Friday, 29 December 2006

Before the Arabs and the Israelis

Many others have owned the Middle East in the last five thousand years. This fascinating animated map reminds you in 90 seconds who they were.

This site, Maps of War, also has more brilliant animations, particularly of The History of Religion and American Wars 1775-2006.

View them Full Screen if you can.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Comment is free...

...but often not worth reading. The Guardian has “a collective group blog, bringing together regular columnists from the Guardian and Observer newspapers with other writers and commentators representing a wide range of experience and interests. The aim is to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement and to invite users to comment on everything they read”.

This seems a nice idea, but the comments often provide little in the way of worthwhile debate, particularly when the original piece leans to the left a little, as Guardian writing occasionally does. There was a cool and reasonable article the other day by Melissa McEwan about nasty Republicans which inspired a couple of thousand words of comments, some of them merely making the obvious point that there are some pretty nasty Democrats too, but many of them (perhaps most, I couldn’t be bothered to count) consisting of abuse from simple-minded and often illiterate bigots who have nothing to add..

This wouldn’t matter too much—most such comments reveal in the first couple of lines how little the writer has to say, so really tedious mouthings can be skipped—except that others who comment are tempted to waste their time responding to people with whom it is pointless to argue, when they could be making intelligent comments on the original article.

When the collective blog (called Comment Is Free) was started I registered a name and participated for a while, but now I just read some of the articles and don’t join in the feeble ranting that follows many of them.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Eat, drink and be merry

...but you might feel better while you do it if you
went HERE first (or HERE if you’re American).

Saturday, 23 December 2006

Warrior headgear

I was quite right to think that I wouldn't be able to keep writing about Christmas for a week. Enough of all that, let's move on to something else.
Here is a reconstruction of the rather splendid kind of helmet with visor, called a rhizopoda, worn by the Mongol horsemen, who, operating from the Mongol base in Persia and led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu Khan, destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad in 1250.

Halegu Khan himself used to top his helmet off with an impaled baby, which was said to give him a fearsome aspect and discourage the opposing forces.

[From an 1862 engraving by Dr Ernst Haeckel in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin]

Thursday, 21 December 2006

John who?

And another thing about Christmas cards: the contemptuous way in which people with very common first names often sign without a surname, thus indicating that they believe you are a sad, lonely person and that your circle of acquaintances is so pathetically small that you will identify the writer immediately because you know no-one else with the same name. You can only hope that you didn’t send the idiots a card, whoever they are.

And then there are the couples whom you may have met once in 1974 but who believe their personalities are so remarkable that you will remember them for ever.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Jolly Xmas fun for all the family

Christmas quizzes and Christmas competitions are among the most grisly of the things that Christmas brings; the mere thought of them is depressing. I have come across one which could actually be enjoyable, even though there isn’t much likelihood of me completing it, let alone winning one of the three prizes.

It is the Advent Calendar Competition run by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I doubt if many will accept my recommendation to follow the link I have provided but I shall describe it anyway, so there.

There are actually three competitions: one is closed, one ends today and one will go on over Christmas. In the first, every day from 1st to 8th December a page opened on the website illustrating someone who is listed in the ODNB. You click on the picture to get the full entry and on 8th December you had to answer the question: What festive theme links these eight people? The people were William Rossetti (brother of Dante Gabriel), Ewan MacColl, Quentin Bell, George Bernard Shaw and four others of whom I had never heard (so you see what I mean about me not getting anywhere near an entry or a prize), and the answer was: Like Father Christmas, each had a fine white beard at some time in his life.

The second part began on 9th December and ends on 19th (today). Those who feature are Bob Barclay (jazz musician), Dorothy Osborne (letter writer), Phiz (Dickens illustrator), Catherine of Valois (consort of Henry V), Sir Carol Reed, Nancy Astor, Anne Jane Thornton (sailor and cross-dresser), Constantine the Great, Sir Ebenezer Howard (founder of the garden city movement), Jacob Isaac (writer) and Ellen Ternan (Dickens' friend).

Today you are asked the question: Together, these eleven men and women point to a twelfth seasonal person. Who?

There is still time to enter this second part; you will have to fill in the form today. The third part starts on 20th December and goes on until 31st. Win either, and you might get OED books to the value of £200 (or the equivalent in US$).

Generous of me to urge people to go in for this, really, because the more entries there are the less chance I shall stand of winning a prize.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Merrily On High

I have been told that my choice of topics in the pre-Christmas period so far has been shamefully inappropriate, and I suppose this is true: there are very few aspects of Tory policy, marine diatoms or prostitution which are likely to waken anyone’s festive spirit.

