Thursday, November 30, 2006


The Antikythera mechanism is an Ancient Greek astronomical simulation device. It sank in the early 1st century BC along with the ship it was travelling on near the island that's given the find its name, and was fished out of the Mediterranean a century ago. A paper in today's issue of Nature presents new work with computer-aided X-ray tomography which has allowed a team of scholars to understand better how the thing worked and to decipher more of its many inscriptions. Using a large number of cogged wheels and gears, the mechanism was designed to simulate and predict the movements and interrelationships of the more important heavenly bodies. Most likely, such contraptions were built among the followers of Hipparchus and Posidonius, whose known interests and level of astronomical insight fit well with the mechanism.

The funny thing about the Antikythera mechanism is that it appears to be isolated, popping up more than 1000 years before the documented start of the High Medieval clockwork tradition. This impression may be due to our incomplete knowledge of what Arabic scholars were doing through the Dark Ages -- they certainly relayed a lot of other Ancient Greek work to posterity. But still, when Medieval Western Europe learned to make clockworks, the technology spread like wildfire, so rapidly that it is impossible to tell exactly where it started. Not so with Antikythera. We have a single find and a few brief mentions of similar tech in the literature of the time. Why is this?

I'd like to submit an idea. The reason that the Ancient Greek clockwork devices didn't catch on may have been that they weren't open source. A proprietary technology, guarded jealously among a small philosophical community, and useless to anyone lacking a solid astronomical education -- it would in fact have been highly surprising if it had started a wave of cultural diffusion. The specimen from the Antikythera wreck wouldn't have been travelling alone: it must have belonged to a philosopher bound for Rome, a man who could maintain the device and use it for astronomical demonstrations and predictions. To anyone else, the mechanism would just have been incomprehensible. And it lay in the best interests of its owner that the world at large remained in the dark about such arcana.

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Leave the Ghetto

Dear Reader, I believe we can agree that all citizens of a secularised modern state should have the same rights and opportunities, regardless of their ethnic and phenotypical characteristics. ("Phenotypical" is a nice sciency way of saying "related to skin & hair colour, nose shape and other visual characteristics vaguely typical of people from different parts of the world"). Where we may part company is on the question of ethnic minorities: ex-slave populations, lo-tech tribespeople, tightly-knit diaspora communities, recent immigrants -- any group that is perceived as visually and culturally distinct from the majority population of a state. Because I really mean all citizens. Everyone should enjoy all the rights and opportunities, and carry all the responsibilities, of the majority population. If your granddad was really nasty to my granddad for ethnic reasons, then it does not in my opinion mean that you owe me anything extra. The important thing is that you are not nasty to me now.

An Australian correspondent of mine put it as follows.
In Australia [...], the indigenous people get very generous welfare (education, housing, medical, etc) support. In some cases, this is deserved but misdirected; tribal populations in the outback get a massive amount of funding, but [...] can't solve the problems inherent in a basically Stone Age culture trying to co-exist with the 21st century. And on the other hand, we have people who identify themselves as being Aborigines, because one of their 34 great, great, great grandparents were Aboriginal [...], and also getting more generous welfare than a fifth generation Anglo-Saxon/Celtic Australian (or a 2nd generation Swedish-Australian, or a 1st generation African-Australian).
I say, get off the reservation. Leave the ghetto. In Australia, it would probably be better not to give Aborigines (however such a group may be defined) money to stay in the outback. Better to use it to fund free education and public construction projects in the cities and encourage people in the outback to take part of them. That way, most Australian Aborigines would pretty soon move to the cities, become reasonably affluent and lose touch with non-adaptive traditional lifestyles. It'll be hard to discriminate against Aboriginal-looking people once they all have MBA degrees.

Like all anthropologists, I am a cultural relativist. This position most often takes the expression that "modern Western culture is not intrinsically more valuable than traditional ones". But it goes both ways, really. Traditional cultures are not intrinsically more valuable than the modern Western one. Indeed, no culture has any value at all except in relation to Human Rights: they're all constructed anew each morning anyway. It is of no value to a society, nor to ethnic minorities themselves, that they be encouraged to stay on reservations and in ghettos and remain stuck in unemployment and drug abuse.

In my opinion, the only way that ethnic and phenotypical minorities can actually have equal opportunities is if their members assume places inside majority society through education and employment. Reservation life is just a pale shadow of what these cultures were like in the pre-colonial past. I don't see why it would be useful to anyone that some people be kept, and keep themselves, as cultural museum exhibits. Most reservations were selected as such because they were undesirable to majority society: often awkwardly located patches of badlands. The first priority for members of modern ethnic minorities should not be to remain ethnically distinct and preserve their traditions, but to thrive and contribute to whatever culture works now. Adapt and survive.

My perspective on these things is of course coloured by the fact that I belong to the majority population of a state that was recently identified by The Economist as the world's strongest democracy: Sweden. My ideas on ethnic minorities presuppose that society is reasonably democratic, where the rights of all citizens are protected and where the legal system works. This is unfortunately not the case for most people on Earth. I have also been brought up in an individualistic culture where the most important thing is not to be part of one's people but to be free. I have no relationship to any Swedish tribe or nation: I am an individual relating to other individuals and to the state. I realize that this is very far from how most pre-industrial cultures saw things. But the world is no longer pre-industrial. And if we believe that all cultures are equally valuable as long as they respect Human Rights, then there is no reason for people to stay on reservations or in ghettos any more. Because there they have far less chance of enjoying those rights.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lint Sacrifices

Clothes give off lint that collects in little wads, for instance in pockets and the turn-ups of trousers. But I also find it on my body, coloured according to what I’ve been wearing, and mainly at three places. Lint collects at the nape of my neck, in my navel and at the upper end of my bum crack. There is a simple and evident explanation for this: religious mites.

All larger terrestrial animals act as unwitting hosts to innumerable microscopic mites (Sw. kvalster). Most of them are harmless, subsisting on little flakes of shed skin. Some allergics react badly to their excrement, but that is rare.

My mites are obviously organized into tribes, one of which occupies my abdomen. They have a central cult site where they congregate regularly to perform sacrifices, lugging enormous loads of lint from far areas such as my upper chest, celebrating great religious feasts that culminate in the lint being heaved into the Great Sacred Pit -- my navel. The theology behind this sacrifice is unclear, but I suppose the mites want to placate some Higher Being, probably me. The mites are periodically killed in devastating numbers when I shower, so the great offerings may be intended to stop me from doing just that. But I am a vengeful God.

What of the great lint deposits made at the nape of my neck? They most likely have to do with the awe and fear felt by the mite tribe on my neck for the dark and mysterious woodlands of my head. I have no doubt but that the head mites, a small-bodied and furtive race hardened by anti-dandruff shampoo, make nocturnal raids on the neck mites, who therefore live in a constant state of fear. Their lint offerings under the eaves of the Head Woods must thus be to appease the mysterious forces lurking up there in the dark.

More horrific still must be the threat that inspires the mites of my lower back to sacrifice lint at the upper end of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Poor little ones.

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Another Great Dane

As noted here before, I'm a big fan of Danish archaeology. They have cool material, good scholars, a solid scientific tradition and hardly any tiresome wannabe philosophers nibbling away at their archaeological university funding.

Esben Schlosser Mauritsen is one of the great Danes, and here is his web site. Esben is into archaeology as extreme sports: aerial photography and underwater excavations are his specialities. Check out his project gallery!

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Tidy School Fire Site

27 September.

Took a walk listening to Escape Pod while my Afghani neighbour, the international used-cars dealer and project facilitator, looked after our Doppelganger daughters. I went up to the old school to see what the site of the fire is like two months later. The place is pretty tidy.

