Music of the Ancients

Raw Story reports on an interesting effort to faithfully recreate the music of the millennia-old Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Combining musical talent with meticulous archaeological research, this unique endeavor is delightful on both an anthropological and sensory level. You can hear haunting and elegant samples through the hyperlink or here.

More about the team behind this one-of-a-kind project:

…After completing a degree in music composition [singer and composer Stef Conner] got deeply interested in Babylonian literature and poetry—which was originally recorded in cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets.

But the words on the paper, the modern incarnations of these mineral etchings, were not enough for Conner. She wanted to know what these languages sounded like, to summon life from stone. Many of these poems and snatches of writings were sung and chanted, according to historians. The tunes played an important part in rituals in Mesopotamian societies, from funerals to lullabies, Conner says.

So she teamed up with Andy Lowings, who reconstructs ancient instruments and plays a mean lyre, a musical instrument with strings that resembles a harp. The two set out to create music that brings ancient Babylonian poetry to life, and The Flood is the result. It was produced by sound engineer Mark Harmer and can be found on Conner’s website; it will also come out on iTunes next month.

I strongly recommend giving their work a listen. It has been captivating me for the past two days now, especially during my busier working hours. Very soothing stuff.

Here is more about the music from the original website, from which you can pre-order the album:

Out in December 2014, ‘The Flood’ is a creative collaboration between Stef Conner, Andy Lowings (instrument-builder, harpist and creator of the Gold Lyre of Ur Project) and Mark Harmer (sound engineer, producer and harpist). Based on Mesopotamian texts from as early as the 4th millennium BC and composed for voice and the Lyre of Ur (a reconstructed 4500-year-old instrument excavated in the early 20th century from the Royal Graves at Ur), the album is the first ever CD of new music sung entirely in Sumerian and Babylonian. The incredible texts have inspired some of the strangest, rawest and most gripping, otherworldly songs you will ever hear, as well as some fun, amusing and often downright bizarre little excursions into the ancient Mesopotamian world, which reveal that in many ways, people in that remotest of times were actually a lot like us!

As the Raw Story articles notes, neither Conner nor her collaborators claim that these songs are a totally faithful recreation — after all, no human voice has uttered these compositions in thousands of years. But it definitely comes as close as one ever could. Conner studied the Babylonian and Sumerian languages deeply to determine the likely stresses and innotations, while Lowings built his lyre to be as similar to the ancient designs as possible. They even got help from Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who recreated the 4,000-year-old Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, considered the oldest song in the world.

Given all that, I think it is safe to say that this is accurate as the piece comes given all the time that has past. It is amazing that anyone even made the effort! And whatever its authenticity, this labor of love is a beautiful listen. It almost transports you back to the mysterious city-states that made comprised these cradles of human civilization.

Portrait of An Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Today’s Google Doodle honors the148th birthday of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with being the first painter to produce purely abstract works. (Despite this pioneering role, he appears to be virtually unknown in the West, at least among non-artists; I only learned of him through Google!)

Kandinsky’s fifty-year career spanned such major movements as Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, Bauhaus architecture and abstract expressionism. His vast collection of works thus reflect a wide variety of styles and influences, as well as the particular moods and thoughts put into each individual piece.

Kandinsky used shapes and colors as expression of emotion, and often likened the painting process to composing music. According to Wikipedia, he harbored a deep fascination with colors since childhood, which intensified during the course of his college studies:

In 1889, he was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he relates that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt that he was moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colours on a dark background), was reflected in much of his early work. A few years later he first likened painting to composing music in the manner for which he would become noted, writing, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

By 1896, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky gave up a promising career as a teacher to enroll in art school in Munich. An encounter with the works of Monet at a Moscow art exhibit prior to leaving only further solidified this path — and the rest is beautiful and colorful history.

Wassily Kandinsky (Photo)

The Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore

It no doubt sounds like a dream to most fellow bibliophiles: a well-stocked bookstore that is freely available 24/7 for as long as you want, even if you do not buy a single thing. Not only would I love to patronize such an establishment, but one of my dreams is open one of my own.

