Friday, September 30, 2022

The Bucket List Strike 1

I ticked something off my bucket list on my recent trip to the US.

In my head, a pretty weird place at the best of times, this is how the trip would go.

We would get dressed up in warm clothes, take anti sea sickness meds and get onboard a small ferry and that would leave the civilisation of the east coast and bounce its way to an island. The weather would be dark, grey, stormy, wet, windy. The ferry would give the day trippers  sou'westers and water proofs. The island would be a barren land of rocks, hardy grass and shale. There'd be the odd historical sign of habitation, a whaling museum  and a cafe that specialised in soup to ward off hypothermia. 

This is what the island looked like.

Yes, it was Nantucket. I might have been thinking about Greenland or Kirkwall. 

So here's some facts. It was very warm and sunny. It's 100 square miles, 30 feet above sea level and has a lot of fog! The population of  14,255 quadruples in summer. Health insurance is expensive and the pavements are very dangerous.

It lies 30 miles south from Cape Cod. It's very pretty.

The average sale price for a single-family home was $2.3 million in the first quarter of 2018 according to Wikipeadia. We looked in the windows of the estate agents and the property was eye wateringly expensive.

"The Little Grey Lady of the Sea" is the most common nickname for the island.  Referring to the appearance of the island through the ocean fog.

Today it’s a rather arty, designer place. The local woman seem to weigh about two stone, and have a lot of exquisite, expensive  jewellery.

It’s a wealthy place now but in the past, it has had  hard times. There was a fire in 1846 that burned much of the island, causing a fair amount of the population to leave. Dry tinder and whale oil fed the flames. The whaling industry was in decline, whaling ships now needed deep water ports like New Bedford. The railway was making transport from land ports easier. And then, the Confederates destroyed most of the whaling ships in the American Civil War.

In the 1950s, property developers decided to lay the foundations for an upmarket area for the wealthy and started to buy up land. The rest is history.

Nantucket appears in a lot of books, over thirty different novels or series of novels, most famously Elin Hilderbrand's novels and in Moby Dick, Ishmael starts his journey at Nantucket

Nantucket waters have seen their share of maritime and aeronautical disasters. The ocean liner RMS Olympic ran into the Nantucket Lightship, four out of the eleven crew survived. In 1956, in heavy fog, the Andrea Doria ran into the MS Stockholm. Fifty one souls were lost. Two years later, Northeast Airlines Flight 258 lost height while on the approach to the airport, twenty five of the thirty four aboard were killed. Then in 1976, oil tanker Argo Merchant hit ground thirty miles south of Nantucket and when she broke up six days later she  discharged a massive oil  cargo- one of the largest spillages in history. Then in 1999, an Egypt air flight from New York City, crashed south of Nantucket, killing all two hundred passengers and crew.

As I've said, the fog in the area is legendary and deadly

Maybe mostly I think of Nantucket because of its fabulous poetry.

There was a young man from Nantucket….

Caro ( back on a windy, wet island!)

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Seeing is...

 Michael – Thursday

It’s been quite few years since you could unequivocally add “believing” at the end of that phrase. About ten years ago when I was still teaching image processing at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I had a number of students who did projects on how to identify fake images i.e. images that had been doctored so that they would show something that never actually happened. There was a small but developing discipline called image forensics to try to separate the true from the fake.

Teddy bears working on new AI research underwater with 1990s technology

Some of those fake images were ridiculously crude. A Chinese newspaper ran a picture showing a local dignitary opening a new road, but the dignitary’s feet missed the surface of the road by several inches. Two political leaders who had never met shook hands, yet they cast shadows in different directions.

Even as more sophisticated image-merging techniques were developed, it was possible to determine with a pretty high level of certainty that the images had been tampered with. Basically, when images are doctored, fingerprints remain. When the images come from different sources, the cameras may leave evidence. When two images are merged, their relative compression may well be different.