26 November.

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Yixing Tea Cups

My attempts to buy nice big tea cups in Hangzhou and Hanoi came to naught for two reasons.
  • Traditional Far Eastern tea cups are the size of egg cups.
  • Modern Far Eastern household goods are designed to a taste that screams CHEAP AND TACKY to the Western eye. (Yes, I know it's all relative and historically contingent.)
But still we did come home with good cups. My father-in-law took them from work and gave them to us. Apparently he's got a stash of them at the office.

This zisha stoneware is really nice, unglazed, a matte dark chocolate, the vessel shape severe and elegant. The cups are made in Yixing in Jiangsu. I gather the clay is ancient, rich in iron, quarried from beneath formations of sedimentary rock.

Each cup carries an inscription. I fancied it a piece of poetry, perhaps something about cranes and harpistry and wind in the bamboo grove. I generally don't bother much about Chinese script: it's such a huge unknown to me that nibbling at the subject seems futile. But this was inscribed pottery, awakening my archaeological instincts. My wife read it for me.
Heng sheng hua gong chang qing shi zhou nien
Ji shu bu

"Eternity rising transformation work factory celebration ten cycle year
Artisanship artisanship department".

That is,
"The Eternally Rising Chemical Factory, Tenth Anniversary
Technical Department".
So much for the poetry. Our beautiful new cups are in fact promotional items, high-end gifts for the employees of my father-in-law's dye factory on its tenth anniversary. But who will ever know? The inscription looks great regardless of its meaning.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Flu Shot

I just had my annual flu shot. The district nurse is always surprised that someone young and healthy like me would want one. The vaccine is mainly intended to keep old people from dying of flu complications. But I feel that if a €15 shot can significantly improve my chances of avoiding a week of flu later this winter, when I would feel like hell and be unable to work, then I would be stupid not to take it.

I got a funny comment from the nurse this time. She said the vaccine supply is poor this year, so strictly speaking they should save the stuff for the old people. "But", she said, "since you've been taking these shots every year and believe in them, we find it hard to say no to you". Believe in them?! I bloody well hope they're giving me something that works regardless of my beliefs!

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Gruppo F

A Parking Place by Jeanette Hägglund.

My pal Markus Andersson is a member of the photographers' group Gruppo F. They started a busy group blog about photography two months ago with lots to read and look at: new work by the seventeen members, old work by greats of the medium, a lot of discussion, all in English. Solid stuff!

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Thursday, November 23, 2006


Dear Reader, let me introduce you to Martin Rundkvist.

Martin has trained as a seaman and worked as a chef. The 26-year-old is now a teacher at the Nakkebølle boarding school for troubled teens on southern Funen in Denmark. I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him.

Danish Martin is the only person I'm aware of who spells his name just like mine. There are at least five more Martin Rund**ists in Sweden, living in Borensberg, Tibro, Norrköping, Staffanstorp and Hjo. But they spell their surnames Rundquist, Rundqvist and Rundqwist. There used to be one in the Stockholm area too, but he changed his surname -- gasping with relief, one imagines.

Funny how unimportant a name is as long as it blends in with the surrounding flora. Martin Rundkvist, Mattias Sundkvist, Markus Lindkvist, whatever. Danish Martin's name, though, must look slightly odd to his compatriots, a bit like if I were named Ole Krag Nielsen.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Laggin' Again

Back home in fine shape though with a slight circadian dysfunction. In Hangzhou -- and in my head -- it's approaching lunch time. Here it's 03:30 in the morning. Me and my daughter are sharing the last seaweed crackers from the plane. Door to door, it took us a bit less than 18 hours to get here. Marco Polo's shade scoffs at the ease of our travels.

I've been hearing about the carbon dioxide emissions linked to air travel. Apparently, once we really start to take CO2 emissions seriously, then casual air travel will simply no longer be possible. Which would of course kill the entire global tourism sector and take a number of Third World economies with it. Kind of a fascinating perspective to ascetic me. Once more would a Slow Boat to China be the way to go...

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Behind the Great Firewall

A week each in Hangzhou, China and Hanoi, Vietnam has taught me a bit about Far Eastern internet censorship and how to get around it. From Hangzhou, I have been entirely unable to access

This has been a major hassle for me as those sites are otherwise constantly revisited stations on my daily internet wanderings. To post entries to my blog from China, I've had to e-mail them, which has led to formatting problems and precluded pictures. In order to read blogs on, I have had to use

The more techno-literate may have use for as well.

A quick sampling turned up other blocked sites:

In Hanoi I didn't have this kind of problem at all. Despite the Vietnamese government being similar to the Chinese one (non-elected, anti-free-speech, nominally Communist, practically Capitalist), I could access the sites I wanted from our hosts' home computer. According to our hostess, Vietnamese internet censorship occurs somewhat haphazardly at the ISP level, which means that some bandwidth providers will let you do whatever you want.

This squares well with our impression that Hanoi, though a much grubbier and less affluent city, is far more aware of the West than skyscraper-studded Hangzhou, where non-salespeople in the street sometimes excitedly yell "Look at the foreigner! HELLO!" when they see me. It very likely has to do with Vietnamese history: a century of French colonial rule, friendly exchange with Soviet Russia, the American occupation, foreign aid in recent decades.

But there may be a scarier explanation. The broadband connection we used in Hanoi is registered to a person working as a consultant for the Swedish foreign aid agency, SIDA. It's entirely possible that this connection has had the censorship machinery selectively turned off. And replaced with a wiretap.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Chinese Superstition

China has a millennia-old tradition of superstition (astrology, numerology, fengshui geomancy, qigong practicioners boasting supernatural gifts) and non-evidence-based medicine. Within a tradition of such medicine, there is a mechanism that weeds out treatments with any strong effect: damaging ones disappear because they lead to lawsuits against druggists and physicians; significantly beneficial ones disappear because they undergo clinical testing and become co-opted by scientific medicine. Chinese medical researchers, meanwhile, are doing well in their international scientific field and not paying much attention to the roots, fungi and snake blood of the trad quacks.

Traditional drugstores are still very much a part of Chinese culture, often referring in their architecture and packaging to a curious blend of the aeons-old tried-and-true and the cutting-edge scientific. I visited one in Hangzhou the other day that looked like a 19th century merchant's residence. The message of Chinese alternative medicine to customers is that it is venerable, brand new, semi-magical, clinical, natural and high-tech. In fact, it won't hurt you and it won't heal you.

Numerology in its simplest form (based on the similarities of words) states that eight is good and four is bad. Everybody wants a phone number with 88 in it, and nobody is allowed to begin at a new job on the 4th, 14th or 24th -- neither in the Gregorian nor the Chinese Farmer's calendar. At least they don't have a problem with 13.

The old religions are once again encouraged in China, and many temple compounds currently look like construction sites thanks to the munificence of noveaux-riches entrepreneurs freed from the shackles of state socialism. Effigies of Mao Zedong receive considerable religious attention along with Amithaba, Guanyin, Laozi, Confucius and the others. Chinese Buddhism is such a mess -- simple stupid idolatry, the original intellectual content irrecognisable.

One internationally known new religious movement, Falun gong, is not liked at all by the authorities. FG's version of things is that they are a peaceful meditative movement being persecuted by a nasty totalitarian regime. In my view it's actually a case of a nasty manipulative millennarian cult being persecuted by a nasty totalitarian regime. FG's leader is one of the aforementioned qigong practicioners boasting supernatural gifts.

