Monday Link Salad

This week I start my next Future Learn course – Shakespeare and His World.

I’m starting to quite look forward to Evolve (the new game from the guys who did the original L4D) … hopefully it doesn’t disappoint when it finally gets here πŸ™‚

The Writ of Years is a delightfully creepy fairytale-esque short story.

I’m catching up (slowly, slowly) with reading at – Jo Walton’s post on if there’s a right age to read particular books caught my eye. I’m in agreement with Walton, I think. Even though I re-read less these days than I did as a kid, it’s odd to think that reading a book “too early” would do anything but mean you missed a bunch of stuff that you’d notice on a future read through (or fail to comprehend it entirely but understand it later).

More book stuff: I’ve set myself up an account on WWEnd which curates a list of authors & books who’ve won SFF awards or been on “must read” type lists. You can set what you’ve read and it gives you stats (like I’ve read 47% of all Hugo award winning books), they also encourage people to rate & review books. I’m about halfway through their list of authors marking what I’ve read that I remember (although only rating stuff I’ve read recently). (I was going to link to my account, but I can’t seem to find a way to directly link to it, oh well.)

Mass groups of whale fossils found in Chile – probably the result of at least four different mass strandings caused by a group of whales eating toxic algae then their dead bodies being washed up on shore.

10 Facts about Ichneumonidae describes these parasitic wasps near the start of the article as “think chestburster from Alien, but for insects.”.

Less creepily here’s 37 photos from history ranging from the moving to the “wtf?” (particularly the baby cage for ensuring your infant offspring get sufficient sunlight and fresh air if you live in an apartment block). Thanks to J for that link πŸ™‚

I think I’ve seen this before, but it’s pretty striking – due to different streetlight lightbulbs you can still see the East/West divide in Berlin.

The only new TV programme I’m setting to record this week is When Albums Ruled the World next Monday – but the BBC’s schedule page was a little broken this morning and I’ve not been able to look at what’s showing on Saturday & Sunday.

Monday Link Salad

Mary Beard recently gave a lecture on the long cultural history of silencing women’s voices, the text is online. Which juxtaposed well (in the sense that it’s similar cultural roots) with the programme we just watched on how Greek attitudes to luxury still affect our own. And juxtaposed in a timely fashion with the bigotry in SFWA thing that’s been rumbling on for the last year – the latest iteration of which blew up just recently and includes someone critiquing a woman’s appearance as a part of a rationale for dismissing her. Having read the lecture just before I read about the SFWA thing it was interesting to see how many times I saw it linked in comments.

Ben Goldacre on the NHS data sharing plan – he says with well thought out arguments and evidence things that match my gut feel on it. Having the data available to medicine would be extremely useful and is a Good Thing, it’s a shame they’re botching the explanation and the regulatory side of it :/

Reshaping Reality has a post up on how science works, the fundamental uncertainties at the roots of physics & thus the whole of science and why scientific literacy matters which includes a list of blogs and books about science.

James Nicoll’s micro reviews of the Science Fiction Book Club books of July 2000 – the one that caught my eye was SUBURBAN GODS (2-in-1 of HOW LIKE A GOD and DOORS OF DEATH AND LIFE) by Brenda W. Clough, that he recommends and I’ve never heard of.

Also from James Nicoll some potential reading list generators – list of women authors who debuted in the 1970s, and 1980s with recommendations from people about books of theirs to read. Mine are in comments on those posts. Lots of them I’ve not read anything by, gonna give the lists a little time to multiply then construct myself a list of books to look for.

Ever wondered what the cryptic spray paint marks are on UK pavements?

In the “OMG I’m old, how’d that happen?” department is this: Descent is 19 years old!! Not a game I ever really got the hang of, I remember J liking it a lot tho. While we were at uni. Which is clearly only yesterday.

