Next time, Jared Diamond, NEXT TIME!!!

Some of you may be familiar with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has been recommended to me by several people who I trust and who have decent judgment. It is a monster of a work, in a style that the specialists of modern day can’t really match. It’s meant to be a broad analysis of general historical trends, chronicling some ideas of why modern society developed in the place and manner that it did. And I’m sure it accomplishes this well and was interesting and informative for many highly intelligent people. But I couldn’t read it.

I am not typically a non-fiction reader.  I like the flexibility of fiction.  I feel like it allows language to be used more fully.  I feel like it’s more of an art.  But of course, that’s not always the case.  And some fiction pays no attention to language or craft.  Ultimately however, I tend to like it better for its hint of truth.  Fiction can be truer than fact.  It can also be a starting point for factual exploration.  How many times have I been reading some historical novel and wondered if an event or situation actually took place?  The interaction between creative expression and factual dates, times, and places intrigues me.  In addition, fiction avoids the perils of being proven wrong.

So, was it just the non-fiction structure of this particular book, in addition to its length, that put me off reading the whole thing?  Not exactly.  I mean, the small part of it that I did read was well-written.  However, amidst the sweeping generalizations of the early introductory materials, I found the bane of a non-fiction books – a fallacy.  While I can understand discrepancies regarding the movement of people into North America considering new information that is constantly being revealed and tested, other small details I could not ignore.  Where was steel first invented?  And if the author is wrong about one such detail, how can I trust the other assertions that are outside his specialty?

I eventually gave up on reading the book – it would take too long to check every point he made. however, the book again caught my eye on the train today when I saw a picture of the Phaistos disc inside it.  I saw the picture first – recognizing one of the most interesting and rare undeciphered scripts in existence, I was intrigued enough to lean over the poor girl reading it and look at the book title.  For those of you who are not familiar with this disc, it is the only example of what we think is a writing system (or at least some record-keeping system using characters for a discrete meaning).  We don’t know what language it may record, or what culture it is associated with, though there have been multiple guesses.  Since the disc was found in a Minoan palace, many think it originated there, but we have no evidence that it was not made elsewhere.  What could such an enigmatic relic of past civilization have to tell us about the advancement of current people through guns, germs, and steel?  Not much.  And the sensational nature of such a mysterious object included in what’s supposed to be a highly logical argument of a book does little to placate my questions about the authorial intent or accuracy of the book.  However, since I did not actually read the text associated with the disc, I cannot say that it does not add another layer of meaning to teh author’s argument.  I will have to be resigned to my unanswered questions and doubts.

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Mayan long-count and 13 crystal skulls.

The soon-to-be-released Indiana Jones movie has got quite a few people up in a huff about crystal skulls. You know, because real-life Mayans worshiped faceted, stylized skulls today. While there has never been any evidence that ancient Mayans worshiped the skulls at the height of their civilization from about 200 to about 900 AD, a few of the existing skulls can be dated to very close to the time of Spanish contact. It remains unclear whether or not the current Mayan skull-worship is a result of that contact or predated it.

So, what are the facts we do have? The Mayans had a complex calendar system involving days, months, and two types of years. They made funerary and ritual masks in a variety of shapes and substances, quite a few in jade and other stones that looked something like skulls.  Astonishing, no?

So what’s with the hocus-pocus and theories?  The Mayan calendar is winding down.  The longer cycle of years, or ‘Long Count’, which lasts about 5,000 years, is almost over.  According to what we know of Mayan legend (i.e., what we can glean both from current tradition and the incomplete Mayan glyph translation of monuments and codices that we have), at the end of the Long Count, something happens to change everything.  Some people interpret this as a cataclysmic event, or the end of the world.  Others say that at this time, something needs to happen to save the world – perhaps the reunification of thirteen ‘original’ crystal skulls, most of which have been lost.  For the Maya, no doubt it had extreme significnace beyond the turning of the year, even beyond what the turn of the century would have for us.  My personal belief is that we’re all looking for answers, and any idea that still has meaning with modern dates (since Nostradamus was wrong) is going to have a variety of followers.

