Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Reading Speed

I've long been dissatisfied with the table that I put in this post, which showed my proficiency in various languages. In it I gave my reading, listening and speaking abilities subjective grades on the 0 to 10 scale. It should be easy to measure the first two of these objectively. I recently started to do this with reading.

I chose newspaper editorials as material. Why? There's less variation among them in terms of difficulty than among novels. There are fewer personal and place names in them than in newspaper articles. They're easy to find.

Here's what I have so far:

For this table I read about 5,000 words in English, German, Russian, Spanish and French each. I read a little fewer than 2,900 words in Italian and about 1,250 characters in Chinese. This is a work in progress. Eventually I want to base my table on 5,000 words in all of these European languages and on 10,000 characters in Chinese. And I want to add Portuguese and Ukrainian, which I can read to some extent.

For the record, the one English word I didn't know was "exons", encountered in an NYT editorial by Nicholas Kristof. I comfort myself with the near-certainty that he doesn't know what it means either.

What does "Adj. reading speed" mean in my above table? Well, German words, for example, tend to be longer than English ones. So a thousand words in German usually convey more information than a thousand words in English. I decided to quantify this, and then to adjust for it.

When people compare languages, they often use the Lord's Prayer because it's the text that's been translated into the most tongues. However, it's short and sometimes contains archaic vocabulary, which is unrepresentative of modern speech. I decided to go for one of the chief texts of the religion of liberalism instead, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The web site of the High Commissioner of these rights has translations of their Declaration into 501 languages. The document is broken up into chapters. I removed chapter headings ("Chapter 25", for example) before counting the words because I'm more interested in the length of real sentences. In the end I came up with the following numbers:

For Chinese I used the number of characters instead of the number of words. I used the coefficients in the last column to adjust the reading speed numbers above. My entire worksheet can be seen here.

My plan for measuring listening comprehension is to find some audio-books of classic novels and then to calculate the percentage of the words that I understand correctly the first, the second, the third, etc. time that I hear a passage spoken.

The only way to objectively quantify speaking ability is to ask lots of native speakers to grade you. I can't really do that, so those grades will remain subjective in my new system.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Year in Nerdiness

Last April I wrote here about timing my hobbies. This is an update.
In the graph below the blue sections at the bottom represent the time I spent doing Anki reps. It was more than an hour a day throughout last year. I added 1,333 new Anki cards during 2016, for a total of 21,636 cards. When I encounter a new word or concept, I often look it up and enter it into my Anki deck. In 2016 I didn't read as much in foreign-to-me languages as I usually do, so I added fewer cards. One usually spends more time on new cards than on old ones, so a decrease in the number of new cards leads to less time spent with Anki, and in fact you can see the blue portions of the bars decreasing as the year went on.   
The black portions of the bars, above the blue ones, represent the time I spent practicing the piano. And here's a separate graph for piano practice, an activity which I started timing two and a half years before the other ones:

During last year I recorded three piano pieces and posted them on YouTube. I can play a fourth one - Bach's Little Fugue - all the way through, but even worse than those three. I sometimes have to stop and look for notes. It's a difficult piece, and I don't know if I'll ever learn it well enough to want to record it. It's beautiful though, so I do love playing it.
In 2016 I was also busy learning Billy Joel's Honesty. I hope to record it this year, but you never know. If I do, Elton John's Your Song will probably be next.
The various shades of light green on the first graph represent learning various languages. Some of it was me reading the two French books I reviewed on this blog last year. Another part is me listening to France2's 8 PM newscasts. The first time I listen to a segment I understand about half of the words in it. That's a rough estimate. I think that by the 5th or 6th time I'm up to 99%. You can turn on the subtitles there to check if you were right.
One of the light green segments is me listening to Pimsleur Mandarin lessons. I'm usually against using language study materials. The best way to learn a language is to just read, listen and talk in it. But Chinese is so hard that I made an exception. Pimsleur has 5 Mandarin courses, for a total of 150 30-minute lessons. I'm now on lesson 105. I have some Chinese co-workers and I sometimes understand little parts of their conversations with each other. Not many though. Right now my plan is to start listening to Chinese news online once I'm finished with Pimsleur, or a little before that.
The dark green portions above the light green ones represent me reading books in one of my two native languages, Russian and English. I only timed myself reading books that I intended to finish and review here. If I took a book from a shelf at Barnes and Noble and spent an hour with it, I didn't make a record in my table for that. Why? I don't know. The criteria for including things here are somewhat arbitrary. I spend a lot of time reading and commenting on blogs, arguing with people in Twitter, reading news articles linked from my Twitter feed, working at my 9 to 5 job, etc., and I didn't time any of that stuff here either.
The yellow segments represent me writing blog posts and poems, and red is miscellaneous.
I wish I started doing this earlier so I could track the rise and fall of my past nerdy obsessions.
It would be fun to calculate the rate of language learning progress per hour of study. The increase in reading speed, in the percentage of words recognized, that kind of thing. Obviously, the same amount of study will lead to different results in different languages. Those differences could be used to objectively estimate the difficulty of various languages. It's something I might try to do in the future.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Cambridge Histories

