Reality check

Think for a minute: When was your last existential crisis?

Who, me?  you say. Existential crisis? I don’t have existential crises. I’m a rational thinker. I’m practically an engineer.

I think everybody has existential crises, whether we recognize them as such or not. They’re in the high points, in the low points, in the situations that push you over an edge into a new thing. They’re moments in which you get a glimpse of the uncertainty at the very root of everything that is, and wonder about what your place in it could possibly be. You, this little wad of flesh and bone and bacteria. Continue reading

More microbiome madness

All kinds of exciting things have been happening, and I haven’t written about any of them. Some of them involve running, and they will appear in the next post. This one is about my other current favorite topic, the human microbiome.

Last week The New York Times had two very interesting articles, one about eating the weeds in your backyard, and another about the human microbiome. The first one speaks for itself. Apparently eradication can be dropped in favor of ingestion. Maybe I’ll give it a try. In any case it eases my weed aversion just that much more. The second article covers research being done in association with the Human Microbiome Project. Here’s my favorite quote:

Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the division of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, who was not involved with the research project, had another image. Humans, he said, in some sense are made mostly of microbes. From the standpoint of our microbiome, he added, “we may just serve as packaging.” Continue reading

A fork in the road

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (yes, it hurts). My reading on cognitive biases has naturally led me to reflect on my own decision-making processes. From there, it was only a short leap to casting a critical eye on what I spend my time doing. Where do I put my energy, my creativity, my passion?

I’m not getting any younger, after all. Neither are you, by the way. (You’re welcome.)

I wasn’t all that satisfied with what I came up with.

Then, today, I read something on Seth Godin’s blog:

So many things are now completely up to us, more than ever before. Where and how and when we work and invest and interact and instruct and learn… If you think you have no choice but to do what you do now, you’ve already made a serious error.

This prompted even more philosophical constipation introspection. What motivates my choices for how I spend my time? I decided that when I spend time doing something, it’s because:

  1. I really want to do it
  2. I have to do it
  3. I think it’s what I should do
  4. I do it because I’m avoiding doing something else

All four are arguably legitimate modes of action.

Perhaps the key to a satisfying life is making a conscious effort to maximize time spent doing things that fall under category number 1.  And because there are only 24 hours in a day, maximizing number 1 necessarily means minimizing 2, 3, and 4. Simple math. I can do that!

Well, I spend a lot of time procrastinating (number 4). This one should be easy to deal with, right?

Not so fast. The thing I’m avoiding doing is obviously a number 2 or 3. Do I really have to do it, or don’t I?  Sometimes it’s really hard to differentiate between have to and should. Avoidance is much easier.

Oh, I say, I have to pay the bills, do the shopping, fix dinner, change the sheets. But do I, really? How many of those number 2s are really number 3s in disguise? How many of them were once upon a time number 1s? There’s probably a lot more wiggle room here than I think there is. They’re sneaky little devils, those number 2s.

And then there’s number 3. Could he be the elephant in the room? Clearly, what I think I should do with my time is a complex construction that I’ve been building up since childhood, dependent on my parental upbringing, the culture in which I live, the financial and emotional situation I’ve gotten myself into, the social feedback I get on a daily basis. How can I quantify that rationally?

Geez, this is getting thorny. I can see I’m going to get snagged down in semantics. Math only gets you so far (right, Descartes?). Time to get out of this particular philosophical bramble patch.


In fact, I think this kind of rational reasoning applied to decision-making is fundamentally flawed. Here’s why.

When I said, above, “The thing I’m avoiding is obviously number 2 or 3,” you agreed with me, didn’t you? Who would procrastinate to avoid doing something they really want to do?

Answer: most of us.

Rationally, it’s totally counterintuitive, but I think it’s true. Dig deep and think about what it is you really, truly want to do. And I’m not talking about eating a handful of jelly bellies, here, I’m talking about how you use big chunks of your time during the day. If you feel like you’re doing what you really want to do, that you’re living your dream, then congratulations. Pass Go and collect $200. Send me $100.

But if you don’t, if you wake up every morning and fill your days with 2s, 3s and 4s, it’s likely that doing the thing or things you really want to do would put a lot of what you’ve carefully built up over your whole life into jeopardy. That’s a scary proposition. My adrenaline spikes just thinking about it. Run away! Run away!

