September 2014

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. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)

Books

Fiction

"One-Eyed Jack" Elizabeth Bear. New book in the Promethean Age series, a return to the modern setting and a move to Las Vegas. New.

"Labyrinth" Kat Richardson. The fifth Harper Blaine book, urban fantasy/PI crossover. Library book.

Total: 2

Non-Fiction

"Plantagenet England 1225-1360" Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total:

Concerts

Tanya Donelly & Throwing Muses (Waterfront, Norwich 21 Sept 2014).

Total: 1

Photos

Lunchtime?

On the Move.

Spot of Colour.

Total: 3

Radio

Sources of Early Chinese History. In Our Time episode about what the various sources are for early Chinese history.

Complexity. In Our Time episode about complexity and modelling complex systems.

Total: 2

Talks

"Mysteries of the Amarna Period Royal Tombs: The Kings' Valley" Dylan Bickerstaffe. Talk given at the September EEG meeting.

Total: 1

Television

Fiction

Doctor Who: Into the Dalek.

Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood.

Doctor Who: Listen.

Doctor Who: Time Heist.

Doctor Who: The Caretaker.

Total: 5

Non-Fiction

The Boats that Built Britain - Tom Cunliffe sails six boats that were important in British history.

Bolsover Castle - an episode of the Secret Knowledge series, this one presented by Lucy Worsley. She talked about the castle's first owners & builders, and the meanings of the decor & architecture. Only Worsley would match her gloves to the details on the castle ;) A tad amateur in feel (I think this series often is), but rather good.

Britain's Great War - Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

Egypt's Lost Queens - Joann Fletcher talking about Hetepheres, Hatshepsut, Nefertari and Arsinoe.

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls - Lucy Worsley talking about late 17th Century British women.

John Bishop's Australia - comedian cycles along the east coast of Australia 22 years after he first made the trip.

Lost Land of the Tiger - three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath - two part series looking at the wider Stonehenge site and using modern non-invasive techniques to survey the area.

Out of Egypt - series presented by Kara Cooney looking at similarities and dissimilarities between a variety of ancient (and slightly less ancient) cultures using Ancient Egypt as her jumping off point.

The Real Noah's Ark - part of the Secret History series, programme about a pre-Bible Akkadian Flood myth and the building of a replica ark based on the description in that.

Talk to the Animals - Lucy Cooke does a survey of animal communication.

Treasures Decoded - Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Tropic of Capricorn - Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Wild China - series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Total: 14

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I could tell from the trailer that this was not going to be one of my favourite Doctor Who episodes, and indeed this was the case. It was written by the same guy who wrote The Lodger in season 5 (ie in 2010 with 11 and Amy), and I disliked it for the same sorts of reasons - not my sort of story.

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

So what didn't I like, now we're behind the spoiler cut? Primarily it's because it was that sort of rom-com farce humour thing where nobody tells anybody anything so they have "hilarious" misunderstandings and people get to embarrass themselves because of said misunderstandings. It just makes me cringe, but I do know there's an audience for it, it's just that audience does not include me. For instance J enjoyed the episode rather more than I did.

The plot also relied on the Doctor and Clara showing the worst of themselves, in ways that make you wonder how they've survived in the respective lives this long. And displaying stunning lack of self-awareness in each case too. I'm not sure I really buy the Danny/Clara relationship at the moment - I can't see why he stays with her, she's clearly lying to him consistently and persistently without being particularly subtle about it. Then when she gets caught she doubles down on it in a particularly insulting fashion - how stupid does she think he is, indeed?

I've seen suggested that part of the "plan" for this season (regeneration?) is a re-run of the original plan for the 6th Doctor. In that this regeneration is supposed to start off unlikeable and then have a sort of redemption arc - and apparently whilst that was the plan for the 6th Doctor they either half-arsed it or lost their nerve. Which would explain why the Doctor is being particularly bitchy towards Clara & unpleasant to Danny, but it doesn't really endear it to me either.

Sadly the more I think about the episode the less I like it. But there was stuff I did like, even so. I liked Miss Disruptive Influence - and was amused when she turned out to be all mouth & no trousers. I also liked the way Clara & Danny are failing to keep the relationship secret from the kids, which felt very true to life. I also continue to like Danny, and he really shone in this episode (particularly in comparison to the two leads) - he's competent, observant and quick thinking in a crisis. If the Doctor can get past his current soldierphobia and start treating Danny like a person then I'd like to see more stories where Danny is a companion.