Me, I’m content to wait.  After all, a day like today is bound to cycle around again.  Eventually.

I’m a nerd.

Today MIT highlighted its ‘Professional Education Program’ on its website.  The PEP is basically MIT’s continuing education module, made for people who are pursuing careers (or possibly changing careers) in the sciences.  While some of its offerings aim to be flexible with continuing a full time job, offering online options or one-week intensive programs, most of them are not.  Because as a professional, you can afford to just up and quit your job and spend thousands of dollars on classes at MIT.

Yes, it’s true I am a little bitter about not being in school right now.  I love education, I love learning new things, and being at what seems like a continual turning point in my career only increases the feeling that this love in my life is currently being wasted.  But at the same time, i know it’s something that’s not going to go away.  In even looking at the programs offered, I became intrigued.  I mean, look at this description:  “Project-based introduction to the contemporary city as a complex system within a context of limited resources and competing interests. Learn to assess scenarios for the purpose of formulating social, economic and design strategies that provide optimized solutions that are humane and sustainable. Group projects develop and advocate visions for housing, urban planning, regeneration of natural ecologies and other sectors of the city. During spring break the class visits New Orleans, the focus of Cityscope in 2007.”  How awesome is that?  Or what about this one: “An introduction to bargaining and negotiation in public, business, and legal settings. Combines a “hands-on” skill-building orientation with a look at pertinent social theory. Strategy, communications, ethics, and institutional influences are examined as they influence the ability of actors to analyze problems, negotiate agreements, and resolve disputes in social, organizational, and political circumstances characterized by interdependent interests.”  Or this:  “Examines the evolving structure of cities, the dynamic processes that shape them, and the significance of a city’s history for its future development. Develops the ability to read urban form as an interplay of natural processes and human purposes over time. Field assignments in Boston provide the opportunity to use, develop, and refine these concepts.”   Wow.  How do I get in on that action?  Better yet, how do I make a career out of any of them?

For the moment, I’ll just have to sigh and pine for more education.  But someday, hopefully soon, I’ll be learning my little brain out.

Earthquake in China causes location speculation.

It is estimated that a shallow earthquake centered in eastern Sichuan Province could cause the deaths of up to 5,000 people.  True, people tend to live more densely in China than in other countries, but in the western provinces, the population is more spread out.  Anything that can kill that many is significant.  Heck, the worst earthquake in the US, the one in San Francisco in 1906, only killed about 3,000.  This one, weighing in seismically at 7.8, was felt as far away as Beijing (1,500 km away), Hanoi (1286 km away), and Bankok (2274 km).  Deaths resulting from the quake have been reported in the surrounding provinces of Gansu and Yunnan and the autonomous city of Chongqing.  No reports of death have come from Tibet, Qinghai, Shaanxi, or Guizhou, the other nearby provinces, as yet.

Some of the details of the article were particularly puzzling to me.  The mention of a specific number of deaths in the Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County was particularly unusual, or so I thought.  I was familiar with the autonomous cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin, both of which are not actually part of the provinces that surround them.  The local governments of these cities report directly to the national government, giving them more autonomy and a higher level of commercial control.  I always thought this was to give more freedom to those larger cities in a position to take advantage of such special status internationally.  Why then would something as small as a county be given the same kind of freedom and control?

Wikipedia was singularly unhelpful in this instance, as the main reference to the Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County gave very little information, and the provided link to the official website of the area was dead.  However, one of the words, Qiang, gave me a hint.  Weren’t the Qiang one of the minority groups in China?  They were, in fact.  There are actually several such autonomous areas containing high concentrations of a particular ethnic group.  I would like to be able to visit such an area, to see what life is like there.  And that’s the most politically correct statement you’re going to get out of me for awhile.