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'Mockingbird,' Chapo, and Sports, Oh My

While you're waiting for your favorite social media site to remind you what you did this year, allow me to recommend Dave Barry's review of 2015, month by ridiculous month. There's a reason he has to remind us several times that he's not making some of this up. Is he being a bit too morose in his view of the year that was? Mmmmmmaybe. Or not. As he puts it, "It’s like we’re on the Titanic, and it’s tilting at an 85-degree angle with its propellers way up in the air, and we’re dangling over the cold Atlantic trying to tell ourselves: 'At least there’s no waiting for the shuffleboard courts!' " So what the heck? Might as well go to the dark side and find some humor in it:

Lights in the Dark

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet
In many parts of the world, winter is a long, cold, and dark season. It can be tough and depressing, especially before insulation and electricity. How better to get through the days than with some scheduled festivities? Nearly every religion and culture celebrates some major event during the darkest days of winter, as they have throughout history. As countries conquered or new religions arose, the traditions were modified to fit the new regimes and beliefs, but their essence remained as a necessary moment of light, joy, and connection. One example of this transition is Christmas, which is believed to have had its roots in the Roman Saturnalia. The similarities are striking, and many are returning to celebrating it. Io Saturnalia, everyone!:

Just Because: 'What the Thrush Said'

Hermit Thrush                             Suzanne Britton,
Winter solstice, which this year falls on December 21 or 22, marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. In the United States, the exact time of the solstice is 11:49 p.m. EST, which is 8:49 p.m. PST, according to the handy-dandy Seasons Calculator ( It's been celebrated in different ways for millennia and continues to be in many corners of the world: and
   And here, in this particular little online corner, we will celebrate with a beautiful winter poem from John Keats (1795-1821, which, as you can see, gave him only 26 years in which to gladden the world with his verse). It was originally written in 1818, in a letter, according to Poem-a-Day, and was untitled. I believe it was given the title it now carries (by whom, I don't know), because, in the letter, the run-up to it reads "I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of IdlenessI have not read any booksthe Morning said I was rightI had no idea but of the morning, and the thrush said I was rightseeming to say,

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter's wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops 'mong the freezing stars,
To thee the Spring will be a harvest-time.
O thou, whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness which thou feddest on
Night after night when Phoebus was away,
To thee the Spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge—I have none,

Home Is a Name

the museum offers "Christmas by Candlelight" dinners Charles Dickens Museum
Houzz, in case you're not familiar with it, is a great website about, well, houses. It's absolutely packed with photographs and descriptions of every possible thing having to do with them, inside to outside, basements to attics, and everything in between. But my intention here is not to promote the website, it's to point you toward a recent posting of theirs. In keeping with the season, they're offering a "guided" (in that one reads the accompanying text) tour of 48 Doughty Street, London, in which resided, for a time, one Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and it's delicious. Apparently, the author and social critic lived in several different places in the city, but this is the only one remaining, and it's preserved as a museum. He moved there with his wife and firstborn when he was 25, and the family lived there for two years, during which time two more (of their 10!) children were born and the author wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and more (though not A Christmas Carol; that was published in 1843). It seems he was quite the prolific fellow, in more ways than one (slideshow):
   The title of this post comes from Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, the whole quote being "But it was home. And though home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration."

On the Clock

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí
As we close in on New Year's Eve, this may be a good time to talk about ... Time. It's an interesting concept, isn't it. Because concept it is: We can't see it, feel it, hear it, or anything-else it, and yet we know it's there, and it pretty much rules our lives. When he was 5, my son said, after some silence as we were driving somewhere, "We don't really know it's 1996 because we don't know when time started or when it will end. We've just agreed to call it 1996." Big thoughts for a little guy. There are lots of big guys studying time. CalTech astrophysicist Sean Carroll is one of them. In an interview, he paraphrased St. Augustine (354-430 AD) as saying, "I know what time is until you ask me for a definition about it, and then I can’t give it to you." Carroll himself explains it in terms of an arrow, the conditions of the Big Bang, entropy, and the theory of a multiverse:
   While he talks about the past, present, and future, it seems that even those might be only concepts and not so much a reality:
   And then, there's the impact of time on our everyday life. The same five minutes can seem like eternity or like the blink of an eye, depending on what you're doing. Some of our time is worth more to us than other time. If you're interested in finding out how much your spare time is worth to you, you might want to check this out:
   P.S., Many consider painter Salvador Dalí to have been ahead of his time. His Persistence of Memory (above) is one of his most famous works, and yet there are many fascinating things most of us would be surprised to learn about it:

Oh, a Wise Guy, Eh?

the Stooges, from left, Curly, Moe, and Larry
Apropos of absolutely nothing and only because I happened upon it and found it surprisingly interesting, the story of Jerome Horwitz, aka Jerome Howard, aka Curly (1903-1952), one of the Three Stooges. The trio, two of whom (Curly and Moe) were brothers, were at their height between 1934 and 1944, starring in dozens and dozens of slapstick shorts for Columbia Pictures. There was a third Howard brother, too, who made an occasional appearance, but Curly was arguably the audience favorite. His rotundity bore witness to his love of the good life, and this was, in the end, his downfall. Even after a couple of strokes kept him from returning to his role and after one disastrous marriage, though, Curly was able to make the most of his life and continued to enjoy fine cigars, his family (via a second, more successful marriage), and their pets. He was only 48 when he died:

Do You Know Dawah?

