Friday, October 31, 2008

Editorial Note

I'm thinking of dropping this blog.

Tennant Resigns: The Full Video

David Tennant announced yesterday that he would cease playing The Tenth Doctor after the 2009 season of Doctor Who. The full tape of the announcement, made at the British version of the Emmy Awards, is above. This is a historical document.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! David Tennant To Leave "Doctor Who"

Sherman Oaks, California, Earth, 2008 A.D.

We knew it would happen; it was fairly obvious to fans when it would happen; but now it has happened, and it's hard to believe.

David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, will leave Doctor Who after the next season, which will consist of four one-hour specials. Tennant made the announcement several hours ago at a London awards show.

The Coverage: Video of Tennant's announcement. Tennant's written statement. Video of Tennant's explanation. Official Doctor Who site. The fans at Gallifry One are on it. BBC. The Guardian. The Independent. The Mirror. The Sun. The Telegraph. The Times.

The Meaning Of It All: Stay Tuned.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The World Tourism Map

World map with land mass adjusted to show the number of tourists each country receives. France is the most visited country in the world, and you can see the appeal of Western Europe as a whole. Russia and India are surprisingly under-visited. (Flash of the Knife to The Telegraph).


Monday, October 27, 2008

No on 8: Yes To Gay Marriage

Sherman Oaks, California

When I was growing up in suburban Ohio, two old women lived in a house down the street. One of the women was a mystery; we sometimes saw her through a window but we rarely, if ever, saw her outside. We saw the other old woman a lot; she was always cleaning or gardening or fixing the house. She was also a grouch, yelling at us kids whenever frisbees or balls landed on her lawn.

In retrospect, the women were probably a lesbian couple. The mysterious woman probably had a major illness, forcing the other old woman to be the primary caregiver in addition to maintaining the household. That would make anybody crabby.

* * * * *

On May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court held that gay marriage was legal within the state. When the decision went into effect, county clerks began to issue marriage licenses to couples regardless of gender or residency.

A movement to reverse the court decision immediately formed, and the result is Proposition 8. While many of California's ballot propositions are pages of dense legaleze, Proposition 8 has the virtue of simplicity. The operative section reads in its entirety: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

I voted No for several reasons.

1. Government And Marriage Should Get A Divorce. The government shouldn't be in the marriage business, period. The government should not be defining marriage eligibility criteria, nor should it continue its contemptible practice of imposing taxes or granting tax breaks based on marital status.

Marriage should be left entirely to individuals and religious groups. The only involvement government should have in marriage is to state the default rules for property allocation in the event of divorce. That's it. Every other question -- who can be married, at what age, the obligations of the marriage -- should be left to private individuals and religious groups. (The government should also have a say in the custody of children; but, as you can see every day in Family Court, marriage is not a pre-requisite to having children.)

The famous "Lemon Test" holds in part that a law is unconstitutional if it would result in "excessive government entanglements" with religion. Yet state and federal law is inextricably entangled with marriage, which in most human societies has been a profoundly religious institution. The legal realist in me sees this as an example of how legal principles (in this case, the separation of church and state) are enforced in trivial circumstances (such as a Nativity scene at City Hall) but ignored when a decision would disgruntle hundreds of millions of people.

Social conservatives will argue that this libertarian position will lead to unconventional marriages. Yes it will, and no I don't care. If three women want to be married, or one guy wants to live in a household with ten wives, it's none of my business (but, man, that guy's a masochist). People who want to live in such arrangements can and do under current laws, anyway. Divorcing government from marriage also neutralizes the objection that the government would be sanctioning such unorthodox arrangements; in my world, the government wouldn't be doing anything. And the percentage of people who would adopt such lifestyles would be miniscule.

Voting No on Prop. 8 is a small step toward disentangling the power of the state from the institution -- the overwhelmingly religious institution -- of marriage.

2. Californian Judicial Activism Is Subject To Checks And Balances. The marriage ruling was straightforward judicial activism. For reasons that the electorate never consecrated, our Supreme Court held that the distinction between marriages and civil unions did not pass muster under the state constitution. In doing so, the court struck down an anti-gay marriage proposition that the electorate enacted in 2000 with 61% of the vote. The drafters of Proposition 8 are correct on this point: the high court did flout the will of the people.

But that's not a big deal in California. Our Constitution is so easily amended -- by the people -- that any court ruling based on the California Constitution can be overturned by a ballot proposition at the next election. As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has persuasively blogged, the "counter-majoritarian difficulty" of unelected judges striking down democratically imposed laws isn't a problem here. (California Supreme Court justices are also subject to a limited form of recall.)

Some supporters believe that the right to gay marriage has to be won at the ballot box, that judicially imposed gay marriage would result in a weak law that's constantly being limited and challenged by opponents resentful of the fact that the issue was taken off the table by judicial fiat. These supporters are absolutely correct -- but the defeat of Prop. 8 would be a legitimizing democratic victory. Because of our state's excess of democracy, a California Supreme Court opinion can be seen as little more than the initial volley in a democratic confrontation. In most places, contentious issues are debated during elections and later decided in court; here, an issue can be raised in court and ultimately decided in the polling booth.

