Friday, 21 December 2007

British Medical Journal: Origins of Magic

BMJ 2007;335:1299-1301 (22 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.39414.582639.BE

Origins of magic: review of genetic and epigenetic effects.

Sreeram V Ramagopalan, DPhil candidate(1,2),
Marian Knight, senior clinical research fellow(3),
George C Ebers, professor of clinical neurology(1,2),
Julian C Knight, senior research fellow(1)

1 Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 7BN,
2 Department of Clinical Neurology, University of Oxford,
3 National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford

Correspondence to: J C Knight

Objective: To assess the evidence for a genetic basis to magic.

Design: Literature review.

Setting: Harry Potter novels of J K Rowling.

Participants: Muggles, witches, wizards, and squibs.

Interventions: Limited.

Main outcome measures: Family and twin studies, magical ability, and specific magical skills.

Results: Magic shows strong evidence of heritability, with familial aggregation and concordance in twins. Evidence suggests magical ability to be a quantitative trait. Specific magical skills, notably being able to speak to snakes, predict the future, and change hair colour, all seem heritable.

Conclusions: A multilocus model with a dominant gene for magic might exist, controlled epistatically by one or more loci, possibly recessive in nature. Magical enhancers regulating gene expressionmay be involved, combined with mutations at specific genes implicated in speech and hair colour such as FOXP2 and MCR1.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

In which Mme Nicholas offers Addt'l Random Facts.


I will admit that I have a hard time saying "no" to friends. Thus, when recently presented with the "tag" meme from Duchess Loch Avie, I stepped forward and laid forth eight tidbits from Real Life. And when even more recently Miss Hypatia tagged me yet again, I felt honour-bound to offer up an additional series of potentially-entertaining facts about my human.

I. I have never been able to answer the small-talk question, "what is your favourite movie?" Perhaps it is because any favourite is subject to change over time, and labelling a single film as the top of the list chances adding more gravity to that work than is intended, or deserving.

II. However, my current favourite book is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (or rather, the English translation by William Weaver). That has been at that position for, what, ten years or so.

III. Among other detritus, on my desk at work is a vintage glass pen (something like these) and inkwell; these sit next to my modern drafting pens, fountain pens, and an absolutely huge Staedtler plastic eraser that has been a companion since 1988. It gets the special erasing jobs.

IV. I have co-authored a chapter in a book.

V. I am not a coder or programmer by any stretch, but at one point I was made to write code in this language called "IDL", a bastard child of FORTRAN with COBOL-like verbosity. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, playing with SGI computers for one purpose (using Photoshop version 3!) and ended up doing mathematical visualisation.

VI. Were I the Imperatrix Mundi, I would make Edward Tufte's book "The
Visual Display of Quantitative Information
" required reading, under penalty of flogging. Unless, of course, the accused liked flogging, in which case the penalty would be suitably disagreeable.

VII. My Myers-Briggs type is INFJ.

VIII. On my nightstand currently, in no particular order:
Vania Zouravliov, Marie Findley: The Mediæval Bæbes: Songs of the Flesh ISBN 1898998248
John Plummer: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves ISBN 0807614920
John McWhorter: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language ISBN 006052085X
Denise Tyler: Practical Poser 7 ISBN 1584504781

With that, I will conclude my last 8-point exposition, and will look forward to a new passtime amongst the gentry, beyond the current tagging craze.

Ite, missa est. Go; this is the dismissal.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Anthropology Update: A Visage of Saint Nicholas

(with apologies to Clement Moore)

Today, 6 December, is Saint Nicholas' Day, and in honor of that occasion, I shall pass on a bit of research regarding Old Saint Nick himself.

As my readership may know, Nicholas was born about 270 AD in Myra, Anatolia (now Turkey), and died on 6 December in 343, in Myra. He was known to be a bishop of the province, and came to be known for charity, intervention for the falsely-accused, and staunch defender of the orthodox (little-o) faith. Born into a relatively well-to-do patrician household, he likely had access to the funds which fuel much of his charitable exploits.

Perhaps his most famous act was to secretly give gold coins to a man whose three daughters did not have a proper dowry. This, along with other stories of anonymous gift-giving to the poor of Myra, led to the associations between Nicholas and the giving of presents.

Also, he is said to have discovered a butcher that had abducted three children, killed them, and pickled them for later sale as ham. Foiling the plot, he exposed the crime, and also resurrected the children. A thousand years hence, this story having traveled to England may have been the basis for none other than Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In time, Nicholas' patronage was claimed by sailors, travelers, children, the poor, the falsely-accused, and any number of cities, from Myra to New Amsterdam, and countries, most familiarly, Russia. His gift-giving was probably responsible, at least in part, for the modern celebration of Christmas, though some cultures separate the two. (For completeness, I should also mention the parallel gift-giving theme from the Magi.)

Enough history; on with the science.

In May 1087 (21 years after the Norman Conquest of England, and 33 years after the schism between Constantinople and Rome), Italian mercenaries and sailors entered Myra on the South coast of Turkey to retrieve the relics of Saint Nicholas. The stolen remains were then taken to the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy, where they remain to this day. (N.b.: please see the references below for the resting places of other parts of Nicholas. Also please note that the Royal Society does not have any portion of Old St Nick in its attic.)

A certain Professor Francesco Introna (coincidentally from Bari, Italy) has studied the relics in the modern day, and comissioned Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Manchester University to reconstruct the face of the bishop, using tools now familiar through forensic police work, which have also shed light on the faces of Tutankhamun and Copernicus through similar reconstruction.

