The Gospel of The Rock

September 15th, 2009

I've been reading a bit recently about the early Christian church, inspired (in an odd twist) by my adoption of "eremite" and "cenobite" as alterna-curse-words. If my three year old hears me call some dimwit on the freeway an "eremitic cenobite" and repeats the epithet at day care, well, that's just fine.

Yes, I know "eremitic cenobite" is an oxymoron.

Anyway, I realized that although my Biblical knowledge is a little deeper than that of the average bear, I couldn't actually name the twelve apostles. Can you? In fact, did you know that there are actually thirteen apostles? Or maybe even fourteen? After Judas Iscariot died, the other eleven chose a fellow named Matthias to fill out the group. Additionally, Saul/Paul got epiphanied in post-Jesu, despite missing all the pre-crucifixion team-building exercises. So he's an apostle in some accounts. Opinions differ.

But let's stick to the other, original twelve. Because they share names with the gospels they wrote, everyone is familiar with Matthew, Mark (who isn't in fact an apostle), Luke (also not an apostle), and John. So that's, er, two. And of course there's Judas and Saint Peter and there's a Thomas in there somewhere. But who else?

Well, turns out that first-century BC parents were no more imaginative than current parents, and a quarter of the apostles are duplicates. There are two James' - known as 'James the Greater' and 'James the Less', which you might suspect would lead to some bitterness - and two Simons, and two Judas'... that's right! Two guys named Judas! Sucks to be the other one, eh?

So of course what with all this duplication people have largely wound up resorting to nicknames. Jesus Himself handed out the first one, giving Simon bar Jonah the nickname Peter, meaning 'rock'. That's right, the primus inter pares of the apostles went by the moniker "The Rock". Insert jokes about smelling what's cooking.

Then there's Andrew (Peter's brother), John, James (the greater), Philip, Bartholomew - and Bartholomew is interesting, because in some sources he's called Nathanael, although it's possible Nathanael might be someone else - Matthew - who is sometimes also thought to be referred to as Levi, though here again that might be someone else - Thomas (known to posterity as "doubting Thomas"), James (the less - and here again, James the Less may actually be someone else, a third James in fact), Simon number two, generally known as Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot, and finally the Judas who was Not Judas Isacariot. The Other Judas is generally known as Jude, another version of the same name, or - more confusingly - Thaddeus.

In short: Peter (Simon), Andrew, John, James the Greater, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Less, Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot, and Jude.

A lot of the discrepancies are why I find this sort of study so fascinating. We have very imperfect source material, transmitted with varying degrees of accuracy over centuries, most of the early sources long since lost. So of course we wind up with names that might refer to the same person or different people entirely, lists that mostly but not entirely agree with each other, numbers that don't always add up, extrapolations made by people centuries after the event...

I also like the many names, especially the nicknames. When I was in high school one of my circle of friends had two Jims in it. So one of them went by 'Jim', and the other, 'Boner'. Yes, you snigger, but it was a friendly nickname, and no one meant anything perjorative by it. Boner was just Boner, it didn't mean anything because no one made it mean anything.

Anyway, I can picture the apostles hanging around like that. "Hey Rock, you want a lavash? Phil and Little James are going to the market." "Naw, I have to finish this letter. Judas, you want anything?" "I'm Thaddeus now, dammit!"

Could be the basis for a good sitcom, except of course they all (save John) got martyred.

Playing Field in the Himalayas

September 11th, 2009

How I do despise corporate media. Check this garbage out: on right now the front story is "Wilson raises more than $200,000 after outburst", about how the asshole congressman from South Carolina apparently has appealed to assholes across the nation, who have been sending him money. $200,000! Which I suspect is like $150,000 from a couple large donors and assorted peanuts from the dittoheads, but the story mentions nothing about the provenance of the cash.

Still, that's the headline. Wilson gets cash! People support Wilson!

And buried at the bottom of the article is the following: "The appeal for cash came as Wilson's Democratic opponent in next year's congressional race, Rob Miller, reported raking in $750,000 as a result of the outburst during President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress."

In other words, Wilson's utter lack of self-control led to his Democratic opponent raising almost four times as much. But in corporate media, of course, it's the Republican assholes who get the headlines.

Reviews: The Crow Road, Freedom From Fear, Dark Star Safari

September 10th, 2009

The Crow Road by Iain Banks - 7.5/10

It was alright.

