Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Amazing Archival Footage

I find this video to be an amazing trip back through time. It was filmed on a trolley in 1905, traveling along Market Street in San Francisco. Seldom have I been able to view such an array of people, fashions, and vehicles in an everyday setting. It's particularly nostalgic when you realize that only a year later ~ in 1906 ~ this entire area was obliterated in the San Francisco earthquake and accompanying fires. (The musical accompaniment may not have been my personal choice, but it does seem to work in a strange way.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Musical Interlude ~ A 17th Century Cantata

Don't underestimate the 1600s when it comes to incredible, spirit-lifting music. Here's a 4-minute chamber cantata from Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) joyfully played by the European group L'Arpeggiata that's guaranteed to thrill.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Does Shroud Contain Jesus' Death Certificate?

Medieval manuscript page depicting Jesus's burial with shroud.

The mysterious Shroud of Turin is back in the news this week, this time with an argument for its authenticity as the death shroud that covered Jesus from the period following his crucifixion until his resurrection.

In October, scientists pronounced the shroud as a medieval forgery after they duplicated an imprint onto linen using materials existing in the 14th Century. A 1988 carbon dating of a fragment of the cloth has dated it to the Middle Ages, when the initial forgery is claimed to have occurred.

Now, however, a Vatican scholar says she has deciphered Jesus’s “death certificate” from writing obscured on the shroud, by implication placing its origin back to the time of the resurrection.

"I think I have managed to read the burial certificate of Jesus the Nazarene, or Jesus of Nazareth," says Dr. Barbara Frale, a researcher in the Vatican secret archives. She said she reconstructed it from fragments of Greek, Hebrew and Latin writing imprinted on the cloth together with the image of the crucified man.

The letters, barely visible to the naked eye, were first spotted during an examination of the shroud in 1978, and others have since come to light.

According to the London Times:
Some scholars have suggested that the writing is from a reliquary attached to the cloth in medieval times. But Dr Frale said that the text could not have been written by a medieval Christian because it did not refer to Jesus as Christ but as "the Nazarene." This would have been "heretical" in the Middle Ages since it defined Jesus as "only a man" rather than the Son of God.

Like the image of the man himself the letters are in reverse and only make sense in negative photographs. Dr Frale told La Repubblica that under Jewish burial practices current at the time of Christ in a Roman colony such as Palestine, a body buried after a death sentence could only be returned to the family after a year in a common grave.

A death certificate was therefore glued to the burial shroud to identify it for later retrieval, and was usually stuck to the cloth around the face. This had apparently been done in the case of Jesus even though he was buried not in a common grave but in the tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea.
Frale ~ best known for her studies of the Knights Templar ~ said she had deciphered "the death sentence on a man called Jesus the Nazarene. If that man was also Christ the Son of God it is beyond my job to establish. I did not set out to demonstrate the truth of faith.”

Click here for the London Times article.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Context: Follow Your Bliss

Medieval depiction of the Wheel of Fortune.

This morning I was re-reading a transcription of the landmark 1988 televised PBS series The Power of Myth where one of America’s leading mythologists, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), was interviewed by Bill Moyers ~ a series that helped popularize Campbell and his well-known advice to “Follow your bliss.”

Campbell’s original message has been subject to distortion over the years, so here’s a verbatim explanation from The Power of Myth. In a discussion on sacrifice and bliss, Campbell first uttered the phrase and then Moyers followed up:

Moyers: What happens when you follow you bliss?

Campbell: You come to bliss. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel. For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above, going down, or at the bottom, coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow ~ I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty: going up or going down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.

Moyers: How would you advise somebody to tap that spring of eternal life, that bliss that is right there?

Campbell: We are having experiences all the time that may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Startling Social Experiment on Beauty

In the Washington DC metro station one chilly morning, a young man played six classical pieces on a violin, with his case opened to accept donations.

During the 45 minutes he played, just over 1,000 people passed by.

He played for three minutes before a man paused to watch. After seven minutes, a woman dropped the first dollar into his case. After 10 minutes, a three-year-old boy stopped to listen but his mother tugged him away ~ an act repeated several times with children and their parents.

At the end of the 45 minutes, the musician had collected $32. He left without collecting a single applause.

