Hey there! I think I have time to squeeze in one last holiday related post before I skip town tomorrow so here it goes...
BBC reporter on the road to Bethlehem
Today I was looking at this series of videos and diary entries online from a BBC reporter who is currently wrapping up a 10-day journey on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a donkey in tow. As you can see from the map, the trek takes him from Northern Israel through the West Bank to the old city of Jerusalem and finally to the town of Bethlehem in the central West Bank 10km south of Jerusalem.
It was interesting learning a bit about the various places he's stopped at thus far. Nazareth, for example, is a predominantly Arab-Israeli city and the area around the Palestinian city of Jenin has been a center of conflict between the Israeli military and Islamic militants meaning that tragedies abound for people living there. Then there's the city of Nablus outside of which stands the dubious tomb of Joseph, a revered destination for some Jewish pilgrims which was vandalized by a Palestinian mob after Ehud Barak withdrew military protection of the site in 2000, and Ramallah which is relatively affluent and sheltered from the Arab Israeli conflict. The reporter also stayed overnight in Shilo, one of the controversial hillside Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and of course his journey takes him across several Israeli checkpoints.
Now the BBC is notorious in some circles for its anti-Israeli slant, and there is definitely a sprinkling here as well of that bias we've come to expect, but I still thought it was pretty worthwhile (the diary entries more so than the videos) and it gives you some idea about what life is like for people in the region . You can check it out here.
What do we know about the birth of Jesus?
The nativity journey the reporter was trying to recreate comes from the account of the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that Joseph lived in Nazareth (in the Galilee) and that he had to travel to Bethlehem with his fiancee Mary (who was of course pregnant at the time) in order to be counted for the census in his family's city of origin. This first census of the Roman province of Iudea took place in 6 AD when Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) was the Emperor and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c 51 BC – 21 AD) was the governor of Syria.
The Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, gives a different account of the birth of Jesus. Here, Joseph and Mary were already living in Bethlehem. Matthew's account also includes the famous "Massacre of the Innocents" where we're told that King Herod the Great (73 BC - 4 BC), after hearing from the magi that they came to see the "newborn king", ordered all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 to be slaughtered out of fear this future king might usurp his throne. This would place the birth of Jesus no later than 4 BC, the year of Herod the Great's death.
Thus there is quite a bit of discrepancy between the two Gospels on this subject. Moreover, historians have reason to question the veracity of both Matthew and Luke's accounts of Jesus' birth. First off, there is no historical evidence for the massacre of the innocents outside of Matthew (while Josephus catalogues many other crimes committed by Herod), and thus many scholars believe this is a fiction. It may have been born out of a desire to draw a parallel between the life of Jesus and Moses who – in Exodus – was hidden among the reeds because Pharoah ordered the execution of all the Israelites' male newborns.
Meanwhile, Luke's account of how Joseph had to schlepp to Bethlehem because of the census might have been created out of expediency in order to provide an explanation why Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. This Bethlehem birth was important as it was seen as fulfillment of the perceived prophecy of Micah 5.2, which some interpreted as meaning that the Messiah, the anointed king who would restore Israel, would be born in Bethlehem. Historians also debate whether the Roman census would have really required people to travel to their ancestral cities like this in order to be counted (although they've discovered a 2nd-century Egyptian papyrus which seems to require migrant workers to return to their family homes for census purposes). To further complicate matters, some historians dispute whether Jesus was "of Nazareth" or whether the epithet meant that he was a nazarite. In short, we know very little about Jesus and even less about the circumstances of his birth.
Image is a 2007 map of North and Central Israel including the West Bank and Gaza found on wikipedia.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Hey there! I think I have time to squeeze in one last holiday related post before I skip town tomorrow so here it goes...
Monday, December 22, 2008
The holidays are fast approaching! So I thought I'd help spread the good cheer and share with you all this site I happened upon with a collection of Space Age holiday cards from the Soviet Union. Because nothing says the holidays quite like rocketships! Most of the cards say "С Новым Годом!" which means "Happy New Year!" because good Communists don't celebrate Christmas. Enjoy!
Image from mazaika.com.
Some time back, I shared a post about an arty little game called Samorost. Since then I've discovered some other cool games online, and I figured now was as good a time as any to share a couple. These are all browser games, meaning that you don't need to download anything, you can simply play the game in your web browser (internet explorer, firefox... you may need to make sure you have adobe flash player installed on your computer though).
For today, here's two series which were both created by Mateusz Skutnik a game designer, graphic novel artist and architect from Gdansk (aka Danzig), Poland. For more info on Skutnik and his work, I direct you to his website.
First up is the very popular Submachine series. These are games in the classic "escape the room" tradition in which the player finds himself trapped in a series of rooms and the goal is to pick up objects and solve puzzles in order to get the hell out of there. Here you find yourself trapped in what the creator calls a "submerged machine installation." Now... I have played all the games and still have no idea what a submerged machine installation is or what it does, but all I can say is that somehow the name "submachine" makes total sense. Each game starts where the last one leaves off, drawing you deeper into the machine and its world of puzzles, teleportation and recursion. As you make your way through the series you'll start to recognize recurring elements from previous games like the bathroom, the lighthouse, the spoon (that's right, the spoon), however submachine plays with your expectations and each installment is unique.
The Submachine games are definitely reminiscent of classic computer games in the adventure genre: they remind me a bit of Myst and even more so of ZakMcKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (yeah, I kicked it old school). I would rate Submachine pretty high in terms of playability: the puzzles are for the most part logical and mesh with the games' environment. Thus far there are five games in the series plus 2 bonus minigames (Submachine 0 and Submachine FLF). My favorites were 3 and 4, but I would recommend new players start at the beginning with Submachine 1: The Basement. This first game in the series takes maybe 15 minutes to play (assuming you don't get stuck on a puzzle for too long which usually happens to me) while some of the sequels might be a bit longer than that. You can find links to the whole series as well as walkthroughs to help you cheat when you do get stuck here. If you like playing point-and-click puzzle games and you have some time to kill in front of the computer, I'd say check them out.
