‘The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer’

I finally watched this short documentary today — even though a friend of mine told me to do so around six months ago. But, I saw it on iPlayer again and figured I’d give it a chance. And I am now well pleased that I did. I did not expect much and this means I did not expect to hear of a device I’d never heard before that is amazing in its construction and purpose.

The story goes: Off the island of Antikythera, divers found a shipwreck. This shipwreck contained a fair few items, including a mysterious object which could be anything. Termed the ‘Antikythera Mechanism’, this object has captivated a number of people since who have all tried to figure out its meaning and design — and this film follows the exploits of a group of experts as well as Michael Wright who had been interested in finding an answer on his own.

I will not explain the Mechanism further for it is not difficult to search it on Google if you so wish — and since the documentary looked brilliant when I did not know what was going to happen and what they were going to discover. So, in short — watch this film, it is certainly worth it.

I will, however, point out this article on Guardian (“The extraordinary 2,000-year-old computer that you’ve never heard of”) for I agree with the sentiment there: it is a pity that I had not heard of this before, and it is a pity that the general public is not more aware of what our achievements are based on.

I’ll be pointing a number of my friends to watch this documentary because I would think it important for people to be aware of what has been — and for us to not have the thought that no one before has been as civilized or advanced as we are.

 

The Works of Ryotaro Shiba

I have found Ryotaro Shiba to be an entirely compelling writer. There is just one problem: accessibility. His writings were all originally in Japanese, and no major publishing company has invested heavily into translating all of his works. And I could find no comprehensive listing in English which would give a good overview of what we can find translated into European languages. Insofar as I think that it would be a good idea to have something along those lines, I decided to compose this post here.

The largest number of his works that have been translated have been into English. The following listing is as far as I know accurate although I have not looked very much into his travel writings.

  • Clouds Above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War
    Original Title: Saka no ue no kumo
    Translated very recently, with only the first two volumes published in late 2012 and the last two in late 2013. Therefore, this entire work can be found in English at present.
  • The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu
    Original Title: Saigo no Shōgun
    This was the book which introduced me to Shiba’s historic journalism, and I believe it remains the most widely accessible book of his in English (and translated to the greatest number of other languages).
  • Kukai the Universal: Scenes from His Life
    Original Title: Kukai no fukei
    This book is again part of my collection, so it is definitely there. Finding it was difficult though so I am not certain how easily accessible it is. There’s a fair bit of information on it, and it looks like something which could easily go back into print if there was demand so that’s that.
  • Drunk as a Lord
    Original Title: Yotte soro
    A collection of four short stories, I found it difficult to get hold of a copy of this book but managed. Seems to have been translated the longest time ago, but that has not necessarily helped its spread.
  • The Heart Remembers Home
    Original Title: Kokyō bōjigataku sōro
    Now this is a problematic one: there is a reference to this book that I found on the cover of ‘Drunk as a Lord’. My searches have indicated that it does exist, but it would seem that the original print was rather limited. It does seem to exist on eBay though so I would expect there to be a number of copies in circulation. I am, however, unsure whether we are dealing with a historical novel or a travel writing although I have located the book in the Library of the Congress listings.
  • The Tatar Whirlwind: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century East Asia
    Original Title: Dattan shippuroku
    And translated in the last decade, this seems fairly accessible and was the second book I discovered when I looked into whatever else could be found by Mr Shiba in English.

French is, as far as I know, another language into which a few of his works have been translated. I have been able to find out about the following:

  • Kukai the Universal
    Now, I know I have used the English title here but that is singularly because while I see a report that this should have been translated into French, I cannot find the French edition for sale on any site. This could be due to me not knowing where to look, so I’m assuming that this has been translated as the [Japanese Literature Publishing Project] JLPP site claims.
  • Le Dernier Shogun: [The Last Shogun]
  • Hideyoshi, seigneur singe
    Original Title: Shinshi Taikōki
    I have ordered this book and will try to read it even though my grasp of French isn’t as great as it should be.
  • Tokugawa Ieyasu, shôgun suprême
    Original Title: Haō no ie
    The exact same comment as the above title.

I wonder if the French have any plans to translate any other titles in the near future, given that they seem to have the greatest number of translated titles after English. Interestingly enough the titles that have been translated are very different, so it might be worth further investigation why that is so.

