Monday, November 30, 2015

Billy Strayhorn at 100

Annamaria on Monday

William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn was born on 29th of November 1915.  He was the greatest composer of American jazz music ever.  Many of you will not recognize his name.  Spellcheck doesn’t even know it.  It recognizes Ellington, Armstrong, Gillespie, Basie, Gershwin, certainly—but not Strayhorn.  But Billy is the one who gave jazz its greatest measure of elegance and emotional subtlety.  He wrote songs that told stories of regret, resignation, temptation, loneliness—with melodies, rhythms, and lyrics that communicated with perfect unity of effect.  All beautiful, urbane, restrained, stylish, refined.  Yet exciting.

Billy was born in Dayton, spent his early years falling in love with music at his grandmother’s house in North Carolina and, back with his mother, went to Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, an institution that also gave us Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal.  By age nineteen, Billy was a professional musician.  With no hope of making it in the white world of classical music, he was brought to jazz by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.  Fate had done jazz a favor.

And an even greater act of serendipity occurred in December of 1938, one that brought together Billy and Duke Ellington.  Billy Strayhorn had a hand in, was a moving force in all the greatest songs we now associate with the Duke: “Take the A Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Lush Life” are all Strayhorn compositions.

Some people accuse Ellington of hogging all the credit for Billy’s genius.  That’s a complicated subject.  It is true that Strayhorn never received royalties for the songs that he wrote that Ellington published.  On the other hand, Ellington gave Billy a musical home par excellence.  And at a time, in the 40’s and 50’s when Billy, who was openly gay, would have had a hard time making it on his own.  Strayhorn got to write for and work with the greatest jazz musicians of his era.

And the Duke did credit him.  Saying things like “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”  And “Strayhorn does a lot of the work, but I get to take the bows.”

Next time you watch “Anatomy of a Murder,” listen carefully to the soundtrack.  Strayhorn and Ellington composed it, and it was a landmark of film music composition.

Billy Strayhorn was an early civil rights activist, with close ties to Dr. Martin Luther King.  He was Lena Horne’s best friend.

Now I’ll let his work speak for itself:

I am writing this on Sunday, the hundredth anniversary of Strayhorn’s birth.  He died in 1967, an early death of cancer at the age of only fifty-one.

But he is immortal.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Smoke Bombs and Ninja Stars

-- Susan, every other Sunday

For many people, talk of “ninjas” inspires visions of black-clad supermen who leap from rooftops to silence enemies with a single stroke of a sword or the swish and thump of a flying metal star. 

In truth, real ninjas—(shinobi, in Japanese)—were master spies as well as assassins, and employed a wide variety of weapons and tactics. Many, if not most shinobi (and their female counterparts, the kunoichi) operated as undercover spies, instead of assassins, and their clans developed a number of specialized tools to aid in these endeavors.

During the 16th century, the two most active shinobi clans operated from bases in the mountainous regions of Iga and Koga (sometimes written “Koka”)

Iga's mountains, as seen from the train.

Today, the little town of Iga is home to a ninja museum that displays a variety of unusual weapons, many originals from the days when shinobi operated throughout Japan. The journey to the museum--a 2.5-hour trip from Kyoto, involving four changes of trains and a brief trip on the "ninja train" into Iga-Ueno station--underscores the area's isolation. It isn't easy to reach even now--let alone when horses or travel on foot was the norm.

A ninja train. (The other one is blue.)

Most people know about shuriken, the “throwing stars” made famous in the Hollywood ninja films. However, real ninjas also used shuriken as fistload weapons for stabbing victims at close range. (In fact, the shuriken's primary use was actually in hand-to-hand combat.) 

Shuriken came in a variety of shapes and forms, from pointed bars to the more familiar star-shaped types we see in films and on TV:

A small selection of the shuriken on display at the Iga museum

Shinobi also studied the manufacture and use of explosives. Bamboo tubes made handy casings; shinobi loaded them with explosive compounds in a variety of sizes, from little firecrackers to incendiary bombs:

Actual ninja firecrackers, made from bamboo and loaded with black powder.

Smoke bombs were also useful, both as distractions and as cover for getaways:

Smoke bombs, wrapped in discarded paper. Recycling, ninja style. 

Shinobi often concealed these, and other, devices in hidden pockets inside their clothing. Medieval Japanese clothing did not usually feature pockets, which made the shin obi’s attire even more unique. Since shinobi often wore disguises in order to pass as merchants, farmers, or samurai, pockets were sewn into these costumes also.

But not all special ninja tools were lethal, or able to fit in a pocket. For missions that required crossing reedy rivers or castle moats, the shinobi developed special wooden shoes called mizugumo, which allowed the wearer to cross over water—assuming he or she had the balancing skills to stay afloat.
All you need to walk on water. In theory, anyway....