Next we have Daymare Town and its sequel. I would argue these games are more intriguing than Submachine, but they're also super difficult. Here you explore a surreal burg trying to uncover its secrets and/or get out of Dodge. The artwork, which is a bit reminiscent of Edward Gorey, as well as the music and sound effects contribute to Daymare Town's slightly eerie, uneasy, insomniac's hallucination kind of feel. This is precisely what makes the game unique and interesting, and somehow it also diminishes the "I'm going crazy" feeling you may get when you're trying to figure out the solution to a puzzle in this type of game.
Like I said, the puzzles in these games are devilishy hard (oddly enough, I found Daymare Town 2 easier than the original) and Skutnik recommends them only for the experienced gamer; but whatever don't let that scare you too much. Here's the link to the games and here's a walkthrough.
Images from Submachine 4 and Daymare Town games both by Mateusz Skutnik.
Friday, December 19, 2008
I think that there may be no celebrity more deserving of some internet hatin' than Marilyn Manson. Let's discuss...
First, there's his "music". The first blip on my radar was when he covered the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Now, we all loved the song when Annie Lennox sang it, but Marilyn Manson totally ruined it. I've seen an interview in which he attempted to justify what he did by saying something like "oh everyone was just dancing to the song, but I thought it said something profound about how effed up relationship can be and I wanted to draw attention to that." He did that by making his version a lot more growly and screechy and by looking totally freaky in the video and riding a pig (blarg, I just rewatched it). I think you're all with me when I say that I didn't need Manson's version to point out to me what the song was talking about, e.g. how some people are users and some people let themselves be used. Maybe the original was more subtle: the catchy tune and dance beat might have obscured the lyrics' message a little, but it was there for you to pick up on and think about. On the other hand, Manson hits you over the head with it. I think that this (besides the fact that I just don't care for his type of music which tends to stray towards goth, hard rock and metal) is part of my problem with him: I think I'm more likely to ponder a song's message when its implicit or coupled with a good tune, but Manson makes things very explicit so it sort of insults your intelligence.
But, eh, what do I know. I can only think of a few other songs by Manson that I've actually listened to. I remember seeing the video for this song the Beautiful People which (like most of his original music, I would venture to say) did not have a memorable tune and featured more of the same "white-trash horror show" theatrics. And I vaguely remember when he did that whole AntiChrist Superstar thing which combined clear allusions to Satanism with some pretty Naziesque imagery (if you don't know what I'm talking about, check out this video – 10 seconds will suffice.). I guess he was trying to make a bold statement about religion and fascism (clearly anti-religion, not so sure about the fascism), but it reminds me of how I think that most people who call themselves satanists are really just out to shock the squares and/or get back at their parents for something.
Before we move on, however, I have to admit that I do actually enjoy the video for Manson's Dope Show. The song is somewhat catchy/ memorable, it makes a(n again pretty obvious) statement about celebrity culture, and for some reason I am oddly fascinated with the whole androgenous supermodel thing he has going on. So ok, props for that one video.
Then there's the inexplicable fact that Manson somehow gets all these hot women. First there was the "black Irish" beauty Rose McGowan. Skanky? Perhaps (I direct you to Nicole's recent post which discusses her homewrecking ways). But I don't care what anyone says, I still think she's hot. Also she wasn't bad in that Jawbreakers movie that was almost like a rip-off of Heathers. And remember when Manson got her to accompany him to the MTV Movie Awards in 1998 wearing that scandalous hint of a dress? Based on nothing, I want to say that the dress was his idea. Oh yeah, I almost forgot how when she was a young girl her family was involved in that Children of God cult (so was River Phoenix who said he was sexually abused at the age of 4). Wow.
After Rose, Manson married Dita Von Teese the neo-burlesque star and Bettie Page lookalike. I always thought that Dita was beautiful and that the whole burlesque revival scene which she helped spawn was very cool, but then I found out how she has a 22-inch waist (which she can restrict to 16 inches when corsetted). Fuh-reak-ee!
Apparently Dita divorced Manson because he was partying a lot AND he was getting friendly with another woman. This would be Evan Rachel Wood, an actress and a blonde. I was about to say I haven't seen anything that she's in, but she played Natalie in that bad movie they made out of Running with Scissors. Oh god that was her!? Also she's going to be in the Woody Allen movie that's coming out next year. Anyway, she was dating Manson for awhile before they broke up last month (November 2008).
So what do all these beautiful women see in Manson? Whether he's all decked out in freaky makeup or just half decked out in freaky makeup, he's kind of hideous. And I know about how we shouldn't assume his public persona corresponds to the man in private life, but I just do not see him being a good boyfriend/husband. I see him as being selfish and emotionally distant if not just straight up treating his ladies like dirt. Plus, did they all have to listen to his crappy music and pretend they liked it? And did they ever have trouble keeping creepy images from his videos out of their heads when they were "being intimate." So many questions...
The main factor motivating me to write this post was when I found out about the project Manson is working on now. He is directing and starring in a fantasy/horror movie called Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll! Oh no he di'n't! Manson also wrote the screenplay; here's the little synopsis of the plot:
A haunted writer in an isolated castle is tormented by sleepless nights and visions of a girl named Alice. He finds himself becoming a symptom of his own invention.
“Now all my nightmares know my name.”
He is Lewis Carroll. Terrified of what waits for him each night.
Blech! I love Lewis Carroll and his Alice books, and I really don't like the idea of Marilyn Manson making his life story into a bad horror movie (and starring in it!). Anyway, let's see what else we can find out about this impending sacrilege. First off, Evan Racel Wood is supposed to be in it playing like "dream Alice" (someone else plays real Alice). Et tu Tilda Swinton? And they're planning on filming a lot of it in Prague (I like Prague).
Manson says that he wants the movie to be a throwback to more atmospheric, psychological horror movies like the films of Hitchcock or Roman Polanski. So I guess this won't be Alice's Adventures in the House of 1000 Corpses then? Well that's something. And he wants to eschew computer special effects for a magician's illusionism and legerdemain.
