From the frying pan into the fire!

Two weeks spent in Italy were wonderful, but the weather was hot. I got quite a surprise when I got back to Paris for my last week there. When I had left there the weather was very cool – indeed most of May & part of June had been that way. But things changed quickly – a stalled weather system over Europe was going to make things very toasty – bringing southerly winds from Africa. So we were going to have ‘la canicule‘ or heat wave to get through. This was potentially a very serious problem: I saw on the French national news that an estimated 4% of French households have airconditioning [compare that to ~90% in the USA]. My 6th floor apartment of course was not airconditioned & my way of cooling it was to open every single window after sunset [& have the windows & shutters closed during the day]. That actually worked a treat – provided the temperature drops down at night. But during a canicule that does not really happen & there is no breeze at night, no respite. So I got prepared this time, because I had experienced that in the same apartment last year on sabbatical [thankfully only for a very brief time]. I went out & bought a fan to leave in the place for these rare occurrences. But I had to assemble the thing & did not have all of the tools to do it. I literally got 90% done & could not finish the last part because I either needed an extra hand or a special tool. Ironic & tragically funny at the same time. I was comparing heat stories with a friend who was staying with family in Germany while waiting for a new work visa – her problem is that they could not find the fan that one of her family members had ‘put in a safe place’ – so they were also having a similar problem! I finally got it fixed when my landladies stopped over as they were taking a pet to the vet in Paris. It took 3 of us to get it going. Ironically, I was only going to be there for 2 more nights… Here is a sunset from one of those nights. Looks as hot as Hades, but thankfully our temperatures were nowhere like those in Germany & Spain at the time…


The day I returned to Paris was the longest day of the year – right in time for the Fête de la Musique which takes place on the night of the 21st June every year. It started in Paris in 1982. Everyone comes out into the street & makeshift stages pop up in neighborhoods. Anyone can sing or play music of their choice – so of course you get the good & the bad as well. More organized [& even televised events] take place in Paris, Nice etc. where well-known singers all come out to perform one song each. Music plays long into the night – which can be quite late since it does not really get dark until about 11 pm. As I starting to pack up some of my stuff I was very happy to be listening to some nice jazz filtering in through my open windows. [I missed this event last year because I was at the OHBM scientific meeting in Singapore.]

At the start of the week I had to attend & speak at a conference organized between Sorbonne Université & my own Indiana University – on artificial intelligence. What do I know about artificial intelligence, I hear many of you cry? Well not much. I had to present the work of a colleague & made sure that I made that clear…

One day we ended up having lunch in the same ‘tower’ that we were in last year for a similar meeting. The view from the 25th floor of the Zamansky Tower [of UPMC, or the science/technology campus of the Sorbonne] where we were was stunning. This year though, Notre Dame looked very different. Compare the two images below, the top one is from this year in late June and the bottom one was taken from the same location about a year ago.



The damage in the top image is very evident & is quite extensive. I had previously posted images of the Notre Dame taken from the other side of the city – from 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse [see images a few posts ago]. Those images did not look as bad as this one. Now I understand why people here think that it will likely be impossible to renovate it in the 5 year period proposed by Emmanuel Macron.

As part of the conference we had a collective dinner that was organized at a very well-known restaurant near the old Sorbonne campus called Bouillon Racine [see] in the 6th arrondisement. The word ‘bouillon’ is apparently the precursor word for ‘brasserie’ – the latter of which was originally used to designate places that brewed their own beer etc.  Bouillon Racine is quite an institution in the area – being around since 1906 & being lavishly decorated in an exuberant Art Nouveau style, as the panorama image below shows:


It was a very toasty affair because we sat upstairs – with all the windows open, as can be seen from the street view:


I would like to return there when the weather is cooler & one could sample some of the more heavier, traditional dishes. That particular night was one of those nights where you drink copious amounts of water, very little wine & sit forward in your chair so that the sweat can run down the small of your back. That said, however, we had a beautiful dinner & the conversation flowed nicely. It was really great to get to know colleagues from the Sorbonne as well as my own IU, that I had not really interacted with previously. Nice! After dinner, I retired to the coolness of the Metro for a fairly quick ride home. Happily, as I flung open my apartment windows that night we actually had a bit of a breeze – bearable. That said, however, the mosquitoes this year were really abundant & mean – probably the artifact of a cool & wet spring. Last year I was in the same apartment in summer & did not have that problem at all, so this was an unpleasant surprise…

The rest of the week was spent in dinners out catching up with friends to say adieu, finishing up at the institute, as well as packing up & cleaning out the apartment. Ironically, the last day I was there cleaning the apartment was the hottest one of all! So I made sure I got up early & moved my baggage out to a nearby hotel. I then fortified myself with a croissant from my favorite bakery & declared war on the apartment. The worst part was the dust – everything gets so dusty quickly when all the windows are open to a very busy street. Happily I was done by noon – so did not have to work during the hottest part of the day. Instead I joined my colleague for a long & languid lunch [which I followed up with a siesta later in the afternoon…]. It was a really nice time to spend some last hours together. I decided I would have a decent size meal, as my plan was to have just a snack for dinner. So I had a steak tartare & frites & a salad from my favorite local brasserie & a place I like to hang out in regularly. That way I could say my goodbyes to the lovely staff who work there. I have spoken about it previously, you might remember that… My colleague managed to do a stealth move & secretly paid for my lunch. What a lovely surprise that was!


Thus fortified, I went back to my apartment to give back my keys & say goodbye to the gardienne of the apartment building &, of course, my landladies. They were hanging out in Paris that weekend because their cat had another vet’s appointment. So they insisted that we should go out for dinner & bailing out was not an option. We went to one of their favorite Thai places in our quartier [Thaï Papaya, 51 Rue des cinq Diamants, 75013 Paris]. The food was really delightful & pretty authentic. It has been years since I had a coconut based Thai veggie red curry whose whereabouts I could track exactly through my digestive system! Delightful! A great way to beat the heat. I remember I used to do this exactly that as a student in Australia when we did not have airconditioning – a Malaysian or Thai curry was just the thing to make one feel better during a heatwave.


It was also good to sit pretty much out on the street instead of the back of the restaurant – much more comfortable. Sprayed myself with a ton of insect repellent. I think that that coupled with the garlic & chillies frightened away those nasty mozzies.


My landladies insisted on paying for the dinner – I did feel a bit uncomfortable about that, but there was no way fighting that, they were adamant…

So it was time to head back across the Atlantic again, back home – so nice to have that Delta Airlines direct flight between Indy & CDG in Paris! Other half was away in Australia, so we had made a plan to exchange cars in the airport car park. The trick was to ensure that we both knew which car it was going to be so that I would have the correct keys. The other thing: text a picture of where the car was parked & the parking receipt. Easy peasy – we have done this before! Nice to get home to see the greenness of the garden etc. And of course to have an unpacking assistant or two to help out…

UnpackingAssistantFuture posts will deal with more scientific topics, pet peeves [not of the four-legged kind] & important issues that concern our profession etc.

I hope you are all well wherever you find yourselves in the world…


More wanderings in Italy’s far north



The next stop in our chillout trip was a village in the Alto Adige called Palù di Giovo, located roughly 10 km north of Trento. The terrain is very hilly & covered with vineyards. Narrow roads crisscross their way across hills with lots of hairpin bends that make for fun driving – if you have a good car. Unfortunately, ours was pretty gutless – when I tried to test it out on the autostrada by putting my foot to the floor, pretty much nothing happened. This was a bit of a worry because driving on the autostrada in northern Italy starts to become a little more like driving on the autobahn in Germany – lots of fast cars in the right lane, except this time it is not uncommon to see Maseratis & Ferraris. The local roads in the region also have some pretty steep grades – on one occasion I thought we would not get up the hill in 1st gear it was so steep.


