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Sword Buying, part 2

March 30, 2013 Comments off

Tsunamune04Few weeks back I posted some basics on buying Japanese swordsnihonto.  I closed that by citing both dangers and opportunities for prospective collectors who buy on eBay.  Well, I have bought a few swords on eBay and made a new purchase earlier this month.  Here’s my experience in the hopes it will provide some guideposts for others.

All told I’ve bought 6 swords on eBay.  Here’s the summary list:

# Year Description Cost
1 2004 Chinese fake $250
2 2008 Shin-Shinto katana, “Kaneyoshi”.  nagasa 27”, seller:  fastcashpawnshop $500
3 2011 Shin-Shinto katana, mumei, slight kizu near tip, seller: sewingtammy1976 $350
4 2012 Koto wakizashi, signed (smith unknown)  nagasa 18”. 1 bid auction.  seller: awesome-japan $455
5 2012 Koto katana, “Bishu Osafune Sukesada”, nagasa 26” 22 bid auction. seller: hoanhvu $1,275
6 2013 Shinto katana, “Tsunamune”, nagasa 27.4” 32 bid auction. seller: komonjo $2,325

The Chinese fake is good quality (for a fake) that I use as an iaito.  The main thing this list shows – aside from my tastes getting more expensive over time – is the difference in prices from sellers.  The sellers for swords 4 – 6 are dealers in nihonto and Japanese antiques.  They are very well monitored on eBay and their auctions tend to get a lot of action.  I’m not sure why no one but me bid on sword #4.  The quality and condition were good.  This just may be an example of a listing getting missed.

Swords #2 and #3 are examples you want to emulate if you can.  These came from sellers that are mostly inactive in selling swords; fastcashpawnshop is exactly that, it sells anything people bring in on consignment, while sewingtammy1976 sells sword-related stuff but at a very low rate.  Sellers like these often don’t know how to list their items and may set reserves that are low.  Sword #2, that I posted about here, in particular was a great buy.  If you can find listings like these, and you’re satisfied with what you see, go for it.

Sword #5 illustrates one of the dangers you have to contend with doing this kind of purchase.  Here’s the description from the original listing:

SIGNED *KOTO* WW2 Officer’s Samurai Sword in Samurai Mounts – 500 years old

A very old ancestral blade (~500 years old) was remounted and taken to war. The nakago is in great condition with a very nice patina. The mei reads “Bishu Osafune Sukesada.” This sword smith was very prolific and was active in around 1492, according to HAWLEY. The blade has minor nicks but is still very, very sharp.There is one hair kizu typical of blades of this age. … The blade appears to be ubu (original shape) and shows a graceful Koto suguta (shape) with a deep curvature. Overall, the blade is in *EXCELLENT* condition, as are the mountings.

“Koto” means “old sword” – a sword that was made before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1600.  That and the other terminology indicate the seller knows something about nihonto.  Together with his admission of the kizu – flaw – we’re expected to have confidence in this listing.  He doesn’t really tell all you might want to know about Sukesada, though.  “Very prolific” means he was a mass-producing smith of the time; there were many Sukesadas active in the late Koto period and their ratings are mostly not very high.  Anyway here’s one of the listing pictures:

koto-katana-1

I really liked the curvature of this sword, which is typical for koto blades, and I wanted to own a sword of this period.  So I went ahead and won a 22 bid auction.  Receiving the sword, however, I found what “very, very sharp” actually meant:  This blade has been ground on the very edge.  The hamon is still there and the ground area is very thin – a few mms – but this is not how a nihonto should be maintained.  I believe someone wanted to see how well this sword could cut, so they “helped” it by updating the edge.

Now, I don’t think the damage is fatal.  A togishia sword-polisher – should be able to restore it.  However these older swords can be “tired” – not having much outer metal left – and can only be polished so many times.

So, live and learn.  I still very much like this sword.  The heft and dynamics of it are extremely different from my later period swords, and I’m not doing this to make money.

