Blue spectacles

John Wesley Jarvis - Portrait Of A Gentleman (1807)
John Wesley Jarvis – Portrait Of A Gentleman (1807)

As a practicing nihilist, I’m often reminded of the following quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:1

Young ladies have only to crop their hair, put on blue spectacles2, and dub themselves Nihilists, to persuade themselves at once that they have immediately gained “convictions” of their own.

I’d always imagined this to mean “blue-rimmed spectacles”3, but then I came across the following quote in Patrick O’Brian’s4 The Far Side Of The World:

“The other thing that occurred to me,” [Jack] said [to Stephen], turning round, “is that it is extremely awkward talking to a man with hair all over his face; you cannot tell what he is thinking, what he really means, whether he is false or not. Sometimes people wear blue spectacles, and it is much the same.”

And in the next book, The Reverse Of The Medal:

[Stephen] wore a plain blue coat, and as he glanced at the flagship before putting on his blue spectacles they noticed his curiously pale eyes.

Apparently, these blue spectacles are sunglasses. This makes a lot of sense. As a practicing indoor sunglasses wearer, I’ve often remarked on their philosophical value. In fact, Bertrand Russell used them in an illustration in preparation for explaining Kant in Our Knowledge Of The External World As A Field For Scientific Method In Philosophy (1914). This is significant, since the term “nihilism” was popularized by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) who thought it was the result of thinking like Kant.


John Singer Sargent - Muddy Alligators (1917)
John Singer Sargent – Muddy Alligators (1917)
  • Some crocodilians 1 bait birds by putting nest-worthy twigs on their snouts. When a bird flies down to pick up the twigs, the crocodilian lunges up and eats it.
  • Crocodilians use gastroliths for digestion and maybe also for buoyancy and balance.

O.crocodilia contains three families: f.gavialidae, the gharials and false gharials; f.alligatoridae, the alligators and caimans; and f.crocodylidae, the crocodiles.

Hail cannons

An Eggers anti-hail device
An Eggers anti-hail device

I recently came across the following passage in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night:

Suddenly there was a booming from the wine slopes across the lake; cannons were shooting at hail-bearing clouds in order to break them.

According to one modern manufacturer of hail cannons,

The device is repeatedly fired every 4 seconds over the period when the storm is approaching & until it has passed through the area. What would otherwise have fallen as hail stones then falls as slush or rain. It is critical that the machine is running during the approach of the storm in order to affect the developing hail stone. These machines can not alter the form of an already developed & therefore solidified hailstone.

While there’s no scientific evidence to support the claimed effectiveness of these contraptions, the principle behind hail cannons predates scientific traction: traditionally, hail was warded off by ringing church bells.

On a different note, here’s another interesting quote from Tender Is The Night:

He went to the mail desk first—as the woman who served him pushed up with her bosom a piece of paper that had nearly escaped the desk, he thought how differently women use their bodies from men.


Jean-Léon Gérôme - Women Feeding Pigeons
Jean-Léon Gérôme – Women Feeding Pigeons

The pigeon we’re most familiar with is the domesticated rock pigeon1. Because of this thousands-of-years-long domestication, their modern distribution is much more widespread than their native range (generously estimated below):

g.columba s.livia distributions (maroon: native, pink: contemporary)

Humans wanted pigeons around because they ate them and loved them as pets, but they discarded them in the second half of the last century, and now they’re just part of the refuse of cities. Here follows more pigeon facts:

If you want to listen to more pigeon facts, I highly recommend the Surprisingly Awesome podcast.


John Singer Sargent - Gassed (1919)
John Singer Sargent – Gassed (1919)

Bertrand Russell argues against defensive war in “The Ethics Of War” (1915):

The principle of non-resistance contains an immense measure of wisdom if only men would have the courage to carry it out. The evils suffered during a hostile invasion are suffered because resistance is offered […]. What one civilized nation can achieve against another by means of conquest is very much less than is commonly supposed.

When making a decision, an accurate analysis of the universal consequences of that decision have to be accounted for. In the case of war, this sort of analysis is extremely difficult and is rarely conducted seriously.

By concentrating attention upon the supposed advantages of the victory of our own side, we become more or less blind to the evils inseparable from war and equally certain whichever side may ultimately prove victorious. Yet so long as these are not fully realized, it is impossible to judge justly whether a war is or is not likely to be beneficial to the human race.

