Category Archives: Story-telling

Includes all matters writing, mythology and fairy-tales. Some process.

Content and Story: A Meditation

A few days ago I was inspired by a friend who posted five artworks depicting women from five different time periods, three different cultures (though all but one of the artists was European), and in three different media (oils, ink, photography). In our discussion, he mentioned content, which made me ask myself what ‘content’ referred to.

When Botticelli used what looks like the same model for The Birth of Venus and the Madonna with Child and Four Angels and Six Saints, what is the content—the woman’s angelic face or all the other things in the paintings?

Detail of tThe Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli. 1483-1485. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Wikimedia Commons. Simonetta died of consumption at the age of 24 nine years before this painting was done. Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto discounts the myth that Simonetta Vespucci, the most beautiful woman of her time, was the model for Botticelli.
Detail of The Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli. 1483-1485. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the Madonna with Child and Four Angels and Six Saints (Pala di Barnaba). Sandro Botticelli. 1488. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the Madonna with Child and Four Angels and Six Saints (Pala di Barnaba). Sandro Botticelli. 1488. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.












I came to the conclusion that content is the ‘story’

The content—the story—of the two Botticelli paintings is in one case ancient myth and in the other the established religion of the time. The model, who may or may not be Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci  (a fascinating, and controversial, story in itself) represents an ideal of beauty, but she is not the content.

I trained as a scientist and worked for years doing basic research

In the scientific endeavor, the content, the story, is the question being asked.

One might use observations, whether obtained from nature or within an experimental setup (in which the study system is controlled in some way), or a computer simulation, or a theoretical construct. But data, theory or models constitute simply the approach taken.

The question is what really matters. The scientist is expected to provide the best-reasoned answer to that question.

Now I spend my time writing stories

I’ve said that fiction is my preferred tool to ask questions.

Not to answer them.

What is the content then, what is the story? Again I believe it is the question being asked. But in fiction, the question is hidden, and that is in fact part of the appeal.

We’re told to write what we know

This makes perfect sense. A good story always is grounded in truth. The stories that grab you by the throat and don’t let go are always authentic stories.

But what defines what we know? Is it our direct experiences? Our biographies?

I hope not. Just imagine an editor speaking with Kafka:

But Franz, you’ve never actually been a cockroach. Perhaps Gregor’s ennui has led to a back spasm which prevents him from turning over or moving.

Where would we be if we wrote only from direct experience?

Direct experience is a truth 

But there is always more than one truth, just as there is always more than one story and more than one way to tell it.

The stories that draw me now are only vaguely recognizable, if at all, from my life. They’ve been through a crucible. A crucible which burns them and changes their outward appearance.

Carbon dioxide to plants. Plants to jungles. Jungles to humus. Humus to coal. Coal to diamonds. Diamonds to dust.

Or maybe the stories are the crucible…

My protagonists are weavers, circus aerialists, spies, botanists, academics, sculptors, physicists, and priests. Some live in countries I’ve never seen; others carried out their adventures before I was born.

Thank god for libraries and old movies, for newspaper archives, for the internet

After all, I am a researcher by training. I like to search and read and think about things I don’t already know. The stories I tell are the ones I choose to tell.

They dance around the questions that have become obsessions, the questions that pull on me for reasons I cannot articulate.

Because if I could articulate the why, my stories would become science, or at least non-fiction. And I would feel compelled to provide my best attempt at an answer.

But in fiction, the reader gets to answer the questions

Perhaps that’s why I moved away from scientific research. By using fiction to ask a question—to tell a story—the answers depend on the reader.

In fact, the reader may even find that the question is not the one I thought I was asking.

And you know, that’s part of the fun.

Marduk and the Abstract

As we study the ancients, we find ourselves revising our own understanding of what was known when. This became quite evident from a study published in January in Science.

