Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hampton's Court

Friday, May 19, 2017

What is the Antikythera Mechanism and how was it discovered 115 years ago?

On 17th of May in 1902, Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais found a corroded chunk of metal which turned out to be part of the world's first computer and became known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Google Doodle of May 17, 2017, commemorates the 115th anniversary of the device's discovery illustrating "how a rusty remnant can open up a skyful of knowledge and inspiration".

Here is what you need to know about the device.

What is the Antikythera Mechanism?

The Antikythera mechanism is the world's first analogical computer, used by ancient Greeks to chart the movement of the sun, moon and planets, predict lunar and solar eclipses and even signal the next Olympic Games.

The 2,000-year-old astronomical calculator could also add, multiply, divide and subtract. It was also able to align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were in the zodiac.

The device is an intricate system of more than 30 sophisticated bronze gears housed in a wooden and bronze case the size of a shoebox built around the end of the 2nd Century BC.

A 2016 study found that the device may also have had a fortune telling function.

How was it discovered?

In 1902 Valerios Staiswas sifting through some artefacts from a wrecked Roman cargo ship at Antikythera, which had been discovered two years earlier, when he noticed an intriguing bit of bronze among the treasures.

The chunk of bronze, which looked like it might be a gear or wheel, turned out to be part of the Antikythera Mechanism.

What do we know about it?

Researchers say the device was probably made on the island of Rhodes. While there was only one device ever found, they do not think it was unique.

There are minute inscriptions on the remaining fragments of its outer surfaces which point to at least two people being involved in that, and there could have been more people making its gears, according to Mike Edmunds, an astrophysics professor at the University of Cardiff in Wales who has been studying it for over a decade.

More than a dozen pieces of classical literature stretched over a period from about 300 BC to 500 AD, make references to devices such as that found at Antikythera.
How old is it?

The instrument has been variously dated to about 85 BC, but recent studies suggest it may be even older (circa 150 BC).

The cargo ship inside which it was found is believed to have sunk around 60 BC.

How advanced is it?
The crank-powered device was way ahead of its time, its components are as intricate as those of some 18th-century clocks.

It is unclear what happened to that technology to have been lost. Its mechanical complexity would be unrivalled for at least another 1,000 years until the appearance of medieval clocks in European cathedrals.
Where can I see it?

Replicas of the ancient computing device are on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.

The Telegraph

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Laying down the law

 Ending Catholicism in England and introducing the Reformation was a messy and conflicted process

The English were surprisingly divided about the break with Rome

Just a day after the English Book of Common Prayer was first used in Sampford Courtenay, Devon, on Whitsunday in 1549, an angry mob appeared at the church door. They demanded that the elderly rector reconsider using the new liturgy. Somewhat sheepishly, one imagines, he decided to don his popish vestments and revert to saying the Latin mass.

That village protest was the first of a series of English uprisings in Norfolk, Oxfordshire and the south-west, which led to perhaps 10,000 deaths as King Edward VI’s regime suppressed dissent. It would be a mistake to think that the English Reformation was mostly peaceful, with beheadings and burnings confined to a small and fervent elite.

The historiography of Tudor England usually focuses on the monarchs’ Reformation: how the state imposed religious change on the nation. Shelves groan with royal histories, but new accounts of how the ordinary English felt, objected to and imbibed it all are much more scarce. On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, Peter Marshall has written a fine history of a momentous time as seen from the bottom up, drawing on a wide range of primary sources and his evident scholarship.

Mr Marshall has two contentions. First, that the English did not meekly comply with religious change. In the cities they were enthused by it, but many others resisted, especially in the rural and conservative north and west of the country. Second, that though royal supremacy was the aim, the state ultimately lost control as Christian pluralism flowered. In places the King’s majesty was questioned, as some began to think afresh about monarchy and church government. England ended with a less united religion than it had at the start of the 16th century.

The central story will be familiar. Henry VIII wanted to cut financial and legal ties to the Catholic church, in order to achieve national sovereignty and marry whom he liked. He was keen to shut down monasteries, rivals to kingly power for nearly 1,000 years, but he was never a zealous advocate of radical new ideas, about the meaning of the communion service, for example.

Henry’s attempts to please opposing court factions left England with a vague, incoherent set of tenets for a church without a pope, thinks Mr Marshall. Confusion about the national religion led more people to define and investigate their faith for themselves. Under Henry’s children, Edward VI and Mary, state zealotry fuelled outrage and enthusiasm. Edward’s ministers set out to destroy idolatry in church, including saints’ paintings, church silver, inappropriate altars and glitzy vestments. Mary returned sovereignty to Rome and launched a campaign of burning heretics.

