Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Planet X, Zecharia Sitchin and I

I grew up among science-friendly but non-skeptical people. My parents gladly paid my subscription to a pop-sci magazine. Vaccination and antibiotics were uncontroversial. But so were Gestalt therapy, herbal medicine, church service, youth choir, Bible study groups, evening prayer, Rosen Method therapy, acupressure, osteopathy, chiropractic and Hazelden self-help groups.

When I finished ninth grade in 1987 (thus graduating from mandatory school), the headmistress rewarded me for my grades with a copy of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, a weighty volume issued by Reader's Digest in 1976. I had already read the book from one end to another repeatedly in the school library, where it was about the first thing I had found. (I spent recess for much of six years in that library with my friends). And it actually reads a lot like the Snopes urban legends site, but without the debunking. Ghost stories and scientific trivia mixed in one big salad: Strange Anecdotes and Amazing Unsupported Statements. My school not only offered such materials while I was a pupil, in effect it also encouraged me to continue reading them as an adult.

I don't remember anyone presenting me with a generally skeptical perspective or the basics of critical thinking at home nor at school. The truth of any statement was based upon social acceptance, and in 1980s middle-class Stockholm much, but far from all, of this accepted truth was based in science. Nobody seemed to care much about the foundations of truth. Challenging someone's beliefs was seen as rude and recalcitrant behaviour.

The first instance I recall of anyone actively questioning conventional wisdom was in high-school when my friend Tor told me about his dad's attitude to astrology. Aage is an astronomer, and he didn't just not believe much in astrology, he vehemently opposed it. This was a novel idea to someone who had grown up with Boomer parents always going off on "a course" or being "in therapy". Tor's parents, both research scientists, became role models for me. I borrowed their copy of Carl Sagan's pop-sci book Cosmos (1980) and liked it a lot. I remember being amused by the bit towards the end where Sagan advocates pre-marital sex as a way of helping young people feel better about themselves and life in general. I agreed completely, having been lucky in that regard.

So I think it's fair to say that during high-school I developed a healthy skepticism. It was certainly part of me by the time I became an undergrad. But still, I did fall for some pretty bad woo-woo in my senior year.

My final term paper was about what was then called Planet X, the question whether there might be an undiscovered tenth planet beyond Pluto. This issue has since been resolved with the insight that Pluto is actually a member of a numerous class of small icy bodies way out there, forming the Kuiper Belt, with no sign of anything even the size of Mercury orbiting beyond Neptune, let alone another gas giant. There is no tenth planet – there never even really was a ninth one.

Aage photocopied some papers on the Planet X issue and lent me books, of which Mark Littman's Planets Beyond (1988) was particularly good and afforded much material. But I had also found another book on my own in the local bookstore that I liked a lot and saw as highly relevant to the Planet X issue. Here's what 17-year-old me had to say about Zecharia Sitchin's The 12th Planet (1978):
"The first civilisation on Earth appeared very suddenly about 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. This Sumerian culture was very advanced and created the basis for all human civilisation. In his book The 12th Planet, the Jewish American prehistorian Zecharia Sitchin poses the question how this happened, and points out a large number of anomalies in the extant historical record. His thesis is that humankind and civilisation were created by alien beings, and he supports his arguments with everything from linguistics to astronomy.

The astronomical aspect of Sumerian culture is particularly interesting – Sitchin quotes cuneiform tablets that indicate that the Sumerians had exceptionally advanced astronomy that can only be compared to what we have today. Not only did they have a heliocentric view of the universe and detailed knowledge about the stars all around Earth – they also appear to have had knowledge of all the planets known to us, plus yet another one! A Sumerian document says: 'All in all twelve members, counting the Sun and the Moon, form the orbits of the planets'.

The Sumerians saw this tenth planet as the abode of the gods, and considered it to orbit far beyond Pluto. Drawing upon Sumerian descriptions of the planet and its orbit, Sitchin suggests a planet in a sharply elliptic orbit with a mass several times that of the Earth and an orbital period of 3600 years – he also believes that it must have a highly active core leading to a high temperature in order for life (the alien visitors) to be able to survive so far from the Sun.

Generally, for a fairly notorious genre, Sitchin's book makes an unusually matter-of-fact impression – he does get a bit too enthusiastic sometimes, and then his insufficient knowledge of natural science is laid bare, but his arguments regarding the Sumerian sources are fairly sober. If Sitchin's interpretation of the Sumerian sources is correct, then we can look forward to another visit by the twelfth planet to the inner reaches of the solar system about AD 3600."
To be fair to my younger self, I should point out that I didn't mention Sitchin in the paper's conclusions, which are quite cautious and concentrate on the weird orbits of Neptune's moons. My main problem while writing the paper was clearly that I knew absolutely nothing about Mesopotamian archaeology and didn't check even a basic textbook on the subject. I did know a bit of science and was skeptical of Sitchin in that area, but I didn't extrapolate this skepticism into fields where I knew nothing. I was supervised by my physics teacher, an engineering school dropout who probably knew about as much as I did about ancient Mesopotamia. The task I had set myself was to read up on planetary astronomy, and I don't remember ever thinking that I might have to read any more archaeology. This is actually typical of a lot of interdisciplinary pseudoscience produced by far more mature people. But I got a good grade for the paper and no complaints from the teacher. Only one of the admittedly few readers was rude and recalcitrant enough to question my endorsement of Sitchin: Tor, the son of scientists.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Swedish Psychedelic Rock

Believe it or not, Dear Reader, but Sweden has produced a number of great psychedelic rock records. I'm going to tell you about three of my favourites, all of them with lyrics in Swedish, although the music is Anglo-American in style. But first some background.

The word "psychedelic" originally had nothing to do with music. It's a 1950s neologism meaning "mind manifesting". When hallucinogenic drugs began to become common, there was a debate among American psychiatrists about terminology. Should the drugs be seen as psychotomimetic, that is, do they mimic or cause (temporary) psychosis? This was the wary position. Or should they be seen as unlocking and manifesting a hidden positive potential in the human brain? This was the enthusiastic position, taken by people like Timothy Leary. Medical literature currently simply uses the word "hallucinogenic", since it's an accurate description of the substances' effect without entailing any hypotheses about the neurochemical nature of psychosis. And stoners say "psychedelic", particularly stoner musicians and their fans -- like me.

Psychedelic music was born in the 60s when rock and pop musicians discovered LSD and expressed their experiences with the drug through music. Albums commonly cited as the first examples of psych music are the Beatles' Revolver and the 13th Floor Elevators' Psychedelic Sounds, both released in 1966. One defining characteristic of the style is of course hallucinatory lyrics. But musically, it is largely a matter of the era's rapidly improving sound technology being used to produce weird otherworldly sounds, portraying the sensations produced by LSD. The Beatles' first psych song, "Rain" is heavily processed on all channels, some vocals even running backwards. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a pounding, gibbering nightmare of tape loops. It would be very hard to produce convincing psych music using only acoustic instruments. It's music fulfilling Rimbaud's 1871 dictum that the poet should proceed through "long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses". Good psychedelic music can't be made while the musician is tripping, it takes a calculating artistic mind. Rational derangement.