Manson also makes it sound like he's been communicatng with the spirit of Charles Dodgson (1832-1898, the real name of Lewis Carroll) via some direct line he has. He tells us that Dodgson was a far more complex character than most people know. This is true: did you know that he stuttered, suffered from migraines which distorted his perception of objects, and occassionally had epileptic seizures? These all seem to be caused by a genetic neurological condition which ran in his family. Also, because of his position as a don at Christ Church College he became a deacon, but he never took the vow of priestly orders possibly because (as he wrote in his diaries) he viewed himself as a vile and worthless sinner. Moreover, Dodgson may have had more of an affinity for spiritualism than for Anglican orthodoxy. Still though, I think that Manson's assertion that Dodgson "was possibly one of the most divided souls living in his own hell" smacks of sensationalism. Sure, he lived his life as a lonely bachelor, he may have had a profound moral/religious crisis, and those migraines sure sound like they were no picnic: but a lot of people go through life with similar problems and a lot of people never find love. Incidentally many of us assume he was a sort of repressed pedophile, but more recent biographers have suggested that Dodgson may have had tawdry, physical affairs with adult women, the evidence of which was suppressed by his family (helping to create the impression that he wasn't interested in girls over the age of 14).
I would like to learn more about Dodgson and the dichotomy he might have felt between his upright life as a deacon and don who told nursery stories to little girls and his inner life and private desires, but I doubt that this horror movie directed by Marilyn Manson is going to be our big chance. I just hope he doesn't mistreat our girl Alice the way he did Rose and Dita.
I think they may have just started filming Phantasmagoria earlier this year. It's currently slated to come out sometime in 2010, but that's probably subject to change. In the meantime, I think I am way more excited about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland movie which is also supposed to come out in 2010! That movie will feature Burton's favorite leading man Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Burton's baby mama Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. I'm psyched about that, let's hope it is as good as Big Fish.
Images: Photo of Marilyn Manson and Rose McGowan taken outside 1998 MTV Movie Awards by Retna, Market Poster for Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll (more pics and info on Wild Bunch website).
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Raising the Christmas tree is a custom which originated in Germany, but in Mediterranean countries they're all about the nativity scene. This is the traditional model representing the birth of Jesus as the story is told in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke – kind of like a Jesus diorama.
Constructing a nativity scene can be traced back to St. Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226). In Italy the nativity scene is called il presepe or il presepio, and the southern city of Naples is the most renown for its presepi featuring detailed figurines handmade and painted by local artisans. The more elaborate nativity displays include not only the holy family in the manger/ grotto, the animals, shepherds, angels and the three kings/wise men/magi but also the entire "little town of Bethlehem." Less traditional nativity displays might include contemporary political figures and other celebrities along side the good people of Bethlehem, and it probably won't surprise you to hear that this Christmas the most popular new additions are Barack and Michelle Obama.
In Catalonia (incidentally, I can't mention Catalonia without think about what my friend D said about Catalan "Hey let's take some French and mix it up with some Spanish and then be assholes about it"), there is another traditional figurine included in the nativity scene: el caganer. The caganer is a little guy who is caught hiding somewhere in the display squatting with his pants down, answering the call of nature al fresco. It might sound vulgar, but the caganer is so entwined with local culture in Catalonia that there were protests in 2005 when Barcelona didn't include one in the city nativity display. This all makes me think of the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane in medieval mystery plays (e.g. plays about Noah's ark which include Mrs. Noah boxing her husband's ears, or plays about the birth of Jesus which include Mac the sheep-stealer and his wife Gill). The defecating figurine is traditionally depicted as a Catalan peasant wearing a red stocking cap, but there are also more modern caganers bearing the likeness of public figures such as King Juan Carlos II, Pope Benedict or W at their most humble. And yes, now they have Obama caganers as well!
Speaking of Christmas displays, does anyone remember how Lakeside mall in Metairie had a post-Katrina Christmas village in 2005? Houses had blue tarps on their roofs and spray-painted messages from rescue workers on their walls, and there were junked refrigerators on the lawns and military vehicles on the street. Here are some photos. I think some people found the hurricane ravaged Christmas village to be a disturbing reminder whereas others thought the idea of the little villagers sharing in their plight was comforting or amusing.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Last time we discussed eusocial insects. The two known species of truly eusocial mammals are both members of the Bathyergidae family of subterranean African mole rats. Naked mole rats (heterocephalus glaber) inhabit the horn of Africa (parts of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya) and are small (3-3.5 inches in length), pink, wrinkled and nearly hairless. Meanwhile the Damaraland mole rat (cryptomys damarensis) is larger and furrier and lives around the Kalahari desert in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and NW South Africa. Here's some more facts about the naked mole rat which seems to be the species scientists have studied more.
Their caste system
In the wild, naked mole rat colonies range in size from 20 to 300 members with the average size being around 75. At the top of the hierarchy is the queen, the single reproductive female, whose elongated body allows her to bear large litters of offspring. A typical litter consists of 12 pups although there can be as many as 27, and a queen may carry 4 or 5 litters a year. Insect queens do nothing but lay eggs, but among naked mole rats the domineering queen is actually a leader. She is able to devote most of her time and energy to reproduction and caring for her pups, but she also leaves her nest to push around subordinates and keep them in line.
Below the queen is the harem of 1-3 males with whom she chooses to mate. Then there are the soldiers (both male and female) whose job it is to defend the colony from predators (their main predators are snakes) and to attack any interloping mole rats from outside the colony. The lowliest mole rats are the workers who are the smallest in size and whose responsibilities include maintaining the colony, digging new tunnels, foraging for food and caring for the queen and her pups. Rather than being intrinsically sterile, soldiers and workers are thought to be reproductively suppressed. Its been theorized that henpecking by the queen and other superiors and/or the lack of non-relatives within a colony might prevent these mole rats from becoming fertile.