So here we go on a series of Christmas-themed posts; it’s a bit early to start this because I doubt if I can keep it going for a whole week, but we shall see.

Many years ago when commercial silkscreen printing was in its infancy a friend and I started a little business making and selling, among other things, Christmas cards, in both secular and religious designs. Our artists were equally proficient at both but found the former enabled them to adopt a more uninhibited approach. Here are two of our designs; angels are timeless (obviously), but the style of the other drawing has dated a bit.

Sadly, the unsold stock is long since exhausted and nowadays we have to buy cards. Everybody knows that charity cards sold in shops give only a derisory share to the charities which produce them and most of them are awful anyway, so we get ours from a local voluntary organisation which pops up every year to offer a selection of cards from all the charities, and presumably passes on a fair slice of the proceeds.

Most of these designs are pretty awful too, and one also has to choose from those supplied by a charity of which one approves. Well, I suppose all charities are deserving in one sense (except maybe Eton and Harrow and all that lot, whose charitable status gets them £100 million a year in tax relief) but most people would rather give money to some than to others.


Friday, 15 December 2006

By any other name

The appalling events around Ipswich have inspired many thousands of words of media comment, much of it trite, prurient or fatuous. One piece I saw, by a female journalist who is usually fairly level-headed, was headed “Decriminalisation is the only way to safety” a pronouncement which apparently refers to the Green Party’s policy on prostitution.

Selling sex for money is not, of course, illegal in the UK (there is a useful summary here of laws throughout the EU), so it is presumably the ancillary activities such as advertising it, joining together in a co-operative, soliciting and perhaps pimping and brothel-keeping which they think should be legalised. To make her own version of the proposal absolutely clear, the journalist went on to say “we should stop regarding sex work as having any sort of stigma… It should be a job choice like any other…”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with prostitution, we just have to tidy it up a bit, amend our attitude and regard it as something perfectly acceptable, and all will be O.K.

Exactly how this will work is not spelt out, and perhaps the Green policy-makers cannot see that a legal, properly regulated trade in prostitution, with every kind of protection afforded both to free-lance workers and employees—Health and Safety and employment rules properly enforced (minimum wages, contracts, pensions and so on), and the Inland Revenue keeping a watchful eye on tax evasion—would be a multi-billion pound industry. It would from the start attract the attention of our top entrepreneurs, not only as employers but in providing all the services needed, such as training, careers advice in schools, selection (head-hunting at universities) and the establishment of professional standards and qualifications. And, of course, marketing: Richard Branson would have a head start here with his already widely-known brand name.

Male prostitution, I suppose, might still remain a cottage industry.

All this, of course, is lunacy. The article prompted a sensible reply from someone who has seen what happens in places where there is legalised prostitution, and knows that it singularly fails to achieve what its proponents imagine. But it would not be fair to think of them as merely simple-minded: if you have a naive idea of what the trade is like, then the daffy notion that prostitution could become “a job choice like any other” arises naturally from adopting the term “sex worker”. It was George Orwell who first showed the extent to which attitudes can be moulded and ideas changed simply by controlling the words used to describe something: you don’t change the thing, but Newspeak makes you regard it quite differently.

I wrote about this phenomenon in the context of prostitution a couple of years ago in a post called Opinion poll; this was a feeble and jokey piece mainly concerned with Sainsbury’s check-out girls, but somehow it evoked some lively comments from women writers, one of whom provided a fascinating magisterial survey of terms for prostitutes in their social context through the ages (whores, courtesans and so on). I contributed enthusiastically for a while but we got side-tracked into talking about death, putrefaction, the Dewey Decimal system and other irrelevancies, and then a soi-disant dyke from Prescott, AZ, joined in and I felt that the discussion had wandered off the point and it was time to end it.

See here for a fair comment (from another female journalist) on what the trade is really like and why the idea of de-stigmatising it is daft.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Intelligent design at Georgia Tech

Coupling the possibilities offered by genetic engineering with the discipline of microelectromechanical systems, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have recently turned their attentions to the prospect of controlling the growth of diatoms to provide useful 3-D microstructures.

Really Magazine reports here on the astounding possibilities this offers, but those whose pulses are not set racing by such news can still derive much pleasure from the article, for it provides a link to the on-line version of Ernst Haeckel: Die Radiolarien (1862). Dr Haeckel’s work involved the engraving of copper plates with pictures of some of the more than 100,000 varieties of marine diatom.

