Taking it on the Qin: how I learned to love Chinese history

June 23, 2012

If the past is, as L.P. Hartley put it,  a foreign country, then China must be a distant galaxy. I suppose that Chinese students studying the Holy Roman Empire, the Albigensian Crusade, the Hundred Years War or the build-up to WWI may well experience a similar feeling. Be that as it may, I am determined to get a handle on Chinese history.

One of the first problems you have to deal with is the names. All literate Chinese can read the characters; the script is indeed common throughout China. This is tremendously useful in a country of this size. But the characters are pronounced differently in each local or regional dialect. To render this complex system into western script is a daunting challenge. The standard method today is the pinyin system. Developed in the 1950s, pinyin is used to teach Standard Chinese and spell Chinese names in foreign publications. You can also see it on Chinese keyboards. I have even read that pinyin could one day replace Chinese characters, a view held by Mao Zedong. It would seem inconceivable to me. When Pinyin was originally introduced in the 1950s China was an ally of the Soviet Union and the possibility of using the Cyrillic script of Russia instead of Latin script was real. However, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated from the late 1950s the latter won out.

Pronunciation is also a bit of a minefield, but I am beginning to get the hang of it. Here are a few examples:

Qin = Chin

Zhou = Joe

Sui = sway

Before the pinyin system there was the Wade-Giles system which gave us Peking,Canton and Mao Tse-tung. These have now been replaced by Beijing,Guangzhou and Mao Zedong respectively.

At the heart of Chinese history are the dynasties. There have been dynasties in China for millennia. The Chinese know from bitter experience what happens when dynasties collapse. Chaos kills. The death tolls can be quite horrific but for us in the West they hardly register. In Mathew White’s book Atrocitology: Mankind’s 100 Deadliest AchievementsChina features prominently, with ten atrocities in the top fifty:

2= Mao Zedong (1949–76) 40,000,000

5 Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1635–62) 25,000,000

6=Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) 20,000,000

13 An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) 13,000,000

14=Xin Dynasty (9–24) 10,000,000

17= Fall of the Yuan Dynasty (ca 1340–70) 7,500,000

19=Chinese Civil War (1927–37, 1945–49) 7,000,000

25 The Three Kingdoms of China(189–280) 4,100,000

37 Fang La Rebellion (1120–22) 2,000,000

40 Age of Warring States (ca 475–221 BCE) 1,500,000

46 Qin Shi Huang Di (221–210 BCE) 1,000,000

And remember China suffered the second highest losses in WWII after the USSR.  The Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45, saw the deaths of at least two million Chinese troops and 7 million civilians. The official Chinese death toll is much higher – 20 million. The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned into the greatest, bloodiest guerrilla war ever fought. Both sides destroyed crops, farms, villages and bridges as they retreated, so as to prevent their enemy from using them. Widespread famine and starvation were the inevitable result of this scorched earth policy. Millions of Chinese were willing to fight and die. By the end of the war, 95 million Chinese were refugees. Early on in the conflict, after capturing Nanking, Japanese troops went on a six-week spree of mass murder, torture and rape that left 300,000 dead. This is known as the Rape of Nanking, what author Iris Chang called the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. During the eight years of fighting 200,000 Chinese women were kidnapped and forced to work in Japanese military brothels. And another 400,000 Chinese died after being infected with cholera, anthrax and bubonic plague that the Japanese had dropped from military aircraft. But, despite all the atrocities and deprivations the Chinese just wouldn’t surrender.

However I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Chinese history is all about massacres. There is a rich history of culture, thought, architecture, and inventions. The list of Chinese inventions is impressive: cast iron, porcelain, gunpowder, civil service exams, paper, printing, paper money and toilet paper to name but a few.

Confucius (Kongzi, literally “Master Kong”) believed in the superiority of antiquity over the present. He harked back to the early years of the Zhou dynasty.  He didn’t want to introduce innovations but to restore what was good. He promoted strong family loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children, and the family as a basis for ideal government. He is well known for his early version of the Golden Rule:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  He was out of fashion in the twentieth century; both foreign analysts and Mao Zedong criticised him for symbolising the past and of holding the country back. Today, Confucius is back in favour. His emphasis on harmonious societal relations fits n nicely with the Communist party leadership’s desire for stability and social harmony. The interest in Confucius may also be a reaction against what some see as excessive Western influence and their criticism ofChina’s democratic deficit. The other famous Chinese thinker was Sun Tzu an Eastern Zhou military strategist; author of The Art of War, a manual of military strategy, in which the central idea was that all war is based on deception. It is still used today by armies, business strategists and even Australian cricket coaches

But that’s enough philosophy. Let’s get back to megalomaniacal tyrants, a subject dear to my heart. The leader in question is Qin Shi Huang. With the assistance of his Prime Minister Li Si, he constructed a highly centralised totalitarian state. Qin Shi Huang broke up the old aristocracy and abolished feudalism so that he could keep power out of the hands of ambitious nobles. He also reduced all regional variations to one official version of everything. This meant standardised writing, weights and money. All wagons had to have the same axle length so they would fit on the new roads he had built all over China. These roads made it easier for him to quickly send his armies to any area in revolt.  He ordered that every book in China be brought to him.  This was not because he was an avid reader; he wanted them all to be burnt except for a few technical manuals. And he had 460 scholars buried alive. In was in Qin Shi Huang’s reign that construction on the Great Wall of China began. To build this wall, he sent a general to the frontier with 300,000 soldiers and a million conscripted labourers, most of whom were said to have died in the construction. They were replaced by more workmen who were forced to go north. Legend has it that every stone in the wall cost a human life

Qin Shi Huang was also obsessed with eternal life and took large doses of mercury.  He sent Xu Fu, the court sorcerer, to the eastern seas twice to look for the elixir of life. In 219 BC and 210 BC he made two journeys with a fleet of 60 ships and 3,000 virgin boys and girls. He never returned from the second mission and it is thought that he may have arrived and died in Japan. Some historians have credited Xu Fu with being the catalyst for the development of ancient Japanese society. He brought new plants, farming techniques and knowledge that improved the quality of life of the ancient Japanese people. Xu Fu is worshipped as the “God of farming”,God of medicine” and “God of silk” by the Japanese.

