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Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Turkey

Years ago we were invited to spend Christmas with our friends Ted and Ros in Mexico. Before leaving I called Ted and asked if there was anything we could bring from home. He had a list - an electric blanket, 5 lbs. of King Cole tea, and a few other things I can’t remember. We had to bring an extra bag for everything.

As we were unpacking, Ros kept saying: “Ted – you shouldn’t have asked the MacBeaths to bring all these things!” to which he replied: ”If the MacBeaths hadn’t wanted to bring all these things – they didn’t have to bring them.”

After a meal the next day, we offered to do the dishes. When Ros was saying “No no…” Ted broke in with: “If the MacBeaths want to do the dishes, let’s let them do them.” In always accepting our help with their chores, Ted made us feel welcomed and more like family than visitors. We all had such a good time we stayed over a week.

They had invited friends to come for Christmas dinner and on the big morning Ted was up very early and in the kitchen with the door closed. He was preparing the turkey and during the morning we could smell it cooking. By lunch it was on it’s platter and sitting on the side board in all it’s golden glory. I was concerned about it not being hot for dinner that was still hours away, but Ted assured me that, with hot vegetables and gravy, no one would notice. They didn’t and I didn’t and it was a beautifully relaxed party!

Ted and Ros were artists and they were captivated with the Mexicans' lavish use of colour especially at Christmas. Their enthusiasm was catching - I loved the hand -cut red, green and pink paper garlands suspended across narrow streets, casting interesting shadows and the fantastic piñatas of all sizes and shapes that appeared everywhere.

It was an unforgettable Christmas! Rie

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Animal Intelligence

A person’s IQ is accepted as a way of measuring how intelligent they are but have you ever wondered how intelligent a horse is or a cat? [click on table to enlarge it]

I was fascinated when I read that an EQ [Encephalization Quotient] test has been devised to give a rough measure of the intelligence of different species.

The test involves knowing the average weight of the brains of an animal but it turns out that the larger an animal is, the more brains it needs to just do the things that keep it alive, like breathing and moving around, etc. That problem was overcome by taking a creature’s lean body weight into consideration in comparing brain sizes.The larger the weight of the brain relative to the body weight, the more of the brain is available for learning new things and applying that knowledge – or in other words, the more intelligent.

It turns out having a larger brain is not necessarily better, because the larger the brain, the more energy it takes to develop it and feed it. [In my ‘Memory’ post I mentioned that our human brains actually uses 1/4 of the total energy our bodies require!]. But Mother Nature is usually frugal about using energy and apparently animals tend to just develop the size of brain they need and that's about it.

In the face of that evidence, the often repeated ‘home truth’ that we humans don’t use half the capacity of our enormous brain is questionable. Neuroscience is such a hot research area these days – I’m hoping I’ll be around long enough to learn more about this 'extra' unused capacity!

You may have noticed that I’ve recently set myself the goal of writing something to post every Friday night - but am late this week. That’s because, in trying to explain the surprises I found in the EQ table, I got carried away. The next post will probably be about the relationships we have to animals and some ideas about the why. Meanwhile - Happy Holidays! Rie

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cold Blood

It’s December and in northern countries like Canada, in spite of global warming, we can still count on the cold. Surprisingly however, I’ve noticed on the coldest and stormiest days that encounters with neighbors and strangers are more friendly and cheerful. I think it’s because we are all in the same boat - sharing the struggles and discomfort of our plight.

To add to discomfort it can be risky when it is bitterly cold. We’ve all heard stories of people suffering fatal heart attacks while shoveling snow or playing winter sports and the hospital statistics corroborate the stories.

In mammals like us, our body has to be kept at a remarkably constant temperature and when we are out in the cold, blood gets directed from close to the skin to our body core. Because the same amount of fluid is then in a smaller core volume, our blood pressure goes up.

If we are exerting ourselves with shoveling snow or skating, our heart rate goes up too and we need more oxygen to keep functioning so we have to breath faster. That makes things worse because the intimate contact of the cold air in our lungs tends to cool the blood and that can be dangerous! Experiments show that if our blood temperature drops, platelets in the blood tend to stick together and form clots. If the clots are big enough, they can cause a heart attack.

Let me hasten to add that only a few who exert themselves in the cold will ever have a heart attack! But those who just may have clogged arteries or high blood pressure anyway, be warned and use common sense – wear a hat [your brain is actually 80% blood by volume and you need to keep it warm] and breathe through your scarf.

I had a couple of horses one year and over wintered them in an unheated barn. Some nights were 35C below zero [around -30F] and I worried about them and started thinking about how the animals in the woods survived and why their feet didn't freeze.

It turns out that in wild creatures [birds included] the arteries delivering warm blood down the legs are intimately intertwined with the veins bringing cold blood back from the feet. The heat exchange means that there is a temperature gradient from near freezing in the foot to near body temperature at the top of the leg. Sometimes when my feet feel like they are freezing, I think of how great it would be if we humans had the same marvelous mechanism! Rie

Friday, December 3, 2010


I hate to sound like a broken record but I still have something I want to say about Mother Nature’s recently recognized dictum: ‘If you pump energy into an isolated system, order will increase.’

Our Earth is isolated – it’s like a self contained space ship as it speeds through space in its orbit around the sun. In the 4.6 billion years since it first formed, Earth has been receiving enormous quantities of radiant energy from the sun every day and has evolved through natural processes to produce ever more ordered and complex systems culminating so far in the most complex of all things on Earth: the human brain. Is the process of increasing complexity on earth going on through us? It certainly appears to be!

As possessors of this amazing brain of ours, we are self-aware and have a strong desire to make sense of why we are here and what our purpose could be. Though it may be considered somewhat simplistic, if we reflect on the natural processes that caused our genesis, we get a direct answer. Our purpose is to make the world a more ordered and hopefully better place. That idea is reinforced by the observation that that's what we have a tendency to do naturally and feel 'good' about doing anyway.

