A Journey Through the Star Trek Lit-Verse

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Over Thanksgiving I read Patrick Stewart’s new memoir, Making It So, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reading it put me in mind of Star Trek, even though Stewart’s time on the show and the films make up a relatively small portion of the book. I know little Star Trek lore beyond what most casual viewers of the show know. Indeed, I’ve never seen most episodes of the original series. The series with which I am most familiar is The Next Generation, and even there I have large gaps in my viewing. Deep Space Nine, and Voyagers are unknown to me. I have seen and enjoyed the newer films, but I understand that there are supposed to take place on an alternate timeline.

And thus begins the complications of the last few days. Arriving back from a long holiday weekend in New York, and needing a break from the long run of nonfiction I’ve been reading lately (18 out of the last 20 books), I was looking for something fun and entertaining to read and it occurred to me: what about a Star Trek novel?

I can hear those of your with much greater Star Trek knowledge than I possess laughing. It is one thing to want to read a Star Trek novel. It is something else entirely to figure out where to begin. Within 20 minutes of searching, I discovered the Star Trek “Lit-verse” and it is as vast as Gene Roddenberry’s galaxy. In a situation like this, the easiest thing for me is to begin at the beginning. But I couldn’t even find a list of all of the Star Trek novels in publication order. The Wikipedia page that lists Star Trek novels is huge, and contains multiple, overlapping lists. A single sub-list (“numbered novels”) contains 97 entries between 1979-2002.

More searching led me to The Trek Collective which had a Trek-Lit Reading Order Flow Chart, the complexity of which reminded me of a diagram one might find in Engineering on the Enterprise. While impressive in its detail and complexity, it made it no clearer where to start. The Star Trek Lit-verse Reading Guide broke things down by series, but it still didn’t answer the simple question, “Where should I start?” It did offer a useful piece of advice, however:

My goal here was to include every link possible and leave the continuity problems up to the reader to resolve. If you don’t want a book in your personal continuity, then just ignore it. Don’t become so invested in continuity that you forget to enjoy the stories themselves.

Ultimately, I opted for three books from different series to start with, mostly by hunt-and-peck method:

I began reading Captain to Captain yesterday and, so far, it has been a lot of fun. Just the kind of fun that I was looking for.

I asked ChatGPT the following just after I started reading Captain to Captain: “I want to start reading some novels in the Star Trek universe, but there are so many of them I don’t even know where to begin. Can you suggest a pathway through these novels that makes sense?” ChatGPT responded with the following list to start with:

The Original Series

  • Spock’s World by Diane Duane
  • The Entropy Effect by Vonda N. McIntyre

The Next Generation

  • Q-Squared by Peter David
  • Imzadi by Peter David

Deep Space Nine

  • The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack
  • A Stitch in Time by Andrew J. Robinson


  • Full Circle by Kirsten Beyer


  • The Good That Men Do by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin

Crossover Novels

  • Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

New Frontier series by Peter David

“Discovery” and “Picard” novels

Obviously, I’m still figuring out which direction to go here. If anyone has advice or suggestions as to how to tackle this thorny problem, or if anyone knows of a list that guides one through a good selection of the novels and stories in the Star Trek universe, I’d be grateful if you shared your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

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I have an idyllic notion of life on a farm: waking up before the sun to milk cows, sow crops, mend fences, and a hundred other chores. It’s a nice dream, but there are two reasons I know it is nothing more. For one thing, there are many reports, like Daniel Immerwahr’s “Beyond the Myth of Rural America” in a recent issue of The New Yorker, that wipe away the fog of nostalgia from rural life. For another, more practical reason, I think about how much tinkering I do in our house, and can only imagine how that would be magnified on a farm.

We bought this house four and a half years ago with the idea that there were a few things we wanted to do once we had it. First, there was the shed that we wanted to put in the backyard to give us some extra storage space. We got that taken care of pretty early. On the other hand, the French doors we1 wanted to put between my office and the living room have been hanging fire ever since we had the idea to put them in.

Our house was originally built in the 1950s, but has since been completely gutted and rebuilt from the inside out. It has an open floor plan, and it had fairly new appliances when we moved it. And yet, there has still be a lot of tinkering. We’ve had to replace three-fifths of the kitchen appliances: new microwave, new dishwasher, and new disposal. I tried fixing the disposal myself when it would only hum, and it seemed I managed to fix it, only to discover later that I’d cracked the casing and water had been leaking from the disposal into a basin under the sink. We were lucky to discover this before the basin overflowed.

We have good-sized storage room downstairs that contains the furnace and water heater, and from the day we moved in, that storage room has been so full-to-the-brim that was impossible to go into the room without first taking stuff out. For years, I’d wanted to clear out that room and move stuff into the attic. But we had attic boards in the attic. Recently, while Kelly was in Europe, I put in a dozen or so attic boards and then spent a weekend purging the storage room, and moving stuff up into the attic. And not in any haphazard way, but I created a nice little aisle up there and sketched out a map of where things were located. When the job was done I needed a day just to recover from the soreness.

I put in nice metal shelving on both sides of the storage room and we now have a usable walk-in pantry on one side, and place to store tools and other miscellany on the other side, and there is plenty of space to move about.

We’ve made small replacements in every bathroom in the house, from flappers to flush values to fill levers so that in any given bathroom, we have a toilet of Theseus.

I’ve added more and more bookshelves to my office, replacing older, smaller ones with larger ones so that no wall is left out. I’ve replaced countless lightbulbs, and smoke detector batteries, the latter almost exclusively during the middle of the night.

Our refrigerator stopped refrigerating recently and so I cleaned out the coils and removed the accumulated dust. Grateful for the spa day, our refrigerator started refrigerating once again.

After the gas company shut off the gas to make some repairs to the gas meters on our street, our furnace failed to start up after the gas was turned back on. It was 22 years old and after some deliberation, we decided to replace it and the air conditioner (also 22 years old) with new models. This was a relief, albeit an expensive one. I knew from the day we bought the house we were going to eventually need to replace the HVAC system, it was just a matter of when.

At present there are five–make that, six light bulbs that need replacing and I’ve just been too busy tinkering with other things to replace them. There is a tented-in area on our deck, but the tent and frame were damaged in a wind storm and I haven’t had a chance to replace and repair them, respectively.

For a year now, I’ve been tinkering with our Kia, which doesn’t want to start on cold weather days. I’ve ruled out just about everything, even paying to have a perfectly good battery replaced just to prove that it wasn’t the culprit (it wasn’t). The car will always start, but sometimes, I have to press the start button 20 times before it decides to light up. Once started, the car runs fine and starts fine for the rest of the day. It never happens when the weather is above 50 degrees, and it is intermittent when it is below 50. This morning, when the temperature was 39, the car started right up. The dealer can never reproduce the problem, but I am determined to find the root cause.

Our other car, which turned 20 years old this year, needed a new starter and some other work as well. It now runs fine, thanks to some tinkering.

Some of this tinkering is spread out, separated by months of smooth sailing. Others come in waves. We had issues with the old car, refrigerator, water heater and furnace all in the span of about one month.

In his monthly One Man’s Meat column for Harper’s December 1941 issue2, E.B. White details about 200 chores he has to do around his farm in Maine. I suspect that a White essay on a getting a root canal could make it seem like a joy, but when I consider the list of things, it is an awful lot of tinkering, and makes the tinkering we’ve done around the house these last four-and-a-half-years look like warm-up exercises. My farming daydreams will remain just that–daydreams. They are among my favorite daydreams and I wouldn’t tinker with them in the least.

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  1. When I say “we” I mean “I.”
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Ever Since (Stephen Jay) Gould

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My grandfather was a regular reader of Natural History magazine during its heyday. I recall the magazine sitting around the table beside his chair. I would occasionally skim through it. I must have come across Stephen Jay Gould’s column, “This View of Life” at some point, but I can’t remember when. Besides, at time, I his columns were beyond my abilities. Even now, those columns push me to my limits.

I say this because this year, I have finally gotten around to reading Gould’s books of essays that collect most of the 300 columns he wrote for Natural History. Unlike my usual practice, I’m not going through the collections in order of appearance, but instead, somewhat haphazardly. In order of my reading this year, I’ve made my way through the following volumes:

During this year, I also managed to read Gould’s A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History and The Mismeasure of Man.