And I know that German boasts at least one:

  • Der letzte Shogun: [The Last Shogun]

I also have seen that there should be one translation into Russian, but that seems to be a travel book: «О России. Изначальный облик севера». I am not entirely sure that I can classify that one as a travel book, but that’s my best guess at present. Similarly, I am not certain that there’s nothing else of Shiba’s to be found in Russian.

‘The Last Shogun’ also seems to be translated into Indonesian, and I thought I saw there also existed a Portugese version. This last bit of information may be wrong, please don’t quote me on that.

And this is where an overview of his translated works must finish — as I said above, I have ignored the presence or absence of the travel writings in English even though I noted that they might exist in Russian. I have no definitive information of any travel writings in English, but I have not looked into the matter as thoroughly as I would like since my main interest lies in the historical novels. At some point, I might increase the scope of what I would like to look at though.

However, I am sure that you’ll agree that overall too few of the works of this masterful writer have been translated. We truly could use more of Mr Shiba’s works in our languages! =)

EDIT, 19/02/2013: Added the original title to ‘The Heart Remembers Home’.
EDIT, 24/01/2014: Added information on the last two volumes of ‘Clouds Above the Hill’.

‘The Rise and Fall of the Aragonese-Catalan Empire 1200-1350: Volume II’, J. Lee Shneidman

As is typical lately, something went wrong when I bought this book. Namely, instead of obtaining Volumes I and II, I got only Volume II. The book says “St Louis University Library” on the side, and I have half a thought that someone might turn up looking for it, but at least I got some of the money I paid back for the non-existent first volume.

This all happened months ago, and I started with Volume II, probably because I had very little else to do at the time. However, for a solid history book I found it a surprisingly good read and have enjoyed it since. That is, to rephrase: I enjoyed it when I read it in September, and I enjoyed finishing it this month. Typically, again, I managed to finish 70% of the book, and then something else caught my attention. A week ago, however, I managed to go back and play catch-up so that I have now finished the three last chapters I avoided when I read it originally.

To clarify the two volume structure: both of the volumes are divided into two parts, and Parts 3 and 4 concern themselves with Foreign Policy and Centralization. So, in effect, I received a very good overview of the foreign policy of the Aragonese-Catalan realm and of the struggle that the king-counts faced in order to enhance their authority.

Jerome Lee Shneidman’s style is very readable — indeed, I would say that this is a prime quality of the book and that I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be this friendly. I cannot really comment on the research done here since I have not the slightest of ideas what new revelations have come up in the last 40 years, but I would believe the book to still formulate a very good and solid overview into the history of that realm.

And, yes, the first volume should be on its way towards me now. Hopefully…

‘Drunk as a Lord’, Ryotaro Shiba

As is quite apparent from my previous writings, I am quite an avid reader of anything that Mr Shiba has had published in English (or rather, that other establishments have published since most of it has been posthumous). ‘Drunk as a Lord’ appeared as a book that was very difficult to obtain until I managed to obtain it, and that is the main reason why it has taken me so long to find and finish the book.

This here then is a collection of four short stories, all written in Mr Shiba’s amazing style that has been described by others as historic journalism. The stories here concern four different daimyos of the end of the Tokugawa period. We meet the lords of Tosa (Yamauchi Toyoshige), Satsuma (Shimazu Tadayoshi), Uwajima (Date Munenari), and Saga (Nabeshima Naomasa). The stories concerning these are all different in character: the Lord of Tosa is characterised through his actions leading up to the Restoration where he tried to play an active part; the domain of Satsuma is portrayed in contrast to Tadayoshi’s brother who was a most competent person; Uwajima’s dreams are written of through the point of view of a lowly craftsman who was assigned to build a steamship; and Saga is brought to live amidst the secrecy that the daimyo established there.

My favourite story might have been the one of Saga which though shortest had an element in it which made every moment interesting. Likewise, the lord there was a wise man who could see where the times would go, and it is interesting to see what he made of that. The tale of Yamauchi Toyoshige is compelling in its own right for we see a man who tries to be important and to make a name for himself. The building of a steam ship is rather interesting to read about for Japan had no industrial base of any sort nor did they have a knowledge of how to build one. And lastly, Satsuma’s story is a classic tale of how greed destroys realms — or, at least, that is how I see it.

