Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wordless Speech

No, this is not an Indus Script post, though, in a way, it is about language. Spoken language, that is.

Take away all words from a speech or a conversation and what are you left with? This.

Click on the example titled "Strangers on a train", which is a well-known scene from a Hitchcock film. Compare to the original (find it on YT), take notes and discuss why words are neither necessary nor desirable. Using smoke signals or Harappan seals, preferably.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Indus Script, Continued

Rahul blogs about the recent brouhaha over the Indus Script. (Hey, it's his blog and you will read words like "Markov chains" and "conditional entropy" :))

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fish, Arrow, Fish, Jar, Two Fish, Arrow

Very old chicken scrawl not chicken scrawl after all.

There is now evidence that the Indus Script could have been a real language. A photo essay, with pictures of those famous seals, provides a short and simple background to this interesting new development.

Why is it a big deal? Of the oldest known systems of written language, the Indus Script remains the only one not deciphered. Of course, there is much controversy over whether or not the Harappans had a real script.

There's even a "dictionary" of Indus Script "words" on, so now you *really* have no reason to suck at Scrabble.

I find this whole business of combining computer science, pattern recognition, history, archeology and linguistics simply fascinating. It raises a whole bunch of questions that start with Science and History and go into the metaphysical and existential.

For example, how does a scientist know, just by observing repetitive patterns, that there is a language or a method behind the code? At a more basic level, what is language and why was it necessary for Sumerians or the Chinese to develop a written system? How on earth did they get to agree on a set of symbols? How did Indus seals show up in Mesopotamian cities? Was written language primarily a tool for trade and commerce? If there were no written languages, what would the 21st century look like? (Via)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Best Thing I Learned This Weekend

"Scaphism" (courtesy this short but grisly and fascinating op-ed piece in the Times.)

Read the Wikipedia entry on the word and I guarantee you will never think of the words "milk and honey" the same way again.

Yes, ??!, the Death Month continues here.

Who Orders A Burro In A Chinese Restaurant?

This priceless pun deserves to be rescued from the dark, swirling backwaters of the comment box of a blog:

"What’s the difference between NYC and Dunhuang?

In NYC they have restaurants in boroughs, in Dunhuang they have burros in restaurants."

You will have to read Black Mamba's post to understand the context.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Left In The Sun To Die"

"They say the 11-year-old was being punished by her teacher for not reciting the alphabet properly."
Oh Lord. That was her crime? She was only eleven. (Link to BBC)

There's an entire website devoted to study of such punishment. The site claims it is not designed to "promote particular opinions about corporal punishment". Ignore that for a second and let me point out an interesting observation from the site about corporal punishment in Indian schools:
"It should be noted that the phrase "corporal punishment" is being used particularly loosely in the Indian subcontinent. The "horror stories" about so-called CP that are routinely quoted in support of these various bans, involving pupils being injured by untrained angry teachers who lash out violently on the spur of the moment, have nothing to do with proper formal corporal punishment."
I agree. Bashing a child's head into a desk is not corporal punishment. Leaving a child, an epilepsy patient, out in the hot Delhi sun for 2 hours is not corporal punishment. It's your good old sick-as-fuck torture.

But "proper formal corporal punishment"? What? Is that when the teacher first instructs the class on the virtues of discipline, reads them their Rights, apologizes in advance for the pain and only then proceeds to rip the skin off their hands and legs?

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I think The Economic Times has just outdone itself. See headline and story excerpt in the image below.

Somehow, I can see Manmohan Singh at a security briefing with the Pakistanis and getting into a serious debate over whether Goofy and Minnie are an item.

If the editors at Economic Times are taking requests, can we get a serious economic analysis with the headline "Huey, Dewey and Louie finally decide on orange caps"?

He Not Busy Being Born. He Busy Listening To Celine Dion

According to this article on AFP, "My way" is the top musical request at funeral services but songs like "Highway to hell" (oh yeah), "Another one bites the dust" (umm...great song, but a little too on-the-nose, isn't it?) and "Hallelujah" (of course) are also becoming popular.

Go read what else people want played at their funeral service. A little research brings up Douglas Adams' final "playlist". Classy guy, all the way.

By the way, if you don't have a deathbed playlist yet and need some inspiration, Saturday, April 18 is Record Store Day.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Felice Brothers

When a band names its album after a phrase from a Mark Twain story, you know they are bound to be very interesting :)

OK, so some of you probably discovered the Felice Brothers a year ago but I heard them for the first time only a few days back and was deeply impressed by the singing and the lyrics. Some lovely roots-rock from the region that gave us "Basement Tapes", though the band categorically denies ever having heard that album.

