Monday, November 23, 2009

Hallelujah redux

I know I posted a recording of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah once before, but my gosh, how much beauty is too much? What I would love is to hear K.D. Lang sing with Rhiannon of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. A Beatles song. An Alka-seltzer commercial. Anything.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Digging the Middle East 2: Thieves of Baghdad

As a youngster in New York City, Matthew Bogdanos expected to go into his family's restaurant business. Then, on a whim one day, he tried to enlist in the Marines. The recruiter took one look at his test scores and said: no. He was going to enroll in college and the Marines would then be happy to accept him to the Officer's program

So Bogdanos became the first in his family to attend college. One result was that when 9/11 happened he was a prosecuting attorney in New York, as well as an Marines Reserve officer. Off he went to Afghanistan, among other places.

When the U.S. troops took Iraq and the museum in Baghdad was infamously looted, Bogdanos convinced his superiors that he - a lawyer/warrior with extensive knowledge of classical art and literature - was the perfect man to lead the team to get the stolen art back. And that is the main story of Thieves of Baghdad.

Like everything else in the Middle East, the theft was more complicated than it looked. For example, Bogdanos learned that many of the items were not really stolen. Some were taken by museum staff and others to protect them from the invading Americans. So he had to add diplomat to his job description: convincing Iraqis that the U.S. forces didn't intend to steal the relics for American museums.

The book is fascinating. I just opened at random and found this discussion between Bogdanos and a Lieutenant Colonel he liked:

"Matthew, would you like to join an experimental multiagency counterterrorism unit General Harrell is forming?"
"What is it?" I replied.
"I can't tell you. It's focal point." (meaning a security clearance above top secret, and -- like 99.99 percent of the people -- I didn't have that clearance).
"What will it do?"
"I can't tell you that either."
"You can't tell me where it'll operate either, can you?"
"Sounds good. I'm in."

A commercial announcement

David Malki does a wonderfully strange comic strip on the web called Wondermark. He repurposes Victorian graphic art with very strange captions. I wrote about it once before on my other blog.

However, Malki is now offering free copies of his new book, Clever Tricks To Stave Off Death to ten bloggers who write about Wondermark in November, so here is my shameless attempt to grub a book.

It took me a long time to find this cartoon, which is one of my favorites.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Relax your mind with a government source

I know, when you are looking for a stress-buster, government information is not the first thing that comes to mind. But try this website. Unfortunately it only works during daylight hours on the East Coast.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Digging the Middle East 1: The Buried Book

Not that you asked, but I’ve decided to tell you about my (roughly) five favorite books about Middle Eastern archaeology. I’m just a buff in the field, but I recently read a terrific book and decided to blurb/blog (blurg?) about it and four other faves. In no particular order…

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of our oldest literary masterpieces. With its themes of quests for immortality and concerns about the proper way to live as a king (or a person) it is still fascinating.

It is easy to forget that the Epic was lost to memory for millennium. David Damrosch has constructed his The Buried Book, as he notes, like an archaeological dig. It begins with the most recent layer, and moves farther back in time.

The first chapter is about George Smith, an Englishmen with a unique ability to translate ancient texts. A printer by trade, he used to visit the British Museum on his lunch hours, and contrary to the stereotype of Victorian England, the scholars recognized this lower class tradesman for the find he was. He was able to bring the ancient tale of Gilgamesh into modern language and, in 1872, discovered one of its most greatest attractions: a story of the world flood with unmistakeable parallels to the one in Genesis.

Next Damrosch tells the story of Hormuzd Rassam who discovered the texts but was cheated of some of his fame because of English prejudice against foreigners – surely he was no more than the hired digmaster, working for some proper British supervisor!

The book then covers what we know about the writing of the Epic, which is rather surprisingly much – even including the name of the scribe who is credited with putting the final version together. Even more amazingly, while we only have two thirds of the text of this final work, we have some of the Sumerian poems from which the Assyrian version was compiled – which is as if we had some of the early texts Homer had used to compose the Illiad.

Finally Damrosch shows us what can be glimpsed through the veils of time about the historic person Gilgamesh – or more properly Bilgamesh. Take this little tidbit. One ancient scribe compiled a list of all the kings who had ruled in Sumeria. His collection of the monarchs of the city of Uruk can be divided into recent historical figures (with reigns from 6 years to a few decades) and ancient mythical figures (who supposedly ruled for thousands of years each).