In St Paul’s Cathedral hung a rood, a grand figure of Christ on the cross, the centre of the medieval churchgoer’s attention and piety, which provided a political bellwether through these years. The rood was ordered to come down under Edward. It crashed to the floor, killing two labourers beneath: perhaps not a great omen. The rood was ordered up again in Mary’s reign. A man rose from his pew to deliver a mocking encomium to “your Mastership”, the ascendant rood. It soon came down again under Elizabeth I.

What became known as the Elizabethan settlement—a return to Protestantism—far from settled the matter. The queen’s bishops wanted to go further than Edward VI; some in England wished to ban bishops altogether, looking to John Calvin in Geneva for inspiration. Elizabeth’s bishops despaired of her liking for icons and vestments, but defended her nonetheless.

Mr Marshall provides convincing evidence that Catholicism survived well into Elizabeth’s reign. At least 800 clergymen were deprived or removed themselves for reasons of conscience, including as many as a quarter of the clergy in one diocese, Rochester, that is not far from Canterbury. Only 21 out of 90 senior clergy in northern England assented to the settlement, and 36 openly disagreed. Dissent among middle-ranking clergy was even higher. Of those not removed by the 1559 flu epidemic, fewer than half wished to continue.

A rebellion reckoned to be 7,000-strong in favour of the pope in 1569 was brutally suppressed. Many followers of the old religion simply conformed and dissembled. It is hard to understand how the people coped through these years. Tombs were vandalised; vicars protested at funerals. One village curate was known to shave his Protestant beard every time a change in religion was rumoured. However the English survived the Reformation, they did so as a nation divided.

Whig histories typically focus on the progress that the state and evangelicals made in forging a Church of England: a history of the winners. Mr Marshall’s contribution is a riveting account of the losers as well, the English zealots and cynics who wanted a better world or an unchanging one. The resulting story is of a Henrician supremacy that failed and an Elizabethan unity that never was.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Who was Ferdinand Monoyer?

The method for testing how well we are able to see without the help of glasses hasn't changed a great deal in over a century.

It follows a basic principle: read from rows of gradually shrinking letters until you're unable to distinguish the shapes any more. From this, opthamologists can determine people's clarity of vision.

The most well known test is the Snellen chart. It was introduced around the same time as a rival test called the Monoyer chart.

Named after its creator Ferdinand Monoyer, the Monoyer chart was designed more than 100 years ago and was the first eye test to use a decimal system.

The 9th of May would be Monoyer's 181st birthday, he has been honoured with a Google Doodle.

Who was Ferdinand Monoyer? 
Monoyer, who was born in France in 1836, pioneered the way we measure eye sight. He grew up in Lyon before moving to the University of Strasbourg in 1871. He eventually returned to Lyon, were he died aged 76 in 1912.

He is best known for creating the Monoyer chart, as well as introducing the dioptre as a measurement for visual clarity.

"He developed the dioptre, the unit of measurement for vision that's still used today," said Google. "The dioptre measures the distance you'd have to be from text to read it. Most notably, Monoyer devised an eye chart where every row represents a different dioptre, from smallest to largest."

11 things you didn't know about your eyes
1. A human eye weighs approximately 28g, is 2.5cm wide and has six muscles
2. They hardly grow from the time when you're born
3. Eyes can only see the colours red, blue and green. They make all others from these three
4. They can spot around 50,000 shades of grey
5. The average blink takes one tenth of a second
6. People blink around 12 to 17 times per minute
7. It takes an eye 48 hours to heal a scratch
8. There are around 137 million rod and cone cells in you eyes
9. The muscle that controls the eye is the most active in the body
10. Images arrive at the eye upside down, split in half and distorted
11. Peripheral vision is low quality and almost black-and-white


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

To what extent should travellers adjust their dress when abroad?

There seems to have been a mini-spate of Americans worried by Middle Eastern-looking travellers recently. Towards the end of last year, there were reports of Arabic-speaking Americans not being allowed on a plane because their fellow flyers were scared of them, and of a group of Middle Eastern-looking men being ejected from a flight because they had asked to sit together.

This week, Ahmed Al Menhali, a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, dressed in traditional thobe and ghutra, was forced to the floor and handcuffed by police (see picture) after they received a call saying he had been talking on a mobile phone outside an Ohio hotel “pledging allegiance to ISIS”. The details are a little unclear, but reports suggest that the receptionist at the hotel panicked at the sight of the Arab man talking on a mobile phone. She then hid at the back of the hotel and contacted her sister who, it seems, called 911 and added the embellishment about jihadism. Mr Al Menhali, who has a history of health problems, collapsed shortly after the police uncuffed him after realising he was doing nothing untoward.

