Timeless Time

A 2011 interview with William Gibson got me thinking a little about the nature of time and perception. Gibson’s books (Neuromancer, The Difference Engine, and Count Zero) explore the impact of technology and alternate realities caused by technology on humans.

While often quite dystopian, his worlds raise his reader’s consciousness by essentially “hacking” what we would perceive as “normal” and offering potential alternatives in the form of worlds and people that struggle with the chaos and never-ending change wrought by technology and society.

In the course of my meditation on his work I was struck by his mention of how the steam engine shook people’s view of time and distance, causing widespread wonder and unease as centuries of accepted travel times and methods were overturned. Where once people traveled at an average pace of 2 miles per hour they now could be carried along at 15 miles per hour without doing anything other than purchasing a ticket.

Black Steam Train Meiji Train

This and subsequent improvements in engineering and technology dragged people closer together and accelerated the pace of human interactions. As a result, language become more streamlined, matching the new demands for communication to be as efficient as travel.

With the change in language and technology came a change in the sense of time and movement that people experienced. The “new normal” was a world with diminishing quiet spots and a sense of living in a linear, streamlined world, with an uncertain future.

Contrast that with a past that consisted of fixed traditions and technology where people were the benchmark, not machines. The subtleties of language and the importance of nuance in relationships were richer in the past because they had to be, since people relied upon each other instead of machines to produce the necessities of life. It was timeless time.

With this accelerated time that we live in, working longer hours with fewer rest periods, and with schedules that seem to expand but never contract; only the wealthy and those willing to give it all up have access to those quiet spots that once filled the globe.

To be sure, we live longer and healthier lives (though not by much and in some places, not anymore) but to what end? Are we able to control and enjoy the time that we have?


Ragnor and FamilyHistory Channel has taken an uncharacteristic turn away from aliens and Hitler with its new series, Vikings.

Despite some historical inaccuracies (unlike in the series, Vikings were well-aware that England lay to the west and Scandinavian society was remarkably egalitarian whereas, in the series, the Viking chieftain is an autocratic ruler), the show is well-produced and has excellent actors, including Gabriel Byrne and Gustaf Skarsgard.

In the show, Viking attacks are merely reasons for plunder while recent scholarship has shown the possibility that Viking raids were retaliation for mass executions and forced conversions by Christian kings, specifically those of Charlemagne against the Danes.

History aside, the show is great. Produced by the same people who did The Tudors, it is rich and violent, perfectly reflecting the spirit of Dark Age Europe and the rise of the powerful Scandinavian force that we call the Vikings. A force that ranged across Northern Europe, Russia, and even to the walls of Constantinople.

Let There Be Light

This is an amazing reality documentary made in 1946 by the legendary film-maker John Huston. It is unscripted sessions with soldiers from World War II who were suffering from what we now call PTSD but was then described as “shell-shock.”

In addition to the heart-breaking discussions, it also shows mixed-race servicemen together, ground-breaking for its’ time. Of course the Army ultimately suppressed the original film until 1980, re-releasing a heavily-edited version using actors instead.

An amazing and sad view into the effects of war that have remain unchanged since Homer’s time.

You can learn more and see the entire movie here.


First it was Fight Club, then the rise of mixed-martial arts, then the Paleo lifestyle, and now books like Sex At Dawn and my most recent read, Manthropology. Mix in the rise of CrossFit and Gym Jones and I get the picture that we as a culture may just be tiring of our modern and considerably weaker life-style in which a long run in the park our an hour at the local health club is considered a real workout.

According to Manthropolgy’s author, Peter McAllister, we have been blinded by our version of history in which we told ourselves that, thanks to technology and science, we are healthier than any of our predecessors.; living longer and supposedly happier lives.

In fact, while average life spans have increased since the beginning of the modern age, that is more an improvement of the high-stress and mortality of life from the time of industrialization and the growth of dense urban living, than it is a real rise in life expectancy since per-historic times.

Our ancestors before then lived well into their 70’s and 80’s and did so in a more healthy way. Ancient soldiers fought in battles well into their 60’s and even 70’s, while people in societies everywhere were generally stronger and tougher than even athletes of today. Studies of pre-historic bones showed considerably thicker density than similarly-aged people now.

