The 19th Century Fibit

After admiring the cutting-edge central heating, bathroom, and electrical wiring at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh, our tour guide pointed out another neat gadget in Mrs. Reid’s bedroom: jockey scales.

Dating back to the late 19th century, these scales were designed to weigh jockeys before horse races, but Mrs. Reid’s scales were used to weigh visitors to the castle. They’d be weighed twice, in fact: firstly on arrival, and then on departure. Ideally, the visitor would have gained weight, demonstrating a healthy and nutritious stay.

Attitudes towards health and fitness were, of course, very different a century ago. While they were concerned about weight, this little ritual shows they were worried more about being underweight than overweight.

Of course, there is at least 25% chance this story is utter bullshit — it wouldn’t be the first time a tour guide told a tall tale. But what a cautionary tale it is!

Fitness trackers are the jockey scales of our time, a fashionable gadget that demonstrates your personal commitment to healthy living. And just like gaining weight, there is little evidence that using a Fitbit will actually make you healthier.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php

Now, it is true that you can be unhealthily thin, in which case it may be helpful to put on weight while you stay at your friend’s house (or castle). Likewise, you can be too sedentary, and so it may be helpful to wear a fitness tracker, assuming you actually use it properly, which most people don’t.

The point is not that I think fitness trackers are trash or that no-one should use them; rather, we should be aware that they represent a particular wave of fashion, one that is likely to dissipate in a few years in favour of an even more high-tech fad.

By all means, use a Fitbit if it works for you — but there are more important things you can do, like eating a little more vegetables and a little less meat, and doing more vigorous exercise that you find fun.

As for myself, I‘ve worn three step counters over the years. The first was a very uncool pedometer I wore for a few weeks to school in the 90s, and I don’t think it helped me at all.

The second was an early-model Fitbit, which I kept clipped to my belt. I was addicted to checking it throughout the day, and it did occasionally encourage me to walk a few hundred or thousand more steps. Whether that had any lasting impact on my health, I don’t know.

Today, I wear an Apple Watch. It is also addictive to see my ‘activity rings’ fill up during the day, and I find its use of calories to be marginally more scientific (as opposed to steps). Again, I don’t pretend that it is really doing anything to my health. I still walk exactly the same route to work, and I do the same 3–5 runs per week.

It does look cool, though, and isn’t that what really matters?

Ancient Egypt: Generation Country

I spent a week in Luxor in February, which qualifies me as an expert on all things Egyptian.

OK, fine — but it does qualify me as an expert on being a tourist in Luxor. I had two thoughts per day, which makes fourteen thoughts in total:

1. The Baksheesh Problem

“No, sorry,” he said, rapidly backing away, “I’m all out of baksheesh.” The man patted his pockets for added effect as the Egyptian tomb guard followed along for a few steps, then gave up. What an asshole, I thought, and then I patted my pockets and realised that perhaps I was an asshole as well.

We’d only visited a couple of tombs in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna — the Valley of the Nobles — when it became clear that we had a serious baksheesh problem. It was a issue of simple mathematics: Sheikh Abd el-Qurna has dozens of tombs dating from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, which is to say that the tombs are older than pretty much any structure still standing in Europe or North American, not to mention a good deal prettier. Around a dozen are open to the public, and you can buy tickets for them in groups of two or three tombs each, for around 50 LE. LE means Egyptian Pounds; $1 equals 8 LE, which means a ticket is about $6.

