July 31, 2007

Bone Church

Laura wanted to see some skeletons while she was here in Rome, so on Saturday I dragged her and Sara to the Chiesa Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione just past the metro stop at Piazza Barberini in the middle of Rome. It's a cappuchin friary that boasts a 17th century crypt decorated with the bones of over 4,000 monks. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures, but here is a link to the church's website where you can see such rooms as the Crypt of the Pelvises and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. My favorites were the incidental decorations, like the clock made out of radii, the chandeliers, and the hourglass made of two sacra placed end-to-end with a patella in the middle flanked by radii. Apparently, this crypt in Rome was the inspiration for the world-famous Kostnice Ossuary in Prague. I'm thinking about heading back to the church at some point to take pictures anyway. The old woman who demands a donation just yells at you to not take pictures - she doesn't actually do anything about the photos and videos that people do take.

July 25, 2007

Editor Extraordinaire

Last night, I posted a new web page for my freelance editing services (brought to you in part by Patrick, of course). What do you think? Is it snazzy enough?

July 24, 2007

Pathology Tuesday

Today I took this picture of three thoracic vertebrae. Normal degenerative changes in the spine appear as osteophytes - little spicules of bone that protrude horizontally from the body of a vertebra. In this person's mid-back, however, there was excessive bone formation vertically, causing at least two of the vertebrae to fuse together. This condition is known as ankylosing spondylitis (or ankylosis for short). It most commonly affects the vertebral joints and the sacroiliac joint (where your hips join your sacrum in the back), and it limits the range of motion that an individual can engage in. In the case pictured, one of the vertebral discs (an area of articular cartilage) was partially or wholly destroyed during life. To cope with the loss of mobility, the body created syndesmophytes - basically, ligaments that ran vertically and originally helped stabilize the spine were converted into bone. At the top of the photo, you can see that a third vertebra has developed syndesmophytes, but these have not fused to the vertebra beneath it yet. For unknown reasons, ankylosing spondylitis appears to affect males more than females, nearly 3 to 1, and begins to affect the joints after a person reaches 30. It is a progressive disease, and there are archaeological examples that show entire spines fusing together. Unfortunately, I only had a few vertebrae from this individual, so I could not document the extent of spinal fusion for this particular person.

July 22, 2007

Forza Italia

At lunch the other day, the Italians were asking me about American TV shows.

Valentina: Have you ever seen The Beautiful?
Me: Uhm. No. There is no program called The Beautiful in the US.
Valentina: Yes, there is. It is an American drama. It stars Brooke.
Orso: Brrroooook-a. She gets married a lot.
Me: Oh! Perhaps it is the Bold and the Beautiful?
Valentina: Yes yes. The Bold and the Beautiful. You've seen it?
Me: No. Never.
Everyone: Why not?
Me: Uhm... I haven't seen it.

How do you explain to Italians that only housewives and old people watch soap operas? These archaeologists were completely dumbfounded that I had never seen the Bold and the Beautiful, as it is an extremely popular show in Italy. When I got home, I asked my English-speaking roommate about this show. He said that, yes, even he knows who Brooke is, although he hasn't watched the show. He said that Italy had its own soap opera years ago, but it didn't fare well in the ratings and was cancelled. However, they've also imported Guiding Light, which they call Sentieri for some reason. I often express to him my disbelief in how little my college-educated colleagues seem to know about the US - like that we have nearly 300 TV channels on satellite, so there's no way I could see every single show on TV.

Marco: They don't understand because in Italy there are only 7 TV stations, 3 of which are owned by Berlusconi...
Me: What? The former prime minister owns 3 TV stations? And you call yourself a democracy?
Marco: Yeah, it was a big problem. But he came to power and changed the rules, then gave the stations to his kids and cousins to prevent a conflict of interest.
Me: That's how he prevented a conflict of interest? Jeez.
Marco: He also owns a movie studio.
Me: Really? Why doesn't he just put out propaganda movies and TV shows about himself?
Marco: He does. When he first ran, though, he sent out a little book to every single family in Italy... detailing his life and career.
Me: He sent every family in Italy his resume? That's insane.
Marco: Berlusconi also owns the A.C. Milan soccer team, two newspapers, and the largest publishing company in Italy.
Me: Whoa.
Marco: He decided to run for prime minister because he wanted to save himself from being convicted of a few crimes.
Me: Wait. He was in trouble with the law and then decided to run for president?
Marco: Yeah, because the prime minister is immune from prosecution.
Me: What kind of weird political system is this?
Marco: For some reason, people keep electing him. Oh, I forgot to mention, he also started his own city.
Me: [laughing] His own city?
Marco: Yeah, it's called Milano Due.
Me: [hysterically laughing] You're kidding me. Milano Due? That's like if Bush made D.C. 2.
Marco: Or New New York.

