On gizmos & gadgets & devices

Throughout the history of humankind, humans have always tried to make their lives easier & more interesting by inventing different tools & devices. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Musée des arts et métiers [http://www.arts-et-metiers.net/], which is located in the 3rd arr. in Paris. This repository of inventions was originally created in 1794 as a Conservatoire national des arts et métiers by L’abbé [Abbott] Henri Grégoire. Grégoire was a very interesting man & was quite unusual by clergyman standards [https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Gr%C3%A9goire]. The museum has a number of very interesting collections – arranged according to 7 themes which are: scientific instruments [my personal favorite!], materials, energy, mechanics communication, construction & transport.

The collections are housed in L’église de Saint-Martin-des-Champs – a church that has been converted into an exhibition space, and an adjacent building which contains the bulk of the museum’s collection. The church exhibition space showcases various larger examples of transportation & engines – large pieces that do not fit in the main museum space in the building next to the church.

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A prominent feature of the main museum are the various laboratory artifacts from Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), a pioneer of chemistry.

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The exhibit also includes a couple of his protective face masks – see the image of one of them below. He did dangerous work & I wonder if he ever had to evacuate his lab because he concocted something toxic or explosive?

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There is something for everyone in this museum – some tool or device will tickle your fancy to be sure. Which ones were the most fascinating to me? 1. It was interesting to see things such as early slide rules [yes, I hate to admit it, but I am old enough to have used one in high school]…

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… 2. a cyclotron, or particle accelerator, from the College of France from 1937 [they were invented in 1930 by E.O Lawrence in the USA]…

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… 3. a Cray-2 supercomputer from 1985! It looks so dinky [compared to when I think about our parallel computing facility at IU today]…

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… 4. an early camera owned by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (below left) – inventor of the daguerreotype, a method that allowed images to be created on silvered copper plates. Other precision cameras e.g. from Zeiss are also featured (below right)…

… 5. Volta’s original ‘pile’ cell & an example of a commercially available battery made in Paris in the 1930s… … 6. a Remington typewriter from 1875 & a portable Corona version from 1920!

What was the highlight of the collection for me? It was surely Foucault’s Pendulum, which is housed in the church. The pendulum was first installed for a short period in the Panthéon in Paris in 1851, as an experiment conceived by French physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation [he originally got the experiment working elsewhere but needed a larger space to demonstrate the effects of the earth’s rotation convincingly].

The original brass-coated pendulum bob was housed here at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers for most of it’s life. Apparently, one day the pendulum’s cable snapped & the 28-kg lead bob crashed to the floor – damaging not only the floor, but the bob itself. The one on the pendulum today is an exact copy of the original. You can see the action of the pendulum in the video below – should work if you click on it.

There are a number of versions of Foucault’s Pendulum around the world [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum], but this one is special because this was the original one [well at least before the bob was damaged & the cable snapped].

I decided that I would have to make a return visit to check out some of the other curiosities in more detail another time. There is so much to see in each of the 7 categories of exhibit. If you are visiting Paris, do stop in there and check it out. Some of the exhibits are quite whimsical…

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One last cool thing to check out is the associated Metro station – ‘Arts et Métiers’. Of the two Metro lines that service it, line #11 (the most superficial subway of the two) has been redecorated to channel the contents of the museum. It is a really handsome station. There is a lot of attention to detail – there is even a set of large cogs running down the center of the roof of the station. Very arty… … right down to the rubbish bins!

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On the subjects of mysterious red spots, visas & other paperwork (the sequel)

When one is granted a long-stay visa for France [see an earlier post for initial steps & requirements], the process is not fully completed until one actually reaches the country. There is an additional procedure where the visa holder needs to send off additional paperwork with details about one’s residence in France to the Office for Immigration & Integration (or OFII for short). OFII is the organization that processes the applications of long-stay visitors to France like myself, as well as those immigrating to France.