I think the most helpful thing for folks may be to hear about auctions I didn’t win.  For every sword in the list above I have bid on easily 5 or more others.  Here’s some examples:

Japanese sword in mountings, shinshinto "Hizen Masahiro" 27+1/8" v-5

hizen-masahiro

Bidding started 27 Feb at $100 and ended 6 March at $2,035. On around 2 March I bid $900, but even then I knew it would go higher.  This was a very nice blade, but I already have 2 swords of this period.  There were 24 bids altogether; here’s the final action:

0***6 $2,035.00 Mar-06-13 19:13:56
5***r $2,010.00 Mar-06-13 08:59:31
i***a $2,000.00 Mar-06-13 09:23:43
i***a $1,800.00 Mar-06-13 08:44:43
c***n $1,558.00 Mar-06-13 07:08:44

The final bid was entered 4 secs. before the auction ended, by a buyer who had not bid at all up to that point.  Almost all the auctions, the majority of the price happens in the final day; it’s easy to be top-bidder early on, like I was with my measly $900.

Japanese Samurai Sword: Bizen Osafune Munemitsu Koto Katana

bizen-munemitsu-koto

This was a nice koto sword.  The auction went from 12 Feb to 17 Feb.  I bid early but did not follow-up; I expected the price would go out of my range.  And it did: the winning bid was $3,300 which, oddly, was set some 8 hrs before the auction ended, again by someone who had not bid at all before.  There were only 3 bidders active in the end-game, and I suppose they lost desire/interest to bid more.

When you look at these bidders you will see most bid on nothing but swords, or on Oriental collectibles in general.  Like anything on eBay, it is hard to tell if they are real bidders or shills.

 

Japanese Samurai Sword: Gendaito Shoda Masafusa 77.5 cm

gendaito-shoda-masafusa

This was a 20th century sword, forged in 1975 by a smith who had been active in WW II.  Its length – the cutting edge, or nagasa, was over 30” – made this a more attractive blade.

The auction here went 13 Feb to 18 Feb.  I got in first for $675 on 14 Feb, and upped to $1,400 on 17 Feb.  this was literally a ”brand new” sword, an example of modern day technique where blades are made only incidentally for their cutting function and almost entirely for aesthetic achievement.  There were 31 bids on this one, with 10-12 separate bidders.  Winning bid was $1,925, made in the closing seconds, again by someone who had not bid before.

Ok, now here’s the sword I just won:

Japanese Samurai Sword: Tsunamune Katana 69.7 CM

Tsunamune06

This is a sword from the Shinto period – roughly 1600 to 1764.  I liked what  I saw in the photos; this is a “healthy” sword of good length and solid proportions.  Winning bid was $2,325, which I – like several of the cases above – entered in final 2 secs.  My opponent in this auction seemed to be German; in any event in their bid history they had a lot of activity on “Kleidung & Accessoires > Schuhe für Jungen”, which Google Translate tells me is “Apparel & Accessories> Boys Shoes”.  (What kind of shoes do you wear in Germany when wielding your Japanese sword, I wonder?)

Would I have gone higher?  Looking at the sword and the history, I had set my mental limit of $2,500.  Had my Teutonic counterpart exceeded that, right now he or she would be writing this blog.

So ends the long saga of my eBay nihonto adventures.  If you wish to buy, my advice to you comes down to this:

  • Start by bidding low on a lot of auctions and then follow them to the end, so you get a sense of the prices in the market.
  • Know what you want.  Don’t bid on any sword; pick an era, a type, a smith, and try to pursue that.
  • Know your price and stick to it.  There are many sword-fish in the proverbial sword-sea; don’t get too attached to winning any particular one.
  • Do lots of searches.  Obvious keywords are “katana”, “samurai”, “japan” and “sword”.  Use the advanced option that let’s you choose items located in a particular country; eliminate items that come from China.  Every once in a while do searches outside “Antiques > Asian Antiques > Japan > Swords”, you may hit that rare listing from a seller who doesn’t normally deal in swords.
  • DO NOT EXPECT MIRACLES.  The whole point of these swords is that each one is unique, a tool that someone made long ago for a deadly purpose that nowadays we appreciate for their craftsmanship and for their ability to “open a window”, as it were, to a time, place and a people.  Don’t expect to get rich or to find a treasure sword.  The best you can hope for is to find a sword you yourself can connect with.