We are also given an insight into the poetic qualities of any of these people, and I might just bring up two, firstly the Lord of Saga’s poem when he gave his work up and let the future be guided by other people:

When blossoms bloom over his head
It is fitting that an aged man
Should blush for shame.

And I will just finish by quoting Toyoshige:

Yesterday, drinking south of the bridge; today, drunk north of it.
While there is saké, let me drink it till I’m drunk.
The many-floored pavilions stand near the bridge.
I stain my inner eye; the broad sky overarches
Where my native home looks out on southern seas.
I see the billows pound the belly of the rocks.
The spectacle is grand but lacks the charms of the scene here.
I turn around to call for saké, but already it has come.
Is this not delight, drinking to one’s heart’s content?
It is said that the superior man takes virtue to extremes.
The common people cannot understand the drinking man’s true heart.
When I think of going home, the lights along the parapet glow bright still.
North of the bridge, south of the bridge, I hear the strains of the samisen.

 

‘Clouds above the Hill’, Ryotaro Shiba [Volumes I and II]

A small island nation was about to enter a period of great cultural change.

I believe that one of the best things that happened this year in the world of literature might have been the finalization of the translation of the two first volumes of Ryotaro Shiba’s monumental work on the Russo-Japanese War. Although I was firstly stunned by the price of these creatures (I managed to get them at a discounted £35 each) I would kindly offer the opinion that they are, at least for me, well worth this money.

Now, I can already foresee a number of people decrying the style in which it is written — for I know that previous translations of Mr Shiba have seen this fate, and I also understand how it might be difficult for a person expecting “easy” reading to encounter this book which needs a continuous thought process for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. This stems from that the author has not tried to make life any simpler than it was, so the number of names (and numbers, and dates) coming towards the reader is large indeed… but this is exactly the history I like. And it has a narrative story. My one wish right now would be for the same effective beautiful and compelling style to also take its measure against other events (for I am fairly confident that Mr Shiba did indeed cover Japan well enough).

Now, since we are dealing with a historical fiction piece (or, historical journalism, as the translator suggests in the introduction), the outcome of the war is never in doubt. There is something very appealing about a narrative added to a known outcome (the novel ‘Master of Go’ is quite the same in that) for me, and I can’t quite decide what it is. In any case, we are never in doubt that Japan will win and Russia will lose. This is despite the fools and idiots on the Japanese side and the brilliance of the Russians. No one side is definitively superior to the other in every single field. So, how and why did Japan win?

Ryotaro Shiba takes to looking at this question through the general narrative of the story but also by placing into it three people of renown: Masaoka Shiki, a critic of the haiku and waka; Akiyama Yoshifuru, the father of the Japanese cavalry; and Akiyama Saneyuki, brother of Yoshifuru and the person who designed the naval strategy responsible for the victories at sea.

Aside from these, we learn of the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese statesmen and military commanders of the time — a most educational trek into the fields of history, and one well narrated. The gift for details that the author has makes it all the more compelling: for indeed, though I knew of the war and the voyage of the Baltic Fleet beforehand, I had no idea they tried shelling British trawlers over Dogger Bank. This and similar gems along with a criticism we should take most seriously can be found throughout the first two volumes.

My one wish now is that it would be December 2013 and I’d have the Volumes 3 and 4 — they are supposedly out on the 30th November, and as things are I am quite sure I’ll read them the first chance I get after that. I am most confident they will not disappoint me. =)

In the dead of night, there was no moon or stars.

‘Radetzky’, A. Sked

“That you will make no deliberate blunders, your character guarantees; if you make the usual ones, well I have long become used to them.”
— The Emperor Francis I on appointing Joseph Radetzky to the position of Chief of General Staff

The full title of this book reads as ‘Radetzky. Imperial Victor and Military Genius’ and after reading this piece I have to agree with the opinion of the author, Alan Sked, on many issues. Many but not all, for at one moment he makes the bold statement that the Marshal Radetzky was a greater commander than Marlborough. While this might be true, I would need to look into this far more, while I am more forgiving in granting him the correctness of opinion when asserting that the Marshal outclassed Napoleon Bonaparte along with every other man of his own day, and probably the majority of the soldiers of the previous century.

So, who was Radetzky? Well, the answer to this I knew a while ago, when I had not heard of this book nor of Alan Sked. This answer would read: Radetzky was a man who was great enough to have a march written about him. This for me was quite sufficient for indeed the Radetzky March is a brilliant composition, as I see it.

