Doctor Who: The Snowmen

Christmas Doctor Who! As is now traditional, although given the way they’re splitting the season it does feel like part of the season more than it used to. Which is a good thing, I think.

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

Starting off with what I didn’t like – it was a bit saccharine in places. I suppose that’s traditional for the Christmas specials, tho. But I could’ve done with a bit less of the instant adoration between the Doctor and Clara, and a bit less of the “saved by the power of a family crying on Christmas Eve”. I’m sure the intended reaction wasn’t quite as much eye-rolling as I was doing πŸ˜‰ Although to offset that there’s the grim reality that the father & his two kids now have to remember two dead governesses in two years. Pretty traumatic for them, particularly as they liked this one!

The Doctor going into a sulk and living high above the clouds ignoring everything was also a bit eye-rolly, but I liked the fairytale imagery of the staircase up through the clouds so I’ll forgive that πŸ™‚ And you could see that the Doctor might be intending to give up the world saving business, but he wasn’t actually doing a good job of that in practice. Not just in the way he had to visibly hold himself back and talk himself out of investigating interesting things, but also because he chose to hang out in that time & place where he had 3 friends who might find interesting things for him to “not” investigate.

Loved that the Silurian & her wife were the models for Holmes & Watson. And the bit where the Silurian introduces them to the maid at the house where Clara is a governess made me giggle “I’m a lizard from the dawn of time, and this is my wife” – cue maid shrieking even more. Wasn’t so keen on the one-word-answers-only interrogation of Clara, particularly as it seemed entirely intended to set up “pond” being the one word summary of the situation guaranteed to get the Doctor to investigate which was a cheap shot I thought. Wrong sort of “pond” to get the reaction it does, and everyone knows it including the Doctor. But see later for why it’s maybe not that bad.

Strax the alien valet was also funny, in a good way, with the mix of the appropriate and inappropriate reactions to every situation. And the scene where they set up the mindworm mcguffin was well done. Funny, gave a decent reason why the Doctor didn’t wipe Clara’s mind & introduced the mindworm for later. Which wasn’t used the way I’d expected – I’d somehow assumed that given the memory of the snow was the issue then the mindworm would be thrown into the snowglobe, not bite the man who’d inadvertently created it. As villains go he fit the sort of Victorian storybook feel that this had, and was suitably sinister.

The puzzle of Clara Oswin Oswald is interesting. She dies the first time we see her in the future (and in her dying, saves the Doctor). She dies this time in the past too (and as she’s dying, saves the Doctor). She’s still got all the intelligence this time round, and seems to be resourceful & capable of having adventures of her own. She also has at least some of the memories of Oswin (i.e. souffles, and her final words to the Doctor being the same). But I wasn’t sure if she consciously knew or not – if she did consciously know then that makes the “pond” thing a little less irritating, because at least she’s chosen to say that word knowing the significance. If she doesn’t know, then is she constructed as bait for the Doctor? If you want to entrap the Doctor, she’s pretty much the best way to lure him in. But I don’t really want to speculate too much coz getting too involved in what the season long mystery might be is normally a good way of not quite enjoying what it turns out to be. I don’t tend to think Moffat’s finales are as clever as he thinks they are πŸ˜‰

The third Clara/Oswin/Whatever that we get a glimpse of right at the end looks like a present-day-ish version & she “doesn’t believe in ghosts” which makes me think of “the ghost of Christmas past” etc. That’s probably a random tangent though.

In Our Time: The Anarchy

The Anarchy is a 19th Century term for a period of civil war in England in the 12th Century. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were John Gillingham (London School of Economics and Political Science), Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University) and David Carpenter (Kings College London). It turned out to be quite a lively discussion – Gillingham and Carpenter in particular seemed to disagree quite vigorously over how poor (or otherwise) a king Stephen was.

The period of time in question is about 80 years after the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror was succeeded by his son William Rufus. Who in turn was succeeded by his brother Henry I. Henry had only two legitimate children (and about 20 illegitimate ones) – William and Matilda. William died young, drowned when the White Ship sank in the English Channel in 1120, and so Henry had no male heir. He promptly re-married but that marriage had no children. So he reluctantly designated Matilda as his heir, and made his nobles swear an oath to support her as heir.

Matilda had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor, she was sent to Germany at the age of 8 and educated there. When she married at the age of 12 she started to take on the role of Empress – in Germany the wife of the ruler was to some degree a co-ruler, so she granted charters etc. Wilkinson was saying that when Matilda was 12 her exercise of power was probably under the guidance of the Emperor’s advisers as part of her education, part of her training to rule. Once the Emperor died in 1125 she was summoned to return to England by her father to be designated as his heir, and re-married to Geoffrey d’Anjou in the hopes that this second marriage would produce offspring (it did).

