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May 22 is World Goth Day! The holiday originated in the United Kingdom in the far distant year of…2009—jeesh, this not exactly Saturnalia we are talking about here. Goth Day does not celebrate ancient Germanic people from southern Sweden, medieval black letters, or elegant architecture based around arches so much as it celebrates the “Goth” subculture of alternative lifestyle devotees who wear severe or fetishitic rock-and-roll outfits (often black or deep red). There tends to be lots of piercings, dramatic make-up, and outre hairstyles in Goth fashion, as well. Wikipedia says the Goth scene originated in England in the early 80s as a sort of offshoot of punk…but come on we already had things like Walpole and Strawberry Hill and movie monsters and Odilon Redon. So I will go ahead and say contemporary Goth subculture seems like an outgrowth of a series of profoundly ancient cultural/aesthetic movements (punk merely being one of the more recent of a long line of progenitors rather than a sui generis single parent).
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Whatever the case, I like Goth fashion, which appeals to my taste for the bizarre, the dramatic, the anachronistic, and the complicated. I probably would have liked it even better when I was a teenager and my favorite color was black, but I was too lost in my own world to notice what other people thought was fashionable back then. According to Professor Internet, there are now all sorts of offshoots and subgenres of “Goth” some of which are quite amazing, ludicrous, or scary. We’ll get back to them another day. Today (World Goth Day!) we are just going to put up some straightforward corsets, boots, and riding cloaks and call it a day. Enjoy the miscellaneous fashions and let me know if you think of a new gothic topic for the coming year. I am starting to run out!

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Here in America many of our Christmas habits descend from English…and Old English…and pre-English traditions. Yet among the mistletoe and fruitcake and holly boughs, one key element of English gifts is clearly lacking: explosive gifts.

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The people of the UK have this gift-style thing called “a cracker.” Now in America, a cracker is either a flat disk of inedible starch meant to be fed to a parrot or a racial insult aimed at poor southern whites, yet in England it is something rather more magical and surreal. The cracker, or more properly the “bon-bon”, is a paper or cardboard tube painted with a low-lever explosive like silver fulminate (!) and covered in a twisted wrapper of festive paper. The end-result looks rather like a giant fake tootsie roll (insomuch as tootsie rolls have any valid realness of their own). Two holiday celebrants grasp the respective ends of the cracker and pull, whereupon the silver fulminate detonates with a pop. like a wishbone, the cracker splits unevenly and one party is left with the gift, whereas the other has nothing. So not only does this thing sound dangerous, it also sounds like it would cause lots of friendship-ending fights.

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However the purpose of this blog post is not to judge the British for their toys (indeed, this cracker business is starting to reveal where some of the cantankerous, alarming, or over-the-top elements of America’s national character come from). Instead we wish to concentrate on a particular aspect of the gifts inside the cracker. In addition to candies and little toys, crackers traditionally contain tissue paper crowns which are worn during holiday feasts.  I have no idea what the symbolism of this is (at Christmas, everyone is king for a moment), but I really like the hats!  I wish there were some real vulture hats like in Harry Potter–that would be even more magical!
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Map of Namibia

Map of Namibia

Our imaginary fantasy trip across Africa has taken us to some amazing places as we proceeded west along the map starting out from the micro-continent of Madagascar. Exploring the continent on the internet has really made me want to visit someday! Through photos and descriptive writing we have seen the great lakes of Malawi and Tanzania. We have lingered in the terrifying yet astonishing rainforests of the Congo. We have marveled at the unprecedented ugliness of the flags of Mozambique and Angola (sorry, flagmakers). At last we come to the ancient Namib Desert. Beyond it lie the cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean filled with nutrients thrown off from the mighty Antarctic circumpolar current. It is one of the most jarring juxtapositions on Earth—the rich freezing waters of the sea pound against the burning arid dunes.

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As you can tell, I have a fascination with the Namib. If I ever win the lottery or suddenly find a bag of gold or gain a million internet followers [crickets chirping], I will make it my business to go there at once. The Namib is the world’s oldest desert. As the continents dance all around the globe and their landscapes change from forest to ocean to plains to mountains to glaciers, the Namib has somehow stayed a wallflower and kept its dry desert climate. Its climate has been largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, which is why it is home to oddities like the welwitschia and the sandswimming golden mole.