In the study, astroarcheologist Mathieu Ossendrijver studied the texts of Babylonian tablets from 350-50 BCE. This Science video and articles from the NY Times and Washington Post show the beautiful tablets with the cuneiform writing.

To his surprise, and upending established history of science, Ossendrijver found a very abstract application of geometry.

Geometry is a very intuitive science

It is used to understand the distance between cities, the extent of pastureland or fields, or volumes of oil and wine.

However the text on these clay tablets dealt with nothing so tangible. They compared speed and time, as is done in calculus.

But calculus was not developed until the mid 17th C, by Leibniz and Newton.

What is calculus?

The word calculus comes the Latin for a small stone or pebble—the kind one might use to count, or in an abacus.

Marduk, integral
Estimating the area under a curve. Image from WyZant Resources.

In mathematics, calculus is the study of change. One can estimate the rate of change, in what is known as differential calculus. The reverse process finds the net accumulation due to change, integral calculus.

Integral calculus deals with quantifying the area under a curve.

What did the Babylonians do?

Ossendrijver had long studied several small clay tablets from the British Museum. These tablets spoke of deriving the area of a trapezoid, but there was no context as to what the trapezoid represented. Thanks to an additional clue provided from photos of another tablet from a retired archeologist, he realized that the Babylonians were referring to the planet Jupiter.

Taken all together, the tablets prescribed how to find the area of the trapezoid formed beneath the curve of Jupiter’s velocity against time. Integrating this area gives the distance that the planet has moved during the time period, namely the first one hundred and twenty days following Jupiter’s appearance.

This procedure was thought to have been first used in the 14th C by researchers working out of Merton College in Oxford, England and by the French philosopher, economist, and mathematician Nicholas Oresme.

Why did the Babylonians want to know the position of Jupiter?

It isn’t altogether clear whether the position of Jupiter was necessary for a specific ritual, but Jupiter was identified with the Marduk, god of the city of Babylon.

Given the relative positions of  the planetary orbits, shortly after Jupiter appears from the other side of the sun, Earth catches up with Jupiter. Therefore, as seen from Earth, Jupiter’s velocity appears to slow and to reverse itself.

This crossing period or transition point (or Nibiru) could have been an important religious marker for the Babylonians.

Who is Marduk anyway?

Marduk, in the Musée du Louvre. Photo by Rmashhadi, via Wikimedia Commons.

As is the case of many ancient deities, and especially with fragmented records, Marduk morphed over time: from god of thunderstorms to ruler of the cosmos to god of order and fate. At at one time he was known as the god of fifty names.

After vanquishing Tiamat, the monster of chaos, he became the Lord of the Gods of Heaven and Earth. This is just one more of the many cases where patriarchal gods overcame the ancient ones, but that’s a story for another time.

Ancient Greek astronomers used similar geometric methods as seen in these tablets

However, as noted in Ossendrijver’s original article, the Babylonians weren’t calculating the area of a tangible physical object.

The area defined by speed relative to time is abstract. There is no record of similar sophistication until fourteen hundred years later.

The ruler of the cosmos, vanquisher of chaos, wouldn’t have expected anything less.









Nefertiti Everywhere

The past week has seen some active discussion about the bust of Nefertiti, public ownership, and provenance following  the art intervention of Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nicolai Nelles as discussed in articles from HyperAllergic  and the NY Times.

The Other Nefertiti. The scanned and 3D-printed polymer bust.
The Nefertiti bust in the Neues Museum. Creative Commons, photo by Philip Pikart.
The Nefertiti bust in the Neues Museum. Photo by Philip Pikart.










The two German artists covertly scanned the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin. This video shows how the scanner was hidden under Al-Badri’s scarf. They then handed the scans to collaborators who created a 3D file.

In the spirit of public domain ownership and restitution of colonial spoils, the file was released and replicas were made using a 3D printer and taken to Egypt.

 Cultural theft

In the February 26 Hyperallergic piece, Al-Badri is quoted as saying:

Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of important objects can be found in Western museums and private collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic struggles.

