January 2014 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)



“Against a Dark Background” Iain M. Banks. Part of Read All the Fiction, space opera & swashbuckling adventure Banks style. Kept.

“Carnival” Elizabeth Bear. Part of Read All the Fiction, Bear’s take on the eco/feminist science fiction sub-genre. Kept.

“Mage’s Blood” David Hair. Disappointing secondary world fantasy, with cliched and clumsy world building. Library book.

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” Walter M. Miller, Jr. Library book. One of the classic SF novels, a post-apocalyptic future history.

Total: 4


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

Total: 1


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Bilbo and the Dwarves make it into the dragon’s hoard.

Total: 1



Pear Tree?.

Sense of Scale.

Total: 3


The Making of the Modern Arab World. Four part Radio 4 series about the modern history of the Middle East.

Total: 1


2013 Roundup: Fiction Books.

2013 Roundup: Non-Fiction Books.

2013 Roundup: Ancient History TV.

2013 Roundup: Modern History TV.

2013 Roundup: Other TV.

2013 Roundup: Photos, Trips, Museums and Concerts.

2013 Roundup: Everything Else.

Current Projects.

Total: 8



Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor.

Total: 1


2013: Moments in Time – a roundup of 2013, this time of the main news stories of the year shown through the photos that illustrated them. And some discussion of the changing nature of these photos (and the rise of social media’s importance in news).

The Art of the Vikings – part of the Secret Knowledge series, Janina Ramirez talks about Viking art (in a surprisingly amateur looking programme).

BBC 4 Sessions: The Christmas Session – recorded for Christmas 2011 I think, this featured various folk artists including the Unthanks and was a lot of fun. We watched it on Christmas Day.

The Brain: A Secret History – Michael Mosley series about brains, minds and experimental psychology. We never managed to record episode 1 but we decided to watch the other two anyway.

Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities – history of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Calf’s Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food. Disappointing programme about Restoration era English food that couldn’t work out if it was about the history or about the food, and ended up falling short with both aspects.

Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe – round up of the big events of 2013 presented by Charlie Brooker (and segments from others, which I felt worked less well).

Egypt’s Golden Empire – a three part series on one of the Sky documentary channels that we watched at J’s parents’ house. I confess I wasn’t always paying that much attention, but what I did watch seemed like a rather good and thorough overview of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.

Jool’s Annual Hootenanny – music and chat from Jools Holland and his guests (and audience). It’s our tradition for welcoming in the New Year when we’re at home – Jools on the telly and whisky to drink. Not the best one there’s ever been, but we still had fun heckling.

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve – a programme about the history of (Christian) pilgrimage, pilgrimage sites and the modern incarnation of it.

Planet Ant: Life Inside the Colony – a bit like the series The Burrowers that we watched a while ago but about leafcutter ants not cute fluffy bunnies etc. An ants nest was reconstructed in a lab and science is being done on it (and we got told how the nest worked and about the ants biology etc).

Rise of the Continents – series about the geology of the continents and how that’s shaped them and their wildlife (and us) presented by Iain Stewart.

Sacred Wonders of Britain – Neil Oliver visits several sacred sites in Britain dating from prehistoric times through to the Reformation.

Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History – Sam Willis talking about shipwrecks around Britain or involving British ships, their impact on history and our culture.

Strange Days: Cold War Britain – series about Britain and British culture during the Cold War, presented by Dominic Sandbrook.

Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – series presented by Richard Fortey looking at three mass extinction events and showing us modern examples of the species that survived them.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt – Alastair Sooke looking at pieces of art from the whole sweep of Ancient Egyptian history.

Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

Total: 18


A Review of the New Hamlet, Seen this Recent Afternoon – creative writing assignment for the Hamlet course on Future Learn. A piece purporting to be a review of Hamlet by an Elizabethan seeing it for the first time.

Total: 1

Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 3); Sacred Wonders of Britain; Tudor Monastery Farm; The Brain: A Secret History

The third and final episode of Treasures of Ancient Egypt covered the period from Ramesses II through to Cleopatra. In terms of the history of the period this can be seen as a long slow decline from the height of New Kingdom power through several foreign dynasties to the annexing of Egypt by the Roman Empire. Alastair Sooke’s thesis was that in terms of the art this was a new dawn – fuelled in part by foreign Pharaohs’ desires to be more Egyptian than the Egyptians, and during times of self-rule by a renewed sense of national pride and connection with their history.

This pieces he looked at were again a mix of iconic objects we all know about, and other less well known objects. This time there were several temples – starting with the temple at Abu Simbel, and later showing us the temple of Horus at Edfu and the temple at Dendera. One of the threads he used to hold the programme together was the gradual introduction of more realism to the art – for instance he looked at the art under the Nubian Pharaohs, and pointed out how the faces were much more lifelike. And this is taken further under the Ptolemies when there is some merging between the naturalistic Greek style and the more stylised Egyptian art. One of the places he took us to illustrate this was a tomb chapel that had the traditional layout and scene types that one would expect, but the figures were drawn in a much more lifelike fashion and looked almost Greek.