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

Namibia’s human history recedes into the remote mists of prehistory (humankind is after all from Africa). Various groups of people arrived in the desert in waves. The San, Damara, and Namaqua—hunter-gatherers, then herdsmen—arrived. Then the farmers of the great Bantu expansion showed up in the 14th century. Contemporary Namibian history is more tragic—since the desert land was caught between mighty colonial powers of Germany and Great Britain. Great Britain took the most useful natural harbor and Germany took the rest of Namibia—although the native Namaqua and Herero tribes rose against the nascent colonialists. From 1904 to 1907 the Germans wiped out approximately 10,000 Nama 65,000 Hereros in one of the twentieth century’s first genocides. The surviving tribespeople were relegated to concentration camps and unlivable ghettos.

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

When the Germans lost World War I, Namibia passed to de-facto South African control. South Africa administered the territory somewhat informally (and brutally and badly) until a variety of incomprehensible UN mandates, international pressure, and a scrappy (though morally gray) guerilla independence movement forced the apartheid government of South Africa to grant the nation independence in 1990. Contemporary Namibia has abundant natural resources (which are managed with greater fairness than in neighboring states), but it has suffered greatly from the scourge of HIV. Additionally the single political party SWAPO (which evolved from the aforementioned scrappy independence fighters) is run by a somewhat opaque politburo.

 

Flag of Namibia

Flag of Namibia

The flag of Namibia is based on the flag of the national liberation movement. It was chosen by the chairman of the subcommittee for flag creation who reviewed over 800 designs before choosing the current flag. The colors have symbolism not dissimilar to other African national liberation flags. Red represents the people of Namibia and the blood they have shed to make a nation together. White is the color of unification and peace. Green represents farms, agriculture, and ecology. Blue represents the ocean and the life-giving freshwater which is so rare in the desert. The sun represents…well, the sun…the source of all energy and life (although political junkies might speculate that it also is a homage to the sun of the Kuomintang).

Tanzania

Tanzania…oh my goodness is that pretty…

In past weeks this blog has been slowly traveling on a meandering path through sub-Saharan Africa, concentrating especially on the flags of these lands.  We started in Madagascar, moved across the channel to Mozambique, visited Malawi (on the edge of its great lake) and today we travel further north to Tanzania. Tanzania is a beautiful land of mountains, rain forests, lakes, vast arable fields, and beaches. Africa’s tallest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, can be found in the north of Tanzania. The country is bounded by three of the great rift lakes of Africa (Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria). To the east lies the Indian Ocean and the Zanzibar archipelago stretches out into the sea.

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The mainland portion of Tanzania was originally known as Tanganyika. It was a German colony until after World War I when control shifted to the British. Tanganyika had an easy transition away from British colonial control to independence in 1961. The islands of Zanzibar however had a much darker and sadder history—they were the center of the great Swahili-Arab slave trade until the British navy shut the wicked industry down. Even then the Sultanate of Zanzibar continued slave trading on the sly until Britain finally annexed it after a 38 minute long war! Zanzibar obtained independence from the British in 1964, after which the newly liberated citizens committed genocide against the Arabs and Indian Moslems who had so long dominated the islands. After this murderous rampage, the islands of Zanzibar turned away from the Arab world and joined together with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964 (although Zanzibar remains semi-autonomous).

The Flag of Tanzania

The Flag of Tanzania

The flag of Tanzania is likewise a combination of the earlier (and oddly similar) flags of Zanzibar and Tanganyika. When the two standards merged into one Zanzibar’s blue field joined Tanganyika’s green one. The main difference was the central black stripe which moved from horizontal to diagonal (although it kept Tanganyika’s narrow yellow stripes around it.  The colors are symbolic—although the symbolic meanings are not hard to guess. The green stands for the fields and forests. The blue represents lakes, rivers, and the ocean. The gold bands represent wealth and, most importantly, the black band represents the Tanzanian people. It’s a pretty flag for a pretty land…but I can never remember it at all. Whenever I look at the flags of the world, it is one of the few I always get wrong. Maybe now that I have written a miniature essay about it, the flag of Tanzania will henceforth stick in my head.