But never mind about all that; even if marine biology means as much to you as it does to Dolly Parton, you cannot fail to find these engravings things of wonder. Here is Plate Number 34:

Click on it to enlarge it, and marvel at the beauty and complexity of the structures.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Up the chimney with you, sonny

The shadow Attorney General’s pronouncements about the success of our Victorian forbears in changing public attitudes to moral codes, together with a lot of stuff (in a report on social justice prepared by Iain Duncan Smith and published today) about fathers—particularly Afro-Caribbean ones—shirking their responsibilities and unmarried parents damaging society may not mean that his party actually wants to put the clock back a hundred and fifty years.
But the suggestion first voiced in 1983 by Margaret Thatcher that we could learn much from Victorian mores remains alive in the Tory mind, and some of them will not regret that a front-page headline in one of yesterday’s papers was:
Bring back Victorian values, says key Tory.

There cannot be many, even among aged Yahoos of the right, who believe that our modern ills stem from the abandonment of the values of 1850, and that—for example—giving women the vote, letting them into universities and allowing them to own property even when married were the first steps along the slippery downward slope which has led in modern times to a widespread lack of moral fibre and a general decline in such matters as the ability to wage a decent war against lesser breeds.

I suppose there must be some, though, in the higher echelons of the party, who sincerely believe this.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Looking for Jane

Suppose you are one of those people who doesn’t know everything there is to know about Jane Austen, but would like to. When you’ve read, twice, everything she wrote, and a few of the hundreds of books about her (including Claire Tomalin’s, 2000, and Peter Knox-Shaw’s, 2004), what you need is a biographical summary short enough for you to actually remember most of it. Where should you look?

The Oxford Companion to English Literature has a perfunctory 860 words about Jane, the Encyclopædia Britannica has a rather gossipy 2,490, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as you might expect, has a magisterial 19,660. All these require a subscription to obtain access to their online editions so there's no point in giving links to them.

But Wikipedia provides a crisp and enjoyable page. Rather oddly, it carries a tag, dated August 2006, to the effect that “To meet Wikipedia's quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup”; I have no idea what this means.

I quote from the article:
Twentieth century scholars rank her among the greatest literary geniuses of the English language, sometimes even comparing her to Shakespeare. Lionel Trilling wrote in an essay on Mansfield Park: “It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and difficult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the secularization of spirituality as a prime characteristic of the modern epoch, and Jane Austen is the first to tell us what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of "sincerity" and "vulgarity" which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, and so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty.”

Sir Walter Scott put it rather more succinctly: That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

Mark Twain's reaction was revulsion, the silly old fool:
Jane Austen? Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.

And Charlotte Brontë completely missed the point, saying cattily:
Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works… She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores ... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible woman, if this is heresy--I cannot help it.

But then Charlotte and her sisters were queens of sentimental piffle. Jane was not a Romantic: passionate emotion usually carries danger in an Austen novel: the young woman who exercises twice a day is more likely to find real happiness than one who irrationally elopes with a capricious lover.

Rudyard Kipling felt differently, going so far as to write a short story "The Janeites" about a group of soldiers who were also Austen fans, as well as two poems praising "England's Jane" and providing her with posthumous true love.

This, in the National Portrait Gallery, London, has been described sniffily as “a somewhat rudimentary coloured sketch”. It is the only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen, done by her sister Cassandra.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Many a mickle makes a muckle

Unlike the Scots saying twa piggles dinna mek’ a thrup, this old English one does actually mean something: many small amounts accumulate to make a large amount. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to mean, but it doesn’t really, because mickle and muckle are merely variants of the same dialect word meaning "a large amount” (there was originally a misunderstanding that mickle means "a small amount”). So the whole thing is meaningless and certainly not worth quoting. [However, in Budapest they say "Sok kicsi sokra megy", which does mean exactly what this mickle nonsense is supposed to mean, thus showing that Hungarians are more sensible than Scotsmen.]

For further confusion it should be noted that a muckle is also a heavy maul for killing cod. The OED illustrates it with a quotation from Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous: There was no sound except.. the flapping of the cod, and the whack of the muckles as the men stunned them.

There was a 1937 film of the novel with Spencer Tracy and the English child actor Freddy Bartholomew who later, like his contemporary Shirley Temple, had a cocktail named after him. Both are non-alcoholic and the recipes sound disgusting.

It’s difficult to get away from muck: the Online OED has a column down the left-hand side of the page listing all the other words alphabetically within fifty or so of the one you are looking up, a hideously time-wasting arrangement which obliges me to inform my readers that muckibus is a rare Irish word meaning drunkenly sentimental or maudlin and muckerish is US college slang, also rare, meaning unsportsmanlike.