Past scientists had compared those bones to modern people (by comparing their density with the assumption that the brittleness and early disease of modern man was natural to all people in all times) and so assumed that pre-historic man only lived to 40 while. In fact, the high-protein, high-cardio, and low-stress life of hunter-gatherers allowed for them to live healthier and longer functional lives.

Manthropology walks us through the records of ancient athletes and warriors who out-marched and out-fought our champions of today. Case in point, the US Army fitness test requires that soldiers be able to to march 12 miles in 4 hours with a pack weighing just 40 pounds. Well, Roman soldiers routinely marched 20-30 miles per day with packs weighing close to 100 pounds because each man was also supposed to carry the pieces of their wooden palisades that they had to put together after the march.

The imperial soldiers of the Wu dynasty in China were required to maintain their fitness levels to allow them to quick-march 80 miles per day as well be ready to fight at the end of the march. The same was true of Zulu warriors who had the added skill of doing the same as their Wu counterparts but barefoot!

McAllister goes on to write that these levels of excellence also existed in ancient realms of singing and poetry. As late as this century, there existed bards in the former Yugoslavia who were able to recite 65,000-line ballads as well as create equally-large ballads on the fly. In contrast, modern rap artists generally average 5,000 lines. The Greek poet Homer’s massive oral rendition of the Illiad and the Odyssey put everyone to shame.

The author, who writes in a fun style that makes the book a great quick read, does not say that we should despair. Rather, this is a call-to-arms for men and women to take back their health and happiness by creating a more challenging environment and bring forth all that lies within, dormant and waiting.

Paleo Sex

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is an in-depth look at human sexuality, mores, and behaviors in our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors. The book is well-written and though-provoking and overturns many perceptions of human life in pre-history.

First the authors (Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha) dismantle the Hobbesian/Malthusian view we hold of prehistoric life. That is, that our ancestors lived shorty and nasty lives, overwhelmed with famine and misery.

In fact, citing studies of human remains from that time period, they found that humans were not under-developed and unhealthy but, rather, were quite healthy and lived lives of relative plenty and ease.

Hunter-gatherer males were on average, 5’9″ to 6′ tall with females averaging at 5’5″ to 5’7″. Examination of their bone densities showed very little of the diseases that came later to agricultural societies and that hunter-gatherers had better diets with a wider range of foods than their agricultural brethren (unlike farmers, hunter-gatherers could easily pick up and move on to where more and better food could be found).

Furthermore, hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian precisely because humans were a small portion of the total population of life-forms on the planet. As a result, there was no shortage of food and resources for these small bands of humans to fight over.

There being no necessity for ownership as we understand it now, hunter-gatherer society was marked with a more open sexual environment where woman’s sexuality was not owned by anyone else and the group ethic allowed for sexual freedom that has only been seen in human society recently in the past 30 years or so.

The authors do caution that we should not view prehistoric life through misty romantic lens. Like life in any time period, there were challenges for all people. However, they do make the claim that a pre-historic life of relative plenty and health puts our current linear view of history and “progress” on its ear somewhat.

It makes us question what we hold important now and possibly even wonder if the biblical story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden may well have been an allegory of the shift from a hunter-gatherer egalitarian society to a hierarchical agricultural society.

History of Kendo

Kendo is generally accepted as having come about as a non-lethal system which enabled warriors to practice techniques and tactics without risking life and limb. Prior to that, especially before the Tokugawa period, training with a partner was a risky business due to the use of live blades. Some warriors began to use wooden swords, called bokken, although these proved to be as deadly as metal ones. The celebrated swordsman Musashi Miyamoto fought his famous duel with Kojiro Sasaki on Ganryu Island using only a wooden sword. In that combat, Musashi barely evaded Kojiro’s sweep to his head but responded by leaping up in the air and striking him squarely on the head, killing him.

Musashi and his life are often used as examples of bushido which is known in English as the Way of the Warrior. Similar to the European code of chivalry, bushido called for warriors to be brave, loyal, and to show valor in all aspects of life. Added to that was a concept of gentleness to others, an appreciation of beauty, and a willingness to die happily without thought. This last concept, derived from Zen Buddhism which had been imported from China, came to serve as an underlying lesson for the warrior and can still be found in elements of modern kendo.

