Best Reads of 2009 and 2010

Looking for a good book? Here are my best reads in English of the past two years.

2009

  • The Colour of Magic. Terry Pratchett 1983. Lavishly ornate humorous fantasy.
  • Dancing with strangers. Inga Clendinnen 2003. On contacts between the first English penal colony and the aboriginals at Sydney Cove in 1788-92.
  • On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin 1859. (Abbreviated version of the 1st edition, ed. J.A. Secord 2008.) Don’t miss the appended collection of contemporary reactions!
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Michael Chabon 2000. Two Jewish kids make up a comic-book super hero…
  • Metal detecting & archaeology. Ed. Suzie Thomas & Peter G. Stone 2009. Many illuminating perspectives.
  • Remarkable creatures – epic adventure in the search for the origins of species. Sean B. Carroll 2009. 150 years of continual discoveries.
  • Carter beats the Devil. Glen David Gold 2001. Novel set in the golden age of stage magic.

2010

  • The Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle. (Signet Classics 2005.) Sleuthy!
  • Shenzhen. A travelogue from China. Guy Delisle 2003. Non-fic graphic novel.
  • The Herring Seller’s Apprentice. L.C. Tyler 2007. Finely constructed and humorous mystery.
  • Society without God. What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. Phil Zuckerman 2008. An outsider’s perspective on endemic godlessness.
  • The Deeper Meaning of Liff. Douglas Adams & John Lloyd 1992. Lots of fun! Don’t miss the index!
  • The End of Biblical Studies. Hector Avalos 2007. The author argues for a general secular study of ancient literature to replace Bible studies, which no longer produce any new insights and also promote pernicious religionism.
  • Roughing it. Mark Twain 1872. Humorous memoir of the author’s youth. I read it for free on my smartphone.

What were your best reads of the year?

Here are my lists for 2006 and 2008.

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Happy Gamer Manages to Get Wife Interested

Yesterday my buddy Swedepat showed up at 13:30. (That’s his name to help distinguish him from Irish Pat.) I hadn’t been able to find a third or fourth gamer on short notice. But our plan was to try out the new games in my house, and we started off with Juniorette’s Christmas present, Forbidden Island. Of course she wanted to play too, and her mother joined in just to be sociable.

I’m a geek living with, not a jock girl, but more kind of a hipster. My wife’s a journalist who’s into fashion and literature and fancy cooking. A good thing about East Asian families is that they appear to teach their daughters to seek out smart-seeming guys in the mistaken belief that these will be good providers. My wife goes nuts with desire whenever I fix her computer.

Anyway, Forbidden Island. It’s a cooperative game where either everybody wins or the game wins. We beat the game at the second-easiest difficulty level and moved on to Junior’s Christmas present, Small World. He wasn’t around, but the four of us played it and Juniorette kicked our asses!? She’s seven! She’s so little that she almost throws a tantrum if she isn’t allowed to be the banker! But suddenly she plays a mean game of Small World.

So there’s only one new game left, Thebes, kind of an intricate German-style game. It’s almost dinner time, and I expect my wife to bow out. Juniorette, of course, has already proven herself to be the match of grown men at complicated games in English, so we count her in. And my wife stays at the table. We play Thebes, I cook and we eat in the middle of the game (great to have two dinner-sized tables), Swedepat wins, Juniorette beats me… And then my wife asks if we want to play another game of Thebes right away!

So we did. And then we played Cave Troll. My wife was with me at the gaming table until 21:30 last night. Love you to bits, baby!

Hesse’s Immortals

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One of the songs my old band played was a tune that Anders had written to a poem by Hermann Hesse. It’s in his 1927 novel Steppenwolf and treats one of the central themes of the book, the idea that immortal genius (such as that of Mozart or Goethe, Hesse felt) might exist on a plane immeasurably far above everyday human life. Writing the book, Hesse was close to suicide from trying to live alone on this rarefied plane. The novel describes his alter ego’s return to the simple mortal pleasures of earthbound humanity.

Anders used the 1932 Swedish translation by Sven Stolpe (or was the poetry in that edition translated by the poet Anders Österling, who wrote the introductory essay?). Here’s Basil Creighton’s 1929 English translation.