3. Show Me The Money. Gay marriages may be performed in California even if both participants are non-residents. Consequently, California can establish itself as the national and global leader in the gay marriage industry, generating income, jobs and tax revenues.

California's competitive advantage is monstrous. You can have a sunny, outdoor wedding on the beach in February. Try that in Connecticut or Massachusetts, the other two states which allow gay marriage. Every gay couple living west of the Mississippi River could come here, along with their guests, and splash out for venues, catering, hotels, car rentals, flowers, you name it.

And, to perorate on the blitheringly obvious, this is the worst possible time to voluntarily contract the economy.

4. The Two Old Ladies. If the two women from my old neighborhood wanted to marry each other, they should have been able to.


Friday, October 24, 2008

If The Walls Could Talk

Sherman Oaks, California

In an article in the Hong Kong Journal, Suzanne Pepper notes how the architecture commissioned by the Chinese authorities casts doubt on whether Beijing will keep its promises of political freedom to Hong Kong:

In one final touch, plans for Hong Kong’s new government complex to include a new Legco building were unveiled in March 2007. Four modernistic designs emerged from the tendering process and a perfunctory public consultation followed. Evidently the winning bid’s architects know nothing about democratic parliamentary seating arrangements or they were told to create a miniature replica of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. At the apex of its congressional system, China’s indirectly-elected and Communist Party-vetted National People’s Congress (NPC) gathers in this hall once annually. Delegates face a silent line-up of national leaders on the dais and just as silently endorse their policies. Unless the design is modified, Hong Kong legislators will be similarly seated in front-facing rows, which should formalize debate since the occupants will only be able to see the dais and the backs of one another’s heads in a design that can easily be adapted for future use by the People’s Congress of Hong Kong.

Pictured: The current Legco Building.

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How I Voted On The Spending Props: No, No, No, No, No, No, No, No And One Yes

Sherman Oaks, California

They want $28 billion from me.

"They" are the people who placed the various spending propositions on my November ballot, and I told all but one to take a hike.

Actually, $28 billion is a low ball, since several of the spending props are worded in a way which prevents an educated guess as to their actual costs. I'm also not including the interest payments on the bonds, which will easily double the figure.

In California, most bond issues have to be approved by ballot, as do most tax increases by local governments. Consequently, our ballots are riddled with spending props, i.e., proposals to raise taxes or borrow money.

The biggest piece of nonsense this time around is Proposition 1A, which seeks to borrow $9.95 billion dollars -- I guess $10 billion seemed too large a number -- to fund a pie-in-the-sky proposal to build "clean, efficient high-speed train service" linking all of California's major population centers. (A characteristic of statewide propositions is that they promise spending in every corner of California, all the better to attract Yes votes.)

This fantasy has been around for decades. Nothing's come of it except for costly consulting reports, and, while the bureaucrats dithered, Southwest Airlines figured out a way to profitably move people around the state in a "clean, efficient high-speed" manner. We don't need more rail in California; we need more runways.

The most risible ballot measure is Proposition 3, which would borrow $980 million for public children's hospitals. My objection to Prop. 3 isn't so much the spending as the weepy radio ads which argue that, if you don't vote Yes, you hate children and want them to die. Anybody running ads like that deserves to be voted down.

Proposition 5 was the closest call, and it's the only spending prop on which I voted Yes. It expands drug and alcohol treatment and diversion programs within the criminal justice system and allocates $460 million in the process. Prosecutors don't like it, arguing that felons could receive a pass if they claimed to be addicts, but I trust judges to sentence correctly; besides, if the law has adverse consequences, we'll change it next election.

All the other money props: No, no, no. No to $965 million for law enforcement (Proposition 6); we're too close to a police state as it is. No to $5 billion for research into alternative fuel vehicles (Proposition 10); I'm not paying for R&D that the Big Three automakers should be doing on their own dime. No to $900 million for farm and home aid to veterans (Proposition 12); veterans' affairs are a federal responsibility, with a Cabinet Secretary and everything.

No to Los Angeles County's request for a half-percent sales tax increase to fund public transportation projects (Proposition R); it's a union boondoggle. No to the Los Angeles Community College District's request for $3.5 billion (Proposition J); community colleges need to emphasize basic literacy and math skills, not blow money on a Media Arts Building and an Allied Health/PE, Recreation and Wellness Center, to pick two of the more than 100 projects that would be funded by the prop. No to the Los Angeles Unified School District's demand for $7 billion (Proposition Q); I despise every cent I have to pay to the LAUSD, a system which I will never, ever use, even if I somehow have a dozen children.

So this year, my view on the propositions is pretty much the same as it is every year:

Vote No! On General Principle!

Pictured: The Time magazine cover featuring Howard Jarvis, the father of Proposition 13, the tax-cutting law dubbed "the first shot of the Reagan Revolution."


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Australia Trailer

Opens Thanksgiving Weekend.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Price of Democracy: Required Reading

Sherman Oaks, California

The elections come with a minimum of 240 pages of reading.

Forget about McCain and Obama; that's extra. I'm only talking about ballot measures.