Essentially, the skull was subjected to a number of measurements based on both photographic and Roentgenographic images. With these data, Dr Wilkinson was able to infer the size, shape, and thickness of some 26 facial muscles. With the musculature laid over the skull, a layer of (digital) skin may be applied over the muscles, thus completing the facial features. Hair, skin, and eye colour would be chosen based on ethnologic traits of the population in IV century Myra, producing perhaps the closest facsimile possible of a person dead some 1600-odd years.

Interestingly, analysis of the skull pointed towards a broken nose, which would have likely caused a visible (though perhaps not distracting) deformity, one that the modern world may associate more with a rugby player, or boxer.

From the Guardian (UK):
Certain features of the skull can say a lot about a face. Long teeth suggest full lips, while small protrusions called mastoid processes on each side of the head point one way if the person has earlobes, and the other if not.

Taking tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity reveals how long the nose was. In Santa's case, this was particularly tough because his nose was badly broken. "It must have been a very hefty blow because it's the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken," says Wilkinson.

Quite how St Nicholas got his injury is a mystery, but Wilkinson says tales abound of Santa being something of a rebel. "I heard he once punched a bishop," she says.

The reconstructed St Nicholas is olive-skinned and white-haired, with a beard shaped in a style popular in the fourth century. "It's only really the broken nose people are surprised about, but the more I hear about his character, the more it all fits."
A possible source for the broken nose may have been the altercation between him and Arius at the First Council of Nicaea, over what later was deemed the heresy of Arianism.

Fair enough. Can I see St Nick now?

Here is the reconstructed face of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

And for comparison, I present an eerily-similar icon of St Nicholas from ca. 1000 AD, from the Byzantine empire, perhaps Constantinople.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Balise et contre-balise.

Tag and counter-tag.

In keeping with the jeu du jour, I shall respond to Duchess Loch Avie's notice that I have been selected to provide eight random facts about my typist. Here are those facts, in no particular order:

1. Like Loch Avie, I have a Bacon number, but I can claim one less degree of separation: I was filmed during the U2 tour during which Rattle and Hum was created (one of many in the crowd, to be blunt). Bono in turn was in some nearly-unknown project called 'Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten' with Matt Dillon. Matt Dillon was in Loverboy with Mr Bacon himself. Thus, my Bacon number is 3. If one were to count non-film connexions, then I have a Bob Hope number of 1, a Gillian Anderson number of 2 ... and an Eva Bellambi number of 5 (via Bono, Hector Elizondo, Julie Andrews, and then the opera star in Eva's post).

2. My avatar's name is based on those of Saint Nicholas, and my daughter. For a brief time early on, I tried to model Kate after my other favourite Kate, Ms Winslet, but the effect was not ideal.

3. My secret vice is vanilla ice cream. Don't tell a soul.

4. Quite unintentionally, I have seen a walrus with an erect member.

5. I am fascinated by language. I studied French in college (not as a major, just a sideline). French, however, is not terribly useful in day-to-day life in the Colonies, and my skills have waned. I have taught myself some roughly-useful Spanish, can make sense of some Italian, and forgot quite a bit of German. I have studied Latin (mainly mediæval/ecclesiastical, versus classical) and have read "The Cat in the Hat" in that august tongue. I belong to an on-line group of Anglo-Saxon scholars (professional and amateur). I can read Russian, Greek, and at one point, Hebrew ... though by read I mean make the noises, without knowing terribly much of what I'm saying. I have several historical linguistic texts on my bookshelf which have been read for fun and not necessity, or grades.

6. I was in high-school band, and went to band camp ... but did not have any un-natural congress with any instrument.

7. Confessio: While I understand that a particular web-based comic, Girl Genius, is nearly required reading for us steampunk Caledonian types, I have not been able to enjoy it. It had so much potential, I thought, but the anime-style visuals and faux German accents are distracting, there are more non-sequiturs per unit time than Douglas Adams (RIP) could have written, and then my top complaint: the protagonist, a Mad Scientist (again, with so much fantasy role-model potential) is drawn as quite the Amazon, with a preternaturally-small waist against an improbably-sized bosom, with androgenised musculature to boot.

8. While being given to methods of Logic, Science, and Reason, I have experienced one ... event ... which can not be properly explained by those disciplines, and must remain in the mystical or spiritual realm. I shan't go into further detail.

Now then: I have discovered that nearly anyone that I could name to bring into this game has already received a tag, I shall stop here, and hope that the reader has garnered some enjoyment from this exercise.

Be reassured that with the next issue of the Proceedings we will move out of this area of 'soft' social-science discussion, and back to Actual Scientific Content, not that there is anything wrong with the former.

I remain, &c,

Kate Nicholas, FRS

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Beowulf wæs bealu: Editorial comments upon the new film.


(strong neuter noun)
Bale, harm, injury, destruction, ruin, evil, mischief, wickedness, malice, a noxious thing.

(strong adjective)
Baleful, deadly, dangerous, wicked, evil.

Beowulf in name only.

This author supposes that, were the film to be titled
"Thanes and Heroes",
"Beo the Arm-Ripper",
"The Curse of Hroðgar", or
"Beware the Watery Tart",
the film would have seemed more appropriate. The screenplay is like looking at the original poem through a glass darkly -- very darkly.

