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From the Ground Up

mud bricks drying in the sun                                                           screen shot
There's a 16th-century city in Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, called Shibam. It's home to what might be called the world's first high rises, buildings up to seven stories high ~ and all made from mud (video):
the walled city of Shibam                              © Aneta Ribarska

His Hour Upon the Stage

The first time I saw Alan Cumming was in a Sex and the City episode, in which he played a Dolce & Gabbana stylist called O. It was a small part, but he was terrific. And then, all of a sudden, I was seeing him everywhere: introducing public television programs, on The Good Wife (his American accent is so good that unless you knew he was Scottish, you would swear he'd never been east of Brooklyn), on The Colbert Report ...
   His latest theatrical coup is in a version of Macbeth, currently on Broadway, in which he plays all the parts (story, audio interview):

This Isn't Your Tagger's Graffiti

by Eduardo Kobra, in São Paulo                      Blog de Milton Jung/Flickr
Just about everyone's heard of graffiti artist Banksy, but not everyone's heard of the rest of these practitioners of the increasingly accepted public art form:

Free for All

Here's a list of things you can get for free. Surprisingly, many are not lame and are things you might actually want and could actually use:

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! ... It's the QE2!!

At 1:59 p.m. PDT on May 31, an asteroid nine times larger than the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2 will speed past us at a safe yet comparatively short distance (the closest it will be for another 200 years or more). To commemorate the event, NASA will be streaming and televising some special events, starting May 30:

Kosciuszko, Jefferson, and the Slaves


In today's selection -- the paradox between Thomas Jefferson's authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his ownership of slaves.  When he drafted the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote that the slave trade was an "execrable commerce ...this assemblage of horrors," a "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties." Yet when he had the opportunity in 1817 due to a bequest from Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, he did not free his slaves.  Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime and at any given time approximately 100 slaves lived on Monticello.  In 1792, Jefferson calculated that he was making a 4 percent profit per year on the birth of black children.  Jefferson's nail boys alone produced 5,000 to 10,000 nails a day, for a gross income of $2000 in 1796, $35,000 in 2013. 

"With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence -- 'all men are created equal' -- Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle's ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: 'From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.' In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an 'execrable commerce ...this

Every Breath You Take

Great Falls, Montana, is one of the U.S. cities on the list.
We hear so much about cities with foul air. Here, for a change, is a list of the 10 cities with the cleanest ~ and a couple, believe it or not, are actually in the United States!:

Seeing Suicide Differently

It's still one of those things that is talked about in whispers and hardly mentioned, if at all, in the families of its victims. The blame has been parceled out to parents, friends, teachers, even the victim him/herself. But what if we've been looking at it all wrong?:


This is the poem that appeared in my inbox today (from "Poem-a-Day," from the Academy of American Poets). Somehow, it seemed particularly apt for this glorious morning, mirroring in its peaceful and contented attitude the sunshine, the birds, and the breeze:

Variation on a Theme

Thank you my life long afternoon
late in this spring that has no age
my window above the river
for the woman you led me to
when it was time at last the words
coming to me out of mid-air
that carried me through the clear day
and come even now to find me
for old friends and echoes of them
those mistakes only I could make
homesickness that guides the plovers
from somewhere they had loved before
they knew they loved it to somewhere
they had loved before they saw it
thank you good body hand and eye
and the places and moments known
only to me revisiting
once more complete just as they are
and the morning stars I have seen
and the dogs who are guiding me

Try Thai

the Grand Palace, built in 1782                                            
Where are all the world's tourists going these days? New York, you say? Paris? Rome? Dubai? Nope, apparently, it's Bangkok (followed by London, Paris, Singapore, and then New York). Tokyo has it beat, though, in the spending category, as in foreign tourists spend more there, per tourist, per visit ~ an average $2,190:

The State of Politics

Elected judges write more clearly than appointed judges ~ except when they have a tight campaign ahead of them. This is only one of the interesting things writer Seth Masket learned at the recent State Politics and Policy Conference, held in Iowa City:

Women With Thoughts

Hannah Arendt was a very interesting woman. Not always right, but always interesting. German director Margarethe von Trotta, endlessly fascinating herself, thinks Arendt is interesting enough, in fact, that she made her the subject of a movie. Perhaps unfortunately for Arendt's memory, she chose to focus it on that woman's coverage of and subsequent book about the 1960 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, as you can imagine from the title alone, was ... well, "controversial" would be a major understatement (story, clip from film):