However, that was not really an answer to who the man himself was, so when I saw this book on one good day on a shelf in Waterstones I knew I had to read it. It was until yesterday waiting for me to finish a biography of von Bismarck, when for some reason I decided to pick the book up and nearly read it in one go.

Compellingly written, I believe Mr Sked to do justice to the Field Marshal for the victories gained at Leipzig, Custoza, and Novara, and the plans leading up to these do indeed allow us to consider Joseph Radetzky as a most brilliant military mind. I was also intrigued by the statement that the Field Marshal was one of the few people in the relatively peaceful decades after Napoleon’s Hundred Days to insist on military innovation, bringing Austria to a rather high position (especially compared to where it would end up by the Great War).

Overall… now I know why Johann Strauss wrote such a masterful piece of music, and I know that the man it was meant to celebrate went far further in the minds of his contemporaries than history would give him credit for.

“If I had an army of 700,000 and Radetzky only four men and a corporal, I would not attack Lombardy.”

‘Castles in Context’, R. Liddiard

I recently read this revisionist piece of castle history, specifically concerning the building of castles in Anglo-Norman England (and Wales) between 1066 and the 1500’s. The gist of the book goes by the way of: “The prevailing argument thus far in studies of history and English castle building is that these were structures constructed with the purpose of defense/offense and were overtly military in their functionality.”

The author, Robert Liddiard, takes the side of a newer, still developing, point of view and argues to the effect of: “The castles built in Anglo-Norman England and Wales are far too undeveloped militarily and saw too little conflict to consider it reasonable that they were built with an overtly military aspect in mind, however, there is reason to believe that social functions and lordly prominence were the main functions that these castles ever had.”

While this is simplifying the argument a bit too far, then the presentation of it is better in the book in any case. I’d suggest people, if they feel interested in the topic, to take a look into Mr Liddiard’s book just so they could familiarize themselves with the selling points of the new way of thinking. Just to summarize a few of them:

  • castles were usually built to a very bad military standard by location and design
  • they saw action in three separate incidents, with decades/centuries of peace in between these (The Anarchy, John’s civil war, and the 15th century fighting being considered the main times, I believe)
  • the military record of defensibility is rather poor
  • extensive landscaping was done to areas near castles to enhance their social prominence (and not military prominence)
  • many of the defensive features are of poor quality, but this has an interesting social aspect
  • castles were far more of a residence and a hosting place in the medieval world
  • we can see extensive symbology used in castles based on who built them, where, and by what authority

These being the general points, the author does develop on them and he also goes into far more detail, so I would suggest that anyone interested would take a look into this book.

 

As a final remark: One item I was interested in was that one of Mr Liddiard’s final comments would have implied that continental and Outremer castles had the same properties, which would make sense (maybe?) but they did see far more of the military side (I would guess without actually looking into it) than any such structure in Britain.

On the Men who Built Railroads

From ‘Blood, Iron and Gold’ by Christian Wolmar:

Pauling [George Pauling] was one of the great characters of African railway development, a fat man who professed that the only way to resist the local disease was through cast consumption of food and, especially, alcohol. Famously, on one two-day trip along the Beira Railway with its manager Alfred Lawley and chief engineer, A.M. Moore, the three consumed 300 bottles of German beer. Breakfast for three, a few days later, consisted of 1,000 oysters washed down with a modest eight bottles of champagne.

This really makes me want to find two willing friends, get 300 bottles of beer and see if we would still be alive three days later. Or, say, that breakfast.

‘Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan’, K. Friday

I found it quite interesting to pick this book up again after a number of years when on my first read I had managed to plow through just the first few chapters. However, one thing had remained in my mind — and that was the fact that there were a fair few interesting stories in that small portion I read of the book. And that was a factor which made me pick it up again, and by a wonder I really did enjoy it this time round.

Indeed, far more than before, I had the enjoyment of the knowledge contained on these pages (quite revolutionary, I would guess, for its time, and for the views presented that go against so much of what is generally thought) as well as the stories described. For, indeed, I do like the tales that come to us from centuries past for they represent the character of people in those times, and they more often than not are rather interesting. Now, I do have to remark, to my utter regret, Karl Friday more often than not warned the reader not to take every story mentioned literally, but rather in a contextual way, but I would say that they are still rather entertaining.

