Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Bible Summarized by a Smartass, Part Twenty: Job

As you can tell, at this point the Old Testament has become less about history and religious practice and more of a collection of fairy tales. Stories of noble suffering and how faith in God and adherence to the Law are all that matters. Here's the one that OJ Simpson loved to compare himself to during his trial.

Chapter One
Once upon a time, there was a farmer named Job, and he was so annoyingly gay for God that Satan decided to make a horrible object lesson out of him. Job was prosperous and ever so rich, and as self-satisfied as any common internet billionaire.

One day, God decided to brag about how awesome he was, which irritated Satan (making his first appearance in the Bible here).

“Look how gay Job is for me,” said God.

“Feh,” said Satan, “he’s only in love with you because you’ve blessed him with anything he could want.”

“Okay, Mr. Smarty-pants,” God spat back, filled with tiresome anger over his relentlessly psychotic need for validation and admiration from every single being he comes across. “I’ll withhold my blessings, and then we’ll see how pious Job can be. Even in times of trouble, he’ll not turn away from me.”

So Satan gleefully set about to the slaughter. At his direction, bandits murdered all of Job’s servants, then carried off his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys, while simultaneously fire rained from heaven and destroyed his 7000 sheep and a sharp wind killed all ten of his children.

Job merely shrugged his shoulders and said: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job, children, is a fucking sap.

Chapter Two
God had a massive, throbbing boner from Job’s show of faith. “See?” he said to Satan. “Job is still completely queer for me and my loving-yet-indifferent and unquantifiable touch.”

“Feh,” said Satan, “any man would give up everything he had to save his own life. If you really want to test him, you’ll do something really nasty to his body.”

So God, so often goaded into playing a carnival seal by showing off his surprisingly lame powers, covered Job’s body with sores.

“Damn it!” Job’s wife said. “This is all God’s fault! Just curse him and be done with it so you can die and I don’t have to listen to your screams of agony.”

But Job covered himself with ashes and sat in the mud for relief. “You cluck away because you’re a woman, with a smaller brain than a man’s. How can you interpret God’s greatness when you’re all confused by menstruation and breasts? Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Job, children, is still a fucking sap, because he doesn’t yet realize that a true friend wouldn’t destroy all of your stuff, murder all of your kids, and then infect you with a disease just to test your loyalty.

Chapters Three through Thirty-One
The rest of this book is told in verse, making it longer and more drawn out than it really has to be. Here’s a condensed version, because I care about your minds.

Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar came to see him.

“I’m sorry I was born,” Job said.

“Obviously, you’re being punished because you’re a sinner,” said Eliphaz.

“God punished me for no reason,” Job maintained. “Why doesn’t he just kill me and get it over with? Does my suffering give him a big, shiny, horse boner?”

“I really think you’re a sinner,” said Bildad.

“But I didn’t do anything wrong! Religion is a total sham!”

“No,” said Zophar, “you’re just evil and God is taking it out on you.”

Chapters Thirty-Two through Thirty-Seven
Some other guy, Elihu, happened to hear that Job was doing a very rational and well-spoken job of defending himself and his innocence, and got so pissed off that he spent all of his time condemning Job and his self-righteousness and his ability to speak rationally and his impiety. Only in verse.

Chapters Thirty-Eight through Forty-Two
“Oh woe, woe is me,” said Job.

Finally, it became too much for God and his giant, earth-cracking, sky-punishing, children-terrifying torture hard-on, and he called down from Heaven.

“Hey, Job!” spake God. “You’re an asshole!”

God has a fairly unattractive way of admonishing anyone who knows anything and can think for themselves. In four chapters of verse.

“Forgive me, Lord!” Job cried. “I repent!”

“Oh…alright…” God said as the tremendous stiffy he gets from punishing the innocent subsided and withered. “I accept.”

But then God, his member still angry, turned to Job’s friends and said: “As for you three, you don’t know dick about the wonders of Heaven. If you don’t make a sacrifice, and if—and only if—Job makes me a prayer to save you, I’m going to take my holy vengeance and ram it up your asses!”

But Job’s friends made the sacrifice, and Job made the prayer, and God was disappointed that he didn’t get to slaughter anyone that day. But at least Job was still queer for him, so God gave him back his greatness, making him twice as rich as he was before, which is the reward for being God’s bitch. Job lived to 140 so he could enjoy all that he had.

And all because Job didn’t give up on God when God shit all over him to win a bet with some upstart fallen angel.

The End

UPDATE 2/25: A number of people have asked me about what happened to Job's kids. After God re-blessed Job, he had 20 more kids that I guess are supposed to replace the 10 that Satan murdered, and that makes everything just skippy. I'm sure Mrs. Job was absolutely thrilled at having to birth 20 more of them to live in a world where the unpredictable whims of a sociopathic diety could end them at any time. No word on whether she, too, lingered to 140 years old, still pumping out brats.

Next week: I'm going to blow through all of the Psalms and Proverbs, so be here for platitudes and homilies.

This Poster Is a Fake

But it's so damn cool.

The History of the Middle East

Part 16 in a series.

The Mongols

The Mongols were from Central Asia, and in 1206 their chieftain Temujin united each of the Mongol tribes under his leadership. He took the name Genghis Khan, “universal ruler,” and with less than a million followers he began a successful career of conquest. He understood strategy, arms, and numbers, and knew how to utilize them. His horsemen swept over the land, keeping in constant communication and covering an astonishing amount of ground. He used terror as a weapon, slaughtered as an example, but made use of captured experts and technicians. In 21 years, before Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongols had captured half of China and were on their way into Persia.

A nomad who was anti-civilization, Genghis Khan had to be persuaded to keep China’s cities intact. He wanted to destroy civilization itself and would have been pleased to burn it to the ground. Genghis let China stand, but carried out destruction and slaughter in Persia. The work of centuries was undone in a matter of hours; areas which men had made fertile were reclaimed by the desert.

Ogadai Khan succeeded his father and enhanced his capitol city, Karakorum. In 1236 he went west, quickly taking Russia and Poland, and was about to enter Germany when he died suddenly in 1241. The generals returned to Karakorum to elect a new leader, Genghis’s grandson Mangu Khan. There was some squabbling for about a decade, but the Mongol Empire remained strong and fiercely intact. Everyone feared them. They didn’t call themselves the Mongols; they called themselves Tatars. The Russians called them Tartars from the Greek Tartarus; basically, demons from hell.

Mangu Khan resumed conquering the world. He sent his brother Kublai to finish the conquest of China, and his brother Hulagu to the Muslim world. Hulagu’s men made short work of the once-mighty Assassins, slaughtering them with no trouble in 1255 (the Ismailists, ruled by an Aga Khan, would never again be significant to history). Hulagu turned his sight on Mesopotamia.

Messengers were sent to Caliph al-Mustasim, calling for his surrender and the dismantling of Baghdad. The Caliph refused, but it didn’t matter; the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, killing perhaps hundreds of thousands and destroying the treasures of hundreds of years. Al-Mustasim, the last of five centuries of Abassid Caliphs, was either strangled or kicked to death, depending on the account. One Abbasid escaped to Egypt and was made Caliph there, but no other country recognized him as ruler.

The Jewish community in Mesopotamia was wiped out. So was Mesopotamia’s ancient canal system. The land would never be restored, and was given over to rock and sand. The glory of Mesopotamia’s civilization, the world’s first civilization, had been abruptly and forcefully ended after five thousand years. The canals died; Mesopotamia died with it.

Mangu Khan also died, in 1259, and Kublai Khan succeeded him. His empire stretched out over 11,000,000 square miles, from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe, one-third of the eastern hemisphere, the largest continuous empire ever ruled by a single human being in all of human history, before or since.

When Hulagu moved on to Syria, he was surprised to be welcomed by the Christians. Mongols were attracted to Christianity; Hulagu’s chief wife was a Nestorian Christian. The Christians saw the Mongols as potential allies against the Muslims. Syria was now Mongol. From there, Hulagu planned to descend on Egypt, but was even more surprised to find that Egypt was already marching. Egypt had come under the control of a slave military caste of Arabs called the Mamelukes. Under their leader, the ferocious and fearless Baybars, the Mongols finally met defeat; he crushed them at Damascus in 1260. Mongol conquest ceased, and Hulagu contented himself with being the Il-Khan (regional governor) of Persia and Mesopotamia.