Sheikh Abd el-Qurna

Usually each tomb has its own guard — a man (and it’s always a man) who checks tickets, ensures tourists don’t wreck it up, and provides running commentary on the various ancient gods and kings and queens on display inside. Sometimes the commentary is accurate and welcome, often it’s unwanted. In any case, the tomb guards really expect a tip from tourists, because:

  1. The Valley of the Nobles is not especially well-visited, being overshadowed by the far more famous Valley of the Kings next door, home of bigger tombs for more important people. These tombs aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than those in the Valley of the Nobles — and that goes doubly so for Tutankhamun’s tomb (also in the Valley of the Kings), who by all regards was not a very important person by ancient Egyptian standards, nor does he have a very spacious or impressive tomb. But hey, you’ve heard of The Valley of the Kings, you haven’t heard of the Valley of the Nobles, and you’ve only got a day or two in Luxor, so what are you going to do? The point is, there’s not much traffic and a guard’s gotta make money somehow, because:
  2. They’re paid very little. I have no idea exactly how much, I’m guessing a few dollars a day. This guess is based on the fact that taxi drivers in Luxor are willing to work for an entire day for under $25, and they’re much further up in the social and financial hierarchy than tomb guards. A tip of just 1 LE, or a bit over a dime, is therefore a pretty big deal, especially when:
  3. Thanks to the Egyptian revolution, which everyone just called 2011, plus various well-publicised terrorist attacks, tourism has just about dried up. Of the 350 Nile River cruise boats that used to visit Luxor, only a hundred are still running. Hotel occupancy in Luxor is under 25%. It’s not fun times.

Now, no-one likes being hassled for a tip. You’d prefer to hand over a buck or two in a benificent manner for a job well done, delivered via a subtle handshake just like how Monica’s old boyfriend Richard taught Joey and Chandler how to do. But as established, the going rate of 1 LE is practically zero money to a western tourist, plus the tomb guards get really bummed out when you stiff them, so you’d be advised to get over your initial irritation.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that no-one has any change in Luxor! ATMs usually dispense 200 LE notes, with the odd 100, 50, and 20 thrown in, and most things that tourists buy are denominated in 5 or 10 LE increments. This means that you barely ever have any 1 LE coins in your possession. Sure, you could give out 5 LE or 10 LE notes as tips, but you’ll run out of them rapidly as well. The end result is the Baksheesh Problem.

As we trekked between tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, I had to perform triage arithmatic to see how far we could stretch our meagre stock of coins and 5 LE notes. I wondered why the authorities couldn’t just add a few LE on to the cost of each ticket and give it to the tomb guards, or just install a change machine in the car park.

Later in our trip, we asked the hotel receptionist for change from a 10 LE note. She shook her head sadly, and then gave up two 5 LE notes from her purse. This made me feel appropriately bad. Going to the bank wasn’t possible because they were closed for the weekend.

And then we found out that small water bottles cost 2 LE, and our pockets overflowed with coins, and our hotel minibar overflowed with bottles, and the Kingdom was once again at peace, with order and Maat restored.

*There was little logic in our tipping behaviour. We gave guards anything from 1 LE to 10 LE, and hotel staff even more. I suppose this isn’t any different from tipping culture in the US or UK though. Continue reading “Ancient Egypt: Generation Country”

200 Years of Change

A game I like to play at history museums is imagining the present-day equivalents of past behaviour and objects. So at The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, London, it’s fun to look at their Period Rooms and link up past and present behaviours.

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Take the 1935 Living Room; the armchairs are pointed at the fireplace (which obviously would be a TV today), and there’s a record player and radio in the corner (also TV/hifi). Or the 1695 Parlour, in which the woman of the house would spend her day noting down the household receipts on the writing cabinet (i.e. iMac) before joining her husband for dinner and listening to him read out the day’s newspaper (watching Netflix).

1790

Then there’s the 1790 Parlour, with a set of playing cards laid out on the table. Just imagine what present day families might do when entertaining friends – why, they’d… play cards! Or maybe boardgames. Yes, it turns out that we still all want reasons to talk and gossip in an formalised way, and the things we did back 200 years ago are still pretty much exactly the same now.

1998

The Period Rooms go all the way up to 1998.

