April 9th, 2009


April Books 3) From One To Zero: A Universal History of Numbers, by Georges Ifrah

This was a recommendation from some time ago by nickbarnes, and is indeed a fascinating read. Ifrah has catalogued the totality of archæological and other knowledge about counting systems since the dawn of humanity, and put it all into a single book, with lavish illustrations (black and white line drawings) of how ancient cultures counted.

It reinforces just how revolutionary the discovery of the concept of zero was - a lot of cultures had groped toward a place value notation system, ie writing 429 instead of (400) (20). (9), but this falls down when you try and write 409 unless you have something signifyng nothing. It is pretty clear that our use of it stems from Indian mathematicians of around 800 AD.

A lot of the book is simply well-illustrated cataloguing, but there were a few other points of analysis that jumped out at me. Ifrah lays out several proposed explanations for the origin of Roman numerals, before coming down with an interpretation where they came from notches on tally sticks. His description of the destruction of Mayan civilisation is intriguing and awful - is it really true that only three Mayan manuscripts survived the Spanish conquest? And of course I was interested to see how the medieval numbers that I was once familiar with fit into the longer tradition of the Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Solid stuff.


Stratfor have published a "Red Alert" about a potential revolution brewing in Georgia. (The former Soviet republic, not the U.S. state.) I'm a bit sceptical. It's clear that Saakashvili is not as strong as he was a year ago, but neither is his popularity at the single-figure depths plumbed by Eduard Shevardnadze toward the end of his rule. The opposition has yet to demonstrate that it has a critical mass.

I'm also a bit sceptical about Stratfor's speculations regarding the south of the country. Adjara is more firmly under Tbilisi's control than Stratfor seems to think. Samtskhe-Javakhetia will take its lead from Yerevan rather than Moscow (if anywhere), and Armenia does not want its only land route to the outside world blocked (yet again) by crisis in Georgia.

Still, I agree with Stratfor that this is one to watch.

April Books 4) Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

This is the only Shakespeare play I have yet encountered which deals with the vicissitudes of electoral politics (though really only in a couple of scenes in the second act). Caius Marcius, a Roman general in the early years of the Republic, is given the surname Coriolanus after leading a successful military campaign against the neighbouring Volscii (and capturing the town of Corioli). Back in Rome, he is persuaded by his family to enter politics, but can barely endure the humiliation of asking the common people for their votes. They vote for him anyway, but are easily persuaded not only to change their minds but to exile him from Rome because of his arrogant behaviour.

Coriolanus throws his lot in with his former enemies, the Volsci, and leads them in turn to military success against his home city. He appears implacable in his new allegiance, until his family again appear and persuade him to work for peace instead. He returns to Antium, the Volsci capital, with a peace treaty; the Volsci general Aufidius, unimpressed by this latest shift of allegiance, has him killed on the spot, and the play ends.

Coriolanus is not a very likeable hero, and unlike some of Shakespeare's other problematic heroes, there's not a lot of mystery or suspense about his actions. He is arrogant and proud, and prefers fighting battles to fighting elections. At the same time he is a sucker for the wishes of his wife and mother, who talk him into politics in the first place, and then talk him out of attacking Rome at the end. An inspired director and actor could no doubt make something memorable of it, but it's tough material to work with.

Shakespeare doesn't seem to be a big fan of electoral democracy. The voters are shown as fickle, agreeing with the person who last shouted at them, easily manipulated by Coriolanus' enemies, who have deliberately set him up for failure, humiliation and exile (and then get their just deserts in terms of military disaster and civil chaos). Coriolanus however is not a good man struggling with an evil system; he is a vain man who is easily outmanœuvred by the leaders of the democratc faction.

The most interesting of the other characters are Aufidius, the Volscian general, Menenius, Coriolanus' friend in Rome, and Volumnia, his mother. Arkangel has decently solid performances in all four main parts (Paul Jesson, Martin Marquez, Ewan Hooper, Marjorie Yates). Clive Brill, the director, has had a good idea for the soundscape which doesn't quite work: the Volsci are Yorkshiremen, and the incidental music is therefore all in colliery brass band style. The resonances would have been better if Rome had sounded musically distinct from the Volscian territories; also I think the Westminster/Yorkshire split is a poor parallel for the Roman/Volscian of the story - English/Welsh might have been better. (And the minor characters have accents from all over the place: Aufidius has two very camp servants, one from the Home Counties and the other from Scotland.) He's limited, of course, by the audio format: on the stage you could have a dozen different ways of distinguishing between them visually, and let them talk however they liked.

I shouldn't complain too much. Apart from Troilus and Cressida, the last dozen or so plays have been pretty solid. (Though I understand there are a couple more duds on the list.)

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)