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The Space Between

Verdun's Zone Rouge
Of the many travel adventures people have dreamed up, a tour of No Man's Lands has got to be one of the most intriguing. Alasdair Pinkerton, an expert in human geography at the Royal Holloway University of London, and fellow researcher Noam Leshem of Durham University have just embarked on a monthlong excursion to these peculiar areas in 19 countries in Europe and North Africa. Demilitarized zones like that between North and South Korea notwithstanding, the concept of a No Man's Land is not solely a military one, says Pinkerton. In fact, the first one they visited was a field between two church parishes in southern England. According to Leshem, a No Man's Land is "a place where there has been an intentional withdrawal of state power and sovereignty. At the same time that space has been delineated—there is a very clear sense of what is in it, and what is considered to be outside of it. So you have these two forces—on the one hand this intentional pulling back, and at the same time this setting apart": (story, link to audio interview):

Free Birds

Golden Eagle                                                                                                            Tom Koerner
Fall is migration time for all sorts of creatures. Some of the most breathtaking sightings are of birds of prey. (Of course, they migrate in the spring as well, but apparently, the best viewing is in the fall.) Different species can be seen in almost every state and Canadian province, but most seem to be concentrated on the East Coast. Naturalist and author Sy Montgomery has a particular respect for raptors. "They literally see the world in a different way than we do," she writes. Their eyes weigh more than their brains, and "fields of view of the left and right eye overlap — which allows the raptor brain to calculate distance instantly by comparing the different images from each eye":
   This chart gives state-by-state information about the best viewing sites, types of raptors flying over each, and more:

Return of the Giant

The lovely animated story The Iron Giant, which has remained a cult classic even after a bungled release in 1999, is coming back. Plans are to screen an expanded version across the country on September 30 and October 4, and the word is that this may mean that a sequel is in the works. Based on Ted Hughes's novella The Iron Man, the movie is about the friendship between a giant robot from outer space and a young boy. Interesting factoid: the Giant is voiced by pre-Fast and Furious Vin Diesel (story, videos, link to audio version that includes an interview with director Brad Bird and animation historian Charles Solomon):

A Total Eclipse of the Moon

Anthony Urbano
Reminder ( that the night of September 27 is the night, because on that night, a rare and completely awesome spectacle will be taking place in our sky: a total super harvest moon eclipse! The last time this happened was in 1982, and the next time won't be until 2033. Annnddd ... we don't have to stay up till all hours to see it, either. The show will start at 9:07 p.m. EST and last for 72 minutes, with the full eclipse being at 10:11 p.m. (story, gifs):

The Art of the Protest

"it was the state," main square, Mexico City, October 2014                                  Colectivo Rexiste
One year ago on September 26, 43 students from a teachers college in a rural town in Mexico disappeared. Ironically, they had been part of a group commemorating the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City. The story told by the government is that the area’s mayor ordered the town's police to arrest the students. There ensued a series of confrontations in which 6 people died and 25 were injured. The 43 who disappeared were, according to authorities, handed over by the police to a local narcogang. What happened to them then has yet to be determined, but whatever it was, the confirmed fact of police collusion with narcogangs, hitherto only suspected, added to Mexicans' outrage, grief, and frustration. As with so many such stories of injustice around the world, after the protests, it is up to the artists to keep the memory and the passion alive and to spread the word around the world (story, photos, some of which are disturbing):

Just Because: 'I Shall Forget You'

The full title of this poem is I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear (Sonnet IV), so perhaps you can understand why it caught my eye. It's by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). In addition to writing poetry and plays, she was an activist for the feminist cause. This poem came to my inbox courtesy of poem-a-day:

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
                                             If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
                                             I will protest you with my favorite vow.
                                             I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
                                             And vows were not so brittle as they are,
                                             But so it is, and nature has contrived
                                             To struggle on without a break thus far,—
                                             Whether or not we find what we are seeking
                                             Is idle, biologically speaking.