So psych was born as pop. But a heavier streak was apparent already with the 13th Floor Elevators. Guitarists in the blues tradition quickly picked up the influences, along with new guitar effect pedals and amp feedback (which had first been committed to vinyl by the Beatles). Thus Jimi Hendrix, the great innovator of psychedelic rock, could make completely insane sounds live in a way that the studio-dwelling Beatles would never even attempt. His debut album Are You Experienced? from 1967 completed the sonic psych palette as we still know it. And people in Sweden were listening.

Our first great psych record is Pugh Rogefeldt's Ja, Dä Ä Dä from 1969. (The title means "Yes it is" in an exaggerated rural dialect, from one of the songs where Rogefeldt plays the part of a jilted lover who tells us through gritted teeth that he feels JUST FINE now that his girlfriend's left him. IT'S FINE. YES IT IS.) And Rogefeldt hadn't just learned the psychedelic lesson: he's funky as all hell too, with the great Georg Wadenius on bass and Janne Carlsson on drums, who had jammed with Hendrix and formed a duo with Bo Hansson. Dear Reader, Steal This Record.

Swedish 70s music unfortunately got bogged down in leftist political correctness and a misdirected concern with authenticity that made sure that ABBA (who were roundly denounced as commercial studio trash at the time) and a few punk acts were the only bands that came out of the decade sounding good. And the 80s were a psychedelic wasteland, no Paisley Underground here. But the 90s saw renewed interest in psych and progressive rock (no, Swedish readers, I'm not referring to Swedish progg). And so we reach another one of my favourite albums.

I'm very proud to say that I was down with Qoph before they even had a record deal. I heard them at a band competition in Stockholm a year or two before they released 1998's Kalejdoskopiska Aktiviteter, and they absolutely blew me away. The album's title means "Kaleidoscopic Activities", and they truly are. This is Hendrix territory with a lot of early 70s prog influences, particularly Captain Beyond whom Qoph outshine entirely. The blues roots are proudly exhibited, and though most of the material is way trippy and experimental, one song is a straight electric blues number. This album is a national treasure.

One of the redeeming qualities of the Swedish 70s obsession with musical authenticity was that the country's ethnic music (mainly fiddle-based) was rediscovered and reimagined by young people. There were good psychedelic takes on this stuff already at the time, notably by Kenny Håkansson and Kebnekaise who are still a great live act. But in my opinion, the best Swedish ethnic psych album is Dungen's Stadsvandringar from 2002 (it means "Strolls through the city"). And the band leader was born only in 1979, after the records that would come to influence him had been in the stores for years. But I don't need to tell you about Dungen, they were on Conan O'Brien a year ago. And they have a new album due next year.

So: Pugh Rogefeldt, funky Swedish psychedelic rock. Qoph, bluesy Swedish psychedelic rock. And Dungen, ethnic Swedish psychedelic rock. You know you need them to finally manifest your minds.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Hare Krishna Dinner

I'm having dinner at this Hare Krishna restaurant, and a small drama has played out before me.

I usually don't put money into cults like the H.K., but the food is really good and they don't proselytise. I've come here for almost 20 years now, and I've seen the head waiter grow middle-aged, his forelock abandoned for a televangelist haircut that makes him look like a presidential candidate.

As I was eating, three people came in, arguing in hushed tones. An attractive 45ish lady, slightly worn, wanted to have dinner here. But she was having trouble with her male companion, a tall, very worn 50ish guy. The place made him nervous, he whispered plaintively, and he kept trying to flee out the door into the street. This made the woman angry. Another woman, 40ish, short, stocky and slightly hunched with inward-pointing toes and a red braid, tried to placate the two.

Us other diners all clearly felt embarrassed by the display, shrinking into our chairs, some whispering among themselves. I don't know why these three people gave off such an outsider vibe. I fancied they came here from a drugs rehab session or a mental daycare institution. But of course I don't know anything about their lives.

Finally the hungry lady gave up her attempts to eat here and went to get a doggy bag. Her beau immediately took the chance to zip out the door. As the presidential candidate transferred the woman's veggie food to a box, she ran out after the guy, calling his name, telling him off in a hushed angry voice. When they were gone, everyone breathed a sigh of the relief that comes of restored normality. And the chanting and finger cymbals on the loudspeakers droned on.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Fornvännen's Autumn Issue

The autumn issue of Fornvännen arrived a week or two ago, and I've somehow forgotten to write about it. As usual, it's full of exciting stuff.

Patrik Gustafsson and Mikael Nordin of the Södermanland County Museum in Nyköping report on survey work in Kolmården, a mountainous forest that formed an uninhabited boundary zone between the tribal territories of the Svear and Götar back in the 1st Millennium AD. Patrik and Mikael have located a number of Early Mesolithic shore-bound sites up there, dating from the 7th and 8th Millennia cal BC. Shore displacement in these parts has been dramatic.

Helmer Gustavson, John Hamilton and Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt of Stockholm report on the fragments of at least three Migration Period pictorial stelae found in later graves at Tomteboda on the outskirts of Stockholm. One of the stones has had a runic inscription, which is very rare at that early date, but unfortunately too few runes survive for them to be read. As part of the upheavals in the mid-6th century, people were clearly vandalising stone monuments erected only decades before.

David Damell and Martin Edlund in Örebro report on excavations at Råsvalslund in northern Västmanland. Far from any other known Viking Period settlements, they have found a large and affluent village with innovative construction techniques and well-equipped graves. David and Martin argue that the village's prosperity must have been founded upon iron production, which is well attested for the Viking Period in the area. They also found something really unusual: a bronze fishing lure!

There are a number of shorter items as well in this issue, but I'll just point out Henrik Thrane's opinion piece, which I really like. In the 1990s a funny tubular pottery object was found at a Bronze Age settlement near Norrköping. The excavators interpreted it as a damaged female figurine, something I couldn't really see at the time as they didn't offer even vaguely similar comparative material. But what do I know about the Bronze Age? Anyway, Thrane has now demolished their interpretation. As it turns out, the tubular thing is an ornate bellows nozzle used for bronze casting. It belongs to a common artefact class known from most of Continental Europe and discussed in the literature for over a century. It's just that this is the first time that it's identified among Swedish finds. And it took a senior Danish colleague to get it straight.

I think the poorly founded figurine idea was a typical result of overspecialisation: Swedish contract archaeologists are absolutely ace at fieldwork, but they rarely have any opportunity to learn about small finds. Nor are there any formalised channels for them to communicate with Sweden's few professional finds specialists. But I'm always glad to look at finds photographs. Keep 'em coming to my mailbox, folks!

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Four Stone Hearth

In addition to Alun's Vidi, a new archaeology blog carnival has just started at Anthropology.net. The Four Stone Hearth carnival covers anthropology in the American sense of the word:
  • Socio-cultural anthropology
  • Bio-physical anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Linguistic anthropology
Check it out! But don't let the four standing stones in the picture fool you -- that's not a hearth.

And don't miss the 46th Skeptics' Circle over at Left Brain/Right Brain.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They're Digging In Sigtuna

This afternoon I drove up to Sigtuna to check out the excavations there. A treatment centre for MS sufferers are building an extension to their premises, which has given my colleagues an opportunity to dig a big whopping trench a stone's throw from the town museum. Anders Wikström heads the dig and he's got quite a team, including a number of archaeology PhDs waiting for the Boomers to retire from the universities. They've been digging since late May, and yesterday they were all absolutely drenched by rain.