 Many of the ninja's unusual tools don't make it into the movies, and thus escape the modern culture's notice--largely because the best devices didn't make for a flashy fight or an explosive getaway. The point wasn't just getting close enough to assassinate or spy on a high powered samurai target.

For for modern spies...the real trick was getting away alive, and preferably unnoticed.

And for that, they needed more than fancy throwing stars and pipe bombs. Fortunately, their arsenals  included a wide variety of subtle weapons, too.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Dealing With Turkey Leftovers


This being two days after Thanksgiving I thought I’d offer you a Greek recipe for dealing with a style of Turkey that has Russians abandoning their seasonal holiday passion for that strange bird.  As with most cooking it’s a matter of personal style, this one being the product of Alexis Papachelas, executive editor of Kathimerini, Greece’s New York Times equivalent, and is titled “A Volatile Situation.”

Alex Papachelas

An “accident” was bound to happen at some point and the way that the United States and the European Union have been acting toward Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led directly to on Tuesday’s incident, when the Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Ankara has been playing a very dark game with Islamic State which no one was willing to talk about, despite the evidence. Erdogan has imposed a quasi-dictatorship in Turkey and has gone unchallenged by the usually sensitive West. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed in a state of near-panic during her visit a few weeks ago to the neo-Ottoman palace of the Turkish leader, appearing without a solid plan or any red lines she would not cross. All of this combined gave Erdogan – who is already suffering from delusions of grandeur – an even more swollen head.

Turkey is without doubt a major regional power. The policy of “zero problems with neighbors” espoused by Ahmet Davutoglu while he was foreign minister has gone the other way. Fronts have been opened with Russia, Israel, Egypt, the Kurds, and on and on. Erdogan needed a playing field in which to display his determination to maintain the important image he has of himself. Thankfully, he didn’t choose the Aegean. Only now do we see how well-informed and wise certain government and military officials were when they warned of a possible altercation between Greece and Turkey. So far, this has been prevented.

But now we are entering uncharted waters. What will NATO do, since it can’t get involved in a war with Russia or completely ignore its obligations toward a member of the alliance? How will Russian President Vladimir Putin react given that his image could suffer if he doesn’t respond in kind? Last but not least, how will the incident affect the convergence of opinion that seemed to have been emerging between the West and Moscow on how to deal with ISIS?

The geopolitical situation in this part of the world is shifting fast and dramatically. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions; enough self-proclaimed analysts are doing that.
Greece has cards and should play them right. It has nothing to gain from dealing with developments as though they are a misfortune that has only befallen Greece. One thing is certain. Erdogan is displaying the kind of hubris that history – throughout the centuries – has shown can lead to unpredictable and spasmodic behavior
Major changes are occurring in the region, a fact that contains a lot of dangers, but also opportunities.

Mr. Papachelas only forgot one important warning:  Basting this Turkey can be a dangerous exercise if you misjudge its temperature, for it’s been historically proven to be a very tricky bird.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Parliamo Glesgae?


 We are suffering from a thing called Black Friday over here. I do believe that this is the fault of Americans. Last year was the first time that anybody noticed Black Friday. This year many shops have publicly refused to participate and here in the West, we are having 'Spend Nothing Friday.'

Such is the mood of the moment.

And I am on stage tonight defending the magnificent west against the miserable east. And here is something I found on the internet,  I've redrafted it to be slightly less rude.  

We have a great word; Shite. Pronounced to rhyme with right and might. It does and does not mean the same as shit. 

Confused? So you should be. It's complicated.

Here goes....  

1               “It got a bit lively.” – The police were called.

“I might have overdone it a wee bit with the drink.” – I don’t remember anything after midnight.

 “The night got away from me.” – I don’t remember anything after 10pm.

 “I was drunk.” – I don’t remember the last three days.

"He's a right case." - He's been drunk since 1975.

 “He’s no the worst.” – The other guy was more drunk.

 “We used to pal about.” – We used to get drunk together.

 “He’s gone a wee bit Edinburgh.” – He’s convinced he’s the best thing since Jesus.

 “I’ve basically quit the fags.” – I’m down to a pack a day.

“I have the odd one when I’m drinking.” I'm a forty a day man.

“I’ve got an empty, fancy coming over?” – The wife is going out and I have a bottle of Bells.

 “He’s a good guy, he just has a wee problem handling his drink.” – He’s a bam who once tried to feed a Greggs sausage roll to a police horse.


“She’s totally minted, no doubt about it.” –  She shops in Waitrose.

 “He’s a bit much.” – His voice goes through your head like a drill. 

 “It’s hard to say when it’s likely to finish up exactly.”  I'll probably end up in casualty. ( ER)

“Yes dear, I’ve only had a couple of pints.”  I’ve had eight pints, three shots, and two vodka Red Bulls.

 “What school do you do to?”  Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?

