Friday, 29 November 2013

Detergent: Life Changing, World Changing

Do you wear an apron or sleeve protectors?   I ask because I saw another round of those 'Top 10 Inventions' lists on the Internet.  They were looking at the best stuff in the 21st century - I did think it was a little premature or maybe their foresight suggests it's all downhill from here.  Anyway, it reminded me of a conversation with my Mom in 1999, when a century and a millennium were coming to a close and those lists were everywhere.  Best invention of the 20th century lists, best invention of the millennium lists, world-changing-est idea of the last hundred year lists appeared on every website, in newspapers and on the TV until I wished websites, newspapers and TVs hadn't been invented.

In those lists cars, TVs, computers, aeroplanes, the Internet (basically computers again), telephones (static and cell) were often at the top.  It made me wonder if they really were the important things.  I've found when everyone is looking one way, it's best to look in another, so  I asked my Mom what she thought the most important invention was.  She was 71 at the time and had experienced a large chunk of the 20th century by living through it and her life had been changed by all these life-changing ideas so unlike the compilers of lists she knew exactly what life-changing means.

Her answer, without hesitation, was: detergent.

If seemed a trivial answer: washing powder vs the A-bomb or washing-up liquid compared to supersonic flight, so I pressed her on her logic.  Cars and planes just sped up what was already possible:  getting from A to B.  Humanity had filled the whole world with nothing better than their feet and canoes.  Telephones, the same: humans are the master communicators, we have always conversed using everything from scrolls to carrier pigeons to telegraph, including the tattooed heads of slaves (no, I didn't make that up, see below).  Computers and the Internet are communication, data access and calculation again, back to speeding up what our human brains, if we encourage them, can do already.

Detergent actually changed her life.  She remembers the very day she washed my Dad's clothes in detergent for the first time and the whites came out white.  Not the faintly grey colour their whites used to be.  This was before my parents could afford a washing machine, and it was singularly disappointing to work for hours agitating clothes in a tub, put them through a mangle and then hang the non-too bright looking articles on a washing line.  She remembers the stunning white laundry.  She was happy to give up driving and the phone is a way for telemarketers to invade her home, computers and the Internet cannot match a good book and a trawl through an encyclopaedia where she might find something unlooked for.  (Note:  with tailored searches and websites learning what you like, discovering the positively different will be a thing of the past.  You will get fed what you know and what you like.  That's a side issue, back to how washing has changed and changed the world, even what you wear.)  She would never give up using detergent.

With the coming of detergent, washing started becoming easy, the dirt was being lifted out rather than battered into submission.  How we treat our clothes has changed dramatically since its invention too and our attitudes.  Add in the domestic washing machine and tumble drier and suddenly washing is no longer the all week long activity it once was.  There are no longer fields set aside in cities for drying clothes (OK, that was in medieval times) or wringing posts in the street (common in the UK even in the early 20th century).   It frees up time and the attitude to clothing altered, particularly how it is treated.  The grunge and distressed clothing look is not making a statement if everyone's clothes look like that anyway.  Making clothes clean when it was hard made the statement.

Why my question about aprons and sleeve protectors?  Well until detergents no one would be stupid enough to do dirty work and risk hard-to-wash clothes unprotected.  They would wear a sacrificial covering, something heavy-duty and easy to wash.  Aprons were common, farmers often wore smocks and every care was taken to keep clothes clean.  Think about the last time you wore an apron, have you ever worn sleeve protectors.  In the UK even doctors are beginning to wear white coats less.  I've even noticed people not bothering with napkins in restaurants.

I write science and historical fiction, I suppose because its really the same thing, sort of.  One looks at how technology changes the world, the other how the world was before the technology.

Washing methods changed our world.  Clothes were held together with tapes, cords and pins because, unlike buttons and zips (when they were invented), they were less likely to break when the brutal methods of washing were used.  Imagine what happens to buttons when bashing your clothes on a washing stone in the river.  Chemicals like lye soap dried and cracked the hands meaning soft delicate hands were only for those who never did work for themselves.

Eating in the past was with a surprising amount of care.  Often in movies you'll see a medieval banquet (should be called a feast, banquet was the sweet course only) where wine will get slopped about, meat discarded carelessly and food flung in all directions.  When clothes were expensive, something they were, right up to mass production in the early 20th century and cleaning was difficult, the last thing you'd do is be a messy eater.