The town of Sigtuna was founded in the late 10th century as a successor to Birka. Unlike Birka, it was a Christian centre and soon received a great number of stone churches, one of which was the first brick building in the Lake Mälaren area. But Sigtuna's heyday was brief and power moved on to Uppsala and Stockholm. Since about AD 1200, the town has been a quiet little place. American tourists always find it entertaining that its name sounds like "sick tuna".

The site under excavation has been farmland since the Late Middle Ages, so the team came down into 11th century urban layers really quickly. The stratigraphy is only one to two meters deep with a lot of subsoil contour. Part of the trench holds the edge of a Medieval churchyard with over 200 burials excavated so far. Interestingly, this is the first time in Sigtuna that a churchyard is found dug into earlier urban strata. This would indicate that the churchyard post-dates a re-planning event, possibly having to do with a processional street established to take celebrants around every church in town. This street has been clearly identified in the current dig. Before that, the area held unusually large and unusually orientated buildings, bringing to mind the high-status long houses on earthen platforms along the northern edge of the dense proto-urbanisation at Birka. So far, though, there are no strong indications of any wealthy inhabitants of the houses.

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Another Bog Body Song

I've talked before about a great song about a bog body, The Triffids' "Jerdacuttup Man". Now Markus Andersson has pointed me to another song in this lyrical niche, The Mountain Goats' "Tollund Man". It's from the 1995 disc Sweden. The Goats are actually mostly one Californian guy named John Darnielle, and the music is a wistful little piece with just an acoustic guitar, a bass and vocals.
Tollund man
by John Darnielle

I was sitting at the edge of the marsh
when the council came to bring me the news.
They handed me a bowl of cooked wild grasses and they
gave me the ceremonial shoes.

Goodbye young Danish women.
Goodbye Danish sky.
Goodbye cold air I am going away.
Goodbye goodbye goodbye.
The Tollund man is an uncommonly well preserved Danish bog body found in 1950 near Silkeborg in Jutland. He was hanged and his body buried in a bog some time in the 4th century BC.

Why these people were killed and bogged is a matter of dispute. Some point to something Tacitus wrote and suggest they were army deserters or gay men, which cannot explain the many female bog bodies. Others contend they were simply criminals, sacrifices or criminals used as sacrifices. Most recently, Allan Lund has suggested that some bog bodies are victims of witch hunts, as occur still in some African cultures. This would explain the often extremely violent deaths of these people, as well as the unusual disposal of their bodies. Bogs may have been seen as safe for getting rid of dangerous bodies with uncanny powers.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Music Review: Roy Zimmerman, Faulty Intelligence

Roy Zimmerman's new disc Faulty Intelligence has fifteen songs. The playlist is carefully composed with one rootsy revival song, "Glory Bound Train" split into three recurring interludes (it derides Bush II's millennarism). But who listens to albums any more? The first thing I did with the CD when I took it out of the case was to stick it in my PC and rip it to MP3. Then I listened to the songs on my handheld computer: slowly, at intervals, one song at a time, like one would eat a box of expensive chocolate. And since the files were on the handheld, I listened to some in alphabetical order and others on shuffle. I guess my message to musicians is "Forget about song order, just put the files on-line and give me a PayPal button on your web site, please".

Musically, the album is extremely varied, with each song performed and produced in an appropriate style. Zimmerman and his band easily adopt the instrumentation and voice for every occasion. I found myself waiting in vain for a reggae tune. Maybe next time.

Spy spoofing "CIDIAFBI" sounds like the theme from a lost 60s Bond movie. "My Conservative Girlfriend" is a John Denver love song. "Chickenhawk" is an honest-to-goodness country tune about armchair jocks sending the neighbours' kid to war: "I didn't walk the walk but I can talk the talk -- bawk bawk bawk". "Creation Science 101" is a rousing Jerry Lee Lewis number where Zimmerman assumes the role of a teacher at a Christian college. "Hello, NSA" is an early Elvis ballad: "I love you because you really... listen".

"Intelligent Design" is another Bush-bashing country tune, but not directly about evolution as one might expect. "Saddam Shame" is a folkie guitar strummer with exquisite lyrics. "When the Saints Go Marching Into New Orleans" is a perfect-pitch roots blues tune about NOLA -- with a complete horns section. "That Is The War On Terror", sets the album's most seriously angry lyrics to an 80s FM radio rocker.

"Ingles" comments bilingually on the Mexican immigration situation with much Chicano guitar-strumming. It forms an interesting companion piece to Tom Lehrer's slightly chauvinist "In Old Mexico" where the country south of the border is simply somewhere grotty to go on vacation.

The album also offers an astonishingly accurate Al Green impersonation to genuinely soulful accompaniment -- pretty fly for a white guy! Croons Zimmerman in a falsetto so libidinous it'll give you instant bed head: "Abstain with me baby, all night long..."

"Turn Off The Hubble" is a cabaret tune about how much easier it would be for everybody to deal with the Universe if we didn't actually have to know anything about it. This Central European oompah vibe also underpins the sublime "Defenders of Marriage", about how shocking it is that gay people might want to do something so decadent and perverted as to exchange vows and settle down. "It's unnatural!"

Toward the end of the disc, "America" sounds a lot like a token "I'm not a traitor to the nation" number after all the cynicism and satirical vitriol of the other songs. "God bless America – it just might work!" But maybe I'm misreading some layer of irony here.

The bottom line on Roy Zimmerman is that we have a new Tom Lehrer on our hands. But this time he hasn't just got a grand piano and a razor wit, he has a full band, and he's doing every song in a new style. If you like music, if you like satire, and if your politics are even the tiniest bit left of Rush Limbaugh, then this a record for you.

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Flash Of Insight

Back in August I wrote something about how not to go about a skeptical approach to religious texts. Today that entry received a comment of such rare insight that I feel I must share it with you, Dear Reader.
Yes I know there is meta physical. AFter all, I don't dream and yet I had 2 dreams over 2 consecutive days and then the next day on each I watched in amazement as they replayed the stories on TV I had dreampt. ON the channel I was watching and at that time. So now I do believe in reincarnation because of those 2 dreams one in another life and 1 in another death that took place.
This is on a par with the best works of Swedish philosophers S. Granvik and M. Bos.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Dark Art

Lovers of outré and darkly baroque art, Goths of every stripe and anyone who’s read and enjoyed Peake’s Titus Groan -- there’s an exhibition on in Stockholm that you don’t want to miss.

As his farewell show, retiring museum director Hans Henrik Brummer has put together one hell of a triple feature at the Waldemarsudde art museum. He calls it "Unsafe Spaces".

The show starts off with a huge room devoted to the sixteen numbers of 18th century Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Carceri d'Invenzione ("Fantasy Prisons", or why not, "Fantasy Dungeons"). I'd only seen a few of them before and never at the original large scale. Incredible stuff; kaleidoscopic subterranean vistas peopled by faceless tiny figures scaling endless stairs. Coleridge loved them. Doré copied them. Escher reimagined them as Moebius strips.

F.D. Nomé. King Asa of Judah destroying the Idols. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Not in the Stockholm exhibition.

The next room introduced me to 17th century painter François de Nomé. He too was obsessed with fantasy architecture depicted in dramatic chiaroscuro -- but he preferred to paint it at the moment when it is tumbling down. His paintings may be named "Aeneas flees the burning Troy" or "The Martyrium of St. Catherine", but such mythological matter is only afforded a little corner of each canvas. The rest is devoted to Boschian filigree towers, collapsing arches and burning cities.