The Immortals
By Hermann Hesse

Ever reeking from the vales of earth
Ascends to us life’s fevered surge,
Wealth’s excess, the rage of dearth,
Smoke of death-meals on the gallow’s verge;
Greed without end, spasmodic lust;
Murderers’ hands, usurers’ hands, hands of prayer;
Exhales in fœtid breath the human swarm
Whipped on by fear and lust, blood raw, blood warm,
Breathing blessedness and savage heats,
Eating itself and spewing what it eats,
Hatching war and lovely art,
Decking out with idiot craze
Bawdy houses while they blaze,
Through the childish fair-time mart
Weltering to its own decay
In the glare of pleasure’s way,
Rising for each newborn and then
Sinking for each to dust again.

But we above you evermore residing
In the ether’s star-translumined ice
Know not day nor night nor time’s dividing,
Wear nor age nor sex for our device.
All your sins and anguish self-affrighting,
Your murders and lascivious delighting
Are to us but as a show
Like the suns that circling go,
Changing not our day for night;
On your frenzied life we spy,
And refresh ourselves thereafter
With the stars in order fleeing;
Our breath is winter; in our sight
Fawns the dragon of the sky;
Cool and unchanging is our eternal being,
Cool and star-bright is our eternal laughter.

For those who read German, here’s Hesse’s original. And here’s a prose translation of mine to give a better idea of what Hesse actually says.

Time and again the urges of life steam up to us from Earth’s valleys: wild distress, drunken exuberance, gory smoke from a thousand last meals, spasms of pleasure, desire without end, the hands of murderers, of usurers, of people praying.

Swarming humanity, lashed by fear and desire, reeks sultry and foul, raw and warm; breathes bliss and unfettered rutting, eats itself and spits itself out again, breeds wars and high art, decorates the scalding brothel with delusions, swallows and gnaws and prostitutes itself among the garish fairground attractions of its childish world, rises anew out of the waves for everyone, just as it eventually falls to pieces for everyone.

We, on the other hand, find ourselves in the ether’s star-translumined ice. We know neither days nor hours, are neither men nor women, neither young nor old. Your sins and fears, your murders and lascivious pleasures are stage entertainments to us, just like the orbiting suns. Every day is to us the longest one. Silently nodding to your spasmodic life, silently gazing upon the spinning stars, we breathe the winter of outer space and are friends of the celestial dragon. Our eternal existence is cold and unchanging. Our eternal laughter is cold and lit by stars.

2010 Enlightener & Obscurantist Awards

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The Swedish Skeptics’ annual awards for 2010 were just announced.

Åsa Vilbäck, MD, receives the Enlightener of the Year award,

“… who has described diseases and treatments in an unbiased and informative manner on her TV show Dr. Åsa on Swedish state television. By upholding a good popular science standard on her show, Åsa Vilbäck has emphasised clearly the importance of evidence-based medicine. She has also warned viewers of dangerous alternative medical methods.”

Enlightener Vilbäck receives a cash prize of SEK 25 000 ($3700, €2800).

The Stockholm Initiative lobby group receives the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award, as it

“… mainly works to deny the state of scientific knowledge in climate science, promote home-made and often contradictory theories about how climate ‘actually’ works, disseminate conspiracy theories and relay unsubstantiated rumours and unfounded accusations against climate scientists.”

See Sundsvalls Tidning, Nerikes Allehanda, Norran, Dagens Medicin. I will add links to more coverage as I find them.

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And the Earl of Dalkeith’s Wreath Was Very Pretty Too

When I turned 25 my friend Sanna gave me a little poetry anthology that I have since treasured. Kathryn & Ross Petras’s Very Bad Poetry (1997) is a lovely read. One of the versifiers most voluminously represented there is W.T. McGonagall (1830-1902). After quoting his words, “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet”, the Petrases comment, “Many people in his native Dundee, Scotland, apparently disagreed with his discovery.”

Here is McGonagall’s “The Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie“.

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

[I omit eight stanzas that cover Lord Dalhousie’s CV.]

‘Twas in the year of 1887, and on Thursday the 1st of December,
Which his relatives and friends will long remember
That were present at the funeral in Cockpen churchyard,
Because they had for the noble Lord a great regard.

About eleven o’clock the remains reached Dalhousie,
And were met by a body of the tenantry.
They conveyed them inside the building all seemingly woebegone
And among those that sent wreaths was Lord Claude Hamilton.

Those that sent wreaths were but very few,
But one in particular was the Duke of Buccleuch;
Besides Dr. Herbert Spencer, and Countess Rosebery, and Lady Bennett,
Which no doubt were sent by them with heartfelt regret.

Besides those that sent wreaths in addition were the Earl and Countess of Aberdeen,
Especially the Prince of Wales’ was most lovely to be seen,
And the Earl of Dalkeith’s wreath was very pretty too,
With a mixture of green and white flowers, beautiful to view.