OFII

Once OFII has received your local paperwork you have to wait for an appointment, where you will be interviewed & a stamp/sticker will be placed in your passport – next to your visa. The additional stamp/sticker will cost you another 250 Euros – which was a surprise to me because I thought I had taken care of all the processing fees…

You need to provide evidence of your place of residence. This was tricky for me – since I do not have bank accounts in France and do not directly pay utilities bills [my landladies deal with that aspect of things, so that works beautifully]. This means that I have no receipts/bills linking my name to my current domicile in Paris. What to do? I had to get a stamped & signed letter from the apartment rental company confirming that I am currently living in my Paris apartment [a copy of the rental contract is not enough apparently]. So early this week I took myself off to the apartment rental folks to pick up said letter, so that I would have all the necessary paperwork. That said, I cannot thank the good people in the foreign scholars office at my research institute enough – they have shepherded me through the process & told me what paperwork is, and is not, acceptable.

Why is this paperwork so important? Without the stamp/sticker in your passport etc. you cannot actually leave the country during the duration of your visa. If you try to do so, you risk invalidating your visa… I had to travel back to the USA for work [as 2 of my PhD students were defending] before I had finished this process. In order to do so, I had to get a special letter from OFII stating that all my paperwork is in good standing & that due administrative issues they had a delay in processing my application. Thank goodness we were able to do that.

So this week I had my appointment with the OFII folks, so of course I was checking my paperwork over & over again to make sure I had everything I needed (& more!). OFII is located in central Paris – on the northeastern side of the Place de la Bastille. Very lively area – full of ethnic restaurants & lots of bars/cafes. Fortunately for me, not yet full with tourists – I think they are going to come soon though…

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The Place de la Bastille is in of itself interesting for a number of reasons. First, the location of today’s square is where the originally prison of La Bastille stood. Second, the square is at the intersection between three Paris arrondisements – the 4th, 11th & 12th. Third, in the center of the square is a magnificent column (Colonne de Juillet; The July Column) that commemorates the commemorates the events of the July Revolution (1830).

With respect to completing the processing of my French long-stay visa things did end happily – I now have a beautiful new sticker with stamp in addition to my French visa in my passport & I am good to go! [OHBM 2018 in Singapore here I come!!!] They also tried to convince me to stay for longer & were going to give me the paperwork for that, but I demurred – tempting as it was… …otherwise I may not have a job to go back to!

What a crazy week it was overall for me though. I woke up Monday morning covered in mysterious red spots – almost like a case of Measles [which I had as a kid many, many years ago. I still remember the discomfort & itchiness because I also had Chicken Pox at the same time & it was summer. I caught Chicken Pox when my Mother took me to see the doctor for my Measles. There was a kid there with the Pox & I caught it from him. Hmm, Boys!  Some of you might be wondering why my parents did not vaccinate me? We did not have the vaccines back then, so all parents hoped their kids got all the childhood diseases earlier rather than later. Going thru these kiddie diseases  – Mumps included – was really not fun & there were always risks related to complications. Why do parents today not vaccinate their kids? – I would not wish the agony of catching these diseases on anyone. Actually, I think I know why: the parents have never known how bad it was, because their own parents vaccinated them! For me not vaccinating your kid in this day & age is tantamount to child abuse. There, now it is said, out in the open.]

Sorry that I digressed for that little rant. What was the cause of the red spots for me this week, I hear you all cry? It was cough medicine. The active ingredient is a miracle substance named Carbocisteine [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbocisteine].

Carbocisteine

It is used widely in Europe, but not in the USA or Australia from what I can gather. It works beautifully, but there are side effects & one of those is an allergic reaction in the form of a rash. I used it for 3 days with no issues & it worked a treat on budging a nagging cough. I ended up going back to the pharmacist who gave me an antihistamine [with it’s own risk of a rash as a side effect!] & this really minimized the discomfort. I was very grateful for that, because sleeping was really difficult for a night or two. Times like this really do test your language skills though – all my very helpful local merchants do not speak English, so the onus is on me to make myself understood. So when there is a medical problem like this, a lot of information needs to be provided – mainly from my side. I realized that my French skills have really improved – something that I do not think about that often.