As you might expect from me, another fun thought experiment is imagining what the Period Room and gallery notes for 2014 would be; probably a room dominated by a big Samsung TV with a Playstation, some bluetooth speakers, Ikea bookshelves, a corner sofa, surround sound speakers, and a coffee table. “Here, the co-habiting couple would gather in the evening to watch ‘television serials’ and ‘YouTube cat videos’, while perusing social media on Twitter and Facebook on their tablet computers.”

The Period Room for 2034, of course, would just be an empty room with a near-invisible projector, an easy chair, and a virtual reality headset.

A Preview of A History of The Future

Two and a half years ago, I began a Kickstarter project for A History of the Future in 100 Objects, a book that would map out the 21st century in a hundred speculative objects. I wanted to cover more than just technology; I wanted to look at the future of religion, politics, sport, food, health, architecture, transport, work, and, well, everything.

That’s quite a tall order, and of course it ended up being far harder than I anticipated; what I thought might take a year took over twice as long. Let’s just say I learned a lot (if you’re interested in hearing more about it, check out my latest Kickstarter update) about how writing a book at the same time as running a company means that you don’t get evenings or weekends any more.

Not that I’d take back the experience. I’m proud of the book. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think that among the hundred chapters that make up the book, from factual articles to newspaper reports to interviews to short stories, there are some new ideas and new expressions of old ideas that many people have never seen before. And that’s all I could ask for.

You can see a preview of A History of the Future right now on the official website, and in fact the eBook is for sale on Amazon and via Gumroad now as well. However, the ‘proper’ launch of the book will be later this month after I talk about it on Radio 4 and at the Futurefest conference, and after it’s available as a physical book — hence why I’m not making too much noise about it.

The energy I poured into the book meant that I didn’t have time to write here. I’m looking forward to coming back, though.

Educational games from 3500 years ago

Freeborn children [of Greece] should learn as much of these things as the vast throngs of young in Egypt do with their alphabet. First as regards arithmetic, lessons have been devised there for absolute beginners based on enjoyment and games, distributing apples and garlands so that the same numbers are divided among larger and smaller groups.

…The teachers, by applying the rules and practices of arithmetic to play, prepare their pupils for the tasks of marshalling and leading armies and organizing military expeditions, managing a household too, and altogether form them into persons more useful to themselves and to others, and a great deal wider awake.”

This is Plato, writing around 360BC, about how Egyptian children learned about maths through ‘enjoyment and games’ [Laws 7,819].

I heard this during the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast about the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from 1550BC, which “contains 84 different calculations to help with various aspects of Egyptian life, from pyramid building to working out how much grain it takes to fatten a goose.”

Redcoats

Being a fan of Sharpe, I’ve long wondered why the standard British Army uniform was a ‘redcoat’ – surely the bright colour made the soldiers into obvious targets? I finally discovered the truth behind this (oddly, via a Metafilter comment about the F-22 fighter):

From the modern perspective, the retention of a highly conspicuous colour such as red for active service appears inexplicable, regardless of how striking it may have looked on the parade ground. It should be noted, however, that in the days of the musket (a weapon of limited range and accuracy) and black powder, battle field visibility was quickly obscured by clouds of smoke. Bright colours enhanced morale and provided a means of distinguishing friend from foe without significantly adding risk. Furthermore, the vegetable dyes used until the 19th century would fade over time to a pink or ruddy-brown, so on a long campaign in a hot climate the colour was less conspicuous than the modern scarlet shade would be.

Consuming Passions, Part One

Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.

The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.

It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:

Newspapers

Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:

“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .

  1. Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
  2. Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
  3. At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
  4. Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
  5. The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
  6. Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
  7. A notice against some piratical printer.
  8. Discovery of new pills.
  9. Notice of maritime matters…”

This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.

Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.

Advertising

Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.

Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:

[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.

Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):

Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,

– Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,

– Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases

– Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St

– & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,

– Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.

Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.

Sharpe, and the 95th

Sharpe remains a fond favourite of mine, and I’ll often reminiscence about the scenes (essentially identical in every movie) in which French soldiers slowly march towards the British in a line while being blasted by Sharpe’s green-jacked rifles, firing three shots to the minute.

