A cabinet of curiosities, assembled by Andrew Engelson.

Adventures in Liminal Space

Posted on November 23, 2015


Is it France or Switzerland?


At the foot of the Jura mountains, not far from the suburb of Geneva where I live, is a lonely road I like to cycle in the mornings for exercise. It’s not mountainous, but the route climbs several sizable hills that get my heart pumping. Cattle graze lush fields as their bells clank in harmony. I ride through forests full of fragrant pines and birch that turn a rusty gold in the autumn. The views to the south open out to Lac Leman, and beyond, the needle-sharp summits of the Alps. Above it all looms the vanilla ice cream cone of Europe’s highest peak, the Mont Blanc. Often, I don’t see another person for most of the ride.

What I love about this loop is that at a certain point I cross the border between Switzerland and France. It’s not well marked, and so often I exist in a kind of geographical limbo, not sure which country I’m pedaling through at a given moment.

There’s a term popular in anthropology and sociology that applies to this experience: liminal. It’s an in-between space, a period of change where you’re not what you once were but not quite what you’re going to be. Anthropologists have used it to describe the moment in coming-of-age ceremonies (Confirmation, Bar or Bat Mitzvah) or at weddings when things are indistinct, in transition.

In the current decade, the phrase has come to take on a more complicated meaning, whether it’s describing people whose lives are in transition (say regarding work or living space) or to refer to people who feel “in-between” various cultural labels, whether they be gender, race, or nationality.

In a great article, At Home in the Liminal World in Nautilus, Pamela Weintraub explains how the concept of the liminal is becoming increasingly prevalent in our globally-interconnected world. A new group of people are emerging who comfortably exist in a state of transition. Some are global nomads who spend half the year teaching English in Hanoi and the rest of the year traveling Southeast Asia. Others have never left their home country, but work as freelancers with no set place of employment, and must navigate constantly shifting business cultures. As Weintraub observes:

In recent years, anthropologists have spotlighted a new generation at “home in the diaspora,” in Behar’s words. For them the liminal is not life’s interlude, but life itself. While being uprooted results in lost jobs, broken relationships, and, as cultural anthropologist Anthony D’Andrea says, “displaced minds,” scientists are finding benefits to life in the liminal lane. The more time we spend in alien realms, they say, the more likely we are to perceive the world in ways we could never otherwise imagine, evoking a perfect backdrop for fevered creative work, learning, and personal growth. “When you thrust yourself out of your usual context,” Behar says, “you find out who you are.”

I’ve lived overseas now for six years, first in Vietnam, and now in Switzerland. My daughters are definitely third culture kids who barely remember what it’s like to live in the U.S., and now speak fluent French, debate which variety of pho noodle soup is best, and keep connected with a network of friends across the globe. We’ve been living in a metaphorical liminal zone for some time, and soon we’ll be approaching the transition back to the U.S. That should provide plenty of challenges and the excitement of uncertainty.

One of the things I love about my liminal bike route at the foot of the Jura is that the border is ignored. Not long ago, I did discover two little stone markers overgrown with grass, so now it’s a little less “in between” when I ride.  And in the wake of recent terrorist attacks, there’s talk of eliminating open borders in Europe’s Schengen area. I suppose that might be necessary for safety’s sake. But I like to imagine a day without enforced borders anywhere, when we’re all comfortable cycling through liminal space.

What to Read this Weekend 11-20

Posted on November 20, 2015

This week’s “What to Read” is a bit of a cheat. There’s only one thing on the list, and it’s not even an article. I’ve been reading a lot this week, about Paris, and immigrants and Syria and ISIS and I suspect we all could use a bit of break.

The idea behind this feature on my blog is simple: taking time to delve into something more deeply, to pay attention. It’s hard to do that these days, and I’m as guilty as anyone else.

So today’s recommendation is this. It will require 49 minutes and 42 seconds of your time.


There’s a scene in Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety where two couples who are best friends have a dinner together and then afterwards (this is in the mid-20th century, I think the late 1930s), they all go to the living room, put on a phonographic record and just listen to a  piece of music. When was the last time you did this? Other than live concerts, we never actually sit and listen to music anymore. Music is our soundtrack, the background, the thing that hovers behind our conversations and cocktails, accompanies our workouts, but isn’t really heard. Music is so widespread now, we barely notice it. But a century or two ago, it took effort to make music happen, and when it did, it demanded our attention.

