Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Since its discovery 20 years ago, the archaeological site Gobekli Tepe (Belly Hill) in southern Turkey has turned traditional theories on the origins of civilization on their heads. Traditionally it was supposed that the development of farming (the Neolithic Revolution) and animal husbandry created food surpluses that could be appropriated by armed chieftains to pay for the (non-food-producing) craftsmen and scholars who made cities and temples possible. The elaborate and massive megalithic complex at Gobekli Tepe (stones are over 6 meters tall and weigh more than 20 tons) was built 12,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers. The last Ice Age hadn’t yet wheezed its last chilly breaths. It was thousands of years before Stonehenge.

Klaus Schmidt, lead archaeologist at the site, speculates that the requirements of building the site and others like it demanded more food for all the craftsmen, artists, quarry workers, and other laborers than could be provided by hunting local game and picking berries. He suggests that the construction of the site pushed the development of farming and husbandry in order to provide the necessary surplus rather than the other way around. Yet there are no signs at all of permanent settlement – no villages or urbanism anywhere nearby in space or time – so nomadic hunting and gathering was still the general rule for social organization. The temple came first, not second. Nonetheless it still might have sparked the Neolithic Revolution.

Exactly how the original denizens of the site actually used it is unknowable. This was 7000 years before the Sumerians invented writing so they left no records. The sculpted artwork at the site tells us little. Mostly the images are of predators and dangerous creatures: snakes, lions, spiders, scorpions, and such. This is unlike the cave paintings of Europe which feature prey animals like gazelles and bison. What this means is anyone’s guess, but the prevalence of bringers of death in the imagery might be evidence of religious significance. Presumably it is a temple of some kind. What is almost certain is that this was a site at which large numbers of people(s) festivated regularly. Such get-togethers are a common feature of hunter-gatherer life everywhere (including in historical times among Native American tribes) and it must have happened here: a kind of “if you build it they will come.”

I’d be willing to bet gold coin that the meetings at Gobekli Tepe took place on an equinox or solstice. Prehistorical people were amazingly good observers of the sun and the moon, and the cycles of both parallel certain realities of human existence. It is hard not to see an analogy to a human life in the progression of a year from spring to winter. This is what led Robert Graves to argue in The White Goddess (still an indispensable tract to understanding the origins of Western mythology) that “All true poetry is about love, death, or the changing of the seasons.” You can write verses about other things, he said, but they don’t really amount to poetry.

I can understand this. On this past Saturday I had an equinox party at my house. I’m not a neo-pagan or someone with an astronomical fetish, yet I often host solstice and equinox parties. I usually say that this is to avoid conflict with the celebrations of others (such as Memorial Day and Labor Day), but I also am acutely aware of the seasons and of the passage of life. A couple of dozen people of different tribes (political, national, and class) with very little in common attended. Yet we all found a way to get along. I recommend giving such a mixed event a try. When you are feeling sour about your fellow human beings – which is very easy to do – it helps remind one that we are a single species after all.

On a personal level, it also happens to remind me that autumn is my time of life, though I'm figuring (perhaps self-delusionally) September.

Eric Clapton – Autumn Leaves

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Many Happy Returns

If I post a review of a movie or book at all, usually it is no more than a week or two after having seen or read it. Though a minority of books and DVDs get a mention, a majority of the movies I see in the theater do. So, Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Mummy, both seen in the theater earlier this year, are bucking the odds by not getting a mention until now. The reason is that there seemed little to say about them, but here is that little.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: The whole point of Spider-Man from his original inception as a comic book character is that he is a teen: teen hormones, teen angst, teen rebellion, and all the rest of it. He isn’t supposed to be mature – unlike Iron Man whose immaturity is an adult choice. The character doesn’t really work as an adult. Hence, the continual reboots in the comics and the movies.

In this new version, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is indeed an annoying teenager. That’s fine. Marisa Tomei makes an interesting hipper Aunt May. Michael Keaton is not a simplistic villain; he justifies his actions as reasonable in an unjust world. Parker’s fellow high schoolers are (strangely) less credible high schoolers than Parker himself, but unconvincing teens are a common flaw in teen-oriented movies. The film skips the origin story, which the screenwriters assume (correctly) we’ve all seen enough, and moves right to a tale of Peter Parker as Iron Man’s rebellious protégé.

Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.

The Mummy: This film disappointed at the US box office, but it did well enough in international markets to avoid financial failure. If you’ve seen almost any Tom Cruise movie of the past 20 years you know exactly what to expect: action, explosions, plane crashes, mayhem, flying glass, and narrow escapes. Black market antiquities thief Nick (Tom Cruise) accidentally awakens a seriously irked mummy (Sofia Boutella) who brings Nick somewhat imperfectly under her spell. Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll – yes, that Dr. Jekyll – intervenes. The action is non-stop and the cgi work is top notch. For many viewers that seems to be enough. However, I found it hard to care about any of the characters even fleetingly. In fact, I’d rather rewatch one of the cheapy mummy pics from the 1930s-50s than this one. That earns it a

Thumbs Down – not way down, but down.

