Long live the queen

Friday 29th April 2016

I've always been amazed that the most powerful piece on the chess board is the only female piece, it's a surprising bit of historical feminism. But where does it come from? I thought I'd try to find out.



Chess began life as an Indian game called Chaturanga around 600CE. The board, shown here, looks pretty similar with the exception of elephants in place of the bishops - not a lot of bishops in India at that time, especially ones that only move diagonally. Click the board to see more details on the game and play it online.

In this game the piece next to the king was called mantri (counsellor) and was a male piece. It could move one square diagonally in any direction, and its role was to protect the king.

So when did mantri have a sex change and gain superpowers?


Gender re-assignment

From India the game moved to Persia, was renamed to Shatranj and became popular with nobility. The counsellor piece became farzin, which is a still male piece which translates as counsellor.

The Persian word shah (king) became the English words Chess and check. The Persian phrase shah mat (the King was exhausted), gave us check mate. We also still use the Persian word rukh (chariot) for a piece although the meaning has changed.

It's thought the Sunni Persians, who interpreted the Quran as requiring a ban on all representations of humans and animals, were the first to make chess pieces into their abstract shapes, shown here.

As the game evolved into chess and entered Europe via Muslim-dominated Spain the queen piece became known as vizier, still meaning counsellor and still a male piece.

Historian Marilyn Yalom suggests that it was one of two European queens of the late tenth century, Adelaide or Theophano, who were the inspiration for the change of the vizier to the queen. Either way, a Swiss Latin manuscript from 990AD has the first mention of the piece as regina (queen), which could still only move one square diagonally.
For a long time in the Christian chess rules, a pawn could only become a queen after the original queen had been taken, since real kings could only have one queen at a time.


Madwoman's chess

The change of the queen from being a weak piece, moving only one square diagonally, to being the strongest piece on the board, came around the same time as Isabella of Castile (1451 - 1504, shown here) ruled Spain.

Marilyn Yalom suggests that it was Isabella's power and influence that prompted the rule change. It may also have been a desire to make a slow game, that could take a whole day to play, a lot faster.

By 1497 chess rules in Spain stated that the queen could move straight or diagonally any number of squares, in a new faster version of the game called Lady's Chess or Queen's Chess.

Some nicknamed the new rules Madwoman's Chess. There was a degree of misogyny, with men decrying her new power in the game and stating that a queen had no place in the battle of chess, let alone as the most powerful piece.



A lot of the articles read in researching this post were theory and conjecture, but I was still surprised by how much is known, how long ago chess started, but how little the game has changed in that time. I played a few games of Chaturanga online and it's virtually the same, but much slower.



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Lotus Exige

Friday 22nd April 2016

A few weeks ago I got to drive a Lotus Exige for the first time. What a lovely car! Not sure I want to buy one though.

I went on a driving experience day at Thruxton race track, having only driven at Castle Combe before I was pleasantly surprised at how long and straight the track is at Thruxton. It seemed a lot safer too, there's very little run-off at Castle Combe before you end up in the tyre wall.

I wasn't expecting much out of the day to be honest, but the instructor who took me out was simply brilliant. When he learned that I had a bit of previous track experience he changed his instruction and started teaching me the finer details of the track, and we ended the day learning a bit of heel-and-toe braking.

The Exige was an absolute joy to drive: 190BHP and 914KG of high grip fun. You could put you foot down in pretty much any gear and it would charge ahead. Inside it was really minimal, with just two dials and a bare metal floor.

The days I've had at Castle Combe were quite serious affairs, everyone brings their pride and joy and the car park is full of men wearing race suits fiddling with their exhausts to get them through noise control. In contrast the atmosphere at Thruxton was much more fun, and there were even some actual women there!

The whole day had a really nice 'meet your heroes' kind of feel to it. Thruxton have two Lamborghinis, a pair of Ferraris and a whole fleet of Porsches. When the cars weren't being driven they were lined up in the pits like superstars, so men with Cheshire-cat grins could pose in front of them while their girlfriends took photos. It made me realise just how much cars mean to some people!

The day was only marred slightly by Tiff Needell giving people high-speed rides around the track in a BMW M4. I spent a long time discussing with my instructor the apparent contradiction between what he was telling me (approach the corner head on, do all my braking in a straight line, balance acceleration and steering on the way out) with what Tiff was doing - drifting round the corners, screeching the wheels as much as possible, and occasionally spinning off the track. The instructor sighed a little, nodded and told me to ignore him.


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Lamb's pluck

Friday 15th April 2016

A little while ago I bought a lamb's pluck from my local butchers - a liver, lungs and heart attached. I wanted the heart for some photos of my heart post, but I thought you might like to see, hear and taste the rest of the organs!

Not for the squeamish, but I guess you've worked that out already.

Are you a big fan of lungs? Let me know a good recipe in the comments.



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Tesla Model 3

Friday 8th April 2016

Last week Tesla Motors announced the launch of their latest Model 3 electric car, with delivery beginning in late 2017. I've written about my experiences in trying to find the right electric car for us, and I'd previously settled on the Golf GTE hybrid. But not any more.

The Tesla Model 3 blows the Golf out of the water:

  • 215 mile range
  • 0-60 in under 6 seconds
  • ~£25,000 depending on options
  • Autopilot mode for motorway driving
  • 5-star safety ratings

Over the weekend Kat and I decided to buy one, so along with 250,000 other people we've put down a £1,000 deposit on a Model 3 when they finally become available. I'm so excited!

The reservation email said:

Thank you for reserving your Model 3. With your reservation, you are part of an exciting moment in history.

In the first 24 hours Model 3 received over 180,000 reservations, setting the record for the highest single-day sales of any product of any kind ever in world history.

Here's the launch video:



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Teaching the dog to count

Friday 1st April 2016

Over the last few months I've been teaching our dog Stanley to count. I'm a big fan of Chinese dog trainer Huj Ly Ur and her amazing work getting dogs to drive, skate, and of course count.  

Here's a video of Stanley's progress.


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