We stayed on a vineyard/apple orchard in a B&B called Maso Pomarolli [see], which was part of the ‘farm stay’ or Agriturismo network.  The property was certainly in a picturesque location.




They make a very nice white wine and also a red from the grapes that they grow [We did not try the red because the weather was rather hot.]


The B&B & parcel of land is owned by the families of two brothers [who inherited the property from their father & grandfather]. They have had the B&B for about 20 years to supplement the income they make on their farm. It is clear that they genuinely like to meet & interact with people – but they do not speak English, only Italian. This goes for other people in the village also. Indeed, the local region is interesting in that way: in some of the neighboring valleys no Italian is spoken at all. Instead, a dialect called Tedesco is used in those locales. So, when visiting the area, one needs to consider which language is spoken in these more mountainous regions – otherwise communication might be difficult.


The B&B is not that far from the Western part of the Dolomites & also from Lake Garda. We did take a drive up to the northern part of Lake Garda – less touristy than the southern end – & it certainly was scenic, as this iPhone pano shows.


Lots of birdlife on & around the lake…


We also took a trip up to Molveno Croz Dell’Altissimo – a very beautiful cable car & then chairlift ride with views of Lake Molveno. In winter this is a skiing area & in summer it is a hiker’s & mountain biker’s paradise.



The locale made me think a little of Switzerland, but when I got on the chairlift I really did feel like I was in Switzerland because of the way cowbells could be heard at a distance…

It was an unexpectedly hot day – we had taken the obligatory layers with us & it was a surprise to be sitting on the chairlift with a t-shirt on. Unfortunately, of all the time spent away, that was the day that I felt quite unwell – but the scenery did certainly help you forget about that…



In the afternoon we could see that the weather was rolling in & were able to get down from the mountain before an almighty thunderstorm. Wow, how the thunder resonated in the valley!!! Since the weather was going to be crummy we decided to look for indoor activities as we headed back to our locale. We stopped in to the Casa d’Arte Futurista Depero, in a smallish town called Rovereto. This museum is devoted to displaying the life & works of Fortunato Depero [1892-1960] a local Italian futurist who was a painter, sculptor & designer. He was one of the founders of the Italian futurist movement in the early parts of the 20th century. The exhibit also features textiles, woodworks, furniture etc. of his designs. Overall, I liked his work a lot – there is a certain warmth in it that is usually missing in work by other futurists. I cannot show you the works – photography was not permitted in the museum. One of Depero’s most iconic functional designs from the 1930s is of the triangular small Campari Soda bottle that is still in use today! I had bought one in Rome when I was at OHBM, but did not yet know that it was a design classic or even the back story behind it…


The above image comes from the museum’s website [see:]

Back in our locale that night we went out to dinner at a really great restaurant called Trattoria Vecchia in a tiny little village called Sorni [see]. Thanks to local Trento neuroinformaticien, Paolo Avesani, who recommended the place to us! The road to it was interesting, pretty much room for 1.5 cars & lots of hairpin bends. Would have been nice if the car we had was less gutless… The trattoria has been there for aeons & has had to expand into a second space across the ‘road’ from the original restaurant & kitchen. The new space is delightful – it is pretty much all glass [sliding open panels] with gorgeous views of the valley with vineyards & surrounds, as the image below shows:


Needless to say the food was fabulous – here is what we had for dessert – a nice apricot tart & a millefeuille with fresh cherries & pistacchio creme. Delightful!

The next day we took a trip to Bolzano – an interesting small city even further north in Italy, getting closer to the border with Austria. It is actually in a region called the Südtirol. As it’s name would suggest, German is one of its languages alongside Italian. That said, I do understand a bit of German, but the version of it spoken here is a dialect – so I had no idea what was being said. I had to try to listen to people speaking Italian instead [even though I have trouble with that also]. The city is picturesque in the way you would expect – markets, old buildings in narrow streets with a mountainous backdrop:


One of the things that Bolzano is famous for is it’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which was entirely renovated to feature the Neolithic mummy called Ötzi the Iceman.  Ötzi’s remains were found by a German couple hiking in the mountains northwest of Bolzano on the 19th of September 1991 – across a route that has likely been used for millenia. He is called Ötzi because he was found in a region known as the Ötztal Alps on the Italian side of the Austrian–Italian border – the black dot below shows where he was found in relation to Bolzano today [red dot] [map adapted from].


Ötzi’s remains have been dated back to ~5K years & the artifacts he had on him [a copper axe!], as well as his clothing, have necessitated a revision of archaeological history. No photographs are permitted in the permanent exhibit. One can view the remains through a glass window in a purpose-built ‘cold room’ designed to replicate the conditions on the mountain that he was found in. In this way the remains will not deteriorate. The precautions to preserve Ötzi are very elaborate – there is a generator in case of a power failure, a second cold room he could be moved to if there was a problem in the original room & the local hospital also has a 3rd cold room for him, if all else fails. The exhibit is really worth visiting – there is so much interesting background information – piecing together the details of his life & the fact that he was murdered [shot in the shoulder by an arrow that pierced a major artery]. There is also a full body/facial reconstruction of him – made using modern 3D technology for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. It shows the 45 year old Ötzi in a full-size model that is really compelling…


The above image I have reproduced from the museum’s website –  for more details take a look at

It would have been nice to check out more of Bolzano, but time was very short as the next day we had to make our way to Verona – as I was flying out from there to get back to Paris. The other half stayed on a bit in Italy for a few more days. On our way to Verona, we did stop at the Castel Beseno – a truly amazing fortress about 20 km from Trento that was of major strategic & military importance in the region for many centuries [ and also].


The Castel Beseno complex is very extensive & completely covers the hill. It has been built up progressively in stages over the centuries. It overlooks the valley [as can be seen in the image below], so potential invaders can be seen from a long distance away.



Altogether there are 5 such fortresses in the region – the others are Castel Caldes, Castel Stenico, Castel Thun & the Castello del Buonconsiglio. [This reminded me a little bit of the ‘5 Sons of Carcasonne‘ – a set of fortresses strategically positioned in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southwestern France to keep the Spaniards at bay…]

Many battles for the possession of these 5 castles in the far north of Italy took place over the centuries as power struggles between the German Empire & Italian city-states ensued. Unlike the other 4 fortresses, Castel Beseno was never captured by invaders because of its inaccessibility on the hill, as well as its many stages of fortification. The oldest parts of the fortress date back to medieval times. As the centuries progressed, fortifications were extended to encompass increasingly more parts of the hill. The final imposing structure measures some 250 meters in length & 50 meters in width – forming the shape of an ellipse that crowns the hill. This was its final form in the 16th century –  impenetrable because of the intricate set of gates & inner walls that it had. It had a garden & rain water was also collected in a cistern, which is still there today. It is truly an imposing structure when seen from the valley. Walking around the complex also takes a lot of time – so many nooks & crannies to explore & so many stairways to go up & down… The image below comes from the brochure that is available at the ticket office – the only way to really appreciate the entire structure is from the air [or perhaps by drone].


