December And January Pieces Of My Mind

Life Plaza, HZ

Hangzhou’s Life Plaza

  • Everyone needs a champagne whisk made from a Finnish bear’s penis bone.
  • I just got a (1) job application turned down. Spent some time believing that this means that I am unemployable and everyone thinks I’m a nutcase. (I currently have two employers, but never mind.)
  • I’ve been editing a couple of quarterly journals for years and years. Let’s just say that I have issues.
  • This is big! Golden rice, genetically modified to include vitamin A, can prevent 3rd World blindness. And now it’s finally been approved to sell as food in Australia and New Zealand.
  • OMG my kid has a beard
  • The Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays feud is unknown in Sweden. Because we all say “Good Yule”. And because we’re mostly secular.
  • I’d like to see humanities scholars accept the unknowable and non-interpretable to a greater degree. Please write “This means nothing to me” in your next few papers. (Ah, Vienna.)
  • A memory. Junior is like five and his buddy comes over to play, proudly brandishing a huge realistic gun replica. I disarm him at the door and put the gun on top of a very tall closet next to the hat rack. We all promptly forget about it. Weeks or months later I find the gun and quietly throw it away.
  • Movie: In the Heat of the Night. Urban black Philadelphia homicide detective reluctantly takes part in murder investigation in rural 1967 Mississippi. Grade: Pass With Distinction.
  • When writing about Swedes in English, I tend to forget the genitive apostrophe on their names.
  • The Chinese government blocks access to the Internet Movie Database. But not to Goodreads.
  • Erik Nylén, a towering figure in post-WW2 Gotland archaeology, has died aged 99.
  • Idiotic new fee for daylight metal detecting in Sweden. This only punishes the good guys. In other news, it will also cost €70 to buy a lottery ticket to perhaps be allowed to visit Birka, Glimmingehus or Drottningholm.
  • The Manson Family’s murder spree is often described as evil. I think it’s more aptly described as confused, crazy and kind of daft. The motive was to spark a racial war, hide in a cave and come out afterwards to assume a position of power. The whole thing was ridiculous.
  • My current study debt: $2100 = €1700. Not too steep for a PhD.
  • There are eight places named Turbo in Sweden.
  • Movie: Moonrise Kingdom. Unmistakable Wes Anderson tightly stylised mescaline-tinged hyperreality. Grade: Pass With Distinction.
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The Aard Regulars Gallery

We’ve all been talking here on the blog for so many years now, but I don’t know what most of you look like. The other day I emailed the most active commenters of the past two months and asked them for photographs to post in a portrait gallery. So far seven regulars have sent me pics, and Sean has offered to find a pic for me soonish.

Now please keep the pix coming! This gallery will remain a work in progress for some time. I’d be very happy to receive pictures of long-term lurkers as well. You don’t have to have a beard, but if you do, nobody is likely to make fun of you for it.

Ten Days In Hangzhou And Suzhou

smog och kanal

December smog over a Hangzhou canal

Yesterday the Rundkvists came home from ten days in China where we’ve been visiting with relatives. We spent eight days in my wife’s home city Hangzhou (pop. 8.0 million) and one day each in the city Suzhou (160 road km away, pop. 10.7 million) and the well-preserved little canal town Zhouzhuang (150 road km away). I spent most of our stay walking and cycling around on my own or in the company of Cousin E who was also in HZ to see his parents & brother over the holidays. Check out my photo album! Here are some impressions.