The interludes with modern artists were particularly good this week. I liked the chance to see how faience and faience shabtis were made. Faience shabtis as a group were one of his treasures, the first mass produced art in the world. The expert from UCL that he talked to about this first showed him some of the shabtis in the Petrie Museum, and then showed him how he made his own shabti inspired art. The other modern artist was a graffiti artist in Cairo who has taken inspiration from both the official iconography of ancient Egypt (like the Pharaoh smiting his enemies scenes) and from the ostraca found at Deir el Medina. Inspired by the latter he paints topsy-turvy scenes with the cat & mouse instead of people. His art also had a political twist – and he talked about how the same was true for the ancient Egyptians.

This has been a very good series. Although there were a few over simplified pieces of history Sooke generally did a good job of providing enough historical info for context without turning it into a history lesson. As I’m often approaching the objects from a perspective of learning about the history that produced them it was interesting to have someone talk about them as art in their own right. I thought the mix of objects chosen was good too. The “obvious” iconic pieces were there (but looked at from a fresh perspective) and there were several less obvious pieces so the whole thing didn’t feel like we’d seen it all before. At first I was dubious about the bits where Sooke talked to modern artists, but some of the later segments of that sort were really cool.

We finished three other serieses this week, so I shall try & keep my commentary brief! The first of these was Sacred Wonders of Britain – a Neil Oliver series that looked at sacred places in Britain from earliest prehistory through to the Reformation. This is quite a large sweep of time, and I thought the last episode was the weakest of the three. In part because it didn’t feel like it was quite Oliver’s thing, being history not archaeology, and in part because they were having to take account of the fact that Christianity is a current faith. As always with a programme presented by Oliver I thought he went too far off into flights of fancy at times – taking the expert opinion of “maybe” and turning it into a long imagined story of how it “was”.

However, criticisms aside I do like his programmes overall and this series was no exception. There were a lot of places shown that I’d not heard of or seen before which was cool to see. I was particularly struck by the prehistoric flint mine which at first didn’t seem like it was a particularly good candidate for sacred. But as the archaeologists pointed out there was plenty of flint available on the surface in the very same location of the same quality as that from the mines. There were several tools left behind in the mines which didn’t seem in poor condition, and the few skeletons that have been found (in cave ins) were of young people on the cusp of adulthood. Taking all of that together they think it might’ve been some sort of rite of passage.

Another series we finished was Tudor Monastery Farm. This was part re-enactment and part documentary, presented by Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold. It’s part of a collection of serieses called SOMETHING Farm, each taking a different period of history and telling us about farming during that time, we’ve previously watched Wartime Farm (post). This was the first of these serieses that Tom Pinfold had been in – in the previous ones the third presenter was Alex Langlands – and sadly I didn’t think he had much on screen chemistry with anyone. From a quick look around the BBC website it seems he’s pretty new to being a presenter, so perhaps he’ll improve as he relaxes into the job.

There were 6 episodes in the regular series covering the whole year of farming and life as it would have been in the year 1500, and one special afterwards which looked at Christmas festivities. They’d picked this year as it was pre-Reformation and post-Wars of the Roses. So it was a peaceful, settled era and the people still observed all the Catholic rites. The farm type they were recreating was a farm owned by a monastery, but worked by prosperous lay people. One of the key themes of the series was that farming in this period was beginning to change – more and more the tenant farmers were growing grain and raising animals to sell as well as to feed themselves and give to the monastery. One of the things I like about these serieses is that the re-enactment portion of it really shows how things worked – like how you build a fence if you’re a Tudor farmer – and the documentary side of it fills in the little details you wouldn’t get just by looking at it (which woods you choose and how you get them, in the case of the fence).

Because this was about such a long ago period of time they didn’t just cover farming. There were, of course, a lot of details about everyday life (like clothes, or how they cooked). And they also covered more specialist things like how to make a stained glass window, how you mined and purified lead, how salt was produced, how they made fireworks and so on. All in all a rather good series πŸ™‚

And we also finished up what we had recorded of The Brain: A Secret History – we were missing the first of the three episodes. It was a series about how the brain works and how we found out about it, presented by Michael Mosley. Of the two episodes we watched one dealt with emotions, and the other with mapping bits of the brain to functions. The emotions one was at times hard to watch as the sorts of experiments done to figure out how emotions work were generally not very nice – like frightening a young child to see if phobias could be induced (they can), or shutting up baby monkeys in too-small isolation cages to see what effect that has on their adult psyches (a bad effect). The other episode had more “wow, that’s weird” moments and less trauma – however it had a lot of footage from somebody’s brain surgery which I was too squeamish to look at (yeah, I’m a wimp).

So at times difficult to watch for a variety of reasons (and I think from the clips in the intro segment we missed the most disturbing episode) – but it was an interesting couple of programmes. There were a lot of “neat facts” about how our brains work, and the ethical quagmires of how one does experiments to find these out were well explained.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – series presented by Richard Fortey looking at three mass extinction events and showing us modern examples of the species that survived them.