Kind of the Mormons of Islam, the followers of Dawah (officially Dawah and Tabligh) are tasked with spreading the word. The idea, according to this article, is for them to live, as much as possible, as Muhammad did. Adherents of this almost-90-year-old movement founded by Mohammed Ilyas Kandhlawi insist that it is apolitical and nonviolent. Their answer to what they see as society's loss of morality, they say, can be found in spiritual practice. Whether that is true or not, the fact is that the movement currently claims up to about 50,000 followers around the world. With a number like that and continued outreach, the tone of their message could make a big difference in the world's relationship with the Middle East and, indeed, with the area's relationship with itself:

That Far-Away Galaxy

Haven't kept up with all those Star Wars sequels and prequels? Yeah, neither have I. Well, now, as the force awakens, there are probably some who would appreciate a reminder of who's who and what's what before they sit down to watch the latest episode (interactive guide):
   And then, inevitably, there are also those who would rather avoid the whole thing altogether. If you fall into this camp, you're in luck. Here's a step-by-step guide to all you need to do:
   I'm learning, though, that, guide or no, questions remain after one has seen Episode 7: 

The Writer's Tale

New York Winter Landscape ~ Madison Square Park Snow                                       Vivienne Gucwa
In this little piece written for McCall's magazine in 1961, author Harper Lee tells of one very special Christmas. Unable to get home for the holidays, she stayed in New York, a city that, at that time of year, was to her strange in its familiarity. Missing what she realized was her memories of Christmases past, she spent the evening before and the day with a young family she had come to know and love. It was a Christmas that resulted, ultimately, in her gift to the world, her classic To Kill a Mockingbird:

The Past Is Present

Roman ship was carrying thousands of jars of garum when it went down               Boris Horvat/AFP
You'd think that by now we'd have found every artifact, every bit of history there was to find, but fortunately, we clearly haven't. They keep surfacing, and from a new monument at Stonehenge to a 10,000-year-old monolith on the Mediterranean seafloor to man-made structures thought to be the mythical "White City" in the depths of a Honduran jungle, 2015 was a banner year in that respect (slideshow):
   And now, Suleiman the Magnificent! The Ottoman Empire's longest-ruling sultan died at the age of 71 during a siege of the Szigetvár town and fortress in what is now southern Hungary. That was in 1566. Although his body was taken back to Istanbul, his heart and internal organs were buried on the spot where he died. Hungarian researchers believe they have pinpointed that spot. Using geophysical and remote sensing, they have found several brick and stone buildings, one of which, they said, "is almost exactly oriented toward Mecca":
   On the floor of the Ligurian Sea, Italian archaeologists have found the wreck of a Roman ship dating between the first and second century AD. From the plethora of clay jars piled around, which now, ironically, offer sanctuary to sea life, they speculate that the ship had been carrying garum, a fish-based food seasoning the Romans used in much the same way we use ketchup, from one of the

The Art of the Deal

Sure, marches have been banned in Paris, current home of COP21, the international climate summit, but that doesn't mean people can't get their point across. They've just become really inventive about it how they do it. And that's led to some pretty colorful, creative, and memorable moments, from the more than 20,000 shoes (including a pair from the Pope) neatly laid in rows and Shepard Fairey's "Earth Crisis" globe suspended from the Eiffel Tower to the Great Green Wall virtual technology booth and Patty Smith and Flea joining others in the "Pathway to Paris" concert (pix, video):
   But wait! There's more! Not all the art, not all the events are in Paris. The whole world has joined in:

The Robot Reckons

researchers, from left, Ruslan Salakhutdinov, Brenden Lake, Joshua Tenenbaum Alain Decarie for The New York Times
Another barrier separating human from automaton abilities has been breached. Researchers at MIT, NYU, and the University of Toronto have developed a program that outperforms humans in the ability to quickly identify handwritten characters based on a minimal number of examples. The program uses B.P.L., or Bayesian Program Learning, which is different from the deep neural network learning technology currently used. It is able to learn the characters after seeing only one or two examples and to generalize from there, which, the researchers say, is similar to the way in which humans learn. "We are still far from building machines as smart as a human child," notes MIT's Joshua Tenenbaum, "but this is the first time we have had a machine able to learn and use a large class of real-world concepts – even simple visual concepts such as handwritten characters – in ways that are hard to tell apart from humans":

