Palm Sunday

March 31, 2007

One joke I heard a lot while growing up is that the two most popular Catholic holidays are Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday – the reason being that nobody can resist a handout! This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, and a lot of people are going to be bringing home palm leaves without being entirely sure what to do with them afterwards. (The official answer is that the palm leaves from this year – which are blessed – should be saved until next year when they’ll be burned to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. Unofficially, a lot of people forget and just keep the leaves stowed somewhere, half-forgotten, and parishes sometimes end up ordering their ashes from a supplier to make sure they have enough).

Palm Sunday has some odd contrasts to the rest of Lent – Lent, especially the last week, is a generally somber time (Ash Wednesday kicks things off with the adjuration to “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”) but the first part of Palm Sunday Mass can come across as fairly lighthearted.

Read the rest of this entry »

What’s sprouting?

March 30, 2007

Unseasonably warm temperatures (it *is* still March, isn’t it?) have me in a definite springtime mood. Some friends speak of a new kind of SAD: not Seasonal Affective Disorder, the diagnosis of wintertime blues; rather Spring Affective Disorder, where the combination of nice weather and long daylight hours fill one’s mind with fun-filled nights and outdoor activities (this despite the early spring being one of the busiest times of the year work-wise).

I have to admit that the time change, which finally hit Europe this week, is a huge boon to post-workday activity, and my evening eating schedule has gone all wonky. Living on the top floor of a building with roof access, I spent many winter nights imagining how I would create there a summer sunshine paradise with my many plants and a reclining chair, where I would while away the hours of thesis research reading, lemonade in hand. The IKEA catalog arrived at just the right moments to keep the fantasy alive. You can see how that got me through the neverending madness that was January, right?

This week I took my first step towards building said oasis when a free shelving unit appeared on my university’s exchange bulletin board. And my plants are doing their part by sprouting from seeds I planted a couple weeks ago.

BBaron posted earlier this month about how far our food travels to land on our plates. Having grown up in a family with a passion for gardening and having survived three winters and springs in Russia, I have been socialized to spend part of one’s summer tending one’s own crop. Anyone who does it knows that you can’t beat the taste of a home-grown tomato. There is no better way to know where your food is coming from than planting, tending and picking it yourself. However, considering I only have planters at my disposal and that I have to carry all dirt used up five flights of stairs, my enterprise is limited. My dad starts his tomatoes in January to ensure an early harvest and already has tall plants. But then, when it’s just me, how many tomatoes do I really need?

I’m interested to know what everyone else is growing this year. My list is after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Archeologically useful allergens

March 29, 2007

I found an intriguing pair of articles on the BBC recently that seemed to have a common theme: the usefulness of ancient allergens in archeological study. I grant you, the fact that they’re allergens is not mentioned in the articles, but to an allergy sufferer, that was what made the link for me and I now find it odd that both articles were up on the same day.

The first article was about using ancient pollen to find the origins of the various types of terra cotta soldiers at the Emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, China. I have had a fascination with the imperial tomb for a while, since I wrote a paper on Qin Shihuang during college, and then traveled to China, where I actually got to stand on top of the tomb itself, imagining what was inside.

But anyway, back to the article. The traces of pollen in the clay of the soldiers can be used to figure out where all the different figures were made. As the article states:

Soils from different regions contain distinct pollen “signatures”, reflecting variations in vegetation.

However, it may not be an entirely accurate technique, because:

…if the clay came from an area near a river or stream, it could contain pollen from many sources washed in by the water. And if the clay was from a very old source, it could preserve information about vegetation that existed long before the time of the terracotta army.

Read the rest of this entry »

Physics is easier when it’s all in straight lines

March 28, 2007

I find that I must update my list of Crimes Against Machinery that I began in my earlier post about the shameful mistreatment of a Bugatti Veyron. The BBC is reporting that comedian and actor Eddie Griffin destroyed an Enzo Ferrari. Other news outlets have also picked up the story.

This is, again, likely something the seriousness of which will not be immediately apparent to some of you. I will do my very best to explain why. Once more, I resort to images to speak several thousand words on my behalf. This was a process that turned something beautiful:

Nose-on Enzo Ferrari

 Enzo Ferrari on the road

Enzo Ferrari front three-quarters shot

Into something tragic:

I do NOT want to talk about it

Once again, this incident, and the way it has been handled, leaves me to wonder.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to make a crossword

March 27, 2007

Here’s a demanding but rewarding geeky gift idea you can steal: make a personalized crossword for a friend.

This isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s taken up a lot of my free time for the last week. But if you know someone very well, a few dozen crossword hints can stew together years of shared experience. And when you’ve finally laid out the finished product, it’s a sight to see: your hand-drawn black-on-white grid really pops off the page. Making a crossword gives you a sense of both intimacy and ritual, not unlike the joy of making a fancy meal for company.

Here are the lessons I learned.