These two groups are neatly separated by a king who supposedly ruled for 126 years. I don’t think you need to be a scholar to speculate: “this one isn’t completely a myth. They knew something about him but he was so legendary that they had to credit him with a century of rule to account for everything he supposedly accomplished.” As you may have guessed, that king was Bilgamesh.

The Buried Book is great fun.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dead Egyptian Blues

I seem to be in an archaeological mood lately, so here is a video of the best archeologically-themed song in the history of the world being performed by its composer, Michael Peter Smith, with Anne Hills. If you aren't familiar with Smith, he is best known for writing "The Dutchman," which has been recorded by practically everybody.

And by the way, Smith wrote the second best archeologically-themed song, too.

Like Bob Bossin

This fall I went to the
Princeton Tradtional Music Festival in British Columbia and had a lovely time. One of the highlights was seeing the Canadian folksinger Bob Bossin for the first time in many years.

I've had my complaints about Bossin over the years. He butchered, IMHO, a song by two of my favorite songwriters the last time I saw him. But I got his latest album The Roses on Annie's Table, and it is pretty wonderful.

As a sometime songwriter what knocked me out most was his similes. Here are a few of my favorites:

"She's got love, like a Jehovah's Witness, bangin' on her door again." - "Shirley Ann"

"The years rolled by like empties." - "Gary Davis"

"Love bears down like an eighteen-wheeler. Try to argue with an eighteen-wheeler." - "Lily"

You can hear some samples here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Old-fashioned Saturday night

Mary Pickford
Originally uploaded by twm1340
Last night my wife and I went downtown to take in a movie. Then we walked over to the ice cream parlor for dessert.

And it occurred to me: my grandparents, either set, could have done that in Plainfield, NJ, eighty years ago. We even saw the film at the Pickford Cinema, an independent theatre named after Mary Pickford.

Of course, I don't think my grandparents would have appreciated a dark and hilarios film like A SERIOUS MAN, and I'll be their icre cream parlor didn't have huckleberry, white pepper, or cardamom flavors like Mallard does.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When They Severed Earth From Sky

My wife bought this book by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber and I promise I will let her read it as soon as I am done with it. That's the generous kind of person I am. She may be tired of it by then, since I have been reading her big chunks of it as I go. It's that kind of a book.

When They Severed Earth From Sky is about myth seen thorugh the lens of cognitive psychology. In another words, mythology sticks in our heads because of the way our brains work.

Start with a couple of simple assumptions. A pre-literate society only knows what it's members can remember, so important information has to be passed on in memorable ways. A story is more memorable than a list of observations. A wild story is more memorable than an everyday one.

We all know that some myths are attempts to explain natural events. I remember at age 10 reading in D'aulaire's wonderful book of Greek myths that Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths had a foundry under Mount Aetna. Nobody had to tell me that was an attempt to explain a volcano.

But what the Barbers emphasize is that these explanations are not silly. Humans are hardwired to try to understand their surroundings and, lacking scientific tools or theories, they worked with what they understood: Willfullness. If something happened, someOne caused it to happen.

In fact, mythology turns out to be embarassingly full of volcanos when you start looking for them. (One-eyed giants who throw mountaintops, monsters with snake-like hair that turn men to stone, etc.).

The Barbers offer about forty principles for examining myths (and repeat them in a convenient appendix). I pick one at random: "If certain events are not understood, according to already known ("natural") principles, they must be un-understandable - that is, "super-natural" - and there is no point in trying to understand them." They drily call this one the "UFO Corollary."

The Barbers' tools are powerful enough that they can make and test predictions. For example, they look at an old story related in Homer about many of the gods coming together for an event, and they conclude that it represents an unusual alignments of the planets who bear the names of those gods. Using planetarium software they went searching for that alignment and found it in February 1923 B.C. - one thousand years before Homer. Apparently myths can carry information for a long time.

As the above indicates the Barbers have a lot to say about myths and the stars. They argue that the flood stories found in many parts of the world are actually about the ocean above us and represent the precession - movement of the sun in the Zodiac over thousands of years, with each shift being the creation of a "new world." They don't mention that the Navahos, far from any ocean, nonetheless have a story of their ancesters moving to new worlds three times. A different mnemonic for the same observation?

In this book you will discover why Prometheus and Loki are both chained to rocks by the gods, why in Andean flood tales the fox gets his tail wet, and what dragons really look like. I highly recommend it.