Remarkably, over the centuries only 3 families have owned it! First it was family Beseno, then the Castelbarco & finally the Trapp family, who had it from 1470 to 1973! It was then donated to the Autonomous Province of Trento & is used today for events & historical enactments. Below are some more photos I took of the place:



With reluctance, the next day we headed to the airport in Verona – it was time for me to head back to Paris. That said though, I was very happy when I got to Rome’s Fiumicino airport – during my layover I was able to stop in at the Venchi store & get some gelato for lunch…

It was pretty sinful. I chose 2 flavors: caramelized fig/mascarpone & a gelato made from their nocciolata. Double pleasure… [Their nocciolata is my favorite hazelnut chocolate spread – it is not very sweet & is made of dark chocolate. It has hazelnuts from Piedmont & a little bit of olive oil. Happily I can get it in the USA… see]

This post ends as it started: with an image taken from from a scenic point in the hills on the way to Maso Pomarolli. The sun had gone to bed for the day & the nice coolness of the evening was beginning to roll in. Nice to sleep with all the windows open & ‘listen’ to the peace & quiet in that farming community. Thankfully for us, there the roosters crowed in the mornings at around 10 am, so there was no commotion early in the morning. There were a few days when the cows mooed extremely loudly – sounded like they were having a bit of a turf war [pun intended]… Sorry about the pun, but a particularly punny friend of mine who was also traveling in Europe has been driving me bonkers with punny direct messages for the last couple of weeks…


How quickly our time in Italy came to an end. It was a really good week for me – got a much needed recharge of my mental & physical batteries. Next post? Me back for my final week in Paris, before heading back home to the USA.

Exploring the Alto Adige in Italy: Mantova

After the noise & chaos of Rome, as well as the immense scientific energy of OHBM2019, it was time to chill out. The other half & I took a week to see a part of Italy we had not spent time in before – the Alto Adige. This region is very well known for it’s wines & indeed when travelling through it, there are vineyards everywhere as the Adige River wends it way through this very hilly region. We first travelled to Mantova [in the Lombardy region of the Alto Adige] where we stayed for 3 nights. Mantova is a fascinating city that started out as an ancient Umbrian settlement, which then became a home for Etruscans & then subsequently Celts & of course, Romans [see]. Given the perpetual state of wars & conflicts in the region, there was a need to protect oneself from invaders. Therefore, in the 12th century Alberto Pitentino (an architect & hydraulic engineer) re-engineered the course of the Mincio River. Incredible for its day, he was able to create 4 artificial lakes using water from the river. The 4 lakes [Superiore, di Mezzo, Inferiore and Paiolo] surrounded the town, forming a defense system for the city. The surrounding countryside was accessed via two bridges – the Ponte dei Mulini & the Ponte di San Giorgio.

The city is very picturesque, with narrow streets & very old buildings. Everyone rides bicycles – including very well-dressed elderly folks – that was very impressive.

There is quite a mélange of architectural styles which are evident particularly in one of the largest squares in the city, as seen in the image below:


In terms of people that the city is known for, the poet Virgil [70 BC-19 BC] is the most famous son. As he was born in the region, there are tributes to him everywhere. Also among the rich & convoluted history of the town, there is also the Gonzaga family dynasty who had long prevailed over it, leaving behind many monumental buildings. One of their major building projects spanning the 14th to the 17th centuries was the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova [see,_Mantua]. The extensive complex of buildings includes ~500 rooms & occupies an area of ~34,000 m² – which includes long corridors with frescoes leading to hidden gardens & very elaborately decorated rooms, as some of the images below show:





The most amazing aspect of the complex for me was the intricate detail in the rooms – usually very fine woodwork & marble…

The above images come from a section of the complex called the Apartment of Isabella d’Este. Isabella d’Este [1474 – 1539] was the Marchioness of Mantova & was married to Francesco II Gonzaga [Marquess of Mantua]. She was born in Ferrara & was a very well-educated woman. So much so, that she became a major political & cultural figure – being a part of the Italian Renaissance [see]. At one point she served as Regent of Mantova – after her husband was captured & held hostage in Venice from 1509-1512. Apparently she was a better ruler than her husband, leading Mantova’s military forces & successfully keeping invaders out until his return. She was also a major patron of the arts. Interestingly, in 1499 Leonardo da Vinci drew a profile image of her, as a study for a painting, which he never painted. That said, the similarity of the drawing to his painting of Mona Lisa [painted between 1503–1506] is striking – resulting in speculation today that she was the original subject for La Gioconda. Check out the drawing at [].

Mantova’s Basilica di Sant’Andrea [] is one of the most elaborately decorated churches I have ever set foot in. It is also one of the largest churches in Europe. My photographs do not do it justice… It was commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga in 1472, but took ~300 years to complete! The project was started by the famous architect Leon Battista Alberti, whose sudden death meant that the project had to continue under the supervision of a different person – Luca Fancelli.  It’s very large dome was a late addition, being added at end of the 18th century by Filippo Juvarra.






When you are in the church it is staggering to look at the decoration – & it is even more of a surprise when you realize that it is all trompe l’oeil – a visual illusion – there are no actual carvings on the walls…



So many Catholic Churches have relics of Christ & this one’s relic is more unusual than some of the others – the so-called Precious Blood of Christ. Purportedly it was brought to Mantova by the Roman soldier Longinus, who had picked up a bit of soil soaked in the blood of Jesus after his crucifiction & had become a Christian. He came to Mantova in 37 A.D. after apparently roaming around for years. He was killed & no-one actually found the relic. Legend has it that the relic was found in 804 by a beggar who had a dream where St. Andrew showed him the spot where the relic had been stashed… The relic is now housed under the floor of the church.


It is so hard to capture the scale of this amazing space with a camera…


Speaking of trompe l’oeil, another interesting example is the Teatro Scientifico Bibiena [see]This theatre is a small one – the stage is 12.3 metres wide X 5.6 metres deep, with a full seating capacity of 363. The non-stalls seating consists entirely of boxes, which looked like they could only seat 2 people. The theatre was designed & built by Antonio Galli Bibiena between 1767-1769 in a late Baroque or early Rococo style – which was in vogue at the time. This multipurpose theatre was commissioned by the Royal Virgilian Academy of Science and Arts [Accademia Virgiliana].




The really cool part about the history of this theatre is that 3 weeks after it opened the young [12 year old] Wolfgang Mozart played the piano here in a concert which was a resounding success.



Standing on the stage I tried to imagine the scene back in the day with the young Mozart at the piano playing to a packed wigged audience who would have been dressed up to the nines. This is the view that the young maestro would have had from the stage:


Apparently, Mozart’s father wrote about the experience & waxed lyrical about the theater in which the performance had taken place.

When we visited Mantova, we stayed in an apartment – which was great because I could catch up on my washing after Rome & also have a meal at ‘home’ after the week of eating out in Rome. The apartment was very comfortable, but had a bizarre arrangement in that the washing machine was in the loft. The stairs to get to the loft were astounding to say the least… more like a ladder actually. Thought I would have to put the washing in a back pack to go up them…


Our landlady showed us around the place & pointed to the stairs & noted that that was where the washing machine was. She did not climb them. Probably a good idea since she was pregnant. The other funny part was the floor in the living room was sunken relative to everything else. So when you came down the stair/ladder from the loft & thought you had made it down safely, you would then stumble on the 3-4 cm little step down. Took us about 2 days to get used to that one…

We were able to buy some lovely groceries at a local deli & also went to a wine merchant to get some local product. Everyone was very helpful, but few people in the area speak English [& indeed there are not that many tourists there either]. My other half can hold his own in Italian, so we were good. The nice people in the deli also gave us butter & a local speciality cake – they were very generous. The local cakes have a lot of sugar & butter – see below – as well as whole almonds. The one we were given is a called a Sbrisolona.