The latest piece of Chinese superstition I've come across is another combination of the rootsy and the pseudo-scientific. Stores offer little wooden cages neatly packed with short charred-black bamboo sticks. They're supposed to work as air-fresheners -- because of active carbon! If you ground several hundred sticks really finely, packed a filter with the powder and put it into an industrial-strength fan, then I guess it would actually work to free the air in a room of aerosols. But the little cages are at least an intriguing conversation piece until the next supernatural fad appears.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Book Review: Hunter, Gay Mystery Novels

Fred Hunter
  • Ransom For Our Sins (1996; the 3rd Jeremy Ransom/Emily Charters mystery)
  • Government Gay (1998; the 1st Alex Jennings mystery)
  • National Nancies (2001; the 4th Alex Jennings mystery)

Reviewed by Jim Benton

There is nothing new about gay or lesbian detective story writers. They've been around since the very beginning of American mystery stories. To mention a few names, Patricia Cornwell, Cornell Wollrich/William Irish, and Stanton Forbes are all both worth knowing and gay. In fact, "S.S. VanDine" (Willard Huntington Wright) who was arguably the first important American detective story writer since Poe, and the first to establish the American Mystery Story as a respectable genre, was also, reportedly, a 'classic' intellectual/aesthete queen type. Certainly his detective, Philo Vance, was (despite a mention of a passing and not really believable hetero romance in a couple of the later books).

But the 'gay detective story' written, usually, by gay men with a main character who is openly and unashamedly gay (whether he is an amateur investigator, a policeman, or a professional investigator) is much newer. (The lesbian detective story deserves to be discussed separately. Most of the gay detective books have been published by mainstream publishers and because of this have had a certain professionalism to them. Lesbian counterparts have, in the past, more frequently been published by specialty publishers, sometimes semi-self published. Hopefully I will discuss this topic in a future $.99 post.)

The field began with Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter books. There has been some criticism of them as being a little too earnest and humorless, but the idea of a someone being a semi-tough Private Eye (technically an insurance investigator) and a gay man with a settled life was a major breakthrough. The early books had gay-related themes, but the later ones were more varied. They had their flaws, but the twelve books in the Brandstetter series (and Hansen's few non-series works) are still worth looking for.

Hansen's work broke the ice, and mainstream publishers found a substantial market for gay mystery stories. While some writers started out in specialty houses for the gay market, most of the major writers in the sub-field were quickly picked up by the mass market. (In an interesting cross-over, St. Martin's produced a line of "Stonewall Inn Mysteries" in large-sized paperback that included originals and reprints of some of the better writers in the field.)

There are over a dozen main series available, ranging the genre from police procedurals to at least one 'hard-boiled private eye' (Richard Stevenson's Donald Strachey, who has appeared in seven novels -- unfortunately, of the three I've read, only the second, On the Other Hand, Death is worth looking for.) Most of the series tend to feature amateur detectives, ranging from the campy hairdresser of Grant Michaels' Stan Kraychick novels to the serious and well-drawn Chicano lawyer of Michael Nava's Henry Rios books.

Interestingly enough, the books' settings are scattered throughout America, but, except for the Provincetown-located Valentine and Lovelace books by Nathan Aldyne (enjoyable but very lightweight) none of them are located in what most people would think of as gay settings. Rios opens his career in San Francisco but moves to Los Angeles, and the others are set in places such as Albany (the Stevenson books), Minneapolis (R.D. Zimmerman's Todd Mills books), Boston (the Kraychick books, I believe -- two of them are on my to read pile) and no less than four series in Chicago, two each by Mark Richard Zubro (my own favorites of those I have read -- I have yet to read Nava) and the two by Fred Hunter that -- at last -- I am getting around to reviewing: the Jeffrey Ransom series of police procedurals and the wildly funny Alex Jennings mystery/espionage series.

There have been at least nine books featuring Jeffrey Ransom and his 'adopted grandmother', Emily Charters. They are police procedurals, but much more in the English mode, with the policeman and his assistant (in this case Gerald White) more or less on their own in solving the case. Emily Charters, who, from description, is more of a presence in the other books, is limited to minor appearances and suggestions in this book because she is recovering from bypass surgery.

Ransom For Our Sins has whetted my appetite for the other books in the series, but, in all honestly, I have to call it a 'good bad book'. Hunter's strengths here are in the writing, descriptions, and particularly the characters. All of them come alive, and it is particularly gratifying to see characters that could easily be flat clichés -- the leader and other members of a religious 'community' ("we prefer to call it that, not a church") -- become fully three-dimensional. Ransom himself is an engaging eccentric. Surprisingly, while there are repeated statements and reactions that show he is almost certainly gay, and open to and accepted as such by his partner, it is never explicitly stated. Certainly he's never shown with sexual reactions or desires, and he seems to spend most evenings at his hobby of reading Dickens in the bathtub. (He had accompanied this with cigars, but he is attempting to give them up as the book begins.)

I want to spend more time with Jeffrey Ransom, but I hope that Hunter has learned to avoid the flaws that seriously affect this book. One is that because his plot requires a slow build and investigation, one which would have been ruined by the presence of the media, he simply writes any public notice of the crimes out of the book, a serious blow to the 'suspension of disbelief.' It is conceivable that some murders would get overlooked -- though most of them do get some notice in the news in most cities -- but when the first body is shown to have been 'crucified' -- in fact, not hung on a cross, but with the hands and feet pierced with nails -- and when another body is discovered in the same condition, it is simply inconceivable that the press would not have made it a major story. This is one flaw, and the second is that when the murderer is, in fact, revealed, no satisfactory reason is given for the crucifixions. Again, a 'good bad book' but if you find it, one worth picking up.

The Alex Jennings books -- there have been at least five so far -- are as different from the Ransoms as two series can be from the same writer, and these can be recommended with no qualms except for the titles. These are 'gay' books in both meanings of the term. The lead character and narrator is openly gay, and they are simply a lot of joyous fun. They come closer to espionage fiction involving a mystery than straight detective stories, and the first book's title is a homage to the movie Government Girl, -- no I don't know it, but the other movie that is echoed, North by Northwest, everyone knows.

Alex Jennings is a graphic designer who lives with his husband, Peter Livesay ("He calls me that, too.") in Alex's very British, very rich, mother's Chicago townhouse. ("Peter and I are so happily married we even disgust ourselves." It's true, and one of the nicer touches. Again, Hunter's characterizations are excellent, with both Alex and mother Jean being two of the more delightful people I've come across in the pages of mysteries.)

Government Gay starts with Alex wandering into a gay bar simply to kill time while his mother attends a meeting, having a brief conversation with a character he meets there, giving him a cigarette, going into the mens' room, and immediately being set upon by two hulking characters (the 'clay people' as Alex calls them) asking him 'where is it, we saw him talking to you'. Alex tries to explain he doesn't know what they are talking about, and gets whacked rather substantially until the goons are interrupted. And off we go...

The rest is a wild, funny, somewhat deadly series of adventures and misadventures involving the CIA, the 'clay people', various false identities and mysterious meetings, a couple of corpses, all told in a light, campy style. (A couple of critics have complained about this, but I find it a gay twist on the sort of lightness that was so common in American "Silver Age" authors from George Bagby through Stuart Palmer to Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Too many present-day mysteries are totally humorless, or else nearer to classic screwball comedies. This is simply light and funny and much appreciated.) The plot is good, solid, and somewhat surprising, and the ending is worthy of the Hitchcockian model, with Alex clinging to a scaffold on the top of the Sears Tower.

But the fourth book in the series, National Nancies, is, despite the title, by far the best of the books reviewed here. A true mystery, though with a minor bit of CIA involvement -- one result of the first book is that Alex is frequently requested to lend his services to that agency -- and a solid political novel, made even more pointed by some of the events of the last election. Alex, though usually non-political, has been dragged into volunteering for a liberal, gay-friendly Senatorial candidate involved in an easy primary before a difficult general election against a bigoted, homophobic Republican. The campaign has been receiving vitriolic phone calls and almost daily bomb threats.