What Xu Fu didn’t manage was to find the elixir of eternal life and Qin Shi Huang died at the age of 49. Ironically the large doses of mercury he took probably hastened his death. He wanted to be buried in style. The Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing a century after the emperor’s death, claimed that it had taken 700,000 men to construct the emperor’s mausoleum, but this does seem implausible. Nevertheless, it was a breathtaking project. It took around 40 years to build. What is most famous is the Terracotta Army a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang. There are around 6,000 Terracotta Warriors and their purpose was to protect the Emperor from evil spirits in the afterlife. There were also horses, chariots and 40,000 real bronze weapons.

I haven’t got that much further. I am now reading about the early Han dynasty. I don’t know if I will be able to get through the book in one go. I think I already have an overdose of names and places. If you feel that this is all too much for you, then I will close with a handy aide du memoire to help you remember all those tiresome dynasties that I found online. It should be sung to the tune of Frère Jacques:

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han;

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han;

Sui, Tang, Song;

Sui, Tang, Song;

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic;

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic;

Mao Zedong;

Mao Zedong;

Some trivia about China

June 23, 2012

Here is some trivia about China that I have found in books and on the internet. Once again I hope that most of it is true:

The first flush toilet was discovered in China in 2000 in the palace of a king of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). It is a stone latrine with a seat, armrest and a system of pipes for flushing the pan.

Westerners find it terribly hard to pronounce Chinese words, and the Chinese find it hard to pronounce ours. In the nineteenth century when British merchants were over in China trying to trade opium, they found that the locals couldn’t even say the word business, and instead pronounced it pidgin, which is why strange colonial dialects are still called pidgin English. And we’re so bad at pronouncing Chinese that when we want one of their phrases we don’t adopt them as we would a French one, we just give in and translate. Do you have any idea how to pronounce xi nao? Luckily, you don’t need to, as we translated it to brainwashing (it was originally a form of Buddhist meditation). We never lost face by trying to pronounce tiu lien, instead we took the phrase and translated it to lose face. As for Mao Tse Tung’s tsuh lao fu, we call them paper tigers. However, some Chinese words do get into the language, mostly because of the delicious food. These remain untranslated, which is generally a good thing. Kumquats and dim sum might sell more if English-speakers knew that they meant golden orange and touch the heart; however, fish brine would probably not sell as much as ketchup, odds and ends (basically leftovers) doesn’t sound as exotic as chop suey, and nobody would eat tofu if they knew that it meant rotten beans.

The fastest supercomputer,China’s Tianhe-1, is capable of 2.5 quadrillion flops. (A “flop” is the number of mathematical operations involving decimal fractions that a computer can make in a second.)

In northern China, an estimated 40 million people currently live in cave homes known as yaodong. As the human population of the entire planet in 8,000 BC was probably only five million, there are eight times as many cavemen now than there were people of any kind then.

While Europeans were still cutting up carcasses on the dinner table, the Chinese had for centuries considered the practice barbaric. A Chinese proverb, “We sit at the dinner table to eat, not cut up carcasses,” dictated that eating should be simplified, and so food was cut into bite sizes in the kitchen before serving. The chopstick (from kwaitsze, which means “quick ones”) was the perfect instrument to convey this pre-cut food to the mouth.

Here is a famous quote about Chinese cuisine:“The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables; and everything that flies, except airplanes

In China, men currently outnumber women 6 to 5.

The Chinese played football for over 2,000 years before the English claimed it. Cuju or tsu’ chu – literally ‘kick-ball’ – began as a military training exercise but was soon popular all over China. It used a leather ball (stuffed with fur or feathers) and two teams trying to score goals at opposite ends without using their hands. According to some accounts, each goal was a hole cut into a sheet of silk hung between bamboo posts. Cuju was first recorded in the fifth century BC and was at its peak during the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), when cuju players became the world’s first professional footballers. The sport eventually fell into oblivion during the Ming period (AD 1368–1644).

The first paper currency was made from wood-pulp paper. When gold and silver coins became too heavy to carry around, in the eleventh century during the Song dynasty, ‘promissory notes’ were issued in China. These were pieces of paper agreeing to pay over to the bearer the equivalent value in gold or silver coins if asked. The notes were made of dried, dyed mulberry bark printed with official seals and signatures. It was called ‘convenient money’. It is thought that local issues of non-metal money were made as early as the Tang dynasty in Sichuan.

Chinese dogs say wang wang,

If the entire population of China jumped as high as they could and landed at the same time, the resulting thump would not, as some have suggested, be enough to knock the Earth from its orbit, or set off a tidal wave lethal to the world, but it would be equivalent to about half a megaton of TNT.

The domesticated goldfish was first documented in China in the tenth century. They were popular among the privileged classes and eating them was forbidden. The first book about goldfish was Essay About the Goldfish, written in China in 1596.