After I finished reading The Age of Agade I got curious about later Mesopotamian history: the third dynasty of Ur, the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, etc. So I looked for recent, high-quality books about these on Amazon. There didn't seem to be any, but after a few searches I noticed a volume of Cambridge Ancient History in my results. And then I remembered sitting years ago in the main room of the Central New York library - one of the grandest, most beautiful rooms I've ever been in - reading little bits of multi-volume Cambridge histories. You could take them from the shelves around the perimeter without putting in a request. And I thought "that's what I should read and review on my blog!"

These are enormous scholarly publications, probably the largest ones on their topics in English. Some of them cost hundreds of dollars per volume on Amazon, but of course people have already uploaded free scans of many of them to the Internet.

I'm not any better at following up on my plans than the average person, but right now I have a lot of enthusiasm for reading history, so I'm thinking of checking out some of these books. I don't yet know what series I'll start with. I'll decide once I finish the book I'm currently reading, which was not published by Cambridge.

I'll put up links to some of the series, starting with the ones I'm most interested in. Most Cambridge history volumes seem to be between 600 and 1000 pages long.

The Cambridge History of Japan in 6 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Science in 8 volumes.

The New Cambridge History of Islam in 6 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Christianity in 9 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Judaism in 4 volumes, from the Persian period to the late Roman-Rabbinical period. Obviously an incomplete work.

The Cambridge History of China in 15 volumes, plus a separate volume on the that country's earliest history.

The Cambridge Ancient History in 19 volumes.

The Cambridge Medieval History in 8 volumes

The New Cambridge Modern History in 13 volumes.

Some people would be tempted to read Ancient, Medieval and Modern Histories together in a grand sequence of 40 large volumes, but I wouldn't recommend that. The first 4 volumes of Cambridge Ancient History were published in the 1970s. A lot of archeological discoveries have been made since then, so this stuff is obsolete. 5 volumes were published in the 1980s, which isn't much better. I would think that once you get to classic-era Greece, most of the sources become literary, stuff that's been known for centuries. Those volumes shouldn't have aged much.

The Cambridge History of Iran in 8 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Classical Literature in 2 volumes (Greek and Latin).

The Cambridge History of Egypt in 2 volumes (640 AD to 1517 AD and 1517 AD to the end of the 20th century).

The New Cambridge History of the Bible in 4 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Scandinavia in 2 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Latin America in 12 volumes.

And so on. Here is a list of all the Cambridge series.

Pasting all these links made me think about what periods I enjoy reading about the most. I think the European Dark Ages is my favorite historical topic. It's hard to say why. Civilization reached a bottom in the 7th and early 8th centuries and then started a slow recovery. There's some mystery in that. And I like reading about the simple beginnings of something that later became great.

I love the later Middle Ages too, for reasons that I described at the end of this book review. The reason that I didn't put the Cambridge Medieval History at the top of the above list is that I already know a lot about that period. I know much less about the histories of Japan, science and the major religions, so I'm more likely to start with those.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Golden Showers

I couldn't resist:

Once there was a way
To grab more power.
Once there was a way
To start more wars.

