pergamond: (Default)
After a careful examination of cities, I have concluded that those closest to achieving the Buddhist state of nirvana are old factory buildings. These red bricked structures with their tall chimneys and wrought iron window decorations tend to be reincarnated as art galleries and sushi bars which Sex in the City assures us is a step towards paradise.

In Toronto, one such area is Liberty Village which was undoubtedly once thick with soot, but now is thick with gym goers mooching down from their loft conversions to pose by a running machine. It is also the location of a photography exhibition of a friend of mine, Ken Yan.

In keeping with the area, we began the day with brunch at an airy, pine attired restaurant with floor to ceiling windows. Attractive arrangements of greens were served with the dish of your choice which in my case was ....

Green eggs and ham.

It rocked, Dr Seuss style. (In case of alarm, I should probably mention the 'green' part of the scrambled eggs was spinach.)

The art gallery was in a boutique-sized shop down from a dance studio and opposite a yoga class. One wall was dedicated to 18 prints by Ken and the other had a massive wide angled photo of ....

.... So the problem with high resolution HUGE images is you spend all your time staring into the windows of taxi cabs and forget to look at the complete view. Yeah, I've no idea.

Ken's photos (she adds hastily) I did remember. One that particularly stood out was a picture of sunflowers in a similar design to van Gogh's famous painting. While produced with a camera rather than oils, Ken printed the photo on canvas to give it a painted feel. The result appeared to be a hybrid between a photo and a painting, leaving you unsure exactly which you were looking at.

Another photo I was admiring showed light reflected in a serene lake from which a few thin branches protruded in an arc. Ken told me a couple he had previously been showing it to had been indifferent until he had explained the title. My eyes slid down to the small square of card underneath the frame: "Twig fish". I was no artist and concluded this probably meant something deep. Maybe a commentary on the loneliness of the plant in the water, cut off from the lake shore. Or perhaps it was a reflection on the stick's sparse bark, a vision of scarcity in today's material world. I turned my head on one side.

Then again, maybe it was because the twigs combined with their reflection looked like a fish.

I nodded, tried to pretend I'd seen that straight away and made a mental note to not give up the day job for one as art critic.

When we left, it was starting to snow. It would have been so much more impressive if the UK hadn't got landed with twice as much. Perhaps if factories are on the doorstep to heaven, the UK is moving in the opposite direction.
pergamond: ([Disney] Sleeping Beauty // rooting for)

The answer is apparently 'yes'.

Before I became lost in a whale's stomach, I was exploring the second special exhibit at the Ontario Science Museum on mythical creatures. (Any objections to the location of such a display should have been made when I described the Harry Potter themed production at said same science-focussed location). The question raised --whether a creature that only existed in people's imaginations could die-- was answered with the example of the Nasca killer whale. Heard of it? Well no, that's pretty much the point. Once though, it appeared to have been a legendary monster.

The Nazca lived in south Peru from around 1 - 700 AD. Many archaeological finds from that period depict a killer whale holding a human head. All stories centred around such a beast, however, have been lost. Indeed, from what is known about the people from that time, it is not possible to even ascertain if the creature was good or evil. Personally, I would have thought that holding a severed head intimated one of those two options, but apparently head collecting was the thing to do at the time and he might just have been trying to fit in.

Not only can these creatures die, but they are also victims of evolution. Unicorns, for instance, used to have the body of a goat with a short coloured horn and griffins did not always have wings. Likewise, there is the Canadian Inuit legend of Sedna (a human, not a planetoid) which describes how a girl rather rashly decides to marry a bird, unsurprisingly regrets it, and is rescued by her father. In a feathered fury, the jilted bird conjures up a storm and the father decides to cut his losses and throw Sedna overboard. Unwilling to comply, Sedna clings to the boat, forcing her father to cut off first her fingers and then the knuckles. The first of these become the whales of the ocean and the second the seals. Continuing to demonstrate an unhealthy tenacity, Sedna survives to persuade a dog to chew off her father's hands and feet. He curses them all which causes the earth to open and swallow them both into the underworld. While originally all human, mermaid images introduced by merchants and slaves later became became associated with Sedna. Such travellers' tales explain why legends that originated thousands of miles apart often share common features. Mermaids, apparently, always have a penchant for combs and mirrors.