  • Though I hardly saw any fellow westerners on my wanderings, HZ’s citizens have become used to seeing people like us. Hardly anyone shouted halou at me, evinced surprise at my strange looks and absurd height or wanted their pictures taken with me, compared to ten years ago.
  • HZ (but not Suzhou) is swamped with cheaply available public bikes belonging to about ten different firms. In order to use them as intended you need a local smartphone and/or bank account. I had neither, but I soon figured out that there are many serviceable bikes with damaged or incorrectly closed locks that anyone can use. Of course, I had to find the ones that let me adjust the height of the seat.
  • Gas-powered mopeds are forbidden in HZ and Suzhou. This extremely wise (draconian, dictatorial) measure has been in place for at least 20 years. Instead people ride electrical mopeds, which keeps the noise level that makes e.g. Hanoi almost intolerable down.
  • Chinese urban planners make no allowance for pedestrians who want to move through the city independently of where cars can go. There are extremely few pedestrian railway crossings. HZ’s newer residential blocks tend to be very large, gated and walled. Gatekeepers never stopped me when I entered a block, but then there was no exit through the wall in the direction I wanted to go. I lost lots of time on my walks trying to move in a straight line towards my destinations.
  • Open Street Map‘s app was extremely useful. I had my location on a detailed map of HZ at my fingertips for the first time. This app lets you download entire Chinese provinces in one go before you head out.
  • Even during these cold and drizzly days in the off-season, the tourist attractions saw healthy numbers of Chinese visitors. I read that during the season, these temple complexes, stately homes, museums, parks and formal gardens are simply packed with people. It’s strange to think that these places were largely created for a small parasitic elite of connoisseurs who made sure that common people had no access. And now that anyone can come and have a look, they show up in such numbers that commoners still can’t enjoy the sites at the time of year when they’re at their best.
  • The presentation of Chinese tourist attractions is largely garish, vulgar and commercial. Most of them are old-time Chinese Disneyland. Inside the Hanshan temple precinct in Suzhou, for instance, the oldest Buddha statue I saw is being used as decoration in the religious souvenir shop. Almost all standing buildings in these cities are recent. I don’t think I’ve seen a single structure older than 1800 in Hangzhou, though this is a special case as the town was torched by crazy millennarian Christian-inspired Taiping rebels in about 1850.
  • The celebrated vistas across HZ’s West Lake are largely obscured by air pollution.
  • Peripherally located tourist sites are far quieter and less commercial, for instance the terraced tea-growing valley of Meijiawu in the hills SW of the West Lake. Here the recently re-developed landscape park and minor religious complex of Yunqi is probably delightful on an early April morning.
  • When there is any public signage in a Western language, it is a small subset of the Chinese version, written in Chinglish (or in some cases even Engrish) by someone with a weak grasp of the language. In addition, the proofing errors often give the impression that the person who made the physical sign knows no English at all and has copied it one letter at a time. The Chinese are in fact sovereignly uninterested in whether foreigners understand these signs or perhaps laugh at the erratic and flowery word choices. The best sign I read was one in French at the entrance to the Shizi garden complex in Suzhou. Not only was it good French, it contained more information than the sign in Chinglish next to it.
  • In town, I like to avoid the tourist areas completely (which confuses my in-laws) and walk smaller, slightly run-down residential lanes and back streets. Here people hang their laundry to dry on the telephone wires next to large carps and pieces of pork curing in the polluted wind. Retirees haggle for fish and vegetables at the corner shops, and the little eateries’ staff clean dishes at an outdoor sink.
  • My greatest linguistic triumph was when I managed to explain to a restaurant owner that a cat was gnawing on the pork she had hung out to cure on a rack behind the building. Wei! Ni hao. Mao chi nimende gan rou. Nimende zhu rou. Though my vigourous pointing out back probably helped a lot. She thanked me and rushed to save her bacon.
  • A lot of the recent architecture is straight out of dystopian scifi movies: hyper-futuristic steel-and-glass skyscrapers that are lit up with digital animation after dark. We experienced a full-on colossal-scale 3D digital acid-trip at Life Plaza in SE HZ one evening, with laser-lit choreographed dancing fountains. As we left, reeling, we saw 30-story Disney characters dancing across the facades towards the river.

For more commentary on things Chinese, see Aard’s category tag for China.