If my research is correct, there are two more books of Natural History essays that I have yet to read: The Lying Stones of Marrakech and I Have Landed. I’m doubtful I’ll get through these two remaining books before the year is out because I have quite a few books in line ahead of them. But you never know.

I came to essays primarily through Isaac Asimov’s science essay column in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I have written how at the time those essays taught me almost everything I know about science. Gould’s essays are much more challenging reads than Asimov’s essays were, but in some ways, the essays are more rewarding, and have introduced me to and instructed me in areas and methods of science with which I’d had little familiarity.

Over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the science essay that places it in my personal pantheon of favorites as high–if not slightly higher–in ranking as the personal essay. One of the strengths of both Asimov’s and Gould’s essays is that they are personal in some regard. I imagine writing a future post that focuses on the history and value of the science essays, especially long-term essay columnists like Asimov and Gould and Martin Gardner, as well as their predecessors like Willie Ley and R.S. Richardson. In such an essay, I might wonder about the disappearance of regular science essays columns and explore that path in the same way Gould explores evolutionary dead-ends.

But here I wanted to talk about Gould’s essays and the impact they’ve had on me already. When I started reading them, back in May, I went in with the notion that they would be similar to Asimov’s given their popularity. In actual fact, the essays are nothing alike. In his wonderful editorial, “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Oct. 1980), the Good Doctor expounds on his theory of writing. Mosaic writing is complex, layered, multifaceted writing; plate glass is clear and shows directly through to the point. He couldn’t have provided a better analogy for comparing Gould’s writing to his own, for when I began reading Ever Since Darwin, I recognized almost at once that this was mosaic writing to Asimov’s plate glass.

As I do with most books these day, I began with the audiobook edition of Ever Since Darwin, but I found the subject matter and the complexity of the writing to be enough of a challenge that I knew the audiobook editions alone wouldn’t be good enough. I needed the physical books to help follow along with Gould’s arguments. This is not so much a criticism of Gould’s writing as it my ability to understand the subject matter. Indeed, I found that I enjoyed Gould’s style of science writing more than I did Asimov’s. Asimov was a great explainer. He didn’t write down to the reader, but he often simplified concepts–a good thing for the lay reader.

Gould on the other hands wrote those essays for other professionals and expected that readers of the column would rise to the challenge. These essays are a challenge for me, but I enjoy that challenge, I enjoy puzzling my way through Gould’s arguments to make sure that I understand them. I come away from each one a better-equipped thinker.

I ordered copies of the Gould collections I didn’t already have in hardcopy. That is to say, all of them except Dinosaur in a Haystack, which I picked up in college when it first came out, and which has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since–until this year. I found most of them easily enough, but a few were out of print and I had to locate them from secondhand bookshops online. I was mildly annoyed by this, until fortune stepped in, as it so often has, in my book-buying activity. One place had used copies of The Lying Stones of Marrakech and Leonardo’s Mountain Clams and the Diet of Worms and I ordered both. When they arrived I put them in their proper places on the shelf until I was ready to read them. As I mentioned, I haven’t yet read The Lying Stones of Marrakech, but one day, when I was pulling Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams… off the shelf, I noticed a sticker on The Lying Stones of Marrakech that read “SIGNED.” I flipped open the book and saw this:

My signed copy of The Lying Stones of Marrakech.

The Lying Stones of Marrakech is the penultimate book in the series of essays and was published on April 11, 2000. Gould died in May 2002, which means the book must have been signed by Gould sometime in that 2-year span. It is a joy to have a signed Gould book in my collection.

Gould’s essays have had a notable effect on me. For thing, I’ve learned more about natural history than I ever knew before. The books have opened my eyes to the natural world around me. The range of subjects covered by the books is vast, although nearly always related to some aspect of evolution. They seems to cover everything, from how camouflage evolved in the natural world, to why no one will likely ever hit .400 in the major leagues again.

Recently, for instance, I was out a morning walk. We have a lot of deer in the park woods in our area and seeing them munching along the bike path is a common site in the mornings and evenings. On this particular fall morning, the foliage was riotous, the bike path was covered in leaves, as was the floor of the woods that surrounded me on both sides as I walked.

The path where deer seemed to materialize out of the foliage.

I would not have noticed the young deer to my left had it not raised its head. I caught the motion from the corner of my eye and when I looked there was the young deer standing among a background of similarly colored shrubs and leaves. Experience told me that if I saw one deer, there were likely others around, so I stopped and stood still and peered into the woods. At first, all I saw was a tangle of limbs and leaves that was almost too much to take in. But then as I watched, several deer emerged from that tangle in way that I can only describe as similar to the way the image in those stereograms from the 1980s emerged once you learned how to focus past them. One moment, I was looking at empty woods, the next it seemed full of deer.

If Asimov’s essays formed a foundation on the scientific method and way that science works (his essays were often steeped in the history of science), then Gould’s by comparison have been a graduate courses in the same subjects. Gould’s essays teach not only scientific method and logical thinking, but they challenge with edge cases, give examples of long-accepted arguments that are filled with fallacies, and breakdown the complexities of real science into its component parts. The history he delves into is often the history of science as a self-correcting process.

Like many writers and scientists, Gould’s theories are sometimes seen as controversial. His theory of punctuated equilibrium raised eyebrows, and as I have been working my way through Gould’s essays, I’ve also been sure to read his critics–something his essays helped reinforce. I finally got around to reading Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. And I recently read Daniel C. Dennett’s memoir I’ve Been Thinking and his book Consciousness, Explained both of which have some criticism of Gould and his theories. I take these criticisms seriously, and I don’t yet understand all of theories well enough to make a good judgement as to where I fall. What I can say is that Gould’s essays are among the most intellectually challenging I have come across, and what a joy the experience of reading them has been.

Indeed, I may have to read them again to full grasp the underlying theories Gould writes about. But I look forward to this task with enthusiasm. I am working my way toward reading another Gould book that has been sitting on my shelf unread for 21 years now: his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. At 1,400 pages, it is a massive tome, and not without controversy and criticism, with some critics calling the book unreadable. I take this statement with a grain of salt. Gould’s essays are difficult but there is a beauty in that challenge, and I can see how any writing that isn’t spoon-fed to a reader can be characterized as “unreadable.” Gould often writes about how he goes to original sources as much as possible for many reasons, a good lesson in critical thinking, and one that I want to embrace by reading and judging The Structure of Evolutionary Theory on my own.

But that may be a project for 2024 and beyond.

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Coming Attractions

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It has been quiet here for too long. I can’t believe it has been over a month and a half since I last posted here. Remember when I was posting just about every day? What happened? For one thing, things have gotten increasingly busy for me. Our kids are getting older, and they are engaged in countless activities that only the most careful tracking on our calendar can keep up with. There are a constant stream of drop-offs and pick-ups. There is homework to help with. (I had to drudge up geometric proofs from the basement of my memory recently.) And of course, there is the day job that seems to keep me increasingly busy.

All of these are excuses, of course, but at the end of the day, I often find myself mentally drained, a situation that makes writing difficult. Even so, I miss writing here, and I’ve been looking for ways to get back into it. I keep telling myself that I’ll start up again in 2024, but that is one of those clever delaying tactics that reminds me of my teenager’s response to requests: “I’ll do it a little later.” Why wait? Why not get started now?

And so here I am, providing a brief update, but also a ray of hope. I have a vague plan at the moment. The idea is to get back to posting at least once a week here. Start small. If the past provides a roadmap in this regard, once I get started, I find that that the act of writing encourages more writing. For now, I’m keeping things simple and aiming for a post a week. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll write about first, but I have been keeping a list of ideas and so I may work off that.

In any case, for those who have stuck around, despite my long recent absence, I appreciate you, and you can look forward to new writing very soon.

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The Sperm Whale in the Room

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It started with the September 11, 2023 issue of The New Yorker. The issue contained a fascinating feature by Elizabeth Kolbert titled, “Can We Talk to Whales?” The article followed several researchers affiliated with CETA (Cetacean Translation Initiative) in their quest to see if humans and whales could communicate. What made it all the more fascinating was the use of large language models like ChatGPT.