Windows on the World

the Hubble telescope floating over our planet                                         NASA
It's an online Advent calendar of photos (with all the pertinent information attached) from the Hubble telescope! OK, so I know we're already well into December, but I just found it and knew I had to share. Plus, think of it this way: You get the fun of catching up:
   All of which made me wonder if anyone else out there had a calendar, and sure enough, here's one with 25 days of infographics from The Economist (who else?), but beware that most are far from cheery, as they have to do with issues in the news:
    Sometimes, it's nice to just forget about the world and regress to the days of innocence, so for those who might prefer to go old-school and find a simple picture behind each window, there's this:

Human Rights Day ~ Dec. 10

Every year, it seems that there's never been a more crucial time to remind ourselves and others of the many, many people around the world whose basic human rights are ignored or completely quashed, and this year, like every year, it feels more important than ever. December 10 is as good a day as any for us to think about this, as it is the day, in 1948, that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( This year's theme is "Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always." It is a reminder of the four basic freedoms, as articulated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 ~ freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from want:

A Few Good Books

Around about this time each year, we start seeing wrap-up stories ~ the best of this, the worst of that. The ones that interest me most are the ones about books. Who says people don't read anymore? If they didn't, why are there so many books being published? This list alone, from the wonderful nerds over at NPR, boggles the mind with its breadth and ~ well, length:
   Now. what would you guess was the best-selling book of 2015, as determined by its sales on Go Set a Watchman? Something by Erik Larson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Anne Tyler, perhaps?:
   Here's a list of five books recommended by PRI (Public Radio International) reporters ~ and you know that's going to be an eclectic and maybe even obscure lot:
   from The Atlantic's editors and writers:
   from Vulture: 
   Huffington Post reviews:
   Some new ones to look forward to, compiled by USA Today:
   What would any grouping of literature reviews be without an entry from The New York Times?:
   Then, there are those reviews that read more like books in and of themselves and from which one can learn all sorts of fascinating things beyond the quality of the tome in question:
   An interesting thing is how few books are on all the lists and how many differences there are among said lists. So finally, for those who'd rather not compare and contrast them all, the best of the best-of lists, according to the Wall Street Journal: and Quartz:

Call Him Philosophical

It happens so often ~ a scientist/artist/writer whose genius is recognized only decades after his/her death. Such was the case with Herman Melville (1819-1891), whose Moby-Dick has just made it to the big screen (again) in In the Heart of the Sea (well, technically, this movie is an adaptation of a book based on the same real-life events that inspired Melville to write his book). His story could be either an inspirational or a depressing one for aspiring scientists/artists/writers, but either way, it's an interesting one. Life had been pretty good to Herman Melville for a long time, but that changed with his publication, more than 150 years ago, of the story of a sea captain's obsessive search for a gigantic sperm whale. Both author and book were roundly panned or ignored by critics and the reading public ~ and one could say that it was all the fault of fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864; The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables). Be that as it may, Melville was sure that, eventually, his novel would get the praise and fame he knew it deserved. He saw what some would have called a failure as proof of his success as a writer, saying, "He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great":

Just Because: 'It Can't Happen Here'

It's been a while since I've shared a book in a "Just Because" post, but given the rhetoric we're hearing on the political stage (and, unfortunately, from some of our fellow citizens) these days, I'm thinking that now is the time and this is the book. Published in 1935 and written as fascism was on the rise in Europe, It Can't Happen Here is a significantly titled novel by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), author of the perhaps better-known Main Street and Babbitt. Focusing mostly on the experiences of a local newspaper publisher, it's the story of a blowhard senator who is elected president based on his promises of financial success for everyone, protection from perceived threats ~ both internal (spies, bankers, anyone who's not a "real American") and external (Bolsheviks, fascists, communists) ~ and a return to traditional values. As president, he takes over the government and begins a totalitarian rule backed by paramilitary thugs.
   The story is interspersed with excerpts from the senator-turned-president's book, Zero Hour, including this one: "I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need, even coffee, cocoa, and rubber, and so keep all our dollars at home. If we can do this and at the same time work up tourist traffic so that foreigners will come from every part of the world to see such remarkable wonders as the Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yellowstone etc. parks, the fine hotels of Chicago, & etc., thus leaving their money here, we shall have such a balance of trade as will go far to carry out my often-criticized yet completely sound idea of from $3000 to $5000 per year for every single family—that is, I mean every real American family. Such an aspiring Vision is what we want, and not all this nonsense of wasting our time at Geneva and talky-talk at Lugano, wherever that is."
   I hope that by now it's abundantly clear why I'm excerpting and recommending this particular book at this particular time (with thanks to Fandray). You can read the whole thing online at