Best Reads of 2017

avramHere are my best reads in English during 2017. My total was only 35 books, because I read several very long ones and slogged through a lot of borderline-bad reading matter, prominently among which I must sadly mention the Hugo-nominated fiction. I don’t believe in good taste, but I can tell you that I don’t share the taste of the Hugo-nominating majority. And I won’t be reading another Hugo packet!

Ten of the titles were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • The Umbrella Man and Other Stories. Roald Dahl 1982. Neatly constructed 40s & 50s stories of suspense, but with a note of cold misanthropy.
  • Behind the Castle Gate: From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Matthew Johnson 2002.
  • The Fear Institute (Johannes Cabal #3). Jonathan L. Howard 2011. Cabal the Necromancer goes to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.
  • Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for Our Future. Raoul Martinez 2016. A lot of interesting Leftie ideas but too long-winded and extremely negative in its view of present affairs.
  • The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden. Kate Felus 2016.
  • Some Remarks. Neal Stephenson 2012. Essays and talks, many of them from the 90s.
  • All These Shiny Worlds: the 2016 ImmerseOrDie Anthology. Ed. Jefferson Smith 2017.
  • Lovecraft Country. Matt Ruff 2016. A present from Birger! This enjoyable collection of Lovecraftian novellas and short stories is set in 1954 and revolves around a group of African Americans. But it is under-researched historical fiction. I would have enjoyed it even more if the author had tried to write dialogue that was realistic for that time and ethnic group. Everyone speaks like a white 2017 sci-fi fan. And very few societal concerns of 1950s USA are touched upon beyond the strongly emphasised racial oppression. (I also read Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated novella The Ballad of Black Tom which is similar, but didn’t like it as much as Ruff’s book.)
  • Pandora’s Star. Peter S. Hamilton 2004.
  • Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer’s Week. Ursula LeGuin 2016.
  • Collected Short Stories vol. 1. William Somerset Maugham 1951.
  • Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Mary Roach 2016.
  • The Investigations of Avram Davidson: Collected Mysteries. 1956-86.
  • The Boy On The Bridge. Mike Carey 2017. More fungal zombies!
  • Brothers in Arms (Vorkosigan Saga, #5). Lois McMaster Bujold 1989.
  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Stephen Jay Gould 1989.
  • Artemis. Andy Weir 2017.
  • We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Dennis Taylor 2016.
  • Midnight’s Children. Salman Rushdie 1981.
  • Wish Lanterns. Young lives in new China. Alec Ash 2016. Interleaved mini-biographies of six Chinese people born 1985-90.

Here’s my list for 2016.

Most-Played Boardgames of 2017

magic-logoHere are the ten boardgames that I played more than four times during 2017. The year’s total was 78 different games.

  • Magic: The Gathering (1993)
  • No Thanks! (2004)
  • Patchwork (2014, a new arrival on the list: a textile-themed two-player, perfect for couples who sew!)
  • Plato 3000 (2012)
  • Heimlich & Co. (1984)
  • Keltis (2008, travel version)
  • For Sale (1997)
  • Lost Cities (1999)
  • Innovation (2010)
  • Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)

Cousin E’s presence in the Rundkvist household with its convenient geek uncle lies behind this year’s emphasis on two-player games (MTG, Patchwork, Lost Cities). The games on the list are mostly short ones that you can play repeatedly in one evening. Innovation is a bit longer. A longer game that I played four times this year was Castles of Mad King Ludwig, though this one was too much collective solitaire for me. All the others are highly recommended!

Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2017?

Stats courtesy of Boardgame Geek. And here’s my list for 2016.

December Pieces Of My Mind #2

buds

The buds have survived days of sub-zero temperatures.