The researchers were not exactly using ChatGPT to try to speak to sperm whales. Rather, they were attempting to use a similar concept in developing a language model based on sperm whale songs. ChatGPT works by creating a neural net trained on millions (if not billions) of pages of human-written text (and code) available on the Internet. Then, given an input, the language model puts together an answer based upon the a range of likely next word in a phrase, building up responses. At this point, my own understand is that most experts don’t believe that ChatGPT has any comprehension of the words it is putting together.

For the CETI project, efforts are being made at recording vast amounts of sperm whale song. When enough of a corpus has been gathered, a large language model will be trained on these recordings. Then, much like ChatGPT, if a whale song is provided as input, the LLM will provide a whale song in response. What I find most fascinating about this is that we won’t necessarily know what the input or response mean, or if they are significant in any way, but it will be interesting to see how the whales respond.

Clearly, I enjoyed the article. It was one of those articles that I wished was even longer. (Fortunately, it was a particularly good issue of the magazine for science articles. There was another great article in that issue, “The Transformative, Alarming Power of Gene Editing” by Dana Goodyear.)

The next day, several new magazines arrived in the mail. When a new magazine arrives, I enter the feature articles into a text file I keep. Each evening, I have script that sends me an email with a randomly-selected feature article to read the next day (two articles on Friday and Saturday evenings). I was entering the list of articles fro the October 2023 Scientific American into my text file, when I came across an article by Lois Parshley titled, “Talking with Animals” and on the cover page to the article was a picture of a sperm whale and a caption that read, “The Project Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) is using machine learning to try to understand the vocalizations of sperm whales.” What a coincidence, I thought, having just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on the same subject in The New Yorker.

I moved on to the other magazine that arrived that day, the October issue of WIRED. I was eager for this issue because there was a story about Open AI by Steven Levy, and I always enjoy his writing. But as I was entering the features in to my text file, I came across this one, listed in the contents as “How to Chat with the Whales” by Camille Bromley. (Inside the magazine, the article was called “Calls of the Wild.”) Once again, the article was about, at least in part, project CETI and using AI to communicate with whales.

One time is random. Twice is a coincidence. Three articles about talking with whales using AI–that seems like a pattern to me. I can’t recall the last time so specific a subject was featured in three different magazines so close together. I have yet to read the articles in Scientific American or WIRED (my daily random article generator hasn’t selected them yet), but I am looking forward to them.

I thought that was the end of it.

And then I was skimming the New York Times early in the morning, as I am wont to do, and came across an article by Sonia Shah, “The Animals Are Talking. What Does It Mean?” While this article was more broad and philosophical, it once again discussed CETI and ChatGPT and using language models to decipher whale.

Finally, in an effort to give my brain a rest, I kept my reading fairly light over the weekend, and I watched the Disney+ series Ahsoka. And you know what was in that series?

Star whales.

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Why I Love Joe Posnanski’s Writing

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Each morning, rain or shine, I go out for a walk. The time of my walk more or less follows sunrise throughout the year, with me getting out shortly after the first light appears in the east, but before the sun peeks above the horizon. My walk takes me through the park behind our house, and about a mile-and-half later, to a nearby 7-Eleven. The total walk is about 2-1/2 miles and takes me about 40 minutes on average.

I usually listen to a book while I walk. I see the same people out, wave, and occasionally stop to chat with someone. The mornings are quiet. Depending on the time of year, I see different local fauna. Lots of deer this time of year. And the bats are finally out, scooping up mouthfuls of mosquitoes and other insects as they dive and weave about the treetops.


Walking home from school yesterday with the Littlest Miss, with waves of hit visibly rising from the sidewalk, she said to me, “Is ‘cool’ a pun?”

“I guess it could be, depending on the context,” I said, “but it is really a word with two completely different meanings.” So is “bat.”

I haven’t watched a baseball game all season, my mild protest against what I feel is the sacrilege of allowing a clock into the game in an attempt to speed things up. I miss watching baseball games, but I don’t realize I miss them unless there is something that forces memories of how great the game is into my head. I’m sure that I will come around. I’ve changed my mind on many things over the years. I used to think I could never listen to an audiobook, for instance. I’m sure I’ll see that a pitch clock is good for the game, but I am a baseball purist, who still believes that the designated hitter rule was a mistake.

I do miss baseball, but until my morning walk this morning, I’d forgotten just how much.


On most days, over the course of my 40 minute morning walk, I am quiet. I listen to my book and walk, and watch what is happening around me, allowing myself to wake up. Once in a while, something in the book I’m listening to might make me smile, or even chuckle. When this happens, I always look to see if anyone is around. I imagine it must look pretty amusing to see someone laughing to themselves while they walk.

This morning was different.

I was listening to Joe Posnanski’s new book, Why We Love Baseball. I became a die-hard Joe Posnanski fan after reading his book The Baseball 100 in the fall of 2021. It was my favorite book of 2021. So I’ve been really looking forward to this new book. I started reading it yesterday and continued when I headed out for my walk this morning.

You can tell, from Posnanski’s enthusiasm for the game, that the game is magic to him, and that alone reminded me how the game is magic to me as well. But Posnanski’s writing, his storytelling, is also magic. His writing controls your emotions. On the outbound walk, listening to stories of why we love baseball, I found myself on the verge of tears several times. (There may have been one or two that managed to escape and find their way to the pavement.)

Scattered throughout the book are “5 moments” of various types, sidebars to the the 50 moments Posnanski goes through in detail. On my return walk, one these sidebars was titled “5 meltdown.” Listening to these stories made the first half of my walk home more a stagger. I was not chuckling. I was laughing. Out loud. I had to move off the bike path and wipe tears from my eyes several times. If someone saw me walking on the bike path this morning, they may very well have thought I’d lost it.


Tears. Laughter. Smiles. Thrills. Humor. Surprise. This is why I love baseball. Joe Posnanski has reminded me of this, and I am grateful. More than that, Joe has done what many great writers struggle to do. He brought all of these emotions out in me with his words. While I was walking. In public. For other people to see.

And sometime this weekend, I’m finally going to set aside 2-1/2 hours (down from just over 3 hours from last year) to watch a ballgame.

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Mental Walks and Marathons

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On a recent morning, I surpassed my previous Wordle win streak with my 63rd consecutive win.

My recent Wordle streak of 63 games.

Wordle is part of my morning metal warm-up routine. When I wake up, usually between 5 and 6 am depending on the time of year, the first thing I do is tackle the day’s puzzles: the New York Times mini crossword, which I try to solve as fast as I can. (My personal record is 35 seconds), then Wordle, and more recently, the daily Connections puzzle. I think of these exercises as a good way to wake up my brain, in the same way that my morning walk helps to wake up my body. Moreover, with all that is being written about “second brains” (including some of my own writing about Evernote and Obsidian), I find myself wanting exercise my “first” brain more and more while I still can.

In centuries past, memorization was a primary mental exercise. Time and technology has eroded this–the whole purpose of a “second brain” is to store stuff outside your head. For a long time, I was skeptical of the usefulness of rote memorization. What purpose does it serve to memorize the state capitals for instance? In my personal and professional life, I’ve never needed to pull a state capital out of my memory. And yet, I’ve become convinced that there is value in memorization as a simple function of mental exercise. Clive Thompson recently wrote about this in the context of memorizing poems.

As it happens, the two biggest workouts I give my brain each day are split between my avocation and vocation. I think of the former as a form of mental walks and the latter as mental marathons.

Mental walks

Reading and writing is my avocation. I see the activities as mental versions of walks. I can take shorts walks or long walks, and I frequently walk multiple times in the day. The same is true with my reading. I get through about 100 books a year, which is about a book every 3 days. In doing this, I try more and more to maintain a diverse mix of subjects in my reading. I’ve illustrated this for the 69 books I’ve read so far this year in the word cloud below. The words are taken from my descriptions of the subjects of the books that I read that I keep in a spreadsheet.

Word cloud of subjects for the books I've read so far in 2023.
Word cloud of subjects for the books I’ve read so far in 2023.