So, the backstory. As I was doing chores around the house and a classical music station was playing in the background, I began to hear something extraordinary as I did the laundry. I recognized the sounds of the piano solo as Beethoven, but the work was unfamiliar to me. It was  dissonant, jarring–and clearly something extraordinary.

The piece is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #29. It is has no instantly recognizable melodies as do the Moonlight or Appasionata sonatas. The work is rarely played or recorded because it is fiendishly difficult to play. Stravinsky described it was “inexhaustible and exhausting.” The work is incredibly modern and complex. The slow, patient adagio is absolutely heartbreaking and tender (and if you must skip, start the video at 15:57). The piece builds gradually to the finale, which is an absolutely insane, manic fugue that is nothing short of astonishing. It’s J.S. Bach on Adderall and LSD.

This performance by Daniel Barenboim is mesmerizing. He does a magnificent job with such a demanding piece, and I find it extraordinary that he’s not only an accomplished conductor but one of our great soloists. I hope you have time to enjoy it. Either way, have a great weekend.

Two Quotes for the Day

Posted on November 17, 2015

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities




“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

What to Read This Weekend 11-13

Posted on November 13, 2015

A soldier being wished good luck. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

A soldier being wished good luck. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.


Good luck on this Friday the Thirteenth! Here’s a collection of long reads to stimulate your neurons this weekend…

Simon Schama is one of my favorite writers. He’s one of those rare creatures: a scholar independent of academia. In a wide-ranging essay for the Guardian on the faces in the National Portrait Gallery, Schama swerves from reflections on the birth of his daughter to the portrait Winston Churchill hated to our narcissistic obsession with selfies.

In a fantastic essay “The Skin Feeling” at The New Inquiry, Sofia Samatar explores the complexities of race and tokenism in academia. Beginning with Charlie Parker’s notorious drug-induced crack-up in 1946, Samatar’s essay delves into what it means to be vulnerable in a society still grappling with its racial demons.

There is almost no way, in places where black people are few, to talk about the complexities of blackness, to go beneath the surface of a predictable form and refuse to be an institutional ornament

Ling Ma’s satirical, surrealist story “Los Angeles” in Granta features a mansion the protagonist shares with The Husband and her 100 ex-boyfriends, visits to artisanal slow-food restaurants and a reckoning with an abusive ex who wonders if “what she feels is real.”

Rebecca Solnit, over at Harper’s, ponders the upcoming climate change conference in Paris and notes what’s different from the last conference (better organized climate activists, a slew of damaging hurricanes, solar panels that cost 80 percent less). In addition to the bureaucrats, tens of thousands of protesters will be manning the barricades (and I’ll be there, too!).

In a fascinating post, Alex Mayyasi, explores the surprising history of pad Thai. Conceived by the military leader of Thailand in the late 1930s, the now-ubiquitous fried noodle dish was promoted as a new, specifically Thai aspect of culture, part of a modernization campaign that included standardized language and restrictive rules for how to dress.

Dark matter is the stuff that has bedeviled astronomers and physicists for decades: most of the universe, by their calculations, is made up of some sort of matter we’ve never seen. The Economist describes the efforts of a team scientists working find dark matter at the center of the Milky Way, by way wonderful terms such as WIMPS and hooperons.

Over at the New York Times, fiction mavens George Saunders (The Tenth of December) and Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit from the Goon Squad) chat about the benefits and perils of writing about the future. The article alone is worth it for Saunders’ line: “So I wrote some prose that was, you know, almost like Henry James on stupid pills…”

And finally, in the interest of shameless self-promotion, if you’d like to meander through such topics as difference engines, twittering machines, Italo Calvino’s funeral, the joy of concrete, and the fate of a Klimt masterpiece in Nazi Germany, you might peruse my essay on Twittering Machines  here at The Lost Salt Atlas.

That’s all for for this week. Bon chance!

Visiting Rilke’s Tower

Posted on November 12, 2015

Today was “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” and since having Fiona sit there watching me type my novel or some blog posts seemed pretty darn boring, we decided to take a field trip instead.

I knew that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had spent time writing in Switzerland, and after a little research, discovered he finished his Duino Elegies in a rented stone tower in Veyras, a village in the canton of Valais, not far from Sierre.  I’m always up for a literary pilgrimage, and anyway it seemed better than sitting at home. It was about a 2-hour train ride, and we soon left the fog of Lac Leman behind for clear skies.

