Wonders of Life; Brazil with Michael Palin

Well, Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life series really didn’t start how I expected it to do. I suppose in retrospect it should’ve been obvious that a physicist would talk about the physics & chemistry of life rather than the biology! This first episode was asking the question “What is life?”. He made a brief detour to mention that this question is typically answered by reference to a soul or other supernatural cause, but then started to talk about the laws of physics and how life exists as a result of the ways these laws work (in the same way that a star exists because of how the laws of physics work).

Life probably got started in hydrothermic vents in the ocean – which are alkaline environments. The ocean of the time (3.5 or 4 billion years ago, or so) was slightly acidic, so there was a proton gradient set up between the alkaline waters of the vent & the acidic waters around about it. The protons moving along this gradient releases energy. This is the same mechanism by which batteries work – in this case the heat of the earth’s core drives the setting up of the gradient, and because of the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) all of this energy must be released when the protons move down the gradient. The hydrothermic vents are also rich in organic molecules, and the energy drives the chemical reactions between these molecules. And the first life arises from that chemistry. All life uses proton gradients to get its energy – he showed us pictures of mitochondria from a variety of animals, but the same is also true of prokaryotes (which have no mitochondria).

At first glance life violates the second law of thermodynamics – that the universe tends towards disorder. Living things are obviously complex and over the last few billion years they’ve got more rather than less complex. I never quite follow this argument (physics really isn’t my thing) but I think what it boils down to is that whilst an organism is more complex it’s achieved that in a way that disorders its surroundings more than they would otherwise be. So yes living organisms are localised pockets of complexity but the universe as a whole is still more disordered than before.

He then moved on to talk about how come life isn’t still just chemical soup in rocks. And what keeps organisms the same as their parent organisms. The answer is DNA – the instruction set for making an organism. I was much amused by his DNA precipitation experiment – take cheek cells, add detergent, salt and alcohol, and hey presto! you have white strands of precipitated DNA in the alcohol layer in your test tube. That’s pretty much the basis of a lot of molecular biology labwork – only you don’t use fairy liquid or vodka. He then ran through the basic high level structure of DNA and talked about how it codes for proteins. And then proteins are both the building blocks & machinery of cells and organisms. The great thing about DNA as a molecule to store the instructions is how stable it is – he quoted 1 error per billion bases (I think) when duplicating DNA which is a pretty low error rate. And relatively small differences in the instruction set are enough to generate very different organisms – he pointed out we’re only 1% different from chimpanzees, 1.6% different from gorillas etc.

The second episode was all about senses. After a bit of scene setting he talked about paramecium, which are single celled organisms that swim about using wee hairs (cilia) in their cell membrane. When it bumps into something in the water the little hairs reverse direction and it moves away again. It does this using proton gradients – normally there’s a difference between inside & outside the cell, and when the paramecium touches something the membrane deforms & this opens channels in the membrane and the proton gradient equalises. The energy generated by this is used to switch the direction of the cilia and to open more channels (I think) which means the change in direction propagates right round the cell. This is the basis of how all our senses transmit the information back to the brain – this is how nerve cells work.

Cox then spent a bit of time talking about how different animals have different senses (and different dominant senses). Different species therefore sense the world differently to us – our dependence on sight & hearing, and our ranges of sight & hearing, aren’t some objective way of detecting the world. Like all other animals we have the senses that we need for our evolutionary niche. In this bit I was particularly amused by the footage from some experiments on frogs – if a small rectangle is move past a frog in a horizontal orientation it goes nuts trying reach it & eat it. If the same thing is moved past in a vertical orientation, the frog doesn’t even seem to see it. When it looks like a worm, then it’s detected, when it doesn’t look like lunch it’s not worth wasting energy paying attention to.

He then talked about human hearing while sat on a boat near some alligators. The point of the segment was that despite the little bones in our ears looking like they’re designed for the purpose, actually they’re re-purposed gill arches. And part way through this long process of re-purposing the bones are the reptiles, whose jaw bones are also re-purposed gill arches. So the alligators were illustration …I still wouldn’t’ve got that close to them myself!

And obviously he talked about sight. Rhodopsin, a pigment that reacts to light, has been around in organisms for a long time – way back to cyanobacteria which have existed for a couple of billion years. And Cox demonstrated how simple a basic eye actually is – even a “camera eye” like ours (retina which does basic light detection, some sort of case with a hole in in front, then a lens in the hole. Obviously the devil is in the details, but one thing Cox didn’t mention explicitly is that eyes are believed to have independently evolved several times (the figure I remember is at least 40 times, but I don’t know if that’s right). He then went diving to see an octopus in its natural environment – which is another animal with a camera eye like ours (and it evolved independently). Octopuses are pretty intelligent, and Cox speculates that perhaps intelligence is driven by the need to process the complex images that our sophisticated eyes produce. I’m not sure what I think of that, in the same programme Cox also showed us a mantis shrimp that sees more colours and detects distance more precisely than people – but there was no talk about them being particularly intelligent.