In addition to books, I try to read a feature article each day from the magazines that I subscribe to. To take some of the decision fatigue out of my day, I’ve written a script that emails me a random article title from the list of current magazines I have. That adds a little bit mystery to the day as well.

I can read for hours on end without feeling tired. I can also sit down and read an article for fifteen minutes and feel refreshed. It is my mental version of taking a walk.

Mental marathons

In my day job, I lead software projects. In doing this work, I find intellectual challenges in managing projects, in working on the design and architecture of the software, and also, in diving into the various types of code (.net, SQL, Groovy, JavaScript, Wolfram Language, to name a few). Then there is the challenge of problem-solving. I’ve written before of long days spent writing code, and coming out of this “code coma” at the end of the day, feeling mentally exhausted. For me, this type of the work is the equivalent of a mental marathon. I can rarely sustain this beyond a day, and if I try to do the same thing the following day, things start to go downhill quickly.

If I could have a superpower…

When the kids ask, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” I know they are thinking about things like flying, or turning invisible, or being able to teleport anywhere in the world. But for years now, my answer has been the same: “I wish I could have John von Neumann’s mind.” I’m always impressed by incredibly intelligent people. I wish that I had a superpower like that. In some ways, it is like wishing to be a great baseball player or soccer star, with all of the native skill that comes with the role. Mental walks and marathon are how I train for a goal that I will probably never achieve, but that I keep striving for.

It is hard to objectively judge the result of this these walks and marathons. But there are some things that I have noticed over the years that may be a result of these workout. Most noticeable, to me, is an ability to draw connections between the various things that I have read over the years. If I am talking about a book or article with someone, it almost always reminds me of some other book or article I’ve read, with some connective tissue, however tenuous, between them. This wasn’t always the case. It seems to me that at some point in my reading, I hit a “critical mass” after which these connections started becoming more frequent and obvious. I can’t say precisely when this was, but I think it was sometime in the early 2010s, after I’d been maintaining my reading list for 15 years or so–probably around the time I read my 500th book since 1996.

I’ve felt results in my day job as well. It seems to me that my ability to see more quickly into the underlying cause of some problem, or to see creative solutions where I may not have seen them in the past. What is hard to say is if this is due to the mental workouts, or to experience gathered over decades of working with computers and software.

Meanwhile, my Wordle streak continues.

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Upcoming Reading for Fall 2023

stack of hardbound books
Photo by Anthony 📷📹🙂 on Pexels.com

The autumnal equinox officially starts on September 22 this year, but it seem like everyone around me treats Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer. The day after Labor Day is one of the best book release days of the year so far. There are three books released on September 5th that I am eagerly awaiting:

  1. Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments by Joe Posnanski. Joe’s previous book, The Baseball 100 was my favorite book of 2021. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book ever since it was first announced. I’ve pre-ordered the audio edition, as well as a signed copy of the hard cover from Rainy Day Books in Kansas City.
  2. Holly by Stephen King. Holly Gibney debuted in the first of the Bill Hodges novels, Mister Mercedes. Since that trilogy, she had made appearances in The Outsider, and in the novella, “If It Bleeds.” Now she’s got a novel all of her own.
  3. The Longmire Defense by Craig Johnson. Johnson’s Longmire books have become among my favorites. I absolutely love the series and I look forward to each new addition the minute I finish one. Which means I have been awaiting The Longmire Defense since I finished reading Hell and Back a little less than a year ago.

I’ve listed these three books in the order I plan to read them. It wouldn’t surprise me if I got through all three of them within a week or 10 days of their September 5th release. But these are not the only books I am looking forward to reading this fall.

I have been making my way through Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections on natural history. Many of the essays in these books came from the column he wrote in Natural History for more than 20 years, finally ending in January 2001, with his 300th column. I haven’t been reading the collecting in order of release, but rather as I pick them off the shelf. I’ve also recently read Gould’s A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, and I am currently working my way through his The Mismeasure of Man.

Audible has been releasing versions of Gould’s essay collections recently, and another one, The Flamingo’s Smile, is coming out on September 12, a week after the embarras de richesse of September 5. I have all of these essay collection in paperback form, but I enjoy Jonathan Sleep, who narrates the audiobook edition, and I am looking forward to reading The Flamingo’s Smile after I finish The Longmire Defense.

All of these Gould books are leading up to a conclusion: I’m hoping to tackle Gould’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory–or at least get started on it–this fall. This book has been sitting on my shelf for 21 years. I bought it when it first came out, but I’ve never felt prepared to tackle it, until now. Gould, like Asimov, wrote his essays for a wide audience, but unlike Asimov, who strove for clarity, Gould’s essays make the reader–or this reader, anyway–work for them. They are not easy to get through, but they are always rewarding, and I’ve learned a lot from them beyond the bare subjects of each piece. With these essays under my belt, and I fair understanding of Gould’s work, I finally feel like I’m ready to tackle this massive, 1,400 page book.

Some of my Stephen Jay Gould books, including The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, on my shelf now for 21 years.

Some other books I’m looking forward to this fall include:

There are other books on my list, but this is a fairly ambitious list for the fall, especially when I include The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in the mix. Are there book you are looking forward to this fall? Tell me about them in the comments.

(And for those who are curious, here are the books I’ve read so far in 2023.)

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Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 4: Decline and Fall

Whispering in the dark

Information overload manifests itself like a demon in the dark. On lazy days that I spend reading for most of the day, I fall asleep at night to the whispers of passages that I read earlier in the day. These whispers are vague and formless and closely resemble a fever dream. They are difficult to shed. Rising for a cup of water doesn’t always dispel them. Usually, I have to let the voices run their course. This is what I experience on the third night of our trip: whispers of street names and subways stations, of Capuchin monks and Renaissance artists. Some of the whispers are unintelligible gibberish, others are unintelligible because they are in Italian. But at some point, the whispers fade and fade and only the darkness remains and when I open my eyes, I see the first light of day out the windows.

Gibbon and the decline and fall of Rome

For some reason, when I think of Rome, I think more often of the Republic and the Empire, not Renaissance Rome. Today, we are defying entropy. We are visiting Rome in reverse, beginning with the Renaissance (Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica) followed by a jump back in time to the Colosseum. I wonder what Gibbon would have made of this reversal. In the concluding pages of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon offers four causes of Rome’s decline:

  1. The injuries of time and nature
  2. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians
  3. The use and abuse of materials
  4. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.

And what of its rebirth in the Renaissance? On this, Gibbon is, so far as I know, silent. Today, we see both the Rome of ancient days and the Rome of the Renaissance.

Naming names

Breakfast is all about learning people’s names. I meet Greg and Ila1, who have traveled from Australia. I meet Peter and Val, who have come from South Africa. I scribble these names into my Field Notes notebook. I do this whenever I meet someone new as a way to remember their name. And yet, as Peter later would prove, just because I write down a name doesn’t mean I will remember it. When he asks me if I remember his name, I admit that I don’t, and it even takes me several seconds of flipping through pages of my notebook before I locate it. So much for writing things down.

The fried eggs are missing when I go to put some on my plate. The pan is there, but it is empty. I find other food to eat, but keep checking the pan. Only after I am completely sated does the pan magically refill with fried eggs, but I am now too full to eat them.

Patience is a virtue?

I have read about the Sistine Chapel countless times. It is as much a part of my awareness as Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare, I can no longer recall a time when I didn’t know about it. We learned of it in high school art history classes, but I was aware of it somehow, even before that. Will Durant writes extensively about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the fifth volume of his Story of Civilization, The Renaissance. Durant writes of Michelangelo,

To the technical difficulties [Pope] Julius added himself by his impatience to have the great work completed and displayed. Picture the old Pope mounting the frail frame, drawn up to the platform by the artist, expressing admiration, always asking, “When will it be finished?” The reply was a lesson in integrity: “When I shall have done all that I believe required to satisfy art.” To which Julius retorted angrily: “Do you want me to hurl you from this scaffold?”

And I am told that patience is a virtue.