The screenwriters have added several features arguably to increase appeal to (apparently) young male audiences:

-- bosoms; some heaving
-- shapely water-demons
-- love interests for Beowulf
-- unnecessary character flaws in major characters which add to the drama

Features added for (apparently) young females in the audiences include:
-- computer-generated abs, glutes, &c
-- love interests for Beowulf.

And while any or all of these additions would be fine in their own right, putting them in to the venerable story is akin to, say, putting up a Picasso on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the original was fine the way it was.


The Uncanny Valley.

As the reader has likely heard, the film was "shot" with motion-capture techniques, using actors against a green screen, and all visuals rendered via software. This film likely represents the state of the art in computer-generated film-making. However, even the best this age has to offer comes up short.

A psychological phenomenon called the "uncanny valley"
describes how the human mind perceives representations of our own kind. As the realism of the human figure and motion increases, from stick-figures on a cave wall, though XVIII century realism, to the CGI cartoon era, the viewer's acceptance of the images increases. However, viewer reactions change when the rendering is nearly-but-not-quite perfect. Words such as "creepy", "eerie", and "repulsive" are used to describe that which is almost human, but with something not quite right.

Progress has been made since the recent film adaptation of "The Polar Express", which required a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to view, as it appeared to be not quite live action, but not animated either. "The eyes," one critic noted, "were the giveaway. The eyes weren't natural."

In Beowulf, the lack of realism in the extras is most apparent. One reviewer noted that the extras were on-par with "Shrek" characters. To this author's eyes, the extras look like stock Poser characters. The main characters naturally received more fine-tuning attention, but there are times when motions, faces, and, yes, the eyes, provide clues that something is rotten in Denmark, literally.


Rewriting the Motives of Grendel.

The screenwriters used the film to advance their ideas of Grendel's motivation for attacking Hereot. Based on (1) the thesis that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator, self-aggrandising, and (2) that the poet does not provide any explanation for Grendel's singling-out of Hroðgar's people and hall, they concocted the following:

-- Grendel is the son of Hroðgar by a water-demon; the king had no sons by Queen Wealhþeow
-- the illicit coupling of man and demon cursed Hroðgar
-- Grendel acted out of scorn, against the father who in his mind abandonded the son

In the poem, the only motive Grendel has is his own curse; he bore the 'mark of Cain' as the descendant of the Biblical character. The reader is left to supply any further subtext, though this author does not see any reason to look into the motives of the beast. Grendel serves as a manifestation of evil and the unknown, against which (even in the relatively 'civilised' VI century) still persist. Things still walk outside the circle of the campfires at night, and the civilised world looks for heroes to rid that dark of demons.

The concept of a king cursed by his own weakess for the flesh, and a hero who also has congress with the same succubus, makes for a good story. The hero who interally is haunted by the flaws no one else sees, also good. Likewise with the propogation of the Curse of Cain via mankind's flaws. They are just not meet and right to paste into the epic poem. (One may also say the same about the probable insertion of the well-known Christianised portions of the poem into an earlier pagan Germanic story. But that's a whole other topic, best left for scholars other than your writer today.)

The Victories of the "styrigendlica onlícnessa of Beowulf".

"Tonight, we dine with ... Beowulf!"
The Beowulf film (moving pictures of Beowulf, poorly translated above) does have some valuable content and redeeming qualities. Some actual Anglo-Saxon dialogue appears, mainly between Grendel and his mother. The words are accessable to the modern listener: "min cild" (meen child) my child; "modor" (modther) mother; and so forth. The reader may be aware that there is a core of words that have remained little-changed in Modern English from Old English. This author was able to pick up that dialogue fairly well; more so than, say, English via a strong Welsh or Scots accent.

What appears to be a snippet of the original poem in Old English is heard during a celebration of the older King Beowulf's earlier exploits with Grendel. Your author was not immediately able to tell which lines were used, but it sounded authentic enough. A scop was narrarating a staged demonstration of Beowulf (played by a midget) attacking a Grendel complete with break-away arm.

While the digital actors were unsatisfying, other visual effects were top-notch. The glint of torch-light from snow, rapid flight through a winter forest, the blue glamour of an cavernous pool -- all very well-done.

This viewer was able to screen the film in digital 3D, with RayBan-esque glasses. While probably not as good as IMAX 3D, the effects were nonetheless acceptable, and only briefly descended to cliche (Oh no! Look at the spear's tip at my nose!). Fortunately (for this commentor anyway; the reader's opinion may vary) Ms Jolie's anatomy was not rendered in 3D, lest it drive the Average Woman to fits of dispair and inadequacy.

Hwæt: se endestæf.

So, in conclusion: This adaptation of Beowulf is an effective demonstration of the state of the art in motion-capture filmmaking. Despite all the advances, though, the images still ring un-true in distracting ways. It is unfortunate that the filmmakers chose to play with these new cinematic toys whilst trampling over the most important epic in the English language. Had they divorced the story from any connections with the poem, the movie might have gained this Anglo-Saxon-enthusiast's admiration. But as it stands, the experience sullies the good name of Beowulf, and its anonymous scribe. To remove the aftertaste, yours truly will re-visit the original tale this afternooon.

Be well; Beoð ge gesunde, mine hlafordas ond hlæfdigan!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Mediæval performance: An Updated Beowulf


There has been much talk in the popular press of late regarding the venerable Beowulf, the thousand-some-year-old epic that underpins all English poetry and literature. In particular, I am told there is a new dramatic adaptation of the story for the cinema.