The original origin of each mythical creature could stem from different courses. Largely, it seemed that their creation was the product of four distinct situations:

The first of these was that of mistaken identity, especially of decaying remains. One such example was a sea monster that turned out to be the carcass of a 9m basking shark. Likewise, in 1855, the Danish Zoologist, Japetus Steenstrup, proposed that the fabled sea bishop observed in the 16th century was actually a large squid. Of course, since the Giant Squid can be up to 18m in size and there is an even larger Colossal Squid with eyes as large as a human head, the classification of 'monster' becomes a bit of a mute point. Amusingly, in 1300, Marco Polo described seeing unicorns that were probably Sumatran Rhinos. Suffice to say, he was unimpressed by their beauty. A giraffe was later mistaken for a unicorn when it was presented to the Chinese Emperor in 1414 by the explorer, Cheng Ho. Possibly due to accounts of this tale, the Japanese word for giraffe, Kirin (麒麟), also means unicorn.

The second origin was fear. The open ocean, with its seemingly infinite extent in all directions including down, can seem to hold any number of horrors. In such a place, the arched backs of jumping dolphins could easily appear to be the many tentacles of a kraken. Matters were perhaps not helped by Konrad Lykosthenes, who published an encyclopedia in 1557 detailing the monsters awaiting sailors. Similarly, Conrad Gesner's 1563 zoological work included a hippocampus; a sea creature with a horse's head, reinforcing the theory of the time that every animal found on land had a counterpart in the ocean.

Many mythical creatures were created to explain mysterious phenomenon. For example, Mexican farm animals were sometimes found dead with open gashes. Such events were blamed on 'Chupacabra'; small blood sucking creatures with glowing red eyes who kill like vampires of the non-sparkly ilk. Modern medicine has since revealed that gas in a carcass can cause it to expand and form splits of seemingly surgical precision. Giant bones from extinct creatures, such as those from dinosaurs and the huge ape gigantopithecus blacki, were also frequently thought to only be explainable by mythical beasts. Even elephant skulls, understood when alive, could resemble the remains of a Cyclops in death, with the opening in the skull for the trunk the space for its single eye. The fact these creatures are associated with forges, incidentally, came from the ancient Greek blacksmiths, who wore an eye patch to protect their sight from flying sparks. The Greek mythology, meanwhile, explained the natural disasters of earthquakes and volcanoes as originating from the torment of the giant children of the gods Uranus and Gaia, trapped by Zeus after the battle of Gigantomachy.

Finally, there were mythical creatures whose existence was through a story with a moral. One such creature is the goblin-like, Japanese tengu, who live in the forests to mock and punish prideful people. Their legend tells of a man walking through a forest and finding a tengu who agrees to teach him the magical art of ninjutsu. Rather than use his new skills for worthwhile causes, the man kills and steals from travellers. In one unfortunate evil act too many, he tries to kill a slow farmer who was in his way. Rather than slay the poor man, his sword breaks, revealing said farmer to be the tengu and himself unable to use his powers again. The Japanese saying "tengu ni neru" (he is turning into a tengu) is commonly used to recall this tale and warn people against arrogance. In 1860, the Japanese government posted official notices to tengu asking them to temporarily vacate a certain mountain during a schedule visit by the shogun. I cannot help but feel this reviled a particularly honest view of the characters of the country's commanders.

Sometimes the origin of a creature cannot be even guessed at due to the age of its legend. Griffin illustrations are found that date back to 3300 BC. The Greek myths are known to be at least 2,700 years old, but their material is borrowed from still more ancient tales.

A few modern mythical beasts are created through more mundane means. In 1842, the people of New York City were enthralled by the shrivelled corpse of the 'feejee mermaid' . The creature was shown by P. T. Barnum who acquired it from a colleague in Boston. In reality, the little body was made by fusing the torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish. Such fakes were made in the East Indies and sold to British and American sailors in, what one can only suppose, was an early tourist trade. Ideally, one would like to think we are now above such mockery, yet pictures on the internet of mermaids washed up on shore after a tsunami beg to differ.

For some, the creation of phoney creatures is not so much trickery as an art form. Bob Slaughter had a distinguished career in palaeontology before moving into the business of making attractive fake fossils of small winged humans and their friends. His book on this appears to have fooled at least one reviewer. There is also the Coney Island artist, Takeshi Yamada, who creates 'gaffs' including a taxidermied rabbit with a fish tail.