Episode 1 of Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve – a programme about the history of (Christian) pilgrimage, pilgrimage sites and the modern incarnation of it.

Current Projects

I thought I would complement my look back at the blog posts I wrote last year with a list of my ongoing or planned projects – some of which generate posts here, some of which don’t. The stalled and planned sections of the list aren’t really comprehensive, they’re more the things on my mind at the moment out of the great sea of possibilities.

This blog: Ongoing. First on the list, as it probably takes up most of my project related time. I’ve got a few things left on my to-do list for how the site functions and looks, but mostly I’m at the stage of just keeping on writing.

Read All the Fiction: Ongoing. This has gone slower than I expected, but the only way to speed it up would be to stop reading anything else and that would be a shame.

Chapter by Chapter: Ongoing. I’m not sure if I’ve slowed down my reading of non-fiction too much by doing this, but I’m definitely getting more out of the books I’m reading by doing it this way so I think it works out OK.

Listening to all our music: Ongoing. I’ve known for a while that I’ve completely lost track of what music we own and what we don’t – we have around 27,500 tracks by around 2700 different artists, so there’s a lot of stuff there. And J buys most of it so it’s not like I remember why I chose something from the name of it because I didn’t do the choosing. So I’m listening through in alphabetical order (by artist, and machine alphabetised). I was writing about it on facebook & G+ but I stopped because I was struggling to come up with new things to say, so I figured it must be getting boring. Still listening tho, and I’m up to An in the alphabet so there’s a long way to go yet!

Courses on Future Learn: Ongoing. I occasionally look at Open University courses, wondering about something humanities based as that’s where my interests are these days but they’re pretty expensive for a whim. So I decided I should look for free alternatives and found Future Learn. I signed up for a course on Hamlet that started a couple of weeks ago, and so far it’s been interesting and different. I’ve signed up for another couple of courses (one on more Shakespeare, one on Richard III’s era of English history) that are going to run later in the year. So far so good, but I’m not yet sure if it’s going to end up taking too much of my time away from other things.

Photography: Ongoing. I’ve a huge backlog of photos that need to be processed from various trips, so I feel a little dissatisfied with this. And it would be nice if I could get myself to the point where my blog photo of the week was a photo I’d actually taken that week. I also have some more arty sub-projects under this that haven’t really gone anywhere.

Genealogy: Ongoing. I have been looking into mine & J’s family history off and on for years now – I think I’ve still only scratched the surface of what’s possible to find out, there are whole branches I’ve not even touched. I have a database and also paper copies of most of the info in the database, but I’m not that fond of the machine generated reports from the programme I’m using (Gramps). I either need to learn python and write some “better” reports or I need to figure out a consistent style and then write them myself. But then that takes away from doing the research, so I normally put off thinking about it. The last few months of last year I’d got good at ring fencing some time to work on this each week, but that’s slipped again – I think I need to shake up my to-do lists in general and add projects to defined periods. And I need to do a bit of project planning for this in a written down fashion.

Weather Data: Stalled. I have about 30 years of data that first me & my brother and later my parents have gathered of the weather at my parents’ house. It’s not professional quality data (obviously), and I’m not even sure it’s entirely internally consistent (changing thermometers across the period for instance), but it’s still potentially interesting. I have entered some of it into the computer (a year, perhaps?) and I have a perl script that does some basic analysis and graph generation from the data. Realistically I don’t have time for this right now, but I think the first step needs to be to write up a proper to-do list. I know I need to design the webpages for the output and also think carefully about what analysis I can do and how I should display that. I also need to do the data entry. Data’s not going anywhere tho, so it’s on hold for now.

Embroidery: Stalled, oh so very stalled. I’ve got two pieces of embroidery in an unfinished state and I don’t think I’ve done any sewing in over 5 years. I do enjoy it when I do it, but it’s pretty low down the list of my priorities.

Learning to play the bass: Stalled. We have a bass guitar, we have Rocksmith for the PS3 – I just need to ring fence some time to practice every week (preferably every day but once a week would be a start).

Reading Shakespeare: Planned. I have a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, as published by the RSC, and I’m aware that really I only know the plays that were in our copy of Lambs Tales from Shakespeare that I read as a child. So I know a few plots, and would like to get to know the rest. I have a vague plan of reading through each play and writing a post about each scene or act. This is unlikely to get off the ground in the near future, and would be best left till after I’ve done the Future Learn course on Shakespeare and his world, which will hopefully give me more insight into the plays.

Crusader Kings II Stories: Planned. The game Crusader Kings II is a mix of roleplay and strategy with a medieval history base. I have a plan of one day using a play through of the game to generate the plot for a series of little stories, but have never got round to starting it.

I suspect I’m not using my time optimally at the moment – a sit down with my calendar and my to-do lists and re-shuffling things might help with that. I’m very much a creature of habit, so if I can set up some routines where I get round to doing things on a more regular basis then I’ll get more done of everything.