The November ballot in my area of Sherman Oaks, which is part of the City of Los Angeles, has 17 propositions. State, county, city and school district -- all have ballot measures and, as usual, all want money.

The government issues voter guides, and they've stacked up this year (pictured). The California Secretary of State mailed a 144-page Official Voter Information Guide to registered voters. A 16-page Supplemental guide was released after Proposition 1 was replaced by Proposition 1A.

The Los Angeles City Clerk mailed a 32-page guide to the two municipal ballot measures. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (that's his actual title) mailed 48 pages of views and analysis along with the sample ballot.

For each ballot prop, the pamphlet contains a "non-partisan" analysis by the Attorney General or a Legislative Analyst, which ends with an estimate of the cost if the prop passes. The analyses of the more complicated state props contain charts and graphs and look like business school homework.

Then the fun starts.

The next page is an Argument submitted by the supporters of the proposition. The arguments usually contain lots of CAPITALIZED LETTERS, italics, bullet points and exclamation marks! That's followed by a Rebuttal, then an Argument against the prop, and THEN A REBUTTAL TO THAT!

Each of the argument sections is followed by the names of supporters or opponents, and, often, that's the election. If Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton supports a measure, it will probably pass. An argument by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- usually against -- lends the credibility of the state's best known anti-tax group. The booklets end with the texts of the proposals, which nobody reads.

Anyway, this year there's 17 propositions and 240 pages of materials.

Too much democracy!


Monday, October 20, 2008

Another Day Of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Another Day Of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Poland 1976).

Evacuations are supposed to be loud, chaotic affairs. Thousands of people, their possessions bulging from knapsacks and suitcases, crush the airport, while others try to climb the fence of a friendly embassy. Every minute counts, because the lava or the militia or the locusts are already on the outskirts of the city.

That's not what happened in Angola. After signing the Alvor Agreement in January 1975, Portugal agreed that its southern African colony would become independent on November 11th of that year. Everyone, whether colonist or African, had ten months to react.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, a reporter for the Polish Press Agency -- which, at the time, was a government-controlled Soviet Bloc news and propaganda ministry -- lived in the Hotel Tivoli in Luanda, the capital city, for the last three months of colonial rule. He used the ocean view from his room to gauge the tension:

Offshore stood several freighters under European flags. Their captains maintained radio contact with Europe and they had a better idea of what was happening in Angola than we did -- we were imprisoned in a besieged city. When the news circulated around the world that the battle for Luanda was approaching, the ships sailed out to sea and stopped on the edge of the horizon . . . . Later it turned out that the date for the attack on Luanda had been changed and the fleet returned to the bay, expecting as always to load cargoes of cotton and coffee.
Kapuscinski's memoir of those months, Another Day of Life, includes a dreamlike sequence describing how the European sections of the city slowly emptied as the deadline neared. A shop was open Tuesday and permanently closed Wednesday, its owners en route to Lisbon. The next week, the firemen were gone, and, the week after that, so were the garbage collectors. Abandoned dogs were everywhere. A book store and a wedding boutique were still open, but no one was buying; at the funeral home, business was booming.

Portuguese settlers from the countryside lived in improvised shantytowns as they arranged final passage back to Europe. Meanwhile, the townspeople were obsessed with the crates in which they would ship back their possessions:

Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation -- how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared.... The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grades of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques. Into these crates went whole salons and bedrooms, sofas, tables, wardrobes, kitchens and refrigerators, commodes and armchairs, pictures, carpets, chandeliers, porcelain, bedclothes and lines, clothing, tapestries and vases, even artificial flowers (I saw them with my own eyes), all the monstrous and inexhaustible junk that clutters every middle-class home....

The crates of the poor are inferior on several counts. They are smaller, often downright diminutive, and unsightly. They can't compete in quality; their workmanship leaves a great deal to be desired. While the wealthy can employ master cabinetmakers, the poor have to knock their crates together with their own hands. For material they use odds and ends from the lumber yard, mill ends, warped beams, cracked plywood, all the leftovers you can pick up thirdhand. Many are made of hammered tin, taken from olive-oil cans, old signs, and rusty billboards; they look like the tumbledown slums of the African quarters. It's not worth looking inside -- not worth it, and not really the sort of thing one does.
As you can read, Kapuscinski has an eye for detail, and this is the first of his books that I've read. It's impossible to determine from this narrow slice (the book is more like a lengthy magazine article) how his background in the state-controlled media affected his reporting.

What is obvious from the printed page is that Kapuscinski had far better sources among Angola's Communists (the MPLA) than he had among the two Western-backed rebel groups (the FNLA in the north and UNITA in the south) or among the remnants of the Portuguese administration. Kapuscinski also had an ambiguous relationship with the Cuban soldiers who were entering Angola to support the MPLA, and, intriguingly, he appears to have been granted access to the field HQ of the Cubans' enemy, the South African Army units which invaded in support of a planned FNLA-UNITA coalition government. (There were, incredibly, several more rebel groups, some of which are still in existence.)

My only quibble is that Kapuscinski did not do the best job identifying all of the players or explaining what they wanted and who was allied with whom. But Wikipedia can do that.

Kapuscinski's goal appears to have been more elusive: to describe people's reaction, over time, to a sense of impending and unavoidable doom.

