of the stories that have stayed with me the most are of that type.

"Little Lost Robot" Isaac Asimov

This story is one that I know inside out, as well as being here it's in a collection of Asimov's robot short stories that my mother owns that I read over & over as a teenager. Basic plot is that someone tells one of his robots to "get lost" in strong terms, and it does so - it goes & hides in amongst identical looking robots. For plot reasons it's necessary to find that specific one, and Susan Calvin (robot psychologist) does so via logic. To be honest I've never been that fond of the story - it's about the logic puzzle of the idea rather than the characters or even the plot. But when I was reading it this time, I had a bit of an epiphany. It's a bit of a "well, duh" moment, but still a genuine paradigm shift for me. Look at these bits of dialogue, one of the engineers talking to one of the robots as part of the set up of the logic puzzle solution:

"Sit down, boy."
[...]
"Mm-m. Well, boy, gamma rays will kill you instantly."
[...]
"The only thing I can advise, boy, is that if you detect [...]"

The humans call all the robots "boy" and do so frequently, and I'd pretty much not noticed. It stuck out this time, tho, coz I've learnt since I last read the story that that would be the way a slave-owner would address their male slaves in the US. Which made it ping into focus that the robots are explicitly replacement slaves, written by someone whose country had fought a civil war over slavery about 80 years earlier. Which, well, duh. But I'd never parsed it like that before - I read the robots as servants, which has different connotations. And now I'm wondering if I'd see different things in the later robot novels (which I always preferred to the short stories). I'm thinking of the ones with R. Daneel Olivaw - who is indistinguishable from a human, but still treated like a robot (coz he is). Is there stuff in those books that went over my head because I wasn't coming at them from the perspective of robots=slaves? (I don't own those books, maybe I'll borrow them from my parents when I next visit.)

"Tomorrow's Children" Poul Anderson

Story of the aftermath of a nuclear war, and the efforts of what little is left of the US government to find out just how bad it is. Short answer - very bad. It's a well-written & depressing little story although these days the science feels off (the sorts of "mutants" that are being born since the bombs, for instance, don't feel right).

"Child's Play" William Tenn (the pseudonym of Philip Klass)

A parcel containing a child's christmas present from 2153 is mis-delivered to a struggling lawyer in the 1940s. It's the futuristic equivalent of a chemistry set - a biology set that lets you build living organisms & do things like twin a person. The protagonist is fascinated & tries things out. The ethical implications aren't dodged by the story and the ending makes that clear, but you're firmly in the protagonist's head and he has no qualms (and squashes any that start to raise their heads). The protagonist is also very sexist, but I'm not sure if the story is or not - I read it as disapproving of the way he sees the woman who's in the story. I did enjoy this, and I vaguely remembered it once I started, but it's not really a story I expect to stay with me.

"Time and Time Again" H. Beam Piper

Man dying in explosion in 1975 (in a war) wakes up inside his 13 year old body in 1945. Figures out how to prove to his father this is true & plans to avert the war. This is a kinda neat story, but it feels like it's all premise & no pay off - like this is chapter one of a longer story. Very boys own club too - I don't think there's a single woman with a speaking part.

"Tiny and the Monster" Theodore Sturgeon

The title of this is rather well done - Tiny is a dog, a Great Dane (and thus not tiny), and the monster is only revealed later in the story but it's not a monster either. Tiny shows an unexpected interest in the work of Alistair Forsythe, a young woman who is a gifted metallurgist (mostly a theoretician, but practical ability too). The story is primarily told from her perspective, and tells us how she (and her mother & Alec who was Tiny's original owner) figure out what Tiny (and the monster) want and how to give it to them. The romance sub-plot wouldn't be out of place in a Nora Roberts novel, which means it's still sexist as hell but at least they're both people with actual personalities and they have chemistry between them. (Faint praise I guess, but this story does contain the line "a woman is only forty percent a woman until someone loves her, and only eighty percent until she has children". Yes this is in a character's mouth, not the narrator's but it sums up the all pervading sentiment around that subplot.) They're even presented as complementary & equal in the work that's done in the story - he's mostly the brawn & she's mostly the brains but not only are both important for the solution but also she's stated to be cleverer than him. I rather enjoyed this one despite eye-rolling at the sexism - it's quite charming.

"E for Effort" T. L. Sherred

A man invents a time viewer that can look at (but not hear or feel or affect) anything anywhere in the past. Together with the narrator they make a series of films of things like the life of Alexander the Great, but historical drama isn't the endgame they have in mind. Unfortunately, things don't work out as well as they hope (I don't really want to spoil the end of this one) - hence "E for Effort". It's a well thought out story - the difficulties of making money out of the device, of getting their films released, are all thought through as are the various ramifications of the device. I enjoyed it.