The Flag of Tanganyika

The Flag of Tanganyika

The Flag of Zanzibar

The Flag of Zanzibar

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Recently I have become a bit obsessed with beautiful Africa, humankind’s original home. I know a few things about the natural history of Africa (which, after all, plays a critical role in the dance of the continents and the history of plant and animal life), but Africa’s human history—particularly recently—is sadly opaque to me. To make up for my ignorance, I am going on a blog journey across Africa from east to west.

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Of course I could never afford to go on a real African journey, so we are doing this symbolically—specifically through national flags, which change with the frequency of streetlights in Africa’s um, dynamic political landscape. We already began our journey in the Indian Ocean on the microcontinent of Madagascar. We then traveled across the Malagasy strait to Mozambique, which features one of the craziest flags in the world. Today we push on west into the Great Rift Valley which runs down across Africa from Syria to central Mozambique and is slowly ripping the continent into two pieces (which geologists have named the Somali and the Nubian tectonic plates). As the plates are pushed apart, the area between them sinks down and fills up with water. Someday the entire fissure will become a great shallow sea, but at present it is a series of spectacular lakes including Lake Malawi (pictured in the two images above).

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A millennium ago, various hunter-gathering peoples inhabited the plains to the west of Lake Malawi, but, in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, a great migration of farming Bantu peoples filled up these fertile lands. Great kingdoms burgeoned and fell. Then, in the early modern era, the entire area fell prey to horrors: the rapacious Portuguese appeared along the coast, and, worse, the Swahili-Arab slave trade captured people and funneled them north to Somalia, Turkey, and the Gulf kingdoms. In 1891, the British annexed Malawi after the frequently misplaced explorer, David Livingston, reported that it would be a fine site for European style farming (Livingston was also a devout Christian who despised slavery, so he may have also been dreaming of helping the African inhabitants of Malawi with his suggestion). Malawi gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 as part of a great wave of African independence, but sadly the nation fell immediately beneath the thumb of a totalitarian dictator, Hastings Banda, who clung to power until 1994.

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Today Malawi is one of the most densely populated yet economically underdeveloped nations in the world. Livingston was right—the land is a great location for farming (and fish are available from Lake Malawi) yet there are few mineral resources, and the country is landlocked. People can survive, but not necessarily get ahead. The problem is compounded because the friendly and goodhearted people of Malawi are quick to offer sanctuary to refugees from nearby wars, political crackdowns, and disasters. Malawi has comparatively good relations with the great western democracies who have offered it great hunks of financial aid (with the usual terms and interests). The little nation is also friendly with rising China–and indeed the Chinese are rushing there to find new markets and set up shop (and are also welcomed with surprising good grace).

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

Oh, right, I was going to talk about the flag of Malawi. The first flag of Malawi was adopted in 1964 when Malawi gained independence from Great Britain. This flag (above) was a tricolor of black, red, and green modeled after the famous pan-African flag (which in turn was designed in New York in the 1920s as a high-minded response to a racist song). Unfortunately, the Pan-African flag has seen some low moments and has frequently been associated with extremist political movements or wrapped around tinpot dictators throughout Africa’s turbulent recent history (particularly by Libya, which harbored (harbors?) dreams of a Libya-led unified Africa).

Pan-African flag

Pan-African flag

The Malawi flag of 1964 placed the black bar at the top of the flag and set a red rising sun within it to celebrate the dawn of a new great era. In 2012, the president of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika, decided that the original flag did not clearly represent Malawi and he pushed forward a new flag, which was a red, black, and green flag (with a white sun within the central black bar). The white sun was meant to represent economic progress (in lieu of actual economic progress, of which there was little). The citizens of Malawi regarded this as an irrelevant and egoistic maneuver by the president and they derisively labeled the new flag as Bingu’s flag. In 2012, after Bingu’s death, the parliament voted to re-adopt the old flag which is now restored to its official standing. All of this has caused dismay to model UN clubs and atlas publishers everywhere: it is unclear whether the pettifogging changes back and forth have done anything to help the likable yet impoverished citizens of Malawi.

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

The Crown of the Kingdom of Tahiti

The Crown of the Kingdom of Tahiti

The Kingdom of Tahiti was founded when the chieftain Pōmare unified the islands of Tahiti, Moʻorea, Tetiaroa, Mehetia with help from the famous Captain Cook (and his vastly superior weapons and ships).  British missionaries and tradesmen subsequently helped Pomare and his heirs consolidate authority over the islands (in exchange for certain concessions and favors).  When King Pōmare III ascended to the throne in 1824, the London Missionary Society presented this crown to the monarch for use at the coronation. The somewhat unprepossessing crown of King Pōmare III is velvet and gilded metal. Though not especially regal, the royal headdress is at least very clearly labeled as the crown of Tahiti.  When the French outfoxed the British and claimed suzerainty over the islands, the kings and queens of Tahiti lost influence and were forced to abdicate in 1880.  Since then the crown of the Kingdom of Tahiti has become a museum piece and, indeed, it can today be found in the “Musée de Tahiti et des Îles” in Punaauia (should you inexplicably wish to see it).

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Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Here is the crown of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor who lived from 1775 – 1862. The Mughals were the most powerful Indian dynasty since the (quasi-mythical) empire of Ashoka the Great and they ruled over almost the entirety of the subcontinent for three centuries, however the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were a bad time for them and their empire had blown apart into feuding principalities (and the remainder of Mughal lands was truly run by the East India Company).

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II was an apt poet, calligrapher, and artist, however he was poor emperor. His father Akbar Shah II had preferred that a more warlike younger son, Mirza Jahangir, should take the throne, but the East Indian Company exiled bellicose prince so that Bahadur Shah II became Emperor in 1837.

The Red Fort in Delhi India

The Red Fort in Delhi India

Although Bahadur truly only ruled the Red Fort—the Mughal palace in Dehli, he was chosen as the nominal head of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 which had started as a mutiny by sepys (Indian troops fighting for the British) but grew into a powerful rebellion to throw the East India Company out of power in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi.  The rebellion did succeed in getting rid of the East India Company which was dissolved in 1858.  The British army crushed the revolt and turned authority over India directly to the British crown. After the emperor and his sons were captured, a British calvalry captain named Hodson had Bahadar Shah II’s sons beheaded and then presented the severed heads to the emperor as a mocking Nowrūz day gift.  Upon being presented with this ghastly present, the emperor famously and nonsensically said, “Praise be to Allah, that descendents of Timur always come in front of their fathers in this way.” He was then exiled to Rangoon and the Mughal dynasty was extinguished.  His emerald and gold crown today belongs to the Queen of England who keeps it in her royal collection.

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

00Brunswick green is an old and beautiful color with a long history of use in England and Germany.  The color was first manufactured from copper compounds in Braunschweig, Germany (a historical city in Lower Saxony which is known as Brunswick in English).  Brunswick green is traditionally a very dark yellowish green which can look almost black.  The color was first mass manufactured in the middle of the 18th century and it became an important color for machinery during the industrial revolution.  Railroads in particular tended to use various shades of Brunswick green to paint their rolling stock.  The color would start out black and then weather to a brighter green as the copper compounds oxidized.

60163 Tornado Locomotive

60163 Tornado Locomotive

England has deep and ancient ties to Old Saxony (the homeland of the Saxons, which includes the modern state of Lower Saxony), however the United Kingdom and Germany have sometimes fallen out rather badly (!).  Thus in 1923 after the horrors of World War I, Brunswick green was renamed English Green (which just goes to show that “freedom fries” and suchlike political bowdlerization of names is hardly a uniquely American phenomena).

Mountbatten Pink

Mountbatten Pink

Mountbatten pink is a color invented by and named after Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1900-1979), the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, and the last Royal viceroy of India.  Mountbatten was a nobleman and a Royal Navy officer (as you could probably tell from his rank and title there).  In 1940 he was escorting a convoy carrying vital war supplies, when he noticed that one ship would constantly vanish from vision at twilight.  This phantom ship was still painted a strange grayish pink color from pre-war days.  Mountbatten became convinced that the pink was an ideal camouflage color and he had all of the destroyers of the Fifth Destroyer flotilla painted in the same shade (which not surprisingly came to be identified with him).

