"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for June 2012

Quote of the Day

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“Now, when we said, ‘Minds are simply what brains do,’ that should have made us ask as well, ‘Does every other kind of process also have a corresponding kind of mind?’ This could lead to an argument.” – Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

Written by Mesocosm

June 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm

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Chinese Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty

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The Shang Dynasty flourished in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BCE. It was a period that witnessed the introduction of two important technologies into China: bronze metallurgy and writing. We have no archaeological evidence for any predecessors or transitional forms of written language prior to the Shang era, suggesting that it was probably imported, along with bronze, from the Near East, where both technologies had been in use for over a thousand years.

The overwhelming majority of written material that has come down to us from the Shang Dynasty was preserved in fascinating artifacts called oracle bones, which are bone and shell fragments inscribed with an ancient Chinese script. They appear to have been known to peasants in the late nineteenth century, who were impressed by their evident mojo, and called them “dragon bones.” Unknown numbers of oracle bones were ground up and swallowed as medicine.

By the early twentieth century, they came to the attention of archaeologists, who have subsequently collected tens of thousands of the inscribed bone fragments and have deciphered their script.

Typically made from pieces of the scapulae of bulls or the plastrons of turtles, oracle bones were used some 3500 years ago to consult with the ancestors about matters of urgency. They were inscribed with questions inquiring about topics such as the likely success of the harvest, the need for military action, or fortunes of an expecting mother. In an elaborate ceremony attended by kings and courtiers, a burning-hot poker of some sort was thrust into the bones, and they would crack in characteristic patterns, signifying either a yes or a no answer.

Fortunately for historians, the Shang diviners carried out their art with a scientific spirit. The oracle bones were subsequently inscribed with reports detailing whether or not the predictions turned out to be accurate. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to determine which ancestors could be reliably addressed about which matters.

And so the earliest-known writing system in China is preserved in the form of tens of thousands of bones, used in magico-religious divination, inscribed with questions the practitioners regarded as of compelling interest, and with a record of how things turned out. Just a marvelous, fascinating phenomenon.

Sample Oracle Bone Translations

The divination on day chi-mao was performed by Kuo. The King after examining the crack forms commented that it would rain on day jen. On day jen-wu indeed it did rain. (1)

On day jen-in it was inquired: “There has been another chih of the Moon [an astronomical event of unclear meaning]. A sacrifice is to be made to Earth; should a burnt offering of cattle be made?” On day jen-yin it was inquired: “There has been another chih of the Moon.” The King did not want the disaster to befall on one person. yet again, there is a disaster. (1)

Crack making on gui-si day, Que divined: In the next ten days there will be no disaster. The king, reading the cracks, said, “There will be no harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news.” When it came to the fifth day, ding-you, there really was the the coming of alarming news from the west. Zhi Guo, reporting, said, “The Du Fang [a border people] are besieging in our eastern borders and have harmed two settlements.” The Gong-fang also raided the fields of our western borders. (2)

Crack-making on jiashen (day 21), Que divined: “Lady Hao’s (a consort of Wu Ding) childbearing will be good.” The king read the cracks and said: “If it be on a ding-day that she give birth, there will be prolonged luck.” (After) thirty-one days, on jiayin (day 51), she gave birth; it was not good; it was a girl. (3)


1) Zhentao X. et al. “Astronomical Records on the Shang Dynasy Oracle Bones“. Archaeoastronomy. Supplement to Volume 20. No. 14. 1989. S61-S72
2) Keightley DN. Sources of Shang History. University of California Press. 1978. p. 44
3) de Bary WT, Bloom I. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Columbia University Press. 1999.

Images of oracle bone fragments from the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, (c) Barnaby Thieme.

Written by Mesocosm

June 29, 2012 at 10:34 am

RIP Lonesome George

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I was saddened to learn of the death of Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island giant tortoises of the Galapagos. He died at an age somewhere around 100 years old, which is fairly young for a species that can live to be 200.

Like many people, I became aware of Lonesome George as a kid watching National Geographic specials and the like, and it’s hard not to have sympathy for the curmudgeonly ol’ tortoise who found himself alone after all of his brethren were eaten by sailors. It’s a melancholy story for a young boy, somewhat in the neighborhood of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

You can read about his life in this article by the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere on the Internet.

Written by Mesocosm

June 25, 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Links Roundup: Really Old Stuff Edition

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Kyoto in a nutshell
(click to enlarge)

Exciting news in the world of archaeology!

Der Spiegel reports (auf Deutsch) that Roman glass beads have been found in a fifth-century grave near Kyoto! The reach of Roman trade was astonishing – Roman coins have been found in Vietnam, for example. However, evidence for European-Japanese contact at such an early date remains scarce.

Here are some beautiful photos of the Lascaux cave paintings from Life magazine.

A team of researchers have concluded that Stonehenge was built to commemorate the political unification of Britain by a late stone age culture. According to the press release, “Its stones are thought to have symbolized the ancestors of different groups of earliest farming communities in Britain, with some stones coming from southern England and others from west Wales.”

I find this an extremely attractive hypothesis on its face, which is congruent with the structure of the monument, which appears rather like a group of people standing in a ring, which is a common motif in neolithic Europe. The idea of symbolically expressing social transformation by bringing together totemistic stones corresponding to kinship groups has obvious analogs in cultures as far-flung as the Anatolians in Çatalhöyük, who may have exchanged the skulls of their ancestors to a similar end, and the Tlingit and Haida, who combined symbols and stories into the infamous “totem poles” of the Pacific northwest.

Not all the archaeological news is good, though. Depressed economies and austerity measures are combining to take a toll on excavation and preservation of important artifacts. I was disheartened to see back-to-back articles on the problems facing the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It seems hard to believe that institutions of this magnitude could be threatened by lack of adequate funding, but then I hardly would have believed anyone would dig a huge oil pipeline through unexcavated ground at Babylon either.

It’s almost enough to make you think the US should cut the crap and re-fund UNESCO, isn’t it?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting review of Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion. Sounds like a lively look at the initial decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Finally, the journal Biblical Archaeology Review has called its own editorial judgement into serious question with a breathless piece endorsing the “Brother of Jesus” inscription. But that’s just, like, my opinion – I invite the reader to make up her own mind.

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June 22, 2012 at 10:41 am

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The Chocolate Chip Cookie Sutra

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Thus have I heard: One day, the World Honored One was baking chocolate chip cookies.

His disciple Ananda came into the kitchen in disarray, saying “I have been speaking with a man of the Hindu persuasion, who has the most outlandish ideas. I have tried to dissuade him of his false, corrupt, destructive, and seductive views. His beliefs will lead him to harm himself. His beliefs will lead him to harm others. His beliefs will lead him to be reborn in the realm of animals, Blessed One, or in the realm of the hungry ghosts, or in the Hellish Realms.

“He would not listen to your teachings. What should I do?”

The Blessed One said, “Have a chocolate chip cookie.”

Comment: As I write these words, I have a pan of cookies in the oven. I wish you could smell them, I wish you could taste them.

Written by Mesocosm

June 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm

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Putting a Face to the Name

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Albert Einstein on E=MC2 (English):


Carl Jung on death (English):


Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi on mind and its object (English):


Salvadore Dali, impressively composed in the face of an antagonistic Mike Wallace (English):


James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake (audio only):


Richard Feynman on wave-particle duality:


Martin Heidegger on language (German with English subtitles):


Michel Foucault, interviewed by Alain Badiou (click CC for English subtitles):


Written by Mesocosm

June 13, 2012 at 9:35 am

Posted in Ephemera

A Few Personal Updates

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Hey readers,

A couple quick notes. First, I want to quickly say how much I love being able to write and share my thoughts with you, and I’m grateful you take the time to come by and have a look. Please don’t hesitate to say hi in the comments and share your response, even if it’s “Man, you’re crazy, and here’s why.”

Ms. O’Cosm and I were prominently featured in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The front-page article describes some of the problems the city of San Francisco, like many other cities, is having with Airbnb and other businesses which broker short-term rentals of apartments or spare rooms. The explosive growth of the industry is creating a poorly-regulated network of untaxed pseudo-hotels.

I was contacted by the Chronicle‘s Carolyn Said on the strength of this blog post I wrote on Mesoscope, chronicling our ordeal. Perhaps that post hit a nerve – it got the most page hits of any post I’ve written by a large margin.

Yesterday also marked the last performance of the season by the SF Sinfonietta, an amateur chorus and orchestra led by the inimitable Urs Steiner. We performed Mozart’s Requiem mass in D-minor (K. 626) in its entirety. For an amateur like myself, it illuminates an entirely new dimension of music to go inside of it like this. Additionally, it was a profound experience to perform a requiem mass with the genuine intention of honoring those who have passed away.

I shared some of my reflections on Mozart’s Requiem in this post earlier this year. You can see us performing the Requiem at a benefit for Arts Benicia in the picture above.

Written by Mesocosm

June 11, 2012 at 7:56 am

Posted in Ephemera