During the Lunar New Year celebrations in China, an estimated 1.3 billion city workers migrate back to their rural family homes. In 2010, c. 2.26 billion railroad journeys were made in China over this 40-day period.

The Imperial Palace in the centre of Beijing,China, covers 960 x 750 metres over an area of 178 hectares. The outline survives from the construction under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle (1402–24), but owing to constant reconstruction most of the internal buildings are from the 18th century. By way of comparison, the Palace of Versailles, completed for Louis XIV in 1682, is 580 metres long.

One of my favourite Adam Smith quotes, from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is about China:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

The tallest woman ever Zeng Jinlian (248 cm) was Chinese. Sadly she died in 1982 at the age of 16.

Humans first began drilling for oil in China as early as ad 347. Drilling was achieved to depths of 787 ft(240 m) using rudimentary drill bits attached to “pipes” made from bamboo

On December 3,2010, a CRH380A-type unmodified passenger train reached 486 km/hon a stretch of track between Zaozhuang City in Shandong Province and Bengbu City in eastern Anhui Province,China. At the time of going to press, this is the fastest officially confirmed speed ever attained by an unmodified passenger train.

China is the country with the highest consumption of cigarettes. A breathtaking 1.69 trillion cigarettes are smoked in China each year, and one out of every three cigarettes smoked in the world is smoked there.

I think therefore I am drunk

June 16, 2012

We will never know the name of the first human who thought that it would be wheeze to consume the juice of fermented fruit. Nor we do know when it would have been. Definite evidence of the preparation of alcoholic drinks dies not surface until around 8000 BC after humans discovered the joys of agriculture.  In Uruk, the principal city of Sumer brewing was practiced on a massive scale. Drinking wherever it takes place is fundamentally a social activity. We tend to drink in socially, integrative, egalitarian environments which serve to foster social bonding. There is a universal nexus with celebration; alcohol is an essential element of festivity.

Since it first appeared alcohol has been credited with magical powers. Now in Britain alcohol is said to make us violent, anti-social obnoxious, promiscuous, and much more. The press rails against the culture of binge drinking. What substance is capable of doing this to us?  The substance at which is the chemical soul of all alcoholic drinks is ethanol, a colourless and highly volatile liquid. It is classified as a depressant and it effects on the drinker vary in accordance with the quantity consumed. In sufficient doses, alcohol impairs our coordination, reaction times, muscle control, short-term memory, ability to speak clearly and general cognitive abilities. In very high doses it can be fatal.

How does alcohol affect behaviour? There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink. Anthropologists argue that the effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. In this view the cross-cultural study of alcohol is like a massive natural experiment on a global scale. The reaction of Homo Sapiens to this substance, ethanol has produced results that vary enormously across our planet. In some societies, the UK being one, alcohol is associated with violent and anti-social behaviour, while in others, such as the Mediterranean, drinking appears to take place in an atmosphere of relative   peace and harmony. The Yuruna Indians in South America consume copious amounts of moonshine without losing their inhibitions. In an anthropological survey of 46 societies, a link between alcohol and violence was only found in one fifth. In their landmark 1969 book Drunken Comportment the anthropologists MacAndrew and Edgerton drew this conclusion:

Over the course of socialization, people learn about drunkenness what their society “knows” about drunkenness; and, accepting and acting upon the understandings thus imparted to them, they become the living confirmation of their society’s teachings.”

It is not just scientists who are challenging assumptions about how alcohol affects us. Psychologists refer to the think-drink effect, the observation that behaviour is more closely related to perceived alcohol consumption than it is to actual consumption. In a series of ingenious studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington in Seattle led by Alan Marlatt put more than 300 students into a simulated bar-room with mirrors, music and the classic pine bar. The psychologists organised a double blind study.

25% were given a vodka-tonic and were told that it contained alcohol. 

25% were given a placebo but told that it contained alcohol

25% were given a non alcoholic drink and were told that it didn’t contain alcohol.

25% were given alcohol but were told that their drink contained no alcohol

The drinks had to look and taste the same.  The vodka and tonic was mixed in the ratio 1 to 5, to prevent the participants from recognising the alcohol by the taste. And to make doubly sure, they received a dose of mouth-spray before drinking. There was an electronic alcometer, but it had been rigged to show the students what they believed they had been drinking The students typically downed five drinks in a period of one or two hours.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as they expected to when drunk. Marlatt could find no significant difference between those who consumed alcohol and those who didn’t. Men who believed that they had been drinking alcohol became less anxious in social situations even when they had been drinking placebos. Women, by contrast, became more anxious. Men became more aggressive when they were drinking only tonic but thought that it contained vodka. When the situation was reversed they become relatively less aggressive even though they were actually imbibing vodka. Men also became more sexually aroused when they believed they have been drinking. Women also reported an increase in libido, but curiously, a measure of their vaginal blood flow showed that they were actually becoming less physically aroused.

The social anthropologist Kate Fox has argued that we could substitute coffee for alcohol and produce similar results:

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem – a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands.I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee. I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.I could legitimately base many of my scary coffee-awareness warnings on the known effects of caffeine, and I could easily make these sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least for disinhibition and public disorder. It would not take long for my dire warnings to create the beliefs and expectations that would make them self-fulfilling prophecies. This may sound like a science fiction story, but it is precisely what our misguided alcohol-education programmes have done.