In the final two rooms, contemporary painter Ulrik Samuelsson has collected a number of his own canvases together with anonymous works of 15th and 16th century church art. And Samuelsson has taste. The most striking piece is a grotesquely gory and tortured Christ, sculpted at a superhuman scale, originally part of the triumphal crucifix in Sorunda church, Södermanland. This masterful sculpture is extremely stylized and non-naturalistic, to the point where the man's twisted body looks a bit like that of an emaciated horse. Utter madness, and still tightly controlled. Christ as pagan god or tribal idol, wild stuff.

Then there's a life-sized St. Anne from Frötuna church in Uppland, her paint and gilding largely flaked away, but still smiling beatifically. The sculptures are beautifully lit and neither is behind glass: St. Anne you can actually walk around with your nose a hair's breadth from the piece, and study the hollowed back that was never intended to be seen. It's a rare treat indeed to be able to engage so intimately with Medieval wooden sculpture.

"Unsafe Spaces" will be on until 7 January 2007. Prepare to get your mind blown.

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Carnivalesque 20 On-line

I've heard Henrik Karll of Recent Finds described as "a Danish Rundkvist, only a bit younger and with more facial hair". Heroically overcoming his many afflictions, Henrik is a productive blogger and has just put the 20th edition of the Carnivalesque history blog carnival on-line. It's about history, and this instalment is on the Early Modern Period. The next one will cover Ancient and Medieval history.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Vidi 5 On-Line

Alun Salt has put the fifth instalment of his one-man blog carnival Vidi on-line, all about archaeology and ancient history. Good stuff!

Kitchen Ascetism

I have an ascetic side to my mind. Making do with whatever's available and not buying anything unnecessary gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. And I'm a bit of a neat freak (on the macro scale -- never mind dusting). This means that most of the family's leftovers are eaten by me. And you won't see me leave an old pencil lying around on the sidewalk if I see one. Waste not, want not.

But I'm also lazy. (That's part of what drives my ascetism -- I'd rather not have to go to the shops). So I rarely cook anything complicated or time-consuming. And that means that our kitchen cupboards and freezer fill up with opened packages of foodstuffs that take some time to prepare.

I'm now looking at a bit more than two weeks of bachelor life while my wife and daughter are in China, starting tomorrow. Half of the time my son will be with me. And I've set myself a little task: we're going to live off of what's in the cupboards and freezer, not buying any unnecessary food. We'll eat like kings -- I'll just have to make the effort to cook dinners one day in in advance to have them ready for the microwave when I've picked up Junior from school.

When my wife comes home and sees the empty cupboards, she will flip her lid. Empty foodstores is an absolute horror to her. But that's the way I like my stores: echoing voids, clean and neat. I can sit in a corner and nibble contendedly on the last piece of crispbread, washed down with tap water. In control -- no threatening piles of chickpeas and tapioca making any demands on my time.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Your Friendly Music Critic

Marketing a work of art through reviews in the media is a risky business. If you're manufacturing vacuum cleaners, all you have to do is make sure your product works well and isn't too expensive, and the media will say so when they test vacuum cleaners. But art is all about taste. Your product may end up in the hands of a reviewer who simply doesn't like vacuum cleaners at all, as it were, and pans them because they aren't toasters. If that happens you haven’t just lost money by sending out stuff for free – the negative publicity may also hurt sales.

But all artists need media exposure to survive. So what do you do? You identify reviewers who like your kind of art, and who have access to media with a reasonable number of readers, and you send them your product. This happened to me for the first time today.

Metaphor Records in San Anselmo, California, knows (from Google) that I’m a Roy Zimmerman fan and (from Technorati) that my blog has a not inconsiderable number of daily readers. They’re gambling that sending Zimmerman’s new album to people like me will help create the all-important buzz among potential buyers of the album. Such people are likely to be vastly overrepresented among the readers of a blog like mine, and so the blog functions as a highly selective marketing channel. If you can just get information about your product past the blogger and into the channel.

In my new-found role as part of the music industry, I will in fact review the album soon. I haven’t listened to it yet, and I don’t know what I’ll say about it, but come on – what am I likely to think about an album of songs ridiculing the war on terror, abstinence pledges and creationism? Metaphor Records certainly seem to know pretty well what I’m going to say. And I have a feeling I'll be furthering their purposes with a smile on my face and a chuckle in my belly.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ancient Småland

Another Swedish archaeologist has taken up blogging: check out Pierre Petersson's AHIMKAR! Pierre's approach so far is much more hard-core than mine: every second week he publishes a long essay in Swedish on the archaeology and early history of the Småland coast in southeast Sweden.

Although far from my parts, Pierre's hunting grounds are linked to mine by the ancient sea route from Denmark to the Lake Mälaren area and onward east to Finland and Russia. Load some good stuff on those cogs going north, Pierre!

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Clean Hands

The new Swedish government is going through a process of intense journalistic scrutiny, and it's taking its toll: both the Minister for Trade Maria Borelius and the Minister for Culture Cecilia Stegö Chilò have been forced to resign only a week after their appointment. Neither has paid the state broadcasting fees for years, and Stegö Chilò has employed a housekeeper without paying taxes.

Borelius made the mistake of trying to defend herself: "I couldn't afford it". This would have been a silly defense in any case, since we can't have government ministers subscribing to the view that if you want something you can't afford (in this case, access to state TV channels) then you should just steal it. But Borelius is in fact an unusually affluent person, so her words were a big fat slap in the face to the average Joe.

Stegö Chilò didn't make any silly statements, but of course she had to go too. The Minister for Culture is the boss of the state broadcasting company.

Some people think these issues are negligible. But I'm really glad to be living in a country where it matters to a politician's career whether they play by the rules or not. And I'm glad to see the press really doing its job and not just reporting on reality TV.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Darndest Things

From the table conversation of my eight-year old son and his pal a moment ago.
A: My willy is protesting against my brain. My kidneys are protesting.

S: Is your kidney full of saffron?
Pancake absurdism. I have spawned a monster.

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Science Fiction Fanzine

Blogging is nothing new. It's been going on at least since the 1860s when the amateur press movement started. H.P. Lovecraft's writing career, for instance, took off in 1914 thanks to this little world of home-made magazines. Since World War 2 they've been called fanzines, and they've been integral to the science fiction and alternative music subcultures. Now they've largely transcended their paper substrate and entered the realm of immediate low-cost digital availability. Fanzines are on the net. The amateur press movement has exploded into the blogosphere.

Paradoxically, one of the few groups that still produce paper fanzines is science fiction fandom. In this day and age, these avant-garde champions of futurity still cherish the mimeograph and the Xerox machine, still hate the Post Office, still keep paper mailing lists. It's part of their subcultural identity. But a lot of the material in the paper zines also appears on-line.

Yesterday I was given one of these increasingly rare cultural artefacts by the kind and charming Anna Davour. It's the expanded paper incarnation of her blog and contains a lot of interesting stuff, including book reviews and discussion of the relationship between fanzines and blogs. I particularly liked Anna's piece on baby carrying shawl fandom.

Shawls are more Bronze Age than futurism, but Swedish sf fanzines have had a nebulous relationship to actual sf for decades. They're the lifeblood of a subculture more than commentary on a literary genre.