Following the incident, the UAE foreign ministry warned its citizens against wearing traditional dress while in America. That is surely an overreaction; still it is a sad state of affairs when travellers from different cultures feel they can’t go about their business in foreign-looking clothes.

Mr Al Menhali’s mode of dress was innocent enough. But such matters are not always straightforward. Many of us, when we travel abroad, adapt what we wear. Women, for example, know not to bare too much flesh when they go to certain parts of the Middle East or Asia. And that seems fair: there is a balance to be drawn between being culturally sensitive and not offending your hosts, and the freedom to dress as you would at home.

But where would, for example, having your tattoo on show in Japan fall on that spectrum? Should inked Westerners feel they should cover them up, because they are frowned upon in the country? What of the Maori woman who was barred from a Japanese resort because of her elaborately painted face?

And then there is the question of how to deal with a dress code when it forms part of the law. Following the Ohio affair, the UAE also advised women to abide by rules not to wear the veil in countries such as France, where it is forbidden. In some nations the opposite is true. Gulliver remembers interviewing two women who were doing business in Saudi Arabia who had, against all their principles, reluctantly agreed to wear headscarves. Compared with blazing a trail for their sex in a patriarchal country, they thought that the lesser of two evils. That was a matter for their conscience. But what of Air France stewardesses, who were compelled by their bosses to wear headscarves when the airline resumed flying to Iran?

Gulliver wishes he could think of a hard-and-fast rule for how to behave in such circumstances. The best that he can come up with is that if you have chosen to visit or do business somewhere then you should generally accept the cultural norm. But if your conscience doesn’t allow for that, then be strong and make a stand. And culture, although important, doesn’t trump everything, particularly if it is simply a veil for repression. Naked prejudice, as seems to have been case with Mr Al Menhali, should not be tolerated wherever you are in the world

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Handmaids Tale

“The Handmaid’s Tale”, Hulu’s TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel from 1985, is without question the bleakest, most pitiless television drama for years. Narrated by a woman called Offred (“of Fred”, after the man to whom she now belongs), it imagines a world in which, after a mass fertility crisis, a fundamentalist Christian movement has taken part of America by force, named it Gilead and made the Bible the rule of law. Offred, whose husband has been shot and whose child has been taken from her, is one of the Handmaids: fertile women forcibly impregnated by the junta’s top brass. Each episode has been extraordinarily frightening, with every few minutes throwing up another peep-through-yer-fingers twist: women blinded for talking back, women circumcised for having same-sex affairs, women everywhere disenfranchised of their minds and bodies.

Atwood’s story feels especially relevant now. The anachronistic sexism of some of Donald Trump’s campaign performances raised the possibility of a regression to earlier mores; and the power of this series lies in its depiction of the slipperiness of the slope from bad to worse.

The TV show makes one striking change from the source material. In the novel, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) tells the story in flashback, switching between the present where she is enslaved as a Handmaid and a past which was a hyper-sexualised dystopia, where men and women visit “Pornomarts”, “Pornycorners” and “Feels on Wheels vans” (the playful branding is a consistent tic of Atwood’s science fiction). In this adaptation the past is closer to our world, but is an era of creeping transition. When Moss’s character and her friend are out for a jog in vests that reveal a flash of cleavage, they get a horrified look from a woman in a high-necked top; later, in their local coffee shop, the male barman calls them “fucking sluts” with the air of one seizing a newly granted privilege. They laugh with disbelief, which is also their reaction when they get home to find that their bank accounts have been suspended. “Nothing changes instantaneously,” Offred observes. “In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

This series is particularly good at portraying the incredulity – the sense that it can’t happen here – that ensues as the bathwater heats up. The revolution-era Georgiana of its sets and costumes (troupes of handmaidens in scarlet and white, the winding riverscapes dotted with hanging corpses) are a triumph of production design, and flesh out the cod-historical roots of the Christian nationalism it portrays. But dystopias like this, however compelling, have a distancing effect of their own. While Gilead’s stylised world is horrifying, it’s also comfortingly removed from reality. Its nightmares may harrow us, but we may also think that even if we have not yet achieved the final goals of feminism, at least we’re not dressing women up in pilgrim bonnets and making them rape-toys for Abe Lincoln impersonators.

By contrast, the series’ contemporary sequences concentrate on the tipping points, when we realise that something uninspected has suddenly gone much too far. The moment a policeman opens fire on a protest march. The moment armed men enter a publisher’s office and order all the women to leave. The moment you find you’re not allowed to own property any more. And reactions – particularly from the male cast – are similarly well caught. The fourth episode portrays the day of the coup, when Moss’s character is escorted from her workplace and returns home to find that all her property has been transferred by law to her husband. “You know I’ll take care of you,” he says. But men “taking care” of women is the very thought-pattern on which the new regime will be built.