   The handsome dining room of the Hotel Wessex, with its gilded plaster shields and the mural depicting the Green Mountains, had been reserved for the Ladies' Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club.
   Here in Vermont the affair was not so picturesque as it might have been on the Western prairies. Oh, it had its points: there was a skit in which Medary Cole (grist mill & feed store) and Louis Rotenstern (custom tailoring—pressing & cleaning) announced that they were those historic Vermonters, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, and with their jokes about imaginary plural wives they got in ever so many funny digs at the ladies present. But the occasion was essentially serious. All of

The Ooni of Ife

the 51st ooni of Ife
To Western ears, it may sound like the title of a Dr. Seuss book, but the ooni of Ife, as the monarch of the Yoruba people, is actually the most powerful person in southwestern Nigeria. On December 7, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi was crowned the 51st ooni. The 41-year-old multimillionaire, who was chosen from among more than 20 candidates, is an accountant by training. He made his fortune mostly in real estate and marketing, but at his coronation ceremony at Enuwa Palace, he pledged to "dedicate the staff of office just given to me to the youth of Ile-Ife, Osun state and the entire country." And given his wealth and impressive connections, expectations are high:

Picturing the Place and Time

sharecropper's son hanging tobacco, 1939, Shoofly, N.C. Dorothea Lange
FSA rehabilitation borrower plowing, 1941, Boundary, Idaho            Russell Lee
Lovers of old photographs and lovers of U.S. history, rejoice! The 170,000 photographs commissioned and saved by The Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) in the 1930s and '40s have been released to the public. Even better, Yale University and the National Endowment for the Arts organized them by place and year into an interactive map. The original purpose of the photographs, many of them by well-known photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein, was, according to the website, "to build support for and justify government programs." In order to do so, "the Historical Section set out to document America, often at her most vulnerable, and the successful administration of relief service" (additional photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection):

They Are One Person

This is a plea even though I know it has little chance of going anywhere. Before the plural pronoun "they" and all its iterations get too firmly entrenched as the gender-neutral pronoun of choice for all individuals, could we please, please just leave that one as plural and find a new one to use as the singular? PLEASE?!? It can be anything. Anything. Just not the word we use as a plural, because we need that differentiation. I mean, even the verb being used with that pronoun is plural, as in "They are super-nice!" referring to one person. So then, if that person is with someone else at the time, how is anyone to know if the speaker is referring just to that individual or to both of them? It's one more step toward making communication more difficult, more vague and unintelligible. So, "per" (from "person") or "int" (from "it" and "individual") or "bein" (from "human being") or even "xe" or anything (Sweden is using "hen") ~ just not "they"!:

Stranded in Space

illustration of dark matter "hairs" surrounding Earth, "root" end in                      NASA/JPL-CalTech
Is space filled with filaments? It might be, according to a new theory about dark matter. The traditional view is that dark matter, which makes up about 27 percent of the universe, is basically stationary and doesn't interact with light. What some scientists believe is that dark matter forms thin streams, or "hairs," of particles that orbit galaxies, moving at the same speed. The gravity of a planet, such as Earth, would bend the particle stream and focus it so that it would become denser. The density, they hope, if they can pinpoint the "root" of the hair, which is densest, should allow them to "get a bonanza of data about dark matter,” says JPL's Gary Prézeau:

Living To Die in Tojara

tree of baby graves                                                                                                      Matt Paish
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a fascinating and ancient tradition continues to be practiced by the highlanders of Tana Toraja. Relatives who have died are kept in the home, embalmed, dressed, talked to, and cared for, sometimes for years, while the family saves up to pay for the funeral. Because the funerals are a marker of the deceased's importance, they can be very elaborate, and because the number of animals sacrificed is thought to influence how quickly the individual's soul will reach the afterlife, the ceremony is a bloody one. The skeletons are then taken to the surrounding mountains and cliffs and replicas of the deceased are placed in caves to watch over the village, while babies are buried in trees (word of caution: the photographs are of the mummified corpses and of the animal slaughter) (and thanks to Kris for showing me this story):

