• My Sunday morning travels with Brain Pickings

    Every Sunday morning the Brain Pickings Weekly email appears in my inbox. On a good day, I’ll have some time to myself to luxuriate in it, to read, to allow thoughts and feelings time to flourish, to follow the links and enjoy the journey. This morning was exactly like that.

    I started with the first article Bear and Wolf: A Tender Illustrated Fable of Walking Side by Side in Otherness and opened links to read next - Friend or Foe?: A Lovely Illustrated Fable About Making Sense of Otherness, and Staying Alive: Mary Oliver on How Books Saved Her Life and Why the Passion for Work Is the Greatest Antidote to Pain. And those also had links for me to follow - The Jacket: A Sweet Illustrated Meta-Story about How We Fall in Love With Books, and A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing. And on it went. Until after about an hour I called a stop and headed off in search of tea. I picked up my journal and wrote

    I love having the time, and curiosity, to follow a path, a unique journey through one of these articles. I only tend to ‘visit’ one of the included stories in detail. And I suspect that if I were to revisit I’d travel a different path. And that feels special, a bit ‘choose your own adventure’. A different perspective, a different mood would result in a different pathway.

    I love my Sunday morning journeys. Thank you Maria Popova and Brain Pickings.

  • Mutton bone carving

    Yesterday I spent a few hours at Brighton Museum with a friend. As we wandered through the galleries and looked at the objects, we noticed something that seemed out of keeping with the pots and tiles that were around it in the Willett gallery. It was a guillotine. Carved out of mutton bones. By French Prisoners of War. In around 1810 (I think the label said, I’ll go back and check sometime). It was beautifully carved, the soldier’s uniforms have buttons, and the guillotine has a heart above its blade (which struck me as somewhat macabre).

    My brain scampered off down a lot of ‘but why?’ paths. Why a guillotine? Why mutton bones? Why did the POWs carve it? Who were they? How did it end up in a Brighton museum?

    The information at the museum was pretty limited, and I was sad not to be able to assuage my curiosity. But a search on the web has found me some links with answers to some of these questions.

    Why a guillotine?

    From this page, showing a much more elaborate guillotine

    This bone guillotine reflects events in the lives of many of these men. The guillotine was invented by Dr Joseph Guillotine to make execution faster and more humane, and it was the method of executing aristocrats and Royalist supporters during the French Revolution. The model actually works by cutting off the head of the victim.

    There seem also to have been ships, domino boxes, dominoes themselves, this model with moving parts also in the Brighton Museum collection. It wasn’t just guillotines. It was things that they had knowledge of or use for.

    Why mutton bones?

    From this page

    Prisoners would keep pig and mutton bones from the food rations issued to them by the English, boil them and bleach them in the sun. But sometimes materials from their meals weren’t enough for their detailed works of art, so they supplemented their supplies with human bones from the shallow graves around camp, uncovered by roving pigs. No one really cared where or from who the bones came from, as long as they helped finish the job.

    Supplemented their supplies with human bones! Eek!

    And from this auction lot page :

    carved of mutton bone with chisels finely fashioned from nails

    How did they finely fashion the nails?

    Why did the POWs carve it?

    From this page again

    It was made as a model to be sold in the prison markets.

    These markets were open to local civilians who came to see their ‘enemy’ at work and play, and purchased the models as souvenirs. The money the prisoners received enabled them to purchase extra food.

    Groups of men would combine their talents and make specific parts of the models, sharing in the proceeds of the sale. Some made enough money to employ other prisoners as servants and cooks and on release some went home with up to 100 guineas in their pocket – this would be worth over £6400 today.

    Manufacturing bone models filled their time and allowed them to improve their living conditions with the money earned.

    So the Prisoners of War were a spectacle in their own right to local civilians. And buying something carved by them was a souvenir. I guess it would be a talking point in your home. And I’m fascinated by the idea that some master carvers would make enough money to employ others and to leave with a sizeable sum of money. There is a novel, or film, or play in among here somewhere.

    Who were they?

    From this page again

    During the period 1793 to 1815, over 200,000 prisoners of war were brought to Britain to be housed in the infamous prison ships or hulks at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, and the Land depots such as Dartmoor, Norman Cross, Portchester Castle and Perth. Officers resided in the Parole Depots. These were towns and villages around the country where they were billeted upon the inhabitants. During the Waterloo Campaign prisoners of war were held at Dartmoor Prison.

    The prisoners were not just French. The population included Dutch, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Danes, Poles and Americans; men, women and children, soldiers, seamen and civilians. Many spent up to 11 years in captivity.

