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Archive for January, 2009

The Secret World of Geishas

Geisha are professional hostesses who entertain guests through various performing arts. Gei means arts or performance, and sha means people. Geisha are not ordinary hostesses and are not prostitutes. It’s believed that the women who danced for warriers in the 11th century are the predecessors of geisha. Geisha girls and women are trained in a number of traditional skills; Japanese ancient dance, singing, playing instruments (a three stringed instrument called shamisen is an essential instrument), flower arrangement, wearing kimono, tea ceremony, calligraphy, conversation, alcohol serving manners, and more.

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eisha girls and women are talented Japanese women who patiently go through extensive training. Even after becoming a geisha girl, they keep improving their skills by taking many lessons. Nowadays, there are geisha girls and women who learn English conversation to serve English-speaking customers and learn computer skills. The work of geisha is expanding these days, including modeling or international tours, for example. The districts where many geisha girls and women gather are called hanamachi (kagai). Some hanamachi were developed near temples and shrines where many o-chaya located. Geisha used to entertain visitors at o-chaya. The o-chaya type of teahouse is completely different from those shops that merely serve tea or coffee. It’s a sort of banquet house, which rents rooms for dinner parties. An o-chaya is usually a small Japanese-style house with wooden doors and tatami floors or Japanese-style gardens. Some o-chaya also train geisha and are places for maiko (young geisha girls) to live and go to work. Those o-chaya are also called okiya.

Girls who wish to become a geisha, have to go through a rigid apprenticeship during which they learn various traditional arts such as playing instruments, singing, dancing, but also conversation and other social skills. In Kyoto, geisha apprentices are called “maiko”. Geisha are dressed in a kimono, and their faces are made up very pale. As a common tourist, you may be able to spot a maiko in some districts of Kyoto, such as Gion and Pontocho or in Kanazawa’s Higashi Geisha District.
Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (?? “flower towns”), particularly during their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha are successful enough to choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that geisha are a part of is called kary?kai (??? “the flower and willow world”).

Geishas

Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing junior high school or even high school or college, with many women beginning their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry. By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, and in dealing with clients.

Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.

In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders, and is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000, mostly in the resort town of Atami. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.

A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition’s decline.

Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (rytei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, and is called senk?dai (“incense stick fee”) or gyokudai (“jewel fee”). In Kyoto the terms “ohana” (“hanadai” ), meaning “flower fees”, are preferred. The customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office (kenban), which keeps each geisha’s schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.

The history of Angkor

Traditionally, the history of Angkor as we know it from inscriptions and the existing temples begins in the ninth century, when the young king Jayavarman II declared himself the supreme sovereign and established his capital first near present-day Roluos, and a little later in the Kulen Mountains. Up to that point, Khmer history had been that of small independent states occasionally consolidating into larger empires, but never for long. It took a conqueror to establish the beginnings of one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful empires.

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he Angkor region, bordering the Great Lake with its valuable supply of water, fish, and fertile soil, has been settled since neolithic times, as is known from stone tools and ceramics found there, and from the identification of circular habitation sites from aerial photographs. For the whole Khmer country, there is more descriptive evidence from the accounts of the Chinese, who began to trade and explore the commercial opportunities of mainland Southeast Asia in the early centuries of the Christian era. The picture is one of small town-states, moated, fortified and frequently in conflict with each other. The Chinese called the principal country with which they traded Funan; it had a strategic importance in controlling the sea routes around the Mekong delta and the Gulf of Thailand. In particular it controlled the narrow Isthmus of Kra – the neck of the Malay Peninsula -which connected eastern Asia with India. Indeed, it was trade with India that gave the Khmers their primary cultural contacts, and introduced them to Hinduism and Buddhism. Khmer religious beliefs, iconography, art and architecture all stemmed directly from India, and this had a profound influence on the development of its civilization.

