windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: December 2013

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Twenty One

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Karl Drais (1785 – 1851)

Earlier this year I read (and reviewed) Geoffrey Parker’s magisterial Global Crisis which demonstrated, at great length, the impact of climate change on the political fortunes of the world during the 17th century. It seems that adverse climatic conditions has been the catalyst for ground-breaking inventions in other eras too. This is where the latest inductee to our Hall of Fame, Karl Drais, steps in.

The second decade of the 19th century was also a period of great climatic change – 1816 was dubbed the year without a summer after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 – the largest recorded volcanic eruption – thrust volcanic ash into the atmosphere, causing crops to fail as far west as Western Europe and animals to starve.

In those days, man had very few options available to him to travel around the place. Of course, he could rely on Shanks’s pony. Otherwise he was reliant upon the horse, with or without a cart. But the adverse climatic conditions meant that there was little grazing pasture for the horses and they starved in numbers. It was this problem – how  to develop an alternative means of transportation – that exercised our hero’s mind.

And as we would come to expect from an inductee, he cracked the problem, coming up with what he called the Laufmaschine or running machine. It was a two-wheeled vehicle with both wheels in a line propelled by the rider pushing their feet along the ground as if they were walking or running. The front bar and handlebar assembly was hinged to allow the machine to be steered. His first public outing on the contraption took place on June 12th 1817 when he set out from the centre of Mannheim to a coaching inn in Rheinau. His second trip was from Gernsbach to Baden Baden.

In 1818 Drais was awarded a grand-ducal privilege to exploit his invention but as Baden had no patent laws, others quickly saw the opportunity and exploited the results of his labours. The machine became popular in France, where it was known as the draisienne and in England where it was known as the dandy horse and several manufacturers sprang up there in 1819.

Of course, not everyone welcomed this new road to freedom which had opened up – at least for the well-to-do. Riders preferred to operate their machines on the pavements which offered a slightly smoother ride than the pot-holed roads but this meant that they became a menace to pedestrians and some authorities prohibited their use!

As is the way with inductees, misfortune dogged Drais. He was forced into exile in the 1820s because of political unrest and although he was eventually able to return he seemed to be cursed. Following the revolutionary uprising in Baden in early 1848 – in a fit of revolutionary fervour Drais renounced his title and styled himself Citizen Karl Drais – the Prussians stepped in and crushed it in 1849, taking Drais’ pension amongst others as reparation for the costs of suppressing the revolution.

Drais never recovered and so the father of cycling died penniless in Karlsruhe in 1851. Karl, you are truly a worthy inductee.

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If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

What Have We Done?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

 

Hobbit 2 – The Desolation Of Smaug

TOWT and I went to the magic lantern house the other day to see the second of the Peter Jackson’s three part adaptation of JRR Tolkein’s Hobbit.

The problem with any second part of a trilogy is that it is always going to be a transitioning piece – picking up the themes of the first part and setting the scene for what one hopes will be a blockbuster of a final part. TDoS has these issues to grapple with and for the most part overcomes the structural restrictions. Yes, the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory and means that the film can never be judged in isolation, leaving the viewer with the realisation that they’ve got to wait another year and spend some more money to see the denouement, but the storyline is carried along with gusto and the film is entertaining enough.

The movie picks up from where we were left in the Unexpected Journey, travelling to the Lonely Mountain and the dwarf kingdom of Erebor which was destroyed and occupied by the dragon, Smaug. Our heroes, Bilbo Baggins and his group of dwarves, have a series of adventures along the way. I won’t spoil your enjoyment – too much – but there is a marvellous and fairly lengthy set piece where the comrades effect their escape from the prison of the Wood Elves by hiding in barrels which are washed down the river into, almost, the clutches of the Orcs. It is through finally making their escape from the Orcs that they meet Bard the Bowman and through his good offices (for an appropriate fist of silver) make their way to Laketown. It is in Laketown that they meet the Lord of the place, played wonderfully by the ubiquitous Stephen Fry. From there they travel to the Lonely Mountain and in their efforts to find the Arkenstone rouse the dragon, Smaug.

I was a bit disappointed in Smaug – a bit too prolix and gentlemanly for my taste, although, that said, I have never encountered a dragon – perhaps they are all like that – and the final scenes, whilst gripping, were overly long.

The film has a fine vein of humour running through it and a large element of parody – the elves in particular seem to be straight out of Hollywood’s Kung Fu tradition. Martin Freeman as Bilbo plays his part well and his delivery is refreshing when compared with the saga-ese claptrap that comes out of the mouths of most of the other characters.

