Frankly, if this were any lesser journal than Nature I’d be VERY skeptical. But….

“In a recent paper in Geology, Marc-Andre Gutscher of the European Institute for Marine Studies in Plouzané gives details of one candidate for the lost city: the submerged island of Spartel, west of the Straits of Gibraltar.

“The top of this isle lies some 60 metres beneath the surface in the Gulf of Cadiz, having plunged beneath the waves at the end of the most recent ice age as melting glaciers caused the sea level to rise.

“Geological evidence has shown that a large earthquake and a tsunami hit this island some 12,000 years ago, at roughly the location and time indicated in Plato’s writings”.

Rich Writers?

And while we are on doom and gloom– where does the idea that writers are rich come from? 2Blowhards sent me to Conversational Reading’s post on Writing and Money that has some true and funny things to say on the subject.

“They had their names on the cover of a book, thus they were wealthy.

“Even more strangely, this idea persists right up to this day, when I know much better than to expect that even 1% of all published authors can scrape together any kind of a living off their work. Of course, as Dan Green points out, the idea of the wealthy novelist is complete bunk. In fact, poverty is such a fact of a writer’s life that it’s hardly even worth noting”.

For any readers who do not know me: in the current state of writing, I make so little I could not exist in a more expensive environment than Magdalena, and even here, we need Libby’s job and drive vehicles more than ten years old (one is almost 20).

And it’s universal. I know all of TWO rich writers who weren’t born that way.

Pessimism and gloom

The indispensible Derbyshire found this quote from Macaulay on Dr. Johnson that perfectly describes the pessimistic cast of mind, which I think he and I (often) share, and cheerfully offers it up for our inspection:

“A deep melancholy took possession of him, and gave a dark tinge to all his views of human nature and of human destiny. Such wretchedness as he endured has driven many men to shoot themselves or drown themselves. But he was under no temptation to commit suicide. He was sick of life; but he was afraid of death; and he shuddered at every sight or sound which reminded him of the inevitable hour. In religion he found but little comfort during his long and frequent fits of dejection, for his religion partook of his own character. The light from heaven shone on him indeed, but not in a direct line, or with its own pure splendour. The rays had to struggle through a disturbing medium; they reached him refracted, dulled and discoloured by the thick gloom which had settled on his soul, and, though they might be sufficiently clear to guide him, were too dim to cheer him.”

Mongolian Freedom

More from the always thoughtful Nabetz at New Mongols. I have made extensive excerpts, but as the Professor says you should Read The Whole Thing. (Actually you should read the whole blog). I really like Nabetz’ undogmatic take on private property– perhaps a Mongolian heritage. I know I have seldom felt as free as when riding on the plains there– it makes even my wide- open home seem closed in by comparison.

“One of the singular impressions I have of Mongolia is the ability to simply walk anywhere and everywhere and not encounter that most ubiquitous of American institutions, the fence. This creates a number of interesting scenes: cows meandering through Erdenet’s downtown streets being one of the most distinctive. But more than that, it creates a very open society charactarized by community, liberality, and shared effort.

“…there are legitimate objections to land-privatization in Mongolia (or anywhere else) . To wit, there are (to simplify grossly) three: First, it goes against traditional Mongolian notions of land use. Second, it would create instability in the livelihoods the well over half of Mongolia’s population that derives its subsistance from nomadic herding. Third, it would go a long way toward destroying an ancient, thriving, and irreplacable culture.

“Let’s face it. It’s easy to be dogmatic when facing such issues. But when you have a tie to the land, it’s anything but philosophical. It’s intensely visceral. For a man’s land is inseperable from his land, his soil, his hearth. And for the Mongolian nomad, that land, that soil, that hearth, is the entire steppe as it billows and rolls under the the eternal blue sky.