Sleep, my first lady,
Do not cry.
You're bumming out this sad old spy.

G-oooo-lden showers fill our lies.
Bugs record you when you rise.
Sleep, stupid suckers, do not try
To figure out why we pry.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

More on the Causes of 2016

I wrote a post recently in which I mused about the possible causes of the global populist-nationalist trend. One theory that I didn't mention there is that globalism, like some other lefty movements, has a shelf life. I think Steve Sailer advanced this idea in some form.

Freudianism, for example, is mostly discredited now. It had a run of several decades, and then people started questioning it, picking it apart, laughing at it. The same fate recently befell Chomsky's universal grammar. As I've mentioned on this blog, the quality of public architecture has been rebounding recently. If, architecturally speaking, 1913 was 10 and 1970 was 0, then 2016 was about 2.

Leftism may not be retreating in general. There's transgenderism, gay marriage, intersectionality, etc. But for some reason it periodically retreats on some fronts. Why? Maybe because these fronts start to feel stale to people. The young are always looking for something to rebel against.

Well, that last part doesn't fit well with the current populist-nationalist trend. According to this article, during the primaries Trump got 42.3% of the voters over 65, 41.9% of those between 45 and 65, 37.7% of those between 30 and 44 and 32% of those between 17/18 and 32. Oldsters preferred Trump in the general too.

Same thing for Brexit: "leave" got 25% among the 18 to 24 group and 61% among the over-65 group.

None of the theories of the causes of the nationalist trend that I've seen so far were convincing to me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Predictions, Old and New

I made some predictions here on March 12th of last year. Here are the ones that pertained to 2016, with a strike through the one I got wrong:

Hillary will not be prevented from appearing on the ballot in November by legal trouble stemming from her e-mail scandal or from anything else: 100%.
Hillary will be the Democratic nominee in 2016: 99%.
Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2016: 80%.
Trump will not be assassinated or severely disabled by an assassination attempt before the end of 2016: 85%.
Hillary will win the 2016 general election: 70%.
I also predicted that the UK will not leave the EU as a result of the 2016 referendum. It now looks like it WILL leave, but that hasn't happened yet.

And here are a few predictions for this year, starting with politics:

Trump avoids assassination: 92.5%.
Trump avoids natural death: 97.5%.
Trump avoids impeachment: 97.5%.
Anti-Trump protests lead to fewer than 50 deaths: 75%.
Putin is alive and in power at the end of the year: 97.5%.
The Ukraine fails to retake Donetsk and Lugansk: 99%.
The Ukraine keeps Mariupol: 97.5%.
The Ukraine keeps Kharkov: 99%.
The Ukraine keeps Odessa: 99%.
The neocons have probably convinced themselves by now that Trump's victory will lead to Russia re-taking the Baltics. That's paranoia. Forget the places that hate Putin, he won't even take the places that like him unless he's provoked, like he was after the Maidan coup. Trump won't provoke him.
ISIS keeps at least some territory: 75%.
Marine Le Pen fails to win the French presidency: 65%.

Predictions related to this blog:

I will review more than 10 books in 2017: 75%.
One of last year's serial murderers, a BLM-related fellow if I recall correctly, bragged on his web site that he read something like 150 books a year. I'm not even 100% sure that was BS. Some people do read that much. Not me: last year I only finished reading 8 books, all of which I reviewed on this blog.
I will record at least 1 piano piece and post it on YouTube: 80%.
I will write at least 10 new quatrains for my Credo poem: 60%.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Review of The Age of Agade

The Age of Agade by Benjamin R. Foster, 2016. Glossy's rating: 7/10.

This is a book about the Akkadian Empire, which was established more than 4,300 years ago in parts of what's now Iraq, Syria and Iran, and survived for roughly a century and a half before disintegrating.