I’m also half-looking for a project that gives me an excuse to buy a notebook (or two or …), I always lust after the Paper Blanks ones when I go into Waterstones or Smiths because they have such gorgeous covers. The only project with a “lab book” is the genealogy one and that’s both utilitarian and is less than half used, so it’s not providing me with an excuse for a book. But I don’t need any more projects πŸ˜‰

2013 Roundup: Everything Else

This is the final part of my roundup of 2013 blog posts – I’ve managed to get it all done before January is over, which feels like a victory of sorts πŸ™‚ There are a few categories on the sidebar that aren’t covered here. Admin is mostly indexes for each month, rather dull and somewhat recursive to index the indexes, so I haven’t. The others had no posts last year, some of which are rather surprising, some of which are not. I’ve played a lot of computer games over the last year, but apparently not written about anything – I should change that this year. We’ve not done any proper long walks with geocaching for ages, so that category is also empty. I also haven’t read any papers, nor have I done anything that fits in the Sport category (which exists to hold the photos of the Tour of Britain that I took in 2012 (post). And Whimsy is a new category this year for a piece of creative writing for the Shakespeare course I’m doing on Future Learn.


As you can tell, I don’t really see many films.


Most Sunday mornings we listen to a radio programme while we eat breakfast, most of these are from the In Our Time series. This covers a wide range of topics, and each episode has 3 experts in the field that’s being discussed sharing lay-person level explanations of the current state of knowledge in the field. They’re pretty much always fascinating. We’ve also listened to a couple of series about current affairs in the Middle East, which provide a historical perspective for the situation.

I’m not sure I can pick a favourite – I’ve just spent a while looking at the list of titles and for pretty much all of them I’ve thought “oh, that one was really good”. An interesting note is that my write up of the one about Japan’s Sakoku period got picked up by a site called OMG Facts so I think it’s been the most read post on my blog.

  • Absolute Zero. In Our Time episode about absolute zero, both what it is and the history of the scientists trying to achieve it in the laboratory.
  • The Amazons. In Our Time episode about the Amazons of Greek myth.
  • Bertrand Russell. In Our Time episode about the life & work of Bertrand Russell.
  • The Borgias. In Our Time episode about the Borgia family in Renaissance Italy.
  • The Book of Common Prayer. In Our Time episode about the history & contents of the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Comets. In Our Time episode about comets.
  • The Corn Laws. In Our Time episode about the Corn Laws of the early 19th Century.
  • Crystallography. In Our Time episode about x-ray crystallography.
  • The Cult of Mithras. In Our Time episode about the Roman cult of Mithras.
  • Epicureanism. In Our Time episode about the philosophy of Epicurus.
  • Exoplanets. In Our Time episode about planets in other solar systems to our own.
  • Galen. In Our Time episode about Galen, the 2nd Century AD Greek physician.
  • Gnosticism. In Our Time episode about Gnosticism.
  • Ice Ages. In Our Time episode about ice ages.
  • Icelandic Sagas. In Our Time episode about Icelandic Sagas.
  • Japan’s Sakoku Period. In Our Time episode about the period of Japan’s history where it pursued a policy of isolation from the rest of the world.
  • The Mamluks. In Our Time episode about the Mamluks, who were a slave army who ruled Egypt between the 13th & 16th Centuries AD.
  • The Making of the Modern Arab World. Four part Radio 4 series about the modern history of the Middle East.
  • Le Morte d’Arthur. In Our Time episode about Malory’s version of the Arthurian legend.
  • Pascal. In Our Time episode about the life & work of Blaise Pascal.
  • Pitt-Rivers. In Our Time episode about Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, the man whose collection forms the basis of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.
  • The Putney Debates. In Our Time episode about the context of & discussions in the Putney Debates (held in 1647 after the end of the first part of the Civil Wars).
  • Queen Zenobia. In Our Time episode about the Palmyran Queen who rebelled against Rome & founded a short-lived empire in the Middle East around 270AD.
  • Relativity. In Our Time episode about Einstein’s theories of relativity.
  • Romulus and Remus. In Our Time episode about Rome’s founding myth.
  • Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. In Our Time episode about the epic Persian poem the Shahnameh.
  • South Sea Bubble. In Our Time episode about the South Sea Bubble.
  • Turkey: The New Ottomans. A three part series putting modern Turkey in a historical context, and looking at its relationships with the Arab World & the West.
  • The Upanishads. In Our Time episode about one of the groups of sacred texts of the Hindu religion.
  • The War of 1812. In Our Time episode about the war between Britain & the US which started in 1812.
  • Water. In Our Time episode about the chemical nature of water.


Reflections is the category where I put articles that aren’t just about one thing, but are instead me reflecting on a group of posts or things. In 2013 that only includes the two posts I wrote about the books I read while I was reading those filed on my bookshelf under A.