The image above on the right is a local wine – a dry moscato, that was not unlike a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc – which is unique to the region. It was great to try it – thanks to the suggestion of the friendly wine merchant.

One of the other things we tried were the ‘tortelli di zucca’ – essentially ravioli filled with pumpkin [a special variety that is on the small side & has a green outer skin]. The pasta filling has also a lot of nutmeg & mostarda di frutta – a special type of local apple that has been preserved with some mustard [which to me actually tasted more like wasabe…]. After you cook the pasta you dump it in a butter & sage sauce [that was why the deli folks gave us the butter…]. This was a very lovely local dish. Might have to try to make something like this when I get home…

The last thing we did in Mantova was to check out a small art exhibit featuring the works of Georges Braque [1882-1963] [see]. A lot of these were on loan from the Kunstmuseum Pablo Picasso Münster, in Germany. The exhibit was interesting because it featured more unusual works such as drawings, lithographs & images that had been specifically produced for books on various themes at the time. The style was also interesting – the works were not in the cubist style that he ultimately become famous for. Birds & vegetation were the main topics of the exhibition. The image below is a good example – I would never have guessed this was a work by Braque…


Braque, like other artists in his day, had many friends in the literary world. Therefore, he also made drawings & lithographs for the books of others – which might include books of poetry or literature, or books on the artists themselves, as the images below show:



The exhibit also featured work by other artists, including a set of original Matisse works from a book called Jazz that was produced in 1947 in Paris by Editions Tériade that are currently in a private collection in Mantova [see image below]:


There was also a 2019 recreation attempt [Flavio Favelli vis-a-vis] of a studio sculpture & then an illustration of it by Flavio Favelli. In Braque & Picasso’s experiments with various art forms including cubism in 1912-1914, they would assemble models or ‘sculptures’ in their studios, which they would subsequently draw or paint. The sculptures were composed of cardboard in Braque’s case & glass/wood for those of Picasso. They were usually destroyed after the images had been made. Indeed, only a few of Picasso’s models have survived, whereas all of Braque’s models have been destroyed. Therefore, it was good to see a modern day example that illustrated how the masters had created innovative work in the studios in the earlier parts of the 20th century.

The exhibition itself was held in the Pallazzo della Ragione [see] a building dating back to 1250. It was built as a hospice by the Canossa family for pilgrims visiting Mantova to see the relic of the Precious Blood of Christ. Later, it became a ‘town hall’ and then subsequently used as a site for a market – which now occurs in the main town square. In the 15th century it functioned as a palace of Justice & notarial archive. Today the space is used for exhibitions & events, although it suffered some damage in the earthquake of 2012. The building has been restored beautifully by the Mantovan architect Aldo Andreani in 1942. Amazingly, there are still extensive fragments of frescoes signed by Grisopolo da Parma dating from the 13th century).  Some of the frescoes can be seen below:



These reminded me a bit also of some of the extensively frescoed walls in the Palazzo Ducale that I discussed at the beginning of this post:


Overall, Mantova is such a beautiful place to visit – narrow streets, picturesque buildings & attention to detail.


Check out the concrete blocks that are used to channel traffic for roadworks – even those have been produced with an esthetic mindset!


People are friendly & look out not only for each other, but for creatures also… While we were there the weather was very hot, so that everyone got fed & watered in the outdoor cafes. When little Fido came to sit with his owners he got his bowl of water too…


Our next stop in the Alto Adige was a village called Palù di Giovo – more on that one in the next post.



OHBM2019 in Rome


What a special time in Rome we had over the June 9-13 period for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping [OHBM] annual scientific meeting! This one was the 25th anniversary of the meeting & was my last year [of a 3 year stint] on the Program Committee. For planning the meeting 3 years ago, OHBM Council originally was expecting ~3,000 people. In reality, 4100 people showed up to the meeting!!! A staggering number of people – stretching everyone & everything to the limit. So here are some selected highlights from the meeting, from my own very limited perspective – for those of you interested in travel stuff, keep reading as there is something here for you too.

The meeting was held at an interesting location – the Auditorium Parco Della Musica – a set of 3 concert halls & associated facilities. The architecture is interesting & the complex consists of 3 giant pods or beans [see picture below], which were completed in 2003. The contract was completed by Renzo Piano & Renzo Piano Building Workshop, after being approved in 1994. Invariably, construction on the project was delayed due to the discovery of archeological artifacts at the site – not surprising, it is Rome after all. For more details on the facilities, history & museums on site in the place [].


The site did have a lot of stairs – for me personally, this was a good thing: since I sat so much in talks & meetings, it was a good way to get up my step count each day… My favorite part of the place? The Musa Room to be sure – with it’s large collection of musical instruments lining both sides of a long access corridor…


…which included a Stradivari from 1690 – the so-called ‘Tuscan violin’! Looked as if it had been made yesterday!


The collection of musical instruments was very beautiful & included all types – string, wind, percussion etc. It also included some interesting folk music instruments as well.

And also a musical instrument laboratory.


The OHBM opening ceremony with awards etc. was one I will never forget. It started the meeting off with usual Italian style! Four shapely divas walked on stage & sang a few popular Italian songs & then an opera aria. Their voices were divine! Our own OHBM2019 Local Organizing Committee Co-Chair Emiliano Ricciardi joined them in a wonderful display of his own operatic talent. Indeed, it was the topic of many OHBM conversations for the entire week! Here is the video that I shot that Bernard Mazoyer also ended up showing at the closing ceremony.

Back in February, we had the Program Committee meeting [in Montreal checking out the next OHBM meeting site]. At dinner after a really long day working on the program for Rome we were all very tired. Instead of the usual science banter which often happens at these organizing dinners, we ended up talking about our hobbies & interests. I was sitting opposite the Local Organizing Committee Co-Chairs – Emiliano & Pietro Pietrini. Emiliano mentioned that he sung opera & I suggested that he sing at the OHBM Welcome reception. I noticed that Pietro had an evil glint in his eye: I am not sure now if they had already cooked up the plan for Emiliano to sing at the Opening Ceremony, or whether at that point in time Pietro had that idea. Either way Emiliano’s wonderful performance is part of OHBM history! It will certainly be a hard act to follow for Alan Evans in Montreal next year…

I was really looking forward to Riitta Hari’s Talairach Lecture on Sunday night. Prior to that on the Saturday evening the 2 of us splurged on dinner at a fabulous restaurant in Rome called Mirabelle [see]. It is housed on the 7th floor of a very swish Roman hotel with a terrace that overlooks the city of Rome. It has one Michelin Star, so as you can imagine everything was spectacular… Here are some pics of us & some of the dishes we had. We washed that gorgeous food down with a top-end Sancerre from the Loire Valley. Needless to say my credit card was smoking for a couple of days after paying half the bill, but it was worth it!


Of course, the presentation on the dishes was exceptional. The image above of that green apple is deceptive: inside was a foie gras pate encased in a green apple jelly. The apple was completely soft, so I would really love to know how it was assembled. That restaurant had the type of cooking that would be impossible to duplicate in your own kitchen. I love to cook, but that is a thousand levels beyond my skill level…

The next evening, Pietro Pietrini welcomed us at the Opening Ceremony & Alan Evans was awarded the Glass Brain Award. Very well deserved to be sure – I was surprised that he had not won it earlier actually. [Next year Alan will be the Local Organizing Committee Chair for the meeting in Montreal.] The Early Career Investigator award went to Thomas Yeo – it was nice to see the congratulatory messages making their way to Thomas on social media!