Not having yet seen this new production, I can say that I have been told that there have been some liberties taken with the plot, characters, and the relationship between Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's Mother (interestingly, played by the ubiquitous and bi-accessible Angelina Jolie).

For the scholars of mediæval performance, Anglo-Saxon, oral tradition, and folk instruments, I offer this report of a modern performance of the ancient poem.

The original manuscript is un-named, but known for its protagonist. One manuscript is extant (Cotton Vitellus A. XV, British library). It is dated to somewhere between the VIII and XI centuries, and written in Anglo-Saxon ("Old English", not to be confused with the faux ren-faire stylings properly belonging to Early Modern English). While written in England, the content covers a period of Danish and Swedish history, somewhere in the VI century. In what is thought to be a common feature of epics of the era, truth and fable are inexorably intertwined.

The scop, a minstrel, would have performed the poem, likely set to some accompaniment. At 3183 lines long, a performance of Beowulf would have been epic just for the effort needed. Anglo-Saxon poetry relied not on rhyme, but on alliteration:

Hƿæt! ƿē Gār‐Dena / in geār‐dagum
þēod‐cyninga / þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas / ellen fremedon.

ƿ = "w"; þ = "th" as in thick; ð = "th" as in the

Note the repetition of sounds across the caesura: Gār‐Dena, geār‐dagum, and so on.

So, while Beowulf is a staple of the student of English, the poem doesn't see much of the light of the modern day. One recent exception to that was in Professor Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where Anglo-Saxon is used as the language of the Rohirrim. The Peter Jackson film version contains a dirge sung by Éowyn:
Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended
giedd sculon singan gléomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest and mæga deorost.

'An evil death has sent forth the noble warrior
Sorrowing minstrels shall sing a song
in Meduseld that he is no more,
to his dearest lord and kinsmen most beloved.
An evil death...'

The beginning of this newly-written piece recalls line 2265 in Beowulf:
Bealocwelm hafað fela feorhcynna forð onsended...
'Baleful death has many of my living kin sent forth...'

Whilst catching up on my reading today, a particular conversation in an Anglo-Saxon scholar's forum on the æthernet caught my attention. Added to a lively discussion of the film adaptation, was a link to a video performance of one man performing the poem with a reconstructed period harp.

This modern-day scop has memorised(!) the entire poem, and set it to appropriate period music on a harp. The six-stringed instrument was built by a German firm, based on artefacts found in a 7th century Alemannic nobleman's grave in Oberflacht (south of Stuttgart), and corroborated by Sutton Hoo findings.

The instrument is tuned to six tones across an octave which make up three perfect fifths, and two perfect fourths, which gives the scop a useful modal palette with which to work. The sound is rustic, pentatonic, ancient, and haunting.

The effect is astounding, and I am given to imagine that this was what one would have heard a thousand years ago, around a campfire in West Saxony.

References, other than noted above:

(my current favourite translation) Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition) W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. ISBN 0393320979.

History of the English Language at Virginia Tech:

Old English at the University of Virginia:

Beowulf Translations:

Soundtrack analysis of languages used in the Lord of the Rings film:

Peter S Baker, Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. ISBN 0631234543. Electronic edition at

Englisc composition listserv:

Beoð ge gesunde!


Thursday, 25 October 2007

St Crispin, St George, and Harry the King


Apropos of a recent story told at the Anvil regarding St George's defence of Englishmen during the Great War, we should pause to recall St Crispin's Day.

It was on 25 October 1415 when Henry V met the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret on the fields near Agincourt in the North of France. An English victory to be sure, but probably better immortalised by the Bard in the eponymous play where King Harry rouses his troops thus:

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmorland. No, my fair cousin:
If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will, I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It ernes me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace, I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more.
Rather proclaim it presently through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the Feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a-tiptoe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day and live t'old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian":
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars
And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Henry V, IV, iii.


A splendid speech this, nearly making Your Fair Editrix go berate the nearest Frenchman just on principle, but I digress.

Thus the memory of Harry and his happy few lives on to the modern day, and rightly so. Unfortunately the Saint(s) involved in the day-naming here have not been so well-spoke of late.

My sources (E.B.) expert in Celtic mythos tell me that Crispin and his twin brother Crispinian may have been syncretisations of Lugh (Mercury from Caesar's description from his Gallic histories). Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but by the modern era, the Bishop of Rome had these two fellows demoted a bit, so there are not many recent St Crispin's Day festivals, nor greeting cards.

Fortunately in the East, Crispin and Crispinian are still honoured as Saint-Martyrs, and in the Anglican West they still rate a commemorative day.

So, on this day, this happy day, let us who were not there raise a glass to King Harry and his Brothers, and while we're at it, toss back a wee bit for old Crispin and Crispinian.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Update in Anthropology, and an Editorial


Bones of the Romanovs.

The BBC have reported that Russian scientists have made preliminary identification of remains found in July, stating that they were highly probably those of Alexei and Maria, children of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

The remains were found in Ekaterinburg, the location of the execution of the Royal Family. The remains of the family, along with their servants, were found in 1991, in a concealed pit north of the city. Two individuals were missing from the original site, however: the Tsarevich Alexei, and one of his sisters.

The identity of the remains was aided by DNA testing from members of the British royal family. Recall that the Tsarina Alexandra was Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is the grandson of Alexandra's elder sister Victoria, Marchioness of Milford-Haven; Philip provided the DNA sample for comparison.