Rumor exhausted everyone, plucked at nerves, took away the capacity to think. The city lived in an atmosphere of hysteria and trembled with dread. People didn't know how to cope with the reality that surrounded them, how to interpret it, get used to it.
He succeeded.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

(Editor's Note: Today's guest post is by financial journalist Christopher Nagi. It's about death.)

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Knopf 2008).

I'm lying in bed as dawn breaks on Montague Street, too scared to move. I'm holding my cat, not petting but clutching him as I try desperately to clear my head for the three minutes that are needed to drift to sleep, and it isn't working. By mistake, or by therapeutic design the reasons for which are too convoluted to get into here, I just read Julian Barnes' 244-page essay on death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of. It was suggested I do so by Garrison Keillor, who in the New York Times last week called it a "deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.'' Can't wait.

Barnes' technique is simple and craft consummate, like a guillotine. All of the metaphors and balms man has shored against the ruin of his final end are trotted out and summarily debunked, primarily religion but in equal dose atheistic platitudes such as the one in the title. The title is ironic but also a pun on "nothing," which is what Barnes, a lifelong fearer of death, is most acutely afraid: extinction (both personal and societal and, for good measure, geological).

Along the way the spiritual wiring is mapped of a handful of greater lights who have been similarly unembarrassed by their obsession with death -- Stravinsky, Montaigne, Sibelius, Maugham and a French author called Jules Renard, among others -- all in the service of Barnes' larger thesis, which is that we die, and that the more you think about it, the scareder you should be. The book's trick is to never once admit a comforting thought, or more accurately, to elucidate unflinchingly the bankruptcy of each.

Religion takes its usual lumps. The book's first sentence is, "I don't believe in God, but I miss him." A lot of convincing ink is spent summing the unlikelihood that humans rate an afterlife. The hard math of evolution should scare you: "It will discard us as crude, insufficiently adaptable prototypes, and continue blindly towards new life forms which will make 'us' -- and Bach and Shakespeare and Einstein -- seem as distant as mere bacteria and amoebae." Art as a claim on immortality is laughed off: "A novelist might hope for another generation of readers -- two or three if lucky -- which may feel like a scorning of death; but it's really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell." Even human relations are viewed as likely to do more harm than good and in any event are illusory. "Unknown person dies: not many mourn. That is our certain obituary." On and on it goes like this, wittily encircling you.

My life of late has been chaotic, covering Western Hemisphere stock markets that regularly have dropped 10 percent in the space of hours, working seven days a week and coming home at midnight. Right at this moment, I am considering ending a brief vacation to return to that happy tempest. That is because, over the last 10 hours, my mind has ruthlessly been led closer to death than at any previous time in its 41-year existence, and I need something big to distract it. Barnes' book is undoubtedly a masterpiece. And yet I would strongly suggest to anyone who asked that she never read it.

The scariest parts of Nothing To Be Frightened Of are its portraits of individual deaths, evidence the author marshals to show that, when the chips are down, the best of us break. I will not cite specifics because I ardently wish I never read them. What is Barnes' point? It is certainly not that there is a point; that is his main point. He also seems interested in the obvious fact that he is smarter than me. Not more courageous -- he admits in the book that, at 62, he often awakes to terrors that leave him muttering the words "Oh no oh no oh no." But intelligence -- that is the book's methodology and achievement. Here is the state of play on personal extinction, and we should inquire about it just as we do architecture and electromagnetism. We do ourselves no favors pretending. Barnes' book had an almost identical effect on me as a boy named Roger did at summer camp when I was eight. Roger said, "Our atoms return to the earth when we die," and I could barely speak for two days out of fright. Later I despised Roger because he spoke the words to show off his intelligence but wasn't smart enough to know what they meant.

Barnes can't be dismissed in this manner. He makes it clear throughout the book that he is probably more terrified of the facts he is enumerating than you are. Does that get him off the hook? To me, the answer is no. That sounds like Ludditry, but, if we sat down and discussed it, I could argue you to a draw that the reality depicted in this book is better left unspoken. The unconscious has its reasons for leaving death out of our noonday consideration (particularly during vacations), and it uses dreams and the death of others to dribble out enough conception to keep us moving therapeutically forward. Dying also doesn't require an accelerant to keep its batting average, as Barnes repeatedly notes, at 1.000.

Among the many other touchstones of my youth that this book evokes (perhaps uncoincidentally, as I have been somewhat of a death-fearer myself) is the "great death-poem" by Phillip Larkin, Aubade. Its last beautiful line I've recited to half a dozen grieving people over the years with reasonable effect under the circumstances: "Postmen like doctors go from house to house." As a whole, the poem does as much as Barnes' book to brute you into quiet; but it also includes this line, one that -- bizarrely -- Barnes quotes: "Courage is no good: it means not scaring others." Actually, sitting with my cat at 6:30 a.m. as the shades whiten, that seems pretty good to me.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii by Robert Harris (Random House 2003).

He breaks the rule about character names.

There's an unwritten rule of fiction: The characters' names should not be confusingly similar. If a novel features a Lou, a Lars, a Luke and a Luan, the author had better be a master of characterization. The rule can be bent for literary works that presume the rapt attention of the audience, but writers of beach reading should strictly adhere to the law.

