Creating With Nature: Ice Ornaments

transparent circles of ice with berries and sticks embedded in them, along with loops. Four are shown.If it is still freezing hard during the night where you live, you can try this easy and fun art project. Find some paper plates, cups, tupperware containers, anything with an interesting shape that you can get ice out of in one piece pretty easily. I like the paper plates because you can kind of peel them off. Fill your containers with water. Now add pretty things from the yard or neighborhood. Berries, ferns, petals, rose hips, bits of evergreen foliage, anything you like. Finally, cut a length of twine and make sure the two ends are completely submerged. This will be your hanger. Leave them outside. In the morning the decoration will be ready to hang on a tree, a fence, or your front door.

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Redux: Reading Beyond the Shallows

A wave of books in the last couple of years has warned of the mentally-unhealthy click bait diet and what it means for our attention spans. We are enjoined to unplug, descend from the shallows and engage in “deep work.” After all, the creator of every great work of culture has been able–at minimum–to pay attention, and that ability is under threat.

I believe that we in the media can be part of the solution by resisting certain common devices that make our work “digestible”. It’s never wrong to be readable or clear, and there are ways in which we can write to scaffold the reader’s attention, helping them to hold more ideas in mind than they could without the text. But there are some techniques that buoy a reader’s mind at the surface and make it very difficult to immerse themselves in long-form pieces. I wrote about them here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Redux: A Snow Day

The last few days in Washington have been beautiful, springlike. Soft breezes, temperature in the 60s and 70s.

Which would be fine, if it were spring. But it is February, and it is not fine. This weather is making me angry. I try to enjoy it, because it’s what we have, and it is, objectively, lovely. Sometimes I can succeed for as much as an hour at a time. But Sunday I had to turn my air conditioning on. 

Here’s a throwback to a post from two years ago, when we were having proper winter in the mid-Atlantic. (Full text is below.)  

snowy morningThe first snow of the year, and the first noticeable snow of this winter, fell here in D.C. on Tuesday. Yes, we know that our reaction to snow makes no sense. No, we don’t have enough snowplows. No, we don’t know how to drive in snow. You’re very clever for noticing, People Who Live In Consistently Snowy Places.

A few inches of snow wreaked the usual havoc. Screenshots of the traffic maps this morning showed red spaghetti. Schools delayed, then closed, or didn’t close and earned their very own trending hashtag (#closeFCPS). Some find the chaos profitable–“body shop weather,” an acquaintance who manages such a business called it. Many, I gather, find it annoying.

With no car to keep out of the ditch or kids to worry about, snow still holds that joy of childhood for me – the promise of a special day, just because the moisture and the cold collided in just the right way in my part of the world. Even though I don’t get days off for meteorology anymore, because I work for a company headquartered in a place that gets serious snow. But a snow day still feels special, a cold, white present from the sky, a literal gift from above. Continue reading

Before You Can Enter, We Need to Search Your Brain

an etching of a crowd, a man performing a mind reading trick on a seated woman

On Friday, January 27th, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven countries from entering the United States. And in the wake of that executive order, there have been a continuos stream of reports that people trying to enter the United States (whether from those countries or not) have been subjected to a variety of questions and searches.

One Canadian student with family ties to Morocco says he was asked about whether he went to mosques, and which ones specifically, and was asked to turn over his phone and passwords. A NASA scientist was detained at the border and says he was told he would not be released unless he gave the border guards access to his phone. Another Canadian woman was turned away from the border after the police reportedly questioned her about her Muslim faith and looked through her phone for about an hour.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen story after story about how to secure your digital information online, and others wondering if it was even possible. I’ve also had a lot of friends asking me, both rhetorically and literally if they plan to try and travel outside the United States, what the rules are about this kind of thing. Can the US Customs and Border Patrol demand your phone’s contents? Your social media information? Your passwords?

All this got me thinking about something that a legal scholar told me a while back, about how the law treats phones. I preface all of this saying that I am very, very, very much not a lawyer and this should not be construed as legal advice of any kind. I just thought it was interesting.

