Culture

The Nomad and the Refugee: a trip home in 70,000 kilometers, 18 years and 217 days

My mother passed away Mar 31, 2006, almost exactly seven years ago at the time of writing. Memories of her are still with me powerfully. And the story of how she met my father is one of those genesis-legends that I now understand to have shaped me crucially: my love of Vancouver, my affinity for travel, and maybe most of all, my writing.

On April 3, 2013, I'll be speaking at Sam Sullivan's Public Salon and talking a bit about my mother's life as a refugee and afterwards, also about the remarkable, unlikely way in which she ended up meeting my nomad father. Between the refugee and the nomad, they had tens of thousands of miles of travel under their heels at that moment of their first dance at a house party in Guayaquil, Ecuador. And they weren't quite done yet.

Sam Sullivan's Public Salon, 7:30PM to 9:00PM, April 3, 2013

Vancouver Playhouse, 600 Hamilton (at Dunsmuir)

 

Posted: Friday, Mar. 29, 2013 10:39am
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The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

First published in Canadian Art Winter 2013

By Timothy Taylor

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

We’re in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, just east of the downtown core...

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Posted: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 10:35am

A Navy SEAL on the Full Circle of Vengeance

A Facebook friend, Canadian television host Carolyn Weaver, posted a link to a fascinating 60 Minutes episode in which CBS correspondent Scott Pelley interviews "Mark Owen" (pseudonym), a retired Navy SEAL who was in the room when Osama bin Laden was killed in his compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan. Owen has just published a book about his experiences during the raid. It's called No Easy Day.

Although I didn't really have the time (deadlines!) I ended up watching the entire thing, and I'm glad I did. The story may be familiar from its wide coverage in the press at the time it happened. And Owen himself doesn't reveal anything he considers to be secret. So there's no real insight into intelligence operations that preceded the raid or even much about the tactics used by SEALs when the hit the ground on assignments such as this one.

What CBS has done instead - on purpose or by accident - is offer an insight into the psychology of these ultra-elite hand-picked soldiers. Owen isn't cold, exactly. But he is incredibly controlled. In one passage, he describes how the movies get it wrong by always depicting operations like the one in Pakistan as loud and fast. Instead, he tells us, when SEALs do their jobs, they do it slowly and quietly.

"We have a saying," Owen remarks at one point: "Don't run to your own death."

While all that is fascinating, I found watching that I experienced something like mounting dread. Working on a piece about PTSD for Harpers has perhaps put me in this mindset, but I could not help but wonder at the toll his work would ultimately take on Owen.

He betrays very little, it has to be said, until almost his final words of the program. In that moment, he's describing the emotion he experienced in visiting the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Pelley comments: over three thousand people died there. Owen nods. He's well aware of it, of course.

The raid avenged those people, Pelley suggests. And here Owen agrees.

It is a chilling moment. Because we sense that Owen's awareness of the raid as an act of vengeance may not sit with him quite as easily as it appears to sit with Pelley, who makes the comment as if to balance the books, as if to establish that in the wake of the raid, ammends had been made, peace restored.

Owen, to my eye, does not seem so sure. He says instead that he realized in that moment, at the memorial, that it was time for him personally to move on. And then he says the words.

"Full circle," the former Navy SEAL says, with no trace of satisfaction.

How rich, insightful, and devastating is that casual formulation. The full circle, of course, returns us to the site of our departure, as if we had never left. What will Owen do with this understanding? I can't speculate, only to say that it seems to me, in that room, he glimpsed the expediency and (maybe) even the practical necessity of an act that would yet necessarily only perpetuate itself in further violence, further requirements for vengeance, further full circles spinning on up into the unknowable future. Spinning and escalating.

But maybe the more important question is what should we do with that understanding?

 

Posted: Monday, Sep. 10, 2012 11:24am

Music in the City and the Psyche

Update: 28 August 2012

The editors at Harpers have assigned the story. So this piece will be appearing in an upcoming issue of that great magazine. We're very much interested in the story of PTSD and how it is illuminated by Christian Ellis's story and the remarkable opera inspired by his experiences. That's both sides of the story: what makes battlefields ever more virulent breed grounds for the types of trauma that induce the syndrome, but also what cultural evolutions in contemporary civilian life contribute to the problem when the vets return home.