Also off RPS (I’m a bit behind on reading it) is confirmation that Steam Tags really are as bad an idea as I thought they would be. They do seem to’ve added functionality so you can report tags but what rock have they been hiding under for the last decade or two to not realise that unmoderated open to all tagging on the internet was going to generate problems?

Chroma looks interesting, but a bit of an odd idea … could be good, could be terrible, have to wait & see. And Doom 4 looks like it’s going to be a thing … can’t work out if that’s exciting or not, I got more into Quake (3 and 4) than any of the Dooms.

Trying to read old Scottish documents? This might help – via my father, who managed to decipher the 17th Century marriage record that I completely failed to read πŸ™‚

Cats taking selfies … because the internet is for cat pictures.

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North is a book I’d like to read – similar underlying premise as Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” (post) but goes in a different direction. Link via Lady Business.

Apps installed recently include Crowdsourced Weather which uses the sensors on your phone to detect local weather data. Doesn’t seem to have many people using it yet according to the map, but I now have on my phone something that tells me the barometric pressure, the magnetic field of the earth where I am, the temperature (using an algorithm to figure it out from battery temp, a little flaky) and how light it is. This may not be particularly useful but it makes me happy πŸ™‚

Also using Muzei, which gives you a new backdrop every day or so, each one is a famous work of art. A little bit of art appreciation on my phone πŸ™‚ There’s plenty of plugins for things like NASA’s APOD too.

And finally got round to installing Untappd, which lets you track which different beers you’ve tried. It also lets you spam facebook/twitter/foursquare with what you drink, but I’m not doing that πŸ˜‰

The TV programmes I told the PVR to record this week are rather WW1 heavy:

Charlie Brooker: How Videogames Changed the World

How Videogames Changed the World was a two hour look through the history of computer games, presented by Charlie Brooker. We recorded it from Channel 4 on Saturday and it was very much made to be aired around the release dates of PS4 & Xbox One – and Sony had definitely bought a lot of the advertising spots in the breaks! I’d not actually had high hopes going into watching it – I mean, a mainstream programme about games might miss the mark. But it was clearly not just about games, but also by gamers – all the participants “got it”.

The format was a countdown of 25 significant games – although it was almost treated like it was supposed to be a chart it was really a chronological sequence. Most of the first hour of the show was a nostalgia filled trot through my childhood, and then the second half had a lot of games J or I have bought as adults. Very much the target audience for the programme πŸ™‚ As well as Brooker there were lots of other contributors – some games industry figures (journalists or developers) and some relatively random celebrities (most of whom I didn’t know of). Well, they had a love of games & gaming, so not entirely random, but …

As someone who has spent a lot of her life playing computer games it was nice to find few things I’d quibble at. I think the biggest hole I’d pick in the list is that it’d be nice to’ve had something from the simulation/strategy/god game niche that wasn’t just The Sims. I mean, I can see they wanted to talk about The Sims (and had stuff to say specifically about it), but nothing about Civ or Populous or Sim City and not even name checking those felt like an oversight. In general tho I agreed with their choices – they were good or iconic, or in some cases neither but perfectly illustrated the point being made.

It wasn’t just a history of how games have changed, I thought the programme did a good job of showing how they fitted into the culture around them at the time and of illustrating how they’d affected the world. There are many positive ways that games have changed things – Minecraft was one major example used here, because it’s not just a game it can be used to teach things too. And just in general games are more interactive and less passive than, for instance, TV watching. I did have issues with the dismissal of books as less immersive than games, tho πŸ˜‰

They also spent a bit of time on most of the big issues around gaming and gaming culture – not just the positive aspects of gaming. Obviously they covered the moral panic over video game violence, and equally obviously as a programme by gamers it was heavily on the side of how foolish this moral panic is. But even so space was given to examples that did cross lines – because the point is not that all games are OK for everyone, it’s that demonising all games because of a few is like saying every film ever made is pornographic because filmed porn exists. Another issue discussed was the way that gaming culture can be seen as a bit of a cesspit. The two strands of that that they discussed were again the obvious ones. The treatment of women gamers and particularly women gaming journalists can be abysmal, and CoD on Xbox Live in particular is notorious for foul mouthed teenagers. This is just a vocal minority, as they said on the programme, but it can seem relentless at times and probably more so from the outside.

