Pompeii: Swords-and-Sandals Flop

PompeiiAs a film setting, the town of Pompeii in the first century CE is a lot like the deck of the Titanic in 1912: no amount of special effects or clever script writing is going to save it from the disaster awaiting. As a film, Pompeii has a lot of the former, but precious little of the latter to rescue it. That’s probably why it’s in the $7 section at the DVD store.

Let’s start with the history. Pompeii was a Roman town on the west side of Italy close to the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The recipe for disaster starts with the question: why would anyone build on the slopes of an active volcano? You might ask that of the many towns and villages that currently encircle its slopes, including the city of Naples, a mere 9 km away.

Vesuvius has been active for most of recorded history. The biggest eruption took place about 1800 BCE and the last one in 1944, with many, many in-between. None of the post-Pompeii eruptions have been as violent as the one on August 20, 79 CE, however. None, however, were as great as the eruption of Thera in 1570 CE, which destroyed the Minoan civilization and radically changed the face of civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I digress.

The great drama happened in 79 CE when Vesuvius exploded spectacularly, and in doing so wiped out the town of Pompeii, killing an estimated 16,000 people. Good setting then for a disaster film, right? But it wasn’t quite like in the movie – well, nothing ever is.

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Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime

An intriguing possibility was reported on Science Daily this morning:

Earth’s last magnetic reversal took place 786,000 years ago and happened very quickly, in less than 100 years — roughly a human lifetime. The rapid flip, much faster than the thousands of years most geologists thought, comes as new measurements show the planet’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than normal and could drop to zero in a few thousand years.

Why would this matter? The article continues:

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

When will this happen? That’s the big question behind the headline. Soon, warn geologists. But their “soon” in geological time doesn’t mean the same as “your breakfast will arrive soon” in a restaurant. It seems overdue for a flip, but no one is sure when that might happen. A 2002 story in The Guardian warned that it was imminent – in geological terms:

“Some experts have stuck their necks out to predict that we can expect the next reversal some time in the next 2,000 years.”

I think we can have that cup of tea while we wait. It may not happen in our lifetimes. But, the article has that shock effect nonetheless:

The Earth could be about to turn upside down. The planet’s magnetic field is showing signs of wanting to make a gigantic somersault, so that magnetic north heads towards Antarctica, and magnetic south goes north. Compasses will point the wrong way, and migrating birds, fish and turtles are going to be very confused.
Just when this will happen, how long it will take and what the consequences will be, is difficult to fathom. What is not in doubt, though, is that it will happen. About every half a million years or so, the Earth’s magnetic field flips upside down.

And that’s the worry: every half-a-million years is a lot less time than the 786,000 years since the last flip-over. This summer, Scientific American warned it could happen sooner rather than later:

Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from huge blasts of deadly solar radiation, has been weakening over the past six months, according to data collected by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite array called Swarm.
The biggest weak spots in the magnetic field — which extends 370,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — have sprung up over the Western Hemisphere, while the field has strengthened over areas like the southern Indian Ocean, according to the magnetometers onboard the Swarm satellites — three separate satellites floating in tandem.
The scientists who conducted the study are still unsure why the magnetic field is weakening, but one likely reason is that Earth’s magnetic poles are getting ready to flip, said Rune Floberghagen, the ESA’s Swarm mission manager. In fact, the data suggest magnetic north is moving toward Siberia.

So we wait, unable to do anything about it. Have another cuppa, if you must. Yes, you have time.

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Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures

Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.
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April, the cruellest month

Jackie Chan's movie 1911April, wrote T.S. Eliot in his remarkable poem, The Waste Land, is the “cruellest month.”* And not merely because of the inclement and unsettling weather that seems to mix winter with spring in unpredictable doses. Nor for the necessity of filing one’s taxes before month end, always a painful chore.

I started thinking about April while watching the movie, 1911, about the Chinese uprising against the Qing Dynasty, in 1911 (saw it this weekend). Fascinating period of Chinese history that led to the first republic under Sun Yat Sen, but, I wondered, was it so interesting elsewhere? Yes, it seems so.

April is a month rich in history, with memorable events, births and deaths galore. Memorable, however, is not always pleasant, of course.

April comes from the Latin Aprilis, a word of uncertain origin. For those who know the “ides of March” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you may be surprised to discover that the ides didn’t always fall on the 15th day of the month. In April, it falls on the 13th. The Roman calendar was a complex thing.