The baddies are grotesque and the set pieces are spectacular. Even if the action leaves you cold, the magnificent New Zealand scenery is worth the admission money.

A charming film and worth seeing, if only to set you up for the third. Don’t go if you are an arachnophobe, though!

An Aspirin A Day Keeps The Rage Away

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There are many things about this world which I don’t understand and sometimes there are things which just leave me hopping mad. This blog, in part, was designed to give me a release valve.

It seems I am not alone and the stresses and strains of modern life can often leave individuals close to boiling point. As civilization has evolved from one where all our time is spent just trying to survive we seem adept at inventing reasons and sources of frustration which cause us to go off the deep end. Watching someone go into an uncontrollable bout of rage can be quite amusing but why are some people more prone to these attacks than others?

According to research published in the ever-popular JAMA Psychiatry, it seems that the cause of these fits of rage is down to an inflammation in the body.

Inevitably, the propensity to these fits of rage has been given a fancy pseudo-scientific name, in this case Intermittent explosive disorder or anger syndrome. What seems to mark out sufferers of IED, according to the researchers from the University of Chicago, are higher markers of inflammation in the blood when compared with those of individuals with a more zen-like approach to life. There are two in particular which correlate consistently with aggressive and impulsive behaviour but not any other form of psychiatric problems.

The researchers have yet to establish whether the inflammation triggers the aggressive outbursts or whether the aggression triggers the inflammation. Either way, they claim that people prone to melt-downs should not be dismissed as simply exhibiting traits of bad behaviour but, rather, should be treated with sympathy as they are suffering from a serious mental health condition which has strong genetic and biomedical roots.

A study into IED conducted in 2006 revealed that as many as 5% of the population suffer from IED, the onset of which can begin as early as age thirteen for boys and nineteen for girls. Sufferers of IED also show a propensity for other forms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse. Other health issues can afflict them including heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, arthritis, ulcers and headaches.

Previously sufferers of IED have been treated with antidepressants because it was thought that the trigger was temporal lobe epilepsy or a drop in the level of serotonin in the body. Now this new link has been established, it may be that the cure could be any drug used to treat inflammation.

So, next time you see someone succumb to a bout of uncontrollable rage, give them an aspirin. It might just work!

Isn’t science wonderful?!

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (13)

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A change of emphasis this time – some low brow humour from the world of Christmas crackers, for your Yuletide delectation, courtesy of the Telegraph and Sunday Times:

  • What does Miley Cyrus have at Christmas? Twerky
  • What did the letter say to the stamp? Stick with me and we will go places.
  • Why did no one bid for Rudolph and Blitzen on eBay? Because they were two deer
  • What do you call a blind reindeer? No-eye deer
  • Mary and Joseph – now they had a stable relationship
  • Who hides in the bakery at Christmas? A mince spy
  • What does the Queen call her Christmas Broadcast? The One Show
  • Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To see a flat mate
  • What did Father Christmas do when he went speed dating? He pulled a cracker
  • Why is it getting harder to buy Advent calendars? Because their days are numbered
  • Why don’t you ever see Father Christmas in hospital? Because he has private elf care
  • What did the fish say when it swam into the wall? Dam
  • How did Mary and Joseph know that Jesus was 7lb 6oz when he was born? They had a weigh in a manger.
  • Why did Harry Styles fail at being Santa? Because he could only go down the chimney in One Direction
  • How do you know if Santa’s been in your garden shed? You’ve got three extra hoes
  • How does King Wenceslas like his pizzas? Deep pan, crisp and even
  • Why was the Brussels sprout sent to prison? Because it was a repeat offender
  • Why was the butcher worried? His job was at steak
  • What did one keyboard say to the other? Sorry, you are not my type
  • Why are chocolate buttons rude? Because they are Smarties in the nude
  • And finally (for now), what are the small rivers called that run into the Nile? Juveniles

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (12)

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Raiding the high-brow Christmas crackers to celebrate the festive season