It’s much easier to predict the horrors of an occupation than the horrors of a war, a conclusion which is perhaps a corollary of the fact that the latter far exceed the former.

Finally, we have a sense of honor in sacrifice, but I assert that sacrifice on the battlefield is in no way more honorable than sacrifice in passive resistance.

Only pride and fear stand in the way of [non-resistance’s] adoption. But the pride of military glory might be overcome by a nobler pride, and the fear might be overcome by a clearer realization of the solidity and indestructibility of a modern civilized nation.

In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes Of Wrath (1939), there’s a nice example of passive resistance:

There was a level place on which a croquet court had been set up. Half a dozen children played seriously. […] Ruthie and Winfield broke into a trot. “Leave us play,” Ruthie cried. “Leave us get in.”

The children looked up. A pig-tailed little girl said, “Nex’ game you kin.”

“I wanta play now,” Ruthie cried.

“Well, you can’t. Not till nex’ game.”

Ruthie moved menacingly out on the court. “I’m a-gonna play.” The pig-tails gripped her mallet tightly. Ruthie sprang at her, slapped her, pushed her, and wrested the mallet from her hands. “I says I was gonna play,” she said triumphantly.


The children laid their mallets on the ground and trooped silently off the court. They stood at a distance and looked on with expressionless eyes. Ruthie watched them go. Then she hit a ball and ran after it. “Come on, Winfiel’. Get a stick,” she called. And then she looked in amazement. Winfield had joined the watching children, and he too looked at her with expressionless eyes. Defiantly she hit the ball again. She kicked up a great dust. She pretended to have a good time. And the children stood and watched. Ruthie lined up two balls and hit both of them, and she turned her back on the watching eyes, and then turned back. Suddenly she advanced on them, mallet in hand. “You come an’ play,” she demanded. They moved silently back at her approach. For a moment she stared at them, and then she flung down the mallet and ran crying for home. The children walked back on the court.

An aside: if you like dog quotes, The Grapes Of Wrath has some good ones.


The Cessna CG-2 primary glider, which cost about $5,500 (USD 2016)
The Cessna CG-2 primary glider, which cost about $5,500 (USD 2016)

At the beginning of Out Of Africa (1937), Karen Blixen writes

The wind runs straight against the Ngong Hills, and the slopes of the hills would be the ideal place for setting up a glider, that would be lifted upwards by the currents, over the mountain top.

It’s surprising how Blixen is comfortable enough with the idea of a glider in 1937 to use the concept so casually, since hang gliding and paragliding didn’t really get started until the 1950s. It turns out that gliding was a very popular sport in the 1930s, using a predecessor of the sailplane called a primary glider:

Primary gliders were generally launched by bungee cord, whereby a rubber rope was arranged in a “V” with the glider at the apex. The ends of the rope were pulled by hand to launch the glider from a slope.

Modern sailplanes (commonly launched by towing them behind a plane) can also be launched similarly, using a winch system.


Ivan Bilibin - The Pyramids (1924)
Ivan Bilibin – The Pyramids (1924)

When we eat protein, our bodies break it down into individual amino acids. These amino acids are then reassembled to make the specific proteins we actually need. So, when we think about eating “protein”, we should keep in mind that we’re really just gathering proteinogenic (“protein creating”) amino acids.

There are only 23 proteinogenic amino acids used by life, as we know it. Of these, 21 are present in eukaryotes: 20 are represented surjectively from codons, and the 21st (selenocysteine) is oddly encoded by the stop codon.

Of the 21 proteinogenic amino acids we use, 9 essential ones can’t be created by our bodies, and therefore need to be attained through food. Many foods are complete proteins, though, meaning they contain sufficient proportions of all essential amino acids. This is why thinking of “protein” rather than “amino acid” as a dietary element is usually sufficient.

Regarding the header picture of the pyramids above, the laborers of the pyramids consumed extreme quantities of meat:

In an area of the world where people have traditionally reserved meat eating mostly for special occasions and feast-days, we have found evidence that the ancient state provisioned the pyramid city with enough cattle, sheep, and goat to feed thousands of people prime cuts of meat for more than a generation—even if they ate it every day.

I learned about this from the amazing The Egyptian History Podcast.