This Christmas, the oddly-named UK TV History channel are running a Sharpe marathon, and I eagerly tuned in to watch Sharpe’s Eagle. Like other childhood favourites, I was worried whether it would age well, and first impressions indicated that it had not. The quality – at least on TV – was grainy and blithely non-widescreen. Once I’d gotten over these superficial problems though, Sharpe looked pretty much the same as if you’d produced it today – there’s only so much you can do with a story about some Napoleonic-era soldiers marching around in Spain, sleeping in tents and shooting each other with rifles.

The dialogue and acting held up wonderfully; Sean Bean is Richard Sharpe (thus ensuring a lifetime of typecasting) and the writing, presumably closely adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s original novels, barrels along with jokes, action and backstabbing. It’s about the only ITV programme I can bear to watch any more.

I noticed that Brian Cox featured in Sharpe’s Eagle, and I had a nagging suspicion that I’d seen one of the other actors before. A quick trip to IMDB revealed that the extremely nasty Lt. Berry was in fact a young Daniel Craig with black hair. Even better, he spent most of the movie either playing cards or beating people up, which provided a wonderful moment of serendipity given that I was occasionally flipping channels to watch Casino Royale at the time.

What I found most interesting about Sharpe, however, is the history that it’s based on. The main characters in the shows belong to the 95th Regiment of Foot, a highly innovative and experimental company:

In 1800 an “Experimental Corps of Riflemen”, the 95th Regiment of Foot was raised by Colonel Coote Manningham and Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. William Stewart, drawn from officers and other ranks from drafts of a variety of British regiments. The Corps differed quite a bit from the main infantry of the British Army. The Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red more customary to the British Army of that time … The “Rifles” were armed with the formidable, but slow-loading Baker rifle which was more accurate and of longer range than the musket

The Rifles were trained to think for themselves, not to blindly follow orders and together with the riflemen of the 60th (later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) were the sharpshooters, skirmishers and scouts of the British Army. They went into battle not in line, but in skirmishing formations ahead of the main infantry, who were bunched into close formations, to snipe at their opponents and take cover in the process. These tactics – originated by the 60th in campaigns in North America – were unusual for that time. It was generally deemed to be dishonourable to deliberately aim at an individual, and conventional tactics favoured the volley from a close formation and the bayonet…

On top of this, the unit’s operation was markedly different from the line infantry. Flogging was abolished as a means of enforcing military discipline (a very progressive move and unheard of for the times), they held regular shooting and sporting competitions, and were rewarded for their achievements. Officers would regularly dine with their men and in so doing would become familiar with each man in their respective companies, a practice also unheard of at the time.

The performance of the regiment can be demonstrated by the story of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. Plunkett, armed with a Baker rifle, allegedly shot the French General Colbert at a range of between 400 and 800 yards during the Peninsula War. Apparently, he then shot a second Frenchman who rode to the general’s aid, proving that his was not just a lucky shot. By comparison, a standard issue Brown Bess musket could not be relied upon to hit a man-sized target at over 60 yards.

(compiled from Wikipedia)

It’s hardly surprising that Bernard Cornwell picked the 95th as Sharpe’s company given its groundbreaking nature, and this finally explains the eternal mystery of why the French would always march – very slowly – towards their doom in every single movie…

Only a Matter of Time

“The location of the Greenwich Meridian, that was decided arbitrarily, right?”

“I suppose. They put it there because our system of time or mapping or something like that was designed in Greenwich.”

“But if it was designed in, say, America or Russia, the ‘zero time’ could have been there?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“So, in a way, it’s a complete accident that the international date line happens to lie in the middle of an ocean, instead of, say, cutting inconveniently through a major country?”

(pause)

“Huh, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“See, if the equivalent of the Greenwich Meridian was in America or Russia, then the international date line could lie across several countries and you’d have the strange situation of being able to move back and forward a day just by going for a walk.”

