Chants Hymns & Dances
These are a few pieces of music that I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. All three exhibit Eastern influences that sound a bit exotic - to my ears at least.
Kariandrou’s music is shadowy and spare, building slowly, exploring different arrangements of the same themes. A gently working accordian gives Ulysses’ Gaze an atmosphere of European folk music that is both contemplative and somber. Coupled with the shadings from the cello and viola, it can leave the feeling of meandering through an empty village. Her interpretation of Euripides’ Trojan Women captures their pain and lamentations in a collection of short, reflective almost ghostly pieces with an interplay between ancient instruments and voice.
Gurdjieff’s spiritualism is captured by Tsabropoulos and Lechner with graceful cello and piano arrangements. The liner notes credit sufi influences which are certainly there but not overwhelming. Two short interludes bracket a modern work by Tsabropoulos himself which brightens the overall mood.
The definitive moment of Supersize Me came at about an hour and twenty minutes into the movie, at day 25 or so: the camera was just fixed on director and gastronaut Morgan Spurlock for about 5 or 10 seconds, just before he stuffed yet another bite of some McDonalds’ concoction into his increasingly unenthusiastic maw.
He looked utterly strung out and miserable; his body, bloated, wan and haggard. It was at that point that it really hit me just how far he had descended from the cheerful, easy-going person who is introduced at the beginning of the movie.
Going on a 30-day, McDonalds-only binge was a great vehicle for documenting the sad state of American dietary trends and the food industry that fosters and enables it.
This film should be shown in every school in the country. Spurlock should really consider making a G-rated version of the movie available to elementary schools, etc. It would only require the removal of three or four scenes which I’m sure could be replaced with other material he already has.
Gaining Ground II
Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston
by Nancy S. Seasholes
by Alex Krieger and David Cobb
Inventing the Charles River
by Karl Haglund
For anyone interested in the historical development of the city of Boston (as I am) these three books from MIT Press are indispensable. There is a bit of overlap in the coverage as would be expected, but it’s actually quite small. All three are of a large format, but they are all much more than just picture books; each contains a wealth of research and the format simply allows the maps, diagrams and photographs to be presented in more detail.
As the name suggests, Mapping Boston is more focused on the historical development of Boston as represented through maps. Boston was originally comprised of the just the Shawmut Peninsula, connected to the mainland by a small strip of land (now Washington Street.) This layout is most famously depicted by the Bonner Map of 1722. The maps range from the earliest ones to the most modern. Some show plans for ideas that never materialized, such as the construction of an island in the middle of the Charles River. There are a couple of frightening ones showing some of the conceptual ideas of Le Corbusier-influenced planners during the great Urban Renewal era of the 1960s. We should all be thankful these ideas never saw the light of day. There is a site for the book here.
Gaining Ground is meticulously researched, showing in tremendous detail the transformation of Boston. Seasholes seems to have covered every square inch of the city. Some of the most interesting segments cover the filling of the Dock Square area (near present day Faneuil Hall) and the Mill Pond/Bullfinch Triangle area (Causeway Street and the Fleet Center.)
Much of the major transformation of the Charles River Basin between Boston and Cambridge occurred during the age of photography, which makes Inventing the Charles River a fascinating work for those familiar with its current features. Haglund’s main point is that as beautiful as the basin is, it’s an entirely manmade landscape. Through photographs, maps, drawings and thoroughly researched documentation he covers the filling of the Back Bay, the transformation of the Cambridge riverbank and the eventual loss of some of its former beauty to highway construction.
Gaining Ground: The Origin and Early Evolution of Tetrapods
by Jennifer A. Clack
The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
by Richard Dawkins
I found that Richard Dawkin’s Ancestor’s Tale and Jennifer Clack’s Gaining Ground complemented each other very well and would highly recommend both books. Ancestor’s Tale is very loosely modeled on The Canterbury Tales and traces human evolution back to the beginnings of life, while Gaining Ground is focused specifically on the evolution of tetrapods and how they transitioned from the sea to life on land.
Gaining Ground is a much more specialized work. It presents the subject from the viewpoint of a working paleontologist. There is a lot of technical discussion of anatomical detail, but Clack does a good job of making the subject accessible to the general reader. Early on she almost apologizes for having to use such technical vocabulary, but admits that “there simply are no other words available.” Among the more fascinating discoveries, was that the earliest tetrapods had more than 5 digits, which had always been thought of as one of their defining characteristics. For example, Acanthostega had 8 on its limbs. Dawkin’s mentions this in his book also.
After describing the similarities between fish and tetrapods, Clack put into words exactly how I was feeling:
It is this formula that humans and other tetrapods share most obviously with their lobe-finned relatives—and one you can contemplate each time you look at your own arm or leg.
After reading these books it’s hard to look at the human form and not think of fins!
The online magazine The Edge asked a group of 120 “great minds” the question, What do you believe is true even though you can’t prove it?
These are some of the more interesting responses:
Most languages are much, much more complicated than they need to be. They take on needless baggage over the millennia simply because they can. […] But here were a few [Indonesian] languages that had no prefixes or suffixes at all. Nor do they have any tones, like many languages in the world.