Only one morning, at 5:00, the threats turn real as a bomb destroys the campaign headquarters, in the process killing the universally disliked and somewhat fanatical lesbian office manager. Was it a fanatic, a 'mole' in the office, or was the bomb meant to do what it did and kill the victim? Off the spouses and mom go, sleuthing and 'playing spy' again, though with the slight distraction of a new romance that mother Jean is apparently getting involved in -- and Alex's reaction to this is a priceless extra to a magnificent book.

The plot is solid, the scenes are excellent, the solution is a good one: all in all, a book that is enjoyable by anyone, regardless of orientation (and if I haven't mentioned my own, I am a predominantly straight bisexual). And there are moments of pure brilliance, from an opening scene where the candidate shows the proper response to rumors that he is gay (if only I had read this a week before instead of two days after the election, I might have e-mailed the passage to a number of campaigns) to an ending two scenes -- after the solution -- that are both totally unexpected and absolutely perfectly done.

Definitely, if you happen upon National Nancies, grab a copy -- even if you have to put it in a brown paper wrapper.

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Water Puppets

Writing this back in Hangzhou on Friday evening after a day's air travel, I still have a vivid memory of last night's entertainment. It was truly unusual.

South-east Asia has a solid puppetry tradition with the Indonesian shadow puppets probably being the most well-known. To me, the Vietnamese water puppets were entirely new. This tradition is rooted in the rice-paddy landscape of the Red River delta where Hanoi and Haiphong are located. Performances would once be given during harvest feasting, celebrating the area's agriculture and fishing, its fauna and folkways. The players crouch in the dark behind a bamboo screen dividing a pool of water, extending garishly painted puppets on long poles under the screen into the well-lit part of the pool overlooked by the audience. Many puppets have movable parts manoeuvred with strings inside the poles.

We caught a performance at the Water Puppet Theatre overlooking Lake Returned Sword, where the same 45-minute show is given five times a day. The audience was almost entirely European in appearance. Stage right, an excellent musical octet in traditional garb played energetic classical Sino-Vietnamese music and acted as chorus. I love live music and was particularly impressed by the flutist and the soprano, one a jovial man of middle age, the other a young woman who looked like she was dying of boredom but who nevertheless sang like a goddess. Most of the speaking parts were performed by the eight invisible puppeteers behind the green screen, topped by a traditional Chinese-style temple.

There didn't seem to be any story to the evening's performance, which was probably wise given the audience's general lack of language comprehension. We were treated to a series of vignettes and skits, many humorous, some mainly demonstrations of the puppeteers' skill and coordination set to music. Dragons frolicked and fought, a swamp cat stole a farmer's duck and the Golden Turtle took the divine sword from the hand of Le Loi. Water sprayed and cascaded, we had fireworks, and the puppets were many and elaborate. Great show, even for a foreigner who knows neither the cultural background nor the language.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Vietnamese Millennia

Yesterday my wife and kids let me loose for a few hours to go stare at old stuff. Being a responsible husband and father I really tried to find a four-wheel taxi or bus to improve my chances of survival for the trip. But I ended up on what the locals call a "Honda embrace", a moped taxi, weaving crazily through the throng on my way to the Historical museum. Yet I live.

Hanoi's historical museum is a proud saffron architectural hybrid of the early 20th century, unashamedly colonial and in excellent repair. The displays cover palaeontology, archaeology and recent craftsmanship, from Homo Erectus teeth to mementoes of colonial period rebels. The exhibition philosophy is old-school apart from a few cave-dweller dioramas, with entire site inventories displayed down to the last cutmarked rhino vertebra. Good for me, boring for the casual visitor. But the cases are enlivened by panoramas of landscapes and excavations plus a lot of photographed excavation sections. The latest additions to the cases represent excavations only a few years ago.

The Neolithic pottery is very nice, but things really pick up with the Bronze Age which is absurdly rich, this being south-east Asia. 170 bronzes in one log-coffin burial, you get the idea. A dozen Dong son culture drums offer wonderfully alien stylised imagery of birds, bird-men and warlike boat crews, the latter actually much like coeval rock carvings in southern Sweden. (Look for the miniature bonking taking place on the lid of a particularly huge bronze urn!) Then comes the Han dynasty Chinese cultural juggernaut and transforms everything. A selection of beautiful Champa sculpture is also offered, the melon-bosomed Hindu dancing girls you always see in Indian art portrayed here with unmistakeable Vietnamese faces and big grins.

The museum clearly caters primarily to the locals, as the many texts and maps are mostly in Vietnamese. Shorter but informative labels in English and French also abound. Confusingly, there is a consistent 2000 year discrepancy between the dates given in English and French respectively. As far as I can tell, correct French dates avant notre ère (BC) have been translated into English by someone who believes that notre ère means "today". A francophone visitor with some grasp of European chronology thus realises correctly that Northern Europe was pretty much a cultural backwater during Prehistory, while an Anglo gets the opposite impression.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Old Hanoi

At the heart of modern Hanoi is a small lake named Hoan Kiem, "Returned Sword". This moniker goes back to a legend about the 15th century national hero Le Loi who led a successful rebellion against the Chinese. Fishing in the lake outside the town walls, young Le Loi caught a golden sword in his net. Very Arthurian. This weapon he wielded in battle for many years before returning one day as a king to thank the lake's spirit with an offering. The gods at this point apparently felt that he needed no more assistance, and so the king, eyes agog, saw the sword fly from its scabbard out over the lake and into the mouth of a golden turtle surfacing for the occasion. Mission accomplished, sword returned.

There is actually a dwindling stock of massive turtles in the green water. One was caught in 1968 and is on display in a small 19th century temple on an islet, just off the site of an obelisk with a trippy inscription in three Chinese characters: "Write Turquoise Sky", that is, take that bamboo brush and scribble away at the firmament. "And so I throw the windows wide and call to you across the sky".

Hanoi's Old Quarter is just north of the lake, a moped-infested maze of narrow alleys lined by two- and three-story houses with storefronts at ground level. The typical building is called a Tube House, as it is very narrow and very long, wall to wall with its neighbours. Before electrical lighting, such a structure would have several open-air courts along its length to admit light and air. After lunch today we visited a renovated late-19th century example and got a feel for what they were like.

Like a Medieval European city, the Old Quarter was walled and its streets specialised by trade: Butcher Street, Baker Street etc. And as with most of its European equivalents, the Old Quarter's walls have been torn down and the streets' specialities mostly survive only as names. No longer does anyone expect to buy fish in York's Fishergate or cups and pots in its Coppergate ("gate" here being a Scandinavian loan word, cf. Sw. gata). But although many of the old specialities are gone, specialisation itself is still very much apparent in Hanoi: Oil Street merchants deal almost exclusively in shoes, Drum Skin Street has bags and upholstered furniture, Sugar Street has clothing. This can be frustrating for the tourist who wants a snack and can find nothing but ladies' fashion.

I like the food streets, just like I love to prowl covered markets in Europe. In addition to a lot of familiar stuff, Hanoi's small-time butchers and fishmongers offer some pretty wild goods. We saw tiny wiggly leeches sold by the cupful, maggots, live poultry, a little runaway crab making its last stand in the dirty street, but funnily no identifiable cuts of dog.

Dog is apparently holiday food, associated with certain phases of the moon, believed to cleanse your system and increase erectile stamina. I gather that erection problems are kind of an international ethnic trauma among Far Eastern men, with sad consequences for the tigers, rhinoceri and snakes that get made into, well, snake oil. Looking at the region's population growth figures, I can't really see why these guys worry. It's not like they have anything left to prove.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Mopeds and Ancestor Worship in Hanoi

Arbre de Têt dans le trafic. Par Petit Dragon.