Despite saying that she was his heir it seems that Henry didn’t really do much to make sure she had a chance of holding the throne. All three experts were in agreement that he didn’t let her establish a power base of any sort in England – he assigned her no lands, no castles. So really he was responsible for what happened after he died in 1135 – instead of Matilda inheriting, the throne was seized by her cousin Stephen de Blois. And the nobles in England were all perfectly happy to let this happen. The nobles in Normandy would’ve preferred his older brother to take the throne, but no-one was really on Matilda’s side (or at least not publicly). This was partly because she was a woman, and partly because she was foreign-educated. She was also widely regarded as proud and arrogant – Wilkinson was clear that she thought this was primarily because Matilda was a woman. That the same characteristics and actions as a man would’ve brought Matilda praise. The other two seemed to think that there was more truth to this than that – that Matilda might’ve been able to make life easier for herself if she’d been a little less concerned with her status as Empress.

Stephen was the sort of man who got along with everyone – he’d not been intended to be King & in many ways stayed more first-among-equals with the Barons, rather than their ruler. Carpenter was fairly anti-Stephen, he thought that he showed poor judgement in choosing who to please, whose side to take in disputes. Gillingham felt rather that Stephen had inherited a bad situation, and did as well as he could. But whichever is true, after a while Robert Earl of Gloucester (one of Henry’s illegitimate children) went over to Matilda’s side. He escorted her to England and his holdings gave her the power base she’d not had before. Stephen had the chance to capture Matilda at one point during this journey, but didn’t do so – which Gillingham thought was the right course of action due to the potential effects on Stephen’s reputation, but Carpenter thought was a ludicrous mistake.

The conflict dragged out for nearly 20 years, although there weren’t many actual battles. Stephen’s wife, another Matilda, was instrumental in both the negotiations and in raising armies particularly during a period where Stephen had been captured by the Empress. She wasn’t regarded with as much distaste by the nobles, because she managed to do this while still behaving femininely enough for the standards of the time. Despite the lack of battles the war had a lot of effect on the country – hence the later name of the Anarchy. One of the standard strategies in warfare at the time was to ravage the lands around your opponents castles – so burn the crops, burn the villages, ruin the economy of the area as well as deny the fortresses food. Gillingham and Carpenter disagreed on how much and how widespread this was. Carpenter was presenting a picture of the whole country in flames and turmoil, but Gillingham felt that outside a few areas it was pretty much business as usual for the peasantry.

The war was finally over when Stephen and Matilda’s son Henry came to an agreement that once Stephen died then Henry would be heir.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 1)

I’ve decided to write up notes on the non-fiction books I’m reading in chunks, coz frequently that’s how I read them – in sections, with fiction in between to clear the palate, so’s to speak πŸ™‚

The book I’ve just started was a birthday present from my parents and is an overview of the history of China from pre-Homo sapiens right through to the last Emperor who died in 1967. So quite a lot of ground to cover there! It’s part of a Thames & Hudson series of books called Ancient Civilisations and is written with contributions from 17 people, but lists John Makeham as “Chief Consultant” so I’m putting him down as the author. It’s a big glossy book with lots of illustrations & the format (like the others in the series) is that within the chapters each double-page spread covers a particular topic.

Introducing China

The first chapter is a brief overview of China as a whole – 5 double-pages covering the geography, art and science associated with the region. And also the history of archaeology in China. Oddly there isn’t an overall map of China – I would’ve expected one in this section particularly when they were talking about the geography, I had to use google maps to let me figure out where they were talking about. The take home message about the geography is that China is big enough to have noticeably different climates in north & south, with different advantages & challenges for living in & feeding people. The three great rivers are also important (and I confess I didn’t previously know the name of the Pearl River, which is the southern one, although I knew the Yellow River (north) and Yangzi River (central) existed). For art & other cultural treasures of China they mention silk, porcelain, lacquer & paper in particular, all dating back startlingly far. In terms of agriculture I knew about rice (obviously), but I didn’t realise that in the north of China (particularly the Yellow River valley) the staple crop is millet. Until the Mongols took over (13th Century AD) China was the innovator for new scientific & technological advances – but once more global trading of ideas & devices took place the Chinese ideas helped to kick-start the European Renaissance which eventually led to Europe pulling ahead in innovation. It didn’t mention it here but I guess the Chinese also have to have become more hidebound as well.

Proto-archaeology, ie the sort of collection of antiquities equivalent to the sorts of things happening in the Enlightenment era in Europe started relatively early in China’s history – by the 7th Century AD. But it didn’t develop into any sort of science of archaeology that we’d recognise until the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Origins: Prehistoric China

They start with some discussion of Palaeolithic China – there were definitely hominids in China before Homo sapiens, Peking Man is a famous Homo erectus skeleton discovered near Beijing. And then there’s archaic modern humans – like Neanderthals (which it says are European only – I didn’t know that before), but not Neanderthals. And then after that we get fully modern humans. I thought the prevailing theory was that Homo sapiens was a different species to Homo erectus, and that the separateness of the Neanderthals was in doubt (ie Homo sapiens may’ve been able to interbreed with them). But this book is saying that it’s also possible that Homo erectus is the same species as us – and then modern humans evolved in multiple places with interbreeding between the populations – the evidence is in anatomical features in Homo erectus that’re different in different geographical areas and are similarly different in the Homo sapiens skeletons from these different areas.