50 Years of Remembering the Forgotten

screen shot from Amnesty video
On May 28, 1961, a newspaper article by British lawyer Peter Benenson, "The Forgotten Prisoners," inspired the worldwide campaign Appeal for Amnesty and led, eventually, to the founding of the human rights organization Amnesty International:
   For more information about AI, see (website with video; CAUTION: the video, while animated, is pretty raw)

A Little Extra Perk

Remember how cute you thought it was the first time a barista made a little heart in your latte's foam? Even the second and maybe the third time, too. And then, it started getting old. Well, you know it had to happen sooner or later, and it has. Kazuki Yamamoto, of Osaka, has turned that little 2D fillip into a 3D art form. Cute! (slideshow):


Chaser the border collie is one special dog. She can pick up differences in sentence word order, for example, "to ball take Frisbee" vs. "to Frisbee take ball":

The WIMP Factor in Dark Matter

It sounds like the title of a new James Bond movie, but Darkside 50 is actually one of 25 experiment-based searches around the world for dark matter. We believe that dark matter makes up one-fourth of the energy in the universe but, so far, have been unable to prove its existence. This particular experiment is based on the theory that dark matter is made of WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles) (story, video):

The Good Son

Vijay Kumari                                                                                   screen shot
Vijay Kumari's son was born in prison. He grew up in juvenile homes while she stayed behind, unable to pay her $180 bail. Now, 19 years later, the son who never forgot her was finally able to hire a lawyer to free her (video):

More Power to Ya

Trees are being grown and cut down in the southern U.S. to feed power plants in the U.K.: (video):

The Mighty Maricopa


The most poisonous insect is considered to be the Maricopa harvester ant, which is native to Arizona. A fully grown Maricopa harvester ant is about 1.2 inches (3 cm) long, and its venom is more toxic than those of bees, wasps, scorpions or snakes. In fact, a person would have to be stung by a honeybee more than 12 times to equal one sting from a Maricopa harvester ant. These ants cling to their prey and inject a venom containing toxins that can destroy tissue. About 350 stings from these ants could be enough to kill a person who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg).

More about poisonous insects:
  • The first recorded death caused by a poisonous insect was in the 26th

From the Archives: Listen to Your Mütter

Most of my posts are not time-sensitive, and most of them link to very wonderful things. Because I don't want anyone to miss out on them, I will occasionally re-post some of my favorites, like this one:

Welcome to Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, home to preserved fetuses, dried skin, and other fascinations, including part of Einstein's brain. Be sure to check out the "Guess What's on the Curator's Desk" and "Mütter Minute" videos (plus, at the online store, you can get an umlaut button and a replica of Dr. Koop's bow tie)!:

Giving Testimony

Journalist Anna Badkhen writes of her visits to an Afghan village in The World Is a Carpet: Four Season in an Afghan Village." She is trying, she says in this interview, to give a face to the people whom too many of us have seen only through the windows of military vehicles. "To stretch out on a boiled wool rug in Oqa next to a camel herder who is chatting away on his cellphone as an American F/A-18 fighter passes overhead is to lean over the rim of a temporal chasm where millennia condense and unfurl," she says. "It gives you a bit of vertigo":

Eddie Izzard's Verbal Wizardry

the fabulous Mr. Izzard          Z Space

My very favorite comedian ~ one of my top 5, maybe 3, of all time (FWIW) ~ sits down to a spot (almost literally) of lunch on the eve of his Force Majeure World Tour and dishes about fear, food, fitness, and multilingualism:

Keeping It Private

As those who care to, become more sophisticated about tapping into private communications, those who care for them not to are trying to stay at least one step ahead. Thanks to quantum mechanics, they may be succeeding (and P.S., kudos to The Economist for yet another great headline!):

Of Love and War

For Memorial Day, an interview with the WWII Pacific Theater soldier whose hand-illustrated envelopes that once held letters to his best friend and fellow soldier's wife are now on exhibit online. The friendship between Jack Fogarty and John and Mary MacDonald was a lifelong one:

Fast and Serious

The image of the cop on the beat just got a whole lot more interesting. The Dubai police department has added an Aston Martin One-77 (about $2 million) to its stable of patrol cars, which already includes a Lamborghini Aventador and a Ferrari FF. Other countries' police forces have also gotten to try out some pretty racy cars (slideshow):

What Would Darwin Do?

