Looks like I spoke too soon with all my good news. That same day, right after I finished the post, I got two slamdunks. One, a massive forest fire is threatening my hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and two, my brother (the one that’s not a geek, or rather, not quite as much of a geek. We’re all geeks because we were raised in Los Alamos) was in a car accident in Montana. Thankfully, he’s fine. But the fire is not. It has burned over 60,000 acres so far and as of last night, was zero percent contained. The town’s best kept secret, its awesome ski hill, is starting to burn. It’s horrible and dangerous and devastating.

UPDATE: as of 5 hours ago, it’s now 3% contained. Current info is available here.

This morning, I did the usual. Early morning chat with my newly-appointed CTO, aka my brother Dave.

Dave: Hey, Mary! Did you see Los Alamos made Drudge?

Me: No!

I go check it out. There have been a lot of forest fires in the southwest US this summer. What’s different about this one? Why is it on Drudge? The answer is in the red, all-caps title: NUKE LAB FIRE DANGER

It continues in the first paragraph from the AP release:

A wildfire near the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb advanced on the Los Alamos laboratory and thousands of outdoor drums of plutonium-contaminated waste Tuesday as authorities stepped up efforts to protect the site and monitor the air for radiation.


Got your attention yet? Good grief. Might as well just post a picture of a big, red PANIC button. Here’s a similar one from Reuters:

The fire’s leading edge burned to within a few miles (kilometres) of a dump site where some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste is stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, fire officials said.

Yes, there are drums containing low-level nuclear waste in Los Alamos. Nuclear weapons research does happen there. Plutonium, a by-product, exists. It’s radioactive. But a “dump site”? The immediate conclusion drawn by Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, is (drum roll, please) that “these drums will get so hot that they’ll burst .. and put the toxic material into the plume” strikes me as just a tad alarmist. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

The DOE may be incompetent, that’s up for debate. But they’re not totally irresponsible. They’re not going to store this stuff in barrels that can explode. This area is known for its fire danger. After the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which destroyed hundreds of houses in the town, “additional measures were taken” to ensure that things were safe in the event that history repeated itself. Los Alamos is many things, I’m not going to go into that, but I really don’t get the impression that they have a laxist attitude about radioactive material. Quite the contrary.

Joni goes on to worry about how the fire is going to “stir up contaminated soil” where experiments were conducted years ago. “Burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface,” she said.

So she’s not just an expert in nuclear waste containment vessels, but animal behavior as well! Way I look at it, if the fire does get to the lab, it’ll flush out all those burrowing varmints and solve that problem but good.

Despite the mandatory evacuation order, a few hardy souls stayed behind. When asked if he was worried about the flames reaching sensitive materials, chemical engineer Mark Smith said “the risk of exposure is so small. I wouldn’t sit here and inhale plutonium. I may be crazy, but I’m not dumb.”  No, he’s not dumb. Nobody who works at Los Alamos is on the “dumb” end of the IQ scale, trust me.

For more information on the situation, I’d recommend reading this cnet post by fellow Los Alamos native Stephen Shankland. He actually knows what he’s talking about.

Like Stephen, I’m also thousands of miles away, but I’ve been able to keep track of what’s going on thanks to another crazy guy I went to high school with. Joe had experienced the Cerro Grande fire and decided not to evacuate this time, because his house was on the eastern edge of town, farthest from the flames, and close to several exit routes. He’s been taking advantage of his days off from work to riff on his guitar and bicycle around town taking pictures. He posts them along with useful updates on his Facebook page.

Place is a ghost town. So… I hooked up the Marshall stack, cranked the stereo to 11, and played along to Rush and Zeppelin at full volume, just cranking the tube amp on my guitars. No neighbors to annoy. I’ll not get to do this again in a long while.

Even the locals are turning to Joe for their updates, because – surprise, surprise — the media isn’t terribly informative. One significant thing I learned from his pictures is that Los Alamos now has a Starbucks. When I was growing up the big excitement was daylight donuts, the bowling alley and the Big Cheese Pizza. If there had been a decent coffee shop back then I might have considered staying. Heck, I might have settled in, written a young adult novel and made millions like J.K. Rowling. Damn.

Somebody asked Joe if anyone had harassed him for not evacuating. “Not a word,” he said. He watered his neighbors’ day-lilies and fed the birds. He’s established a phone warning system with other die-hards, so if things get dicey while he’s sleeping he’ll be warned in time to get out.

Rain isn’t imminent, and winds are picking up, he posts. On another Facebook thread, people suggest diverting the excessive Utah snowpack or the flooding Mississippi via pipeline. Civil engineering is slow, though. But wait a minute. What if we could crowdsource it? Get thousands of people to go to home depot, buy a length of pipeline, connect it with their neighbors… only problem is that, unlike Switzerland, the southwest is covered by vast expanses of nothing but sagebrush and jackrabbits.
I’ll be in Santa Fe, neighbor to “the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb” next week and can breathe the fumes in person. I can’t bear to see it burn. It’s such a beautiful landscape, and even though I haven’t lived there since I left for college in 1983, and my parents moved to Santa Fe in 1990, it’s still the place where all my childhood memories reside. Sailing balsa boats in the Bandelier creek. Jumping off the high dive at Barranca pool. Making the 2-mile trek down Barranca hill on my bike in the summertime to buy candy at the Piggly Wiggly on Conoco Hill. Bombing a ski slope with friends, poles tucked under my arms. Running across a rattlesnake while rooting around in the canyon behind my house. Making out with my boyfriend on the edge of the mesa, totally taking for granted the stunning 100-mile view in the background…

Meanwhile, nearer home, as I was taking Luc to the train station this morning I noticed a plume of black smoke rising from a nearby apartment building. When I got back, fire trucks were in place and three little girls in their nighties were cavorting on the lawn of the parish hall across the street. They turned the event into an opportunity, of sorts.

Photo Credit (panic button): Krysten_N via Compfight cc

Good news

Good news: I don’t have a brain tumor after all!

I just got back from a visit to the GP and all my blood work is stultifyingly normal. His conclusion: my high blood pressure is a gift from my parents. We have wrestled it back into the normal range with the help of a white pill called Lisinopril.

I guess I can swallow this, given all the other great stuff mom and dad bequeathed, not the least of which is my stature. Those extra inches are most welcome when scanning crowds, reaching for things on top shelves, and overindulging in food and/or drink. I know it’s not fair. Perhaps the blood pressure is the price I must pay for possessing what is otherwise an excellent jelly belly and margarita processing apparatus.

Of course the doctor is speaking French, saying “ah, tension” which is French for “ah, blood pressure,” and I keep thinking he’s saying “attention” which means “watch out.” We were discussing the dosage, and I was explaining the lightheadedness I experienced on yesterday’s hike.

I’d tagged along on an outing with friends from Montreux, figuring the hike would be reasonable because Christine doesn’t like to suffer too much. Her husband Greg planned the hike, and it’s in Greg’s best interests (read: domestic harmony) to keep these hikes reasonable. I had not reconnoitered the route on a map beforehand. Not that I didn’t try, but the spot just happened to be just outside the edges of the two maps I have. Never mind, I told myself. Greg knows what he’s doing. Follow along for once.

It was a hot, beautiful day. We went 1,300 m (4,000 feet) pretty much straight up, to the top of a grassy bump just outside Gstaad called the Lauenehore. The sweat poured out of me, running down my back, forming rivulets down the insides of my arms, making my glasses slip off my nose, pooling in my belly button. By some amazing twist of luck, the cows hadn’t been released upon the grassy meadows we were traversing yet, so we didn’t have to dodge piles of fly-infested steaming cow shit as we climbed. Nonetheless Christine suffered. I suffered. Greg suffered. (He’s probably still suffering!) It was so terribly, terribly beautiful! All those Alps! All those amazing wildflowers! Suffering was never this good. 

And as I huffed and chugged my way up at my normal breakneck pace, I felt my head starting to detach from the rest of me. I’m usually very secure while negotiating knife-edges and hopping blithely from rock to rock at high altitude, but there I was, grabbing onto tussocks of grass and rocks to steady myself. So this is what Marc means by vertigo. He must have low blood pressure!

The doctor nodded knowingly. The dehydration, combined with the medication… No surprise at all that I almost lost my head and my footing. On second thought, maybe he was saying attention. He said the next time I plan to climb 4,000 feet on a really hot day I can skip the lisinopril.

So anyway, I finally got to the summit, fueled by the thought of a nice chocolate-enhanced snooze. I may have mentioned in this blog that Switzerland is practically insect-free. I was wrong. Every insect in the country is on top of the Lauenehore. The roar of little wings up there was deafening. I waited bravely for Greg and Christine and then we got the hell out of there. I had my very own entourage for a while, until a breeze picked up. Now I know what movie stars feel like.

Finally we evaded them and stopped on a rock slide, drank deeply and ate our chocolate. Greg redeemed himself by naming most of the peaks in the panorama of mountains spread out before us. It was worth every drop of sweat and every bug bite. Switzerland can be stunning like that. I’ll post a photo when Christine puts them up on Facebook. I didn’t have my camera.

UPDATE: Here’s the photo!! Thanks, Greg.

gstaad countryside

We hustled down the other side just in time to catch a hot, packed tourist train back to Montreux. I felt bad taking the seat next to the nice old lady because I knew I must smell like a person who has been sweating profusely for seven hours. But my head was once again threatening to detach and I figured I’d be better able to manage it sitting down.

A shower, a beer, a bowl of pistachios later and my head was right back where it belonged, I was fining the boys for the towels they’d left lying on the bathroom floor (a new policy) and cleaning up the disaster area that had been our kitchen just twelve hours earlier.

More good news: the house-sized asteroid that was noticed just four days ago from two remotely-controlled telescopes in New Mexico will slip past us today by a margin of just 7,500 miles. The MIT brains say that even if it had hit us, it would have just broken to bits in the atmosphere. I also learned that we survived an even closer call last February when asteroid QC1 missed the Earth by a mere 3,400 miles.


Even more good news: I read in the Johns Hopkins Alumni Mag that the 100-pound rocks that mysteriously travel 100 meters or more along the floor of Death Valley and that have stumped scientists for more than 100 years (that’s a lot of 100s) aren’t being moved by pranksters or aliens but by a bizarre physical combination of ice and gale force winds. They set up spy cams and tested a model in a freezer. I’m sure you are as reassured as I am. I still think aliens are involved. 

Rock at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, CA Credit: wikimedia commons, Pirate Scott 

That’s enough good news for one day. 

The bad news is that New Mexico is burning. Again. 


When the first snapping turtle surfaced, village authorities were surprised. It got its picture in the paper, and an expert from the Lausanne Vivarium came and hauled it off, saying the turtle had probably been living there for ages, unnoticed. Great trepidation in the hamlet of Renens. These things can bite off your arm! Continue reading


Art is what you can get away with. — Andy Warhol

Sometimes, instead of imitating life, art imitates art. This is more commonly known as forgery. If you can get away with it, I suppose you’re an artist of sorts.

Here’s a real-life story of some forgers that didn’t. Continue reading


There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” – Pink Floyd

Where do ideas come from? How many of us wake up in the morning and say, Gee, I think I’m gonna to have myself a great idea today!

Not me.

In general, the harder I try to think up something original, the slower my brain goes until it ultimately screeches to a stop and I have to go play a game of Scramble or eat jelly bellies to get it going again. Continue reading

Mindset Mapping

I keep returning to the idea of stereotypes. Or perhaps the idea keeps finding me.
As the poet John Donne so aptly put it:

No man is an island; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

That’s the human dilemma, isn’t it? We’re alone, yet not alone. We each have our own unique perspective, the way things look from the island of moi. And yet we want so badly to belong, to make sense of all those other islands whose views are so unlike our own.

On that geographical note, I thought I’d share a series of maps designed by Bulgarian-born London-based “graphic designer slash illustrator” Yanko Tsvetkov. He has taken the idea of stereotyping up a notch, with maps that stereotype how different people stereotype each other. The whole idea is wildly politically incorrect, yet …  You’ll see what I mean. Continue reading

Space Invaders

Those who visit this space frequently know I have a thing about weeds (see my Weed Manifestos I and II). I like control and order, so these uninvited invaders offend my sense of decorum. I’m also lazy, which means I don’t want to do the actual physical labor involved in removing them. In short, I’m torn. Recently I lightened up a bit and decided to let them have their place in my garden. At least until Oscar comes and digs them all up.

Today, a whole bunch of things came together that made me think again about weeds – and more generally about what constitutes an “undesirable.” In a press release from the University of Arizona, I read this:

The recent field of invasion biology faces a new challenge as 19 eminent ecologists issue a call to “end the bias against non-native species” in the journal Nature.

The group is questioning the automatic (and politically correct) assumption that native species are inherently more valuable and “good” than non-native ones. It turns out that plants and critters brought in by accident in luggage or on purpose to eradicate a pest sometimes thrive so well in their new habitats that they crowd out the oldies. This causes consternation and a call to wipe out the newcomers, to put back the clock, to return nature to its “pristine” state. But as endless examples have shown, once these space invaders have gotten established, there is no going back. Just look at the cane toads in Australia, the zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and the Kudzu vine or Tamarisk in the Eastern US. Like it or not, they’re here to stay. 

Reading that paragraph over, it struck me that this isn’t just a problem with plants and animals. Here in Switzerland many people exhibit exactly this same bias against other, “invading” human populations. They don’t look right, smell right, eat the right things. They’re crowding us out of our jobs! They don’t share our ideas about what’s important! I think it’s actually a very human tendency – resistance to change. We often assume that how things were is automatically superior to how things are, particularly when newcomers are involved. 

But it’s certainly a selective resistance. As the press release mentioned, native species often do just as much, if not more damage than invaders. Nobody would mind at all if the bark beetles died out, gobbled up by, say, ladybugs from Outer Mongolia. I doubt anyone would fuss if the Anopheles Mosquito kicked up its heels and disappeared off the face of the Earth. Our outrage seems to be proportionally related to the cuteness of the local species and the ickiness of the invading one. Even our word choice screams bias — we employ the adjectives “invasive” and “non-native” much more frequently than “opportunistic” or “exotic” (this last is often used to refer to non-native plants sold in nurseries, however, which can be classified as attractive and thus are okay). 

Photo: katanski
In a remarkable coincidence, I came across an article in the New York Times about a cute little hamster living in the Alsace region of France that’s having a hard time surviving because the farmers have stopped planting alfalfa and are putting in corn or selling off their land for housing developments. These guys wake up after a winter of hibernation and there’s nothing to eat! There are only about 800 of them left in Alsace, although they’re apparently thriving in Eastern Europe and in no danger of extinction. The EU is planning to slap the French with up to   $25 million in fines if they don’t take measures to get the numbers up. 

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the two wolves that are permitted to live in the Alps are under close scrutiny. They’d better behave themselves, because if they so much as show a whisker near a herd of sheep the hue and cry goes up and the guns come out. Livelihoods are at stake! This native species was eradicated ages ago long before anyone had written a thesis on “invasive species,” and nobody really wants them back, because the newcomers (people, sheep and cattle) aren’t interested in living in a balanced predator-prey ecosystem. The only predator here is the cheesemaker, the butcher and, eventually, the bank. (That’s Switzerland for you!) I guess their cuteness factor just doesn’t make the cut.

All this underscores a problem I’ve had with conservation biology (and now the new field, “Invasion Biology”) for a long time — that we’ve made the mistake of taking ourselves out of the equation. This is both mathematically and philosophically irresponsible. We don’t exist in parallel to nature, where one kind of reasoning applies to us, and another to the rest of the natural world. Our species is just another species, deeply interwoven with all the others, altering things irreversibly all the time, just like they are. 

I read today that every human parent passes 30 mutations on to his/her children. Like the rest of the natural world, we are in a state of constant adaptation. Nothing stays the same! We’re not going to stop traveling, so invaders will continue to invade. It doesn’t look like we’re going to stop heating up the planet, either, so habitats are going to change, making room for even more invaders. We’re invading each other, they’re invading us, we’re invading  them — it’s a war zone out there! So once again, I say, carpe diem, take a good look at what’s around you and savor it right now. It might be covered with Kudzu next week.

Come to think of it, isn’t there an argument that life on Earth originated from stuff that hitched a ride on a meteorite? Maybe the whole shebang we call “life” is one big massive accidental invasion. God is up there saying “now look what happened, I had a perfectly decent planet and now it’s crawling with vermin…”

Winning and Wining

My apologies for the long dry spell. I had a couple of riveting novels to finish reading, and I was so disappointed in the new nutrition guidelines that I couldn’t get up the energy to write about them. One, the dinner plate looks nothing at all like a Rothko painting, and two, there is no dessert on it. Not even a single jelly bean. There was so much gnashing of teeth about the old guidelines and how horrible they were that I admit I was expecting something a little more inspiring. At least in the old ones they drew little pictures of food, for those who were unclear on what constitutes a ‘vegetable’ or what counts as ‘dairy.’ “Whaddya mean I don’t eat enough fruit? I had two bowls of Froot Loops for breakfast!” The guidelines also imply that you should drink milk for your dairy, which I find blatantly disingenuous. To be fair they should have put another circle to the upper left of the plate, labeled “alcohol.” Everything in moderation, right? But for me, the deal breaker was dessert. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Continue reading