The Neolithic is the period of pre-history where ancient peoples settled down, started to farm, started to make pottery. China’s one of the places that independently developed agriculture, and the Neolithic revolution happened in a different order here to that in the Middle East – something I didn’t know before. In the Middle East the sequence is settle down -> agriculture -> pottery. Whereas in China it was pottery -> agriculture -> settle down. I was astonished how much of the stuff that is quintessentially Chinese was developed during the Neolithic – high quality pottery, silkworms were domesticated & silk was made, jade was used for grave goods/ritual items, even dragon imagery. Agriculture was possibly developed twice – millet grown on dry land in the Yellow River valley and rice grown in wet paddy-fields in the Yangzi River valley. It was a slow process getting from nomadic hunter/gatherers without pottery to fully sedentary agrarian villages with pottery – starting around or before 10,000-11,000BC (there are pottery fragments dating to this time), and really only fully developed around 5000BC. I’ve got 6000BC in my head for agriculture being developed in the Middle East, so definitely sounds like the Chinese were starting the process a lot earlier. I know that one of the things shifting to agriculture for food production does is to free up some people’s time to spend on other things – dedicated artisans, and ruling elites, start to exist. This happens in China too – early Neolithic villages have houses that all look similar, and the graves of the people are all much the same. But later Neolithic villages have evidence of a hierarchy in their buildings, and in the grave goods of the people. The book says that some of the features distinguishing the houses are common through Chinese history – enclosures around the elite buildings, and significant buildings on platforms.

Writing is also starting to be developed by the end of this period, but it’s not clear if the systems seen are actually related to the writing system that later developed. What’s seen is seen on pots and stone objects, but there’s later textual evidence that perishable surfaces might’ve been used for writing (bundles of bamboo strips).

Tangents to follow up on: Homo sapiens evolution. Middle Eastern development of agriculture/Neolithic era technology. Conveniently I think I’ve got books in the queue already that deal with both of those πŸ™‚

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

The fourth & last programme in Dan Snow’s series about the British Navy talked about how we got from the total domination of the seas in the aftermath of Trafalgar, to the on or below par situation in the First World War.

Once Nelson & the fleet had won at Trafalgar there wasn’t an intact navy left that could challenge the British Navy. The French did try & build back up, but the British managed to always go one better & build more or better ships – this was the first “arms race”. The Empire used this naval superiority to behave badly and make money, in much the same way that the Empire used any other sort of technological edge they had. As an example – once they’d their steam driven gunboats to slaughter the Chinese fleet, the British annexed the island of Hong Kong and always kept a few gunboats sitting in the harbour there to make sure to remind the Chinese government what would happen if they got any funny ideas about stopping trade with Britain. This is the origin of the term “gunboat diplomacy”.

But the lack of any challenge had a detrimental effect on the Navy over time – after a while there was no-one who’d actually had to fight in a real war. And in peace time it was harder to rise from the ranks to become an officer, as the traditional way to do so was to demonstrate valour in combat. This meant the hierarchy fossilised – the officers came from the “right families” and no matter how talented a rating was he wasn’t getting promoted. The best demonstration of how big a problem this was is the collision between HMS Victoria & HMS Camperdown. The fleet in the Mediterranean were doing manoeuvres and the senior officer (commanding the Victoria) signalled for a particular course change, the officer in charge of the Camperdown hesitated because it looked unsafe (due to the proximity of the battleships and the size of their turning circles) but was signalled to get on with it. He obeyed his orders, and the two ships collided – more than 450 lives were lost, including the commander on the Victoria. The subsequent court martial didn’t completely clear the commander of the Camperdown of blame, but did say that the vast majority of the blame fell on the shoulders of the senior officer because “of course” the other officer should have followed orders. (Reading wikipedia about it while writing this post it’s become obvious that the programme simplified things almost to the point of being wrong – I was left with the impression after watching it that the commander of the Camperdown was regarded as having done the right thing in obeying orders, but the situation appears to be a lot more nuanced than that).

By the start of the 20th century there was a new enemy – the Germans were starting to build up their fleet to try & challenge the might of the British Navy. This lead to a new arms race, and the British designed & built the first dreadnoughts. Counter-intuitively these powerful ships actually levelled the playing field – they were so much better than the older ships that all that mattered was how many dreadnoughts you had. And everyone was starting from a point of having few or none. The British did manage to ramp up production of the ships, and by the start of the First World War had twice as many ships as the Germans. The two fleets met in battle off the coast of Denmark – the last great battle involving battleships. The British lost. In large part due to their own mistakes. One of these was that the ships had radio but this wasn’t used because it was too new-fangled for old fashioned commanders who’d rather rely on flag signals. The conditions weren’t good for visibility (hardly surprising when every ship is belching out smoke) and the misinterpreted or un-understandable signals caused confusion. There were also losses of ships that could have been avoided – safety hatches in the ships were left open between the guns and the ammo stores, and several ships blew up when German shells dropped straight down into the ammo and ignited it.