Naked mole rats have evolved in many way so as to adapt to their harsh environment. They spend their lives in dark underground tunnels and as a result they have tiny eyes and are nearly blind. Scientists think their vestigial eyes might serve mostly to sense changing air currents which, together with their sensitivity to vibrations, would be useful in alerting them to the presence of predators. Since they don't use their eyes much anyway, mole rats can run backwards through tunnels as quickly as they can move forward.
The naked mole rat also breaks the rule that all mammals are warm blooded as it cannot internally regulate its body temperature (they don't sweat and don't have fat for insulation). Fortunately, the temperature in their burrows tends to be 85-89°F. To keep warm, mole rats might bask in the heat of tunnels close to the surface, and they sleep huddled together.
The world of the mole rats is also characterized by a scarcity of oxygen and an overabundance of carbon dioxide. They are able to survive in their low-oxygen environment thanks to their slow metabolism (less than half that of the typical rodent) and their blood which is unusually efficient in absorbing oxygen. Moreover, the skin of the naked mole rat lacks a neuropeptide involved in transmitting pain sensations to the brain. This makes them impervious to the acidic sting resulting from the build up of carbon dioxide.
In order to expand their colonies and search for food, workers are constantly digging new tunnels through the earth. To do this they use their big, prominent incisors, which keep on growing throughout the mole rat's life, and their strong jaw muscles, which comprise 25% of their total muscle mass. Naked mole rats' incisors are actually located outside of their mouth, this way they can close their lips behind them while digging to avoid ingesting dirt. To further facilitate swift excavation, mole rats can line up like a chain gang and quickly sweep the displaced dirt out of the way.
Naked mole rats eat roots and tubers. They actually have no way of detecting where new food sources may be located so they dig tunnels at random and discover them by chance. Many plants in the mole rats' arid habitat have fleshy tubers that can grow larger than a soccer ball: the mole rats will eat out the center of these roots while leaving the rest so that it will grow back providing them with a renewable food source. Naked mole rats also re-ingest feces in order to further stretch the food available to them.
As soon as a worker discovers food, he immediately runs back to share it with the other members of his colony and to communicate the location of the food source to the others. Sociality and communal living are so ingrained for naked mole rats that if one is kept isolated from others of his kind he will die. Scientists think that eusociality evolved for these two species because searching for food in groups and sharing the spoils represented a big advantage in the harsh, arid lands they inhabit. Indeed, thanks to all their unique adaptations, naked mole rats (or "sand puppies" as they're also called) thrive in their native habitat and are very numerous. Naked mole-rats also enjoy unusually long lifespans for rodents and have been known to survive in captivity for 27 years or more. Scientists think their longevity has something to do with their slow metabolism, and during lean times mole rats might also go into hibernation further slowing down their vitals.
When the queen dies, civil war breaks out in a colony of naked mole rats. Several of the larger female soldiers may try to gain weight and step up to fill the power vacuum and become the new reproductive female. Peace is only restored when one of the females has achieved dominance, probably killing all her rivals. Scientists have also found that within a colony there are sometimes a few members who are fat and not into the whole working thing. These rebels may eventually wander away from the colony in search of a not-so-closely-related mole rat of the opposite sex to mate with and maybe start a brand new colony.
Want to Learn More?
When I went to the National Zoo a month or so back I was actually super psyched to see that they had naked mole-rat and damaraland mole-rat colonies in the small mammal house. Perhaps even more surprisingly, I was not the only zoo-goer who seemed to be excited about these odd, ugly rodents. Sadly, I do not have a photo to share (I'm between cameras at the moment, but working on it), but apparently the National Zoo has a naked mole-rat webcam although I've been checking the last few days and its been offline.
There's lots more information on these guys available on the web: I would suggest you start out with the National Zoo's extremely informative page on mole rats as well as the other links included in this post.
Images: Damaraland mole-rats photo by T. Jackson found on NPR website; pregnant naked mole-rat queen photo by Rochelle Buffenstein/City College of New York found on annotated budak; feeding naked mole-rat photo from NEFSC photo archives found on abolitionist.com.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Did you hear about the December issue of Playboy México whose cover features a topless model depicting the Virgin Mary? The model's name is María Florencia Onori and she stands before a stained glass window with a beatific expression on her face, nude except for the white mantle draped over her head and half covering her breasts. Meanwhile the headline reads "Te Adoramos, María" ("We adore you, Mary").
Surprisingly, this cover generated a lot of controversy. Playboy Enterprises Inc., which is based in Chicago, disavowed the cover image saying that Playboy México is produced by a licensee and that the company did not approve or endorse its contents adding that ""while Playboy Mexico never meant for the cover or images to offend anyone, we recognize that it has created offense, and we as well as Playboy Mexico offer our sincerest apologies." Right... who could have imagined people would find this offensive? It's not like the cult of the Virgin Mary is big in Mexico or anything.
Meanwhile, the publisher of Playboy México, Raul Sayrols, claimed "the image is not and never was intended to portray the Virgin of Guadalupe or any other religious figure. The intent was to reflect a Renaissance-like mood on the cover." Wow, such bullshit. I mean, come on: I think that for anyone with a passing familiarity with the Christian religion or Western Civilization the first things that comes to mind when you look at that cover is clearly Mary the Mother of Jesus. Obviously Playboy México's publishers were aiming to stir up some publicity (and it worked!).
While we're on the subject of Mary, you may know that I was raised Catholic. In Catholicism the figure of Mary is arguably just as prominent and revered as that of Jesus. I remember hearing that when people converted to Christianity, strong pre-Christian cults centered around mother goddesses (such as Isis) were transferred to the devotion of Mary. Likewise, some experts argue that the Black Madonnas, medieval depictions of Mary and the infant Jesus with dark skin, harken back to pre-Christian mother goddess iconography. Of the many epithets given to Mary (e.g. Our Lady, the Blessed Mother, Virgin, Queen of Heaven) my favorite is the Greek "Theotokos" (Θεοτόκος) which literally means "God-bearer."