Al-Badri and Nelles want us to think about cultural theft, about where an artwork belongs and how it gets to where it is seen.

The Nefertiti bust (1340 BCE) was originally excavated in 1912

It was found in the studio of a sculptor, Thutmose, in Amarna, capital of the pharaoh Akhneten, husband to Nefertiti.

Although the rest of the Amarna collection was shown publicly in 1913-1914, the bust was not displayed until 1924, at which time the first formal description of the find was also made.

The Nefertiti sculpture moved around a lot after the Berlin museum closed in 1939 and was eventually taken west, leading to disputes between East and West Germany.

Despite multiple requests from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities for the bust to be returned to Egypt, Germany considers its ownership legal.

How many Nefertiti? One Nefertiti

There is the historical Nefertiti. Among other things, she and Akhnaten established the worship of a single deity—pretty revolutionary in pantheistic Egypt of the time—and object of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten. Nefertiti was originally thought to have died soon after her husband, but recent finds suggest she survived him and ruled Egypt herself.

The Nefertiti bust is the iconic image of this woman.

Two Nefertiti

A 2009 computed tomography scan of the bust shows a detailed limestone sculpture of a woman with a few wrinkles and small bump in her nose. The thin layer of painted stucco covering the limestone has been characterized as ‘photoshopping’ her appearance.

Three Nefertiti

There have been claims that the sculpture is a hoax, crafted in 1912.

The reasoning is based on the style—with traits similar to the Art Deco movement of the time—and the missing left eye, which would have been considered anathema for Egyptian artists.

Although the pigments have been carbon-dated to be 3000 years old, the ‘forgers’ still could have applied them a hundred years ago.

Four Nefertiti

And then there is the recent reconstruction made by Paul Docherty using multiple high-quality cloud-sourced photographs to map, and recreate, the three-dimensional surface.

The Other Other Nefertiti

So Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the bust and released a high-quality 3D file.

But DochertyFred Kahl, and Cosmo Wenman, and others, have noted the difficulty of completing such a high-resolution scan with the equipment and under the conditions as shown.

For example: the bust is inside a glass box, the scanner requires a power source (which isn’t seen), the low resolution of the scan, and it would be very noticeable if the scanner were raised over the bust given the height of the display case.

The consensus seems to be that the scanning did not lead to the file that has been released, but rather that it is some version of the museum’s 3D scan.

It might have been hacked, stolen, leaked, or something else.

When mentioned, these claims seemed to amuse the artists.  Al-Badri simply replied, “Of course a scan of the same thing looks the same.” Hyperallergic 9 March 2016 

Does it matter?

Al-Badri insists that they made a scan and they released a file. She implies that the connection between the two is a black-box. Their statement is about ownership and colonialism. It is about originals and about culture.

Even those expressing admiration for the unfolding discussion convey some perplexity at this secrecy, especially given the transparent collegiality of the community of experts exploring public domain objects.

What is an original?

Al-Badri and Nelles propose that a copy should reside in the Neues Museum and that the original should be in Egypt.

Would that matter?

The power of an original comes from knowing that there is only one. In the case of cultural artifacts, there is the thrill of knowing that it is ancient.

Because of my inordinate fondness for medieval manuscripts, it is not rare that I find myself looking at a copy at a museum. Like the Beatus in the Girona Museum.

But paper is particularly fragile and books were not made to be held open for display. Perhaps stone sculptures like Michelangelo’s David  or Nefertiti’s bust are less vulnerable.

What is more important, originality or ubiquity? 

With the knowledge of the British Museum, Wenman scanned and printed a head of Selene from the Parthenon in 2012.

From a world of multiplication of images, where Malraux’s museum without walls has expanded almost exponentially because of the internet, The Other Nefertiti and works such as those of Wenman, Kahl and Docherty, carry us into a world of multiplication of objects. A tactile expansion made possible by technological breakthroughs that seemed science-fiction to non-experts even five years ago.