The most important poet writing in German in the first half of the twentieth century, many Americans know Rilke for Letters to a Young Poet. But Duino is his masterpiece, a meditation on death, the joys and sorrows of life, and the strange facts of consciousness. He spent ten years–from 1912 to 1922–writing the ten intense elegies. He began work at a castle on the Adriatic, Duino, which gave the book its name. World War I interrupted things, and then after a flurry of writing in February 1922, it was finally finished. Rilke was an intense person, not easy to live with, and craved his solitude.

He found it at the stone “castle” known as Château du Muzet, which is really no more than a large house. The day was brilliant, and some golden leaves remained on the trees. The house is privately owned, so there’s no having a look inside. There’s also a Rilke museum in the town of Sierre, but it was closed for the winter.

We had a look, took pictures, and enjoyed a picnic in the autumn sun. And we brought back this story, which was what Rilke insisted one goes to the mountains for:

After all, isn’t what the wanderer brings back
from the mountain slopes to the valley
not a handful of earth that no one could say
but rather a word, hard-won, pure,
the yellow and blue gentian?


A Twittering Machine

Posted on November 12, 2015

Die_Zwitscher-Maschine_(Twittering_Machine)“You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other machines.” –Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The little bird-creatures in Paul Klee’s painting Twittering Machine jiggle and exclaim with thoughtless ecstasy, unaware of their spring-loaded connection to a turning crank. It is the image of our age, not merely because the vacant-looking critters are tweeting, but because they are part of a machine, set in motion, free of any ridiculous notion of free will, an idea Nietzsche mocked with his withering wit:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.

Humans are machines. Composed of cells and neurons, they’re especially good at seeing patterns and making connections. I am a human, and an artist of a sort. But I don’t create. I take dictation. I watch the flow and follow where it leads me…

babbage engine

While visiting the London Science Museum, I noticed among an assortment of archaic IBM computers and cellphones the size of bricks, a shining machine composed of steel rods and gears. It is one of only two existing difference machines designed by Charles Babbage.

A figure of the early Victorian era, Babbage was a man of many interests. He was a founder of the Royal Astronomical Society. He contributed to the creation of the Royal Post Office. He studied electrodynamics, was an accomplished cryptographer, and wrote books on mechanical engineering, statistics, factory efficiency, and theology.

But what Babbage is best known for was his difference engine. Mathematicians and engineers in the early nineteenth century depended on books filled with tables of calculations (logarithmic and trigonometric functions, for example) that were created by groups of human “computers,” but they were often riddled with errors. Babbage conceived of a machine that would automatically calculate these figures with the turning of a crank. The British government was interested, and in 1823 commissioned Babbage to make one.

But owing to the technical limitations of the time (metal pieces could not be milled to the precise dimensions), the engine proved difficult to execute. Eventually the British government  lost interest and the project was abandoned. In 1989, scientists from Australia began to build a difference engine based on Babbage’s schematics. In 1991 it was completed, and to this day it works exactly as designed. Had it been finished, it would have been the world’s first working computer.

Babbage had peculiar obsessions. He disdained “the mob” and worked to combat nuisances he observed on in his walks through London: he was incensed by broken windows, street performers, and children playing games. Babbage especially abhorred the street urchins playing tip-cat, a early form of baseball in which one hits a stick whittled to a point on both ends (the cat) with a flat stick (the bat). The inventor/author sponsored legislation in parliament to ban the game.

TipCatIn his story, “Making Do,” Italo Calvino describes a town where everything is forbidden, everything except the playing of tip-cat. The residents played it every day and soon learned to excel at it. After a several years the town rulers decided to repeal the exclusionary laws and once more allow the citizens do whatever they wished. But all the people wanted to do was play tip cat. Messengers from the city assured them they could return to their old pursuits, but they continued to play. The city constable then banned the playing of tip cat. In response, the people rebelled, killed the town leaders, and returned to their games.

Calvino was one of the twentieth century’s great fabulists, a spinner of tales encrusted with amethyst and myrrh, parables of love and desire set in imagined cities more lustrous than Venice, more blue than the lapis lazuli buildings of Jodhpur.

Observing Calvino’s funeral for the New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal recalls a scene from Calvino’s final book:

Palomar is on the beach at Castiglion: he is trying to figure out the nature of waves. Is it possible to follow just one? Or do they all become one? Or do they all become one? E pluribus unum and its reverse might well sum up Calvino’s approach to our condition. Are we a part of the universe? Or is the universe, simply, us thinking that there is such a thing? Calvino often writes like the scientist that his parents were. He observes, precisely, the minutiae of nature: stars, waves, lizards, turtles, a woman’s breast exposed on the beach. In the process, he vacillates between macro and micro. The whole and the part. Also, tricks of eye. The book is written in the present tense, like a scientist making reports on that ongoing experiment, the examined life.