Robert Harris didn't.

I so enjoyed Harris' political thriller The Ghost that I immediately bought his earlier work Pompeii. I expected it to go down smoothly, but Pompeii became a bit of a chore to finish.

The plot should work. A newly hired "aquarius" is placed in charge of a system of Roman aquaducts near the Bay of Neapolis. The water has stopped flowing, so he and his mutinous men have to find and fix the problem while avoiding confrontations with provincial potentates who are siphoning the Emperor's water without paying the sesterces. Meanwhile, the earth rattles, and Mount Vesuvius looms ominously on the horizon. It is, of course, 79 A.D.

So far, so good, but here are some of the character names: Aelianus, Africanus, Agrippina, Alexion, Alleius, Ampliatus, Ancietus, Antius and Attilius, the last of which is our hero. The broken waterworks are the Aqua Augusta, and the plot involves nearby towns named Abellinum, Acerrae and Amalfitana. Meanwhile, perhaps to mix it up, the book also mentions Salernum, Stabia and Surrentum, along with the Rivers Sarnus and Sebethus.

You see the problem.

Moreover, Harris compounds the confusion with copious, but vague, physical description. I repeatedly had to stop reading and track back to figure out where the characters were in physical relation to one another and to walls, hills, outcropings and other structures that became important to the plot.

This isn't a textbook, or a Booker Prize nominee, or a work of historical fiction with a small side of literary ambition -- although all of those genres would do well if the authors remembered the Rule of Character Names. Pompeii is a thriller, and, at the level of audience attention the author of a potboiler can assume, Harris does too little while demanding too much of us.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Searching For Neanderthal Tools In Spain, Last Part

Sherman Oaks, California

A big "Thank You" to David Katz of the University of California at Davis who has blogged all week about his summer excavation for Neanderthal tools in Spain.

Below are several photos taken as David closed the dig site, called Roca Dels Bous, and visited another dig site (as chronicled here) in a picturesque gorge.

Best of luck, David, in writing your dissertation!

Goodbye, Roca Dels Bous.

View from Roca dels Bous of San Lllorenc de Montgai, the Segre River and the foothills.

Crossing a cable footbridge over one of Montrebae's gorges.

View down the mountain from the mouth of the La Cova Colamera.

David, our guest blogger (left), and Xavi, an archaeology graduate student from Madrid, consider transferring to an astronomy Ph.D. program.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Busman's Holiday: Archaeologists' Day Trip To Archaeology Site

(Editor's Note: David Katz, lawyer turned archaeologist turned blogger, continues to describe his summer excavation in Spain. If you're new to Knife Tricks, please bookmark and check us out. We blog about travel, foreign affairs and expat life.)

Congoste de Montrebae, Spain
Week Four (Aug. 29, 2008)

We finished excavating yesterday, a day earlier than expected, and closed Roca Del Bous (“Rock of the Cows”) for the season.

At 8:15 this morning we packed the remaining crew into two vans for a road trip to visit an archaeological site tucked away inside Congoste de Montrebae, a national park on the border between the “autonomous communities” (I looked it up) of Aragon and Catalunya.

It was 90 minutes’ drive to Montrebae. On the way we passed briefly into and out of Aragon. The moment caused excitement among the Catalunyan archaeologists in our group. Some were happy to spend a few minutes in Aragon. Some were happy to “get back” to Catalunya. At one moment or the other, each of them behaved like a 5-year-old kid seeing his first “Welcome to Vermont” road sign.

Whereas San Llorenc and Roca Del Bous are in the Pyrenees foothills, Montrebae begins at the edge of the Pyrenees proper. The difference in scale and lushness of landscape was dramatic.

Once in Montrebae, we parked on an elevated field above a floodplain and, from there, began our walk to the site, La Cova Colamera (“Cave of the Pigeon”). Colamera is well into one of Montrebae’s narrow gorges. We hiked about 20 minutes in the tall grasses above the floodplain and entered the mouth of the gorge by crossing over a narrow cable footbridge.

Inside the gorge, we followed a trail blasted out of the limestone cliff. The sheer limestone rock faces on either side of the river stretched hundreds of meters (I’m so metric) above and below the blasted limestone trail.

There’s no easy way to get from the trail to Colamera. The cave itself is about forty meters above the trail. In some spots, the excavation team has drilled chains into the ground to make it easier to pull yourself up the hill. In other parts, you just scramble on loose rocks.

All told it took over an hour to reach Colamera. The archaeologists who work the site make this trek back and forth 5 days a week in the summer, carrying gear, food and artifacts with them each time.

A flock of 15 to 20 birds circled in and out of the cave in a wide arc. Their chirping and the roar of the river echoing up through the gorge were the dominant sounds at the mouth of the cave. From just inside the cave, you could be looking out on today or a thousand years ago.

Further inside, the overwhelming sound was from the portable generator which the archaeologists used to light the excavation (pictured). The artifacts found at Colamera indicate that Roman soldiers used the cave as an overnight encampment on their way through Spain. And, for thousands of years, shepherds used Colamera to keep their flocks overnight or in bad weather. About a century ago, prospectors dug for gold deep in the cave. They didn’t find any.