If you're interested in reading more about Millay, like how she got her middle name, which is a good story (including an audio of her reading one of her poems), check out

African Fashion Statement

Fabrice Monteiro
Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro and designer Jah Gal used trash and cultural symbols to create The Prophecy, an exhibit of surreal photographs with a message. Each photograph focuses on a different offense against nature, specifically, nature in Africa. In their culture, Gal explains, "Every forbidden thing is protected by a Djinn." And what the two have created is a series of Djinns that rise horribly yet beautifully from their surroundings even as they point to our shortcomings and betrayal of the land (story, photos, video):

Peace in Their Time?

demonstrator's sign reads, "Yes, I believe in peace. And you?"                                     Getty Images
The people of Colombia are hoping for the best. Leaving aside the country's conquest and colonization by Spain in the 1500s and the long slog toward independence and unification, the start of the 20th century saw the end of the Thousand Days' War and the beginning of a Year-Long War with Peru. The late '40s and early '50s was the time of La Violencia, and the '60s and beyond have seen low-level but fairly constant fighting between the government (encouraged by the United States), left-wing guerrilla groups (including the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army), and right-wing paramilitaries. Finally, now, on September 23, President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño, the leader of the FARC, announced that they are finalizing a peace deal. Is there room for hope? We're not there quite yet, but yes, says Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian government’s top negotiator. “Peace is about to break out in Colombia”:

Forbidden Fruits (& Veg)

Vindication is sweet. As a child and much to my parents' chagrin and frustration, I refused to eat cherries or apples, and when I finally tried them again when I was older, I realized why: They made my lips and mouth, and once, even my esophagus, itch and swell up a little. Hazelnuts do it, too. When I would tell people this, they were nice enough about it, but I could see the skepticism in their eyes. Apples and cherries? Hazelnuts? Really? Yes, really. As this article explains, it's all about allergies, and interestingly, allergic reactions to certain fruits and vegetables (called oral allergy syndrome) can be linked to allergies to certain pollens. If your mouth itches when you eat apples, for example, you're probably also allergic to the pollen of birch trees. Same with cherries and hazelnuts. If your trouble is with broccoli, bell pepper, carrots, or cauliflower, chances are you're also allergic to mugwort (story, charts):

Home Game

Thompson brothers, from left, Lyle, Haina, Miles, and Jeremy                Coyote Magic Action Shots
During the week of September 18-27, the Onondaga Nation is hosting 13 nations at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship. This is the first time in history that an international sporting championship is taking place on indigenous territory, and it just makes sense that the sport that is bringing everyone together would be lacrosse, one of the oldest team sports in North America. According to the WILC website, "the original game was given as a gift from the Creator to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). The power of the game is sacred and it demands purity of mind, body and spirit. It is revered by the Haudenosaunee and handed down through generations as a game of discipline and honor." This is the story of four Native American brothers who play on the home team and how the game has changed their life (story, video):

On the Spot

Ruby                            Brock Elbank
Pippi Longstocking had them, Judy Blume wrote a book in which they play a starring role, and, of course, there's Alfred E. Neuman, of MAD magazine fame. They seem to be the bane of most kids' existence, but some eventually grow to love them as a mark of individuality. They're ephelides, commonly known as freckles. Photographer Brock Elbank's collection of portraits of people on whose bodies they reside shows that that's about all most of them have in common (slideshow):

Bear in Mind

two little guys I once encountered (mom had gone up the hill)                    KW
Call this a public service announcement. I know, I know, it's kind of past hiking season and we're getting into that hibernation time of year and so are not likely to meet as many bears as a couple of months ago. Still, apparently, bear populations are on the rebound, so one can never be too careful. The first line of defense against a bear attack, according to this article, is information. Know what kind(s) of bears live where you're planning on going. Bear attacks are for the most part avoidable, says Brigham Young University biologist Tom Smith, "but humans have to take more responsibility” (story, video):

Dr. Asperger and the Nazis

Dr Hans Asperger and friend
We could have been much further ahead in our understanding of autism, according to author Steve Silberman (NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity), had World War II and the Nazi invasion and annexation of Austria not put a halt to the work of Dr. Hans Asperger (1906-1980). Instead, it has been only in the last 20 or so years that we've slowly come to understand it the way Asperger did in the 1930s. That was when the Austrian pediatrician noticed and began to study autistic characteristics. He was, says Silberman, a very forward-thinking clinician, and the clinic he ran "was not just the sort of place where parents would bring their children for evaluation and a diagnosis, but it was also like a residential school.” Living in the clinic with the children, he was able to get to know them on a personal basis, and he came to feel that autism was a genetic, lifelong condition but not necessarily a debilitating one, if the individuals were given the support they needed. This was quite different from the point of view of the American Leo Kanner, whose much narrower definition and idea of the "refrigerator mother" ruled in this country for decades. “Asperger always appreciated that autism was a condition that conveyed both profound disabilities and very special gifts,” Silberman says. “Kanner, on the other hand, interpreted even the gifts of his patients through the lens of psychopathology" (story, link to audio version):

