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All Eyes

Eyes are amazing, but even more amazing, if that's possible, is the fact that some creatures can "see" without them. It's a finding that has mesmerized ~ and frustrated ~ the scientists who study it. "We're not just focusing on eyes that look like our eyes," says Duke University biologist Dr. Sönke Johnsen. For example, the new thought about sea urchins, which don't have identifiable eyes and yet seem to be able to see, is that they are, in fact, giant, spiny eyeballs. Octopuses have eyes that we recognize as such, but their skin also contains photoreceptors, and the Asian swallowtail butterfly has a grouping of photoreceptors on its genitals. It comes down to molecules called opsins, which are what allow the photoreceptors in animal retinas to see. “What it means to be an eye is so much broader than we originally thought,” says Johnsen:

Lower School

taking a break from the climb                                                                            Chinatopix via AP
It's hard to believe this is true, but apparently it is. There is a small mountain village in southwest China whose children ~ ages 6 to 15 ~ have what is possibly the world's most dangerous and thrilling jaunt to school. Because home is 800 meters (2,625 feet) up a vertical rock cliff and school is not, they climb down ancient vine ladders in the morning and up them in the afternoon, with backpack. "You have to be 100% careful," explained Chen Jie, the photographer who discovered this and climbed it himself, three times. "If you have any kind of accident, you will fall straight into the abyss." I guess that takes care of the P.E. portion of the day (story, video):

Just Because: 'litany'

Mahogany L. Browne
 " 'litany' was written," writes poet Mahogany L. Browne in what is the best possible introduction to this poem, "after the anniversary of 'I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free,' made famous by Nina Simone. And I sat with what that meant, years later—when I am still wishing for a certain type of freedom. To think of the time passing but of senseless deaths of black and brown bodies remaining. The poem was a mulling of all that has changed and all that has not. Injustice has not changed. Poverty has not changed. The idea that I am writing from poem to check to mouth/house is no coincidence. And the building on my corner was most certainly burned to the ground, leaving folks homeless. Within two weeks there was talk of building condos. And my neighbors and I, free to watch, stood on the opposite corner of the destroyed building as contractors stomped in and out of the remains. Someone smiled loudly about the 'new multimillion-dollar building plans.' And it didn't feel like freedom at all." from poem-a-day:

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
—Nina Simone

today i am a black woman in america
& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby
it sounds like:
     the gentrification of a brooklyn stoop
     the rent raised three times my wages
     the bodega and laundromat burned down on the corner
     the people on the corner
          each lock & key of their chromosomes
          a note of ash & inquiry on their tongues

today i am a black woman in a hopeless state
i will apply for financial aid and food stamps
     with the same mouth i spit poems from
i will ask the angels of a creative god to lessen
     the blows
& i will beg forgiveness when i curse
     the rising sun

today, i am a black woman in a body of coal
i am always burning and no one knows my name
i am a nameless fury, i am a blues scratched from

Chasing Lolita

butterfly hunting in Switzerland Horst Tappe/Getty Images
Who knew? Russian-American author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977) is most well-known ~ and venerated ~ for his seminal novel Lolita. But who knew he was also a lepidopterist? And that he created chess challenges? And that he was a synesthete? AND that he wrote the aforementioned masterpiece over five years as his wife, Véra, drove them in their black Oldsmobile from New York to Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana so he could chase butterflies? People have undertaken many journeys following in the footsteps of those they admire, and this particular road trip follows not just the author but two of his most memorable creations, Humbert Humbert and his Lolita (and thanks to MD for reminding me):

Just Because: 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe'

In honor of Towel Day May 25 (see post immediately below this one), which, in its turn, is in honor of everyone's favorite geek-author, Douglas Adams (1952-2001), and in a spirit of unending generosity toward those who may not have heard of him or his indispensable Guide or any of its sequels, the tantalizing first couple of pages, lovingly transcribed (and as you're reading the first and only sentence of the second paragraph, it would behoove you to remember that it and every sentence before and after it were published in 1979):

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
   Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

   This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
   And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
   Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
   And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
   Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid

Towel Day Is Coming!