Hulagu and the Il-Khans who followed were, at first, anti-Muslim. They tried to make connections with the Christian powers of Europe, even as the population of the Middle East remained firmly Muslim. But in 1295, the Il-Khan Ghazan converted to Islam and, with Kublai Khan dead a year earlier, declared independence from the rest of the Mongol Empire. Intellectual life was at a new low. In China, the Mongols had successfully introduced paper money, but it wasn’t accepted in Il-Khan lands; Mongol unity was shattered. But it was also under Mongol rule that Rashid al-Din attempted to write the first history of the world.


A new tribe of Turks began to grow in prominence. Led by Osman I (in Arabic, Othman), these were the Ottomans. He expanded his powers into Asia Minor, a task completed by his son Orkhan I in 1324. During a Byzantine civil war in 1345, the Ottoman Turks entered Europe and struck at the Byzantine outskirts, whittling the former empire’s influence down until it really only controlled the city of Constantinople. Sultan Bayazid I had besieged the city in 1391.

But a new threat emerged from the East in the form of Timur, or Timur-i-lenk (“Timur the Lame,” or to the Europeans, Tamerlane). He claimed to be of the line of Genghis Khan, and to some appeared to be Genghis returned to life. Ruling from Samarkand, most of the surviving Mongol lands had accepted him as ruler. In 1382 he had occupied Moscow, then moved on to take all of the Il-Khan lands. Not stopping there, Tamerlane went south to India and sacked Delhi. In 1400, at the age of 70, he invaded Syria, defeated the Mamelukes there, and occupied Damascus. Baghdad still held out, but Tamerlane finally took that too, killing 20,000 people in the process. Bayazid, on the verge of finally taking Constantinople, was forced to turn around and march to Asia Minor. He and his army were destroyed by Tamerlane at Ankara in 1402. Tamerlane would let nothing stop him.

In the end, old age did. In 1404, aged 74, he died. He was in the process of leading an army eastward to re-conquer China.

Islam Renewed

Confusion followed, and the power of the Mongols waned again. The Ottomans renewed their strength, and Sultan Mohammed II took Constantinople in 1453, killing the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. He was the last of a line that traced its descendency from Caesar Augustus, 1500 years earlier. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul; it remains a Turkish city to this day.

Persia also revived itself, this time under a Shiite family founded by Safi-al-Din, called the Safavids. In 1501, the Safavid Ismail took the city of Tabriz and extended his power over a Persia that was primarily Sunni. Ismail I succeeded in bringing Shiism to power in Persia.

But the Ottomans were Sunnite, and looked at Persia as an enemy. In 1516, Syria and Egypt were conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim, forcing the very last Abbasid Caliph to confer the title. The Ottomans would claim they were the legal successors of the Abbasids and kept the title Caliph. Selim and Ismail met in battle in 1514. Ismail lost, but survived. He kept the Ottomans from venturing further east, and extended his own influence over Mesopotamia.

The battle reached a stalemate over Armenia. Once a prize contested by Roman and Persian, then Christian and Muslim, it was now a duel between Sunnite and Shiite.

To be continued.

Harry Potter's Ass

Not enough for you? Here's his cock.
Don't worry, I think it's a fake.

Electronic Cerebrectomy, continuing to bring you the finest in children's entertainment.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Throwdown 2/23

15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. Just two days after the announcement that Britain is going to start pulling out of Iraq, word comes that Prince Harry’s regiment is being sent to Iraq. Any of our senators signing up yet for this war they believe in oh-so-much?

2. Here’s a borderline inappropriate and completely egotistical thought I had on Tuesday while driving to the library and listening to a story on the news about how Anna Nicole Smith may have been murdered: “Man, I really, really, really, really, really, really, really wish I ‘d gotten the opportunity to fuck her before she died.” I know, I'm a prince.

3. Donald Trump has some sort of rich asshole bet with fellow rich asshole Vince McMahon; if Trump loses, he says he’ll shave his head. Hmmm…finally preparing to take the wig off, are we? Just have to come up with an asinine cover story, I guess.

4. Gwen Stefani is talking about reuniting for a No Doubt album some time next year. Um…why? Seriously, isn’t she past that now? It seems like she’s moved past being a chick in a band by now. I like her solo albums better than any of No Doubt’s albums.

5. Speaking of stupid people, those frat boys lost their lawsuit against Borat. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I mean, if one of those douchebags had gotten a couple of girls drunk and made them do things on camera, and the girls later got upset, you think those frat idiots would be willing to give up the tape and throw it away? Give me a break. I think it’s fucking hilarious when stupid people do stupid things and then blame other people for their stupidity. It’s what they deserve for acting so stupid.

6. Umm…why does Suri Cruise look three to four years old?

7. The hilarious part is, her little sister just got put in rehab. So I guess Mischa Barton is, what, celebrating for her? Go family support!

8. So, Britney Spears left rehab already? Honey, you just make it harder and harder for me to be nice to you. Stop making me look like an asshole by spitting on my concern for you, dammit. Oh, wait, you’re back in now. That girl is going fucking insane. Seriously, just look at her.

9. Tina Turner is actually out of the house for a change. It’s just a rare sighting these days. I’ve always loved her.

10. See, people can’t just ever stop before going too far. In defending herself from claims of being drunk and crazy on her recent press tour for American Idol (as well as several audition episodes of the show, frankly), Paula Abdul could have just said “I’m not drunk” or “I’m on medication,” but instead she decided to just take it too far into the realm of the unbelievable: “I’ve never been drunk. I have never done recreational drugs. Just look at my 20-year career. Tell me someone who is into partying and or doing drugs that could have done that.” Yeah, that seems believable to me. No, of course she’s never been drunk in her life. Especially when we’re talking about somebody who is so successful that I can’t name more than five songs she’s done. Seriously, I don’t know why or how she believes she’s had this amazing and important career. Without Idol, would you even remember her name anymore?

11. When Robert Altman died, Lindsay Lohan described him as “the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I've had.” Which, of course, explains why she skipped his memorial service to party with Steve-O. Every time I think she can’t become a bigger asshole…

12. George Lucas is a complete dumbass when it comes to knowing what his fans want. It was recently announced that there would be no lightsaber game for the Nintendo Wii. Wow, he sure knows how to make a million, doesn’t he?

13. Tim Hardaway is an asshole for saying that he hates gay people. This is, hands down, the best response to that kind of statement I’ve ever seen in my life. George Takei, I’ve always loved you.

14. Okay, I know Perez Hilton is a high profile blogger, but come on. They’re suing him now for putting that topless photograph of Jennifer Aniston on his website? The one that everyone put up? Why go after him? It’s not like he stole the picture himself, he’s just the easiest target. Do they really want to set the precedent that it’s copyright infringement? Hollywood’s unwillingness to accept that the way people consume entertainment has changed, their failure to adapt to it, here coupled with Jennifer Aniston’s insistence on prostituting her image and prosecuting anyone who dares to look, is absolutely ridiculous. If they keep suing everyone that puts up a movie still or a picture of some worthless, hideous celebrity like Jennifer Aniston, then the tremendous gravy train of free publicity the studios are getting will just stop. We will ignore them until they crumble into nothing. Seriously, anyone who can get on the internet and start a blog has the power here. I hope they realize that. I hope all of you realize that. The complaint against Perez Hilton actually called for a “seizure” of the material, along with a jury trial and monetary damages? Seriously? Why couldn’t they have just emailed him and asked him to remove the picture? Let’s act a little reasonable here.

15. Predictably, McCain is kissing up to the voters by slamming President Bush, calling Bush’s approach to the Iraq War “a train wreck.” Yeah, well, he still supports the troop increase. He also called the administration’s record on global warming “terrible,” said that as far as global warming was concerned there had been “no cooperation from the administration,” and called Bush’s recent decision to commit to global warming “long overdue.” He called Donald Rumsfeld “one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.” Great. This is going to put people back on McCain’s side, because people are idiots. It’s still too little too late, and he’s still a lot of the same nonsense as Bush. What he’s saying now is only to ingratiate himself with the voters, and that would be a very stupid thing to let him do.