However, all this is predicated on your starting with an image and then doctoring it. What if you create the whole image from scratch? One’s first reaction is that it will be obvious that it’s not a photograph. Well, that’s true if a human draws it, but how about a computer? The images in this blog were created by OpenAI’s DALL-E software. Do you still think that? You don’t have to draw anything for the software, just tell it want you want…

Girl with pearl earring in her kitchen

Since the software was released about six months ago, over one million users are generating millions of images every day. So seeing is no longer believing. Basically every image has to be treated as potentially fake.

That’s not quite true, at least for DALL-E. You can’t ask the software to produce a picture of President Biden doing something or other, pictures of politicians and celebrities are banned. The reality however, is that what OpenAI can do other deep-learning software companies (and government agencies) will learn to do also. And DALL-E now allows one to upload images and use them as a model. The problem is that it may not recognize that the picture is in fact of one of the celebrities and politicians that it’s supposed to avoid.

How about a “photograph” of the murderer somewhere completely different at the time of the murder? It's possible for OpenAI to embed an invisible code in its images that it could subsequently read and use to provide data about when the image was created and by what version of the software. OpenAI doesn’t say whether it does that or not. But, in any case, the comments in the previous paragraph apply.

If these public-domain images don't convince you, take a look at the ones the Washington Post whipped up in their article particularly the demonstration outside the capitol.

Welcome to the world of seeing is not believing…

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

THE FETUS AS A PERSON--Why the fetal heartbeat at 6 weeks is a misguided construct


The fetus as a person: the political hot potato

Powered by the momentum of the Dobbs decision and the Roe v. Wade reversal, anti-choice activists have been moving forward in the direction they have wanted for decades. In a move to criminalize abortion and hold an abortion-performing provider liable for felony charges, the pro-life movement wants to give the fetus equal protection as a person under the 14th Amendment. The possible prosecution of an abortion doctor has already become reality. Not long after the ruling, the attorney general of Indiana vowed to investigate the physician who carried out the termination procedure on a ten-year-old-girl victim of rape.

The so-called fetal heartbeat
At the center of much of the discussion around abortion is the presence or absence of a fetal heartbeat at approximately six weeks, hence the drafting of “six-week abortion bans.” The heart, which supplies itself and all the other organs with blood, is essential to life, and in many cultures, the heart is the physical representation of emotions such as love and hate.

The heart’s elevated status in our minds gives the fetal heartbeat special significance, but while some people might picture a heart-shaped organ beating inside the six-week-old fetus, this is not the case. At that early stage, the nascent heart is only a specialized cluster of cells with the unique ability to emit regular electrical impulses like a pacemaker. These fluttery impulses are what an ultrasound detects as “beats,” but, in fact, the embryonic heart is not physically beating in the conventional sense. These unique, embryonic cells, which can perform the same fluttering function either inside or outside the fetus, still have another four to six weeks to develop into a working, four-chambered heart. If you’ve never seen the ultrasound (sonogram) 6-week fetal heart, here is fine example from Missouri Fertility:

The fetal brain v the fetal heartbeat
But the fetal organ that should arouse just as much passion as the heart is the brain, which will eventually control thought, emotion, memory, touch, motor skills, vision, and a myriad of other functions. The only organ that can’t be transplanted (so far), the human brain is largely responsible for our personalities, and has much more to do with the fetus as a person than the heart does. An examination of the stages of fetal brain development is more instructive and more useful in the fetal person debate.

Just as the heart begins as a specialized group of cells, the embryonic brain is only a neural plate by the fourth pregnancy week. In the sixth to seventh weeks, the neural plate folds to form the neural tube, which is the earliest nervous system tissue. The head portion becomes the rudimentary brain, which subdivides into the fore, mid, and hindbrain. At that point, new nerve cells are being produced at a rapid rate.

Diagram of development of neural tube
Neural Tube Formation (Adapted Shutterstock)

As early as the 9th week of gestation, the fetus is able to move the head, trunk, and extremities spontaneously. But from this period up to birth, the forebrain is relatively underdeveloped, and in utero fetal movements are largely due to reflexive activity in the part of the hindbrain called the brainstem. Such fetal movements can occur even in the absence of forebrain-initiated cognition such as reasoning or understanding. The “smiling” we sometimes see in a neonate is more of a brainstem-mediated phenomenon than a reflection of true emotion, given that anencephalic neonates without a forebrain can also display such behaviors. By the 36th to 38th week of gestation, the fetal brainstem will respond to external sounds like the mother’s voice, thus triggering reflexive body movements.