As I said, not quite what I expected from the name of this series, but that makes it more interesting I think 🙂

We also started watching a series about Brazil with Michael Palin. I tend to be a bit wary of travelogues like this – sometimes the bits where the presenter joins in can cross the line between funny & cringe-making for me. Palin normally stays about on the right side of the line, but only just. But it’s still interesting to see the places & people.

The first episode was about the north-east of the country & was titled “Out of Africa”. A lot of people in this region have African ancestry – a lot of the slaves brought from Africa to the Americas ended up in Brazil. Palin quoted a statistic of 40%, and said this was more than ended up in the USA, which I was startled by. This has noticeable influences on the art & culture of the region – one notable example is the religion of Candomble which mixes African and Christian elements.

Palin visited a few different places in the region & a variety of different sorts of groups & events. The ones that particularly stick in my mind were the cowboys who were participating a race to catch bulls. And the national park that consists of a region of sand dunes that are blown miles inland to an area with heavy enough rainfall that there are lakes in the middle of the dunes – which looks pretty surreal.

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 1)

This is the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that ran at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 2005 to April 2006. I didn’t go to see it myself, but I’ve borrowed the book from my Dad who did. A lot of the book (as befits an exhibition catalogue) is full of pictures of the objects that were displayed. It starts with three general essays, then each section of objects has some introductory text. It also has a map of China, and of the Forbidden Palace. And a chronology which covers both the major events in China of this period and puts them in context with the rest of the world. So far I’ve read the general essays, so that’s what this post is about. The first essay is about the history of the period & is the one I was most interested in. The second is about the imperial art collection, and the third (and least interesting to me) is about the architecture of the palaces of these Emperors.

The Three Emperors of the title of the book are the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor who were the 2nd to 4th Emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. This was the last Dynasty to rule Imperial China, and they held power from 1644 through to 1911. These three Emperors are the high point of Qing China. Previous post about this era of Chinese history: 7th part of “China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed”.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1649: Charles I beheaded.
  • 1688: Glorious Revolution (i.e. William & Mary take the throne of Britain).
  • 1714: George I took the throne of Britain.
  • 1720: South Sea Bubble (post).
  • c. 1760: Industrial Revolution begins in Britain.
  • 1776: US independence declared.

“The ‘Prosperous Age’: China in the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the history of the period, and also looks at the way it has been discussed and summarised by historians both inside and outside modern China. Rawski starts by reminding the reader that the Qing dynasty were outsiders who conquered China, and that they regarded themselves as different from their Han Chinese subjects in China Proper (which is the name used for the area that the Ming Dynasty ruled over). They created a writing system for their Manchu language, and this was an official state language alongside Chinese. They regarded their subjects as divided into Han Chinese civilians and Bannermen (and citizens of the non-China Proper regions), and there were different political institutions involved in ruling over the two sorts of people. The people of China Proper were still ruled via the Ming bureaucracy, but the inner councils of the Emperors were derived from the Bannermen and the conquest elite. Intermarriage between the two groups of citizens was forbidden.

The Kangxi Emperor was the second Qing Emperor – he took the throne at 7 years old in 1662 after the death of his father the Shunzhi Emperor. Even though the Qing had been ruling China since 1644 the conquest wasn’t finished, so Rawski says that the main thrust of the Kangxi Emperor’s long reign was finishing the conquest and consolidating Qing power. Consolidation was required because a lot of Ming commanders & officials surrendered once the Ming dynasty was toppled, and so the Qing actually gained territory rather faster than they could assimilate it. The last of the Ming claimants to the throne was executed in 1662, the same year as Kangxi took the throne, but a loyalist rebellion lead by the Zheng family persisted until 1683. The Zheng family were maritime traders who had built a vast trading empire. Although nominally on the side of the Ming they were pretty much acting in their own interests, rather than under the control of a Ming claimant. Luckily for the Zheng, the Qing initially lacked a navy and anyway were more interested in land conquests. Also during this period there was a rebellion by three Han Chinese generals, who had been given control over parts of south & southwest China after joining the Manchu side early in the conquest. Attempts by the Kangxi Emperor to take back control of these regions sparked the rebellion which was eventually put down in 1681.

As well as finishing the conquest and putting down rebellions the Kangxi Emperor used political means to consolidate his power over both his Han Chinese subjects and his Bannermen subjects. For the first the Kangxi Emperor acted as a proper Confucian Emperor should. He kept the bureaucratic structure that the Ming Dynasty had used (including the examinations), and he participated in the Confucian rituals of the court. He was fluent in Chinese (unlike his father) which I thought it was interesting. After the Norman Conquest, for instance, French was the language of the English court for a couple of hundred years and there’s no sign that the monarchs learnt English. But the second generation of the Qing Dynasty have made a point of learning the language of their new country and demonstrating their fluency with it. Maybe it’s got something to do with the relative prestige of the conquered country? I mean the Qing probably conquered China because they wanted to be specifically Emperors of China rather than it being just somewhere conveniently nearby. Or maybe it was the easiest way to consolidate his rule over China Proper – by being just as “Chinese” as the last Dynasty? Relevant to this exhibition in particular is that part of being a “proper” Chinese Emperor was patronage of the arts.