Man of Links

Let's start this weeks links in the proverbial toilet. Or, to your left, on the literal toilet. Antonella Barba is the hottest chick on American Idol this year. Sadly, she's also the worst singer who made it into the top 24. But that doesn't diminish her hotness, as well as my enjoyment of these pictures, courtesy of I Don't Like You in That Way: here, here, and giving a blowjob here. Kids today are so visual, and in the MySpace age...well, if they're dumb enough to document it...

Every year, I always think about blogging Idol, but the show bores me straight off (and yet I always watch it). This year, I have Modern Fabulosity, and ModFab is nlogging Idol. So here's his posts for this week on the top 12 boys, top 12 girls, and who got cut. He's doing a much better job than I would have.

One more Idol story. Here's an interesting article on MSNBC written by someone who auditioned about the whole process of shooting it for television.

Now, on to other things. For example, Deus Ex Malcontent, who apologizes for the news coverage the weekend Anna Nicole Smith died. He also has something to say about the Church's stance on celibacy. Speaking of religion, The Last Visible Blog has something interesting about how it affects your armed services eligibility; meanwhile, my mom sent me a link to this great post about atheism and spirituality.

The Oscars are in two days (go, Jennifer Hudson). BBC News has a story about a recent poll about the popularity (or lack) of past winners. Pajiba has a great article about the best character actors we have today. One of my favorite actress, Anne Hathaway, is the subject of this Egotastic story.

No Smoking in the Skull Cave peers inside those drunken jedi parties.

The Onion seems to hate Dane Cook as much as I do, but satirizes him much more brilliantly.

The Rhetorical Letter Writer... just go look at it, it's hilarious.

Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches has a nice post about Billy Strayhorn's most famous work (and one of my favorite songs). Tosy and Cosh talks about one of my favorite songs, too. In another barely-connected music-related post, Cracked brings you the 10 least romantic lyrics. Another good post on the music front: Man vs. Clown tells Mike Love something he should be told as often as possible. And Zaius Nation remembers my beloved Banana Splits!

Pop Culture Heroines looks at Emma Peel.

The Onion A.V. Club has a list of TV shows that should be released on DVD, which is interesting even though some of their choices deserve to be dragged out back with a hammer and a blowtorch.

Savage Research lists their favorite Norm lines from Cheers, and 2Spare does the same with Homer Simpson.

I know you're waiting for my comics links. Here's The Last Visible Blog on my favorite superhero, Zaius Nation on a bat-contest for the ages, and I Against Comics on a comic book that I absolutely have to buy.

X-Entertainment looks back on some of the McDonald's placemats.

The Rude Pundit chimes in on the Tim Hardaway controversy to hilarious, hilarious effect.

Lots of political doings a-transpirin': Zaius Nation has some choice observations about President Duh's idiotic 2008 budget; Margaret Carlson and Arianna Huffington critique the Hilary Clinton campaign, and The Rude Pundit talks about the conservative reaction to Barack Obama.

One blog you should absolutely be reading if you like animation is Anibation Fantasy. Check it out as the Anibator takes on the animation industry and why it's doomed, as well as horrible cartoons that people inexplicably love and their hack writers.

Postmodern Barney tells you how not to blog.

The Last Visible Blog tells America to go fuck itself. No, he doesn't, but I wouldn't blame him if he did. Here's some stuff we need to think about.

And finally, last Sunday was Angela's birthday. Why not head over to her blog and wish her well?

Check out more here.

Where Do I Cash Out?

My blog is worth $15,242.58.
How much is your blog worth?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

My Longest Celebrity Crush and Still Going

Happy 32nd Birthday, Drew Barrymore

I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul...

I guess I should finally see this movie, then.

First Contact

The dodo lived on Mauritius. It was a large species of dove with heavy feet and a belly that nearly scraped the ground when it waddled. It couldn't fly, run, or climb trees. It didn't have to; there were no predators on Mauritius. It only laid one egg per year and was probably already on its way out when Mauritius was discovered by Admiral Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck in 1598. Probably the Arabs had already seen the dodo before the Dutch; Mauritius appears on Arabian maps of the 12th and 13th centuries. When vVan Neck found them, they had no instinctive fear of man. He took two adults to Europe, one for Prince Maurice of the Netherlands (for whom van Neck named the island), and one sold to the German Emperor Rudolf II. He called the birds walghvogels ("disgusting birds"), and cautioned that they didn't taste very good. The name was doudo in Portuguese, and the English pronounced it as both dodar and dodo. Paintings of this strange, unnaturally calm bird were seen all around Europe, and rich people and naturalists began demanding to buy the dodo. The birds did not resist being simply picked up and loaded into boats. The dodo was so placid in the face of noise or invasion that most people seemed to think it was either obedient to the point of slavishness, or profoundly dumb. Dutch colonists to Mauritius didn't agree with van Neck's assessment of the bird's taste; they ate the bird, and their introduced dogs, cats, and pigs took care of the young hatchlings and the eggs. By 1638, all of the specimens imported into Europe were dead, and the native Mauritian population was on its last legs. The last dodo died in 1681. One specimen, a London sideshow attraction, was stuffed upon its death by naturalist John Tradescant, but it became mangy and was, except for the head and a foot, discarded. By 1800, most naturalists thought the dodo to be a myth.

Steller's sea cow was only observed by one scientist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, the ship's doctor aboard the Russian explorer St. Peter. The ship sailed under Captain Vitus Bering in 1741 as part of the late Tsar Peter the Great's long-term plan, begun in 1689, to explore all of Siberia. Bering not only discovered the strait and islands that are now named for him, but Alaska as well. Every member of the crew, with the exception of Steller, fell ill; some, including Captain Bering, died. While stranded in the ice, the crew reported seeing mermaids and went out to find one; what they found instead was a giant dugong that had no natural fear of man. The crew, starving, killed one of the enormous, slow creatures, which yielded 7000 pounds of meat that lasted for months. Wine could be made from the animal's fat. Steller observed the creature and wrote all he could about it, the only scientist who would ever do so. And sadly for the great sea cow, he observed that the roasted meat of the creature tasted like prime beef. When he finally returned home and published his account, this--along with the high quality otter pelts brought back by the crew--grabbed the attention of readers, and Russians immediately sailed to the Bering Sea to hunt beef. Sea cows were tragically easy prey. They were inactive for long periods when they were digesting, and they had a horrible maternal instinct: whenever a harpooned beast cried out in pain, females surrounded it for protection. It was the proverbial turkey shoot. Russian sailors even bragged about it. There was a call to protect Steller's sea cow from hunting when it became obvious the creature was about to disappear, but this was ignored. In 1768, Russian sailors searched in vain for the sea cow, killed the only one they could find, and complained about the difficult hunt. In just 27 years, Steller's sea cow had been wiped from the face of the planet.

The great auk was two feet tall, the largest of the auk species and, apparently, very tasty. Once numbering in the millions, this penguin lived nearly all over the world: Russia, Scandanavia, Italy, and the entire Atlantic coast of North America. There are even great auks on the famous Altamira cave paintings from 15,000 years ago. They were hunted by humans throughout history, and still they never developed a natural fear of man. Clumsy on land and innately trusting, they were easy to slaughter; there are accounts of American Indian hunting parties that yielded hundreds of birds, and there are also accounts of seventeenth century hunters simply dropping the gangplank onto a nesting rock, walking over to the animal, and hitting in the head. By the early 1800s, the great auk had been so hunted that a small colony of 50 birds on Iceland's Geirfugl peninsula were all that were left. In 1830 a volcano erupted, displacing them, but they still survived. Good intentions did them in. Museums, realizing the great auk was done for, called out for specimens in good condition and offered high prices. By 1844, 48 of them were dead. Carl Siemsen, a bird collector, wanted the last two and hired men to find them. They were easy to spy; they still had no fear of human beings. The hunters simply walked right up to them, knocked them unconscious, and eviscerated them. As for Siemsen, he caved into the museum offers after just one year, at which point all fifty of the last family of great auks could be seen in museums--dead and stuffed.

