Brilliance on Dinosaur Island

What intelligence means to me

Put almost any group of people in a room together, and they’ll eventually start talking about how dumb everyone else is.

Put a group of people with above-average intelligence in a room together, and they’ll start talking about what intelligence means — when they first started to realize they were “gifted,” how they tried to measure and quantify their intellectual gifts, and how little those scores really tell us.

If this sounds self-congratulatory, that’s because it is.

At some point in that conversation, someone will jump in and say, “Well, here’s how I can tell when somebody’s smart…”

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My Historical Novel Is Coming!

In the midst of all these fun articles, I’ve been working on a bigger project: a novel set in ancient Mesopotamia.

Well, maybe “novel” isn’t exactly right — it’s a collection of short stories set in the same area, all linked to each other by themes, characters, legends, and so on. Together, the stories form a narrative that reaches far back into the ancient past.

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A Cemetery of the Living

How my friend’s art connects Hollywood and ancient Egypt

Last weekend, I took a trip up to Milan. My friends and I hit all the usual sightseeing spots — the big famous Gothic cathedral, the sprawling neoclassical shopping mall known as the Galleria — but I had one special destination in mind.

My friend, the painter Tracy Molis, had a gallery show there.

Two things made this show especially interesting to me.

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James Needham’s “Bathroom Selfie” Painting Continues a 40,000-Year Artistic Tradition

But to prove it, we’re gonna have to get NSFW.

We’ve all gotten pulled into one of those conversations at one party or another: “Art is on the decline! No ones creates original work anymore! Music is produced by robots and armies of slave children! All we do is take selfies and mindlessly share them!”

That’s how art critic Jonathan Jones reacted to the above painting by artist James Needham this week. Needham is shocked — shocked — that this painting has gotten almost a million shares on Imgur. “It washes out all aesthetic ambition,” Jones wails in The Guardian, “and reduces the 600 years of art history since the Renaissance to the level of a glorified selfie.”

My response to all that is,

What do you think art history IS?

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The Whisperers in the Aquarium

A weird tale that actually happened to me

This entire story is completely true. Every single thing in it actually happened.

It’s hard for me, sometimes, to believe that things like these can really exist on this planet. As I was writing about them, I felt as if I was writing fiction — something deliriously imaginative to shock and entertain my audience.

But no — it’s all true. Every word of it.

God help me, but it is.

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The Insanity That Keeps Us Sane

We’ve got some strange ways of dealing with bad thoughts.

Want to hear a cool story?

In the 1280s, the Mongol warlord Hülegü Khan was getting ready to make war on the city of Baghdad — which was, at that time, the epicenter of the civilized world.

The Khan sent a threat letter to the Caliph of Baghdad that always sends chills up my spine when I read it. Here’s a sample:

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The “Gypsies” Aren’t Who You Think They Are

They’re called Roma, they’re intriguing, and “gypsy” is a slur.

All right my friends, let me tell you about “Gypsies” — or as they’re actually called, the Romani people, or simply the Roma.

They’ve been in the news a few times lately for child abductions. They’ve got a reputation as musicians and fortune-tellers at best; or as thieves, pickpockets and kidnappers at worst. They’re probably from Romania, right? They must have something to do with the Romanians.

Well, not really. Not at all, actually.

 

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No One Hears You Shouting From the Slums of Mombasa

The story of a man, a city, and a piece of truth.

The estate where we live is not in the slums. It’s a nice middle-class neighborhood — about ten acres with a big stone wall around them, and a whole community of small shops and apartments and houses and cow-grazing patches inside, all connected by winding dirt trails that run through the scrub.

The long low buildings are communal houses where Swahili people live. The little shacks with signs outside are stores — butcher shops, beauty salons, convenience stores, phone top-up stands. Everything you want, you can find within the estate, sold by your neighbors.

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There Is No Yesterday

An interactive experience in speaking with people from the past

Certain photos demand your attention: vintage mugshots of Australian criminals; portraits of soon-to-be victims of Stalin’s Great Purge, or of nomads in the desert or the steppe.

You stare into these peoples’ eyes and wonder what they were thinking about, what their days were like, how their voice sounded—maybe how they died.

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Alone in Nairobi

Night can make you feel like a stranger, even when you’re home

Last night, when the power had been out for twelve hours and the sun finally set and left me in the dark, and someone knocked on my door to hand me candles, and I lit the candles and sat on the bed and listened to the shouting outside — that was when I realized how alone I was.

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