Ins and Outs of the Universe

Roen Kelly
Not everyone was heartened by the announcement that instruments had found measurable gravitational waves that could validate the inflationary theory of a universe that started with a "big bang" (, Those who were, were then deflated (pun intended) when it was shown that what those instruments saw could be explained in another way, too, as caused by cosmic dust. But while the failure to find gravitational waves may leave one theory in question for now, it gives new life to another intriguing one, called the cyclic model, in which the universe expands and contracts over and over again. Still, the perfection, the beauty of the inflationary theory has scientists reluctant to give up on it:

Ride On!

the brains behind the bag                                                  
And speaking of good ideas (see post immediately below this one), wow ~ here's one any frequent flyer ~ or any kind of traveler, really ~ might appreciate. It's also one of those "why didn't I think of that?" kinds of inventions: a motorized suitcase. The story behind it is just one more bit of proof that it takes a special kind of brain to dream up these things, because everyone comes across the same situations, but not everyone comes up with a new way to deal with them (story, video):

A Few Good Ideas

Ideas are kind of like inventions. There's always that first one, and then, over the decades and centuries, it's modified, adjusted, and/or expanded, reflecting the orientation or needs of a place or time. Also like some inventions, they are often ridiculed or ignored when they first appear and meet with acceptance only little by little, as people get used to their presence. Indeed, the courageous and amazing Oscar Wilde (who himself was ridiculed and harassed in his lifetime and whose genius was widely accepted only much later) once said that "an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." Here, in cartoon form, is BBC Radio 4's superb history of ideas, starting with Diotima's Ladder as explained by Plato (circa 428-348 BCE) (story, video):

Ig Nobelesse Oblige

The 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony takes place September 17, and you can be part of what Nature magazine calls "arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar." Be the first on your block to know who won and for what bit of improbable research (which, according to the website, is research that makes one laugh and then think). Among last year's winners were Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, of China and Canada, who got the neuroscience prize "for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast," and Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky, and James Dworkin, of the United States and India, who won the medicine prize "for treating 'uncontrollable' nosebleeds using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork." And now that you know that, how can you resist? (website, live-streaming):

Tomayto, Tomahto

Aside from one or two ambiguous occupants of our markets' produce section, we are all pretty sure which are fruits and which are vegetables. Or we were until now. Because according to Wolfgang Stuppy, there is no such thing as a vegetable, botanically speaking. Stuppy should know. He is the research leader in Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew & Wakehurst Place, in London. So, botanically speaking, then, what are potatoes? Tubers. Asparagus? Stems. Lettuces? Leaves. Broccoli? Inflorescences. So why do we call them vegetables? “Vegetable took on its current sense just a few centuries ago," explains Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking, "and essentially means a plant material that is neither fruit nor seed”:

Deep Subject

Victoria Lautman
They're old, they're hauntingly beautiful and architecturally impressive, they're falling apart, and they're being photographed for posterity by a Chicago journalist. India's so-called stepwells were built starting in the 2nd century to access the water table. Thousands of them ~ and some are 10 stories deep. As the water table has receded, most of the wells have dried up, and these extraordinary structures, no longer needed, have been left to decay or serve as dumping grounds. Fortunately, we have Victoria Lautman, who has so far, on her own, located 120 of these distinctive constructions (story, lots of awesome pix):

End of the Road

the California-Baja border fence                                                                 KW
At one point in their journey, the title character in L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz and her friends meet an obstacle, thus: "They had traveled some distance when suddenly they faced a high fence which barred any further progress straight ahead." Rather like the refugees at the Hungarian border. Or the would-be immigrants at the U.S.'s southern border. Fences, of course, are nothing new, but it seems that there are now more of them separating countries than ever before. In fact, according to this article, "Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 40 countries around the world have built fences against 64 of their neighbours." The map that accompanies the piece illustrates the reality of this new world order (story, interactive map):