Till next time …

Categories: Swords

Ellora: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 2

March 29, 2013 Comments off

Ellora cave 29, Shiva and Parvati

In the Aurangabad district we recently visited there are two world-heritage cave temple sites.  One is the Ajanta Caves, which I wrote about a few days ago.  Ajanta is a Buddhist site, constructed in the period from about 100 BCE to 450 CE.  The second is the Ellora Caves, located about 30 kms from Aurangabad.  Ellora was built between the 5th and 10th centuries CE, and its caves depict and celebrate Hindu, Jain and Buddhist beliefs.  Wikipedia has an excellent writeup on ElloraAnother excellent site on the caves was created by ArtStor and the Indian Government; in this site is an interactive map that allows you to map photos to the layouts of the various caves.

So, since through the magic of the interwebs readers can find more and better facts than I could present, herewith then are my quick impressions of this incredible place.  (For those who just want to page through our Ellora photos, they are available here on Dropbox.)

Ellora is spread out more than Ajanta, there are multiple clusters of caves and most people go from cluster-to-cluster by car.  Seen from above the map of all the caves is like so:

ellora-cave-map

We began our viewing with the far left cluster, then proceeded to the middle two, and finally ended on cave 16, which is a major complex in itself.  (After cave 16, having spent the first half of the day climbing Daulatabad Fort, we were climbed- and caved-out.)

Our first cave was cave 32:

Ellora cave 32 outside

This cave is typical of Ellora in that it is mostly not roofed-over, but is a courtyard delved into the rock of the hillside.  Inside is a sizeable elephant:

Morgan and Kim with Ellora elephant

Cave 32 is one of the Jain caves.  This and the other Jain caves feature many figures in seated meditation, just as in the most common depiction of Buddha; but these figures are not Buddha, they reflect the Jain discipline of meditation that in fact pre-dates Buddhism.  Although Jainism is an austere faith, you quickly see these caves are more ambitious than most at Ajanta, making greater use of ornament, and combining Hindu symbols with symbols unique to Jainism.  For example these two statues, at opposite sides of the cave 33 entrance, depict Sarvanubhuti (for Hindus, Kubera) and Ambika, god and goddess respectively of material prosperity:

ellora-entrace-statues-1

From here we went to our next cluster, starting with cave 29:

Ellora cave 29 entrance

This is a Hindu cave, one of the largest at Ellora.  Close inside the entrance you find this wall-carving:

Andhakasuravadha

This is Andhakasuravadha, the demon-killing incarnation of Lord Shiva.  In cave 22 we saw many examples of Ganga, the River Goddess:

Ganga, outside Ellora cave 22

Finally we reached cave 16, otherwise known as the Kailashnath Temple:

Ellora cave 16 entrance

“Cave” is a tremendous understatement.  Wikipedia says this excavation is twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens.  The inner courtyard is easily 100 meters deep, plus that courtyard is ringed by multi-story galleries each 30 or more meters deep.  Here’s a view from inside:

Ellora cave 16 inner court

There’s many more photos I could post, and that in itself is a major message – all the Ellora caves are filled with detail and ornament, so much we could spend hours in any single one, let alone the whole complex of more than 30 caves.