Indeed, I read this rather consecutively with a book by Stephen Turnbull (general one on the samurai that I’ll post my thoughts on later) and I far more appreciate the sense of depth in this one. Not a general overview, but rather an in depth look into what the title says, though truly the “state” is a part of the background rather than the foreground. Yet, both the bushi and warfare are looked into a fair bit, and we get a very developed argument into how their lives occurred.

So, if the Heian, Kamakura, and Nanbokucho eras are of interest, I would suggest picking this up. Even if the slightly academic style is a bother, the wonderfully interesting stories about the various members of the Taira, the Minamoto and the Fujiwara (mostly indeed the stories seem to concern members of these families) are well worth a skim-read here.

Say, how else would we know of the retainer of Fujiwara Yasumasa who should have avoided the hunt with his lord, but went and killed the reincarnation of his mother as a deer. Or of Minamoto Yorinobu, whose words read: “Recently, … that rat of wolf-like greed, Taira Tadatsune of Kazusa, strode about the East. He defied the governors of the eastern provinces, spread his own influence, and oppressed the collection of taxes. He embraced a treacherous, wild heart. He turned the structure of the court upside down, collecting taxes and tax goods for himself, and ignoring imperial orders. … I was then chosen by the court and appointed to pacify the East. … Without rousing the people, without extending my jurisdiction, without beating my drums, without flying any banners, without pulling a bow, without releasing an arrow, without deliberation, without attacking, I captured the rebel where I sat.”

A “rat of wolf-like greed” has to be the finest comparison I’ve seen in a long while. =)

Andrew Marr’s ‘History of the World’

As I said before, I was supposed to finish with my thoughts on the recent history programme by Andrew Marr. Now, as my last post shows, I was not quite favourable inclined towards it due to not being quite certain in the veracity of everything it said, but I guess I can also shed some more light on that now.

Because indeed, the final episode might have been a clearer indication of what Mr Marr was aiming for than anything before that. And while I am not a fan of simplifying the facts there is a certain limit to what can be said — though my question always remains that if something is not being represented properly, why represent it at all. Leave it out and dedicate a few more minutes to the other items. But, I digress…

Now, the last episode made me think that the author himself knows this to be a half-hearted attempt at history while a full attempt at psychology. We see people who are supposed to make us think : some of them can inspire confidence and courage while others… fear. It does not even matter who these people were in history or what they did, but say by portraying Mr Zimmermann by a power-crazed minister with the only goal of expanding the Great War, or by making Saigo Takamori into a confused reformist who regretted his actions, or again turning Hitler into a man who was evil and confused by nature, or by giving us Edward Jenner who had no other goals than a vaccination, by doing all of these things we are given a one-sided picture of a very complex story that is meant to intimidate us in some way.

And now, while I as a person with an appreciation of history would say that it is wrong to represent anything without a thorough look into it and by evaluating all of the relevant topics — something which would allow us to find mistakes in the conduct of Mr Jenner and good things in the conduct of Herr Zimmermann — then as a method of comment for potentially getting people off their arses and doing things, this could even work.

I say that because in my mind somewhere, some section, decided that the underlying goal for Andrew Marr was to find something that would be relevant for that person who went to his job after watching any one of those episodes, so that that man could say “I’ll rather be a Jenner than Zimmermann”. Even if we get no new smallpox-cure out of it, I am pleased to say his depiction of Mahatma Gandhi went into this category as well: peace and benevolence.

However, and while I have endorsed the psychological aspect of the series, I have to say that the historical accuracy which seems to have been ground into dust is a bit unsettling. And the balance… where is the balance? It sometimes made me think that before recording the scenes he thought of how people would expect some things to be shown to them.

Lastly, I would add that I found out new things while watching the series, and I enjoyed that : new information is good information. But, as with any new knowledge, I am a bit wary about what was told, and I will be reluctant to believe that what I gained was a thorough look. It was Mr Andrew Marr’s look, and we’ll have to be happy with that. We’ll have to be happy with that because in the end, Mr Marr’s look is better than no look at all for I would not be surprised if a lot of people found some of the things being said very interesting.

So, maybe, our collective knowledge increases… and maybe the next ‘History of the World’ will build on that. =)