For the second half of his consolidation the Kangxi Emperor strengthened his control over the banner lords. Previously the leaders of each banner were pretty close to autonomous and were also involved in deliberating state decisions. Helped by some dismal performances during the putting down of rebellions in the early part of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign he took control of who the commanders of the troops were. And the administration of the banners was gradually bureaucratised and taken away from the traditional leaders – who were still princes, just with less actual influence.

One thing the Kangxi Emperor didn’t do well was organising the succession. The Ming had a rule that the eldest son of the Empress was the heir, but the Qing didn’t have this tradition. Their ancestors had permitted brothers to inherit as well as sons, but by the time of the conquest of China it was always a son that inherited. However they still had a tradition that it was the most worthy son that would inherit. The Kangxi Emperor first decided to follow the Ming custom, but then disinherited his eldest son, then re-inherited him, then dis-inherited him again and refused to name an heir until on his deathbed. At that point he is said to have named his fourth son, but there were rumours that this was fabricated. As a result the Yongzheng Emperor (this fourth son) instituted the (slightly odd to my eyes) practice of secretly designating an heir in a sealed casket which was hidden until after his death. This both made sure that the wishes of the deceased Emperor were known (and known to be true, due to the sealing) but no-one knew while he was alive so there would be less court intrigue.

The Yongzheng Emperor ruled for 12 years, and there’s only about 2/3 of a page of this 18 page essay devoted to him. The theme of his reign was reforming the fiscal administration of the state and finishing off the subjugation of the banner lords to the throne.

The Yongzheng Emperor was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor in 1736, and he ruled for the next 60 years. Apparently traditional Chinese historians divide his reign into to three – roughly categorisable as good, OK, bad. And then after that it’s downhill all the way to the inevitable end of Imperial China. The Qianlong Emperor would see it differently – he was proud of his Ten Great Victories and that the territory he ruled stretched further than that of the Ming Dynasty (and further than the People’s Republic of China). He saw himself as ruling over 5 distinct peoples (Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Chinese), only linked because he ruled them. His government had systems in place to balance the powers of the bureaucracy & the powers of the bannermen. China during this time was part of a lucrative intra-Asian trade network, and exports to Europe tilted the net balance of that trade in China’s favour.

Chinese society during the period was influenced by outside cultures as well as traditional Chinese ways. There were many Jesuits at court, and they were involved in introducing European science to the Qing and in negotiating treaties on behalf of the Qing with Russia. Russians too lived in Beijing, providing another avenue for cultural & commercial exchange. There was also increased social mobility, and apparently the literati worried about the rise of the nouveaux-riches. Contracts became the general way to organise your affairs (as opposed to institutions like hereditary slavery), and consumption of material culture including books increased. In the bits of the Qing Empire that weren’t China proper the Qianlong Emperor & his predecessors tried to promote their separate cultural traditions, but that doesn’t seem to’ve had particular success. Rawski discusses how the Manchu language influenced Chinese, and vice versa.

Traditional Chinese histories point to the last few decades of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign as the beginning of “dynastic decline” and cast the rebellions that were put down around this time in that light. But Rawski thinks that this is misplaced – instead of a rotten centre all the rebellions and unrest occurs at the edges of the Empire. So it’s the bits where the authority of the state is starting to run thin due to distance, not a breakdown of the state itself. And it was also a reaction to the attempts to extend state authority over those areas.

More recent Chinese histories of the era see it as the high point of China’s Imperial history, but also judge it ultimately as a failure. They compare it to the Industrial Revolution that kicks off in Europe around this time and see that as a missed opportunity that China should’ve seized. But outside China historians see the period differently. Rawski discusses the analysis of André Gunder Frank (a historian I assume …) who sees China as having been part of a global economy since the 1500s. And a core part of this economy until 1800 – metal flowed into China and goods flowed out. I got a little lost towards the end of this section, but I think the take home message was that Britain industrialising whilst China (and other countries) did not was not because of some difference in their history but was dependent on some specific circumstance in Britain at that time. Because of the global economy of the time China and other parts of Asia were as highly developed as Britain.

“The Qianlong Emperor as Art Patron and the Formation of the Collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing” Gerald Holzwarth

What was once the Forbidden City is now the Palace Museum, and it houses over a million items 80% of which were previous held by the Qing court. Holzwarth divides these into four groups according to their original function. The first group is things that were collected as works of art both ancient and newly created at the time. These were catalogued and kept boxed up – only taken out to be looked at or shown off, they weren’t exhibited as a matter of course. These include paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, jades etc. The second group is propaganda and was displayed on the palace walls – these were also works of art by our modern standards but the purpose at the time was the political message. The third group is the ritual and religious objects, for the Confucian state rituals as well as Buddhist & Daoist objects. And the fourth group consists of the clothing & accessories of the court, including things like the Emperor’s writing instruments & other everyday objects.

Holzwarth then discusses the first group, and the Qing Dynasty & the Qianlong Emperor’s role in developing the collection. The basis of the collection was the Ming Dynasty collection, and that was part of a continuous tradition of collecting going back 1600 years. The forerunners of this collection go back as far as the Shang Dynasty (post) c. 1500BC.