  • What is the difference between a micro-economist and a macro-economist? The micro-economist is wrong about specific things whereas the macro-economist is wrong about things in general.
  • Why did the Buddhist monk refuse Novocaine?. He wanted to transcend dental medication.
  •  There was a masochist who loved to take a cold shower at 4 in the morning .. so he didn’t
  •  Who led the Pedants’ Revolt? Which Tyler.
  •  I was able to teach my horse mathematics, astronomy and literature but there is one thing it just wouldn’t learn. “What was that?”. Philosophy – you just can’t put Descartes before a horse”.
  •  Two dyslexics are walking down the road and one says to the other, “Do you smell gas”. The other says, “You’re kidding. I can’t even spell my own name”.
  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.” “What does that tell you?” inquired Holmes. Watson pondered for a minute. “Astronomically it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?” Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. “Watson you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!”
  • How many feminist academics does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two, one to screw in the light bulb, the other write a thesis on the passive role of the light socket.
  • A radio physicist walks into a bar. The barman asks, “What’s new?”. The radio physicist says C over lambda.
  • A chemist, an engineer and an economist are trapped on a deserted island. One day a box of canned food floats ashore. The chemist says, “We can leave the cans in the salt water until they rust open.” The economist disagrees, “That would take too long.” The engineer says, “Right, we should drop the cans onto those rocks and break them open nice and quick.” The economist disagrees again, “Then the contents will be splatter across the ground.” The other two look at the economist and ask, “Then how should we open the cans?” “Well, assuming we have a can opener…”
  • And finally (for now) how do you hide a £50 note from an orthopaedic surgeon? Put it in a text book.

All That Glisters

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To the British Museum the other day to see the Beyond El Dorado exhibition (http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/beyond_el_dorado.aspx) which features a stunning display of around two hundred pre-Columbian Colombian artefacts. They are on loan from the Museo del Oro in Bogota and are well worth a gander.

Part of what attracted the Spanish conquistadors to explore and ravage South America were the rumours about a fabulously wealthy place called El Dorado, packed with gold. And like most rumours there was more than a grain of truth to it. Indeed, the ruler of the area around Lake Guatavita, from which many of the exhibits forming this display originate, was habitually dressed entirely in gold and made frequent and lavish offerings of gold and emeralds to the gods in the lake. Strictly speaking, most of the exhibits are not made of pure gold but rather from tumbaga, which is an alloy composed mostly of gold and copper. It has a significantly lower melting point than either gold or copper in isolation and is harder than copper but retains its malleability after being pounded.

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The craftsmanship and detail are breathtaking. The golden regalia, designed to emphasise the power of the wearer when seen against the generally gloomy jungle background and channel the power of the sun, are full of dangling discs and triangles which must have created a fantastic effect when the wearer danced. Helmets are exquisitely decorated with stylised female figures and body decorations have abstract representations of animals.

The exhibition is not all gold or gold alloy. There are clay figurines of humans and animals, a pair of enormous jars with gaping mouths as spouts and monumental statues used as plinths or columns. The one criticism I would levy is that for part of the exhibit our ears are assaulted by faux-jungle sounds. Totally unnecessary and distracting – I think we can all envisage what a jungle may sound like. The lighting, however, which is generally subdued, shows off the splendour of the objects to good effect.

When we think about South American culture, we naturally think of the Incas and Aztecs. This wonderful exhibition shows that there was much more diversity of cultures and civilizations in the pre-Columbian continent than we might popularly suspect. The shame was that the locals had no immunity to the diseases that the conquistadors brought with them.

The exhibition runs until 23rd March 2014.

 

 

 

Shunga Shunga

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One of the regrettable consequences of the internet age is that pornography is all-pervasive. Even the most innocent internet search can expose the unwitting to images that they weren’t expecting to see,

In the pre-internet era (remember those halcyon days?) you had to search out your porn – dirty book stores, top shelves of newsagents and a dirty mac was the costume of choice. The Japanese saw pornography as an art form and developed a style called shunga, pillow pictures. The British Museum are currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of shunga prints http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/shunga.aspx. Be warned – you have to be 16 or over to enter the exhibition – an age limit the spares the visitor from the hordes of school kids which is always the downside of any visit to the museum – and it is tucked away in the upper reaches of the museum, through the Mesopotamian and Egyptian exhibits – a delight in themselves – as if it is their dirty little secret.

The Shunga movement dates from around the turn of the seventeenth century – technically it was illegal from 1722 although the authorities turned a blind eye – and some of the finest examples of the oeuvre date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is striking about the images are that they are full of joie de vivre and unlike modern-day porn do not remotely objectify the subjects. The couples are portrayed sympathetically and the energy of their passion comes through loud and clear.

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Many of the illustrations have a rich vein of humour running through them. The sexual organs are larger than life and out of proportion with the rest of the figures. One amusing caricature has a scene where three men are holding a competition to determine who has the biggest member – they are all ludicrous in size and are held up for inspection by Heath Robinson style contraptions.