Durant captures the genius and virtuosity of Michelangelo in a concluding paragraph:

Julius died four months after the completion of the Sistine ceiling. Michelangelo was then nearing his thirty-eighth birthday. He had placed himself at the head of all Italian sculptors by his David and Pietà; by this ceiling he had equaled or surpassed Raphael in painting; there seemed no other world left for him to conquer. Surely even he hardly dreamed that he had over half a century yet to live, that his most famous painting, his most mature sculpture, were yet to be done. He mourned the passing of the great Pope, and wondered whether Leo would have as sure an instinct as Julius for the noble in art. He retired to his lodgings and bided his time.

Perhaps more than anything else, it was reading that passage years ago that made me want to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel myself. Like Michelangelo, I retired to my lodging; like Michelangelo, I bided my time. Patience, after all, is a virtue. And so I follow the crowd left from the great hallway and find myself in the Sistine Chapel, with guards admonishing me to move toward the the center of the room.

It is a shame, really. The long walk to the Sistine Chapel is quite remarkable, but one is only aware of what awaits at the end. The rest is, as they say, preface, and patience be damned, I rush past paintings and maps (maps!) and Byzantine ceilings to arrive in the Pope’s chapel with hundreds of other visitors.

The long walk to the Sistine Chapel

You have to understand the conditions: a crowded room where people are respectfully trying to keep their voices at bay. Underneath is a panacea of whispers in every language imaginable. It is as if the air in the room is alive with this rush of hushed voices, an eerie reminder of the whispers in the dark last night. I am overwhelmed and I find it hard to focus. I am attempting, mentally, to edit the scene, photoshopping out the other visitors, mixing down the rustling passage of people, and the whispers. I am trying first to recreate the scene Durant describes, with the scaffolding climbing the walls and the old Pope up there with the master, admiring the beauty, and wondering, like any customer of a contractor, when the job will be done.

And then, with a more forceful effort, I remove the Pope and Michelangelo and the scaffolding and the guards and the people and the noise and slowly admire the art. Panel after panel telling the story of Genesis. I look at the faces, which were not Michelangelo’s specialty. It is the forms of the figures, the use of every inch of space to tell the story, the color that brings the scenes to life. For what seems like a brief time, I am the only person in the room, except perhaps the ghost of Michelangelo, who leans in a corner, rubbing his fingernails on his shirt, a knowing smile on his face.

Emerging from this space is like coming out of some deep dream and the sunlight seems too bright, the outdoors unfocused through the tears in my eyes.

The bridge of Khazad-dûm

St. Peter’s Basilica is so large inside that its scale plays tricks on the eyes. Letters that appear toward the top of the space are 6 feet tall, but look tiny from the floor.

Those letters way up there are 6 feet tall!

It is so large, in fact, that despite the crowds, it doesn’t seem crowded. As I do in most of the European churches that I’ve entered, I marvel at the artistry and skill that led to such magnificence. Could St. Peter’s be built today with modern technology? Somehow, I think the answer is no. Some vital ingredient is missing, creativity has atrophied with repeated sequels and sequels of sequels. I think of our church back home, and its modern lines. It is a doctor’s office waiting room in comparison to where I stand now.

St. Peter’s is to big, it makes the crowds seem small.

The golden arched ceilings and giant columns that support the ceiling remind me of the images Tolkien gives us of the dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm. Everyone has their phones pointed upward and for good reason: here there be majesty. Here is the Renaissance personified. Here is what is possible when creativity, innovation, know-how, skill, and artistry blend to form something greater than the parts.

Here, where dead Popes sleep, it seems to me that at night, they awaken to admire their final resting place.


All of this has happened between breakfast and lunch. Our local specialist, Christina, has guided us through the halls of the Vatican, through the Sistine Chapel, through St. Peter’s, filling us with information and color about the things we are seeing, and it has all been crammed into the few hours between eggs and bacon, and pizza. This is the downside to a whirlwind tour of Europe and as we sit in a small nearby restaurant with Ken and Pat eating lunch, I think about the yearlong tour of Europe that Theodore Roosevelt took as a child, where there was time to breath, time to contemplate the wonder you’d just seen before moving onto the next wonder. This whirlwind is is like feeding a rich diet to a starving person.

We eat, we shop. I buy some postcards and stamps and mail the postcards from the Vatican so that their stamps will be canceled by Vatican ink. We wander a bit, walking through a long tunnel beneath the street to escape the heat. Soon, we will trade the crowds of the Vatican for the even greater crowds of the Colosseum.

Lost and found

In the Sistine Chapel we are reborn with the Renaissance. In the Colosseum, we die with Rome. I can think of no better symbol of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire than the Colosseum itself. It embodies each of Gibbon’s four causes of decline:

  1. The injuries of time and nature are obvious in its structure. Half of it has fallen apart. You can see age and decay all over what remains. It stands only because of modern reinforcements. When once, it was felt that those reinforcements could be removed, the structure began to crumble all over again and the modern support was quickly restored.
  2. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians–many of whom fought to the death in gladiatorial games held in this very place for the entertainment of the people; entertainment that distracts the populace from the civilization that is crumbling around them.
  3. The use and abuse of material: how much stone was required to build the Colosseum?
  4. The domestic quarrels of the the Romans. I think that battles that took place within the walls of the Colosseum were representative of the battles taking place within Roman society–and at some point, the walls of the Colosseum were not strong enough to contain them and those battles spilled over into the streets.

Lara tells us that of the three tours she has run this summer, ours is the only one to gain entry into the Colosseum. And so we line up for our journey into the past, entering this ancient place by passing through metal detectors and winding our way through lines. It was said that the Colosseum could be filled in 20 minutes and emptied in the same amount of time, but we have apparently lost that bit of technology in the fall of the Roman Empire as well.

The stairs that climb up into the Colosseum are steeper than modern staircases. As we climb, the crowds was pass through made it seems as though a major event is taking place within the Colosseum. The only thing missing are hucksters selling their wares. We learn that the Colosseum is named for the Colossus of Nero, a large statue, and that in its heyday, it was used for about 300 years. I think about Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, which was built in 1914, and has thus been in use for about 109 years, or a third of the time the Colosseum was in use.

A minor incident takes place while we are at the Colosseum, and it is something that I imagine must have occurred countless times in the 300 years of its service. 3 people from our tour group decide to head back downstairs instead of walking around the upper reaches of the Colosseum. Christina gives them instructions for where to go, but when we finally arrive back downstairs, these people are nowhere to be found. A search party is formed while we make our way back to the bus. Eventually, we learn that they have taken a cab back to the hotel.

Pool and dinner

There is an optional tour in the evening that goes to the Trevi Fountain, among other places. It is one of only two options tours that we opt not to take, having visited the fountain ourselves yesterday. The crowds and the rush of the day has worn me out. When we arrive back at the hotel, the kids go for a swim, while I have a drink and relax just outside the pool area. We decide to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, and I have a veal escalop dish that very good. I can’t remember the last time I had veal, but I enjoy this meal immensely.

Tomorrow, we are leaving Rome for Florence, via Siena, and I am looking forward to getting out of the big city and seeing parts of Italy that I have never visited before. Rome has worn me out. I feel the decline and fall, not of Rome exactly, but of my own body and mind, utterly worn out from the day.

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  1. I spelled Ila’s name wrong when I first heard it, so it appears misspelled in my notebook, but I have corrected it here.

Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 3: Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day

Colosseum at evening

Sleep of the Just Plain Tired

There is still light in the sky when I fall into a dreamless sleep. It is something of a miracle in its dreamless quality and in its duration. When I awaken, just after 6 am, I realize that I have slept more than 8 hours, an achievement unparalleled in the annals of my life since cramming all night for an organic chemistry final thirty years ago. I feel both well-rested and lazy for slouching around so long. I dress and head out the door to explore.

Our hotel, alas, is somewhat isolated. Walking down the long driveway and taking a couple of left turns takes me to an area that looks promising, and entirely asleep. Rome is not an early city, and it seems to me that Europe in general (the parts that we have and will visit) is not an early continent. As a Union they stick together as much in this as in their currency.

Zach and I head down to breakfast together, a preview of the breakfast we will have for much of the tour. It is a buffet with fruit and cheese and meats, as well as all kinds of breads, cakes, yogurts, and even some hot food like scrambled and fried eggs, bacon, and sausage. There is juice as well.