The Kangxi Emperor’s main legacy was to set up imperial workshops to create more art works for the collection. He was also a keen calligrapher, and wrote poetic inscriptions on pictures from the Imperial Collection. I’m the sort of person who hates the thought of writing in books, so this tradition of writing inscriptions on paintings fills me with horror. The Kangxi Emperor wasn’t much of an art historian, and relied on an expert who was a collector himself … and so the expert kept the best for his own collection and gave the Emperor the cheap ones or the fakes. His collection did later get amalgamated into the Imperial Collection by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Yongzheng Emperor gets about a paragraph in this essay – he was the best calligrapher of the three.

And then we move on to the Qianlong Emperor, whose influence on the collection is the subject of the bulk of the essay. Holzwarth calls him the last of the great imperial art collectors, and unlike his grandfather he was an expert in his own right. He inspected the new works of art while they were still being drafted, and he inspected the ancient ones and gave them his seal of approval. Literally – he had various collection seals, and marking a collected painting (or other artwork) with one’s seal was a traditional thing for collectors to do. This tradition actually grew out of authenticating written documents by putting imperial seals over the seams where pieces of writing were pasted together to form a hand scroll. He also wrote inscriptions on paintings, not just poems but also on some paintings he wrote notes on the experience of enjoying them. And he also wrote art-historical essays on some paintings, discussing who had painted them and correcting any misattributions. He did take care to consider the aesthetics of the painting when adding his inscriptions, but it still feels so alien to my attitude towards art.

As well as general collecting the Qianlong Emperor was consciously trying to create a canon of approved art. And as part of this aim he instituted cataloguing projects. Eventually these catalogues stretched to about 22,500 pages and covered over 5000 paintings and several thousand works of calligraphy. The best quality ones had highly detailed entries – including a list of all inscriptions and seals on the work. Other artifacts were also catalogued, with explanatory notes where appropriate.

The end of this essay harks back to the end of the first essay. Holzwarth notes that while the Kangxi Emperor was interested in European sciences, the Qianlong Emperor concentrated on renewing classical Chinese cultural heritage. So at a point where science & industrialisation was taking off in Europe, in China the man who set the cultural fashions was interested in the preservation & the equalling of the arts of the past.

“Imperial Architecture of the Qing: Palaces and Retreats” Frances Wood

The bulk of this essay describes the layout and building materials of the Forbidden City. The Qing inherited this from the Ming. Although there was some (unknown amount of) destruction during the events at the end of the Ming Dynasty, it was clearly still intact enough for the Shunzhi Emperor, his regents and government to move in immediately in 1644. They didn’t really alter the plan of the various buildings, even tho they did alter the use of some of them and tastes in interior decoration changed. Because it was mostly constructed of timber there were frequent serious fires, the essay describes how the library buildings were protected to some extent by pools of water in front of them & ornamental rockerys both of which acted as fire breaks.

Although the Forbidden City was the official main residence and the ceremonial seat of government the three Emperors spent several months of each year either on the move or in their summer palaces. These were generally north of Beijing closer to or in the ancestral Manchu territory, with countryside around them where the Emperors & their court could hunt and hold archery & horse-riding contests.

“Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories #10 (1948)” ed Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

It turns out that this is where I picked up my ideas of what John Campbell looked for in a story when he was an editor. Asimov’s introductions to a few of these stories refer to Campbell’s liking for stories about supermen among us (preferably our descendants) and about plucky Earthmen outwitting the aliens. I think I liked those plots a bit more when I was a teenager, and certainly the dodgy biology irritates me more now. I can’t help but feel there’s a strong element of wish-fulfilment in the supermen ones too – you know, the “I’m so misunderstood, but one day I’ll find my own kind and we’ll rule the world” thing. And I’m afraid that makes me roll my eyes a bit now (tho I suspect that’s exactly what I was enjoying about them as a teenager … 🙂 ).

Interesting contrast between this anthology and the one for the previous year (post) in that the last one had a few stories that were very “we’re doomed and will die horribly” but this is more about superman mutants or unexpected weird effects of nuclear weapons. Perhaps not significant at all, perhaps an artifact of the editors’ choices? But still interesting. And I think this anthology has more paranoid stories than the last.

“Don’t Look Now” Henry Kuttner

Paranoid story about someone who can see the aliens among us. Not sure if I spotted the twist early on because I’ve read this before & remembered it or because it was obvious. It only occurs to me on this reading to wonder if all these paranoid stories about Martians are to do with the ramping up of the Cold War and the whole rooting out of the communists amongst us rhetoric? Or maybe this is too early.

“He Walked Around the Horses” H. Beam Piper

Alternate history, based on an actual disappearance – in 1809 Benjamin Bathurst walked around his horses in an inn courtyard in Prussia and vanished. This is the story of where he walked to – a Europe almost but not quite the same – told through the letters & witness statements of the people who saw him appear & had to deal with him. Possibly the first alternate history I ever read? One of my favourites in the anthology.

“The Strange Case of John Kingman” Murray Leinster (a pseudonym of Will F. Jenkins)

A man in a lunatic asylum has been there longer than seems possible, and has many other odd things about him. It’s both a “supermen/aliens among us” story and a story about not meddling with things you don’t understand. I find it a little too pat – it’s a trope Campbell was fond of as an editor, and I’m not so keen. At least in this case there’s not also a dodgy understanding of evolution/genetics to make it irritating.