The ironic thing about all of this is that of all weeks that something like this had to happen was this week when I was going to OFII. I kept wondering whether they would drag me off to La Bastille & quarantine me, because I think I would have forgiven people for thinking I was infectious…

After my OFII appointment, I emerged into the gorgeous sunshine of a sunny, warm afternoon. I found a great bookshop nearby that had not only great books but lots of amusing cards as well. I bought this one, which made me laugh long & hard.

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Voutch. Extrait de l’album “Le grand tourbillon de la vie” (le cherche midi) voutch.com

So this last week is not one I would like to repeat any time soon. But you have weeks like that don’t you? And if you did not, how would you appreciate the really good ones???

 

On the practice of cognitive control

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If you are someone who enjoys good food & wine, & who also loves to cook, moving to Paris for 6 months is like having all of your dreams come true. I pondered this subject a lot when I returned back to the USA for some work commitments at IU recently. I was also astounded that living in Paris with all of this amazing food & wine allowed me to dump a couple of kilograms without really trying. How did that happen ? I realized that over the last few months I have been practising cognitive control & executive function.

I also contemplated this as I cooked a duck breast [in butter] for dinner to be washed down with a good Bordeaux on Easter Sunday evening…

Being surrounded by so much good food, either cooked food in restaurants or excellent produce at the farmer’s market & small speciality grocery stores is really wonderful. But at the same time, it also makes one think very mindfully about one’s consumption. This is something that I have always practiced – partly because as an omnivore I want to have as varied a diet as possible. Here of course this is taken to a bigger extreme. People here do seem to be doing the same thing. I have been trying to make the most of quality local produce that is only available in France. For example, when my other half was here a couple of weeks ago, I roasted a Bresse chicken [image below top right] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bresse_chicken] – which is completely different to any chicken I have had. It is more gamy & also very muscly with really solid tendons [would not like to try to bone one of these…] probably because it grows and stays out of doors, allowing it to scratch & do things outside that chickens are supposed to do…

Now that spring is here I am excited for a number of reasons. First, it is asparagus season & now I get to have both excellent green & white asparagus while I am here. This is one of my favorite vegetables – we have an asparagus bed at home & I have been thinking about that a lot recently…

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Also, spring is the season that lots of raw milk cheeses are made – the cows finally get to go outside after being stuck in the barn during wintertime – and the new grass gives their milk a really strong & interesting flavor. So lots of soft raw milk cheeses are being made now. Because I live next to a fromagerie I am making an effort to try them – it is really wonderful!

Lots of other spring produce is appearing now too – leeks, spring onions, fresh herbs & strawberries! Meat is also good quality – I typically eat by steak extremely rare or even raw, so it is really nice to be able to get that here. I have yet to have meat or fish that is overcooked here, unlike other places in the world…

But, in my opinion, the really amazing thing here are the pastries. At home I am actually not one to enjoy desserts – they are too cloyingly sweet for me, consist of empty calories & are pretty uninteresting overall… But here patisserie offerings have fruit as their centerpiece – and the fruit flavors have been really distilled! Same thing applies for jams as well. I cannot get enough of these [& for the same reasons I like to eat lots of gelato when I am in Italy]. It seems like the sugar takes a back seat to the fruit – as it should be.

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So, after viewing all these gratuitous images of food & wine you are probably wondering what the take-home message of this week’s post is. For me it is this: if you exercise your frontal lobes & use your executive function, practice cognitive control, chances are you will probably enjoy your occasional indulgences more. And isn’t that the aim of the exercise – maximizing enjoyment? The other cool thing is that you might also end up with more small change in your pocket as well…

 

 

 

 

Overcoming jetlag & springtime in Paris

I dread having to fly east across multiple time zones because my body clock will take longer to get back on track. Going west is so easy – couple of days & I am good to go. But going east, particularly in winter/early spring is brutal – doesn’t matter if it is from Australia to USA or from USA to Europe, it is always the same problem…

This week, as always when I travel, I have been spending as much time outside as possible without sunglasses  – trying to get that body clock back on track. Good thing about doing that now is that Spring is well and truly here – lots of flowers out!

Chocolate Easter eggs are everywhere as we gear up for Easter. I have even run across a chocolate Tutankhamen – that was really quite something – it was about 1 metre high.