Aspects from mythical beasts have also wound their way into modern associations. The pokemon character 'aipom' resemble the ahuizotl; a monkey creature with an unfortunate pastime of pulling people underwater and drowning them. 500 years ago, the same creature was carved into the wall of an Aztec temple as pictographic symbol of the ambitious Aztec leader who took its name. A similar creation with a taste for drowning is the Japanese Kappa. When it's not disguising itself as a child in preparation for watery demises, the kappa apparently likes cucumbers, resulting in the sushi cucumber roll to be known as 'kappamaki'. It is also the origin of the phrase 'even kappas can drown', referring to the fact that even experts can make mistakes, and 'just a kappa fart' which a cruder form of 'a much to do about nothing'. Amusingly, the kappa is very much the product of the culture it was born in. Their strength originates from water in the bowl shaped dent in their head. To defeat the creature, you bow to it, whereupon manners will force it to bow in return, spilling the water and causing it to flee back to the river or pond.

Not all questions about mythical creatures were answered by this exhibit. As I stood in front of a model of the flying horse, Pegasus, child of Greek god Poseidon and monster Medusa, a teenager beside me turned to her friend and demanded, "How can two gods make a horse?"
pergamond: ([xkcd] You're a kitty!)
Yesterday, I built a dolphin. I made it as round as a ball but gave it a big tail for propulsion. It moved okay, but unfortunately couldn't turn fast enough to avoid hitting the underside of a propeller driven boat and exploding.

It was sad. Possibly, no one should employ me as a substitute god quite yet.

To console myself, I went to chill out in the heart of a blue whale. Weighing over 150 tons and measuring up to 39 m in length, the adult blue whale is the largest mammal that has ever lived. A 1:1 scale model of its heart is therefore a perfectly comfortable place to sit, at least once I had shoved the kids out through one of the valves.

I was at the Ontario Science Centre which had an exhibition running on whales. In pride of place (by necessity of its size) was the skeleton of a sperm whale whose 18m length stretched the length of the hall. It might fall short of its blue whale cousin, but the sperm whale is the largest toothed predator, even if it does use its teeth mainly for filtering and biting other males in fights. Blue whales have baleen plates that resemble giant brushes, rather than teeth, which filter huge quantities of water for krill; a technique known as 'lunge feeding'. Sperm whales and other toothed family members, such as dolphins, feed on individual prey such as giant squid. Because of this, the sperm whale also has the honour of having the largest nose that is actually a massive echolocation device which it uses to hunt squid down to depths of 2000m. By contrast, the human record for a dive is 82m. Rather than a tool for hunting, the noises made by baleen whales are used for communication, such as the humpbacked whales' song. Its low frequency allows the sound to cover huge distances so these solitary beasts can contact one another.

After I'd mentally redesigned a whale's insides into an entry for 'changing rooms', I started to wonder about how such a humongous mammal ended swimming. After all, one could hardly picture an elephant taking this as a personal challenge. I originally presumed that when mammals first left the ocean, a off-shoot stayed behind. These would then become whales, while the land-lovers developed two legs, shoved them under a computer desk and became graduate students wondering why they left the ocean and if it was too late to change their mind. In fact, it turned out I was wrong. The exhibition showed that whales developed from land animals who moved into the sea to take advantage of the food source there. Fossils exist of deeply confused creatures known as 'ambulocetus natans' (literally 'walking whale') that could both walk and swim. They appeared to hear sound through their lower jaw which was transmitted to the soft tissue leading to the ear in an early version of the echolocation mechanics of their descendants.

More soberly, another board discussed the problem of beached whales. In New Zealand, they have had to deal with a mass beaching of sperm whales whose huge bulk makes refloating almost impossible. Internal damage from the beaching is highly probable and the mammals rapidly overheat when stranded. When this happens, a fast, humane death is considered preferable and is carried out using a specialised device known as SWED: Sperm Whale Euthanasia Device. This is a single-shot anti-tank rifle, the kind of weapon usually designed to penetrate the armour of tanks. 

On a more cheerful note, New Zealand is also home to the smallest of the whale family, Hector's dolphin, whose length is just 1.5m. That's just over a 5th of the size of a newborn blue whale, which weights 3 tons at birth. I'm thinking not a crib from Ikea.
pergamond: ([Random] Kitten rar!)
"You know how you can tell this isn't original footage? It's not in black and white."

Mmm hmm. That and the scenes the film is showing are battles from China's Warring States Period, around 400 BC. I try to keep an open mind, but there are times when I despair of my fellow museum goers.

