Geocentric Universe

Our planet, among other dimensions

Thursday, January 07, 2010

R.I.P. Mary Daly

A Facebook link led me to the NY Times obituary of the feminist theologian who, ensconced in Boston College, excoriated Christianity. She was a late igniter of the Enlightenment powerfully advocating women's dignity. Her books are great fun to read, and saved my serious suburban friend from depression by pointing out that the condition is an invention of the patriarchal psychiatric power structure; now she is ready to take up flirting. Daly, in literary heaven, weaves a corrected Summa with her favorite cats and bunnies.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Notes on Rosa Montero's Historia del Rey Transparente

The Wikipedia article informs us that this novel won a national prize when it appeared in 2005. Lamentably, an English translation hasn't appeared.

The setting is Provence, c. 1200, with the violent but decentralized feudal order gradually giving way to the dominion of a national church and French state. The heroine is a plucky peasant who becomes a knight-errant, traveling with a healer who holds dear the legends of Camelot as a more innocent and marvelous age. Gradually she accumulates an entourage, a freakish family of choice (as advocated by us [neo-]hippies and Daniel Quinn), and throws her lot with the persecuted Cathars.

Montero explains in the afterword that this period has long fascinated her, and that the narrative juxtaposes events, like the Children's Crusade and Richard the Lion-Hearted's reign, that were some decades apart. I didn't notice these deviations from history; only an unfortunate mention of Ottoman lore was gratingly anachronistic. The Necronomicon was also spotted locked in a monastery library together with a book with our title, but I can imagine an implied wink at the reader. The tale of the see-through king plays a tragicomic role inspired by the pre-Lovecraft lethal play, the Yellow King.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Green computing

Via extremegh, still undergoing painful fits of enlightenment, I learned of Zonbu. This sounds like an ungainly savanna herbivore but is in fact a startup that's selling Linux-based personal computers that they will back up and maintain remotely, through an internet connection. A key selling point is low environmental impact: because it has no hard drive (only flash memory) and presumably an underclocked CPU, the device uses only around 15 watts, and Zonbu promises to pay for offsetting carbon credits. A portable solar panel is one of the accessories. It's $99 with a prepaid two-year subsciption (~$13/month), which altogether amounts to hardly more than just paying for the privilege of burial in the coffin of the hulking lawyer-infested zombie that is Windows Vista.

My officemate plans to get his parents two for Christmas.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Revisiting the origins of 'Islām

Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren, Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State, Prometheus Books, 2003, viii+462 pp.

For a religion's adherents, its origin-story, like that of a love-match for spouses, is much less a matter of fact than the fondly-retold, emotion-laden prologue to its sacred story, which defines its highest ideals and encapsulates its bounds of permissible practice. Historians of religion seeking to understand reasonably objectively the rise of Judaism and Christianity have over the last few centuries made little headway. The religious scriptures' own historical accounts were hopelessly vague, self-contradictory, and full of believer-pleasing miracles. Accounts by people of opposing sects were sketchy and biased by ill-will. The multitude of biblical-archaeology finds did not resolve ambiguities, though inspiring some novel theories like Norman Gottwald's proto-Marxist peasant revolution for Jewish origins.

The case of 'Islām is similar. Like most historians of the Levant in the period before literary Biblical criticism, most contemporary histories of the Islamic world pick and choose among the mass of Muslim historiography dating from the 9th (Christian) century onward to construct a coherent story of the origin of Islām and Arab conquest of the Peninsula, the Levant, Persia, and North Africa in the 7th century, subtracting miracle-stories, reconciling disparate genealogies and battle-accounts, and weighing the reliability of various chains of transmission. Even though we're closer to the present than in the cases of Jewish and Christian origins, there are not many contemporary writings on 7th-century events, and archaeological finds are difficult to date precisely. Revisionist historians of the period, notably the Anglos John Wansborough and Patricia Crone, have made a good case that the Islamic sources should not be trusted to provide an accurate account of 7th-century happenings, just as in the Jewish and Christian cases. However, a definite alternative account remains elusive. Relying heavily on period coins, dated rock inscriptions, and the Syriac writings of Christian chroniclers, Nevo and Koren attempt a coherent interpretation of the 7th century that treats the Islamic sources with great skepticism.

Nevo and Koren make key observations. The sparse contemporary accounts do not mention battles associated with the Arab conquest of chunks of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. There is no clear mention of Muḥammad as the name of a prophet or 'Islām as the name of a religion until about 690, close to the time of the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Inscriptions from then onward feature mottos that are similar to Quranic verses, but mention of a written Islamic sculpture begins only around the time of the `Abbasid takeover in 750. Building on these arguments for silence, they reconstruct developments as follows. The Arab takeover was the culmination of centuries of Byzantine military redeployment away from the Levant, and did not require formidable military strength or the impetus of a new religion. Arab rule was solidly consolidated by Mu`awiya around 660, after fighting between various chiefs, who then had coins minted and public works built in his name. At that time, many Arabs were monotheists, taking Abraham as their model and revering Moses and Jesus as prophets, although pagan practices were very widespread as well. The expansion of the Arab empire created the political need for establishing a specifically Arab variant of monotheism, which was met by exalting Muḥammad as an Arab prophet who gave the Arab conquests divine approval. The `Abbasid rulers moved beyond the ethnocentric conception of 'Islām to one where 'Islām, embodied in its own scripture and legal norms, was to be embraced equally by all people. The Qur'ān was therefore compiled in the early `Abbasid period, based on miscellaneous preexisting collections of religious sayings. (See here for more detailed attempts, in a similar spirit, to understand the composition of some Quranic materials.)