In Mesopotamia writing was invented by the Sumerians, who lived in what's now southern Iraq. It was very quickly borrowed by the Semitic people living upstream from them, in central Iraq and Syria, who used it to write their completely unrelated language. I've seen several contradictory estimates of when Semites arrived in Mesopotamia, from 3000 BC, right before the dawn of the written record, to the 7th millennium BC, a date which appears in this book.

Early on Kish was the political center of the Semitic north, but then a man named Sargon, who was presumably from the northern city of Akkad, conquered all of Mesopotamia and several adjoining regions, creating the largest state seen in the area up to that time. Akkad was its capital and eventually, as creators of this empire, all Semitic Mesopotamians became known as Akkadians.

I'm very curious about the differences between the Sumerian and Akkadian peoples and cultures. Both regions practiced irrigation agriculture and animal husbandry, but there was somewhat more of the first in Sumer and somewhat more of the second in Akkad. It's natural to expect the tillers of the earth to be tamer and more civilized than shepherds, and the history of this region supports this stereotype. According to this book the art of the Akkadian empire was more martial in subject matter than the early Sumerian art which preceded it.

Akkadian language gained at the expense of Sumerian during and after the imperial period, eventually replacing it completely. Genetics might tell us if this was accompanied by much demographic change, but I'm not aware of anyone having studied this.

Foster writes that "letters composed in Akkadian show a tendency to be more florid than those in Sumerian, introducing oaths, exclamations, and rhetorical questions to an extent unusual in Sumerian epistolography." More than 4,000 years later Semitic speakers still like florid verbal bombast.

Early Sumerian politics and economy were dominated by temples to a larger extent than in the Semitic area.

"In the pre-Akkadian Semitic-speaking world"... "a king ruled like a strong, resourceful, clever, and protective tribal leader, but had no special connection to the gods, as he did in Sumerian thought."

Yet Akkadian rulers claimed intimacy with the gods and divine support. Foster implies that they borrowed this from the Sumerians. By the late Akkadian period Semitic kings were worshipped as Gods.

Foster writes that in Akkad inferiors were more likely to identify themselves by their dependency on someone else, such as "he of..."

Slavery existed but wasn't common. Slaves were mostly used as rich men's servants, not agricultural laborers. The Sumerian word for them was of Akkadian origin, which implies that the practice might have been brought to the south by Akkadians.

This contradictory information makes it difficult for me to say which of these two societies was more egalitarian. Foster says that some scholars have talked about popular assemblies in ancient Mesopotamia, but that they were wrong to do this. He sees no evidence of any democratic institutions in that world.

You would think that Sumerian culture would have had some prestige in the Semitic north, similarly to how Greek culture was looked up to at Rome and British culture is looked up to in modern America, and there is in fact some evidence for this:

"At pre-Akkadian Mari, a significant proportion of the musicians had Sumerian names, as opposed to the rest of the palace population. Perhaps these were professional or stage names, rather than an indication that Sumerian musicians were particularly favored there."

"Their repertory probably included love songs, perhaps the erotic type later termed “bosom songs.”

My opinion of Mesopotamian civilization would have taken a serious dive if its love songs turned out to have been called "ass songs" instead.

This book has chapters on most aspects of Mesopotamian life of that period. A couple of unrelated things that I found interesting:

"Marriage was overwhelmingly monogamous, though men occasionally had more than one wife and concubinage was known among the elite and ruling class, among whom large families are documented. People of lower status, who appear most often in administrative lists of workers, did not usually have more than two or three children."

"Roast pork was an esteemed delicacy served to visiting dignitaries and, in post-Akkadian times, a treat for the gods and for members of the royal family. The first evidence for a taboo on pork consumption in Mesopotamia comes much later, from the ninth century BCE."

Sargon's empire is not the earliest known large state. Egypt was unified about seven centuries before his birth, and there was a trend for progressively larger states in Mesopotamia before Sargon. But through his conquests and reforms he made an enormous impression on Mesopotamian historical consciousness. For more than 2,000 years after him, until the demise of cuneiform culture, Sargon was Mesopotamia's chief hero, comparable to Alexander and Charlemagne in Europe of later ages.