 “Who do you really support?”
 Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?

 “What’s your favourite colour?”
 Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?

"So, you see the game?” I nee to find out if 
 you are a  Catholic or a Protestant?

‘“I’ll come for one.”  You still haven't told me if you are
a Catholic or a Protestant?

 “Fancy a couple after work?” – I’ll need to be dragged out the pub in ten hours.

‘It’s a bit wet out.” – Half of Glasgow is underwater.

"It's a bit nippy out there.'  Where are the huskies?

“It’s Baltic out there.” – Sauchiehall Street looks like a deleted scene from Frozen. The pigeons have solidified.

 “It’s some day!” – It’s above ten degrees.

“Old man pub.” – The clientele have one foot in the grave and smell like it, but it’s cheap.

 “What’s this place worth?” – I’m from London.

 “He’s a patter merchant.” – He talks an unbelievable amount of shite. Probably from Edinburgh

 “He’s a bottle merchant.” – He’d run away from his own reflection.

“He’s a wind up merchant.” – He’s addicted to taking the piss.

 “I’m no saying he’s clatty but…” – He’s got a massive and worrying personal hygiene problem.

 “The brass neck on her.”– Last time I saw her she was dancing down Sauchiehall Street with her knickers round her head.

 “There was hunners of folk there. Hunners!” – There was twenty people there.

“You free for a quick swally?” – You’re my best friend and I urgently need to talk to you.
 “Aye, no bad looking.” – They are totally, utterly gorgeous.

“Jog on pal.” – I’m thirty seconds away from battering you.

"Fast forward" -  I'm twenty seconds away from battering you.

"Make yer point caller," Ten seconds away from battering you.

 “Aye right.” – You’re talking shite.

“He’s the numpties’ numpty.” – Even idiots think he’s an idiot.

 “I got dingied but I’m no fussed.” – I was stood up by my date and I’m
utterly devastated.

 “You’re the most beautiful lassie in this place.” – You’re the nearest
lassie in this place.

 “Aye, I’m nae bad.” – I’ve just won the lottery.

“Aye, I’m nae bad.” – I’ve just been told I have a week to live.

 “He’s doing my head in a bit.” – He is the most annoying arsehole in history.


 “Thank you driver.” – Please stop the bus so I can get off.

“He couldnae batter a fish.” – He’s as weak as a kitten and as much use in a fight.

 “I’m getting right into the healthy eating.” – Sometimes I don’t have an extra portion of chips. 

 “She thinks she’s all that.” – She cuts about like she’s a mixture of Beyoncé and Nicola Sturgeon.

 “Did ye, aye?” No, you didn't. “Ah belong to Glasgow.” – I may be drunk, but I genuinely love it here.

So you will be ok now?  Caro Ramsay  27th November 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Catching Fire revisited

Michael - Thursday

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I woke this morning wondering where I was. The last two months of travel around the US - Raleigh, Bethlehem, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Milwaukee, Madison, San Diego, Los Angeles and Reno - combined with leaving Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon and arriving in South Africa on Tuesday morning (via London and Philadelphia), had left me confused. After a while I came to the conclusion that I was in my bed in South Africa and that it was 4AM. There was every reason to be in bed at 4AM, but not a single one for being awake. (It was 8PM in Minneapolis so why not be getting ready for sleep rather than wide awake?) I confidently expect to be awake at 5AM tomorrow and so on.

Another revelation came to me. It's Thursday. The other Thursday. My Thursday. And I have absolutely no idea of what to write about and a packed day ahead.

Homo naledi fossils displayed at the Cradle of Humankind

I've been boring everyone with my enthusiasm for Catching Fire, a book by Professor Richard Wrangham. I've been thinking about it again recently because of one of the big mysteries around Homo naledi, the new hominid discovered near Johannesburg. The mystery is why did the paleoanthropologists find more than fifteen different skeletons in one cave? How did they come to be there? There are some obvious explanations all of which can be eliminated. They were the victims of a predator who lived down there. Well, not unless you believe in prehistoric trolls who ate nothing but these hominids and did so without cracking or gnawing the bones. They were washed there. No, that doesn't work; there is no geological evidence of water transport through the cave. What about a natural disaster? They were living down there and trapped? That doesn't seem right. The fossils are not all at the same depth in the clay, which would suggest a single event. So John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin Madison proposed that this was actually a burial chamber. This is fascinating because no other species except our own has a ritual associated with death in this sort of way.