And as far as blasphemous depictions go, this Playboy cover pales in comparison to the surreal artist Max Ernst's (1891-1976) awesomely sacrilegious painting The Virgin Chastises the infant Jesus before Three Witnesses (1926).
Images: December 2008 cover of Playboy Mexico found on hollywoodgrind.com, The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E. and the Artist by Max Ernst (1926) can be found in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne/Köln.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Eusocial organisms are species such as ants, bees, wasps and termites who organize themselves into "colonies." They practice the highest level of social organization which includes reproductive division of labor (often with sterile castes), overlapping generations, and cooperative care of young. The eusocial species we're all most familiar with are all insects, but did you know that there are actually two species of mammals that live in colonies like this? Let's explore eusociality in general a bit more before we take a look at the eusocial mole rats.
As we all know eusocial insects live in colonies which generally have one queen who is the only reproductive female. Then there are sterile female workers and/or soldiers who care for the young (and the queen and the drones), forage for food, defend the colony and basically do all the work, and male drones whose only function is to mate with a new queen. But this is just the beginning: did you know that in many eusocial species the queen determines the sex of her offspring through a procees called haplodiploidism? In honeybees for example, after mating the queen stores the drone's sperm in an internal sac. The eggs which she fertilizes with this sperm will have 32 chromosones and develop into females, whereas males develop from unfertlized eggs (this is parthenogenesis) and have only 16 chromosones. When it mates, a drone transfers all its genes which means that female workers on average share 75% of their DNA with their sisters (100% of the chromosones which come from their father and 50% on average of those which come from their mother). Through the haplodipolid process the queen can maintain a desirable sex ratio among her offspring. Worker bees, then, determine whether a female larva will develop into a new queen by feeding the larva large quantities of royal jelly which cause the larva to develop with fully-formed ovaries.
As for ants: some ants are "ranchers" who keep aphids as livestock, protecting them from predators and harvesting the sweet honeydew they produce. And other ants have slaves! These ants raid colonies of other ant species, stealing the larvae which are brought back to their colony where they will grow up to serve as slaves who do all the work. This is called helotism after the people who were oppressed by the Spartans. Slaver ants are actually entirely dependent on their slaves for survival as their workers/soldiers have lost the ability to forage for food (all they can do is raid other ant colonies for slaves).
Termites have a winged reproductive caste called "alates" and their colonies can consist of multiple pairs of monogamous reproductive couples. I'm most familiar with the bothersome termites that live in and eat wood, but some like the spinifex termites of Australia eat grass and create spectacular cathedral mounds to house their colonies which can be 20 feet tall.
Eusocial insects whose colonies consist mainly of sterile workers posed a particular problem for Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His theory of natural selection stated that over time favorable genetic traits (beneficial to survival and reproduction) should become more common in a given population and unfavorable genetic traits should disappear thus resulting in the survival of the fittest. But sterile organisms have 0 fitness given that they are incapable of reproducing and passing on their genes, thus under Darwin's theory this genetic trait should disappear. Later biologists have sought to explain this phenomenon by characterising the behavior of sterile workers as kin altruism. Especially given that sisters share 75% of their DNA (making them "supersisters" and even more closely related to each other than parents are to their children), by caring for their younger sisters (the larvae) workers are still indirectly ensuring the survival of their genes even though they will never themselves reproduce. Another way of looking at this is to view the colony as a superorganism where the individual ants are like cells in a single organism. A superorganism is defined as "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective" and these phenoma carried out by the individual agents are "what the hives wants." All Power to the Soviets!
Stay tuned for the mole rats!
Bee hive image posted by Andrew Cot on travelblogs.com, herding ant image from Imperial College London found on Science Daily, Cathedral mound image posted on travelblog.org by Kate and Brian Lang.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Our knowledge of Sappho's life is obscured by the mists of time: the only contemporary source we have are her poems where autobiographical items may be intertwined with fiction, and the reliability of later authors' accounts might be questioned. What we do know for sure is that she was born on the Isle of Lesbos, most probably into an aristocratic family. It also seems well established that Sappho had a daughter, whom she named Cleïs after her mother. We're told that she had three brothers, one of whom, Charaxis, purportedly had an affair with a celebrated Egyptian concubine named Rhodopis. According to the historian Herodotus (c. 484 BC - c. 425 BC), Charaxis spent a large sum to ransom Rhodopis from slavery, and Sappho chastised him for this when he returned to Lesbos.
Several sources say that at one point Sappho lived in exile in Syracuse (where Cicero tells us that they erected a statue in her honor), but most scholars assume her sojourn there was brief and that she spent most of her life in Lesbos. Alcaeus (c. 620 BC - 5?? BC), another esteemed Lesbian poet and a contemporary of Sappho, also spent a short time in exile and it is possible that Sappho shared his political affiliations.
There is also a deep-seated tradition (albeit one with a very weak foundation) that says Sappho was a teacher. Some say that she was the head of a chorus of young women whom she instructed in culture and mythology: this sacred chorus (thiasos) would perform at wedding ceremonies, and may have served as a "finishing school" preparing the young women for marriage. Another possibility is that Sappho was the senior member of a "salon" or informal circle of women who saw her as a mentor (not unlike Socrates' circle). Supporting this theory, we are told by some ancient authors that women from outside of Lesbos came to study under Sappho. Here's a very good, entertaining essay I found on "Sappho as Schoolmistress".
Sappho was called a lyric poet because her poems were meant to be read with accompaniment on the lyre. She wrote in Aelaic Greek, which had already fallen out of disuse by Roman times. Thus, although her praises were sung by many great classical writers such as Ovid and Horace, over time her poetry fell out of fashion and by the 12th century most of her body of work was lost. In modern times, a legend developed that Sappho's works were destroyed by early Christian fathers due to their perceived immorality, but the fate of her work is really no different than that of the other lyric poets. Their defunct dialect was a pain in the arse for students' to translate, and as they were read more and more rarely they were often not preserved.