As it was, I was having a hard time. My iPhone had been confiscated ... well, no, it was in my bag, but I was forbidden from using it to take notes because the attendant couldn't tell if I was actually taking forbidden photographs. In response to my peeved expression, he provided me with a pen and a couple of sheaves of paper. I thanked him for the effort and spun the appendage around in my fingers, trying to recall how to use it. It didn't seem to have a touch pad. Nevertheless, the hassle had just become worth it to record that quote. (For me and for the attendant, since the alternative might have been to say something; we all know that wouldn't have gone well).

I inched away from the couple in question and perused the information boards. The highlight of this exhibit were 10 statues from the 'Terracotta Army'; the 8,000 life sized warriors that were found in the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced approximately 'Chin Shih Hwongdee'). They were found in three pits, the largest measuring 14,000 square meters, which were discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. He hit the neck of a terracotta warrior instead of water. In another pit, entire suits of stone armour were buried for the warriors to wear. See, I didn't do badly with my pen. 

At this point in the exhibit, however, the First Emperor was merely a twinkle in some goat herder's eye. Possibly quite literally, since there are debates over his legitimacy. Before his rule, China was a divided land with 7 states warring for power (hence, 'the Era of Warring States' - never let it be said I don't explain events in my blog). Sun Zi's 'The Art of War' dates from this period and observant readers will note it was originally a book, not a Hollywood production. The most aggressive of the states, Qin, had grown rapidly in power due to one of the First Emperor's ancestors, Shang Yang, who embraced foreigners and foreign technologies. American border control could learn much from him. By the First Emperor's father's time, Qin had become so threatening that five states banded together to defeat him in battle. While they won, they never rose again. At the age of 13, Ying Zheng (personal name of Qin Shihuangdi) came to the throne of Qin, kicked everyone's ass and brought China under a single ruler for the first time.

Most of this history is known via a single source, the Shiji document, written by historian Sima Qian. Sima Qian was born 65 years after the First Emperor's death and had no balls; quite literally as he was castrated after irritating his own emperor. Due to the fact he kept the only surviving record of the day, his accuracy can only be verified by archaeological finds. Fortunately, due to a penchant of the times for engraving important events on pots, it is possible to ascertain the truth of much of its content.

Sima Qian did not know about the terracotta warriors whose discovery was a complete surprise. He did describe gardens within the tomb of bronze swans swimming on a sea of mercury, evidence for which has been found during scans and soil samples of the land. The main mound of the First Emperor's tomb remains unexcavated, partly due to concerns for its stability and partly from concerns surrounding the potential damage to the contents when brought into contact with air. The paint on the terracotta army, for instance, was put on natural lacquer which lifts right off if not immediately treated with a superglue compound. Sima Qian did claim a task force of 700,000 labourers was set to build the complex, which started, as was traditional, when the Emperor came to the throne. While this mammoth project was underway, the First Emperor himself searched for the elixir of life and the secret to immortality. I guess there's nothing like a back-up plan.

The purpose of burying 8,000 terracotta soldiers along with you would be for an army in the afterlife. From the Christian standpoint, St Peter was due to be in for quite a surprise. It was undoubtedly an improvement from murdering your actual army and household so they could serve you beyond this mortal coil, and one museum plaque assured me Qin was one of the first houses to abolish this practice. I would have felt more impressed if later boards hadn't revealed that all concubines who had not yet given birth, plus a bunch of the architects, were shut up in the tomb when it was sealed.

The tomb complex, while by far the most famous, was not the First Emperor's only feat during his rule. One of his first ones rather points to an unhappy childhood since it involved returning to his old home of Handen and burying everyone alive. Later acts included the introduction of a single currency and writing script across China and a frenzy of building projects that possibly pointed to mental illness, including large extensions to the Great Wall, roads, canals and dams.

Qin Shihuangdi's plan had been to build a dynasty to last 10,000 generations. In fact, his son flunked it. He kept on and even increased the crushing labour service and taxes of his father, causing a rebellion within four years. The resulting civil war saw the capital burned and parts of the famous tomb looted. When the dust cleared, the Han dynasty started, to be the most famous in China's history. Its principals, however, upheld many of the ones began by Qin Shihuangdi to produce a single, unified, China.
pergamond: ([PoT] Atobe // on phone)

... wear it.

I examined the boot in front of me and concluded that it would probably be too loose. That is because it was designed for a cow. My eyes slid down to another piece of footwear with huge pinecone-esque spikes on the sole. Now those would give the right impression during my next presentation!: "Any questions? No, I didn't think so."