I was surprised to learn that Mesopotamian rulers of the 1st millennium BC conducted archeological digs in the city of Akkad, which was by then abandoned, looking for inscriptions and other artifacts of the Sargonic period. A Babylonian king of the 6th century BC thought that Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, ruled 3,200 years before him, an error of 1,500 years.

An Akkadian king, probably Naram-Sin. All extant likenesses of Akkadian rulers were mutilated in antiquity, after the fall of the dynasty.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.
Besides conquering and ruthlessly suppressing revolts Sargon and his heirs reformed Mesopotamia's weights and measures. Two millennia before China's first emperor and the Roman emperor Claudius, Naram-Sin ordered a spelling reform, making the Mesopotamian writing system more logical and visually attractive. There is a record of one of Naram-Sin's sons, a governor of a province, being literate. I'm always curious about the question of whether or not literacy was limited to the scribal profession in past eras. For example, it's known that the above-mentioned Charlemagne could read, but not write.

"No other medium conveys the calm self-assurance of the period so well as its elegant, elaborate, carefully laid out script."...

"As they did with so many other aspects of Mesopotamian civilization, the Akkadian ruling class took a venerable inheritance and gave it a new form in which a love of beauty and harmony for their own sake was paramount, the first instance of a culture in which the art of calligraphy proclaimed its values and pride."

"For outsiders, the Akkadian aesthetic aroused envy, fear, wonder, and grudging respect. For the Akkadian elite, however, it proclaimed their pride and self-confidence in having reshaped the four quarters of their world and crushed all resistance. This may be why even the closest student of Akkadian arts and letters feels at once near and far from the spirit they convey."

This sort of stuff makes me think of the Napoleonic, Hitlerite and Stalinist visual styles. Empires often go for imperial grandeur in the arts. Nietzsche would have loved this.

The scale of the imperial enterprise was of course much smaller in the ancient world. Sargon boasted in one of his inscriptions that he fed a standing army of 5,400. Foster is inclined to believe Akkadian kings' figures because they swore to the gods that they were true. I'm more skeptical. They never mentioned any defeats or listed their own casualties.

"On the whole, Akkadian notables saw themselves as dominating local populations, rather than working pacifically with them. In a letter sent by one notable to another, the writer addresses his compeer, perhaps playfully, as “The Yoke of Ishtar.”

The royal inscriptions, listed in an appendix of this book, bear this out:

"Sargon, as Enlil revealed, showed mercy to no one…"

"Rimush, king of the world –Enlil verily gave kingship to him –was as many as three times victorious over Sumer in battle! He slew 11,322 men. He took 2520 captives. Further, he expelled 14,100 men from the cities of Sumer and put them in camps. Total: 54,016 men, including the slain, including the captives, including the men whom he put in camps, the campaign is not lies! ? By Shamash and Ilaba I swear no lies but truthfully!

Whoever shall remove the name of Rimush, king of the world, and set his own name there, saying “My statue!” –may Enlil, owner of this statue, and Shamash tear out his foundations and take away his seed."

The style and vigor of anti-plagiarism notices have really declined over the ages.

Foster says that the Iraq and Syrian wars have had a terrible impact on the study of the ancient Near East. Museums have been looted. Archeological sites ceased to be guarded and were excavated by treasure hunters who do not record the context of their finds like professionals do, and who will easily break unique and priceless tablets which they can't read in search of a pretty statuette or vase.

It's enough to make one want to cry out to Enlil and Shamash, imploring them to tear out the foundations and take away the seed of the imbeciles responsible for neocon foreign policy.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A New Quatrain

Yesterday I wrote another quatrain for my big Credo poem:

There are limits to our powers.
Anyone can quickly tell
Real plants from plastic flowers.
We don't copy nature well.

I'm still trying to versify the idea that I described in this book review. It will probably take a couple more quatrains to do it. The entire work in progress can be seen here.

A couple of cool quotes about poetry:

"Poetry [is] the best words in the best order." Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
"Writing unrhymed poetry is like playing tennis with the net down." Robert Frost.