The passenger pigeon was a surprisingly graceful bird that crowed rather than cooed. It may have been the most abundant bird ever to occupy the planet. Ornithologist Alexander Wilson watched a 250-mile flock pass over his Kentucky home for two entire days; John James Audubon watched another stretch for three days, blotting out the sun as 300 million birds an hour passed by. The roar of their wings could be heard six miles away. Once, a flock of two billion passenger pigeons caused a local eclipse that was blacker than it would have been if the moon had simply covered the sun. The bird was hunted and killed because of problems with droppings and one flock's ability to destroy acres of farmland at once or deforest an entire grove. The New England Pilgrims had been eating the bird for years (it was a major source of food on their first arrival), but advances in hunting began to take more and more of them out. A single rifle shot could take out two hundred pigeons. The birds would not move at night, and hunters ignited ground prepared with sulfur, suffocating millions of passenger pigeons in a matter of hours. We get the term "stool pigeon" from a method of hunting used for the passenger pigeon; a captured bird, its eyes sewn shut, was set on a perch (or "stool"). When it crowed out for help, drawing a flock to its aid, hundreds and hundreds of birds were shot. The pigeon's demise was hastened by the arrival of the railroad (which flushed out isolated populations), deforestation of its natural food supply, and even such things as using the birds as live targets in shooting galleries. It disappeared from the coastal states in the 1860s, and was soon only to be seen in Michigan. The last of the great pigeon hunts took place in 1878; in 30 days, in a single 25 mile long forest, a billion passenger pigeons were killed. Three hundred tons of meat went to the markets in Boston and New York. Gradually, hunters killed the last remaining creatures. By 1907, they no longer existed in the wild. The final passenger pigeon in captivity, at the Cincinatti Zoo, died in 1914. A species that once blotted out the sun, gone forever.

Sometimes people ask me if I believe in life on other worlds. I tell them that if there is, based on man's track record of making contact with other creatures who are too peaceful for their own good, they'd be smart to never come here.

The History of the Middle East

Part 15 in a series.

The Seljuk Turks

The tenth century saw fragmentation everywhere. The Muslim Empire was collapsing from all sides, but so was the Christian world. The Byzantine Empire still seemed outwardly strong, but the Holy Roman Empire had broken up after the death of Charlemagne and under the strain of Viking raids.

In the Middle East, the Turks had accepted Islam and become Sunni. A Turkish kingdom arose in Ghazni, and in 1000 they were reaching their peak. Under King Mahmud, the realm grew until it reached from India to Mesopotamia, including nearly all of Persia. It was here that the poet Firdausi wrote the great epic of the history of Persian kings, the Shah-Namah (Book of Kings), a work of 60,000 verses that is described as the Persian Iliad. It covers the history of Persia from the legendary king Rostem through Alexander up to Chosroes II. The work is in Persian, and as the greatest work of Iranian literature, helped to keep Persian the language of Iran instead of Arabic. Incidentally, Mahmud was a Sunni and didn’t care for this incredible work because he was offended by Firdausi’s Shiism. Firdausi refused payment, then wrote a brilliant satire of the king and fled the country.

Meanwhile, another group of Turks under Seljuk has settled in the north of Abbasid country. In 1033, Mahmud died and was replaced by a weak son; in 1037, the Seljuk Turks, under the command of Seljuk’s grandson Tughril Beg, made their move. Ghazni was easily defeated and conquered. In 1055, Tughril Beg took Shiite Mesopotamia without a fight. The Abbasid Caliph, free from Shiite domination, gave Tughril Beg the title of Sultan; in return, Tughril Beg left the Caliph in limited control and made his own capitol at Ecbatana (now called Hamadan).

Tughril Beg died in 1063, succeeded by Alp Arslan. He immediately took Armenia and was soon sharing a border with the Byzantine Empire. But Alp Arslan made peace with Rome and instead marched south to take Syria from the Fatimids. But Manzikert, a Byzantine city in Asia Minor that was in Turkish hands, proved too tempting for Romanus Diogenes. Romanus marched towards Manzikert; Alp Arslan rushed to meet him. The two armies met in 1071 and Romanus, with a larger army, rejected Arslan’s offer of peace. It was a mistake. The Turks used a strategy that easily defeated the Byzantines; retreating before them, and then when the tired Byzantines could go no further, sending in cavalry and slaughtering them. The Byzantine army was wiped out, except for Romanus, who was taken prisoner. In that instant, Byzantine power was forever ended.

The Turks flooded into Asia Minor, taking it for their own, and began to wipe out the Christian and pagan influences. Malik Shah, Alp Arslan’s successor, built mosques, as well as roads and schools. He reformed the calendar with the help of Omar Khayyam, the great poet. But intellectual arts were also stymied: the philosopher al-Ghazzali denounced the pagan science of the Greeks, sending scientific study into a decline. Interestingly, this helped make Christianity even more popular in Western Europe; it was a way to show hatred for the Turks. One philosopher, ibn-Rushd (in Latin, Averroes), wrote interpretations of Aristotle that were ignored by Islam, but much loved by Christians.

Malik Shah captured Syria in 1076, then took Palestine (formerly Judea, including Jerusalem). The Fatimids and the Abbasid Caliphs has allowed anyone—Christian, Jew, Muslim—to come to Jerusalem and worship. The Seljuk Turks, however, were offended by the very idea. Under Turkish control of Palestine, word began to reach Western Europe of atrocities committed on unsuspecting pilgrims by the cruel infidels. One man, Peter the Hermit, began an outcry for the reclamation of the Holy Land and in 1096 a Western army led by French nobles marched to Jerusalem.

The Assassins

Some historians feel this first Crusade would have failed immediately had Malik Shah faced it, but the fighting among Shiites and Sunnites took its toll. The Ismailists broke from the Fatimids in 1090 under Hassan ibn al-Sabbah; he took a swath of impenetrable land up in the mountains near the Caspian Sea, 70 miles north of the Seljuk capitol Hamadan, earning the nickname “The Old Man of the Mountain.” His followers were absolutely loyal. They chewed hashish, inducing visions that they were told were of the life that awaited them in heaven if they died in battle. They were the Hashashim (“hash-eaters”), but the Europeans mispronounced it as Assassins. They acted as spies and guerilla fighters, infiltrating courts to become close enough to murder high officials and monarchs. And because of the rewards waiting in heaven, they didn’t care if they got caught; their goal was to die. They assassinated Malik Shah in 1092.

A dynastic struggle followed. And while this was happening, the Crusaders fought their way through Syria and sacked Jerusalem in 1099. According to most accounts, it was a butchery of every man, woman, and child that could be struck at, and the streets ran red with blood. One of the French barons, Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, became king of a newly-established Kingdom of Jerusalem, the most important of several Crusader states set up in the Middle East (including Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli) that ruled and protected the road to Jerusalem for half a century.

The Assassins struck at both Christian and Turk with an anarchist bent. The Turkish army couldn’t reach them in the mountains, and the Assassins began setting up other strongholds in Mesopotamia and Syria. Essentially a terrorist group, they kept Middle Eastern rulers awake at night for 150 years.

The situation didn’t change until 1171, when the Armenian adventurer Salah al-Din (or Saladin, “honor of the faith”) gained control of Egypt and abolished the Fatimid government in favor of the Sunni doctrine. He quickly reformed the government and economy of Egypt, then took over Syria and in 1187 defeated the Crusaders and took control of Jerusalem. Saladin quickly conquered all of the territory that had been won by the Crusade. There would be other Crusades, but none would ever again reach Jerusalem. Saladin became a heroic adventurer of legend.

But a new terror was ready to descend on the troubled Middle East.