"Letter to Ellen" Chan Davis

How would you feel if you discovered you were artificial? Two young men working in a big bio-engineering company putting together organisms discover the truth about themselves. The science just feels wrong all over, which detracts from the story a lot for me. They're basically building an organism from bits like you'd build a house - like there's a lab doing "the ultramicrosurgery of putting the nuclear wall together around the chromatin and embedding the result in a cell". And I suppose you could do that to make an organism if you knew everything about every cell in it (I'm thinking with a 3D printer, perhaps?) but the direction real biotech has gone in is growing things & cloning organisms using a cell of an existing organism (which is persuaded to behave like a fertilised egg & put into a womb to develop). So it felt too bizarre for the emotional impact to really come through.

"The Figure" Edward Grendon (the pseudonym of Lawrence L. LeShan)

This is more of a vignette than a story, and on the surface it's the closest to the "man invents machine" plot in this anthology. But underneath it's about the world, and it's one of the nuclear war influenced stories. It's one of the stories from this anthology that I always remember - it's chilling, depressing and understated. I think I'd pick it as the best one in the book. I don't want to say any more, because I think that would spoil the initial impact if you ever have a chance to read it.

"With Folded Hands ..." Jack Williamson

This story is in conversation with Asimov's robot stories, and given my revelation about robots=slaves in "Little Lost Robot" I wasn't surprised that the robots ("humanoids") in this story were black in colour. Of course they are, robots=slaves & in the US slavery=black. The point in this story is to explore what it would be like if robots took the first law of robotics (the Prime Directive here) to extremes: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm". For instance these humanoids won't let a person in the kitchen - knives are sharp you might cut yourself, the oven is hot you might burn yourself. They also do all the work, leaving humanity a purposeless coddled species. Disturbing in implication but not particularly plausible I thought, I don't think I believed either the setup or the ramifications.

"The Fires Within" Arthur C. Clarke

What if there were a non-human civilisation living 15 miles down in the depths of the earth. A vignette really, told mostly as a letter describing the discovery. With a somewhat predictable twist at the end (not helped by being the second story in the collection to use a similar twist). Felt a bit pedestrian to me.

"Zero Hour" Ray Bradbury

The new game craze for pre-pubescent children is "Invasion" and somehow they're all playing it across the world at once. 7 year old Mink even says things to her mother like "Mom, I'm sure you won't be hurt much, really!" or talks about fifth columns, but the adults all ignore it as just yet another incomprehensible kid craze, whatever will they think of next. As the reader you know exactly where it's going from early on, but Bradbury still manages to make it compelling.

"Hobbyist" Eric Frank Russell

A probeship, manned by a single man & his pet parrot (to talk to, to keep from going nuts with the solitude), crash lands on an unknown planet. In the process of exploring to try & find fuel to get back off again the protagonist finds something that might be our creator. I liked this, particularly the exploration bits & the relationship between the man & his parrot. Tho I did find the creator thing a bit twee.

"Exit the Professor" Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore)

Described in the anthology as a "whacky story" and that's what it is. A professor comes to a remote rural town to investigate the reports of a family with strange powers. We see the story through the eyes of one of the Hogben family, as they avoid being taken off to be "studied" or put in the circus, or otherwise treated as freaks. A sample:

[...] that time, it all started because Rafe Haley come peeking and prying at the shed winder, trying to get a look at Little Sam. Then Rafe went round saying Little Sam had three haids or something.
Can't believe a word them Haley boys say. Three haids! It ain't natcheral, is it? Anyhow, Little Sam's only got two haids, and never had no more since the day he was born.

It's a fun story that kinda fits into the "there's supermen among us" sub-genre.

"Thunder and Roses" Theodore Sturgeon

Post-nuclear war story set in an army base that's got some of the remaining living people as they basically wait to die. This is the other nuclear war story that stuck in my head - it's actually the story that I think of first when I think of this book. Depressing, with maybe a note of hope at the end if you squint at it (and very much the counter-example to anyone who thinks SFF is escapism, this is so not ignoring the reality and implications of the time it was written in). I hesitate to say it's a favourite of mine, because it's not precisely enjoyable to read - but reading it as a teenager in the 80s it felt as relevant as it must've done in 1947.