The streets of Hanoi aren't dimensioned for cars, and the public transportation system isn't dimensioned for the Vietnamese capital's current two-million population. So everyone drives a moped -- kamikaze style.

They're everywhere, they go fast, they sound like giant mutant wasps (hence the Italian Vespa) and there are rarely less than two people on each vehicle. Oh, and they beep. Our host, charming Swiss stay-at-home dad Patrick, took me for a ride this morning on his own steed, so I've been there and lived. (He's an ace photographer, check out his Vietnamese work.) We checked out the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (the old man wanted to be cremated and popped into the earth on a hillside where people could go to plant trees, but such is of course not the fate of successful revolutionaries), one of the world's few surviving colossal Lenin statues, the elegant colonial architecture of the French quarter, the remains of a B52 bomber shot down about the year I was born and now proudly displayed, the works.

Our hostess is the enchanting Swedish blogger Zornkvinnan (alas, she currently doesn't often grace the intartubes with her writings) who has made friends with my wife. The two ladies met for the first time last night at the airport and seem to be getting along really well. We all had a typical Hanoi lunch at a rootsy sidewalk eatery where the mopeds whizzed past at arm's length. Barbecued minced-pork patties, noodles, fresh liquorish-tasting greens, all dunked in hot broth seasoned with chili, garlic and fish sauce. Heavenly! Then we walked through the drizzle from awning to awning in the Old Quarter's most cramped market alleys, looking at food and napping saleswomen, buying a miniature tea set for my daughter. It's intended for the ancestor cult at the ubiquitous house shrine, though I believe its new owner may be more likely to use it for entertaining her dolls. Let's hope that this entices a few friendly ex-mopedist's spirits to take up residence in our playroom, ensuring health and prosperity.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Leifeng Pagoda

The last king of Wuyue during the Ten Kingdoms imperial interregnum was a devout Buddhist. One of his many religious construction projects was a towering pagoda on Leifeng, "Thunder Top", built to house a lock of Sakyamuni's hair. Completed in the AD 970s, the structure on the southern shore of the West Lake was refurbished and rebuilt repeatedly through the centuries until Japanese pirates torched it in the 18th century and it was abandoned. The tower's brick core still stood as a prominent landmark, sprouting small trees, a favourite haunt of tourists and lovers of romantic ruins, until it collapsed in the 1920s. Treasure hunters were most likely to blame for that final indignity.

The site still retained its fame, being associated with the story of Lady White Snake, and even Mao made an official visit to the ruin mound of the pious old king. Times changed, and in 1999 the burghers of Hangzhou decided to rebuild the pagoda as part of their investments in West Lake tourism. Archaeologists were called in to excavate, and the structure's various incarnations were identified all the way back to the 10th century crypt where the lock of hair had been housed. A considerable amount of fine votive metalwork was also unearthed, some of it having been antique already when deposited, indicating that the looters had good reason to target this particular site.

Until recently, Chinese reconstructions of ancient buildings have been pretty brutal, often obliterating the remains of the original structures. The philosophy seems to have been "we want to show the tourists something we can be proud of, not just crappy old ruins". The tourist-friendly parts of the Great Wall, where not a single original stone can be seen, are a case in point. But recently, a more respectful attitude has been adopted. In 2002 a magnificent new octagonal five-story pagoda was inaugurated on Thunder Top, yet again dominating the West Lake's southern skyline. But the new structure stands on steel stilts with the remains of its predecessors preserved and displayed in situ in the basement.

Visitors toss droves of coins onto the old brick walls. I wonder if many of them do so out of piety. Buddhist cult with incense-burning and praying is encouraged outside a building at the foot of the hill housing a silver reliquary found by the archaeologists. It's the first time I've seen an archaeological find becoming the object of religious worship, as opposed to religious relics housed above ground attracting the interest of archaeologists.

The new pagoda looks great from afar. Close-up, it's pretty tacky like all modern Chinese re-imaginations of the past, unabashedly made of modern materials, its faux-copper columns painted with metallic plastic. It's basically a fancy lookout tower for tourists with display cases full of neo-classical Chinese artwork. But each age has of course rebuilt the thing for its own purposes and with the materials available. One day the 2002 version of Leifeng pagoda will also be excavated by curious posterity.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Green Tea at Longjing

Old Hangzhou sits on the eastern shore of much-bepoemed West Lake and has recently exploded in a blast of skyscrapers and factories to the north, east and south. But west and south of the lake are still wooded hills, fertile parts of whose slopes are terraced and planted with tea. Yesterday we took a bus to Longjing, the village of Dragon's Well, which sits at the head of a valley surrounded by teabearing mountains. There are excellent hiking trails in the area, and we took the kids up along one of them to the top of Qipanshan, Chessboard Mountain. Actually, we didn't have to take them there, they happily ran up much of the path among bamboo and banana plants. None of the trees were more than a few decades old, so the area must pretty much have been denuded in recent times. There's a pottery industry near where we're staying with Medieval traditions at least since the South Song, so I imagine that logging pressure for the kilns must have been intense. (They used to make ceremonial porcelain for the Imperial court. Now they make toilets. Guess what ordinary people have more use for.)

After our escalade, 750 horizontal meters either way as the crow flies, we had lunch under a parasol, listening to the squall of the fish tank and the maniacal keening of amorous insects in the trees. This being Longjing, which is a household name for tea in the Chinese-speaking world, we of course had some local green. And boy, did we get tea. There was hardly any room for water in my glass, its contents looking more like a salad than a beverage. I'm not much into green tea, it's just bitter-nutty water to me. But it was kind of nice to recognise the very same leaf buds that we had sampled off of blooming bushes on terraces up on the mountain. The food was nice: spinach with tofu, prawn and cured ham: red soy pork side with blubber on; and a thick-stemmed mustard-like plant chopped and fried with paprika and white slivers of, if I understood correctly, pig windpipe.

We spent the afternoon questing for pirated (or at least cheap) Gameboy games in the city, learning that for DS games it is no longer profitable to pirate them onto physical cartridges as the kids tend to mod their DS consoles and download games from the net. Just a more convenient medium, cutting out the middle man.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jet Lagged Small Hours

Great to be reunited with wife & daughter! And the kids were really happy to see each other too. We left Hangzhou airport at three p.m. and went home to my in-laws, where I napped and then had dinner. Fried ribbon fish, soy beans in the pod boiled with salt, spinach with garlic, taro in pork broth, egg plant with soy sauce, rice. Did jigsaw puzzles with my daughter, put the kids to bed, retired for some quality time with my lovely wife at half past eight and soon fell asleep -- only to wake at little past three in the morning. So here I am, drinking tea, having a rou baozi (a wheat bun filled with ground pork) and a moon cake, reading Addison's vignettes about Roger de Coverley.

Outside there's a tremendous racket from trucks on the road and trains passing by, hooting like an orchestral brass section at each other. And on the other side of tracks are the homes of the poor at the feet of the wooded hills south of the West Lake. I hiked up there a few years back, discovering overgrown necropoli and a number of Buddhist shrines.
(Thursday 9 November 04:40).


Changing Planes

I'm typing these words at Beijing International Airport, domestic gate 27. It's near lunch time here, four in the morning in my head. Not too badly zonked yet by sleep deprivation: the sunshine is bright and I accidentally bought a soda can of sweetened ice coffee with milk, branded Pokka. Couldn't read anything on the can, wanted to try some local stuff. The can was massive, almost twice the metal weight of a Western one.