Anyway, having studied the dead Romans for 15 years, I'd never really cared about the living Italians. But their recent politics are super hilarious. For more craziness on Berlusconi, check out the wikipedia entry.

July 20, 2007


At lunch today, the Italians were telling riddles, making the newbies in the group guess the answers. The Italian word for riddle is indovinello, which is similar to the verb to guess, indovinare. Here are the two riddles that I actually understood. I'll post the answers in the comments in a day or so.

1) There are three ants in a line. The first one says, "There are two ants behind me but no ants in front of me." The second ant says, "There is one ant in front of me and one ant behind me." The third ant says, "There are two ants in front of me and two ants behind me." How is this possible?

2) It's a dreary day at the castle, raining and windy. The queen is in her bed chamber, and the king is in his study. Also in the household are a butler, a gardener, an historian, and a cook. The king hears a scream, runs into the queen's bedroom, and finds her dead. He questions the house staff. The butler was in the foyer cleaning silver, the gardener was tending to the garden, the historian was in the library writing up the events of the day, and the cook was in the kitchen making lunch. Who killed the queen?


July 18, 2007


As many European countries do, Italy more or less shuts down for all of August. My lab will remain open except for the week that includes Ferragosto. This holiday, August 15, used to be called the feriae Augusti or the festivals of Augustus. You might remember Augustus from his HBO drama Rome or from the namesake of the eighth month. The ancient feriae Augusti involved eating, drinking, and sexual excess. In Rome, no one comes out into the streets until about 9am, and the city is more or less deserted, meaning spectacular photographs of ancient monuments with no people in them.

At any rate, I found out today that I have no choice but to take an entire week off in the middle of the month. As much fun as it would be to have the city all to myself that Wednesday morning, I think I should go explore Europe. So I'm soliciting ideas for what to do and/or whom to visit. Some places I'd love to see at some point include Scandinavia (I'm not particular about where), Germany (preferably Berlin), Russia (Moscow), Morocco (somewhere they speak English and have tasty food), and Egypt (Cairo). Then there are my old favorites, the U.K. and Greece, to which I would happily return and hang out for a few days, and I could stay in Italy and visit Milan and Venice, which I have never seen.


July 17, 2007

Back and Better than Ever!

OK, so probably not. But here's another Pathology Tuesday for those of you who like this kind of stuff. I was telling Patrick that one of my Italian colleagues is doing research on extramasticatory wear for her thesis. Lest this term get bandied about in my house as a catch-all crazy anthropology word (much like I throw around "algorithm" whenever I want to point out how dorky and jargon-laden Patrick's world is), today's episode is about extramasticatory wear.

Teeth are, as you all know, quite resilient. Enamel is among the hardest materials in the human body, resulting in often excellent preservation of teeth, even 2000 years later. Teeth don't regenerate during your life, which means forensic experts can use your individual dental morphology to identify you, particularly if you have dental work (like filling a cavity) done. Many of your teeth are formed in utero, making them a little time capsule that can reveal to an isotope chemist your diet and disease load as a child, whether or not you moved to a different place while you were growing up, and even the age at which you were weaned! Teeth are, of course, functional as well. They allow us to chew (or masticate) our food, but like our primate ancestors we can also use them as weapons and as tools. Use of the teeth as tools generally results in odd patterns of wear and chipping and can contribute to gum disease and cavities as well. For the most part, when an anthropologist identifies extramasticatory use of the teeth it is through odd dental wear patterns in a population. People's teeth wear differently depending on their bite - overbites are common to people of European ancestry and edge-to-edge bites to people of Asian ancestry - and other issues like whether or not they grind their teeth at night and what kind of food they eat. Extramasticatory wear, however, is immediately recognizable and most often involves the anterior teeth (the front teeth and canines).

Below is a video of a mandible that I found yesterday with anterior extramasticatory wear. Watch as I spin the mandible around and look for the following... On the left, a missing second molar, a first molar with two abscesses at the roots (small holes in the bone) and a giant cavity, wear on the anterior teeth angled at about 45 degrees with nearly complete loss of the crowns of the teeth, and an abscess under one of the front teeth. On the right, more strange anterior wear and an impacted wisdom tooth (you can see it poking out of the bone, but it never erupted and would have been covered by gum tissue during life).