However, there is a problem. This cave is not easy to get to - even for a small hominid such as naledi. It would require challenging climbing while carrying a corpse. And in the pitch dark. That seems very unlikely too. Two possibilities are suggested. The first - suggested by Richard Leakey - is that there was another - easier - entrance to the cave in those days. No one has discovered anything suggesting that to date. The second is that these hominids possessed fire. Then they would be able, at least in theory, to light their way into the chamber. The last would suggest that they are a relatively recent species - perhaps of the same age as early members of homo sapiens. Yet they seem to combine the features of Homo and Australopithecus in a very intriguing way. The other possibility is that the use of fire goes back much further than is usually accepted. That is the thesis of Catching Fire and it could also explain why naledi might have had the leisure to engage in something like formal disposal of their dead in the first place.

Below is the original blog about the book from about a year ago:

I am arguably the world’s worst cook, so I avoid it as much as possible.  I do, however, love to eat good food, and I suppose I always thought that the purpose of cooking was to turn tasteless and chewy raw ingredients into something delicious.  To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed that cooking was something that developed somewhere in our evolutionary past when one of our distant ancestors dropped a chuck of raw meat into the fire and it took him a while to fish it out.  I visualized a Neanderthal or the like doing this.  

Maybe this just displays my general ignorance.  Recently, on a long plane trip, I read a book that had a very different interpretation of events and one I found fascinating.  It’s an African story; wherever this happened, it was somewhere in Africa. And with the Cradle of Humankind up the road from where I live, it might have been quite close by.

The book is CATCHING FIRE: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham. The author is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard and an expert on Chimpanzees on the side. This guy knows his stuff. It is sometimes said that we are what we eat. The thesis of this book is that it’s not what we ate that mattered, but that we cooked it first.

Professor Wrangham and friends
Compare the teeth!
The book starts out gently explaining that raw food is great except that it takes a long time to chew up and a lot of energy to digest.  Much of the food value is wasted. What you need is big, strong teeth, heavy jaw muscles, and plenty of lower intestine.  My neighbors up the road here had all that. They were much smaller than humans but had bigger teeth.  I did know that.  I suppose I just thought that our smaller teeth resulted from our larger overall size and changed diet.  Well, right.  Professor Wrangham points out that it's diet that drives evolution, never the other way around.  It was when our ancestors started cooking their food that two things happened, probably over quite a short space of time in evolutionary terms.  The one was that they were now getting much more nutrition from the same amount of food. That’s because breaking down the cellular structure with heat makes the nutrients more easily accessible. The other was that we could eat more quickly. The food was softer, less chewing was required, and less digestion.  Over time our teeth changed to reflect that situation and our guts changed appropriately too.

Australopithecus Sediba
The archaeological record shows that humans controlled fire about half a million years ago and maybe much earlier. At Swartkrans in South Africa and at locations in Kenya, there are sites dating back one and a half million years with suggestions of fire use. This physical evidence is disputed so Wrangham turns to biology instead, seeking the change in anatomy that would link with the cooked food.  

Over the last two million years, there were only three periods when our ancestors’ evolution was fast and strong enough to justify a change in species names.  The crucial one occurred some 1.8 million years ago when Homo erectus emerged from the australopithecines.  ‘Suddenly’ we had a much larger creature, one that walked and ran and was probably not well suited to climbing, had smaller teeth, and probably differently structured guts.  It had to be fire that allowed the erectus part.  The African savanna was not a safe place to be on the ground at night with saber tooth cats all over the place.  The australopithecines were probably excellent climbers and slept in trees as all modern apes do.  But if you were cooking around a cheerful bonfire, sleeping around it – presumably with a watchman to keep the fire fed – would be safe and comfortable.  So the implication is that it was the possession of fire and the rudimentary art of cooking that drove the development of Homo.
Skull of Homo Erectus
That in itself is a pretty intriguing idea.  But there’s more.  If we were happily eating roasted meat and broiled vegetables all that time ago, why did our brain size develop?  It turns out that the development of brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy demands. Wrangham believes that what we think of as intelligence was needed for social interaction rather than for food gathering.  It was the excess of nutrition from the cooked food that allowed the extra resources to feed and develop our brains. Thus it was cooking that led to our intelligence, rather than the other way around.  

Wrangham has one final twist. He observes that universally in hunter-gatherer communities, the women do the cooking. (The exceptions are a few instances when men do some culturally significant form of cooking and he dismisses those.) Men do the hunting – or whatever else they want to do – and leave the vital cooking task to the women.  In a few societies, it's much more significant for a woman to feed a man than to have sex with him.  If she gives him dinner, they're married.

Wrangham toys with the idea that as cooking developed, females could be set upon and have their food stolen, so they made alliances with males, not for sex and procreation as is the conventional wisdom – generally apes don't do that - but for shared food and resources and for defense against food thieves.  So much for ‘family values!’  It’s all about food!  Wrangham obviously feels very uncomfortable that this prehistoric motivation has settled into modern times as an excuse give women a subservient role.  He concludes this chapter with:

 “The idea that cooking led to our pair-bonds suggests a worldwide irony. Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoption of cooking also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries. Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by a male dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.

Michael - Thursday