Diagram of fetal to adult brain development
Human brain development inside and outside the mother (From EHP

The importance of the forebrain can’t be emphasized enough. This is the headquarters of emotions such as anger, pleasure, fear, joyfulness, and the desire for social interaction—the phenomena that make us human. The forebrain doesn’t begin to functionally mature until near term. Before, at, or after birth, injury to the frontal lobes may have profound effects on cognitive function.

As we obsess with the mostly illusory phenomenon of the “fetal heartbeat” at six weeks, we blithely ignore the astonishing intricacies of the developing fetal brain, which will have much more to do with the fetus as a person than does the heart. At what point in its development does the fetal brain most endow us with characteristics that define us as persons? That’s open to discussion, but it is certainly farther along than the sixth week of gestation. The six-week-old fetal heartbeat is more of a political highpoint than it is a medical or embryological one. In the debate over the fetus as a person, we should shift our attention to the most phenomenal and consequential organ of the human body—the brain.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Plant Rescue

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

It's a Moon Day today, so no morning yoga practice at the Shala. (I try to go at least three times a week--five is my goal, but I don't always make it.)

I went for an early--gentle--walk instead. And I found a dead plant a neighbour had put out for disposal.

Yes it's on my patio now. The roller base is mine. But the pot it came in is nice--a good, solid old style red claypot. It was the pot that caught my attention first. I figured could recycle it instead of letting it get crushed in the garbage truck.

It was heavy.

And I saw why it had been thrown out--the mealy bugs on it were quite horrifying--

And there were ants wandering around on it, which made me worry for my own plants. Because it's the ants that cultivate mealy bugs, protecting and tending to them and finding new plants for them to infest and devastate in exchange for the honeydew they produce. 

Kind of like we cultivate sheep... and cows and corn, infesting and devastating our forest zones. I'm fond of ants--don't get me wrong. I'm also quite fond of some people.

I meant to dig the plant out and scrub down the pot. But then I saw this poor adenium wasn't quite dead yet--

There were still five tiny green leaves alive, after I pulled off all the dead brown ones. And there were several hopeful little buds sticking out. 

I used isopropyl alcohol on cotton swabs and underneath the mass of white death they're still alive...

And though several rotten branches needed to be cut away, its base seems solid. It's quite an old plant, rather like an old rescue dog that I can maybe give a few more good years to.

I'll probably dig it out of its pot (the pot that caught my attention) this weekend and see what kind of condition its roots are in, but that'll have to wait till after I finish the current WIP. 

But I'm going to give it a chance. If it survives I'll post more photos--please wish me luck!

Monday, September 26, 2022


 I’m cheating a little by worming a post in before my scheduled date, but I wanted to share with you the beautiful Japanese version of THE MISSING AMERICAN. I think Susan will be especially interested! I confess I didn’t expect to be published in Japan, but no complaints here!

Because the jacket design is so attractive, I of course had to create a decorative mockup to go with it. I matched it with a lovely photo of a colorful autumn season and Mountain Fuji, with morning fog and red leaves at Lake Kawaguchiko.⁠ ⁠

I’m learning that traditionally, Japanese is read vertically from right to left (called tategaki (縦書き), but modern Japanese can be written horizontally left to right (yokogaki (横書き). Whichever way, the script is amazing. Unfortunately I can neither read nor write it!⁠

(Image BG by Travel mania/Shutterstock, the rest by Kwei)

Story Tellers

Annamaria on Monday

Story tellers are a category of sculpture that originated with the New Mexican Pueblo people. This art form was invented by Helen Cordero, a potter, who--in 1963--was inspired by the work of her grandfather, who followed the Pueblo tradition of oral history and story telling.   And by the traditional tribal role of the "Singing Mother" - an icon usually pictured with an open mouth, who passes down the culture's songs and stories from generation to generation.

