Archive for the ‘ Culture ’ Category

In 6 days, Buddhist monks create insane sand mandala sculpture…and then destroy it

Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb

John Roach in National Geographic:

Reeking of decay and packed with bowls of human fingers, a partly burned baby, and gem-studded teeth—among other artifacts—a newfound Maya king’s tomb sounds like an overripe episode of Tales From the Crypt.

But the tightly sealed, 1,600-year-old burial chamber, found under a jungle-covered Guatemalan pyramid, is as rich with archaeological gold as it is with oddities, say researchers who announced the discovery Friday.

“This thing was like Fort Knox,” said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who led the excavation in the ancient, overgrown Maya town of El Zotz.

Alternating layers of flat stones and mud preserved human bones, wood carvings, textiles, and other organic material to a surprising degree—offering a rare opportunity to advance Maya archaeology, experts say.

“Since [the artifacts] appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts,” Vanderbilt University anthropologist Markus Eberl, who was not involved in the project, said via email.

Excavation leader Houston added, “we’re looking at a glimpse of lost art forms.”

(Pictures: what the Maya Empire looked like.)

Fingers, Teeth, and a Taste of Things to Come

The researchers found grisly deposits even before they reached the Maya tomb.

Almost every layer of mud above the tomb contained blood-red pottery filled with human fingers and teeth wrapped in decayed organic material—perhaps leaves.

The fingers and teeth were “perhaps a kind of food or symbolic meal offering,” Houston speculated. “Sacred breads in [Mexico‘s] Yucatán are wrapped in such materials today.”

In another bowl above the circa A.D. 350 to 400 tomb, the team found a partly burned baby. The bowls closest to the burial chamber were arranged like the Maya cosmos—the four cardinal compass points plus the center of world.

Read on

He impersonated a human

Gideon Levy in Haaretz:

Sabbar Kashur wanted to be a person, a person like everybody else. But as luck would have it, he was born Palestinian. It happens. His chances of being accepted as a human being in Israel are nil. Married and a father of two, he wanted to work in Jerusalem, his city, and maybe also have an affair or a quickie on the side. That happens too.

He knew that he had no chance with the Jews, so he adopted another name for himself, Dudu. He didn’t have curly hair, but he went by Dudu just the same. That’s how everyone knew him. That’s how you know a few other Arabs too: the car-wash guy you call Rafi, the stairwell cleaner who goes by Yossi, the supermarket deliveryman you know as Moshe.

What’s wrong? Is it only fearsome Shin Bet interrogators like “Capt. George” and “Abu Faraj” who are allowed to adopt names from other peoples? Are only Israelis who emigrate allowed to invent new identities? Only the Yossi from Hadera who became Joe in Miami, the Avraham from Bat Yam who became Abe in Los Angeles?

No longer a youth, Sabbar/Dudu worked as a deliveryman for a lawyer’s office, rode his scooter around Jerusalem and delivered documents, affidavits and sworn testimonies, swearing to everyone that he was Dudu. Two years ago he met a woman by chance. Nice to meet you, my name is Dudu. He claims that she came on to him, but let’s leave the details aside. Soon enough they went where they went and what happened happened, all by consent of the parties concerned. One fine day, a month and a half after an afternoon quickie, he was summoned to the police on suspicion of rape.

Read on

The art of slow reading

Patrick Kingsley in The Guardian:

Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? An increasing number of experts think so – and say it’s time to slow down . .

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

The problem doesn’t just stop there: academics report that we are becoming less attentive book-readers, too. Bath Spa University lecturer Greg Garrard recently revealed that he has had to shorten his students’ reading list, while Keith Thomas, an Oxford historian, has written that he is bemused by junior colleagues who analyse sources with a search engine, instead of reading them in their entirety.

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other. And so, as Carr writes, “we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion”.

Read on

OMG! It’s Muhammad’s footprint

Pervez Hoodbhoy in New Humanist:

The sudden appearance of the Prophet Muhammad’s alleged footprint in the sleepy village of Dharabi near Chakwal has sent a wave of religious excitement across Pakistan. At a three-hour drive from Islamabad, Dharabi is now attracting tens of thousands of visitors from Swat to Karachi. They seek blessings, spiritual enlightenment, miracle cures and relief from life’s other stresses. A road that is sparsely travelled in normal times is now clogged with traffic, vendors of food and drink are having a field day, new businesses selling pictures and holy paraphernalia have sprouted, and a permanent shrine is under construction. The village could not have hoped for better.