    200,000 prisoners of war! Some, indeed maybe many, spending over a decade in captivity. And including women and children as well!

    and from this auction lot page :

    At the height of the wars there were 8,000 French prisoners in Dartmoor Prison alone

    From the Dartmoor Prison site

    From 1803 to 1815 Britain was at war with Napoleonic France and many thousands of prisoners were taken. To help accommodate them redundant warships were commissioned as floating prisons known as ‘the hulks’. Several hulks were at anchor at Plymouth among other places and conditions were so bad with poor sanitary arrangements, little exercise, lack of fresh air and a poor diet, the death rate rose to an unacceptable level and a prison on land was decided upon. Princetown on Dartmoor was considered a suitable location and that is how Dartmoor Prison came to be built.

    I can’t help but wonder what an acceptable level of death was!

    also from the Dartmoor Prison site

    First prisoners arrived on 22nd May 1809 and the prison was full by the end of the year. It soon became overcrowded and remained so. In April 1813 American prisoners began arriving and the overcrowding became worse. Outbreaks of diseases – pneumonia, typhoid, smallpox, etc. killed more than 11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans. Their graveyards and memorials are at the rear of the prison. The wars finally ended and the prisoners were repatriated, the last of them leaving in early 1816. The prison then closed until opening again as a penal establishment for criminals in 1850.

    11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans died from diseases once settled into the prison. And this was a prison created to stop unacceptable levels of death on the ‘hulks’. The conditions must have been truly horrific. I wonder how many of those 200,000 made it out alive?

    How did it end up in Brighton Museum?

    No idea. But the fact it is in the Willett Gallery suggests that it was a piece collected by Willett.

    So I still have unanswered questions. But less than I started with. I love it when I visit a museum or gallery, even one I’ve been around many times, and have my attention caught by something. I don’t think I even knew there were Prisoners of War held in England during the Napoleonic Wars. Yesterday I was saddened that the information panel didn’t give me more information about it, and to answer some of my questions. Today I am glad as I’ve had the time to find out for myself, and learned much more than if I’d been presented with a more detailed information panel.

  • Alexa Month 1

    It has now been a month since Alexa moved into my kitchen. A few weeks ago I asked

    “Alexa, what gender are you?”

    and the response was

    “I’m female in character.”

    and so this post will refer to ‘her’ and ‘she’ rather than it. I’m still uncomfortable with these gender politics, but she identifies as female, and so I’m going with it. Uncomfortably. (I have some articles saved to Instapaper on this subject so there may be more on this at a later stage)

    We mainly seem to be using her as a kitchen assistant. We use her mostly as a timer - and the fact she can have multiple timers going at the same time is convenient.

    The most common mishearings we’ve encountered are between “teen” and “ty” at the end of numbers

    “Alexa, set a timer for 50 minutes.”

    often results in

    “Timer set for 15 minutes.”

    or vice versa.

    We have done some experimentation with language use - finding out how long is left on the timer is a good example. After a bit of trial and error, we’ve found

    “Alexa, timer update.”

    to be the most successful. I’ve had to stop being polite to her because if I ask

    “Alexa, timer for ten minutes please.”

    she often responds with

    “That’s so polite! I’ll do my best to help, just ask whatever you’d like me to do.”

    and doesn’t set a timer. I don’t like this. I don’t like the idea that I’m issuing a command rather than requesting politely. Back to the thing about gender/status politics I guess.

    We also use her to hold our shopping list. We’ve both got the app on our phones and so whichever of us is doing the shopping has an up to date list of what we need. Before this, we’d had a piece of paper in the kitchen with items scrawled on it. It worked, but only if we planned to go the supermarket. I find it a bit annoying that every time I want to add an item I have to start with “Alexa, add” so when adding a string of items it becomes

    “Alexa, add sausages to the list.”

    “Alexa, add fresh oregano to the list.”

    which is pretty verbose. When we tried

    “Alexa, add oranges, and apples to the list.”

    we got a list which included “oranges and apples” on it as one item. Not good enough really.

    This morning I had the most comedic mishearing so far. I asked her

    “Alexa, add conchigliette pasta to my list.”

    now admittedly I have no idea how to pronounce that, and I knew I was pushing my luck, but I hadn’t expected her to start a todo list and add “call big black the pastor” to it!

    Do What Now?

    And No, Alexa didn’t hear me correctly! I have reported a few of the worst mishearings through the app, this one included.

    The Alexa app lists the questions we’ve asked, and the tasks we’ve requested. I’ve just scanned through our list and got a bit confused by the presence of this


    On closer inspection, it turns out that she heard

    “Alexa, what’s happening at the winter olympics?”


    “Alexa what is a parrot winter olympics”

    Little wonder she didn’t know the answer!

    The majority of the items in the activity list relate to either timer or shopping list activity. So how I think we’re using it seems to tally with what the app can tell me about how we’re actually using it. The other tasks that do get a mention in that list are listening to Radio 4, or to some artist/genre of music.

    We tried listening to podcasts, but the support for this seemed quite limited. There didn’t seem to be a way to pause and resume. If anyone has any suggestions for something to try for this, I’d love to know more.

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