Watch small children who are given a box of blocks - they build. I have a 100-year old friend who spends most of her day ‘playing’ solitaire and I’ve just realized why. She doesn’t have much energy but is still using what she has to create order by starting with a well worn pack of cards that she shuffles and, if she follows a few simple rules and wins, has the satisfaction of accomplishing the creation of four ordered stacks from Ace to King in each of the suits. She wouldn’t do it unless she got some satisfaction in that accomplishment.

If we are aware of how we are spending our time and energies during a day, we realize mostly we are just keeping order in either our living space, our workspace, our files, or our organizations. It is sometimes repetitive and that's not very rewarding but we do get a really good feeling of accomplishment and well being when we put our energy into creatively building order in an area that particularly interests us.

If we have developed in a healthy environment and do what comes naturally, we tend to use our energy to just generally increase order in our immediate world and help others when we can, to do so in theirs. Trying to make the world a better place in my own small way and striving to understand this complex environment we live in, have been good enough goals for me to consider as my purpose in life.

In 1860 Abe Lincoln said ‘When I do good, I feel good and when I do bad, I feel bad and that’s my religion.’ It could be considered mine too. Rie

Friday, November 26, 2010

Entropy reversed

I had an ulterior motive when I wrote the last blog post. It was a needed lead-up to its final italicized statement:

If you pump energy into an isolated system, order will increase.

It 's easy to prove the opposite. Just be lazy for a while and don’t put energy into keeping your living space in order. Disorder [entropy] increases, and it can get really messy!

It isn’t so easy to do an objective experiment to prove that adding energy to an isolated system brings about order. However, I did read of a very convincing such test suggested by Dr. John Todd in his forward to Gaia’s Garden, a book by Toby Hemenway. I was so impressed, in fact, that I have described it below and quoted Dr.Todd himself:

In teaching ecology classes Dr. Todd asked his students to collect samples of equal volume from at least three aquatic habitats, such as a small pool in the woods, an animal wallow on a farm, and a river- or lakeside marsh. They were then to mix them together in a glass jar until it was about half full, and with the jar’s lid screwed on tightly, turn it upside down and place it in a sunny window. They were then required to watch and record the unfolding drama within over a period of weeks.

Quoting Dr. Todd: “In the presence of sunlight, a microcosm, or miniature world, begins to organize itself. … Within days, an internal physical structure or architecture starts to evolve, complete with biological zones of activity. … The communities that adapt within are unique. … And each of the student’s microcosms develops differently. … If a blind is left closed and the sunlight blocked for several days the ecosystem within will collapse. But if the jar is returned to the light soon enough, the living system will begin to reorganize itself. The self-repair process generates a new system, usually different than the one from which it was derived … yet as a whole, the system is amazingly persistent. … The miniature ecosystem (on my desk) that I am looking into now as I write may well outlive me.”

Amazing? I rest my case that the reverse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics holds true. Rie

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Sun

Like a precious spring in the vast empty desert of space, the Sun makes our Earth a beautiful living oasis in the cold, dark universe around us.

What makes the Sun shine and keep on putting out such colossal amounts of energy for billions of years? It is amazing to me that, like most people, I didn’t ever ask that question when I was growing up. Maybe it was because the Sun is so awesome that I didn’t think anyone could possibly know the answer.

But Einstein figured it all out in 1905 when he developed his famous equation: E=mc2

That equation simply says that energy (E) and matter (m) are interchangeable -- one can be turned into the other. In the Sun, incredible amounts of energy (E) are created when very, very small amounts of matter (m) are destroyed. That’s because the constant (c2) that is on the same side of the equation as the mass (m) stands for the enormous speed of light multiplied by itself.

The Sun is made up of gases, about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. In the very hot centre of the sun (15 million degrees Celsius), two hydrogen nuclei fuse when they collide, and the helium nucleus that forms as a result has a mass (m) that is very slightly less than the combined masses of the two hydrogens. That lost mass (m) is converted to the prodigious amount of energy (E) in the form of heat and light that the Sun gives off and has been giving off for billions of years. Watching this short YouTube clip helps visualize this thermonuclear reaction happening in the Sun.

So far the Sun has used up only about half its hydrogen, so no worries, there is no reason it won't keep flooding planet Earth every single day with an amount of energy that is equivalent to the whole of the world’s oil resources. That constant and beautiful supply of energy has been a major cause of the truly awe-inspiring evolution that has occurred on our planet – that, and of course the laws of nature.

One of nature's laws - the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics – says that in an isolated system, Entropy, or disorder, increases. But what about a system that is not isolated and that is receiving the wonderful energy from the Sun constantly? A relatively new theory, Complexity Theory, recognizes that if you pump energy into an isolated system, order will increase!!

Darwin certainly made great breakthroughs – recognizing evolutionary patterns and coming up with his ‘survival of the fittest’ dictum. But consider the tremendous driving force for the increasing complexity on the planet that is now being directed by us. And where do we get our energy? Indirectly, like everything else on Earth, from that marvelous thermonuclear reaction going on in the Sun! Rie

Sunday, November 14, 2010


As a break from our harsh Canadian winters we have ‘gone south’ to the Caribbean islands for years. I love beach combing and as a result, I have baskets full of sea shells at the cottage that I have picked up and enjoy handling.

When I read that spiral shells were a good example of the invisible chirality [left or right handedness] that many molecules in living systems possess, I lined up some of my spiral shells with their earliest growing tips down and took the picture above. When you look at the picture, you can’t help but see that the open ‘mouth’ of the shell is always on the left.

Try it out yourself the next time you have any spiral shells at hand, and you may be lucky enough to find a shell that breaks the rule and opens on the right. They are rare, but exceptions do exist, and therefore the shell's outward chirality must be for another reason, because our body’s chiral molecules are always only one-handed without exception! For snails, the reason for the shell coiling happens to be sex. Snails make coiled shells because their sexual organs are usually twisted, and it is difficult with snails of opposite handedness to mate. Picture on the right is the Nautilus shell.