Even further inside the cave, beyond the excavation, you couldn’t hear a thing, nor hardly see anything either.

The end.

More photos of the cave tomorrow....

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Searching For Neanderthal Tools In Spain, Part 3

(Editor's Note: David Katz, modern day Indiana Jones, continues to guest blog.)

San Llorenc de Montgai, Spain
Week Three (Aug. 24, 2008)

In the final week, life and fieldwork in San Llorenc have slowed. We are down to a skeleton crew of six excavators, about half our original number. There is still work for us to do, but most of it involves leveling off parts of the dig that are nearly finished so that we can close the site until next summer. And there is more data entry than we could possibly complete in a week's time.

The town is quieter, too, with fewer weekend vacationers ("domingueros" is the somewhat pejorative Spanish term, I believe). The five Catalan high school students who joined us last week as part of an archaeology summer camp have left as well. This all lends a nostalgic ambience, kind of like walking around your college campus the week after graduation.

Last Week's Lesson: Patience. For four days I excavated basically sterile ground, taking about two feet of earth -- and less than 10 artifacts -- out of my area. By way of comparison, many similarly sized areas of the excavation yield several hundred artifacts daily. Finally, on Friday, I announced my boredom to our site manager, and he moved me to another location. A graduate student who has worked at the site for several years was moved to my area to seal it up and see why nothing had turned up. Wouldn't you know . . . the grad student dug for 30 minutes and found a trove of artifacts no more than 2 cm below where I had left off.

The New Slang: When something is exceedingly cool, Spaniards (or at least Catalunians) say it is "la leche," i.e., the milk. This phrase easily beats "the bomb," or whatever you kids say these days. So let's import it, in English. Incidentally, if one simply says "leche" in response to a piece of information, it is the equivalent of saying "shit." But the situations to which this is suited are probably more limited than I understand. In Spain, everything seems to mean shit and shit seems capable of meaning just about anything. I wonder if this relates to the smell in the countryside (see first e-mail in series).

New Hobby Aspiration: I went rock climbing for the first time this past weekend. Rock climbing is most definitely the milk. I expect it will join SCUBA diving as the two activities I most love but never, ever do.

What I'm Most Looking Forward to Upon My Return: A comfortable chair. I have not had a good soft seat to sit on this entire month. At the site, we sit in the dirt. All the chairs in the hostel and lab are of the straight-backed, wooden, British boarding school variety. All the chairs at the bar are the plastic kind which are standard at outdoor cafes; the barstools have worn out cushions, and besides, they are barstools without backs. The least uncomfortable place to sit is on a top bunk in one of the bedrooms, but even this is awkward. My ass deserves better.

To Set the Record Straight: Some of you may have heard rumblings that Barack Obama has decided against choosing me as his running mate. Nonsense. Barack and I continue to each think the other is a really cool (milky?), genuine person with a fresh perspective on politics and political discourse. Upon my return, B.O. and I will put the Biden rumors to rest. See you at the Denver convention and, if this country has any sense left at all, the White House.


More tomorrow....

Pictured: Not a real Neanderthal.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Searching For Neanderthal Tools In Spain, Part 2

(Editor's Note: David Katz, a lawyer turned archaeologist, continues to guest blog. David's descriptions of his summer excavating in Spain captured the attention of the popular travel blog Jaunted. Welcome new readers! Look around while you're here.)

San Llorenc de Montgai, Spain
Week Two (Aug. 17, 2008)

Evidence that I'm not in my parent's basement inventing travel stories: How to explain this video. . . . First night in Barcelona. There was a going-away party on the beach for a friend of Marshall's (in the video, Marshall is the one with the prominent middle finger). On the audio, I'm the guy who thinks he's asking the tough questions which will solve the mystery of how we got stuck with this bike. Dustin wound up trying to ride the bike home, but the seat was too high, and not adjustable without an Allen wrench, so Dustin gave the bike to a tall Senegalese man. The bike's owner was none too pleased, but should never have abandoned his ride in the first place.

Evidence That I Still Have a Few Tricks Up My Sleeve: Among our group, I, El Viejo, hold the "international record" for counting out loud while having beer funneled into my mouth with this glass bong-like device they (at the bar) call a "porro." You count "teeteeyous" ("One teeteeyou, two teeteeyou. . . .") while the beer cascades into your mouth from a spigot you hold several inches away from your face. This is better explained with a photo, I am sure, but that will have to wait.

I made it to nine teeteeyous. Then I went home to bed. The "local record" among our group, by one of the Catalan archaeologists, is 22. I am not sure whether to chase this mark, but, then again, one cannot always plan for such things.

Praise for the Spanish Medical System: I got a small cut on the inside of my ear, and the cut became infected. I was seen at a clinic in Lleida, the provincial capital about 35 km from here, with no hassle. There was no paperwork; all they did was photocopy my passport. The wait was only about 20 minutes. The doctor gave me antibiotics and ibuprofen free of charge.