“The beauty of blogging is that it’s always a work in process. Just like my view on land-privatization in Mongolia. What makes Mongolia so beautiful in many regards is the fact that the land is for all intents and purposes communal (where the word communal carries no political baggage). Quite literally, it’s possible to walk or ride from one end of Mongolia to the other without a fence getting in one’s way. The kind of life and view on life that this creates (or was created by it) is breathtakingly unique. The only thing I can think of to parallel this phenomenon in my own experience is that of the American Indian or the cowboys and cattle-drivers in bygone American epochs (I grew up in Montana). I suppose there are snatches of such open space in other places throughout the earth–northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, both poles. But there’s no place quite like Mongolia where the wide open steppe and taiga and desert is so tied up with a living and widespread culture. The world, not least the Mongolians, would lose something of incalculable worth–their very historic identity–were their country to go the way of all flesh and chop its land into little parcels and hedge them about with barbed wire fences.

“In the final analysis, an ownership society and with it land-privatization is apparently the only way forward for Mongolia. But at the cost of the culture? Of the land? Of this generation of Mongolians? They know and we know that there is a choice to be made. Unfortunately, there’s no easy decision. We can only hope for the best as Mongolia plots its course for the future”.

Naadam Wussies

In the spring, on the steppes outside Ulaan Bataar in Mongolia, thousands of people gather to witness a wild 20- mile childrens’ horse race.

Now U.N. bureaucrats want to force the kids to wear helmets. Nabetz of New Mongols, a Mongolian- American blogger (?– he grew up in Montana, but has relatives in Mongolia) so good he goes instantly to the blogroll, has many pungent things to say, and I’ll quote him at length:

“Naadam, one of the world’s oldest games festivals, recently ended for this year. One western journalist, Oliver August of The Times (London), finds something to complain about. The children jockeys don’t wear helmets. Here’s a bit from his article, “It’s the world’s longest race, and child welfare is last – as always” (um, by the way, why is this article called “news”; shouldn’t it be “opinion”):

“…. Unicef, the international children’s agency, has now called on the Mongolian Government to make helmets mandatory. “We have strong reservations with regards to the racing because it poses a threat to the health of the children,” a spokesman said”.

(Nabetz):” “There’s a lot I could say. But has this guy ever been on a horse? Does he know that nomad kids start riding before they can walk? They’re practically born on horses. But Oliver August knows better than they. And so do does UNICEF. They want helmets for the racers. This is only a 20 miles race and lasts only a few minutes–but a infinitesimal fraction of the time and miles that the kids have and will spend on horseback as part of the family livelihood. Does UNICEF want kids to wear helmets when they’re herding the family sheep, too? When they’re riding out on the steppe to visit friends? What about the kids who ride camels? They might fall further, no? Should they have to wear a safety harness, too?”

[ I might add: how do they think the kids GOT there?–SB]

(Nabetz): “This is the way it should be. The Mongolians just recently got out from under a system in which people’s lives were controlled down to what you did, what you read, what you thought, how long you lived. It was a system called communism. It’s over now, and now the Mongolians are living freely and easily as they did since time out of memory. If this horse-mounted culture wants to start wearing helmets, it’s up to them. It’s their country.

“The story ends with what must be a sad ending for the meddling “child welfare” people, but it’s a beautiful ending for the proud Mongolians and freedom loving people everywhere:

“The thought of government intervention is anathema to most nomads. Property rights are unknown on the grasslands, as are fences or signs on the few roads. The Government is absent from their lives and always has been” “.

New World Founding Fathers (and Mothers)

This highly technical genetic paper, from the excellent Public Library of Science online, seems to suggest that the entire “native” population of the New World may decend from only seventy or eighty people!

Of course that doesnt mean that there weren’t others who may have left no descendants, as Matt Mullenix has suggested…

I’d be curious what Reid Farmer (or any other archaeologists out there ) think.

“Because of the morals of the maids”…

Davidson’s book also sent me to my battered copy of David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified — the one book you must have if you want to hunt mushrooms– for this anecdote by the Victorian memoirist Gwen Raverat about the smelly, phallic, stinkhorn mushroom. (“Aunt Etty” was Darwin’s daughter!)

“In our native woods there grows a kind of a toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name [Phallus– SB]. This name is justified, for the fungus can be hunted by scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty’s greatest invention: armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way around the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and then poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing room fire, with the door locked, because of the morals of the maids”.