Today, Sappho's poetry exists only in fragments and quotes preserved in the work of later writers. Translating poetry is always a tricky business, but here is an English version of the longest fragment, a hymn to Aphrodite:
Here's another amusing fragment which may have been written about a romantic rival:
On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaving wiles--I beg you
not to subdue my spirit, Queen,
with pain or sorrow
but come--if ever before
having heard my voice from far away
you listened, and leaving your father's
golden home you came
in your chariot yoked with swift, lovely
sparrows bringing you over the dark earth
thick-feathered wings swirling down
from the sky through mid-air
arriving quickly--you, Blessed One,
with a smile on your unaging face
asking again what have I suffered
and why am I calling again
and in my wild heart what did I most wish
to happen to me: "Again whom must I persuade
back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
For if she flees, soon she'll pursue,
she doesn't accept gifts, but she'll give,
if not now loving, soon she'll love
even against her will."
Come to me now again, release me from
this pain, everything my spirit longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally
To AndromedaSappho's Love
That country girl has witched your wishes,
all dressed up in her country clothes
and she hasn't got the sense
to hitch her rags above her ankles.
So was Sappho gay? Speculating on the happiness of celebrity couples pales in comparison to any attempt to reconstruct the love life of a poetess who lived in the 6th century BC and about whom we have precious little in the way of hard facts. That said, most sources agree that Sappho had a daughter so we can assume that she was married. Some sources also claim the Alcaeus, a fellow poet who lived in Lesbos and was somewhat older than Sappho, might have been her lover. He once referred to her as "violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho." There is also a legend that Sappho killed herself – jumping from a cliff – because of her unrequited love for a ferryman named Phaon. This, however, would seem to be incompatible with what we know about Sappho given that by most accounts she lived into old age.
The idea that Sappho had an affinity for the ladies comes from her poems, many of which celebrate feminine beauty or talk about (often unrequited) desire towards women. Here's a good example:
To me it seemsArguing against Sappho's homosexuality, one should note that perhaps her poetry is not necessarily autobiographical or confessional. Also, there are no explicit references to girl-on-girl action. On the other hand, the essay by Parker I cited above notes that whereas Victorians attempted to whitewash the Life of Sappho by painting her as a teacher or a mentor to young girls, it is equally likely that these women mentioned in connection with Sappho were in reality her lovers. Some later writers such as Maximus of Tyre (2nd century AD) claim that these relationships were between an older Sappho and younger girls, thus likening them to paiderastria – the familiar Greek custom of sexual relations between man and boy/teacher and student, but again we have no evidence that the women she consorted with were pubescent rather than her coevals.
that man has the fortune of the gods,
whoever sits beside you, and close,
who listens to you sweetly speaking
and laughing temptingly;
my heart flutters in my breast,
whenever I look quickly, for a moment--
I say nothing, my tongue broken,
a delicate fire runs under my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears roar,
cold sweat rushes down me,
trembling seizes me,
I am greener than grass,
to myself I seem
needing but little to die.
But all must be endured, since...
Even if the female-oriented love in Sappho's poems should be taken as autobiographical, it is possible that Sappho's relationship to these women may have been romantic and loving but also "platonic"; but then again bisexuality was common among Greek men (who sometimes saw it as the most enlightened love given their thoughts on male intellectual/spiritual superiority) so why couldn't Sappho too be a bisexual who had affairs with both men and women?
Sappho's Last Song
In recent years, a new fragment of Sappho's poetry was uncovered, thanks to a roll of papyrus found among the wrapping of an Egyptian mummy. It's subject is old age, and I'll leave you with an English translation which first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in June 2005 (click here for discussion of the poem):
(You for) the fragrant-bosomed (Muses') lovely gifts
(be zealous,) girls, (and the) clear melodious lyre:
(but my once tender) body old age now
(has seized;) my hair's turned (white) instead of dark;
my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.
This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.
Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end,
handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife.
Translation of Aphrodite Hymn and "To me it seems" by Diane Rayor, translation of "To Andromeda" by Jim Powell, translation of "old age" fragment by Martin West. For more translations of Sappho's poetry on the web check out these sites: Diotima, The Divine Sappho, Isle of Lesbos. Images are a mosaic from Pompei which can be found at Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli and a Hellenistic era marble head from Smyrna which can be found the Istanbul Archeological Museum.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Have any of you heard about the remake of the Prisoner which is coming out next year? The original British television show from the '60s was about a spy who, after he resigns, is kidnapped and finds himself in the Village: a hi-tech prison disguised as a sleepy, seaside community. For a little more background info about the original Prisoner, you might want to look at this item I posted many moons ago when our blog was still in its infancy.
Rather than a remake, the producers are calling this a "reimagining" of the original series. In a communication about the new series, ITV states:
While the original series, which debuted in 1967, was a riff on Cold War politics, ITV’s remake will reflect 21st century concerns and anxieties, such as liberty, security and surveillance, yet also showcase the same key elements of paranoia, tense action and socio-political commentary seen in McGoohan’s enigmatic original.I think its a little unfair to say that the original Prisoner was "a riff Cold War politics." There were hardly any references to the Soviets in the series beyond maybe the occassional village resident speaking some Slavic language, and, indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the show is that it was never clear who was running the Village (whether it was "Us" or "Them"). But, I guess maybe the whole spy-rock, intelligence/counter-intelligence vibe was born out of the Cold War. Much like how the Village was a prison in disguise, I do think that underneath its thin spy adventure veneer the original series was really interested in exploring modern man's relationship with society and the interplay between personal freedom and the authority of the State. So these "21st century concerns" they mention were really already present in the old series. Nevertheless, I think it will be interesting (if the miniseries goes there) to see how our ideas about "liberty, security, and surveillance" have changed between the Cold War and the War on terrorism.
Likewise, I'm curious to see how they will update the Prisoner: some aspects of the old series really do seem dated (let's hope for less kooky brainwashing devices, for example), and its clear from some of the props that they were working with a limited British TV series budget (think of classic Doctor Who). So I'm looking forward to seeing the series reimagined with modern special effects and movie production values.