Bushido became a formal part of Japanese life after the defeat of the Taira clan by the Minamoto in 1185. This war came about after the failure of the Fujiwara clan (who had been ruling Japan through control of the Emperor) for generations. The consequent military weakening of the Fujiwara and the rise of samurai clans in the countryside sparked a seizure of power by the Taira clan after defeating their primary opponent, the Minamoto clan. The Minamoto ultimately defeated the Taira and began the system of military control of the Imperial Court and bureaucracy through military power; known as the Shogunate. Their government was based in the city of Kamakura and was done so as to avoid the “softening” influence of the traditional seat of power in Kyoto (which had been dominated by highly-cultured and sophisticated nobles with very little military knowledge). The Minamoto wanted to retain the same vigor and strength that brought them to power in the first place and, as a result, the government and the Imperial Court became separated.

Of course, power shifted over time and Japan became riven with battles for who would become the next Shogun. 150 years later, the Minamoto were replaced by the Ashikaga who ruled until their own decline resulted in the Warring States period. Out of this civil war, Japan found itself under the rule of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The consequent battle between Tokugawa and Toyotomi after the death of Oda Nobunaga, resulted in the seizure of power by the Tokugawa clan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun, intended that Japan would no longer suffer endless cycles of war and his solution was to enforce an absolute ban on social movement and foreign influence, first promulgated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. To that end, he froze Japanese society into four main classes and dictated that no one could change the class that they were born into. These classes were: samurai, farmer, craftsman, and merchant.

This system became known as shi-nô-kô-shô, after the Japanese transliteration of the four traditional Chinese classes. At the top were the warriors, or shi (士), followed by the farmers, or (農), the craftsmen, or (工), and the merchants, or shô (商). Also included in the system, were the courtly nobility, or kuge, who were theoretically superior to the shi but in reality were powerless, and the henin, or “untouchables”, who were the lowest of the low.

This system was not perfectly suited for the Japanese situation, incorporating as it did such alien elements as the traditional Chinese disdain for the merchant class. This actually contributed to the rise of Japan’s merchant class as the merchants were, despite their growing wealth, required to spend the least under the sumptuary regulations, even less than the chronically poor farmers.

Throughout the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan knew a peace it had not known in a long time. It lasted for 200 years, ending with the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate under the dual pressures of economic and technological stagnation and increasing foreign pressure. During this time, the samurai had few chances to engage in battle, only being able to apply their skills in individual duals or vendettas which were technically illegal. As a result, schools of fencing arose in which participants wore protective gear and used wooden or bamboo swords (called shinai). From this evolved kendo which replaced kenjutsu or the art of military combat. In order to maintain mental vigor and focus on the philosophy of bushido, Zen took on a more dominant role in the lives of the samurai, as their battles turned from the outside world and into the internal world of the spirit.

Kendo was officially organized under the auspices of the the Dai Nippon Butokai, which had itself been established with the permission of the first Meiji Emperor in 1895. In 1920, this organization formally changed the name of this fencing system into kendo. Previous to that it had been known as gekiken or “hitting sword.”

Modern kendo is both a sport and a way of life, depending on one’s approach. Utilized with Japanese terminology and practices, kendo is a complete system of physical and mental exercise focusing on improving oneself through the practice of fencing. To date, kendo is practiced throughout the world by men and women and it can be a sport and system that brings together people of different cultures, religions, and political persuasions. No matter one’s position in life, once one enters the dojo, all practitioners are subject to the courtesy and tradition of the Way of the Sword.

Attack of the Bread Lobby

In an article that must have been funded by the bread lobby (and there must be one!),  Reuters quotes a study by the National Academy of Sciences that described the use of grinding tools to create food from various seeds and other plants, turning them into a form of bread. Reuters went on to say that this called into question the veracity of the paleo lifestyle which is weird because if one actually reads the original report, it states that our ancestors ate a wide range of naturally-occurring foods (animals from the hunt, fruits from trees and bushes, and roots and seeds from the ground).

However, the study did not state that our ancestors consumed enriched wheat products, processed sugars and other foods. Using their simple tools, they supplemented their protein and fruit-rich diet by creating a form of trail-mix, using seeds and other plant material.