My encounter with this phenomenon was accidental and preceded the heavy rush that came in subsequent weeks. While on the way to Chakwal, I became curious about the heavy police presence. Upon inquiring, I was told of a recent momentous event – a giant footprint was said to have suddenly appeared, which the local Muslim scholars promptly declared to belong to the Holy Prophet. But this had ignited a fierce war of words between various religious factions in the larger Chakwal area. Some believers insist that the Prophet had left the earthly world once and for ever, while others contend that he revisits it periodically to remind followers of his presence. The police had been called to prevent physical violence.

Several weeks later the story hit the national press. And when I spoke villagers I had met in Dharabi I discovered that new embellishments and inventions are being added to the original narration of events. Village sceptics, on the other hand, are being silenced and speak only on condition of anonymity.

The story begins on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal (the 12th day of the third month of Pakistan’s lunar calendar), the Prophet’s birthday, when celebrations were held as is village custom. This involves cooking sooji ka halwa (a sweet dish of semolina and almonds) in large flat iron dishes called karahis. Since there are no stoves large enough for the purpose, shallow holes are dug and then filled with twigs, charcoal or other flammable material. After the cooking is done and the fires have dimmed, the holes are filled with loose earth. On that particular evening there was a heavy rain shower.

That evening a woman looked out into her backyard and saw a glow that appeared to move. In her excitement, she summoned her mother-in-law, who says she saw it too. It appeared very briefly and was not seen subsequently (although a six-week-later version is that it lasted for three days and was so bright that the house did not need electric lights). The women also claimed that the glow was accompanied by a sweet smell. In the morning, the cooking area was discovered to have a mysterious ground impression: a huge footprint.

What scientific explanation exists for this phenomenon? If you Google the ‘Dharabi miracle’ you will see countless photographs and hastily made celebratory videos of the miracle. By straining the imagination, some may be able to see a footprint. But its enormous size – three to four feet long – would indicate that it belongs to the long-sought mythical Himalayan Yeti rather than any human (or human-sized divinity). The shape of the impression can be more plausibly explained as that of loose earth, brought together by rainwater, from two adjacent irregularly rounded cooking holes. It could also be the water-distorted image of two heavy round karahis of different sizes placed on the soft earth. Or it could simply be deliberate fraud.

Assuming that the women had their wits about them, and had not been overpowered by the devotional intensity of the day’s celebrations, the softly glowing ephemeral light could have multiple explanations. First, it is possible that a swarm of phosphorescent insects was somehow attracted to the cooking area. Bioluminescence in insects is a well-known phenomenon. As in the common firefly known as jugnoo, ‘cold light’ is produced via chemiluminescence.

It could also be that the organic matter buried in the holes, assisted by the heat of imperfectly quenched coals or twigs, could have converted into methane and phosphine gases. The latter is known to oxidize spontaneously upon coming into contact with air and can burn at a low temperature causing glowing light. Apparitions in western folklore, such as Jack-o’-the-Lantern or Will-o’-the-Wisp, have been traced by scientists to various flammable gases and insects.

A detailed investigation would involve looking at the soil composition, local entomology and recorded statements of different witnesses. It seems, however, that the Dharabi event will be ignored by Pakistan’s scientific institutions, of which there are well over two dozen. With exorbitant budgets but zero or little scientific output, some are housed in shiny new buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. These include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, the Committee on Science and Technology in the Islamic World (COMSTECH), the Pakistan Science Foundation and the Pakistan Council on Science and Technology.

Unfortunately not one of the above or, for that matter, any other Pakistani scientific institute has ever debunked the unreasonable and anti-scientific attitudes that prevail in this increasingly devout country. For example, after the October 2005 earthquake killed nearly 100,000, none challenged the view in the public media that this tragedy was a consequence of our bad deeds, such as watching television or allowing unveiled women to go out of the house.

To be sure, superstitious beliefs exist in other countries as well. One recalls the hysteria in 1995 following the discovery that Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, would ‘drink’ milk if a spoon of milk was held up to his trunk. Even minor temples in India overflowed with superstitious devotees. So great was the rush that a traffic gridlock resulted in New Delhi and sales of milk jumped by 30 per cent.