Snow then finished up the programme with a brief trot through the overall shape of the Navy’s history – from collection of ships barely working together through to a fleet that was if anything too regimented & regulated. He briefly mentioned the more modern role of the Navy in protecting shipping and providing mobile aircraft bases, but really what he’d been interested in telling us about in this series was the big naval battles phase of history. When our investment into the Navy allowed a small island to control an enormous empire, before technology moved on and left us behind again.

The second programme we watched was presented by Rachel & Rebecca Unthank, the singers in The Unthanks, called “The Unthanks: A Very English Winter”. The two women travelled around the country attending traditional events associated with dates in the winter. So for instance for Bonfire Night they went to Lewes, where they take the whole thing very seriously indeed! Imagine Mardi Gras, but with a lot of fire & politics. There are still Mummer’s Plays done in various places throughout the year, and they had longsword dancing and molly dancers (not morris dancers though, but this was clearly the same type of thing). A programme to watch for the spectacle and the songs, and also coz it’s nice to see there are still some old-fashioned traditions carrying on into the present day πŸ™‚

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Here be spoilers! Read at own risk πŸ˜‰ It also probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the film yet, as I’m not doing a plot synopsis.

J & I went to see The Hobbit on Tuesday evening & it was rather good πŸ™‚

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

I’ll get the negative things I want to say out of the way first, as they’re not about the story. We went to the Imax screen in Cineworld which has assigned seats and ended up with seats nearish the back at the side (row P in screen 6 if you’re local to Ipswich and want to avoid this) – which put us right underneath one of the rear speaker stacks and as a result the sound was appalling. I was wondering during the trailers/ads if I needed ear plugs and whether I was going to come out of the film with ringing ears. Thankfully it was less over-loud during the film itself (or maybe there were just more quiet bits to recover during), but it was still loud enough to be distorted at times and the “background” noise drowned out the voices at more than one point. Another time we’ll go to a different showing if those are the only seats left.

I liked the use of 3D – most of the time just adding depth in a fairly subtle way, with the occasional thing popping out to good effect (the butterfly that flew away towards the back of the cinema, and some flaming pine cones that made me duck are the things that have particularly stuck in my mind). But I did think it looked blurry when panning across a scene – I’d wonder if it was artistic choice if it was just the fight scenes (the chaos of war or something) but it was even when panning around scenery with no or few moving things. We were watching the 24fps 3D version, and I do wonder if the 48fps version would look better for those bits – I should’ve looked that up before we bought tickets I guess, I just didn’t think it’d make that much difference. (Screen 8 in Cineworld Ipswich is doing 48fps apparently, if you were going to go see it.)

OK, now I’ve got my grumpy old woman bit out of the way what about the film itself? πŸ™‚

I enjoyed it πŸ™‚ I think they did a good job of weaving in the things that were in the book and the things they got from the rest of Tolkien’s world. And presumably some things were additions of their own, but nothing stuck out like a sore thumb. I had read that they’d given Galadriel a role in the story to have a female character with a speaking part in the film – in some ways making some of the dwarves female might’ve been the better answer (and is probably what would be the case if this was written these days), but that would require changing things too much for most people’s tastes (I can imagine the explosions about how they’d “ruined Tolkien’s story”). When I’d read about it I’d worried it might feel tacked on or shoehorned in to tick some boxes, but I thought they did a very good job. The scene itself didn’t just work in the context of the film, but also in setting up Saruman’s turning to evil in the Lord of the Rings films.

I don’t think Saruman is supposed to’ve already gone over to Sauron at this point, but I think you can see he’s starting to slide down the slippery slope. The petty dismissal & belittling of Radagast because he doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard of acceptable behaviour & appearance. The lack of empathy towards the exiled dwarves. The way he seems more concerned that things should be done the “proper way” rather than with considering what is the right thing to be doing. And I particularly liked the way the film makes it explicit that everyone else is just tuning out his ranting by fading back the sound and having Galadriel & Gandalf have a mental conversation while Saruman drones on.

I also liked the way that while they do state a couple of the themes of the film in the dialogue they don’t belabour it. So Gandalf says the bit about “true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” but when it comes to the point where that matters we aren’t beaten around the head with why Bilbo shows mercy or that this is a Significant Moment, we’re trusted to realise that for ourselves.

And the other is when Gandalf is talking to Galadriel about Saruman and says “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.” (Quotes taken from IMDB btw, they do look about right but the wording might be a little off as I think they’re user submitted.) And really that’s spread through everything that happens in the film. One of J’s colleagues pointed out there’s a lot of shots of Thorin as “The Hero”, backlit and/or in slow-mo. As Anna points out this is mostly when he’s being talked about by the other characters, when they’re telling stories about him and his deeds, it’s about how the other dwarves see Thorin. But I think it’s also that he’s the character who should be The Hero, he’s the one who is the last of the line of Durin going to take back his home from the dragon, the prince of the blood, the trained warrior, the man with the blood feud with Azog. By all rights this should be his story. But it’s not, it’s the story of our homesick fussy little hobbit who unexpectedly & out-of-characterly went on an adventure. And over the course of the film he looks at one terrible & scary situation after another and summons up all his courage and does what needs to be done even tho he’d rather be back home & comfortable, warm & dry. Like when they meet the Trolls, there’s Bilbo – first trying to sneak in to get the horses back, then trying to talk their way out of being eaten. And most obviously when Thorin does his Hero thing and runs down the tree to fight his sworn enemy, but fails – it’s Bilbo who saves his life by rushing in, not fearlessly but because it is the right thing to do. And then after that the rest of the dwarves come, and Gandalf’s summoned rescuing eagles arrive. But if Bilbo hadn’t done what needed to be done, then the story would be over.

