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A Cavern Measureless to Man

See the people?                                                                                                           screen shot
At 1.27 square feet, China's Miao Room, part of its Gebihe cave system, was recently named the world's largest cave chamber by volume. It can be reached only via an underground stream. Last year, a British-led team laser-scanned parts of the cave, and now we can follow them on their expedition. Underground lakes, stalagmites, stalactites, and unbelievably large boulders ~ all part of this fascinating tour (interactive):

Just Because: 'The Novel: A Biography'

Rarely have I been so excited to get my hands on a book. The reviews of Michael Schmidt's The Novel: A Biography are mostly so positive as to be said to be glowing (,, Even those reviewers who find the book less satisfactory admit to at least some glimmers of brilliance ( (though I have to agree with that reviewer that any solid exploration of a novel must consider the societal influences that surround and, inevitably, flow through it). The opening lines of the Preface, the Introduction, and the book itself are all so good, I don't know which to choose. Oh, Chapter 1, I guess. Read it and be gratified!

"Literature Is Invention"
Mandeville's Travels, Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon, De Proprietatibus Rerum

One of the first popular English authors of fiction is Sir John Mandeville. Mandeville's Travels, originally known as The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundevile, is not a novel as such, but it has a consistent narrator who combines personal memoir and travel book. It pretends to be true but is in fact woven from half-truths and lies. For a century and more after it was written, readers believed it. They believed in Sir John. Gradually his book has found its place in the realm of fantasy, but fantasy based less in romance than invention. Most of the invention was not Mandeville's own: it was borrowed from "authorities." The author may himself have believed what he pretended to have seen: lands where men's heads grew under their arms, for example; gryphons, hippocentaurs, men with dogs' heads, dames with breasts like basilisks, banana trees figuring the Cross, lambs that grew on plants.
   The narrator is English. The book was composed in French around 1356 or 1357 and disseminated in manuscript between 1357 and 1371. It was so popular that more than

Tasting Thai

Move over, Yelp! Thai embassies worldwide will soon be equipped with new monitoring equipment, and no, it's not drones. Unhappy with the way its national foods have been perverted, subverted, and diverted in foreign countries, the Thai government's Thai Delicious Committee is selling its embassies "an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic," so they can rate the local Thai eateries:

The China Syndrome

Vincent Yu/AP
Hong Kong is due to hold elections in 2017. In August, Beijing ruled against them being fully open elections. There could be many candidates, but Beijing would vet them. In 2012, marchers protested the instatement of a new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, by Chinese president Hu Jintao. He had been chosen by a hand-picked committee seen as having allegiance to Beijing. The current protests are an extension of those and are being led by two main groups, Occupy Central (aka Occupy Central With Love and Peace) and The Hong Kong Federation of Students. Another key player is 17-year-old Joshua Wong:
   When the UK gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997, ending 150 years of British rule there, many feared the worst. For some, these fears were assuaged when Hong Kong adopted its Basic Law, which states that for 50 years after the handover, it will coexist with China as "one country, two systems." The fears were reignited a few months ago, though, with Beijing's release of a document reasserting that country's "complete jurisdiction" over Hong Kong:
   P.S., Hong Kong, famously, is very clean, and the protesters are keeping it that way:

The House That Diocletian Built

Romanesque tower, Renaissance clock, Gothic bell       KW
Today's history lesson, Boys and Goils, is about Emperor Diocletian and his little retirement residence (aka palace), in Split, Croatia. Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (né Diocles) (244-313 CE) was actually from the area. His father was either a scribe or an emancipated slave, and Diocletian moved up in the way most did in those days, in the military. It had apparently been presaged that he would become emperor upon killing a boar, a prediction that proved to be true (and gained him much awe and respect) in 284, when he slew the father-in-law/adoptive father of the then-late co-emperor Numerian. That unfortunate but (for Diocletian) convenient man's name was Aper, which means "boar" in Latin.
   As emperor, Diocletian stabilized the empire and put into practice or strengthened changes that can be said to be the roots of our current system of bureaucracy, in that he created positions that were more specialized but less powerful than before, and more of them. (He also was a huge persecutor of Christians.) He was the only emperor to abdicate voluntarily, and did so in 305 because of ill health. For that reason, too, his palace was constructed more quickly than usual ~ in 10 years.
   Diocletian's Palace is actually more like a fortress, ringed as it is (still) by high stone walls. He lived in one part, and the rest was a military garrison. Eventually, the Romans abandoned the area and the palace, and it remained so until the 7th century, when it played sanctuary to the people of the area as they fled invading Slavs. Since then, it has been continuously occupied, and even now, as one walks its cobblestone streets and alleyways, one can see the architecture of different eras and cultures blending one into another. It is the most complete Roman palace in the world (and, p.s., was one of the locations for the filming of the fourth season of Game of Thrones):

Stevie's Selfies

Stevie Nicks/Morrison Hotel Gallery
Truth be told, I'm of two minds about this piece. It's interesting but at the same time seems rather star-struck and self-serving. So I wasn't sure, but then I thought, oh, hell, a lot of people remember and like Fleetwood Mac, not just for their music but also for all the backstage drama. It made them human, in a sad sort of way, and no one more so than singer Stevie Nicks. So here's an interview with the owner of a London gallery that's going to be showing a newly found collection of her self-portraits from the '70s:

Fuzzy Face

Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli shaved his beard, and it made the news. When you think about it, hair is a very strange thing. I mean, long, thin filaments erupting from tiny holes in our skin ~ and we do things with it. We cut it, grow it, extend it, shave it, color it, de-color it, gel it, braid it, cornrow it, lose it, try to get it back. And then there's the face ~ well, the male face. Now, that's weird. Evolutionarily, what does it all mean? Animals have hair all over; we don't. Why not, and what, if anything, does it have to do with trichromatism and emotions?:

The Marvelous Mind of Mr. Foote

Jeanne Strongin
As I'm going to see the stage version of "The Trip to Bountiful," I thought I'd take the opportunity to reacquaint myself with its author, Horton Foote. He is, if you will recall, the genius who turned Harper Lee's classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, into filmic gold. Like so many of our best writers (Twain, Faulkner, Chopin, Williams, Welty, O'Connor, Hurston, Porter, and Capote, to name just a few), Foote hailed from the South and got much of his inspiration from there:

Remedy for Expired, Unwanted Meds

It's hard to know what to do with expired or leftover medications, and most of us have at least a couple of bottles lying around the house somewhere. We've been told not to flush them down the toilet, as they'll most likely end up in the ocean, polluting the waters and endangering wildlife. Same with tossing them in the trash, because they'll end up in landfills or garbage heaps and eventually make their way into the groundwater or some bird's stomach. So it's good to know there's a safe (let's assume ... ) alternative. Saturday, Sept. 27, is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Collection centers will be set up around the country (website):

Just Because: 'For the Scribe Gar.Una of Uruk, 3,000 B.C.'

It's been a while since I posted a poem, but when I read this one, courtesy of Poem-A-Day, I knew I had to share it. It's by David Wojahn, who said about it, "This poem is partly an ode to the Sumerian scribe in the title, and also an elegy, occasioned by encountering margin notes in a book—written by a departed loved one. 'Boustrophedon' is defined in Webster's as 'the writing of alternate lines in opposite directions (as from left to right and from right to left)' ":

For the Scribe Gar.Una of Uruk, 3,000 B.C.

 —author of the earliest known signature

That arrow & life were homonyms. That his name
   Predates all others, incised sunbaked on a slab
      of Euphratian clay. Stylus a broken reed, though it

Carries somehow the bedazzled opalescent mojo
   Of transfiguration. The hand which holds it edges right
      & reaching the margin circles back, right to left

& east to west, boustrophedon, so that inscription
   is a form of weaving. What matters that the context
      Is grain, is cattle & goat, chamber pot & sandal,

Three & twenty spear-shafts hewn of cedar,
   Flagons of unguents for the Temple Stores
      Enumerate, enumerate. Life & arrow,

Our endless numbered days enfeathered
   So to fly relentless in unpitying sun.
      The one whom I loved is dead. The one

The God Article

Religious extremism is nothing new, nor is forced conversion (or unforced but merely indoctrinated, for that matter). In this Q&A, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris talks about "spirituality," religion, consciousness, believers, atheism, and science. "This has been a several centuries' long story of religion losing ground to scientific and secular understanding," he says:

Which Fish To Dish?

