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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 piƱatas 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