What both films inspired were thoughts on the volume of remakes, sequels, and reboots flowing from Hollywood studios. The studios’ reason for this is perfectly obvious. Audiences, including many folks who complain about all the remakes, sequels, and reboots, pay money to see them. Not all of them. Many fail, but, as a proportion, not as many as do wholly original flicks. Unsurprisingly, therefore, The Mummy is just the first reboot for Universal’s planned Dark Universe. Still to come are the reboots Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, Van Helsing, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Money is enough to explain the studios. The public, which complains but attends, is harder to figure.

For young viewers unfamiliar with an earlier version (never mind an original version) beyond an occasional pop culture reference, this is not an issue. For older viewers, though, I wonder if there is not something akin to repetition compulsion in it. First described by Sigmund Freud, repetition compulsion is behind the common tendency, for example, to date or marry virtual clones of the same woman or man time and again. I’ve done it. Maybe you have, too. Sig said that we try to recreate the conditions of our childhood particularly in our romantic lives. If those childhoods are happy that’s likely to be OK, but we tend to be drawn to people who poke unresolved childhood wounds, usually involving the relationship with our parents. We hope to make them right the second (or third or fourth or fifth) time around. The hopes are usually dashed. Our attachment to an old movie is not in the same category as our attachment to a human being, of course. (Well, maybe for some people it is; if so, there is probably a term for them.) Movies do speak to us emotionally however. Some movies do so for entirely healthy reasons, I’m sure, but some do because they also speak to our unresolved issues. Maybe here, too, we hope for comfort and resolution by doing it again.

Queens of the Stone Age - Do It Again

Sunday, September 17, 2017

September 16 Local Derby Recap: Nail Biter in Morristown

Last night at its home track in Morristown NJ the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted the Salisbury All Stars visiting from MD.

After a string of home track victories this year, the JDB may well have anticipated last night’s bout with confidence. The first few jams gave further reason for it. Despite firm blocking by both teams, a multiple pass by JDB jammer #235 A Bomb put the early score at 18-5; #3684 Californikate and #8 Lil Mo Peep added to the JDB lead, the latter by nicely pushing through a momentary weak spot in the Salisbury defensive wall. It soon became apparent that this would be no rollover, however. Salisbury blocking stiffened while points were racked up by their jammers #333 Lexa Cution, #1212 Point Setta, and (despite a hard takedown) #18 Snowflake. At 16 minutes into the bout a jam by Lexa Cution put Salisbury into the lead 47-50. It was the first of several reversals. Californikate took back the lead for JDB and then #32 Power Puff Pusher, who also is a hardhitting blocker, took it back for Salisbury. The last jam of the first half began with 1 second on the clock, and resulted in yet another reversal in favor of JDB at 83-76.

The second half continued to show two evenly matched teams, with well-coordinated formation blocking and one-on-one hits. The score continued to seesaw, tying more than once. Momentarily the point spread grew to 130-115 but Salisbury’s #5150 Emma Hitcha cut the lead to 10 points in a power jam. With 6 minutes remaining the score was tied again at 151-151. A jam by A Bomb gave JDB a 4 point lead, which Lexa Cution in turn reduced to 1 point. In a finish hard to beat for excitement, with seconds remaining, A Bomb faced Point Setta in the final jam; breaking through as lead jammer, A Bomb deliberately ran out the clock. JDB prevailed with a Final Score of 169-168.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


On the heels of Harvey’s havoc in Houston, Huricane Irma inundates Florida. I’ve been in a few hurricanes over the years and so far have been fortunate. One was Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in 1999, which I rode out without serious incident in a hotel. Most hurricanes cease to be hurricanes by the time they reach my home state of NJ, but there are exceptions. Hurricane Sandy back in 2012 struck the state with hurricane force winds and torrential rain, though for technical reasons it was at that point categorized as an extratropical cyclone. Regardless of terminology, the storm claimed lives and caused damage that at the time made it second only to Katrina as the financially costliest storm in US history. Again I was lucky: trees came down in my driveway and yard but (barely) missed the house and barn. My home was without power for a couple weeks, but I was inconvenienced rather than harmed. Both Harvey and Irma have been lethal and both are sure to set new records in money damages.

The deadliest hurricane in US history – in fact the deadliest US natural disaster of any kind – is known as the Great Storm of 1900. In those pre-satellite days, the residents of Galveston Texas had a totally inadequate single day’s warning of the oncoming storm. A 15 foot (4.6 meter) storm surge washed over the island; it destroyed buildings and killed 12,000 people. Nowadays warnings come enough in advance to avoid loss of life on that scale, but there are always those who do not or cannot heed evacuation orders.