Beijing smells of coal smoke and is wrapped in a faint ochre haze. Approaching for landing, we flew over something that looked a lot like a nuclear power plant with the characteristic truncated-cone cooling towers, surrounded by industrial sprawl and endless tenement housing blocks. And yet, as always in this country, there's small-scale agriculture on every spare scrap of land all the way up to the airport fence. The barbed wire festoons along its top are most likely there to keep guerilla subsistence farmers from planting qing cai along the runways. Urban zoning seems absent or at least negotiable.

My El Cheapo cell phone operator (dJuice) doesn't seem to have a roaming agreement with the locals, and not only is the wifi here blocked by a pay screen -- it's entirely in Chinese. So I can't get this on-line right away. Signing off at Wednesday lunch, 11:35 (GMT+8).


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New Archaeology Doctorates

Antiquity is preparing to launch a web site section on new doctorates in archaeology and allied disciplines. Anyone who graduated with a PhD or equivalent in 2006 would be eligible. All you recent archaeodocs out there, send your info to on the following format:

Name, surname first: Strudelfunker, Attila
University: Neckarsulm
Date awarded: 2006-04-01
Title: The Late Bronze Age pottery of the Isle of Dogs
Abstract: 250 words max.

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Correspondent for Antiquity

With great pleasure, I've agreed to act as a correspondent for the excellent British world archaeology journal Antiquity. Judging from where my co-correspondents are based, it looks like I'm alone north of the Roman limes and west of Russia. So, Dear Reader, send me interesting bits of information and I'll pass them on to the editoral offices of Antiquity in York!

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Self-Satisfied Crowing

Technorati recently estimated that there are 57+ million blogs on the net. About 31 million of them have been updated within the past three months. Thus Salto sobrius, currently being ranked about 17000 on Technorati, is among the top 0.06% of active blogs worldwide. In other words, 99.94% of all active blogs are less linked-to (i.e. "relevant") than this baby. How about that!


Monday, November 06, 2006

Book Review: Simak, Visitors

The Visitors
Clifford D. Simak 1980
Original magazine appearance in Analog 1979 in somewhat different form.
Availability: not currently in print, but Amazon has a number of pbs and hbs for sale as low as $.01 -- of course, shipping and handling adds another $3. Alibris has no copy under $2.95 plus s&h.

Reviewed by Jim Benton

Clifford D. Simak wrote science fiction for over fifty years, from 1931 up until his death in 1988, turning out about 30 novels and many short stories. Despite his two Hugos and one International Fantasy Award, I consider most of his work rather minor -- City, a novelization of several short stories, might be an exception, but it has been many years since I have read it. (I have to say that the readers who have voted in Locus polls would differ with me, since Simak finished in the top 30 for best SF author of all time in several of their polls.)

Whatever, certainly The Visitors is one of Simak's weakest works, perhaps his worst and most disappointing. "Disappointing" mostly because it has one major strength. The "visitors" of the title are that rarity, a new idea in aliens, and one worthy of Stanley G. Weinbaum for true alienness. They are building-sized black boxes, most likely creatures rather than ships, that suddenly appear first in orbit around Earth, and then start floating down to land in the rural parts of the US and Canada. They don't speak or communicate with people, but they do respond to them.

A beautiful idea. Unfortunately it is like a giant chocolate shell you are served at a dinner party that you eagerly start to cut, expecting that it is hiding some rich desert; only when you cut into it, you find there is nothing beneath it but air. Yes, the visitors are interesting, especially as they begin to eat trees, and excrete cellulose -- which is contradictory since they are later said to need cellulose for their survival. The people in the book aren't interesting though, neither the minor love interest of the "tree-loving" Jerry and his reporter girlfriend, Kathy, nor the President of the United States and various other politicians. None of them have a third dimension that makes them more than stock characters -- and they're dull stock characters too because there is no conflict, no drama in the entire book.

As hard as it is to imagine, the arrival of the visitors and their exclusively landing in the US causes no "International Incident", no political dispute. The entire world seems to basically be yawning as they wait to see what happens. Well, it is different, if not believable in the slightest, not now, at the time of writing, or any time in the last century.

The point of the book seems to be the way the visitors repay earth for the trees they consume -- oh, I said there was no conflict, but there is a Senator who occasionally wakes up long enough to protest a little, but never with anything more than a speech in a gathering of political figures. There's the obligatory general to say "but they might be dangerous", but he also is turned on, by Simak, for a speech or two, and then put back into the toybox where they all seem to reside.

There is an attempt to compare Earth to the Native Americans, losing their civilization by accepting the white man's gifts, and at one point there is a hint of a really scary potential gift, but Simak doesn't do much with either idea, or much of anything else. If he'd stripped the book of ninety percent of its words, and written a short story using the one idea I mentioned, it might have been a major work. If his mention of it on page 220 and then suggesting it again on the last page had been surrounded by anything believable, it might have rescued the book. But by the time you get it, you've stopped thinking, out of self-preservation. Stopped thinking, or caring.

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Jim Benton, Haunter of the $.99 Shelf

Jim has a plan for all those cheap paperbacks...

Because I am cheap, broke, and have a high reading speed -- and all three have been true most of my life -- I very rarely buy new books. I much prefer building my library, particularly the fiction part of it, by frequenting thrift stores, second-hand book stores (or used book tables at general book stores) and, since I've been living in Brooklyn, taking advantage of a public library that has permanent book sales in every one of its 40+ branches.

Yes, I lose the chance to walk into a bookstore with a particular book in mind, finding it, and buying it -- provided it is both in print and in stock. But there are a number of compensations.

I like the "grab bag" situation, the never knowing what you will find when you check a particular place. I can check a particular spot four times running and walk out empty-handed, and the next time I may find so many books that I can't carry them all, or afford them even at those prices.

I like the opportunity to take a gamble on an unknown author or book, much easier when what you are risking is $.25-$1.00 rather than $5-$25.

I like the fact that if I have, say, $7.00 to spend, rather than getting just one paperback, I can come home with anywhere from 7 to 70 pbs or hardcovers -- yes, there are places to get books for as little as $.10 for paperbacks and $.25 for hardcovers.

Since I've been doing a fair share of book buying recently, I thought it might be fun to start reviewing the books as I read them. You won't find the latest bestsellers here, but you might find the occasional book or author to look for -- or to avoid. (I'll be doing them as I read them, except that sometimes a book will send me onto my shelves for others by the same author.)

I'll try to check availability for each of them, at least through Amazon and Alibris. So here goes...

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Hobbyists' Fair

Went with my eight-year-old and his pal to a hobbyists' fair this afternoon. A whole gymnasium full of displays on model railroads, cars, airplanes, helicopters, boats. The exhibitors were largely retired gentlemen with a bachelorly air. Most looked like they might run very dusty used-book stores for a living. But there were hobbyist firms there too, and their exhibits of course looked a lot more professional. The visitors were largely parents with kids, mainly dads, and many with a non-urban, non-hip look. Subbacultcha.

The boys had a go at a huge slotcar set and some radio-controlled cars, and then we watched these really good RC people driving cars and piloting airplanes.

I felt a little sad for all the old guys wilting behind their folding tables. Kind of a dying breed, returning to now almost obsolete childhood hobbies after retirement. But the Swedish Model Airplane Association seemed a lot more more vigorous, with a larger display and more people of different ages & genders behind it. Their bimonthly journal is excellent. They also had a pretty cool recruitment drive, handing out simple rubber-band airplane kits for free to all kids who would write their names and adresses on a list.

Some pretty funny software was demonstrated: a model airplane simulator. Yes, you build model airplanes because you dream about flying, and then you get a computer program to simulate such a model airplane as it flies. Very meta.