A Model of the HMS Kelly built by Ian Ruscoe

A Model of the HMS Kelly built by Ian Ruscoe

Mountbatten pink was a mixture of medium gray with a small amount of Venetian red.  The resultant neutral pink mimicked ocean and atmospheric colors of dawn and dusk.   Additionally, the German navy used pink marker dye to identify their shells, so Mountbatten pink ships often threw off spotters who were unable to tell ship from clouds of smoke (at least according to some Naval historians). One cruiser, the HMS Kenya, was even nicknamed the Pink Lady because of its color and panache.

Mountbatten pink (top) versus USN 5-N Navy blue (bottom)

Mountbatten pink (top) versus USN 5-N Navy blue (bottom)

Other British captains also painted their ships in Mountbatten pink (or used it as a component of the dazzle camouflage) either because of its effectiveness as battle camouflage, or to suck up to Lord Mountbatten, or out of genuine fondness for the surprisingly attractive lavender-pink, however the color had a critical flaw which ultimately caused the Royal navy to abandon it.  Although Mountbatten pink blended into the offing at dawn and dusk, it stood out against the ocean at midday.   By 1942 the color was phased out for large ships (although some smaller ships still had the color for a while).   Most photos and films of the day were black and white.  Imagine that some of the grim British fighting ships engaged in life & death fire fights with the Germans were actually pink!

A freighter with a WWII era dazzle paint scheme based around Mountbatten pink.  Is it just me, or does it look ready for an 80s installation?

A freighter with a WWII era dazzle paint scheme based around Mountbatten pink. Is it just me, or does it look ready for an 80s installation?

Artist's rendering of SKYLON in orbit (by Reaction Engines Ltd)

Artist’s rendering of SKYLON in orbit (by Reaction Engines Ltd)

Back in 2011, as the space shuttle program wound down, Ferrebeekeeper published what seemed like an elegy to spaceplanes—mixed-use vehicles capable of operating both as spacecraft and aircraft (most notably the space shuttles).   The dwindling national interest in science and exploration once seemed to indicate that the shuttle program would be the last spaceplane program for a long time.  However, as the United States abandons its interest in cutting-edge Aerospace projects, other nations and private interests are picking up the slack.

Skylon is a British spaceplane concept from a private company, Reaction Engines Limited. During the eighties, Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, poured money and knowledge into the creation of a vehicle named HOTOL (an awkward acronym which stands for HOrizontal TakeOff and Landing).  Although huge amounts of human energy went into HOTOL, it was canceled because of lack of funding.  Reaction Engines Limited is trying to build on the extensive HOTOL designs.

A Concept Model of HOTOL

A Concept Model of HOTOL

Skylon certainly has a futuristic look.  It has a long slender needle-like fuselage with stubby delta wings sticking out midway.  Each of these wings is mounted at the end with a SABRE (Synthetic Air Breathing Engine).  These next-generation engines are the real key to achieving single-stage-to-orbit spaceflight (a milestone which has long proven elusive for space engineers).  Ideally the plane could take off from a runway and speed up to Mach 5.4 as it left the atmosphere and entered orbit.  After deploying its payload it could then glide back down to Earth like a normal plane.

Skylon Diagram

Skylon Diagram

Skylon would be constructed of a carbon fiber frame with heat resistant ceramic tiling and it would employ liquid hydrogen as a fuel to loft its 82 meter long (269 ft) body into near-space (before switching to internal liquid oxygen as it left the atmosphere).  Like HOTOL before it, Skylon was stuck in funding purgatory for a long time, but recently a huge chunk of funding became available to test the viability of the various systems.  These tests were successfully completed in November of 2012 and Reaction is now moving forward with the building of Skylon.

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Skylon is designed to be vastly cheaper than the shuttle or any current rocket programs (and it would cut down on space debris).  Engineers estimate that one of the crafts could be ready to launch again in only two days after a successful landing (as opposed to the shuttle which required months of refitting).  Let’s hope the technology works out.  Although unmanned interplanetary craft are accomplishing great things, it has been too long since there was a flashy achievement

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