Download "Run chicken run" from this blog to hear what I am talking about. (Look for the "exclusive download" link on the left panel on that blog.) You can also listen to (and download) "Penn Station" here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What's Purple And Swims In the Ocean?

I had long been embarrassed by the fact that though I consider myself a fan of acid rock and psychedelic music, I had never really heard a Moby Grape album. (While I am at it - I have also not read Pynchon or Proust.)

Their name - which still sounds funny and surreal after four decades - pops up in any conversation about the mid-/late- Nineteen-Sixties' music and the San Francisco scene but you don't find their albums in stores, in people's collections or even played occasionally on college radio stations.

The band inspired and influenced many musicians (Led Zeppelin, for one) and musical genres, from country-rock to Southern Rock to that indie, psychedelic-folk sound of the recent times. (Some idiot on Wikipedia compares them to Poco and the Eagles.)

Ask any "classic rock" fan about Grape and chances are, he knows *some* trivia about them and it usually has to do with their legendary personnel woes.(Links to The Hangar, Salon and NPR.)

But their music itself has almost been completely ignored.

So to to fill this personal musical gap, I got a copy of "Moby Grape '69". Going by some online opinions, I should have got the much-praised debut album, but this album did not disappoint at all. In fact, it is fantastic.

Turns out that in 1969, the Beatles were not the only musicians readying themselves to make one final record as a real, united band. Moby Grape was coming apart too and wanted to get their act together. (Unlike the Beatles, they had been together for only two or three years in '68/'69.) Of course, "Moby Grape '69" is not "Abbey Road" - nothing is - but it is just as timeless, never mind the year in the album's title. Songs like "It's a beautiful day today" and Skip Spence's harrowing "Seeing" should be on more iPods.

BTW, if you are in the mood for silly, trippy, nonsensical psychedelia, this is not that album. This album is really a mix of blues, soul, country, folk and that late-Sixties vibe which can be heard on Stones' albums from the same period.

But what prompted me to post this is not the desire to play Rock Historian. Instead, I wanted to share the original liner notes to the album, written by legendary producer David Rubinson. Even if you don't care much for rock 'n roll, do read the text below. I doubt if such sincerity has ever been seen on the back of a rock album - whether in the Sixties or now.

"In this country, where artistry is so often a function of greed, where the creative imagination finds its wildest expression pushing those nose drops and aluminum foil, and where so few can think, but everybody can count, the story of Moby Grape is an American classic. For their story reflects in clearest detail what life is really like for any group in "The Music Business", and thereby, in miniature, what life is like for the artist in America.

Few recording acts get the initial build-up which the Grape got when they started. They themselves demanded the enormous hype - I know this, I was there - but they didn't know what they had started (nor did I), and, logically, they couldn't ever live up to their notices. They chose to substitute notoriety. They became defensive - self destructive - in an attempt to reconcile the publicity blurbs (which no artists ever really think they deserve) with they, in their typical artistic insecurity, thought to be deprecatory truth.

Let there be no mistake: they demanded the hype, they were greedy and they didn't trust their enormous talents. They lost all faith in themselves and stopped loving their music, stopped respecting each other. Music became a function of money and fame. They fell apart. The hangers-on, middlemen, entrepreneurs, advisors, and most everyone else predictably drifted to the newest hype. Alone, they could fall back on nothing but their music.

This album represents an attempt to retrieve all that was once so honest and easy and simple. It symbolizes the very amazing truth that through all the incredible nonsense of the past two years, the group is still together, still functioning, writing, playing, rehearsing. They are, in fact, starting all over again.

We have promised each other: no more gimmicks, no more hypes, no egos, nothing ever again but the music and the mutual respect and feeling from which the music springs - pure, honest and with a most hopeful eye to the future." - David Rubinson.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Everyone's A Comic These Days

Poster advertising an Easter concert: "We're bringing sexy Bach". I'm afraid to go in there.

And then, a religion-themed pun on the back of a car: "My other vehicle is the Mahayana".

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Same As The Old Boss? So Soon?

BILL MOYERS: To hear you say this is unusual because you supported Barack Obama, during the campaign. But you're seeming disillusioned now.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, certainly in the financial sphere, I am. I think, first, the policies are substantively bad. Second, I think they completely lack integrity. Third, they violate the rule of law. This is being done just like Secretary Paulson did it...
(emphasis mine)

Watch the video, read the transcript and then decide for yourself if this administration is being transparent and honest in its handling of this "moral crisis", as William Black describes the current financial mess.

Oh, and thank you, New York Times, for devoting so much space on Michelle Obama's fashion sense in today's paper.

If you want to be truly outraged about the media establishment, watch this story on Bill Moyers' site (and be grateful that we still have Stewart and Colbert).