I liked Radagast – at first I thought he was a bit over-done with the eccentricities but he’s clearly not just a foolish old man talking to the animals. He’s got power, and he’s got courage – going to the fortress tracking the spiders, for instance – and he’s paying more attention to the world about him than Saruman is. I guess that’s one of the other themes of the film – don’t go on superficial appearances. Like Saruman’s distaste for Radagast, like Thorin’s dismissal of Bilbo.

The dwarves were cool – I thought the film handled the mix of slapstick and seriousness well. And actually getting some of the songs was neat (and didn’t feel musical-ish with the songs part of the production rather than the world inside the story, it felt like these actual characters would burst into song in that way). Although of course I’ve had “Time passes. Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” running through my head ever since. I can’t remember who I was talking to about it recently, but we concluded there’s a generation of us who will immediately remember the game that came from πŸ™‚

I did think there was a bit much of the “run through the goblin caves killing goblins” scenes. But then it culminated in the line that made me laugh the most so I’ll forgive it πŸ˜‰ That being the bit where the goblin king says “So now what are you going to do?” and Gandalf slices him open, so the goblin king looks down and says “That’ll do it.” and dies. Made me giggle, the timing was perfect.

I’m sure there was other stuff I thought I wanted to comment on, but I think that’s enough for one post πŸ™‚


Last Tuesday we got a new PS3 game. On Saturday we got our bass guitar fixed. These two facts are related.

Rocksmith is a music game, in the same genre as Rock Band, but it’s also a guitar tutor. You plug your electric guitar, or bass, directly into the console with a special cable that comes in the box and you play along with the music, playing the notes that come down a highway towards you. You work your way up through various “events” and the game organises your playlists in order of difficulty. Do well enough & you get an encore track, do very well and you get 2! And you score points, which then lead to levelling up and unlocking stuff like new venues or new tracks (tho I think most are already available from the start). So that’s the game side of it.

The tutor side of it is that it’s actually teaching you how to play the instrument. As well as being able to rehearse or play songs straight through there is also a tutorial mode with a selection of “technique challenges” which each have a little intro video telling you what you’re supposed to be doing and what you’re supposed to be learning, and then a shortish piece of music to play along with that that involves that technique. The three I’ve played so far (for bass) have been about basic plucking, using two fingers alternately and playing syncopated rhythms. There’s another couple of dozen I haven’t even looked at.

There’s also the riff repeater mode, which breaks a song down into its constituent parts. You then play that section over & over till you get it right, so next time when you play the song hopefully you can get it right there too. You’ve got a choice of modes within that – the one I’ve played most often is “leveller”. In that you start off at a low difficulty level (which is also the case when you first play a song), maybe there’s a note every bar or so. Then if you get it right it increases the difficulty, and repeat until you’re playing the actual phrase as played on record. There’s also “free time”, where you start out at the most complex but it waits at every note until you’ve fretted it right and played it right – you succeed when you play through with no pauses. And there’s “accelerator” where you start slow & work up to full speed.

And I discovered that if you manage to score well (ie hit most notes) when you’ve got 100% mastery of every phrase in a song it opens up a new mode to play the song in – Master Mode. Where it doesn’t show you the notes, you have to play it from memory. Frankly that’s a bit scary and I haven’t tried it yet πŸ˜‰

Obviously you only get out of it what you put into it – it’s not going to make anyone a super guitar player in a week or anything like that. I do wonder if it’s maybe a little too forgiving, I’m sure in the stuff I’ve played so far I’ve messed stuff up but had it register as OK. That might be because I’m in the early stages of the game side of it – perhaps the bigger (higher level) venues are more demanding, we’ll see. It’s also not a replacement for a teacher if you’re serious about playing properly – it has no idea how you’re plucking the strings for instance – so clearly you can pick up bad habits without realising it (or due to gaming the way it registers notes, I guess).

I don’t know if I can judge how well it would work if you were coming at the game “fresh” – in addition to having had lessons on a variety of woodwind at school I’ve also played around on our bass off & on over the last decade & a half, so I’ve got a fair idea of what I’m trying to do even if I can’t do it (if that makes sense). J says he finds the game a little more overwhelming than I do (too many notes coming at him too fast). He’s still got a musical background but he’s played on the bass less than I have, which may mean that if you’re really new to music playing and/or to the guitar/bass then you’ll find it all a bit too much. But then it does ramp up and down the difficulty as you play depending on how well you do, so perhaps you just wouldn’t get to the “too many notes” stage until you were ready enough for it.