I think Fox does overstate the case. Nonetheless I am intrigued by the interaction between the very real physiological effects of alcohol and the suggestibility of the human mind. However, if you are stopped by the police on suspicion of drunk driving, I really don’t think it would be a good idea to cite studies suggesting that drunkenness is socially constructed.

Drink trivia

June 16, 2012

Here is some trivia that I have found in books and on the internet. I hope that most of it is true:

In AD 988 Prince Vladimir of Kiev, whose kingdom formed the nucleus of modern Russia, decided that his subjects should be united under a single religion. He sent to the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, requesting details of their faiths. The Muslims told him that they believed in one God, were circumcised, ate no pork, drank no wine, and would enjoy the carnal embraces of over seventy women each in paradise. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, “Vladimirlistened to them, for he was fond of women and indulgence, regarding which he heard with pleasure. But circumcision and abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him. ‘Drinking,’ said he ‘is the joy of the [Russians]. We cannot exist without that pleasure.’”Vladimirchose Christianity, and Islam lost a potentially useful ally.

Speed drinking or competitive drinking is drinking small or moderate quantities of beer or ale over the shortest period of time, without the intention of getting heavily intoxicated. Unlike binge drinking the focus is on the competition, or establishment of a record. Typically speed drinkers consume lighter beers such as lagers and allow their beer to go warm and lose its carbonation to shorten the drinking time. The Guinness Book of World Records (1990 edition, p. 464) lists several records for speed drinking. The first is for 2 litres(3.5 imperial pints, or about 68U.S.fluid ounces) set by Peter G. Dowdeswell (born London, July 29 1940) of Earls Barton,Northants,England. Mr. Dowdeswell consumed 2 litres in 6 seconds on February 7, 1975. Steven Petrosino of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania (born November 1951) consumed 1 litter (33 ounces) of beer in 1.3 seconds to set a world drinking record at the Gingerbreadman Pub in Carlisle,PA on June 22, 1977. Neither of these records had been defeated when Guinness retired all drinking records from their compendium in 1991. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke held a record for the fastest consumption of beer; he consumed1.7 litresin 11 seconds.

The Empress Catherine I of Russia banned women from getting drunk. This law has been cited as the main reason for the large numbers of female transvestites who attended Moscow balls, where wine ran freely.

Tom Arnold, Sandra Bullock,Chevy Chase, Bill Cosby, Kris Kristofferson, and Bruce Willis are all former bartenders.

The etymology of alcohol is as unsteady as one would have suspected. For starters the word alcohol is Arabic. This may seem odd, given that Islam is a teetotal religion, but when the Arabs used the word alcohol they didn’t mean the same stuff that we do. Alcohol comes from al (the) kuhul, which was a kind of make-up. Indeed, some ladies still use kohl to line their eyes. As kohl is an extract and a dye, alcohol started to mean the pure essence of anything (there’s a 1661 reference to the alcohol of an ass’s spleen), but it wasn’t until 1672 that somebody at the Royal Society had the bright idea of finding the pure essence of wine. What was it in wine that made you drunk? What was the alcohol of wine? Soon wine-alcohol (or essence of wine) became the only alcohol anybody could remember, and then in 1753 everybody got so drunk that wine-alcohol was shortened to alcohol.

The menu of Pench’s Cocktail Bar in Varna,Bulgaria, listed 1,244 separate cocktails as of September 23, 2010. Also on the list, but not included in the record count, are 44 non-alcoholic cocktails.

Research on both humans and goldfish has shown that anything learned in a state of mild inebriation is liable to be forgotten when sobriety is restored. But a subsequent return to the inebriated state may be accompanied by a return of the forgotten memories. In other words, if you have forgotten something important that you learned when you were drunk, your best policy may well be to get drunk again. If you drank so much that you blacked out, however, all memories of what you said, did, or learned while intoxicated are liable to vanish forever, whether you are human or goldfish. (For further information, the reader should consult the article “The Use of Goldfish as a Model for Alcohol Amnesia in Man,” by R. S. Ryback. There are fewer reliable studies indicating any possible beneficial effects of alcohol, though mildly inebriated goldfish have been shown to learn simple tasks more quickly than sober goldfish.

Around the world the commonest drinking toast is to good health: Na zdravje (Slovenian), Salud (Spanish), Saúde (Brazilian Portuguese), Kia Ora (Maori), Egészségedre (Hungarian), Gezondheid (Flemish). The Ukrainians take this to the next level with Budmo!, which means ‘let us live forever!’ In contrast, the Scandinavian drinking toast Skål! (pronounced ‘skoal’) has a much more macabre background, as it originally meant ‘skull’. The word is alleged to have come down from a custom practised by the warlike Vikings who used the dried-out skulls of their enemies as drinking mugs.

By the sixth century BC, Greeks had discovered that poisoning wine was an excellent way to get rid of their enemies, and so to reassure guests at a social function, it became necessary for the host to take the first drink. The Romans added a piece of burnt bread, or “tostus,” to the custom because it absorbed acid, making the wine more pleasant to drink. Flattering words were spoken during the toasting ceremony to reassure the guests of their safety.

On February 14, 2010, Andrew Duminy (South Africa) sabered 27 champagne bottles in one minute at the Bull Run Restaurant,Sandton,South Africa. The practice of using a sabre to open a champagne bottle became popular during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.

National Prohibition led to a boom in the cruise industry. By taking what were advertised as “cruises to nowhere,” people could legally consume alcohol as soon as the ship entered international waters where they would typically cruise in circles. The cruises quickly became known as “booze cruises.