It's a thorny issue. And some recent online posts I made about PTSD prove that feelings are very strong on the topic. It touches more people than I realized. But that only makes the potential for this article greater, and I'm glad to be working on it.

Thanks to Jeremy Keehn at Harpers for the assignment. Great to be working with him again.

---

I had coffee with a fimmaker friend John Bolton recently, who'd been hired to video a remarkable event: the Vancouver City Opera's full rehearsal of an opera based on the combat and post-war experiences of gay former Marine Seargent Christian Ellis.

The opera, called Fallujah, isn't remarkable because Ellis is gay or even because he was a Marine. It's remarkable because, in writing this work, Iraqi/American Heather Raffo and Canadian composer Tobin Stokes (with crucial support of Charles Annenberg and his Explore.org foundation) have done something that nobody has previously. They've written a musical work about the Iraq War and what is arguably its most deadly inheritance: Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a huge and increasing problem for nations engaged in modern conflict. Read "A Veteran's Death, A Nation's Shame", written by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York times earlier this year, and you may be horrified to learn that there will be a suicide by a veteran every 80 minutes in 2012. Yes, you read that correctly. 25 times the death rate of soldiers in actual conflict.

I mention this story because I'm developing a magazine feature about Ellis. And I'll say more on that project, hopefully, as weeks go by.

But in the meantime, I wanted to mention how - just after a recent discussion with a friend about Ellis and his story - I found myself sitting at my desk, trying to get my mind back on other assignments, and I had the strangest sensation.

I thought I could hear music.

Of course, I laughed at myself, thinking this was a brain image carried over from my conversation, something that Ellis' story had somehow burned onto my imagination.

After a moment or two however, the auditory reality of what I was hearing could not be denied. Somebody, somewhere, was playing a brassy, orchestral tune, that was dancing along the light Vancouver breeze, from somewhere down on the streets, and was wafting up in strands and disconnected phrases to me, at my computer, in my office overlooking the city.

I went downstairs to investigate.

And it turned out: I hadn't imagined the sound. In Victory Square there were a dozen plus horn players, a couple of percussionists and a conducter. And they were rolling through an improvisational jazz number that I learned later was the work of long time Vancouver jazz player Brad Muirhead.

The piece is called "What's the Idea?"

So beautiful. I was glad to be there, glad to be alive.

Thanks Brad Muirhead. And if you want to hear it yourself, the show rolls again Tuesday July 10th at noon, and again on Thursday July 12th at 5pm.

What's the Idea? Here I'll go all romantic on you: the idea is music in the city, in the psyche, in the wind, in the heart.

 

Posted: Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2012 11:36am
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Creative Chaos Now Available in Paperback

Two things are happening right now that have an intense and resonant connection.

1. The Blue Light Project is published in paperback at the same time as being selected as a contestant for a reality-television-styled vote-based Bookie Award.

2. The Red Gate artists' collective has found a potential new home, but needs City of Vancouver approval to move in as the City owns the property.

The connection is forged by my knowledge that The Blue Light Project might never have been written were it not for the Red Gate.

This is the piece of art that started my whole creative process.

It's called Rise Fly Land and the day I first saw it, I stood in that alley for a good twenty minutes staring at it. At that point in my exposure to graff and street art, I didn't know enough to recognize that signature at the bottom, which is that of the legendary Canadian graff writer (and almost equally legendary train-rider) Take5. All I knew was that there was something mysterious and entire in the image. Rise. Fly. Land. There is a echo of eternity in the phrase. A bass note of wisdom, of peace.

I had only very recently seen Les Blank's oddly captivating film Werner Herzog Eats his shoe in which Herzog makes the following slightly enigmatic statement: "We need adequate images. If mankind doesn't develop adequate images, we're going to die out like the dinosaurs."