Oh - and I nearly forgot to mention the afterlife scene. Missy didn't welcome this one - because he wasn't talked into death by the Doctor? Or just because she was "busy"? Really don't know where this is going - it's making me wonder if the whole season so far hasn't happened in the real world, but J thinks that'd be a bit too lame for them to go there and he may well be right. After all, Dallas did that first (and worst) ;)

Overall, disappointing but maybe they've got the farce bit out of their system now?

I've been to a few concerts where I'm not necessarily that into the band, Warpaint springs to mind as a recent example. But normally I recognise a handful of the songs they play, because J will've been listening to whoever it might be in the run up to the gig at the very least. This was therefore an unusually odd gig for me, in that I recognised the names of both the acts and even know some songs by them but I didn't actually recognise a single song played on the night!

Tanya DonellyTanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly was the support act, and was the reason we had tickets - J has been a fan for 20 years or thereabouts. She used to be in Throwing Muses, then Breeders then Belly before doing solo stuff. This was in the nature of a farewell tour for her, I think, so played songs from across her career. I know one Belly song pretty well (Feed the Tree) & recognise one or two more, but she didn't play any of those ones. It didn't matter tho, even tho I couldn't tell you what any of the songs were I did enjoy what she played. And she has an amazing voice.

Throwing Muses

I wouldn't've thought I knew any Throwing Muses songs, but J pointed out that Bright Yellow Gun is on one of my compilation albums so I do know that rather well. I just didn't know who did the song. Of course, they didn't play that although I gather it did come out as an encore somewhere else on the tour. They were high energy & rocky, not music to stand still to :) Tanya joined them on stage towards the end of the main set for a couple of songs, too.

Throwing MusesThrowing Muses

Overall a good gig, despite the slight strangeness of not knowing the songs! I'll leave this post with a youtube vid from the gig we were at:

Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath was a rather disappointing two part series about new work on the site around Stonehenge. The basic premise was that Stonehenge shouldn't be considered in isolation, instead it's important to understand the whole area around it. So a team of archaeologists from Austria have done a site wide survey of 10km2 using non-invasive modern techniques - geophys and the like. The programmes were heavy on shots of archaeologists driving tractors with scientific equipment attached, and computer reconstructions of possible buildings, and very light on explaining where their theories came from. For instance they confidently told us about the sequence of the various things that had been detected, but never mentioned how they were dating them - something inherent in the data? style of building corresponds to an era? pulled a number out of thin air? They were also pretty good at taking speculation and presenting it as close to factual. Like the confident pronouncement that the site in general was sacred because there's a weird chemical reaction between something in the river and flint that means flint from the river goes bright pink after it dries. But a) we don't know if that weirdness happened then (or maybe we do, but they just didn't explain it well enough) and b) it's a possibility, but really we still have no idea why the site became sacred.

Overall, not terribly impressed.


We also finished off another of the World War I series which was aired earlier this year - Britain's Great War. This series focused on what happened in Britain during the war - so while there were some segments about the actual fighting in France and elsewhere, these were mostly to provide context and very focussed on what happened to British people and British families as a result. Some of the ground covered was stuff I already knew of, but there was a lot of stuff that was new to me. This included things like the development of plastic surgery due to the high number of casualties with mutilated faces. Another example from the last episode was the rise in seances after the war.

As well as reporting the historical facts, Paxman's main point was to show that modern Britain was born during the First World War - that the upheaval and changes to society that were driven by the war underpin our current society. Some of this is good - more equality for women for instance, because they'd had to work during the war and more of them were independent after the war. The lives of the poor were also improved - for some it was because if they'd survived war then they'd had four years of real meals so returned more fit and capable than they'd been before. For some it was because the government started to intervene to prevent rapacious rent increases. Some things were less good - much more government intervention and interest in people's lives, like who they slept with or whether they went out drinking (and if so, when & how much). This had been seen as necessary to avoid lost work hours during the war due to diseases or hangovers.

A good series although frequently rather grim viewing, and a good counterpoint to the other WWI series we recorded at the same time (The First World War, the second section in this post).


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Treasures Decoded - Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 2 of Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls - Lucy Worsley talking about late 17th Century British women.

