Thursday, May 29, 2008

The original Indiana Jones

As Indiana Jones returns to our screens, John Preston looks at the Nazi archaeologist who inspired Spielberg's hero, and finds a story more bizarre than anything the director could have dreamt of. (Telegraph via

Very little is certain in the short life of Otto Rahn. But one of the few things one can with any confidence say about him is that he looked nothing like Harrison Ford. Yet Rahn, small and weasel-faced, with a hesitant, toothy smile and hair like a neatly contoured oil slick, undoubtedly served as inspiration for Ford's most famous role, Indiana Jones.

Like Jones, Rahn was an archaeologist, like him he fell foul of the Nazis and like him he was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail - the cup reputedly used to catch Christ's blood when he was crucified. But whereas Jones rode the Grail-train to box-office glory, Rahn's obsession ended up costing him his life.

However, Rahn is such a strange figure, and his story so bizarre, that simply seeing him as the unlikely progenitor of Indiana Jones is to do him a disservice. Here was a man who entered into a terrible Faustian pact: he was given every resource imaginable to realise his dream. There was just one catch: in return, he had to find something that - if it ever existed - had not been seen for almost 2,000 years.

What we can say for sure is that Rahn was born in 1904 and at an early age became fascinated with the Holy Grail. At university he was inspired by the example of another German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. Largely as a result of immersing himself in the Iliad, Schliemann had found what he believed to be the ruins of Troy on the western coast of Turkey.

read the rest from

Saturday, May 3, 2008

France celebrates 2CV (along with Uros Bobic)

It's 60 years since the rustic, quirky "deudeuche" was offered to an initially unimpressed public and it's 18 years since the last of five million left the assembly line. You don't see many around any more but the intrepid little 2CV is the object of fond memory for anyone lived those decades. If you're one of them and around Paris, it's worth a visit to the show that the Cité des Sciences has just opened in homage to the little car.

In the post-war years, Italy had its Fiat 500, Germany its VW Beetle and Britain, a little later, its Mini. The Gallic motoring icon was la deudeuche, or the deux-pattes (two paws), as the two-horse car was also nicknamed. The 2CV Expo Show offers a parade of deudeuches through the decades, from the austere, grey-only 1948 model to the retro-chic "Charleston" of the 1980s.

read the rest at Charles Bremner's at Times online (via

Great storytelling (via 3quarksdaily)

I remember talking to Roddy Regan few years ago how the art of storytelling died out, but check out the fab Google Earth novel at We Tell Stories.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Golden State Warriors

Man, it looks like Baron Davis and the lot are getting tired. I hope it's just a short thing, but it seems like Denver are getting their act together and if Warriors don't win tonight against the Lakers it's going to be hard to hold on to the eighth spot (the Nuggets should win tonight in Toronto).
Although I do still believe the Warriors could climb to the seventh if Dallas continue to fall, Chris Webber is not coming back any time soon, Biedrins isn't healthy, Matt Barnes seems a little out of it lately, and Captain Jack is just not rebounding enough.
A win in LA would be huge.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Charles Simic on the independence of Kosovo

The Troubled Birth of Kosovo
by Charles Simic

The decision of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and a number of other countries to break with international law, which regards the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states as sacrosanct, and to permit Albanian separatists in Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia was an act so extraordinary in international relations that it had to take place outside the United Nations, where its illegality would have been hard to justify. The excuse given for this initiative is that the ethnic cleansing and humanitarian catastrophe caused by Serbia in 1999 exempted the countries that hurried to recognize Kosovo on February 17, 2008, from the rule stipulating that international borders can be changed only with the agreement of all parties.

After congratulating the Kosovars on their independence, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained that this was to be "a special case," the sole exception ever to the rule of territorial integrity of nations under international law, and that separatists elsewhere ought not to look upon this act as a precedent. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Slovakia, Malta, Bulgaria, and Romania—nearly a third of the member states of the European Union—were unimpressed by her explanation and have so far refused to recognize Kosovo. They also doubt that the brutal treatment of Kosovars by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is the only reason for the United States' decision. As is almost always the case when it comes to the Balkans, a local dispute has been used by the great powers to advance their own national interests, which have little to do with the desire to have justice done.

"Had Kosovo declared its independence two years ago, when the Russians barely cared about what was going on in the Balkans, the process would have been easier," an Albanian wrote to The Boston Globe the other day. He's right. The Serbian loss of Kosovo was inevitable, not because Serbs do not have legal and historical rights to the province, but because Albanians, after their own turn at ethnic cleansing since 1999, outnumber them there ten to one and have no intention of being ruled by them ever again. Moreover, a lot of Serbs know, though they won't say it publicly, that having two million Albanians who hate your guts under the same roof is not a sensible option.

Read the rest of the piece from The New York Review of Books

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The pilot who shot down Antoine de Saint-Exupery

How a German wartime flying ace discovered he shot down his hero

A German fighter ace has just learned that one of his 28 wartime 'kills' was his favourite author.

Messerschmidt pilot Horst Rippert, 88, said he would have held his fire if he had known the man flying the Lightning fighter was renowned French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupery (in the photo).
The fliers clashed in the skies over southern France in July 1944.