Watched Doctor Who a little later than airing time yesterday evening - out for the day in London (which I'll write up later) then our takeaway took ages to arrive. But got there in the end :)

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

Overall I enjoyed the episode, but it certainly started with a few wtf moments. Like - why did the Doctor bring the Van Baalen Bros onto the TARDIS in the first place? Well, I know why - it gave us a B plot for the episode, but it might've been nice if there'd been some attempt to lampshade it at least a tiny bit. Oh and it gave us some more monsters, too.

I guess part of what's particularly irritating about it is that in other ways the episode seems very cleverly constructed with things set up in advance. The photo of the van Baalen family for instance, you see it right at the start and then at the end when you see it again knowing what you know it seems you should've known Tricky wasn't an android. Even before the other hints - the Doctor has clearly figured it out immediately or at least at the point of the respirator scene, but we're given enough hints that it feels like "of course" when the reveal happens.

There were other clever bits too - the remote being the answer to re-writing time again felt like it should've been obvious. After all, Clara catches "something" that the Doctor shortly afterwards takes out of someone else's pocket (and tells us what it is). I spotted the words coming up on her hand early on even tho I didn't figure out what they were, and the "big friendly button" reveal was kinda neat :) That's the other thing the van Baalens do for the story of course - they let us know the whole thing is erased (by their lack of memory and the very fact they're alive) but that there are echos of the day that never was (the remains of one last shred of decency that the van Baalen brother remembers just as the Doctor told him to). And Clara dodges the Doctor's question about feeling safe right at the end, I wonder what she remembers from her day. Other than just being as tired as if she'd gone trotting around the TARDIS.

Nice to see some insides of the TARDIS too. The Library was awesome, and of course Clara forgets the danger to go poking around seeing what she can see. I'm intrigued by the Gallifreyan Encyclopaedia in the bottles - and wondering if there'll be effects from Clara breathing in some of it (that last past the day that never was). And we're reminded again that the Doctor has a name that is not "The Doctor", in case anyone had forgotten. The Eye of Harmony as power source of the TARDIS manages to be both a Fourth Doctor reference and an Eighth Doctor reference. (I had to use wikipedia for that tho - I had a vague feeling it was a Fourth Doctor one but that was all.) Anyone spot any other Fourth Doctor things?

The monsters as time leaks of the future was also well set up - J spotted the focus on the hand of the Clara one, I thought mebbe she was hallucinating the monster at the time. But then in the console room with the head tilts it became clear J was on the right track. And then it built up inexorably to the revelation. Again my problem was with the van Baalen brothers - why didn't the Doctor or Clara help up the one that fell?? (I didn't pick up which name was which brother of the real ones.) If so, then maybe they would've survived ... but then they did coz the time reset so it didn't matter, but the Doctor didn't know that at the time.

And now the Doctor knows Clara doesn't know she's anything but a real girl. Of course, that doesn't answer if she's a real girl but it means she's not complicit in it. Probably. Nah, I'm pretty sure she's what she seems to be now ... but maybe that won't stay the same. If she isn't what she seems to be, that is.

So, yeah, overall a good episode ...just why the Van Baalen Bros?

We're still trying to whittle down the amount of stuff we have recorded on our PVR so on Tuesday evening we started to watch a series about Arabian wildlife & people narrated by Alexander Siddig. This first episode was called "Sand, Wind and Stars" and was all about the desert in the centre of the Arabian peninsula. As with most nature programmes it's hard to say much about it, because the point is primarily the visuals. This was a very beautiful programme, lots of shots of endless desert sands and oryx moving across the scene. And close-ups of a variety of animals that can survive in the desert heat. There was also another strand of the programme that followed a man and his son on their way to a camel racing gathering - a Bedouin tradition.


On our normal Wednesday night tv night we started off with a programme about Israel - John Ware visited Israel and spoke to a combination of ordinary people & political or religious leaders (mostly Israelis, but also Palestinian Arabs) about Israel & the future. The thesis of his programme was that Israel stands at a crossroads between a secular future and a religious future.

The programme started with some scenes of Tel Aviv and Ware pointing out that at first glance this could be any cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. But you don't really have to travel that far to get to the Egyptian border, where the army patrols after attacks on Israel from the Egyptian side of the border. And back in Tel Aviv he spoke to the members of a rock group who are all pilots in the airforce as their "day job". Israel has been in a state of conflict, if not outright war, with the surrounding Arab nations since the country was founded and this is an always present fact of life for Israelis. And if anything this tension is on the increase in the aftermath of the Arab Spring - for instance Egypt has elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power who are anti-Israel. But Ware said that these are not the issues that are concerning Israelis the most, in the most recent election the candidates campaigned on internal matters. He went to a football match in Tel Aviv and spoke to random spectators about their views on the election and got a wide spectrum of answers from conservative to liberal. Much like you would if you went to a football match in the UK and asked similar political questions.