“That Only a Mother” Judith Merril

Haunting story about a mother at the end of her time being pregnant & the first few months of her daughter’s life. The sense of ominous doom is built up well with the protagonist worrying about places she or her husband may’ve been exposed to radiation. And then the child is clearly different – extremely clever, faster developing brain – but still the sense of impending doom, only resolved at the very end. Nicely done.

“The Monster” A. E. van Vogt

Aliens arrive on a desolate Earth – and resurrect long dead humans to figure out why the Earth is empty (after all, if you’re going to colonise somewhere you want to make sure it’s fit for habitation). Things don’t go entirely to plan as one of our far future descendants out manoeuvres them.

“Dreams are Sacred” Peter Phillips

Bit of an odd story this one, tho quite fun. Some SFF writer has gone nuts, mind cracked under the strain of an illness, and he’s withdrawn from reality & in his imagination is living out the sorts of plots he puts in his books (very very pulp SF). Our hero is hooked up to a machine that inserts him into the man’s head so he can participate in the dreams and hopefully snap him out of it & back to reality. Afterwards there are indications of some effects on reality too, which seemed to come out of nowhere to me (and spoil the story a bit I think). I preferred the humorous puncturing of the plots in the dream.

“Mars is Heaven!” Ray Bradbury

The first manned landing on Mars, but some how it all looks like Earth circa 30 years earlier. As the crew explore they meet their dear departed loved ones – this must be heaven! Obviously not all is as it seems. I think this is the Bradbury story I remember when I think of him – paranoid Martian stories.

“Thang” Martin Gardner

Funny short-short about things bigger than us in the universe. I like it.

“Brooklyn Project” William Tenn (a pseudonym of Phillip Klass)

The Brooklyn Project is set up to make a device that can travel in time – and this is the demonstration. At each stop the apparatus takes a picture, and inevitably displaces whatever objects previously occupied that space. We start off one way and end quite differently, but our protagonists don’t notice they’re not the same. I think this is my favourite in this collection. And I want to read something set in the initial world (before it changes/without it changing) as it seems an interesting dystopia.

“Ring Around the Redhead” John D. MacDonald

Told as a murder trial – where the defendant turns out not to’ve murdered the victim, but instead the victim has meddled where he should not. The defendant has acquired (by some strange side effect of a nuclear weapon) a device that lets him reach through into other dimensions. He gets a girl (accidentally) from a time/place where tech etc is much superior to ours so that’s the romance subplot, and the victim tries to get gems & gold but his greed is punished. Fun, but you’ve got to approach it like Doctor Who – handwave the plot device & enjoy the ride, don’t pick at the details.

“Period Piece” J. J. “Coupling” (a pseudonym for John R. Pierce)

A 20th Century man brought forward through time attends an endless stream of parties talking to the people of the 31st Century about his own time. Or is that really what’s going on? Obviously it isn’t, and the inevitability of his discovery of the real truth is there from the very beginning of the story. The very end reminds me of a philosophical essay I read sometime ago, but I don’t want to explain as it would spoil the story a bit.

“Dormant” A. E. van Vogt

A remote island in the pacific ocean hosts an old device/creature that has been dormant for a very very long time indeed. This story both shows us the perspective of the people trying to figure out what on earth is going on with the very odd rock, and the device itself as it wakes up and tries to remember its purpose. A story of failure to communicate because of both sides not even seeing the other as communicable with.

“In Hiding” Wilmar H. Shiras

Another “supermen among us” story – a sweet and cheerful one about a teenage boy with extremely high intelligence. He’s hiding this to fit into school/society but opens up & trusts a psychiatrist and tells him about his real life & enthusiasms. I like the story while I’m reading it, and I liked it a lot when I first read this collection. But now I get stuck at the end of the story where there’s this supposedly optimistic note that perhaps there are others like him because he’s the result of a mutation because his parents were exposed to radiation. And it’s just not plausible – even if you accept that as how he came to be, the likelihood of a second identical mutation in another child is pretty much impossible. So it stops the story being quite as upbeat, and makes the end rather sad – he’ll never find an intellectual peer. (And I don’t think the author intended that.)

“Knock” Fredric Brown

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …”. In this case, aliens have destroyed all creatures on the earth except for a pair of each. Plucky human man outwits the aliens and get them to leave, whereupon he, she and the other animals will repopulate the world (I guess the plants were all left alone …). I didn’t much enjoy this, not sure why – tone or style or something just didn’t sit right.

“A Child is Crying” John D. MacDonald

Another “supermen among us” story, this time disturbing and creepy. The highly intelligent child with mental superpowers is not sympathetic, and he and his cohorts are quite sure they’ll inherit the Earth when they’re good and ready. It’s also strongly influenced by the spectre of all out nuclear war. I liked this, even despite the dodgy biology.

“Late Night Final” Eric Frank Russell

Aliens (very human-type ones) come to conquer a far future Earth. But instead they go native. This is both “humans are better than aliens” and “hippies are better than warmongers” in flavour. It also reminds me of Bradbury’s Martian story, only we’re the Martians & it turns out the paranoia is wrong, going native really is the right answer.