These little moments and others – the handwringing male boss who complains that he “doesn’t have a choice”, the colleagues who won’t meet Moss’s eye as she is escorted from the building – help to bridge the gap between the complacency of the present and the wild, imagined future. “This may not seem ordinary to you right now,” says Aunt Lydia, the cattle-prod-wielding guardian and trainer to the Handmaids. “But after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” This series shows how that nasty little bit of mind-magic can – and, heaven forbid, could – still work.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The kids are alright

Worries about the damage the internet may be doing to young people has produced a mountain of books—a suitably old technology in which to express concerns about the new. Robert Bly claims that, thanks to the internet, the “neo-cortex is finally eating itself”. Today's youth may be web-savvy, but they also stand accused of being unread, bad at communicating, socially inept, shameless, dishonest, work-shy, narcissistic and indifferent to the needs of others.

The man who christened the “net generation” in his 1997 bestseller, “Growing Up Digital”, has no time for such views. In the past two years, Don Tapscott has overseen a $4.5m study of nearly 8,000 people in 12 countries born between 1978 and 1994. In “Grown Up Digital” he uses the results to paint a portrait of this generation that is entertaining, optimistic and convincing. The problem, he suspects, is not the net generation but befuddled baby-boomers, who once sang along with Bob Dylan that “something is happening here, but you don't know what it is”, yet now find that they are clueless about the revolutionary changes taking place among the young.

“As the first global generation ever, the Net Geners are smarter, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors,” Mr Tapscott argues. “These empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life.” They care strongly about justice, and are actively trying to improve society—witness their role in the recent Obama campaign, in which they organised themselves through the internet and mobile phones and campaigned on YouTube. Mr Tapscott's prescient chapter on “The Net Generation and Democracy: Obama, Social Networks and Citizen Engagement” alone should ensure his book a wide readership.

Contrary to the claims that video games, Facebook and constant text-messaging have robbed today's young of the ability to think, Mr Tapscott believes that “Net Geners” are the “smartest generation ever”. The experience of parents who grew up watching television is misleading when it comes to judging the 20,000 hours on the internet and 10,000 hours playing video games already spent by a typical 20-year-old American today. “The Net Generation is in many ways the antithesis of the TV generation,” he argues. One-way broadcasting via television created passive couch potatoes, whereas the net is interactive, and, he says, stimulates and improves the brain.

There is growing neuroscientific support for this claim. People who play video games, for example, have been found to process complex visual information more quickly. They may also be better at multi-tasking than earlier generations, which equips them better for the modern world.

Mr Tapscott identifies eight norms that define Net Geners, which he believes everyone should take on board to avoid being swept away by the sort of generational tsunami that helped Barack Obama beat John McCain. Net Geners value freedom and choice in everything they do. They love to customise and personalise. They scrutinise everything. They demand integrity and openness, including when deciding what to buy and where to work. They want entertainment and play in their work and education, as well as their social life. They love to collaborate. They expect everything to happen fast. And they expect constant innovation.

These patterns have important implications for the workplace. Employers who ban the use of Facebook in the office—the equivalent of forbidding older staff to use their rolodexes—show clear signs of being out of touch, he argues. Two out of three Net Geners feel that “working and having fun can and should be the same thing”. That does not mean they want to play games all day, but that they want the work itself to be enjoyable. They also expect collaboration, constant feedback and rapid career advancement based on merit. How they will react to being fired en masse as the downturn worsens remains to be seen, but Mr Tapscott suspects they will take it in their stride.

Two things do worry Mr Tapscott. One is the inadequacy of the education system in many countries; while two-thirds of Net Geners will be the smartest generation ever, the other third is failing to achieve its potential. Here the fault is the education, not the internet, which needs to be given a much bigger role in classrooms (real and virtual). The second is the net generation's lack of any regard for personal privacy, which Mr Tapscott says is a “serious mistake, and most of them don't realise it.” Already, posting pictures of alcohol fuelled parties, let alone mentioning drug use or other intimate matters, is causing a growing number of job applicants to fail the “reference test” as employers trawl Facebook and MySpace for clues about the character and behaviour of potential employees.

More optimistically, the Net Geners are much more positive than their predecessors about their family. Half of those interviewed regard at least one parent as their “hero”. Mr Tapscott believes the internet is producing an improved, more collaborative version of family life, which he calls the “open family”. Parents increasingly recognise that their youngsters have digital expertise they lack but want to tap, and also that their best defence against their children falling foul of the dark side of the internet, such as online sexual predators, is to win their children's trust through honest conversation. Ironically, Mr Tapscott's recommended “platform” for this essential social networking could hardly be more old tech: the family dinner table.

The Economist

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

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