I don't know what this person was doing with his teeth, but anthropological reports from other regions of the world indicate perhaps he was running something through his teeth by gripping it in his mouth and pulling it out and down. This was a method of working leather in some ancient societies, so it is possible that this Roman engaged in a similar practice.

July 13, 2007

Dress like the Engrish

I periodically update some of you on the questionable fashions of Italians. Today's installment is on t-shirts I've seen in the past week. Just for you, I thought I'd do mockups of these shirts (since I couldn't find them online) to illustrate the daily visual assault on my eyes.

A few days ago, I saw this shirt on a guy in his early 20s waiting for the tram. It mostly makes sense, and I suspect that he knew what it meant. It also doesn't have actual swear words, unlike this belt I saw the last time I was in Italy. The crypt-keeper was a nice touch, though.

On the tram this afternoon, I saw a woman wearing this shirt. A Halloween shirt in July, eh? Sure, it's not an Italian holiday, but didn't she think to figure out what the shirt says? Maybe "trick or treat" is too advanced, but "happy Halloween" isn't ambiguous, and as you can see it's black writing on an orange shirt. Also, how did she find an Old Navy shirt in Italy? Maybe all those clothes that I give to Amvets actually get airlifted over the Mediterranean to fuel some sort of tshirt cargo cult. That would explain the Italian guy Erika and I saw in Tivoli wearing a 1988 Washington Redskins tshirt.

One of my colleagues was wearing this shirt. The little graphic (badly reproduced here) was quite cute, and they're all perfectly valid English words, but can anyone tell me what it's supposed to mean? Does it refer to Noah's Ark? Is someone taking their pet on a cruise? My guess is actually that some Italian thought it was hilarious that in English the words "ship" and "sheep" are pronounced the same. They're not, of course, but Italians can't tell the difference between those vowel sounds. In true Italian style, the text was light pink on a medium pink background, meaning I had to stare at her boobs to read the shirt.

And finally, also on the tram, I saw a guy in his early 20s wearing this shirt. I stared at him the entire time, willing the graphic to make the least bit of sense. I was trying to convert the pronunciation of NBC News into Italian, since I know that the Italians love to parse English words by converting them to the closest-sounding Italian words. But I just can't get anything out of this shirt. I suspect it's just Engrish at its best. "Hey, Guido. How can we sell more shirts?" "Well, Fabio, we could put De Niro's name on it. All Italians worship De Niro." "Great, yeah. What else?" "I dunno. What say we throw in the word "spy"? That sounds cool. And "news," 'cause then we look smart." "Awesome. While we're at it, why don't we just rip off the NBC peacock? Surely trademark infringement doesn't cross international boundaries." I really like the complete randomness of this shirt. Maybe I'll make some Cafe Press stuff out of it and sell it to fund my research!

If you have a story you want to submit to DeNiro Spy News (motto: "You talkin' to me? Shit, I just blew my cover!"), by all means, post it in the comments!

July 11, 2007

Art Update

By popular request, I have posted some more photographs of both my magazzino and the art that I wrote about on Monday. For the entire spate of photographs, click here. I included two pictures of the little cups that someone put in the "windows" as well. You can see these if you click on this large picture and this smaller one. The cups alternated colors, and each one had a little tea light in it. The larger picture also shows you why someone thought the building looked like the Guggenheim. My favorite new pic is below. Several of the pages have fallen (or been taken) down at this point, and one page of the explanation is missing. So I guess I caught the exhibition at the best time.

July 9, 2007

Art in Place

I work at the very top of a strange warehouse. It looks kind of like a parking deck, in that it is spiral-shaped, accessible by a ramp and no stairs. There are inconspicuous doors located at every level, although if you're walking up the path, you can't tell where one floor ends and the other begins. This building is located within the confines of a high school, but the high school doesn't use it. Because it often remains open, people who sneak into the schoolyard at night (easiest to do by taking a big step over the fence that theoretically guards the police squad cars) have decorated the entirety of the building - inside and out - with graffitti, some of it quite lovely and some of it quite scary. Today when I walked the winding path, I was treated to a new artistic display about half-way up.