Mucker, on the other hand, has a great number of different meanings. I use it in the British army sense when I end this post with: that’s all for now, me old muckers.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006


Wiktionary, the lexical companion to Wikipedia, has a useful—well, if you're going to Canada—glossary of Canadian English words. Here is a selection; I suspect some of these are long obsolete, or included with tongue in cheek just to bulk out the list:

allophone: a resident whose first language is one other than English or French. Used only by linguists in other English-speaking countries, this word has come to be used by journalists and broadcasters, and then by the general public, in some parts of Canada.
bachelor: bachelor apartment ("They have a bachelor for rent").
Bunny Hug: Term used in Saskatchewan that is a hooded sweatshirt with or without a zipper that has a pocket in the front. Also refered to as a Hoodie in most other provinces
Bytown: the original name of Ottawa before its designation as national capital, often still used in the same context as Hogtown for Toronto or Cowtown for Calgary.
Canuck: A slang term for "Canadian" in the U.S. and Canada. It sometimes means "French Canadian" in particular, especially when used in the Northeast of the United States and in Canada. Adopted as the name of the National Hockey League team in Vancouver. Sometimes jokingly pronounced can-OOK (not used this way for the hockey team, aka "the Nucks").
chesterfield: a sofa or couch. Used somewhat in Northern California; obsolete in Britain (where it originated). Sometimes (as in classic furnishing terminology) refers to a sofa whose arms are the same height as the back, but more usually to any couch or sofa. The more international terms sofa and couch are also used; among younger generations in the western and central regions, chesterfield is largely in decline.
concession road: in southern Ontario and southern Quebec, one of a set of roads laid out by the colonial government as part of the distribution of land in standard lot sizes. The roads were laid out in squares as nearly as possible equal to 1,000 acres (4 km²). Many of the concession roads were known as sidelines, and in Ontario many roads are still called lines.
Cowtown: Calgary Alberta, also called C-Town and Calgon.
Deadmonton Another name for Edmonton Alta. Also known as E-Ville, Edmonchuck or Oil Town.
deke: A word derived from decoy and used to decribe a fake or feint intended to deceive a defensive player, often drawing that player out of position, usually in hockey, as in "I deked him out and scored."
double-double: a cup of coffee from Tim Horton's with two creams and two sugars
eaves troughs: (also Northern & Western U.S.): grooves or channels that attach to the underside of the roof of a house to collect rainwater. Known to most Americans and to Britons as gutters.
eh: a spoken interjection to ascertain the comprehension, continued interest, agreement, etc., of the person or persons addressed ("That was a good game last night, eh?"). May also be used instead of "huh?" or "what?" meaning "please repeat or say again." Frequently mis-represented by Americans as A, or hey. May have its origins from the French hein, which is pronounced in a very similar fashion.
Family Compact: a group of influential families who exercised substantial political control of Ontario during part of the 1800s. The Quebec equivalent was the Chateau Clique.
garburator: a garbage disposal unit located beneath the drain of a kitchen sink.
homo milk: homogenized milk, particularly with a fat content greater than 2%, usually 3.25%. Referred to in the U.S. as whole milk.
hydro: (except Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Maritimes) commonly as a synonym for electrical service. Many Canadian provincial electric companies generate power from hydroelectricity, and incorporate the term "Hydro" in their names: Toronto Hydro, Hydro Ottawa, etc.
joe job: a low-class, low-paying job. Not to be confused with the computer term joe job.
Kokanee: British Columbian name for a species of land-locked salmon (accent on first syllable). Also the name of a popular beer made in the Kootenay district, also known as "Blue Cocaine."
Kraft Dinner: Kraft macaroni and cheese. Sometimes called "Krap Dinner" or "KD".
loonie: Canadian one dollar coin. Derived from the use of the loon on the reverse.
lumber jacket: A thick flannel jackeolett either red and black or green and black favoured by blue collar workers and heavy metal/grunge fans. This apparel is more commonly referred to as a mackinac (pron mackinaw). In parts of British Columbia, it is referred to as a doeskin.
Nanaimo bar: a confection named for the town of Nanaimo, British Columbia and made of egg custard with a Graham-cracker-based bottom and a thin layer of chocolate on top; however, this term is now common in the United States and elsewhere, thanks to the efforts of Starbucks in popularizing them.
Newfie, Newf: A colloquial, often derisive term used to describe one who is from Newfoundland and Labrador. Historically used with light humour in "Newfie Jokes", similar to "Dumb Blonde Jokes". Use of the word is now considered to be offensive and in very bad taste.
parkade: a parking garage, especially in the West.
pencil crayon: coloured pencil.
quiggly hole and quiggly town: remains of First Nations underground houses in the Interior of British Columbia
runners: running shoes, sneakers, especially in Central Canada. Also used somewhat in Australian English.
Timbits: a brand name of donut (doughnut) holes made by Tim Hortons that has become a generic term
toonie: Canadian two dollar coin. Modelled after loonie (q.v.). Also spelled tooney, twooney, twoonie, twonie, or twoney
tuque: a knitted winter hat, often with a pompon on the crown. Sometimes misspelled "toque", which is in fact an unrelated type of hat.
washroom: the general term for what is normally named public toilet or lavatory in Britain. In the U.S. (where it originated) mostly replaced by restroom in the 20th century. The word bathroom is also used; the term toilet is generally considered somewhat indelicate in Canada and is avoided.