In Our Time: Pitt-Rivers

The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of my favourite museums, because it’s so crammed full of things to see. So I was pleased there was an In Our Time programme about the man behind it – Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers. The experts who discussed him were Adam Kuper, (Boston University), Richard Bradley (University of Reading) and Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford).

Pitt-Rivers was born Augustus Henry Lane-Fox in 1827, a younger son of a younger son. His father died when he was very young, and his mother moved them to London & then there’s not much sign that he had any formal education at all apart from a brief enrolment at Sandhurst (which was a public school at the time not a post-graduate military academy). He had a career in the military, where he was put in charge of musketry and his obsession with collecting objects started during that time – possibly after visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851. He married “above his station”, and it was his wife’s family & social connections that got him contacts in the scientific circles of the time. When he was about 50 he unexpectedly inherited a large estate & a fortune – they said in today’s money it would be on the order of £2 million per year to spend. This was the Rivers estate, I think they said it was the largest estate outside the aristocracy. As a condition of this inheritance he had to take the surname Pitt-Rivers.

Pitt-Rivers was interested in collecting everyday objects, and in comparing them between cultures. A large amount of his collection was donated to Oxford University in the 1880s, forming the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Inspired by Darwin he was interested in figuring out the evolutionary path of the objects we use – like sticks -> spears -> muskets. So he grouped his objects by type and tried to order them from primitive to sophisticated. And as well as ordering the objects this way he (and Western society in general at the time) ordered cultures in a similar fashion. He & others believed that “primitive” cultures in the modern world corresponded to the ancestral cultures of nations like Britain. Towards the end of the programme the experts were talking about Pitt-Rivers’ legacy and all agreed that his anthropological ideas were considered out-of-date (possibly even by the man himself) before his death.

As well as his collection Pitt-Rivers is remembered for his contributions to archaeology. They were joking that once he inherited the Pitt-Rivers estates he didn’t have to travel outside his estates to excavate prehistoric sites. He did, but also did a lot of excavations on his own lands. He kept his focus on everyday items as opposed to the antiquarian’s desire to find treasure or monuments from the Classical world. His contribution to archaeology is more long lasting than that to anthropology, because he was a very methodological excavator. One of the experts (and I forget which) said that a Bronze Age settlement that Pitt-Rivers had excavated was returned to in modern times because the documentation meant that they knew where to look to extend their knowledge of the site.

Pitt-Rivers saw himself as a scientist, but the experts on the programme were fairly dismissive of his theoretical achievements. Where he excelled was in the practical and organisational sides of things. And his wife’s social connections meant that he was involved in the scientific societies of the day, often in a organisational role. This included becoming the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, which involved both the sort of cataloguing that he was so good at and the prevention of damage to the monuments.

Somehow a very Victorian story – both in the collection and the details like the unexpected inheritance of a fortune.

Archaeology: A Secret History

On Friday we started watching a new series about the history of archaelogy presented by Richard Miles. He started the first episode by talking about the Empress Helena’s trip to the Holy Land to dig up relics – which, if you stretch, can be considered the first ever archaeological expedition! At the very least it was an understanding that objects dug out of the ground can be used to understand the past.

We then moved briskly along to the Renaissance & an Italian called Pizzicolli. This is a very European history of archaeology (no mention of the Chinese, for instance, who were doing stuff that was at least as archaeological as the Empress Helena if not the Enlightenment era Europeans by the 7th Century AD). Anyway, Pizzicolli lived in the early 15th Century AD and became fascinated by the traces of the past that were all around the Mediterranean. He didn’t dig things up, but he’s still often referred to as the Father of Archaeology. What he did was to visit old ruins and to draw & describe them, and to collect the inscriptions and so on and try to figure out what these ruins were and who’d built them.

Miles touched on another couple of Renaissance era figures before moving on to the Enlightenment. Here we started with John Aubrey’s accurate scale drawing of the Avebury stone circle. During this era it was becoming clear that the history of Brtain stretched back further than expected – that these stone circles were the signs of a culture before the Romans. It was fashionable in the 18th Century for people (gentlemen mostly) to collect curiosities & Miles went to visit a large Cabinet of Curiosities and showed us some of the items in it. (Unfortunately I’ve completely forgotten where it was except I think in the north-west of England.) They covered a wide range of things, including bits of rock, fossils, and historic & pre-historic items.

During the Enlightenment there were also advances in other sciences that helped along the new discipline of archaeology. Miles trotted out the story of Archbishop Usher who’d counted up the years in the Bible and declared the date of creation to be 23 October 4004BC. Usher did this just as the modern ideas of geology were taking hold in the scientific world, so particularly poor timing on his part. The discoveries of geology and new ideas about how rocks were formed helped to give an idea of how old things were (in a relative sort of way) when they were dug out of different depths of earth. This started to stretch the length of time that we knew people were living in Britain. In particular a discovery of hand axes deep in a quarry in England showed that people were here long before the recorded history of the Romans & the Celts.