And then for the main event of the evening: Riitta Hari completed her Keynote entitled: ‘Timing Matters‘. Riitta also paid tribute to the late Prof. Fernando Lopes da Silva, who died in May of this year. He was known as a giant in the EEG field & was an long-time editor of a book we all call ‘The EEG Bible‘ for short. I used it in its 2nd edition when I was a graduate student. The most recent edition came out in February 2018 [see]. Fernando was a very kind individual, as well as being a stellar scientist. My interactions with him [of which there were not many] were always wonderful. Indeed, he did Riitta & I an extreme kindness by writing a short review on our MEG-EEG Primer that we have featured on our back cover. The EEG & MEG community sorely feels the loss of this ‘Father of EEG’ – everyone was talking about this at OHBM…


During her Talairach lecture, Riitta took us on a trip back to the days of single channel MEG technology. How far the field has come since then! She then developed the idea that observed differences in MEG/EEG & fMRI signals might arise due to different biases the 2 methods might have to measure neural output produced by different fiber sizes. For example, when one looks at the diameter of callosal fibres, it is not even across the corpus callosum – average diameter varies as a function of anatomical position [Aboitiz et al., 1992], resulting in inter-hemispheric transfer times that can vary from 3-300 ms.

Despite some issues with a collapsing lectern, Riitta was unflappable & continued on as if nothing had happened… It struck me that the content of her slide at the time was somewhat ironic too.


So, the take home message of the lecture was that it is likely the MEG/EEG & fMRI see outputs from different fibers. Specifically, MEG/EEG signals more likely are biased by the neuronal ensembles that send their outputs to large fibers [fast timing], whereas the fMRI signal is more likely to arise from signals reverberating in small & medium fiber systems. So this is an interesting idea – something that was discussed afterwards in the reception & all week long during the meeting. The lecture has seeded some germs of ideas for testing over the next few years – serving its purpose well. After, the lecture we retired to the outdoors to catch up with old friends & make new ones for the outdoor reception with lovely food, drinks & entertainment Italian style!

Monday morning we were off to a wonderful start. It was my great pleasure to introduce Dani Bassett – the 1st of our keynotes for the 25th anniversary meeting. Dani’s lecture was a technological & scientific tour de force. [Indeed, who could expect her to do otherwise?] Before her keynote the two of us were chatting on stage & as we looked out onto the audience in the auditorium my photographer instinct seized me. The view was fabulous from the stage – here is our view from there. I already shared this one on social media, so apologies if you have seen it already.


And here is a selfie of us on the stage before her lecture & then me introducing the lecture [pic courtesy of Andreas Horn – thank you].


Finally, here is a pic by Franco Pestilli [thank you] from the ‘nose bleed’ section of the auditorium while Dani is giving her talk – we look like ants on that stage. A few days later I was up in the second balcony to listen to a keynote when the downstairs part was full. It is truly wonderful to look out & see so many neuroimagers – with 60% of them being trainees – graduate students & post-docs. How our field has grown in 25 years!


One of the special events this year, given our 25th anniversary, was a Symposium entitled: ‘A retrospective look back at OHBM‘ which was live streamed & I believe is now available on OHBM On Demand for our members. It was organized by Peter Bandettini & had sixteen scientists on stage who had been involved with OHBM from the first years. Here are a couple of pics of everyone on stage.

In the image on the left Peter B is at the podium. Seated [closest to camera] are Karl Zilles, Karen Berman, Susan Bookheimer, David Van Essen, Bob Turner, Alan Evans & Art Toga. In the image on the right we have [unseen] Peter Fox, me & Riitta Hari, then closest to camera is Bernard Mazoyer, Arno Villringer, Bruce Rosen, David Kennedy & Rainer Goebel. Missing from the meeting were people such as Jim Haxby, Leslie Ungerleider, Karl Friston, Kia Nobre, Greg McCarthy, Marcel Mesulam & many others. We paid tribute to the late Keith Worsley & Jack Belliveau – two scientists who contributed major methodological advances to our field. We spent time reflecting on the first Paris meeting & the various significant events in the meeting since that time. Not sure how the audience felt, but we all enjoyed it immensely! Karl Zilles actually christened it the ‘Dinosaur Symposium‘ – somehow it got attributed to me at the Closing Ceremony – probably because I had broadcast it on social media. But it was not my invention.

I managed to take a couple of decent iPhone panoramas of Rome Monday afternoon & evening – one was taken from the Capitolini Museums [see] – a museum complex that I really love & have visited on a previous visit to Rome. So many ancient treasures to see here!



Speaking of art & culture – OHBM Art Exhibit grows every year & the works are also very interesting & stimulating to look at. I always make sure that I get to it early – do not want to miss it as I get busier towards the end of the meeting. Here are a couple of the pieces that resonated with me personally the most.


Next to the art exhibit ppl could take time out for relax & also play the piano. Here is an OHBM attendee relaxing & providing a pleasant ambience for others…

On Tuesday I went to the Aperture Round Table – organized by JB Poline & Nikola Strikov. Good to see OHBM’s publication platform in forward motion & there were lots of good suggestions for future action. We were fortunate to be in the Choir Hall & everyone enjoyed having that harpsichord in the room after the end of the session. You can see the string vibrate here in the video when the key is struck.

Tuesday night was the NeuroImage Editorial Board dinner – always a chance to catch up with people you might have not seen for a while – like Sonja Kotz, in the image below [kindly taken by Til Ole Bergmann].


Another unique thing about the OHBM2019 meeting was the special postcard & stamp that had been prepared for the 25th anniversary. The postcard features the logo for the meeting – which is visible in the background when I am introducing Dani Bassett in an earlier image in this post. The Italian Post ppl were only too happy to give me an extra stamp on my postcard 🙂


But then it was time to get serious: time for the Program Committee meeting. We discussed what was good, what was bad & what we need to make the meeting better for next year. [Same thing to be said for the OHBM Council meeting. I have just rotated onto Council as OHBM Chair-Elect.] What was unfortunate this year was that the poster hall was very hot & airless – made unbearable by the heatwave we had in Rome during the OHBM meeting. I walked through the entire area a number of times – it seemed like those who were at the entrance & the middle were roasting & those who were right down the very end could at least get some cool breeze from the open doors leading to the car park. There was also not really enough space for people – an artifact of expecting 3,000 people & having over 4,000 show up… The video shows the bustle in one of the poster sessions:

We are going to have to make sure that we have some flexibility to expand our space so that the same thing does not happen in future. I have to say, I had flashbacks to previous OHBM meetings when I walked through that hot poster area – flashbacks to that first Paris meeting & to the meeting in Florence. The poster sessions are the scientific lifeblood of our meeting, so we need to really get this right… I gather that this was [justifiably] a hot issue [pardon the pun] at the OHBM General Assembly & Feedback Forum on Wednesday afternoon. I really wish I had been there to hear all of the discussion. Unfortunately, at that same time I was presenting in a Symposium on the ‘Neural basis of the human consciousness: Phenomena, paradigms & exploring techniques‘ at La Sapienza organized by Claudio Babiloni in conjunction with the Global Brain Symposium [with Alan Evans chairing]. So ironically, we were hotly debating consciousness while OHBM Members were debating the heat…

Here are a few pics from La Sapienza Symposium that I took – with Claudio Babiloni & Margitta Seeck presenting. I was also a presenter.