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Homage to Gothenburg

I've lived for almost all of my life in Stockholm. But there's another Swedish city that has a special place in my heart. It's a bit smaller, but at the same time much more international. It's friendlier and less pretentious than Stockholm. It seems as if the salty sea and the winds out of the Atlantic have created a less constricted climate in this city, as if the Jante Law doesn't really apply there. I am, of course, referring to Gothenburg. And this is my homage to that great city.

Hasselblad, Volvo, SKF – Gothenburg has real factories and working class neighbourhoods. Other towns, such as Uppsala for instance, feel like stage sets in comparison. Then there are the landshövdingehus, cosy three-story apartment buildings with a stone ground story and wooden upper stories. The one-room apartments there are great, with the kitchen the same size as the living room.

In the middle of the city's main square is an equestrian statue of Carolus X Gustavus, who took Bohuslän County from the Norwegians at the Peace of Tönsberg in 1656. The square was laid out in 1536 at the initiative of Jörgen Kock, the powerful mayor and mint master of Gothenburg. There's also a great Chinese restaurant at the square, but I don't know its name.

The Slottsskogen gardens are magnificent in all seasons: they are reached through the elaborate wrought-iron gates that open to the public daily in the afternoon. The masterpiece of the garden designer Beatrice Crafoord (a niece of Selma Lagerlöf), who worked there for more than 30 years, the winding pathways and landscaped terraces that stretch down the far side of the hill within the enclosure represent a glorious melding of European and American traditions. According to the British garden historian Jane Brown, Slottsskogen in Gothenburg "is a garden far, far superior to either Sissinghurst Castle or Hidcote Manor in design, and it ranks (as they cannot) with the greatest gardens in the world."

Örgryte is Gothenburgs most colourful neighbourhood with a lively market and stores and restaurants from all of the world. It has the city's first planned, large-scale housing estates for the working class and is a result of the growing industrial city in the late 19th century. The labour movement was influential here.

All the really good Swedish music comes out of Gothenburg, and of course you buy it at Bengans.

Gothenburg is the place where I spent the most intense years of my childhood. The place has changed over the years due to hurricanes and mass tourism, but to me it was (kitschy as it may sound) Paradise. The first thing we did in the mornings was to take a long swim in the ocean. After that my sis' and me collected seashells, built sandcastles or went into the jungle to look for cenotes. The beach was our living room, our dining room and our playground. I learned to ride a bike in the sand. My sister and me had palm tree climbing contests. And since then I have a permanent craving for coconuts and coconut milk...

And I love getting ginger truffles from the Kanold Girls, or having lentil soup at the Greek place in the market hall.

I went to Gothenburg in May. Lots of pubs, ranging from the old-school gay Bierstube over posh cafés to traditional ale houses. Furthermore, the total clash of architecture – something old, something new, something ugly, something beautiful.

I am wistful for the graciousness of my former home in Gothenburg, an apartment building called the Falbygden, which sits conveniently at Avenyn. Built, like many of the city's grand establishments, at the turn of the last century, it has an unsurpassable lobby, a cavernous and impeccably maintained confection of polished mosaic floors, luxuriously veined marble pillars and chinoiserie murals, amounting to what one visitor likened, not unreasonably, to a bathhouse in Budapest. The Eisenhowers lived there, as do a number of contemporary writers and public figures, and it is said that National Security kept an apartment overlooking the Russian Trade Federation across the road.

The English Garden, in the middle of Gothenburg, is the largest metropolitan park in all of Europe. A perfect day can be spent moments away from the busy main street, but never hearing, seeing, or smelling it. Lounge by the Isbäcken stream, jump in on a hot day, read or nap. When you can't lounge horizontally any longer, hop on your bike for a five minute ride to the Sjöhusen open-air restaurant. There are exponentially fewer tourists than at the Chinese Tower! The food and drink are totally Deutsch and very delicious, and even though it says not to, most people feed the birds – the tables sit right on the water, so you could even stick your toes in if you felt like it.

I love strolling in Haga and on the university campus, looking at incomprehensible sculptures that look like they may be intended to sit on.

The Cathedral's silhouette has dominated Gothenburg for more than 800 years. Already in the 11th century there was probably a small wooden church here with a churchyard. In the 1120s, building of the first stone church was begun, a basilica half as large as the current structure. In 1251 a royal coronation took place here, when Valdemar, son of Earl Birger and brother of Magnus Lockbarn, was crowned. In the 14th century the church was extended to its current length and the western façade was completed.

The Kock House is also a gem, one of Gothenburg's best-preserved 16th century buildings, a red brick structure with an ornate stepped gable. One of the city's best restaurants, The Seasons, currently resides in the vaulted basement.

My paternal grandparents lived in Gothenburg near the outskirts of the city, with a huge amount of undeveloped land behind their house. My favourite memories are spending time with my grampie in his greenhouse, the smell of wet soil stayed in your clothes. The second memory is climbing the hill behind their house – years before, someone had built a makeshift wooden tipi on top of the hill. I would wander around on top of the ridge looking out over the old city in one direction and wilderness in the other. It was beautiful.

Don't miss the Universeum science centre! Great for kids.

The Angel of the North is surprisingly beautiful, given that it's rusty iron. Whether you arrive by car or train it's prominent overlooking from a nearby hill. It gives a real sense that you're arriving or departing from the city. The view across the river Göta as you arrive into the station by train is also impressive. The cranes of the shipyards stand out along the banks and you can see several bridges between Gothenburg on the south bank and Hisingen on the north.

Erik Andersson used to live in Gothenburg, and he's sort of left a lingering aura of friendliness that permeates the city.

"The British navy has been sighted at Vinga lighthouse! Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!"

One of my favourite spots is the Storängsudd nature preserve at Beatelund on Hisingen. Walking there in the springtime is balm to the soul. The oak woods with the anemones! Cowslip, Elder-flowered Orchid, and not least the Snake's Head Fritillary, county flower of Västergötland. The water and the waterfowl.

The old castle of the Prince-Electors in Gothenburg goes back to 1542. In 1988, the 125th anniversary of the Black Cat was celebrated in the Keiller vineyard. An explanation for the name of this make of wine is given in an old story. Three wine merchants from Skövde couldn't decide which barrel of wine to buy. As the winemaker was pouring them yet another sample glass, his black cat jumped onto one of the barrels, bristling and hissing. The merchants took this to mean that the cat was trying to keep the best wine for his master. And since that day, Black Cat wine is sold in Gothenburg.

There are also many tea plantations in the Gothenburg area where you can observe the entire tea-making craft from the bush to the package. Methods have hardly changed in the past century, and the plantations are still full of pickers carrying baskets on their backs.

"If you're looking for a smoke when you're in Gothenburg – up at Näckrosdammen, Vasaparken or Femmans torg" then you're "Welcome to Gothenburg! To a jinglingly joyful Gothenburg!"

The city has tramways which appear so right-in-place for the old steel-making city. They go PING and scare you half to death, that's good.

I searched most of the city for an internet café. I found one single place. So it has to be the largest city I've ever been to with (virtually) no internet cafés. But who cares? "On a September afternoon you lie down at Allén. You light yourself a little joint and bask in the sun."

When in Gothenburg, you mustn't miss the Temple of the Exquisite Hiding Place. Check out all the Buddhas carved in the cliffs along the stream! Now that Gothenburg municipality has gone back to more traditional values and religion isn't being combated to the same extent any more, you'll see huge building works going on at all the temple compounds.