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The Last Word

Feb 13-17, 2017

Rose loves watching people dance (check out her favorite YouTube videos). This paper about women dancing? She does not love it so much: Oh, so, the paper here isn’t really asking “which woman is a better dancer” but rather “which woman would you rather sleep with?” That is… a completely different question than asking who’s a better dancer.

Jenny might have been a paleontologist if, as a fifth grader, she had found a weird fossil like Saccorhytus coronarious, a wrinkly mouthed sac that is also one of our ancestors: Its form, at some 540 million years old, proves that we vertebrates have been pushing around our greedy mouths to stuff our faces, and letting fly the excess, for a really long time.

America has been great before, says Craig, in the Ice Age: Ours has been a country for refugees and far-flung travelers since the beginning. . . To survive far northern conditions within shooting distance of the land bridge, people had to invent portable architecture and tailored clothing, represented by the advent of stone microblades for precisely cutting skins, and eyed sewing needles fashioned out of mammoth ivory found in both Siberia and Alaska.

 Michelle writes about a tree that weighs as much as 10,000 grizzly bears. It’s a quaking aspen named Pando, and it’s in trouble: For Rogers, the clone’s slow but increasingly visible desistance is a sign of larger human failings. “When something that’s so big, and has been around so long, just starts to fall apart,” he says, “that points the finger back at us.”

This idea to cut out the middleman between pharma and consumers? Been there, done that, says Erik: The masses are good at many things. Finding planets, for instance. Or driving the world’s car markets to ever-better quality and efficiency. Or proofreading Taylor Swift’s Wikipedia page. But . . . we are not great at picking effective drugs.

Drugs, Trials and a Little Bit of History Repeating

I can’t help but notice that placebos have crept into the political news in recent weeks. Okay, maybe they aren’t in the headlines but they’re there, just below the surface. That’s because when you see a headline about the Food and Drug Administration, you should immediately start thinking of placebos.

The Trump administration hasn’t named an FDA head yet, but they have laid out their priorities. Namely, to clear away the impediments between drug companies and end-users. In December, it was whispered that Trump might pick Jim O’Neill, who believes that the market should dictate which drugs may enter the market, rather than a faceless bureaucracy. Which is a great idea when it comes to tennis shoes and sports cars, but an absolutely catastrophe when it comes to drugs.

But, you say, information wants to be free, people should feel they are in control of their own health, and life-saving drugs should be available as soon as possible. No. When it comes to drugs, this is absolutely wrong because – oddly enough – of the placebo effect.

How do I know this? Because we’ve been down this exact same road before.

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The Quaking Giant

On the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, in the mountains of central Utah, is a tree that weighs an estimated 13 million pounds—as much as three giant sequoias, or 55 blue whales, or 10,000 grizzly bears. (Hey, I just thought you might like to imagine a pile of 10,000 bears.) This tree is the most massive living organism in the world, according to most of the people who argue about such things, and while estimates of its age have varied wildly, from a few hundred years to more than a million, it certainly predates any of us. Some twenty years ago, a trio of Colorado scientists nicknamed it Pando, Latin for “I spread,” and the name has stuck.

Pando, which is a quaking aspen, doesn’t look like a single tree. Like many plant species but only a few trees, aspen usually reproduce asexually, by sending out horizontal roots which then sprout new stems. Over its long lifetime, Pando has sprouted around 47,000 genetically identical stems from a single root system, creating one organism that covers more than 100 acres. Quaking aspen do occasionally reproduce sexually, and each clone’s flowers are either all male or all female. Pando, as it happens, is a boy. One 13-million-pound boy tree. Continue reading

When America was Great, the First Time

We were great in the Ice Age. Big weapons, big animals, big land.

While parts of the world were crawling with hominids for a million years or more, this side of the planet was off limits. Getting here was never easy, not in the late Pleistocene, not now. The Americas are bookended by the world’s two largest oceans and occasionally connected by an Arctic land bridge. For most of human history, this country was vast, open, and unexplored, and anyone who arrived had to either really want it, or they were terribly lost.

As a new assault rises against refugees and a freshly minted president tries to keep the door open for some and close it for others, it is time to consider the longer history of this place. Continue reading