Once the rest of the family is awake, we decide what we want to do for the day. Our tour officially starts late this afternoon, so we have most of the day to roam Rome, and we decide to start our day at the Trevi Fountain and wander from there.

Mixed Signals

Instead of taking the subway, we decide to Uber into the city proper. There are mixed signals about Uber in Rome. As we made our way through part of the city yesterday, I recall seeing signs in certain places indicating that Uber is illegal. Yet at the airport, Uber has massive advertisements all over the place, extolling its virtues for getting around Rome.

I finally solved the dilemma to my satisfaction by realizing that the signs I saw about Uber being illegal were at taxi ranks. Maybe Ubers couldn’t pick people up from those locations, but anywhere else was fair game. I order an Uber and one appears for the us five minutes later outside the hotel lobby and carries us through the streets of Rome to the Trevi Fountain. As we get closer to the fountain the ride gets more interesting. The streets narrow and deform into cobblestone. At times, I am amazed that this big car can squeeze through these narrow passages. This is a different part of Rome than what we experienced yesterday.

Finally, the car stops just short of the fountains and lets us out. It was a short and easy ride, and we now know that Uber works just fine in Rome.

Two Views of Rome

Trevi Fountain is full of people, a major tourist attraction. It is the most crowded place we have seen thus far and we don’t linger here long. The water of the fountain is turquoise and glistens with countless coins that have been tossed in. I give a Euro coin to each of the kids for them to toss into the fountain. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that the Aqua Virgo once terminated here, one of the aqueducts that carried water to Rome. When I visit old places, I try to mentally peel back the modern layers to see the ancient, but I found it difficult to here. Perhaps it was the crowds.

kids sitting in front of the Trevi Fountain
The kids at Trevi Fountain

Looking at the modern city of Rome, overlaying the ancient city like strata of rock enclosing fossils in the Burgess Shale, my favorite Seneca quote occurred to me:

The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.

Natural Questions, Book 7, somewhere in the 1st century A.D.

Seneca was certainly right, but the inverse is also true, I think now, standing beside the Trevi Fountain where an ancient aqueduct once carried water to the Romans. It seems amazing to think that such a city existed more than 2,000 years ago with its modern roads and aqueducts, with its art and war machines. Put another way, Seneca may have been selling himself and his people short. They managed to accomplish some amazing feats. And of course, what will people think of our “modern” Rome far in the future, when memory of us will have been effaced?

We wander away from the Trevi Fountain, away from the crowds and into the shade of the narrow streets of this part of Rome. I am trying to see the old city, but there is too much to see, too much happening, my head is turning this way and that, my eye caught be an antiquarian bookseller (closed) and then by a gorgeous narrow alleyway and then by tiny cars that navigate the streets. In the tourist areas, there are people who approach us trying to hand us all kinds of trinkets and I think of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and what he learned from Diognetus:

Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it.

And yet some of it is inescapable when overwhelmed, and we manage to acquire at least one bracelet for a Euro or two out of sheer bewilderment.

The problem is focus: I can’t seem to find mine. I think of Marcus’s admonition:

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

But that only raises my anxiety. I am well aware of the time limits. I want to see everything I can in that time. Later, I’ll learn that perhaps this was a mistake, but now, in the heat of the day with the roar of traffic and the unfamiliar signs and the ancient builds, all I can do is gasp for air like a goldfish out of its bowl.

What better for calm and solace than the quiet of a church. We find that we have wandered to the steps of Piazza Santi Apostoli, where the Church of the Apostles resides. There is a calming quiet within, which reminds me that churches are high on my list for quiet places to read. Despite the calming effect, the architecture takes my breath away, its Byzantine style a jumble of busyness that makes it difficult to focus the eye in one place, so that the interior of the church, despite its quiet, compliments the rush of activity out on the streets.

Sitting among the pews, I try to imagine what it was like to construct such a building. Perhaps only Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth can come close to recreating what such an undertaking must have been like.

Back on the street we wander some more, coming to another church, this time the Church of the Apostles were inside, I find the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola as ornate as any as I have ever seen.

tomb of st. Ignatius of loyola
Tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Gelato and Ghettos

Just across the street from the Church of the Apostles is a small gelato shop. We stop in for gelato and a restroom. We are successful with the former, but not the latter. Actually, I am the only one who doesn’t partake in the gelato. The best gelato I’ve ever had was in Venice, Italy, some 16 years ago, and I have decided that I am holding off on gelato until we arrive in Venice.

Restrooms are at a premium in Italy, it seems. Either culturally, or because of the age of the place, it was not designed for restrooms. Public facilities are available here and there for 50 Euro cents. And coffee shops often have facilities available for use with a purchase. Ultimately, Kelly finds just such a shop across from some excavated Roman ruins, Largo Argenta. While the girls are in the restroom, I lean on railing and take in the excavation. Here is a place where I can see some of the ancient city whose streets the like of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca walked in their day.

largo argenta
At the ruins of Largo Argenta

Once again, I find it difficult to separate the modern from the ancient, even looking down at the old stone walls and pillars. The modern look of the surrounding buildings, the sounds of motors, the rumble of buses distract from the presence of mind required to see the city as it was 2,000 years ago. The tranquility of the past is as allusive as any other getaway, as Marcus Aurelius well knew:

People try to get away from it all–to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic; you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Here I play the role of the idiot, wanting but unable to escape to this glorious past that I can almost see, save for the modern distractions. And so I write about and in so writing, I become Macbeth’s lament: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

These maudlin thoughts are the result of jet-lag, I’m sure. I recover soon enough. We have been making our way slowly toward the Pantheon, but I note on a map that in the opposite direction, about the same distance, is the Jewish Ghetto. Someone (an uncle, a friend?) told me that if I was in Rome, I should go see the Jewish Ghetto, and so we decide to change direction. It is not a long walk, but the result is mildly disappointing for once again, I am unable to visualize what this place must have looked like in ancient times. Now it is another cobblestone street straddled by low buildings that house kosher restaurants.

At the far end of the street we discover some of Ancient Rome and my mood brightens a bit. Down a flight of steps, we enter an area containing the Theater of Marcellus and the Portico of Octavia. Here, although the path, are scattered ruins, overturned columns, blocks of stone that once served as part of a structure. Here, many of the modern elements of Rome were hidden and I could catch glimpses of the ancient city.

The theater, which can be seen in the background of the central image above, was a project that began with Julius Caesar, but wasn’t completed until the reign of Augustus. The Portico of Octavia was refurbished by Augustus, and later twice burned to the ground in 80 A.D.and again, after being rebuilt, in 203 A.D. It was damaged by an earthquake 500 years later, making one wonder whether or not it was meant to stand the test of time. But it had and we stand before it underneath the hot Roman summer sun.

I reach out and touch stone, once part of a structure, and wonder, as I have done in the vomitoriums of the theater in Miletus, and the castles in Ireland, what other ancient people, slave, peasant, or emperor touched this same stone and in doing so, made some tenuous connection with the distant future, as I make the same connection with the distant past.

Tourist Traps

Finally, we made our way to the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Parthenon, which I did both in my notes and in the first draft of this piece). We don’t go inside. The lines are long, it is hot, the kids are becoming a little restless from all of the walking. And the crowds are large. I wonder if the crowds were this large in the past when this served as a Roman temple instead of tourist trap? It is a well-preserved building, and when I look at it from certain angles, it stirs images of ancient times. The large square on which it resides helps with this, but the modern splash of color and clothing almost at once dash the illusion.

Parthenon in a beam of sunlight
“Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

I am hot and tired and the crowds are beginning to get to me. I have mostly stopped taking pictures. We soon escape the crowds into a narrow street that provides some shade and quiet. There are a few stores catering to tourists, as well as a Coop. Kelly and the kids decide to look around the Coop while I stand across the street and people-watch. I am trying to turn the crowds of modern tourists into ancient Romans, and ancient travelers, but my tired imagination is failing me. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it is folly to try to see it all in a day, a week, or even a month.