To be continued.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

What a disappointment. I still love Brian De Palma, and this project just seemed so tailor made for him. The problem is the convoluted storyline; there’s so much going on already and it feels like twist after twist is thrown out at random just to keep it going. Seriously, it’s like watching a 12 hour miniseries cut down to two hours with no attempt made to keep the whole story intelligible. The characters are pretty bad, too. Hilary Swank does a good job of keeping her character interesting, and the scenes with Mia Kirshner are a showcase for some terrific acting (I didn’t expect her to be this good, to be honest). And it’s wonderful to see Jemima Rooper in a movie, even if her role is tiny. But Josh Hartnett is still a boring hole in the screen, and Aaron Eckhart isn’t in the movie enough for his character to be remotely interesting (or for his role in the movie to even make sense, honestly). Scarlett Johansson is still capable of anything to me, but not when she’s given zero to work with; her character might as well not exist for all of the impact she has on the story. Well-shot, pretty to look at, nice score, some decent actors; all the elements are there for a classic De Palma film. But it’s just so terrible. * star.

This is the fourth time in my life that I’ve tried to watch this movie, and it just never takes. It never manages to grab my interest at all. Fucking William Friedkin sucks; I’ve never liked one of his movies, and I can’t even watch this one. ** stars.

A nice, if overdramatic movie about a poor woman on the waterfront (Marie Dressler in one of her best performances) who takes in a young girl. When the state comes around, Min is torn on whether she wants to keep her friend or give her a better life. Predictable, but it’s short and well-acted. Wallace Beery is always worth watching. *** stars.

Mary Pickford won an Oscar for her role as a flapper in love with a man whom her father wants to kill. It’s impossibly dated by now, and has the stiffness inherent in early sound films, but it’s not a bad movie. *** stars.

I can say that this is one of the few Robert Altman movies I’ve seen that I really, really liked. It’s a great noir film starring Philip Marlowe, but the great Leigh Brackett screenplay updates the story to early seventies California. Altman takes it a step further into modernization by casting the unlikely Elliott Gould as a private eye. And it works. It’s a great story well-directed. My only problem with this film, really, was Altman’s penchant for using natural lighting; it made it hard to see and boring to look at. I understand the boldness of the choice and why he makes it, but I didn’t think it came off. Still, **** stars.

Well, after hearing all of the arguments for and against this film, I finally got to see it myself. And I’m so glad I did, because this is one excellent movie. I can see now what Sofia Coppola meant when she said she didn’t make a political movie. In its way, it really has no statement to make about politics or history. I think the people who have a problem with this movie hate it because it doesn’t say anything about the French Revolution or economics or anything like that. It’s also, to my relief, not an apologia for Marie’s senselessness or supposed flighty cruelty. It’s about celebrity, and it’s about (as Coppola’s excellent Lost in Translation was) the role of women in a world of men. Picture Britney Spears playing Marie and you get the idea. She’s ignorant of the world, yes, but only because no one around her considers it important that she be given a clue as to what’s going on outside. Coppola’s Marie is not flighty and bored; she’s a young girl, trapped in a marriage that she’s clueless to make work, seeking pleasure however she can. There’s no point to her life, as far as the forces around her are concerned, except to provide an alliance between the French and Austrian monarchies and give an heir to the throne of France. There’s nothing else to her because her every need is catered to; she wants for nothing, so nothing has any value. And Coppola doesn’t necessarily let her off the hook for that, either. Coppola has become a fascinatingly impressionistic filmmaker, not so much telling a story as simply providing scenes from someone’s life and presenting them as honestly as she can. And somehow, it’s completely stunning. It’s fitting that Asia Argento, who directs films in the same way, appears in this movie as Madame DuBarry. She’s played as something of a counterpart; an image of what Marie is going to become. The rest of the cast, potentially hideous, is very good. Seriously, I thought casting Jason Schwartzman was idiotic, but he’s perfect for the tone of this movie. As for Kirsten Dunst, I’m impressed with her. This is the first movie she’s done where I’ve really been able to take her seriously as an adult woman, and her acting is subtle and honest; she’s better in this movie than she’s been in anything since Interview with the Vampire. On other counts, it’s beautiful to look at (with the Palace of Versailles, how could it not be?), and extremely well-shot. Coppola knows better than most of her contemporaries how to tell a story with images, with silence, and with music. Her characters say so much by not saying anything at all; there’s so much emotional depth and it’s played so perfectly, because it’s not overdramatic at all. She finds the right tone of ordinariness that somehow transcends. And, unlike many American films, it ends at just the right time instead of dragging on for that extra forty minutes. I love this movie, and I’m inclined to agree with the few who have said that this is the best film of the year. It’s as much a masterpiece as Lost in Translation was. **** stars.

What the hell has happened to Jodie Foster? Why does she need to keep making movies this shitty? I mean, seriously, I keep hearing “Oh, it was alright,” but no, it isn’t: this movie sucks as completely and wholly as it is possible to suck. It’s a serious waste of time and talent, an incomprehensible and unnecessarily complicated “thriller” that is so unrelentingly bad you really have to stop paying attention to it at some point. Every time I think I’m sold on Peter Sarsgaard as an actor, I see him in something like this where he’s just so bad and pointless. Fuck, this was just a dumb, dumb fucking movie. No stars. Is Sean Bean really going to keep taking these pointless roles?

I keep hearing this described as a Lifetime movie, but I thought there was more depth to it than that. It’s really an excellent character study. Barbara (Judi Dench) is a spinster teacher who becomes deeply involved with a younger teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett). The fact is, Barbara is a lesbian, but can’t seem to admit it to herself. She creates an entire relationship in her mind with Sheba which is much more involved than it is in Sheba’s reality. Sheba is also having an affair with one of her 15 year-old students, which complicates all of her relationships when Barbara discovers it. The interesting thing about this movie is that it sets itself up so that Barbara is some kind of monstrous villain, but her character is much more complicated than that. She has certain expectations of people, and when they aren’t met, she becomes vengeful. Still, she barely ever lies, and is, if not honest, at least upfront. Sheba is really the bigger monster; she lies to everyone, treats them badly, and acts in her own interests no matter whom she might hurt. She even goes as far as to tell her young lover, when he sees her older husband (Bill Nighy, who gets to shine in two very, very good scenes), “That’s my uncle.” And in the end, she excuses herself of any guilt simply because she feels Barbara is the bigger monster. There is one scene that I felt was a tad over-the-top (Sheba screaming at the crowd of photographers), but I liked it very much. **** stars.

I’m still ambivalent about the supposed return of the movie musical. I’d like to see more musicals, too, but they haven’t been great movies (I thought Chicago was a real waste). This movie was better than they’ve been so far, but I had problems with the tone. It really wants to be a respectable musical, but it could’ve stood to be trashier and more melodramatic; it felt like it was trying too hard to be Oscar-worthy. A little more Tommy and American Pop, please. It’s still a good movie, though, with some great songs (and some that are just easy to ignore). It looks very good, although it felt a little clunky sometimes. As for the acting… I’ve liked Jaime Foxx in the past, but he was too one-note here. Jennifer Hudson, despite some shaky acting, is the best part of the movie; she has an amazing voice that’s used to full effect here. Anika Noni Rose is good, very underrated; she’s gotten no attention from this movie, but I’m interested to see what she does in the future. Beyonce is…well, she’s a passionate amateur when it comes to acting, though there’s no argument that she can sing. And it was so nice to see Danny Glover in the movie, and I liked the wounded dignity he brought to his role. Eddie Murphy, though, steals every scene he’s in; he really does deserve to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s the best acting I’ve seen him do at least since the 1980s. Very predictable and shakily acted, but a very fun and pretty movie. ***1/2 stars.

British Out of Iraq?

Tony Blair has announced today that Britain is going to withdraw 1600 troops in an attempt to cut the number of British forces in Iraq to under 5000 by August. It's contingent on whether or not Iraq is able to secure the south, but it's an important statement to America and President Bush about this endless war.

PM Blair has plans to stay in Iraq until at least 2008 to help secure the Iran-Iraq border and maintain supply routes, but he will reduce the number of soldiers. There were initially 40,000 British troops in Iraq, which was reduced to 9000 two years ago. Currently there are 7100, and Blair wants to reduce to 5500. He told the House of Commons that "increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly."