A painstaking study at http://www.atomicmartinis.com of Fleming’s complete oeuvre has shown that James Bond consumed a drink, on average, every seven pages. Of the 317 drinks consumed in total, his preferred tipple was whisky by a long margin – he drinks 101 in all, among them fifty-eight bourbons and thirty-eight Scotches. He’s pretty fond of champagne (thirty glasses) and in one book, You Only Live Twice (1964), which is mostly set in Japan, Bond tries sake. He likes it: he has thirty-five of them. Bond only opts for his supposed favourite, vodka martini, nineteen times, and he drinks almost as many gin martinis (sixteen – though most of these are bought for him by other people). The famous ‘shaken, not stirred’ line appears for the first time in Diamonds are Forever (1956) but isn’t used by Bond himself until Dr No (1959). Sean Connery was the first screen Bond to utter ‘shaken, not shtirred’, in Goldfinger (1964), and it occurs in most of the films thereafter. In 2005, the American Film Institute voted it the 90th greatest movie quote of all time.

The Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon (1638–1715) did not invent champagne: in fact he spent most of his time trying to remove the bubbles. His famous exclamation: ‘Come quickly, I am drinking the stars’, was devised for an advertisement in the late nineteenth century. Pérignon’s real legacy to champagne was in the skilful blending of grape varieties from different vineyards and the use of a wire or hempen cage for the cork.

A popular history suggests that the Manhattan originated at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the early 1870s, where it was invented by Dr. Iain Marshall for a banquet hosted by Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother) in honour of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden. The success of the banquet made the drink fashionable, later prompting several people to request the drink by referring to the name of the club where it originated—”the Manhattan cocktail”. However, Lady Randolph was in France at the time and pregnant, so the story is likely a fiction.

Luuk Broos (Netherlands) and his team created a 63-story champagne fountain using 43,680 glasses at the Wijnegem shopping mall,Belgium, on January 25, 2008.

The idea that alcohol ‘stops antibiotics working’ was first put about in the venereal disease clinics set up after the Second World War. Penicillin, identified by Alexander Fleming in 1928, had proved particularly effective at clearing up sexually transmitted infections. It was prescribed with the strict instruction not to drink while taking it. The reason for this was psychological rather than pharmaceutical. Drunken people are more likely to jump at the chance of casual sex. By scaring their patients into not drinking, doctors and nurses were giving the drug a chance to work before the infection could be passed on.

President Lincoln, when informed that General Grant drank whiskey while leading his troops, reportedly replied “Find out the name of the brand so I can give it to my other generals.”

All drinking cultures have inventive expressions for the horrors of the morning after:

avoir la gueule de bois (French) to have a wooden mouth

babalasi (Venda,South Africa) a trembling hangover

futsukayoi (Japanese) a hangover (literally, second day drunk)

winderdgriep (Afrikaans) a hangover (literally, vineyard flu)

einen Kater haben (German) to have a hangover (literally, to have a tomcat)

scimmia (Italian) to have a hangover (literally, a monkey)

Who was Ayn Rand?

June 10, 2012

Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.

The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

Man in crowd: I’m not…

The Crowd: Sssh!  


 From Monty Python’s The Life of Brian



I have recently finished Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I didn’t read the book because of its glowing reviews. Published on October 10, 1957, the novel was about as well received as a Klan march through Harlem. Here are some of the reactions to the book:

It would be hard to find [another] such display of grotesque eccentricity outside an insane asylum.

Loudly as Miss Rand proclaims her love of life, it seems clear that the book is written out of hate.

One thousand pages of ideological fabulism; I had to flog myself to read it.

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’

Ayn Rand would never write another novel. What book is capable of inspiring such unadulterated hostility? Rand’s previous work, The Fountainhead, had stated slowly but through word of mouth a substantial following had developed. By 1950 a half a million copies had been sold.  This commercial success gave her the time, twelve years, and the freedom to write her 1000-page magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, which was finally published in 1957. The novel attacks what Rand sees as the evils of collectivism. It is a dystopian vision set in the United States at an unspecified time in the future. The country’s economy, which is bedevilled by nationalisations, central planning and state diktats, is going to the dogs. John Galt, the hero of the book, has a simple philosophy: “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine“. He leads a protest of the country’s most creative minds, who sick of the government interference in the economy, start going on strike. This is the strike of the mind. They all go off to a mountain hideaway in Colorado. With the economy on the verge of collapse John Galt, the hero of the book, gives a speech outlining his philosophy. (The speech, which tales up some sixty pages in the book, would have taken three hours to deliver.) Soon, the country’s collapse is complete and the strikers get ready to return. I missed out a particle destroyer, an electric torture machine that doesn’t work, a character with the wonderful name of Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia and some kinky sex. The critics may have hated the book, but I couldn’t put it down. It is certainly quite unlike anything I had read before. And it was a big hit with the general public. To date some ten million copies have been sold. Compared to A Tale of Two Cities with 200 million and Lord of the Rings, which has sold 150 million it may seem a modest success, but it is still quite an achievement.

Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, a Russian Jew, on February, 2,1905, inSt. Petersburg, which was then the capital city of Russia. At that time Russia was in political turmoil and home to a virulent strain of anti-Semitism.Randdid not feel comfortable in her native country, and it would get worse for her when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Her father’s pharmacy was taken over by the communists. He too would go on strike refusing to work under the communists. However, Rand was able to get out of the country and enter the United States in 1926. She had an unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, where she would meet the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. But it was as an author and public philosopher that she would achieve fame.