As we were having our panel discussion at the end – running a bit late – we had one of the policemen from the University Police come & tell us to finish up so that he could lock the building. We managed to get another 15 minutes of discussion before being dismissed by the long arm of the law… Thanks to one of Claudio’s students who took the picture below.


We then retired for a tour of La Sapienza campus, kindly given to us by Claudio Babiloni. La Sapienza [see] is a walled city housing many, many buildings & that is home to about 100,000 students! Here is a map of the institution – it is huge.


The front entrance is pretty impressive & monumental – reflecting the pared down architectural style that was popular during Mussolini’s rule. The image following is La Sapienza’s logo.

Another particularly monumental building is the one which houses the university’s rector.


In front of that building is a huge statue of Athena – the Goddess of Knowledge – in front of a pool of water. Apparently the students avoid Athena’s gaze, or indeed the reflection of her eyes in the water, when they are on their way to an exam. Superstition has it that if one looks directly into the eyes of the Goddess of Knowledge then one will surely fail the exam. So students walk past it with their heads down. At this time of year I did not see any students, but that would be something interesting to see for sure…

It started out as a bit of a joke when Claudio initially suggested we do the Symposium – I said OK if he was springing for dinner… So he did. He was a wonderful host – he took us out to dinner along with his students to a club that was associated with La Sapienza. Dinner was marvellous – lots of great seafood & fish washed down with a lovely Italian dry white wine. Always happy to sing for my supper if it is going to be like that!!! Thank you Claudio…

The closing ceremony of OHBM was interesting because this time Bernard Mazoyer, in his position as the past Chair of OHBM Council, had to do the obligatory look back at the current meeting. As fortunate coincidence would have it, he was the organizer of the very first meeting in Paris. Therefore he chose to reflect on looking for ‘seeds’ of the work of the here & now in the early days of the meeting. And indeed, there it all was, albeit in its infancy – work on white matter tractography, functional connectivity etc. among those those 440 abstracts. It was wonderful to see how our field had grown over the years – not only with respect to techniques, but relative to the science as well. My own abstract was a combo intracranial EEG & functional MRI study on face perception.

As is usual in the closing ceremony, we take a look forward to the next meeting. OHBM 2020 will be in Montreal & Jia-Hong Gao will be OHBM Council Chair & Alan Evans [the Glass Brain Recipient] will be the Co-Chair of the Local Organizing Committee. Alan Evans showed a video showing us what to expect in Montreal. -The video stars him & his fellow Co-Chair, Julien Doyon, in a wacky style. I would not have expected anything other from them…

Finally, the meeting was over & it was time to catch up with other half [who just arrived in Rome that afternoon] & friends for dinner at a very traditional & old trattoria, Da Gino al Parlamento, in the city center. This is a very famous one & has been around since the 1960s [see]. The staff were very welcoming & the food was fabulous. Here is my pasta dish… but I also had a lovely rabbit dish with olives.


After dinner it was on to one of the best gelaterias in Rome – Gelateria Giolitti [see]. This famous Roman landmark has been around since 1900! Coincidentally right now I happen to be reading a cool book [no pun intended] about the development of ices etc in history – starting in Florence in the 16th century when the well-to-do began to put ice in their wine to keep it cool in summer. This involved carting snow & ice down from the mountains & keeping it all year round in insulated pits. They also did this in Turkey in the early 16th century. Later the practice spread to Spain & France & even later ppl got more creative with frozen desserts when they discovered that adding salt to water altered its freezing point. Gelato & ice-cream were born! I am currently reading a book on the history of gelato & ice-cream. [See ‘Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices‘ by Elizabeth David. It is available on on Kindle] Apparently according to my ex-Roman colleague, Franco Pestilli, the Roman style of eating gelati includes having whipped cream placed between the two gelato flavors, as well as on the top. Had never had it like that before – the cream was really light & lovely. The place also had lots of scrumptious cakes too… Here are some pics of the place.

Walking around at Rome at night is lovely – the ancient buildings look extra special like this shot of the Pantheon below…


Back ‘home’ to the hotel very late, could barely keep my eyes open… was very tired after the OHBM meeting. Took about 5 seconds to go to sleep…

My memories of this 25th anniversary scientific meeting will be very special for many reasons, including the additional cultural milieu that we were immersed in for the week. Unfortunately, the next day it was arrivederci Roma, but ciao Alto Adige – that will be the subject of the next post or two [which will be shamelessly touristic].



The lead-up to OHBM2019 in Rome

Quite a nutty week it was in Paris just before OHBM2019. Lots of things to be done – talks, posters to be finished for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping [OHBM] meeting in Rome! Lots of ICMers were working hard prepping for this meeting… including the ICM’s cat. Most mornings over the last week he sat on the edge of the moat [with quite a precipitous drop] or just in the middle of foot traffic on the moat, soliciting pats from everyone…

As part of the work side of this week I took a trip out to Fontainebleau with my colleague, who was a member on a Jury for a PhD thesis defense at an institution called INSEAD. INSEAD brands itself as the ‘Business School of the World’ [see] & it offers graduate education in business & marketing. It is a very international place – faculty & students alike come from all parts of the world. It has campuses in Singapore & Abu Dhabi as well. The name INSEAD is an acronym that stands for Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires [see]. It was founded in 1957 by one of the first venture capitalists – Georges Doriot. Incredibly, for the first 10 years it had its classes in the Château de Fontainebleau, before moving to its new Fontainebleau campus in 1967! The cool part about INSEAD’s campus is that is it a stone’s throw from the famous Fontainebleau forest. We made sure that we got there earlier so we could take a stroll through some of it. Unusual forest for something that is so far inland – the soil is very sandy…


…seems like you are at the beach. The trees are amazing – lots of huge oaks with twin trunks as well as lots of fir trees. Very pretty.



Apparently there are a lot of deer, as well as wild boars running around in this forest. Thankfully we did not run into the latter. The thing that is the most striking though is the bird life – you hear so many different types of birds. We heard a cuckoo – with its very distinctive call. See if you can hear it in the video below:

It was a real treat to wander around for about an hour or so in the forest. Felt really weird doing that with my laptop slung over my shoulder & wearing a string of pearls. Here is another video showing the beautiful terrain & this time some different bird calls can be heard.

It was nice to come back to Fontainebleau once more – on a previous trip I had visited the chateau. Before we knew it though, it was time to head inside for the PhD thesis defense, which of course went well. After it was done it was time to get on the train back to Paris a colleague from INSEAD gave us a ride to the station in Fontainebleau. We could see a pretty nasty storm coming over as we were driving. Sure enough the heavens opened when we had to get out of the car at the station. Only took ~15 sec to get completely drenched from the hips down – I was valiantly clutching my umbrella in the wind. Actually I was glad to get under cover in the station – am not worried about the deluge as I am about the thunder & lightning. That afternoon’s storm was a doozy. A group of schoolchildren got hit by lightning while they were on a soccer field. Yikes.

As if the week was not busy enough, another thing to do before going to Rome was to check out a specialist cooking store in Paris. Why would I need to do that I hear you cry & also in this particular week? I was looking for some pasta cutters to make tortellini & agnolotti because mine at home have become blunt. So I was looking for some new sharp ones with the idea if I could not get them in Paris [Plan A], I would then look for them in Rome [Plan B]. The store is in the 1st arrondisement & is called MORA [].



So as can be seen in the image above, the place has been around for quite some time! Mission accomplished! I bought my new pasta making tools there. I also got a chain mail glove as I often will bone poultry or rabbit at home. The boning knife is incredibly sharp & I worry that one day that knife might slip & it will be a trip to the emergency room… So no more worrying about that now.