Episode 3 of Wild China - series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Complexity theory is a relatively new discipline, about 40 years old, that looks to model and understand the behaviour of complex systems. The systems themselves can be as diverse as the weather, crowd movements, epidemic spread or the brain. The experts talking about it on In Our Time were Ian Stewart (University of Warwick), Jeff Johnson (Open University) and Eve Mitleton-Kelly (London School of Economics).

One of the important first steps in understanding what complexity theory is about is to distinguish between a complicated system and a complex system. Mitleton-Kelly talked about this and said that a jet engine is a good example of a complicated system - it has many parts, but it is still something that can be designed and its behaviour can be predicted precisely. A complex system is something like the movement of a crowd through a building - again there are many parts (each person, the building itself) but whilst you can change things or design things in the building to influence the system the system as a whole is not designable. It is also unpredictable in a mechanistic sense, in particular complex systems are very sensitive to changes in the starting conditions and so a relatively minor difference can change the eventual outcome significantly. However complexity theory can be used to build models of the system that can predict the sorts of things that are likely to happen.

Complex systems are generally made up of a network of interacting units - people in a crowd, neurones in a brain, etc. These units may be (are always?) governed by straightforward and knowable rules. An example is that each person in a crowd is trying to get somewhere, and as a space opens up in the right direction they move into it. The complex system itself emerges from the interactions between the individual units (emergent behaviour is one of the key concepts of complexity theory). Crowd movements are apparently a solved problem and there are commercial packages that can be used to model crowds in different situations. Whilst there's no way of predicting where any given individual is going to be at any given time, nor precisely how many people will be trying to go from any given A to B, you can model what the crowd as a whole will look like under different conditions.

Feedback and equilibrium are two important concepts in thinking about complex systems. Normally when we think about these concepts we are thinking about a system like a central heating system. When the thermostat detects the temperature has dropped, the heating switches on and so the temperature rises again until it's in the desired range at which point the heating switches off. So that's negative feedback acting to keep the system in equilibrium. But in a complex system there may be many equilibria, and feedback between the units is more likely to be positive and to reinforce the change from the equilibrium. An example of positive feedback between units in a network was given by Johnson (I think) - think of a rumour which starts with person A. Person A tells person B it's definitely true (whatever it may be) even tho they're not 100% sure, person B passes it on to person C ("guess what I heard?") who passes it on to D & E and so on. Eventually someone repeats it back to person A, who then thinks to themselves "see, I was right" and doubles down on telling people about this "fact".

Because of how feedback works in this sort of complex system, and because there are multiple stable points, it's unlikely that once the system is perturbed from one equilibrium that it will return to that one. It's particularly unlikely that an attempt (following a more mechanistic model) to generate negative feedback to return the system to equilibrium will work as intended. This has important implications for controlling the economy. Mitleton-Kelly also talked about work she's involved with in Indonesia in helping the government attempt to stop deforestation - just passing a law saying "don't do it" as a negative feedback mechanism is unlikely to have the right effect. Instead her work is on trying to model the complex system that arises from all the factors that affect who cuts down the forest where, and why. Then the Indonesian government should be able to try several strategies in the model and see what sort of effect they have and then pick something more effective.

Another example, that Bragg brought up, of a complex system that's been perturbed from one equilibrium and is gradually (hopefully) settling into another was the Arab Spring. Which also illustrated something else - the idea that the system might be in equilibrium but also be ripe for a change. The way the world has evolved with it being easier to interact with each other via the internet meant that the situation in the Middle East & North African autocratic regimes was actually changing before it became apparent. Then the effects from a key event in Tunisia rippled through the network, and the system abruptly moved away from equilibrium. And it's still shifting and trying to come to a new equilibrium.

This was fascinating as a look at a new and still rapidly evolving discipline. I did think Bragg came across as a bit out of his depth tho - amazing how rarely that happens to be honest. There was also a slightly odd mix on the panel, with two theoreticians (and mathematicians) and one more applied practitioner of the science. Sometimes Stewart and Johnson seemed to be having a different conversation to the one Mitleton-Kelly was having.

Another good episode of Doctor Who - two in a row is welcome after a rather shaky start to the season (in my opinion).