Fortunately for India an independent body, the Indian Rationalist Association, was quick to show that Ganesh’s milk drinking had a physical explanation. It was shown to be simple capillary action – which everyone learns about in school. The surface tension of the milk was pulling the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity caused it to run down the front of the statue. To its credit, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology confirmed the explanation and the country’s religious craziness slowly abated.

With such precedents, surely it is time for Pakistan’s Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the so-called Chakwal miracle, as well as the many similar superstitions that delude our people.

Read on

How Did Sport Get So Big?

Tim de Lisle in Intelligent Life:

On a long July afternoon in 1966, in north-west London, England’s footballers won the World Cup. By the time they beat West Germany, after extra time, with the help of a dubious goal, it was too late for the early editions of the Sunday papers. Only on the Monday was Fleet Street able to register the moment in its full glory. The Mirror, then the most popular daily ever published in Britain, with sales of 5m, knew a piece of history when it saw one. Its front-page splash proudly announced: A BOUNCING BABY GIRL FOR PRINCESS ALEX. Winning the World Cup was not as big as the birth of Marina Ogilvy, the Queen’s first cousin once removed.

The Sun didn’t lead with the football either, preferring a story about a pay squeeze; for weeks there had been a sterling crisis, and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, had loomed far larger than any footballer. Even the two papers’ sports pages, which in those days were tucked inside, went less than crazy. The Mirror had two pages reflecting on the final, the Sun a little less. In the broadsheets, two-thirds of a page did the job, as it had done throughout the tournament. Three months earlier Timemagazine had run its famous cover on Swinging London. And yet, even as London swung, and Britain’s bright young things, led by the Beatles, conquered the Western world, it was as if the national mood was still being dictated by Rudyard Kipling: if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those twin impostors just the same…

Forty years later, the World Cup was held in Germany. The England team had known only frustration in the meantime, yet they somehow loomed much larger. Every match they played was a front-page lead for both the Mirror and the Sun, and the fever had spread. The Times ran a 16-page World Cup supplement every day for three weeks. By now most of the papers were much the same physical size, and the definition of a quality title could be this: one that gives sport only second place on its front page. When England, as expected, beat Ecuador in the second round, it was the lead item that night on the main BBC1 news, on BBC.co.uk, Guardian.co.uk and Telegraph.co.uk. When David Beckham resigned as England captain, the story led the BBC1 news, eclipsing the deaths of two British soldiers in Afghanistan—a decision that drew withering comment from the then MP and former BBC reporter Martin Bell. In France and Italy the upmarket papers treat sport with more of a sense of proportion; but then both countries have entire dailies dedicated to it.

If the hype is extraordinary, so is the ambient presence. The last World Cup was all around us, on billboards, drink cans and cereal packets, on garage forecourts and millions of flag-bearing cars, in the windows of Boots the chemist and McDonald’s the burger joint (“Want tickets? Win tickets! Buy any large meal to play”). The cup-winning captain from 1966, Bobby Moore, was on every KitKat wrapper, despite having died 13 years earlier; his team-mate Geoff Hurst, now Sir Geoff, was appointed director of football for McDonald’s and had columns in two newspapers. The boys of 1966 were bigger in 2006 than they were in 1966.

The 2006 World Cup generated thousands of hours of television time, countless phone-ins and fan forums, endless blogs and eight hit records. It’s not just football: something similar happened in rugby with the 2003 World Cup and in cricket with the 2005 Ashes. And it’s not just Britain: each World Cup or Olympics makes more noise around the world than the last. American sport, in its different way, self-contained and tightly regulated, is getting bigger too: the television audience for the 2010 Super Bowl, 116m according to Nielsen, was the biggest ever recorded in America for any programme. With another World Cup starting on June 11th, half the nations of Europe have been strafed with giant images of the Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in Armani Y-fronts, muscles rippling like a Greek god. Which raises the question: how did sport get so big? Whodunnit, and where, and when, and why?

Read on

Rent a White Guy

Mitch Moxley in The Atlantic:

NOT LONG AGO I was offered work as a quality-control expert with an American company in China I’d never heard of. No experience necessary—which was good, because I had none. I’d be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined in Dongying, an industrial city in Shandong province I’d also never heard of. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit.

“I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events,” a Canadian friend of a friend named Jake told me during the recruitment pitch he gave me in Beijing, where I live. “Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. We’ll be in ‘quality control,’ but nobody’s gonna be doing any quality control. You in?”

I was.

And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.”

More here