The new finding should bring some closure to this question, that of the missing Tsarevich and his sister. In 1998, the then-identified members of the family were laid to rest in the St Catherine Chapel in the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia may now be joined by their lost kin.

Russian Victoriana.

For a Caledonian readership, perhaps more well-versed in the names and faces of the British Empire, a few points of reference are in order. Queen Victoria's progeny were found throughout the European noble houses; one of the well-known manifestations was the spread of haemophilia from her gene defect.

Several extant photographs show the Queen with her granddaughter Alix and Nicholas Romanov.

Alix in Coburg Summer 1894 with (left, seated) Kaiser Wilhelm; her fiancé the Tsarevitch Nicholas; Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria, Tsar Nicholas II, Alix and Olga, Prince of Wales, Balmoral 1896


After word spread of the execution of the Tsar, a popular cultus that developed around Nicholas. The so-called Tsar-Martyr was invoked in prayer and featured on icons. A hagiography is detailed here, with numerous accounts of supernatural events associated with Nicholas.

In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (one of the portions of the Church formed in exile after the Bolshevik revolution) elevated the Tsar and his family to sainthood, as 'passion-bearers' (страстотéрпец, strastoterpets) -- not martyrs in the Western sense, but rather ones who faced their end with faith. After 8 years of further debate, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate recognised the family as passion-bearers as well. This was not without some dissension; Nicholas' legacy of rule was not entirely glowing, and arguably contributed to the downfall of the Russian Empire. Proponents argue that, his policies notwithstanding, his personal piety was exemplary.

An editorial.

Somewhat out-of-character, I will offer a few thoughts on this recent update to the Romanov history. There are a few historical events which, when I learned of them in childhood, seemed to have a particular indelible and resonating quality. The murder of the Romanovs was one of those. No one wishes to dwell on disaster or evil, but there was just something about the story that begged for re-telling and re-reflection.* The tragic ending of the lives of the Tsar and his innocent family in a cellar at the hands of a Bolshevik firing squad is one of those pieces of history that cannot be un-seen, once seen in the mind's eye. Part of me has always been deeply moved and troubled by the image of the haemophiliac Tsarevich, the innocent Grand Duchesses, and the non-Russian-born Tsarina sharing the fate of the head of the Empire. Even if one reckons the Tsar's fate to be similar to that of a captain of a sinking ship, the fate of the rest of the family was an unusually cruel one.

So, on to the canonisation, and the associated difficulties. The despicable slaughter of the Romanovs holds just as much weight as that of all the nameless who suffered during and after the revolution. There were many more Anastasias than the Grand Duchess killed by the Bolsheviks and the Soviets. Does one slight the nameless when one reverences the now-sainted Romanovs? I would like to think the two are separated, the so-called New Martyrs and the royal passion bearers. Certainly they are separated theologically**, but on a humanist level, perhaps the Romanovs serve as a touchstone, a symbol, of the brutality of one group against another.

Regardless of my reader's spiritual and/or religious beliefs, I would put forward that, with this new reminder of the events of 1918 in Ekaterinburg, we strive to remember all such victims of violence -- and there are no lack of examples, from one's doorstep out to the ends of the earth.

I appreciate the reader's indulgence in matters more philosophic than scientific in this editorial, and will return the Proceedings towards more science in the near future.

* Note the particular interest in the stories surrounding the loss of 1490 lives in the North Atlantic when Titanic sank.
** Theology is quite beyond the scope of this periodical. Interested readers may contact me directly for references to the appropriate sources.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Loch Avie and the Terrain Disaster

Nicholas K, Bellambi E. Unexpected loss of terrain data in a Caledon duchy. Proc Royal Soc 2007;8.

Caledon Loch Avie suffered a data casualty on Friday, August 10, during a period of ongoing unusual server performance. One of the authors (EB) witnessed a whole-scale disruption in the Loch Avie terrain. Land elevations were affected across the sim, with some locations receeding over 1 metre. Three woman-hours of terraforming was required to return the Loch's landscaping to normal.

While the reader is likely familiar with the typical SL behaviour after client updates and on busy weekend times, the usual set of errors has not, to date, concerned sim structure, but rather, the classic shoe-bum attachment and loss of inventory.

After an uneventful period in-game, EB discovered that across the Loch, terrain elevations had been altered. Land permissions had not been changed, and were re-confirmed to have public terraforming disabled. A check of the estate tools revealed no change to the sim-wide water level, or terrain features.

The damage consisted of widespread lowering of certain -- but not all -- locations in the loch, and affected both the major land division (Loch Avie proper) as well as the Inbhir Abigh ("Inveravie") sub-parcel at the southwest corner.

The most obvious indicators of a change in terrain were objects now above the ground level which once were at ground level. More subtle changes involved ground on the railroad tracks, and changes in shape to the mountains.

Approximately three hours of terraforming was required to return the Loch to the closest pre-event state possible. The 'revert' land tool proved very useful, though there were significant differences in pre-event and original terrain due to two duchesses' worth of ownership.

Caledon Loch Avie's terrain was diffusely changed by an unknown mechanism. Repairing the damage was made easier by using the land reversion tool, and by looking at objects to gauge the amount of change that had occurred. Sim owners could increase the ease of terrain recovery by using the terrain data file upload and download features in the estate menu (though neither author has any experience with such). Sim rollback would be another, if drastic, option to investigate.