During this week at ICM Stuart Firestein from Columbia University was in Paris  – working with his colleagues at an institute called the CRI or the Center for Research in Interdisciplinarity []. Very interesting initiative – founded by François Taddei & Ariel Lindner in 2005 to create a student/researcher centered open environment, with a goal to promote life-long learning. The building is also very impressive – took a huge renovation & also includes student apartments. The building has a radical design – library & admin are between two other buildings – one of which has labs & the other offices etc. Here are some pics of a renovated Art Deco staircase. Originally the staircase also had a service elevator going down the center, which was taken out. Now a linear light sculpture, spanning many floors, is in the elevator’s place.

The doors of the elevator were salvaged to create this piece of wall art that compliments the surroundings very nicely. What a delightful way to feature something from days gone by…


That night we went out to drinks & dinner – lovely to catch up with Stuart in Paris. We went to a bar where the shot below was taken. We were also accosted by a cat who insisted on sitting on all of our laps. When I told the bar’s owner that he had a really nice cat, he said it belonged to his neighbor & that it would always hang out in the bar soliciting pats from everyone.

We ended up going to a famous brasserie called Les Philosophes in the Marais []. The restaurant has been there since the 1920s & is in the old Jewish neighborhood of Paris. We had a great meal, washed down with a premier bottle of red. I also had the biggest steak tartare I have ever had. Finished every little bit of it…

The next day Stuart visited us at the ICM & checked out CENIR – the neuroimaging center with MRI/MEG/EEG – something I have described in a previous post.

What a busy, but enjoyable, week! This post started & ended with a cat. [Yes, I am missing my creatures.] The next post will come from Italy – after the madness that is OHBM2019 is over…


Some more images from the city of lights… outside & inside

For those of you reading this blog for the science, this post will probably not be your cup of tea. For those who are reading for the travel experiences, read on…

A couple of posts ago I featured some images of an intact Notre Dame. Well, here is the old lady now, cleaned up & wearing splints & bandages… still magnificent from the outside. Dread to think what she is like on the inside…TourMontparnasse_12_NotreDame

I took the above image from the Tour de Montparnasse the other weekend. Funny thing is that on so many visits to Paris, I have never managed to get to this landmark. The tower is quite an eyesore on the Paris landscape. That said, the views of the city from it are magnificent, so this time I made sure I stopped in there. Below are some other images taken from it – yes, yes, I know – shameless touristic images… …a nice view of the Grand Palais with the Petit Palais seen partly on the right side of the image below.


Invalides, Ste Sulpice & of course, the Tour Eiffel itself.



And not to mention plenty of views also of the intricate layout of Parisian streets & buildings…


Hard to not get carried away with the camera when confronted with a view like that… I need to get back there once more at night time. Speaking of night time, I have been experimenting with taking some pictures from my kitchen window of the Eiffel Tower at night. Quite a business to do – had to put a stool in front of the window & balance the camera with long lens on a pile of books, but worth the effort because at night on the hour, for five minutes the Tower shimmers with light. Beautiful to see. Hard to photograph.


My project now is to try to shoot a video of the shimmering. First attempts not bad, but not yet fit for public consumption. Need to do more work… stay tuned.

This last weekend I went to a light show/installation at Atelier des Lumières in the 11th arrondisement [see ]. There were 3 shows, with the main one being Van Gogh, La nuit étoilée [Starry night] a visual compilation by Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto & Massimiliano Siccardi with music selected by Luca Longobardi.



A number of Van Hogh’s images have been selected for this compilation. The images have clearly been sampled at ultra-high resolution & parts of them have also been extracted. The dynamic compilation overlays & mixes these images in a delightful visual kaleidoscope for the viewer. Images are projected onto the walls & floor of the building.


The ~3000 m2 building in which the Atelier des Lumières is today used to be a foundry in the 1800s. It started out as the La fonderie du Chemin-Vert in 1835 & was run by the three brothers of the Pierre family. It’s main clients were in the maritime & railway industries & at it’s peak the foundry had 60 employees. It closed in the 1900s & the space was ‘discovered’ in the 2000s & fashioned into a place where these light installations could take place on a regular basis.

Of the three light shows, one of the others Japon rêvé, images du monde flottant [Japan dreamed, images of a floating world] by L. Frigola, C. Péri, S. Carrubba, P. Ciucci from the Danny Rose Studio was the one that really impressed me. The images were colorful & very traditional & of course, larger than life.



This visual art installation/animation really made the images come to life. Here are a couple of brief videos that I shot of this visual animation/installation.

This last weekend I was also able to pay a visit to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral [ ].  I have wanted to visit this church for a long time. It is in the 8th arrondisement – literally up the road from my favorite chocolatier in Paris – Chocolat Bonnat, of which I have enthused about in earlier posts. It is located in a very quiet, but stylish, neighborhood. Indeed, there are a few Russian shops surrounding it & the street that runs into it is named after Peter the Great [Rue Pierre Le Grand].



A decree by Tsar Alexander I on the 12th of February 1816 paved the way for the eventual establishment of an Orthodox place of worship by the diplomatic mission in Paris. It was designed to serve the wider Orthodox community, not just for worshippers of Russian origin. A considerable time passed before two adjacent parcels of land were bought in 1857-1858 & a design by 2 reputable architects was created [both were members of l’Académie des Beaux-arts of St Petersburg]. The first stone was laid in March 1859 & the building was finally finished in August 1861. The cathedral was dedicated to the memory of St. Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky [1221-1263] – a military hero for his victories over German and Swedish invaders among other things. He was canonized as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547. [for more information on this intriguing man see]. I am only showing you some lovely pics from the outside of the building. Cameras are not permitted inside – but I can assure you that the interior is beautiful & well worth a visit.

On the way out, in the church grounds I was approached by a four-legged worshipper, wanting a pat…

Being in the 8th arr., the church is also a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe & Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The Sunday I visited the church was also the 1st Sunday of the month – a day when the Champs-Élysées is usually closed to cars & is opened up to foot traffic. Weird seeing it like that. It is also pretty quiet too – no tooting of car horns etc.


That said, if you miss that sort of thing just head to the nearby Arc de Triomphe & the cobblestone roundabout that allows 12 avenues to meet. Every time I stand there I am amazed at the seemingly haphazard traffic pattern, yet I have never seen a bingle there… everyone seems to instinctively know that to do when going around it – probably doing defensive driving :).

The day was the hottest we have had so far: 33 deg C – summer temperatures to be sure. [Glad I am not going to the semi-finals of the French Open this year…] I retired to a nice little neighborhood park in the 8th arr. – a park I discovered on a previous visit as part of my chocolate odyssey. It is a small one & only the residents around there seem to use it. It is actually part of the grounds & gardens of a stately mansion & the gardens are open to the public. When I went there on Sunday afternoon there were still a lot of nice empty benches in the shade & families were just chillin’ out on the grass having their picnic Sunday lunches. Everyone was in a good mood, despite the heat & the breeze in the park was very pleasant.


I must say that I have re-discovered the pleasure of going to a park. I did it last year when I was here as well – to escape the heat of my non-airconditioned 6th floor apartment. I am so very fortunate to have a really beautiful & huge park near my apartment. It is delightful to sit outside & catch up on reading & also contemplate life…

As I was walking back to get the metro to go home, I came across the most amazing building – Art Nouveau gone wild – the Ceramic Hotel no less [check it out – looks like a nice place to stay…]. Built in 1904 – accordingly to the inscription in the stone. It is a creation in stone & tile & it channels Gaudi – for me at least. As the images below show, it is quite astounding.


