Sunday, April 29, 2007

Do-nothing machine

I was interested to read an entry about a "Do-nothing machine," at the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society blog. The machine, designed and built by Lawrence Wahlstrom and the feature of a 1954 Popular Mechanics article, "works and works to do nothing well."

I believe I found an excellent example of a Do-nothing Machine in the window of Bern's oldest pharmacy. The video quality is not great--it was night when I filmed it with my little Casio camera. Eli provides some commentary near the end.

The organ grinder of Geneva

I love this guy and his cats (there's one, sleeping on a tray to the side, that's a little harder to see.) He works the streets in downtown Geneva nearly every weekend. He was kind enough to stop for me so that I could take this little video.

Note the cats' complete nonchalance, as well as the many people who hurried by without even a second glance. Not all of them, but a lot. And those white, skinny faceless mannekins in the window display in the background.

I should see if he speaks English. I bet he has some interesting stories to tell!

The Frog Museum of Estavayer-le-Lac is unique

Indeed. According to the Swiss Tourism website:
In the Frog Museum, you will find something that is truly one of a kind: a collection of 108 stuffed frogs arranged in scenes portraying everyday life in the 19th-century.

So many sights, so little time! Perhaps they'd like a copy of my "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" video.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Positive reinforcement

One of my editors just emailed me a nice review of The Good, the Bad, the Slimy: The Secret Life of Microbes on NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) Recommends. Here's an excerpt that particularly pleases me:
It’s easy to tell from the tone of her writing that the author has a passion for her subject, which is always a hook for the reader. Presenting science in its historical context and talking about the people involved in the discovery of the world of microbes creates sends a message to students that science is both a process and a human endeavor that engages and encourages people to ask questions and to look for empirical evidence to answer their questions.

You know you're a science geek when the reviewer can tell you have a passion for microbiology. But it's true. What I really liked was that the reviewer appreciated one of the themes I always try to convey in my science books, which is that science is "both a process and a human endeavor." I try to convey a sense of the excitement of research, not just the results.

I really am quite pleased with this book, in part because I love love love the photos. (Thank you, Dennis Kunkel!)

This review came at a good time, just as I'm trying to finish my first Extreme Scientists book. I needed the encouragement!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What if your dog wags its entire body?

There was an interesting article in yesterday's New York Times: "If you want to know if Spot Loves You So, It's in His Tail." I'm still trying to parse that headline, but we all know that Sandy Blakeslee probably had nothing to do with that, so I'll let it go.

Italian scientists have shown that when a dog feels fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right of their rumps. When they have negative feelings, their tails wag with a portside bias.

It basically confirms of what scientists already know about brain assymetry in humans and other animals.
In most animals, including birds, fish and frogs, the left brain specializes in behaviors involving what the scientists call approach and energy enrichment. In humans, that means the left brain is associated with positive feelings, like love, a sense of attachment, a feeling of safety and calm. It is also associated with physiological markers, like a slow heart rate.

At a fundamental level, the right brain specializes in behaviors involving withdrawal and energy expenditure. In humans, these behaviors, like fleeing, are associated with feelings like fear and depression. Physiological signals include a rapid heart rate and the shutdown of the digestive system.

What's interesting about this study is that the tail is smack dab in the middle, so would it follow the pattern? And the answer is that it does.

And now it's your turn, "Speak". What does Belle have to say about that?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day in Geneva

Tony stumbled, or that is, rolled, upon this raucous pond while cycling around Geneva on Saturday. He lured Eli and I out there the next day, which just happened to be Earth Day. It was pretty amazing, as you can see from this video:

Friday, April 20, 2007

"This will be Virginia Tech in 5 days"

So someone--a student, presumably--scrawled across a mirror in the girls' bathroom in Monticello High School (a small town near Champaign-Urbana). This is probably just one of many such threats that will appear across the U.S., and most if not all of them will be baseless. Still, school officials will take every threat seriously, as they should. But every time this happens, copy-cats, or wannabe copy-cats, are encouraged. Because they all want attention.