The musician that morning was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest violinists. He had been playing some of the most intricate violin music ever written ~ including the “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor ~ on an 18th century Stradivari violin valued at $3.5 million. Two days earlier, the young virtuoso had sold out Symphony Hall in Boston at $100 a seat.

The metro-station performance was part of a 2007 experiment sponsored by the Washington Post about people’s perceptions and priorities. The question: In a commonplace environment, at a regular hour, do we perceive and appreciate beauty?

Click here for the complete Washington Post article.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Are Dreams a Tune-Up for the Coming Day?

For years I’ve been fascinated by our nighttime dreams and have researched the topic enough to know that, essentially, nobody knows much about what we dream or why we dream it. Still some theories ~ most of them stemming from psychological research ~ are more widely accepted than others.

Now, somebody’s really rocking the boat. Harvard psychiatrist and sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson contends the main function of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep ~ which is when dreaming usually occurs ~ is the brain warming its circuits in anticipation the sights and sounds of the coming day.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Hobson told the New York Times. “It’s like jogging ~ the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

According to the Times article:
These novel ideas about dreaming are based partly on basic findings about REM sleep. In evolutionary terms, REM appears to be a recent development; it is detectable in humans and other warm-blooded mammals and birds. And studies suggest that REM makes its appearance very early in life — in the third trimester for humans, well before a developing child has experience or imagery to fill out a dream.

Scientists have found evidence that REM activity helps the brain build neural connections, particularly in its visual areas. The developing fetus may be “seeing” something, in terms of brain activity, long before the eyes ever open — the developing brain drawing on innate, biological models of space and time, like an internal virtual-reality machine.

Full-on dreams, in the usual sense of the word, come much later. Their content, in this view, is a kind of crude test run for what the coming day may hold.
None of this is to say that dreams are devoid of meaning. Anyone who can remember a vivid dream knows that at times the strange nighttime scenes reflect real hopes and anxieties: the young teacher who finds himself naked at the lectern; the new mother in front of an empty crib, frantic in her imagined loss.
But people can read almost anything into the dreams that they remember, and they do exactly that, according to the Times. In a recent study of more than 1,000 people, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard found strong biases in the interpretations of dreams. For instance, the participants tended to attach more significance to a negative dream if it was about someone they disliked, and more to a positive dream if it was about a friend.

In fact, research suggests that only about 20 percent of dreams contain people or places that the dreamer has encountered. Most images appear to be unique to a single dream.

Click here for the complete New York Times article.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Most Important Rule

Since I was a child, the “golden rule” has been important to me. Even at a young age I considered it the one rule of conduct that made perfect sense. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What could be clearer, less complicated?

But its simplicity is deceptive. Behaving consistently in accord with the golden rule is hard work, drawing upon deep reserves of compassion and humility. I have not always been successful in practicing it.

If you can take the time, please consider this 9-minute video to be a brief sermon by one of the world’s premier religious historians, Karen Armstrong. Right up front she notes that every major faith in the world has its own version of the golden rule, and then she adds:
“If we don’t manage to implement the golden rule, globally, so that we treat all peoples ~ whoever and wherever they may be ~ as though they were as important as ourselves, I doubt that we’ll have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.”
I fear she's right.

(Incidentally, the “Ted” she speaks of is the Technology, Entertainment, Design organization, helping the world’s foremost thinkers to get their message out to a broad audience.)

'Be Fruitful and Multiply'

Immaculate Conception by Francisco de Solis, 1682.

Researchers are finding strong correlation between teenage birth rates and the prevalence of religious beliefs in particular states within the US. The lack of contraception ~ not the lack of abortions ~ appears to be the reason.
"Our findings by themselves do not, of course, permit causal inferences. But, if we may speculate on the most probable explanation, we conjecture that religious communities in the US are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself," says Joseph Strayhorn, an adjunct faculty member with Drexel University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Researchers used data from the Pew Forum's US Religious Landscapes Survey and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine state-level effects of belief on teen birth rates.
"The magnitude of the correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate astonished us,” Strayhorn said. “Teen birth is more highly correlated with some of the religiosity items on the Religious Landscapes Survey than some of those items are correlated with each other."
The religiosity of a state was determined by averaging the percents of respondents who agreed with the eight most conservative opinions possible in the Religious Landscapes Survey, such as ‘There is only one way to interpret the teachings of my religion’ or ‘Scripture should be taken literally, word for word.’”

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.