Most of the talks we go to are at the Essex Egyptology Group meetings, so there is a strong Egyptian flavour to this section. There are also a couple of trips organised by the EEG, and one talk from a British Museum Members’ Open Evening (which is the sole non-Egyptian one here). I think my absolute favourite was Diane Johnson’s talk about meteoric iron in Ancient Egypt because it was a subject I knew nothing about before and the electron microscopy of the iron beads was particularly interesting. But they were all interesting talks.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 3

In the third episode of The Making of the Modern Arab World Tarek Osman looked at the rise of political Islam since the 1970s. He started by reminding us of the context for this, which he talked about more in the previous episode (post). As of about 1966 Nasser was both the leader of Egypt and the most prominent public face of Arab Nationalism. The state and politics were secular in nature, and to some degree so was the general population – women generally did not go veiled, for instance. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were repressed, and their leaders and activists imprisoned, brutally treated, and potentially executed. The regime was also fairly left wing, and pro-Soviet. Then in 1967, with the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel, Arab Nationalism lost a lot of face. Nasser died in 1970 and his successor, Anwar Sadat, changed the focus of the state.

Sadat liked to see himself as “the pious President”, and took pains to present himself as a good Muslim. He backed off on the repression of Islamist groups, releasing many of their members from prison and permitting them to openly take jobs at universities. At the same time he was swinging the political compass of the regime towards the right, and towards the USA and capitalism. He also started to shrink the state involvement in the welfare of the poor. As the country embraced capitalism Sadat removed the subsidies that were artificially keeping the price of bread low – after riots from students and workers who could no longer afford food the subsidies were reinstated.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups took advantage of both the perceived corruption of the state, and the gap opening up in care for the poor. Islamist rhetoric held out the hope that if Islam was fully integrated into the state then politics would be more honest & less corrupt. There was also a prominent notion that the reason the war against Israel had failed was that the Arab states had turned away from religion and so God was no longer on their side. The Muslim Brotherhood were also involved in widespread charitable works – providing for the poor who were being failed by the state, which encouraged people to regard them as a viable alternative to the authoritarian state.

1979 was a year containing three events that were to lead to increased support for Islamist groups across the region. One of these was the revolution in Iran – this might’ve been Shia rather than Sunni but it was proof that an Islamist uprising could overthrow a secular state. Another was the signing of a treaty between Egypt and Israel, which was taken as evidence of the state’s corruption and decline. And thirdly the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets pitted Islamist forces (such as the Taliban) against the Soviets – by Cold War logic this meant that the US and other Western groups saw the Islamist groups as their potential allies, and hence worth funding and training.

Another growing influence on the Arab region was the Saudi Arabian regime. The balance of political and economic power was shifting away from places like Egypt and towards the oil countries. Many Egyptians and nationals of other countries went to work in Saudi Arabia, and many of them became more religious and more conservative under the influence of the culture they were now living in. When they returned to their native countries after several years they kept contact with people they knew in Saudi Arabia. Along with funding suitable Islamist groups this was a conduit for Saudi Arabian influence in the politics of countries like Egypt.

Osman talked about how over the next couple of decades (the 80s and the 90s) the Islamist groups were struggling against the “near enemy”, i.e. the regimes of their own states. After the end of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan at the end of the 80s many of the groups that had been involved in that jihad felt flush with success – they felt they had brought down the Soviet Union and the time was ripe for success in their own countries. This was not to be. A Muslim Brotherhood led uprising in Syria was brutally dealt with at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and the breaking of the back of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation in that country. The Algerian civil war, sparked after the army overturned the election of an Islamist leader ended in defeat for the Islamist forces, after the loss of many lives. And in Egypt Mubarak had come to power after the assassination of Sadat by Islamist soldiers (in the early 80s), and brutally cracked down on Islamist groups. Violent protest was undertaken by extremist Islamist groups during the 80s and early 90s, but the Luxor Massacre in 1996 actually caused that to die down. Osman said that public opinion, and opinion of mainstream and even somewhat radical Islamist groups, was appalled and shaken by the massacre and the extremists who’d carried it out were denounced.

So towards the end of the 20th Century the radical Islamist groups were failing in their struggle at against the near enemy. Osman said that this is why their attention began to turn to the “far enemy”. The USA and other Western powers were involved in propping up the secular and authoritarian regimes that the Islamists were struggling against. So groups like Al Qaeda turned their attention outwards towards these foreign powers.

“Carnival” Elizabeth Bear

Carnival is a standalone science fiction novel by Elizabeth Bear, and the first of her books that I bought – also the only one I’ve ever seen in a bookshop over here. The several books I now have of hers seem to fall into groups which represent her take on a particular sub-genre – to me this one is Bear’s take on the eco/feminist science fiction story. By that I mean the sort of thing that Sherri S. Tepper writes. But as with the others of Bear’s books that I’ve read this takes the familiar tropes of that sub-genre and does something different with them.