I mean, Banks knows how to write, so the reading was fun. But the book wasn't what I'd call exciting, and although the characters were interesting they weren't particularly easy to associate with. I liked the interleaved structure of past and present events, the story was good, but somehow there was never a real hook, nothing that made me say "wow".

Anyhow, a good read, but (I can hear the cries of "heretic" already) not something to write home about.

Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War by David M. Kennedy - 7.5/10

Coincidentally, I could say much the same things about Freedom From Fear as I do about The Crow Road. It was a good book, well crafted, with lots of interesting stuff in it - but ultimately not exciting. This is the second book in the Oxford History of the United States series that I have read, and like Battle Cry of Freedom, Freedom From Fear is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. Yet somehow Battle Cry is a much more compelling book, enlightening and enthralling at the same time.

Freedom From Fear was certainly worth my time, and I'd recommend it for anyone wanting a survey of the period. It was enjoyable to read a broader but shallower perspective having recently read some subject-focused books (Liaquat's Lords of Finance and Taylor's American-Made spring to mind).

As an aside, the more I read about FDR, the less I like him - which is not to say that anyone else would have been better, and many of his policies wound up being very good (and many didn't). But personally, he was quite the asshole. This is in contrast to his cousin, about whom I have read several books and each time I do my opinion of him rises; TR's errors and moral failings serve only to underline what greatness was in his character. Whereas FDR was, on a personal level, pretty much a big jerk, even if he did work hard to do good for Americans and the world.

Overall, then, this is a book I'd recommend to someone already interested in picking it up, and not something I'd advocate to the world at large. Informative, interesting, but long and in several stretches rather boring.

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux - 8/10

Also known as "Africa: Hoo-boy." I quite enjoyed this book, even if I developed the distinct impression that Theroux is in some contexts rather a smug jerk.

Theroux spent a good part of his formative years in 1960s Africa, a time of optimism as the colonial order was replaced by native rule. This book is a travelogue as he revisits Africa (or rather, Eastern Africa) some thirty years later, after the basically calamitous period since then.

Theroux has a real love for Africa, in particular the parts of it that remind him of his idealized youth. But even the bad parts - and there are rather a lot of them - are not approached with condescension but, if anything, fatalism. His writing veers into some odd personal predilections at times (I didn't need to keep returning to the subject of black Egyptians offering tourists the "Nubian Banana") and bounces around rather a lot, skipping large chunks that would probably have been of interest - but then, it's a travelogue, based on a diary.

And it's quite a travelogue; he goes places and does things I certainly would not, but am very interested to read about. He travels light, buys his clothes in local African third-hand markets, and spends most of his time well away from the tourist trail. Most of the trip is under the nebulous threat of random crime ("There are bad people there"), and involves rutted dirt roads, beggars, and intermittent food.

He also highlights the contrast between what Africa (East) is today and what the idealists of the 1960s thought it would be, and it's a deeply depressing comparison. There is hope at the bottom of Pandora's box, but the evil spirits have really done a number on everything else.

Overall Dark Star Safari was a really good, albeit depressing, read, offering a well-presented and authentic view of modern Africa (East). Certainly to be taken in the context of other sources, but definitely worth the time.

Gained in Translation

September 8th, 2009

To: My German Correspondent
Re: Your Pseudo-Renaissance Fantasy Novel

Yes, 'Ball' is a perfectly legitimate English last name (witness Lucille Ball), and yes, there is a Ball State University, and yes, it is called a cannon "ball" so the name does have a certain martial association. Having a character or a family whose surname is "Ball" presents no problems.

That said, if your novel does get translated into English it would be a bad idea for it to reference an event called "the Battle of Ball's Deep".

Trust me on this.

Best Wishes,

Fish On

September 4th, 2009

As a rule I do not blog about work, but as a general observation I will say this: I hate developers who, when faced with a bug, thrash around like a fish out of water. Then they fall on the ground and you have to catch them, getting your wet jeans caked in dust and as likely as not having them writhe away again, leaving you sweaty and the fish gasping for air - just so you can put the fucking thing back in the stream.

Fix the damned bug and don't make me waste two days standing up new labs just to prove to you that, yes, it is in fact a bug!

Why yes, we did go fishing last weekend. It was fun.