Washing of clothes changes everything, when researching historical details or considering how the future will change the world, consider the small, unnoticed stuff, sometimes it will be more significant than you think.

Other uses of detergent


  • Breaking up oil slicks and cleaning oil-soaked wildlife.
  • Breaks down surface tension allowing things like glue to wick through porous surface.
  • I have even used it as a retarder to slow the setting of cement when I ran out of the proper stuff and it worked.

The Tattooed head thing

In the 5th century BC, Histiaeus of Miletus, a prisoner of King Darius of Susa, sent a secret message tattooed on the head of a slave to Aristagoras, his son-in-law, in short the message said: start the rebellion.  Sometimes it pays to use your head, or someone else's.

Useful Books

The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim
Food and Feast in Tudor England by Alison Sim


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Heroes v. Heroes - Fiction v. Reality

I write stories.  If my life depended on it I'd starve, but it does make me think about heroes.  I've been thinking a lot about them recently.  In particular how the heroes in stories differ so dramatically from heroes in reality.  OK, everyone's heroes are different so I'll talk about mine and you can compare them with yours. If you have any you want to share, put them in the comments below, I would be interested.

When I was a teenager I read loads of fiction, mainly action/adventure.  Usually war books whether historical or set in the far future.  I watched loads similar films.  Fighting, killing, violence was meted out by the 'good guys' or heroes.  It could have been James Bond, Ian Flemming's spy, or Richard Sharpe from Bernard Cornwall's novels, Mack Bolan of Don Pendleton's Executioner Series or Remo Williams the 'Destroyer' created by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy.  There were many others, but these stick in my mind (I still have Destroyer #1).  Being a hero seemed to be about hurting, killing, more likely than not, the person you had issues with.

Most were tall, all were physical men, with a dominating presence.  Bond and Sharpe are six feet tall.  A modern version, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, is six feet, four inches (Tom Cruise? - go figure).

Strangely, even as I ravenously read these tales, imagining myself breaking heads and killing, wanting to be like them, I knew these were not real heroes; however, irresistible they were.  There is a strong ancient core to our spirit that has tall, strong, violent men as heroes.  They are the model of heroes, as far back as the Greeks and their obsession with physically perfect warriors, or look to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sagas, of powerful men performing mighty deeds.  Fast forward to the modern super-heroes, they are a fantasy we're attached to, they are empowerment.

Brutal, efficient widow-makers, alpha males, who in our primitive animal-minds are seen as the best of us except they're not.  These are the bruisers who rarely make life better, they simply solve a problem with extreme prejudice.  Fun to read about, not necessarily fun to be with.  Good writers show this, they show the dysfunction of being a primeval hero.

'Yes,' thinks the teenage boy in me, 'breaking heads, punching someone's lights out, that's problem solving.'  With a mighty frame and a reputation, I won't suffer no lip from anyone.  Lacking a mighty frame and a trail of dead enemies behind me, I suffered a lot of lip and the appeal of this type of hero still pulls at my imagination.  It's probably the attraction for us all, to have power, and if you want to read about them or even write about them that's fine.  I still do.  When I write, a little voice - much louder as I've grown older - says make your heroes a bit more like the real ones, the men and women you truly wish you were like.

Real, flesh and blood, heroes are rarely like the fiction, even real 'action heroes'.  Definitely they don't have witty one-liners.

Here's a few of my heroes, compare and contrast with the fictional ones you know.


'Action Heroes'


The most decorated American soldier in World War II was Audie Murphy.   Estimates of his height range from 5'5'' to 5'8''.  It's difficult to judge, because he was a malnourished 15/16 year old when he lied about his age to join up.  When you look at photos of him, even after the war, he looks like a harmless kid.  You can't imagine the fearless firebrand he was.  Wouldn't believe him standing on a burning tank manning a machine gun or leading a counter attack despite multiple injuries.  For me what makes him a hero is that when his family was abandoned by their father and their mother died and he took it upon himself to provide for his siblings.  After the war he worked hard for charities supporting traumatised soldiers and admitted to suffering from post traumatic stress himself.  That's a hero.

The most decorated British 'other rank' (non officer) Soldier of World War I was William H Coltman.  He was 5'4'' and never fired a shot in anger.  A committed Christian he would not kill, but was equally committed to serve his country and so joined a stretcher-bearer company.  He served from 1915 to 1918 and won every honour the nation could bestow, two Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM), two Military Medals (MM) and finally a Victoria Cross (VC).  He rescued men trapped on 'the wire' in no man's land, whilst under heavy fire, he carried away dangerous ammunition from a burning arms dump and did much more.  Dozens, maybe hundreds of men owed their lives to this man.  Always modest, he always pointed out that all his awards were for saving lives not taking them.