The cause of the mishap is unknown. Given the fact that the simulator terrain data is an integral part of the sim, and not under the control of the asset server, such a fault would suggest something amiss with the computer on which Loch Avie is simulated, and not a client-side or asset server-side problem.

The Society will continue to serve as a clearinghouse for any future information on such events. Readers are invited to share any information as it may become available.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Found on the desk of Mme Nicholas.


Telegram to Dr Beaker Honeydew.

Volcano elevation, on Sir Adso's stationery.

Laboratory notebook page 2237: seismographic analyses of the event.

Laboratory notebook page 2238: geometaphysigorical data.

Draft of a note to BardHaven.

As requested, I have located seven mobile seismographs suitable for portage by penguins. I am sure that this is not part of an elaborate joke, though, honestly, I had my doubts at first.

I have rec'd information from the captain of the vessel Aronnax that he is inbound to the Cay, and should arrive within a day. Unfortunately, your first choice of vessel, the Argonaut, was unavailable, as her captain is still a bit -- how shall I put it plainly -- perturbed at the Society's last fling (or expedition; I won't be pedantic about it). And your second choice, the Arktik is currently employed by the Tsar's academicians at the Pole.

I am happy to vouch for Lady Darkling's credentials, given your question of yesterday. Her dossier in our files is in proper order.

Lastly: the geometaphysigorical data (a few sheets enclosed) are troubling. Honeydew is unusually quiet on this question, and Krogstad has been avoiding the subject altogether, even when prodded. And I do not have to explain my skills at prodding to you, I assure you.

Looking forward to reports of your endeavours, I remain, &c.


Wednesday, 4 July 2007


Interest in the analysis of dreams goes back to antiquity.  Despite this, such analysis has not yet benefited from the scientific method, which explains my normal disinterest in discussions of dreams.

However ... I came across this poster for the Saint Petersburg Zoological Gardens (in a crate of materials from the Rodina), and I could find no other explanation for it than "A Dream Inspired after a Late Night of Caledon and Whisky".

The caption: "1903 г. С.П.Б. Зоологическiй Садъ"
("S.P.B. Zoologic Gardens")

I defy anyone to look at this poster, and not find themselves, or some personal interest, depicted.  Look -- isn't that Mr Pearse there in the back row?

До свидания! Dasvidanya!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Update in Ægyptology.

Update in Ægyptology
~ or ~
Raiders of the Lost Queen.

In a case of 'real life imitates Second Life', recent reports have been making the rounds concerning the discovery of Hatshepsut's mummy.

Why, Hatshepsut's mummy is where it has been since last year: the second level gallery of the Royal Society offices!

Fig 1. The Queen's exhibit.

We obtained the Queen's mummy via a, er, circuitous route (1), and put her on display as the centrepiece of our Ægyptology exhibit. Oh, and she also doubled as our Hallowe'en décor last October.

In any event, while we at the Society have had no doubts about the location of the first female Pharaoh, our colleagues in the real world have had more difficulty.

Fig. 2. "Eva, Hatshepsut. Hapshetsut, Eva."

Overview of Hatshepsut and her context.
While the interested reader is directed to a wonderful synopsis of the life and times of the Queen, I shall provide a shorter version of the story.

Hatshepsut was Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt during the New Kingdom, XVIII Dynasty, and unique in that she was the first Queen of Egypt to adopt the well-known (and male title) Pharaoh. She was known as a great ruler, responsible for building campaigns, and prudent domestic policy.

Unfortunately, after her death, her successor (and prior co-regent) Thutmose III apparently in an Orwellian mood, had her name and likeness eradicated from, well, pretty much wherever it existed.

So, to her mummy. Her tomb has been no secret. Located in the Valley of the Kings, and labelled KV20, her tomb contained her two sarcophagi, but not her mummy (2). So, where did she go?

Clues appear.
Perhaps due to the aggressive grave robbing going on in the Valley of the Kings, later priests took it upon themselves to gather up the royal mummies from their original tombs, and secret them away to more obscure locations. One such cache, TT320, contained an astounding collection of royals (3). Despite the site's contents spanning the XVII to the XXI Dynastic periods, Hatshepsut was absent. Her liver however was present and accounted for: a canopic jar bearing her name, complete with mummified liver, was part of a collection of artefacts in TT320 belonging to the Queen.

Fig. 3. Canopic container. Liver not visible.

Now, another tomb, KV60, was found to contain two mummies, but not much else of value, having been looted in antiquity. One mummy was lying on the floor, partially unwrapped, and unidentified (4). The other rested in a sarcophagus bearing the name of In-Sitre, the Royal Nurse of Hatshepsut's court (5). One theory holds that Thutmose III moved his former Queen out of her tomb, demoting her to a B-list site. Ironically, this shuffling may have saved the Queen for posterity, rather than succumbing to loss at the hands of tomb raiders, if I may coin a phrase.

Finding the Lost Queen.
Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, and a modern-day champion of Ægyptology (6) recently announced a solution to the identity of the unidentified mummy on the floor of KV60. A funerary box associated with Hatshepsut, upon CT scanning, showed a tooth removed from a mummy, and given the requisite rites due a post-mortem piece of a Pharaoh. Dental examinations of the tooth, and of the KV60 mummy provide an exact match. Dr Hawass alludes to further mitochondrial DNA sequencing evidence to link the mummy to that of Ahmose Nefertari, Hatshepsut's grandmother.