I was not in fact at the latest sale from 'Foot Locker' but at a museum dedicated entirely to shoes. Three floors, all packed with footwear, although there was one exhibit on socks which was arguably pushing its luck.

People, dogs, cows and dolls; everyone's pedicural comfort was catered for. Did you know that Polly Pocket's shoe size is a third of that of Barbie's? Or that Ken's shoes are considered (by fashion experts) to be conservative while Barbie's feet are only able to wear high heels?

That particular style has made two débuts in history. The first appearance of high heals in the 16th century saw them being donned by men as well as women to extend their height. Their more recent occurrence was a backlash against claims that the rise of women would see the end of femininity. I looked down at my trainers and wiggled my toes. Screw femininity, you can't do that, Barbie!

Examples of the shoes for bound feet in late 19th century China were also on display. The ideal foot size women of the time was a scant three inches and girl's feet were tied at a young age to prevent proper growth. Feet that remained (through bone breaking deformities) this ideal size were known as 'jin loan' or 'golden lotuses' (right from centre picture). Only girls from the Han ethnic group were privileged enough to forfeit all ability to walk painlessly. Manchu girls were forbidden to bind their feet and therefore wore high platform shoes to stilt their gait and allow them to emulate the 'lotus walk' of their bound footed counterparts (far right photo).

The opposite extreme of the golden lotus shoes had to be the trainer from basketball star, Shaquille O'Neal, who is 7 feet 1 inch tall and wears a size 23 trainer.

Of course, no story of shoes could be complete without mentioning Cinderella. It turns out this originally French fairy tale is told the world over with the glass slipper switched out for culturally favourite footwear. In Korea, a girl named Peach Blossom looses a straw sandal which is found by a handsome magistrate. For some unrecorded reason, he deems this item worth returning to its owner and is promptly enchanted by her beauty and asks for her hand in marriage. One can only conclude the law gives even its enforcers problems.

But whether lawyer, prince, scullery maid or peasant, the magical shoe reveals hidden virtue and transforms an underprivileged beauty into a princess. This says much for the continuing prospects of sketchers but rather less for the hope of humanity. Marrying a girl because she looks swell in a pair of shoes?! It'll be all over even before you get her pregnant and her ankles swell up.

Of course, some shoe transformations have a more practical edge. Alongside the glass slipper was a heavy boot with a large metal ring attached to it. This 'Oregon boot' was for the transport of criminals who couldn't peg it with such a weight on their feet.

Moving upstairs into the side attraction of socks, I discovered the first evidence of such items was a first century letter from a Roman soldier who mentioned a pair being sent to him, probably by his Mum. Much later during World War II, there was such a shortage of nylons that women drew a seam up the back of their legs to imitate their appearance. When the war ended, Macy's sold out of their entire stock of 50,000 pairs in six hours. The production of nylon transpired to be deeply unattractive. And wet. It is produced at the interface between the chemicals diamine and dicarboxylic acid. Drip.

For the ultimate highlight, however, what could beat Geri Halliwell's own Union Jack knee-high boots? Well, possibly the cow boot. But then, aside from the decoration, they were remarkably similar designs.
pergamond: (narnia: once upon a time)

Hardwick Old Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, a feisty and incredibly rich (thanks to four marriages) woman in Elizabethan times. "Building Bess" designed the hall herself to replace the original family medieval manor house that sat on the same site in Derbyshire. Once she had eight children (via marriage number two) and become a countess (marriage number four), Bess wanted an abode that would reflect her new station in life and, naturally, one that would live up to those of her friends. An understandable enterprise made fractionally more ambitious by the fact her closest companion was Queen Elizabeth I.

A prophesy was foretold that Bess would not die while she continued building and it was perhaps this that caused her to start work on Hardwick New Hall before the Old Hall was fully complete. England's aristocracy frequency held different residences around the country but the notable fact about the New Hall is that it was built right next door to the Old Hall. This is quite literally so; they are as close as two spaciously detached houses although rather on the larger side. The picture at the top shows the New Hall photographed from the Old Hall.

Unlike the first building, Bess did not design Hardwick New Hall, employing instead the professional architect, Robert Smythson. The defining feature of the new abode is its owner's initials, in large stone letters, scattered liberally about the rooftop and the wide windows, which produced the phrase "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall" to describe the location for the last 400 years.

Despite this brave attempt to keep the building work continuing, a hard frost in 1608 halted work and Bess died, fulfilling the prophesy. A cynic to such topics might point out that her being over 80 might have also had something to do with it.

