Falklands anniversary

The Falklands War emphasized an important lesson of all international affairs: There is no one universal reality. Every nation has its own narrative, as we are witnessing yet again today, in the conduct toward Ukraine of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Max Hastings writing in Bloomberg:

Nonetheless, given the excellence of the Argentine air force, Thatcher took a huge gamble by dispatching her fleet. Very little would have needed to go wrong for the British, and right for the junta, for an aircraft carrier to be sunk by Exocets, almost certainly with catastrophic consequences for the whole naval operation.



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A khipu from the Museo Radicati in Lima, photo from Harvard’s Khipu Database Project website.

We know that the ancient Inca used systems of rope-based accounting called quipus or khipus.  Beyond that, it seems like many scholars have come close to losing their marbles trying to sort them out.

Were they something like an abacus?  Musical notation?  A binary system like a simple computer code?  How about this, from Wikipedia:

The Khipu Database Project (KDP), begun by Gary Urton, may have already decoded the first word from a quipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, quipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.


Marcia and Robert Ascher, a married couple, he an anthropologist and she a mathematician, collaborated on on ethnomathematic projects, including a good hard look at quipus/khipus and came up with this :

For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:

  • The number 731 would be represented by 7s, 3s, E.
  • The number 804 would be represented by 8s, X, 4L.
  • The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s, X, 7L, 5s, E.

This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: quipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.

Marcia Ascher

Marcia Ascher

Robert Ascher

Robert Ascher, both pictures from their obituaries over on legacy.com

Now comes news in the NY Times, “Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery” by William Neuman, that some quipus have been found in an excavated Incan storehouse in Incahuasi, Peru:


Incahuasi, from wiki.

Says the Times:

Now the Incahuasi researchers hope that by studying the khipus and comparing them with others in a large database, they may find that the khipus discovered with the peanuts contain a color, knot or other signifier for “peanut.” The same goes for those found with chili peppers, beans and corn.

“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” said Gary Urton, a leading expert on khipus who is studying the new trove with Alejandro Chu, the archaeologist who led the excavation.

“It’s not the great Rosetta Stone but it’s quite an important new body of data to work with,” he said, adding, “It’s tremendously exciting.”

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Prof. Gary Urton, from the website for Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.

Prof. Urton has been working on khipu for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  He started his archaeological career helping out at Cahokia.

The Times article introduces us to Patricia Landa, who cleans and untangles the khipu.  It sounds like she takes a reverse Marie Kondo approach:

“You have a very special relationship with the material,” Ms. Landa, 59, said. “I talk to them. I say, ‘Excuse me for disturbing your rest but you’re helping us to understand your ancestors.’ ”

There is something deeply moving and wonderful and absurd and human about spending years of your life trying to decipher how 15th century people counted beans and corn.  What a worthy challenge to try and sort this out:


William Neuman for NY Times

To the khipu guys and gals, I say: good luck.

You can read more about khipu/quipu and the Inca/Inka in my book, The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, coming June 2016.

Hoax job at Folkways?



Reader Vali C. writes:

In The Mayor of MacDougal Street:


Dave Van Ronk claims that this recording

was completely faked.  Instead of recording sounds of the south american rainforest, two of his friends made bird noises in the shower and sold it to folkways.  Even after Folkways realized it was a fake, they decided to keep it in the catalog.
Huh.  From the website:
Green sounds of the tropical rain forest: black howler monkeys, toucans and chachalaca dominate the dry season while tree toads, Bufo marinus(South American toads) and parakeets accompany the rainy season. Recorded in the Peruvian Amazon region called Montaña and possibly under the showerhead of a Manhattan apartment.
I’d definitely put track 110 on my “suspicious” list.

Bachelor’s Mexico


Helytimes readers – hey guys – will no doubt have noticed a decline in the quantity (but not quality?) of posts here lately.  That’s because the deadline for my book keeps creeping up on the calendar.

That project’s got me pretty well busy, among other things with research.  Today, for instance, I stopped by the Central Library in downtown LA to get my hands on a copy of Hernan Cortes’ letters to the Spanish king.

While I was in the “history of Mexico” section, a colorful volume attracted my eye:



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Most interesting might be the handwritten edit I found inside:


Other books by Boye de Mente:

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From his wikipedia page:


De Mente with Ben Carlin during their crossing of the Pacific Ocean by amphibious vehicle in the late 1950s.


This video is insane.

From The Guardian:

Indigenous tribesmen living deep in the Peruvian rainforest have emerged into the outside world to seek help, after suffering a murderous attack by probable drug traffickers.

The contact took place across the border in Brazil and was recorded in a video released on Friday. The tribesmen caught a serious respiratory disease after contact, a major killer of isolated indigenous people, but have since recovered.

There’s a long version and a short version:


I found this video chilling and intense and fascinating.

The reporting in the article however is deeply frustrating.  What language are these people speaking?  When is this from, exactly?  How did this come about?  What’s up with the guy with the dreads?

Anyway, here’s some footage of a much less remote part of the Amazon shot by the blogger:

What I was trying to capture was the spooky creak of the metal boat.


New discoveries related to the Tiwanaku civilization:

Prof. Szykulski announced that Polish archaeologists also discovered the tombs of Tiwanaku civilization in the Tambo River delta, dating back to the 7th-10th century AD. “This stone tombs contain ceramic vessels, tools and weapons. This find is sensational, it was previously thought that in this period the Tiwanaku civilization had not reached this area”- said the scientist.


Rock & Ice


In Puerto Natales, Chile, I came across some issues of a magazine called Rock & Ice.


I looked at two issues, from eighteen years apart.  Both had incredible stories.

Take, for example, the story about Basque mountaineer Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb all fourteen eight-thousand foot mountains in the world (the first one she did was Everest).


What about her affair with her mentor, Silvio Mondinelli?


Ladies, do not let your man attempt Kangchenjunga with this minx.

There was another great story about Hans Kraus, King of the Gunks, who as a boy in Switzerland had James Joyce as an English tutor:

“Ya,” says Kraus, whose sharp wit is still expressed with a thick Austrian accent.  “But he didn’t do a goot chob, dit he?”

As a young doctor Kraus adapted remedies he learned from circus performers.  Later he lunched with President Eisenhower. From wiki:

Kraus’s medical records show that by the time of Kennedy’s death in Dallas, using exercise, Kraus had virtually cured Kennedy of his lifelong back pain.Kraus’s White House medical records also contain several entries about Kennedy’s back corset, which Kennedy had worn since Harvard. As Kraus wrote in the medical records, Kraus had grown convinced that the corset was impeding Kennedy’s recovery and that Kennedy needed permanently to stop wearing it. Finally, in October 1963, Kennedy told Kraus that he would stop wearing his corset permanently in January 1964. Several leading presidential historians, including James Reston and Robert Dallek, have theorized that Kennedy might have survived Dallas if he had not been wearing his corset.

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Martha from Port Washington writes,

Dear Helytimes, 

I know you were on a long trip recently.  (What can I say?  “The private is public now, isn’t it wonderful?” – Andy Warhol.) Just clue in an innocent reader: was the most interesting place you went?


Well Martha, first of all thank you for reading.  No apology necessary, I know how it is.

Truth is, it”d take me a long time to think that through.

Here’s one that comes to mind that I can easily illustrate with photographs: the Amazon.

On the way back up (or down?) river to Iquitos, Peru, my guide took me to this weird kind of zoo.  It was just a cabin where two unenergetic guys were sitting around.  They had some weak, old seeming animals around.

They had some good birds.




They asked me if I wanted to hold the sloth, but he seemed to have enough problems.