Wenman proposes in his piece on The Other Nefertiti: 

The world’s back catalog of art should be set free to run wild in our visual and tactile landscape, and whether it turns up lit in pixels on our screens, rematerialized in our living rooms, or embedded in our architecture or clothing, it’s all to the good.

Of printing presses and 3D printers

As a reader, talk of originals makes me think of the restricted access to books in the historical past, where manuscripts and incunabula were relegated to monasteries and libraries. It reminds me of  how the printing press turned the written word from magic to commonplace.

The analogy may not hold water, but I do wonder:

Is the experience of an art object lessened by the existence of multiple copies or is the world richer for the increased exposure?

Leap day, or how to keep time on track

Monday, February 29, was a leap day, an intercalary day: a day inserted into the calendar.

Leap day represents a fudge factor to reconcile the fact that the year—or the time for the earth to revolve around the sun—and the day—the time that it takes the earth revolve around its axis—bear no connection.

As we all learned in school, the solar year is longer than 365 days, by 0.2422 days, such that almost every four years we add a day. The ‘almost’ comes from the fact that the extra time is less than a quarter of a day.

As for months, the moon orbits the earth relative to the sun in 29.5 days in what is called a synodic month.

Days just don’t fit neatly into years or months. So arbitrary conventions are required. Like months of twenty-eight, thirty, and thirty-one days.

Civilizations need calendars

For the bulk of human history, we needed calendars to know when to plant and when to harvest. We needed calendars to know when to attend fairs to trade our goods, and when to go to holy sites to partake in rituals.

Given the regularity of the moon and the sun, it is only natural that mankind looked to the heavens to define time.

Think a leap day is bad, imagine two months…

Because days don’t fit into months or years evenly, all calendars require a ‘fix’ to avoid migrating away from the sun. For some it is a day every four years, for others a month, for others five days at the end of the year.

When Julius Caesar tried to sort out the drift associated with a 365-day year, he added two months to the year. 46BCE had 445 days and was known as annus confusionis, the Year of Confusion.

The LA Times calculated that if we’d ignored leap year corrections as made since 46BCE, we would currently find ourselves in mid-July.

Defining time

The quest to improve timekeeping is one of mankind’s oldest pursuits, and has essentially been a search to find better oscillators. — NIST Primary Frequency Standards and the Realization of the SI Second.

Earth’s rotation on its axis—the succession of night and day—is an oscillator that is hard to ignore, so naturally the second was originally defined as a fraction of the day. Of course day length varies with latitude and season. It is even affected by large weather patterns.

The increased temperatures and shifts in atmospheric pressure associated with El Niño have been observed to slow the speed of rotation by 0.05 to 0.1 milliseconds.

Day length is also over time increasing due to friction from the tides. Global warming will also have a measurable impact.

The period of revolution around the sun is more stable than day length. In 1956, the standard second was defined as 1/31 556 925.9747 of the tropical year 1900. But this is impractical for real-time activities, such as synchronizing satellites.

Enter the atomic clock 

Instead of looking out to the cosmos to define time, the current standard for the second comes from the oscillation resulting from electrons shifting levels within an atom of cesium: 9,192,631,770 periods to be precise.

The year is now defined in function of the atomic clock. We have gone from peering at the heavens to looking inside an atom.

But the historical and cultural weight of astronomical timekeeping is so great that the two are kept in sync. And thus we have leap seconds, during which the universal time defined by cesium pauses for solar time to catch up.

Since 1972, 26 leap seconds have been introduced.

Why are they called leap days, or leap seconds, when nothing is being skipped?

Notwithstanding the fabulous photos of leaping animals on from National Geographic, a leap day is an extra day introduced into our calendars. There is no jumping involved.