That’s a far cry from a chocolate cake and a baguette, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good time!

Paleo Sleep

At Day’s Close is an excellent book on the history of sleep. It details the evolution of sleep and the impact that technological and social changes (improved lighting, improved law enforcement, and the effects of industrialization) have had on humankind’s sleep cycles.

In effect, natural human sleep begins with “first sleep” in the evening until midnight when people awaken and experience a sense of calmness and creativity which lasts for about an hour before they fall back into their “second sleep” which lasts until dawn. Modern tests have shown this to be true, that our natural rhythms are tied to the transitions of day and night.

Of further interest is the impact that night has on our perspectives, consciousness, creativity, and even our loves. In essence, it strips away the distractions of daylight, societal mores, and enables us to turn inward while experiencing stronger religious, spiritual, sexual, and creative experiences. Many writers and artists, as well as people of other trades and classes, wrote of the special freedom and joy that night brought to them.

The roots of this “paleo” sleep could have come from our need to keep watch throughout a 24-hour period as well as the advantage of hunting at night (human vision is actually quite good, especially peripheral vision).

The value of this bisected sleep was a stronger sense of wakefulness and more energy during the day. With our 24/7 society, being connected with people throughout the day, always on at night, we have lost this unique and special connection with the night as well as losing the benefits of “true sleep.”

Stalin on Literature

Yep, that title is an eye-catcher but I am drawing on a quote from him that the greatest value of any written endeavor (be it a play, script, or book) is to be that it uplifts people. Looking beyond the fact that he was a paranoid and murderous dictator, let’s look at Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (which was turned into a Starz drama) as well as his recent new book, Fall of Giants.

There is a school of thought that says good literature should be “realistic” and that has been mis-understood to mean “depressing.” So, for instance, if you’re righting about the Middle Ages, it’s best to focus on the down-trodden juxtaposed with their social superiors as a way to show us that nothing really changes and the little guy gets squished.

Follett does this with Pillars of the Earth in which we get to see the merry lives of Tom Builder and his desperate family as they basically get crushed and fall apart, have some moments of happiness, and then fall apart. The tv series is just as depressing except that you get to see the filth and desperation up close. According to the the NY Times book review, we’re going to get more of the same in his new book Fall of Giants except it will be sad times in the 20th century…

Strangely, Follett is very popular in the UK, but then again, so was Gormenghast so maybe people in the UK like it when things go awry. Actually, if you look at any English show, comedy or drama, the main theme is usually about a good plan or vision that goes awry. Like every episode of Mr. Bean but I digress.

I think that life is never that bad and that even in bad times, people on average thrive and find happiness. Out of the 100 Years War for example, we find the growth of literature and art which lead to the Renaissance. During war in the modern period we saw new artistic movements and literature (artists like Picasso or Brassai). People find love, build families, and create order out of the chaos around them. And I think it is these exceptions that people would like to  see in their books and shows.

On a final note, if you like social history than go to the source. There are many books out there that describe the lives of people in our past. My favorite, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, a social history of a 14th century southern French Cathar village done by a French cleric in that time. However, unlike Follett’s history, the people then were actually happy.

Longer but not Better?

Living to 80 is not the feat that people think it is. As I’ve often said, people routinely lived active lives well into their 80’s in ancient Asian and Mediterranean cultures  (there are numerous examples including my favorite being that of Alexander the Great’s elite troops who were active in the field well into the 70’s and 80’s long after their king had died).

The key to a quality life, regardless of the number reached, is what you do every day in that life. Are you living fully as a parent, a professional or business owner, and as a person in pursuit of their own philosophical or spiritual goals?  If you’re not and every day is just a burden then maybe that long-life will be ill-spent.

Maybe we should expect to live only to 60 and live a consequently fuller life because mortality draws even nearer. Would we be more active? More willing to take a necessary risk? Would we live more richly?

The men who landed on the beaches at Normandy, climbed Everest, or who landed on the moon took risks that many now would not in our age of mandatory bike helmets, safety regulations, and other attempts to soften the impact of life’s challenges.

By living longer but without challenge and risk, do we live well?