The 6th century sees the first historical evidence from local inscriptions. At around this time, the Chinese accounts begin to write of a kingdom called ‘Chenla’ in the interior, but this is a Chinese rather than a Khmer name. In the second half of the century there is a record of a city called Bhavapura, with its king, Bhavavarman I extending his rule from near the present-day site of Kampong Thorn to at least as far as Battambang in the west. He was succeeded by his brother, who ruled as Mahendravarman, who in turn was succeeded by his son, Isanavarman I. These three kings progressively conquered the Khmer part of Funan, while the western part was taken by other peoples, in particular the Mons of the kingdom of Dvaravati to the W of Bangkok, Isnavarman I was responsible for the temple at Sambor Prei Kuk, establishing the first of the pre-Angkorean styles of architecture. Under Isanavarman’s son, Bhavavarman II, who took the throne in 628, the empire disintegrated back into small states, and it took until 654 for Jayavarman I, a grandson of Isanavarman I, from one of these princedoms, to reconquer much of the territory. There is evidence that he ruled from Aninditapura, close to Angkor. On his death, the empire again collapsed, and his successors, including his daughter Jayadevi, the only ancient Khmer queen, controlled only the small kingdom of Aninditapura. The country remained this way until the end of the 8th century, when Jayavarman II became king in 790.

Jayavarman II’s conquests, first of Vyadhapura (SE of Cambodia), then Sambhupura (present-day Sambor), then N as far as Wat Phu, ind finally of Aninditapura, established his power. He settled first at t iariharalaya, an ancient capital in the region of what is now Roluos, Sut then, trying to go further NW, experienced an unknown setback -hich resulted in him relocating to the Kulen Plateau, some 30 km NE of Angkor. Here he pronounced himself ‘world emperor’ in 802, but it was many years before he was strong enough to move his capital back to Hariharalaya on the shores of the Great Lake, where he died in 835.

His son Jayavarman III succeeded him on his death. He seems to nave built the laterite pyramid of Bakong, which his successor, Indravarman I, had clad in sandstone. The date of his death is unknown, but most probably his successor took the throne with Molence. This king remodeled his capital, building in his palace the Preah Ko temple, dedicated in 880 and improving Bakong. He also began the baray of Indratataka, which his son Yasovarman I completed after he came to power in 889. This accession was a bloody one, involving a struggle with the crown prince, his brother, and destruction of the palace. Therefore he decided to move his capital to Angkor.

Uncertain Principles

Quantum mechanics does away with the deterministic view of the future. It is no longer cause and effect. So what can we know about the world? It was the belief of the classical physicists that it was possible to know the position and velocity of a particle as accurately as one would wish.

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fter all, if you are travelling at 30mph and you are sat on your bicycle then you know these things at the same time. But they and you are wrong. In quantum mechanics there is a fundamental limit to the accuracy that can be achieved, no matter how good the measuring device.

In 1927 Heisenberg made a startling discovery. Quantum theory implies a limitation on how accurately certain pairs of physical variables could be measured simultaneously. Using some of the matrix mechanics that had been proposed by Max Born, Heisenberg realised that position and momentum (the relationship between mass and velocity) were non-commutable; you could not precisely know them both at the same time.

Hence, there is no way of accurately locating the exact position of a sub-atomic particle unless you are willing to be uncertain about its momentum. But there is no way you can be certain about momentum without being uncertain about position. It is impossible to precisely measure them both at the same time.

So, you might ask, how can I drive my car at 50mph at 26 degrees latitude and 99 degrees longitude? Well, the value of the constant that determines the uncertainty about either position or momentum is so small (in fact, it is Planck’s constant: 6.62620 x 10-34 Js) that it has a negligible impact in this world. So, no need to worry too much about this particular uncertainty.

Quantum mechanics is a mathematical theory that can describe the behavior of objects that are roughly 10,000,000,000 times smaller than a typical human being. Quantum particles move from one point to another as if they are waves. However, at a detector they always appear as discrete lumps of matter. There is no counterpart to this behavior in the world that we perceive with our own senses. One cannot rely on every-day experience to form some kind of “intuition” of how these objects move. The intuition or “understanding” formed by the study of basic elements of quantum mechanics is essential to grasp the behavior of more complicated quantum systems.