The fact that our body’s DNA, enzyme and sugar molecules, etc., are chiral was not generally known until a widespread medical tragedy occurred. In the late 1950’s, a drug called ‘thalidomide’was developed by a pharmaceutical company as a sedative and a treatment for morning sickness in early pregnancy. When tested on animals it had few or no side effects, and so was used in many countries, including the UK and Canada starting in 1958. It was not until 1961 that doctors fully realized the drug was the cause of severe birth defects – many children developing flippers instead of arms.  It was withdrawn but too late for kids shown on the left .

When thalidomide was investigated, the results knocked organic chemists for a loop. It was discovered that the molecule was chiral, and when synthesized in the lab, equal amounts of two isomers, one left-handed and the other right-handed, were produced. Because molecules involved in our body chemistry are also chiral, the two isomers reacted differently, with one isomer causing the birth defects. Fortunately, under normal circumstances, if we ingest a molecule with the wrong handedness, our bodies recognize it and - unlike the unfortunate thalidomide case where a fetus was in an early stage of development - it is sent to the liver where most toxins are dealt with.

The development of one-handedness in our body chemistry probably happened just by chance when life first formed on our planet. Should we ever travel to another planet many light years away, it is possible that life started there with its molecules having the opposite handedness, and we could eat as much of their food as we wanted, but we would starve to death! Rie

Saturday, November 6, 2010


A few years ago we had a visit from a friend with a small plane, and when he invited me to go up with him, I jumped at the chance! It was my first time being in the co-pilot's seat, and the fun of the joy-ride for me was heightened by the number and variety of all the switches and dials on the instrument panel, but even more so by the routines and checks my now preoccupied companion was carrying out. I was fascinated with the flight plan he was reporting and the information he was jotting down that was coming from some voice of authority I could hear through his earphones.

It would have been inappropriate to interrupt any of these serious preparations, but I made a some mental notes and, after we successfully landed, I was ready with a few questions. One of them had to do with the dew point. I already knew that the dew point was the temperature at which water molecules slow down so much that they tend to stick to each other instead of bouncing off like they do when they are moving faster at higher temperatures. But why did the pilot need to know the dew point, and why was it reported as an altitude? It turned out that it was just another way of telling him the altitude at which the clouds started forming!

As air rises, it expands and cools down, so this means that at a certain height the temperature reaches the dew point and water vapour condenses. Simple enough - but ever since thinking about it like a pilot, I have taken special delight in looking at clouds. Understanding why they are so often flat lets you observe the normally invisible water vapour in the air appear all at once. The darkness on the bottom of flat clouds is another story for another time.

Just as I find a painting often lets me delight in seeing the world the way the artist was seeing it when he/she created it, so I think scientists can often give us information that allows us to take delight in observing from their informed perspective.

I hope that on a partly cloudy day after this you will find new appeal in looking at the clouds billowing above their flat bottoms. Rie

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dumb kids

This is a story told to me by a friend [lets call him Bert] some years ago. He was at the time a newly appointed Superintendent of a School District in a big city. He found that the way the school system worked was that a student who didn’t pass at the end of a school year was still permitted to go on to the next grade with friends until they finally reached grade 10 or were 16 years old (at which point the law said they could leave school).

There were many complaints about these ‘unteachable’ students because they often purposely disrupted classes, so Bert persuaded his Board to let him hire a psychologist to test some difficult kids and see if they had problems that could be identified. The report that came back was clear – most of them could neither read nor write, and had been using their wits in order to manage at all. They had matured more slowly than ‘normal’, and had not been ready for reading when these skills were taught. If no one had picked up on that and helped them, then they had simply missed their chance and were passed on through the system.

Bert managed to hire a specialist to teach them to read, but he didn’t just stop there – he figured he needed to find some way to engage the kids outside the classroom, so he tried an experiment. He cobbled some money together, bought a run-down property and gave the students the mission to repair and refurbish the place - and assigned a supervisor to oversee the project. The kids had to read labels and instructions on nearly everything they worked with, and they had to use their math skills to measure and calculate the amounts of materials they needed and to keep track of finances. They cooperated, learned, and it was a success – so the next year Bert bought an old boat.

Bert kept in touch and found out that some of those labeled ‘losers’ went on to University, and one even ended up earning a PhD! It’s a good story, and it makes the point that not everyone fits the school mold. The smarter we get at recognizing and addressing this, the better.

In my 'Whole Brain' post, I noted that schools test for left-brained skills, but it is often the kids with artistic and creative talents who can be more perceptive and skilled at relationships. We need them both! Rie

Monday, October 25, 2010


At noon on a summer day in 79 AD, the inhabitants of the prosperous city of Pompeii felt and heard rumblings coming from the nearby Vesuvius Mountain. They watched in wonder as a dense, black plume of rocks and ash rose out of its centre, shot high into the sky and spread out over their city. They had never seen or heard of anything like this before, and while many of the 20,000 inhabitants fled, at least 2000 stayed, not knowing that this would be a fatal decision. The volcanic eruption first spewed ash and pumice stone down on the city for 18 hours, and then the top of the mountain collapsed, releasing lethal gases and a mud and earth slide that buried the city under 30 feet of debris.

Knowledge of the city's existence faded over the next 15 centuries, and its ancient remains were only discovered in the 18th century when a deep hole was being dug for the base of an aqueduct. Restoration has been slow, but 3/4 of the site, preserved in every detail because of the catastrophe, is now excavated and partly restored. Although almost all of the statuary and personal effects of the inhabitants have been preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Naples, many replicas are onsite, so one gets a sense of the grandeur of a thriving Roman city where time stopped one day long ago.
As excavators uncovered human remains, they soon realized that the skeletons were surrounded by empty space in the compacted ash where the entombed body had been. By carefully pouring plaster of Paris into these spaces, the final poses, clothing and figures of many of the victims of Pompeii bear witness to their final moments. Although the whole site was amazing, viewing these bodies probably had the greatest impact on me, bringing to life the horrors of the final moments of their lives.

Scientific records now indicate that Vesuvius erupts every 2000 years. This means that there is a 50/50 chance of it erupting again any day now. Since over the years Naples has grown in the volcano’s shadow to a city of 3.5 million, let us hope there will be plenty of warning in the event of that happening. Rie

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Amalfi Coast

I've read that the road down the coast from Sorrento to Amalfi has the most spectacular scenery in the world – and I now believe it. In the picture I took of the route the bus was taking over the cliff-hanging, switchback road, you can perhaps imagine the heart stopping views at every turn.

Amalfi used to be the large capital of a powerful republic, but the city slid into the sea during an earthquake in the 14th century, and it is now just a small town like others, with houses clinging to steep slopes rising from the coast. The picture taken from the ferry shows Positano with its front street lined with cafés on one side and the beach and ocean on the other.

Small narrow streets are mostly steps because they rise so steeply. One must be fit to travel!

We are enjoying the many ferries and the clear aquamarine water that is now a little too cold for swimming. Rie

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Isle of Capri

A couple of days ago we took the hugely popular day trip from Sorrento to the famed Island of Capri about 5 km out to sea. The ferry ride was rough on the windy day we visited, and I was disappointed to miss my main goal. It had been to visit the ‘magical’ blue grotto, but the waves were too high to risk rowing through its narrow opening. The incredibly blue water around the island was visible everywhere, as you can see in the picture.

From the dock it was only a few steps to take the funicular up to the small town of Capri with its tiny squares and narrow streets lined with designer shops, posh hotels and cafés – everything expensive. After a long sight-seeing walk, I enjoyed people watching while sitting in the main square eating delicious creamy Italian gelato.

While leaving, my camera caught the sun setting behind the town of Capri nestled between the limestone hills on either side. Rie

Monday, October 18, 2010


We were advised to make our headquarters for the Amalfi region in Sorrento, just south of Naples. It is a laid-back small town with southern Italian charm that dates back to Greek and Roman times. It has turned out to be a perfect location, on the beautiful bay of Naples with its steep-cliffed capes on either side. The picture I took shows where we had a snack behind the helpful Information Centre.

This is a town that caters to tourists, but really its appeal is not spoiled by them. It is a shopper’s dream, with a warren of narrow pedestrian streets filled with shops and cafes – even fruits and vegetables are displayed artistically.
We enjoy getting around using the many ferries to Naples, Capri, Amalfi, etc.

The combination of sights, food, warmth, good shopping and a great apartment are making this an unforgettable holiday. Rie

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rome tourist

We are in Italy with family, and the first few days we explored Rome. As you can see from the line-up in St. Peter’s square to get into the cathedral, even at this time in October there are still lots of tourists. Actually, it is a great time to visit because it is warm but not hot, and far less crowded than at many other times of the year. Finding it very expensive, however!

Rome is built on hills, and there are lots of steps everywhere and beautiful churches, as seen in this second picture.

Below, the Venetian palace took my breath away – a truly ‘monumental’ city!
Next we took the train to Naples, and from there to the beautiful town of Sorrento. I rented a lovely apartment [for 10 days] over the internet before our trip, and, with four of us, it is ideal: two bedrooms, two baths, living-dining room and well equipped kitchen - all less expensive that a hotel. More in next post. We are having a fine time!! Rie

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rie in Italy

I have flown off for a couple of weeks in Italy. A couple of days in Rome, and then down to the spectacular and historic Amalfi coast. Pictures to follow. Rie

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Whole Brain

For a long time I have been interested in fact that our brain has two separate parts - the left and right hemispheres (see picture).

Growing up, I used to watch in fascination as my older sister, a budding artist, mixed oil paints on her palette. She would be painting a green bottle, and yet would mix up some purple and white that she then applied in a long streak to the image of the bottle she was depicting. When I looked for the mauve streak on the real green bottle, I found that if, instead of being aware of the bottle as an object, I just looked at reflections and light patterns, then I could 'see' what my sister saw - and there was that mauve streak. Later I found out that she was using her brain’s right hemisphere, and that I could switch into mine too, not just in the way I looked at things, but in my approach to situations or problems as well.

I'm told that geniuses always use both sides of their brain, but most of us have a preference. The left hemisphere specializes in analytical thought, facts, abstractions, structure, mathematics, logic, words, efficiency, science and technology, etc. Left hemisphere ability is the principal focus for what can be tested in school.

The right brain, on the other hand, tends to specialize in "softer" aspects like intuition, feelings, sensitivity, creativity, non-verbal skills, rhythm, spontaneity, impulsiveness and the physical senses. The right hemisphere perceives the entire view and can recognize patterns and similarities and combine those elements into new forms.

Apparently, by the time we are two years old, one hemisphere begins to be more dominant than the other. Both halves are in touch through a bundle of nerve fibers, and our hemisphere dominance develops until we are in our mid teens.

You can test which half of your brain is dominant and to what extent by just clicking on the word test. Answering this test will take about 10 minutes, and there is more background information to read after you finish it if you like. I found it interesting that my left hemisphere is 67% dominant - as you may have guessed from my posts so far.

My goal is to try to use both hemispheres of my brain when I am making decisions and dealing with relationships, or trying to see a problem from another person's point of view. Rie

Monday, September 27, 2010

Follow Your Bliss

'Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you, where there were only walls.' Joseph Campbell

That’s really good advice, and for some [and I am among them] it was easy to follow because we grew up knowing exactly what we wanted to do, and have never 'worked' a day in our lives because we so loved what we did. But what about those, like my granddaughter, a recent High School graduate, who has a number of talents but is not good enough or passionate enough about any one of them to know what her ‘bliss’ really is? It is obviously too early for her to make lifelong decisions. What to do?

One of my father’s stories was about a farmer who hired a worker to help during his busy time in the early spring. The man turned out to be a very hard worker and the farmer was delighted. One day he ran out of things for him to do, so he took him into his storage shed and asked him to sort the potatoes left there after the winter – into piles of those that were rotting, those that should be eaten right away, and the good ones. At the end of the day when the farmer returned, to his surprise he found the man looking dejected and with only a few sorted potatoes around him. When asked what his problem was, the poor man answered sadly: "I'm sorry Mister, but it’s them decisions that’s so hard to make."

Life can involve many hard decisions, but the message we can all take is that if you are conscious of your feelings as you go through your days, you can get to know yourself pretty well. When you are doing something that you find ‘turns you on’ and you are good at, be aware that is the sort of thing that could be your 'bliss'. Another important indicator in knowing yourself is being conscious of the kinds of things stored in your memory that you can recall easily. They too are a strong indication of what your real interests are.

Then there is always University to expose you to new possibilities - but going that route can be an expensive waste of time unless you are eager to learn and willing to study. Many young people just out of high school are neither of these. Their brains don’t fully mature until they are about 25, and they can easily succumb to the distractions of socializing, sports and dating. Failing can shut doors permanently, so the best decision may be just to not make a decision.

My advice to young people like my granddaughter is that life is for a long time, so just relax, and as you earn a living, find out what you truly love doing. Then as soon as you can, make a leap of faith to 'follow your bliss', and trust that, as Campbell says: 'the universe will open doors for you' to a richly rewarding life. Rie

Monday, September 20, 2010

Memories & Emotions

I was writing about some of my earliest memories today, and found I had almost none before I was school age, and even then they were very few and far between. Amazingly, the incidents I do remember are there in every particular. The first vivid one was when I was 4, and my father was racing up the stairs very excited - the only time I ever saw him like that. He made us all look out the front window at a new car, a Buick ‘roadster’ he had just bought. I even remember the thick yellow wooden spokes on the wheels and the rumble seat in the back! It would have been 1929, before the crash.

As I wrote in an earlier post, we only seem to remember events when our emotions are aroused, and for me that includes times when I am learning things I'm interested in. It turns out that in those cases, organs deep in the brain are affected and play a vital role in searing those lasting memories into our brain. But what’s going on with all the memories we completely lose?

Basically memories are made as signals run through our neuron brain cells and cross gaps [synapses] between the cells to make a pathway or network that you can trace at will to bring back the memory. But the brain needs energy to keep the connections in that pathway viable. Our brains actually use 25% of the total energy our bodies require, so if we kept adding to and maintaining all the pathways formed, we wouldn't have any energy left to do anything else! Evidently our brain solves this problem when we are deeply asleep. That's when the connections in new networks are weakened. If we haven't thought of an ordinary event for a day or so, we soon lose all memory of it. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch three days ago - can you?

But what if you need to remember something for a while - like the lines in a play or facts for an exam? Studies have found that it is best to revisit something we need to remember often, spacing the time between reviews over longer and longer periods – for example once an hour, then every few hours and then daily. If you naturally tend to do that anyway, you probably are confident that it works, and so you relax and do well in exams. I'm told it even works for those normally terrified in front of an audience! Rie

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

You be the Chef

If you're wondering how that chef at the Waldorf Astoria could have come up with the idea of using mayonnaise in a cake, this post will explain and give you some clues so you can be a creative baker yourself.

First, our chef would have known that mayonnaise is a mixture of oil and vinegar [an acid] that is made into an emulsion by stirring vigorously with an egg. Used in a cake, the only other ingredients you need are flour, sugar, salt and something that releases bubbles to make the cake rise. If you check, you’ll see that our Waldorf Astoria chef used baking soda. He would have known that if you add acid to baking soda, it reacts giving off lots of bubbles of gas. Most recipes call for baking powder, which is just baking soda mixed with some powdered acid that is activated by adding water.

The trick in baking cakes is to trap the gas bubbles while the cake is cooking. If you guessed it is the egg that does that, you were right! You know that when you cook an egg, it solidifies, so in the cake the bubbles released by the soda and acid get trapped by the egg that solidifies around them as the cake bakes. That’s it! Now all you need to know are the quantities of ingredients to put in a cake:

Flour - 2 cups or more depending on Size of Cake [SoC].
Sugar - 1 cup, or about half the amount of flour. Anything sweet will do, like brown sugar, but be careful with honey, corn or maple syrup, molasses etc.
Fat - ¼ cup melted butter or oil or shortening. My mother, of Scottish descent, used beef suet!
Egg - one or two depending on SoC.
Baking soda – 1 ½ teaspoons depending on SoC.
Acid - Here is where you can let your imagination go!. Acids are sour, so you know that lemon, orange, lime, pineapple or tomato juices will work. Yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, etc. are really creamy in cakes, muffins, pancakes etc.
Water - add if necessary to make the batter just loose enough to be fairly easy to stir.

Use common sense and experiment. Lemon or lime juice need watering down, and adjust the amount of sugar depending on taste. Tomatoes need spices but make a wonderful cake. I’ve linked some recipes to online to help you get started.

Be creative, have fun and learn from your mistakes! Hopefully your experiments will be good enough to get eaten. Rie

Friday, September 10, 2010

$1200 Waldorf Astoria cake

Growing up, we lived in a prosperous little town, and a few of my mother's friends took a trip to New York City in the 1930’s. They splurged by staying at the legendary Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and for desert one night in the grand dining room, they ordered chocolate cake that turned out to be absolutely scrumptious.

Impressed and in high spirits, they asked the waiter if they might have the recipe. The chef himself eventually appeared, and it made quite a scene as he, in full regalia, recounted the details of how to make his special creation. When the 'girls' got home, however, they had a story to tell! Their bill revealed that they had had to pay $100 for the recipe - that's about $1,200 in today's money - shocking! Looking back, I've used the recipe so many times over the years I consider it was worth it! Besides being the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten, this cake is so quick and easy to put together from scratch that it's the only one I ever make now - and I decided it had to be shared.

The amounts of the ingredients used in the cake are not critical. In a pinch, I just use what is at hand for measuring - like any normal cup for the flour and sugar, and every-day spoons for the smaller amounts. For those who like precision, I’ve included exact measurements. The mayonnaise can be messy, so I usually use a 2-cup measure or big glass jar. Put the water in first, and then spoon in mayonnaise right from the bottle to double the volume.

In one bowl mix:
     2 cups of flour [16 oz. or 500 ml]
     1 cup of sugar [8 oz. or 250 ml]
     4 big spoonfuls unsweetened cocoa [4 tablespoons]
     1 really heaping teaspoon full of baking soda [1 ½ teaspoons]
     a good pinch of salt [½ teaspoon]

In a 2nd bowl mix:
     1 cup of water
     1 cup of mayonnaise [recipe says Miracle Whip, but any kind will do]
     1 cap full or so of vanilla [1 ½ teaspoons – it's optional but good]

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, stir and pour into a cake pan, preferably one with a cone in the middle. If your baking pan is not non-stick, smear the inside with butter or oil and shake a little flour around to coat it. Bake at 350 F [175 C] until you smell the cake, 30 to 40 minutes. I stick a toothpick or straw in it and it comes out clean when done.

Bon appetit! Rie

Friday, September 3, 2010

Gone Fishing?

My Dad grew up on the famous Restigouche River, and as a child in the 1930’s, I can remember him coming home after a day ‘up river’ - and when he'd open up the trunk of his car with a flourish, there would be 5 or 6 beautiful 30 to 40lb. salmon gleaming in the sun!!  I’ve read that the top 10% of anglers catch an amazing 90% of all fish, and I’m sure my father was among that top 10%!

Even so, I think he would have been intrigued if he had known about a fish’s circulation system, because it would have explained what must have taken years of experience to learn. As the simple diagram shows, a fish basically has a closed-loop circulation system with its heart pumping the blood in a single loop around the body. Starting with the gills that act as the fish’s lungs, the red lines in the picture show where the oxygen-carrying blood flows. The oxygen is needed to make the muscles work. The black lines show places where little or no oxygen is left in the blood. But the heart itself is a muscle, and if the fish is fighting hard to get free of the hook and all the oxygen is used up when the blood reaches the heart, the heart stops pumping and the fish goes belly up until it again has an adequate oxygen supply.

New regulations stipulate that barb-less hooks be used to make it easier to release a fish. That means that you have little chance of landing a salmon unless you always keep your line tight - but not so tight that it breaks! If a light ‘leader’ line that is less visible in the water is used [my father would have used a 6 to 8 lb. test line], a big salmon can easily break it. So you have to let the salmon run as many times as it can with just the right resistance to deprive its heart of oxygen temporarily so that you can reel it in part way. A big fish can sometimes take up to an hour to land.

And after all that, if you are trying to scoop up your fish with a net, it is easy to lose your catch. The first few times the fish is close, trying to scare it by brandishing the net in front of its nose should cause it to make desperate attempts to get away, using up the last bit of oxygen in its heart muscle. Then you can easily scoop it up safely when you see the white of its belly.

As fishermen say, 'tight lines.' Rie

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Moon & Tides

We are back - our visitors have left and you can expect at least a post or two a week from me again.

Last week we went to the Parrsboro area, at the head of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, and visited the fossil cliffs at Joggins, a fascinating UNESCO world heritage site that played an important role in early Darwinian discussions of evolution. We found an Interpretation Centre there that was well worth a visit. We also observed evidence of the highest recorded tides in the world.

It turns out that the Bay of Fundy acts like a big bathtub. When you were in the tub as a child, you probably had fun sloshing the water back and forth to make a wave big enough to splash water out over the end. If you did, you learned you had to give the water a push at just the right times (in resonance with its natural timing) to make the wave big enough. It just happens that the gravity of the moon as it passes over the Bay of Fundy pulls on the water at just the right times to add energy and get the water to slosh into the end of the Bay, giving tides as high as 16 meters (over 52 feet) on occasion!!

The Bay of Fundy with its amazing tides is the only Canadian finalist in the campaign to choose the New Seven Wonders of Nature (winners will be chosen in 2011, and you can vote!). While we were there, someone told me about the effect the incoming tide has in a narrow river at the head of the basin. As the water comes rushing in, it creates a high enough wave that you can ride a raft on it or surf board it quite a distance up the river, depending on the height of the tide that day. The wave is called a tidal bore, but sounds like it would be anything but a bore.Rie

Monday, August 30, 2010

Big Voice

When we were in the Parrsboro area in Nova Scotia last week, we found the very small town of Parrsboro itself an exceptionally interesting place. It has seen more prosperous days - when coal mining, lumbering, and shipbuilding kept the area thriving. Now tourism is a big draw in the summer, since the area boasts the natural wonders of the world's highest tides and famous fossil cliffs. We found as well a surprisingly large group of interesting and knowledgeable people. They run the museums, professional theatre, 'Rock Shops' [with extensive mineral collections and good prices] and the Bed & Breakfasts in the grand old wooden homes built in the booming days in the late 1800's.

The last night of our trip we ended up at a B&B run by a music teacher and his wife, who just happens to be an opera singer. After our ample breakfast and some persuasion, she was gracious enough to sing for us. She stood in the living room so that the archway from the dining room formed a frame that made her seem 'on stage' to us. After chatting for a few minutes, she opened her mouth to sing and produced a sound so powerful it nearly blew us out of our seats.

She sang beautifully, and while she projected her voice with such force, we marveled at how long she could sing without taking a breath. My mother was a trained singer, and I remember her often telling us to sing from our diaphragm. This is a very large muscle tucked under your rib cage. When you breathe in deeply to fill your lungs, that's the muscle you use. Try it. Trained singers increase their lung capacity and learn to strengthen their diaphragm and control the amount of air they release to pass through their vocal cords.

Being conscious of your mouth positions, say slowly: ‘please talk loud’. Now take a deep breath, consciously use your diaphragm muscle, and say the same expression again. Are you surprised that your voice is more powerful, and that you could easily make yourself heard above a crowd? Again being conscious of your mouth positions, sing: ‘please sing loud’. If you’ve been learning as you’ve done this exercise, you’ll now have figured out the difference between talking and singing sounds. But I probably won’t be able to resist doing an entire post about sounds one day anyway. Rie

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stepped Away

Thanks for positive comments and am pretty well hooked on blogging, so more to come - but having lots of visitors and taking a trip this week, so expect regular blogs from me again starting the near the end of August. Rie

Friday, August 6, 2010

It's in the Cards

When my girls were school age, I started teaching High School science and I loved it. However, it soon became clear that what I was trying to teach and what the kids were learning bore amazingly little resemblance to one other. I realized they needed to give me their undivided attention and have the lessons repeated. I read an article once that said you have to hear something new - like a new word or concept – an average of 7 times before it is really yours. But with those teenagers in front of me, it was game over if I started repeating myself.

I’d say: ‘Chemistry is easy if you are able to follow what I am talking about, but I have found out that most of you don’t seem to be getting it. That means either my teaching is not clear enough for you to understand, or you need to stop me and ask me questions.’ However I rarely got a question, quite a few students were getting lost and nothing I did seemed to work.

Then I happened on the idea of using cards with students' names on the back. At the beginning of a class, I would get one student to shuffle the cards and another to cut the deck. I’d tell them I was going to talk for around 10 minutes about something new they needed to understand, and I would write any new words I used on the board. When I had finished, I would then ask the person whose name was on the top card in the deck to tell the class what I had said.

No one knew whose name was on that card, and suddenly I had a captive audience paying rapt attention - a joy to teach. Very often the kids on the first couple of cards got something muddled and hands would go up waving - so I'd thank the student and turn up another card. Usually after we were 4 or 5 cards into the deck, there would be questions or a request to repeat some of what I’d said. My classes oftentimes became pretty lively with students discussing and arguing with each other, but they were talking chemistry and the topic always got a thorough airing. Best of all - they were involved in their own learning and they really liked it.

Like Confucius said – Involve me and I'll understand. Rie

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Confucius Says

Tell me and I will forget

Show me and I will remember

Involve me and I will understand

I began being interested in Science Centers when my husband George became the first Director of the Centennial Centre of Science & Technology [now the Ontario Science Centre] in 1964. At that time there were very few Science Centers in the world and, because I was a scientist, I had the good fortune to be commissioned to accompany him to Europe to tour those that existed in Scotland, England, France, Germany and Russia. While George talked to the Directors and staff, I took pictures and made notes of exhibits that I thought were attractive and worth copying or adapting.

I was really in my element - having a good time I didn't have to pay for and doing something useful. I remember one occasion especially when I had a Eureka moment while visiting the huge Deutsches Museum of Science & Technology in Munich. That day I had wandered through a number of large galleries with models of boats and airplanes and submarines and large skeletons of mastodons with lots of long labels. The exhibits were all static and there seemed to be few visitors. Even though I was very impressed, I found I wasn't reading the labels and hadn't made a single note. Then all at once I noticed a little gaggle of people in one corner of a gallery and, attracted by their animation, naturally I had to investigate.

The group were engaged in dropping ordinary maple seeds down a big open ended glass tube and watching how they spun around as they fell and interfered with each other when several were dropped at the same time. It was such a simple experiment, but it was the only one in the whole enormously expensive museum that was hands-on - where the visitors could be involved in their own learning. I took a picture of that one, read the label and made notes. In my final report I wrote at the very beginning: All exhibits must be hands-on.

I may have read what Confucius said, but I didn't really understand how wise he was until my Eureka moment in the Deutsches Museum. Rie

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grandmother Effect

When I talked in my last post about how children absorb practical knowledge from their mothers and grandmothers, it reminded me a lovely theory about this very thing called the Grandmother Effect. It is about prehistory, so the theory doesn’t have a lot of evidence to back it up, but it goes something like this: The reason human civilization began to flourish thousands of years ago was because people were living longer. For men it meant that they could still father children and carry on as a hunter and provider for them, but for women though, when they lived into their 40's, they didn’t have any more babies and young children to care for, so they had energy and time to spend helping with the care of their grandchildren.

Being a grandmother is a beautiful role - you have all of the joy of your young grandchildren and little of the work involved. And your grandchildren sense your love and concern for them (they do carry some of your precious genes) and that you have time to 'play' with them. Being together so much, grandmothers had time to teach their grandchildren all sorts of practical things, like how to find and gather food, make pots, cook, sew and practical techniques and shortcuts they had picked up. Even more important, they told stories of what had gone before and passed on the accumulated wisdom of their family and tribe.

But why in the first place did we, of all creatures, have such a long period of life after our reproductive system shut down? Evolution favours factors that improve the fitness of the species, so it is logical that the older women must have made some significant positive contribution. I figure it had a lot to do with the fact that we humans had language. Those talkative grandmothers enjoying their grandchildren must have made a far more important and far reaching contribution than they could have imagined – in all probability they were a major factor in the beginnings of human civilization.

Hey Grandmothers, put that feather in your cap and keep talking. Rie

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Green Thumb

When I came in from the garden today I noticed that my right thumb was green. I had been pinching off the tiny growing tips at the end of the stems on my petunias so they would start growing new branching stems and be nice short bushy plants instead of long lanky ones. 'Ah Ha!' I thought to myself, 'I have a green thumb'. I certainly should - I have been gardening long enough. My mother loved her garden, and I started helping her when I was in my teens. It's how most girls learn to cook and sew and keep house - you just watch and absorb and, if you are lucky, have the pleasure of passing your knowledge on to your children and grandchildren, if they are interested enough to watch and help you.

I read a book years ago, called 'Square Foot Gardening' by ?Fitzgerald? (not the new book by the same name - the original is unfortunately now out of print). Surprisingly it was written by an engineer and it taught me some basic common sense about plants and started me thinking about plants in a new way. For instance, if a plant is being stressed by being very dry, it says to itself 'Oh my Goodness, if this drought keeps up I might die soon, so I better get busy and produce some seeds before that happens.' If you are a worried lettuce plant, you adjust your chemistry and get very bitter as you start to 'bolt'. Moral of story - keep your lettuce and leafy vegetables nicely watered.

But if now you think about a tomato plant - well, things are different. We welcome the formation of the seeds in tomatoes because they happen to be inside the beautiful red fruit. In northern climes where the season is short, there is nothing quite so good as a vine-ripened tomato warm from the garden in full summer. So, I encourage my tomatoes to set and ripen their fruit by pinching off all growing tips and new blossoms, and then add to the plant's stress by denuding it of half its leaves. It really works!

If you don't already have one, your thumb is bound to turn green if you consider your plants' feelings. Rie

Monday, July 19, 2010

By Request

A friend suggested that I follow my last blog post with a few personal observations about the Queen's visit to New Brunswick. Though normally no great follower of ‘royal’ events, I must have been in a pretty heightened emotional state that day because my memories are still very strong. Interesting that researchers confirm what we already sense, that if at the time our brain is laying down its system of recall we are in such an emotional state, it’s almost as if memories are seared into the mind and become unforgettable.

I felt like a bit player that day - the three men had valid reasons for being there, but I was one of the 'chosen few' to be introduced just because I happened to be the 'wife of'. So I hung back and tried my best to be inconspicuous. However, on several occasions her Majesty sought me out and asked me questions. I was the only woman and about her age – but I think it just may have been because of my overly discrete attitude. One question was about the deep red sails on the 'Brunswick Lion', the replica of a sailing vessel that would have been used before 1860 to bring the settlers up the Saint John River. As a chemist, I happened to know the answer to that one and, with a confidence I had not felt with the other questions, I was able to tell her that to preserve the canvas they used red ochre, which was iron oxide commonly found in soil and mixed with oil, often seal oil. (I've just thought of the connection with the old song ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’.)

It must have been a difficult enough day for them because their daughter, Princess Anne, was riding in the Montreal Olympic Games as a member of the British team the next day. As proud parents, there must have been concerns, as always, about security.

There was no question that the Queen set the pace and was aware of the time, because after the hour allotted for the visit, they were ready to leave exactly on time. However, she refused to go until she said goodbye to me, and, hanging back as usual, I had to be summoned, camera in hand, and had the pleasure of shaking her hand and extending best wishes that all would go well the next day. Overall I was very impressed with the Queen's intelligence, how well she had been briefed and her show of warmth. Rie

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Royal Visit

Whenever the ‘Royals’ come to Canada, I think of the time back in the mid 70’s when they came to New Brunswick to visit the newly opened Kings Landing historic settlement. There were only four of us chosen to greet the royal couple and escort them around the village, the Premier, the Director and my husband George and I. George was the Deputy Minister responsible for creating the site. After being introduced, the Premier and Director stuck with her Majesty, so my husband and I had the pleasure of walking and talking with the charming Duke of Edinburgh. Staff and other visitors were not allowed to come within about 30 feet of their Majesties.

The settlement is strung out along the river like early settlements were in early days, and Queen Elizabeth and the Duke rode part of the way in a carriage drawn by a pair of nicely groomed workhorses. Both of them were very interested in the horses and took time to examine and discuss how they were harnessed.

At one point when the Duke was dismounting from their carriage, he spoke to the driver and asked him if the horses had names. The man seemed very shy and was slow to answer: "Yes, your majesty, they do". The Duke then inquired kindly: "Tell me, do you know their names". Again it felt like almost a minute before the man drawled slowly, still looking down: "Yes, your royal highness, they do". The Duke by then with a bit of impatience in his voice asked: "Well, what ARE their names?" It took what seemed even longer before the man finally appeared to come to a decision. He raised his head, looked the Duke straight in the eye and pronounced: "Well Sir, their names is Queenie and Dook."

With that the ‘Dook’ let out a roar of laughter - we all laughed with him, and the Queen, a few yards ahead, called out - "What has happened?". When Prince Phillip told her, she too had a good laugh and I'm sure it eased any formalities we all felt on that occasion that I will never forget. Rie

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Me? Why Blog?

Those with Latin will recognize that Descartes' famous dictum 'I think therefore I am' has been tampered with.

I’m in my mid 80’s, and as I stare my inevitable demise squarely in the face, I realize that the only part of me that will persist when I go are my scraps of genes passed on to a few progeny and perhaps the effects my presence has had on some of my family, friends and students. Most of what I’ve learned, insights I’ve had, and what goes on in my mind will be lost forever.

That is unless, of course, I should write. It’s sort of amazing that through the written word an ordinary person like me can leave a permanent record behind. I think each of us is unique and should leave some sort of written legacy - but it is not easy. Most of us are not like ‘writers’ who are clever with words and have a compulsion to write, but I often think what a wonderful gift it would have been if my grandparents who died before I was born had written something about themselves. Another advantage of the written word is that the reader has the choice to peruse what I have to say or not.

But why blog? Well, although I should feel a real sense of urgency to write - I’ve lived longer than all but one in my large extended family and, with my health problems, I feel like I am living on ‘borrowed time’ - my resolve is not strong enough to overcome inertia and life’s distractions. I need some sort of nudging along to keep me at it and hope this blog will be the answer. It will perhaps give me enough incentive and feedback to feel committed. I must admit the possibility of a wider audience is appealing too. So there - I have written my first blog post and I aim to continue with a couple a week and keep them short.
Rie (my first grandchild couldn’t say my first name so now I’m ‘Rie’ to all the family. That also explains the spelling of ‘Rieson’ in the name of my blog)