We move on, making our way to Novona Square, and this is where we are accosted by people who attempt to hand us bracelets and other trinkets and then ask for money in return. We escape all but one, who hands Zach a bracelet before he can refuse. He then asks for a few Euros. I hand him a 2-Euro coin I have in my pocket. He takes it but asks for “paper money,” presumably because the lowest denomination that I am aware of is 5-euros. This we decline. “For my family,” he says as we are walking away, but I just shrug with a “whatareyagonnado?” look.

As we leave Novona Square, I note the contrast between the ancient and the modern when I see large billboard ad behind the fountain at one end of the square. It makes me wonder if I had been here 2,000 years ago, would I have seen advertisements painted on the building surfaces?

We find our way across the Tiber on bridge teeming with peddlers of all kinds of junk. I find that if I walk across the bridge with the same blank look and attitude one wears when walking the streets of Manhattan, I come through the other side unscathed. On the other side we stand before the Castle Sant’Angelo. We decide not to tour the castle, in part because we are all tired. But this is the place where the emperor Hadrian is entombed–the same Hadrian who built a wall with his name in Britain.

Crossing the bridge to the tomb of Hadrian.

Uber, Pool and Beer

Our plan is to find a nearby subway station to take us back toward the hotel. I locate one nearby and we head in that direction. But I have made a tactical error. As we arrive, I realize that the stop I located is a bus stop, not a subway stop. The nearest subway is quite a distance. The sun is blazing down, so we walk toward a hotel, find some shade on a side-street, and I call for an Uber, which arrives quickly and whisks us back to the hotel lobby. We are all glad to be done walking for the day.

There is a large pool on the resort and Kelly and the kids change so that they can cool off for a while. Near the pool is a bar, and I order a beer and sit watching the kids swim and listening to the constant sound of locusts filling the background. There is an ashtray on my table, reminding me that I am no longer in the U.S. The beer is refreshing after the day’s adventures.

Our Tour Officially Begins

At 5pm, we gather in the lobby to meet our tour director, Lara, a tall woman with a delightful Australian accent. Lara hustles our group (there are 47 of us in total) to some tables out by the pool, where we can sit in the sun and provide flesh and blood to the nipping mosquitos and no-see-ems. Lara tells us she finished giving this tour to another group just 15 days ago, and it is her favorite tour to lead.

Unlike our tour of Ireland, which was half-full and made up almost entirely of Americans, this tour is just about full, and there are people from all over the world: a few of us from the U.S., several people from different parts of Canada, people from the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Malaysia. I may be missing some, but that is all I have written down in my notes. It makes for a variety of accents. Even for those people within the U.S., I detect distinct accents from northern New England and New York.

Lara tells us, “We are here for a good time, but not a long time,” and this sounds to me like the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. She outlines the tour, and answers a lot of questions before they are even asked. After about 30 minutes, we head en-mass to our bus, and meet our driver for the duration of the tour, Ferdinando, or “Ferdi” for short.

Our bus is taking us to dinner by way of a driving tour through Rome. I learn that St. Peter’s Basilica is the place where Peter was crucified. The Castle Sant’Angelo that we visited earlier in the day was a fort for the Pope and there are tunnels that connect the castle to the Vatican. I learn that 90% of Italians live in apartments. I want to know more about this and jot down a few questions that I never come back to. We pass through the Borghese family estate, which makes up the largest green space in Rome, and we pass through or by several of the ancient aqueducts and parts of the old Roman wall that surrounded the city. I learn that the correct saying is “All roads lead out of Rome,” not “all roads lead to Rome.” I learn that Ancient Rome is one story below the Rome of the modern city. This is something of a relief, as it helps me understand why it was so difficult to see the ancient city within its modern counterpart earlier in the day.

Dinner, Opera, and the Colosseum

We have dinner at a restaurant called (I think) Le Terme del Colosseo. We enter as a group and then descend one story (into Ancient Rome?) where rows of tables await us. This is where we begin meeting the other people on the tour. Sitting across from us is a couple from Florida, formerly of New England, Ken and Pat. Ken reminds me vaguely of Norman Spinrad, although it may be his goatee. Also seated at our table are Kathryn, Taryne and Sandra from the Toronto area.

For dinner, the kids on the tour gather to make pizza, while the adults chat and get to know one another. From the room behind us comes the sounds of opera singing. There are two performers singing for another group, and we benefit from it.

The food is plentiful, as is the wine. Grace tries some white wine, but doesn’t like it. When dinner finally ends, we made our way, all 47 of us, plus Lara, up the narrow street to the Colosseum. We will be inside the Colosseum tomorrow. For now, we gather together for our first group photo, and then break up into small knots of families for photos of our own. Tired, and perhaps a little impatient after a long day of sightseeing, I snap a single, quick photo of the Colosseum that happens to catch it in the last light of sunset.

Colosseum at dusk

We all board our bus and make our way back to the hotel, passing Circus Maximum along the way, passing the Stone of Truth, passing the Temple of Hercules. Lara warns us that tomorrow will be the most hectic day of our tour, cramming in the Vatican as well as the Colosseum and lots of sightseeing into a single day. Today already seems cramming and I can barely recall how the day started out and everything that I have managed to see.

Dosing off, I think about Seneca’s quote and remind myself that our universe is, indeed, a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate. I’m glad that in this age, we have the opportunity to investigate the very past from which Seneca wrote his prophetic words.

Read about day 4.

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Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 1-2: The Miracle of Modern Travel

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A Remarkable Number

It seems these days that almost every travel article I read tells me how bad air travel has gotten. Airlines are nickle-and-diming passengers. Passengers are getting into fights with airline staff. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Airlines do nickle-and-dime passengers. The overall quality of the airline experience has gone down considerably in my memory. I can recall more seat room in my youth, and not because I was smaller. I can recall better food. I remember a cross-country flight on a DC-10 that had a lounge where one could get a drink. Alas, I was too young at the time to take advantage of that. Touring the Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Ireland last year showed just how elegant air travel once was.

The same could be said of the movie theater experience. Flying, like going to the movies, used to be An Occasion. In that sense, it is an occasion no more. Still, whenever I venture off on a trip that takes me across the Atlantic Ocean, I have to remind myself of the miracle of modern travel. This time, I put a number to that miracle: 15:33:53.

In 1778, John Adams, along with his son, John Quincy Adams, set sail from Boston for the Continent. Their trip took five weeks, involved rough seas, storms, and a battle with a British ship, before finally landing in Spain. Five weeks on the ocean, in what I imagine was not the most comfortable of settings. As Page Smith wrote in his 2-volume biography of the senior Adams:

In place of a threatening enemy, the ship faced threatening elements. They were in the Gulf Stream when the storm struck. For three days the frigate was slammed about like a chip. It was impossible to stand upright, or indeed, to lie below without being tossed and battered. Everything not securely anchored broke loose and crashed about below decks… Cabins, bedding, clothes and food were soaked with salt water. The main topmast was struck by lightning, three sailors were struck by the same shaft and twenty-three men injured by falling rigging. For three days the crew and passengers lived in chaos, catching snatches of sleep and gulping down cold meals.

The Miracle of Modern Travel

I think of this passage frequently on travel days like this one. We step out our front door at 1:40pm Eastern Daylight time and drag our five suitcases and our backpacks to the awaiting Lincoln Navigator. It is hot out, but this enormous vehicle is cool, and gets us to the airport in less than 30 minutes.

The family leaves home for Europe.

We are flying Aer Lingus to Rome via Dublin. It was one of the more exciting things for the Littlest Miss–getting to fly Aer Lingus again. We drag our luggage to the Aer Lingus check-in desk and find the only line of the day. We are 3 hours early, but so is everyone else and we wait for 20 minutes as people and baggage zigzag through the line. Once we arrive at the front, our bags are quickly weighed and swallowed by a conveyor, and we are issued our boarding passes.

There is no line at the security checkpoint. Indeed, there are more security personnel milling around than there are passengers and we zip through security in just 2 minutes. No need to take devices out of backpacks, which is new. We arrive at our gate at 3pm, and now have plenty of time to kill before our flight begins to board. We find ways of filling the time. I listen to the conversations of other passengers around me. The worry I have is the tight connection in Dublin: just one hour.