Somehow standing in that alley off Hastings Street, I felt like I was confronted with an authentic attempt at an adequate image. It was a moment both warming and chilling, if that makes any sense.

Of course, like I said, I had no idea who had made the piece. Until I talked to Jim Carrico at the Red Gate, that is. And he introduced me to Take5 who then told me that he and the artist OTHER had made Rise Fly Land. Take5 also gave me my first glimpse into the world of the street artist in a long and fascinating conversation in the original Red Gate location. From there, literally branching out from the Red Gate and into this hidden community of artists, my interest in the area and my ideas for the book began to surge and take shape.

The Red Gate always was a chaotic place, with no particular central plan or manifesto. But it was from that environment that came the sparks of original idea.

When the Red Gate was threatened with shut-down last year, I lamented the prospect in a Vancouver Review essay called Chaos and Planning. In that piece I argued that the Red Gate was the source of creative chaos that all cities need. Kill these sorts of institutions - out of some hyper-vigilant sense that everything has to be planned centrally in coordination with official messages - and you kill the organic creativity on which all cities depend.

My article didn't help. The Red Gate lost it's fight and were evicted. It was a real loss to the city.

Now we come to another turn in the story. The Red Gate has a chance to reopen. The building they want to use is empty. They're willing to pay rent. And the whole situation is in the hands of the City of Vancouver, as they own the building.

Is it possible that our civic leaders will miss for a second time the contribution that the Red Gates of this world make to the cities where they're found?

On the cover of the paperback Blue Light are three eyes, by the artist Rich S. For awhile prior to the Olympics in Vancouver, these could be found widely through the downtown east side. I loved those eyes. What a lot they managed to say in one image about the hovering reality, good and ill, of our governments and leaders.

What will our leaders in Vancouver do now?

Posted: Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 12:41pm

They're Everywhere

 

Holy stickers Batman. These things have hit Toronto, New York, Halifax... everywhere.

Now they've reportedly crossed the pond. They're going up in the UK now.

Move over Banksy. Or whatever. I have no idea what this means.

Posted: Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 10:47am

Negative Empathy

Should writers of fiction review the work of colleagues? I avoid it personally, and my rational for doing is the basis for my side of a debate that was part of the CBC Literary Smackdown series recently. The other side of the issue was taken by esteemed Victoria-based novelist and nonfiction writer Robert Weirsma, who also writes a lot of fine reviews.

You can find our respective essays on the topic here, along with a link to the debate as broadcast on Sheila Rogers show Next Chapter.

I enjoyed the discussion because I enjoy talking to Robert. But I knew going in that arguing my side of the resolved was a thankless proposition. That's because I was arguing that the prevalence of competitiveness and envy in our culture and economy - magnified incredibly, in my view, by the migration of that culture and economy from offline to online - makes the review that one writer writes of another writer highly suspect. Consciously or unconsciously, in other words, insider reviews (positive or negative) end up being strategic, designed in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways to serve the purposes of the reviewer. Better that the writer withdraw from this toxic maeltsrom of mutual appraisal and measurement (as exemplified in our hysterical interest in our own online profiles) and leave reviewing to "professionals", people who write from within literature but not within the writing community.

Robert's argument for reviewing was from the standpoint of empathy. As a novelist, he could empathize more with the writer being reviewed than could a non-writer. Empathy, in this analysis, provides the novelist/reviewer with insights into the writing process and the significance of the literary accomplishment as it's ultimately delivered (or not) on the page.

That point is interesting because it shows that Robert and I come to our respective conclusions in response to our observation of what are closely related human capacities. Empathy, after all, is the mother of envy.

Here's Martin Amis putting his finger directly on the button in The Pregnant Widow:

"It was only Nicholas, his male flesh and blood, that Karl really envied. And envy, the dictionary suggests, takes us by a knight’s move to empathy. From L. invidere “regard maliciously,” from in- into + videre “to see.” Envy is negative empathy. Envy is empathy in the wrong place at the wrong time."