Watching the mourners under a stormy sky, Vidal notes that Calvino had a loathing for cement, which obliterated much of the Ligurian coast he loved. After the coffin enters the ground, Vidal looks on in disgust as workers pour a layer of “horrible cement” over the writer’s tomb. Calvino, alas, has no say in the matter.

“Therefore Palomar prepares to become a grouchy dead man, reluctant to submit to the sentence to remain exactly as he is; but he is unwilling to give up anything of himself, even if it is a burden.”

The artist most enamored of cement was Le Corbusier, that modernist architect whose machine-age edifices are almost exclusively made from concrete. It is poured, shaped and molded into brutal and and utilitarian buildings that defy any concession to the human. Cold and hard like the pyramids, their stacked blocks and gray faces are an impersonal machinery, a fascist aesthetic that cares nothing for comfort.

And yet Le Corbusier’s greatest achievement, the Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, a village in the French Jura mountains, is the one exception. Its poured cement swoops with curved lines, and its randomly placed windows give the building a sense of human surprise and playfulness. And that soaring roof. Germaine Greer once described it as that “apparently impossible roof, flapping clear of the walls like a nun’s starched bonnet.”


Since living in Geneva, I had a vague sense that Le Corbusier was Swiss but then Wikipedia reminded me that I see his his face nearly every day. Eeach time I open my wallet pay for a carton of eggs or an espresso, there he is on the Swiss ten-franc note with his trademark thick-framed glasses perched upon his forehead. That gaze has always disturbed me: sometimes his eyes are slits, critical with disdain. But other times (perhaps this is a feature to prevent counterfeiting) his eyes seem bizarrely wide open, with the goggly gaze of a madman.

corbusierAll the Swiss bills feature artists of some sort (which is refreshing… I miss the days of the Little Prince and St. Exupery on the French Franc). There’s Giacometti, and the art historian Jacob Burkhardt, and Dada artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Can you imagine the United States replacing the genocidal face of Andrew Jackson with Jackson Pollock or Georgia O’Keefe? Yeah, me neither.

The 20-franc note features the composer Arthur Honegger, who I was not immediately familiar with, but I learned is best known for a short orchestral piece called Pacific 231. Inspired by a love of trains, Honegger tried to capture their energy in a dissonant, percussive work that was eventually transformed into an avant-garde film by Jean Mitry:


How Swiss, to compose an homage to the locomotive, in this country where trains are fast and sleek and always run on precise time. Honegger spent most of his career in France, and he was famously associated with the Le Six group of modernists in Paris. He also claimed to have been a member of the French Resistance, composing the “Chant du Liberation.”

But in a New York Times piece several years ago, music scholar Leslie Sprout found that Honegger wasn’t quite the partisan he portrayed himself to be. Looking at manuscripts of Honegger’s composition in a Paris archive, Sprout discovered that composer had conveniently  added the revolutionary lyrics to the “Chant” near the end of the war, after he’d been kicked out of the resistance. He’d been asked to leave after traveling to Vienna several times and meeting enthusiastically with Nazi officials, including Heinz Dewes, the head of Goebbel’s music department.

So perhaps Pacific 231 has a taint, the oily stink of machinery gone too far, of the trains that efficiently carted their cargo of millions, including Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, and Irene Nemirovsky, to their fates. Sometimes, one wonders if resistance is possible. Is the universe set in motion like the great clock in Bern, where the figurines follow their appointed paths on strict schedule? Or does the universe have moments of chance, of rebellion? Perhaps it’s as Lucretius imagined: that the smallest bits of matter, what he called atoms, sometimes swerve from their appointed paths and defy predictability with an occasional jog of whimsy.

bicycle-einsteinEinstein, of course, famously hated the notion of randomness in the universe. He derided the uncertainty outlined in quantum physics, and was certain that all its strange behaviors–wave collapse, the particle-wave duality, and Schrodiner’s infernal cat–were simply a failure to correctly grasp the order of things.

Erwin Schrodinger was more comfortable with uncertainty. A devotee of Schopenhauer’s work and a student of Hindu philosophy, the Austrian physicist (who, like Einstein, fled the Nazis) found that our understanding of things on a very tiny scale has to be founded on probability. It was a profound step away from a deterministic world once imagined by physicists, including LaPlace, who conceived of a demon who, if he knew the speeds and masses of every particle at the time of creation, could predict the future with complete accuracy.