  • I’d love to work as a Finds Liaison Officer. But there are none in Sweden.
  • The expression “Why can’t you do X” for “Why don’t you do X” really throws a spanner into my speech parsing engine.
  • Four years since the Chinese lander Chang’e 3 and the Yutu rover landed on the Moon!
  • Wondered why my phone’s screen was suddenly all greasy. Realised that it was because I’d been using the phone for an unfamiliar purpose: talking on it. With Junior.
  • Inadvertent CapsLock just caused me to say “Gnarp” as an expletive.
  • Took out the food waste bag but forgot to bring in toilet paper from the shed. Used “Robertsfors” as an expletive.
  • “Oh, Twin Peaks is just an excuse for David Lynch to trip out completely” /Mrs. Rundkvist
  • Meritocracy means occasionally having to hire someone you really don’t like.
  • “Whole Lotta Love” opens with a lewd little snigger.
  • Fish species can spread through roe getting stuck to birds. Fishes fly from lake to lake!
  • Movie: The Last Jedi. Plot stacks way too many improbable crises and resolutions in way too narrow a time frame. Dialogue is ridiculous. Actors are good. Grade: Fail.
  • “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” in Urdu and Persian.
  • Wonder what Earth’s biochemistry and our technology would be like if tantalum was as abundant as copper is now and vice versa. Copper is about 35 times as abundant as tantalum.
  • Heard a talk on the Rohingya situation in Burma. Learned that many Burmese human rights campaigners believe what they learned in school, that those people really don’t belong in Burma.
  • Hang on in there, everybody. Friday night will be shorter than Thursday night. There will be another spring!

De-Lurk

It’s time we had a de-lurk around this here blog! The last one was nearly four years ago. If you keep returning to this blog but rarely or never comment, you are a lurker, Dear Reader, and a most welcome one too.

Please comment on this entry and tell us something about yourself – like where you are, what your biggest passion is, what you’d like to see more of on the blog. And if you are a long-time lurker who has de-lurked before, re-de-lurks are much encouraged!

Pimp My Book Manuscript

Dear Reader, if you’ve followed Aard for a long time you will know that occasionally I make shameless requests for free skilled labour. I’ve asked you to pimp quite a number of things:

  • 2008, March. My Bronze Age deposition grant proposal
  • 2010, June. My 1st millennium AD mead-halls book manuscript
  • 2013, July. The notes for my first set of lectures as head teacher on Archaeology 101 in Umeå
  • 2014, April. My Bronze Age deposition book manuscript

Through this habit of mine and their generosity with their time, a number of Aard readers have ended up getting thanked in the prefaces to my books. And now the time has come again. I’ve finished another book, my seventh, and it’s about the High and Late Middle Ages. I’ve looked at (and excavated some of) the evidence for lifestyles at strongholds of the period in Östergötland province, Sweden, returning to the area of my mead-halls study. It’s my first big piece of historical-period archaeology. The work has been great fun and a great learning experience. So here it is (817 kB PDF file)! The title is:

At home at the castle. Lifestyles at the Medieval strongholds of Östergötland, AD 1200–1530.

I would be very grateful for comments, corrections and questions from Aard’s readers. Don’t be afraid to ask layman’s questions: I believe that all archaeology can and should be written in a manner accessible to a bright high schooler. But I’m sure I slip up occasionally. There are no illustrations in the file because inserting them is a hassle and some haven’t been made yet, but there will be many.

Twelve Years Of Blogging

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Today is my twelfth birthday as a blogger. 12 / 45.5 ~ 0.26 – I’ve been doing this for more than a quarter of my life! I love writing and being able to publish my stuff without any wait or editorial meddling.

Following the demise of ScienceBlogs.com, I’m now on my third URL in twelve years here. The move to WordPress caused only a 26% drop in my traffic from October to November. Sadly I lost most of the images in older entries.

Blogging is one thing I’m not changing about my lifestyle. But professionally, I’m in transition: from a solitary scholar’s life where for 23 years I’ve subsisted mainly on small grants and (more recently) short adjunct lecturer gigs, to something else. As long-term readers will know, there are several reasons for this.