So Very Wright

Jorge Rios
Some of the best jokes are the ones you have to think about for a second or two, and those are the kind that emerge from the mind of Steven Wright. In honor of this true genius comedian on the occasion of his 60th on December 6, I've compiled a few of his one-liners. Ones that are really his, because, as he recounted in a 2003 interview (, "... someone showed me a site, and half of it that said I wrote it, I didn't write. Recently, I saw one, and I didn't write any of it. What's disturbing is that with a few of these jokes, I wish I had thought of them. A giant amount of them, I'm embarrassed that people think I thought of them, because some are really bad." Not wanting to add to the confusion, I'm including only the gems I actually saw him deliver on stage, in videos. It was a tough research assignment, but these things I do because I care (and because I think we might all do with a little levity right about now):
"What's another word for 'thesaurus'?"
"I'm a peripheral visionary. I can see into the future, but just way off to the side.
"The ice cream truck in my neighborhood plays 'Helter Skelter.' "
"Went up to a tourist information booth, I walked up and I said, 'Yeah, so uhh, tell me about some of the people who were here last year.' "
"I got up the other day and everything in my apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica."
"I'm living on a one-way dead-end street. I don't know how I ever got there."
"If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer?"
"I bought some powdered water but I don't know what to add."
"Every morning I get up and I make instant coffee. I drink it so I'll have enough energy to make the regular coffee."
"Whenever I think about the past, it just brings back so many memories."

A Conglomeration of Cuteness ~ UPDATE

Eye of Science/Science Source
Well, apparently, even though it's still adorable and can dry out and rehydrate itself, which is amazing enough, the study showing that tardigrades have an unusually high amount of foreign DNA (as discussed below) is being questioned:
   It looks like a stuffed toy covered in a tarp with a valve on one end. It has six legs ~ seven, if you count the one at the back that's where a tail should be. The water bear, or tardigrade, is one of the most bizarrely adorable creatures on this planet ~ also one of the most amazing. And what scientists have just discovered about it make it more amazing still. Amazing even beyond the fact that they, much like your average kitchen sponge, can dry out their bodies until they're only 3 percent water and then rehydrate themselves. Even beyond the fact that these microscopic creatures can withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero to way above the boiling point of water. It turns out that the tardigrade has the most foreign (i.e., from other species) DNA of any animal that we know of so far (story, gif):

Of Tutus and Tenements

“Every plié and jump they make is a step closer to entering college, or getting their dream job,” says Tuany Nascimento. She's talking about her students, young girls who live, as she does, in Morro do Adeus, one of Rio de Janeiro's most dangerous slums, or favelas. “People get into crime because they don’t have opportunities, but the ballet project gives them a chance not to fall into the wrong kind of life.” Nascimento is a ballerina and rhythmic gymnast whose dream of going professional couldn't be realized because she lacked the funds, so in 2012, she started “Na Ponta dos Pés” to help others like her (story, video):

Where Have All the Women Gone?

© Holger Leue/Corbis
When the topic of gender selection comes up, most people think of China first, and then maybe India, but rarely, if ever, of South Korea. Perhaps that's because it's no longer an issue there, as, in one generation, that country managed to turn the whole thing around. By last year, their gender ratio was back to normal. China and India, however, which together represent one-third of the human race, continue to value boys over girls, though there, too, the trend might be slowing. Still, a New York-based research organization calculated that, taking into account selective abortions, malnutrition, neglect, infanticide, and poor medical care, India is "missing" millions of women who could have been but weren't born or who didn't survive to adulthood. In 1990, according to the study, there were 88 million missing, in 2010, 126 million, and by 2035, it is projected to be 150 million (story, slideshow):

Don't Cross a Crow

OK, so this is an old study (2011), but it's so good. Also something I feel duty-bound to pass along. You'll thank me later. We all know crows are intelligent birds (, but did you know that they're also vengeful? According to this study (which I learned about, credit where it's due, from my beloved mental_floss), a crow will remember the face of a person who has wronged him/her and will scold that individual when next he/she's spotted ~ or even go so far as to organize a mob to menace that individual. And it gets worse (for the offending human):

Wi-Fi? How About Li-Fi?

Harald Haas, inventor of li-fi, co-founder of pureLiFi
A start-up in Estonia is working on a technology that delivers internet access using light waves, as opposed to the radio waves currently being used. It is 100 times faster and could possibly be even faster than that. As it requires an LED light bulb and a standard solar cell, there are some shortcomings, such as it not working in direct sunlight or through solid, opaque surfaces like walls, but it doesn't interfere with radio signals, as wi-fi does:
   The idea of using light waves started with Professor Harald Haas, of Edinburgh University, who coined the term "li-fi" and showed that it could, indeed, work. As he points out, one of the advantages is that the same bulb and solar cell that are used for li-fi can continue their energy-gathering tasks. "What's really important here," he told his TED audience in September, "is that a solar cell has become a receiver for high-speed wireless signals encoded in light while it maintains its primary function as an energy-harvesting device. That's why it's possible to use existing solar cells on the roof of a hut to act as a broadband receiver from a laser station on a close-by hill, or indeed, lamp post."  Li-fi should be available to the public in the next three or four years, he says (video):

Words Worth Knowing

One in an occasional series (as the LA Times noncommittally notes), this entry being of particular interest during the holiday season for sadly obvious reasons. from


\v. GAWR-muh n-dahyz; n. gawr-muh n-DEEZ\
1. to eat greedily or ravenously.