Moves Like Jagger

Back in 1871, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he argues, among other things, that human females, like the females of most species, play a large role in choosing mates. As their choices are usually based on perceived physical superiority and health, those are the traits that are passed down and survive. Sometimes the physical show put on by the males of a species are blatant (a peacock's tail), and sometimes they are less so. A recent finding falls into the first category. Researchers in the UK say their results show that the way a man dances can telegraph information about his health and, therefore, his viability as a mate. "We found that [women paid more attention to] the core body region: the torso, the neck, the head," explained evolutionary psychologist Dr. Nick Neave. "It was not just the speed of the movements, it was also the variability of the movement" (story, video):

Etimology: 'Goody Two-Shoes'

There are those words or phrases whose roots are obviously in foreign languages, ancient or not, and that's interesting enough. And then there are those that come to us along a slightly less circuitous, if not less fascinating, path. Take "goody two-shoes," for example. If you had to guess, where would you say that phrase came from? Would you have thought about a little one-shoed girl named Margery Meanwell, the heroine of a nursery story from around 1765? Clearly, its original positive connotation has morphed a bit over the years:

Weapon of Nose Destruction

 alleged spraying of a journalist with skunk water         © Haim Schwarczenberg
I remember reading, years ago, about how the army was working on finding an odor so noxious that it could be used as a weapon. The trouble they were having was finding a smell that was universally horrendous. Some that were particularly offensive to certain groups of people were not so to others, and vice versa. Well, it seems that the Israelis found that elusive scent several years ago. It's call skunk water, and now U.S. police departments have added it to their arsenals. It is being touted as a non-lethal, humanitarian (and eco-friendly) method of crowd control and dispersal (story, video):


happy inventor Alfred Mosher Butts
Estimates are that this game is started 30,000 times around the world every hour. More than 150 million sets of it have been sold, and it's in 29 languages. It's had a role in Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and the movie Rosemary's Baby (the one with Mia Farrow). It was inspired by the game Monopoly ~ or rather, its inventor was inspired by the success enjoyed by Monopoly's inventor. Two of the resources this inventor used to figure out the game's details were the New York Herald and, possibly, Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold-Bug. Have you figured it out yet? Here's another hint: one of the first names it went by (because there were a few) was Criss-Cross Words:

Really? 'Fortushka'?

could this be a fortushka?
I almost feel guilty giving our resplendently, unabashedly addled Sarah Palin any attention, but her recent use of an allegedly Russian word (video: had me googling like mad. The reference I finally found came in the form of a description of Fort Ross State Historic Park, on the Northern California coast. Fort Ross was a Russian outpost ~ its southernmost ~ in the early 1800s, built to supply Russian settlements in Alaska. According to this piece, the fortushka can be found in one of the residences built at the time and is a prime example of architectural ingenuity:

There's a Rad Moon on the Rise

You may have noticed that the moon has been particularly stunning lately. There's a reason for that, and the good news is that the show isn't over yet. This September is the month of the Full Harvest Perigee Moon ~ and of a total lunar eclipse that will be visible to those of us in North America, especially in the eastern part. Not to be outdone, citizens of southern Africa and whoever might be in Antarctica will get to see a partial solar eclipse:
   P.S., Those who might not be familiar with the song whose title I borrowed and modified for this post should know that it's by one of the best groups (IMHO) to come out of the '60s, Creedence Clearwater Revival (video):;_ylt=AwrT6V4sGfNVzAQACjwnnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTE0bW41NnFzBGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMyBHZ0aWQDRkZYVUk0MV8xBHNlYwNzYw--?p=Creedence+Clearwater+Revival&fr=yhs-mozilla-001&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-001

A Fondness for Felines

Lulu                                            KW
As most of my friends know, my spouse and I were not cat people until we moved into our house and a local street cat adopted us. We now have four and a half of the annoying little beings (the "half" being a cat we share with some very tolerant neighbors). Three of them were born in our garage, and when their mom got mastitis (yes, that happened:, we wiped their bums to get them to poo and fed them from bottles. Clearly, we love them, and equally clearly, they love (or the cat equivalent) us. Sometimes too much. How do we know? Well, we can relate to most of these 25 points of proof:

The Things They Carry

one refugee's diary                                                                          Sima Diab
If you had to leave your home, probably forever, and travel, you're not quite sure how, to somewhere, you're not quite sure where, what would you take with you? It really does give one pause for thought. Because for everything you're taking, you're leaving so much more behind. But this is survival. So, a couple of special photographs? your computer? or what about a laser pointer so rescuers can find you in the dark? Here, four Syrians who will be boarding boats ~ a former army officer, an electrician, a cook, and a shop assistant ~ explain what they took with them and why:
   What is it like to be a refugee on the run? A team of journalists follows one group on their harrowing journey over the Balkan migrant route: "Like characters in a real-life video game, they raced against time -- pumped with Red Bull to evade border police and mafia baddies while fighting exhaustion to make it through the next level, or else face going back to square one" (story, videos, links to more diary entries covering other sections of the route) :

All Together Now

Colonists we may have been at one point, but we are not colonial creatures. Ergo, we are not siphonophores, like, for example, coral or the Portuguese man-of-war. These simple little creatures are amazing mainly in that they are, each one, not one but many creatures surviving via the ultimate example of teamwork. And though each is a clone of the other, each has a specialization. Some steer the whole organism, others capture prey, still others digest. Still more amazingly, at least some of them change their role as they age (story, GIF):
   If you're intrigued enough to want to learn more about these organisms, like the fact that a recently found species is the first marine invertebrate we know of that generates red light, go to

How To Help

UNHCR/A. McConnell
Unless you've been living in a cave, you're aware that the world is seeing its greatest humanitarian crisis since ... well, some say World War II, others say the Rwanda genocide in 1984. Whatever. While they may not be stumbling onto our shores, as citizens of the world, we cannot ignore these desperate people or their plight. The story told in charts and graphs:
    Europe, especially Germany, is doing its best to accommodate and help this wave of refugees, and for that, they are to be commended. I can only hope (and am pretty sure) that we Americans would respond as warmly were we in the same position. So. How can we help without becoming victims of unscrupulous individuals who may be trying to take advantage of the situation (because you know they're out there)? This list of agencies was put together by The Guardian and so is aimed mostly at its British readers. With the exception of one or two, though, the agencies listed are accessible to us here in the States as well: is funneling donations through to the Lifeline cash assistance program of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A gift of $141, they say, can provide a family of five with the basics it needs to survive for a month:
   More options, from SumOfUs (, includes buying items off an Amazon wish list put together to help Calais and Greece. I clicked on it and found this incredibly moving message: "NO MORE DONATIONS FOR THE TIME BEING PLEASE We are so grateful for the incredible number of donations we've received so far. It really shows how big a difference we can make together. We are freezing our wishlist until we are able to cope with the quantity of donations. In the meantime much more is needed so please keep giving here​1Ezl3AT to raise funds for logistics, building and medicine supplies. Thanks! And we will we back soon with more goods for the wish list. From the #HelpCalais Team"

Bridging the Gap

Mohammad Ali Najib/Al Jazeera
Mohammad Ali Najib/Al Jazeera
  Where was a 26-year-old female architecture student's ultra-
  modern plan for a bridge in her country's capital chosen from
  among the competition? The answer may come as a surprise,
  because it runs counter to our stereotype: Iran. Unveiled late last
  year, Leila Araghian's Tabiat (or "nature") bridge connects two
  parks that are separated by a freeway. It's become a popular
  meeting place, with its three levels of restaurants, cafes, and
  hang-out areas, and last month, it won an Archetizer A+ award in an international competition based in New York. “I wanted it to be a place for people to stay and ponder, not simply pass,” Araghian explained. One of the things the city's pedestrians could ponder is that, with the anticipated lifting of certain sanctions, Araghian's bridge could be entered into competitions that had hitherto been denied her:

The Great Weep

© Samuel Johnson Prize 2015
In Venice, California, there's a popular restaurant called Mao's Kitchen, and every time I pass it, I'm overwhelmed with revulsion. Do the owners and the diners know nothing of the human (and, probably, animal) tragedy that was China's Great Leap Forward, or do they just not care? Maybe they call it irony? I appreciate a good joke as much as anyone, but the death of more than 45 million people, most from starvation, is not, I propose, an appropriate subject for humor of any kind. Frank Dikötter, the author of the book from which this excerpt is taken, is a Dutch historian and professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. from