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

Although it's probably not one that would necessarily bear a re-watch as a lot of the fun was trying to figure out what was going on. We spent a lot of the episode guessing what the explanations were, and I think we pretty much didn't get anything quite right until just before the reveal in each case - so well crafted in that sense :) I do quibble at the "you'll always hate your clone" thing, which I don't think inherently makes sense unless you assume everyone in the world hates themselves. I can see why Saibra might run into trouble with people not liking her given she turns into them, which has to be creepy. But not the "oh I hate the Architect therefore he is me" thing.

I liked the juxtaposition between this episode & the Robin Hood one's portrayal of the Doctor assuming he's in charge. In the Robin Hood one he just ended up bickering with Robin in an undignified fashion. But this episode showed why he often takes charge - even if he hasn't necessarily got A Plan, he's pretty damn good at making it up as he goes along. The brutal pragmatism was stressed again in this episode, still not sure if we're going somewhere with that or if it's the way the Doctor is now.

I have a feeling this is going to've been a key episode in the overall season arc - Ms Karabraxos reminded me a lot of Missy in both appearance and manner. And we've been reminded a couple of times now that very few people have the TARDIS phone's number, yet Clara was given it "by the woman in the shop". So while we've had a payoff for the Doctor giving Karabraxos his number, I'm not convinced it's the only payoff.

I don't really have anything else to say about this episode - it was a good & clever puzzle story that I enjoyed watching but it hasn't left me with many thoughts I wanted to talk about. Except my niggling sense it's going to turn out to've been additionally significant later.

I mentioned at the end of my post about Elizabeth Bear's Hell and Earth that the next of the Promethean Age books was out - and in fact in between writing that post and it going live I bought One-Eyed Jack and started to read it. This book takes place after Blood and Iron (and possibly after Whiskey and Water, I'm not sure if this is what the common antagonist character did before showing up in Whiskey and Water or after (if there was an after for him, which is ambiguous)). It is more in the nature of a linked story in the same universe, rather than a sequel per se.

It's set in Las Vegas (mostly), and the protagonists are not so much people as archetypes and personifications of places. Which doesn't sound like it would work, but it really does. The titular character, One-Eyed Jack is the genius or avatar of Las Vegas along with his partner the Suicide King. And the story opens on the Hoover Dam, with the first skirmish in what the Los Angeles avatars hope will be a takeover of Las Vegas using the Dam as their bridgehead. It is vital for the water supply of LA after all, so is a point for them to establish their influence. Amongst the rest of the cast are the ghosts of a pair of late 19th Century folk heroes, a vampire who calls himself Tribute (but who you'll recognise early on if you know any cultural icons from the 20th Century US), and a handful of pairs of spies/assassins who are archetypes from different TV shows. Of course the takeover attempt from LA isn't all that's going on - there are several other power struggles which are also coming to a head at this point, and over the course of the book the links between these become clear.

There was a certain amount of mental whiplash reading this so soon after reading Hell and Earth. All four of the other Promethean Age books are grounded in a mythos I know - so the interesting thing was seeing what Bear was doing with them and exploring her versions of these stories I already have a sort of shape for. This book flipped that on its head - here the anchor point for me were the elements of Bear's Promethean Age I recognised, and the newer stuff was the mythos. I don't think that would be the case for someone who lives in the US, or for someone who watches more fiction TV than I do. But it still works as a story, and as a cast of characters, for me - I know enough through cultural osmosis to have an idea who the people are. Which is a part of the point of the book - like me you might never've been to Vegas or to LA, but you'll have enough of an idea of the cities to recognise the personifications as personifications. Like me, you might not've watched the various spy shows, but you'll still recognise the character types and possibly even the specific shows referenced. I'm fairly confident the Englishman and the woman in the leather jumpsuit are from The Avengers, for instance, despite not having watched a single episode of that.

Names and the naming of things are once again important in this story in ways that range from the One-Eyed Jack using sympathetic magic to call up ghosts of his more famous namesakes, to the way the assassins are nameless for most of the story. Another common theme for the Promethean Age novels that shows up is the power of story with the characters at times trusting that if they "play to genre" they'll survive something implausibly (the hero never dies in a spy story!), and at times deliberating flouting genre conventions in order to throw the antagonists off the scent.