A recent article in the Guardian reveals that a company in Taiwan has already beat me to this idea by several years: Eslite, one of that country’s largest retail bookstores. (Official website, in Chinese, here.) Bucking the trend of most chain bookstores the world over, the company welcomes as many non-paying visitors for as long as they wish to stay:

When I visited the 24-hour shop, the busiest time was from 10pm to 2am. People were hunkered down in corners, sitting on the stairs, or hovering over the display tables. Everybody was absorbed in a book.

Yao Hong, a 31-year-old office worker, who was sitting on a set of small, hardwood steps, explained why Eslite’s Dunnan branch is a favourite hangout. “I come here three to four times a week. On Saturdays, I arrive around noon and stay till 4am the next day,” she said. “I’ve been to bars, but I don’t like them. I love to read. Here, I can read books I like and nobody bothers me.” That night, she had already ploughed through to page 275 of a 319-page memoir.

What attracts the large and loyal crowds is not only the wide selection of books – there are around 250,000 in the Dunnan store alone – but Eslite’s policy of allowing customers to read for as long as they want without having to buy.

Given the beleaguered state of a lot of bookstores across the world, from independent vendors to national chains, how does Elsite manage to pull this seemingly unprofitable business model and still remain highly successful?

Apparently, by coming one big arts and media center, offering everything from wine, tea, and food, to clothing, art exhibits, and film screenings. The company’s approach no doubt endears itself to customers as well: I would be more than happy to shell out a few extra dollars than I otherwise would if it meant keeping such an establishment afloat.

Bookstores seeking to innovate in an era of declining brick-and-mortar sales should take note of this approach — I know I will!

A Brief Thought On Holiday Greetings

“Happy Holidays”, “Seasons Greetings”, “Merry Christmas”, “Have a Blessed Day” — as an atheist, I personally do not care in what manner you greet or part with me so long as it is with kindness and sincerity.

I feel that considerate human interaction, at any time of year, should be welcomed, appreciated, and encouraged regardless of the belief system or lack thereof (allegedly) attached to it. (I say allegedly because many people often read too much into what is being said and assume the worst intentions.)

That said, I hope everyone is doing well!

The Greatest Books According to 125 Top Authors

Given the sheer volume of literature out there — and just in the English-speaking world alone! — deciding the best works of fiction seems virtually impossible. Every great book has something exceptional to offer, and each is distinct enough in style, theme, narrative, and so on that none really compete; rather, these works complement each other, together offering a rich selection of morals, concepts, characters, and inspirations to draw from.

Nevertheless, it is always an interesting exercise to see what books have most captivated and impacted readers, especially when the audience consists of other authors of great books. Who better to weigh-in on the subject than some of the (Anglophone) world’s current literary greats? The Atlantic has more:

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers—including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates—”to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time- novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list—so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.

As the article observes, you can learn a lot about a writer from what they selected as their favorites books and authors, since it reveals some of the possible influences, motivations, and ideas that color their own works — after all, what great writer hasn’t had at least contemporary or predecessor to inspire them?

You would have to read the book to see what each respondent listed, but you can view the overall consensus below (the asterisks denote links to free public domain works):

Top Ten Works of the 20th Century

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  4. Ulysses* by James Joyce
  5. Dubliners* by James Joyce
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  9. The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
  10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Top Ten Works of the 19th Century

  1. Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  5. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  6. Middlemarch* by George Eliot
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  10. Emma* by Jane Austen

Top Ten Authors by Number of Books Selected

  1. William Shakespeare – 11
  2. William Faulkner – 6
  3. Henry James – 6
  4. Jane Austen – 5
  5. Charles Dickens – 5
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 5
  7. Ernest Hemingway – 5
  8. Franz Kafka – 5
  9. Tied: James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf – 4

Top Ten Authors by Points Earned

  1. Leo Tolstoy – 327
  2. William Shakespeare – 293
  3. James Joyce – 194
  4. Vladimir Nabokov – 190
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 177
  6. William Faulkner – 173
  7. Charles Dickens – 168
  8. Anton Chekhov – 165
  9. Gustave Flaubert – 163
  10. Jane Austen – 161

I would have to put a lot of thought into what my  own top ten would be in these categories, although I do personally concur with most of the top selection (namely Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude). I am definitely intrigued to read more James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, whom I have always heard are amazing.