What did this Russian émigré believe? She provided a muscular defence of capitalism. She did not defend it in a mealy-mouthed way; she believed it was the only system compatible with individual rights.Randcould at times have a low opinion of the masses, believing that they were living off the creativity of society’s most talented individuals.Rand’s moral society is a society of independent individuals who respect each other’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property. They should live by what she calls “the trader principle”. The trader principle defends voluntary, mutually beneficial trade between independent equals: If a man has something to offer to another man, he should be able to convince the other of this through the use of reason. The exchange should not take place through force or parasitism. She profoundly distrusted altruism but she wasn’t a Gordon Gekko type. What she valued was productivity, not consumption.

The name she gave to her philosophy was Objectivism. This derives from the idea that existence is an objective fact – human knowledge and values are objective: they exist and are determined by reality itself and can be discovered by rational minds.  She had been planning to call her philosophy Existentialism, but that particular name had already been taken. With the negative reaction to Atlas Shrugged Rand became more ensconced in her own world. She was joined by a group of disciples she called “The Collective“, a group which included the future Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. They would meet of a Saturday night to discuss life, the universe and everything. What alienated Rand from conservatives was her frontal rejection of religion, which she saw as a weakness, a parasitical worldview that convinces people their purpose is to work for the good of others.

I findRand’s personality absolutely fascinating, much more interesting than the rather wooden characters she created. In particular, what intrigues me are the contradictions she embodies.Randwas a prophet of individual freedom and yet she demanded total intellectual obedience from her followers.

Her personal life is another source of contradictions. Her husband, Frank O’Connor, could hardly be described as the kind of rugged masculine hero who populated her novels. She would often claim that Frank was the power behind the throne. On one occasion the mild-mannered O’Connor is said to have replied: ‘Sometimes I think I am the throne, the way I get sat on

She needed someone who could give her what O’Connor couldn’t. She wanted somebody who would dominate her – at her command. The man she chose was 19 year-old Nathanial Branden, a man 25 years her junior. They were both married but this didn’t stop them carrying on an affair with the consent of their respective spouses. The affair could ultimately be justified as the two of them were without doubt the two greatest intellects in the world. However,Brandon’s passion for his mentor would soon fade and he would begin seeing a young aspiring actress behind her back.

Meanwhile Branden went about creating the organisational structure of Objectivism. He founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) in 1958, which sponsored lectures and courses on Objectivism, first in New York and then nationally. He wanted to train the followers, also providing them with tapes and books. He also circulated an infamous list of rules for her followers, which has led many to define objectivism as a cult. Here are a few of them:

Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational or moral.

Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.

Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.

Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and /or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.

No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.

No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.

Then in 1968 it all fell apart. When Rand finally discovered Branden’s “infidelity”, she went ballistic and completely disowned him. For a woman who believed that every emotion she felt could be explained, she certainly reacted extremely viscerally:

I’ll tear down your facade as I built it up! I’ll denounce you publicly. I’ll destroy you as I created you! I don’t even care what it does to me. You won’t have the career I gave you, or the name, or the wealth, or the prestige. You’ll have nothing. … If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health—you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years!” Nathanial Branden would go on to become one of the pioneers of the self-esteem movement but his relationship with Rand would never recover. A heavy smoker, Rand underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1974. The last few years of her life were uneventful. She even took up stamp collecting. Rand died of heart failure on March 6, 1982, at her flat in New York City. A six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket

Rand has remained influential especially in North America. She has many devotees in Hollywood including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and one I don’t get – Oliver Stone. Rand was also the inspiration for a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who see themselves as Randian heroes. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal, was so inspired by Atlas Shrugged that he’s trying to create his own Rand-style colony. Thiel has put up $1.25million for the Seasteading Institute, an organisation which hopes to launch a floating libertarian colony in international waters. (No secret mountain hideaways are currently available.)

References to objectivism can be found in the lyrics of the Canadian rock group Rush, in such songs as Anthem, 2112 and The Trees. Tennis stars Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert are all said to be fans. Not long before she died, Farrah Fawcett described Rand as a “literary genius” whose iconoclasm had inspired her own experiments in painting and sculpture. Their admiration was mutual as Rand was apparently a fan of Charlie’s Angels; she never missed an episode. She said that saw it in the romantic tradition – three attractive girls doing impossible things.

How relevant is Rand today? She is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for the Tea Party. The bank bailouts and the election of Barrack Obama have led to groundswell of opinion against state intervention in the economy.  Tea party protesters hold placards reading “Ayn Rand was right” and “Who is John Galt?” And In September 2011, House Speaker, the Republican John Boehner, seemed to be channelling Rand when he declared that the economy wasn’t improving because “job creators in America, basically, are on strike.” Of course the conservatives conveniently ignore her atheism and her defence of abortion rights.

What do I think of Rand? As a half-baked libertarian I find Rand’s ideas are a bit beyond the pale for me. I do share her dislike of collectivism, and I am sceptical of government intervention in the economy. I do believe that “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs” is dangerous nonsense. However, I think her vision of humans is just too misanthropic and her absolutism really puts me off.  If I want a defence of liberty and the free market, I think I will stick to Adam Smith, Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin.

QI: A selection #10

June 10, 2012

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer is a 57-year-old German woman who “married” the Berlin Wall in 1979 (her surname means Berlin Wall in German). She fell for “him” as a seven-year-old, and indulged her obsession by collecting pictures and visiting whenever she could. She plighted her troth before a small group of witnesses. Though technically a virgin, she claims she had a full relationship with the wall, finding “long, slim things with horizontal lines very sexy.” She was heartbroken when it came down in 1989: “They mutilated my husband,” she said. In recent years she has apparently transferred her affections to a garden fence.