Ware spent the rest of the programme talking to representatives of various different ideologies & political positions within Israel. One group he talked to were the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who, as the name suggests, are a particularly conservative subset of the Jewish faith. Some of them (all of them?) were living in the region before it was Israel (or are descended from people who were) - and they are predominantly anti-Zionist, believing that the Jewish state shouldn't've been founded by secular authorities and that it should've waited for the Messiah. Ware filmed a demonstration by Ultra-Orthodox Jews who wanted to boycott the last election, and pointed out how odd it seems to us to see Jews who don't want an Israeli state. Or rather, who don't want this Israeli state. There are also tensions between this community & more liberal Israelis partly because there are a high proportion of the Ultra-Orthodox receiving welfare benefits (because they are devoting their lives to their religion and spirituality rather than supporting themselves). And partly because the more extreme Ultra-Orthodox have tried to impose their behavioural rules forcibly on other citizens who don't share their beliefs.

Ware also looked at the position of Arabs within Israel - the descendants of those who stayed when the country was founded. He primarily interviewed an Arab man who writes a comedy tv show about the mis-adventures of an Arab in Israel. We were shown clips from it, it made me think of Mr Bean a bit but much sharper edged. The writer talked about how Arabs are often treated with prejudice by ordinary Israelis, and although they are full citizens with the same rights as anyone else in practice they are poorer than other Israelis and often feel like second class citizens.

And of course a lot of space was devoted to the situation in the West Bank (and Gaza to some extent). Ware talked to an Israeli woman who lives in one of the settlements in the West Bank - in an area that's practically a suburb of Jerusalem. I felt she was very media-savvy, when asked why she lived where she did she said it was "of course" partly for ideological reasons, but then dwelt at length on the beauty of the place, how good it will be for her children to grow up there, how the schools are very good. As a counterpoint Ware also talked to a group of young Arab activists who in the wake of the Arab Spring have been doing very media friendly protests. For instance they boarded a bus travelling from the West Bank into Israel proper carrying signs and having alerted media so they could be filmed being removed from the bus at the border.

There have been long running attempts to get some sort of peace settlement between Israel & the Palestinians who lived in the West Bank & Gaza before Israel attempted to expand into that territory. Mostly this has focussed on trying to set up a Two State solution where the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank & Gaza and the Palestinians will form their own state in those regions. Ware spoke to some people in favour of this sort of solution. One of these was an Arab businessman who is funding and leading a building project to create a Palestinian community in the West Bank with similarities to the sorts of housing the Israeli settlers have - beautiful, modern, a good place to live. He was upfront that part of his reason for talking to Ware was because he wants the world to see that the Palestinians can be builders too, not just the stereotype of destructive terrorists. Another of the people Ware spoke to was an Israeli politician who thought that Israel did not have a God given right to claim any territory that had been in biblical Israel, so they should withdraw & leave the Palestinians in peace.

But there are people at both ends of the political spectrum who believe that the idea of a Two State solution is dead, that the only way forward would be a single state. They believe this for very different reasons, and would like to see very different sorts of single states. The Arab protesters I mentioned a couple of paragraphs above and other more liberal people would like a single state where all the citizens of the state whether Israeli or Arab have the same rights. And that this might mean that Arabs get elected to positions of power in the government and get to influence the direction of the state, and that's OK.

At the other end of the spectrum the religious conservatives want a single state, where everyone has rights but where only Jews get to have any influence on the direction of the state. Ware spoke at length to a woman who is a politician with this sort of ideology and she was quite clear that she thought that the most important thing about the Israeli state was that it was Jewish and keeping it that way should be paramount. She also felt that Israel has a right to the territory in the West Bank based on the biblical borders of Israel. And in addition she didn't believe that a Two State solution would be in the interests of Israel's security - stating that since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza violence from Hamas against Israel in that region has increased.

I thought Ware tried to make a balanced programme, letting the various people say what they had to say without overly editorialising. Obviously he chose who to speak to and how to edit them, but I felt the storyline he was fitting the programme to was that there's a range of opinion & ideology in the country and it's not a simple situation. Of course it's hard for me to tell how balanced he actually was, because I know nothing about Israeli politics!


The second episode of Chivalry and Betrayal covered the period from 1360 to 1415, and was actually mostly about England and the English monarchs rather than the Hundred Years War per se. But Ramirez started off by telling us what the situation was like in France after the peace treaty between Edward III and John II. Whilst there was peace on a national level, and no actual armies going around fighting, bands of English soldiers were going about the French countryside looting and pillaging. These freebooters were sometimes led by knights, but there was no real organisation - every man in it for the profit he could get out of it. I don't imagine the English authorities tried terribly hard to stop it, and the French were handicapped because their King was still held captive by the English.