It is also interesting to see Tolstoy figure so prominently in terms of 19th century literature and total points; he is one of my all-time favorite authors, but I never realized his works were that acclaimed until recently (I have seen a lot more articles discussing his brilliance and literary influence as of late).

I would love to see the answers and opinions of non-Anglophone writers, especially since the overwhelming majority of the world’s non-English literature remains untranslated and thus largely unknown. I am sure it would be very revealing. A similar list involving non-fiction works, perhaps divided by genre (politics, science, etc.) would also be very interesting, if perhaps a bit more difficult.

Anyway, what do you think of these results? What would your own top ten lists look like?

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Twenty words that once meant something very different

Eupraxsophy:

The interesting (and often hilarious) ways that language has changed. Some of these evolved meanings may some degree of sense (such as clue and flirt).

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

Words change meaning all the time — and over time. Language historian Anne Curzan takes a closer look at this phenomenon, and shares some words that used to mean something totally different.

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.

  1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish…

View original 802 more words

Why Do We Call Turkey, “Turkey”?

Of course, by “we” I mean English-speakers, and there are several theories, all of which seem plausible. From The Atlantic

The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey coc” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts. The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.

It gets more interesting: the Turks called the turkey “hindi” because they thought it origined from India. The French had also called the bird “poulet d’Inde” (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. The Dutch called it kalkoen, which means “hen from Calicut”, a major Indian city at the time. The Indians, for their part, called turkey “piru” or “peru” in some dialects, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to turkey. Malaysians call turkey “ayam blander” (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for “moan barang” (“French chicken”).

Whatever its etymology, most people would call it delicious (although — not to put a damper on Thanksgiving — the modern turkey has unappetizingly deviated much from its original stock).

The Apache Hotshots

From The Atlantic is a clip from a fascinating documentary about an elite squad of Apache firefighters that operates all over the United States year-round. I am having trouble embedding it here, but click the hyperlink to see the six-minute video for yourself.

From the article:

On San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona, unemployment is high, and firefighting jobs are one of the few stable opportunities for work. The Geronimo Hotshots are an elite firefighting crew based out of San Carlos, who spend most of the year on the road, battling the most intense wildfires in the United States. “Your mom, your dad, your uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins—one of them probably fights fire,” says Squad Leader Jeff Belvado. The Geronimo Hotshots are one of seven Native American hotshot crews in the United States who are sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This is definitely the stuff of cinema, although I am much more enthused to see a factual documentary on these unsung heroes.  Not only are they putting out dangerous and damaging wildfires, but as noted in the video, they are restoring pride to a beleaguered by resilient community.

The Most Popular Country in the World

Nations are often spoken of as if they were individuals: Russia and Ukraine are fighting, China says Japan should stay out of its territorial waters, Iran is unfriendly to Americans. A lot of this comes down to basic expediency: it is a lot easier to refer to countries as monolithic entities than to get into the specifics (“Brazil says” rather than “the Brazilian government says”, for example).

But countries have long been personified for reasons other than simple ease. Everything that they embody — their political institutions, culture, people, climate, geography, etc. — amounts to a cohesive identity or national character of sorts. And countries, like individuals, can be loved, hatred, admired, and in some way or another related with. (Within International Relations, we study the phenomenon of “nations as persons” and whether it has any legitimacy or basis.)

They even have to worry about social standing: just as we worry about our image and status among a community of people, so too do the countries of the world content with how they are perceived by the international community. Hence why governments engage in public relations — whether through formal diplomatic channels, the funding of cultural institutions, or the launching of state news broadcasters — and why things like the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index exist.

Spearheading the fascinating world of nation branding — which has only become more relevant in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world — the survey asks over 20,000 people across 20 countries their perceptions of 50 countries. Each nation is scored on factors ranging from exports and governance to culture and people.

As The Atlantic reported, five-year first-place winner America has been overtaken by Germany, which had previously occupied the top spot in 2008. Here is the top ten as of 2014:

1. Germany

2. United States

3. United Kingdom

4. France

5. Canada

6. Japan

7. Italy

8. Switzerland

9. Australia

10. Sweden

Interestingly, the top ten has not changed much since 2010, which was as far back as I could find data (the survey was launched in 2005). The same countries more or less occupy the same spots, rising or falling by only a point or two (but never falling off entirely).