© kreg.steppe, license: creative commons
For a nicely and thoroughly detailed explanation of exactly why it is that the simple towel, at one time (prior to 1979) taken for granted, has gained so much respect ~ and why we all need to carry one with us wherever we go on May 25, see
   Can you evade the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal for 42 seconds to save the world? (game):

The Hard Times of Mrs. Dickens

Catherine Dickens
This account of the marriage of Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth, written by their great-great-great granddaughter, reminds me of the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre ( The couples are similar in that both spouses are talented but only one follows that talent and is recognized. Both marriages were just as miserable toward their end as they were happy in the beginning. Both women were multi-talented and expected to tamp down that talent in order to provide the emotional and daily support every very gifted artist requires. Both marriages suffered from the stress brought on by the husbands' popularity, and both women were looked on unfavorably by the public in their time and for some time afterward:

One Ring To Rule Them All

The story of the dynasty started by Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) affirms the long-suspected fact that money in politics is nothing new. Also that money is power. And that, of course, should come as no surprise. But check out this book's subtitle: The Secret Origins of the First World War. This is about more than one family using its considerable and zealously guarded wealth to buy politicians and to manipulate them and events to their own ends. Here's a book summary from Random House Books (Australia): "Hidden History uniquely exposes those responsible for the First World War. It reveals how accounts of the war's origins have been deliberately falsified to conceal the guilt of the secret cabal of very rich and powerful men in London responsible for the most heinous crime perpetrated on humanity." This excerpt, though, focuses on one family, perhaps as representative of the group. from

Today's selection -- from Hidden History by Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor. The Rothschild dynasty controlled a banking empire that financed royalty and nations throughout Europe and beyond. They were the wealthiest family in the world, and their power was such that it rivaled and often surpassed the power of kings:

"The Rothschild dynasty was all-powerful in British and world banking and they considered themselves the equals of royalty, even to the extent of calling their London base 'New Court'. Like the British royal family, their roots lay in Germany, and the Rothschilds were possibly the most authentic dynasty of them all. They practised endogamy as a means of preventing dispersal of their great wealth, marrying not just within their own faith but also within their own immediate family. Of 21 marriages of the descendants of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the original family patriarch, no fewer than 15 were between cousins.
   "Wealth begets wealth, never more so when it can provide or deny funds to governments and dominate the financial market on a global scale. The Rothschilds were pre-eminent in this field. They manipulated politicians, befriended kings, emperors and influential aristocrats, and developed their

Math and the Mind
In the 18th century, an English Presbyterian minister named Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) came up with a theorem. Not only a man of the cloth, Bayes was also a statistician and philosopher. Basically, he wrote a formula for figuring out the probability that a prediction would be correct, given past and current observations. The idea that a mathematical formula would be of any use in understanding mental disorders is not new, but it's never worked before. Still, there are those who see a light at the end of this particular tunnel. It's possible, they contend, that, in individuals with schizophrenia and autism in particular, sensory distortions may alter the way experience and new evidence are weighed. There are still many questions to be answered, but some studies have offered evidence that backs the concept:

The View From Now

screen shot
The more we learn, the more we realize just how interconnected everything is ~ in our bodies, in our world, in the universe, and, really, throughout all space and time. What's most curious is how the connections can echo each other. A computer simulation a few years ago suggested that the growth of the universe could mirror that of the brain, and earlier studies have found a similarity between brain circuits and the internet ( In 2006, astronomers found a double-helix nebula in the Milky Way, the double helix, of course, being the pattern of our DNA ( If you want to get really esoteric about it, consider this, from the late, great astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan: "The cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." (Before continuing, I really must mention one of the best

Free To Be You and Me?

Apparently not. Just as the astronomic advances in medical technology and neuroscience have brought us more and more helpful information about ourselves, they have also brought us, kicking and screaming, to a truth that negates all that we have wanted to believe about ourselves. Like one of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey (cue the Blue Danube Waltz), this discovery at once fascinates and frightens, and like the monolith, once comprehended, it cannot be uncomprehended. Its consequences, both for the individual and for society, are huge. So perhaps the question is, How do we live with it? Depending on which camp one chooses (if you will, and pardon the pun) to join, it can either "free" us or it can enslave us:

Seeing Life From Both Sides Now

Women, obviously, know firsthand the pros and cons of being female. Males, just as obviously, know firsthand the pros and cons of being male. But there's a growing number of individuals who know firsthand the difference between being female and being male. And it's not just about how others treat them. It's also about how they, themselves, feel and act. The people interviewed for this story were born female but transitioned to male. Their comments are truly eye-opening. Take, for example, this, from Canadian newscaster James Gardner: "As a female there was black and white and everything in between. When I started taking the hormones, it was more black and white. If I get into a disagreement with someone at work, I don’t have that feeling afterwards of, 'I hope I didn't hurt his or her feelings. I’m not a worrier as much as I was in the female body." ... Any other women around here suddenly feel like maybe a little shot of testosterone wouldn't be such a bad thing?!? (story, video):