To extend this analogy, writing poetry that doesn't make any coherent sense is like ignoring the white lines that mark the borders of the court. The old game where you write a line of poetry, your friend writes the second one, you write the third, etc. is like playing doubles. The opponent is the language, the spectators are the readers.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Non-Review of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

I stopped reading this book after finishing the 3rd of its 20 chapters, hence the title of this post.

I first learned about GEB from a Slashdot discussion around 1999. Everyone praised it to the skies, so I added it to my imaginary pile of books to read some day.

The Escher of the title is the guy who drew pictures of this sort:

GEB seems to be mostly about bits of math that confound expectations in a similar way. Things that are true and false at the same time, things that are their own causes and consequences, things that get smaller as they increase, etc.

Now, I think of those pictures as mildly amusing tricks. Hofstadter considers them profound. He claims that mathematical parallels of such trickery can explain consciousness, the thing that separates human intelligence from the artificial sort. My intuition tells me that this is unlikely to be true.

I'd like to learn more math, but only of the sort that's useful in the hard sciences, in understanding the real world. Cute paradoxes for their own sake are boring to me.

I plead guilty to having engaged in some cutesy verbal trickery myself. But I don't think much of it. Hofstadter points out that Bach engaged in a lot of cutesy musical trickery. But that's not what made his music great. It was like Maradona juggling a football with his shoulders for the crowd before matches - a bit of showing off, but not what he was actually about, not why he was important within football.

It's possible that I'm dismissing GEB too easily, but life is short, and there's lots of books I'd like to read that seem more likely to contain interesting to me insights.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of The Literature of Ancient Sumer

The Literature of Ancient Sumer, Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, Gabor Zolyomi, 2005. Glossy's rating: 4/10.

This is a collection of Sumerian texts which, along with early Egyptian writings, constitute the oldest literature that has survived to our days.

It's heavily religious in character. Some of this book's chapters are titled "Love and Sex", "The Natural Order" and "Scribes and Learning", but this is a bit misleading because in reality almost all of these 70-odd pieces are primarily about Sumerian gods.

The mental leap made by some classic-era Greeks which allowed them to discuss history, politics, nature, etc. without recourse to the supernatural seems especially impressive to someone who's just finished reading this book, or just had a long conversation with a low-IQ person.

Yet like all normal religions the Sumerian one must have been enormously helpful to the propagation of its believers. Here is one god describing the underworld to another:

`Did you see him who had one son?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
`He weeps bitterly at the wooden peg which was driven into his wall.'....
`Did you see him who had seven sons?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
'As a companion of the gods, he sits on a throne and listens to judgments.'
'Did you see the palace eunuch?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
`Like a useless alala stick he is propped in a corner.'
`Did you see the woman who never gave birth?'
`I saw her.'
`How does she fare?'
`Like a ... pot, she is thrown away violently, she gives no man joy.'
`Did you see the young man who never undressed his wife?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
'You finish a rope, and he weeps over the rope.'
`Did you see the young woman who never undressed her husband?'
`I saw her.'
`How does she fare?'
`You finish a reed mat, and she weeps over the reed mat.'
'Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?'
'I saw them.'
`How do they fare?'
'They play at a table of gold and silver, laden with honey and ghee.'

Almost all of these texts are highly repetitive:

"'What does your king have to tell me, what does he have to add to me? What does En-suljgir-ana have to tell me, what does he have to add to me?" "This is what my king said, what he added, this is what En-suhgir-ana said, what he added."'

This is at least partly because many of them were meant to be sung to musical accompaniment. It's natural for lyrics to have refrains. But even if one takes that into the account, the narratives still sound extremely monotonous in the specific way that annoys you when you hear one modern dull person try to explain something to another. Lots of simple points are made many times over in different ways.

Some of these stories are like modern children's fairy tales with talking animals and sentient garden implements. Except that they're raunchier:

"...after father Enki had lifted his eyes across the Euphrates, he stood up full of lust like a rampant bull, lifted his penis, ejaculated and filled the Tigris with flowing water."

"She placed mascara which is called `Let a man come, let him come' on her eyes. She pulled the pectoral which is called `Come, man, come' over her breast..."