The taxicabs are entertaining in their way: the supremely illogical zone system, which, instead of using meters, divides the city into payment sectors designed to make the politicians' commute cheap; the disconcerting oddity of multiple customers with multiple destinations, crammed into a single cab; and the eccentricity of the drivers, whose knowledge of the city may be tenuous at best, but whose interest in global politics is often passionate and voluble.

"The bustling docks open their arms to embrace you and gather you to the heart that is Gothenburg!"

Yes indeed, Gothenburg is a great place, a city you never grow tired of. It offers continuous surprises, and still it always make you feel right at home.

If anything in this entry appears confusing or inaccurate, this other entry may perhaps provide an explanation.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Surreal Text Collage

The organisers of this weekend’s science fiction convention in Stockholm asked me to give a fifteen-minute speech of praise on any theme I liked. I decided to talk about the Swedish city of Gothenburg. I’ve been there only twice for a few days as a grown man, and although I found the city to be nice, I can’t say I know much about it. There is a traditional rivalry between Stockholm and Gothenburg, but I decided not to allude to that at all.

My first idea, the occasion being an sf convention, was to praise a far-future Gothenburg and allow this to be known only gradually through the speech by dropping more and more futuristic hints. Then I had an idea I liked better: since I don’t really know anything about the place, I’d ask people to tell me what they like about Gothenburg, and then appropriate their sentiments for myself. Having done some of this, I decided that I would solicit other people’s praise for any city at all, and then turn all this material into my own praise for Gothenburg and mix it with the authentic Gothenburg appreciations. Some of this city praise I got from the readers of this blog, and then I collected more from the web through a few Google searches. I also stuck in a few snippets of famous song lyrics about Gothenburg. The resulting text contained no opinions of my own, and many opinions not actually about Gothenburg.

To structure the speech, I wrote an intro and an outro, put the snippets I’d collected into an Excel sheet, assigned an automatic random number to each of them and then sorted and re-sorted them on these changing numbers until they were in an order I liked. Then I printed the speech out, took it to the convention and read it out.

I was pleased to find that the audience seemed to like it and laughed a lot, particularly the ones who knew Gothenburg or recognised some of the snippets about other cities that I’d appropriated. So I find this to be a good technique to generate a surreal or psychedelic textual collage. But your mileage may vary: I’d say that science fiction fans probably have an exceptionally robust grip on primary reality, having so much experience with otherworldly or absurd fictional settings. Other people may find such a kaleidoscopic narrative – mixing truth, blatant falsehood and utter irrelevancies – pointless, confusing or even threatening.

A translation of the speech follows in the next blog entry.

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But First -- Are You Spiritual?

I keep coming across the notion, mostly in American writings, that although many people no longer regard themselves as religious, still they stress the importance of spirituality. I have a problem with spirituality. I don't know what it means. And I'm pretty sure nobody else really does either.

Cognate words in Swedish are andlighet, which has strong connotations of the church-going little old lady, and spiritualitet, which means "a humorous way with words" (though less well-read Swedes have begun to use it to denote spirituality in the American non-sense). Spirituality seems to be what younger Swedes mean when they say "I'm not religious, but I do believe in something".

I think the main reason that it's so hard to understand "spirituality" is that it refers to feelings that are impossible to communicate clearly. Each American who professes spirituality very likely means different things, though they will never know that as they can't visit the insides of each other's brains. To explain what they mean, they may cite their feelings when watching the stars, walking in majestic natural scenery or gazing into the eyes of babies. Those things of course awaken profound feelings of something or other* in me too. But what do they have to do with spirits? Concretely speaking, there's no such thing as spirits or souls. There's just brains harbouring thoughts and emotions. Evolution has made sure to equip me with wonderful feelings for babies. It's a good way to help them stay alive until maturity, which is all that evolution really cares about.

So "spirituality" can mean pretty much anything. I'm tentatively translating the word as "undogmatic religion". A good thing about old-school dogmatic religions with carefully worded creeds and rigidly delimited canons of literature is that you know exactly what they expect you to believe. I only need to read the first line of the Nicene Creed to know that I'm not a Christian. But how do I know whether myself or anyobody else is spiritual? Really no way of telling. You can't reasonably contradict me if I say you're murglezoinggg either, as none of us knows what the word means.

Maybe I'm in fact a deeply spiritual man. Or a highly neebzeebluffle one. I guess I'll never know.

* Douglas Adams & John Lloyd. 1983. The Meaning of Liff. "Hambledon (n.). The sound of a single-engined aircraft flying by, heard whilst lying in a summer field in England, which somehow concentrates the silence and sense of space and timelessness and leaves one with a profound feeling of something or other."

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Charming City

Dear Reader, I have a request for you. Could you please comment on this entry and tell me a few favourite things about any large city you like to visit? For instance the park where you had pretzels, the department store where you helped a drag queen zip up a dress in the back, the cellar where you learned ninjutsu, the tower on a hill where you had tea and watched the sun go down over the sea. I'm going to bake something out of this material for a talk on Saturday 14 October, and then there will be a blog entry.

Update 14 October: Thanks, everyone! I've got lots of great material now. A few hours from now, I'll see what the audience at the ImagiCon sf convention thinks about it. All applied to the Swedish city of Gothenburg...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

One-Man Carnival

I've been thinking vaguely about setting up a blog carnival on archaeology and ancient history. Turns out Alun Salt of Archaeoastronomy already has! Under the headline "Vidi" he periodically lists loads of good entries on these themes with a faint Mediterranean bent. And he's finding all these entries by himself, not through submissions! Go have a look.

Skeptical Voices

The Skeptics' Circle blog carnival has moved on from here and is currently welcoming visitors at the Inoculated Mind blog. Karl, who runs the blog, did something cool and unusual this time. He asked the contributors to send him voicemail over Skype, so in addition to the standard carnival text there is a podcast where you can hear the contributors, including yours truly, talk about their submissions. Great to hear the voices of these people whose writing I read all the time!

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Fifty Years Out Toward Lyra

The Swedish language has produced very few really good works of science fiction. (Give us a break, Swedish has less than nine million native speakers). One of these few really good works was published 50 years ago, and the occasion was celebrated with a symposium today at the Academy of Letters. It might have been the Swedish Academy, because the book's author was a member and they awarded him the Nobel for it. I'm talking about Harry Martinson's science fiction verse epic Aniara.

The Aniara is an interplanetary spaceship full of colonists bound for Mars, escaping from an Earth ruined by pollution and nuclear fallout. On its way from Earth the spaceship evades an asteroid, gets thrown off course, sustains heavy damage to its steering, and ends up randomly on a course for Lyra. The constellation's stars are so far away that when the Aniara finally arrives there its passengers will have been dead for aeons. In 103 cantos of varying length and lyrical form, Martinson tells stories of the people on board as they progress through the years on their pointless journey into interstellar space.
We came from Earth, from Dorisland,
the jewel in our solar system,
the only orb where life obtained
a land of milk and honey.
Describe the landscapes we found there,
the days their dawn could breed.
Describe the creature fine and fair
who sewed the shrouds for his own seed
till God and Satan hand in hand
through a deranged and poisoned land
took flight uphill and down
from man: a king with ashen crown.

Aniara, canto 79, by Harry Martinson.
Translated by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg 1999.
The book is very much a product of the Cold War: marked by concerns about environmental degradation and the nuclear threat. It is also a pessimistic book, a vision of the futility of human endeavour, very far in tone from what for example Robert Heinlein was writing at the time. But Aniara draws from the same background of sf tropes as Heinlein's books, offering an alternative and cautionary take on what is sometimes called Golden Age sf.