Amongst those present at the interment were Mr Marjoribanks, M.P.,
Also ex-Provost Ballingall from Bonnie Dundee;
Besides the Honourable W. G. Colville, representing the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh,
While in every one’s face standing at the grave was depicted sorrow.

The funeral service was conducted in the Church of Cockpen
By the Rev. J. Crabb, of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, town of Brechin;
And as the two coffins were lowered into their last resting place,
Then the people retired with sad hearts at a quick pace.

Update 18 January: Dear Reader John Tierney has posted this blog’s first audio comment, where he mentions that he actually excavated at Cockpen churchyard 20 years ago, using “a long-handled Irish spade”. Here’s the site report.

Recent Archaeomags

Archaeology mags have accreted on my shelf, though something’s happened to my subscription to the always enjoyable Current Archaeology. I’ve written the editors.

Populär Arkeologi 2010:4 opens with a look at the garishly painted reality of Classical sculpture. The only place where you could see white marble statues in ancient Greece and Rome was actually a sculptor’s workshop.

Then there’s a spread by my buddies and Fornvännen contributors about this summer’s rock-art discoveries in SmÃ¥land province, reported on here and here back in May.

Johan Rönnby reports on a beautifully preserved 17th century shipwreck found at 125 meters’ depth in the Baltic, where it can only be studied remotely. Lovely pix! The wreck actually came to light during the search for a Swedish DC 3 shot down by the Russians in 1952 (see the Catalina affair: they eventually found the plane too and I saw some of the finds from it in 2007).

My Estonian correspondent Gilleke Kopamees reports on two unbelievable 8th century mass graves in ships of warriors with Scandy equipment found on the island of Saaremaa (mentioned here in 2008).

Skalk is in fine form with issue 2010:5 (October): we get an Early Roman Period burial found in Jutland with the weirdest and most wonderful preservation conditions. The dead girl’s bones and soft tissue are gone, but all animal fibres are preserved, that is, every stitch of her dress and every little braid of her intricate hairdo. A landmark find!

Then there’s a piece on metal-detecting that makes the same point that HÃ¥kan Svensson & Bengt Söderberg made in Fornvännen 2009: our ideas about where powerful people resided in 1st millennium AD Scandyland are entirely dependent on whether we metal-detect the ploughsoil before we strip it off or not.

Gamers will like the historical pieces on a gambling-happy Danish noblewoman in the 18th century and on playing-cards with sheet music on them (gotta send that last paper to Mattias).

Archaeology Magazine’s Nov/Dec issue (#63:6) has six pages on the archaeology of chocolate (reminding me now of this paper on prehistoric coca processing in the new Antiquity issue). Interesting stuff, though I must say that I still don’t understand why ancient Mesoamericans bothered with chocolate. I mean, they had no milk and no sugar. Without those ingredients, chocolate just tastes bad, and seen as a recreational drug it’s simply ridiculous. The effect of theobromine on your mood and perception of reality is so weak that I think most people wouldn’t be able to identify it in a blind test. The Mesoamerican way was to mix the stuff with corn flour, chili, flower petals or vanilla, plus water. No thanks.

But the feature pieces on the no longer very enigmatic Etruscans and the archaeology of the World Trade Centre building-site are good. And I was intrigued to read Heinrich Härke’s piece on a truly strange Chinese-influenced island settlement in the Russian republic of Tuva. All in all an unusually interesting issue of the mag.

I Speak My Mind

Dear Reader, are you of such a bent that you are not content with reading what I write in English? Is your inclination also to hear me speak in Swedish? Is that what you want, now? Is it? Say it! Is it?

Let’s be frank. I think we both know what sort of pleasure-seeking little beast you are.

So head on over to Skeptikerpodden and hear their long interview with me about the Swedish Skeptics Society, ending with some views on archaeology.

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Eager For Better E-Book Deals

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I’m eager to start reading more e-books. I rarely re-read books (except for work), and my friends rarely borrow paper ones from me, so I have little reason to hang on to paper books. E-books would be just the thing. But the prices aren’t any good. I either have to pay more for an e-book than what it costs me to order a paperback from England, or I can get it for free through illegal file sharing. It’s amazingly easy: just try googling a book’s title, your preferred file format and the name of a file sharing service like Hotfile or Megaupload.