I first learned of these charming figures from my dear departed friend and mentor, Dr. Barbara Fass Leavy, professor of literature and champion of the literary merits of crime fiction.  It was Barbara's collection that sparked my interest in the lovely terra cotta statues.

As with any art form, the best way to get to know this one is to look at the works. I think, since we on MIE are storytellers and story readers, these whimsical representations will charm you as they do me.

Here are two from Barbara Leavy's collection that I am thrilled to say are now mine!  I keep them near my computer, so that I pass them on my way to my own story telling.  They challenge to do my best to make my stories sing.  


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Soy Sauce and Donkey: A Pilgrimage BEFORE the (Kumano Kodo) Pilgrimage

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Two years ago next month, I hiked the sacred Kumano Kodo pilgrimage for the second time. This ancient trail is one of two pilgrimages registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites (the other is Spain's Camino de Santiago).

The day before the hike, I traveled south from Tokyo to Yuasa, a tiny town on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula that sits at the juncture where the coastal Kumano Kodo Kii-ji intersects with the Nakahechi--the "central route" that serves as the primary pilgrim trail.

If you've never heard of Yuasa, you're in good company. Even within Japan, it's not particularly well-known. 

However, I'm willing to bet you've heard of the reason Yuasa is famous. In fact, you probably have personal experience with Yuasa's primary culinary claim to fame . . . but more on that in a minute.

Like many Japanese towns, the manhole covers celebrate Yuasa's claim(s) to fame.

Due in part to its somewhat remote location, Yuasa remains a sleepy coastal fishing town. It sits about 2.5 hours south of Kyoto by a combination of express and local trains. 

Heron fishing in the canal

Upon arrival, I checked in at my lodgings for the night: Miyoshi-so, a ryokan (traditional inn) that has been serving travelers on the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail for over 100 years.

The entrance to Miyoshi-so

Welcome tea and a local monaka (crispy filled wafer)-style cookie

My guest room.

 After relaxing for a few minutes, I headed out to explore the town. I was scheduled to begin the seven-day trek along the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi the following morning, and wanted to see as much of Yuasa's history as I could that afternoon.

The town has a large historical preservation district, with lots of preserved warehouses, shops, and homes.

Preserved homes in Yuasa's historical district

At the northwest end of the historical district, a building that once served as a shoyu brewery is now home to the Kadocho Soy Sauce Museum--a veritable wonderland for those of us who like small, odd collections of historical artifacts, and also an informative display about Yuasa's claim to fame.
(I promised we'd get back to that.)

According to local history, Yuasa is the place where soy sauce was invented--not just "in Japan" but anywhere in the world. 

The entrance to the soy sauce museum

Old soy sauce ads, bottles, and artifacts.

The implements used to brew traditional shoyu (soy sauce)

The displays were labeled (in Japanese) with brief explanations of each artifact's role in the shoyu brewing process. They were roughly "in order" from a brewing perspective, though as you can see in the photo above, the museum vibe leaned slightly farther toward "wacky grandpa's shoyu barn" than "true museum."

Not that I mind. When it comes to museums, I like them weird, and these artifacts felt much more "alive" than the ones you find in a sterile-type museum.

After viewing the soy sauce artifacts, I popped into the Kadocho shop across the street for some souvenirs. Kadocho still brews and sells soy sauce made the traditional way, with no preservatives and no unnecessary ingredients--including some that has nothing in it but soybeans, koji (the fermenting bacteria mixture) and salt. And after that, it was time for lunch.

At least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, this little fishing town doesn't see much tourism--particularly mid-pandemic--and the only restaurant I found open in the historical district was a "fresh catch" place that had only fish on the menu.

(Note: I'm allergic to fish, so that option, though attractive to many people, was a hard pass where I'm concerned.)
More of Yuasa's preserved buildings

I started back toward the ryokan, hopes sinking ever lower as I realized even Google Maps had no idea where I could find a restaurant--or even a convenience store--that was open that day in this little town.

