August 24, 2014

This Week in Cycling History

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Current episodes available via paid subscription at Velocast, much older episodes available at this website.

For a change from ancient history, I have started listening to a podcast on cycling history. Produced by the people at Velocast.cc, it is also notable as the first podcast or MOOC I have reviewed that actually costs money. For £8/month a subscriber gains access to weekly news and history podcasts and daily new podcasts during major races (Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a Espana and the Classics). I received a years subscription as a gift and consider it good value (so will probably resubscribe at the end of the year). All the podcasts are very entertaining, including TWiCH (as they refer to it). Production quality is high.

Each episode is roughly 45 minutes to an hour long and endeavours to reference events that happened during the same week in previous years. So in May most episodes refer to events that occurred during the Giro, during March it is the classics, and so on. This plan breaks down a bit with races that move around the calendar (like the Vuelta) and during the winter off-season. The episodes contain 3 segments. Each segment starts with a few minutes of pre-recorded introductory context on a particular event or aspect of bicycle racing. Then there is 10-20 minutes of lively discussion between the two presenters. Often they deviate wildly from the topic at hand, but it is always entertaining (and usually informative). Recent stories include: the hotly-contested Tour de France Lanterne Rouge (last place) “competition” in 1979; Stephen Roche winning the Giro in 1987 against his own teammate; and Jacques Anquetil winning his only monument, Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1966. In general the stories are interesting and not the traditional famous ones heard repeatedly. The subsequent discussions are lively and entertaining. The two presenters have an immense knowledge of cycling history between them. Although they do often seem to mention cycling clothing fashion, pedalling style and Irish cyclists (one of the presenters is always Cillian Kelly who is Irish, so familiarity is probably the reason).

For fans of cycling who want to know more about the colourful history of the sport.


August 10, 2014

Eve Online

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Eve Online is a game I have consciously avoided over the years. Not because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but because I might enjoy it too much, and thus see too much otherwise productive time slip away (Minecraft is another game I avoid for similar reasons). However, recently the game had a Humble Bundle sale so I thought I’d give it a try. After all, I’m writing a vaguely similar game (albeit single-player) and have pretensions towards writing more games along a similar theme. It would be remiss not to experience, and try to learn from, one of the giants of the genre – a very successful game over a sustained period of time. Or at least that was my justification.

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August 2, 2014

I Will Never Be Prime Minister

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Young kids today – embarrassing themselves all over the Internet with their ill-advised photos! They will never be able to obtain high public office! Of course, I think the only difference between the current and previous generations is in the wide availability of evidence of their indiscretions after the fact. There exists (or at least used to exist 20 years ago) a photo of me, which I think is understandable, but with a bit of spin in the media would stop me becoming Prime Minister. Let me explain.

During my 4th year at university I lived in a student house (I was 20). There were four of us in a large house on Vincent Street opposite Hyde Park in Mount Lawley. Besides me, there was a just-graduated accountant, a med student who seemed to spend most of his time partying, an artist and normally a random person or two crashing on our sofa. The artist was an interesting guy – a Thai orphan raised in Australia. Much of his art focused on satirising the military. We had a series of paintings around the house of Godzilla sized cartoonish characters in military uniforms (usually from World War 2) rampaging through cities or battlefields. Right outside my bedroom door was a giant Goofy-like character throwing tanks around. He also had an original 9 foot Nazi Swastika flag in his bedroom (the house had very high ceilings).

I have met a few overt racists in my time, and this artist was definitely not one of them. If he was harbouring any fascist tendencies they were very well hidden. He claimed to be interested in the art of Nazi Germany and so collected artefacts from that time. Kind of like admiring the films of Leni Riefenstahl while ignoring their propagandistic purpose. He had a few other items as well, but tended to buy them, hold onto them for a few months (taking photos and drawing them) and then sell them to fund new items. While we were in the same house he sold a SS dagger to buy an original Luftwaffe uniform jacket. This is where I join the story.

He normally took photos with a blue-eyed blond-haired friend modelling the items he bought. The artist never appeared in the photos himself as he said he didn’t fit, being a dark-skinned South-east Asian. However, the Luftwaffe jacket would not fit his friend – it was very small. At the time I did a lot of long distance cycling and was quite small myself. At just over 5’9" and just under 59kg, I was borderline underweight according to the Body mass Index. Also I have blue-eyes and, at the time, had sun-blonde hair. So the artist asked me to put it on and I thought “why not?”

That jacket was small. The length was about right for me, maybe it was for someone an inch or two shorter. Still, I could barely do up one button. I was forbidden from trying a second in case I ripped it. It was uncomfortably tight across the shoulders and chest. Whoever wore this originally was very small – either they were a young teenager or undernourished (or both!). The artist said it dated from 1944, towards the end of the war. I guess by that stage Germany was desperate for manpower and pressed anyone they could into service. It was also made of poor material. It felt like a Hessian sack, very rough to touch. Again, this is apparently not unusual for uniforms from that time (as times were tough). Lastly, the jacked had a small rip just below my last left rib. Was it a bullet hole, or just an accident from sometime during the 50 years since its manufacture? We didn’t know and there was no mention of it in the accompanying documentation.