Once John II of France died his son, Charles V, could finally take over properly. He declared war on England once more and started to turn the tide against England. His new general, Bertrand du Guescilin, was less interested in the army being perfectly chivalrous and more interested in winning - Ramirez pointed out the similarities here to how Edward III had got the upper hand in the initial stages of the Hundred Years War. Having driven the English mostly out of France, the French also put together a fleet that was much bigger & more capable than the English fleet. This they used to harass the towns along the Southern coast of England. Ramirez talked to an expert on this who told us that the MO of the French was to sail in with the rising tide, then loot, pillage and burn the town. Following this they'd drag the town's ships out to sea as they departed on the receding tide. 6 hour lightning raids, that would not only destroy a particular town but also strike fear along the coast about where they'd strike next. The townsfolk would obviously appeal to the crown to do something about this, but no help was forthcoming and that's the next thing Ramirez went on to talk about.

Edward III is still on the throne at this point, but gone are the days of the warrior King he was in his youth. Old sources suggest that he went senile towards the end of his reign, in the 1370s. Ramirez went to look at Edward III's funeral effigy which has a model head made from a plaster cast of the King's face after he died - so it's a true likeness of the man. The expert she spoke to pointed out that there are indications that Edward III had had a stroke or a series of strokes. So she was saying that it wasn't dementia that affected the King, instead it had a physical cause (I'm not quite sure why that matters - I think it's more that these days "senile" is a technical term, but back then it would probably have been more broadly applied and cover loss of mental capacity due to a stroke as well).

Edward III was succeeded by his 9 year old grandson, Richard II - because the Black Prince had pre-deceased Edward III. So now England has been pushed out of France and has a child on the throne (after a few years of an ineffective King in Edward III). So there's a bit of a hiatus in the Hundred Years War & in fact Richard II and Charles VI (the Mad) do agree some sort of peace.

Just as well, because there are other things for the English to worry about - first the Peasant's Revolt, where the day is only saved by Richard II himself (still young) promising the rebels their demands will be heard then reneging on the promise. But it's a close call, and the Chancellor (Simon Sudbury) is dragged out of the Tower of London and killed during this conflict. Ramirez visited the church in Sudbury (the village in Suffolk) and saw the head of Sudbury (the man) which is kept there. It's a skull (obviously) but still has some skin on it. She spoke to an expert anatomist who showed us the marks on the vertebrae which show he was decapitated but not with a single blow, the first cut didn't quite go all the way through.

Ramirez then visited the National Portrait Gallery and showed us the diptych portable altarpiece that shows Richard II kneeling before Christ, Mary & the heavenly host - as she said, it shows us what sort of King Richard was. Vain and concerned with other things than war. She also showed us an inventory of all the precious things Richard had bought, and pointed out that the country might've put up with taxes for war but there was discontent about being taxed so much for the King's luxury. This contributed to Richard II's downfall. He'd exiled the future Henry IV, and then when Henry's father John of Gaunt died Richard extended Henry's exile and took his inheritance for the crown. Henry came back, raising an army of discontented English, and defeated Richard II to take the throne. He had a claim, as John of Gaunt was a son of Edward III, but was still a usurper.

When Henry V took the throne after his father, Henry IV, died one of his driving motivations was to prove he was a legitimate King. And Ramirez told us that the way he did this was to go back to war with France to show he was a warrior King and that God was on his side. Charles VI (the Mad) is still on the throne in France - Ramirez didn't tell us much about him, but what she did say was that like Richard II he was more interested in peace. This new campaign by the English reaches its climax with the Battle of Agincourt, which is still remembered today (thanks to Shakespeare) as a great victory for the English. Henry had proven his point, God was on his side.

Two books in one post, because I don't think I've got much to say about either of these. I read most of both while we were up visiting J's parents last weekend, tho I started "In Great Waters" before.

"In Great Waters" Kit Whitfield

This book took a while to get going for me, then I found the end disappointing and too neatly tied up for my tastes. In this alternate history merpeople are real and the kings & queens of Europe are descended from a hybrid, who took control of Venice back in the day. Every non-landlocked country wants a hybrid ruler because then they can get their coastal merpeople to stop invasions from other countries. The merpeople (who are never referred to as that, they are deepsmen) aren't quite intelligent although they have language and are almost "human". Because the royal families all descend from one woman, and so have been interbreeding for several generations they have all sorts of health issues. But "bastards" i.e. non-royal-family hybrids are strictly forbidden & burnt to death if found.