Nevo and Koren's story of the rise of Islam is not completely convincing. Their contention that Byzantium intentionally left the Levant and Persia ready for takeover needs to be substantiated with detailed study of Byzantine records as well as other writings of the 4th-7th centuries. Dismissing the Peninsula as poor and culturally unimportant in the first half of the 7th century is supported by archaeological and documentary evidence, as masterfully summarized earlier by Patricia Crone in Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987), but leaves unexplained exactly how the Ḥijāz came to be accepted as the spiritual home of Muslims and a site of pilgrimage. And the vexed questions of where "jāhilī" poetry was composed and how literary Arabic (which, unlike 'Islām, is attested starting very soon after the Arab conquests) arose remain unresolved. While Nevo and Koren's story is more plausible than the standard accounts based on Muslim sources, it remains to be seen whether critical endeavors that build on their contributions will lead to a fully satisfying historical understanding of the origin of 'Islām, or whether, as in the cases of Judaism and Christianity, this will remain an episode shrouded in ambiguity and controversy. Regardless, it's a fascinating detective story to follow.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Red scarf (an exercise in points of view)

Had I been present when your scarf fell low,
I would have picked it up and put it on.

-Cyrano de Bergerac

I wouldn't miss my buddy Marc's possibly-goodbye party, if only for the cookies that came out in warm batches all evening. As the porch dimmed, before gin started to fortify the iced tea, everyone (except Amanda, who said she was still shaken up from her favorite wicker chair overturning) climbed the back stairs, past the sumptuous laundry room, to watch the sun set. Cloud waves lapped over the Marin ridges just under the gold sun. As I admired the solar water heater and started explaining my new metal-sculpture concept, Naomi ceremonially unwound the red scarf from Julius' neck. The scarf weaved cinnamon-twist patterns as it spiraled toward dark bushes hidden by overhangs and trees. That evening, I paid more attention to the jigsaw puzzles in Marc and Mariëtte's give-away pile, and to flirting with Andrew, who'd just moved from Atlanta and was doing a summer Akkadian intensive; that scarf toss, though, was to inspire my next piece, Contortions.

You never had time, always singing and playing the stock market. She's too scared to send you to no-return-land, the velvet spaces between the stars, the clay that ocean sits on. But I'll be going to heaven myself – Mammoth, anyway – and you'll have to sort out on your own your stereo speakers and plasma screens. Unwrapping the silk felt good, I had a flash like a neon bulb lighting up, like a gift angry at the dimness. Ciao.

An end to villany, undoing ropes. The ecstasy of heart-thumping days went to auction; hope's fairy tale must move to the Otherrealm. What was taken can't be returned, but newness can sprout freshly confident. The message drifts in the wind; let whoever dares seize it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Haunting, or a small exercise in story outlining

On the road between Las Cruces and El Paso, Shif, an itinerant doula, found an accordion.

Investigating further, she discovered an ice-cream stand cleverly concealed behind a casino billboard.

Three refreshing peppermint scoops later, luxuriating in the afternoon sun, Shif conversed with a gathering crowd, who told of ghastly, tuneless polkas heard in the small hours of the night.

She was pointed toward a desolate butte, and told not to stop until she found a house.

The accordion owner turned out to be an old women who lived on a large, decrepit zebra ranch.

The resemblance of the clump of agaves behind the zebra shed to the skeleton of Shif's childhood babysitter, who vanished in the midst of a ceilidh, was nauseating.

Tequila didn't appeal to Shif anymore, and often she would warn newborns of the desert's haunting, gravelly melodies.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sun power

The Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative, an association of mostly MBA students, organized a gathering last night that featured some local solar workers talking about the photovoltaic industry. They emphasized that while the supply of semiconductor-grade silicon now cannot meet the surging solar demand, resulting in higher prices for solar cells, new silicon plants are being built, and prices should drop by early 2008. Innovative financial and marketing tools are needed, including standard bank loan arrangements and rooftop rental ideas as well as hassle-free standardized installation. On the policy side, favorable national grid connection and net metering standards were identified as the most important single change needed to encourage the solar industry - as one presenter emphasized, "the rules make the market". Interestingly, the air force is a leading buyer of green power, and Wal-Mart is seriously considering putting solar panels on all their store roofs.