Needless to say I am very happy to be here with all of this chocolate. Chocolate is a basic food group in our household, so much so that I am never without Lindt chocolate in the fridge [irrespective if which side of the Atlantic I am on].

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Bought a number of bags of Lindt chocolate rabbits in to the lab at the end of this week & we all got totally wired on coffee & chocolate, as evidenced by the prolonged increase in volume level in the lab for the day…

Speaking of the lab – I went to the Musée D’Orsay [http://www.musee-orsay.fr/] with a couple of lab mates on Thursday evening for the opening of a special temporary exhibition of works in the Art Nouveau style by students of the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, or EnsAD for short [https://www.ensad.fr/]. Interesting & whimsical works, which included clothing, furniture, sketches of architecture & animation among other things which were displayed in a classical & magnificent exhibition space. We were able to talk with the students about their work, while their proud family members watched or also chatted with us. It is always interesting to talk to the artists & designers about the motivation for their work & also the processes that it went through to make it to completion. Overall it was such a lovely ‘feel-good’ event. I will bet that this is also a wonderful launch pad for the future careers of some very talented designers.

I do like night museum sessions – the museum has a very different feel to the daytime. The Musée D’Orsay is particularly different, given how much natural daylight comes in through its open structure. There was also a performance event – a concert given by a DJ, Prieur de la Marne, whose specialty was electronic music. He included work by local young musicians – including that of a friend of one of our group. His performance took place on the museum’s ground floor – in the sculpture gallery. This was a really nice way to round out the visit to the museum.

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Afterwards, we went our separate ways out in the wind & the rain – had to hang on tight to my umbrella as I walked to the Metro station – so typical of Paris spring weather. On the Metro back I decided it was way too late to rummage up dinner at home, so I took myself out to dinner at a great sushi restaurant near my abode. It is open until 11 pm for dinner – nothing better for someone who is jetlagged & wants to eat late…

That night [of course] at 3 am I was wide awake. What to do? Instead of stressing out about not being able to sleep, I began to websurf local restaurants so that I could choose a place for dinner for Saturday night. [My cousin is coming to Paris with his girlfriend. We have not met up for aeons, so it will be terrific to catch up.] Cool part was that I was able to book it online too!!! Who needs to count sheep, when you can count forks, plates or Michelin stars instead? 🙂

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Back to the other reality… albeit fleetingly…

This week I had to return briefly to the USA – 2 of my students successfully defended their doctoral dissertations – a very important occasion for them & for me as the Chair of their respective Dissertation Committees. It is also a testament to the wonders of modern technology – our regular Skype meetings in the lead up to the defenses made the long distance across the Atlantic almost non-existent. The scientific world will have two newly minted PhDs in cognitive science & social neuroscience! But those events, although very positive ones, are not the subject of this post.

It seems to me that right now I am living in 2 very wonderful realities – my Paris one & my Indiana one. There are some interesting bridges between the 2 realities. Here is one of them: a great espresso!

With respect to my Indiana reality, obviously I have sorely missed my significant other & the cats [a.k.a. the editorial assistants]. So there was a lot of cat-ching up to do 🙂

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But I also realized how much I missed the faculty & staff at IU in the USA when I was back at work for the week  – it was great to see everyone & catch up with so many people. Indeed, it was hard to get work done with constant knocks on the door & people coming in to my office to say hello. I also got a kick out of the double looks I got when walking in the corridors of our building – clearly I was an unexpected sight! I also tried to check in at some of my local haunts in B’town [FARMbloomington; Feast Cellar & Market; C3] to connect with special people there also.

In one relatively quick moment I was in my Parisian reality & the next day in my Indiana one – indeed my last post was sent from Chicago O’Hare while I was waiting for a delayed flight home after my significant other had joined me in Paris for Spring Break.

The funny thing is that now I was back in the USA, I also started thinking about missing people in my neighborhood in Paris & my colleagues at work there. The sensation was augmented by the continuing emails crossing the Atlantic related to the research project we are doing together. It is a strange feeling – being ecstatic to see people that I have not seen for a few months [in one reality], but also thinking about people close to me in the other reality.