The story is seen from two points of view - Henry, a bastard brought up by deepsmen for the first few years of his life before being cast out, and Anne, youngest daughter of the current English royal family which is in the midst of a succession crisis. I think one of my problems with getting properly sucked into the book is that Henry is pretty alien in perspective (good in theory, but didn't help me get immersed) and Anne spends most of the book being a passive observer (not even always seeing enough to be sure what's going on). So the story seemed to happen off the page for the first two thirds of the book, then suddenly our two characters are the centre of it all and everything gets resolved. And I think the implications are that we all live happily ever after, except for those who don't. And I just don't buy that.

I did like the pseudo-Tudor court with its paranoid politics. I also liked the way Henry goes through culture shock when he gets kicked out of his deepsman life into a landsman life - and never quite gets over his upbringing even if he gets socialised to some degree. It felt real and made for an interesting character. Just it was hard to sympathise with him and made the first few chapters which are solely his point of view more difficult to get invested in. Whereas Anne was sympathetic (and again felt real) but given it's a plot point that she projected an image of being a bit "simple" in public there's a lot of watching things happen around her.

"The Iron King" Maurice Druon

Got this out of the library due to a review which mentioned that George R. R. Martin has said that Druon's books were an influence on A Song of Ice & Fire. Druon is a French author, who published the seven books of his Accursed Kings series in the 1950s in French (the translation I read was done by Humphrey Hare and I'm not sure if that was a new one for this edition or is the one done in the 50s).

The Iron King tells a fictionalised version of the last year or so of the reign of Philip the Fair, Philip IV of France. To give some context, for those like me who are shaky on French history, his daughter Isabella married Edward II of England. Their son was Edward III of England (and he's the one that kicks off the Hundred Years War (post)). The bulk of the plot revolves around the final events of the prosecution & persecution of the Templars, and Isabella's campaign to expose her brothers' wives infidelity. I think it keeps fairly close to the actual events of history where they're known (and it has footnotes telling you more details sometimes!).

I liked reading it, but it did feel rather old-fashioned. Not sure if I'll seek out the others in the series or not. I might prefer to read an actual history book about these people instead.

This book pushes so many of my buttons (in a good way) - it's post-apocalypse, it's not a generation ship* but in many ways it's the same as a generation ship. And it's got that thing that hooks me into Sherri S. Tepper's books (but without the Moral) - there's something rotten deep in the centre of the society and half the fun is figuring it out as the characters do. (Not quite as straightforward as it being a dystopia, something about the way the rottenness is set-up/revealed.)

*J points out that he didn't know what I meant by generation ship, so perhaps I should explain :) I mean a spaceship travelling to another star at below light-speed, and all the people in it are awake, so over the time of the journey there are several generations and gradually the society stops believing in anything other than the ship. Normally in these sorts of stories there's also some disaster (contrived or natural) that means records are lost.

The whole world that the protagonists know consists of an underground bunker, which has just one set of observation screens on the top floor out of the hundred or so floors. Society has stratified - engineers are in the lower levels and keep the place running but aren't really appreciated for it. IT are important, and it's not quite clear why to start with, and they've got a whole floor/suite of floors to themselves. The middling floors have the middling people. And up the top are people like the mayor, the sheriff and other officials. And the viewing screens, showing the dead dead world outside.

Resources are limited as you'd expect in that sort of scenario - they might as well be in a spaceship. If you want to have children you & your spouse need to win the lottery after someone dies. And expressing any interest in the outside world is firmly squashed - if you dare say it out loud then you are sentenced to "cleaning". Out you go in a suit to clean the cameras for the view screens, and die in the toxic atmosphere when the suit inevitably gives way. Everyone who's sentenced says they won't clean, and then they do ... and the first part of the book ends with an explanation of that, from the point of view of the man doing the cleaning. But there's something rotten in the centre of this society and we haven't found it yet, just the first hints.

Not going to spoil the book, that would be a shame. But it does make it a bit hard to talk about :)

I liked the way the various characters felt nuanced and real. The character I was least keen on was the chap who seemed to be there just to be the love interest, but thinking about it a bit more he's actually also doing something useful in the book in terms of showing us what's going on. So not just the love interest. And the antagonist isn't a moustache-twirling villain, you can see he's the hero of his own story even if what he does is repugnant. You can even sympathise with the aims of some of the rottenness - this is a resource limited pressure-cooker environment and wide-spread disorder could be completely fatal. But the methods are not something I can sympathise with even as I can see that it's being done out of a sense that this is the best way to do it.