Carnival is set in a future where Old Earth is still the political leader of several colony planets. The population of Earth is much reduced – the majority have been Assessed by the Governors. This is explained later in the book, the Governors are AI constructed by a group who felt humans were damaging the Earth too much so the best thing to do is to kill off most of them, then enforce strict controls on population and other ecologically damaging practices. The Governors use the ubiquitous nanotechnology to kill those they Assess as needing to die – starting in the first instance with all the white people (which included the creators of the Governors, something they would definitely have approved of). It’s an End of the World as We Know It catastrophe caused on purpose by a small group of extremists. After the first wave of Assessments several off-world colonies are founded, then the Governors bring the remaining population down to an “appropriate” number. Two of the protagonists are from Old Earth, on a diplomatic mission to one of the colonies.

Said colony is called New Amazonia – it’s the sort of society I have the impression Tepper would approve of. It’s completely run by women, who go armed and have a dueling culture. Men are studs, and second class citizens, unless they’re gay (“gentle”) in which case they might get a bit more education and rights but it’s not like they’re ever going to be on a par with a woman is it? New Amazonia has something Old Earth wants – a clean & limitless power source. Possessing that might make the Governors back off a bit on the population limits. And a third protagonist is the New Amazonian counterpart to the two Old Earth diplomats.

And there’s a third culture involved here too – this one totally alien. Kii’s species once lived on what is now New Amazonia, and there are several interludes from Kii’s point of view. At first Kii feels almost superfluous, but as the book goes on you find out why this is an essential thread of the narrative. And Kii too is a diplomat of sorts – Kii is explorer-caste “And things that are new are things that Kii’s caste is for”, who else would be observing the humans and maybe interacting with them?

One of the things I like about this book is that everyone (including the secondary characters) is the protagonist of their own story. The ones we follow are Michaelangelo & Vincent from Old Earth, Lesa from New Amazonia and Kii, but everyone has their own agenda and no-one is as simple as the mask they present to the world. And everyone is masking something. The conflict in the story comes from the clash between everyone’s goals, rather than a Good v. Bad struggle, even if some of the goals are more sympathetic to me than others. And people that we thought were on different sides aren’t, and people who seem on the same side might not be. Allegiances shift (or are revealed) several times during the story but it always feels like it grows out of who the characters are and what they want.

Something Bear does very deftly is keep each culture feeling both alien to us and yet still sympathetic. I think part of how she does this is to have the things that our current point of view character Others be things that are part of our culture, and the things that they just accept as the obvious axioms of existence be things that we look at in bemusement. So for instance, there’s a bit where one of the Old Earth men is observing in horror that Lesa has a pet, how could she? An example from the flip side of it is Lesa having a contemplative moment about how it’s not like you could expect a hormonal man to really cope with the pressure of government/civilisation, they’re just not biologically set up for it. And very much all the cultures on show have their own flaws. Vincent’s is from yet another culture, and it’s presented as having been almost an idyllic childhood, but I’m not really sure I believe that (and I don’t think Bear meant one to take it at face value).

There’s a lot of other stuff I could talk about too. Communication is definitely a key theme – all three of the human protagonists are very good with the unspoken sides of communication, Kii is in a First Contact situation (kinda). Which links in with the cultures stuff I just talked about – your basic axioms of society affect how you deal with people and the assumptions you make, and how you communicate. Sacrifice is another theme (often is in Bear’s stories, to get what you want you have to pay a high price and you have to decide if that price is worth it). This story also has something going on about choosing prices for other people – the very existence of Governors is a prime example of this. A few people chose that price on behalf of the whole world, and this was not a good and noble thing despite what they might’ve thought when they did it. And this ties in unsettlingly into the interactions with Kii towards the end of the book, ends and means again and I’m not quite comfortable with the choices made on behalf of Kii even if maybe there wasn’t anything else they could do, and maybe Kii was OK with it afterwards.

Pleasingly after the Banks I’ve been reading there’s a hopeful ending. It feels like maybe, just maybe, things will get better. The net change over the course of the story feels like a positive one.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 2); Strange Days: Cold War Britain; Rise of the Continents

The second episode of Alastair Sooke’s series about the art of Ancient Egypt covered the Middle Kingdom (briefly) and most of the New Kingdom. He only picked a couple of objects from the Middle Kingdom – both from Senusret III’s reign. He gave the impression that this is because the New Kingdom was the Golden Age, which is true in some ways, but the Egyptians themselves looked back at the Middle Kingdom as their “classical age” where art and culture first achieved great heights. I think it’s a shame he didn’t make it more clear the reason it gets short-shrift in programmes like these is because not as much survives for one reason or another. Often because sites were re-used or updated by New Kingdom Egyptians wanting the association with past glories.

The other eight treasures on the programme were from the New Kingdom between the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun. As well as looking at some of the iconic art from her reign he spent some time talking about the iconography of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh. Pharaohs are male, so Hatshepsut was represented with all the male accoutrements and a masculine body in her official art works. One thing I hadn’t realised before (or had forgotten) is that it was during Hatshepsut’s time that the term Pharaoh actually started to be used – it translates to “the palace” so it’s the equivalent of talking about the White House doing X or Y in the USA (and surprisingly the example Sooke used was Brits talking about the Crown which I don’t even think is the best of the possible UK equivalents – No. 10 would be better).