How to contrast Ajanta and Ellora?  Ajanta to me was intensely reverent – even with its many paintings and many carvings, it was a place clearly dedicated to the Way of Buddha, with every one of it’s halls proclaiming this function.  The word I have for Ellora is exuberant.  Being there, seeing the hundreds of silent stories proclaimed by its carvings of gods, goddesses, monks, elephants, demons and more, you feel the intensity of the 1,000-year-ago artisans and patrons who created this place.  How else to explain just how tremendously overflowing the place is with detail and  content?  Another impression … When I see the easy familiarity the Indian visitors have with the overflowing iconography of the place I realize how much I don’t know the culture here.  I look at a statue and I see an elephant, a woman, a multi-armed warrior, and that’s it.  Indians by and large see much more, of this I am sure.

Since I concluded my Ajanta post with words of the Buddha, it seems fitting to close here by invoking one of the teachings of Jainism:

In truthfulness do reside self-restraint and all other virtues.

Just as the fish can live only in the sea, so can all other virtues reside in Truthfulness alone.

Mahavira (Bhagavati Aradhana, 842)

 

I am not sure if I will again visit Ajanta and Ellora – there is much to see in India and I only have two years, after all.  However, for my USA friends and family, if you visit we could all do worse than a repeat trip to Aurangabad to see these unique works of the ancient world.

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags:

More on Summly

March 28, 2013 Comments off

After yesterday’s post on Summly I’m seeing more folks talking/posting about it, such as a writer for Time who asks, Why Is That 17-Year-Old’s $30 Million News App Even Legal?  The key bit:

The issue now isn’t what fancy car the teenager plans to buy with his millions. The real question is whether Summly, and now Yahoo, can take news stories from around the Web, present altered versions of them, and not run afoul of copyright law.

The precedent here – that GoogleNews uses, for example – is that search or aggregation services can display article titles and lead sentences – that is deemed fair-use.  Content creators *want* such services to do this because it ultimately drives traffic to their sites.

However Summly does more than show a title.  Through its wondrous algorithms it creates a 400-word news summary that is supposed to contain the essence of the source news item.  While I haven’t directly experienced Summly (and probably never will) it seems clear to me that this will take traffic away from content creators – why read the original 1,000 word news item on Kim Kardashian when Summly can quickly give you the 400 words with the tastiest bits?

A US Court has already ruled, in Meltwater vs. A.P., that this type of abstraction goes beyond fair-use.  A key part of the evidence there was the contention that a lede – the key summary paragraph of a news story – takes substantial skill and effort to craft, and that Meltwater’s summary services was taking ledes and offering them separate from the original content.  Certainly sounds wrong to me.

I’m sure Summly will continue to make the rounds another day or two … the world will then get back to cat pictures and Boromir memes.  Meanwhile the winner of cleverest Summly headline so far goes to Reuters:

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

Another thing I don’t need

March 27, 2013 1 comment

A “genetic algorithm” that “thinks like I do” and that “helps” me find the news I need on my mobile phone, faster than ever.  All devised by a 17 year-old Harry Potter-like whiz kid entrepreneur who made a cool video with Stephen Fry and has now sold his company to Yahoo for $30 million.

This is Summly.  And, no thank you.

This is just more rampant “solutionism” – the mind-set of arbitrarily declaring something a problem, then selling you an “innovative” solution for it.  And if the solution provides you with monopoly power over a much-needed basic service, well, that’s the price of progress I suppose.  Clearly Summly aims to be the conduit that feeds you news and by doing so, will no doubt employ your personal settings for tuning these algorithms into other, I’m sure purely innocent, needs.  All this magic was in part evolved by SRI International, some legitimately clever people with a hand in creating “the Internet”, ultrasound diagnostics, robotic surgery but also – alas – Siri, that service which has enabled an entire industry devoted to stupid things it says.