There's an excerpt for the next book in the series (trilogy?) at the end, and it looks like it'll go back to the beginning and tell us how the world got to the state it's in in this book. There's still something rotten at the centre, and we haven't got there yet. I've got that reserved from the library now. (Thinking about buying these, but I think I want to know if the next book is as good first.)

J's parents have Sky and so have TV channels that we don't, so they record anything about Ancient Egypt that they notice & then we watch several of the documentaries when we visit. I'm not going to write these up in detail, instead here are some capsule reviews. I wasn't always paying full attention to the programmes, so I've possibly misremembered stuff.

Ramesses III: Behind the Myth of the Pharaoh

Programme about the harem conspiracy against Ramesses III which led to his murder, and the resulting trial & execution of the conspirators. Focussed on how the papyri tell us a very different story to what the monuments do - the court of Ramesses III was a paranoid one concerned with threats to the Pharaoh and his authority both magical & physical. The monuments are the confident record of a Pharaoh with no enemies, and a secure succession, so if there hadn't been the chance discovery of the papyri we'd not know the truth. I googled for it and it turns out this was made in 2003, but it was topical because there was a paper last December about the cause of death of Ramesses III and a possible candidate for his son Penteware (post).

A good programme, worth watching. (Originally a BBC programme, part of the Timewatch series).

Egypt's Mystery Chamber

2009 documentary about KV63 - which was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 2006 and isn't actually a tomb, it's a cache of leftover bits from the mummification process probably of Tutankhamun. We'd seen this before, so I wasn't really paying much attention during it. It's a good programme tho - and I think it does a good job of taking the lemons of KV63 turning out to not be a tomb and making lemonade out of them. Instead of some "exciting discovery" or "solving the mystery" we get a look at the sorts of things you can find out from seemingly ordinary objects. The real business of archaeology.

Sun Pharaoh

So bad I'm not quite sure where to start. Oh wait, yes I am ... ever heard of the Pharaoh Acky-Nathan? No, me neither *rolls eyes* You'd think you'd make sure your narrator knew how to pronounce the name she would need to say several times during the programme. Made even more irritating because she knew how to pronounce "aten" so clearly no-one bothered to explain that "Akhenaten" is "akh - en - aten". The programme's about Akhenaten & Nefertiti establishing their monotheistic religion and is breathless and over-excited about how maybe they were killed in the chaos when the high priests took back power (er, what?) and maybe Tutankhamun was murdered because he refused to stop worshipping the Aten (er, what?). I forget precisely what else we were rolling our eyes at, but there were definitely other things that got made up out of whole cloth. We wondered if it was originally a different documentary in German and had a new voice over for the English-speaking market, but despite googling for it I can't find out if that's true. I wouldn't recommend watching it, I'm not quite sure why we didn't bail on it ourselves.

Museum Secrets: Cairo Museum

This was really good, I wish the series was on a channel J & I get. Basic format is to look at a selection of objects from a particular museum and have a short film giving you context and interesting facts for the object (the series covers a variety of subjects, not just Ancient Egypt). This episode was about the Egyptian Museum in Cairo & the objects included the tiny statue of Khufu that's the only representation of him that we have, a selection of animal mummies, Tutankhamun's gold. Also the mummy of Seqenenre Tao (a 17th Dynasty Pharaoh) - which has visible & large wounds in the head. This was my favourite bit of the show - Garry Shaw & a specialist in the sorts of weapons that the Ancient Egyptians of the time used investigated how the wounds could've been made. They had a dummy made and put it in different positions (i.e. standing as if on a chariot, lying on the ground, kneeling as if to be executed) and hit it with an axe, demonstrating you got the best matches to the actual wounds if you had him kneeling to be executed.

Tutankhamun Conspiracies with Bettany Hughes

Surprisingly unfocussed documentary from Bettany Hughes about ... well, mostly about Tutankhamun? It went off on some odd tangents tho, like a segment about the end of the Old Kingdom due to famine and climate change. Or the bit about how some people connected with the Tutankhamun finds got killed in London in the 1920s & 1930s and maybe it was Alesteir Crowley coz he was in London and hand-wave. It felt like there was a core of a documentary there with Hughes talking to the current Earl of Canarvon & his wife about the find and about Lord Canarvon's role in it. But then there were bits of other documentaries just stuck in and vaguely justified - I know we recognised a couple of segments from other programmes. Oh and there was an odd bit where they said that some unspecified mummy tested positive for cocaine, nicotine & hash so clearly the Egyptians used these drugs only that seems implausible so maybe the lab screwed up. Or did they! Maybe the Egyptians made it to the Americas coz Thor Heyerdahl could sail the Kon Tiki across the Pacific, but then maybe it's coz 19th Century aristos were all druggies & that's where the contamination came from. It was about as confused as my summary, and then Hughes said some variant on "moving on" and we never came back to that.