Medical Mystery: Explain this. In the States, where I eat mostly vegetarian fare, try not to drink more than one cup of coffee per day, and essentially have sworn off spicy and fried foods, I needed one (and sometimes two) 150 mg Zantac's daily to manage my heartburn. In Spain, I eat all kinds of meat products, fried foods and ice cream (essentially, whatever the program serves, I eat). I drink several coffees daily. I drink a beer or two most nights. I haven't had heartburn for a week. So what is the mystery food substance that's killing my gut in the U.S.? Corn syrup? Unidentified preservative? Other possibilities: I eat much less fiber and many fewer vegetables here; I'm much more active here.

Oh Yeah, Archaeology: At the new level at which we are digging, we have come into a wealth of stone artifacts and bone. Much of the bone is burnt/cooked. We have found the remains of wild donkey, red deer and rat. Pretty much, if it had meat and lived here and wasn't a fish, a Neanderthal ate it.

A major goal of the excavation is to locate within the cave the hearths which the Neanderthals built and used to cook their kill (and to keep warm, have light, etc.). Locating the hearths is an important part of tracing activity patterns, and also helps give a sense of the number of occupants the cave may have had, as well as the frequency with which the cave was occupied. The way in which the artifacts and bones array around the hearths further enhances the picture. All of the data (over 20,000 stone and bone pieces discovered so far) is loaded into a database program which diagrams and helps to analyze the information.


More tomorrow....

Pictured: The photo has nothing to do with David, but it depicts a team of Princeton University students excavating a Neanderthal dig in Marillac, France. The vertical wires segment the site into one-meter squares.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Searching For Neanderthal Tools In Spain, Part 1

(Editor's Note: This week's guest blogger is David Katz (pictured), a lawyer who is now a graduate student in paleoanthropology at the University of California at Davis. Over the next few days, David will describe his summer dig excavating for Neanderthal tools in Spain. If you're new to Knife Tricks, please bookmark and check in once or twice a week; this blog specializes in foreign affairs, travel and expat life.)

San Llorenc de Montgai, Spain
Week One (Aug. 10. 2008)

Week One has come and more or less gone. I wasn't sure I would survive at first. Now, things are looking up. Way up.

The Prelude: Two very pleasant days in and around Barcelona with my friend Marshall and his great expat cohorts.

The Setting: San Llorenc de Montgai. It's a town of about 200 people in east Cataluna. It smells like pig poop, sometimes mildly, sometimes not so mildly. In fact, this whole region smells of pig poop, probably on account of all the pigs. Except for Barcelona; that smells of dog poop, at least in the summer. San Llorenc has no stoplights, no stores, but one very hospitable bar with a great lookout over the Segre River. I am at the bar most every evening after dinner. I'm usually in the Segre, which is cool and green but does not smell like pig poop, in the early afternoon -- after the morning excavation but before lunch.

Housing: We occupy an entire hostel, San Llorenc's only hostel, and sleep in dorm rooms with bunk beds. Fortunately, it's not crowded except on the weekends, when additional guests come through.

Food: We are awfully well fed with local seafood and pork products. The local fresh fruit -- peaches and nectarines primarily -- is also excellent. Vegetables are virtually a forgotten food group.

The Site: The rock shelter is about 20m above a bend in the Segre, 0.5 km outside San Llorenc. The site directors erected a metal lean-to roof about 10m above the site, which is critical because. . .

The Weather: It's bloody hot. 36-37 celsius (101 - 103 Fahrenheit) on most days. On the second day, the sky on the horizon darkened and I got all excited for a cool rain, only to be told that what I saw in the distance was the oncoming "Saharan dust." I think this is the same thing as a scirocco. Sure enough, the rain that fell was (1) steamy, and (2) filled with sand which had blown up from Africa. As exhausted as I was, it about broke my spirit.

The Team: 1/2 Spaniards, 1/2 Americans and Brits. Many pleasant acquaintances, not sure how many (if any) long-term friends.

The Work: We walk to the site every morning at 7:30 and work until 1 pm, with a brief break midway through. The first day was easily the most brutal a day of manual labor I've ever experienced (said the lawyer). My group used picks to break up multiple tons of limestone, and moved these rocks and the sediment which surrounded it to a dumping location about 30m up a narrow, uneven path on the hillside. Most worrisome to me was that the site directors didn't give any indication they thought we were doing anything exceptional.

Since then, however, the hauling has been less, and the excavating has been more. The excavating itself is great. I find myself more enamored of the process of doing a careful excavation than I am concerned with whether I find anything of particular interest. We are finding stone tools, fragments ("flakes") from Neanderthal production of stone tools (a process called "flint knapping") and from which stone tools are knapped ("cores"), indications of where the Neanderthals set up hearths, and bones (mostly burnt) from the animals they consumed.

Afternoons are mostly free time, with lunch at 2:30 and a siesta after (and sometimes before as well). From 5 pm until about 8:30 pm, we are in the lab analyzing and documenting the days' findings. The lab and the bar are the only two air-conditioned rooms in town.

