Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Scent Of A Pharoh

I am no expert when it comes to science. I know from observation [a scientific technique] that it has its limits when it comes to answering the "big questions" [as most scientists will acknowledge]. That said, I am usually amazed by the scope of the questions that science will take a shot at.

Consider the woman pictured at right; she was one of the few female pharaohs in Egypt's history [the picture is from a statue in her temple]; Hatshepsut ruled the Egyptian Empire for 22 years, beginning about 1479 BC, after the death of her half-brother and husband [Euuuwww; I know such arrangements weren't that uncommon in the Nile Crescent, but Euuuwww] Pharaoh Thutmose II. Hatshepsut [oh, let's call her "Hattie" for short, ok?] was only supposed to be a regent, until her stepson, Thutmose III [imagine the razzing he could have gotten on the way to school...oh, wait, he was a god-in-training...never mind...] reached adulthood [which, if memory serves me right, was, what, 14?]. But Hattie held onto the throne for over 20 years, before dying. (The fate of Thutmose 3, which sounds a little like a bad movie sequel, is not as well known as step-mom's.) For what it's worth, her reign looks like a fairly good one, including:

-mostly peaceful times [although she's believed to have led at least one military action personally],

-re-opening trade routes closed by war,

-spearheading several impressive public-works projects [including a rather spectacular tomb for herself],

-making ancient Egypt safer for transvestites [no, really. It turns out that, to make herself appear more regal to the hide-bound traditionalists of the time, she dressed in male clothing, may have worn a fake beard, and had herself pictured in statuary as male], and

-funded a trade expedition that brought, among other things, rare [and highly prized] incense plants to Egypt. It's this last one that has our attention today [Hattie last hit the headlines two years ago, when her mummy was positively identified; she was the first Egyptian royal to be so confirmed since King Tut, way back in 1922].

The bottle at left, discovered in Hatshepsut's final resting place [not that spectacular tomb that she commissioned; more on that in a minute], contains what scientists believe to be a dried-up fragrance fragment from Hattie's perfume of choice. Now the Bonn University Egyptian Museum in Germany thinks it can re-create her scent, based on the residues in the bottle, and a little educated [after all, it is Bonn University] guessing. For instance, the trading expedition that brought incense plants to Egypt was based around present-day Somalia. Combining knowledge of plants common to that region with a deconstruction of the fragrance remnant [x-rays are reportedly involved, but I don't have a clue how], pharmacologists [whom you'd think would be more useful curing the diseases that plague Humanity] believe they can make an approximation of the Royal Aroma. If they succeed, it would be the first such re-creation of a Pharaoh's scent of choice in history [Of course, either way, the whole project calls for a rousing shout of "So what?". I mean, come on; once this perfume is made, we'll never really know if it smells like Hattie's. As for marketing a re-make to the public, perfumers say you need a popular spokesperson to make a new scent work. Granted, Hattie was powerful, and likely enlightened, by the standards of her time. But, and let's be honest here, could she move more product than, say, Britney Spears?]

Hatshepsut [pictured at right in her "male" persona; the object at the base of her chin is a stylized beard] fared badly in her legacy's treatment by the Pharaohs who followed; many of her statues were destroyed, her reputation in history papyrusus was minimized [same thing happened in the Catholic Church to Pope Joan, and in the US Government to J. Edgar Hoover], and her mummy ended up in the Egyptian equivalent of an unmarked grave, with only the remains of a long-time family retainer [believed to be Hattie's wet-nurse, to show how long she'd been a family retainer] for company. In recent years, though, what with her re-discovery in that dark, dank grave, as well as this new project, Hatshepsut is in the middle of a new re-evaluation, and restoration. Fake beard and all.
- Mike Riley

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Miracles Happen Daily"

Just up the street from me, there's a neighborhood beauty salon. Nothing special
about it. Except for a sign that used to be in the front window, until the sun faded it to invisibility. "Want to be sexy?", it asked. "Then come in and get a sexy haircut!" Below that, the phrase that gave the title to this post: "Miracles Happen Daily!" And you know what? They do.

