The Book of Signs

Category: Books
Fri, 08 Jul 2005, 18:30

Dover Publications is well known for affordable reprints of some marvellous old books. The Book of Signs (by Rudolf Koch) is an example of a Dover book that's a terrific source of clip art suitable for web sites, since Dover explicitly allows the use of a certain number of illustrations from the book without permission. This note serves to provide the requested credit.

The following describes the meanings of the symbols used in this blog:

Notes in the Books section get this profound symbol. The The Book of Signs describes it thusly: "An oriental symbol of the soul's pilgrimage through life: the soul climbs up through the four belts of the world, or elements, to its purification, and wins through from darkness into light."
The Bowling section gets the triquetrum, which conveys the sense of rolling. The circle is divided into three sections, representing the three throws per frame you are allowed in five-pin bowling.
Politics gets this unlikely choice, which represents friendship between people. Many Canadians may remember this symbol. A ring of eight of these symbols was used as a logo for Expo 67, the world's fair held in Montréal.
Religion is represented by this ancient pagan symbol representing the sun. Later, it was appropriated by Christians as a Chrismon, or monogram of Christ.
Three straight horizontal lines represent "passive intellect". Three straight vertical lines represent "active intellect". Three wavy horizontal lines mean "intellect in action". Three lines arranged in a triangle symbolize "creative intellect". Finally, when the lines cut through each other, order dissolves. The symbol used for Sudoku is called "disordered intellect", suggesting an activity for those who might just have too much time on their hands. (Hmmm, that could well apply to blogging too!)
The symbol used for the Television section is a holding mark called "the manure heap".
For Toronto I use this symbol called simply "the city". Inverted, it indicates the destruction of the city.
Finally, the symbol for the Trains section is, appropriately, an old chemical symbol for iron. The arrow represents forward motion and the two parallel lines represent the two iron rails. Thus, this medieval symbol foresees the use of iron in the railroad industry a thousand years in advance!


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Jesus Forgot to Bring the Pork Chops

Category: Books
Wed, 06 Jul 2005, 09:47

With a provocative title like When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, you might expect George Carlin to be more down on religion in his latest book. He does have some choice words about religion, but overall, religion has a minor place in the book. Most of his rants discuss our fascination with and overuse of euphemisms. Other rants seem purposely provocative. And many comments are bluntly insightful.

This is not really the kind of book to read from start to finish. The best way to read it is to flip through the book reading random pages when you have a spare minute or two. The best bits are the short bits and pieces. Try to imagine Carlin doing a stand-up routine when reading bits like "I was reading a fitness magazine that had an article about cross-training, and I realized this would have been a good idea for Jesus."

Regarding euphemisms, one great bit called "God Help Us" discusses the term faith-based. He argues convincingly that the term is used, mainly by Bush Republicans, since it's more acceptable to the general public than the term religious. He has these choice words on the subject: "The term faith-based is nothing more than an attempt to slip religion past you when you're not thinking; which is the way religion is always slipped past you."

In case you might think Carlin is picking sides, conservatives (political or religious) aren't the only targets in this book. The left doesn't survive his barbs unscathed either. For example, liberals use the terms investing or funding, whereas others would call it spending money. Conservatives say gun control while liberals call it gun safety.

In another more serious section, he discusses the issue of land mines, pointing out that mines cost three dollars to make and install, but cost a hundred dollars to remove. He wonders how many Cambodians who lost one leg already lose the other by stepping on a second land mine.

Finally, here's Carlin's take on America's lost innocence. No commentary is necessary on this:

"I keep hearing that America lost its innocence on 9/11. I thought that happened when JFK was shot. Or was it Vietnam? Pearl Harbor? How many times can America lose its innocence? Maybe we keep finding it again. Doubtful. Because, actually, if you look at the record, you'll find that America has had very little innocence from the beginning."

Because of the authors reputation as a stand-up comic, you might expect more humor in this book. The dust covers whimsical take-off of Leonardo's "Last Supper" certainly suggests more comedy. Sure, there are some lighter moments in this book. But most of it is a dark, no-nonsense observation of the world as it really is, railing against the ways most people want the world to be.


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The Da Vinci Pendulum

Category: Books
Sat, 09 Apr 2005, 22:08

For some time, I had wanted to write about The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, but one thing held me back. When Sylvana gave me a copy of the book for my birthday, I finally read the thing, and I no longer had an excuse.

The Da Vinci Code is about Harvard professor Robert Langdon, symbologist and Holy Grail expert, who is suspected of murdering the curator of the Louvre, Jacques Saunière, and three others. A fugitive from French justice, Langdon is joined by Saunière's grand-daughter, Sophie Neveu, an expert cryptologist. Solving the murders is secondary to the story. While Langdon's goal is finding the Holy Grail, Neveu is driven by the opportunity to discover the truth about her family. In reality, both goals are intertwined.

The obvious comparison is to another book about secret societies and murder and the Holy Grail, Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. Foucault's Pendulum, wonderfully detailed and scholarly researched, is an absolutely riveting and challenging novel. For weeks after reading it, I couldn't look at anything without suspecting some hidden meaning. The Da Vinci Code, in contrast, is a much easier read. However, unlike Foucault's Pendulum, it gets many factual details wrong. Also, some of the puzzles are rather easy and it's somewhat annoying when a symbologist and a cryptologist have difficulty in seeing the obvious.

Clearly this book is not intended to be another Foucault's Pendulum. Brown targeted this book at the general public, which is why the book sometimes reads like a cheap airport thriller. For example, Langdon is an expert in "symbology", not in "semiotics", which is perhaps a more appropriate term for his area of expertise. But few in the general public know what semiotics is.

Also, consider the factual errors. Brown reportedly spent a great deal of time researching the book, and yet still got a lot of details wrong, such as the size and medium of Leonardo's painting The Madonna of the Rocks. In some cases, the errors are necessary in order to advance the plot. But in others, it would have been just as easy to get the facts right. I think the errors are there simply to emphasize the point that the book is a work of fiction, and that any speculative history therein is not to be taken literally.

Much has been written already about this book, most of which is unfavorable. Even the Vatican has condemned the book, which will probably only serve to increase the book's already massive and unprecedented popularity. But I think most critics miss the point that The Da Vinci Code was intended to introduce some profound esoteric knowledge to the general public in an accessible and entertaining manner.

By writing this book, Brown invites his readers to learn more. One might be tempted to reread the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. But since that book has been widely discredited, it's better left on the bookshelf of your public library. Instead, to understand what The Da Vinci Code is really about, go read Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

In conclusion, if you want deep insights into the Holy Grail or the Catholic church, you won't find anything new here. But still, The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining read that might bring its readers a little bit closer to understanding some ancient esoteric wisdom.


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