The obvious comparison is with pro-mode in Rock Band 3. I think Rocksmith might come out slightly ahead as a means of teaching the instrument based on my playing so far. Playing on an actual instrument means you’re more likely to be able to transfer the skills learnt from the game to reality (given you’re pretty much there already), combined with the Master Mode it means you can end up actually able to play the song without the cues of the game. And you don’t need to buy a special peripheral or guitar for Rocksmith, which makes it a much cheaper option (if you already have a guitar or bass, but you’re probably not interested in the game if you don’t already own or are soon to own an instrument). But Rock Band 3 pro-mode has the advantage that the peripheral or special guitar has technology to detect where your fingers are, so the feedback for finger positioning is more instant.

(Oh, and the bass didn’t need much fixing – it just needed the socket replaced coz the connection has always been a little dodgy when plugging it into an amp. And I got it re-strung at the same time coz I’m pretty sure it still had the same strings on it as were on it when we bought it in 1998. The local music shop (Jack White Music Store) did it in an hour on Saturday afternoon.)

In Our Time: Fermat’s Last Theorem

Fermat was a 17th century lawyer who did maths in his spare time, corresponding with many other mathematicians around Europe. He had a habit of setting little challenges to his correspondents – “I can prove this, can you?”. He’s famous now for an annotation he made in a book – that he had found a proof that an + bn = cn has no positive integer solutions when n>2 “which this margin is too narrow to contain”. The guests on the episode of In Our Time that discussed it were Marcus du Sautoy (University of Oxford), Vicky Neale (University of Cambridge) and Samir Siksek (University of Warwick).

They started off by setting the theorem in context. It’s a generalised form of Pythagorean Theorem – the one we all (probably!) learnt at school. For a right-angled triangle the sum of the squares of the two shorter sides is equal to the square of the longer side (the hypotenuse). And du Sautoy pointed out that this has a very practical application – if you have a rope with equally spaced knots in it and you arrange it into a triangle with sides 3, 4 and 5 then you are guaranteed a right-angle between the sides of length 3 & 4. Useful for building pyramids. And other things you want the corners to be right-angles on. So for n=2 we know there are some positive integer solutions.

It’s also a sort of equation called a Diophantine Equation – these are polynomials that only have positive integer values of their variables. So other examples are things like x2=y3-2 (which has at least one solution – 52=33-2). Some Diophantine Equations have no solutions, some have finite numbers of solutions, some have infinite. And the question is what sort of equation Fermat’s Last Theorem is.

Fermat never wrote his proof down anywhere, and the experts were suggesting that perhaps he never actually had a generalised one. That his proof by infinite reduction of the case where n=4 was all he’d done (and then was suggesting that must be the case for all the other possible values). The equation itself isn’t a particularly interesting one and hasn’t any direct practical applications, but it became famous because no-one could find the proof that Fermat said he had. Various famous (and otherwise) mathematicians tried to find the proof – the one that they discussed that I particularly remember is Sophie Germain, who was a French mathematician in the late 18th/early 19th Century. At that time she couldn’t study mathematics formally because she was a woman, so she was self-taught & corresponded with other mathematicians using a male pen-name. She found a way to inspect particular values for n to show that there were no solutions – and used this to prove the theorem for values of n up to 100. Neale clearly found Germain particularly interesting as she nearly got side-tracked into a bio of her before being pulled back to the subject at hand πŸ™‚

During the 19th & 20th Centuries there were several monetary prizes on offer to people who found a proof, but no-one did until Andrew Wiles in 1997 (just before the time limit on that particular competition). They did discuss a bit about what his proof was, but I didn’t follow it well enough to remember it well enough to explain it – it had something to do with mapping these sorts of algebraic equations to elliptic curves, and if you could show there was no possible curve then there must be no solutions to the equation.

They summed up the programme (very briefly) by saying that even though the equation isn’t itself terribly important the effect of the competition to solve it was to drive forward several other areas of mathematics that do have practical applications.

“The Dirty Streets of Heaven” Tad Williams

I got this out of the library because I read a review of it on and it sounded intriguing, and we own several other novels by Williams so he’s an author I’ve enjoyed reading before. I think my verdict would have to be that I got what was promised and it was fun, but somehow it didn’t seem like anything special – I’ll probably read the other books in the series when they come out if I see them in the library, but I’m unlikely to reserve them or buy the series.

It’s urban fantasy, and our protagonist is an angel called Bobby Dollar – he’s an Advocate, an angel who lives & works on Earth. When a person dies they are judged by a higher angel who decides if they’re going to Heaven (perhaps via Purgatory) or Hell, and there’s an Advocate from Heaven and a Prosecutor from Hell who argue and present the case for each side. Very much like in a modern legal case. Advocates live in real bodies in the real world, despite being angels, and only go up to Heaven to meet with their supervisors. So in many ways Dollar is just like a normal person in the normal world, except for his job is that he gets called up and told where a death is and then he drives to it and steps out of time to argue the case for Heaven. When he’s not working he hangs out in a bar with his fellow angels.

