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7 April 2010


Matins: Pushing back the age of evidence for social stratification, archaeologists have begun to study Ubaid cultural remains (prior to 4000 BCE) in northern Syria. (NYT)

Four distinct phases of occupation have been identified at Zeidan. A simpler culture known as the Halaf is found in the bottom sediments, well-preserved Ubaid material in the middle and two layers of late Copper Age remains on top. From the evidence so far, the transitions between periods seemed to have been peaceful.

Archaeologists have turned up remains of house floors with hearths, fragments of mudbrick house walls, painted Ubaid pottery and sections of larger walls, possibly part of fortifications or monumental public architecture. The ceramic styles and radiocarbon tests date the wall to about 5000 B.C.

Closer to home: a dig in Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with incomprehensible Guardian story by Maev Kennedy.

Lauds: In what might seem a rather desperate, latter-day argument, Rachel Campbell-Johnston makes an interesting appeal for bold religious patronage of the arts. (Times UK; via Arts Journal)

And yet when Leonard McComb’s sculpture Young Man Standing (also known as The Golden Man) was displayed at Lincoln Cathedral in 1990, it provoked national controversy and was withdrawn from the exhibition because its nudity was considered indecent.

Similarly, in 1996, when the video artist Bill Viola installed The Messenger in Durham Cathedral, there was an outcry because the figure who moved through the images’ watery depths was unclothed. One might have assumed that the divinity who moulded Adam and Eve might not have minded nudity, but among the more prudish sectors of society it appears to be felt that a fig leaf — or at least a loin cloth — should remain firmly in place.

The Church can no longer afford to take such outmoded attitudes. In a few years, if current trends continue, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cliff Richard could be about the only enthusiasts for religious services. On Sunday mornings far more people are to be found shuffling down the aisles of Tesco than their local churches; far more stand contemplatively in front of Marc Rothko canvases in Tate Modern than before a religious altarpiece. The cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral are better known to children as the corridors of Hogwarts than the setting for religious processions.

Prime: Without coming out saying so (how disappointing), Tyler Cowen points out that the debate about financial regulation has to shift planes, from the discussion of particular policies to a reconsideration of regulatory agencies themselves, and how they are staffed. This is what needs to be changed first.

There isn't any "once and for all" solution to banking regulation and the harder we try to find one probably the more we will end up relying on regulator discretion and judgment.

Bank regulation is a tough slog, it depends on the quality of the bureaucracy and the periodic attention of a somewhat responsible legislature, "toughness" can be counterproductive, the historic periodic of regulatory "easiness" relied on cartelization and near-automatic profits, and it is like a chess game whereby the private sector eventually finds a way around most of the binding regulations.

And now we can return to why financial reform is hard to blog.  There's always a new proposal and a big tizzy over the particular contents of that reform.  Whatever one thinks of the specific suggestions, I keep returning to the notion that the quality of the regulators -- most of all Congress -- truly matters.

How many times can one say that?  How many times can one think that and run away in fear?

We'll be happy to count if Mr Cowen will keep saying it.

Tierce: Laura Miller (somewhat predictably and for predictable reasons) likes her iPad. A good part of it seems to be "less is more." (Salon; via Arts Journal)

Reading a document on the iPad feels ... serene. There's no dock filled with application icons lurking at the edge of the screen to suggest that I log onto iChat to see who else is online (maybe it's Joan, and she can explain this one reference to me ...) or double-check the day's to-do list. No files on the desktop remind me about that other thing I need to put the finishing touches on and send. No notifications from TweetDeck pop up to inform me that Rose had insomnia again last night or that Ron found a fascinating article on the Guardian Web site or that Michele just posted an adorable new photo of her dog.

Many pundits have complained about the iPad's inability to support multitasking, and while I can see how that makes it impractical as a tool for work, it's actually an asset for someone who just wants to focus. You can only do one thing at a time on the iPad, and while I'm well aware that e-mail and LOLcats and all kinds of social networking treats are not much further away than a few extra clicks, switching from one app to another feels so definitive -- qualitatively different from having multiple windows open on a single screen.

Sext: The hoot of the week, without question, is Anthony Lane's review of Clash of the Titans, in The New Yorker. We can think of nothing in the writer's highly entertaining oeuvre to compare with his assessment of actor Sam Worthington.