The Environmental Working Group, which brought us the helpful Skin Deep guide to chemical ingredients in personal products, has put together a new twist on the eat-this-not-that fish list. Fill in a few of your personal statistics, and you'll get your own guide to what and how much of it you should consume per week, based on its average mercury content (website):

It's What's for Dinner

dinners in Tajikistan                                                                 Matthieu Paley
As part of National Geographic's ongoing series on food, photographer Matthieu Paley traveled the world documenting how and what people eat and how their diet has changed or remained the same since the time of their ancestors. "Food is a great source of surprises," he says. "My stomach handled it all quite well. The trouble was more dealing with the environment that comes with the food":

Remembering 1950, But Why?

In Croatia ~ at least in towns along the coast ~ one can see graffiti referring to the year 1950. What happened in 1950? The country, along with neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia, were all one country, called Yugoslavia. It, like most of Eastern Europe, was under the control of the Soviet Union, and Marshal (Josip Broz) Tito (1892-1980) was the man in charge (see below). So was it a protest? an uprising? Not quite. From what I can gather, it was the year a soccer fan club called the Torcida Split was founded, and you know what a big deal something like that can be in some parts of the world:
   The other possibility is that the graffiti refer to the year Yugoslavia hosted the 9th Chess Olympiad (against the wishes of the Soviet Union) and won it:
   With any change, there are those for it and those against. Such is the case with the citizens of this area when they look back on Tito's reign and the Communist era. Mostly, it seems, it's the older people who view it kindly and with nostalgia. "The government

A Spring in Autumn

The Buna River begins in the little Croatian village of Blagaj. It wells generously up out of the earth in a cave at the base of an imposing rock cliff. It is nature at its finest, and it is here that the Sufi built a house of worship, or tekija, that perches boldly and beautifully over the water. As it was explained to us, there are 12 orders of Sufism, and each has a family tree of sorts that shows its direct relationship to the prophet Muhammad. The ceiling in one of the rooms actually illustrates the chronology of some of the different branches that used the tekija. Another name for one of the orders of Sufis is Dervishes (or whirling Dervishes, after the ritual in which members spin in imitation of the solar system): and

See the Ball. See It Spin.

Communication has not been very easy or reliable in many of the areas I've been visiting lately. A little tip to fellow tourists: Just because a place advertises "free WiFi in every room" doesn't mean you'll get WiFi, free or otherwise, and just because you get it in the first couple of hours after checking in doesn't necessarily mean you should rejoice and ready yourself for a long email session. Trust me on that. So it's been on my mind, and while miraculously connected this evening, I noticed the following in my Inbox from our favorite geniuses (genii?), the folks over at mental_floss:

A Man and His World

OK, I know I'm about to sound realllly old, but do children today know about Hans Christian Andersen? While I always appreciated the imagination behind his stories, particularly "The Little Match Girl," they were too sad for my liking. Learning more about the man, however, made me view his stories with sympathy and respect. from

Today's selection -- from Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness by Paul Binding. Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author who left an indelible mark on Western culture with stories that transcend age and nationality such as "The Ugly Duckling," "The Princess and the Pea," "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "Thumbelina," and "The Little Match Girl." His earliest writings were based on stories he heard as a child, but he soon brought the genre to a new level with bold and original stories that he labored over, meticulously constructing each phrase, image and theme. His most famous story, "The Ugly Duckling," while universal in theme, reflected his own struggle to overcome his


Semipalatinsk Test Site                                      Nadav Kander/Flowers Gallery
“I’m not a documentarian; this is a human condition ~ for all humans,” says Nadav Kander, whose exhibit titled Dust is on display in London. It is a collection of beautiful but chilling photographs of the remains of radioactive buildings and landscape on the Russian-Kazakh border (slideshow):

Just Because: 'The Future of the Mind,' Part 5

On pages 195-199 of his book, Michio Kaku explores the intriguing topic of hyperreligiosity, beginning with the case of the fascinating and tragically ill-fated young Joan of Arc.