And Miles finished up this episode by going to visit the first Neanderthal skeleton that was ever found. This (once it was believed) was a discovery that completely broke with any idea that the Bible might give a literal account of creation and the rise of the human species. Not only was it far older than the calculated dates for the entire age of the Earth, but it also it was another human species.

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror

I sometimes feel like I should just start these Doctor Who posts with “Here is the spoiler space to make the preview spoiler free on facebook”.

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

“And here is the spoiler space for G+ because it picks a different paragraph for its preview”. It’d certainly be easier than thinking of something interesting to say to fill up the space 🙂

Lizard lady & friends! I like them. Like the way Madame Vastra is supposedly hiding, but really really couldn’t care less about being noticed. After all, who’s going to believe someone who says they saw a lizard lady? And the Sontaran is obviously going to be my sort of character – I was particularly amused by the bit where he’s saying what Jenny should be armed with if she’s going into Sweetville and then when asked why it’s a good idea he just says “well, in general”. Oh and getting all over-excited when he finally gets to shoot people.

From the trailer I’d expected this to be more of a Doctor-lite episode than it turned out to be. So I wasn’t at all expecting the blind girl’s monster to turn out to be the Doctor – J called it just before the reveal tho, so I guess if I’d not had my expectations set by the trailer then there were clues.

I’m not sure from this one if Clara remembers the events of the day that didn’t happen or not – she didn’t show much sign of it, but equally she & the Doctor seemed more at ease with each other than they had done up till now. Of course whether or not she remembers she’s definitely learnt this episode that she’s not unique – both in Madame Vastra & Jenny’s reaction & in the photo the kids have found from Victorian London (where she wasn’t).

The Fifth Doctor reference that I spotted was the one to Tegan (“trying to take an Australian back to Heathrow Airport”). Definitely seems like we’re walking our way through the Doctors in order … I hope the 7th Doctor references include Nitro 9 (Ace was definitely my favourite companion) 🙂 Thinking about it, having the Silurian woman in an episode where we’re looking for Fifth Doctor references is kinda appropriate – didn’t Adric die in the spaceship that’s the meteor that kills the dinosaurs? (And that happens in the Fifth Doctor’s time iirc.)

Best joke of the episode had to be satnav boy – went on just long enough and didn’t out stay its welcome. I also liked the fainting gentleman (and appreciated that this was the only true Victorian fainting we saw – the one woman who did so was faking it). And the morgue attendant, and all the different reactions to his declaiming of the name “The Crimson Horror”.

The plot itself was a bit “evil overlord Victorian variant” by the numbers – right down to explaining all her plans and previous evil schemes so that she could be foiled. But it did work, just about. I was thinking Bioshock references for the actual scheme, but I don’t think J agreed.

Only two episodes left in this half of the season. I wonder if we’re getting a proper finale, or if that’s saved for the special later this year?

Wild Arabia; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War; Panorama: North Korea Undercover

Over the last week we finished off watching the Wild Arabia series. The second episode looked at the wildlife along the south eastern coast of the peninsula (what I think of as the bottom of it, for no apparent reason!). Part of the programme focussed on the sea life in the region (including turtles coming up to lay their eggs on the beach. Another strand followed two biologists (from Oman) who set up cameras through the region to record the animals that moved past & got some great footage of species that are generally hard to find. Most of the year the landscape is the sort of desert you’d expect, but during monsoon season the winds blow across the Indian Ocean full of moisture and when they get to the cliffs in this region the water comes out first as mist then as rain. And the land is transformed into a lush green landscape.

The third episode looked at the impact of the oil industry and the cultural changes that’s brought on the land and the animals. It was pretty evenly balanced, showing us both the bad and the good effects. The bit that sticks most in my mind was the high-tech camel racing – instead of a jockey each camel has a small robot on its back and the trainers drive alongside the track shouting encouragement to the camel that is played out through a speaker on the robot. And the robot carries a small whip for when the trainer thinks that is required. It was a very odd sight.

The third & last episode of Janina Ramirez’s series about the Hundred Years War covered the time from the English victory at Agincourt (in 1415) to the end of the war in 1453. After the victory at Agincourt Henry V set about conquering France properly – he didn’t just take an army over the Channel to raid, they captured and held cities and towns. And Henry handed out lands & titles to his nobility, this was a Norman Conquest in reverse. The English were helped in this endeavour by the divisions among the French. Charles VI (the Mad) was still on the throne and spent not inconsiderable amounts of time thinking he was made of glass and worrying about breaking – but Ramirez was saying that unlike in England the French saw their King as so sacrosanct that no-one was about to depose him even if he was mad. So real power didn’t rest with the King, instead there were the supporters of the Dauphin (the heir to the throne) called Orleanists who were in charge through most of the south of the country. And in the north of the country (including Paris) were the supporters of the Duke of Burgundy. These two factions were more concerned with their power struggles against each other than they were with what the English were doing in Normandy. So Henry V managed to conquer most of Normandy before there was any thought of stopping him.