Some are discreet – you have to peer closely to see precisely what is going on. The writhing forms produce wonderful shapes and forms – the quality of the draughtsmanship is general superb and the use of colour, particularly reds and greens, is vivid and stunning. A sense of fun and love pervades. There is no sense of exploitation or cruelty. The nearest one gets to exotica are a couple of prints where a woman is being pleasured by an octopus – I am not sure this will ever catch on but her face is the epitome of ecstasy!

The problem with being subjected to wall-to-wall porn is that after a while it gets a bit boring. This exhibition is spared this fate by the humour, grace and quality of the exhibits.

Shunga artists also had a sense of humour – the exhibition has numerous examples of advice manuals which parody the normal dour Confucian advice by including graphic illustrations of couples coupling – their equivalent of reading porn on an anonymous e-reader.

Not everyone was captivated by shunga. The exhibition relates the tale of the first time shunga prints were brought to England in 1618 – the customs officials were horrified and burnt the lot.

But the art form survived Occidental prurience and influenced Western artists – there are pieces by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley reflecting its influence on them.

A delightful exhibition which is well worth seeking out.

 

If You Let A Fruit Rot It Turns To Wine, Something Sprouts Never Do

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Half a century ago the availability of certain types of foodstuff was synonymous with the seasons of the year. As children we looked forward to the advent of summer because it meant the availability of fresh fruit such as strawberries. Early autumn was associated with apples, pears and celery. One of the sad consequences of the stranglehold that the major supermarket chains have over food distribution and supply is that foodstuffs are available all the year round. For me, part of the magic associated with certain foodstuffs has disappeared and our lives are all the poorer for it.

One vegetable that seems to have escaped the curse of all the year round availability is the Brussels sprout, which makes its annual appearance on our dinner plates around the festive period. This member of the cabbage family, Brassica oleracea gemmifera to give its botanical name, is the marmite of the vegetable world – you either love it or hate it. I for one love to see half a dozen sprouts garnishing my dinner plate. They were first grown in quantity around the Belgian city of Brussels, hence their name.

It seems that the British are the number one fans of the vegetable – our farmers grow about six times as many as their U.S counterparts – but the process of growing them is fraught with difficulties. Last year, production was down by about 20% because the summer floods coupled with a sustained cold and wet summer wreaked havoc on the crops. This year growing conditions have been much better and sprout quality is said to be very good – I can attest to having sampled larger and tastier sprouts this year – and yield is expected to be up by between 10 and 15 per cent.

That said, crops are exposed to a new peril – the predations of wood pigeons. The birds peck at the leaves, tearing them and leaving behind just the larger leaf veins of the stalks. Sprout farmers try to counter the threat by putting nets over their crops as they are growing but in December they have to be removed to allow the vegetables to be harvested – around 80% of the annual sprout sales occur in December. It is then that the crafty wood pigeons pounce and wreak their havoc.

The ever resourceful farmers resort to ancient methods to protect their exposed crops – small gas bangers, kites in the shape of raptors, flags that rustle in the wind and even scarecrows dressed as Santa. These tactics work initially but soon the birds get used to them and they lose their deterrent effect.

The threat of the wood pigeons to our Brussels sprout supply is such that it is tabled for discussion at the next Brassica Growers’ Association conference and doubtless the subject will be repeated (boom, boom!).

So when you push that sprout around your plate on Christmas Day just think about the titanic struggle between man and bird that made it all possible!

 

Fightback Of The Week

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One of the reasons I do my Christmas shopping via the internet rather than going to shopping centres is that I can’t stand my senses being assaulted by groups of amateurs who think they are adding to the ambience of seasonal good cheer by singing carols or playing musical instruments with what can only be charitably described as enthusiasm.

It seems I am not alone and my heart was warmed considerably when I read of the events at the Victoria Centre in Nottingham the other day. There the Robin Hood Youth Orchestra were committing heinous musical crimes on traditional Christmas carols and snatches of classical music in a concerted attempt to drive the shoppers to seek the calm and sanity of the internet. But the shoppers decided enough was enough and the management of the shopping centre were inundated with complaints about the noise. Gratifyingly, the orchestra were told to sling their hook. Wonderful!

Unfortunately, the players obviously thought their musical talents were unappreciated and so struck up in the open air in Trinity Square. It is not certain whether their next stop will be the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent.

Let the campaign against festive noise commence. And while we are at it, if/when the Scots vote for independence, they can take their bagpipes with them.

Wishful Thinking Of The Week

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Rumour has it that Prince Charles, noticing that Mandela died on the opening night of his biopic in London and that Biggs died on the day that the Beeb showed the first of its Train Robber two-parter, is seeking investors for a major film celebrating the life of his mother.