As a child, I used to feel a deep stomach-churning horror at the thought of that crippled spaceship falling away into the darkness. Looking at it now, I'm not so sure the alternatives would have been much better. The people on the Aniara fled a dying Earth to live as colonists on inhospitable Mars. Neither their origins nor their intended destination was Paradise, and so their fall into darkness shouldn't really be seen as a fall from grace. They have food and power to last them for years. They continue to produce cultural fads, religions, even scientific discoveries. Sure, they're all fucked. But they were fucked before they even went aboard the Aniara. And that, I guess, is how the gloomy yet brilliant poet, then just into his 50s, saw life. We're fucked. Nobody gets out of here alive.

Harry Martinson wasn't a glumster all of his life. For youthful vigor, optimism and prose-lyrical mastery, read his early books about life as a sailor in the merchant navy: Resor utan mål (1932) and Kap Farväl (1933).

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Runes in the Eye of the Beholder

Back in the very early days of this blog I told you about something cool written by my Danish friend Rud Kjems. Now he's done it again: Rud just published an eminently readable book on the history of investigation of the Runamo pseudo-runes.

In the woods outside the town of Ronneby in the southern Swedish province of Blekinge is a flat cliff with a long striated ribbon across it. Irregularities in the surface of this ribbon look almost as if they might be written characters, why not runes? The site was mentioned in writing already by Saxo in the 12th century, who relates that King Valdemar sent his loremasters to Runamo to read the runes, but that they failed. Famous scholars throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries made repeated attempts at making sense of the thing, and some came up with long interesting readings about ancient kings and battles. Until geology and archaeology matured enough to be able to identify the formation as geology.

A long ancient crack in the bedrock has become filled with a crystalline mineral whose natural structure leads to transverse cracks looking like runes. There are in fact other similar features in the vicinity, all built the same way as the ancient quartz quarry I wrote about the other day. The many learned readings at Runamo through the centuries were just moonshine.

I had the pleasure to read Rud's book in manuscript form, and I'm thrilled to see the typography and the many fine illustrations. This is definitely a book to look out for if you're at all interested in Scandinavian archaeology and history.

Kjems, Rud. 2006. Runamo. Skriften der kom og gik. Forlaget Hikuin. Moesgård. 168 pp. ISBN 87-90814-42-8.
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tech Note: Lost My Mac Cherry Today

Before today, my experience of Macintosh computers was limited to playing games with my friend Tor on a monochrome Plus model in the late 80s. I've been using PCs from the original IBM machine onward. Not religiously, just for practical reasons. And so, this morning when I arrived at my academy office, I found waiting for me two large cardboard boxes. And and an Out Of Box experience of a brand spanking new Macintosh.

It turned out to be a friendly machine. The only thing I didn't manage to do with it was install my standard web links page as desktop wallpaper. (Dear Reader, do please tell me how!) So I got some work done.

But of course there were irritating details. There seems to be no "end" key that sends the cursor to the end of the current line of text. There is a fourth type of shift key that you need to use a lot, as if Windows programs would make heavy use of the flag key in addition to Shift, Ctrl and Alt. The watch is top right instead of bottom right. The CD and DVD drive bays appear boarded up. Most programs defaulted to a really tiny font. But Firefox installed without a hitch, the Airport wireless router was plug and play, and I found Adium to be a decent instant messaging program.

My keyboard moves are getting all muddled. I've been running Open Office for a while on the laptop and my research machine, so I was getting the italics and boldface keys wrong even before I ended up with a Macintosh as well. But it seems my gut feeling about Macintosh vs. Windows was correct: the differences are really negligible for everyday users like myself, nothing to get all fundamentalist about.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

News From Old Uppsala

Back in January I blogged about exciting new discoveries at Old Uppsala. Today I visited the place and heard talks by a large number of scholars working on issues related to the site, including Magnus Alkarp and Neil Price who identified the foundations of the wooden church as reported here previously.

Here are the most interesting tidbits that I picked up today.
  • Geoarchaeologist and palaeoecologist Magnus Hellquist presented bore core studies of sediments from the little vanished lake of Myrby träsk immediately west of the Royal Barrows. It seems that right about the time when the barrows and the longhouse plateaux were built, there's evidence for enormous localised soil erosion and sediment redeposition in the lake.
  • Alkarp & Price are preparing an on-line gazetteer of interventions into the ground at Old Uppsala, archaeological and otherwise. The model for their project is Martin Carver's work at Sutton Hoo, only they're covering a much larger area. I've done similar work on the Barshalder cemetery on Gotland (covering, among other things, about 45 seasons of fieldwork since 1826). If we're lucky, Alkarp & Price's work may finally lead up to a large-scale excavation campaign at Old Uppsala, the first since the mid-19th century when the Royal Barrows were opened. Dig the mutha, say I!
  • Lars-Inge Larsson showed some jaw-dropping geophysical survey data from the longhouse plateaux. After less than two days in the field, and without lifting a single turf, he's got the as yet unexcavated foundations of the royal halls and later buildings mapped out in great detail. I've got to get this guy to do my ploughland sites in Östergötland before I start digging there.
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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Podcasting Epiphany

The other day I belatedly realised why podcasting and video-on-demand will utterly supplant radio, airwave TV and cable TV.

I know that this means that I'm really behind the game here. But anyway, let me explain what it is I've come to understand after more than a year of listening to podcasts.

With the old media distribution channels, the content providers have all the programming on tape, and they decide what tapes you and I can watch, and when. For instance, my son wanted me to deliver him to his mom no later than ten o'clock yesterday because that's when the Cartoon Network offers a certain show that he likes. I snuck out before he was even awake and was chasing tupperware in the woods when the fated hour struck. Poor kid.

With podcasting and video-on-demand, you and I decide what we want to watch/hear, and when. The content providers' tape archives, as it were, are available to us in their entirety whenever we want over broadband. The Swedish State Broadcasting Corporation doesn't have an interviews show about the American counterculture (duh), and even if they did, its broadcasting hours would be very unlikely to fit my schedule. Podcasting is not just a convenient way for me to listen to the R.U. Sirius show: it's the only way I could listen to it. At irregular intervals, when I commute or drive longer distances. It's great. And the files will in all likelihood be instantly available for years and years to come, unlike the many brilliant radio programs that survive at best as dusty rolls of tape in the vaults of broadcasting companies.

So, Dear Reader, if you happen to be even slower than me on the uptake, let me tell you this: FM radio/TV broadcasting and cable TV are technologies of the past. Get your media over broadband. Get whatever you like, whenever you like.

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Blog Ranking Explained

Dear Reader, if you're interested in Technorati's blog ranking and link counts, you might want to have a look at this succinct explanation of how they work.

Ranking is based on the number of unique linking blogs in the past six months. This means that a site's ranking can sink dramatically when an isolated flurry of linking in the past moves out of the six-month window. The recent two-carnival boom at Salto sobrius is a case in point. Still, this blog is lined up for more carnivals in the near future. And it's currently ranked number three among archaeology blogs in English worldwide, which tickles me no end.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Comely and Leering

I've used the same e-mail address since 1995 and published it repeatedly on the web and the Usenet. So I get droves of spam. Mostly I don't have to see it, Thunderbird's spam filter doing a pretty good job. But there's one group of spam messages that are apparently hard to identify as such, and so I have to get rid of them by hand. And that means I have to read their subject lines.