I do not wish to minimize in any way the current storms, which have consequences both brutal and tragic for those in their paths. For most folks, however, the good news, if one may call it that, is that the chances of meeting one’s end in a natural disaster are remote. Something catches up to all of us eventually, of course; 1 in 120 American residents die in any given year. Naturally the odds vary by age group. Overwhelmingly that final something is likely to be a natural health problem such as heart disease. The second most likely cause is accident (5% of all deaths), and the third is violence at the hands of humans (including ourselves). Insurance actuaries have calculated with their usual precision the odds of being done in by forces of nature, and they are reassuring.

Some examples of annual fatality risk from natural forces:
Lightning                                            1 in 4,326,748
Earthquakes                                        1 in 9,288,426
Cataclysmic storm                               1 in 4,570,498
Floods                                                 1 in 31,993,469
Natural heat                                        1 in 822,689
All natural forces combined                1 in 236,211

None of those numbers constitutes a good enough reason to be complacent about an oncoming hurricane though. If one is headed your way, leave or hunker down according to expert advice at the time. As for other risks both natural and unnatural, quoth Effie in The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Come to think of it, the context of that line that might not be very comforting, so let’s just go with “good luck” instead.

Barenaked Ladies - Odds Are

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Yellow Leaves and Buses

I saw the strangest thing on my street on Thursday: a teenager. (See last blog about iGens.) What’s more, not 500 feet away was another one. Astonishing.

I live in a cluster of four cul-de-sacs that share a common entrance with the main road. (“Main” may give a misleading impression of the winding 20-foot wide road.) In my cluster there are 36 houses. Most of them contain at least one person of school-age. Based on the passengers of school buses and soccer vans that whiz up and down the street in mornings and afternoons on school days, I’d guesstimate there are no fewer than 30 students that attend elementary, middle, and high school – maybe more than 40. Yet during summer vacation I NEVER see them: not on bikes, not in yards, not walking, not anything. I don’t even hear them even though kids aren’t known for being quiet when swimming and half the houses in the neighborhood have pools.

The local high school
So what accounted for the dual apparition on Thursday? Apparently, a few schools these days start the school year (or at least some school activities) the last week of August. The teens were waiting to be picked up for school. Their noses were in their phones, of course, which might give a hint about how they spent their time when they vanished for the summer.

Contrary to popular legend, summer vacation is a not holdover from agriculturally dominant days when kids needed to work on the farm. Summer is the wrong time of the year for one thing. CUNY historian Kenneth Gold explains that summer vacation is an urban invention. 19th century educational reformist Amariah Brigham, among others, successfully argued that school in the summer was a factor in “a growing tide of insanity” among urban young people. Well, we can’t have that.

My sister and I, not at school but in 1957
I was one of those weird kids who actually liked school and looked forward to September. It occurs to me, by the way, that today is the anniversary of my very first day of it: September 3, 1957. (We didn’t do pre-school back then.) I remember it. I helped make the day memorable by getting on the wrong bus afterward to come home. Somehow in those pre-cellphone days the bus driver knew where I lived; after making his regular run he drove right up my driveway to drop me off. (Was getting on the wrong bus a common enough occurrence that he had a clipboard with all student addresses? To this day, I don’t know.) It wasn’t my last mistake in school-related matters, and it was far from the worst one. Still, though I mostly enjoyed school, I can’t say I miss it. Most kids don’t like it in the first place, and their position is not unreasonable. By and large school has been made a tedious and joyless place from which any fun that might be had from learning is carefully excised.

This may change as schooling increasingly moves online. This was foreseen long ago by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. In 1951, almost 30 years before the first home computers, Asimov describes them as home teaching machines for children in his short story The Fun They Had. In his tale, two children in the 22nd century discover an old paper-and-ink school textbook in the attic. They are astonished to learn that large numbers of children once attended “classes” together led by live human teachers. The story concludes, “Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”

The story was and still is widely anthologized in school books, largely because educators almost always miss Asimov’s point. In his eclectic book The Roving Mind, Asimov complains that those school anthologies “together with certain letters I get, often make it clear that the story is interpreted non-ironically as a boost for contemporary education.” His true point is that the future kids on their machines, able to proceed at their own pace and to break for play on their own schedules, are learning better and (though they don’t know it) are having a much better time. As for the social aspects of school (many of them awful, really), they can be had much more cheaply and pleasantly in non-school settings.

For now, however, the appearance of students at school bus stops are akin to the first hint of yellow in the leaves: a prelude to autumn. The two teens will be joined by others Tuesday when most schools open their doors. Tomorrow, after all, is Labor Day, the “unofficial end of summer.”

I don’t care much for unofficial beginnings and endings, however, so in my book it’s still summer until the equinox, which is September 22 this year. I’ll likely have one more BBQ the weekend of the equinox to celebrate it. Until then, despite unseasonably cold weather I’ll stubbornly start each morning with a dive in the unheated pool – even if the water numbs.

The Donnas - I Don't Wanna Go To School