I'd love to know how much input the US had in Blair's plan. Blair's gone ahead and already discussed this with Nouri al-Maliki, and the Iraqi government has agreed to it. If Blair and Maliki did this without seeking some kind of US "approval," then Blair finally found his balls. Every day, the world is letting us kick it around less and less. We've abused the privilege, and since we don't have a likable president who's willing to ask for help instead of demanding it, we pretty much deserve it. Who knew there would be a day when the rest of the world would assert its own determinism because they were tired of US oppression? It's too easy to fall into that role; it's even easier to slide away from it.

If the Iraqis are able to gain control of the situation (that's a big if), Blair is willing to reduce the numbers even more, "possibly to below 5000" once Basra Palace is under Iraqi control. Blair made an important distinction when he said "What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis." He wants to be in a position to help the Iraqis gain control of their own country, and then let them have it. What's the American policy on that these days?

Our allies are abandoning us by the busload. Denmark has had enough, and is withdrawing its troops (of which only 460 remain) by August. They're going to replace them with surveillence helicopters and civilian advisors. Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen didn't seek our approval, either. The Danish troops are under British command; he came to an agreement with Blair and Maliki. Our words mean nothing to anyone anymore. Lithuania only has 53 soldiers in Iraq, but even they are "seriously considering" withdrawal and just not coming back. South Korea remains fighting; so do Poland, Australia, Georgia, and Romania. For now. America, of course, is going to increase its troops, despite Congress's futile "nonbinding" resolution, which has all the effect of saying "We don't agree" and absolutely no action or consequences to follow. Bush is taking Baghdad under US responsibility; the coalition forces are mainly in the south, where there is no insurgency, no al-Qaeda, and very little sectarian violence.

Could the message be any clearer? No one in the world wants this war, except for America and Iran. This really is Vietnam all over again. We're helping a corrupt government fight a war they don't seem to want all that badly so that another nation won't have more influence than we do, and because of a false domino theory. Why doesn't Bush just go all-out and declare war on Shia Islam?

I'm Leaving Britney Alone Now

Britney Spears finally went into rehab. Remember when rehab used to be a sign that someone was getting help? Now all people can do is make fun of them. I hope Britney takes this a lot more seriously than Lindsay Lohan did. And I wish that people would just lay off of her now that she's really seeking help. It's just cruel to make fun of someone with genuine problems. There are so many other targets that deserve it more.

I see those harpies on The View, traitors to womankind each and every one of them, have been tearing at Britney's flesh. I like what Craig Ferguson had to say; he chose not to make fun of her after seeing the pictures of her with her head shaved. "For me, comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it," he told viewers Monday. "It should be about attacking the powerful — the politicians, the Trumps, the blowhards — going after them. We shouldn't be attacking the vulnerable."

I'm glad someone still has a soul.

Seriously, it actually breaks my heart a little bit to see Britney, only two years younger than my oldest sister, being mangled by the media and the bloggers who really think they're the media. I genuinely think Britney doesn't even like being famous anymore. People just won't let her not be. And she doesn't know how to live a normal life, because she hasn't had to for a very long time.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Health Report: Week 10

Well, there's good news, gross news, and bad news, in that order.

The good news is, I had a really good weekend. I'm starting to feel better about myself. I put myself back on my eating schedule and am more resolved than ever to stick to it. It's almost like this bout of depression was a good thing; I didn't realize how awful and sick I felt all the time before I started dieting. I can't believe it was ever this bad. But it was, I remember it. It's very easy to get that way. I'm waking up in the middle of the night now to cough because the junk in my body gets thrown back up into my esophagus from my acid reflux. So I'm back on my diet and I'm going to stick with it. All this crap needs to be out of my system. And besides that, I can still feel myself losing size, so I can see the results.

That ties into the gross news: this rash I have on my gut. I had one a year or more ago when I was gaining even more weight and becoming the monstrous creature I am now. Then, as my stomach rounded out more, it went away. I'm hoping that its return means the process is going in reverse, and that I'm shrinking more. It's gross, and it can't go away fast enough, but I really think it's happening because my gut is collapsing back down on itself. It's a good sign. You know, assuming I'm interpreting it correctly.

The bad news is, I'm still depressed. I have my mood swings still. I still wonder what the point is and why I'm even bothering. The difference right now is that I'm going forward with my plan instead of giving up. I feel like a big, worthless, unemployed drain with very few options. Everything I apply for, everything I send a resume for, no one has any interest in hiring me. I'm trying to move ahead with my writing career, but it's been slow. I still feel like I'm in this awful holding pattern that is going nowhere. I still think about suicide every day, because I think my not existing anymore would ultimately be a good thing for the people who have to deal with me on a daily basis. Because I'm not good for much. I still despise suicide, it's still the coward's way out, but I'm not feeling too brave these days.

There's a lot to be depressed about. People who hide things from me, people who aren't honest with me. People who are hostile and resentful to me. My sister Audrie has had a headache for a month, and the doctors can't figure out what's wrong with her. They did an MRI, and they still don't know. All I can think is that another few weeks it'll be exactly a year since my sister Ellen died. And I'm worried. I'm so worried.

I can't find a job. I found an organization that's willing to fly anyone with a bachelor's degree to Korea for a year to teach English. You don't even have to speak Korean. They'll pay to fly you there, they'll put you up, and they pay you. It's only $20,000, but it's $20,000 more than I'm pulling in right now. No one really seems to be making an effort to talk me out of it. No one has said "No, I don't want you to go." Even my mom doesn't seem interested in caring about it. Maybe a year away is what I need to center me. Maybe it's what everyone else needs to center them. A year away from me. If I'm not going to just shut up and die, I can still find away to remove the burden of me from them.

At the very least, it might be interesting to blog about.

Good night.

Scarlett Johansson Wears Big Black Nerd Glasses

I didn't think it was possible, but I just fell in love with her a little bit more.

The Founding Fathers on Democracy

"The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God, and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right." -- Alexander Hamilton

"It would be as unnautral to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colours to a blind man. The extent of the country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates." -- George Mason

"The people cannot know and judge the characters of the Candidates. The worst possible choice will be made." -- John F. Mercer

"Democracy means confusion and licentiousness." -- James McHenry

"The people immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled." -- Roger Sherman

"The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of the pretended patriots." -- Elbridge Gerry

"The people ever have been and ever will be unfit to retain the exercise of power in their own hands; they must of Necessity delegate it somewhere." -- William Livingston

There's always this talk, especially on the part of George W. Bush yesterday, of the "American dream of freedom" and how that was the whole point of the American Revolution. But the Founding Fathers didn't really believe in democracy any more than Bush does. It was the only thing they all agreed on: Democracy meant mob rule.

They did believe in consent of the governed. They favored a representative (republican) government. But they did not believe that the American public should play a role in the national government.

Thomas Jefferson did not use the word; not in the Declaration of Independence, nor in any speeches. Neither did Andrew Jackson. In their time, their party--the Republican party--believed in a republican government that was opposed to democracy; the considered the French Revolution and the following Reign of Terror to be a natural result of democracy, and argued that the government needed to be strong, representational, and with the consent of the people. But not to blindly follow the will of the people.

An Important Distinction

After catching him as a guest on last Friday's Real Time with Bill Maher, I edged my support a little bit closer to John Edwards in the race for the Democratic nomination. Of course, every Democrat who voted for the war is falling all over themselves to apologize by blaming the war on Bush and saying they were misled. Hilary Clinton is a big one on that word: "misled." And I suppose that's legitimate; I mean, President Duh was trying to mislead everyone into giving him his war. Senator Clinton very probably was misled.

But what I liked about Edwards is that he said something different. He said he was wrong. Technically, he said it two years ago, but he clarified it on Friday, saying that he failed himself and the country by not being more critical of the vote. He puts the personal responsibility for his vote on himself; Hilary Clinton puts the blame on someone else. And that's an important distinction for me. Someone willing to accept the blame for a bad decision is someone that I can have respect for. Because maybe there's a chance that he's not going to lie about other things, as well.