I try not to get involved in what one person or another chooses to believe. Strictly speaking, as a Christian I should be trying to induce anyone who isn't to join up. But I also believe the best way to encourage others to consider your belief system is to be a good example to the world. Then, if someone asks questions, feel free to answer. So, to those who don't believe in a Supreme Being as the cause of miracles, look on the following as a few observations [based on true stories] on how "miracles" happen daily. If you do happen to believe in a Supreme Being, that's o.k., too.

A planeload of people survives a water landing in the middle of Winter. A still-alive person is found in a collapsed building after an earthquake. A man goes over a powerful waterfall with no protective devices, and lives to tell his story. The big miracles still happen, contrary to many peoples' belief. The big ones fascinate us, force us to wonder how what we consider "impossible" can be, leave us puzzling over their significance in our world and our life. But, just as true fans of stage magic prefer the small tricks that can be done on a table-top to larger illusions, many fans of miracles relish the small wonders that happen, well, daily.

Consider Mark Tondreault, of Florida; in two years, he survived a lifetime's worth of illness, emergency surgery, and excruciating recovery. By no means is the story over; Tondreault faces still more therapy. But he's grateful for a "second shot at life". Now, the non-Supreme Being-ists reading this are certainly thinking that Tondreault should be more grateful to his surgeons [and a few in the other camp are probably puzzled that an "SB" would choose to intervene in the life or death of an admitted alcoholic, whose drinking was certainly responsible for some of his illness]. For what it's worth, I agree that Tondreault's medical team deserves credit for his continued survival. For that matter, Tondreault has a strong sense of survival that certainly helps. But, in the face of the "impossible" [or, at the very least, the extremely unlikely], the "M" word certainly comes to mind, either in its traditional or colloquial usage.

Then there are the "random acts of kindness" that turn out spectacularly well. Take Matt Steven. A blind kid takes his team's free throws during a CYO tournament. And winning the championship with one. There's a lot going on here: let's follow the chain slowly, so we don't miss anything. First, Steven's brother taking him along to practice. Then, encouraging his free throw shooting, so he'd practice, and make such a situation possible. Steven's being allowed to travel with the team. The team making arrangements to allow him to take its free throws, not only with the referees, but every other team in the tourney. The other teams agreeing to the arrangement. The fans in attendance, for not sabotaging the situation [remember, people tapping on their seats, or making it impossible for Steven to hear his aural cues from the backboard, would have ended the experiment before it began].I'm probably leaving a link or two out, but you get the idea.

Miracles. They do happen daily. And not just in beauty salons.

-Mike Riley

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

Anything spectacular is probably propped up "behind the scenes" , one way or another. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" is just good advice when you want to be dazzled. If you want to be dazzled by this post, ignore the next few sentences. I'll let you know when to look again.

The Reuters News Service is one of the world's largest news syndication companies. One of its most popular features is "Oddly Enough News" which, as the name implies, presents unusual, odd, or strange items in the news [the sort of thing that 90's talk-show host Arsenio Hall immortalized as , "Things that make you go, 'H'mmm'"]. Periodically, Reuters allows civilians like you or I to join an e-mail list that gets you each installment. For writers of "Humor" blogs [had you forgotten?], "Oddly Enough News" is a Godsend for inspiration, video, and, when needed, filler. Then again, why do you need filler, when a blogger with an average sense of humor [and I am nothing, if not a blogger with an average sense of humor] can ramble out a few "riffs" based on the original articles? Case in point [okay, eye-averters out there, get ready to be dazzled!]:

I don't know why, but it seems politics are a bit more "colorful" in Europe than here in the US. I'm not exactly sure why; maybe it's the beautiful backgrounds available to protest before [like the canal-based beef at right], or a multiplicity of cultural traditions giving our European friends more to protest about. Perhaps it's just a panache that comes from living in the Old World. In England, for instance, the Local Government Association has asked the powers-that-be in London to lay off 200 words or phrases that they claim, "muddy the communicative waters". Former PM Tony Blair referred to his nation's taxpayers as "stakeholders", according to an article from Reuters; more than a few of them had a fantasy about where to drive the stake. (I have to confess one bit of English Politico-jargon does hit home with me; namely, the term "cascading", referring to the act of sending an e-mail from layer to layer of government. It just sounds so picturesque!)