Trouble starts when Dollar shows up to a job, but the soul of the deceased is missing. Then the Prosecutor from that case is found dead in a gruesome (and unusually permanent) fashion, everyone thinks Dollar has something belonging to a Duke of Hell, and more souls are going missing. There’s also a rookie Advocate, who seems more important than he should be, oh, and there’s a stunningly beautiful demon that it would be suicidal for Dollar to fall in love with, but of course he does. Quite possibly there’ll be a love triangle thing going on in the later books, because there’s also an angel (another Advocate) that Dollar has a thing for/with. The story kept me sucked into it, wanting to know what happened next, with a Chandler-esque atmosphere to some of it. But then somehow the ending disappointed me. Presumably all the interesting questions are going to be resolved in the last book, because there was just one bit that got dealt with here. And yet I wasn’t left thinking “can’t wait for the next book!”. I’m not sure why, though.

I did like the way Heaven was portrayed, that has the potential to be interesting if it is actually important to the plot rather than just background. Although the mythology of the book is very much (Catholic) Christian in nature it’s explicitly made clear that this might not be the case throughout the afterlife, that this might be the way it’s represented to this batch of angels and demons because that’s their cultural mythology – Dollar has never met the Highest and knows of no angel however exalted who has, he’s just a small piece of a large machine. None of the souls in Heaven, angels or not, remember who they were in life – they’re completely wiped clean of memories. And everyone is cheerful and unquestioningly happy. Dollar knows (or rather has been told) he was once alive on Earth, but he remembers nothing before the 90s when he became an angel. It’s clear the happiness in Heaven is externally imposed, too, Dollar mentions resisting it when he goes to report to his supervisor and he talks about having to concentrate to keep questioning things rather than just cheerfully accepting them. And that’s all very creepy. Particularly as demons remember their previous lives (or at least the impossibly beautiful Countess of Cold Hands does, or says she does). Hell is clearly bad, and demons are demonic, but Heaven is all a bit Stepford Wives.

“A History of Christianity” Diarmaid MacCulloch

I think I’ve been reading this book off and on for most of the year, which is an awfully long time for me to take to read a book! It’s subtitled “The First Three Thousand Years” which gives you a hint of the scale of it. Over the thousand pages in the book it covers the development and history of Christianity across the whole world from the Jewish and Greek underpinnings of the time and place that Jesus was born into right up to the beginning of the 21st Century. Given it doesn’t just cover the history (both of the Church and of the time period in general) but also goes into the various theological developments (and arguments and schisms) through the history of the Church, it ends up a very information dense book. Which I knew it would be going in, I’ve read a previous book by MacCulloch about the Reformation which was similarly pitched. This is part of why it took me so long to read – I needed to be in the right frame of mind to digest it properly πŸ™‚ But despite this it was a clearly written & readable book, and I should read it again sometime.

Because it took me so long I’ve not got a good grasp of the whole thing in my head any more but I am still attempting to write a summary of sorts (and I really wish I’d written up notes after each section, I have a plan to do that with future books, writing about what I’ve read helps solidify it in my head). It opens with a couple of chapters that set the scene – a brief history of the Greeks & their philosophy (and their conquest by & absorption into the Roman Republic), followed by a brief history of Israel & the Jewish religion & philosophy. The next chapter deals with what can be teased out of the Gospels about the historical person of Jesus, and the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion – in terms of what happened in the very early Church, which at the time was really a branch of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from its Jewish roots comes with Paul (who isn’t one of the original disciples), and with the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD which disrupted the still Jewish leaning part of Christianity.

Historical accident or circumstance plays a large role in the early development of the Church, in contrast to later on when the Church has a hand in creating the political history (in Europe, anyway). At first the centre of gravity of the Church was towards the east of the Mediterranean – Egypt, Syria, and even further east to Baghdad & beyond were important centres of Christianity. The westward shift comes from the intertwining of the Church in Rome with the Roman Empire, and then the later rise of Islam in the Middle East which marginalises those Christian communities. Latin & Orthodox Christianity become dominant not because they’re closer to the original (they really aren’t) but because they get political power and hook themselves into the state apparatus of the Roman Empire & its successors.

A common theme through the whole history of the Church is schisms based on arguments about what the stories in the Bible mean, and what they should teach us to believe & how they should teach us to behave. This starts right at the beginning with Paul and his not-necessarily-Jewish form of Christianity (that ended up completely dominating) and James the brother of Jesus, whose Christianity was a flavour of Judaism. There are splits over the nature of Jesus (both divine and human, but is that mixed or separate within the body of Christ?), splits over the concept of the Trinity, splits over whether icons are permitted or prohibited, splits over the meaning of the Eucharist (literally magical or metaphor), splits over who is in charge (Pope vs monarchs, priests vs elders), splits over the construction of the afterlife (purgatory? or not?), splits over free will or predestination. And more. It seems a bit like every possible stand one can take about the nature of God and of the message that Jesus was preaching, someone has taken and has proclaimed to be a revelation directly from God.