Today's encore selection -- from Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 by Frank Dikötter. During Chairman Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, which was an effort to use centralized Communist planning to vault China's economy past those of the Western European powers, China endured one of the greatest tragedies in human history -- the death of over 45 million people:
   "Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain in less than fifteen years. By unleashing China's greatest asset, a labour force that was counted in the hundreds of millions, Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors. Instead of following the Soviet model of development, which leaned heavily towards industry alone, China would 'walk on two legs': the peasant masses were mobilized to transform both agriculture and industry at the same time, converting a backward economy into a modern communist society of plenty for all.
   "In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivized, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food,

Forest and the Trees

boreal forest map                                                                                          National Geographic
Three trillion. Really. Three trillion! (Actually, a little more.) That's how many trees are on planet Earth right now, and that's eight times more than we previously thought. That, says Yale University's Dr. Thomas Crowther, who conducted the survey with colleagues, is about 420 trees per person. But, he's careful to explain, "It's not like we've discovered a load of new trees; it's not like we've discovered a load of new carbon." In other words, it's not good, it's not horrible; it doesn't change reality. How did they come up with this new, more accurate count? Using old- and new-school techniques, they combined satellite photographs, which show the area covered by a forest but not so much how many individual trees make up that area, with data from workers who had actually counted the individual trees in different kinds of forests. The other numbers they've come up with is that we're removing about 15 billion trees a year but replacing them with only 5 billion:

Drug Dump

Covering a recent Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, rally attempting to bring attention to the misuse of drugs, a local news station published the following statistic: "Last year alone, more than 800 Oklahomans died due to drug overdose. Of those, 80 percent were due to prescription drugs such as oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone" ( But, as the infographic above shows, it's a nationwide problem. According to a 2008 World Health Organization survey of legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries (including a couple with less-stringent laws in this arena than ours), we lead the world in illegal drug use ( And a British study of 14 countries ranks the U.S. number one in prescription drug usage as well (
   All this is by way of saying that September 26 is National Drug Take-Back Day (except in Pennsylvania and Delaware, where it'll be September 12). It's free and anonymous:

Mothers of Invention

Another novel published posthumously, but this one under less of a dark cloud (except the one that hovers over the story line itself). J.R.R. Tolkien's The Story of Kullervo has just hit the stands. It's a young Tolkien's version of a Finnish myth, and though it stops abruptly mid-sentence, it gives a good glimpse into the consistency of the author's interests, what was important to him, and the way his mind worked:
   Even though he had her for only the first 12 years of his life, Tolkien's mother was a huge influence on him, not just in terms of education but in the life decisions whose consequences she and her children had to live with.
   When my little boy really was little, I heard an interview with a well-known and respected scientist. I can't remember who it was, but I do remember something he said that really impressed itself upon me. It was a memory he had of an event that typified the way his mother was with him. He credits her with making him the curious, inventive person he became. (And, actually, what I must inject here is my contention that he, like all children, was curious and inventive to begin with and that what his mom did was enable him to remain that way.) The event was as follows: He was about 4 or 5 and tried to pour himself a glass of milk. The carton was almost full, so it was very heavy, and he dropped it, spilling milk all over the floor. Instead of getting angry, he says, his mom got down on the floor with him and they spent the afternoon building dams and conducting experiments. It was in much the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien's mother influenced her son's development and his ultimate creation of the amazing world of Middle Earth. from

Today's selection -- from The Fellowship by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. British author J.R.R. Tolkien [known to his family as Ronald], famed as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, lost his father in 1896 when he was four and his mother when he was twelve:

   "Mabel gave Ronald more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew to Ronald. She instructed him in Latin, French, German, and the rudiments of linguistics, awakening in him a lifelong thirst for languages, alphabets, and etymologies. She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakable style, primitive and compelling, Rousseau with a dash of Roerich. She passed on to him her peculiar calligraphy; he would later master traditional forms and invent his own. She tried to teach him piano, although that proved a failure. And she introduced him to children's