Both of these quotes are about Sumerian gods. There is a description of "sacred marriage", a ceremony where a king copulates with a goddess on a platform in front of the people:

"The king goes to her holy thighs with head held high,° he goes to the thighs of Inana with head held high. Ama-usumgal-ana lies down beside her and caresses her holy thighs°. After the lady has made him rejoice with her holy thighs on the bed, after holy Inana has made him rejoice with her holy thighs on the bed, she relaxes (?) with him on her bed: `Iddin-Dagan, you are indeed my beloved!'"

The editors say it's impossible to know whether king Iddin-Dagan actually did it on a stage with a stand-in for the goddess Inana (a priestess of hers, for example), or whether the ceremony was handled in a more symbolic way in real life.

The preface to one of the stories says that only heterosexual kind of love is ever talked about in Sumerian literature, yet there is a mention of male prostitutes parading in front of the crowd before the above-mentioned sacred marriage performance.

In one story king Gilgamesh, trying to lure out the monster Huwawa, offers him his "big sister" En-me-barage-si in marriage. Huwawa doesn't know that En-me-barage-si is actually the king of Kish and the father of Gilgamesh's enemy Aga. The editors say this is a joke and I believe them - people still joke like that today.

Some of the cultural associations used in these tales clash with ours though. For example, when Sumerians compared a beautiful goddess to a cow or a fearsome god to a donkey, they weren't trying to insult them.

Sumerians' chief name for themselves was "the black-headed people". Black-headed as opposed to whom? Modern Swedes sometimes call foreigners svartskallar (black skulls), obviously in contrast to themselves. In less politically correct times there was some controversy over whether or not Gutians, a barbaric tribe that overran Sumer in the late 3rd millennium BC, were light-haired. And there are statues with blue eyes from the Near East of this period.

In this collection Sumerians call Gutians "an unbridled people, with human intelligence but canine instincts' and monkeys' features..." "who do not resemble other people, who are not reckoned as part of the Land."

I was surprised that none of the stories in this book mention conflict between Sumerians and Semitic Akkadians whose language ended up replacing Sumerian. Most of these texts are known from clay tablets of the 18th century BC and later, when spoken Sumerian was probably already dead. Maybe after Akkadian culture won Sumerian texts disparaging Akkadians were destroyed? And maybe any texts disparaging Sumerians would be in Akkadian, which would put them outside the scope of this book?

My favorite text here was The Instructions of Shuruppag, one of the two oldest pieces of Sumerian literature that survived to our day. It's about 4,500 years old, and its opening line says:

"In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years..."

It's a collection of advice, which this document (one of the oldest ones on Earth if we disregard accounting tables and the like) already called ancient.

"Although the number of unhappy days is endless (?), yet life is better than death .."
"At harvest time, at the most priceless time, collect like a slave girl, eat like a queen." The modern English equivalent is "work hard, play hard."
"You should submit to the respected; you should be humble before the powerful. My son, you will then survive (?) against the wicked."
"Without suburbs a city has no centre either."
"What flows in is never enough to fill it, and what flows out can never be stopped - don't envy the king's property!"
"When you bring a slave girl from the hills, she brings both good and evil with her. The good is in the hands; the evil is in the heart."
"My son, you should not use violence (?); .... You should not commit rape on someone's daughter; the courtyard will learn of it." A hint that the Sumerians were a shame-based, not a conscience-based people.
"You should not have sex with your slave girl: she will chew you up."

The receiver of all this advice is Zi-ud-sura, the Noah of the Sumerian flood story, which was the original source of the Biblical story everyone now knows. Archeologists did discover evidence of a catastrophic river flood in Sumer around 2900 BC. The Sumerian king list includes a chronological list of cities which led Sumer before the flood. The first one is Eridu, which this book calls Eridug. Archeologists determined that it was indeed the first city in the region - the king list had that right - and that it was founded around 5400 BC. So if you want to know how far back humanity's historical memory goes, 5400 BC is one possible answer. Which I think is pretty impressive.