Other than garlic, telling stories or sleeping the wrong way up in your bed is enough to deter many vampires. Also, vampires suffer from arithmomania – they love to count, and scattering a pile of seeds means they will immediately be obsessed with counting them, giving you plenty of time to run away. Don’t overdo it. In 1973, a Polish immigrant living in Stoke-on-Trent choked to death on the piece of garlic he had placed in his mouth before going to bed. Police found his body surrounded by bags of salt and even the keyholes had been blocked with garlic.

Queen Elizabeth’s reign in numbers: 3,500 Acts of Parliament; 12 prime ministers; 6 archbishops of Canterbury; 6 popes; 261 royal overseas visits; 3.5 million letters sent; 45,000 Christmas cards sent; 175,000 centenarian telegrams sent; 404,500 honours awarded; 58 Queen’s speeches; 129 portraits painted; 30 godchildren; 30 corgis.

According to Majesty magazine, it isn’t true that the Queen doesn’t carry money. She does once a week – for the collection in church. It’s “a folded note of unknown denomination”. Otherwise, her handbag contains a comb, a handkerchief, a small gold compact and lipstick.

The word “rubber” had a lively existence long before it became attached to the elastic substance we associate it with today. A “rubber” could be a hard brush (1664), a rough towel to stimulate the skin (1577), a horse towel (1598), a whetstone (1553), tooth powder (1558), a polished brick (1744), a person who takes brass rubbings (1840) and a masseur at a Turkish bath.

No10 Downing Street is one of the most heavily guarded buildings in Britain. The front door cannot be opened from the outside because it has no handle, and no one can enter the building without passing through a scanner and a set of security gates manned by armed guards. However, in the first five years after Tony Blair became prime minister, 37 computers, four mobile phones, two cameras, a mini-disc player, a video recorder, four printers, two projectors and a bicycle were stolen from the building.

The sense of an “apple” as a general term for fruit led to its adoption as the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which Adam and Eve consume in the Garden of Eden. Scholarly cases have been made for the Hebrew word tappuach as denoting quince, wheat or banana, rather than apple, as all three were cultivated before the apple came along.

Conventional wisdom says a shower saves more water than a bath but with more powerful, longer-lasting showers this is not always true. An average bath uses 80 litres of water; an eight-minute power shower 136 litres. According to RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) only one in 17 fatal drownings in the UK in 2005 took place in the bath. On the other hand, domestic baths accounted for four times as many deaths as garden ponds and 12 times as many as swimming pools. The nation with the most dangerous baths in the world is Japan, where in 2004, 3,429 people were reported as having died in the bathtub. Even when adjusted for population, this is still 68 times higher than in the UK.

Humans have been piercing their ears since prehistoric times. Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old iceman found mummified in an Alpine glacier in 1991, had both ears pierced. It is widespread in tribal cultures, and is used to show status and act as deterrent to evil spirits entering the body via the ears. In Philip Stubbs’s Anatomie of Abuses (1583) the custom is attacked as being more common among Elizabethan men than women. William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and Charles I all had pierced ears.

Pig society is based around the harem: a dominant male surrounded by groups called “sounders”, each consisting of a sow and her litter, who stay together until the young come of age. Sounders continually communicate through grunts, squeaks and sniffs. Pigs are covered in glands – feet, wrists, genitals, anus, chin, mouth, eyes – all carrying messages to their defining organ: the snout, which is approximately 2,000 times more sensitive to smell than the human nose. Pigs are highly intelligent. Like dogs, they can be easily housebroken, taught to fetch and come to heel. Pigs can learn to dance, race, pull carts and sniff out landmines. They can even be taught to play video games, pushing the joystick with their snouts, something that even chimps struggle to master. In the 18th and 19th centuries, various “learned pigs”, dressed in natty waistcoats, travelled through Europe, amazing audiences by kneeling, bowing, spelling names with cards and “mind-reading”.

Now That’s What I Call Music!

June 2, 2012

Steven Pinker famously called it auditory cheesecake. It has been used as therapy for patients, but also as a form of torture. It can move us with its sublime beauty, but it can also whip us into a killing frenzy. The production and consumption of it is a multi-million pound industry. And writing about it is said to be like dancing about architecture. I am referring to music. Humans have been making music for more than 30,000 years. Its presence is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.

What are the origins of music? We may well never know the answer; it is a subject full of speculation. This question came to the fore in the second half of the 19th century. Charles Darwin was one of those analysing its evolutionary significance He believed that music was important for sexual selection. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist. takes a similar line, arguing that it, like the plumage of a peacock, serves to demonstrate fitness to mate.  An alternative hypothesis for music’s emergence, put forward by Robin Dunbar, another evolutionary psychologist. is that in our evolutionary past it helped foment social bonding of groups. We can see this function in the national anthem or football chants. The final hypothesis that I am going to look at sees music as a biological accident.  Music did not lead to language; language led to music, in what has turned out to be a glorious accident. A brain which transforms sound into meaning goes into overdrive when it hears tone, melody and rhythm. An article in The Economist put it like this:

Singing is auditory masturbation to satisfy this craving. Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.