Extras: Henceforth, you may call me "El Viejo," the old man. That's how this college chick from the States referred to me to a Spaniard she was trying to bed down in our dorm room (in our dorm room!) on the first night of San Llorenc’s annual, all-out three-day fiesta (it’s part of a series of small-town fiestas in the region, probably with a religious origin . . . I forgot to ask). She said something like, "Don't worry about David asleep in that bunk bed over there. David es el viejo."

But El Viejo has eyes and ears everywhere. For instance, Alex, who was trying to fall asleep in the bunk right next to the girl and her Spaniard, and who the Spaniard was told not to mind because Alex "es un party-pooper," Alex speaks passable Spanish. He told El Viejo all about it in the morning. By the way, I am El Viejo because of how closely I guard my sleep and siesta time. At least that's what the college chick told me when I asked. And she's right.

More tomorrow....

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Report: Putin Only Cares About TV

Sherman Oaks, California

From The New Yorker, an interesting summary of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's media calculus:

For Putin, only television really counts. The heads of the networks are summoned to regular weekly meetings at the Kremlin to set the news agenda; executives are provided with lists enumerating the names of political opponents who are not permitted on the air. The loyalty of important anchors, station managers, and star reporters is bought with unheard-of salaries. Live television discussions and interviews no longer exist. There are newspapers and Web sites that are at least as free as Echo, but their audiences are so limited that Putin is content to relegate them to the margins and leave them alone.
"Interesting, if true," to quote an old journalism professor of mine. If Putin does not care about small-audience media, why did he shut down The eXile?


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Do Not Buy "The Guide to Life at UCLA"

Sherman Oaks, California

As part of my toe-dipping return to academic life, I was at the cash register in the UCLA Store buying books for class when I noticed a point-of-purchase item.

Copies of The Guide to Life at UCLA 2008-2009 were stacked in front of the various registers. I couldn't scan the contents because each copy was wrapped in cellophane, but the it was published by the university's Orientation Program and looked like a "welcome to campus" book that explains the path of the shuttle bus and the hours of the libraries. I bought a copy for $6.95.

The book was an empty calendar. Important dates were listed at the front, the standard campus map and the fight songs were at the back, and every page in between was a weekly calendar running from September 22, 2008, to September 27, 2009. There was no useful information.

The front cover had a pocket, inside of which was a smaller, thinner pocket book also called The Guide to Life at UCLA 2008-2009. "Ah ha," I thought, "here's the inside dope I'm looking for."

Nope. It was 79 pages of tiny, sans serif text pulled off the university's web site. It contained address, contact information and brief, unhelpful descriptions of various university departments like Student Health Services, plus campus policies about Dogs and Harassment and things like that. Nothing you couldn't find by yourself in a lot more detail with the click of a mouse.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw a heading labelled "Escort Service," but that turned out to be a police department program to walk people to their cars after dark. Still, I liked the sentence, "When requesting an escort, allow 5-15 minutes for the escort to respond."

But, otherwise, the book was a complete waste of money. Deceptive, too. All of the copies for sale were shrinkwrapped (a problem I had with books in Thailand), and there was nothing on the covers to indicate that the book was principally a daily planner.

It's been a while since I've labelled a review with the coveted "This Book Is Crap," but we have a winner. And I still don't know the path of the shuttle bus.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

I Return To University, or How To Take Classes at UCLA When You're Not Actually Enrolled

Sherman Oaks, California

When I was a little kid, I thought that UCLA was the best school in the world. I had never heard of Oxford or the Ivy League, but I knew of UCLA because its students were always on The Price Is Right and Tic-Tac-Dough. They must be the smartest people in the world, I thought, because they were on TV. "I want to go to UCLA," I said, looking up from my times tables to an episode of Match Game p.m.

I wasn't alone. For undergraduate admissions, UCLA is the most popular university in the country, receiving more than 50,000 applications for a first-year class of 4,700 slots.

Stroll across campus, and you see why. It's an island of calm and green and beauty. The buildings feel historic. The surrounding neighborhood of Westwood Village is fun and safe. UCLA has interesting professors and great libraries, and everything is bathed in glorious Southern California sunshine.

As it happened, I went to college on the East Coast. Then I attended law school in Berkeley. I was never a student at UCLA.

Until Tuesday.

Like many universities, UCLA has an Extension program of night classes for working adults. The Extension classes themselves are a mix of humanities and business courses, but none of them was of interest to me.

What did interest me was a graduate-level history course about Islam in India. But only students enrolled in a degree program could attend.

Good thing there's a loophole.

UCLA Extension has a program called Concurrent Enrollment. A person who has no official relationship with the university -- me -- can take an undergraduate or graduate class. It costs $590 for a four-credit course.

There are a few restrictions.

You can take a class in any university department except the law school or the film school.

You have to satisfy mandatory pre-requisites, if the class has any.

The professor has to approve, signing the official Concurrent Enrollment form.

And, technically, you can't enroll in a course unless space is available after all UCLA students have been accommodated. I say "technically" because Extension processed my registration a week before the first class, so they don't appear to be strictly enforcing the rule.

So, this Fall Quarter, I will be taking HIST 201K, a seminar titled "Reforming Islam: Trajectories of the Modern in Muslim/British India" taught by associate history professor Nile Green.

I'm finally a student at UCLA.

Pictured: The Bruinwalk, dramatized here.