So this was a little bit of tourism sandwiched in a trip that is very heavy on the work side. Always grateful for opportunities like this. It is part of the privilege of being a scientist.


Is my brain activity the same either side of the Atlantic? Seriously.

These last couple of weeks have been really busy – so much to do before the OHBM meeting in Rome! Trying to finish manuscripts, working on scientific posters with colleagues, as well as preparing a couple of talks for Rome – one for an OHBM Symposium I have co-organized & another for a Symposium at the Sapienza Università di Roma.

The other thing we have been trying to do is to finish up our study of ‘living phantoms’ – my colleague & I have already made recordings of each other’s brain electrical activity and brain blood flow on the other side of the Atlantic, in my lab & in the 3 T MRI-scanner in our Imaging Research Facility at Indiana University [IU]. So now we are doing the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. The image below shows me wearing our 256-sensor cap [to measure electrical brain activity] at IU. The contraption I am sitting in [image below] is a photogrammetry system in my lab – a device that has 11 cameras that capture a picture of my head & where the sensors are located on the head.


This allows a 3D map of the head surface with sensor positions to be made, which can then be subsequently merged with an anatomical MRI scan of my whole head, which ultimately looks something like this [image below], which was taken a few years earlier.


Perhaps you can see that characteristic nose of mine in that hairless & colorless image. If you look carefully you can probably recognize my facial features – if you already know me well. This, of course, is a real ethical issue for subject privacy in labs all over the world. In functional MRI studies it is usual to ‘strip’ away the tissues of the head & face to leave only the brain – which of course is hard to identify. In some of our brain electrical activity [electroencephalography or EEG] studies this is not possible. We need to use the surface of the head/face & also consider how well the different tissues of the head conduct electricity  [i.e. the spontaneous brain activity that our brain emits 24/7] for certain types of very specialized data analyses. [This is not the case in all EEG studies – many studies use only the EEG traces & 3D maps of the head are not needed.]

One can also measure the tiny magnetic fields that the brain emits using a method known as magnetoencephalography [MEG for short]. If one wants to really go over the top, one can do both MEG & EEG at the same time. This is what I did this week in CENIR at the ICM. First, the EEG sensors were put on my head, with extra leads to also measure eye movements & cardiac activity. We also need to make a map of the EEG sensors on my head – but here a slightly different method was used. A radio frequency transmitter at the back of the chair I am sitting on [that you cannot see] puts out a signal whose strength varies as a function of 3D distance from it [a polhemus system] . The experimenter uses a wand-like device [a radio frequency receiver] to touch the central location of each EEG sensor & measure the signal strength [& therefore the sensor’s position on the head]. The ‘Biggles’ googles I am wearing also have this position sensing in them, so that if I move my head even slightly the measurement system will compensate for that…


Once we had the sensors localized in 3D space, off came the goggles & it was time to ‘gel’ ’em up i.e. put in some conductive ‘goop’ to provide a good contact between my scalp & each sensor. This is always the fun part & takes quite a bit of time – the goop is usually cold & the experimenters have exfoliate the scalp as they go – yes indeed, one has a spa treatment for the face & head for this experiment… After a lot of checking that the contact between sensors & scalp is good, it is time to go into the shielded chamber, where the recording will take place. There I am fitted into the MEG helmet – a rigid device with sensors embedded in liquid helium. The thing weighs a lot & sits in a gantry that is adjustable. You have to make sure that your head is on contact with the MEG helmet [completely the opposite of being in an MRI scanner where you cannot touch the headcoil or the bore of the magnet].


Before we started all of this & changed some of my clothing [PJ pants], took off all of my jewelry & watch etc. We had done a quick check to see that I did not have any residual magnetization in my body [this includes clothing such as metal clips on bras etc & also sometimes dental fillings, for example]. If there is something magnetic on the person’s body – such as clothing etc. one would have to change completely into the PJ set that is supplied. Similarly, shoes also come off & little booties are issued. For dental fillings that are a problem the head can be ‘degaussed’ using a wand-like device – makes me think of ‘aura cleansing’ when I see it done. 🙂 This time I did not need to be degaussed even though I was expecting to have to do so because I had an MRI scan at IU as part of this study & made sure that it was done at least 6 weeks before having this MEG study…

The shielded room is a minimalist place to be sure – nice clean white interior with minimal clutter. There is no electrical equipment is inside the room – the idea is to keep all magnetic fields out – including that from our own planet. This is because the magnetic fields we measure from the brain are really tiny & are indeed many, many orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth’s magnetic field… The shielded room is also soundproof, once the door is sealed, so all communication with experimenters occurs via a MEG-compatible intercom system. In the control room, the experimenters can monitor what I am up to in there at all times – cameras monitor me, as well as all the sensors whose activity is displayed on monitors.



We were doing a ‘resting state’ study on me & also my colleague across 2 different continents – so we are being studied on either side of the Atlantic with multiple assessment modalities. We will look to see how we can integrate these datasets & also look for how consistent the profiles of activity are across the two measurements. Our plan is to share the data with colleagues in an open science framework, but we will have to do some gymnastics with data formatting first, so that it is in a new and desirable format [BIDS] that will allow more people to interact with it.


One of the tough things about doing a resting state study is ‘staying on task’ i.e. keeping one’s eyes open & fixating on a cross on the wall of the chamber, but letting one’s mind wander. We are doing 4 x 10 minute recordings of MEG & EEG [we also did that for our EEG only study at IU, & our functional MRI studies on both sides of the Atlantic].

What is more fascinating to me personally is how the flow of thoughts runs during this time – it is interesting to monitor this in oneself. The thing that struck me the most was that I think in a couple of languages [& can force myself to think in a third]. I had not really realized how much I actually switch between them… that was what I learned the most about myself from doing this study. It was also interesting to see what happens when you are in an environment under sensory deprivation. As I noted, the room was white, with a black fixation cross on the wall. What was cool was that during the last 10 minute run [i.e. after I had been trying to stare at that fixation cross for over half an hour] I started to get some interesting visual hallucinations. The seams of the door of the chamber started to become colored – these were vivid neon-like colors. A very cool effect. I was just beginning to explore this further when unfortunately to my great surprise time was up – we were already done…

What other things do I think might be important for studies such as this one? I come back to the title of this post: I was not being facetious when I posed the original question. How does our brain activity vary with geographical location? What about effects from the season of the year? [The light levels outside can be vastly different in addition to temperatures – in Indiana it was winter when we did the study, here in Paris it is late now spring.] What about the cultural milieu one is in? [Fortunately, since I have been over here before, the environment is completely familiar, so at least there is a minimal effect of novelty here, but there may still be a cultural effect.] What differences in activity are there for measurements taking sitting upright versus lying down? What differences in brain activity occur after a 3-4 month period of time has passed? How does one’s emotional state change the data? What about the amount of caffeine consumed? What about one’s habitual diet? Same applies to blood sugar levels at time of measurement etc… What if someone has a cold & a fever versus when they are well? These are all questions that we do not have clear answers yet. Many future studies will have to be performed to get at these. And this is not something we can tackle with our little investigation – we are just trying to get a rough idea of reproducibility across different methods in different labs at this stage & trying to integrate datasets for future work together.

But here is the one question I wonder about the most: how has my brain changed since the time [a year ago] that I was here last? Clearly I am a year older, however, I have also had a very rich cultural experience when I was here last that would have changed me forever also [hopefully for the better]…