Nice to see some of the objects & places, but I'm not sure I could recommend watching it.

Nefertiti

This was a pretty old documentary about Nefertiti and about Nicholas Reeves searching for evidence about her life. J guessed it was made something like 20 years ago. Being old it was more than a little out of date but it came across as a thorough overview of what was known at the time. I don't really have anything else to say about it.

We were away for the weekend, but we still managed to watch Doctor Who on Saturday - I just didn't get round to writing it up till I got home :)

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

And it was another historical drama set within my lifetime, seriously, what's up with that? This time it was only by a couple of months but even so!

Anyway, age-related-wibbling aside I enjoyed that episode. The ghost story was pretty well done, even if it felt a lot like it was also the figleaf for the season-arc stuff that seemed to be going on underneath (in an understated way). I liked that we got all the proper ghost story things - things moving around in the corner of your eye, strange noises, cold spots, holding hands only that's not my hand, psychic connections and more. And then because Doctor Who is science fiction (well, science fantasy) we got our reason for it all in a science-y sounding fashion. I loved the idea of the Doctor going and taking snapshots throughout the whole of the history of Earth to see if the ghost really was standing still. And Clara's reaction to the end of the world ... mmm, I guess that's part of the "she's normal" thing? I dunno. I guess I'm personally a lot less phased by the idea that even the planet has an expiration date? So it just felt weird that she freaked out that much, but then Rose did too, and I don't remember anyone rolling their eyes at that in the gestalt of (the bits of) online fandom (I read). So mebbe it's me out of step here.

(Also - 6 billion years ago for the first one? Er, no, the Earth is supposed to be 4.5 billion years old. Dunno why that bugged me when so much of the science is way off base & I can roll with it, but it did bug me.)

Lots of paralleling going on - I like the way the Professor & the Doctor were so explicitly set up as matching. (Particularly as Ace called the Seventh Doctor "Professor" and Ace was my favourite Old Who companion). Not just the "here's you the boffiny scientist thing, and here's your 'companion'" (incidentally - I guess the "oh it's the 70s she's your 'assistant'" is a 3rd Doctor (UNIT era) reference). But also the thing about how he'd sent people to their deaths, done dreadful things for his country (people) (universe), and that changes you. And you need to find something or someone to live for afterwards. I've a feeling there was more I wanted to say about that conversation in the darkroom and their introduction conversation, but it's gone from my mind now. But there was a lot of talking where both are talking about the Professor, but they could be talking about the Doctor without changing any of the words.

Also the love stories. Professor meets assistant (clearly reproduce see exhibit A of the ghost/great-umpteenth granddaughter). Boy-monster meets Girl-monster. And, er, was it really wise of the Doctor to bring them both to this world? What do they eat/do? Where are they going to live? Not that they did anything except accidentally terrify people. It's a bit of a loose end tho.

And so, so, so NOT a love story = the Doctor & Clara. He's still suspicious, the TARDIS doesn't like her (and the feeling is so utterly mutual). And that arm over her shoulder while talking about true love is nothing significant, no no no. To be fair I'm not sure where that's going - is it just that he's relaxing into her company (coz she is, after all, his type) and has to keep catching himself because there's still that mystery about the multiple Claras? And then the TARDIS uses another image of Clara to talk to Clara? Previously we saw that system work with Amelia-TARDIS talking to the Doctor so what's the significance of Clara being the choice to talk to Clara?

Also - the "splinter of ice in his heart". Is that the suspicion he has for Clara? Or is this misdirection (of both us & Clara) and what Emma picks up is actually the lingering effects of the Doctor's actions in the Time War (and the sort of characterisation that the Seventh Doctor had, the manipulation & trickster-god thing)? (And J pointed out that there's another parallel here - the "heart of the house" is where the cold spot is.)

Speaking of misdirection - the Doctor waxing lyrical about first the Professor, then talking about the ghost. But really, it's all about that one short conversation with Emma where she confirms (again) that Clara is just what she seems. And that's why he doesn't seem to pay any attention to Emma - he doesn't want anyone else (Clara) to notice what's important here, so we get all the babbling and stuff to keep us (Clara) focussed on the wrong thing.

Between writing the rest of this & it posting I've read some other reviews: The "blue crystal from Metebellis 3" is also a Third Doctor reference. So we do continue that theme.

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