There was a very interesting editorial in The Guardian by Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel about an American school shooting told from the perspective of the shooter's parents. Of the school shooting rampages, she wrote

Why do they happen? If it does not sound too tautological, campus shootings keep happening because they keep happening. Every time one of these stories breaks, every time the pictures flash round the world, it increases the chances that another massacre will follow. In the main, all of these events are copycat crimes. Campus shootings are now a genre, much as, in literature, campus-shooting novels are a genre, one of whose entries I am guilty of writing myself. They are part of the cultural vocabulary, and any disgruntled, despairing or vengeful character - of any age of late, since grown-ups now want in on the act - now has the idea of shooting up a campus firmly lodged in his brain.
She writes that she would prefer that the Virginia Tech gunman remain anonymous, although she acknowledges that this would be impossible. Still, she has a point. And she makes one last point worth considering:

For America's federal government to take gun control seriously, nothing less than mass armed insurrection is required. Were the public ever to act on the principles of their own Declaration of Independence, for example - "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive ... it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government" - Congress would shut down the gun industry in a heartbeat.

Food for thought.

Turkish delight

And when I mean Turkish delight, I'm not just talking about the candy. Although I have to tell you that real Turkish delight is, well, delightful.

No, I'm talking about the hamam, or Turkish bath, I visited.

Until recent decades, many Turkish homes didn't have washing facilities, so people went to public baths. I think that hamams are not as popular with the locals as they once were, so it's kind of a touristy thing to do. So what. It was heaven.

I went to the Cemberlitas Hamam, a bath commissioned by the wife of a sultan in 1584. It was designed by the famous architect Sinan and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the city. Another big selling point for this particular hamam is that it has separate bathing areas for men and women. It was indeed beautiful, the inside anyway.

So here's the routine. I was shown to a camekan--basically a dressing room with lockers and benches. Apparently the men's camekan is much prettier. An attendant motioned for me to take my clothes off, handing me sandals and a thin cotton bath-wrap. She led me into the hot room, which is the space you see in the picture above. (I scanned the picture from a postcard I picked up at the hamam. Cameras are, for obvious reasons, not allowed.) It's actually very much like a steam room, only a little less steamy. The idea is that you're supposed work up a little sweat and relax before your bath. I lay down on my bath wrap on the warmed marble slab and awaited my fate.

Pretty soon, an attendant clad only in a thong brought doused me with buckets of warm water. She began to wash and massage me with the sudsiest olive oil soap ever, engulfing me in huge billows of suds. (She indicated that I was supposed to wash the girlie bits myself. I did.) It was great. Then she scrubbed me even pinker than usual with a coarse cotton mitt, rinsed me off, washed my hair, and led me another room for my oil massage.

My masseuse was a Russian woman who spoke a little English and took very seriously my request for a "hard" massage. It was no buff and puff!

Thus washed and exfoliated and pummeled into a quivering lump of jello, I was escorted back to the hot room, where I was free to hang out and melt for as long as I wished.

The whole thing took about an hour. I emerged very clean, and thoroughly delighted.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Five things to success (or not)

The day before I left for Istanbul my friend caraf tagged me with the following meme: what things do you do every day to contribute to your success? She nudged me today, thinking that I hadn't posted my own brilliant path to success because I missed it while in Istanbul.

I have a confession to make.

I saw it. And while I admit that I was distracted while in Istanbul, I have actually been thinking about this meme ever since then. I didn't pick it up because, to tell you the truth, I've haven't felt particularly successful here in Geneva. I struggle with my writing, I struggle with the language, I struggle to make meaningful personal contact with people here. But I think I've identified some of the things that have made my days here less than successful.

Herewith, the Eeyore version of Cara's meme, five things that, perhaps, have contributed to my lack of success in my piggyback sabbatical.