That's a very powerful idea: that "to see into" someone (their work, their tastes and tendencies, their condition) might "by a knight's move" lead us to "regard maliciously", wanting what the other has and quite possibly wishing them ill.

Powerful, but as I said, thankless. Who wants to hear that? It self-recriminates. And since we prize independence of mind and the idea of personal autonomy perhaps above all other things in our culture, that very idea that we are vainly comparing ourselves to others and finding ourselves wanting is bitterly distasteful.

Of course, my whole argument was also an abstraction. I wasn't saying Robert specifically was envious and therefore a strategic reviewer. I was making a point that is as inwardly directed as it is outwardly.

In an interesting Facebook disscussion that sparked to life after Canada Writes posted the essays, the downsides of taking my position were immediately plain, as I was asked to produce my evidence and provide an example from Robert's reviewing of the envy that I felt prohibited the novelist/reviewer from effectively reviewing a colleagues work.

Fair play. I was in the realm of abstraction. And while I won't take on Robert's work, I'll happily take on my own. Consider this review I wrote of Jason Anderson's 2006 novel Showbiz, published by ECW. It ran in the Literary Review of Canada, and I now regret writing it. Not because I don't stand by the points I made, but because I can hear my own strategic positioning in it. I was writing about celebrity myself quite a lot at that time. (The Blue LIght Project was in the works.) So I had criticisms of Anderson's approach. Far more important is the fact that Anderson and I were doing the same thing at the time. Literarily speaking, we were after the same prize. We were undifferentiated competitors.

Call me a wimp, then, but I still feel icky about that review. Maybe I even withdrew from reviewing books by colleagues because of it. But the story ends well, because in a turn worthy of, I don't know, Flaubert, my own 2006 novel, Story House, was then bitterly trashed and stomped only six months later *in the same publication* by a reviewer named Adele Freedman.

Story House is about architecture. Freedman is an architecture critic. And she tore me a new egress, to put it politely.

Let's agree to call that karma.

 

Posted: Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 12:49pm

Portlandia Update: Canada Days

I had the occasion to attend Canada Days in Portland, Oregon, not long ago. It's a week-long celebration of Canadian industry, arts and culture, but it also added up to being the strangest trip south of 49 I've ever had. Until I received the email invitation, I had no idea there was such a festival, despite the fact that it started in Anchorage and is now happening in various other American cities including Boise. In any case, it’s apparently the brain child of the Canadian consulate in Seattle – and as unlikely as such an event might seem, I was happy to be asked. Let's be honest, it was a chance for me, a Canadian novelist, to talk about the literary life in my country. I had a book to promote. And besides, the email promised a room at the Westin. I think I probably accepted in less than five minutes.
 
I was picked up at the Portland airport by Rudy, a public affairs officer in the Seattle consulate. He’s an American citizen, and on the way into town, all he wanted to talk about were the mid-term elections. These had gone pretty heavily the Republican way, and Rudy was aghast. Many people he knew were aghast. I'd just taken a 6:30 AM flight from Vancouver and frankly, I wasn’t fully awake, much less offended by American electoral developments. Sensing this, Rudy changed the topic. Be it resolved that Portland is a pretty city although, admittedly, Canadians has pretty high standards in this regard. No sparky debate ensued.
 
As it turned out, the Westin was too expensive, so we were put up at the Mark Spencer instead, which a Portland resident would later estimate to be the city's cheapest hostelry that does not rent rooms by the hour. This didn't bother me. Having a health care system to protect, I'm on side with cost-cutting measures. Besides, I told myself while walking up the six flights to my room (the elevator was broken) Rudy had me booked solid with readings. I’d hardly be in the hotel. Indeed, my first engagement was an hour later, at Portland Community College. Kevin, another cultural affairs operative at the consulate, and also American, called to suggest we meet at the Westin.
 
"But we're not staying at the Westin -- " I started, then the nickel dropped. That's where consulate staff are staying. Of course.
 
Kevin warmed up the 30-odd students at PCC with a quiz. How many of you know the capital of Canada? How many of you know the name of the President of Canada? Sullen silence. And then: how many of you have seen one of these before?
 