Charles R. Knight

Charles R. Knight is one of my favorite artists. I've written about him before and can't get enough of his work. A lot of his work is on display at Chicago's Field Museum, and I've been loving it since I was a kid. Now if I could just get some cash to order the two books and calendar they have about Knight...

Monday, February 19, 2007

I Am So Hard for This Movie

Rendezvous with Apophis

Suddenly, we're calling for the United Nations to save us? The UN hasn't been able to save jack so far, why do people suddenly think they can save the entire planet?

It goes like this: astronomers are monitoring Apophis, an asteroid that has a 1 in 45,000 chance of hitting the Earth on 13 April 2036. And people somewhere are apparently telling the United Nations that they should start working on some sort of space mission to deflect it.

The fact is, space isn't this vast emptiness. There are always rocks floating in space, whether asteroid, meteoroid, or comet; the ones closest to our planet are referred to as Near Earth Objects (NEO). NASA has a Congressional mandate to catalogue and track these NEOs, and so far (as of August 2006) 4,197 have been catalogued (and Apophis isn't even the biggest). 792 of those are considered potentially hazardous. Less than 30% of the sky above Earth still needs to be monitored. There are other groups, including the International Astronomical Union, who are also tracking NEOs; this joint effort is called Spaceguard, a term coined by Arthur C. Clarke in his seminal novel Rendezvous with Rama.

Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo 9 crew member, actually has plans to develop a blueprint for a global response that he's going to present to the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. He's part of the Association of Space Explorers, a group of former astronauts and cosmonauts who are working on this. And I wish them the best of luck getting anybody to listen. Because the UN is still hard up to do anything without American money, and America is still a place where the government pretends there's still a debate on global warming so that they don't have to divert any money from their pointless war.

We've had our near misses before, remember. On 23 March 1989, asteroid 4581 Asclepius missed the Earth by 400,000 miles. The asteroid was 1000 feet in diameter. If it had been six hours earlier, it would have hit us. Asclepius passed through the exact position the Earth had been in six hours earlier, and if it had hit us, none of us would be here debating this right now. That was a dinosaur-killer; it would've created the largest explosion in recorded history. Apophis is 460 feet long, but about 1050 feet in diameter. Just imagine the kind of damage we might be talking about.

And does it matter that Asclepius is still out there? Is it coming back? We don't know. There are a number of other asteroids that are known threats to the planet. Look at Asteroid (29075) 1950 DA. It was discovered in 1950, then scientists lost track of it. It was rediscovered in 2000. If it continues on its same course, it has the potential to hit the planet on 16 March 2880. That, too, would devastate civilization.

Too far in the future to worry about? Consider the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, which collided with Jupiter on 16 July 1994. If Jupiter had had any life, it would be gone now. The atmosphere in some places dissipated. The 21 impact spots were visible for months; more visible than the Great Red Spot.

Not close enough? Consider 2004's near miss. On 18 March 2004, a 100-foot asteroid passed within 26,500 miles of the planet; our own moon is ten times further away. Astronomers had only been able to detect it three days earlier. It was too small to be seen earlier. Not a planet killer, but the third-largest object ever to come closer to Earth than the Moon.

Apophis is 1050 feet in diameter. If you really want some comfort, consider that at that size, Apophis isn't technically an asteroid; it's a minor planet. But remember, there's only a small chance that it could hit the Earth. And that small chance means that there will be enough debating about it for people to feel comfortable doing nothing. And, admittedly, it's uncertain that anything even needs to be done. This isn't something anyone's going to get hysterical about anytime soon. In 29 years, America might probably still be arguing that it's perfectly natural for the temperature to be 75 degrees in February in Canada. New York might be underwater, and slimy politicians who think they're scientists and therefore don't have to listen to experts might still be saying "Let's just wait and see how many people die before saying global warming exists." I'm waiting for some American politician to decide that we should wait and see which nation Apophis is going to destroy before we agree to turn it away from the planet.

Your leaders just don't care about that sort of thing, or the 800 other potential bits of destruction around the planet. If Washington, DC, is going to have any interest in asteroids, one is going to have to wipe out a country club. In Clarke's novel, Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is created because an asteroid hits Italy. Clarke knows, perhaps better than I do, that people react to things after they've happened. They don't prevent anything.

In the age of Katrina, we all know.

The History of the Middle East

Part 14 in a series.

Islam Factioned

In 644 a new Caliph was elected: Othman. He was a Meccan noble of the Omayyad family; he was also elderly and a son-in-law of Mohammed. He favored members of his own family, which bred discontent until troops began to mutiny, and soldiers from Egypt finally stormed into Othman’s house and killed him in 656. The forced the election of Ali, another son-in-law of Mohammed, as the new Caliph.

The Omayyads, led by Muawiya, governor of Syria, refused to recognize Ali. But Ali was supported in Mesopotamia, where he took the Arab city of Kufa as his capitol. Syria and Mesopotamia soon fell into a civil war that represented Arabs against Persians. Despite the common religion, the two people would never merge into one. The war soon grew tiresome to many, and in 661 a conspiracy formed with the goal of killing the leaders on both sides. Ali was assassinated; Muawiya escaped and established himself as Caliph, moving the caliphate to Syria, centered at Damascus.

Ali’s followers tried to rally around his son, Hassan. But Hassan, scholarly and pious, wasn’t interested. Ali’s party bided their time in Kufa, waiting for Muawiya to die. When he finally did in 680, Ali’s younger son, Hosein, was invited to lead a new battle against the Omayyads. The battle was fought at Kerbela; Hosein was abandoned by his own men and killed. The party of Ali tried again to fight the Omayyads, in 700 and 740, failing both times. But their party continued, and today they are the Shiites (“partisans” of Ali). The Omayyads and their followers became the Sunnites (“orthodox”). Both sides consider themselves the true followers of Othman’s successor, and consider the other a heresy. Shiism remains an outlet for Persian nationalism.

The Abbasids

The Muslim Empire grew until, by 717, it spread from the east of Afghanistan to the Spanish peninsula, 5000 miles west (though not, of course, in an unbroken line). To this point in history, it was the largest land area ever to fall under a single rule. But the Arabs were finally checked that same year at Constantinople. Then, in 732, they met a crushing defeat at France. The Arabs would advance no further in territory. It had a negative impact on the popularity of the Omayyad Caliphate.

Enter a new faction: the Abbasids. They traced their ancestry back to al-Abbas, an uncle of Mohammed. They were Sunni, but had the support of the Shiites (who hated the Omayyads) as well as Sunnis who wanted a new leadership. In 749, their leader Abul-Abbas marched into Kufa and was proclaimed Caliph. The Omayyads fought with the Abbasids; the battle took place in the shadow of ancient Nineveh. The Omayyad Caliphate came to an end in less than a year, slaughtered nearly to a man; only one escaped to form a kingdom of his own in Spain which was not a part of the Muslim Empire.

The Abbasids chose a new capitol, one removed from Syria but not to close to the Shiite power base in Mesopotamia. They were very conscious of not alienating anyone. Kufa was too vulnerable; it was attacked by Mohammed, grandson of Hassan, who briefly opposed the Abbasids, even conquering Mecca, before meeting a violent end. The Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, built a new city. In 767 he chose to build on the village of Baghdad, just 20 miles north of Ctesiphon on the Tigris. Baghdad was built up at the expense of Ctesiphon, the capitol of the Arsacids and the Sassanids—the ancient city was used as a source of building materials for a new city; the largest city Mesopotamia had yet seen. In time, it became the greatest city in the world, ruling the entire Muslim world (except for Morocco and Spain, neither of which acknowledged the Abbasid Caliphate).

Harun al-Rashid

Al-Mansur’s son, al-Mahdi, officially recognized the Sunni doctrine. Abbasid power reached its peak in 769 under Harun al-Rashid, also called Aaron the Just. He fought a series of battles in Asia Minor against an aggressive Byzantine Empire, and was always successful. In 807, Haran had a diplomatic exchange with Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor. The world now saw four great powers: the Holy Roman Empire (controlled, in theory, by the Pope, but led by Charlemagne), the Byzantine Empire (which still thought of itself as the Roman Empire founded by Caesar Augustus), the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Omayyad kingdom in Spain. Charlemagne was at war with Spain and was a rival of the Byzantine Emperor. Harun al-Rashid was at constant war with the Byzantines and a rival of the Omayyad king. He and Charlemagne were natural allies.