The press release also describes the original Prisoner as "enigmatic" and "the 60s thiller that no-one could work out." Fair enough, I guess, based on the finale alone (in that post, I referred to it as "kind of an unwatchable mindfuck"), but I just hope that this isn't an indication that they're planning on eschewing the original's air of surrealism and mystery and dumbing things down.
One of the elements that most stood out in the Prisoner was its setting: location work was filmed in the Welsh resort town of Portmeirion whose postmodern jumble of architecturally diverse buildings added to the surreal aesthetic of the Village. The producers of Prisoner 2.0 decided to make a decisive departure from the original here and to film on location in South Africa and Namibia. At first I thought this smacked of blasphemy, but – you know – I understand how they wanted to reenvision the Prisoner, and thus it was probably a good move to escape from the shadow of the original back in Portmeirion.
In Prisoner 2.0, the protagonist ("the prisoner", aka #6) will be played by Jim Caveizel. Caveizel is probably most famous for his turn as Jesus in Mel Gibson's Passion of The Christ which I still haven't seen even though Monica Belluci is in it. But I have seen him in The Thin Red Line and this movie Frequency with Dennis Quaid where they can communicate across time using a ham radio (that might sound stupid, but it was actually a pretty decent flick). From what I remember he was pretty good in those pictures, and let us remember that just because he was Mel's Jesus doesn't mean he shares in Mel's crazy. Oh wow, he was also in that J Lo movie Angel Eyes (when will we get some more stupid J Lo movies??).
Caveizel is American, but an interesting fact is that he's of Romansh heritage. Romansh is one of the four official languages of the Swiss Confederation, a Rhaeto-Romance language (and thus related to other Neolatin languages like Italian, French and Spanish) which is probably spoken by less than 70,000 people.
The single most exciting piece of news about this miniseries, however, is the Sir Ian McKellen is going to play #2! #2 is the man who ostensibly controls the Village on behalf of the shadowy Powers that Be (the fact that he is called #2 of course begs the question "Who is #1?"). He is the eternal antagonist who can either be paternal or cruel and who often locks #6 in a battle of wits. Ian McKellen is of course an awesome actor (has anyone else scene the movie version of Richard III where he plays Shakespeare's king as a fascist leader in 1930s England?) so the chance to see him play the villainous #2 is really reason enough to tune in.
Will I Watch?
Like I said, they had me as soon as I heard Ian McKellen was signed on. I'm also intrigued by the African locations, and I find the assurances that it will be surreal to be promising. I just hope that they don't dumb down the series and that they retain its philosophical themes. We'll have to tune in to see if the story is as good as the casting, and until then you can check out this website for news on the status of the remake.
Images (c) American Movie Classics LLC
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
So here's a second celebrity couple that troubles and confuses me: Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds.
Scarlett and Ryan (who is better known to some of you, I'm sure, as Van Wilder) had been dating for around a year before they officially announced their engagement in May of this year. Then, in September, they surprised everyone by eloping in Reynold's native Canada where they were wed in a small resort outside of Vancouver. Their relationship sort of mirrors Mariah and Nick's in several way, including the fact that Scarlett and Ryan are now talking about holding a second wedding celebration so friends and family can attend.
So why do I think their relationship is a bit off? Well first off there's the fact that they've been together for less than 2 years and they've already raced down the aisle. Plus, Ryan is 32 and Scarlett is only 24. I would ask why she's getting married at all at 24, but I guess sometimes they get married and start raising families young in Hollywood (Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe come to mind). It's sort of like Kentucky that way.
But there's more...
Scarlett is like an A-list movie star. She won a BAFTA for her role in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation; she's worked with the Coen Brothers (in The Man Who Wasn't There), Brian DePalma (The Black Dahlia – which I still want to see. Did that really suck??), and she was in no less than three Woody Allen movies (Match Point, Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Granted, I've only watched Scoop so far: it was kind of cute although definitely not Woody's best film. I also think Scarlett was a bit miscast in it as a mouthy, Jewish glasses girl (YES, I do know that Scarlett is actually Jewish). Scarlett also played beside Thora Birch in one of my favorite movies, Ghost World, when she was like 16. And I heard that she blew Natalie Portman out of the water in that Other Boleyn Girl movie (although maybe the movie as a whole sucked?? I still kind of want to see it.)
Scarlett is also crazy beautiful: she can exude classic Hollywood glamour and she also does a good sex kitten. We'll leave aside that bizarre album of Tom Waites covers she came out with this year and that incident when she claimed to be BFFs with Barack and he denied it.
Ryan Reynolds is clearly nowhere near her level of stardom or talent. Besides Van Wilder (in which he starred opposite Tara Reid, lest we forget), what else has he been in? He was the father in that bad Amityville Horror remake where he sported a lumberjack beard and somehow managed to fade into the background even though he was apparently the lead and the murderer! And then he was in that Waiting comedy about the service industry (Amanda saw it and told me he comes off as a douche in it). Oh, and he's apparently in the X-Men Origins movie that's coming out next year. So basically his oeuvre is made up of stupid comedies, a bad horror remake, an ailing superhero franchise sequel, and a bunch of B-movie crap no one watches.
Work aside, I guess Ryan is good looking but he also seems like he might be an ass. First off, there's his relationship history. Before Scarlett, he was engaged to fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette. I think everything we need to know about that relationship can be gleaned from Alanis' post-breakup appearance on the Howard Stern show (you can find it in its entirety on YouTube). Alanis demurred when Howard asked her if Ryan straight-up dumped her for Scarlett, and the guys in her band make it sound like they always kind of thought he was an asshole but didn't want to say anything. Alanis actually comes off as kind of awesome in the interview, and Howard seems very supportive and protective of her – maybe you want to go ahead and watch the video.