Just when I was ready to surrender all hope and wait for dinner (which fortunately was being prepared for me at the ryokan that night), I turned a corner and saw a white tiled building with a sign reading "Coffee Restaurant DONKEY"--and a flag out front that suggested it was open.

Coffee Restaurant ドンキ-- ("Donkey")

The outside wasn't much to look at, but when it's well past noon, I haven't eaten since 5 a.m., I've walked five miles since breakfast, and dinner isn't until 6:30 . . . I ain't too picky. I made a beeline for the door and headed in.

An adorable grey-haired, grandmotherly woman (who turned out to be one of the owners) led me to a table and handed me a menu--with an apology that it was written in Japanese. Fortunately, that wasn't a problem--although choosing from the list of intriguing options proved more of a challenge than I expected.

In the end I settled on "special doria"--which was a leap of faith, because although I know that "doria" is a dish composed of white rice baked in cream sauce, usually topped with meat sauce (and sometimes cheese), the menu didn't mention what made this one "special."

And in Japan, that really could mean anything. 

Ten minutes later, the sweet proprietor emerged from the kitchen bearing the dish below: 

A special doria indeed

The meat sauce smelled homemade--and slightly sweet, which gave me a moment's pause, but I was so hungry I didn't pause for long. As it turned out, the sauce atop the rice was indeed homemade, and fell somewhere between marinara and barbecue sauce (it tasted like a combination of the two) with liberal chunks of minced tomato, carrot, and onion throughout. Stranger still, the rice was mixed with little pieces of . . . scrambled eggs, a little like what you'd expect to see in fried rice, although this rice was steamed and baked in a bechamel sauce (as usual for doria) not fried.)

Now, based on that description, I think we can all agree the dish shouldn't work. Objectively, it sounds just . . . wrong.

But in reality, it was absolutely delicious--the best doria I've ever eaten, bar none, and I eat them often. Long before I finished, I was already regretting the fact that it would probably be two years (at least) before I was able to eat the dish again (since I try to hike the Kumano Kodo in even-numbered years)

It has been a year and eleven months since that fateful lunch, and I still miss that special doria.

Fortunately, it is an even-numbered year, and I do have plans to hike the Kumano Kodo this November. In about eight weeks, if everything goes as planned, I'll head south to Yuasa, to spend another night at Miyoshi-so before setting off on another pilgrimage along the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi.

And you can bet I'll be visiting Donkey the day before.

For now, I'll leave you with a view of sunset in Yuasa, shot from the window of my room at Miyoshi-so...

... And the official start of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi, at Takijiri Oji, a few minutes inland from Yuasa by local train.  In two more months, I'll be back on the trail - and I'm looking forward to taking you with me, in tales and photos from the trip. 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

My Granddaugher Gavi's Big Day





Today is the Bat Mitzvah of my granddaughter Gavriella Tovah Siger, and I couldn’t be prouder of her!  She’s an accomplished and celebrated actress, improv comedian, musician, vocalist, and scholar. And tonight her party marking this milestone event is a Rock ‘n Roll celebration featuring her band!


For those of you who many wonder what is a Bat Mitzvah (pronounced Baht Mitts-vah), the simplest explanation is that it’s the coming of age religious ritual for a Jewish girl, as the Bar Mitzvah ritual is for a Jewish boy.  For a girl the age is twelve, and for a boy it’s thirteen. In Gavi’s case, Covid considerations delayed her ceremony for a year and a half.


The history of the Bar Mitzvah actually dates back to a fifth century reference in a religious text to a blessing recited by a father thanking God for freeing him from responsibility for the deeds of his son, based upon his son attaining an age that made him accountable for his own actions.  


How many fathers of all faiths still pray for similar debt relief. :)


The Bat Mitzvah celebration has its roots in 19th century European tradition but did not make its way to the United States until 1922. It now flourishes in many communities as a revered family occasion of great joy.


And that’s precisely what Gavi brings to all blessed to know her…great joy.