The_Equation-1024x768Richard Feynmann said of Schrodinger’s accomplishment: “Where did we get that (equation) from? Nowhere. It is not possible to derive it from anything you know. It came out of the mind of Schrödinger.”

Coming of age in Vienna, Schrodinger was no doubt aware of the intellectual cauldron bubbling  over in the city when he enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1906. Sigmund Freud was working out his theory of the unconscious over pastries at Cafe Landtmann, while composers Arthur Schoenberg and Alban Berg were making a racket with their atonal music, and Arthur Schnitzler was shocking audiences with his sexually frank plays.

But it was in painting that Vienna experienced its most furious creative flourishing. Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka were breaking taboos, carving the wet, hunger of sexuality onto their canvases. Gustav Klimt, that passionate painting-machine dressed in purple robes, was igniting scandal with glittering visions of beauty taken to excess. It was at the University of Vienna, where Schrodinger studied, that Klimt was commissioned to paint several large works for the ceiling of the Great Hall. The authorities were shocked at the result, and the three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence were condemned as an example of “perverted excess.” The pictures were never displayed and Klimt angrily paid back his commission and sold the paintings a private collector.


Klimt’s painting Philosophy is one of the sublime expressions of human experience emerging  from the chaos of the cosmos. The figures float in a starry field, a kind of stellar amniotic fluid. Some of the humans are in embrace, while another, an old man, stands in lonely despair. The figures are indeterminate, moving from the field of probability into possibility, and then fading away again. It is a thoroughly haunting image.

schloss_immenThe owners of the Klimt triptych were Austrian Jews, and so the paintings were seized by Nazis in 1938. Even though they considered the images  “degenerate,” Nazi officials allowed Klimt’s paintings to be displayed in a gallery in 1943. The three paintings were then were moved to Schloss Immendorf, an elegant castle in the Austrian countryside, to protect them from the Allied bombs raining down on Vienna.

On the final day of the war, May 7, 1945, after Hitler had killed himself and the surrender had been signed, a group of SS officers arrived at Schloss Immendorf for a final fling before the war was officially over the next day. Thirteen of Klimt’s paintings hung upon the walls, including Philosophy. Jonathan Jones describes what happened next:

…the Nazis, the castle’s owner later reported, looked at the paintings with appreciation, and one was heard to say that it would be a “sin” for the Russians to get their hands on them. Klimt’s sensual art turned out to be a fitting backdrop for the events of that night: according to a 1946 police report, the SS officers “held orgies all night in the castle apartments”. Who knows what this means, but it is a strange and macabre image — the SS holding their orgies as Klimt’s maenads and muses looked on.

The next day the SS unit placed explosives in one of the castle towers and blew it apart. The building went up in flames and burned for days. None of the paintings, including Philosophy, survived.

Autocorrect Poetry

Posted on November 9, 2015





My dear partner Joanie sent along a bit of poetry generated by her smartphone autocorrect. I like it very much (and a half)…

I’m sure you have any contact details.
You will need a little more about this product is a good time.
The sun is out now on sale.
The sun is out now on sale.
The sun is out now on sale.
The sun is out now on sale.
I have a new proposal for a while.
I have a new proposal for a while.
I have a new proposal for a while.
I have plans for this.
It is the best, and a half.
I was 5.
I am looking for an hour and a bit of the two sides of your choice, and a half.
I was on normal skype, and a half.
I was on normal skype, but I do not hesitate to ask the same time as the new year to you, and a half.
I was on hand.
The first time buyers, expert claims to be able to get the most important things to be a popular choice.
I am a bit of fun.
We are on the plane.
Will be a good idea to get the best of luck for the next few months.
I have plans for a while to get a few minutes walk 21st century 30th.
I am a bit like a good idea, but the page, change of circumstances, the more I can see a list.


I think I’ll use that last line to describe myself more often: I am a bit like a good idea.


(Photo courtesy JohnnyMrNinja via Wikimedia Commons.)

What to Read This Weekend 11-07

Posted on November 8, 2015

medieval_readerYes folks, it’s time for another edition of What to Read This Weekend, where the devoted staff of The Lost Salt Atlas (yes, that’s me) cruise the troubled waters of the interwebs in search of meaningful  things to read. It’s about slowing down and paying attention, using some your online time to discover something more lasting than a few clickbait articles and selfies.