For my part, here’s the news I need to have reach me on my mobile phone:

  1. Daughter’s school ending early today.
  2. Regional tsunami approaching.
  3. Timing of immanent life-ending asteroid strikes.
  4. Nuclear launch codes mistakenly left in Silicon Valley Red Robin being found by Dick Cheney.
    I’m pretty much covered on #’s 1- 3.  If someone writes an app for 4, maybe I’ll actually buy that – but meanwhile I will pass on Summly.

Stephen Fry, as to your role in all this I can only say (with the added bonus of being confident no one in existence has ever written this combination of words before):

I know you must pay the mortgage, but next time choose a means that would not so obviously raise the gorge of a hippopotamus to levels not seen since Noah decided the dinosaurs could very well swim for it.

Where is this Stephen Fry now that we need him?

Hold the news-reader’s nose squarely, Stephen.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

Ajanta: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 1

March 27, 2013 1 comment

Reclining Buddha

2,500 years ago, Siddhartha, a Hindu Prince, was born in Nepal.  Dismayed to discover suffering, he tried to make sense of the world.  After many excesses, and deprivations, and trials of character, he achieved the insight of the middle way whereby he freed himself from extremes and was able to see and be with clarity.  Many followers sought his teachings and the one who was Siddhartha came to be called Gautama Buddha.

400 years after the time of Gautama his teaching has spread across the northern half of India.  Then, as today, monks who follow this way practice meditation and reverent prayer as a discipline.  At the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau, in the state that is today called Maharashtra, some followers of the Buddha came to rocky cliffs high up in isolated hills.  There, in the solid basalt and granite of the cliff faces, they envision great halls where the distractions of the world cannot enter and prayers echo off of cool rock.  With only the meanest of implements, they begin work, knowing it will fall to successor generations of monks to fully complete this vision.  Local kings and princes sent many workmen, but the monks themselves – or so I believe – must have aided the construction.  Surely this must have been another kind of meditation for them, as they wielded tools in silence, a single monk perhaps removing only a few feet of stone in an entire lifetime.  Caves would be built here for five centuries to come, only to be forgotten for a 1,000 years or more …

Standing here in the 21st century, this is how the story of the Ajanta Caves seems to me.  There are many examples of rock-cut or cave temples in India; back in January, our family visited the Karla Caves.  Ajanta and Ellora (to be described in a separate post), in the district of Aurangabad, about 250 kms from Pune, are the preeminent examples of this rock-cut architecture.  When Morgan had a 1-week school break we decided to use some of that time to view these ancient places.  (The trip itself I shall have to post about as well.)

At the main compound of Ajanta there is a ticket booth, restaurant, a few shops, basic facilities.  To reach the actual caves, there is a bit of a trek up stairs:

Ajanta stairs

In addition to the many hawkers and supposed guides offering their goods and services, you can hire a sedan chair and bearers to carry you up.  It is probably best for all involved that I declined to engage such a chair.

It takes perhaps 10 mins walk to reach the first cave. Here is the view when you reach the top:

Ajanta caves

There are 26 caves in all at Ajanta.  The cliff describes a horseshoe shape with the oldest caves being at the middle of the horseshoe and newer caves to the right and left. The caves are of two types.  The first type is a vihara prayer hall, where monks lived and prayed daily:

Ajanta prayer hall

These halls are 30 or more meters across, 8 meters or more high, and surrounded by pillars; cut into the the walls are cells where monks would sleep.  At the end of the hall is a shrine to Buddha:

Ajanta shrine

These photos are so dark because flash photography is forbid in many of the caves.  This is because these caves are painted, either to adorn the carvings or to present scenes important to Buddhist lore:

Ajanta cave painting

The second type of cave is the chaitya hall, a place purely for prayer with a stupa or shrine at the far end:

Ajanta cave 10 stupa

As Morgan in the foreground helpfully illustrates, the stupa is about 15-20 feet high.

This photo is cave 10, one of the oldest caves at Ajanta.  Comparing older and newer caves you can see how stupas became more elaborate:

Ajanta stupas

These are from, going left to right, cave 9, cave 10, cave 19 and cave 26.  9 and 10 were constructed approx. 100 BCE to 100 CE; 19 and 26 date from the 5th century CE.