The last “game” on the list was Twitter, which I felt was a bit of a cop-out and didn’t (to me) actually illustrate their point very well. The point Brooker & co were trying to make was that with the rise of social media and so on more of our day to day life has been gamified. I think there is a point there, but I’m not sure for most people Twitter is that thing. All the people speaking on the programme were in some ways celebrities – in the sense that people will follow them on Twitter because of what or who they are not because of a personal connection. So they were all discussing how things like follower counts are like game scores, and projecting a persona is like having a game avatar or playing an RPG, and you craft tweets for maximum impact. And, well, I’m not sure normal people do that? Maybe everyone else does, I do barely use Twitter myself, so I could be way off base here. What did strike me is how the public in that game of Twitter are the coupons that prove you’re winning (or not) – we’re like the gold coins that Mario collects. Which didn’t seem to be the point Brooker was making, but it’s an interesting one to me.

A good programme, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a look at a culture that’s one of my own πŸ™‚

Other TV watched this week:

The Science of Doctor Who – a lecture by Brian Cox about the physics of space time, and the Fermi paradox.

Episode 1 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

The last episode of David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy – which covered the 19th and 20th Century.

This Week’s TV including Games, Antigua, Vikings, Ottomans, and Iron Age & 20th Century Britons

Games Britannia

This is a three part series about the history of games in Britain, presented by Benjamin Woolley – we only recorded the first one which was the earlier history. Just as well, I think as he got closer to the modern day I’d’ve got more irritated with him (a throwaway remark in his intro to the theme of the series about how “these days teenage boys play video games” put my hackles up …). Other infelicities included showing a picture from an Egyptian relief of a game of senet and talking about it as if it was an ancestor of chess (unlikely, I think it’s believed to be more like a race game than a war game). And an assumption that an Iron Age game board must’ve been for divination purposes and meant this burial was of a druid … which, er, why does everything “primitive people” do have to have deep religious significance? Can’t a game be a game?

Otherwise it was an interesting survey of games from Iron Age Britain to late Victorian times. The earlier periods are represented by a small handful of games we don’t really know the rules for any more, except Nine Men’s Morris – which you find boards for scratched into the stonework in cathedral cloisters & so on, and it’s a game that is found in some variant form or another right across the world. The games we’d recognise today start to come in after contact with the east – some brought back by crusaders etc and later from India. I didn’t know that Snakes & Ladders derived from a Hindu game that was more of a teaching tool about the Hindu religion that a game per se. Odd to note that this game was altered to remove the message behind it during the same time period that teaching games were being churned out by Victorian moralists – lots of games where the point was to race to the end and there’d be various moral snares along the way (“You landed in a tavern, miss two goes”).

Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered

A hurricane in 2010 uncovered 18th Century bones on a beach in Antigua – a place that Horatio Nelson once referred to as a “vile place” and a “dreadful hole”. In this programme Sam Willis followed the (fairly short) archaeological excavation that followed the discovery & told us a bit about the history of Antigua and why it was such an appalling place in the 18th Century. Antigua was important to the British Empire – both strategically and because it, in common with the other Caribbean islands, was where sugar was produced. The beach where the bones were found is in a place now called English Harbour – a natural harbour surrounded by hills where ships could shelter from the hurricanes. An obvious place to make your main base for the area – a couple of forts near the entrance & you can make the whole thing a safe place for your fleet. But the lack of wind & currents causes other problems – anything flung in the water just stays there. Parts of the seabed in the harbour today are feet thick in rubbish, industrial waste from the dockyards went in, any waste from the ships moored there including sewage. So instead of the pretty & clean beach of today the harbour would’ve been a stinking miasma of polluted water & air. Then you add in all the tropical diseases the sailors were exposed to, and the high mortality rate starts to seem reasonable. But then Willis talked to several archaeologists who have an additional theory about what was killing the sailors – lead poisoning from rum. Part of the sugar cane harvest was made into rum, and this was a staple drink for the sailors – they’d have a pint a day as part of their rations. But the rum was made in lead piping and lead distillation tanks, and the people Willis spoke to said the rum would’ve been contaminated. Perhaps not a problem if you had a bit now & again, but for the sailors it would’ve built up quickly.