Then two photos were taken and my career in public office finished before it began. Or probably not. Those photos are 20 years old now. I look quite different (no hair and much heavier for a start!). I never saw the result. I don’t even know if they were actually developed (this being before digital cameras) or if they still exist. However, I learnt more about the conditions at the end of the war in those few minutes wearing that jacket than in my high school education (or various jingoistic war movies). I feel great pity for the poor boy who wore that same jacket half a century before me. I can’t say I regret it.


July 31, 2014

Norman Centuries

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Available from iTunes and on its blog, Norman Centuries

Following on from his 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast, Lars Bronworth narrated this history of the Normans. I hesitated to write this review, since as the final episode (a recap and historical context) is yet not published. However, the second last episode was published over a year ago, so unfortunately I’m not sure the series will be finished. Currently 19 well produced audio-only podcasts exist (each around 20 minutes in length). The series is largely a historical chronology of events, ranging from Rollo the Viking to Frederick II the Holy Roman Emperor. Lars has also toned down his grandiosity in these podcasts, so my complaint about that in his previous series is not relevant here.

From a modern perspective, the Normans appear as chancers and warlords carving out dominions in failed states; eventually acquiring respectability along with their lands. Rollo was a Viking leader who repeatedly raided northern France. Eventually the French King offered Rollo the Duchy of Normandy, so he was baptised as Robert and became the protector of the lands he previously ravaged. The Vikings that settled in Normandy becames known as the Normans. The tales of subsequent Dukes of Normandy are detailed until William the Conqueror who became King of England after the Battle of Hastings. William is the last of his line detailed in this series. Strangely, no mention is made of the Normans who ruled over England for the hundred years after William.

The Normans didn’t stop at Normandy and England. The sons of a minor Norman noble, Tancred de Hauteville, sought their fortune in Italy. They succeeded in conquering most of Southern Italy and Sicily. Most of this series is devoted to the Italian Normans and their machinations with, and against, various Popes, Byzantium Emperors, Holy Roman Emperors, and other local rulers. Lars mentions that the elite Varangian Guard soldiers in the Byzantine army included many Anglo-Saxon refugees from Norman England – interesting to see how people moved around Europe over a thousand years ago. The Normans formed the Kingdom of Sicily which stood around a century until absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire after Frederick II, who was both the King of Sicily and Holy Roman Empire, being descended from the Norman Kings and German Emperors. The series ends with a couple of podcasts on Bohemund, a grandson of Tancred de Hauteville without lands in Italy, who became Prince of Antioch after capturing the city in the First Crusade.

An interesting podcast about a period of history when small groups could have a large impact.


July 14, 2014

Ancient Nubia

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The last online course completed in my recent burst of MOOC study was Ancient Nubia by Emory University on Coursera. Ancient history courses are dominated by Mediterranean cultures (at least the ones presented in the English language). Ancient Greece and Rome are well represented in online courses and podcasts. Thus opportunities to study other ancient civilisations must be seized on the rare occasions they arise.

Nubia is the region immediately south of the Nile’s first cataract, and stretching down past the sixth cataract. In modern geography this is the area between Egypt south of Aswan, and Sudan north of Khartoum. Civilisation arose here soon after ancient Egypt, and there was extensive interaction between the two. Trade had definitely commenced by the time of the Old Kingdom (as there are texts describing the commerce); Pharaoh’s during the Middle Kingdom conquered various parts of Nubia; and, in the New Kingdom, Nubian kings returned the favour conquering Egypt in 760BC and forming the 25th Dynasty – a period known as the reign of the Black Pharaohs. Nubia was also influenced by (and influenced) societies in central Africa and in it’s later years by Axum.

Archaeologically, Nubia has received a great deal less attention than it’s famous northern neighbour. However, when Egypt decided to build the Aswan Dam it became clear that many Nubian ruins would disappear under the resulting lake. Numerous studies were undertaken before the flooding, and since the Nubians sometimes built in stone and had a written language, a great deal can be determined about them.

This 8 week course is presented by Dr Peter Lacovara and covers the history of Nubia from prehistorical beginnings until its decline around the 3rd century AD. The course progresses chronologically and is largely focussed on major events and archaeological artefacts. Each week consists of around 30 minutes of video and a multiple choice test. There is no exam. There is however a class participation requirement. Posting in the forums every week on a set question is worth 5% of the overall course mark. This forced participation may work well in small classes, but in an online class of several hundred it just resulted in a great deal of what essentially became little more than “me too” posts. The first few had interesting information, but they soon decayed into a waste of space. I avoided this part of the course.

The video lectures are mostly the presenter sitting down and talking to the camera. Occasionally there are interviews, slides or short documentary extracts. The lecturer seemed uncomfortable talking to the camera, but was fine in interviews. Production quality is consistently high.

A worthwhile, but basic, course on Nubia.