He reached into his briefcase, but for what? A maple leaf? A can of Blue? No. What Kevin pulled out was a Coffee Crisp chocolate bar. "It's from Toronto!" Kevin said, smiling indulgently and begging to distribute more of them to the class.
 
I'm not normally in favour of giving out candy before a reading. It smacks of bribery. Plus, I can't stand crinkling paper when I'm trying to emote. But I needn't have worried. So convincing was Kevin's portrayal of the Coffee Crisp as alien object that most of the students were reluctant to taste them. A girl in the back row gingerly peeled away the wrapper and sniffed the contents, frowning. After a minuscule bite, she grimaced and shuddered. First taste of whale blubber, you might think.
 
Happily, the reading went over well. The students asked many intelligent questions and I left feeling upbeat. But in the car Kevin, the quarterback of Canadian cultural imperialism in Portland, revealed that he’d been given one thousand Coffee Crisps by Nestle and was committed to the task of distributing them. Since all of my scheduled readings combined were unlikely to accumulate an audience big enough to eat 1000 chocolate bars, he was staging a Coffee Crisp Give Away in Pioneer Courthouse Square the next day at noon.
 
We read that night at the Portland Public Library. It's a beautiful building and my writer colleague and I enjoyed the literary ambience, the suggestion of a large crowd made by all the chairs (a Coffee Crisp set neatly on each one) though in fact, attendance just squeaked into two digits. And the Q&A afterwards got off to a predictably sleepy start when my reading partner announced that she was boycotting all future American readings in support of Rohinton Mistry.
 
At this point some background is necessary. There are two types of political Oregonians: "Dry-siders" (who live inland and are extremely conservative) and "Wet-siders" (Portland-based, typically liberal). Since Dry-siders are not well known for attending celebrations of Canadian culture, tonight’s crowd was a Wet-side crowd. And if you tell a Portland Wet-side crowd you're boycotting them because of their own federal policies – after these particular mid-term election results, anyway – you will be met with FAR greater enthusiasm than if you try to give them free chocolate bars. The small audience was practically on its feet with excitement at the opportunity to talk trash about US immigration and homeland security policy with the undisputed champs of self-trash-talking, Real Canadians. Literary discussion was derailed.
 
"What do writers in Canada think we should do?" one woman asked, poignantly highlighting a deep leadership crisis in Oregon.
 
Another man, misty with regret just hours into my colleague's first visit to his city, said, "All I know is that I'm sad you're not coming back. We're going to miss you."
 
I was tempted to announce my own boycott just to even things up. But all the egregious policy screw-ups I could think of were Canadian. And clearly these folks would not respond well were I to boycott Canada. I considered announcing a boycott of American accounting firms, but the audience would have sensed there was no personal sacrifice in it. And personal sacrifice, surely, is what gives moral rigour to my colleague's announcement.
 
The next day, I felt my zeal waning. I met Kevin at the Westin again and realised he still had a van-full of Coffee Crisps. I sensed the assignment was starting to weigh on him too. Maybe he’d just found out that Nestle was actually a Swiss company whose motto is: "The World's Food Company". In any case, yesterday's chocolate bar give-away didn't liquidate the inventory as expected due to a steady, torrential rain. And there are only so many Coffee Crisps the squeegee kids can eat.
 
We were scheduled to address another group of students, smaller but more political. I started to wonder if they thought this would make me feel at home, but I was hardly seated before the electoral lament began. Not even my benign presence – I was trying to silently communicate the forgiveness of all Canadians – nor even the Coffee Crisps, which I finally decided would be the focus of my own life-long boycott, could console them.
 
"We're so depressed," said an 18-year-old man, conscious no doubt that a life of statistically normal duration would grant him only 27 more opportunities to right these recent electoral wrongs.
 
We pressed on through our grief to questions about writing, losing ourselves briefly in discussion of character development and the creative process. No one even raised the issue of Canada as a feature of my writing until the instructor asked about the Canada Council. And I had to skirt this question, since I have not (as yet) enjoyed the benefits of that august and generous body.
 
