June 20, 2014

This week in Guild Wars 2

Filed under: Gaming — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:24

My weekly Guild Wars 2 community round-up at GuildMag is now online. The Festival of the Four Winds event continues (and will run through to the end of June), and the Living Story Season Two debuts on July 1st. In addition, there’s the usual assortment of blog posts, videos, podcasts, and fan fiction from around the GW2 community.

GuildMag logo

The Black Death, the peasants’ revolt, and … tax increases

Filed under: Britain, France, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:47

Put yourself in the position of an advisor to the 10-year old King Richard II shortly after his coronation in 1377. You’ve just witnessed one of the greatest population disasters in European history — the Black Death — where one third of the people of all classes died. The crown is at war with France (the Hundred Years’ War), and there’s little or no money in the treasury. You could probably come up with better policy ideas in your sleep than what Richard’s advisors did:

Fixated with outright victory in the One Hundred Years War, started by his grandfather Edward III, Richard’s government introduced hugely unpopular poll taxes in 1377 and 1379. A further tax introduced in 1381 was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Irrespective of wealth, the tax was fixed at a rate of 12 pence per person, meaning that it was a huge burden on the poor, but a minor inconvenience to the wealthy. In addition, rumours spread of widespread corruption in the government. The peasants were ripe for revolt.

Following the expulsion of a tax collector from the town Brentwood, 30 kilometres north-east of London, a band of rebels swept through Kent and Essex, swelling their numbers with volunteers as they went. They advanced upon London in a pincer movement from the south and east. The two leaders of the rebellion emerged as Wat Tyler, of whom little was previously known, and John Ball, a radical priest who had been broken out of prison by Kentish rebels, where he had been held for his beliefs in social equality and a fair distribution of wealth within the church. Indeed, as he preached to the crowd of thousands of rebels at Blackheath, then just outside London, he cried: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.’

Londoners willingly opened the gates of their city to the rebels who set about their task with fervour. They sacked Savoy Palace, the home of the key adviser to the now 14-year-old Richard. Guards in the Tower of London opened the gates to the rebels, who freed the inmates and executed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Treasurer of England, who had been hiding inside. There were also several incidents of misplaced rage among the rebels, like when the crowd set their sights upon Flemish immigrants, many of whom were wealthy wool merchants, and murdered them in the streets.

Faced with a grave situation, the young king rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Blackheath. Their demands were an end to poll taxes, an immediate end to serfdom, the introduction of a more democratic form of government with local representation based on the Provisions of Oxford in 1258, and a fair distribution of wealth and power from the nobility. Richard initially gave into their demands as well as issuing pardons for all involved.

It got worse (for the peasants) after that brief high point…

QotD: Whiskey and bourbon

Filed under: Business, History, Humour, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Whiskey in the USA has a long, colourful history. (Note that it is indeed spelt with an “e”, along with Irish whiskey — the Scotch and Canadian varieties are both plain whisky.)

One of the most illustrious early American distillers was George Washington, who manufactured the stuff commercially at his place near Mount Vernon in Virginia, and was very proud of the high reputation of his merchandise. I’m sure it was great for its time, but then and for long afterwards the general run of whiskey must have been pretty rough. I’ve often thought that the really amazing achievement of the Western hero wasn’t his ability to shoot a pip out of a playing card at fifty paces, nor even his knack of dropping crotch first into his saddle from an upstairs window, but the way he could stride into the saloon, call for whiskey, knock it back neat and warm in one and not so much as blink, let alone burst into paroxysms of uncontrollable coughing.

All that, of course, is changed now. American whiskeys are second to none in smoothness, blandness, everything that goes to make a fine spirit. Some of them, like Washington’s product and many since, are based on rye, but nearly all the brands we see in the UK belong in the bourbon category. Bourbon (rhymes with turban) gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where the first stills of this type were set up, though it’s long been regularly made in several other states besides. Federal law requires bourbon whiskey to be derived from a cereal mash of at least 51 per cent corn, which is to say Indian corn, often called maize over here, though it’s the identical vegetable that makes you, or me, so tremendously fat eaten off the cob.

The manufacturing process is carried out by means of large stills that operate on exactly the same principle as the patent or Coffey stills used in the production of grain whisky in Scotland. The young spirit is then drawn off to mature in specially charred oak barrels. Until recently, these were required to be new, but it seems that nowadays used casks are permitted. This is bad news for some distillers in Scotland, who formerly imported the secondhand casks to age their own whisky in.

Prominent brands of bourbon available in the UK include Jim Beam, Old Grandad, Wild Turkey, and Jack Daniel’s. Wild Turkey is a newcomer, to this country at any rate, and increasingly tipped as the best. Jack Daniel’s is the established quality leader. Strictly it isn’t a bourbon at all, but a Tennessee whiskey made at Lynchburg in Moore County, no less.

Don’t go there, as I once did. Moore County turned out to be dry and all I got to drink all day was a glass of cold tea at Madame Bobo’s Boarding House. I doubt if things have changed much.

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.

British steam locomotives

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:01

H/T to Jon, my former virtual landlord, for the link.

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