States of Consciousness

She was just an illiterate peasant girl who claimed to hear voices directly from God. But Joan of Arc would rise from obscurity to lead a demoralized army to victories that would change the course of nations, making her one of the most fascinating, compelling, and tragic figures in history.
    During the chaos of the Hundred Years’ War, when northern France was decimated by English troops and the French monarchy was in retreat, a young girl from Orléans claimed to have divine instructions to lead the French army to victory. With nothing to lose, Charles VII allowed her to command some of his troops. To everyone’s shock and wonder, she scored a series of triumphs over the English. News rapidly spread about this remarkable young girl. With each victory, her reputation began to grow, until she became a folk heroine, rallying the French around her. French troops, once on the verge of total collapse, scored decisive victories that paved the way for the coronation

The Animals of Istanbul

Cats and dogs share the streets in and around Istanbul with the bipedal residents. They are everywhere and seem, for the most part, fairly well looked-after. Most of the dogs have large (too large, IMHO) tags in one ear. The way it was explained to us is that Muslims are not allowed to keep pets in the house, as animals are unclean and therefore living with them would make it impossible for people to pray. So, these street creatures are their pets. Of course, the cats, being a little more self-reliant and not pack animals, look to be happier with their situation than the dogs. Everyone looks after them and feeds them. Some who live in houses with yards have their own pets, as it's alright to have animals as long as they're not in the house:


One thing about traveling: One never knows what the Internet situation will be ~ even in hotels and B&Bs that advertise WiFi in every room. But here, at the Apartments Annette in Dubrovnik, all is well again.

You Don't Need To Know This (But ...)

Carrie (SJP), fashionista extraordinaire
In the "Facts As Party Favors" department, a brief history of that term we're all pretty sick of but that we'll all end up using at some point or other if we haven't already (wait for it) ~ fashionista. It's somehow edifying to know that the man who invented it has apologized:

Actress, Mistress, Empress

The Bridgeman Art Library
The first stop in my upcoming vacation is Istanbul, where I will be staying at a little hotel called the Empress Theodora. As I am not, I shamefacedly admit, up on my (or anyone's) history, I thought I should at least find out about this person for whom the hotel was named. Turns out she was quite a remarkable individual and in many ways the power behind ~ or rather beside ~ the man, Justinian I. It is reported that he wept bitterly and openly at her funeral, so attached they were to each other. Here's a basic bio of her:
   Theodora biographer Stella Duffy wrote a column for the Guardian about her subject that goes into more ~ and more tantalizing ~ detail:

The Well-Connected Car

driverless concept car                                              from
A fun thing is looking at predictions from earlier decades or centuries for our current time ( Our own predictions for, say, 2045 or later will probably be just as amusing for citizens of that time period (assuming there are any) ( It's a little safer to talk about a nearer future, though what some see there is just as sci-fi, like, for example, the driverless car ~ of which the Google car was just the beginning:

And Now, al-Shabab

al-Shabab                                                                                                  AP
Back in 2011, I posted a link to that year's Global Peace Index ( Little has changed. Then, the three least peaceful countries were Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan. We all know about Iraq and have been hearing more about Sudan as the situation there devolves ( And now Somalia is re-entering our radar (remember the pirates? If we need any more proof that it is injustice or perceived injustice (which more often than not has some basis in reality) that is the breeding ground of terrorism, Somalia is it. Here's some background on the country and on al-Shabab, Somalia's version of al-Qaeda that is operating not just there but over the border in Kenya and whose leader the U.S. just killed (story, video):
   Voice of America speculates about al-Shabab's future after the death of its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane:

