Monday, 30 September 2013

Indian Ocean worlds

Even judged against the very low standards of the kinds of men who make the history books, it turns out that Portuguese explorer Vasca De Gama was not a nice man. Not nice at all.

Famously - well, I say 'famously', but this is the first I've heard of him - De Gama discovered a new shipping route from Europe to the Indian ocean, bypassing the Muslim controlled established routes across the Mediterranean or through Arabia. And, having found his way to the Indian Ocean, this unpleasant and incompetent man was thoroughly unpleasant and incompetent.

On voyage 1, en route, De Gama reprovisioned by attacking unarmed merchant ships and stealing what he wanted. In 1498 he reached Calicut and offered insultingly trivial tribute to the king, whose court laughed at him. De Gama took offence (and took hostages). He went back in 1502 and massacred sailors in port, sending their ears, noses and hands to the king. Some ships were burned, with passengers and crew dying aboard. The Portuguese conquered coastal towns and imposed colonial rule.

Bigger picture - if you ignore the piracy, the viciousness of attacks, the colonialism etc - the new trade routes undermined Venice's grip on the existing spice industry, especially bringing pepper to the masses. De Gama was nicely rewarded by the Portuguese monarchy. So, on balance, probably well worth the blood?

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Stross C 2005 Iron sunrise

I am sated by Stross. As a greedy reader, that's a quite remarkable thing.

A fun novel, with a satisfying ending and an epilogue that doesn't distract. Very little sci fi. Oodles of plot. Strong female characters. Worth the time.

First line:
Wednesday ran through the darkened corridors of the station, her heart pounding.

Last line:
And they'd be there to help her when she said goodbye to home for the final time and turned her back on the iron sunrise.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Atlantic ocean worlds

Theme from the prof was that colonialism is a negotiated process as much as it's an imposed one. The conquerors needed stability. They didn't want to just plunder the riches - they wanted an ongoing relationship with these rich lands. So they needed a system that would keep on giving. If colonies are a source of wealth (rather than a place of expansion) you have to work with the pre-existing societies and turn their social organisation into one which supports your purpose. They did this by deposing some leaders, imposing others, and largely leaving the lower levels of society alone. This led me to think about corporate takeovers: much the same thing, only the executions at the top usually come with a payoff.

Another form of amalgamation addressed by Prof was the Baroque 'mixed marriage' between Europeans and native people or Africans. I think he means between white men and non-white women (not vice versa), but we're left to guess at the power differential and how far these are marriages as I'd want 'marriage' to be. Is this marriage and are these children simply an extension of the ownership principle? Lovely romantic image used in the lecture. I wonder how it felt to be that wife?

New facts: 

  • There was a ship building boom in the wake of 1492 - Europeans using 'brazilwood'. Ships became easier to build and longer lasting - a virtuous cycle making more exploration more possible. The wood was also used as textile dye - why the rich clothing of the Renaissance was red.
  • Access to american commodities shifted the global markets. What had been a European trade deficit with the east (we wanted their silks and spices; they weren't fussed about what we had to offer) moved to a trade surplus. 
  • Early 1500s Spain had a vigorous internal debate about the ethics & legality of enslaving indigenous people. See Bartolome de las Casas who argued that Indians had souls! If Indians have souls then the conquerers need to fulfil god's purpose by bringing the gospel to them. 
  • 6.5m people move to the Americas. Most of them don't have a choice. I read this stark list of slave trade facts. You should too. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

Clashing worlds

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. 

Interesting. Prof encourages to dismiss our preconceptions of native americans as 'peace loving savages; waiting for the west to settle and civilise'. Um. Not a preconception. Something I am noticing is that this America lecturer - who obviously usually teaches a primarily American student body - has his own cultural assumptions that don't fit those of us coming from other places. Each lecture has referenced Christopher Columbus. A small historical character for me - I'm much more likely to hang eras on English monarchs. This, then, is the very beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. 

This lecture, though, is all about the discovery of the 'new world' and the people who were already living there. So let's learn something about that then:

Columbus' ship log shows many navigational mistakes. He couldn't use the new technologies of sextants etc, and was rubbish at the maths needed for navigation by stars. But he must have been a confident talker, because Isabel & Ferdinand believed his promises - that if they funded his trip to the Orient then this would bring them the wealth to conquer (or liberate)  Jerusalem. 

1521 Cortes conquers Tenochtitlan (Aztec city, Mexico). How? Unintentional germ warware - Prof says 40% of the city of 200,000 people was dead before Cortes walked into the city, and encourages us to imagine the stench. But what I don't understand is why the conquistadores didn't themselves fall ill from the diseases that had developed in the 'world apart' of the Americas. Surely the Aztecs had their own germs to which the Spanish would have had no immunity?

Whether intentional or not, contact with the Europeans was devastating for the native American peoples: estimation that from 1500-1600 the native population declined from about 120m people to 20m people.  Small pox, measles, typhus. Horrifying! (And people still choose to avoid vaccination???). 

I had a hard time staying on topic listening to this lecture. Without the background knowledge of what happened when in the various connections between European sailors and various people in the Americas, I struggled. An overview and timeline would have really helped.

Side effect of listening to this lecture: I finally understand what Pratchett's Eric was all about...

Friday, 20 September 2013

Introduction to organisations

I've flirted with the idea of an MBA for a long time. Let's see if it's stimulating or dull.