Jane Digby

Carl Haag - Jane Digby In Palmyra (1859)
Carl Haag – Jane Digby In Palmyra (1859)

Jane Digby (1807–1881) is a fascinating character. In Europe, she became known for her scandals and promiscuity:

In 1838, Jane found a new lover in the Greek Count Spyridon Theotokis (born 1805). [Her previous lover with whom she had children] Venningen found out and challenged Theotokis to a duel, in which the latter was wounded. Venningen generously released Jane from the marriage and took care of their children. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.

[…] Jane converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and married Theotokis in Marseille in 1841. The couple moved to Greece with their son Leonidas. In 1846, after their son’s fatal fall off a balcony, Theotokis and Jane divorced. Greece’s King Otto became her next lover.

Next came an affair with a hero of Greek revolution, Thessalian general Christodoulos Chatzipetros, acting as ‘queen’ of his brigand army, living in caves, riding horses and hunting in the mountains.

She then moved to Syria, where she married a sheik twenty years her junior:

Jane adopted Arab dress and learned Arabic in addition to the other eight languages in which she was fluent. Half of each year was spent in the nomadic style, living in goat-hair tents in the desert, while the rest was enjoyed in a palatial villa that she had built in Damascus.

[…] She was buried [in Damascus] with her horse in attendance at the funeral. Upon her footstone–a block of pink limestone from Palmyra–is her name, written in Arabic.

In fact, click on the header image (above) to see that the ruins of Palmyra are in the background. Unfortunately, the Islamic State destroyed most of these ruins in 2015.

Related to the idea of traveling far away against social norms, I came across a blog by an Austrian train fanatic, Helmut. In 2008, Helmut traveled from Vienna to Pyongyang by train. He was able to ride the train into North Korea from Russia using a clever visa loophole:

Tumangan [in North Korea] is by default listed on every North Korean visa, despite the fact that KITC [Korea International Travel Company] doesn’t offer this route to tourists.

This was an important information. At least it is not totally illegal to enter at Tumangan…

[…] So if Tumangan is listed on the visa – it could be possible to just book an ordinary trip to North Korea via Sinujiu [from China] but then in reality arrive via Tumangan [from Russia]…. hmmmm


A Comorian stamp expressing the country's relationship to the "most beautiful fish"
A Comorian stamp expressing the country’s relationship to “the most beautiful fish”

Somehow I missed the existence of the African country of The Comoros. It’s some islands north-west of Madagascar.

For a country that has a population of about 800,000 (with about half below the age of 15), the government is exceedingly developed:

Around 80 percent of the central government’s annual budget is spent on the country’s complex electoral system which provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each of the three islands and a rotating presidency for the overarching Union government.

This bloat is likely a direct result of the fact that the country has had at least 20 coups (or attempted coups) since its independence from France in 1975. It had its first peaceful democratic transfer of power in 2006.

The Comoros is also home to a large population of coelacanths1. In fact, the genome of the fish was sequenced from a Comorian specimen. Related, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer describes her discovery of the species amusingly:

I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen.

Road Scythe

Winslow Homer - The Veteran In A New Field (1865)
Winslow Homer – The Veteran In A New Field (1865)

A common psychological behavior as described by Jack Kerouac in On The Road:

I told Dean that when I was a kid and rode in cars I used to imagine I held a big scythe in my hand and cut down all the trees and posts and even sliced every hill that zoomed past the window. “Yes! Yes!” yelled Dean. “I used to do it too only different scythe—tell you why. Driving across the West with the long stretches my scythe had to be immeasurably longer and it had to curve over distant mountains, slicing off their tops, and reach another level to get at further mountains and at the same time clip off every post along the road, regular throbbing poles.”


As a child lying back in my father’s car in the back seat I also had a vision of myself on a white horse riding alongside over every possible obstacle that presented itself: this included dodging posts, hurling around houses, sometimes jumping over when I looked too late, running over hills, across sudden squares with traffic that I had to dodge through incredibly—” “Yes! Yes! Yes!” breathed Dean ecstatically. “Only difference with me was, I myself ran, I had no horse. You were a Eastern kid and dreamed of horses; of course we won’t assume such things as we both know they are really dross and literary ideas, but merely that I in my perhaps wilder schizophrenia actually ran on foot along the car and at incredible speeds sometimes ninety, making it over every bush and fence and farmhouse and sometimes taking quick dashes to the hills and back without losing a moment’s ground …”

If anyone knows about any serious academic research into this behavior, I’d be interested to know about it.