Don’t know if it’s as catchy as Derbyshire’s (and Nabokov’s) favorite H. G. Wells quote “On account of the flies”, but I like it…


I have been slowly reading Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food, a delightful, encyclopedic, opinionated, (and sometimes wrongheaded) book, and came across what I believe is the single weirdest food I have ever heard about. To quote Davidson:

“…..the only English name for fungi of the genus Cordyceps. These grow, oddly, on live insects or worms.One of them, C. robertsi, is eaten in China and Tibet, where it has mysterious names such as the Chinese tung chong ha cho, meaning ‘winter worm summer grass’ (sometimes shortened to tung chong cho, which translates even more puzzlingly as ‘winter worm grass’).

“The explanation of these names is that during the winter the fungus grows only inside its host. In the summer, however, it produces an exterior growth. So what appeared to be, and was, a live worm or larval insect can change into something which looks like and is a kind of plant.Tibetans believe that this is a real metamorphosis, and that the ‘insect- plant’ can move around as they hunt for it; but what has happened is that the fungus first consumes the nutrients provided by its host and only then, having thus killed it, sends up the brown stalk which is what can be seen above ground….

“The dried stalks, because they are hard to find, are expensive. In China they have a reputation as a restorative and aphrodisiac, and it is therefore customary to eat them in a rich chicken broth in the late evening”.


Enough doom and gloom! I’ll try to get some book and bio- blogging up this weekend, circumstances permitting– but meanwhile, here is a cheerful excerpt from Peculiar on the production of Turandot at the Santa Fe Opera (though come to think of it, it is also about scary Chinese).

“Turandot last night was awesome! It helped that we arrived in leisurely and luxuriant fashion, enjoying a tailgate meal of rice and squid and ginger beer beneath the aforementioned Miltonian atmosphere. Jack wore her lovely chinoiserie gown, with green and purple eye makeup that made her look like a sorceress in a Kung-Fu movie, or possibly a cuttlefish (I find both attractive): an apt outfit for an odd, out-of-control opera production. Most newspapers who have reviewed this Turandot have done nothing but complain and whine about the lurid staging, but they just don’t want to have fun. One does not go to Turandot for subtle, understated realism; lurid is the whole essence of both plot and music.

“The first act staging must have been a real joy for the props guys: there were six or seven severed heads on stakes around the stage, each with individual facial features and clearly in several stages of decomposition. The costumes were pretty far out, in eye-watering colors, a sort of Manchurian tyranny cum space barbarian aesthetic. It all made me think of John Derbyshire’s description of a Brittany Spears concert: “The sort of entertainment provided by the gaudier kind of Oriental despot for the enjoyment of the coarser kind of barbarian conqueror.”

“Hallucinatory though it was, the production did achieve a real creepiness, an undeniable and horrifying sense of just how twisted Peking had become through Turandot’s murderous virginity. Timur, Calaf and Liu seemed very isolated and far from home in their subtler, more elegant costumes: unnerved strangers speaking sense (well, Timur and Liu anyway) amidst a hideous culture obsessed with ritual torture. “We’ll embroider your skin with our knives.”

“The Chinese aren’t all bad, of course. Ping, Pang and Pong were really excellent, singing with vim and wearing hats with long feathers that I will covet for the rest of my life. Their numbers added genuine comic relief while adding a measure of creepiness at the same time: “Well, let’s go enjoy another torture.” Their nostalgia for pre-Turandot China was serendipitously present in the vocally lethargic Emperor, who came across as though he very much wished he were emperor of absolutely anywhere else. I couldn’t help but imagine him thinking, “Beheading my daughter’s suitors sounded like a corking idea when she brought it up, and the first eight or ten were sure a lot of fun, but they keep coming, the heads are taking over the palace, they sing in the night… Whatever’s to be done?!”

“It was a loony production, but Jack and I loved it, and Odious would have too. The two leads were excellent singers, really belting out the Wagnerian bits; Liu’s voice was tender and lovely and sympathetic and really made Calaf look like an ass; Timur was perfect. My only gripe was the somewhat ponderous choreography, which often required Calaf to belt out his money notes facing 180 degrees away from the character he was addressing. But overall, well, the opera’s wonderfully bonkers to begin with, and I am not at all disappointed to have seen an equally bonkers production”.