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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."