So his track record does not say anything good about his character. Then there's that odd A Christmas Story-esque piece that Reynolds once wrote about his prankster brother for the Huffington Post. I'm not really sure how I feel about his essay: my first reaction was that it wasn't the best written thing I've ever read, but then again I guess Reynolds is an actor (?) and not a writer so like maybe we should cut him some slack and give him props for showing that he's literate and not a total idiot and for telling a somewhat amusing story. You all really need to read the essay yourself and tell me what you think.
In conclusion, I think Ryan just isn't good enough for Scarlett not so much because he's in crappy movies, but because I suspect he's a douchebag. I can totally picture him like boasting about how he gets to bang one of the sexiest women alive, or like sharing all kinds of intimate details with a smirk after they break up. We'll see how long these two last and if they end up having children.
Image from JustJared.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
I posted a piece a few days ago about Drunk History and Yacht Rock (which is clearly destined to take its place beside Spy Rock and Fantasy Rock in the triumvirate), but there was a third set of web videos my friends and I discussed this weekend which I had forgotten about until now.
Green Porno is a series of short films from the Sundance Channel starring Isabella Rossellini. Rossellini also directs (together with Jody Shapiro) and produces (together with Shapiro and Rick Gilbert, one of the production designers). Each of episodes tells the uncensored story of the sex life of a particular species of creep crawly.
Isabella Rossellini, of course, is the beautiful daughter of Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (who starred in Casablanca ) and Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, and she's been famous for her out-there, avant-garde work ever since she starred in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. In behind-the-scenes interviews, Rossellini says that she always wanted to produce and direct but that the ideas she came up with would always be too short for cinema or television. She teamed up with the Sundance Channel which was interested in developing films made for the "third screen" (computers and portable devices) – clearly an expanding medium and one which naturally lends itself to shorter works. When Sundance suggested that in order to be successful these films would need to be attention grabbing, the first subject that came to Rossellini's mind was – naturally – sex. And that's how Green Porno was born!
Words I might use to describe these videos would include educational, artistic, childlike, erotic – but you really need to just watch them to understand. Their most characteristic elements are the poetic narration delivered in Rossellini's mellifluous voice, as well as the stylised papier-mâché costumes and props in cartoon colors which lend the films a sort of children's theatre feel.
Here's the episode on the earthworm:
You can see all the rest of the episodes on the Green Porno website. Let's hope they keep making more of these!
Image taken from Sundance Channel Green Porno site.
Monday, December 8, 2008
Can we take some time here to discuss a few of mismatched celebrity couples whose relationships mystify me?
Mariah Carey & Nick Cannon
First off there's Mariah Carey who married Nick Cannon in May of this year on the isle of Eleuthera (which my friend D tells me is the Bahamas' "money island"). It was a small, unpublicised, and supposedly unplanned ceremony and guests included Da Brat. So why don't I get them as a couple? Well first of all there's the age difference: Mariah is 38 and Nick is 28 (I actually would have guessed the age gap was even greater than that). Mariah definitely still looks good at her age, but – I don't know – like, I can buy Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher as a couple despite their +15yr age difference since she seems so sporty and active that I don't think she has any trouble keeping up with her younger husband. But I don't get an active/sporty vibe from Mariah so much as I get "diva" and "recovering crazy" whereas Nick seems super athletic. I just can't imagine what these two do when they're spending time together. Plus we all know their track record...
Back in the '90s, Mariah spent 4 years married to a much older Tommy Mottola who was the CEO of Sony Music at the time. Mariah finally separated from him in 1997 (surprising nobody), and she would later tell the press that he had been a controlling husband. Then, after the spectacular failure that was Glitter (seriously one of the worst movies ever made), Mariah apparently lost her mind. For my money, there is no better testimony to Mariah's mental breakdown than her January 2002 appearance on MTV's cribs in which she shows the audience around her palatial Tribeca apartment while coming off as a total diva (the fish in her aquarium were specially trained to be nocturnal so she could enjoy them more at night) and starving for attention (the intimate bathtub scene). OMG, there's a video! You can find the whole episode on youtube.
Anyway, since then Mariah's supposedly regained her sanity. She gained a bunch of weight only to get back into shape again in time for the release of her new album, E=MC², this April. I kind of liked the idea of a zaftig Mariah Carey for some unknown reason, but I guess you need to stay fit if you want to snag yourself a toyboy husband.
As for Nick, you may remember how he started dating Selita Ebanks, a Victoria's Secrets model from the Cayman Islands, at the beginning of 2007 and that he waited less than six months (May 7, 2007) before proposing to her in a very public way (on the Jumbotron in Times Square). They broke up in October of last year, and then Nick went ahead and married Mariah less than a year later! [Insert joke about fools rushing in where "angels" fear to tread.] This all happened so quickly that rumors spread that Nick recycled the engagement ring he originally gave Selita, using the same ring with Mariah.
And what's happening with Nick's career? It looked like he was headed for the big time after his movie Drumline came out in 2002, and since then he put out an album that went gold (have you heard any of his music? I sure haven't.). I guess maybe he's big with like the Nickelodeon/MTV crowd (or at least he was), but I don't think he's in danger of approaching anything close to his wife's level of wealth and superstardom anytime soon.
What's going on with these crazy kids these days? According to the tabloids they were originally going to have a more lavish second wedding reception, but they nixed those plans after attempts to get the affair paid for by a magazine fell through. There's also been a lot of speculation that Mariah may be pregnant (Nick recently told Life & Styles he loves kids and thinks he'll be a good dad). In other "news", Mariah was supposedly a little annoyed at Nick's public revelation that they abstained from sex before marriage (say whaaa!?!?). Also, Nick reportedly bought Mariah a $1.5 million ski lodge in Aspen (note the comments speculating about what if anything you can buy in Aspen with $1.5 million).
So many questions... Are Mariah and Nick going to last? Do they have anything in common? Are they are real couple or did they marry each other for publicity? Is he after her money? Does she just want to have his baby? What do you all think?
Stay tuned to hear about another celebrity couple I don't get.
Photo of Mariah and Nick by AP. Photo and Nick's "Mariah" back tattoo (!) comes from the couple's wedding spread in People magazine (which can be found here).