On the drive back, Kevin showed an interest in the writerly side of things. He had recently, he said, read a freelance piece in the Wall Street Journal comparing hotel room service across America. "Just going from hotel to hotel, ordering room service," he sighed as we pulled up in front of the Westin. "That's pretty much the perfect job, isn't it?"
 
The climax of my visit was an evening reading at the Borders bookstore in central Portland. Not a soul showed up. Nada y puis nada. I'm not blaming anyone. It was my book they were ignoring. What was notable, however, was the guy browsing shelves who stopped me on the way out. He may not have wanted to hear us read, but he at least wanted to apologize for his lack of interest.
 
"I think it's a sign that an empire has grown too big when we forget our neighbours," he said, making earnest eye contact. "You'd think after 2000 years, this country would be a little more sophisticated."
 
I turned to leave. He put a hand on my arm. He wasn’t one of those Americans, he reassured me. He cared about Canada. He was a Vancouver Canucks fan. And a Chretien fan too. I stopped, fascinated by this quirky set of enthusiasms. He was especially impressed, he went on to say, when Chretien cautioned America about projecting her power in ways that might humiliate other nations. "That was insightful, that was wise," he said. "And simply extraordinary coming from a man who used to be a professional wrestler."
 
I thanked him, sincerely, for his comments. I had no chance to thank Rudy and Kevin, however. They didn't show up for the reading either. Rid at last of their Coffee Crisps, I concluded, our cultural officers had vanished into the Oregonian night.
Posted: Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 11:17am

Maynards and the Future of the Auction Trade

First published in BC Business Magazine

By Timothy Taylor

There was a telling scene at an auction I attended recently. It was the Modern Woman show at Maynards, where the 108-year-old auction house had assembled a group of 35 contemporary fine art works from 24 emerging artists. Unlike the typical Maynards auction of items sourced from estates and other sellers, this show was made up of items selected by newcomer contemporary art specialist Kate Bellringer, a UBC and Sotheby’s Art Institute graduate. And by all appearances, the new show and the new approach looked set to be a smash success. A good-sized crowd had turned out, 60 or 70 people, milling around and sipping pinot gris and Pellegrino water. And while it was a younger crowd than normally came out to auctions, according to Maynards’ VP of fine art and antiques Hugh Bulmer, who also acts as chief auctioneer, it was clearly a fashionable and affluent group, with Manolo Blahniks and Prada frames sprinkled liberally through the crowd. The room looked ready to buy some art, in other words. And the hip work Bellringer had chosen seemed well suited to the audience.

Only the crowd wasn’t buying art.

 

Posted: Friday, Feb. 4, 2011 9:42am

Time Warp

Originally published in Saturday Night Magazine
.......................................................................................
You might think it's the year 2000, but a group of prominent Russian mathematicians is arguing that history is all wrong, and it's actually 936AD. They've set off a battle that's now come to Canada, and it's getting nasty
……………………………………………………………………..
The man in the tweed jacket sitting ahead of me is growing visibly agitated. We're at a mathematics conference at the University of Alberta just before the end of the school year, and things have been predictably calm so far. But twice in the past minute what's coming from the front of the room has made my tweedy neighbour twist angrily in his seat.
Our speaker is Gleb Nosovskii, a mathematics professor from Moscow State University, a man with a long black beard and dark eyes who is deeply serious about the matter at hand. This is only appropriate, because his presentation is nothing short of a mathematical case against history as we know it.
Nosovskii and his Russian colleagues, led by the famous Moscow State geometrician Anatoly Fomen-ko, believe that our "global chronology" is profoundly flawed. They argue that the conventional sequencing of historical events in the Mediterranean and in Europe from 3000 BC to 1600 AD - a chronology they say was formalized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the scientists Josephus Scaliger and Dionysius Petavius, and has never been fundamentally challenged since - is shot through with inexplicable duplications. These duplications, Nosovskii maintains, are revealed through mathematical-pattern analysis.
Posted: Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010 9:50am
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