Pardon Me, Boys

How fast is your high-speed Internet? The residents of Chattanooga, Tennessee, have access to speeds of 1 gigabit per second. So do residents of Wilson, North Carolina. Both cities are serviced by municipally owned companies, and those companies want to expand their services, but USTelecom is petitioning the FCC to block them:
   Twenty states have barred cities from building their own high-speed Internet. Now Netflix is weighing in, and not on USTelecom's side. It should be interesting to see how this plays out:
   For those who may not be familiar with this toe-tapping tune, the title of this post comes from a 1941 song called Chattanooga Choo Choo. I dare you to listen to it and not find yourself humming it hours later! (video):

The Well-Traveled Horse

Who knew? from

The United Kingdom requires that all horses, ponies, and donkeys have a passport. The animal's keeper must keep the passport on them if the animal is outside the stable or field. If the animal, with its keeper, is found without a valid passport where one is required, it is a fine of £5,000 ($6,602 USD).

More about pet passports:
  • Pet passports require that the animal be microchipped and vaccinated.

  • Pet Travel Scheme, or PETS, was created for animals traveling between

Birth ~ and Death ~ of a Nation

When South Sudan became its own country in 2011, there was hope that, despite all the challenges it would face ~ and they were greater than those faced by almost every other new country ever ~ it would make it (,,, By last year, the outlook was pretty bleak (, and now, the stories shared by Humans of New York (, like the one above, show the immense and immensely painful price paid by the people when governments fail.
   Filmmakers Florence Martin-Kessler and Anne Poiret documented the first years in the film State Builders and have a unique perspective on the difficulties faced by the new country:

Life, Part Two

Like many people trying to get over a paralyzing fear, journalist Judy Bachrach decided to face hers head-on. In her case, a fear of death led to volunteering in a hospice ~ which led, eventually, to research into near-death experiences (NDEs) and a book on the topic. Did it help? "After the first 20 or 30 interviews, I was still terrified of death," she says. "All these people were telling me stuff that I never believed could happen. But gradually I came to accept that what they said was true. So I'm a little less terrified of death now" (Q&A):
   For more about NDEs, including more links, see (story, video) and

Her Father's Zoo

When June Williams (née Mottershead) was 4, her father bought seven acres in Cheshire on which to start his "zoo without bars." Its first residents were two goats and a gibbon, who were soon joined by two bears. It wasn't easy at first. Neighbors' concerns and World War I proved difficult but temporary roadblocks, and through it all, June was probably the most envied ~ and most photographed ~ kid on the block:

Talk the Talk

England's answer to William Strunk and E.B. White (a few decades on) is a cute, white-haired retired businessman named Nevile Martin (N.M.) Gwynne. Gwynne has taken it upon himself to lead the motherland back to a more grammatically correct time. When, exactly, that was is anyone's guess, because, apparently, bemoaning the disintegration of proper grammar has been a national pastime for centuries (one that some of us here in the Colonies have taken up with great vigor):

Pool Rules

Spandex and Speedo seem to have a lock on France, where hygiene dictates that no one may enter a public pool wearing anything he/she could have worn walking along the street. For those who didn't come prepared, there are vending machines dispensing the appropriate attire:

Where's Dita?

Dita Pepe
Dita Pepe and her daughters are chameleons. The Czech photographer poses, often with her daughters, with people whose way of dressing and being she has temporarily taken on so that she seems to belong wholly to their world:

They Walk Alone

"Everyone always hopes their baby will be really smart, but I'm seeing now that that's not such a great thing." Not the kind of musing one wants to hear from one's child's third-grade teacher. And yet, that's exactly what my son's teacher said when I told her of my concern that he was becoming withdrawn and had said that no one was interested in the things he was interested in (like the planets, deep space, other countries, geology, ancient history). In one way, the teacher was right. In a society that distrusts differences, a talented child and that child's parents can feel very alone:

Schooled in Sculpture

(Approximate!) translation of the text: Paweł Fabjański and Zuza Słomińska took possession of a Polish university before the students returned to construct temporary sculptures with various objects that had been left there: