Sumero Babylonians Invent Customer Service

Hey had to absolutely repost this from The Laughing Squid: a tablet dating back to circa 1750BC containing a written complaint — the precursor to the Amazon review!!


Thank you Laughing Squid for this wonderful tidbit.

An Ancient Babylonian Customer Service Complaint Inscribed on a Clay Tablet Around 1750 BC


Ancient Babylonian Customer Service Complaint From 1750 BC
photo via tbc34

Among the artifacts at the British Museum in London is this ancient Babylonian customer service complaint that was inscribed on a clay tablet sometime around 1750 B.C. The complaint is regarding problems with two shipments of copper ore, as the museum notes in their description:

Clay tablet; letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a gulf voyage and about misdirection and delay of a further delivery; slightly damaged.

The artifact was brought to light earlier today by redditor tbc34. Commenter labarna has helpfully provided a full translation reportedly from the book Letters from Mesopotamia by Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim. Turns out Nanni was pretty angry:

Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

Ancient Babylonian Customer Service Complaint From 1750 BC

photo via the British Museum

Washington Post Acknowledges Value of Writing and Liberal Arts Education

I came across this excellent article on The Washington Post regarding the value of liberal arts education in a STEM-obsessed educational environment:

Here are some highlights:

Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomyand dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure. When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs, who dropped out of college but continued to audit calligraphy classes, declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” (Indeed, one of Apple’s scientists, Steve Perlman, was inspired to invent the QuickTime multimedia program by an episode of “Star Trek.”)

Once upon a time, it was a given that a liberal arts education was supposed to make a person “well-rounded.” The high cost of education has led a sound-bite driven mass movement to think of college as an extension of corporate training camp.

The reality is that job-training isn’t and never was the mission of higher education.  Suggesting such a thing to administrators and the general public is to ask for rotten tomatoes or condescending arguments about how much college costs and that “well rounded” doesn’t pay the bills. Well, actually, it does.

I’ve said this before: to think of college as job training is a lose/lose situation.  Most college students these days take an average of 5-7 years to graduate from undergraduate. More and more, corporations are (unreasonably) requiring potential employees to have master and doctorate degrees, adding another 2-5 years to the higher education track.  No wonder people graduate with mortgage sized loans they can hardly hope to repay.  Nonetheless, most students and faculty are aware that the jobs we have now will look very different and demand very different skills 5 years from now then they do today.  Still, let’s ignore the elephant in the room.

Loretta Jackson-Hayes wisely proposes:

A scientist trained in the liberal arts has another huge advantage: writing ability. The study of writing and analyses of texts equip science students to communicate their findings as professionals in the field. My students accompany me to conferences, where they do the talking. They write portions of articles for publications and are true co-authors by virtue of their contributions to both the experiments and the writing. Scientists are often unable to communicate effectively because, as Cornell University president David J. Skorton points out, “many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.”

To innovate is to introduce change. While STEM workers can certainly drive innovation through science alone, imagine how much more innovative students and employees could be if the pool of knowledge from which they draw is wider and deeper. That occurs as the result of a liberal arts education.

To her lucid argument, I would like to ad that a liberal arts education equips students with critical thinking skills and creative thinking, so that graduates may be prepared for the jobs of today AND tomorrow, five or ten years from now. While specialization will continue to evolve, critical thinking and meta-cognition (the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate variables of information) will remain the constant in a world that rewards innovation and adaptability.

To see the full Washington Post editorial, click here.

An Interview with Jason Ockert on Wraparound South

Check out my interview with Jason Ockert on Wraparound South.  Here is a tantalizing snippet:

Interview with Jason Ockert

Wasp Box Cover (1)Well before his first collection was published, Jason Ockert had already seen his work printed in some of the best literary magazines of our time: Oxford American, McSweeney’s, theIowa Review, and other publications that have paved the way for so many of our literary greats. It was therefore no real surprise that Ockert’s Rabbit Punches, which was lauded by critics as “riotously funny,” “quirky, unsettling, and full of unexpected turns,” would soon see a worthy follow up in Neighbors of Nothing, a story collection that Junot Diaz described as “beautiful, searching and generous,” and which earned the author a Shirley Jackson Fiction Award nomination. Now with Wasp Box, a novel forthcoming with Panhandler Books in Spring 2015, we are treated to a high-octane version of the witty, heartbreaking, and slightly absurd themes that earned Ockert his early reputation as “a writer to be watched.”

Wasp Box takes place in wine country, upstate New York, during an unusually hot summer. Two half-brothers, Hudson and Speck, are visiting Nolan, the older brother’s birth father. Hudson is trying to negotiate a relationship with a father he barely knows. Speck, Hudson’s younger half-brother is along for the vacation – and remains a complication in an already difficult situation. Unbeknownst to the boys and father, exotic killer wasps are breeding out of control only just yards away, and presenting a growing, deadly threat to the entire community.

Wasp Box spins an interesting angle on the coming-of-age story, one filled with memorable characters and bizarre dangers that are just as surreal as life often can be. It’s the kind of narrative that skirts between high-powered tension and what Saunders rightly termed “vulnerable kindness” – signature traits of Ockert’s impressive agility as a writer. The setup of a biological menace festering in the background as father and son negotiate each other’s moods adds layers of emotional fragility to the narrative.  Brock Clarke, author of Exeley, has rightly described Wasp Box as an “unbelievably smart, tense, breakneck first novel…a book that is absolutely impossible to put down,” in part because the threat of the wasps is so hypnotically terrifying. However, the scarier peril is whether the sore and tender desires and longings that keep the family teetering between bliss and bane will see resolution or drone on in endless, poisoned buzzing.

Wasp Box is a thrilling debut that will no doubt soon garner lots of positive attention from readers and critics alike. It is that rare novel that manages to be profound while also being profoundly entertaining. In an early review, The Rumpus described Wasp Box as “horrific, beautiful, bizarre, poignant and mesmerizing,” as it “portrays families at their best and worst, strongest and weakest, closest and most distant. Above all, it offers a portrait of the resilience and reliance necessary to survive.”

We are excited that Jason Ockert decided to talk to us about Wasp Box. In this interview, the author discusses his inspiration for the novel, his interest in family themes, his mentors, the memories and moments that served as crucial sparks for the novel and more.

Laura Valeri: First of all, let me congratulate you for yet another great work of fiction. Wasp Box, is an eminently nail-biting narrative, emotionally layered and deftly composed. Tell me how the story of the killer wasps found its way into this family drama? What inspired this idea?

A Valentine for My Muse

Dearest Muse,literature

It’s been twenty or so years since we’ve met, fifteen or more since we decided to commit to each other, and what do I bring to you, if not this sorry apology?

Again, today, I was grading. Again, today, instead of wooing you with chocolate and champagne, I ran off with Teaching, leaving you to whittle away the empty hours alone with only my reassurances to wait, to just give me a chance — excuses so old they’ve burned scars into your heart.

I know that we don’t spend nearly enough time with each other. I keep putting  you off with excuses: I have to work. I’m so, so very tired after such a long day.  I have to spend a little bit of time with my husband! With  my family!  You’ve been patient. You’ve been forgiving without being weak.  Sometimes you punish me with your silence, but it’s only because I punish you with my absences. In the end, you always welcome me back, taking the fifteen minutes, the hour, the evening I have to offer, and wiping the slate clean between us.

You have filled my days with adventures, lifted my heart up to bliss, and also sometime frustrated me and made me feel the full weight of my failures — but you teach me. You push me to be a better person. You believe in me.  You urge me  to try, try again, regardless the results because, after all, you understand what matters in the world, what is really worth the sacrifice of time and energy.

I have sometimes tried to force you to be what you’re not. I’ve squeezed you into segments, compartmentalized you, segmented you, forced you into molds, obsessing you with My Career! My Career! forgetting momentarily what really brought us together, what makes us one.  I’ve tried to turn my back on you, blaming you for my misery and my shortcomings, and then, humbled, I always come back to you.  You’re still with me, still surprising me, still breathing whispers in my ear when I’m not thinking about you, when I’m just trying to be.  You’re my best friend. You understand what I feel even before I can formulate it into thoughts.  You are my teacher. You are my guide.

Dear Muse, we have given our lives to each other, and I suspect you are as committed to me as I am mooning for you always, even when it seems I’m not paying attention.  I am so glad that we have met, gladder still that we are together. May we spend the rest of our days with each other, discovering and sharing lovingly all the joys and gentle sadnesses of life, joined together in sacred Union till the end of time.  Be patient with me, and please, please stay.


PS: My husband has been laboring all day in the kitchen to make me specialty sushi rolls and all I got him was a box of Belgian truffles — don’t tell him about this, ok?  This is between us.  Shhhhhhhh.

An Interview of me with Tina Whittle on Fiction Writers Review

Last week, Fiction Writers Review was kind to print an interview of me conducted by mystery writer Tina Whittle.  Here is just the first part to whet your appetites. Hope you check it out, and thank you, Fiction Writers Review:

choices we make are often forced choices, the better of two evils”


What’s Inevitable: An Interview with Laura Valeri

“Flannery O’Connor once wrote that every good work of fiction must have an ending that feels both surprising and inevitable. And it strikes me that most of the realizations we have about ourselves are exactly that.”