People on Glass Bridges

Brave Man's Bridge                                                                                                                                                                              ChinaFotoPress/Getty
The bridge over China's Shiniuzhai National Geopark has been dubbed Haohan Qiao, or Brave Man's Bridge, for good reason. It's almost 1,000 feet long, 590 feet high ~ and it's glass-bottomed. But Brave Man's will soon have a big sib, as the country seems to be on a glass-bridge binge. The bridge across the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon, set to open this summer, is 1,400 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 984 feet above the canyon floor. (By contrast, the Grand Canyon Skywalk is 69 feet long and 718 feet high.) Wonder what it's going to be called? (video):
   Of course, the fact that another glass bridge, at Yuntai Mountain, sent tourists running for terra firma after a section cracked underfoot last year (allegedly, when a tourist dropped a Thermos) just makes this new one all the more enticing for some (story, video):

About a Bard

knot garden (#10), this one at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire
This year, marking as it does the 400th anniversary of the death of that bard William Shakespeare (1564-1616), someone thought it appropriate to compile a lovely list entitled "Shakespeare in 100 Objects." Well (spoiler alert), it's 99, actually. Number 100 seems to have ensconced itself somewhere in the nether regions of cyberspace. Still, 99's a goodly number. Each object comes with an annotated post written by an expert in that field (and comments, some of which are also enlightening) explaining the artifact and its significance. There are things like horn cores (#90), a 'cubborde of boxes' (#86), Shakespeare's signet ring (#64), a bodkin (#44), and a solstice dish (#2):
   And for even more Elizabethan entertainment, you might check out "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare," free for the taking:

Just Because: 'The Rocking-Horse Winner'

This short story by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), published in 1926, has long been one of my favorites. It's written almost like a fairy tale ~ and it's just as dark. At least some of it must have been inspired by the author's own childhood. The son of a barely literate miner and a former teacher, Lawrence could look back on a childhood of illness and poverty overshadowed by his parents' quarrels. Of it, he once said, "If I think of my childhood it is always as if there was a sort of inner darkness, like the gloss of coal in which we moved and had our being." His mother, with whom he is said to have been very close, had to take a job in a lace factory to help the family. She, apparently, was obsessed with the idea of his becoming successful. She died of cancer shortly after his first novel was published.

There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the center of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: "She is such a good mother. She adores her children." Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other's eyes.
   There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to anyone in the neighborhood.
   Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though

Who's Embalmed in Lenin's Tomb?

If Abraham Lincoln or, say, Ronald Reagan had been embalmed and was available for viewing, would Americans flock to his bedside? Would he become a tourist attraction? Four and a half little circles on Trip Advisor? The Russians, perhaps taking a page out of ancient Egypt's Book of the Dead, preserved Vladimir Lenin's body when he died in 1924. Originally, they did it to keep him looking spiffy for the crowds that filed past him in the days immediately after his death. But then the real work began. Scientists got to work on a chemical mixture just for him, and a string of specialists, at one time numbering around 200, has been keeping him in shape ever since. As you may imagine, such expertise doesn't come cheap, even in Russia, and when the Soviet Union fell, there was a moment there when it seemed the top comrade might take his place alongside the country's lesser luminaries:

Rome and the Refugees

Battle of Adrianople, 378 AD                                                                        
"The mismanagement of Goth refugees started a chain of events that led to the collapse of one of the biggest political and military powers humankind has ever known," according to this piece in Quartz. The parallels with today's events are undeniable. Pushed south into the lands of the Roman Empire by the "savage" Huns, the Goths were at first aided and welcomed by Rome. By the thousands they came, and many more drowned on the way. "It all started rather peacefully," the article continues. "But things eventually changed." Indeed, from the quill of one who was there, soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the Romans' "treacherous covetousness was the cause of all our disasters":

Eau de Book

Who wants to smell like generic flora when you can smell like Flowers for Algernon? It seems that the latest in perfume captures the evocative fragrance of old books. And as any book lover or anyone who's stepped into a used-book store knows, it's a very particular scent indeed. That's because, as this article explains, "Wood-based paper contains lignin, a chemical closely related to vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla its fragrance. As the pages age and the compounds break down, they release that signature scent." Not only that, but "An experienced rare book handler can date a volume by scent alone, according to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers." Just as long as they don't try to date a perfume wearer's age that way (story, video):

Sweet Home São Paulo

Brazilians Philip and Eloiza Logan                                                                                          © AP
It's called the lost colony of the Confederacy. There, the rebel flag flies high and, once a year, the Confederados break out the hoop skirts and gray uniforms, the fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits, and sing about the South with a Portuguese accent. They are the descendants of U.S. Southerners who, encouraged by Emperor Dom Pedro II, moved to Brazil after the Civil War. "Of course, reluctance to pursue abolition was not the only cause for this migration," explains historian Dr. Gerald Horne of the University of Houston. "Many of the migrants had good reason to believe they would be prosecuted for treason, while many simply endured a sour distaste when contemplating a different kind of relationship with Africans than what had existed previously." But that was a long time ago:

Quantum Communication

"The typical method for sending secret messages is encryption, which allows two parties to exchange coded information that a bystander can’t interpret. But if you want to send a message that no one can even tell you’re sending, you need something else: covert communication. 'What covertness gives you is a much more secure way of communicating,' says quantum information researcher Boulat Bash of Raytheon BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Mass." It can already be done in the classical way, using photons, but now, apparently, it's about to go quantum:

The Other Side

the California-Tijuana border                                                                     KW
These days, when we hear the word "migrant," our focus tends to swivel east, to Africa and the Middle East. Sometimes, we remember our own neighbors to the south in Central America, many of whom continue to make the dangerous journey north to, they hope, the United States. We have heard their stories of determination, hardship, and ultimate success or defeat. But what of the so-called polleros (literally, "chicken herders"), the people who are paid to smuggle many of those refugees? No matter what one may think of them, they, too, have a story. "I went as a migrant like any other youngster with the American dream, and it turned into a nightmare," explains one who works out of Honduras. "I was kidnapped, tortured, I saw them kill my cousin and 14 people more. It was lose my life or work with the cartel" (story, slideshow, videos):
   "Smuggling will never stop unless you can stop poverty or hunger. It will never stop because people will always want to help their families." An interview with a Mexican pollero:

The Things Moms Do

© Arthur Morris/Birds as Art
And we think some human moms are overprotective. A deep sea octopus brooded her eggs for four and half years. Australian crab spiders allow their young to eat them so they don't eat each other. Dominant meerkats get others to babysit for their own young by killing other females' pups. (story, video):
Interestingly, none of these make Animal Planet's list of Top 10 Animal Moms. (Well, the octopus does ~ and for very good reason ~ but not the deep sea octopus specifically.) Who's number one? The elephant, of course, given that prestigious spot for her 22-month pregnancy that ends in giving birth to a 200-pound child that is born blind into a matriarchal society (slideshow):

Workin' in a Coin Mine

So we think we know the real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, which is the nom de guerre (if you will) of the creator of Bitcoin. Or do we? There's so much about this cryptocurrency that is, well, cryptic. Like where it's actually generated. One of those secret places is in a town in China that is at such a high altitude that visitors need to bring their own oxygen cans along. The owner is Chandler Guo, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, and the workers are mostly male, mostly young, and mostly former farmers and new grads. They all live onsite. “All day we mine 50 bitcoins,” Guo explains. “24 hours this machine never sleeps. ... Two years ago Chinese mining was just 40% of all the mining equipment in the world. Right now it’s already 70%.” And Guo plans to be an even bigger part of that. He is in the process of building what he says will be the largest mine in the world (story, video):

I Watch Videos, Therefore I Am

Plato, Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Spinoza? Existentialism, Solipsism, Secular Humanism, Objectivism? Yikes! Kind of wish you'd taken a philosophy course in college? Took one but forgot it all? Well, despairest-thou not, for 25 short videos introducing the major philosophers can be yours for the taking. So pull up a chair and take notes, because, as British playwright Terry Johnson said, "Have you ever noticed how 'what the hell' is always the right decision to make?" (story, videos):

Just Because: 'Out of Africa'

Out of Africa ~ the book, not the movie, and that is an important distinction ~ is, IMHO, a work of art. Published in 1937, it displays some of attitudes of those times that we now, looking back, call elitist and racist, but the simple honesty and naïveté with which Danish author Isak Dinesen (aka Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, 1885-1962) wrote shine a light on the many shades of gray that exist in human behavior and beliefs. She was a well-meaning person who loved Africa and its people, but she was also in many ways a product of her times, as are we all. To let that overshadow her spirit and talent would be to lose out on the joy of reading an artwork and intimate account of another place and time. Dinesen's prose is profoundly poetic, her descriptions vivid but almost dreamlike in their ability to capture essence and symbol at the same time.

Kamante and Lulu

From the Forests and Highlands
we come, we come.

The Ngong Farm

I HAD A FARM in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
   The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like fullrigged ships with their sails clewed up, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the

Cotton Candy Chemistry

Summer's almost here, and in addition to that meaning the time is right for dancing in the street (it doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there), it's also time for all things outdoors, like fairs, for example. Invariably, most will include that very traditional of delightfully unhealthy treats, cotton candy. Oddly, one of the two men who, way back in 1897, applied for a patent for the cotton candy machine was a dentist. Little could he or his partner have imagined that his "revolvable or rotating pan or vessel containing candy or melted sugar" would, more than a century later, help scientists grow artificial tissues:
   For more details about how cotton candy ~ or fairy floss, as it was originally called ~ is made, check out