Louis Leterrier’s film stars Sam Worthington, but you will have guessed that already. These days, no major production is allowed to embark without him. He is the strapping Australian lad who, without warning, has found himself cast as a cyborg, in “Terminator Salvation,” as a would-be alien, in “Avatar,” and now as the demigod Perseus, in “Clash of the Titans,” while retaining the look of someone who cheerfully expects to be returning to a steady job on a building site. Sometime, if his luck holds, he could actually play a purebred human being and stay that way till the end of the movie; for now, though, he must be content with fifty per cent.

To be fair, that is the half that interests him. “I’d rather die in the mud with these men than live forever as a god,” Perseus says to his father, Zeus (Liam Neeson), and it’s certainly the better option. As a man, Perseus can march up hills and down into the mouth of hell with warrior friends like Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), who teaches him swordsmanship—“Stay focussed,” he says, in a phrase that scholars have long sought, yet never found, in the pages of the Iliad. Where is the fun, by contrast, in the lives of those who dwell on Mt. Olympus? They stand around on individual floating platforms like bored, middle-aged sunseekers waiting to do pool aerobics. Danny Huston, in the role of Poseidon, gets about a line and a half of dialogue and then drops out of the movie, while Neeson, as team leader, comes wrapped in so much aluminum foil that, if I were an attendant mortal, I wouldn’t quite know whether to worship him or take him out every hour and baste him.

Here's hoping that Mr Lane will manage to steer clear of building sites.

Nones: George Friedman reconsiders the failed-state argument about Mexico, and makes an important point: although lots of money pours into Mexico via the trade in illegal drugs, the lately notorious violence is largely confined to the northern frontier of the nation, far from Mexico's heartland. (RealClearWorld).

From Mexico's point of view, interrupting the flow of drugs to the United States is not clearly in the national interest or in that of the economic elite. Observers often dwell on the warfare between smuggling organizations in the northern borderland but rarely on the flow of American money into Mexico. Certainly, that money could corrupt the Mexican state, but it also behaves as money does. It is accumulated and invested, where it generates wealth and jobs.

For the Mexican government to become willing to shut off this flow of money, the violence would have to become far more geographically widespread. And given the difficulty of ending the traffic anyway - and that many in the state security and military apparatus benefit from it - an obvious conclusion can be drawn: Namely, it is difficult to foresee scenarios in which the Mexican government could or would stop the drug trade. Instead, Mexico will accept both the pain and the benefits of the drug trade.

Mexico's policy is consistent: It makes every effort to appear to be stopping the drug trade so that it will not be accused of supporting it.

This strikes us as an even stronger argument for lifting inane prohibitions than "Save Mexico!"

Vespers: Adam Gallari makes an appealing case for Booker finalist Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness. (The Millions)

This is a novel heavy with the exploration of the minute, seemingly innocuous and uneventful moments that pass us by while we are busy waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Detail, and the flourishes of it, abound in The Wilderness. There is no minimalism here. Harvey is a writer unafraid of prose, one willing to write in a manner reminiscent of early Henry James, yet her sentences lack the attention to showmanship that occasionally superseded and hindered James’s equally obtuse narratives, and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Harvey might be the best pure English language stylist to arrive on American shores since John Banville, whose 2005 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea, The Wilderness will at times recall.

Ultimately Harvey’s decision to revel in the small is a wise one, for it is only through exactitude and attention to minutia that it is possible for The Wilderness’ third-person narration, which remains firmly grounded in the tenets of psychological realism, to recount the life of Jacob (Jake) Jameson, whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

Time for us to give this one another try.

Compline: Amy Cunningham writes very thoughtfully about the wisdom of humility, as experienced by the Poor Clares and as understood in Zen Buddhism. (In Character; via The Morning News)

Long linked with self-abasement, true humility does not involve repressing talents or feeling inferior. "It's knowing the truth," says Mother Therese. "It's not that I am naught, it's that I do nothing without God," says Sister Christiana, "because He said, ‘Without me you can do nothing.'"

Though the word humility is derived from the Latin humilitas, which in turn descends from humus, meaning "earth" or "ground," and though references to man being "dust and ashes" or worm-like abound in the Bible, humility as it has been explained to me does not mean embarrassing yourself, sitting on your hands, or putting yourself down. It is more precisely concerned with the forgetting of the self, and the desire to completely surrender to God. The most often cited quote on this important point comes from the former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who once wrote, "Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all."

For us, something that we loosely regard as respect for life stands in the place of God. Without it we can do nothing.

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