There is another bridge linking my two worlds right now: Late season snow! It snowed in Paris as we flew out & it has been snowing in B’town this week – happily this spring snow will quickly melt because it is not that cold outside. Our garden looked like a winter wonderland – I have to say I do like the snow: it covers the ugly brown deadness of everything in the yard right now. There is nothing really green in it yet – grass is brown, all the plants are dormant, although our first daffodil has just come out!

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So it snowed Tuesday/Wednesday in B’town & Indianapolis. Today – Saturday we are having snow/sleet/hail/rain – yuk! Am going to take myself off to the YMCA to use the indoor track today… Thursday was a gorgeous, bright sunny day – a perfect window of opportunity to get the snow tires removed off my car! So it will be waiting for me with summer in mind when I drive it on my return after completing my sabbatical :).

Let’s hope that spring is just around the corner – just like in this image of the first crocus in the garden from a few springs ago…

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… and so back to the other side of the Atlantic I go. The next post you will read will come from Paris.

An afternoon in Marie Curie’s space

This week I had the opportunity to visit the Musée Curie [http://musee.curie.fr/]  – a museum devoted to the life & work of the Curie family – Marie, Pierre, daughter Irène & son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot. These 4 individuals won a total of 5 Nobel Prizes over the years – a staggering achievement – with these accolades signalling just how groundbreaking & important their work was. The museum is housed in the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in Paris.

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This space includes the original laboratory & adjacent office of Marie Curie. [Apparently it took a lot of effort to make the lab safe for visitors – all residual traces of radioactivity had to be removed. I wondered about how difficult it must have been. The wooden floor looked old & there were a lot of cracks in it… …lots of cracks in which to trap radioactive substances.]

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I was surprised by the light & airy space that the lab provided (see image above) – the sun was streaming in when we visited there. There is also a nice garden right next to the lab & office for strolling & contemplation… Marie Curie’s office (see image below) was right next to her lab & was easily accessed through a connecting door, allowing her to check on the assistants working in the lab.

MuseeCurie_OfficePano_smallOther exhibits in the museum feature old equipment – including a Geiger counter, a cloud chamber & curiosities such as water urns that infuse radium salts for drinking, as well as cosmetics that purportedly contain radium & thorium…

Overall, the museum was a very inspiring place to visit, to be sure – particularly because of a year long exhibit celebrating 150 years since Marie Curie’s birth [which runs from mid-2017 to mid-2018].

As I wandered around exploring the museum I couldn’t help wondering about what it would have been like to work as a scientist at that time. What if we practising scientists had been born 150 years ago? If so, what kind of science & work would we have done?

Neuroimaging, where ‘lab work’ is performed in front of a workstation as we know it today did not exist in Marie Curie’s time. There were no computers. There was no ability to perform immense mathematical calculations on big data. Roentgenology (X-ray technology) was in its infancy, and electroencephalography was yet to be born. If it was not possible to work in neuroimaging, what branch of science would we have pursued? Perhaps we might have been based in a wet laboratory or in labs involved in chemistry or physics. Indeed, work in the Curie labs was on the borderlands between chemistry & physics. That was what made it so groundbreaking – their discoveries required them to be experts in a number of different fields. The experiments required specialized measuring equipment  – quite a bit of which was built & designed with technical assistants in the basement of the building…

One thing that is certainly very different from those early times is our focus on occupational health & safety [& rightly so]. Back in Marie Curie’s time the effects of radioactivity on living tissues were not initially known. The precautions that we know to take today with radioactive substances [fume cupboards to handle radioactive liquids, lead aprons to shield the body from radiation] were not taken. Marie Curie paid the ultimate price for her research work – the longterm exposure to radioactivity caused her death in 1934. Apparently, Marie Curie’s papers are still radioactive, are kept in lead drawers & must be handled while wearing protective gloves & clothing. Even her cookbook is supposed to be radioactive! [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Curie] In contrast, today, in every branch of science, occupational health & safety is important. It also includes training of lab personnel, the wearing protective lab gear & specialized laboratory procedures designed to keep everyone safe.