One thing that has struck me as I've been writing this up & thinking about the book, is that the mental whiplash I mentioned above is almost a part of the point. The stories & characters in the other Promethean Age books are much more familiar to me, because I'm British - the Stratford Man duology are set in my cultural past with my cultural mythology playing a part. The other two (Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water) are set in a part of the New World that's full of immigrants from the Old World, whether recent or not. So the stories are the stories from "home", and some - like Arthur, like the Fae - are a part of my cultural heritage and have continuity with the Stratford Man stories. Of course there's other elements mixed in - not all the immigrants who come to New York and the rest of the North-East US are European after all and they change to fit their new context as stories always do. And then we come to this book - it's set in the West and the people who came here came from the East coast, it's one step more removed from Europe. And the stories they build their identities on are the stories of the Wild West - of Cowboys and Indians, of brave pioneers, of lawless towns and railroads bringing civilisation, of the American Dream and the gold rush. And into that mix is dropped Hollywood glamour, sinful Vegas - not the staid old-fashioned elements of Faerie courts. With a health dollop of Cold War paranoia. Basically it's more deeply rooted in US culture, so it's not surprising I recognise things more from an outside perspective, I am an outsider to it.

A good book, that kept me thinking about it after I finished reading it.

The Real Noah's Ark was about a 4000 year old cuneiform tablet which contains a version of the flood story that pre-dates the Jewish one. The tablet was a souvenir acquired in the Middle East by a soldier in 1948, and after his death his family brought it and other antiquities to the British Museum to see if they were of any interest. Irving Finkel, one of the curators who can read Akkadian cuneiform, recognised the story and started to translate & research it.

There were two strands to the narrative in the programme - one was about how the flood story may've made its way into the Jewish religious texts (and from there into Christian & Islamic texts). The other was about whether or not the ark as described on the tablet could've been built. The programme didn't spend any time discussing any of the other flood myths found from this era and earlier - instead it was present almost as if the very idea that the flood myth existed before the Jewish bible was new. Which was a shame - I can see why they might've felt it made better telly, but it's still not true. I would've liked some talk about how or why this particular one was special even if it just comes down to it being another telling that's a bit closer in form to the Noah story as we know it.

The takeaway message for the first strand, how it came down to us, was that by the time the Jews were in exile in Babylon the flood story was a part of the curriculum in Babylonian schools. And whilst the Jews were there as forcibly exiled people they were also integrated into the Babylonian culture to some degree - it's perfectly plausible that the Jews that grew up in Babylon went to Babylonian schools. So when the Jews returned from exile they brought the stories back with them and worked them into their own mythology.

The boat building was inspired by the fact that the story on the tablet is very specific about the dimensions, shape and building materials of the boat - and these differed from the Noah story, particularly in the case of the shape. We all know from the many depictions of Noah and his ark that the ark was, well, boat shaped. Pointy at each end. But the boat in the older version of the story is round. It was a giant coracle, the big brother of a type of boat still used on the rivers in Iraq until nearly modern times. It was to be built with wooden beams with the bulk of the walls made from ropes (made of reeds) and waterproofed with bitumen. The experimental archaeologists decided that the dimensions were probably exaggerated (mythologised), but that a 12 metre diameter boat was probably possible. So they set to work (in India) trying to use ancient techniques to build this boat. In the end, it did float and even tho it took in water you could tell that people who were better at making the bitumen to waterproof the boat would not have had that problem.

They were also interested, in this strand of the narrative, in whether there could be any reality behind this myth. Whilst coracles in more recent times have been fairly small, in periods where they were the main form of freight transport bigger ones were known. And there is evidence from soil cores to show that the Babylon region flooded many times in the millennia around when the tablet was written. So perhaps the story of saving a pair each of all the world's animals was inspired by people using large coracles to rescue themselves and their livestock during bad floods.

This programme was a part of the Secret History series on Channel 4, and previously I've found them a bit too shallow. This time I was more impressed, even tho it would've been nice to hear about the other flood myths from that time & place not just this one example.


We finally finished watching Simon Reeve's Tropic of Capricorn this week - there was a several week gap between the BBC showing the first 3 episodes and the last one. Obviously this series was Reeve travelling round the globe following the Tropic of Capricorn, doing his now familiar thing of showing us beautiful places before explaining how we're messing them up. I do enjoy these programmes and find them interesting and they're worth watching, but I also have little to say about them. Sadly I failed to notice the BBC were reshowing Equator recently, so we can't complete the set :(


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath - two part series looking at the wider Stonehenge site and using modern non-invasive techniques to survey the area.

Episode 2 of Wild China - series about Chinese wildlife & people.

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