Harun’s empire was prosperous, enlightened, and influential. With the exception of the Arabic language, Muslim civilization became more and more Persian. The chief advisors of the Abbasids were the Barmecides, a noble Persian family. Harun’s vizier (chief minister) was a Barmecide, Yahya; Yayha’s son Jafar was Harun’s best friend. The enemies of the Barmecides, however, managed to convince Harun that the family was a threat to the throne. Jafar was suddenly executed in 803; his family was imprisoned.

Legends grew around the friendship of Harun al-Rashid and Jafar, seeing them as figures who would disguise themselves so they could move among the people and correct injustices. The stories grew and were connected by legends of a queen, Scheherazade, who told the tales every night for two years. This was the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, and therefore Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad has always survived as a city of magnificent fairy tale splendor.

Harun was succeeded by his son al-Mamun in 813. He was cultured and very influenced by the Persians. He almost made his capitol in Persia, but the Arabs wouldn’t have it; an uprising called him back to Baghdad. Al-Mamun opened an academy in Baghdad that translated Greek works of science and philosophy. He also opened an astronomical observatory. One mathematician, al-Khwarizmi, wrote the first book on algebra, introducing the symbolic numerical system we use now. Begun in India, these so called Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4) were much easier to use than Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV), and quickly replaced them. The Muslim world continued to expand; Sicily and Crete were conquered. All of this was accomplished in the 20-year reign of Caliph al-Mamun the Great.

The Turks

Al-Mammun was succeeded by his brother, al-Mutasim, in 833. He chose for his bodyguard a retinue of Turks. Al-Mutasim left Baghdad, now a turbulent metropolis, to establish a royal residence at Samarra. He liked the relative quiet, and became withdrawn from the court and the affairs of the Empire, delegating authority in order to remain with his harem. His grandson, al-Mutawakkil, took the throne in 847 and tried to move his capitol to Damascus, but the people wouldn’t let him. His own son murdered him in 861; al-Mutawakkil was assassinated by his son’s Turkish guards. This was a moment of realization for the Turks—they could kill even the Caliph if they wanted to. For the next decade, anarchy took over as the Turks set up puppet rulers at their own will and whim, murdering them whenever they were done with them. It had the air of legitimacy, because the Caliphs were always Abbasids. If the Turkish factions had banded together, they might have become very powerful.

But the squabbling and infighting among the Turks led several provinces to break away. The emirs (governors) of each province took control of Tunis, Egypt, Syria, and Persia. By 870, the Caliph only had control of Baghdad.

The Muslim Empire was fracturing, and it was at this moment that two more factions arose. A Shiite sect, the Ismailists, began conquering sections of Mesopotamia and Syria while another, the Fatimids (descendents of Mohammed’s daughter Fatima), took over Egypt. Soon enough, the Abbasids became mere figureheads with no real power. Emirs in Mesopotamia began thinking about abolishing the caliphate altogether.

It was during this confusion that one group of Turks decided to take control.

To be continued.

Monday Funny

In, um, honor of President's Day.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Song of the Week: "Angie"

For Angela, whose birthday is today.

A Classical Sunday

This meme comes from Jaquandor at Byzantium's Shores. You're supposed to pick your favorite in each music category, and I'm not sure I can do it, but why not, eh?

Symphony: It's an obvious choice, but Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is one of the best things I've ever heard. Take a quiet morning, put in a CD (preferably one conducted by Georg Solti, which goes for just about anything), turn the volume way up, and play the fourth movement, "March to the Scaffold." It will blow the rafters off.

Tone Poem, or other non-symphony long-form orchestral work: Another obvious choice, probably, but I always get emotional when I hear Claude Debussy's soft, haunting Clair de lune.

Piano concerto: Shostakovich's Second in F Major. That's the one they used in Fantasia 2000; it's a nicely dramatic piece of work.

Violin concerto: The Lark Descending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It's technically not a concerto, but it's often lumped in with them, and it's just stunning.

Concerto for any wind instrument (flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, etc): George Gershwin's Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs.

Concerto for two or more soloists: Not a concerto, but I just want to shout out to Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. It's one of my favorite works, not least of which because it provides variations on a theme by Henry Purcell, whose works I adore. If you can get a version with no narration and just listen to it, it's amazing. There's some soloing in there.

Work or Musical Passage featuring each of the following instruments:
* Flute: Gabriel Faure's Fantasy.
* Oboe and English Horn: The baring English horns of Dvorak's New World Symphony.
* Clarinet: The opening of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
* Bassoon: The bit from Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.
* Saxophone: Not technically classical, but who doesn't love Dave Brubeck's "Take Five"?
* Horn: I like the discordant, terrifying horns in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
* Trumpet: The trumpets at the opening of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
* Trombone: Some nice passages in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.
* Tuba: Have to go with Rite of Spring again.
* Violin: How do I pick just one? Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre.
* Viola: "Ysobel," from Elgar's Enigma Variations.
* Cello: Wagner's Lohengrin, specifically the prelude. I like the swashbuckling sound of it.
* Double Bass: Paganini's Fantasy on a Theme by Rossini; that's cheating a little because it was originally written for the violin, but it's been transcribed for the double bass.
* Timpani: The scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth.

Overture or other short classical work (less than 12 minutes long): Mussorgsky's full version of St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain, with its vivid, themic depictions of good vs. evil, light vs. dark.

Work for Concert Band or Wind Ensemble: Leonard Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Piano sonata: Beethoven's "Pathetique."

Other unaccompanied: Chopin's Nocturne, Opus 9 No. 2 in E-flat major. Another obvious choice, but it's pretty.

Sonata with accompaniment or other music for only two instruments: Does The Devil's Trill Sonata by Tartini count?

Trio: Charles Ives's piano trio.

String quartet: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, although I can only think of Platoon now when I hear it. (Ah, who cares, Platoon's a great movie.)

Other quartet: All three of Brahms's piano quartet's, really.

Quintet: Beethoven's Storm quintet.

Other chamber music: Purcell's "Here the Deities Approve."

Latin choral work (mass, requiem, Stabat Mater, etc.): Anything JS Bach, I think.

Choral work in a language other than Latin: Britten's War Requiem.

Opera: The entirety of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Classical work composed after 1950: Copland's Appalachian Spring.

Classical work composed before 1650: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

Film Score: I could go on for hours, honestly, but I'll just say that my absolute favorite is Basil Poledouris's Conan the Barbarian. It stands as an orchestral work on its own without the film accompaniment.

TV theme: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Incredible Hulk, The Prisoner, the first Lost in Space theme, The Rockford Files, Doctor Who, and many others.

Song, Rock: Just one? Damn, man. My absolute favorite song is "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" by Mel Carter.

Song, blues: Muddy Waters, "I Just Want to Make Love to You"

Song, country: Willie Nelson, "Stardust"

Song, other: Other? Fine, I'm going to pick Brian Wilson's album Smile.

Guitar or lute, classical: I really don't have an answer for this one.

Guitar, rock, blues, country or other: It's tough to say just one, but I love the guitar in Frank Zappa songs, especially "Muffin Man."

Goofy novelty song: I like a lot of novelty songs, so I'm just going to pick "Fish Heads" by Barnes & Barnes.

Some extra categories were added by Tosy and Cosh.

Musical theater score: I would have to go back to Bernstein's West Side Story.

Song, musical theater: I really like "High Flying, Adored" from Evita.

Song, standard: It's hard to narrow to just one, but I'm going to say Hoagy Charmichael's "Stardust." There are great versions by Nat "King" Cole, Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, and many others.

Jazz, long-form: The entirety of Dave Brubeck's album Dave Digs Disney.

Jazz, short piece: Technically not jazz, but Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is still beautiful.

Jazz song: Gershwin's "Summertime." And I do like the way Scarlett Johansson sang it.

Christmas song: "O Holy Night." My favorite version is by Nat "King" Cole.

That took way longer than I thought it would...