By 4:40pm, we are on the plane and in our seats and the plane begins taxiing just after 5pm. The pilot informs us that our scheduled travel time is 6 hours and 45 minutes and that we are expected to arrive in Dublin at about 5 am local time, which adds some buffer to the one hour layover.

When dinner is served, I think about John Adams’ first passage across the Atlantic (he made a total of four crossings in his lifetime). I think of the waves and the nausea. I think of the wet blankets and soggy food. I think of the dangers of the sea and that those dangers permeate the entire voyage, a voyage which lasts five weeks. I might be crammed into a smaller seat, but I am eating decent food. The kids have video screens that play movies on-demand. The cabin is dry and comfortable, despite being 7 miles into the atmosphere and tearing through the air (with push of a tailwind) with a groundspeed of nearly 600 MPH. Crossing the Atlantic takes less than 7 hours. John Adams’ crossing took 840 hours. Put another way, we crossed the Atlantic 120 times faster than Adams did in his day.

A Remarkable Number, Revisited

We land in Dublin at 5am, cross the airport to our next flight, board the plane–more than half empty this time–and are off again, this time heading southeast. We cross over London and the Channel, shrouded in clouds. It looks as I imagine it did on June 5, 1944 — when Operation Overlord was delayed for 24-hours because the channel was socked in.

The family is asleep. Modern travel might be a miracle, but it doesn’t make it easy to sleep. They are tired enough from the first flight to fall asleep, but I don’t seem capable of sleeping on planes so I keep vigil over the passing scenery. I am specifically waiting for when we cross the Alps, another miracle of modern travel.

Crossing the Alps.

These Alps are the same Alps that Hannibal crossed with his elephants more than 2,200 years ago. It took Hannibal a remarkable 16 days to cross the Alps. But the by the miracle of modern travel, we fly over the Alps in what seems to be about 10 minutes. From there, it is a short downhill ride into Rome.

There are no lines at passport control and our bags are among the first off the conveyor at baggage claim. We quickly find a taxi that can take us to our hotel and learned another miracle of modern travel: the taxis in Rome go almost as fast as the the airplane we flew in on. There isn’t a car on the highway that we don’t pass at high speed. I am a little nervous since one of the seatbelt’s in the van isn’t working. In preparing for the trip, I read that a taxi ride from the airport to our hotel takes about 40 minutes. We made in 20.

We step into the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, St. Peter’s at about 11:30am local time. I check the timer I set when we stepped out of our front door and see the remarkable number for the first time: 15 hours, 33 minutes, 53 seconds from our front door in Arlington, Virginia to the hotel lobby of the Crown Plaza, St. Peter’s. Fifteen and a half hours to travel farther than John Adams and John Quincy Adams traveled in 5 weeks at sea.

Rome, Underground

We learned last year in Ireland that the best way to fight jetlag is to push through. Although I have now been awake for about 24 hours, we decide to explore some of Rome on our own. Our tour doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening so we might as well push through and see what we can see. A woman at the concierge suggests we visit the Chapel of Skulls located beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

To get to this underground crypt, we take to the Rome underground. We walk about a mile from the hotel to the Cornelia underground station. On the way, we stop at a McDonald’s for some soft drinks. I always find it a little disconcerting to see familiar restaurants in ancient places. I am reminded of a piece of art that accompanied a Harlan Ellison story. In the picture, a hiker was making his way through the mountains to the mythical Shangri-la, and just above the next rise, what do we see, but the golden arches of a McDonald’s. Ronald Coleman and James Hilton are rolling in their graves.

We descend into the Rome underground via a flight of stairs and I am reminded of our local Metro in the Washington, D.C. area. After there stairs there is an escalator and we take the escalator down. Then there is another escalator, and one more after that. Finally, we find the machines from which we purchase our tickets. But we are not quite deep enough for the trains. There is one final flight of stairs that takes us down to the track level.

We take the A line train to the Barbarini station, a ride of about 20 minutes. Rome is on holiday and the subway is not crowded. We all find places to sit. Unlike the Washington and New York subway, the cars of the Rome underground are wide open to one another. There are no doors to pass through cars and you can look down the length of the train and watch it twist and bend around curves. The train emerges once from the depths to cross the Tiber and then dives back underground.

We emerge into sunlight, bellies rumbling and find a place to eat our first Italian meal together. We sit in the back of a small Italian restaurant, Enoteca Barberini, and I eat a dish of gnocchi soaked in bacon, mozzarella and pistachio that is rich and savory. What I like best is that it is just the right portion size. I don’t feel stuffed when I finish.

The Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is just up the street from the restaurant and we take the self-guided tour. The tour takes us through the museum first, before going down into the crypt. Everyone wants to see the crypt of bones, and the curators know they have a captive audience. Fortunately, there are some amazing things to look at, especially the old illuminated books that they have on display. Unfortunately, I walk through the museum in something of a travel-and-sleep-deprived fog. Looking at a photograph of Padre Pio, for just a moment I think I am looking at Sean Connery.

The crypt of bones is the real draw. Mark Twain visited the crypt and wrote about it in Innocents Abroad in far more detail and much better than I could do even if my brain was fully alert to everything I am seeing. No photos are allowed, but the crypt is as impressive as one might imagine a crypt decorated in the bones of more than 4,000 Cappuccin friars bones to be. And yet, as I pass through each chamber, I experience the same uneasy feeling as I did years ago when we saw a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater. There is something macabre about turning places of death into tourist attractions.

After the tour, we are all exhausted and we reverse our course: back underground, back to McDonald’s (this time for ice cream), back to the hotel, where our rooms are ready, and finally we can finally rest. Our tour begins tomorrow evening, which gives us most of the day to explore more of Rome.

My mind is now fuzzy enough where even simple math seems complicated, but I work out that I have not slept for thirty hours. I suspect I won’t have any trouble sleeping tonight. How many times could John Adams say that on his five week voyage across the Atlantic? Even now he is tossed from one side of the cabin to the other in a 3-day storm that seems like an eternity.

Read about Day 3.

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“How Was Europe?”

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We are recently back from 2 weeks in Europe, where we toured around Italy (Rome, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Como), Switzerland (Engelberg, Lucerne), and France (Paris). We planned the trip back in February and had been looking forward to it ever since. It is hard to believe it is over now. It was our kids’ second time to Europe (last year we went to Ireland) and they added more stamps to their passports.

Upon arriving home (a week ago now), the frequently-asked-question we get is, “How was Europe?” We were asking it enough times during our first few days that, while ruminating in the shower one morning, I came up with the following answer, which I’ve been giving ever since, and which I reproduce here for any and all who wish to know the answer to this question.

Questioner: “How was Europe?”

Me, making a face, palms up and shrugging my shoulders, “Eh!”

Awkward pause.

“I suppose I should explain,” I say, and then as if looking toward the clouds for explanation, I say the following:

You know what Europe is like? (Groping for words.) Have you ever seen those whatchamacallem–Marvel superhero movies?


It started out with one movie, Iron Man. Then there was Iron Man 2, then Iron Man 3. Before long there were so many Marvel superhero movies that that a single universe couldn’t contain them. They had to be collected in a multiverse.

That is the way Europe is with cathedrals. A long time ago on a continent far, far away, some built a monument to God out of stone–what Ken Follett refers to as the pillars of the earth. And ever since, this has been copied and recopied and re-recopied all over Europe. Despite filling a Field Notes notebook with notes, I lost track of how many cathedrals we entered, but they are most certainly as prolific of Marvel superheroes.

Now the styles of these cathedrals vary depending upon when they were built, but throughout Europe, whether we were in Rome, Siena, Venice, Paris, they all have one thing in common.

None of their restrooms are working.

Restrooms are at a premium in Europe, usually costing about 50 Euro-cents to use public facilities. So one would think that a cathedral would be a perfect place to grab a free restroom. Except that in every cathedral in which we asked to use the restroom, we were told the facilities were out of order.

“When was this cathedral built?” I asked.

“The first stone was laid in 1172.”

“So then isn’t a restroom just a hole in the floor somewhere? How is it that a hole is out of order?”

Clearly, Europe has issues with too few restrooms. Or maybe too many cathedrals. I haven’t decided yet.

(More on the Europe trip soon.)

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