There was obviously some considerable discussion of the new art style that Akhenaten brought with him when he changed the state religion. Both in terms of the slightly bizarre body shapes of the earliest stuff, and the new informal poses and domestic scenes on official art works. Which does give a very different impression of the royal family of that time, even as I remind myself it’s propaganda first & foremost. Obviously the bust of Nefertiti featured in this section, you can’t really miss it out. But the item from around that era (just before it) that struck me most was the little glass fish, that’s now in Berlin. I’ve seen it before & it’s a lovely piece, but what made it the highlight of this programme for me was that they showed us how it was made. I’ve read about how these glass objects were made before but it’s different actually watching it happen. And as always I’m somewhat in awe of what people were able to do before the advent of modern technology.

Obviously the programme ended with Tutankhamun’s mask – another iconic piece you can’t miss out, which also illustrates how what we have to admire depends so much on chance. The next episode covers the rest of Egyptian culture up to Cleopatra, quite a wide range. There’ve been a few clips of the temple at Abu Simbel, so presumably that’ll feature πŸ™‚

This week we finished watching Dominic Sandbrook’s series about the Cold War – Strange Days: Cold War Britain. This three part series looked at British history from 1946 through to 1989 through the lens of how the Cold War affected politics and culture. So part of the series was Sandbrook telling us about the major events of the Cold War, and giving some indication what life was like on the other side, to give us context for the effects on Britain. And the other part was looking at events in Britain from a perspective we don’t always think of. Some stuff was obvious when you thought about it – like the popularity of James Bond films tying in to revelations about Russian spies in the UK. And the John le CarrΓ© novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as the much less glamorous and more cynical take on the same thing. Other things less so – consumerism being a part of how we differentiated “us” from “them” makes sense when I think about it, but I’d never’ve thought of how capitalism was in some ways kept in check by a desire to prove it was better than the alternatives. Which made more sense when Sandbrook talked about it than I have quite managed to articulate here!

The threat of nuclear war and how that shaped our culture was one of the strands running through the programmes, and the various attempts government made to prepare people for this. Sandbrook highlighted several times the contrast between the almost optimistic government handbooks which aimed not to panic people (even if this backfired at times) and the bleak films and TV serieses which were closer to what the reality might be. He showed us clips from The War Game (a 60s film that wasn’t shown on TV for about 20 years) which was a meticulously researched documentary, and Threads (an 80s film) which was more overtly fictional. Both grim enough even in excerpt that I know I don’t want to watch them in full. In the third programme Sandbrook also mentioned a book he’d read for class when he was 10 (I looked him up on wikipedia, he’s a couple of months younger than me) – as he started to talk about it I knew exactly which book he meant before the reveal. It was “Brother in the Land” by Robert Swindells, which I’ve read. Once. I’ve dipped into it occasionally since, and it’s still on my shelves, because I remember it as a good, well written book. But I’ve never re-read it cover to cover, despite my love of post-apocalypic novels. It’s just an extremely grim and depressing and unrelentingly bleak tale of the first months after a nuclear war. I read it at about 13 or 14, a few years after it was published, and it’s stuck with me since then – it must’ve been pretty traumatising to read at the age of 10 particularly when you had to think about it for school rather than stick your head in the sand (I’ve always adopted the ostrich approach to the idea of The End of the World As We Know It catastrophes).

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression. I liked this series, in particular I thought they did a good job of mixing archival footage with new stuff seamlessly switching between the two in a way that made the old stuff seem more immediately relevant. I even liked the somewhat overblown style, but I think J found the sweeping generalised claims made at times a little irritating.

We also finished another series this week – Rise of the Continents – which I really enjoyed so I wanted to say a few words about it even though this post is already quite long! This was a series about plate tectonics and the geological history of the earth, presented by Iain Stewart. Each week Stewart looked at a different continent (Africa, Australia, the Americas and Eurasia) and followed the geological story of the continent after it split from Pangea (the supercontinent that existed when the dinosaurs roamed the earth). He showed us the evidence that tells us about this geological story, and he also showed the impact that geology has had on both evolution and on human history. He’s a geologist so was strongest on that subject, pretty good on palaeontology but said a couple of dubious historical things we noticed (but otherwise was OK on that). Basically what you’d expect as he got further from his actual area of expertise. He was also a charmingly enthusiastic presenter.

One reason I enjoyed it so much is because I think the idea of plate tectonics is inherently cool. The earth not being static but consisting of vast sheets of crust all moving around and crashing into each other is awesome. It’s also an area I don’t know much about – I think the last time I read a book on it was in the 80s, when the science was still fairly new. So there were all sorts of things I didn’t know, and most of them were in the “neat facts” category. Like did you know that as India travelled on its way to crashing into Eurasia it moved over a magma plume, which turned a big chunk of it into a zone of volcanoes. This thinned the land so India started to move quicker. But also while it sat over this region for a few hundred thousand years the amount of volcanic eruption dumped toxins in the oceans and changed the climate – so this is thought to have contributed to the decline of the dinosaurs (before an asteroid finished them off). Or did you know the silver mines in South America exist because of subduction of the Pacific Ocean floor carries water down under the land. I can’t quite remember how Stewart said this then lead to the silver deposits, but the very idea of water being carried down under the crust is one I’d not thought of before (and it’s kinda cool as a concept).