1. Be an optimist! Everything will turn out for the best! Therefore, it is not necessary to learn the French language before you go to a predominantly French-speaking city, because a) it is the hub of European diplomacy, and therefore nearly everyone speaks English, to some degree; and b) I'll pick it up when I get there.

I am an optimist, which often leads to unrealistic thinking.

2. You can do everything you used to do, but online! Yoga, for example. Who needs real people? (Not to denigrate Yoga Today. I think they're quite wonderful.)

I will join the super-expensive yoga center downtown as soon as I finish my first extreme scientist book. That is my reward.

3. Tomorrow is another day! OK, putting off disagreeable tasks is something that I've always been guilty of doing, but it's especially tempting when you know that you have to look up a phrase on google translate and practice saying it, and then print it out, because you know they won't understand you anyway.

As some Greek god, maybe it was Nike, said, "Just do it." Even if it makes you feel stupid, which you know it will.

4. Um. OK, I've decided to move on to things I do to contribute to my success. Run! Or run/walk! Train for a half marathon, which will require you to explore your new city! Realize how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to run Geneva, Paris, London, and Istanbul over the course of a few months. (I think that Barcelona and Venice are to come.) It makes me feel good about wherever I am, and good about myself, even though I am super-slow because nobody makes me keep up with them.

5. Another non-Eeyore thing. Acknowledge your friends and family. Thank them (thanks, Cara). And, as somebody said (who?) "Only connect."

OK, #5 sounded a little Eeyore-ish, didn't it. I guess I'm just homesick.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I am so saddened by the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Coming nearly eight years, almost to the day, of the Columbine High School shooting, and only a few months after the shooting of Amish schoolchildren, this latest horror is only the latest in a long list of killing sprees in our gun-loving country.

The really depressing part of it is that, after everybody has talked about how much they grieve for the victims and pray for their families, we'll be hearing yet again from the NRA about how guns don't kill people, people kill people. President Bush's spokesperson has already reiterated the president's support for the right to bear arms. All we have to do is make sure that guns only make their way into the hands of sane, law-abiding people! Simple!

This is a recurring nightmare, and it won't go away until our politicians have enough guts to stand up to the gun lobby.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Istanbul is a two-hour flight from Zurich, but this amazing and vibrant city, a remarkable blend of East and West, might well be a world away. Ancient Byzantine churches sit cheek by jowl next to Ottomon mosques; merchants do their best to lure you into their carpet/ceramic/jewelry shops. If they succeed, they may invite you to have some apple tea while they show you their ware. Five times a day, loudspeakers atop the minarets of the mosques issue the eerie (to these Western, non-Muslim ears anyway) call to prayer, echoed by neighboring mosques. The food, from the delicious borak (a flaky pastry filled with cheese or other savory things) to the Turkish Delight, is a treat. And the fish, caught fresh from the Black Sea or the Sea of Marmara, is everywhere, usually simply prepared and very good.

My visit to the hamam (Turkish bath) had to be one of the highlights of my trip. I'll write more about it later. For obvious reasons, I don't have any pictures!

Needless to say, we loved Istanbul. Check out the web album:

Here is a movie clip of the call to prayer in the Blue Mosque. The video is really not that good, but just listen and enjoy:

Monday, April 9, 2007

Caitlin's good news

Caitlin has been accepted into Smith! She's thrilled, and so are we.

Julia Child went to Smith, which I think bodes well for Caitlin's future cooking skills.

I know, three posts in one day is a little excessive. But we're leaving for Istanbul tomorrow for a few days and I imagine I'll have something to write about when we return.

Would you stop for Joshua Bell?

There was a great article in the Washington Post the other day. The writer, Gene Weingarten, persuaded Joshua Bell, a world-famous violinist, to busk in a Washington D.C. metro station during rush hour. Normally, a Washingtonian might have to shell out $100 or so to hear Bell play. Would they stop to listen, maybe toss a couple of bucks into his violin case? What do you think?

I won't give away the story. Read it instead: Pearls Before Breakfast

It's a long article, but very well written and worth reading. It goes beyond the gimmick and raises some really interesting issues about art, context, and modern life. There are video clips integrated into the story, which struck me as a great idea. I wish I could have video clips in my books!

Easter in Geneva

It wouldn't be Easter without an Easter egg hunt, at least not in this family. I loved coloring the eggs with the kids and hiding them--outside, when the weather cooperated, but often enough inside as well.

At some point I came up with the idea of hiding a "special" plastic egg with each kid's name on it. I made up clues ahead of time that would help the kids find their special egg--usually riddles or bad jokes. When they showed me their egg, they got extra candy. It got to be a lot of work to come up with different clues--and corresponding hiding places--every year! It was fun, though.

This year I cheated. Coloring your own eggs doesn't seem to be done in Geneva--I didn't see the ubiquitous Paas kits I used to buy in the U.S. But there were a lot of beautiful pre-colored eggs. And I didn't make up clues this year, either, although there was a "special" egg for Eli. (It turned out to be a hollow chocolate egg with a little plastic model car inside.)

Tony, Eli and I had a lovely time taking turns hiding and hunting for Easter eggs in one of my favorite parks in Geneva, Parc Eaux Vives. A lot of other people were enjoying Easter in the park, too:Tony and Eli read while I wandered around taking pictures:
It was a lovely day. The only thing that would have made it better would have been to have had my two other Easter egg hunters here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The nightmare

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuselli (1781), thought to be one of the classic depictions of sleep paralysis perceived as a demonic visitation.

I have a question for you yoginis out there. (Cara, that especially means you, but also anybody else who wants to chime in.) Is it a bad thing to go into Savasana, or Corpse Pose, as a method of trying to go to sleep? I vaguely remember Lois, my onetime yoga teacher, cautioning us about not going too deeply into Savasana, but I never really understood why it might be a problem. I mean, it's just relaxation, right?

Here's why I'm asking. The other night, I stayed up way past my bedtime, having watched Fight Club with Eli, and then decided to watch the commentary afterward. It was way longer than I'd expected, and so it was 1:30 by the time I got to bed. Tony was gone, so it was just lonely me. And there I lay, sleepless, until sometime after 4 a.m. I think it's safe to say that I was feeling pretty stressed out at the time.

So I decide to go into Savasana, despite Lois's advice. Before I know it, I very clearly heard someone come into the bedroom. I could swear I could sense a very real presence hovering over my bed. I was absolutely terrified, sure it was an axe murderer. I tried to move and call out, but couldn't; I was frozen. Finally, I forced myself to open my eyes and look around the room. There was no one there, of course. But I was shaken; the experience seemed incredibly real.

So I googled my experience, and of course this phenomenon has a name: sleep paralysis, accompanied by hypnagogic hallucinations. This is a fairly common phenomenon, apparently. And what causes it? According to the Wikipedia entry, some of the factors associated with the phenomenon include sleeping in a supine position (check); irregular sleeping schedules, naps, sleeping in, sleep deprivation (check); increased stress (double check); sudden environmental/lifestyle changes (I don't know, I've been in Geneva for nearly three months now. But Tony was gone, so check.)

And there are tons of cultural references to sleep paralysis and hallucinations from all over the world. For you language people out there, Wikipedia says that

In Scandanavian mythology, sleep paralysis was caused by a Mara, or mare--a kind of malignant female wraith who can also cause nightmares. She appears as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga, but the belief itself is probably even older. "Mara" is the Old Norse, Swedish and Icelandic name, "mare" is Norwegian and Danish....People in England believed that witches or hags rode on men's chests as they slept, and the feeling of being unable to breathe [one of the common symptoms] was attributed to a hag. This is why people who have had very little sleep may be described as looking "hag-ridden."

That demonic presence would have to be a woman, wouldn't she? My particular demon was male, and I'd say he looked more like the guy in Fuselli's painting. And I, of course, looked very much like the lovely maid.

So...Savasana = a demonic visitation? Is this what Lois was warning us about?