Canadian French words are for another day.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

We the undersigned…

…petition the Prime Minister to…

Several columnists have found easy pickings among the requests which have been submitted to the online petitions website. I started to go through the 843 petitions still “open” (i.e. to which one may add one’s signature) in order to get a feel for the popular view about the issues of the day, but the steady background hum of ignorant bigotry was making me gloomy about the future of our country so I gave up.

However, here are a few under several categories that caught my eye. I have not edited them in any way.

How’s that again?
…take action against child abusers and tougher sentances when they seldom do
…prohibit the sale of Baked Beans
…one off payment for honest citizens
…make the minimum wage equal to those over the age of 16 (no longer of compulsary school age)

Oh dear
…force all ramblers/walkers to wave a red flag when walking on a "public road. Petitioner’s note: Waving of a flag whilst walking on these unsurfaced roads/lanes may help prevent farmers, bikes and recreational offroaders from not seeing a walker dressed in green waterproofs and causing an unfortunate accident
…Make spanish the only language taught at schools
…Keep Britain British
…make it possible for motorbikes to be allowed louder exhausts if the rider requires for safety reasons.
…take the war to criminals by permitting law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns
…introduce legislation which would recognise the Roman Catholic faith as the State religion of the UK
…Bring back public flogging
…For our Country, the NHS and it's Doctor's to practice and accept Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM). Including food avoidance and natural medicines for many illness's
…Give Serious Offenders the option to work for food. Otherwise they dont get anything!

Excellent idea and quite practicable (very few of these)
…Bring back the NIT NURSE* into our schools

Excellent ideas but very unlikely to be implemented
…Stop all wifes from nagging us men
…get people to stop bullying to other people
…punishment publicly, who pee on streets
…stand on his head and juggle ice-cream. Petitioner’s note: If he's not going to resign, the least he can do is provide us with some entertainment.[1409 signatures in support, the last time I looked]

On a more serious note, and totally unacceptable to Blair
…champion the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, by not replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system.
…Acknowledge the illegality of the present war in Iraq
…fully investigate the failure of intelligence that led the UK into the war in Iraq

After reading all the above it is tempting to add a signature in support of:
…Stop wasting money on pointless "e-government" websites such as this one.

* Explanation HERE

Friday, 1 December 2006

One song, I have but one song

...One song, only for you… Thus warbled the handsome prince in Disney’s Snow White.

There were others who had only one song. In most cases they were people famous for something else, and one can see why a singing career did not follow: Lee Marvin growled along under a wandrin’ star, Walter Huston didn’t have time for the waiting game (the recording he made of Weill’s song become famous after his death twelve years later), and there was Bette Davis who pouted her way through a 1943 song complaining about the lack of eligible men:
They're either too young, or too old,
They're either too gray or too grassy green,
The pickings are poor and the crop is lean.
What's good is in the army,
What's left will never harm me.

I'm either their first breath of spring,
Or else, I'm their last little fling.
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup,
I either have to hold him off,
Or have to hold him up……

But my favourite one-hit singer is Conrad Veidt. He had a distinguished film career in Germany from 1916 but his widely-known contempt for the nascent Third Reich meant that he had to leave in 1933, and he spent the rest of his life in England or Hollywood, often playing a Nazi like those he despised. Here he is in Casablanca; he was the highest-paid actor in the film.

In his last German film he recorded a song called Where the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay, and it was later issued in an English version in which he was accompanied by what sounds like a chorus of tipsy Leuchtturm-Wächter. Actually he doesn’t really sing it, but does it in sprechstimme, in a softly menacing voice and with his highly imitable accent. It is about a girl who lives in a cottich thetched vis stroh and waits for her lover to come back from the sea. While she waits she does a bit of stair-gazing (or possibly stare-gazing), and when the record became a hit many years later its fans formed a Stair-Gazing Society in homage to the great actor. You can listen to him not singing HERE.