Finally the two French factions met to negotiate with thoughts of stopping Henry V – but instead of actually negotiating the Dauphin’s men killed the Duke of Burgundy. Which didn’t go down well with the Duke’s son & heir, so the new Duke of Burgundy formed an alliance with the English. Henry V now had control of the north of France, including the treasure house in Paris. And access to Charles VI. A treaty was agreed between Charles & Henry saying that Henry was now heir to the throne of France. Henry also married Charles’ daughter. And doubts were cast on the Dauphin’s legitimacy, to make him seem a less viable alternative.

Sadly for Henry he was never to be crowned King of France, as he pre-deceased Charles VI by a couple of months in 1422. Henry’s son Henry VI was only 9 months old at the time, and before Henry V died he appointed his brothers as regents and gave them strict instructions about how to proceed – in particular they were to persist with the conquest of France. Ramirez told us how the brothers did their best to follow Henry’s wishes, in particular the Duke of Bedford who was left in charge of the French conquest. Over the next few years he pushed forward with the conquest of France, and eventually England controlled all of France down to as far south as the Loire. Well, almost all – the island Mont Saint Michel off the coast of Normandy wasn’t under English control, which Ramirez told us was a psychological boost to the Dauphin and his supporters because Saint Michel was the Dauphin’s patron saint.

And now the tide was about to turn. Ramirez told us that the Dauphin was a bit of a non-entity, but now he had help from an unexpected source – the peasant girl Joan of Arc who heard messages from God. She won the trust of the Dauphin, and led the French to several victories over the English which was taken as a sign that God was now on the side of the French. During this period of pushing back the English the Dauphin was crowned King of France in Reims as was traditional. The Duke of Bedford tried to counter this by having a coronation ceremony for Henry VI in Notre Dame in Paris – but Ramirez spoke to a French historian who told us that this wouldn’t’ve been seen as a “proper” coronation by the French. All French Kings were crowned in Reims, and anointed with the Oil of Chrism kept there – so a coronation somewhere else wasn’t regarded as real.

Joan of Arc was eventually captured by the Burgundians and then tried for heresy by the English. Ramirez explained it was politically motivated – if Joan of Arc was a heretic then clearly God isn’t on France’s side and the Dauphin would be tainted with heresy as well. Joan was condemned & burnt at the stake – first they burnt her & put out the fire so that people would see that she was dead. Then they lit the fires again to reduce her body to ash so that there would be no relics.

But the death of Joan of Arc didn’t improve anything for the English. After the Duke of Bedford died, trying to fulfil his brother’s wishes to the last, the alliance between England and the Burgundians broke down. The Duke of Burgundy allied with the Dauphin and France was now united against the English.

The programme took a small detour here to consider what sort of man Henry VI was. He’d been brought up sheltered from any dangers and it seemed he was also protected from ever making his mind up. He’d inherited his father’s piety, but not his warrior nature – in fact he’s apparently the one medieval king never to lead his army into battle. Ramirez paid a visit to King’s College Chapel in Cambridge which was started by Henry VI – this building, inspired by Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, is where the money went rather than towards the conquest of France.

In the end the French managed to drive the English completely out of France – England even lost control of the territory in France that it had had at the start of the Hundred Years War. The last battles were decisive victories for the French – they used new war technology and tactics to defeat the now out-of-date English army. I know, but I always forget, that the Hundred Years War ends as cannon and guns become the new weapons of war.

And now the series is over – I enjoyed watching it 🙂 This time period is just before my favourite era of history, so I know a bit about it but this gave a different perspective because it concentrates on the war and not so much on what’s going on in England. If anything I’d’ve liked more details on the French side of it, because what I know of French history is pretty much just the bits where it interacts with England. Once I whittle down my stack of books to read I should add an overview of French history to the list.

We were running late on Wednesday, so looked for a half hour programme to finish the evening with. We ended up continuing the current affairs theme we’ve had recently by watching the Panorama programme about North Korea. The journalist John Sweeney (and presumably an uncredited camera person) joined a tour group doing an official 8 day tour of North Korea, and secretly filmed their visit. It was notable that even most of the sanitised-for-the-foreigners stuff that they were shown on the tour (and actually permitted to photograph) was looked dirty and poor and backward. Whenever the electricity went out, or they couldn’t visit somewhere on the itinerary, it was always the fault of the war. The wording used about the possibility of thermonuclear war was interesting too – always “if war is provoked”, not “declared”, not “breaks out” but “provoked”.

It must’ve taken a lot of courage to make the programme – the consequences of being caught would not be good. But I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way Sweeney kept poking at the edges of what the people he spoke to were allowed to say. Like the segment in the hospital where he keeps asking why there aren’t any patients there. Other parts of the programme had interviews with defectors from North Korea and they were all clear that to say the wrong thing in North Korea meant death and it didn’t matter how high ranked you were. So to try & expose the foolishness of the script these people were following felt wrong – they would believe it would cost them their lives to deviate from it.

As well as the footage within North Korea, and interviews with defectors, there were also interviews with analysts and diplomats. They all seemed to agree that the posturing about nuclear war with the US is really part of the propaganda & brainwashing for the North Korean public – the image of a strong leader is one who is ready to go to war and to destroy enemies so Kim Jong-un needs to use that rhetoric. Tho one expert did say that thermonuclear war might still happen, albeit not because North Korea wants it … just they might miscalculate. Not particularly reassuring.