Ancient Egyptians Knew How to Party

Here’s how the ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus describes the festivities surrounding a great festival held every year in honor of the goddess Bast, popular with both native Egyptians and foreign residents like Greek mercenaries and traders:

When they celebrate the festival in Bubastis, they do these things. Men and women sail there together, huge numbers of them in every boat. Some of the women shake rattles and some play flutes the whole way there; the rest sing and clap their hands. Whenever they sail by a city, they put in to shore and do the following: some of the women keep doing what I described, some call out tauntingly at the women in the city, some dance, and some stand up and hoist up their dresses. They do this at every city along the river.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.60

(My own translation)

Now, Herodotus was an outsider describing customs he didn’t entirely understand, and he certainly got some of his facts wrong. Still, many of the details he recounts of daily life in Egypt seem to have come from his own observations, and more than a few hold up on comparison with Egyptian literature and art. In any case it sure sounds like the ancient Egyptians knew how to have a good time!

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Quotes: Infohistory Is a Mess

Elizabeth Bear’s scifi novel Machine has a succinct sum-up of just some of the problems concerning information retrieval:

“Wait,” I said. “How can information decay?”

“They used to call it bit rot. Servers get taken down, data falls through the cracks and doesn’t get backed up. Physical substrates are destroyed or damaged, or degrade over time—especially the primitive ones. A holographic diamond is very durable but can’t be changed once it’s written to, and magnetic media only lasted a decan or so under ideal conditions.

“And even if the data is preserved somewhere, that somewhere might not be networked. If it’s networked, it might not be indexed. Even if it’s indexed, it might be half the galaxy away and take two or three ans for the file request to get there, be fulfilled, turn around, and come back. And then you might find out that you needed different files entirely.” He huffed with great satisfaction. “Infohistory is a mess.”

– from a discussion between Dr. Brookllyn Jens and the medical librarian AI Mercy in Machine by Elizabeth Bear [original emphasis]

Despite this being from a fictional work, it rings very true. My librarian heart was delighted to read an account that acknowledges not just the physical difficulties of dealing with old media—whatever shape that media might take, from cuneiform to CDs—but also the search-related problems. Metadata, or in case of libraries, the information about the items in the collection, doesn’t feature in stories very often. Also, it is why good reasearch librarians and archivists are worth their weight in gold.

Bear, Elizabeth. Machine. London: Saga Press, 2020, p. 203.

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A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

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Quotes: We Humans Need Cinema, as a Collective Experience

Director Denis Villeneuve (whom I know from Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) talks about the decision made by Warner Brothers to release their new movies concurrently in theaters plus their streaming platform in an interview with Variety:

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.

“Once the pandemic is over, theaters will be filled again with film lovers.

“That is my strong belief. Not because the movie industry needs it, but because we humans need cinema, as a collective experience.”

This is a hairy situation. I fully agree with Villeneuve in that the theater experience—both movies and traditional plays, not to mention concerts of all varieties—was created with the physical presence of masses in mind, and, indeed, it benefits enormously from our physicality.

Technology has drastically changed how many things can be achieved digitally instead of physically. However, the fact has not changed that we are physical beings and crave physical experiences. There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a story and hearing the crowd around you reacting to it with you. (Think of sports events if you’re a sports fan.)

At the same time, however, I cannot but applaud the decision from an accessibility point of view. Personally, I literally understand and enjoy movies much, much better when I can access subtitling or captioning (and this is before the reduced hearing that’s in my family’s genes has really affected me; subtitles will only get more important for me in the future). And despite the theaters Erik and I usually visited in the Before Times being physically accessible, I have also visited theaters that aren’t, or theaters that have inaccessible bathrooms, or theaters that have bad seating.

Of course, one doesn’t have to have a disability or chronic conditions to enjoy streaming brand new movies. Coming from a large family I know herding kids in and out of theaters isn’t always easy. And there have been times I might have wanted to see a movie, but it would’ve meant slogging back out after a long day, waiting for a bus to take me downtown (or riding my bike in the wind and the rain) and all of it back again afterwards, so instead I stayed comfortably home.

There are a number of ways in which streaming content immediately on release day will benefit ordinary folks of all kind. At the same time, I do hope, most fervently, that movies made for the big screen do not disappear. For me, like for Villeneuve, they’re one of the major cultural features of 20th and 21st centuries.

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Quotes: The Rigid Rules of My Life Were Stories

This is a thought that’s very easy to pass with a shrug and an “Of course”:

“It was ironic, wasn’t it, Solís? I was not even aware that the rigid rules of my life were stories, passed on from generation to generation because that’s all we knew. Tía Inez believed it, and la cuentista before her did, too. And so, we gave every cuentista of Empalme the same rules, the same restrictions, and we held them down, and we forced them into a life they couldn’t possibly have chosen.”

–Xochital in Mark Oshiro’s Each of Us a Desert [original emphasis]

But it gets very different very fast when you start thinking of everything, absolutely everything, that’s involved in your daily life. Start with how you’re brought up, kindergarten, school, and on. Or travel a bit further away from your home, or are able to talk with a stranger who trusts you with their life story.