Captain Fegen of HMS Jervis Bay decided to sacrifice his poorly armed converted merchantman by putting the ship in the way of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer.  Utterly out gunned, the ship was destroyed and Fegen killed, but 32 of the 37 ships in the convoy he was protecting escaped.  He wouldn't have known if his actions would save the ships, but did know it was certain death to steer head on toward such a mighty war machine.  In that convoy was a merchantman San Demetrio, badly damaged and left to burn, she was salvaged by a portion of its own crew, that story alone is a tale of heroism.


Non 'Action Heroes' 

During the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) conditions were bad for injured soldiers and Florence Nightingale is famous for her nursing work and organising the improved treatment of the wounded.  Less famous was Jamaican Mary 'Mother' Seacole.  She travelled to London to offer her nursing skills.  This was refused by Nightingale's patron.  Seacole suspected this was down to the colour of her skin (I am suspicious it had more to do with the class prejudice rife in Victorian society, but she was there, I wasn't).  That didn't stop her, under her own 'steam', she travelled to the Crimean, offering her services directly to Nightingale who rejected her.  Like that was going to stop her.  She carried on, reaching as close to the front as she could setting up 'The British Hotel' using her practical medical knowledge to treat the injured.  Sometimes she would go out into the field to treat the wounded of all nationalities where they had fallen.

In the eighteenth century, when Captain Thomas Coram returned from America to retire, he probably thought his hardest days were over.  For him, living in London meant he witnessed the almost every day the horror of abandoned children dying in the gutters of his home town.  He campaigned for years for something to be done, and then understood that it would have to be he who did it.  He founded the Foundling Hospital and with help from William Hogath and George Frederic Handel managed to keep it going.  In the early days the odds of survival in the hospital were roughly 50/50, on the street virtually nil.  It takes a different kind of courage to take on such a burden and change the world.

In the late 1940s Dr John Stapp was a US Army Air Corp doctor studying the effects of harsh deceleration on the human body.  His aim was to improve the survivability of air crashes and his work later helped improved the safety of cars too.   All very dry and straight forward.  The only way to find out what the human body can survive is to test one.  Stapp would not risk anyone's life but his own, and so he under went a series of crash tests culminating in a rocket sled ride ending with a 45g deceleration.  Search out the video of the test.  Amongst the other damage he sustained, he broke almost every blood vessel in his eyes which filled with blood and yet survived.  I wouldn't even bungie jump, but he coldly risked death to save people who would never know his name.


I have dozens of others spinning in my head.  They inform my writing when I think of heroes and characters and, more importantly, how I live.

Useful Links

Audie L. Murphy Memorial Website
Mary Seacole Memorial Website
Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital

Useful Books

To Hell and Back  by Audie Murphy
VCs of the First World War - The Final Days 1918 by Gerald Gliddon
Victoria's Wars by Saul David

Films

San Demetrio London (1943)

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Where's the Galley?

I've been writing an historical novel set in the seventeenth century.  The majority of action happens on a typical cargo ship of the era.  I thought it would be easy:  read a few books, trawl the Internet and hey presto I'd have the layout ready for my characters to interact.

No.  It turns out that 'typical' and 'standard' were not words in our shipbuilding ancestors' vocabularies.  They kind of played it by ear, following the last build that must have worked 'cause it didn't sink when they launched it.  No wonder sailors were superstitious.

There were design rules, well, more guidelines for hull shape and rigging and I may go into that in another blog (never fear, I will never go too technical), but internally it was pot luck.  Remembering of course, national differences too.
Good examples of ships, a little early but still applicable are the Mary Rose (the hulk of which is in Portsmouth, England) or the Golden Hind (one replica in London and another in Brixham, Devon).   The Mayflower (replica in Plymouth, MA) is much closer to the time period.