The installation (as it were) is called "Instant Show: Hommage to Electronic Typography." In English. With "hommage" spelled strangely. It's by an artist and art critic named Luca Arnaudo, who wrote a two-page explanation of this exhibit, which consists of pieces of paper hanging on a string (and perhaps the paperback of Sartre sitting on the table). Most of the explanation is kind of boring, but here are some interesting bits in Italian followed by my English translation:

On the origin of the project and choice of my warehouse for the installation - "...Discorrevo al telefono con Fabian Bringhurst e... ho accennato alla mostra che Dario e il Vagòn Libre stavano organizzando: da quel che ricordo, gli ho parlato della rampa e della sua centripeta bellezza, di spazi vuoti e dell'inavvertenza che quotidianamente preserve l'equilibrio armonico di tale luogo. Mi sono anche ricordato di Dario che... sosteneva ispirato che tra dieci anni la rampa sarà il Guggenheim di Roma, anzi più bella di ogni possibile museo d'arte perché nata da una funzione pratica (in parcheggio, pensate) che aspetta solo di essere trascesa e recuperata per mostrare tutta la sua bellezza." [I talked on the telephone with Fabian Bringhurst and… I pointed out the exhibition that Dario and the Vagon Libre were organizing: from what I recalled, I spoke to them about the ramp and its centripetal beauty, empty spaces, and the omission that every day preserves the harmonic equilibrium of such a place. I was also reminded of Dario who… sustained the idea that in ten years the ramp would be the Guggenheim of Rome, indeed more beautiful than every possible museum of art because it was born from a practical function (a parking deck, we think) that only waits to be extended and recovered in order to exhibit all its beauty.]

Arnaudo goes on to ask the viewer to consider the artform of the printed word - "Dedicate dunque qualche secondo della vostra possibile attenzione alla nascosta bellezza e armonia dei caratteri che trovate riuniti in questo spazio, cercate di immaginare la passione e lo studio che si celano dietro la grazia di una lettera, nei pressi di una ampersand... giusto a lato di un accento o un asterisco." [Therefore, for just a few seconds, dedicate your attention to the hidden beauty and harmony of the characters that found themselves reunited in this space, and try to imagine the passion and the study that hide behind the grace of one letter, near an ampersand, just to the side of an accent or asterisk.]

And that, although he only had time to print some poetry out at an internet cafe near his house, he hopes to invoke the font stylists of old with the exhibit - "Mi sono limitato a stampare il documento in un internet cafè vicino a casa, ad appenderlo nella maniera più veloce sulla rampa e riprendere il nome del documento per titolo: confido, nondimeno, che qualche osservatore si soffermi qui anche solo per pochi istanti, e ammiri l'arte somessa di Gill, Garamond, Bodoni, e Zapf che traspira da queste lettere." [I was limited by printing the document in an internet cafe near my house, by hanging it quickly on the ramp, and by restricting the name of the document to the title: I trust, nevertheless, that some observer will stop here even for just a moment and admire the art placed here of Gill, Garamond, Bodoni, and Zapf that transpired from these letters.]

In case you're curious, Arnaudo's explanation was typed in Bitstream Vera Sans Mono, 13pt.

I very much appreciated this little display. No one in Rome really knows what the building is used for. High school kids hang out at the bottom after school smoking and talking, occasionally bugging us as we come down and asking what's up at the top. It's weird that someone foreign was in my ramp, talking about its centripetal beauty of form, graffitti, and trash that I see every day on my ascent. But I also like to think that I'm the only one who has seen this exhibit, as I'm the only one who walks up the ramp while everyone else drives as fast as possible. It's my little museum now.

July 7, 2007


This morning when I made pancakes, two of my roommates were around. And super excited.

Manuele: Are you making pancakes?
Me: Yup. You want some?
Manuele: Of course! Thanks.
Me: No problem. I made a lot.
Manuele: Do you have maple syrup too?
Me: Yup.
Manuele: Omigod. That's great!
[We sit down and all eat pancakes.]
Manuele: These are amazing. You know, you could sell these in Trastevere.
Me: What?
Marco: He says you could open up a stand to sell pancakes in Trastevere.
Manuele: Yeah, you could charge 3.50E.
Me: For one pancake?
Manuele: Oh, definitely. With syrup, of course. How much did you pay for this [250ml] bottle of syrup?
Me: 6.50E. It was expensive.
Manuele: Wow. But these are really very good.
Me: Thanks.
Manuele: So you eat these for breakfast in America?
Me: Yes, we eat them for breakfast.
Manuele: What time do you get up in the morning?
Me: Today? Or in general?
Manuele: In America, what time do you get up in the morning?
Me: It depends on what I have to do.
Manuele: But, if you have to be at work at 9am, when do you get up?
Me: I guess around 7 or 7:30am.
Manuele: So you can get up at 7:30, make pancakes, get ready for work, and drive there by 9am?
Me: Ooohhhh, no. In general, we eat pancakes on the weekend.
Manuele: Oh. So you don't eat them every day? I thought perhaps you woke up 3 hours before work and made pancakes.
Me: Hehehe, no.
Manuele: So what do you eat when you don't eat pancakes?
Me: Uhm, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, croissant...
Manuele: Oh.

