On a Decade of Getting Pooped On By Birds

I know you're planning something, bird

1. Washington, D.C., 2004 or so

A bench around a circular planter, with a tree in it. I was eating my lunch. I felt something on my arm.

We call it poop, but the stuff that comes out of birds’ behinds is more complicated than that. Birds, like most vertebrates that aren’t mammals, have a single all-purpose exit called a cloaca. From that hole they expel eggs, the leftovers of their meals, and the products of their kidneys.

I assume that’s why the waste is two-toned.


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Guest Post: Bobby Gborgar Joe Speaks From His Bones

2145430329_18c81a0514_oOctober 14, 2014:  At a heady, expert-packed Ebola forum assembled at Johns Hopkins University, a Liberian man said more in a minute and half than everyone else said in five hours. He summed up the United States tainted history with Liberia and begged for respect, this time around.

The expert forum was the best, yet. Top thinkers on the Ebola problem shared views and experiences; mapped the bioethics of green-lighting vaccines (getting approval to use them, provided people sign consent forms); talked about the bone-chilling exponential growth of this freak of nature, and how it could murder a million Africans by next year; and concluded that the global community is incapable of slowing its spread because of poor infrastructure.

Michael Osterholm, an outspoken biosecurity exert, called the World Health Organization’s response impotent, and questioned its future. “This outbreak is W.H.O.’s 9-11,” Osterholm said. “This will be a really very, very important time for reconsidering global health and how we respond to global health crises.”

At the end of many hair-raising presentations, this panel of all white men, but for one white woman, opened the microphones for questions.

That’s when Bobby Gborgar Joe spoke. Continue reading

Guest Post: Affair of the Heart: III. Facing Reality, Finally

This is the third post in Affair of the Heart, a series that takes place at the intersection of a highly-experienced science writer and the medical system.

by Colin Norman

Heart_and_blood_vessels_by_da_Vinci (1)When my aortic aneurysm could no longer be ignored,  and my cardiologist recommended a consultation with a specialist, I finally began to act like a science journalist.

I  scanned the literature and called medical experts and physician friends, who put out feelers to others in the medical profession. I got some reassuring responses:  There are several excellent centers and surgeons who specialize in repairing diseases of the aorta.  Among them is Duke Cameron, chief of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.  Johns Hopkins is a national center for the study and treatment of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by, among other features, long limbs and a predisposition for aortic aneurysms.  Duke Cameron has probably seen more aortic aneurysms than almost any other surgeon in the world.  He sounded like the man for the job.

My wife Anne and I first met Dr. Cameron on a Saturday morning in April.  He had had to cancel an appointment earlier in the week because he was sick, and came in on Saturday to see me and another patient in the otherwise empty cardiology offices.  It was a good sign.  A calm man with a reassuring demeanor, he certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the swashbuckling heart surgeon.  We liked him immediately. Continue reading

The Last Word


October 13-17, 2014

Colin Norman continues his exploration of the medical system through his own familial cardiovascular condition, and Cameron finds a universe in a small window pane.

Michelle celebrates the day now dedicated to Ada Lovelace, patron saint of gifted women.

A midnight encounter with a beaver leaves Chris Arnade in a standoff between cuteness and destructive nuisance. He takes the only logical way out: the Way of the Assassin. I organize a conference on traditional knowledge, TED-talk style.


Image: Burgruine honberg fenster web by Sebastian Kirsche via Wikimedia Commons

Few Words with Much Meaning


tlicho drum

In 1972, Chief Jimmy Bruneau of the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation attended the opening of the school that would bear his name. As part of the ceremony, many dignitaries got up to the microphone before him and gave long-winded speeches. Bruneau was an old man and very ill (he would die three years later), so when his turn came, he told the crowd he would only be able to speak for a short time.

In this short speech he laid out the plan for a new educational system that would see native youth become “strong like two people” – with confidence both in the wage economy and in traditional skills. His vision was so clear and powerful that it formed the basis of much of the Tłı̨chǫ territory’s direction for the next 40 years.

In the local language, this speech is known as Įłàà Katı̀, or “few words with much meaning”. When I began to work with a team organizing a conference on traditional knowledge and its place in the modern world, we realized that Chief Bruneau’s address on the topic was akin to the present-day TED talk. We decided to invite anthropologists from around the world to speak about traditional knowledge – heretofore a fairly inaccessible, complex and long-winded field – in 17-minutes or less. Continue reading

Guest Post: I Have a Beaver I Am Going to Kill

1I have a beaver, which I am going to kill, which is a complex thing to do.   The beaver moved into a small pond on my property a month after I moved from Brooklyn. I came 100 miles, the beaver had to move less than a mile, coming from wetlands that border part of my property. Beavers are not known to travel much more than that.

The pond is small and roughly rectangular, about half an acre. Two of its sides are ringed with trees. Those sides are where the action is. Frogs, snakes, voles, mice, birds, raccoons, and hedgehogs fight for room.

2Two weeks ago, near midnight, I was photographing frogs on the pond’s edge, sitting under a bright moon. The beaver announced itself with a loud slap of its tail on the water, a sound I mistook for a bass jumping.

The sound repeated within a few minutes, only louder. Bass don’t jump like that.

The beaver was swimming across the pond, head out, its teeth reflecting in the light from my flashlight. It made five or six laps, staring straight ahead.  Ok, beaver, I get it, you can swim fast. It then slipped under the water. Gone.

Beyond the beaver, floating in the middle of the pond, was a branch about fifteen feet long, still with the orange leaves of early fall.

Earlier in the day I had found a small tree, perhaps six feet tall, its trunk about 2 inches in diameter, lying across the footpath in the further woods that rings the pond.  I cleared it away, confused that wind had knocked it down.

I had a beaver. I was content. This is why I had moved out of Brooklyn. Continue reading

Window Seat


At 3 a.m., a quiet settles like fog around the neighborhood, freckled by a few bursts of sound. Sometimes there’s the whistle of an incoming train. An acoustical trick might carry sea lion barks from distant buoys, the deep buzz of fishing boats, even a wave pummeling the rocks. Occasionally, a single too-loud bird call coughs and silences itself. I imagine that it’s a youngster, unable to stop from bursting into laughter, with its parents giving it the avian equivalent of the look that means pull yourself together right now or else. Continue reading