I am well aware that I wouldn’t be supporting the authors I like if I downloaded pirated copies of their books. But on the other hand I can’t see why on-line book stores should expect me to pay more when they give me less. Ease and speed of access is a fine thing, but I am actually capable of ordering paper copies in advance to avoid finding myself bookless. If I do end up without anything to read, I can always get a public domain e-book from Feedbooks piped straight into my smartphone over wifi. In this manner, for instance, I recently enjoyed Mark Twain’s youth memoir, Roughing It.

An issue that I find weird and intriguing is how libraries should deal with e-books. Buying an e-book is legal, copying it for free from someone you don’t know is illegal, but copying it as a protected file with a library as intermediary is legal. Of course, you’re not actually “borrowing” anything as there is no limit to the number of copies of a file that a library can hand out. And Swedish libraries, though they were quick to begin “lending” e-books, don’t offer files for any of the most popular platforms on which people read them.

There’s also the issue of how public libraries should get at the files. Currently, in Sweden, they have an exclusive deal with an intermediary named Elib, which is owned by four major publishing houses. So instead of finding files promiscuously, wherever they may reside, for library users, libraries can only offer whatever Elib has. And only with copy protection. And only for not-very-popular platforms. When librarians could actually provide customers with much better service by simply asking “Have you googled the book’s title, your preferred file format and the name of a file sharing service like Hotfile or Megaupload?” I don’t understand why they would want to have an exclusive arrangement with anybody for e-books when they’ve never done so for paper books.

Now that books are no longer stuck in their paper medium, I can’t really see why I should involve a library, a physical repository, in getting books. Actually, come to think of it, I haven’t asked a librarian for help with selecting a book since I was a kid. My frequent interactions with librarians are always either to help me register a loan, or to get a book that I want out of the stacks, or for them to receive a book that I am donating to the library. It’s all about the low-level administration of paper books. I would never ask a librarian what I should read unless it was one of my friends whose taste I’m familiar with.

I want to buy unprotected e-books from on-line book stores for about half of what a paperback copy costs on-line. I don’t want to “borrow” the files, and I don’t want to pirate them. But nor do I want to get ripped off.

Here’s an interesting article in Swedish about e-books and public libraries. Thanks to Ellen Follin, librarian and chanteuse

And here‘s what sf writer Charlie Stross had to say about the future of e-books in May 2010. Thanks to Dear Reader SM for the tip-off.

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Cynical Boardgame About Archaeology

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Thebes is a multi-award-winning 2007 German board game by Peter Prinz. I just bought it on a tip from my buddy Oscar, who found a good offer on-line and thought of me because of the game’s theme. It’s about archaeological expeditions in the early 1900s. The box is big, the production values are lavish, and I really look forward to learning it. But before I can say anything about its qualities as a game, I have to share an opening paragraph from the rule book with you (and I translate from the Swedish version).

The players travel as archaeologists through Europe to gather needful knowledge for their fieldwork expeditions. With the aid of assistants, the players must get hold of equipment and services for the expedition. Thus equipped, the players travel to Egypt, Crete or Mesopotamia to dig for treasure, which will garner them fame and improve their reputation in the form of Victory Points. Players who can arrange exhibitions and attend conferences will improve their reputation (Victory Points). But all of this costs time, and time of course a scarce resource. The one who plans his excavations and exhibitions best will earn the most Victory Points and win the game.

This is awesome! Peter Prinz is quietly making fun of my whole profession here. Because in Thebes, archaeology’s goal is not to find out about the past. Prinz knows something about the sociology of science. The goal here is to become as famous as possible by finding “treasures” among the ruins of past civilisations and exhibiting them in the capitals of Europe! For every excavation you blindly grab a number of cardboard discs out of a bag, and about half of them are “Worthless Junk” that give no fame points! Gathered knowledge about an ancient culture does help you a little in winning the game, but only if you’re acknowledged as the top expert in the field — fame again.

Now, let’s see, is there any archaeologist you can think of who practices relentless self-promotion? Hmm…

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13th Century Shipwreck Found Near Gothenburg

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According to a fresh press release from the County Museum of Bohuslän in Uddevalla, western Sweden, the museum’s maritime archaeologists are studying a well-preserved shipwreck whose construction date lies in the AD 1210s or 1220s.

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The shipwreck is in shallow water in the Jore fjord and was identified on aerial photographs by the local firm HydroGIS Ltd, whose staff reported it to the museum. HydroGIS also provided the photographs shown here.

Dendroanatomical measurements have not only proven the wreck to be the oldest known to date along the Bohuslän coast, but have also shown that the trees involved grew in western Germany or Belgium. This in all likelihood pinpoints the shipyard’s location.

Let’s hope the museum’s Staffan von Arbin and his people get funding to excavate the site!

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