So isn’t it interesting that the island these languages is spoken on is none other than Flores, which has had its fifteen minutes of fame this year as the site where skeletons of the “little people” were found.
Now, I can only venture this highly tentatively now. But what I “know” but cannot prove this year is: the reason languages like Keo and Ngada are so strangely streamlined on Flores is that an earlier ancestor of these languages, just as complex as its family members tend to be, was used as second language by these other people and simplified.
Is string theory a futile exercise as physics, as I believe it to be?
My belief is based on the fact that string theory is the first science in hundreds of years to be pursued […] without any adequate experimental guidance.
As a Christian monotheist, I start with two unproven axioms:
- There is a God.
- It’s not me (and it’s also not you).
And that is why I further believe that we should:
- hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain tentativeness (except for this one!),
- assess others’ ideas with open-minded skepticism, and
- freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.
See Apatheism.org, a wiki dedicated to exploring the relationship between religion and society.
What is Gnosticism?
by Karen L. King
The title of Harvard Professor of Ancient Christianity Karen King’s new book What is Gnosticism? is not indented to be an invitation to the reader to come discover what Gnosticism is; instead, it is meant to reflect the on-going debate within academia as to what the boundries of Gnosticism really are, or if the word even has meaning anymore.
Her stated purpose is to demonstrate how the dichotomy between Christian orthodoxy and heresy as deliniated by ancient polemicists such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, has defined a framework by which scholars have analyzed Gnosticism up through the 20th century. As she demonstrates, the wealth of papyrus manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 point to a much more complex view of early Christian beliefs.
She does a masterful job of charting the course of Gnostic scholarship from the 19th century onward.
What I found less satisfying was her overall, postmodernistic view that the only way to examine the existing material is to understand the motivations behind the authors themselves, specifically through the lense of colonialism, Orientalism, race and gender. For King there are no “truths” only perspectives. While there is merit to this argument, it seems as limiting a viewpoint as the central dichotomy which she so forcefully argues against.
Explorers of the New Century
Updated: My review here.
There’s a new book coming from Magnus Mills apparently to be called “Explorers of the New Century,” but alas, it won’t be out until September of 2005. Mills is one of the only authors that I purposefully query Amazon for looking for new titles, so I was pleased to see this one is coming. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but since I also have a keen interest in exploration, I’m excited about the prospects for this one.
All of his books take place in cloistered little worlds populated with obsessive people going about their oddly mundane tasks. But there’s always something slightly off and mildly sinister lurking behind the scenes that’s never quite fully exposed. It’s hard to explain why this makes for such compelling literature (though in my mind that’s exactly what makes it so compelling.) Perhaps it has something to do with the dry, deadpan style Mills employs to express the quite pride the main character always shows in his manual labors.
Here’s the only bit of recent news I could find about the book and Mills out on the web:
It’s set on an imaginary expedition to reach somewhere called ‘the furthest point from civilisation’. The brilliance is in the portrayal of the internal politics of the two groups of explorers. […] Mills has not only moved publishers, he has also moved jobs. After driving the 137 and 159 buses out of Streatham Bus Garage, he became a postman, only, so the story goes, so that he could say he had become “a man of letters”. Now he subsidises his writing by driving a van for British Telecom and he’s still with letters - he delivers the internal mail from London to Oxford.
Man does this make me feel old. I was routing around through some old boxes in the basement and I came across a flier for a Sonic Youth concert I went to in Boston at the Longwood Theater on June 2nd, 1984. Yikes. Frankly, I don’t remember too many details of the show, but I do remember having a good time…
Actually, I just remember it being at the Massachusetts College of Art, but I believe that the college had just taken over the old theater building and it was still being referred to by the old name.
There are more details on this particular performance here.
Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands
by Roy R. Robson
I was drawn to this book because of its setting: a monastery on an island of the Solovki archipelago in the White Sea, high in the Arctic of Russia. It’s a story of the monastery’s rise to greatness from its founding as a hermitage in 1429 by the monk Savvatii. It follows through its demise under Soviet rule and eventual rebirth.
Because Solovki became such a powerful part of the Russian Orthodox church, its story ultimately tells part of the story of Russia itself. As with most of Europe, there was always a tremendous tension between the secular and ecclesiastical powers. Perhaps the greatest struggle occurred when the tsar wished to create stronger ties with Constantinople by adopting their liturgical practices. This was strongly resisted by the “Old Believers” at Solovki, but they were eventually forced to abandon the old practices. When Emperor Peter III secularized all monastic land in 1762, it started Solovki’s long decline that reached its nadir after the Russian revolution. While secular powers may have been deminished, it became a great magnet for religious pilgrims.
Robson does a good job of describing the atmosphere of the island and the personalities of its various occupants over the years. These were monks and priests with normal human failings. He also shows why the monastary became such an important religious symbol to the people of the White Sea region and eventually all of Russia itself.
It was a shame to see a place of such piousness emptied of its occupants and turned into one of the main components of the Soviet gulag. Solzhenitsyn describes this part of the story in depth in the Gulag Archipelago.