In that spirit of attention, Sven Birkerts at Aeon reflects on the meaning found in the smallest details of consciousness. Kept home by an injury, Birkerts ponders, in a slow and delightfully patient way, what he sees while exercising on a stationary bike rather than his usual walks outside.

Here attention meets distraction or, better yet, daydreaming. They are not the same thing. One is the special curse of our age — the self diluted and thinned to a blur by all the vying signals — while the other hearkens back to childhood, seems the very emblem of the soul’s freedom.

In the New York Review of Books, President Obama and novelist Marilynne Robinson have an extended conversation about faith, empathy, and the increasing polarization of political dialogue in America. (Part two is here.) Robinson is a little too pious for my taste, but it’s a good, meandering discussion. The highlight is this one admission from Obama:

When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that.

Not long ago, I returned from a trip to Rome, and among the ruins, it’s astonishing to imagine all the Roman Empire achieved two thousand years ago. Historian Mary Beard, however, in an article for the Guardian, cautions us not to idealize the Romans too much or draw too many parallels to our own world. After all, we don’t have gladiators, slaves, or throw our unwanted babies on trash heaps. (Not quite yet, anyway.)

In the New Yorker, treat yourself to the glowing, intricate paintings of Njdeka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian-born painter who lives and works in Los Angeles. Imbued with vivid sunlight, Akunyili Crosby’s pictures portray domestic scenes wedged between two cultures. Worked into the paintings (some tenderly erotic) are hundreds of photographs the artist brings back from her travels to Nigeria.

Quantum physics is bizarre, counterintuitive, and completely fascinating. I can’t even begin to grasp it, but I’m captivated by the recent story of two scientists who conducted a successful experiment to prove Bell’s Theorem. They found that two entangled particles, when observed miles apart, can be affected by how one researcher looks at them. It’s a laboratory proof of the action at a distance Einstein once dismissed as mere “spookiness.” What’s next for quantum physics? Over at Nautilus, there’s great, detailed profile of a scientist conducting experiments to determine if space itself might be “chunky” that is, only divisible into discrete units. His research has the potential to bridge the gap between the big-scale stuff of general relativity and the infinitesimally tiny scale of quantum physics.

Meanwhile, Boston Review samples the poetry of Philip B. Williams, a talented young poet whose nearly tactile flow of language underscores an exploration of the inner struggles of intimacy as well as his relation to the deeps scars of racism:

I have not been long in the meaning of shadow, the one shared bruise of all things. . . It keeps quiet, working harder than the mind to make real what is not, though it is the mind that imagines the shadow having its own language, its own dark idiom translating the body onto whatever surface will hold it. The shadow is the mind, the mind’s work, seen.
(Image courtesy of the British Library Flickr site.)


Here Be Monsters

Posted on November 5, 2015


Detail from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina, 1539, the oldest map of Nordic countries to show place names. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The cartographers of old sometimes peopled the unknown oceans with all manner of horrid creatures and grave dangers. In the North Sea, you might come across writhing red snakes, ship-crushing maelstroms, or a voracious leviathan ready to devour your entire crew with its dagger-sharp teeth. The message of these maps was clear: journey here at your own risk. “HC SVNT DRACONES” the famous inscription once read. Here be dragons.


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Monogahela Lands a Sea Monster

In 1852, the Illustrated London News reported that the whaling ship Monongahela captured a sea serpent in the Bering sea. In a letter, the ship’s mate recalled:

The tail and head would occasionally appear in the bloody foam, and a sound was heard so dead, so unearthly, and expressive of acute agony, that a thrill of horror ran through our veins.

After the incident, the letter describing the creature was allegedly given to a passing ship. Several months later, the Monogahela sank into the icy brine, taking all of her crew to their deaths.

What was the mysterious creature they brought up? Was it some relic of the Cretaceous, a living fossil cruising the black depths of the ocean’s most profound depths? What nightmare dragon emerged from the sea, and was it somehow responsible, even after its death, for destroying the crew of the Monogahela?

The giant oarfish. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo by Sandstein, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Or maybe the beast was merely Regalecus glesne, the giant oarfish. Reaching up 36 feet in length, the oarfish is the world’s longest bony fish. A resident of all the world’s oceans, this real-life monster undulates in the epipelagic and mesopelagic ocean layers at depths of up to 3,000 feet. It’s rare, but occasionally washes up on beaches–and terrifies anyone who happens across it.

Hic sunt dracones, indeed.

(Hat tip to Tom Lytle for the story of the Monongahela.)