Music is not located in one part of the brain, but in many different areas. According to the famous British neurologist Oliver Sacks many of the musical parts of the brain are close to where memory and emotion are located. And so music tends to embed itself in memory and to evoke emotions with an immediacy greater than any other stimulus except perhaps smells. Moreover, playing music changes the brain. When looking at a brain scan you can tell that it is the brain of a musician because certain parts of the brain may become enlarged in response to music. This has nothing to do with the so-called Mozart Effect, which became a fad a few years ago, despite the fact that there is little evidence to justify it. It’s a seductive idea. But we should listen to Mozart’s music because of its beauty. That is surely enough.

If you are interested in the neurological aspects of music then Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain is the book for you. The book features a number of case studies. One of the most mysterious is that of Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon.

Cicoria was in a phone booth during a lightning storm, and his head was struck by lightning. He had a cardiac arrest and his brain got no oxygen; he was, in effect, dead for 30 seconds. He would soon recover his memory, but he then developed a sudden insatiable passion for listening to and playing the piano. His head was flooded with music that seemed to have come from nowhere – before the incident he had had no musical inclinations. Now he wanted to play and even compose. He didn’t give up his day job, but he hired a piano teacher and learned to transcribe the music that was going through his head. He has now become an accomplished musician who has given recitals in New York. He is according to Wikipedia, currently working on a number of pieces including a symphony based on Brahms’ Variation, op. 9, and a concerto. And you can buy his Fantasia The Lightning Sonata, Op. 1: II from Amazon.com. This is a fascinating story but I’m not sure it tells us anything about music and the brain.

Music can mean very different things in different times and places. In the West it has now become linked to expertise. Music is somebody standing up on stage performing for others. In traditional societies music pervades everything. That should remind us that music doesn’t necessarily have to be elitist. However, in recent years the amateur has made a comeback with the emergence of karaoke YouTube and talent shows. I have an ambivalent attitude towards karaoke. Whenever I think of it John Entwhistle’s comment about heavy metal comes to mind:

I’m only interested in heavy metal when it’s me playing it. I suppose it’s a bit like smelling your own farts.”

The ultimate version of Karaoke are all these talent shows that have proliferated in the last few years. Marina Hyde writes about Simon Cowell and his karaoke-industrial complex. Cowell apparently has a net worth of: £225 Million ($364m). In Ben Elton’s satire of The X-Factor/Pop Idol style reality TV shows, Chart Throb, the producers divide the successful into three categories – Clingers, Blingers and Mingers:

Clingers: these are the desperate ones. They have just enough talent to be utterly self-deluded . . . actually, sometimes they manage to be self-deluded without having any talent at all, which is really good telly. They have to cry and plead and beg. God gave them their dream, you see. It’s that important. They are normally women but they can be male. Middle-aged guys who just want to give their kids a better life than they’ve had. Club singers who’ve done their time and paid their dues and want one last shot at the dream.

Blingers: these are the extroverts, the show-offs. The type of weirdly self-confident lunatics whose unshakeable faith in their own powers to fascinate actually makes them sort of fascinating, in a kamikaze kind of a way. They say things like Hey, what’s wrong with being a little crazy? They strike poses. They flirt. They think they’re sexy. Women Blingers tend to be plumpers but they’re comfy being curvy and invariably turn up half naked.

Mingers: these are the real entertainment. They are the lifeblood of Chart Throb, the most essential element. Without the Mingers Chart Throb would be nothing. They are the true casualties, the saddos, the uglies, the comically short-sighted, the cleft-palated, the misshapen, the obese, the educationally challenged, the emotionally stunted and the spotty nerds – the most vulnerable and inadequate members of society.

I have managed to avoid watching these programmes, but Elton’s cynical take does seem to have a ring of truth to it. I also refuse to watch Eurovision. When the Americans use music in this way, human rights NGOs denounce it as torture, but millions of people voluntarily sit down to watch it every year. I just don’t get it

Technology has played and will continue to play a massive role in music. Recording technology enabled talented individuals to leverage their talent. Records, CDs, radio and television made it possible for an artist to perform for millions. This allowed the elite musicians to become fantastically rich. But then technology turned on the industry that it had made. Now it is possible to pirate copies of any artist. This has had unintended consequences. Bands have to do more live concerts because this experience is the one thing you can’t download – yet. The problem is that music is now seen as something you get for free – once people get used to not paying, it’s going to be very difficult to get them to pay even a small amount.

What is the effect of all this piracy? I simply don’t trust those lobbying for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills in Congress. They claim that online piracy costs theU.S.economy between $200 and $250 billion per year, and is responsible for the loss of 750,000 American jobs. These numbers are horrific. $250 billion per year would be almost $800 for every man, woman, and child in the USA. 750,000 jobs is twice the number of those employed in the entire motion picture industry in 2010. It is impossible to know the real number. There are certainly a lot of people who download music without paying. In some cases, piracy does take away a legitimate sale. But just because people download a song for free doesn’t mean they would be willing to pay for the same song. This is especially true if the consumer lives in a relatively poor country, like China. These cannot really be considered lost sales. And while jobs may be lost in the music industry, they will probably be created in another sector. Money that a pirate doesn’t spend on songs is likely to be spent on something else. This is a counterfactual world. We need to imagine what would happen if there were no piracy. It should come as no surprise that those most affected will tend to come up with the direst possible predictions.

So concludes my brief survey of music. I would continue but all this talk of music has put me in the mood for a bit of karaoke. I can’t decide between Sexual Healing or Fly Me to the Moon. Don’t worry I won’t be uploading anything to Facebook or YouTube. I firmly believe that my flatulence and onanism should remain behind closed doors.