Right, so if you read most books or visit websites or even visit some of these ships (well worth it), they will tell you because of the risk of fire the galley was built in the lowest part of the ship, often known as the orlop deck.  This was where the stone ballast was laid to stop the ship turning turtle when a breeze got up.
It makes perfect sense, place your galley on the stones that won't be set alight while cooking.  Galley cooking equipment is very heavy being brick surrounds supporting large metal pots and so it helps keep the ship stable.  David Childs, in Tudor Sea Power, describes wood burning cauldrons/galley range on the ballast.  In The Galleon by Peter Kirsch confirmed the same thing.  On the Mary Rose they found the remains of the Galley exactly there.  There's your proof, brilliant, case closed, job done.

 So why is this photo, of a model in the Dorset County Museum, showing the galley as far from the orlop as possible without sticking it up a mast?

Model of the Mary and John circa 1630
Close-up of Galley region.
 If you look at cutaway illustrations of the Mayflower, a similar era vessel, the galley is in the same position.

The model is not wrong.  That lovely fireproof ballast is where all the water that doesn't drain over the sides gathers.  On a long voyage that water grows stale adding to that the fact that the animals on board didn't take trips to the heads when they needed to relieve themselves and stale water is worse than you an think.   It could end up stinking like an open sewer.

Old salts knew that if somewhere stank to high heaven, it probably wasn't a healthy place to prepare food so it would be moved.

Also the galley, being the only place to have a fire aboard, was the only place sailors could dry out their clothes or have a smoke.  They tended to congregate down there and Masters of ships are never happy if the bulk of their crew are out of sight.

So where did I put the galley?

I put it roughly amidships one deck up from the orlop.  My Master wanted to keep the ship stable, he had cargo he could keep lower, but didn't fancy having the galley as high as the Mayflower or the Mary and John.

Useful Links
Mayflower II
The Mayflower Steps, Plymouth, UK - cutaways of the ship
Mary Rose Museum
Guide to the Ship. Pick 'Cook' and learn about the galley

Richard Schlecht, a Brilliant Illustrator, who has done a great cutaway of the Mayflower, you have to search for it though.

Golden Hind, Brixham, Devon
Golden Hinde II, London


Useful Books
Tudor Sea Power by David Childs
The Galleon by Peter Kirsch

Friday, 8 March 2013

Am I cheap? - Free software I use.

I'm a cheapskate.  I like things for free.  I am thoroughly against stealing including pirating music, films, books or software.  My view is only steal if you're happy to be stolen from.  Anyway I have always had problems with software costs especially because I'm basically the family's IT guy and getting four PCs (at the last count) fully kitted out can cost an arm and a leg.  When I discovered Open Source software a few years ago I was in seventh heaven.
Honest to goodness free software made my mouth water.  Good free software made me dance around the room - you don't want to see that.  I like helping people and I want to pay back the years of help these programs have given me.  I'm not good enough to help code stuff, I've done some minor graphic stuff, wallpapers and posters - note to self: do more - what I can do is publicise good free software that makes you feel good 'cause it's free, not knocked off and you're solving your tech problems.
Over the years I have worked through loads of the stuff and here are my favourites with the odd comment to help you.

Office Software
OpenOffice and LibreOffice both have Word Processors, Spreadsheets and Presentation tools.  They can read Microsoft's files, in fact  LibreOffice once read a corrupted file that MS Word 2003 could no longer open.  They are available on Linux and Windows.  They don't have all the bells and whistles of the MS's powerful programs, but I have written novels on them (anyone want to buy a novel?) whilst switching between versions without a problem.

Graphics Software
I have done a lot of digital artwork, which you can view at my gallery site, much was done, and will be done, in an old version of Photoshop.  It's a brilliant tool, but I can't justify the cost of upgrading or multiple copies for different machines.  The two office options have vector graphics tools, but there are more alternatives.

Gimp gives Photoshop a very good run for its money.  The fact it doesn't cost anything should make it the first choice for anyone wanting to experiment with this kind of tool.  If you're really into digital painting, the add-in Gimp Paint Studio gives a whole heap of brushes and presets to save you having to create your own.
If you want to see what it can do go here.  Gimp works in both Windows and Linux.

If it's vector graphics you're interested in how about Inkscape.  This is a powerful and complex tool perfect for creating images in its own right.  Again it works in both Linux and Windows.

A windows only option is the Free Serif Software, this is give-away graphics tools from Serif Software.  They sell professional software, but give away older versions so you can get a taste for their current projects.  If you're concern is that all this Open Source or GNU stuff is too amateur for your liking, check them out.

Don't forget Google's Picasa a very powerful tool for quick photo fixes and organising the thousands of images that full up your storage.

That's it for my first blog entry, hope you found this useful.