Apparently the term has been in use since at least the 13th C. It is thought to refer to how calendar dates move from one day of the week to the next day on the following year. But on leap years, those that fall after February 29th move two days.

How did you use your extra day this year?

 There is little fuss and fanfare around the intercalary day, which I think is a mistake.

A leap day calls attention to the arbitrary nature of calendars. It is a clerical correction to a solar system where planetary rotation and revolution aren’t neatly linked.

Wouldn’t it make sense to use leap day as an actual extra day, a gift from the heavens to take the time to look above or deep inside?

leap day

punctuation NOLA

Punctuation fun: add commas and periods and stir

Last week my twitter timeline was buzzing with a thought-provoking Medium article by Adam J Calhoun on the punctuation in novels.

Inspired by these visual poems that result from extracting the words from classic works of literature, he compared the punctuation patterns of some his favorite books. Two end members were Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.

Image of punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner (right) from Adam J. Calhoun’s article.

Not surprisingly, the former was period-dominated and the latter comma- and semicolon-dominated, with dash of parentheses. Both have a fair number of question marks as well.

He didn’t stop there.

There are great statistics in the post, like the frequency of each punctuation mark and the number of words per sentence. After he’d written the code  to transform text into a sequence of commas, semicolons, exclamation points, quotation marks, and parentheses, the delight in comparing various novels from different authors and time periods (and even the beginning and ending of the same novel as shown on his blog) was probably hard to resist.

Do go read the Medium piece, if somehow you managed to miss it.

The article isn’t just fascinating, the resulting punctuation sequences are truly beautiful.

They look like an alien language of sorts.

Style contributes undoubtedly to the punctuation maps. That includes convention: whether one use single- or double-apostrophes for quotations in fiction or dashes. And language itself matters, as commas are more common in Spanish and French than in English. One wonders about non-fiction and technical writing. In the latter, clarity aims to prevail over style—message over form.

But the punctuation sequences made me think about what isn’t there: the words.

Punctuation provides the guardrails for words, the traffic signs for the circulation of written language. But how determining is it?

Returning to the breathtaking opening paragraph of Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night.

When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger, who, as you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.

Have I mentioned how much I love this book?

Stripping away the words we have:

, , , , , , , . , . — — .

The marks left on wet beach-sand by a small bird hopping.

A hidden message. A vessel for words.

Using the same punctuation we have:

It was a dark day filled with portents, omens, sealed closed to those who rushed past without seeing, but open to those who wouldn’t turn away, who couldn’t be distracted, at the all the signs, the clues, at all that still remained to be unveiled. For she already knew, it was the end. The story was already told—in strokes of punctuation—that echoed as drumbeats in the silence.

But we also have:

Take a basket of apples, a bowl of walnuts, the gratings of nutmeg to dust the surface two times over, four cinnamon sticks, the zest and juice of a ripe lemon, still warm from the tree, two fists of crinkled cranberries, and three glass-fulls of brown sugar. This is key for that which you seek, along with the freshly churned butter and flour ground from last winter’s wheat. By baking a pie that is clear and true—only the sincerest ingredients will suffice—the crone may grant your request.

And even (stripping down the last example):

Take apples, walnuts, nutmeg, cinnamon, the zest and juice of a lemon, dried cranberries, optional, and brown sugar. Also required are butter, flour and a pinch of salt. Follow the recipe—the one hand-printed on the scrap of parchment—you will have a pie.

The tone is completely different for the same sequence of punctuation. Even the rhythm is different, though we pause and stop at the same points. (None come close to the original, needless to say.)

So punctuation is more flexible than traffic signals, telling us to stop and to yield.

Punctuation and words live in a symbiosis conditioned by style and content. It is the speed at which we think. It is what we choose to see.

Punctuation interlocks with our words to carry ideas, like a series of locks to channel water, like sheepdogs herding thoughts through complicated terrain.

To close, a New Orleans traffic sign.

punctuation NOLA