I was sad to break it to him that America is not the land of daily pancakes. He told me that Patrick is a lucky man because my pancakes are amazing. I couldn't bear to tell him that even children in America can make pancakes or that Patrick doesn't actually like them.

But hey. If I ever want to live in Italy and can't find work, apparently I can open an IHOP. Only I'd have to sell pancakes for dessert because no self-respecting Italian would eat them for breakfast.

July 5, 2007

Lezioni di Inglese

I need some suggestions on what to teach my colleagues at work. One of them is going to London for August with his girlfriend. He will study at an Italian-language university and wants to get a part-time job as a bellboy. So far he's asked me to translate totally random sentences, like:

"Is there a werewolf in the forest?" - Confusing him, of course, because "were" is pronounced like "where."
"The coffee is brewing." - I had to explain that we use a special word for cooking hot drinks.
"Where can I find a brothel?" - Since I actually knew the word in Italian.
"Stick 'em up, this is a robbery." - In case he doesn't get a job after all.

And sundry other completely useless phrases. I could go the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" route and teach him phrases like "Will you toss my salad?" but tell him it means, "It's nice to meet you." I don't want to be that mean, and I doubt I could keep a straight face through it. Mostly I just want to teach him random slang terms that I can translate into Italian for him. Tomorrow I plan to teach him the phrase "I'm going commando." But I need more suggestions for either useful or random phrases to teach this poor Italian guy before he leaves for a month in London.

July 3, 2007

Baby needs a new pair of cuboids...

Asking one's advisor for a favor is like using a Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. You know that the card will definitely eliminate the mess you have found yourself in. But at the moment, you probably only have one that you're saving for a real jam. If you use it now, with a few houses and a little cash socked away, you'll inevitably be missing it in a few turns when your houses are mortgaged and you owe taxes. The alternative is to waste time rolling the dice, hoping for doubles. With a lucky roll, though, you won't have to bother your advisor and things will work out on their own.

Today I had to use my card. I'd spent a couple days rolling the dice with my Italian colleagues about a new cemetery, but I only got more frustrated and more confused. One call from my advisor solved everything, though. My only consolation is that I managed to do well for five months on my own in a country where I barely speak the language. I shot doubles with finding an apartment and getting the first cemetery to work on.
Hopefully my luck will continue.

July 1, 2007

Seven Year Itch

Well, my seventh anniversary started off in Trastevere, where I was hanging out with my roommate and a couple of his friends until the wee hours of the morning. I thought that nothing could be scarier than speeding through the streets of Rome at 60-70km per hour on a tiny scooter at 10pm, but I was wrong. Speeding through the streets of Rome at 60-70km/hr at 3am after a few beers with the driver singing Cher songs and putting on his "serious face" as we pass cops stopping people for drunk driving is scarier. Now I feel like I've gotten the quintessential Italian experience.

I came home to find that these had arrived from Patrick (awwww, sweet!). Apparently Italian florists don't write on actual cards. There was a tiny little envelope and inside was a small strip of paper that looked like a ransom note that had been photocopied 20 times. I put them in a little vase (ok, so it's a water pitcher, but I live with all guys, so there aren't vases in the house) and set them on my desk next to my favorite picture from our wedding. Awwwww.

After sleeping until well after noon for the first time in years, I got up and made pancakes. Yesterday I found maple syrup (real maple syrup too) at the Auchan grocery store. It cost 6.50E for 250ml, but it was sooooo worth it. Since I didn't have a recipe, I found this one online and it's quite good. It makes giant fluffy pancakes, as you can see. I was reading the label on the maple syrup, and there's a little paragraph about what you can do with it (since no Italian has any idea what maple syrup is. Actually Marco was telling me about how he went to an IHOP or Denny's when he visited the U.S. in high school, and he and all his classmates were practically drinking the syrup because they thought it was so good.). The label reads, "Maple syrup is a natural product, without artificial flavors or preservatives. It is an alternative to sugar or honey. Consider it for dessert, herbal tea, grilled fruit, yoghurt, and for a breakfast high in energy. In America, it's called 'The sugar of health.'" Sure, I would consider it for grilled fruit, but for herbal tea? Ew. And who calls maple syrup the sugar of health?

I plan to be lazy for the remainder of the day and perhaps go out to dinner with my friend Sara, who just got her motorcycle license and a new motorcycle. The Italians will kill me yet.

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