"He was below me," said Rippert. "I saw his markings, manoeuvred myself behind him and shot him down.
"If I had known it was Saint-Exupery, I would never have shot him down. I loved his books.
"I knew he was a French pilot, but he was probably my favourite author at the time."

Saint-Exupery published eight books before his death, including The Little Prince, which has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Rippert gunned down 28 Allied planes during the war and found out about Saint-Exupery only from a historian who is writing the author's biography.

"I am shocked and sorry," the ex-Luftwaffe pilot said yesterday. "Who knows what other great books he would have gone on to write?"

Via to The Mail article.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

David Mamet: Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'

Conversion of David Mamet (via Village Voice & Guardian)

"John Maynard Keynes was twitted with changing his mind. He replied, "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?"
I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it."

Read the rest of Mamet's essay in Village Voice, and the comment on Guardian's site.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"Raj, Bohemian" by Hari Kunzru (via New Yorker)

We liked to do things casually. We called at the last minute. We messaged one another from our hand-held devices. Sometimes our names were on exclusive guest lists (though we were poor, we were beautiful, and people liked to have us around), but often we preferred to do something else—attend a friend’s opening, drink in after-hours clubs or the room above a pub, trek off to remote suburbs to see a band play in a warehouse. We went dancing whenever we felt like it (none of us had regular jobs), and when we didn’t we stayed in, watching movies and getting high. Someone always had something new or special—illegal pre-releases of Hollywood blockbusters, dubs of 8-mm. shorts from the nineteen-seventies. We watched next summer’s exploding airplanes, Viennese Actionists masturbating onto operating tables. Raw meat and Nick Cage. Whatever we watched was, by definition, good, because we’d watched it, because it had belonged—at least, temporarily—to us. By the time the wider world caught up—which always happened, sooner or later—we’d usually got bored and moved on. We had long since given up mourning the loss of our various enthusiasms. We’d learned to discard them lightly. It was the same with clubs and bars. Wherever we went would be written about in magazines three or four months later. A single mention on a blog, and a place that had been spangled with beautiful, interesting faces would be swamped by young bankers in button-down shirts, nervously analyzing the room to see if they were having fun.

I must make it clear that we didn’t plan for our lives to be this way. We despised trendies—fashion kids who tried too hard, perennially hoping to get hosed down by the paps or interviewed about their hair. With us, it wasn’t a neurotic thing. We put on public events—salons, gigs, parties, shows. But once in a while, in the midst of our hectic social gyrations, we liked to do something for one another, something that didn’t drain our energy, that made us feel private again.

read the rest of the story here, i thought it was a great, original little tale of consumerism and advertizing.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Travel time: site catchment, isochrones

Via Infosthetics

A series of travel maps showing the distance and time taken to the Department for Transport in London. the interactive maps compare house prices to travel time, driving vs public transport (in Edinburgh), and bicycling vs public transport.

link: &

see also: travel time tube map & time-based subway map.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Medieval Mosque Shows Amazing Math Discovery

From Discover (via 3quarksdaily):
The never-repeating geometry of quasi crystals, revealed 500 years early

The mosques of the medieval Islamic world are artistic wonders and perhaps mathematical wonders as well. A study of patterns in 12th- to 17th-century mosaics suggests that Muslim scholars made a geometric breakthrough 500 years before mathematicians in the West.

Peter J. Lu, a physics graduate student at Harvard University, noticed a striking similarity between certain medieval mosque mosaics and a geometric pattern known as a quasi crystal—an infinite tiling pattern that doesn’t regularly repeat itself and has symmetries not found in normal crystals (see video below). Lu teamed up with physicist Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University to test the similarity: If the patterns repeated when extended infinitely, they couldn’t be true quasi crystals.

Most of the patterns examined failed the test, but one passed: a pattern found in the Darb-i Imam shrine, built in 1453 in Isfahan, Iran. Not only does it never repeat when infinitely extended, its pattern maps onto Penrose tiles—components for making quasi crystals discovered by Oxford University mathematician Roger Penrose in the 1970s—in a way that is consistent with the quasi crystal pattern.

Among the 3,700 tiles Lu and Steinhardt mapped, there are only 11 tiny flaws, tiles placed in the wrong orientation. Lu argues that these are accidents possibly introduced during centuries of repair. “Art historians always suspected there must be something more to these patterns,” says Tom Lentz, director of Harvard University Art Museums, but they were never examined with “this kind of scientific rigor.”

check out the cool videos to see the Darb-i Imam and other patterns

Friday, January 11, 2008

Historical photography

Just read this one, took me about half an hour, and it's fantastic.
It is a great exploration into the origins of a famous photography (via Junk Charts and Errol Morris' blog), but with a fine archaeological - and also forensic/detective - method. Errol Morris (of Fog of War and Thin Blue Line factuals fame) digs deep to get at the bottom of the controversy, and the whole journey is fundamentally archaeological, with all the intricacies, doubts, and dilemmas that surround archaeological interpretation.
Find here the link to the whole text.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.