Even though the Old Hall and New Hall were built a mere three years apart, they now look vastly different. The New Hall has been completely maintained while the Old Hall has fallen into ruin. The latter came about because descendants of Bess in the 18th Century sold part of the building to raise funds while they lived at their preferred location in Chatsworth. Apparently, declaring that you had not the cash, but your debtors could help themselves to eastern dinning hall wall was completely acceptable ...

The western half of the Old Hall is less ruinous than its eastern side and you can climb up the stairs to gain a stunning view over the Derbyshire countryside. Between the trees, you also catch a view of the M1 motorway, something I am quite sure Bess intended. Everyone, after all, likes to keep an eye on visitors, especially estranged husbands who were cracking until the strain of their indomitable wife.
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)

The problem with tourist attractions is that it tends to be only tourists who schedule going to see them. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever been to the Tower of London before until a dim memory of the sparkling crown jewels resurfaced. Since that time, I'd developed a strong obsession with reading Tudor history (and probably learnt to read period; it really had been a while) where the majority of the notable figures seemed to like to hang out in the Tower and, you know, be decapitated.

We took advantage of the tour offered by the Beefeaters, the origin of whose name is lost in history but most likely stems from their original payment being of meat; a reasonable fare in a time where most could only afford vegetables. Members of our tour group came from around the world and included Americans, who, the Beefeater cheerfully pointed out, would be able to claim all this history if only they had paid their taxes.

With our guide, we started at the watergate, later renamed 'Traitor's Gate' where prisoners were brought into the tower by boat. One of the most famous entrants through this system would have been Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and later her cousin, Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Neither ever emerged and are buried alongside one another in the Tower's chapel by the place they were executed. Next to them lies Anne's brother, George, Duke of Rochester (beheaded for supposedly frequenting his own sister's bed) and his wife, Jane (beheaded later with Katherine Howard for concealing her ... sharing nature in regard to bedroom partners). When it comes to playing with power, the great Tudor families were not quick learners.

Perhaps more sympathy should be shown to the 16 year old who lies buried at their feet. Lady Jane Grey ruled for nine days, having been coerced onto the throne in opposition to the Catholic Mary by her father and father-in-law. Her husband, Guilford Dudley, met the same fate and engraved his wife's name twice on the walls of his cell, which can be seen along with the stone etchings of many other unfortunate residents of that room.

The chapel also contains the remains of Charles II's bastard son. The merry king was blessed with 14 (acknowledged) children, but since none of them were from his wife, the throne was due to pass to his brother (an unpopular move, but surprisingly one that did not end in the Tower). His eldest illegitimate off-spring attempted to take the crown himself, resulting in the removal of the necessary body part for said ornament. Upon beheading, however, it was realised that no official portrait existed for the son of this king, which apparently was unacceptable. The head was therefore stitched back onto the body, adorned with a large ruff and an artist called in to capture the likeness within twelve hours, least the corpse start to smell. The painter finished in eight and the image is now in a private collection. Our Beefeater tour guide claims that it does not look life like.

This is of course, only a fraction of the people who met their end in England's greatest stronghold (another one being the inspiration for this entry's title; Sir Thomas More, later canonised for what compensation that is). Close to 1000 bodies are buried under the floor of a chapel that contains no more than ten rows of seats. When the building was restored in Queen Victoria's time, the floor was uneven due to the shallow shuffling of graves.

In the centre of the grounds stands the White Tower. Originally build by William the Conqueror in 1077 as his place of residence, it is the oldest of the buildings and contains a museum of armour. It is also where a chest containing two small skeletons was found, identified as the remains of the "Princes in the Tower". These two boys (12 and 9) were murdered around 1483 by persons unknown, although eyes tend to drift towards their uncle who seized the throne even while they lived.

Opposite the White Tower is the most secure place on the site where the crown jewels are kept. The doors that allow you into that area weigh 2000 kg each. Rather like the Scottish deep fried mars bar, here lies anything that someone thought might look good dipped in gold. Crowns, swords, spurs and a whole load of plate.


One crown, known at the India crown, was only worn once, during a visit of George V to Delhi in 1911. Since by Old Royal Law the official crown (or, more accurately, the crown jewels) is not allowed to leave the country, another priceless identical one was created for the occasion...

As closing time rolled round, we vetoed the prospect of spending the night in the dungeons in favour of a pub in Charing Cross. This area of London turned out to be full of black phone boxes. Black. WTF, London?

