Sunday, 2 August 2015

I'm in a book

    I was looking in Blackwell's bookshop the other day - the big famous bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford - and I came across The Indo-European Controversy by Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin Lewis in the linguistics section. The book is about the controversy surrounding Indo-European origins (unsurprisingly), and more specifically about some of the sillier articles on the subject and their coverage in the media. Pereltsvaig and Lewis covered the same topics on their (former) joint blog, Geocurrents, which I strongly recommend. There's some great stuff there.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Why I Like Ancient History

    It would be fair to say that, of all the things in the world, I am most interested in the human lives that were lived before about 500 years ago. I'm not completely uninterested in the modern world, or in the Columbian Exchange, or in the industrial revolution, or the impact of the various European empires on the world since 1492. It's just that I'm significantly more interested in the world before European domination. I'm not uninterested in natural history, either: I'm just a bit more interested in understanding sentient life.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Some more zany anthropology stuff

    I've been trying to carry on the discussion over at Savage Minds on the post I highlighted the other day, but they don't like you commenting on old posts over there. That's their policy and that's alright, but there's still stuff to say, so I thought I'd post my final comment here instead of letting the discussion end there.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Spooky Nonsense on Domestication

    I subscribe to an anthropology blog called Savage Minds - you can find it in my sidebar, I've been reading it for years, and I quite like some of their content some of the time. It's a group blog written mostly by professional anthropologists for professional anthropologists, even if they like to talk about having a public image and public impact. The two mainstays of Savage Minds, Alex Golub (aka 'Rex') and Kerim Friedman, both seem like smart guys and they've written some interesting things over the years, so I carry on reading the thing hoping to find the odd gem, and sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised.

Friday, 20 March 2015

'Are Religion and Science in Conflict?'

   Scientific investigation could have revealed that our universe is full of meaning and purpose. It could have told us that we are at the centre of the entire cosmos - that everything literally revolves around us. It could have told us that, unique among the world's creations, humans are ensouled rational beings; that the entire universe is only a few thousand years old and on a scale comprehensible to the human mind; that our lives have an innate dignity and cosmic importance; that all life is directed towards goodness and cooperation; and that there is some universal order that humans would find emotionally satisfying and inherently appealling.

    It could have told us that there's more to objects than mere assemblages of elementary particles and their properties and it could have told us that human concepts have a direct one-to-one connection with reality.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Killing People is Always Wrong (Andrew Chan & Myuran Sukumaran)

Indonesia is about to execute two Australian men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, for trafficking drugs. They were arrested in 2005 after a tip-off from the Australian police, and they were actually trying to get their heroin into Australia, not Indonesia. They were nevertheless arrested and tried in Indonesia, where drug smuggling is a capital offence, and it seems that they operated in a gang with seven others, now known as the 'Bali Nine'. Sukumaran and Chan were considered to be the ringleaders, and their death sentences have not been overturned; the rest are serving long prison sentences. The Australian government has been pleading with Indonesia not to kill them, but there doesn't seem to be any hope now. They will probably be shot to death in the next couple of weeks.

Monday, 9 February 2015

'Colloquial Malay'

I bought Colloquial Malay, the book I'm using to study Jawi, for £3 at a second-hand bookshop in Oxford. I want to say a few words about it because it's like a magical window into a horribly unequal racist past where moustachioed white men shot elephants and surveyed the land while barking orders at sycophantic Malay trackers and house-boys. Colloquial Malay was written by renowned scholar of Malaya, R. O. Winstedt - or, as it says on the cover, 'Sir Richard Winstedt, KBE, CMG, DLitt (Oxon), Reader in Malay University of London' - and originally published in 1916 (my edition, 'new' and 'revised', was published in 1945). It has a very useful section on Jawi, although it's only twenty pages long and sandwiched between the main content of the book (bizarre parallel text conversations) and an addendum of 'technical terms for airmen', which, to put it mildly, isn't as useful these days as it once was.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Jawi Script

I'm learning classical Malay (that is to say, the language used in Melaka and the Malay world at the time of the Portuguese conquest) and I'm starting with the script, known as Jawi. It's a modified form of the Perso-Arabic abjad, with a few extra letters for velar nasals and other things Arabic doesn't have. I've studied Arabic script before, so I'm kind of familiar with it and it isn't especially hard going. On the other hand, the Arabic script is useless for writing languages that aren't Arabic.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Island Southeast Asian Geology & Volcanic Explosions

I've been trying to read as much as I can about the geological history of Southeast Asia for the book I'm working on. It's a fascinating topic: island Southeast Asia is tectonically complex and volcanically volatile in a way few regions are. There's a whole mess of plates crashing and bumping together between Malaysia and Australia, and some of the most famous and powerful eruptions in recent earth history happened in the area - Krakatoa (Indonesian: Krakatau) (1883), Tambora (1815), and Toba (c.70,000 years BP) in particular.