The archaeological side of the programme was well covered, but was made at an early stage of the investigation – they had a few days of excavation but obviously hadn’t done any further analysis by the time the programme was made. But in that 5 days or so they got half a dozen skeletons from one small trench in the beach – the thought is that if a sailor died on board a ship in the harbour then he’d be hurriedly buried on the beach.

The Viking Sagas

This programme about the Viking Sagas wasn’t one of Janina Ramirez’s better programmes – somewhat padded out with lots of gushing about how wonderful the sagas were (rather than more discussion of the things themselves) at the start and some odd choices for imagery. It did get better as the programme went on, however, as we moved from generic “ooh this is wonderful” to a discussion of one saga in particular. The saga she chose was the LaxdΓ¦la saga, a story of lust, love & revenge. The point Ramirez was drawing out was that the Viking sagas were much more realistic than contemporary European literature which was heavy on tales of courtly love, and virtue being rewarded. The sagas are based on real events (in real places) with only a thin veneer of Christian moralising added at a later stage (like GuΓ°rΓΊn, one of the protagonists, withdrawing to a nunnery at the end of her life in repentance). Ramirez also made a point of how British people were among those who settled Iceland (mostly women brought as concubines, i.e. sex slaves). And the sagas also influenced more modern British writers – Blake and Tolkein were the examples used.

Worth watching for the scenery & to hear bits of the saga read aloud (in Icelandic, with subtitles) in said scenery. But the In Our Time we listened to earlier in the year on the same subject was more informative (post).

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

In the second episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire, Rageh Omaar covers the second half of the empire from Suleiman the Magnificent (or Suleiman the Lawgiver) in the 16th Century through to Abdul Hamid II and the “Sick Old Man of Europe” (nickname for the empire) in the 19th Century. Omaar continues to be more of an apologist for the Ottoman Empire than I’d like (lots of “it was a tolerant place” while glossing over second class citizenship for non-Muslims & children of non-Muslims being taken to be slaves). It was during Suleiman’s time that the Mamluk Empire was conquered – bringing the heartlands of Islam under Ottoman control. Prior to this the Ottomans were only really nominally Muslim, and ruled over a predominantly Christian territory, afterwards they moved more towards embracing their Islamic faith as a mark of their legitimacy as rulers. The Sultan was now also the Caliph, and they imposed a hierarchy on the Islamic clergy where there was previously no such thing. Under Suleiman and his immediate successors the Ottoman Empire pushed its expansion westward – ending up at the gates of Vienna, where they were only defeated by all of Christendom coming together (in effect) to drive them back. The Turks were feared across Europe & from the perspective of Europeans it was very much a Holy War (but not so from the Ottoman perspective, that was about territory). Omaar pointed out that this historical legacy influences the way the more eastern countries of Europe see the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union to this day.

Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire was at its peak, after him & his immediate successors their technological advantage started to be outstripped by a Europe undergoing the Industrial Revolution and entering the Enlightenment era. When Napoleon took his army to Egypt the initial Ottoman reaction was an assumption they were clearly the superior civilisation so their rout by the French & the loss of Egypt was a complete shock. It’s all downhill from there – the Ottomans end up referred to as the Sick Old Man of Europe, and rising nationalist feelings start to tear apart the cohesion of the Empire. The Ottoman dynasty is also seen by parts of the Empire as not Muslim enough – a fundamentalist Muslim group rising in what’s now Saudi Arabia took control of Mecca & Medina for a while, and whilst their rebellion was put down by the Ottomans it was a sign of what was to come.

