It’s the last day of November. I have less than 12 hours to go on the NaNoWriMo challenge. In a last desperate bid to hit 50,000 words, I’m going to keep on writing all day, with just this little break to keep the blog alive. I’m still under 45,000, so it’s a stretch. Speaking of stretch, Thanksgiving was way too much eating and not nearly enough writing.

Once again, I could take a lesson from Smokey. Look at him. He’s just lying there, I’m standing right above him with the camera, and he doesn’t even budge. In fact, after I took the picture, he calmly turned his head away and closed his eyes again. I need some of that focus!


I find the Internet, in particular, horribly distracting. There is so much interesting content out there that I often feel as if I’m barely keeping my head above water. Occasionally, I come across something that totally blows my mind. That happened this week with an article in Slate on the use of mice and rats in medical research. It’s a very long article, and I’m still digesting it. I hope to write about it soon here on Gydle, once I’m out of my November novel-blasting mode.

Today, from a link on one of my favorite sites, Snarkmarket – it’s likeable just for the name – I found another gem, by Jack Cheng. The idea of keyframing, as applied to writing.

Keyframing is a term used in animation; key frames are the starting and ending points of a smooth animation transition. In a cognitive sense, keyframing is what you do when you transition from one clear thing to another clear thing. Take the example given on the post – you see a picture of a plane in the distance. Then you see a picture of the plane overhead. Your brain fills in the missing trajectory, imagining the plane’s flight from frame A to frame B.

Comics, Cheng points out, are keyframes, and they’re fun to read because our brains get to fill in the blanks between the frames. He argues that our lives are like key frames. We have high moments, separated in time. When you go back and think about things, you see your life somewhat like a comic book. All the transitions are smoothed out.

Writing is like that, too. There are the million-dollar sentences that hold the thing together. Those are the frames. And then there’s the rest. Beware, he writes, of keyframe bias:

A bias develops from the availability of these frames, one that rears its head not when we read, but when we try to write.

Beginning writers, especially those who’ve done a lot of reading, have a tendency to overwrite. I do it all the time. There’s this urge to cram in clever metaphors and flowery prose and think that every sentence needs to be quotable or rebloggable, something worthy of scrawling in dry-erase marker on a dorm room door.

What we fail to realize is there are sentences in our favorite books, even in the Great American Novel, that are completely unremarkable.

That last sentence is a great key frame. As I look back over my writing, I don’t see a whole lot of quotable frames. How’s this? (finally, you think, something from her novel!)

“Did he explain how he was going to use this protein? What it was good for?” she asked.

“Not really. But he did say that if this worked there would be a bunch more like it. That’s cool. We like new challenges, particularly if they’re important for advancing science.” Ned plugged one nostril with a finger, leaned his head away from Kate and blew snot from his free nostril off to the side of the road. “Sorry. Plumbing overload.”

“That is so gross, Ned.” Kate rolled her eyes.

On that note, let’s move to safer ground – photos. Here’s a picture from my Thanksgiving cook-fest. After I cut into this squash, I noticed it was bleeding. Poor thing. It gave its life up for a good cause, though – two delicious pumpkin pies.


Moment of beauty II


On a walk along the lake the other day, I came across this set of footprints. Evidence that I am not alone.

I am madly writing about Swiss postdocs, stem cells and Halloween parties. Let me just say this: all those authors who say that the characters in their books take on lives of their own and then proceed to take over your life? They’re not making it up. I sit down, prepared to write one thing, and two thousand words later, something completely different has happened. Most of the time it’s a big improvement over what I had planned. Sometimes, I just stare at the screen and think, how did that happen? WTF?

The good news is that I may actually reach my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The bad news is that this means I cannot devote much (if any) time to writing on the blog.

What do other bloggers do when they run out of time?  Well, judging from what I’ve seen out there, they do one of three things:

  1. post garbage
  2. open the blog up to guest posters
  3. post pictures

I don’t believe in polluting cyberspace. So #1 is out.

I had the opportunity to guest post on Running and Rambling not too long ago. It was great. So here goes: You are all hereby invited to contribute a guest post. I can’t guarantee I’ll post it (see #1 above), and I can’t guarantee if I do post it I won’t edit it a little, but if you can live with those possibilities, send me something (here’s the e-mail address).

(I’d ask Dave, but if past experience is any indication, I’ll get his contribution sometime in mid-2012, and that doesn’t really help me right now. But Dave, if you’re reading this, feel free to post something.)

Until I receive your masterpieces, then, I’m stuck with #3. As it happens, I often take a walk in the afternoon to clear my brain, so one day last week I took a camera along. The footprints were obvious. The rest – well, think elements. Ground. Water. Air.





The water in the lake is so clear this time of year – if it weren’t so cold I’d jump in. Maybe I will anyway.

To all my American friends, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.  This year, I’m celebrating Thanksgiving no less than three times – Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. That’s one advantage of being an expat … improvisation!


DucreuxyawnMonday afternoon, I couldn’t stop yawning. Sure, I was tired – I’ve been writing thousands of words a day on top of endless little bits and pieces of translating that keep dribbling in – but this was unusual. Later that afternoon, I saw this:

Yawning may no longer be a wide open question

Worth a click. I wasn’t aware that yawning was one of the great unsolved problems of science.

A dentist from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (Gary Hack) and a Princeton postdoc (Andrew Gallup) claim that we don’t yawn because we’re tired, sleepy, or need more oxygen.

No, they say, we yawn in order to cool down our brains.

“The brain is exquisitely sensitive to temperature changes and therefore must be protected from overheating,” the authors write. “Brains, like computers, operate best when they are cool.”

Ah, so that’s my problem. I’m overheating. I knew this word count thing was getting out of hand.

Hack says the sinuses function as a sort of bellows system, fanning cool air into the brain.

Apparently people about to have epileptic seizures or migraines yawn a lot. Hack and Gallup think that yawning could be used as a diagnostic tool to identify dysfunctional body temperature regulation:

Excessive yawning appears to be symptomatic of conditions that increase brain and/or core temperature, such as central nervous system damage and sleep deprivation, says Gallup.

Uh-oh. I’m not overworking, I’m sleep deprived. I knew that. Wait – could I possibly have central nervous system damage? That could explain a lot of things…

Gallup tested his theory on rats, measuring their brain temperatures before, during and after yawning, and found that indeed yawning cooled their brains. One woman suffering from excessive yawning took oral temperature before and after yawning and found that indeed, her brain had cooled off when she yawned.

After receiving that information, the woman reported that methods of behavioral brain cooling provided relief and or postponements of her yawning symptoms.

I sure would like some more info on those “methods of behavioral brain cooling.” Do you think it involves sticking something in your ear?

But don’t panic yet. Most garden-variety yawning probably doesn’t indicate central nervous system damage or the onset of MS. It might just be that you’re adjusting to the seasons.

In another study, Galluop went to Arizona and stopped random pedestrians in the street, showing them pictures of people yawning. As everyone knows, yawning is contagious. He found that more people yawned in the winter months than in the summer, when the outside air temperature was at or above body temperature (98.6 F). His correlation held even when factors like humidity, time spent outdoors and the amount of sleep the night before were taken into account.

The researchers concluded that warmer temperatures provide no relief for overheated brains.

Winter is upon us. Does that mean we’re entering prime brain-use season? Do people think better when it’s cold outside? Should we keep indoor temperatures a few degrees lower in order to boost mental productivity? The study doesn’t give any specific advice.

It also didn’t illuminate the mystery of why yawning is contagious. As I yawned my way through our writing group on Monday, fellow writer Liz started to join in, putting her sinus-operated bellows to work in formidable fashion. I’m not excluding the possibility that her brain needed cooling down, we work hard in our group, but how much of her yawn was a genuine physiological need and how much was she just unconsciously following my good example?

I dug a little deeper and discovered that babies start yawning in the womb at as early as 11 weeks, but it’s not until they reach about 4 years old that yawning becomes contagious. (Autistic kids apparently don’t “catch” yawns like normal kids do, btw.) By mirroring my yawn, Liz was being empathetic, like the good friend she is.

Like contagious laughter and contagious crying, scientists have theorized that contagious yawning is a shared experience that promotes social bonding. [….] “We’re looking at the roots of empathy,” says developmental neurologist Robert Provine of UMBC.  – discovery news

Studies have shown that just looking at the eyes of a yawning person can trigger a yawn, as can reading about yawning or even thinking about it. There is some thought that mirror neurons might be involved.

I can verify that observation. As I’m typing here, my sinuses are bellowsing to beat the band. What I’m hoping is that once I’ve finished the post, my brain will be cooled off dramatically, and I can do some really killer writing. If you haven’t already yawned while reading this gripping post, watch the video below for a tougher test.

Are you yawning yet?

Image: Joseph Ducreux pandiculating; self-portrait ca. 1783, from the Wikipedia entry on Yawning

Spiraling down the double helix

It’s almost mid-month.  I’m at about 19,000 words, about 3,000 words behind my carefully calculated NaNoWriMo goal. (I’ve made an excel spreadsheet). I took my blood pressure yesterday and realized that stressing about keeping up with my self-imposed word count is not helping anything. In fact, my scientific approach to this endeavor – just 2,000 words a day, gives me 5 days off – is totally ludicrous. Creativity doesn’t work like that. I should know better.

Take yesterday. The central theme of my plot involves people researching induced pluripotent stem cells. Informing myself on this seemed the sensible thing to do, so I started reading. Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the topic of stem cells has been around forever. But did you know that human embryonic stem cells were only discovered in 1998? We’ve only known about these suckers for a dozen years?

One thing led to another. I kept reading article after article, digging myself deeper and deeper into the subject. In 2007, a Japanese researcher, Shinya Yamanaka, found a way to trick adult skin cells into reverting to an embryonic stem cell-like state – basically using trial and error and getting really lucky. That was fantastic news – no need to harvest them from artificially created embryos or aborted fetuses, no need to enter into horrific ethical debates or shady back-room deals buying human oocytes.

Then I wanted to try and understand how they did it: what did they do to the skin cell that took it all the way back to the time of its distant ancestors, to the fleeting moment when it was cozied up in the blastocyst with a bunch of other embryonic stem cells, brim-full of potentiality? Oh, I could be anything, anything at all!

And there’s where I realized that what I know about genetics is basically zilch. And that our DNA is unbelievably, incredibly, magnificently complicated. That’s a lot of adverbs — I know, bad form. But in this case they’re warranted. Really.

Last night, I was talking about it with Marc. Did you know that if you unwound your DNA it would be 2 meters long?

Marc turns over. Don’t be ridiculous.

It’s true!  I insist. I read it on this website…

You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the web, he says, and starts snoring.

Hmmph. I looked it up again this morning. It’s true, if slightly meaningless. If you were somehow to stretch all the DNA in a human cell nucleus out, yes, it would theoretically be 2 meters long. You get that from multiplying the length of a base pair (0.34 nanometers) by a billion (that’s how many base pairs are in the genome). All your cellular DNA would stretch to the moon. Marc’s right in one sense, though – it’s impossible to get your head around an image like that. A vanishingly small sub-microscopic thing that’s two meters long.

It reminds me of the applied math class I took on vorticity in grad school. Imagine an infinite bathtub, the professor said. (He didn’t want to have to deal with boundary conditions). Ummm, excuse me? I say, raising my hand. I’m having a hard time with that…

But it’s helpful all the same when you realize that this implies that DNA is super-tightly coiled up in the nucleus. In humans and other animals, DNA binds to proteins called histones, forming a structure called chromatin. Chromatin is organized into chromosomes – humans have 46 of them. In areas where the chromatin is loosely packed, genes are getting expressed – messenger RNA is transcribing them code and taking it out into the cell to manufacture proteins. Cellular business as usual.

But in other, more densely packed regions, called heterochromatin, the DNA is so tightly wound up that nothing can get in or out. It’s a kind of genetic no-man’s land. If there are genes there, they’re silent. This is where most of the so-called “junk” DNA resides. (that’s another story).

When an embryonic stem cell commits to being a certain kind of cell, there are a bunch of “master regulator” genes that get buried for good in this heterochromatin, never to get transcribed again.

That is, until a Japanese guy unleashes four of them into the cell in the hijacked body of a retrovirus, and then uses some enzyme magic to incorporate them into the gene-expressing part of the genome. Then it’s as if they’d been there all along; they set a whole chain of chemical reactions into motion, taking the skin cell back in time to its embryonic precursor. I can be anything!

Now I’m sure you can see why I’m having such a difficult time meeting my daily word count. I read something, which leads me to ask a question, which I look up and don’t understand, so I try to get a little more background, which makes me realize that there’s another huge gap in my knowledge, so I go try to rectify that situation. Pretty soon it’s midnight and my eyes are bugging out from gazing at the screen too long.

I just spent the last hour unsuccessfully trying to understand gene sequencing techniques.  How do they get the heterochromatin unwound? How they “cut up” the DNA into snippets? How they are able to reconstruct the original chromosome in its entirety in the right order once they’ve sequenced all its base pairs? I haven’t found the answer to any of those questions. Either it’s really complicated or I’m really thick – most likely a combination of the two.

I’m going to have to call a halt to this rapidly accelerating spiral, and get back up to the surface so I can carry on with my story. I’d love to be able to go back in time and be a microbiologist, but I don’t know of any technologies that can take a retrovirus, insert it into my brain cells and reprogram me as a college freshman again. That’s probably a good thing.

Image: an artistic rendering of chromatin, from the  Stem Cell School website, put together by the Genetics Policy Institute and the Stem Cell Network.


Just as I walked up to the metro on Saturday, the doors shut in my face. I was literally one second too late.

Damn. Steamed. I’d been working in the Starbuck’s on the Place St. Francois for the last couple of hours. Yes, I know, Starbuck’s is a big, evil chain store that sells sub-par coffee for over-par prices and manipulates people with all kinds of marketing gimmicks. But it’s the only coffee shop I know of around here where I can get out of my head and into my writing properly. If I stay at home on the weekend I’m constantly being asked for food by the resident teenagers or feeling like I ought to be doing laundry, and I can’t get anything done.

See, in a place like Starbuck’s there are a lot of distractions. Babies crying, background music, other people working and talking, low lighting, lots of people coming and going. So many distractions, in fact, that I have no choice but to tune them all out and concentrate fully on the task at hand. And Starbuck’s, evil as it may be, does have one thing figured out: how to leave you alone and not make you feel guilty for taking up space. It’s like the Apple store I went to in Albuquerque, where the Japanese guy was just working away at one of the demo computers and nobody minded. I appreciate that.

Plus I secretly want to be J. K. Rowling.

I’ve always liked writing in the midst of chaos. In college, I wrote all my essays parked in a coffee shop near campus, drinking foamy lattes and eating chocolate chip cookies. Back then, in the dark ages, that meant writing by hand on a pad of paper, like in the picture at the top of the post. Now, with a laptop, it’s so much more efficient! As long as there’s a plug and tons of distractions, I can go into my zone. When I found out J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a coffee shop, it clicked. Someday I, too, would write a blockbuster in a coffee shop.

So there you have it, people. It’s finally happening.

Anyway, back to the metro. The monitor said the next one wouldn’t be there for 12 minutes, so I went into the news shop in the metro station and browsed the magazines. I took down the Economist, put it back. I can’t read it, it’s too dense and I object philosophically to the absence of bylines. Wired  was really tempting. Then I caught a glimpse of the Technology Review hiding on a shelf behind. I pulled it out and looked at the cover.

Oh. My. God.

There on the cover of the Technology Review was a blurb that said Stem cells get personal. I may have mentioned that the novel I’m writing involves stem cells. I’d just had a bit of a block on the subject back in Starbuck’s, and I needed to do some research. I opened the article, and it was perfect. Exactly what I was looking for. How’s that for divine intervention?

I was so psyched that I went out for a run when I got home.

bare footI realize I have been remiss in reporting on my barefoot running adventure, so here’s an update for those of you who are interested: I haven’t put on a pair of regular running shoes since August. No kidding. I only wear my New Balances Minimus Trail shoes now. In fact, I wear them almost every time I leave the house for anything, I like them so much.

On Saturday, I don’t know whether it was the elation of having found the article on stem cells and unplugging the block in my writing, or the fact that there was a cushion of soft-looking fallen leaves on the ground, but I had a sudden urge to make skin-to-earth contact, and not with my face like I did last week, but with my feet. I took my shoes off and ran about 2 miles barefoot. The leaves took the worst of the bite out of the nasty little evil stones on the path.  I ran along the beachfront in Preverenges, in and out of the water, feeling like a little kid. Then when I got back to the really evil section of path I photographed on my earlier post, I sat down by the lake and put the New Balances back on.

What a great run! A lot of people had given me strange looks, but I just smiled and carried on. My feet felt so happy.

I know you want to try barefoot running, too. In another astonishing stroke of serendipity, I ran across a how-to video this weekend so you can get started in the comfort of your own living room! In honor of the New York City Marathon, Christopher McDougall, of Born to Run fame, has an article in  the NYT Magazine this Sunday. There’s a video of him hopping from one foot to the other, demonstrating how to work on your running form. If you don’t have a subscription to the online NYT, you can see the video at this blog, Hunter-Gatherer (written by a NYC barefoot runner type). Running barefoot may seem crazy, but trust me, it’s going mainstream. In a few years you’ll be thanking me for getting you started, because you will be so far ahead of all the other sad losers out there.

Images: top,  StarbuckGuy. The other one is my foot.

I can do this

Wow. I just want to go on the record here to report that writing 2,000 words a day is really tough. Last night, I was explaining the idea to Marc at dinner.

So how much have you written today? he asked.

Well, technically, 118 words. On the blog, I said.

So your first day is going to be one of your days off?

I can’t start with a day off! So after dinner last night I managed to crank out about 1,000 words. I got all the way up to where my main character leaves the office to go have lunch with the IT guy. Then I just ran out of steam.

Today I spent the morning translating, then went for a run. After my own lunch, I tackled lunch with the IT guy. I cranked away for what seemed like endless hours – and now my total is just over 3,000 words. Six pages of single-spaced text. Tons of riveting dialog.

I am already 1,000 words behind!

Well, I’m not going to waste my valuable typing muscles whining about it here. I still have four hours left in the day, technically. I can do this.

On another note, the Wikileaks guy, Julian Assange, lost his appeal (did he ever have any appeal?) and will have to go back to Sweden to face sex crime allegations. (Maybe his lack of appeal is why the sex wasn’t consensual in the first place?) Why Wired Magazine is reporting on this is beyond me, but there you have it. Word has it that documents from the rape investigation have mysteriously been leaked onto the Web…

A novel idea

Halloween has come and gone, hardly noticed here in chocolate land. Yesterday, the schoolkids traipsed by my house at lunch wearing normal clothing. It was so sad. Nobody got to wear a costume to school. (The Swiss don’t celebrate any holidays or birthdays at school, to be fair. School is for learning, not for partying.) Last night, despite my brimming basket of specially-purchased candy (I made an extra trip) we only had one group ring the doorbell. I even had a candle-filled pumpkin on the windowsill to beckon them in.

Maybe I got a bad reputation for what I did last year, when the village kids came trick-or-treating on October 30.

Come back tomorrow night, I’d said, genuinely shocked when they showed up at the door. I didn’t have any candy! (I can’t buy it more than one day in advance or I eat it all.) Today is not Halloween! The date is not negotiable!

Or maybe they remembered the year before, when I’d tried to explain Halloween etiquette. You have to say “trick or treat,” I instructed. I waited until they complied. And when you leave, you’re supposed to say “happy Halloween!”

In any case, it appears they’ve learned to avoid the snarky American lady with the ceramic pumpkin in the windowsill.

Never mind. More candy for me. Now it’s November, and as soon as I’ve saved my health by unloading the excess candy on my former office mates over at EPFL, I’m going to get down to business.

I’ve done a rash thing. I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Although the name is misleading (it’s not limited to Americans or US residents), I think the overall idea is good. You’re supposed to crank out a novel in a month. You “win” if you manage to write 50,000 words. Nobody judges your work and there are no literary prizes involved. I love winning.

How hard can it be? I figure at 1,000 words a day, it’ll take me  50 days — oops. November only has 30 days. Recalibrate.

Hey, at 2,000 words a day, I’ll get five days off!

I already crank out nearly that in translations and blog posts every month. And I’m planning to refuse work for the next 30 days and hijack my blog, at least for a couple of posts, for excerpts from the developing novel.

Here’s the premise: Twenty-something writer in university communications office (gee, I wonder where I got that idea?) interviews highly reputed scientist professor x who is studying hot topic with big medical implications. Postdoc comes in during interview, meets writer, there’s chemistry. They start dating, writer discovers by accident that there might be more going on in professor x’s lab than meets the eye, and postdoc is not who he claims to be. Writer’s geek friend in the IT department (who is secretly in love with her) helps her uncover the secret using sophisticated hacking techniques and unsophisticated sneaky spying maneuvers. Things quickly get really weird and scary for writer who nonetheless saves the day (and keeps her job).

I just counted all those words – that’s 118 towards today’s total!

What do you think? Would you like me to post a few excerpts as I go? I might eventually put up the whole shebang on another part of my publishing empire site. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

I’m going to need help coming up with names, because I’m really terrible at that. I’ll need a name for the main character, for professor x, for the head of the communications office, for the geek in the IT department, and for the evil postdoc. (He has to be Swiss, though, keep that in mind.) The setting is in the US. I’m just not comfortable with all the language issues that I’d have to deal with if I set it here in Switzerland. If I pick a name you suggest, I’ll send you a free copy once the book is published! Hopefully this NaNoWriMo will get my butt in gear so it won’t be a decade before that happens…

While we’re on the topic of writing, I found a really cool website the other day, called Nieman Storyboard. It’s “a project of the nieman foundation for the study of journalism at harvard” (no caps) that basically deconstructs really good writing to see why it works so well. You get twice the bang for your buck: first, you find out about some really fantastic writing, and second, you find out why it’s such good writing. I’m hoping some of it will rub off on me.

David Dobbs’  deconstruction of Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair article about the Greek Financial crisis knocked my socks off. I learned more from Lewis’ article than from all the newspaper stories I’ve read up to this point. It’s just so much more interesting to read what he writes. If you’re curious about the European debt crisis, read the Vanity fair article. If you’re interested in writing, read Dobbs on why it’s so great.

That should keep you busy for a while! I do promise, however, to write a post on junk DNA soon. I have some interesting stuff to share. And update you on my barefoot running progress (or lack thereof). Man, there aren’t enough hours in a day, even with daylight savings’ time…

Image: Marwa Morgan