April is the month to remember battles. Just to name a few: Culloden (Apr 16, 1746, when the Jacobite rebellion was broken), Vimy Ridge (9-12, 1917, famous to Canadians, so many of whom died there), Lexington and Concord (Apr 19, 1775, starting the American Revolution), Mollwitz (10 Apr, 1741 – the first battle Frederick II ever fought), Okinawa (began 1 Apr, 1945, the beginning of the end of the WWII in the Pacific), Tobruk (11 Apr-27 Nov, 1941), Berlin (20 Apr- 2 May, 1945, the beginning of the end of WWII in Europe), 2nd Ypres (started 22 Apr, 1915), Fort Sumter (Apr 12–14, 1861, beginning the American Civil War), Shiloh (April 6/7, 1862), Mapiu (5 Apr, 1818 – 1818 – decisive battle of the Chilean War of Independence),  Guernica (Apr 26, 1937 – the town was attacked by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War; the planes then machine-gunned fleeing civilians), the Falklands (Apr 2, 1982 troops from Argentina invaded and occupied the British colony, beginning the short Falklands War).

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Culloden and the Family Tree, 267 Years Later

Culloden

It doesn’t begin with Culloden. History is seldom so neat and precise that a single event can be identified as the start or end of a thing. Rather, Culloden was a hinge, a point at which events changed direction, when the door to the past was closed and one to a very different future opened.

You might say it really begins centuries earlier, in the long, bitter wars between England and Scotland that trace their roots to the Norman conquerors. But that’s too vague and longwinded. It would be better to say it the introduction to the story was written at Glencoe, in 1692, when Clan MacDonald was slaughtered by their guests, the Campbells.

“Ye loyal MacDonalds, awaken! awaken!
“Why sleep ye so soundly in face of the foe?
“The clouds pass away, and the morning is breaking;
“But when will awaken the sons of Glen Coe?

“They lay down to rest with their thoughts on the morrow,
“Nor dreamt that life’s visions were -melting like snow;
“But daylight has dawned in the silence of sorrow,
“And ne’er shall awaken the Sons of Glencoe.”
from Lament for Glen Coe by Mary Maxwell Campbell

That event scattered MacDonalds around northern Scotland, and started the slow burn of anger that would erupt in the Jacobite rebellion, 50 years later.

Some of the MacDonalds fled to Glen Urquhart, Inverness-shire, after Glencoe. From there they would leave for the New World almost a century later.

But it all came to a head at Culloden, the final battle of the Jacobite uprising that had begun so well and was now about to end in that rocky, soggy field. And that’s where I’ll begin this tale.

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Clawing our way back up the ladder?

In 2006, Moneysense listed Collingwood as the 11th best place to live in Canada. The other ten above us on that list were all major cities. We were the number one town. Mayor Geddes beamed.

Today we’re a lot further down the list. Numero 54 to be exact, out of 200.

I wrote about that list back in 2011. We plummeted from the giddy heights of 11th place to 61st by 2008. The fall didn’t stop until we hit 94th place in 2012, in the bottom half of the 180 places listed.

Now we’re back at 54th place. I suppose that’s come consolation – a rise of 40 places up the ladder, and in the top half.

You have to take the recently released 2013 list with a rather large grain of salt. Click on the town’s name in the overall ranking list and see what comes up.

NOT CollingwoodThat’s right: the photo is NOT Collingwood. It’s Blue Mountain Village. Now read the amounts for average house price and average household income. Wow. We’re rich!

Or maybe not – StatsCan reported the average family income here is roughly $60,000 (or $67,000 as shown here). Our treasurer reports the average family home is about $250,000 (it’s calculated as $274,000 here).

Moneysense shows our average income as $81,499 and average house price as $331,594. Way above the figures usually accepted for this town.

You think maybe Moneysense got it – and maybe the rest of their data for Collingwood – wrong? You think maybe they’re ranking the Village under Collingwood’s name?

I look at some of those stats and wonder. rain days: 110 – almost one out of three days per year? A 7% increase in population since 2011? Where did they get those figures? Maybe they can’t tell us apart from the Village.

I think we should ask for a recount. And maybe supply some correct data and a proper photo to the magazine.

(PS. We can always take heart we’re not among the ten worst places to live – seven of which are in Quebec).