Which is presumably the subject of the next episode.

Metal: How it Works

Metal: How it Works is the first of a three part series (all called X: How it Works) presented by Mark Miodownik which look at the materials our civilisation is based on. It was a combination of history, engineering & metallurgy, and while it could’ve been quite dry it was saved by the fact that Miodownik is engagingly enthusiastic about the subject. Miodownik took us through the history of metal-working from the early discovery of copper, and then bronze, through iron-working to steel and more modern metals. Along the way he talked about what it is about the atomic structure of metals that makes them behave the way they do (atoms in a crystal lattice, but one where the atoms can slide along and bunch up). As well as the enthusiastic bits about what metal working has let us do there were also a couple of segments about times when our ambition outreached our knowledge & skills. The first of these was about the railway bridge across the Tay, which collapsed under a train during a storm killing everyone on board. Which was the impetus for figuring out steel production – because it was the first indication for Victorian engineers that iron alone wasn’t necessarily the answer to all the world’s engineering problems. And the second was the first passenger planes, where tragically the stresses that repeated pressurisation & depressurisation put on the metal fuselages of planes was only worked out after several catastrophic mid-air failures.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The third episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was a very padded hour about two Iron Age burials. Very very padded. Bourton-on-the-Water is a village in the Cotswolds that I’ve been to several times as a child, and apparently underneath its primary school there is a fairly large Iron Age site. As the school has expanded they’ve had archaeologists come in and excavate before they put new buildings up, so much has been unearthed. The original burial (a girl in a rubbish pit) was thought to be singular and perhaps a sign of human sacrifice – so the updated info was first debunking that theory and then discussing the other burials they found in the area. All were of women or girls who were in some way diseased or disabled – they speculate that this may’ve been what set these women apart so that they were buried rather than excarnated (left to decompose before burying the bones). One of the bodies was of an older woman who had clearly been paralysed below the waist for several years (her leg bones were withered) but was otherwise in good health (as far as they could detect) which is an indication that these women were well looked after.

The other burial was a chariot burial found in Yorkshire in a village called Wetwang. Subsequent to the original excavation they’ve found evidence that the chariot was in use before death – ie it wasn’t just for burying the woman with, it was her vehicle in life. The woman in the grave was also disfigured, her skull was lopsided – probably pushed that way by a fairly large hemangioma on one of her cheeks. (Wikipedia says haemangiomas disappear over time mostly going by age 10, so perhaps I misremember what they said on the programme as they seemed to be saying it would still be visible in her later years.) She was buried with a mirror, which they’ve now discovered may’ve been kept in an otter fur bag – which may have symbolic status.

We’ll have a gap before we can watch the fourth episode, for some reason it didn’t record last time it aired so I need to wait till it airs again (soon, I think). In it, I suspect he’ll tell us several hundred times how it’s been “over N years since” the original excavations πŸ˜‰

A Hundred Years of Us

The third episode of A Hundred Years of Us was more of the same mixture as the other two. Phil Tufnell was irritating as a butler this time (but the butler teaching him was too polite to outright laugh). More interesting was the segment on motorways – brand shiny new in the 1950s and requiring informational films about how you shouldn’t do a U-turn if you missed your exit nor have a picnic on the hard shoulder. And they were empty! There was also an interview with a man who’d moved from Jamaica to England in the early 60s (not on the Windrush, his parents moved over on the Windrush). He talked about both the culture shock and the racism he faced – like how he’d corresponded with an agricultural college when he was still in Jamaica to organise becoming a student once he moved to England. But once he turned up (and turned out black) there was magically no space in any of the classes. He ended up having to get a job as a bus conductor in Birmingham. He was keen to stress how much England has changed for the better since he arrived (although this segment also covered how much it got worse before it got better).