These brief messages are sublime in their abuse of the English language, attempting to entice the recipients to look at porn. Especially the inexplicable choice of adjectives -- somebody's Russian-English dictionary is clearly working overtime. Here are a few gems.
  • Doo appetising Ladies doingg heavenly blowwjob?
  • sophisticated Youungest Hussy in fuckingg
  • cultured Teenies doiing choice blowjobb
  • dishy Young Eighteen so comely and
  • Young Teenies so comely and leering!
  • Do you like squeamish Hussies doing excellent blowjoob?
  • Do you want advisable virginn Teenie?
  • prurient Schoolgiirls doing orgiastic suckinng
  • darling russian squeamish Teenies here!
  • Young Girls so bonnie and pulchritudinous!
  • Do you like esthetic Ladies doing subtle blowjobb?
  • voluptuous Just Ladies and fastidious Bitches from Your dreeam!
  • Young jolly virrgins at harddcore Poorno
  • gentle Girls at Porrn!
Dear Reader, are you by any chance a voluptuous Just Lady or sophisticated Youungest Hussy? Are you squeamish, advisable, fastidious and bonnie? Then please tell me, how do you do it? I must ask my wife as well. I'm sure she was once a young jolly virrgin.

Update 7 October: You'll think I'm making this up, but today I received a spam message whose subject line read "Be A Sperm-man With Shitload Of Sperms". Err... yes, quite.

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Quartz Time

Do you know what's in this picture? Click on it to get a bigger version. Check out the details.

Fredrik Molin sent it to me. He's a field archaeologist and Mesolithic scholar working in Östergötland. Together with Magnus Rolöf and other colleagues, he's excavated a Stone Age quartz quarry at Stjärneberg right outside Linköping.

As mentioned here before, quartz is a tricky material to knap, not at all like flint. You get loads of debris, and your actual products are pretty ugly. But it works, and in much of Scandinavia quartz was the number one tool-making material for millennia.

At Stjärneberg Fredrik and the others have documented a small quarry looking pretty much like it did on the last day that somebody used it. The date of use is still uncertain, and the site may have seen repeated visits for centuries or millennia. But there was a knapping floor nearby displaying a bipolar knapping technique particularly common during the Mesolithic, and post-glacial shoreline displacement sets the earliest possible date for the quarry's use to the Late 7th Millennium BC. This is the date that Fredrik suggests: at the time, the site was at the shore of an island with good access to marine resources. Hopefully, radiocarbon from a nearby hearth will settle the issue.

Molin, Fredrik; Rolöf, Magnus & Wikell, Roger. Manuscript. Mesolithic quartz quarrying in Eastern Middle Sweden in the light of a newly excavated quarry at Stjärneberg, Linköping.
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New Government

The new Swedish right-wing government's members were announced today. There are 22 of them, of which ten are women. Their median age is 47,5 years. Eleven are Conservatives, four are Centrists (a party once named the Farmer's Union), four are Liberal Democrats (yep, they're right-wingers compared to the Social Democrats) and three are Christian Democrats.

There are a number of interesting details to note.

The Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, is a former Prime Minister ('91-'94).

The Minister for Culture, Cecilia Stegö Chilò, used to head Timbro, a hardcore liberal think tank. She's likely to unleash the Invisible Hand all over the Swedish culture scene. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a McDonald's flag in front of every tourist-friendly archaeological site in the country before long. More encouragingly, Stegö Chilò spells utter doom for the Social-Democrat heritage ideologues currently in charge at the Board of National Antiquities.

The Minister for the Environment, Andreas Carlgren, is a gay man, a registered co-habitator and a father of three. This is particularly cool because the three Christian Democrat ministers (for Stock Trade, Social Issues and Public Health) are likely to secretely loathe the guy. I wonder if we'll see any attempts to influence sex education on the part of the new Minister for Social Issues?

The Minister for Migration Issues, Tobias Billström, age 32, is the junior member of this government.

The Minister for Integration and Gender Equality, Nyamko Sabuni, is a black woman born in the Kongo and a huge hottie.

I didn't vote for these people, but it sure is going to be interesting to see what they do.

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Swedish Academy

Another one of the academies founded by Swedish royalty in the 18th century is the Swedish Academy, set up by Lovisa Ulrika's son to cultivate the Swedish language. The organisation's mostly known for its role in awarding the Nobel Prize for literature. It's also a household name through its dictionary, the SAOL.

Being an aesthetic relativist, I don't have much respect for the Nobel Prize for literature. All that such an award says is that the receiver has managed to please eighteen people in Stockholm who are very far from average readers. Their selections are actually kind of a continuing joke in Sweden, greeted by the catch phrase "Yes! Finally!" (Äntligen!) every year when some obscure old man's name is revealed. The prestige of the prize is of course not contingent on that of the academy members, but rests entirely on the amount of cash involved. If Alfred Nobel had just donated money enough to buy a fancy fountain pen for every laureate, then nobody would care about the prize.

But Nobel was an aesthetic absolutist: indeed, his will stipulates that the prize be given to the writer of the "most ideal" works of fiction or poetry. Little could he foresee that the artistic ideals he espoused would one day be (indeed, were already at the time in some quarters) seen as sub-culturally contingent and largely arbitrary. So don't expect me to greet the new laureate, when his (of course it's gonna be a him) name is publicised next week, with much enthusiasm.

The Swedish Academy can have only eighteen members, and they're elected for life. This means that when someone becomes too old or ill to participate, or when a member disagrees with the others so badly that they want to leave the association, then no replacement is possible until they die. So I don't think there have been eighteen fully active members at any one time since the 18th century.

Two members died recently (Östen Sjöstrand and Lars Gyllensten), and the names of their replacements were announced today. Kristina Lugn (58) is a widely read and staged poet and playwright, hugely popular among middle-class ladies of a certain age. Jesper Svenbro (62) is apparently a poet and a Classical Greek philologist, though I have managed to read Swedish books and newspapers for almost 30 years without registering his existence. Actually, he looks suspiciously like a Nobel Laureate for literature. Too bad for him he ended up a member of the Academy.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Robert Anton Wilson Needs a Hand

Psychedelic and occult writer and prankster Robert Anton Wilson is most well known for books like Cosmic Trigger and the Illuminatus! trilogy. Wilson, born in 1932, is currently in poor health and dire financial straits. There's a fund raising drive going on. I'm certainly dropping a few bucks into the old visionary's paypal account. I heard his talk at the Stockholm Spoken Word Festival in 1999, and he was great.

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Ever heard of Zimmerman the singer? No, not Bob -- Roy.
Every time we think about same-sex marriage
Makes us sick to our guts
I mean, two people who want to commit to a
stable monogamous life-long relationship --
What are they, nuts?
It's unnatural!

Now a man should not lie with a
person who is a guy
He should only lie to his wife,
the Bible is clear

We're --
Defenders of marriage
In three-button suits
We'll raise our double standard
and see who salutes
Defenders of marriage
Defending the institution against people
who want to get married

(From "Defenders of Marriage")
You like Tom Lehrer? Has it been a long time since you heard any good new satirical songs? Get thee to Roy Zimmerman's web site. He's not only smart, lefty and evilly fun, he plays a mean guitar as well.

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