Another strand running throughout the history of Christianity is the imminent arrival of the end of the world. Jesus and his early followers were expecting the End to begin during their own lifetimes – his message was an apocalyptic one. One of the re-adjustments necessary in the mainstream Church after this was a move away from a literal interpretation of the end as nigh to a more metaphorical one where it is “soon” in the time of God not necessarily in human terms. But the idea keeps returning, time and time again various sects and parts of the Church have begun to believe that the End will come in their lifetimes, and time and time again it hasn’t. It has survived even into modern times, affecting the political landscape – there is apparently a significant strand of support for the Israeli state that comes from a belief that a Jewish homeland is a necessary pre-requisite for the second coming of Christ. (As an aside, I find it a bit mind-boggling that people are out there trying to encourage the right conditions for the end of the world, I guess if you “know” you’re going to go straight to heaven in the Rapture maybe you have a different perspective, but I just don’t really understand the point of view that thinks “hey, everyone & everything will die if we just get things organised like this, let’s go do it!”.)

The book ends on an optimistic note for the future of the Church – the secularisation of Europe gives an impression that numbers of Christians are dwindling and it’s dying out, but globally speaking this is not the case. Two of the growth areas that he talks about are South Korea and Africa, the latter being particularly surprising because you might’ve thought that Christianity would be linked to colonialism and thus not popular with the African peoples. But instead they have developed their own forms of Christianity, derived from but different to the Western Christianities they’ve grown out of.

In Our Time: Caxton and the Printing Press

The printing press was invented in Germany around 1440, and by 1476 had even been brought to the relative backwater of England, by a man named William Caxton. The guests on the episode of In Our Time that talked about this were Richard Gameson (University of Durham), Julia Boffey (Queen Mary, University of London) and David Rundle (University of Oxford). I’d heard of Caxton before, because he’s the subject of one of the mini biographies in a book I read earlier this year (“Renaissance People” ed. Robert C. Davis & Beth Lindsmith), but didn’t know much about him.

He was in his 40s by the time he became a printer – prior to that he was a mercer, that is a merchant involved in the cloth trade. He was clearly of some importance, he spent time in Bruges (in Burgundy) as the Governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London in Bruges (I think I have the title right) – basically the representative of all the London merchants to the officials in the city & to the other trading nations there. They got side-tracked when talking about it, so I’m not quite sure why Caxton left Bruges and why he changed career, but in his 40s that is what he did. Moving first to Cologne where he got involved in the new trade of printing, then he went back to Bruges (probably) and proceeded to set up shop printing not just Latin & French books (which would have an international readership) but also books in English for import into England (and pretty much nowhere else, because English wasn’t an international language).

He then moved to Westminster, where he set up shop as the first printer in England (and he remained the only English printer for some time, other printers were of continental origin). They spent a while discussing why Westminster and not London (and as always I was momentarily taken aback that they aren’t the same place – I know this, but I have to remind myself every time). Partly it seems because there was already a book trade in the city of Westminster, so selling print books as well as manuscripts was in some ways more of the same and your customers would already be there. Partly because Westminster had the Abbey and all the religious related printing needs (like indulgences). Partly because the niche that Caxton was trying to fit into was more Westminster oriented than City of London oriented – he wasn’t doing legal documents and such, or pamphlets, he was primarily printing books. And partly because there were taxes and restrictions on who could produce books in the City of London, so setting up shop outside gave him more freedom (and lower bills).

So Caxton’s clientΓ¨le were primarily the religious institutions and the nobility – and a large part of what he printed was books in English, which was unusual. He is most remembered for his editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and they spent a while talking about that on the programme. Caxton is credited with helping to cement Chaucer’s status as the premiΓ¨re English writer, but they were pointing out that this wasn’t a new thing that Caxton did, he was very much building up an existing reputation (partly as a way of marketing his editions of the books).

Caxton is also credited with starting the standardisation of written English. But the guests on this programme were pretty clear that this wasn’t really the case – yes, printed books did do this (because you didn’t have local scribes copying texts with their local spelling, everyone bought the same edition) but Caxton himself didn’t really have much to do with it. They seemed clear that he did edit things, but was inconsistent within his own works. Also early printed books actually used the vagaries of spelling to their advantage, which I didn’t know before! So if it was more convenient to have a few letters more on a line to make the edges line up nicely then the typesetter would sprinkle a few “e”s on the ends of words, or double a letter or two. Or if you need some less, perhaps you’d take out a “u” or two.

A lot of what is known about Caxton comes from his editorial work, in particular the prologues & epilogues that he added to his books. They did stress, however, that these are often full of clichΓ©s so need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. He was clearly good at being a publisher/editor/printer though, because he didn’t go bankrupt which a lot of early printers did. This was due to the high start up costs (you need all the equipment) and because you needed to figure out how many copies of something you wanted in advance, guessing demand right could make the difference between staying in business or going bankrupt. Caxton clearly did, as his business was inherited after his death by his foreman, who gradually moved towards printing things for the legal trade and printing pamphlets. And after a while he moved the business to the City of London – to Fleet Street.

The three guests all seemed very enthusiastic about the subject, and all keen to have their say on every bit, but I did end up feeling a little sorry for Julia Boffey who got talked over more than once. She’d start making a point and one of the others would jump in and she’d be reduced to saying “yes, yes” while they talked.