Arts life

May. 20th, 2010 12:07 am
pergamond: (Fuji)
"So, the cast are all on stage, but they haven't got their lead role; apparently, she's left with her boyfriend. The director turns to the audience and says, 'We're sorry, the play is canceled; you can get a refund at the door'. But then, a girl puts up her hand and cries, 'Wait! I've seen this play ten times because I have the same name as the star! I can totally do her part!'. The cast discuss it and ask, 'What if she can't act?' but then they point out the other girl couldn't act either, so what's the harm? The kid is pulled on stage and, with the help of stage prompts, she gets through the whole part. Everyone is delighted, especially since her father is a baker and the actors all want pies."

And so went my lunchtime conversation at the American Academy of Arts & Letters. This 250 member organisation supports the creators of the arts, for example, writers, composers and visual graphic producers but not performers. With the size of the establishment fixed and every appointment being for life, the only way a new member can be appointed is in the wake of a death which, as also came up at lunch, should probably result in a homicide investigation surrounding each new face.

In case it was not entirely obvious, I was there to cheer on a friend who was receiving an award for her composition, rather than for recognition of the great American novel which I'd been keeping numb about. Prior to lunch, we started the event with delicate h'orderves and I eyed the crowd over a wine glass, comparing it to my more usual haunt at astrophysics conferences. In place of jeans with the occasional button down shirt, I was surrounded by smart suits and dresses. If that was disconcerting, it was totally overlooked by the guys on mutant segways. Well, at first they were normal wheelchairs, but to bring their occupant up to eye level, these robotic transporters rose up on their back wheels in a way that looked frankly dangerous. They could even roam about like that. To me, it seemed one step away from a Gundam suit.

Moving onto lunch, I sat next to a writer who had recently converted the children's book "Gina Farina and the Prince of Mintz" to a stage production. I still have no idea if what he was telling me was part of the plot or a real event. Despite its different clientèle, there were decided similarities in the stories circulating the table with my own discipline. There was the eminent composer, for instance, who placed a CD on an LP record player and complained in disgust at the screeching noise it produced as the needle carved up the disk. This was only marginally worse than a nameless professor scanning overheads to use them in powerpoint presentations. Except, well no; the latter does actually work.

The fellowship my friend was awarded was created by Charles Ives, the inventor of life insurance who made his fortune and then turned his hand to composing. Perhaps the awards were funded out of his own policy upon his death; it is unknown. What is known is that he never attended one of his own premieres. Allegedly, he couldn't stand them and refused to listen to a first performance of his work even on his death bed where the likelihood of him hearing a later version was rather low.

At the ceremony itself, I clapped, cheered and freaked out the person next to me by admitting what I did for a living. Oh, and I introduced myself to Meryl Streep and shook her hand. Just thought I'd throw that in there.
pergamond: (narnia: once upon a time)
In 1922, a British archaeologist found what he was searching for; the untouched tomb of the boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun. The result was 5,000 catalogued artefacts and a cold (or rather mummified) case of the unexplained death of a 19 year old king, some 3,500 years ago. In keeping with the traditions of the day, this haul was evacuated, divided up and now part of it is a visiting museum exhibit at the AGO in Toronto.

Since the Ancient Egyptians were ahead of their time when it came to Astronomy, I was confident that I could skip off work to see this exhibit and maybe offer it up at journal club without anyone clocking this research's publication date. Besides, how often do you get to see golden toes that sat over the actual mummified digits for a few millennia? Not often. 

The exhibit starts not with Tutankhamun, but with a collection of other finds from digs connected to his relatives. It is interesting, but lacks a clear time line for those viewers whose ancient history is not entirely up to speed. Terms such as 'New Kingdom' are dropped without any indication of what defined this period or even when exactly it was. That said, who couldn't enjoy the tale of Hatshepsut, the female Pharaoh married to her half brother who seized power from her step-son to rule for about twenty years? Her gender did not prevent her bust from sporting a fine oblong beard. Marriage to your sibling was a practice reserved only for royalty in Ancient Egypt. The rest of the masses had to resist the urge.

There was also a large statue of Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun, who was famous for denying the traditional religious picture of many gods and introducing instead a monotheistic view of a single sun god, Aten. Whether he denied his own destiny as a god-to-be (Pharaohs were considered to become deities upon death) is less clear. The religious move was deeply unpopular and Tutankhamun started the process of revoking it in his short reign. It is possible his close connection with his unpopular father triggered the erasing of his name from statues and records after his death.  Ironically, as the exhibit points out, this attempt to delete all memory of Tutankhamun from history was to rather backfire.