I think J didn’t like the visual effects on the programme much – there were quite a few transitions where they used a jumble of still shots and mixed up audio before Stewart explained something. It didn’t bother me as much though.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Sacred Wonders of Britain – Neil Oliver visits several sacred sites in Britain dating from prehistoric times through to the Reformation.

Episode 2 of The Brain: A Secret History – Michael Mosley series about brains, minds and experimental psychology. We never managed to record episode 1 but we decided to watch the other two anyway.

Episode 6 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

A Review of the New Hamlet, Seen this Recent Afternoon

Abroad yesterday afternoon south of the river to the theatre – finally hearing the new play from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I confess I’d been dubious in advance, the revenge tragedy has been rather done to death in recent years. And even this particular story has been staged in recent memory following the script of none other than Thomas Kyd, so a re-working of Hamlet seemed to offer nothing new.

But we went, and I admit I was wrong – the pen of Will Shakespeare shook the tale up and made something fresh of it. On arrival I almost thought we had mistaken the hour, and had walked in partway through. The play began practically mid-scene, no prologue or explanation, Shakespeare trusting us to find our way through by our own wits. An interesting device. The story having been set before us with deft strokes we were swiftly under way. I began to wonder if there would be sufficient story to fill the allotted time, but this Hamlet was no man of sharp sword yet dull wit. He devised his scheme and spun his web with crazy-sounding quicksilver words to entice the King into revealing his guilt. And then in the moment where he could finally wreak revenge, he pauses and considers if it were the best time. I was of the opinion he should just have done the deed, but in argument later I am almost persuaded that Hamlet’s course might have been the better one. Why should the murderer die in a state of grace when that lack in his victim is a part of his crime? And yet, and yet. In the end they all die, even the innocent maid – and if Hamlet had not stayed his hand at first, she at least might yet live. A conundrum worthy of pondering.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were as accomplished as ever. Richard Burbage as one would expect was a delight to watch in the title role. His trademark veracity enhanced perhaps by his own father’s recent passing?

All told a play that is worth hearing again.

Ok, so if you normally read this blog and are now wondering “wtf?”: This is a creative writing assignment for a course I’m taking on Hamlet with Future Learn. We had to write a short review of Hamlet from the perspective of an Elizabethan seeing it for the first time. We were encouraged to embrace anachronism hence the mix between my normal style and slightly archaic (but not Elizabethan) phrasing. And if it was too long to stick in the 1200 char comment box we were encouraged to “set up” a blog and post it there.

If you came from Future Learn: Hi! Welcome, and feel free to poke around the rest of the site πŸ™‚

2013 Roundup: Photos, Trips, Museums and Concerts

This part of my roundup of 2013 posts includes categories that involve photos or me going somewhere (and in many cases both).


I don’t think we go to as many gigs as we used to – this feels like a short list of “big” concerts or events. Having said that, I think there’s a couple we went to that I haven’t written up – I’m sure we went to some Furry Live events early last year and those are not on the list. Picking a favourite is difficult – the Marillion Weekends are always special for instance and a social event for us too (7 of us in the group who went this year!). But I think that for me the Stone Roses gig has to win out – despite the unpleasantness of big-outdoor-gig crowds – although not a one-off this is only the second time we’ve seen them play and there’s no saying there’ll be another chance. That gig wins out over the Roger Waters one for me, because heathen that I am I’ve never really been that into Pink Floyd – so seeing The Wall live was a cool show but not a special event.


It’s been a good year for visits to museums and exhibitions! There’s even a few I’ve not written about (yet?) – including the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and the London Museum. And a couple in Turin too. It’s processing photos that holds up these posts, and that’s something I need to work on getting better at just sitting down and doing. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I think the Ice Age Art one might be it – the stuff we saw there was so very old, yet still evocative as art.


The photos of the week that I post are mostly self-consciously chosen to be a bit “arty” and I’ve gradually started to title them with something that isn’t straightforwardly what the subject of the photo is. I can’t really choose a favourite, this is one of the only things on my blog that is my work as opposed to me talking about other people’s work, so they’re all either my babies or horrid (or both) depending on my frame of mind. I will mention that both Gathering and Tattered hit the “Popular” list on 500px on the day they were posted. That means something to me because I don’t do any promotion of my photos on 500px, I just post them and see what happens – so a significant handful of random strangers chanced across those and liked them πŸ™‚


You’ll spot our Turin trip is missing from this list, the photos are part processed and I need to get on with it! I shan’t rank the two trips that are here, they’re different sorts of thing – one was a holiday and one a day out.