1. unrestrained enjoyment of fine foods, wines, and the like.
Where are ye trooping to now? back to the kitchen to gormandize and guzzle?
-- Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, 1820
Gormandize comes from the French term gourmand meaning "a person who is fond of good eating."

Horses for Hitler

© Les Willis
Deep in a primeval forest ~ Europe's last and largest surviving old-growth forest ~ lives a race of creatures with a curious past. Yes, there are bison and wild boars, beavers and badgers, black storks and eight species of woodpecker, but among them gallop the equine descendants of a Nazi experiment to bring the tarpan back from extinction. One early mention of the original tarpans was by Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE. By the end of the 1800s, they were extinct, mostly hunted for their meat. In the 1930s, German zoologist Lutz Heck and his brother took it upon themselves to resurrect the tarpan through selective breeding, and they took advantage of the war to raid Eastern European zoos for specimens with the right characteristics. These beautiful and hardy horses, though technically not tarpans, are the result:

Give and Take

It's that time of year when many of us think about money ~ spending it, saving it, and also donating it. What with everything going on in the world, there are innumerable charities vying for donations, and I don't know about you, but I end up wanting to help most of them. The other day, I was this close to donating to one when I decided to read reviews. I learned that about 70 percent of its funding goes to marketing, 25 percent to administration, and what's left goes to the intended recipients. There are, of course, lots of honest, worthwhile charities, and there are some that just don't do as well. And then, there are a few that are the worst:

Oh, the Things We'll See

From the chance of inclement weather to the next president, we're all interested in predictions. Here, to try on for size, are a few of the 21 in a report from The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software & Society, which was based on a survey of 800 executives and experts in the field: 1 billion sensors connected to the internet by 2022, of which 10 percent will be clothing; the first implantable mobile phone commercially available by 2025; the first transplant of a 3D-printed liver in 2024; the first AI machine on a corporate board of directors in 2026; 10 percent of global GDP stored using blockchain technology by 2027 (story, slideshow):

Humans All

screen shot
The indefatigable Brandon Stanton, of Humans of New York fame (,,, turned his camera and interview skills on Greece, the landing point of so many Syrian and other refugees. The stories he brings to light, not only of the refugees but of the residents and the volunteers, remind us that we humans are much the same everywhere, that we all have our ways of coping ~ some better than others ~ no matter which side of a tragedy we're on. This collection, from the Canadian branch of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), is poignant, inspirational, and heartbreaking, but more than that, it is vitally important (slideshow):


For some, the terrorist organization now commonly called IS, for Islamic State, was first ISIL, or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ("Levant" being a historical name for the lands east of the Mediterranean). For most Americans, it was and is ISIS, or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham ("al-Sham," or "Bilad al-Sham," being a region of Syria in the 7th century). But now we're hearing a new name, which France adopted a while back: Daesh. In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe last year, writer Zeba Khan explained why everyone should use that name. The most obvious reason, she notes, is that, as President Obama pointed out, "ISIL is not Islamic, ... and [is] certainly not a state." Khan continues, "The term 'Daesh' is strategically a better choice because it is still accurate in that it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, 'Daesh' can also be understood as a play on words—and an insult":

The Altruist Inside Us

Pascal Rondeau
For all the heartache and horror of tragedies like the recent terrorist attack in Paris, there eventually also emerge stories of unbelievable valor and selflessness. David Rand, an assistant professor at Yale and director of its Human Cooperation Laboratory, has been studying such acts in an effort to understand why some people risk their lives for others. What he has found is at once heartening and, to parents who have taken the time to really get to know their child, not so very surprising. It seems that we may be born altruistic. Rand deduces this from his observation that humans tend to be more chivalrous the less time they have to think. In other words, our first instinct is to protect, to save, to be cooperative:

Missing Missives

some letters were intricately folded Courtesy of the Museum voor Communicatie
"If you come here, do not bring your instrument or anything else.” This could have been written to someone visiting any number of cities around the world, but what makes it particularly unique is not the where, but the when and the why. It was written in 1702, in a letter from a man to his brother, warning him to avoid Paris. Not because he might be robbed, but because another musician had been forced to join the army while there. Back then, letter delivery was paid for by both the sender and the recipient. If a recipient wouldn't or couldn't pay, the postmaster usually just threw the letter or package away. One postmaster and his wife in the Netherlands, though, had a better idea. They kept all the undeliverable mail, perhaps in the expectation that they could at some point make money off it. They never did, but the linen-lined trunk of old letters is better than gold to the international team of academics that is studying them:

No, No, No!