This particular bit of evolutionary news, while commendable for the species directly involved, is a little less so for us, the humans. Apparently, some cockroaches have evolved to eschew the traps we have set for them (story, video):

Think Grammar

Those of us with a particular affinity for words and how they go together sometimes clench our teeth at the way the English language is changing these days. But beyond the everyday/every day errors and the death of the verb "lie" (as in to recline) and the adjectives "few" and "fewer," there is now the nounification of adjectives to contend with (OK, and what I just did there is called creativity!):


First of all, if you're at all into architecture, design, and/or decorating or if you're thinking about remodeling or renovating or rebuilding your home, you should know about the website houzz. It's an amazing resource. Here's a particular story about home styles. Call it House 101:

Eye Q

A new kind of IQ test is based on the theory that more intelligent individuals are better at ignoring distractions and thus are more able to focus. You can try it out yourself (story, test):

It Colors Your Thoughts

Quadriplegic Heide Pfützner painted this picture via computer.
A computer program "reads" people's brainwaves to create the pictures they're imagining. Currently, the technology uses an electrode-embedded cap, but scientists are hoping to be able to implant electrodes directly into the cortex, which would allow for faster and more accurate decoding (story, video):

Dude Looks Like a Lady

Why was a certain male in the Copper Age (about 5,000 years ago) buried like a woman?:

Salt of the Earth

Camels as transport may soon be a thing of the past. Siegfried Modola, Reuters
One of the hottest places on Earth (more than 120 degrees F in the summer) also happens to be a prime source of salt. Here are some photographs of the route salt travels from this amazing place ~ the Afar Depression in northern Ethiopia ~ to market (story, slideshow):

Conjunction Junction

Through May 27, you can see three planets close together in the sky ~ Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter. It's called a triple conjunction, and the next one that's as tight as this one will be in 2026 (story, video):

A Delicious View

Another great one from my inbox (see "Dancing With the Daffodils," April 2013), courtesy of and Poem-a-Day:

Muffin of Sunsets

The sky is melting. Me too.
Who hasn't seen it this way?

Pink between the castlework 
of buildings.

Pensive syrup
drizzled over clouds.

It is almost catastrophic how heavenly.

A million poets, at least,
have stood in this very spot,
groceries in hand, wondering:

"Can I witness the Rapture
and still make it home in time for dinner?"

The Chess-Player's Guide to the Galaxy

(First of all, remember that May 25 is Towel Day! See "Towel Day ~ May 25," below.) And now to the matter at hand, which revolves around NASA scientists creating a computer simulation of galaxies in order to determine how they grow. Creating the simulation is a bit like playing chess, according to Alyson Brooks, an expert in galaxy simulations at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: "For each point in time, we have to figure out how a given particle ~ our chess piece ~ should move based on the positions of all of the other particles."
   What Brooks and the rest of the team found is that cold gas spirals along filaments into the center of the galaxies, where it's transformed into new stars:

Dead Man Talking

Cotard's Syndrome is a rare disorder in which the individual truly believes that he/she or part of him/her has died. One woman who had it died of starvation because she reasoned that, as she was already dead, she didn't need to eat. Recently, for the first time, scientists were able to scan the brain of a person with Cotard's:
   And wouldn't you know that Mental Floss would have a story about this? Of course it would!:

The Fungus Among Us

Germophobes may want to skip this one. Not so very long ago, we were introduced to the many and varied types of bacteria that call our bodies home. Now, it's the turn of the fungi:

Born To Hand Jive

Just in time for the summer travel season, a guide to hand gestures around the world (video):

Inner-City Portraits

screen shot
"There are millions of people who do not have a voice. There's nothing that makes me more angry than that."
   Photographer Will Steacy traveled from big-city airport to business center, taking respectful and illuminative pictures of people and structures along the way with his old-school box camera. The result is a series of collages called "Down These Mean Streets," in which Steacy juxtaposes his photographs with newspaper clippings and other media. It was shown at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and has been made into a book (story and video):


National Geographic Society
Giant kudos to Sathwik Karnik, who won the 25th annual National Geographic Geography Bee, and to the second-place winner, Conrad Oberhaus (story and a link to a GeoBee Challenge!):
   Video of the last few, white-knuckling moments of the Geography Bee, hosted by the inimitable Alex Trebek:

Under the Sea

As Sebastian sang to the little mermaid, "Just look at the world around you/Right here on the ocean floor/Such wonderful things surround you/What more is you lookin' for?" Indeed. Humans are finding the ocean floor more wonderful than ever these days ~ as a new place to mine. Apparently, there is an abundance of nodules ~ gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and other metals ~ to be had, and thanks to new technology and the lure of high prices, the rush is set to start soon:

'I'm Borrrrred'

  • "Research your family tree; interview parents and grandparents.
  • "Start a neighborhood newsletter; interview interesting persons.
  • "Create a recipe for a new food dish and prepare it for your family."
Some old ideas, some new ideas ~ during summer vacation, parents can use them all. Not that being "bored" is such a bad thing every once in a while. But sometimes (admit it!), that phrase can really grate, can't it? Herewith, a list of things to do ~ or help your child do ~ during those lazy, hazy, crazy days:

Towel Day ~ May 25

In celebration of the life of beloved and beguiling author Douglas Adams and the many hours of enjoyable and charmed reading he left us, froods the galaxy over carry a towel in his honor on May 25. Why a towel, you ask? Why, for this very reason:
   “A towel, [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”  (from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
   So, you see, it's really quite important, and you don't want to be left out. Find out what's going on around you on May 25:
   And P.S., Don't panic.

Just Because: 'The Metamorphosis'

I've been going through some of my old books, trying desperately to winnow some out. Which to keep? Which to give away ~ and to whom? Most are paperbacks, so they're not worth much in that way. But in every other way, to me, they're worth a lot. They're worth the knowledge and the creativity, the beauty of the phrases and thoughts within, and they're worth the memories I have of reading them. One of the best is The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), by Franz Kafka.
   Kaftka, of course, wrote many novels and short stories, of which Metamorphosis, first published in 1915, is perhaps the most well-known. Lengthwise, it's more like a short story. Some call it a novella. Because Kafka wrote in German, there is some question about exactly how certain key words should be translated, for example, the creature into which the protagonist has been transformed, and about the effect of the difference in sentence structure between German and English. Either way, here's the beginning of The Metamorphosis (as translated by Willa and Edwin Muir):


   As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.
   What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. His room, a regular human

The Autism Advantage

A German software company is actively recruiting autistic individuals. "Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st Century," explains company executive Luisa Delgado:

Book It

a cafe in Forks, Washington                                                                 ericnvntr.
I was looking at a travel site recently that advertises a walking tour of southern France following the footsteps of author Robert Louis Stevenson ( , in case you're interested). Of course, there are many, many places where one can follow footsteps or even visit specific locations mentioned in one's favorite books. Here are eight of them (slideshow):

The Truth About Cat & Dog People

Would it surprise you to know that, at least among the more than 80 million people who took this survey, dog owners are slightly more likely to be male and cat owners female? Probably not. But how about this: Cat owners are 17% more likely to have a graduate degree, while dog owners are 15% more likely to be extroverts. Apparently, too, cat people tweet more but dog people are more likely to own iPhones (infographic):

Cash Advance


In today's selection -- almost all of the increase in the world's per capita income -- an astonishing 37-fold increase -- has happened in the last 250 years:

"In terms of the total economic history of our species, the world of the [stone-tool-making hunter-gather tribe such as Brazil's] Yanomamö is the very, very recent past. If we use the appearance of the first tools as our starting point, it took about 2,485,000 years, or 99.4 percent, of our economic history to go from the first tools to the hunter-gatherer level of economic and social sophistication typified by the Yanomamö [see the chart below]. It then took only 0.6 percent of human history to leap from the $90 per capita ... economy of the Yanomamö, to the $36,000 per capita ... economy of [today's] New Yorkers.

"Zooming in for a more granular look into the past 15,000 years reveals something even more surprising. The economic journey between the hunter-gatherer world and the

Summer Reading

Barnes & Noble is giving children a free book when they read eight:

Beauty on the Inside

fancy footwear: contestants and guard                                          David Maung
Tijuana's La Mesa State Penitentiary was the site of a beauty pageant recently, an attempt to brighten the female inmates' lives and improve their self-esteem. Most hadn't worn heels in so long, they had to practice for days before the event (story, slideshow):

I'll Drink to That!

the Flaming Moe, from The Simpsons
Well, our friends at Mental Floss have done it again. Just in time for the summer party season, they found a most enlightening chart of the favorite cocktails of fictional characters ~ recipes included (story, chart):

Gender in the Lab

The stories of six female scientists whose work was crucial to discoveries and advancement in the field but whom you've probably never heard of:

Now, THAT's Shelf Life!

Gold miners in Ontario, Canada, were getting wet. Water was seeping out of the bedrock, and when that water was tested, it was found to be at least a billion years old and probably a lot older. Now scientists are hoping to find some ancient microbes in it:

The Evolution of Religions

It's a law of evolution: Those that can't change with the times won't survive. This includes religions, which seem to most of us to be the most immutable of our institutions. Yet, at one point, Catholic priests weren't celibate and Muslims couldn't use radios or telephones. Copernicus suffered the wrath of the Church when he said the sun, and not Earth, was the center of the universe, and Gandhi used the British attitude toward Indians to explain the injustice of looking down on a class called the Untouchables. So how does a religion change and bring its adherents with it?:

Not the First Time

Moore was hit by a killer tornado once before in recent memory, in 1999, but this week's was worse. Here are the basics of tornadoes and Tornado Alley ~ everything you've been wondering in the wake of Oklahoma's disaster (story, video):

The Bank of Zs

A short daily nap helps us bounce back from a sleep deficit better than a weekend sleep-in will. So does a little planning:

High Fructose Cornundrum

It's in frozen pizzas, yogurt, cereals, salad dressings, sodas, even many pasta sauces. We've all heard the warnings about high fructose corn syrup, and since it's so prevalent in most of our diets, wouldn't it be great to know if these warnings are based in fact? While this article may not exactly help us figure that out, it does contain interesting and enlightening information about the sweetener:


If it's important to you, for one reason or another, to know who owns the brand you're buying ~ and I mean, who really owns it ~ you might be interested in Buycott, a free app that will give you just that information based on your scan of the item-in-question's bar code. And in the interest of full transparency, here's the story behind the app:

Home, Sweet $190-Million Home

David Ogilvy & Associates, Christie's International Real Estate
First built in 1896, Copper Beech Farm (named after the trees that grow on its 50 acres) hasn't been publicly listed for sale in more than 100 years. With its 12 bedrooms ~ most with fireplaces ~ 7 full baths and 2 half-baths, a solarium and wine cellar, 6-car garage, 3-bedroom gatehouse, grass tennis court, apple orchard, and 75-foot pool, it is, for now, officially the most expensive home for sale in the United States ever ~ take that, $135-million Crespi-Hicks estate in Dallas! (But, of course, this is just the asking price.) (story, slideshow, video):

The Sins of the Father ...

Libby Phelps at Tammy Faye Bakker's memorial, 2007   Megan Phelps-Roper
Libby Phelps couldn't help that she was born into the infamous Westboro Baptist Church family, but she has paid for it in many ways throughout her life. Now, four years after she made the decision to leave her family and church, she is married but misses her parents and is still trying to assimilate into her new world (story, slideshow):,0,7242930.htmlstory

Your Screen, Only Better

The story of the augmented reality glasses you may find yourself using in the not-too-distant future and how they started out at one company and ended up at a startup (note to self: opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a pretty cool Kickstarter project!) (story, slideshow, video):

Park Here

Charles Jencks's Universe Cascade in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation
There are so many sources of inspiration, like, for example, these five creative parks from around the world. Perhaps Mills End Park (officially the world's smallest) and Parque Gulliver (as in Lilliputians) belong together (slideshow):

What a Tangled Web

From, interesting info about spider silk:

"Spider silk is a fiber that is spun by spiders, and although seven types of silk can be made, no spider is able to make them all. The silk is actually a protein made from amino acids called glycine and alanine, and each particular type of silk is used for different purposes. Dragline and minor silk typically are a smoother texture and are used for building webs, and attachment silk is used as an anchor. Other types of spider silk are sticky and used for trapping prey. These include the viscid and

Dylan Had It Made

A French researcher who's checking such things out found that women are more likely to give their phone number out to a dude with a guitar. (In earlier experiments, he found that an expensive car [duh] and a firefighter's uniform also help):

BC History

Angelina Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene. What is that, and why did it cause her to make the drastic decision to undergo a double mastectomy?:

It's the Maker Faire!

The 2013 Maker Faire is going on this weekend (May 18-19) in San Mateo. For those who are intrigued but can't be there, here's a brief rundown of some of the special attractions, with links:

Rhapsody in Blue

Apparently, we are all very conventional in our subconscious matching of music to color. "Surprisingly," says Stephen Palmer, a vision scientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of a paper on the subject, "we can predict with 95 percent accuracy how happy or sad the colors people pick will be based on how happy or sad the music is that they are listening to" ~ and this predictability crossed cultures:

The Camel Question

the Dromedary                                                         ©
Toes aside, camels are strangely alluring creatures, so perfectly adapted to life in an environment that most of us wouldn't even consider visiting, let alone calling home. A friend of mine spoke glowingly of the creature last weekend as we trudged up Montecito Peak in what felt like 85-degree heat (but was probably about 10 degrees cooler). She was in awe of its hump, in which, she said, the camel stores water. Well, a little conversation ensued about that particular physical feature, and I promised to research the issue (story, great Jeff Corwin video!):
   And btw, if the first place you think about when you think of camels is somewhere in the northern part of Africa, think again (story, video):

Just Because: 'Faces of the Enemy'

A new exhibition at the British Library defines "propaganda" broadly, as "any communication designed to change the way we think or to alter our behaviour" (story, video):
   It put me in mind of a book I stumbled across many moons ago, called Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, by Sam Keen. It is more about what we usually think of when we hear the word "propaganda," and much of it has stayed with me and come back to me time and again, especially in these post-9/11 years. It begins like this:

Part 1

   Look carefully at the face of the enemy. The lips are curled downward. The eyes are fanatical and far away. The flesh is contorted and molded into the shape of monster or beast. Nothing suggests this man ever laughs, is torn by doubts, or shaken by tears. He feels no tenderness or pain. Clearly he is unlike us. We need have no sympathy, no guilt, when we destroy him.
   In all propaganda, the face of the enemy is designed to provide a focus for our hatred. He is the other. The outsider. The alien. He is not human. If we can only kill

Stout and Square

In the Who Knew? department, Freddy Heineken, yes, he of the beer-brewing family, was quite the visionary and environmentalist. In 1960, he returned from a trip to Curaçao with the idea of making squared-off beer bottles that could be reused as bricks. As with many such individuals, though, his invention, while beautiful and creative, never took off, but it did inspire others:
   Many of Heineken's bottles were put to good use, and as he had intended, as the building blocks for a Buddhist temple:

The Prattle of the Prairie Dog

© Scott Carr/National Geographic Stock
So it turns out that the cute little prairie dog actually has one of the most sophisticated forms of communication in the animal world. Of its calls that have so far been deciphered, the alarm, it seems that not only does its chirp communicate the species of predator, but it will tell the size, shape, and color (video):!

King of Pain

It's here, going by the euphemism "Active-Denial Technology." The U.S. military has it, and a police department near you may be getting it soon. It's a very long-range (as in, hundreds of meters) weapon that inflicts what is described as unbearable pain by shooting microwaves that make the victim feel as if he/she's being burned (story, videos):

Just Because: 'The Future Is Something'

Back in April ~ National Poetry Month, don't you know ~ I signed up for a Poem-a-Day via email. Who knew it would continue beyond that month? But after getting this entry, I'm glad it has.

L'Avenir est Quelque Chose
by Dobby Gibson

All day for too long 
everything I've thought to say
has been about umbrellas, 
how I can't remember how
I came to possess whatever weird one
I find in my hand, like now, 
how they hang there on brass hooks
in the closet like failed actors,
each one tiny or too huge,
like ideas, always needing
to be shaken off and folded up
before we can properly forget them on the train.
Most of my predictions are honestly 
just hopes: a sudden sundress in March, 
regime change in the North, the one where Amanda

HoTell All

From the best way to complain at the front desk to what bellhops have against Bernard Sadow, 10 well-kept (and not-so-well-kept) hotel secrets:

Sailing Among the Stars

On May 31, the QE2 will be making its way past Earth. This particular QE2, of course, is an asteroid ~ and it's about the length of nine of those luxurious liners:

After the Fall

The horrendous tragedy in Bangladesh in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives when a clothing factory collapsed reminds us all that inexpensive clothing doesn't come cheap. Here is a list of nine companies that are trying to turn the situation around by improving that country's safety standards:

Fire Eater

A new fire retardant for cushion foam seems to snuff out the flames without the use of toxic chemicals:

The Way of the World

Time-lapse views of various areas from Landsat satellite images, 1984-2012. You can clearly see, for example, the course of Amazon deforestation and the growth of Las Vegas, among other points of interest:

In Praise of the Pencil

From, a book excerpt including everything you ever wanted to know about the modern pencil but didn't think to ask. (And to see how today's pencil is made, check out this video: ) 5/15/13 - an homage to the humble pencil

   In today's selection—with the pencil increasingly marginalized by technology, we reflect on its relatively recent origin in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. At least by the reckoning of one scientist, a single pencil can draw a line 731 miles (1178 kilometers) long:
   "The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called 'plumbago' or black lead (hence the 'plumbers' who

Cockroach Casserole

By now we've all heard that the UN is recommending that we consider adding insects to our menu. Here are some of the most popular:

Be in the Smithsonian

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014, a group of agencies, nonprofits, and others are sponsoring several events, including a photography contest. Entries are being accepted through Sept. 3. Winning photos and some of the Highly Honored pictures will be on exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. For more information:


Good news for anyone working on the conjecture that there are an infinite number of primes that are two units apart (like, for example, 3 and 5 or 17 and 19). Yitang Zhang, of the University of New Hampshire, has whittled the provable difference between these primes down from infinity to 70 million, and he did it using provable methods:

'It Becomes Art'

Correa's Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, India (1986-92)                    screen shot
"He talked about technology, he talked about place, but he also talked about the DNA of India and how that can speak to the world about how to make architecture, especially in this cosmopolitan world that we live in." So says David Adjaye, who designed RIBA's exhibit Charles Correa: India's Greatest Architect, in this video about the man and his work:
Correa's House at Koramangala, Bangalore, India (1985-88)            screen shot

Oh, Hell

Hell, Hades, underworld, Pandemonium, land of eternal damnation, inferno ~ whatever you call it, you know you don't want to be there. Herewith, 10 things about Hell (and very few come from the Bible):

Going Down

the Spiveys' house                                                     AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Jagtar Singh first realized there might be a problem with his new home in April, when he noticed he could see daylight between the wall and floor of his bedroom. He was given notice that he would have to abandon it, and two days after he moved himself, his daughter, and his parents out, the house collapsed. Within two weeks of ever-widening cracks appearing in Robin and Scott Spivey's home in the same subdivision, their property dropped 10 feet below street level. Such seems to be the fate of the entire neighborhood in Lake County, 100 miles north of San Francisco (story, slideshow, video):

The Rebirth of the Midwife

"There's too many drugs, too many C-sections, too many inductions, and then there's not enough post-partum care." This, in a nutshell, is what midwife Ina May Gaskin feels is wrong with the typical hospital birth ~ and I, having been through that process, definitely agree. (It's one of those "if I'd known then what I know now" moments for me.) Fortunately for them and their babies, more mothers-to-be are turning to this ages-old way of giving birth. As one young mom who was awaiting the birth of her third put it, "I just don't think that birth is an illness that needs to put me in the hospital" (and thank you to my friend and new midwife Heather for finding this!) (video):

Sun, Sun, Sun, Here It Comes

Yes, too much sun can be harmful, but too much of anything brings with it that danger as well. For example, too much sunscreen. And, certainly, any amount of some sunscreens that contain dangerous ingredients. The point is, too little sun is not that great for us, either. In fact, according to one study, soaking up the rays every once in a while can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks:

Wake Up and Hear the Music

We all know that "music has charms," as William Congreve put it. One of those charms, besides "sooth[ing] the savage breast," is waking people from their comas. Here's a list of 11 songs that did (story, music videos):
   And here's the origin of the quote about music, from Congreve's play The Mourning Bride (1697):
      Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
      To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
      I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
      And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
      By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.

A Hive in the City

Trey Flemming and his bees                                                         Evan Robinson
Urban apiaries have been sprouting up in the city of late, mostly on rooftops. Oddly enough, one of the main reasons those in the know are starting hives in the city is to get the bees out of the countryside, where they are exposed to toxins, and into a more controlled and cleaner environment. The trend has become particularly well-entrenched in Philadelphia, which is appropriate, as the Langstroth box-type hive one usually associates with beekeeping originated there (story, video ... and recipes!):
   P.S., If you're at all interested in beehavior (sorry ~ had to do that) and the science of beekeeping, I highly recommend both of these videos, but especially the interview with Trey Flemming of Urban Apiaries. The man really knows his bees!

A Modern-Day Scribe

Phillip Patterson at work                                                                    screen shot
For the past four years, Phillip Patterson has been transcribing the King James 1611 Bible ~ by hand. He's gone through more than 496 pens in the process. "I'm doing this because I've always wanted to know what was in the Bible," he explains, adding that it's a document that is not accepting of his lifestyle. He recently finished his adventure, copying the last two verses during a celebratory event at his church.
   Now that he's gone through the whole book, what does he think? He answers with a question: Do you believe everything you read? "I would sometimes be sitting and writing," Patterson says, "and all of a sudden, it's like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are" (story, video):

The Fire This Time

WNY Trails
There are some places around the world where flames leap out of the ground nonstop. By all accounts, one of the most spectacular of these is in Chestnut Ridge Park, New York. These jets are fed by gases created at extremely high temperatures deep within the Earth. However, scientists are finding that the gas that fuels this particular flame seems to be produced in a unique way:

The Art of Taking Things Apart

Blackberry, 2007                             © 2013 Todd McLellan

It takes a curious person to want to take things apart, but it takes a creatively curious person (with perhaps a touch of OCD?) to want to arrange the pieces methodically and artistically and take pictures of them (story, slideshow):

Know How To Fold 'Em

There is, apparently, a science behind the perfect fold. Wonder if it works with fitted sheets?:

Just Because: 'The Naked and the Nude'

This poem, one of my favorites, is by the English poet and writer (and so much more) Robert Graves (1895-1985). You may be familiar with his novel I, Claudius, which was made into a superior and popular BBC TV series. Now, without further ado, I bring you The Naked and the Nude:

For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

Lovers without reproach will gaze

The Seriously Funny Ms. Winstead

The story of Lizz Winstead and how she gave birth to The Daily Show, Air America Radio (with Al Franken), Lizz Free or Die: the Book, the Career, the Life, and now, a planned documentary about the state of women's health care:

The Mysterious Electric Pencil

by Edward Deeds      courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
There was once, in the first half of the 1900s, a man named James Edward Deeds who was an artist ~ but only for the time he was incarcerated in State Hospital No. 3. His story ~ and the story of how his artwork came to the attention of the larger world ~ make for fascinating reading. His drawings seem at first glance full of a simple naiveté, but it is an innocence that belies the harsh and sad reality of his life:

Wet Town, Dry Town

former resident and tour guide Norma Berg in Epecuen AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
The rubble that was once a thriving lake town in Argentina has slowly emerged from the receding waters after being totally submersed since the lake overflowed its banks in 1985. It has once again become a tourist stop, though for a different reason (story, slideshow):

Cool Al

Al Fritz qualifies to be in two departments, the "You Meet the Most Interesting People in the Obits" Department and the "Don't Listen to Your Critics" Department. Following the lead of cool California (where else?, she humbly asks) teens, the first-generation American who started out on the Schwinn factory floor developed what became known as the Sting-Ray bike.
   "The people who looked at his prototype thought it was a stupid idea," recalls his son Mike, "but he pushed it on through." Between 1963 and 1968, the company sold almost 2 million of them, and decades later, in about 1999, my 9-year-old son saw one in a store window in Venice and had to have it. (Fortunately, his birthday was not far off.) Glittery silver banana seat, high handle bars, and all, it still occupies a place of prominence in our garage:,0,7472254.story

Arctic Jungle

A 1,034-foot core sample of an Arctic lake shows that, about 3 million years ago, the Arctic was about 14 degrees warmer than it is now, rainier, and covered with Douglas fir and hemlock, which in turn shows that our current models of how much the Earth may heat up may be underestimating the change:

For Moms Everywhere

Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2003   Melanie Stetson Freeman/CS Monitor Staff
A slideshow of moms everywhere:
   (OK, I've got to say this: Do you remember, as a very young thing, grabbing onto a shirttail or pant leg or hand and looking up and realizing you had the wrong mom? How would that work in a country like Afghanistan?)

Top Marks

The list of the world's best universities of 2012 according to British-based Quacquarelli Symonds is dominated by the U.S. and the U.K. ~ but may not be for long:

Tweet Happy

A platform developed by researchers at the University of Vermont uses a sampling of Tweets to quantify people's overall level of happiness:
   A 2009 story about the Hedonometer points out that, up to that point, the day of Michael Jackson's death was one of the saddest and Election Day was the happiest:

Stroke of Luck

Untitled (acrylic on canvas)                    Tommy McHugh

Tommy McHugh was by all accounts a minor criminal until the day he suffered a double stroke, at age 51. Then things changed. "I could taste the femininity inside of myself," he explains. "My head was full of rhymes and images and pictures." Also of the numbers 3, 6, and 9:
   (P.S., What I don't quite understand is that Tommy McHugh died, as noted at the end of the article, in September. That's quite a lead time!)

Fooood Fiiiiight!!

one lunch ~ as advertised and the reality (note the Styrofoam)                               Zachary Maxwell
New York fourth-grader Zachary Maxwell's parents didn't believe his free public-school lunches were really as pathetic as he kept saying they were, so he became a guerrilla documentarian, shooting six months' worth of footage that eventually became the crux of his Yuck: A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch. One result? He now brings his own lunch from home (thanks to Tom for finding this gem) (story, slideshow, video):

Islands in the South

There is a little county in eastern Kentucky that, for almost a century and a half now, has bucked the general Southern trend of conservatism. Welcome to Elliott County, "where Nature and the arts meet in harmony," according to the official website ~ a place of winding two-lane roads and almost as many churches as there are barns. The older residents remember the day electricity came to town.
   Rocky Adkins, the area's political representative, explains: "Our Democratic principles and how we're registered to vote was handed down from generation to generation." Although the residents are socially conservative, they also are aware of how unions and government programs like the works programs of the New Deal once saved their families ~ and still do:

From the Archives: Amazing Arachnid

Most of my posts are not time-sensitive, and most of them link to very wonderful things. Because I don't want anyone to miss out on them, I will occasionally re-post some of my favorites, like this one:

Darwin's bark spider has the toughest silk of all and is therefore capable of creating the biggest webs in the world, including some that span rivers (story and video):

The Best of the Closest

Two handy-dandy locators to help you find