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Jim Benton on Fundies vs. Gay Marriage

Why Radical Christians Hate Gay Marriage
By Jim Benton

Openly, the Radical Religious opposition to gay marriage usually makes two arguments.

(The "gays are sinners and are going to hell, and should be prosecuted if the damn Supreme Court hadn't allowed sodomy" claim doesn't get made that much in public. Even red-state America has become accepting enough of gays and lesbians, and opposed to blatant discrimination, that this stance wouldn't sell among the electorate as a whole. But they know the bigots and gay bashers -- especially the ones who take the phrase literally -- will be on their side anyway, they don't have to appeal to them directly.)

The appeal to tradition
They usually start off with the argument to tradition. "Marriage has always been between one man and one woman." With its appeal to a mythical past -- for most people "always" means "in their lifetime and their parents' and grandparents" -- this gets them a certain percentage of the votes.

But let's face it, it is a weak argument if you are trying to scare people onto your side -- and the appeal is to fear, don't get that wrong. Even if the statement were true, even if the idea of marriage hadn't changed throughout time (and certainly the ‘indissolubility of marriage' that is, in fact, Biblical, has changed, to the point that a surprising number of gay marriage opponents are on their second or third marriage) traditions are for those who celebrate them. "Thanksgiving dinner has always included turkey." Well yes, and that is a celebration that I gladly celebrate. But if my neighbor chooses to serve ham or chicken or steak or is a strict vegetarian and serves lasagna, that doesn't make my turkey any less meaningful or tasty to me. In fact, it doesn't affect me unless somebody invites me to a Thanksgiving dinner and serves me chicken, as my mother-in-law once did. Grrrr. (I think I went out after dinner and bought a small turkey platter from a restaurant. This is one celebration I am very devout about.)

But the fact of the matter is that the idea of "marriage means one man and one woman" just ain't so. And when I say this, I am not talking about anthropological evidence from societies throughout the world. Christians would, with a certain amount of justice, argue that it's irrelevant how a society of heathens conduct their life. They are only interested in the Judeo-Christian heritage they so proudly follow.

Unfortunately, that heritage doesn't bear them out. Early Judaism was polygamous, polygynous in fact. And the Christian claim that this was a "special exemption granted to the Patriarchs" is just plain wrong.

"How do we know? The Bible tells us so." At least Leviticus does. The commandments of Leviticus were written for the whole of society, not the patriarchs. If you read the whole of Leviticus 18 -- yes, the very same chapter that condemns male-male anal sex (I know of no verse in the Bible that mentions oral sex of any type) -- you'll find several passages that only make sense in a polygamous society.

The obvious examples start with Leviticus 18:7-9:
7 Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her.

8 Do not have sexual relations with your father's wife; that would dishonor your father.

9 Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere."
I could go on to quote other verses, but these are enough to show the distinctions that are made between "your mother" and "your father's wife". your sister who is "your father's daughter" and your sister who is "your mother's daughter". Such distinctions only make sense in a polygamous society.

Was this just a dispensation for the times? No. Jewish society remained polygamous at least up until the time of Jesus. Perhaps not in the rural, poor parts of Galilee where Jesus lived. But let us look at what Flavius Josephus has to say. The great general and historian was born into the highest priestly class of Jerusalem, as he proudly relates in his Autobiography. He was almost contemporaneous with Jesus, in fact, he was born within a couple of years of the traditional date of Jesus' death. In the same Autobiography he tells us:
"I was myself brought up with my brother, whose name was Matthias, for he was my own brother, by both father and mother..."
Again, this is a distinction made unnecessary except in a polygamous society. But did Jesus condemn the practice? (He did condemn divorce, but the Old Testament has many condemnations of divorce. In fact, there are several places where a man is told that, because of a crime, such as falsely accusing his wife of not being a virgin, he must remain married to her, yet he is not prohibited from having other wives.) He is not shown to, but then there must have been many preachings of his that did not get recorded in the Gospels. If he did condemn having multiple wives, the writer of the Epistles to Timothy and Titus and the early Church do not seem to have been aware of it. (I'll use the KJV. The New International is better, but a lot of Christians act like they believe "if the King James was good enough for St. Paul, it's good enough for me." And in fact, the statements are stronger in it.)
1 Timothy 3:2. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife,

1 Timothy 3:12. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.

Titus 1:5-7. 5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:

6 If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

7 For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
But: if these are specific requirements for a bishop or deacon, they can't be the requirements for the people as a whole. They may be considered advisable. Polygamy might be blameworthy, but it is not forbidden. (Thus being self-willed or given to wine are flaws, not forbidden. Imagine if the passage read must not be a murderer and you can see the absurdity.)

Even if this was all that was meant by "traditional marriage", it seems hard to understand how expanding it to include same-sex marriage would be at all threatening to it. This point has been made time and again, both by gays (Barney Frank's question to Bob Barr, "Which of your three marriages is threatened by mine?) and heterosexual couples who deny any feeling of threat from the acceptance of gay marriage.

Marriage as defined by female submission
But, I would argue that while many of the people who make the statement about marriage being threatened are just parroting what they have heard, the Radical Christian opponents actually mean something different when they talk of "traditional marriage". And they are quite right in their argument. Gay marriage is a threat to their conception of what marriage should be.

A "good, Christian marriage" is not just one involving one man and one woman. It involves a specific relationship between them. A wife is supposed to be subject to the husband, and the children to the parents, as humanity is subject to God.

To quote Focus on the Family's What Does It Mean to Be a Wife by Mitch Temple:
The apostle Paul urged older women to teach younger women, "so that they will wisely train the young women to be sane and sober-minded -- temperate, disciplined -- and to love their husbands and their children; to be self-controlled, chaste, homemakers, good-natured (kindhearted), adapting and subordinating themselves to their husbands, that the word of God may not be exposed to reproach — blasphemed or discredited."
Again from FotF (How a Husband Should Handle His Wife's Submission by Stormie Omartian):
"Submission is a choice we make. It's something each one of us must decide to do. And this decision happens first in the heart. If we don't decide in our hearts that we are going to willingly submit to whomever it is we need to be submitted to, then we are not truly submitting."

"This may be shocking news to you, but an overwhelming majority of wives in my survey said they want to submit to their husbands. They want their husbands to be the head of the home, and they have no desire to usurp that God-given position of leadership. They know what the Bible says on the subject, and discerning wives want to do what God wants because they understand that God's ways work best."

"Okay, okay! I know that God did not say a wife needs to submit to her husband only if he proves to be worthy. Submission is a matter of trusting in God more than trusting in man. But a wife will more easily make the choice to submit to her husband if she knows that he has made the choice to submit to the Lord. It will be a sign to her that it is safe to submit to him."
For a similar view let's look at the Southern Baptists. In an article on subjugation of women in that denomination, Dr. Bruce Prescott & Dr. Rick McClatchy (who have become "Mainstream Baptists", a group which split from the Southern Baptists as a protest against the emergence of extreme and rigid conservatism in the older group) write in Baptist Faith and Message, a Baptist "Confession of faith"):
"subjugation of women extended to the privacy of Baptist homes when a statement on the family was added to the BF&M. In line with the chain of command made explicit in the 1984 resolution, the 1998 family amendment advised wives that they must ‘graciously submit' to their husbands."