There are some crazy looking islands, like Sulawesi and Halmahera, that have resulted from different pieces of different plates coming together to form contiguous wholes, and there are some, like Timor, that were seabed until only a few tens of millions of years ago (in parts of Timor and New Guinea the uplift is so recent that different coral species can be identified from the exposed rocks).

Friday, 12 December 2014

Assholes Damage Precious Line in the Nazca Region

I find it hard to believe that anybody would consciously wreck a famous and important archaeological site, but it seems that my incredulity is at odds with reality. We've had property developers in Peru knocking down pyramids at El Paraiso, Belizean road workers chopping away at pre-Classic Mayan ruins for construction materials, and now Greenpeace activists doodling an eye-searingly yellow message into the Sechura desert - right next to one of more famous Nazca lines. (Strictly speaking, the line itself wasn't damaged - but the footprints and other activities of the Greenpeace folk have created new marks next to it. It's not quite equivalent to the El Paraiso vandalism, but...)

This Greenpeace Stunt May Have Irreparably Damaged Peru's Nazca Site
Apart from the desecration of one of the most memorable and remarkable survivals from Peru's ancient past, there's also an environmental issue here. The Nazca desert sees almost no rainfall (although that is changing, for precisely the reasons Greenpeace ought to be highlighting). As I said in my post on the Nazca culture, the Nazca region is squeezed between two rain shadows - strong winds off the Pacific coast and the Andes mountain range. Any mark you make in the ground there can last about, I dunno, 2000 fucking years.

This is why we can't have nice things, Greenpeace.

io9 (the io9 article claims the lines had astronomical significance, but there's no reason to believe this and it's not the consensus)

The Guardian

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Racism in 'Exodus' Casting

The new Ridley Scott movie, Exodus, is attracting criticism because of the racial background of its stars. Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are white people playing ancient Egyptians (and/or Hebrews) in the film, which is an interpretation of the second book of the Bible, and a lot of people are upset about this. They say that ancient Egyptians weren't white, which is true.

The first point to be made is that ancient Egypt seems to have been reasonably diverse in ancient times, as you might expect of a river valley, a delta, and several large oases situated in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Lots of groups would have made their mark on the population. I'm not too interested in debating the genetics of ancient Egypt; it is sufficient to note that, in their own depictions, some ancient Egyptian people have fair-ish complexions and some have dark complexions (although there are good reasons not to trust such depictions implicitly, based as they were on longstanding artistic convention as much as reality).

Christian Bale would probably have looked out of place in the time of Ramesses II, and so, probably, would Chiwetel Ejiofor (although perhaps less out of place than Bale). We shouldn't impose modern American racial dichotomies on the radically different situation of Bronze Age Egypt. There's a pop-breakdown of academics' views on race in ancient Egypt on Slate, if you're interested (it's actually a less interesting topic than it seems).

The second point is that Exodus (the book of the Bible) is a work of fiction. The film may be set in ancient Egypt, and that's enough justification to question the casting of northern Europeans in the central roles, but there's little reason to believe that anything in Exodus actually happened. Moses isn't attested outside of the Bible and there's no archaeological evidence of any great Hebrew march through the desert. As there's no independent evidence of Moses's existence, the idea that Christian Bale doesn't match the 'reality' of Moses seems odd. This whole fuss is about a Ridley Scott interpretation of an ancient work of fiction and fantasy, and it appears ridiculous on the surface that there are complaints about its historical veracity.

And it would indeed be ridiculous, if race and racial discrimination weren't prominent aspects of American culture and society. Whitening Egyptians to make them match modern Europeans and Euro-Americans is an established tradition, presumably based on the notion that dark-skinned people couldn't possibly have produced innovations ancestral to our fundamental technologies (like writing). It's good that there's been a response to this whitewashing and to the attempts at defending it, and it's unfortunate - shameful? - that the studios don't trust the cinema-going public enough to let a dark-complexioned actor carry an epic film like Exodus.

Hopefully, the backlash we're seeing is a sign of the times.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Remarkable Plants' by Bynum & Bynum, 'The History of Central Asia' by Baumer

It was my birthday last week, so I've got some new books to read, including volume two of Christoph Baumer's The History of Central Asia (I B Tauris), dealing with the first millennium CE, and a book about important and useful plants by the medical historians Helen and William Bynum, Remarkable Plants that Shape our World (Thames & Hudson). They're both lovely to look at - Baumer's photographs are excellent, and the illustrations used in the Bynum & Bynum book, drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century publications in the Kew Gardens collection, function perfectly as enhancers of the text.