  • I want co-workers and a steady salary.
  • I’ll be 46 next year, and ¾ of all advertised lectureships in Scandy archaeology are given to people who are below 47.
  • I’ve lost all faith in academic meritocracy and no longer believe in the reward I was deferring.
  • My finances have gotten really badly messed up by a combination of a) almost no adjunct work since 2015, b) expensive home renovations and c) the cost of conserving the small iron finds that are so common on the Medieval castle sites I’ve been excavating in recent years.

So, Dear Reader, I hope you’ll stick around the blog! Expect the usual three monthly entries with Pieces Of My Mind, and also some chronicling of my ups and downs on the archaeological job market beyond the garden wall of Academe’s grove. Because though laurels do grow there, a man can’t live on bay leaves only.

December Pieces Of My Mind #1

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Middle Byzantine tomb portal slab in Thessaloniki’s Museum of Byzantine Culture.

  • Cube sats are so tough that if their launch rocket blows up after lift-off and they fall to the ground, they usually still work.
  • Cancelled flight leads to unscheduled layover, which knocks me so far out of my habits that I take a bath instead of a shower. Must be almost 20 years since the last time.
  • Hotel rooms used to be so lonely. No more thanks to wifi and social media.
  • One of the Viking town Kaupang’s cemeteries is named Bikkjeholberget, “Bitch Hole Hill”.
  • I just found a Swedish example of the uncertainty of when to use “the” in English. Making the title of a much-read book by an archaeology professor read like something said by a Russian movie villain. Sorry, I mean, “Making title of mach-read book by archaeology prafessor read like something said by Rrraaassian movie villain.” In Saviet Rrrassia, you do not use word “the”. Word uses you!
  • Even when they look amazing inside, Byzantine churches look awful from outside. Naked crumbling brickwork, usually sitting in a pit.
  • Remember when a PC used to crash if you disconnected the keyboard?
  • LibreOffice’s word processor has a tool button to set the colour of text. Its default colour isn’t black. It’s dried blood, caput mortuum.
  • The question shouldn’t be “Is AI consciousness possible”, but “Are humans actually conscious or is it just what our brains think?”.
  • Reading Taylor’s scifi novel We Are Legion and enjoying it immensely. But then there’s this Paleolithic culture on another planet. And the first person described is a woman who’s busy butchering an animal. That a male brought her, explains Taylor. Using a flint knife made by her son. And suddenly this future Stone Age looks quite Victorian.
  • Another nibble! This one asked “Oh BTW, have you got a driver’s licence”?
  • The Sites & Monuments Register inadvertently documents the decline of grazing in Södermanland province. Loads of ancient cemeteries are described in detail during the 60s, and then in the 80s the re-surveyors just comment “Overgrown, couldn’t see shit”.
  • I have annoying Scanian ancestors. They use super few given names, so every time I think I’ve managed to link my genealogical tree up with somebody else’s it turns out to be different people with the same names. /-:
  • A month working at this archive has led me to the realisation that I don’t own enough cardigans.
  • When they cleared the ruin of Ärja parish’s Medieval church, they dumped the rubble on a Late Bronze Age cemetery nearby. :-0
  • Reached the point where my kid does the baking for the school bake sale without me having to do anything, even find a recipe.
  • The passing of a fad: you currently get two fidget spinners for the price of one on the Helsinki-Stockholm ferry.
  • A new book tells the story of the British 80s magazine The Face, calling it a “style magazine”. I am relieved to finally understand why I found the mag completely pointless.
  • This is a weird one. An Early Iron Age cemetery with the usual big flat round stone pavements — but one of them is built around a wellspring!
  • There’s a 4 km corridor of international water between the Swedish islands of Öland and Gotland.
  • The combination of darkness, a crowd and loud techno music really makes for a hellish environment.
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Thessaloniki’s waterfront. Not a monochrome shot.