Read the rest of this entry »

On the differing perceptions of engineers

March 26, 2007

Reading inel’s response to Sarah’s post about the future of engineering, I was interested when I read this bit:

Young people in Silicon Valley think it is pretty cool when I tell them I am an engineer. By contrast, many adults in Britain still conjure up an initial picture of me as a “grease monkey”—working under the bonnet of a vehicle, or repairing household electrical equipment. Young people generally have very little awareness of engineers’ roles.

Who (or what) is an engineer? Merriam-Webster’s relevant definition seems to be:

3 a : a designer or builder of engines b : a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering c : a person who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance

And “engineering” is:

2 a : to contrive or plan out usually with more or less subtle skill and craft <engineer a business deal> b : to guide the course of <engineer a rally>

Read the rest of this entry »

Happy birthday, EU

March 24, 2007

Today is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Union. It was created on this day in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome. Although the exact nature and membership of the bewildering variety of treaties and organizations in Europe has shifted regularly over the last 50 years, today marks an important date in European history.

There are huge celebrations going on today in Berlin to mark the occasion. The leaders of all 27 EU member states are present, and will be hosted for dinner this evening at German President Horst Koehler’s residence. There will also be a summit tomorrow which is expected to endorse a statement on the European Union’s accomplishments and highlighting some of the challenges the Union faces in the near future.

The occasion is also being used by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to revisit the issue of the European Constitution. The Constitution was rejected two years ago by both France and the Netherlands. That is likely to be a divisive issue, as is the enlargement of the EU to include new member states in the Balkans, as well as Turkey.

Those and other issues are complex and important topics in their own right. The community of Europe will have to face the challenges before it in the coming days, and for years in the future. The path will not be easy, but the political wrangling can wait. Today, Europe celebrates.

Shooting the Strip

March 23, 2007

I have been watching and enjoying song birds in the back yard for a long time, but just recently I’ve begun to observe the raptors that live in the urban wilderness near me. Members of at least two hawk categories frequent my neighborhood: Accipiter cooperii, the Cooper’s Hawk, and Buteo jamaicensis, the Red Tail or “chicken” hawk. Of the two, the Red Tail has been bolder and more noticeable. 


It’s easier to see the hawks in winter, when no leaves are on the trees. This winter I’ve often seen one perched on top of a utility pole or sitting up in my neighbor’s oak tree. A hawk will sit for a long time, moving only its head from side to side looking for prey. They appear to be unimpressed with the humans in the neighborhood, and I suppose this lack of fear is due the hawks’ own fierceness and the fact that we’re all living in the city where it’s unlikely that anyone will try to shoot or otherwise molest them. For some reason, the red tail hawks like to hunt in my driveway. This is an exciting and startling experience for me if I’m in the vicinity when it happens. At the end of the drive stands a large maple tree where squirrels, chipmunks, song birds and mourning doves (the “bag ladies,” as my mother calls them) hang out. The wildlife in that tree must seem like the hawk equivalent of the K&W cafeteria. 

The first time a hawk came zooming down the drive, homing in on a flock of bag ladies, I was sitting on my patio where I don’t think the bird could see me. It flew at what seemed like incredible speed in a straight line down the drive, scattered the doves, came up empty, made an amazing 90 degree turn at my back fence line and flew off into the trees next door. The next time this happened, I was standing under the maple tree and saw the bird coming straight at me. On this run, the hawk was luckier and snared a titmouse in mid-flight. (I now have an appreciation of the last image the hawk’s victim sees before it’s lights out for the victim.) I have come to think of this spectacle as the hawk “shooting the strip.” 

Once last summer, when the maple tree was completely leafed out, the hawk shot the strip and disappeared into the canopy right over my head. I heard the sounds of a brief and apparently fruitless struggle, then a single small grey feather drifted down at my feet, catching the rays of the late afternoon sun as it fell. The hawk is a clean and efficient killer. And Mother Nature is not that nice lady who used to be in margarine commercials on TV.

Where have all the pigeons gone?

March 22, 2007

And other true and amazing tales from London!

While in London, I took a walking tour called “Eccentric London” and learned several weird and interesting things.

Hawking for pigeons
As some people may recall, Trafalgar Square was long known for its massive flocks of pigeons covering the square. They were not exactly beloved by all. Certainly, I know when akdmyers was there for her semester abroad, she got heartily sick of them. In a move I’m sure she’ll appreciate, the latest mayor of London decided it was in the city’s best interests to get rid of them. And indeed, they are now pretty much gone. But how did they do it?

Read the rest of this entry »

International Women’s Day Postscript

March 21, 2007

As I wrote before, International Women’s Day isn’t as widely recognized and celebrated as it ought to be. But some people do. In the park behind the Houses of Parliament in London, there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, possibly the most famous leader of the British suffragette movement. At its feet, the day I was there, four days after International Women’s Day, it was still decorated with bouquets and wreaths of flowers.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Our tour guide who was showing us around the Old Westminster area bent down to see the card on one of the bouquets. It read, “For Mrs. Pankhurst, on an important day.” (Or something to that effect.) The guide admitted with embarrassment that she didn’t know what day it meant, so I told her. I’m sure Mrs. Pankhurst would be happy some remember. She was an amazing woman, and a fitting person to give such a tribute to.