Etymology: contemplate, govern

Romulus and Remus looking at birds
Romulus and Remus looking at birds

The word “contemplate” comes from the Latin contemplari, derived from con- (“with”) and templum (“temple”). A templum was originally an open space used to observe birds in the practice of augury:

Unlike in Greece where oracles played the role of messenger of the Gods, in Rome it was through birds that Jupiter’s will was interpreted.

The word “govern” comes from the Greek κυβέρνηση, meaning “to steer, pilot a ship”. Interestingly, “cybernetics” has the same root. It was originally coined in 1948 by Norbert Wiener to mean “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine” but was later altered to refer to the study of systems that regulate and produce themselves. Note the lack of any mention of “technology”.

Fascinating aside from Wikipedia: In Norbert Wiener’s PhD dissertation (1912),

he was the first to state publicly that ordered pairs can be defined in terms of elementary set theory. Hence relations can be defined by set theory, thus the theory of relations does not require any axioms or primitive notions distinct from those of set theory.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost sitting on a recently-mended wall.
Robert Frost sitting on a recently-mended wall.

While preparing for a poetry club, I learned the following interesting things related to Robert Frost:

  • Robert Frost was born in 1874, the same year that Athens demolished the Frankish Tower in the Acropolis.
  • Robert Frost never graduated from college, although he attended Dartmouth and Harvard for short spells.
  • Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” from memory at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy (1961). He composed another poem, “The Dedication”, as a preface, but he was unable to read the text of it at the podium (even with Nixon offering his top hat to shade the page). I found the relevant part in a video of the inauguration:

Also, I find the following poem, “Not All There”, interesting:

I turned to speak to God
About the world’s despair;
But to make bad matters worse,
I found God wasn’t there.

God turned to speak to me
(Don’t anybody laugh!)
God found I wasn’t there—
At least not over half.

Incarceration in Greenland

The prisoner population per 100000 people for each country country
The prisoner population per 100,000 people for each country

I came across the above map on Wikipedia showing the incarceration rate (number of prisoners per 100,000 people) for each country. Greenland caught my eye since its rate is much higher than Denmark, which it’s part of. It turns out that incarceration in Greenland is quite interesting:

The Greenlandic prison system runs with a uniquely open model. Prisoners must report to prison between 9:30pm and 6:30am each day, but may go to work, visit relatives and complete errands while in the community. They also may hunt with firearms if they are escorted by a prison guard. Prisoners have keys to their own cells, as this is regarded as a form of privacy. A failure to attend prison will result in 7 days in solitary confinement once the escapee returns. […] There are presently 160 places in the Greenlandic prison system.

A tangent: I made a simple plot showing the population of the largest city throughout history. You can hover over points to see the name of the respective city.

Fathers And Sons

Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), author of Fathers And Sons
Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), author of Fathers And Sons

I just read Fathers And Sons by Ivan Turgenev. You can find some quotes I found interesting here, for example:

“And this Monsieur Bazarov, what is he exactly?” [Pavel Petrovich] inquired with deliberation.

“What is Bazarov?” Arkady smiled. “Would you like me to tell you, uncle, what he is exactly?”

“Please do, nephew.”

“He is a nihilist!”

“A nihilist,” said Nikolai Petrovich. “[…] The term must signify a man who … who recognizes nothing?”

“Say—who respects nothing,” put in Pavel Petrovich, and set to work with the butter again.

“Who looks at everything critically,” observed Arkady.

“Isn’t that the same thing?” asked Pavel Petrovich.

“No, it’s not the same thing. A nihilist is a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered.”

Also, Turgenev makes a fun historical mistake at the beginning of Chapter 21:

“Here am I, as you can see, like some Cincinnatus, marking out a bed for late turnips. […] I’m used to it; you see, I’m a plebeian.

But Cincinnatus—aside from peacefully stepping down from a position of absolute power—is famous for strongly opposing the plebeian class, of which he was certainly not a member. In fact, the reason he had to become a farmer in the first place was because of the fines imposed on his family by their abuse of the plebeians.