Laura Valeri’s debut collection, The Kind Of Things Saints Do (2002), won both the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in Fiction; John Dufresne described it as “a daring and stunning debut.” The promise revealed in those stories has only deepened in the years since I first became acquainted with both Laura and her work. I have known her as both an academic colleague and a fellow fiction writer, and I’ve enjoyed discussing the art and craft of life with her. She is wise and funny and smart, a natural storyteller, a gifted teacher, and a devoted connoisseur of good food, good conversation, and good words.

Her most recent title is Safe in Your Head (2013), a Stephen F. Austin Press prizewinner, a novel in stories featuring recipes and luck remedies for women during war time. I was grateful that she took the time to share how these dreamy, powerful tales came to be, how they commingle magic and history and the fine food of Laura’s native Italy in a collection of narratives both ethereal and earthy.


Tina Whittle: Safe in Your Head is a work of fiction, but it is based on your coming to the United States at an early age. It is rich with the food and culture of the Italy of your experience, and also with the Italy of history before your time. How much research did you do into Italian history, especially the early to mid-twentieth century?

Laura Valeri: I did extensive sleuth work for this collection. The proverbs and the folklore remedies, for instance, had to be searched through various archives. I knew a few from tradition, but I also wanted to include less obvious ones. I also did research on my family history to sort out fact from myth. My grandfather fought during World War II. We knew he had been on the Russian front, and we knew that he somehow survived Italy’s change of allegiance from Germany to the United States while he was still entrenched with the Germans, because he recalled German soldiers using their bayonets to cut the hands of Italian soldiers who tried to hang on to their trucks as they retreated. When I began to check the facts against my family’s stories, however, some things didn’t add up. The change of allegiance came later. What he was remembering was the retreat from Russia, just ten months before. Memory is tricky. You can’t trust it. I had to ask a lot of questions, dig up a lot of newspaper articles and official documents.

Our Roots Run DeepIt was exciting because I discovered my grandfather’s secret life as an activist. At seventeen, he was arrested for spreading fliers against Mussolini—which is why he ended up on the Russian front before he was even old enough to go to war. His brother, who was older, was taken and beaten to within an inch of his life. They all paid a great deal for their beliefs. I saw footage of what happened on that Russian front when the German lines were broken. It was carnage. Some 2,000 Italians died every day. Due to a snafu in military communications, Italian soldiers wore boots designed for the African desert. In addition to having to face an enemy that had superior weapons and that outnumbered them exponentially, these young men had to wrap cardboard on their feet to fight off frostbite.

In terms of the subject matter, I had intentions to write about the more subtle devastations of war, the effects that are visited on those who stay behind—the children, the wives, and mothers. I had a vague idea that my own life, though so removed from those events, also had been affected by my ancestor’s role in the two wars—and I was right, in more ways than I could anticipate. The year my father decided to emigrate to the US, Italy had just lost a pope, there was a brutal backlash after a government crackdown on an insidious mafia network, and a terrorist group called the Red Brigades infected and disrupted all socio-political dynamics. Then, the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and executed. My father, like many others at the time, was afraid that we were on the brink of a Communist revolution. He used his international contacts to have his consultancy contract moved to a branch of Pfizer in New York, and we were gone.

Vonnegut on Novelists

Kurt Vonnegut obviously understated his own intellect, nonetheless, his words of wisdom continue to inspire may writers and readers.

Writing That Matters

” . . . novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday

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Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

Some really great advice from famous writers on famous first lines (of novels and such!)

Writing That Matters

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found…

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Film Essays About Film

What great things you can find by stomping around on the Internet.

Here are three really cool film essays about film from a Vimeo channel called Kogonada

I selected three that I really liked, but if you’re a video buff, you’ll probably spend some time checking out all the good stuff.

Here are my picks:

An interesting visual essay on two directors’ perspectives: DeSica and Selznick, one indulgent with visual narrative, the other following in the dominant Hollywood tradition of adhering closely to the plot.  Here is the article that explains it in Sight & Sound Magazine.

Offers visual details of Kubrick’s camerawork in what is called One-point perspective. Gorgeous and instructive.

This last one is on mirroring passageways in the cinema of Ozu.  Makes a beautiful impression on the art of directing.

Thanks Kogonada and Sights & Sound for these gorgeous film essays. I’m a fan.

Indie Movies That Boggle The Mind: Movies for People who Like a Mind Challenge

With more opportunities for indie markets, in comes some pretty interesting stuff at the movies.  As a lover of postmodern fiction, I really like a good mind-f** when it comes to a story, especially if it’s a movie, and doubly so if it’s also a comedy or romance.

Everyone’s already seen Inception, Matrix, and Memento, but here are some indies that are not blockbusters but that nonetheless deserve a (mind-boggling) watch.

Mr. Nobody

Presumably, a story about the last mortal old man alive who, on his last hours on earth, recollects his life.. or is it? For the vast entirety of the movie I had absolutely no idea what was going on.  Normally, that would be a bad thing, but in this case, I was glued to the screen, feeling like I was going through a treasure hunt in a visually stunning intellectual maze.  The cinematography is jaw-dropping gorgeous (my husband the photographer assures me it is not just my commercial taste, but true talent). In terms of structure it is a masterpiece in fragmented storytelling — yes, even better than Pulp Fiction (but different!) and way better then Memento. I’m a fiction write, but I have no idea how screenwriter/director Jaco Van Dormael was able to keep his threads together. It’s not until the end that it all (mostly) makes sense, and you have to pay close attention. But even if you don’t like mind games, you may really love the movie simply because it’s a moving love story, and a heart-breaking coming of age story.  And, because, well, Jared Leto is hot. I mean…look at him!


Now free on  Netflix, it’s worth to give the story a chance, in spite of its really odd cinematographic choices (the camera is never still), and a somewhat awkward structure in the story at times.  Since I read hundreds of stories every year (and watch a sizable amount of movies, too), it’s pretty hard to surprise me when it comes to plots, but this one was wholly original, unusual, and tongue-in-cheek.  Not as difficult to follow as Mr. Nobody, Frequencies nonetheless boasts a fairly complicated storyline following three main characters and their interactions, which are, depending on how you want to interpret the science associated with the story idea, either totally random or totally pre-determined.  Yep. It’s that kind of story. But it’s a sweet story, about the triumph of love… and music! Still, what I like best about it is the ending, which I won’t give away for spoiler’s fear, but you’ll never guess in this world of string-particle science, who, of all people, gets to have the most power.


It took me a long time to finally get bored enough to watch this one, as the trailer seemed to promise only a tangled, guerrilla-style horror movie about the last man standing. You know the trope: some friends get together for dinner and are stuck together in a house… I was pleasantly surprised and now am thinking of watching this again a few times, and maybe teach it next time I teach screenwriting. The opening was chaotic, difficult to follow as everyone in the movie talks over each other as the camera moves from one actor to another with the grace of an amateur movie shot on an iPhone, but past the awkwardness of the first act (for non-movie experts, that’s about 15 mins), the twists begin.  This one, too, is a kind of love story, a tragic one, at that.  And an unusual take on meteors and parallel realities.  The tension mounted surprisingly fast, the characters acted believably. The drama thickened with the complexity of the situation (and of the quantum physics).  The ending was perhaps a little forced, but all the same, not predictable.  The sign of a great movie to me? It keeps you thinking long after you’ve stopped watching. This one definitely did the job.

Best Indie Documentaries on Creativity

For some reason, now that 2015 started, I’m in a mood to take stock of things.

Last year I taught for the first time a class on creativity and writing, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching some truly inspiring documentaries on the creative process.  Here are a few that are worth seeing.

Indie Game: The movie

This is a nail-biting documentary following the lives of several game designers who have decided to go solo.  Follow the designers of Braid, Meat Boy and Fez.  It’s hard to believe just how much work these guys had to put into their dream, and how fragile it all is, from beginning to end.  A must for those who love video games.

Tim O’Brien: How to Tell a True War Story

This visually stunning piece juxtaposes some of Tim O’Brien’s award winning writing about Vietnam with images of war, and interviews that slowly reveal O’Brien’s obsessions.

Bird by Bird With Annie

Writer Annie Lamot, famous for her book Bird by Bird, says in this documentary, “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child, and now I could work if there were a corpse in the sink.”  Annie talks eloquently about the writing life, motherhood, spirituality and all that needs be done for someone to live like art really matters.

Arts and The Mind: PBS Documentary

It’s hard to believe that this one is free.  This comprehensive documentary hosted by Lisa Kudrow covers the importance of art and creativity from pre-school to old age making a compelling argument for restoring arts to all levels of education and civic planning.

Everything Is A Remix

This is an absolute must see for anyone who wants to learn anything about creativity.  Kirby Ferguson explores the nature of creativity, not just in the arts and music, but also in business and makes a compelling case for loosening copyright laws and having an open-source approach to anything we choose to create.