From what I could see from my brief sojourn back 100 years or so, I do not think that scientists were that different from those of the present time. Why? A major research direction for the labs at the Institut du Radium was the exploration of the effects of radiation on living tissue & as a treatment for cancer. The image at left below shows an early focused therapeutic radiation emitting device & the image at right below a government poster advocating vigilance for signs of cancer & not waiting to seek medical advice as early detection of cancer would allow for more effective treatment.

So the work at the Institut du Radium was devoted to improving the lot of humankind. In a similar fashion I think that most of the scientists I know today want to make the world a better place, for not only the current generation, but also for generations to come. I also wonder what scientists of the future will think of the current times & the scientists of today?

Marie Curie was a truly inspiring figure – a role model for others in so many dimensions. I have always admired her greatly & the visit to her museum was one that I had wanted to make for a long, long time.

So, which scientist from the past do you find most inspiring?

 

On homeostasis, polar vortices & photography

I am reading Antonio Damasio’s new book: “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures“. A central theme in the book is the evolution of human culture as a homeostatic phenomenon (see review in the Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/02/strange-order-of-things-antonio-damasio-review) . Homeostasis more typically refers to the ability of an organism to maintain a balanced physiology during external challenges e.g. excessive heat or cold etc. This is timely, as we have dealt with some wild weather in Europe due to a polar vortex coming to us via Siberia at the end of February. This caught me off guard: I packed clothes for a regular Paris winter, not for a Moscovian one – all of my really warm clothing is back in Indiana. That said, when the cold came I layered up like a Babushka & took the Metro to work, so I have nothing to really complain about…

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But this got me thinking about when I have been really cold in the past & most of the time it usually had something to do with my passion for photography. For example, there was a trip to the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland in mid-summer. An incredible place for the very short time I saw of it.

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Literally 10 minutes after I took the above photo we were in a white out & this at the end of June. What to do? Turn back & make our way back to Basel via Interlaken…

One October I travelled to a meeting in Galway in Ireland (staying at the Glenlo Abbey, see http://www.glenloabbeyhotel.ie/). The autumn chill was definitely in the air. I took the opportunity to drive to the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Not a great day for it really – very blustery with a hard cold rain coming down sideways at one point because of the wind. I really enjoyed the Guinness at the pub at the end of that day…

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After the OHBM meeting in Seattle I travelled to the Olympic Peninsula. It was mid-summer, but with chilly & wet weather – I had wet weather gear for me & my camera… It is a breathtaking place. I stayed at First Beach at La Push – courtesy of the Quileute people – a tribe of native Americans who have lived there for aeons (https://quileuteoceanside.com/accommodations/). The photo below was taken at around 9:45 pm from my cabin on the beach on the one day that we finally had some clearer weather.

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Then there was a mid-summer 2 week trip to Iceland where there is snow on the peaks & almost perpetual daylight. This otherworldly place should be on everyone’s bucket list. The landscape is like none other & the bird/animal life is unforgettable.

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There have been many other times when I lost the feeling in my fingers for a short period of time while trying to shoot pictures. Holding a cold tripod & camera in the cold tends to do that. But most recently, I froze my fingers here in Paris walking home from work during the snowstorm a few weeks ago, but this time it was because I was using my cell phone to shoot pictures & kept taking my glove off…

Ironically, of all the times when my fingers have been the numbest has probably been when I have been at home & have dashed out to shoot winter pictures in the yard. I still remember the stinging sensation in my fingers after coming inside from shooting pictures after a particularly impressive hoarfrost early one Sunday morning.

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But turning back to the original theme of this post, homeostasis. Our personal wellbeing depends on it. But our collective wellbeing is tied to the homeostasis of our planet. By now it should be pretty apparent even to the climate change deniers that the Arctic region has been destabilized due to our irresponsibility as a species. Extreme weather events are now common as the consequences of our collective carelessness – last summer’s & this winter’s storms in the Northern Hemisphere show that well enough. These will probably become more severe and frequent as time goes on. Challenges accompany these extreme weather events – particularly the cold weather ones. For example, how do we ensure that the homeless have shelter & avoid freezing to death? So what are YOU personally doing to help your fellow humankind or your planet in response to these climactic challenges?