Animal Trials

An excerpt from a list of excommunications and prosecutions of animals in Appendix F of The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals
An excerpt from a list of excommunications and prosecutions of animals in Appendix F of The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals

Edward Payson Evans (1831–1917) collected a number of extremely interesting cases of animal trials and strange legal disputes in his book The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals (1906). For example:

Bartholomew Chassenee, a distinguished French jurist of the sixteenth century […], made his reputation at the bar as counsel for some rats, which had been put on trial before the ecclesiastical court of Autun on the charge of having feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley-crop of that province. […] In view of the bad repute and notorious guilt of his clients, Chassenee was forced to employ legal shifts and chicane, dilatory pleas and other technical objections. […] He urged, in the first place, that inasmuch as the defendants were dispersed over a large tract of country and dwelt in numerous villages, a single summons was insufficient to notify them all; he succeeded, therefore, in obtaining a second citation, to be published from the pulpits of all the parishes inhabited by the said rats. […] He excused the default or non-appearance of his clients on the ground of the length and difficulty of the journey and the serious perils which attended it, owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.

(Pages 18–19)

Another interesting rat-related anecdote:

A faded and somewhat droll survival of excommunication and exorcism is the custom, still prevailing in European countries and some portions of the United States, of serving a writ of ejectment on rats or simply sending them a friendly letter of advice in order to induce them to quit any house, in which their presence is deemed undesirable. Lest the rats should overlook and thus fail to read the epistle, it is rubbed with grease, so as to attract their attention, rolled up and thrust into their holes.

(Page 129)

Similar legal disputes were brought against all sorts of animals including insects:

In the fourteenth century the peasants of the Electorate of Mayence brought a complaint against some Spanish flies, which were accordingly cited to appear at a specified time and answer for their conduct; but “in consideration of their small size and the fact that they had not yet reached their majority,” the judge appointed for them a curator, who “defended them with great dignity”; and, although he was unable to prevent the banishment of his wards, he obtained for them the use of a piece of land, to which they were permitted peaceably to retire.

(Pages 110–111)

Humans have even punished plants:

Among the Kukis, if a man falls from a tree and is killed, it is the sacred duty of the next of kin to fell the tree, and cut it up and scatter the chips abroad. The spirit of the tree was supposed to have caused the mishap, and the blood of the slain was not thought to be thoroughly avenged until the offending object had been effaced from the earth.

(Page 171)

This is a fun aside that caught my eye:

A Frenchman bequeathed his property to his own corpse, in behalf of which his entire estate was to be administered, the income to be expended for the preservation of his mortal remains and the adornment of the magnificent mausoleum in which they were sepulchred.

(Page 110)

Year Walk

I recently played through Year Walk on the computer. It’s a very short game, but the journal you unlock by beating the game is a sweet addition. Here are my game “notes”:

The "notes" I made as I played through the game.
The “notes” I made as I played through the game.

Fountain Reading: Seminary Co-Op

On April 15, 2015, I read from Fountain at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Chicago. You can listen to a recording of the reading (and following questions) here:

The Chicago Maroon wrote a fun article about the event. A couple of quotes follow:

At the event, John Wilkinson, Associate Chair for Creative Writing and Poetics in the English department, spoke briefly about his experience teaching Hughes in his core class on creative writing. Hughes’s unique anti-realist style made an early impression on Wilkinson. “It is unusual for an undergraduate to present for their first creative writing class something that has nothing to do with his or her family or miserable or ecstatic love life or any other autobiographical stuff,” Wilkinson said. “This unusual student seemed engaged by what fiction alone might make possible in the way of thinking.”

“I’ve always written a little as a thing to do outside of science and other things … But at one point I decided I needed to write a novella because I had written short stories and somehow I accidently promised my dad I would write a novella,” Hughes said. “Once it was done I think it was better than other stuff I had written and that’s why I wanted to get it published.”


I added an events calendar to my website. You can access it by pressing the button on the left labeled “” or by going to I have three book-related events coming up:

  • A signing at AWP (150409)
  • A reading at Miami University (150413)
  • A reading in Chicago (150415)

Come support me if you can!

Edwin Lord Weeks

Edwin Lord Weeks - The Camel Rider (1875)
Edwin Lord Weeks – The Camel Rider (1875)

Edwin Lord Weeks was an American artist who traveled extensively in the late nineteenth century. Here’s an odd quote from his diary, The Black Sea Through Persia And India:

Outside Turkomanshai, September 17, 1892: Here, as elsewhere near a village, we are beset with cats—not that we regard them with antipathy, but there really are too many cats. They seem to spring up from the ground, and curl themselves snugly in our beds. When they have been expelled they make a semblance of retreating, but return again to take refuge among our bags and carpets. At the dinner hour they prowl about the door of the tent in anticipation of bones, and pass like illuminated silhouettes across the track of the lantern light.