Tutankhamun artefacts consist of many smaller pieces. None of the four consecutive coffins that held his mummy were on display, although the casket that held canopic jars in which his organs were placed was there, as was one of the jars itself; a beautiful peice in the form of the god of the underworld, Osiris, that once contained Tutankhamun's intestines. The official guardian of this delightful slice of Pharaoh is the jackal Duamutef, whose name was engraved on its base. There were also jars that held two foetuses, thought to be Tutankhamun's daughters by an unknown woman. Other items included countless pieces of jewelery, his bed and many servant statues that were buried with the deceased to perform the menial labour that would be asked of them in the afterlife.

The end of the exhibition leaves the cause of death of Tutankhamun largely unaddressed. However, boards outside show results from the latest research. Once thought to be murder by his successors, the boy king's demise is now considered less violent. The cracks in his skull are thought to have occurred after death, since body scans revealed the presence of the dislodged pieces. The very latest concept seems to be that of malaria. Not quite as exciting as homicide perhaps, but he might have preferred it.

The tour naturally ended in a gift shop. Tempted as I was by a cloth headdress in the shape of King Tut's burial mask, I really would have liked an overview of the history to read on the bus back. Unfortunately, the only tomes of the right length were clearly aimed at ten year olds with the implication that anyone with a more advanced grasp of literature should clearly be wanting the full detailed itemized list of the 5,000 items on the tomb's inventory. The headdress started to look more promising. 

pergamond: (fuji: animated)
Ha Ha Ha

Laughter ... did someone just tell me a joke? Maybe I heard an a particular piece of music? Or perhaps I am an insane screwed up individual who is on a rollercoaster?

The origins of why people laugh was discussed in a lecture I attended today. The speaker proposed that we laugh when there is a contrast between what two parts of our brain are telling us. He offered this joke as an example:

Two fish are in a tank ... one says "so how do you drive this thing?"

Initially, a part of your brain called the amygdala acts first. It controls emotional reactions and produces confusion, a negative sensation. There is a tiny delay and then cortex reacts, understands the pun, and cancels out the bad sensation the amygdala produces. As a result of this delay and contrast, we laugh.

In the case of humorous music, a tune will deviate from what we expect causing a negative emotion from the amygdala (since the brain's job is to predict the future correctly) but then the cortex kicks in to remind us it's just music, there is no threat, so again we laugh.

Finally, we were offered the comparison of two people on a rollercoaster, one of whom is enjoying it and another sane person who is not. As the foolish idiots who embarked on this ride of doom riders go up and down and upside down, both their amygdala produce an emotion akin to "Holy crap, we're going to die". In the case of the person who loves the ride, the cortex cancels this out a moment later, knowing rashly and with very little evidence that there is no real danger. The person bursts out laughing. For the second individual (a.k.a. yours truly), the amygdala says:

"Holy crap, we're going to die"

and then the cortex follows it with:

"Damn right."

This person is not laughing. No.

pergamond: (Atobe)
Welcome to the Renaissance city of Florence; home to the great Medici family, whose members ruled (for about 400 years), patronized the arts (all the big names), stuffed in a few popes (highly corrupt) and were murdered (big mistake) in the city. They shared this home with artists Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, are buried here along with Galileo and also enjoyed the architectural wonders of the Duomo (Florence's dominating building), Palazzo Pitti (because everyone needs a palace) and Santa Croce (tomb admiration spot).

However, possibly the most famous object in Florence is the 17ft sculpture of an entirely nude Biblical King. Michelangelo's David is housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia and it is this perfection of naked male beauty that I made a fairly direct beeline to see (in the name of art, I assure you). Having seen many pictures of David on postcards / news reports / America's most wanted I was surprised exactly how impressive the statue is in ... well, not exactly the flesh, but the marble perhaps. Dominating the room, the scale and preservation of the figure is incredible. Perhaps David is a little set in his ways but his silence is commendable and he's certainly someone I'd consider a second date with. It is noticable that the seating around the statue is almost entirely rear facing. The people resting their weary feet there were coincidentally predominately female.

Apart from David, the museum houses a hall of sculptured heads (creepy) and many Biblical icon art. I examined gold leaved graphic reproductions of Christ's crucifix wounds, refused to meet the blank stares from the hall of heads and then departed to scoot to the top of the Duomo; Hello Florence, I see you all!


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