"The unconditional nature of the wife's subjugation became clear at the official press conference following the statement's adoption. Dorothy Patterson, wife of Paige Patterson and a member of the committee that drafted the family statement, said, ‘When it comes to submitting to my husband even when he is wrong, I just do it. He is accountable to God.'"
But these groups are relatively liberal. I could go on and on -- oh, you've noticed -- but I'll end this by requoting Tedd Tripp, from my article on baby beating.
"You must provide examples of submission for your children. Dads can do this through biblical authority over their wives, and Moms through biblical submission to their husbands." p. 142

"Don't waste time trying to sugarcoat submission to make it palatable. Obeying when you see the sense in it is not submission; it is agreement. Submission necessarily means doing what you do not wish to do. It is never easy or painless." p. 145

"Your children [and by implication, your wife] must understand that when you speak for the first time, you have spoken for the last time." p. 151
But what has all this to do with gay marriage? After all, many, hopefully most marriages outside of the stricter religious groupings would reject these teachings, would look on horror at this sort of authoritarian marriage. (In fact, many people who saw their parents in such a relationship have recoiled in horror at it and made sure they would not experience what they saw their parents, particularly their mothers, undergo.) And there is no doubt that gay relationships can be dominant/submissive themselves.

This is true, but a heterosexual marriage that deviates from "God's plan" can be condemned as such, and there is always hope that through "good Christian example" teaching, preaching, and prayer, these "misguided sinners" can be shown the proper path. (And the true dominionists can hope they will have the power of the state at least to teach students properly, and even have laws that will correct the poor, deluded "equalitarians".)

But there is no way that a gay couple can choose to conform to these teachings. The roles, in the minds of the radical Christians are biologically and theologically based. The question of which gender should be submissive is not a matter of choice. It is rooted in the idea that "man was created first and woman sinned first" in Eden. Yes, a woman may (and should, according to voices like Stormy Omartian's) freely choose to submit to her husband and act according to God's plan. But that is because she is a woman. A man who should choose to submit to his wife, in the same way, would be an unnatural abomination.

And, obviously, same-sex marriages either do not have a woman to "willingly submit to whomever it is we need to be submitted to", or they lack a man to be submitted to. No amount of preaching can change this, no amount of Christian example will change this. Any gay marriage, by existing, challenges this idea of a proper, "traditional" marriage.

Even if one man in a gay marriage chooses the role of homemaker, of the guided one, the "wife", this is not sufficient, since he is going against his masculine nature. (And of course, the corresponding can be said for lesbians, like the two women who were my parents. They have no one to express their femininity to by submitting, and again, if one is dominant, this is condemned as well by the fundies' god and Bible.)

It is a constant threat. No wonder radical Christians are horrified and must fight it. In their way of conceptualising things, gay marriage simply cannot be. And so it must not be. It's basically an issue of road-map versus terrain.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Close Yet Far

My wife's parents live six time zones away in China, and so they have followed most of our daughter's development over videoconferencing. We use MSN Messenger, simple and convenient. And a web cam costs only a few tens of Euros.

Now the ladies of my family have been in China for a week and a half, and I'm the one watching them on-screen. It's actually a mixed blessing. Wonderful to see and hear them, but painful to be reminded so clearly of how lovely they are, yet how distant. Luckily, it's only going to be a few more days before me & junior join them over there.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

ICQ Gender Wars

For many years I have spent most of my working days alone at a computer. Alone, but thanks to the internet and messaging software, not lonely. As mentioned here before in connection with the story of Lennart, International Casanova, it's good to have a chat now and then with other solitary souls over ICQ. They become your workmates even though they may be located on the other side of the planet in meatspace terms, to use a quaint 80s cyberpunk expression.

The spidery network of ICQ contacts can also teach you a lot about gender politics. In recent years, I have increasingly been contacted over ICQ by nubile females in Eastern Europe and Asia. These chats are usually very short and follow a simple pattern. The lady in question asks me in shaky English whether I am married, if I have children and what sort of job I have. And when I reply "yes", "yes" and "not a well-paid one", the conversation ceases. With all due respect to these enterprising and fearless ladies, this did get boring really quickly. But the problem mostly disappeared when I entered into my ICQ profile that I am in fact married and have kids.

For the past week I've been alone at home a lot and so have had reason to say "Hey there, how ya doing?" to a lot of random strangers on ICQ. Most people don't reply at all to that sort of message. But among those who did, I quickly noticed another interesting pattern.

Far more males than females replied, and a lot of these males apparently hoped that I might want to have sex with them. This did not seem to be contingent on my income or family configuration, which I find kind of heartwarming in comparison to those grimly goal-orientated Eastern would-be brides. But as soon as it became apparent that I wasn't interested in penis-themed conversation, these chats also ceased.

As for the ladies, the problem was really the opposite. Those few who responded were willing to have a chat, but at the same time they were clearly very guarded. Some started out by telling me, out of the blue, that they were not interested in sex talk or sex pics. This is not how live face-to-face chats with strangers usually begin. "Errrr", responded I, "do you think we might perhaps simply have a civilised conversation?".

Cyber sex is the text-messaging equivalent of phone sex. It's a lot like having to read a very bad pornographic story line by line as it is improvised by someone who's had sex but has never written a story before. It's time-consuming, boring and in my opinion absolutely pointless. The internet is full of porn, a lot of it written and a lot of it written really well. But still, it seems that women on ICQ are absolutely besieged by men who want to have cyber sex and preferably also web cam pics of their anatomy. For women, ICQ seems to be a bit like going to a cocktail party where half of the male guests are insane sex offenders.

So I've made another addition to my ICQ profile. It now reads:
Archaeologist & all-round friendly guy.

Married, two kids. I don't do cyber sex and I don't want to see pics of your boobs or private parts, OK?
Let's see if it works.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I'm Your Man

A friend of mine asked me if I could find Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" on-line somewhere. So I did a search on Allmusic to see if I could at least find a snippet of the song. Unexpectedly, this search generated an instant poem consisting entirely of song titles. Try reading it out loud without laughing! I didn't get any further than the third line before cracking up.

I'm Your Man
I'm Your Boogie Man
I'm Not Your Man
I'm Your Man '96
I'm Just Your Man
I'm Your Big Man
I'm Your Yes Man
I'm Your Love Man
I'm Your Main Man
I'm Your Loving Man
I'm Yours Man
I'm Your Candy Man
I'm Your Handy Man
I'm Your Lover Man
I'm Your Lovin' Man
I'm Your Pussy Man
I'm Your Taboo Man
I'm the Man for You
I'm Your Fellow Man
I'm Your Rockin' Man
(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man
I'm Your Puppet
I'm Your Angel
I'm Your Country Man
I'm Your Money
I'm Your Woman
I'm Your Man (G.Ü.N.T.H.E.R.)
I'm Your Travellin' Man
I'm Your Fan
I'm Your Man (Stringbean)
I'm Your Man in the Streets
I'm Your Mechanical Man
I'm Your Santa
I'm Your Sure Thing Man
I'm Yours
I'm Your Man, I'm Your Gal
I'm in the Market for You
I'm Your Master
I'm Your Monkey
I'm in Your Hands
I'm Your Fantasy
I'm Your Monster
I'm Your Man (Don't You Know?)
I'm Your No. 1 Fan
I'm a Young Man
I'm Mad at You
I'm Mad With You
I'm on Your Side
I'm Your Hoochie Coohie Man
I'm a Fool to Want You
(I'm Your) Hoochie Koochie Man [DVD]
I'm Your Hocckie Coochie Man
I'm Your Hoochie Couchie Man
I'm Your Mate
I'm a Hog for You
I'm Your Biggest Fan
I'm Your Oilman
I'm Your Sex Machine
I'm Your Superman
Baby I'm Yours
I'm Leaving You
(I'm Your) Jellyman
I'm Your Greatest Fan
When I'm With You
I'm in Love With You
I'm a Fool for You
I'm Your Girl
I'm the Zydeco Man
I'm Yours Anyhow
Baby I'm-A Want You
I'm an Ordinary Man
(I'm A) Southern Man
I'm Madly in Love With You
I'm Your Natural Woman
I'm Your Sideman

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