“Okay. I think in reality they would have just bent the international date line – like they already do for other time zone boundaries – so it would run along an ocean or sea. Still very interesting though.”

Quicksilver

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Quicksilver, arrived on my doorstep (metaphorically speaking) some time last week. Initially I thought to myself, ‘I’m a busy guy, I don’t have time to read this 900 page book in one go, as I usually do. Instead, I think I shall read it in little chunks, perhaps a reasonable hundred pages a day.’

And thus did this pass, for about two days. After this, my reading time increased exponentially to the point that I spent perhaps five hours a day reading it in the past two days. In other words, it’s a compelling novel.

Quicksilver is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the time of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, the founding of the Royal Society and the Glorious Revolution, among other notable events. In typical Stephenson style, it is not actually possible to describe the plot of the book, which doesn’t even seem to exist for the greater part of the time. Instead, the main characters – Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan member of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds; and Eliza (who defies description) – are caught up in the whirlwind of that age and occasionally make their mark upon it.

Of course, there is a plot of sorts, but that is not important. What is important is that Quicksilver demonstrates that Stephenson can write a highly intelligent, complex and amusing novel no matter what age it is set in. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Quicksilver is essential Cryptonomicon set three hundred years ago. Firstly, the vast majority of people (myself included) really have no idea what happened back then; we don’t know the events, the people, the words and the places.

This places a rather heavy burden on Stephenson to explain all of this. To his credit, he manages to do this in a way that doesn’t smell of excessive data dumping and if you have read any of his previous books you’ll know that he has this magical way of imparting complicated and otherwise boring information in a very entertaining way.

Unfortunately his skill only goes so far and after a while it becomes a bit of slog to plough through explanations of the political machinations and family trees in Christendom in that time. Such are the dangers of the task Stephenson has set himself.

Secondly, despite the fact that Quicksilver features a Waterhouse, a Shaftoe and a Root, they are not carbon copies of the characters in Cryptonomicon; they do share some temperaments but they are essentially new characters – which is good.

Thirdly, Quicksilver is written in a very different style, which might be described as ‘baroque’ (ha!*). While Stephenson doesn’t go off on quite as many peculiar (and some might say superfluous) tangents as he did in Cryptonomicon, he employs such a range of writing styles that you begin to wonder whether there is a novel buried in all the plays and letters he has liberally scattered around. Again, I felt this was a good thing, although sometimes distracting.

Finally, Quicksilver being a ‘historical fiction’, it inhabits the world of the 17th and 18th centuries while taking some liberties with the events that actually happened. This is to be expected. However, it is frequently difficult to work out whether some fantastical event or scene shown in the book is true, or sprung from Stephenson’s mind. This is where his MetaWeb wiki comes in, which is basically a set of online annotations that, among other things, tells the readers what is true and what is not.

I enjoyed reading Quicksilver. It wasn’t quite what I expected (e.g., it had a really good ending) and it was significantly more difficult to read than any of his other books, but it was very entertaining and I felt like I learned a lot about the age it was set in. My complaints would be that none of the major characters were particularly well fleshed out with the possible exception of Daniel Waterhouse – and this is in a 900 page novel. In fact, I felt that he depicted some of the ‘real’ characters with more depth than his own – Newton and Hooke, for example (but perhaps this is not surprising).

Quicksilver is only the first of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait as long for the sequels as we did for Quicksilver – both books will be released within a year. It remains to be seen whether Stephenson can hold on to his readers’ attention for a further 1800 pages but I have a feeling that the novels will only improve.

On a side note, Quicksilver has made me feel like an utter ingrate for blithely living in Trinity College, Cambridge for three years and not being sufficiently impressed about the events that occurred there. In fact, as I was walking to college here in Oxford today, I saw a plaque on the High Street commemorating Robert Hooke, who had a starring role in Quicksilver. I felt uncharacteristically proud to be a student in Oxford at that point. To hell with history lessons, just give kids a copy of Quicksilver!