Feeling a little negative today? There's a reason for that, and it's not the one you think. We are, according to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, programmed that way. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. It was important to early humans' survival to focus more on possible threats than on possible rewards. Fast forward to urban life and the workplace, where the threat is not so much from hungry fanged animals or an enemy's spear (except metaphorically) but from stress and worry. Unfortunately, though, our mental mechanism remains the same. Negative thoughts stay with us a lot longer than positive ones. Whether those thoughts are based on real experiences or simply on our fears, the affected neurons are the same. And, as they say in the field, "neurons that fire together, wire together." Which may sound pretty hopeless, but don't get all negative about it. There are ways to stop the cycle:

From the Archives: 'So It Goes ... '

At just about this time last year, I posted the following. Watching the video again just now, I felt it was worthy of a repeat performance:

In honor of both Veterans' Day (once known as Armistice Day) and Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), whose birthday it is, his version of how a war can end in peace, as read by the author from Chapter 4 of his 1969 classic, Slaughterhouse Five, or A Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death, and put to images by one LloydRizia for his English class. I hope he got an A (video):

   I mentioned in that post that Veterans' Day was originally Armistice Day. It was created to mark the armistice, or truce, that ended World War I, aka the Great War and the war to end war, even though the actual treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, wasn't signed until June 1919. Seven years after that, Congress decided that the “recurring anniversary of [November 11, 1918] should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations”:
   In the UK and Canada, the symbol of the day is a red poppy, after a poem written by Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae (1872-1918) in 1915, apparently on the

A Bubbling Crude, Black Gold, Texas Tea

Puck magazine, 1904
Once upon a time, the future was light and bright for fossil fuels. We have learned, of course, that, just as nothing is free, this particular light cast some huge and very dark shadows. But back then, we were all blissfully ignorant of that reality. Back then, the biggest fear was of oil-refinery fires, which were common. But even those, and the concurrent polluting of local rivers and land, couldn't snuff out the post-Civil War oil boom, propelled as it was by the ambitions of men like John D. Rockefeller, the political system, and the lax banking laws of the day. (And for those of you who don't recognize the title of this post, it's from "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," from one of the more embarrassing TV shows to come out of the '60s [video]:
   For a fascinating timeline of humankind's relationship with oil, which is a lot longer, deeper, and more international than most of us realize, see

   Today's selection -- from Titan by Ron Chernow. With the discovery of oil in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, a colossal new American industry was born, and Civil War veterans flocked there in the late 1860s in a manner beyond even the California Gold Rush of a decade earlier:

   "By the end of the Civil War, the preconditions existed for an Industrial economy of spectacular new proportions. Before the war, the federal government had only twenty thousand employees and shied away from attempts to regulate business. Unlike Europe, America had no tradition of political absolutism or ecclesiastic privilege to quench entrepreneurial spirits, and the weak, fragmented political system gave businessmen room to flourish. At the same time, America had the legal and administrative apparatus necessary to support modern industry. There was respect for private property and contracts; people could get limited corporate charters or file for bankruptcy; and bank credit, while not yet plentiful, was everywhere available in a highly fragmented banking system. In time, the government redefined the rules of the capitalist game to tame trusts and preserve

Talk of the Town

sound reflects off leaves and trunks                              KW
If bird sounds evolve differently depending on habitat, why wouldn't human sounds, i.e., language, be similarly affected by things like topography and climate? Well, as it turns out, they probably are. A map of where languages are vowel-heavy vs. consonant-heavy shows a definite pattern. The theory developed by University of New Mexico linguist Ian Maddieson has it that consonants don't travel well in windy, hot, and/or foliage-dense areas, which is why most of the languages used by people who live in rain-forest areas, like Hawaii, for example, are heavy on vowels. Tecumseh Fitch, a linguist at the University of Vienna in Austria, notes that habitat is probably just one of the causes of the differences. Still, he notes, "English is quite a consonant-heavy language, and of course it didn't develop in a rain forest" (story, audio clips):

Lost in Translation

Say it ain't so! This probably is not a huge surprise to many, but in case you're not one among those many, listen up. It seems that certain emojis come out differently on different platforms. So if, for example, you send one that quite obviously indicates your rather abashed surprise about something, what your friend gets is something that communicates your intent to never say another word. But all is not lost. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed (story, link to more comprehensive list):

Number Crushing

Do you have a favorite number, and if so, do you know why it's your favorite? Six individuals whose names you may or may not know (but will from here on out) ~ academicians, editors, writers ~ share theirs and many compelling facts and stories you may or may not have heard (but will now always remember) along the way. Mathematician Helen Joyce asks if all infinities are the same size, writer Julian Barnes tells of learning from a letter by Dmitri Shostakovich when we can expect Heaven on Earth, author Katherine Rundell explains the roots of triskaidekaphobia ... :