See, we’re emotionally hard-wired to avoid scary situations, and if the thing we really want to do feels dangerous, we’ll avoid doing it. And we’ll make up a whole lot of reasons to explain it all away, reasons that involve have to, should,  and later.

Here’s my thesis: Number 1 is the elephant in the room.

How badly do you want to do what you think you really want to do? Because until you can commit to really wanting to do what it is you really want to do, then you’re going to fill your life up with 2s, 3s and 4s. You will probably feel vaguely unfulfilled and dissatisfied. You might even complain about it. Oh, well, that’s life.

So here goes. There’s something I really want to do, but doing it will be a big deal. It will mean that some of my number 2s, 3s, and 4s – in other words, what I am doing now – will have to change.

It’s my choice. It’s up to me.

(to be continued…)

Gydle gets a facelift

The Gydle site is now officially online! Welcome to the new incarnation of your favorite blog. Soon I’ll add other stuff like my translating business, an interactive fiction page and, eventually, the publishing empire in its entirety. But don’t hold your breath. Judging from the time I spent agonizing over the details of the new design, it could be a while. Continue reading


My trips home to the US usually involve a certain amount of shopping.  I’ve lived in Switzerland for 7 years now, but I still haven’t figured out how to buy clothes here. And there are some important items that cannot be found, at least at a reasonable price, on this side of the pond…  Jelly Bellies, of course, top that list. Continue reading

Call for input

This blog has been, and continues to be, a revelation to me. And you, I hope. I’ve been trying to post something twice a week for four months, whether I have anything to say or not.  There were times when there was nothing at all going on upstairs, so I turned on the computer to see if I could channel anything from elsewhere in the universe. Those were probably the best posts. I’m at my most boring when I think I’m being clever, or when I’ve thought the whole thing out before I sit down to write. I appreciate your steadfastness in bearing with me.

I’m fascinated by the changes that are taking place in the world of publishing. Blogs are a big part of that. I’m psyched to have jumped headlong into something so absolutely cutting edge. Who would have guessed! It’s exhilarating.

Along those lines, my CTO (Dave) and I have taken the bold step of reserving some domain names, and we’ve parked them on a server somewhere in California. I’m going to move this whole blog over to one of them fairly soon. 

I’m doing this for a couple of reasons: one, it’s the start of the Gydle publishing empire and as such needs its own dedicated web space, and two, it satisfies my insatiable appetite for minute control over things. If I can edit the CSS behind the blog page I am just a much happier camper. 

So here’s where you come in.

I was discussing the design of my new site with my writing group on Monday. Instead of bringing in a piece of writing like I was supposed to, I asked them what words I should include on the blog header. Two things came out:

They weren’t sure how to pronounce Gydle (like “bridle”, “needle” or “diddle”?) and felt that knowing this would enhance their enjoyment of my prose. Two of the writers reluctantly revealed that they had a problem with the image of jelly beans. I’m not going to tell you what their association was just yet, for fear of biasing you, but let me tell you I was really surprised. 

“If I hadn’t known you personally, I could never have gotten past the jelly bean image to read the page,” one of them said.

Wow! This is serious stuff. The idea of Jelly Bellies having a negative connotation hadn’t occurred to me. Not in my wildest dreams. I was stuck. The Jelly Belly image is a central part of my design concept.  How widespread is this phenomenon? How can I find out?

Well, obviously I can blog about it. 

What I’d like is for you to tell me if Jelly Bellies (or jelly beans) have any particular association for you. The best is to post a comment, so everyone can see each other’s responses, but if it’s too embarrassing you can also send an e-mail to me at 

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. 

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

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

Jelly Bean Iconography

I’m not a Royal Wedding fan. In fact, my opinion of the British monarchy ranks right up there with trout fishing and ballroom dancing. I know there are people who love this stuff; it just doesn’t do a thing for me. But when I read this item buried in the “Royal Wedding” section of the Daily Telegraph, I just couldn’t resist:

A jelly bean resembling Kate Middleton’s face is set to fetch £500 at auction.

Imagine the surprise felt by the 25-year-old British trainee accountant when he opened up his 700g jar of jelly beans (oh happy day!) to see the face of Kate Middleton staring up at him on a yellow and red jelly bean! Continue reading