See how easy it is to write a post item with a bit of inspiration? But I'm not done yet...

In Italy, meantime, stars of the adult film industry frequently take notable "legitimate" roles in politics. A decade or so ago, a major star of such films ran for, was elected, and served at least one term in Italy's Parliament. And earlier this week current porn star Laura Perego [left] stripped to her panties in Milan's stock exchange, in what was termed a "protest" against the world-wide economic crisis. Ms. Perego, who also chose to wear a painted-on Italian flag to demonstrate her concerns with national issues, was quoted as shouting "Italy is down to its underpants!", before being taken away by police. Now why is it that America's "dirty movie" stars can't seem to be bother to speak out?

In France, on the other hand, worries over finances have taken a huge bite out of, well, so I don't scandalise anyone, let's call it the "marital aid" industry [and no, I'm not talking about rebate checks for France's married population]. This goes against everything I've ever believed about such times; I would have thought S-E-X was one of the few things most people could afford to do.

Changing gears, Japan is taking a typically high-tech approach to the high cost of supermodels; a Japanese firm has invented a robot mannequin, capable of walking, posing, and strutting its gear-driven "stuff": [the robot supermodel actually does a couple of things; it saves untold millions in modelling fees, and it fills the slot in the list of World Famous Supermodels reserved for Japan (seriously: has there ever been a Japanese, or even Asian supermodel that found success outside her home region?). At least as graceful as a drugged Kate Moss [and more coherent], the Robo-Model looks like a win-win all around. Domo arigato, dear Ms. Robato!

You don't need to make good humor up. Just read your local newspaper [or news feed].

-Mike Riley

Friday, March 6, 2009

2 Thoughts, 1 Post...

...not to be confused with 2 Girls, 1 Cup. And no, I'm not linking to it. After a year or so, I've finally gotten the damn thing out of my head [fortunately, without therapy. By the bye, what sort of revulsion therapy would work in that situation? Teletubbies? If you haven't seen or heard of it, consider yourself blessed...]

Anyway, in reference to our last post, the protests, fortunately, turned out to be a non-event [here's a story, with video, from the Buffalo News] Sorry to get you worked up over nothing [that said, I truly believe anger over injustice, prejudice or stupidity is one of the greater gifts God gave to His Creation].
Elsewhere; I've always prided myself on the amount of reading I do. But recently, I've had cause to doubt my skillz. While on Facebook, I discovered a list of 99 books [not 100, as advertised in the set-up: still, it's a substantial list] ; you're then asked to indicate which of them you've read. I'm not going to run the entire listing by you: suffice it to say it runs the gamut from Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy [yes] to Les Miserables [no, but I saw the musical on PBS, if that counts], with stops at Winnie The Pooh and Lord Of The Flies [as well as Lord Of The Rings] to boot. Out of 100 [or 99, actually], I've read only 23 [I'm very embarrassed about this, but I've decided to be honest about it]. A few comments...
-Lord Of The Rings - About 1 1/2 books in, I just plain lost interest. Too many Hobbits, Halflings, and Dwarves to keep sorted out. That noted, I thought The Hobbit was well worth wasting time over;
-Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes - Why is Sherlock Holmes the only known cocaine-user in history to get introspective on the drug, instead of the manic action most users report? Could it be that Conan Doyle [a doctor, let's remember] just picked a drug at random, then gave Holmes the symptoms he wanted him to have? (Readers of early Holmes stories will remember how often Doyle used the term vegetable alkaloid when he wanted a quick, easy-not-to-explain plot device)
-A Confederacy Of Dunces - Probably my favorite book on the list. If you haven't read it yet, you really should.
While we're talking about books, and reading, I was startled by this item from Reuters. Strangely enough, the only book on the list I've read [1984] is the one most claimed as read by Britons. Just another difference between our former landlords and us...
-Mike Riley