The approach adopted in all textbooks on quantum mechanics is that the mathematical solution of model problems brings insight in the physics of quantum phenomena. The mathematical prerequisites to work through these model problems are considerable. Moreover, only a few of them can actually be solved analytically. Furthermore, the mathematical structure of the solution is often complicated and presents an additional obstacle for building intuition.

Is there life on Mars?

In science fiction stories, Mars is the favourite home of aliens. No one has found any green Martians wandering over the planet. But many scientists believe that Mars may be the best place to look for simpler forms of life. Of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars is the most similar to Earth. Although it’s probably too cold for life to exist on the surface of Mars, it could exist in warmer pockets below ground. Micro-organisms could be living around hydro-thermal vents near the planet’s surface. In the past, Mars was a very different world. The Mars Global Surveyor probe found evidence that there was running water on the planet’s surface. This would have made the planet much more hospitable to life.

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ars is the most similar planet to earth in the solar system. It is therefore one of the first places to look when we are considering life on other planets. It is certainly one of the first places that science fiction writers have looked. Ever since H.G Wells wrote War of the Worlds, books and films have portrayed different images of martians and what their civilisation may look like. Now that we have visited Mars we know that there are no advanced races living on the red planet.

When the Viking Landers were sent to Mars in the 1970s they found a cold desolate dry world that seemed unlikely to be able to support life. With such cold temperatures, a thin atmosphere and no sign of liquid water the chance of finding even some sort of microscopic life forms seemed remote. Tests performed by both Viking landers seemed to back this up. However with the advance of astrobiology in recent years it is worth taking another look at those experiments.

The Viking landers carried several experiments designed to detect organic materials and organisms on the Martian surface. These experiments gave mixed results. While one experiment detected no organic compounds in the soil, another test known as the Labeled Release experiment (LR) found positive results. The LR was designed to drop a nutrient solution into a soil sample from Mars, and then measure the changes in the gaseous sample container to determine if the changes were organically induced (if bacteria were multiplying because of the nutrients they’d been given). When the experiment was conducted on both Viking landers, it gave positive results almost immediately. Most scientists on the Viking mission believed the positive results were attributed to the discovery of oxides in the soil, and that a chemical reaction occured when the nutrient solution was mixed with the oxides. However, the LR’s designer and principal investigator, Dr. Gilbert Levin, was convinced that his experiment found life.

Levin also says that the experiment which did not find organic materials in the soil were not sensitive enough to detect it in small amounts. This has been confirmed by NASA as possible. The experiment in question was tested in Antarctica and also found negative results, which was incorrect because there are organic materials there. This does not prove that the Viking landers found evidence of life. It means that the tests conducted were unsatisfactory.

Om Mani Padme Hum

The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (literally: “Aum, to the Jewel in the Lotus, hum) is recited by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Repeating this mantra accumulates merit and eases negative karma; meditating upon it is believed to purify the mind and body. Spinning prayer wheels, physical or digital, are believed to confer the same benefit as speaking the mantra. It is often recited with the aid of a mala (string of prayer beads.)

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Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying the mantra (prayer), Om Mani Padme Hum, out loud or silently to oneself, invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. Viewing the written form of the mantra is said to have the same effect — it is often carved into stones, like the one pictured above, and placed where people can see them.

Spinning the written form of the mantra around in a Mani wheel (or prayer wheel) is also believed to give the same benefit as saying the mantra, and Mani wheels, small hand wheels and large wheels with millions of copies of the mantra inside, are found everywhere in the lands influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum can not really be translated into a simple phrase or sentence.

It is appropriate, though, to say a little about the mantra, so that people who want to use it in their meditation practice will have some sense of what they are doing, and people who are just curious will understand a little better what the mantra is and why it is so important to Tibetan Buddhists. We begin in the next section with some information about the mantra itself.

(from: Dharma Haven)

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