When 'AI' Means 'Altruistic Incumbent'
The outlandish and extreme comments made so far during this election season may have some wondering whether individuals with such strong feelings could ever provide rational and evenhanded leadership of an entire country. And then there are the obligations to donors, the pressure from special-interest groups, etc. Who can resist all that? Well, there are those who posit that a well-programmed robot could. You may not have heard of him, but Zoltan Istvan, of the World Transhumanist Party, is running for president, and he would be perfectly happy to have a machine as chief executive. "I would love to see a truly altruistic entity running our government," he says. "Right now, all politicians, including myself, are motivated by self-interest. This is just how humans are. So wouldn’t it be nice to have something like a super-intelligent AI running things and it be entirely after our best interest?":

Unrecognized in Africa

Somalia has had its share of problems ~ two decades of anarchy that ended only in 2012, famine, pirates, al-Shabab (,, the last of which has struck again, attacking a popular hotel in the capital city of Mogadishu and killing 15. Is it any wonder, then, that even as Somalia has tried to claim parts of neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, there is an area of the country that has claimed its own independence? Somaliland has its own currency, bureaucracy, army, and police force. It is comparatively peaceful. Its government signs legal contracts and participates in diplomatic processes with other countries and international organizations. Still, it has yet to be officially recognized by the rest of the world as an independent state:

Numbers Game

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What does winning a video game world championship get you? If the game is League of Legends, it's $1 million, which is what a South Korean team walked away with when it beat its closest competitor, another team from South Korea, in the playoffs in Berlin ( With such sums at stake and more on the horizon as gaming's popularity grows (the finals attracted an audience of 15,000), it's getting serious. So far, South Korea seems to be the center of the e-sports world. Teams train and live together. They have coaches. Games are broadcast on TV and live-streamed, in both Korean and English. They're like boy bands in that the great majority of the players are men in their early 20s and many, if not most, of their fans are young girls who shower them with gifts and wait to take selfies with them after their competitions. But like athletes in the more traditional sports, they also risk physical injury ~ and undergo surgery to ensure they can stay in the game (story, video):

The Mother of All Apes?

Marta Palmero/Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont
Another discovery, another possible rewrite of evolutionary history. A partial skeleton found in northeastern Spain of an 11.6-million-year-old primate, nicknamed Lala, suggests that, far from evolving from huge ape-like creatures, today's African apes may have started out as small primates more along the lines of gibbons. It also shows that these smaller creatures migrated from Africa to Europe. But was Lala the common ancestor of gibbons and apes, or just of gibbons? Scientists do know some things for sure. She was a tree dweller with wrists like those of today's apes, but her ear openings have something in common with those of monkeys. "Enigmatic" was one word used by paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto:

Bin Laden and the Politics of Journalism

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
"One role of the journalist is to debunk crazy conspiracy theories, but another, more difficult role is to expose real and harmful conspiracies, of which there have been many." So states this interesting editorial that uses two writers' and the U.S. government's conflicting accounts of Osama bin Laden's demise and some journalists' reactions to the controversy (that never really rose to the level of controversy in the public mind) to illustrate the ebbs and flows of journalistic inclination. "During the ’60s and ’70s," it continues, "growing journalistic skepticism of the American adventure in Southeast Asia fueled a wider culture of dissent and investigation, and produced an unprecedented golden age of investigative journalism. Once the cold war ended, however, the public mood changed, and journalism resumed its previously supine position on the divan of American triumphalism and self-regard." The war in Iraq and the coincident government spin brought investigative journalism back, for a time. "This spring, Politico conducted a poll that found that 65 percent of White House correspondents believe [President] Obama to be the 'least press-friendly president they’ve ever seen' ... ":
   Seymour Hersh's article, The Killing of Osama bin Laden, in the London Review of Books:

On a Different Kind of Stage

AP/Luis Soto
Guatemala's recent presidential elections yielded an interesting result: Jimmy Morales. The comedian who co-starred with his brother in a weekly TV show for more than 15 years won the country's highest post by a landslide. So what does his victory say about the state of the country? Simply this, that while its president and vice-president are awaiting trial on charges of corruption, a man with little political experience but lots of public exposure won the people over with the campaign message "neither corrupt nor a thief." But will that be enough to see him through his tenure? As Kevin Casas Zamora of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington D.C., says "One should expect much more than that from the leaders in a normal democracy—not just not being a thief":

Yikes! Stripes!

Of all the things most of us don't know about our bodies, this has to rank among the most bizarre. Moles, freckles, age spots, wrinkles, and scars ~ these we are familiar with. Apparently, our skin is also a labyrinth of stripes that can usually be seen only under UV light or in the case of certain diseases. These undulating lines are called Blaschko's Lines after the German dermatologist who first posited their existence. This was in the early 1900s, and Blaschko noticed that his patients' rashes and moles seemed to follow a pattern around the body. We now know that the patterns are much more extensive than he thought and that they are the result of our growth from a single cell that divides, and specifically, from the division and expansion of our skin cells: