The smell of rain

In the vast open country of New Mexico you can watch the rain coming from miles and miles away. The clouds roil up from the Southwest, a mass of slate gray stretching out over the sky. A really dark cloud brings hail and driving rain, which will make the arroyos run. Lightning flashes in the distant dark mass; I count the seconds until the thunder booms.

One chimpanzee, two chimpanzee, three chimpanzee…

Three miles away.

Then it happens. The wind picks up, and the smell of coming rain envelops me. I go outside and drink it in viscerally. It doesn’t exist like this anywhere else on Earth. What does it smell like? Rain. Rain in New Mexico. 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

Time’s Up

I’ve wrapped up the English translation of another issue of Reflex, finished editing a scientific paper for a professor here, translated various bits and pieces for various websites there, and (drum roll, please) written the Deepwater Horizon article! Yes, I finally did it. I admitted to the author that I’d lost my notes and asked him for a copy of the journal article, and now the thing is done. I’d share its very interesting conclusions with you now, but I can’t because the article hasn’t been published yet. I promise I’ll tell you the latest bad news on the oil spill once the embargo has lifted.

For the first time in two months, a Monday morning stretches before me without a single deadline in sight. Freedom!

Imagine my shock when my Research Assistant (yes, I’ve given Dave a promotion!) unleashed this on me:

The world is due to end on Thursday. I should do my post then. Continue reading

Crowdsourcing, Part III

Saturday I wrote a post about how I wasn’t aware of what was going on in my body, and how unsettling that felt. So unsettling, in fact, that I wasn’t able to write the post I had been planning for several days, and had to gaze intensely at my navel for a whole weekend instead.

That was probably a good thing, because it gave me some new insight into this post. Navel gazing isn’t all bad. Turns out there’s some pretty interesting stuff in there.

Last fall I translated an article by Daniel Saraga for Reflex Magazine about the gazillions of bacteria we have living on and in our bodies. The title (in English) was “Me, Myself and I – and a million other germs.” It should actually have been “Me, Myself and I  – and 100 trillion other germs.” Continue reading

Crowd Pleasing

On a ride into San Francisco one day my brother pulls out his smartphone, hooks it into a cradle on the dashboard. So let’s check out the traffic on Google maps! Up pops the live traffic situation — the freeway is green if it’s smooth sailing, yellow if it’s slow and – 10 points if you can guess the color – if it’s stop-and-go.

How do they figure that out? Does the satellite look down, count the number of cars or their speed, judge the traffic flow, and upload the color? No, Dave tells me, it’s a clever app that takes advantage of the fact that most Californians have two things in common: they have GPS-enabled smartphones and they’re obsessed with avoiding traffic jams. Here’s an explanation of how it works from an official Google blog back in August 2009:

When you choose to enable Google Maps with My Location, your phone sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you’re moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions.

Continue reading


The world feels so unstable. The earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the volcanoes coming to life in Hawaii. Here in Switzerland, someone I barely knew but had hoped to see again soon passed away in the night. How can that happen? Now I will never know her. All that she had not yet said, not yet done, not yet written, will never come to be.

My teenagers are moving into their own lives. I’m racked with doubt. Did I do what needed to be done? I’m standing at the side of the road, watching them head off, full of hope and trepidation. I want to go with them, patch up their problems, organize their backpacks, take inventory of the contents of their hearts. But I can’t. This is their road to take, not mine. Continue reading


“They can conquer who believe they can…” – Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC)

I started to write a long complicated post about placebos yesterday, because 1) I was worrying that this blog was in need of some Legitimate Content, 2) I am really interested in the placebo effect and 3) my brother Dave chose it when I gave him a choice between placebos, a juicy local murder mystery and a post about attention span. (I’m not entirely sure he paid attention long enough to get past the first choice…) Continue reading