Are street gangs an organisation? The lecture starts by looking at what's in and out of the definition. Structures of people with "collaborative pursuit of specified goals"...

It's interesting to think about this in relation to my other Coursera lecture this week, on the growth of trade along the silk road. Were the caravanserai an organisation? I think yes, but one which dissolved when the shared goal was attained.

Tentative conclusion: a bit dull. Prof speaks in bullet points and I'm not fascinated yet. I'll carry on but if I'm not getting stories within a week or two, I'm going elsewhere. I would have been so much happier if the school examples had all been related back to Hogwarts. In fact, management lessons from Hogwarts is a JK Rowling spin off that someone should write. Chapters could include:

  • professional boundaries - contrasting the behaviours of Dumbledore and Hagrid
  • recruit wisely, check references - Alestor Moody as a what not to do case study 
  • performance matters - Professor Trelawny was coasting for the last 18 years, why was there no improvement plan?
  • reward your star performers - why it was right to give Hermione the time-turner
  •  cast out your serpents - the usurper Umbridge
  • etc. 
Actually - that was fun. Maybe I'll write the book myself?

Warfare and motion

The Black Death - well, a northern European perspective - is something we covered in school and keeps on appearing in the historic fiction I love. I strongly recommend Karen Maitland's medieval novel The Owl Killers, and the slightly later but still plague insightful The Witches Trinity.

But the bare facts continue to be shocking. Imagine a disease that kills millions. Without any understanding of the transmission routes, no treatments. Imagine the social chaos. The trade routes of shipping lines and the silk road were corridors for the communication of disease. What I didn't know is 'the Black Death' is a term used to describe many different viruses. Prof says that multiple plagues followed the trade routes. So that must have been scarier still: as previously known symptoms are no longer reliable predictors of a disease's progress.

  • China - population drops from 120m to 80m. 
  • Europe - 60% die
How does any society come back from a blow like that? Crops not planted, and then not harvested. The apprentice system in disarray meaning knowledge has died with the master of that knowledge. Children unparented. Power vacuums. Armies decimated. Abandoned by gods.

Peoples and plunderers

The cast of global history at the beginning of the last millennium. A big topic, covered in about 45 minutes, so no depth of anything and many more questions than answers.

My biggest question: were there no women?

This is lecture is - largely - focused on the ruling classes, the political and religious leaders, the money. Fascinating! But I'd also like an assessment of what women were doing, and what was being done-unto them. Prof says the world was largely equal in its basic living standards, by considering life expectancy and average height in different places.  But is that true of men and women? Probably not. Almost certainly there were a few women traders on the silk road: what was it that made their trading possible, or not? We get hints of women left behind with the children while merchants and soldiers went on long and dangerous journeys. How did they live? Did widows have a different status? How did the different societies handle death in childbirth and the raising of children? If most people are living subsistence lives in rural communities are the women doing the same manual labour as the men? Where there is access to formal education are the omen excluded? In war, women are often raped or assimilated through forced marriage. What happened to them? In politics, women are the created links between families through marriage. There have always been exceptional women faith leaders and women warriors. What specific skills were women learning and how were these integrated into the new markets of trade goods? Where are the women???

I was very interested in the story of how technology changed the world. The Chinese-invented compass, charts, and new ship design opened up the possibilities of leaving the shoreline and finding new markets. And by using ships it was possible to move heavier goods further. I suppose that's an obvious point, but one I'd never considered.

Interesting titbits. 

  • Chinese population doubled from C8 - c12 to about 100m people. Hydraulic engineering allows the Chinese to create new rice paddies and sustain such a population increase. Mass deforestation  loss of habitat. There used to be Chinese elephants!
  • the silk road stank. Though merchants were trading luxuries (preciosities), the road and the hubs featured piles of poo - thousands of camels, horses, elephants, people. As the caravans would often travel at night, to avoid the searing sun, they must have been squelching  through the muck. Ick. 
  • Genghis Khan - in 25 years of conquering he laid claim to a bigger empire than the Romans managed in 400 years. His empire was the size of Africa. He overturned the caliphate in Baghdad and the Song dynasty of China. He was stopped by the mountains of Afghanistan. 
  • 1258 - the Grand Library of Baghdad was destroyed by Mongol invaders. The waters of the Tigris ran blue with ink and red with blood. Probably mostly red: the death toll of the siege is estimated from 200,000 - 1m people.
  • There was a global professional market by 1300. Relocation of doctors from China., engineers from Germany. Specialists were travelling the same routes that trade goods took.

Things I want to follow up or find out more about:

  • is there a respectable feminist history of this period?

Would I like to attend a world class University? For free? Oh, go on then.

I'm a bit of a late comer but having discovered Coursera I couldn't be more excited. It's been a year of un-stimulation and while I've enjoyed the downtime I think that adding some intellect wouldn't be a bad thing at all. So I'm signed up for a couple of courses this term, and if it's fun I think I'll do the same next term too.

I wanted a place to keep course reflections and - after some thought - I decided Mrs Ward would approve so why not use this place. I'll tag Coursera and a course title to keep things tidy.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


I've been looking at my bookshelves and seeing clutter, not friends. Increasingly, I just don't want books to make their home in my home. They can live in the library, or in the cloud, and come visit when I'm open to the idea.

So - today - a big box of books has gone to the local charity shop. I still have plenty of full bookshelves, but this felt like something I was ready to do.

Now I'm eyeing up the cookery books. You're not safe...