The argument for Hatshepsut as the unidentified KV60 mummy is well-made, though I will anxiously await Dr Hawass publishing his data in a peer-reviewed journal. Should the mDNA conclusions pass muster, then it would seem that we indeed know where this great Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt is. Regardless, her works and legacy remain.

(Now, if I could only figure out where that golden box-thing in the crate in the corner came from, the one that Prof Krogstad brought back from that particular trip to the Levant ... )

(1) Provenance of our mummy: the Royal Society's Hatshepsut was liberated from a shady antiquities dealer in Cairo, portaged by camel caravan to Jerusalem, then Acre, then (following the crusaders' route) Nicaea, Constantinople (not Istanbul), and then (via a series of misadventures too long to present here) eventually to Sankt Pitrbyurg, by a Baltic route over to Denmark, then (following Beowulf's route) to the United Kingdom. Then things became confusing, and, really, it's not that important at this point. See me after class for more details.

(2) KV20: Thutmose I and Hatshepsut.

(3) TT320: A cache of royal mummies, moved to the location presumably to protect them against further grave robbery. Hatshepsut was not among those represented.

(4) The unidentified mummy in KV60:

(5) KV60:

(6) Dr Zahi Hawass discusses his findings:

Sunday, 27 May 2007

A report on initial experience with sculpted prims.

Nicholas, K.   "A report on initial experience with sculpted prims."  Proc Royal Soc  2007; 2 (advance communication ahead of printing).

Availability of sculpted primative constuction allows for a greatly-expanded repertoire of objects for the builder. Preparation of the sculpted prim is nonintuitive, and requires additional methods and skills that may not be readily available. Further work is suggested to improve access to sculpting methods. Proceeds from the sale of the developed sculpted-prim glassware should go towards future research and development of sculpting methods.

Constructing a primitive object (prim) has to this point required little in the way of preparation or skills beyond that required for day-to-day existence. Linden Lab have added an option to transform a prim into a unique shape based on a map of sorts (Fig. 1). Construction of this map is nonintuitive, and requires what appears to be a fair amount of mathematics
to translate a three-dimensional representation into this color-based map.

Fig. 1. Color-map of an object.

Methods available to perform this conversion require a knowledge of three-dimensional artistry, and an investment in the tools. One tool requires a L$ 1,820,000 capital outlay (1). Less-costly tools are available, with varying degrees of utility, and are detailed elsewhere (2).

Using the "Rokuro" software (3), a series of maps were created to model common laboratory glassware (the first objects available for study). Eleven items were created; five were solid objects, and six attempted to recreate the hollow nature of actual glassware (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Hollow versus solid objects.

The object maps were loaded on to the beta grid for testing. All objects were given a standard glass texture (without any alpha channel), set to 30% transparency, with low reflectivity and "brightness" bump-mapping settings (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Texturing parameters.
(See text for 'A' and 'B' discussion.)

Creating the object maps via the lathe tool took on the order of 5 to 10 min per object, trending towards the lower end as the author gained facility with the method.

Figure 3 shows the different effect seen with hollow ("A") and solid ("B") prims. At a uniform level of transparency, the solid prims provided a more life-like outer appearance, with the hollow objects showing a penumbra, and the solid objects presenting a clearly-defined outer edge.

Figure 4 shows the glassware on a different background; figure 5, with different lighting (sunrise), and figure 6, at night, using only ambient lighting.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.

Simple sculpted primative construction is within the ability of the average-to-advanced builder, using very specific tools, and and access to the beta grid for testing. Glassware emulation produces reasonable results, though the correct, hollow representation of vessels produces a somewhat-indistinct outer edge. No attempt was made to optimise texture methods, and it is acknowledged that texture map creation for sculpted prims is difficult (4). Further research is required to maximise the utility of sculpted prims; furthermore, more available (and accessible) tools for builders are required.

All of the glassware will be on sale at the offices of the Royal Society, in Tamrannoch, Caledon. These will be priced at below-upload-cost, with the set of 11 pieces sold at L$100. Naturally, proceeds from the sales will fund futher sculpting methods.

The author is supported by a new-materials grant from the Duchy of Loch Avie (LA-21-003), and by viewers like you. She has no industry support or conflict of interest to disclose.

(1).   Autodesk Maya (ex-Alias|Wavefront, ex-Silicon Graphics) was sighted at US$ 6999. Linden Lab's current officially-suported sculpted prim import pathway (singular) is for Maya.
(2).   Building forum, Accessed repeatedly, often to little avail.
(3).   Jewell, Y. Rokuro (lathe) Accessed 25 May 2007.
(4).   Krogstad, A. Personal communication.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Initial Report: Analysis of a ship-wreck off Loch Avie.

Nicholas K, Krogstad A. "Analysis of a ship-wreck off Loch Avie." Proc Royal Soc 2007; 2 (advance communication ahead of printing).

The discovery and analysis of the site of a wrecked submersible in the littoral waters off the Duchy of Loch Avie are reported. Findings support that a submersible vessel, likely under steam power, suffered a catastrophic boiler failure. The wreck is relatively recent, and the lack of crew remains suggests an autonomous vehicle. Further studies are ongoing regarding the origin of the vessel, and details of its control mechanisms.

No reports currently exist regarding any underwater archæological sites in Caledonian waters. The experience of one author (KN) during the Caledon Hydrographic Survey suggests that, as of January 2007, there were no identifiable wrecks in surveyed areas, and a more-detailed exploration of Loch Avie in conjunction with the study of Nessie the Loch Beastie (1) revealed no wrecks in or around Loch Avie.