For instance, I’m pretty sure that the sweater I’m wearing right now is “supposed” to be a boy’s. I saw it in a second-hand shop, liked the colors and print, liked the size, liked the price even more, and bought it. It’s a sweater; it kept me warm and left money in my pocket as a poor student. It still fits my “supposedly” “wrong” shape well enough after all the years I’ve had it. Who cares who is supposed to wear it?

Twitter CatCafeLiverpool Cat Fits Cat Sits

If it fits, I sits… err, wears. Me wearing this sweater isn’t hurting anything or anyone. But, of course, little things like an article of clothing can symbolically stand for larger issues, and those, as we all know, can really be thorny.

Humans really are storytelling animals.

Oshiro, Mark. Each of Us a Desert. New York: Tor, 2020, p. 374-5.

Images: Each of Us a Desert by Eppu Jensen. Cat in a box via Cat Cafe Liverpool.

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Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

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Quotes: A Human Being with Hope Can Continue on Far Longer

In The Light Brigade, what I consider her most mature work yet, Kameron Hurley gives her protagonist Dietz this monologue about hope’s role in shaping human behavior:

“There’s a huge mental release in knowing there is an end to pain. A human being with hope can continue on far longer than one without. Did you know those who are mildly depressed see the world more accurately? Yet they don’t live as long as optimists. Aren’t as successful. It turns out that being able to perceive actual reality has very little long-term benefit. It’s those who believe in something larger than themselves who thrive. We all seem to need a little bit of delusion to function in the world. That belief can be about anything, too. Could be a god, a corporation, a society, like our various militaries instill. A sense of belonging. Could be national pride. Or the desire to make the world a better place. Or see the world burn. Personal or political. But … something bigger. Something greater.”

– Dietz in Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade

We’re six to seven months into the covid-19 pandemic, depending on your definition of the epidemic start date in the western world. I could use some mental release right about now, and I know I’m not alone.

Alas, as far as we know, nothing specific is in the pipe to be released very soon. But there is hope!

Obi-Wan Patience

The good news is that by all accounts SARS-CoV-2 will respond to a vaccine. The bad news is that we need to wait and be patient, stay home as much as possible; and when we cannot, keep a safe distance, practice good sneezing hygiene, wear masks, and wash our hands.

Star Wars Stay on Target

Stay on target. Stay safe. We will prevail.

Hurley, Kameron. The Light Brigade. New York: Saga Press, 2019, p. 116.

Images: Obi-Wan Patience via Giphy. Stay on Target via Giphy.

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Quotes: I Like to Get Lost in a World

I’ve been struggling to put to words why I usually don’t like reading short fiction that much. Sean Guynes hit the spot exactly and succinctly:

“As a rule, I don’t particularly like short fiction. Before the gasps of heresy overtake me, let me explain: I like big stories, I like to get lost in a world, to become part of the milieu of characters the author is bringing to life. Short stories can offer this and many novels don’t.” [emphasis original]

– Sean Guynes at Tor.com

Bingo. I know that excellent short stories, novelettes, or novellas do exist. Indeed, I have read them, and even own some of the latter. It’s just that often there isn’t enough space to start appreciating the nuances of the world (or characters, especially) in shorter fiction.

At times, of course, it’s just a plain lack of skill on the part of an author, but that’s a whole another story.

Guynes, Sean. “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Part I: Le Guin’s Early Stories and Germinative Tales.” Tor.com, August 12, 2020.

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Quotes: Any Man Who Judges by the Group is a Pea-wit

We’ve been watching some Lincoln documentaries and movies plus various Lincoln-adjacent media recently. This LOL-worthy moment comes from the movie Gettysburg:

Gettysburg Pea-Wit

“Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit.”

– Sergeant Buster Kilrain in Gettysburg by Ron Maxwell

Context: union soldiers Sergeant Buster Kilrain (pictured) and Colonel Chamberlain were having a discussion on the racism that Black people experience. (Apparently this Kilrain is an invented character.)

Well, he put it concisely and politely!

I can’t say I knew much at all about the U.S. Civil War, but during this Lincoln spell of ours I have learned much, including about Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and feel very co-proud—their resilience at Little Round Top really reminds me of the Finnish Winter War. Go, small northern states with obstinate, resourceful populations!

Image: screencap from Gettysburg (1993; directed by Ron Maxwell, based on the book by Michael Shaara, screenplay by Ron Maxwell)

P.S. In case anyone’s interested, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a surprisingly good bad movie.

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Quote: Something that You Have Longed For Without Hope

If something happens that you have longed for and desired without
hope, it is a blessing to your soul.
So it is a blessing to us, more precious than gold,
that you long for me again, Lesbia.
You long for me without hope; you bring yourself back
to me. What a red-letter day!
Who leads a happier life than mine? Who can say
that life has given him a greater gift?

– Catullus, Poems 107

(My own translation)

I think a lot of us now know what it is like to long for something almost without hope, even if it is not for the return of a former lover. One thing I have longed for this past spring is the long days of summer when the sun lingers in the sky and we can enjoy warm evening breezes.

Whatever it is you are longing for now, I hope this summer brings it to you.

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