All the open space you see here was created by human activity; these are not natural caves that were somehow enlarged, but bodies of solid rock where these large chambers were created.  Cave 24 is an unfinished cave where you can see the process:

Ajanta cave 24

The workers would start the excavation at the ceiling, working down.  Pillars were left in rough outline to be finished later.  The actual removal of stone was accomplished by a combination of hammer/chisel, drill and a method of forcing dry wood fibers into cracks which were then wetted – the expansion of the fibers would crack the stone.

For me, Ajanta was a very affecting place.  The early caves have a simplicity – even with their rich paintings – that is very humbling to contemplate.  The later caves display more ornamentation, but still all is in devotion to Buddha:

Ajanta cave 19

 

Ajanta medallion

 

Ajanta cave 26

 

Ajanta Buddha, cave 26

 

Buddha said:

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

To visit these caves is to perceive at one time the suffering of their creation, but also the profound devotion of their achievement.  The thoughts of those long-ago people and, as Buddha taught, what those people must have been, are there to be seen and touched at Ajanta.


UPDATE: All our Ajanta photos are on Flickr, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34062702@N06/sets/72157633098728717/

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags: , ,

Lord Balaji’s Finances

March 26, 2013 Comments off

IMG_0662

This weekend past Kim, Morgan and myself visited the famous rock-cut temples of Ajanta and Ellora; a great experience on which I will post more fully soon.  Meanwhile, having returned home I was paging though the many photos taken and came to this one. and I thought I’d say a quick word about it.

This photo is at the Ellora caves.  It shows the sacred bull, Nandi, mount of Lord Shiva; this is at the entrance of cave 21.  I was glad to get these Hindu ladies in the frame; we smiled and said our hellos after.  When they were gone, our driver Rupesh – in his first visit to these caves – said, "Sir, did you see that lady with shaved head?”  I told him, yes, and that I wondered about it – Indian women are very particular  about their hair and take great pains to grow it long.  Rupesh told me his guess that this lady was a devotee of Lord Balaji, an avatar of Vishnu sometimes known as Venkateswara.  There are two stories of Lord Balaji that explain how ladies who worship him cut their hair.

The first is that Balaji was once wounded on his head.  A devoted princess saw him and offered some of her hair to repair the wound in his scalp; even today followers will offer hair in the same spirit.

A more interesting story (to me, at least) is how Lord Balaji got married.  For various reasons Balaji wished to marry Lady Padmavathi.  Balaji however lacked funds for a wedding celebration of suitable luxury.  So he went  to Lord Kubera, god of wealth,  and asked for a loan.  The terms of the load were so usurious, that today Lord Balaji’s followers are still paying interest.  For this reason his temples are among the richest in India, as many devotees donate money and gold, and hair – a valuable donation –  to defray payments in this ancient debt.

Categories: Expat life, Travel Tags:

More Age of Miracles

March 22, 2013 1 comment

Not only do we have live musical performances from space, now gene therapy is achieving dramatic cures for some patients with leukemia.  From Fierce Biotech:

Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, the investigators say they were able to take T cells from late-stage leukemia patients and modify them with genetic material, reengineering the immune cells to track down and kill B cells. A disabled viral vector was used to inject the genetic material to recognize the CD19 protein expressed on the surface of B cells.

Anywhere from 5 months to two years after the gene therapy, three of the 5 patients in the study are still alive. Two of the patients died–one from a blood clot–while the other relapsed. One of the sickest patients was free of the leukemia 8 days after he was treated, surprising everyone involved.

NYTimes gives a nice write-up here:
Cell Therapy Shows Promise for Acute Type of Leukemia

Hopefully we will surmount the nascent ethical questions around this technology and arrive somewhere where more lives, like that of the amazing instance above, can be saved.

Categories: Science