Despite ongoing civilian and naval traffic, there are no reports of loss of ships, impediments to navigation, or damage to vessels that may occur during inadvertent collisions with submerged wrecks.

As well, there has been no reported seismic activity in the area that may either expose wrecks previously buried under silt, or produce rogue waves that may be a hazard to ships.

Discovery of the site.
The site was initially discovered by one of the authors (AK) while doing sediment testing on the sea floor. One sample container was retrieved containing several pieces of coal; the Caledonian strata are not known to contain anthracite. The authors returned to the site in the Royal Society's submersible (fig. 1) to ascertain the source of the coal.

Starting at the location the coal was found, a standard search pattern (βουστροφηδόν) was begun, in 10m wide rows. Visibility was estimated at 15m at the surface, and 10m at depth. Measurement of the sub-surface currents were in line with prior observations (2), with a 1 m/sec (0.1 Sievert) current at the bottom. A 2-degree-Centigrade thermocline was present at 12 m depth.

The bottom was at 21 m depth, and fairly uniform across the search pattern. It consisted of the typical sedimentary deposits, without evident rock outcropping or other features. No flora or fauna were identified, save for ubiquitous plankton in suspension.

The first evidence of the wreck site was the finding of a screw-and-shaft mechanism, partially buried in silt. (Fig. 2.) The screw was toroidal, with a 50-cm estimated radius, and appeared to be brass or copper. The survey course then continued east-north-east at 80 degrees, along the visible axis of the debris field.

A field of lump coal was found to the east of the propeller, with an approximate 10 m diameter spread. The coal was visibly similar to the originally-extracted specimen, and consistent with fuel coal used in coal-fired steam plants. (Fig. 3.)

Beyond the coal field came larger debris pieces. Multiple metallic shapes were scattered along the debris field axis, buried in silt to various degrees. No identifiable structures or components were among the pieces. (Fig. 4.) The metal was of uniform make-up, averaging 5 cm thick, and without paint or markings. Edges of the fragments were curled and deformed; where an interior/exterior differentiation was noted on the fragments, the deformity trend was from in- to outside. The pieces ranged from one to 3 m in diameter. Application of the external magnetometer revealed the fragments to be uniformly ferrous.

There was no evidence of oxidation or combustion on any of the visible fragments. A failure of the on-board under-silt sounding apparatus prevented locating any obscured pieces, though the magnetometer did detect signal changes under silt.

The four largest pieces formed an axis of 110 degrees, to the east-south-east, turning right from the initially-seen debris field direction. (Fig. 5.) Absent from this section of the site were any smaller (sub 1 m) items. No encrustation of the debris was noted, and no plant or animal life was noted in the vicinity of the wreck. Gieger counter readings were consistent with background radiation.

Proceeding along the secondary debris field axis, the largest piece of the wreck was found approximately within 10m of the eastern-most portion of the debris. (Fig. 6.) A single metallic object, 15 x 2 x 3 m, with a cylindrical protrusion 1 x 1 x 3 m in the mid-section, was lying on the silt, aligned nearly due east. The eastern end was conical, and partially buried in silt. The western end was severely deformed, again with an in-to-out orientation of damage. The interior of this largest piece was open to the sea, but a combination of metal damage and sediment prevented close inspection. However, certain interior features were noted. A plane of metal consistent with diamond-plate decking was evident, along with several pipes, levers, and gear assemblies. No biologic matter was noted, neither human remains, nor expected sea life. The cylindrical feature on the hull was consistent with a sail and hatch, and was rotated nearly perpendicular to the sea floor.


Taken together, these findings are most likely the remains of a submarine vessel. Based on the forward section, the estimated size would have been 25 x 3 x 2 m, with the hatch just forward of amidships, standing at 1 m above the hull. No diving planes were seen; however, it appears that some portion of the wreck has been covered by silt, probably at the time of initial impact with the sea bed. Based on the presence of coal, and the fragmentary remains of the stern, the craft was likely under coal-fired steam power, and suffered a boiler explosion. Due to the relatively compact east-west dimensions of the debris, the vessel was likely stationary at the time of the engineering catastrophe. When the boiler exploded, the aft end of the vessel ruptured, ejecting the coal stores, and sending the shaft-screw section aft. Due to the lack of apparent impact damage, or deep embedding in silt, the vessel was probably close to the bottom, estimated at 15 m depth. The fast undersea current at the site helps provide some timing on the loss of the craft; significant time had not passed between the wreck and its discovery, as there was not appreciable dune formation on the up-current end of debris. The lack of remains (human or otherwise) with this time frame raises the possibility that the vessel was under autonomous control (3). The data do not support further conclusions regarding the method of operation, or origin, of the craft.

A submarine craft was lost off the southern coast of Loch Avie some time between January and May of the current year, likely closer to the latter. It may have been un-manned, and suffered an unrecoverable hull failure after steam plant explosion while at depth. No evidence exists as to the origin, nature, or type (civil versus military) of the ship. Metallurgical analyses are currently being conducted, and a second expedition to explore the interior of the hull is planned.

(1) Nicholas K et al. Proc Royal Soc 2007; 1.
(2) Krogstad A. Unpublished data 2006.
(3) Bell L et al. The speed of post mortem change to the human skeleton and its taphonomic significance. Forensic Sci Int 1996; 82(2):129-140.