You can read the methodology of the report here. According to an official press release, Germany’s burgeoning international image can be attributed to several factors, including — of all things — “sport excellence”, which was “the largest gain seen this year for any single attribute across the 50 measured nations”.

Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, explains, “Germany appears to have benefited not only from the sports prowess it displayed on the world stage at the FIFA World Cup championship, but also by solidifying its perceived leadership in Europe through a robust economy and steady political stewardship. Germany’s score gains in the areas of ‘honest and competent government’, ‘investment climate’, and ‘social equality’ are among the largest it achieved across all the aspects covered by the NBI 2014 survey.”

In contrast, the USA has shown the least impressive NBI gain among the developed nations. While it still is seen as number one in several areas, including creativity, contemporary culture, and educational institutions, its role in global peace and security only ranks 19th out of 50 nations.

Meanwhile, here is why the U.S. (as well as nascent rival Russia) fared less well this time around.

Xiaoyan Zhao, Senior Vice President and Director of NBI at GfK, comments, “In a year of various international confrontations, the United States has lost significant ground where tension has been felt the most acutely. Both Russia and Egypt have downgraded the U.S. in an unprecedented manner, particularly in their perception of American commitment to global peace and security, and in their assessment of the competence of the U.S. government.  However, on a global level, it is Russia that has received the strongest criticism from public opinion.”

In previous years, Russia had shown upward momentum – but in the 2014 NBI study, it stands out as the only nation out of 50 to suffer a precipitous drop. Russia’s largest decline is registered on the Governance dimension, especially for the attribute of its perceived role in international peace and security. This is the most drastic score drop seen for any single attribute across the 50 nations. Overall in this year’s study, Russia has slipped three places to 25th, overtaken by Argentina, China, and Singapore.

The two countries cannot seem to shake off their legacy of global meddling and the subsequent negative impact it is having on their international standing, although Russia seems worse affected by it than America; subsequently, I am curious about the national breakdown of the respondents and how much certain nationalities dragged down or pulled up the overall score for certain countries.

In any case, the U.S. is hardly in bad shape, all things considered, and much of that clearly has to do with the heft of its “soft power” — from its music and entertainment media (especially film), to its top-notch universities still-attractive (if not weakening) civil values, America projects a lot of influenced and a positive image around the world. It is little wonder that so many other countries, including China, are seeking to emulate this soft power approach by promoting cultural and ideological products.

I would wager that the rest of the top ten ranks highly for similar reasons: all of them either have strong, globally-exported cultures (especially the U.K., France, and Italy), or enjoy a reputation for good governance, high-quality of life, and benign foreign policy (Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland).

In any case, Germany’s status as a brand champion is hardly surprising, all things considered. From its robust (if still shaky) economy and (relatively) pacifistic foreign policy, to policies like free college tuition and strong arts funding, the country has a lot going for it across different sectors. Its well-trained workers and less-indebted homeowners seem better off and happier than counterparts elsewhere in the world, and while political cynicism is as high among the German populace as it is anywhere else in the post-recession world, national pride — and with it a sense of purpose as a global role model — is growing (albeit with a degree of restraint, given the lingering shadow of the early to mid-20th century).

In the end, countries — again, like people — can learn a lot from one another with respect to national performance, be it in the real of politics and economics or even in sports. Not only is excelling in these areas a valuable end in itself, but as the study’s press release observes:

“International diplomacy clearly reaches beyond the realm of public opinion – however, policy makers need to be keenly aware that the way in which a country is perceived globally can make a critical difference to the success of its business, trade and tourism efforts, as well as its diplomatic and cultural relations with other nations. As our partner Simon Anholt often says, the only superpower left in today’s world is global public opinion.”

What are your thoughts?

The Last Hero

Russian Veteran (James Hill)

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007. Credit: James Hill.

The Atlantic adapted Hill’s account of this shot (and others) from his new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace, which chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s work across the world.

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

I cannot get enough of how much personality there is in this photo. I wager that this man has no doubt lived an interesting life, even beyond his highly decorated service during history’s largest conflict.