As her Zayde (grandfather) this day brings the promise of special joy to me, for perhaps now her parents will think of her as old enough to read her Zayde’s books!


I love you Gavi. We all do. Mazel Tov.



Friday, September 23, 2022

A sad, sad day.


I wasn’t one of the 4.2 billion people who watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II as it happened as I was either on a ferry or at 36 000 feet.

I caught up with it all in the wee hours of the morning at Keflavik Airport, which was dark, cold and largely deserted. It all seemed rather fitting.

On coming home, and being back at work, everybody coming in had an opinion, too much, too little, too long, too short… and who was the very tall guy at the front?

Overall, I’d gauge the mood as very respectful, with a little touch of humour.  Which is also rather fitting.

Now, all the footage has been analysed, the lip readers have had a good watch, re who said what to who and why has all been reported.

Here’s my ten things of note.

The naval ratings pulling the 2.6 ton weight of the gun carriage and coffin. There was 98 of them, lads and lassies. For every monarch’s funeral up to Queen Victoria’s funeral the carriage was pulled by horses. That day, the horses misbehaved – it was a bitterly cold day, and they got a bit ratty – and the navy took over, starting a new tradition.

A spider hitched a ride on the top of the coffin, emerging from the flowers and crawling across a white message card. Being rather tired I misread the headline, thinking it said Stornoway spider rather than Stowaway spider. I thought it was a flower. If it isn’t, it should be.

Apollo the drum house was trumpet horse for the day. He’s rather famous as he was bought from a farm in Wales while the TV programme The Queen’s Horses was being filmed. He was a big hairy youngster back then and has filled out to be rather fabulous. Riding a drum / trumpet horse involves steering, accelerating and braking using your feet – the reins attach to the stirrups.

The tall guy walking in front of the car – the one who looked a bit like Richard Osman was Paul Whybrew, leading part of the procession after the funeral. He’s six feet four inches tall. He was a long-standing member of the royal household and, seemingly used to sit and watch sport with her. She called him Tall Paul. I have no information if there was also a short one.

The slow walk by the procession. Metronomic and rather hypnotic.  A cannon shot heard every minute, and the mournful music, ended on The Long Walk at Windsor Castle. It was quite difficult to look away. I checked with my military friend ‘Wee John’, no friend of Tall Paul, and it’s a slow march except when used at a funeral. Then it is a funeral march. One leg pauses as it passes the other, and the foot should hardly lift off the ground. When standing still, the feet lift alternately creating a slight side to side movement, the muscle clenching helps to prevent fainting.

The initial proceedings, the pipes (Scots and Irish) started the day at a fair skelp of a march before they reached the Abbey.  My colleague, a staunch anti monarchist said she only cried four times, the first was when the massed pipes came down past the barracks, lifted their pipes and began to play. The arms (guns not limbs…) on that day were carried backwards as a sign of mourning. You may have seen the soldiers march with one arm across their back holding the front of the gun behind them. Alan used to play that tune in the pipe band (he was a drummer, he’d be marking the time of the march) and said they were going slightly faster than normal – part of the timing of the day no doubt.

 The lone piper walking out the church after the coffin had been interned was playing Sleep Dearie Sleep. That caused a few tears as well.

And of course, the two corgis at the end. Muick and Sandy. One was paying attention. The other lay down and looked like he was going for a nap.

And then there was Emma, the Queen’s Fell pony, 23 years old, standing, riderless as the coffin was driven past.  Emma did pick up her front hoof and stamp it twice as if she was doing a curtesy. But was probably bored and wanting a treat.

When I was at uni in London, in Suffolk Street just off Trafalgar Square. I lived in Pimlico. Every day for five years I walked along Birdcage walk across the front of the palace, down the Mall or through Green Park to get onto Trafalgar Square, so it was all very familiar to me.

On the downside? That previous weekend, most sporting events, if they went ahead at all, had two minutes silence.  Some Celtic supporters took the chance to chant, “if you hate the Queen clap your hands”. And much, much worse. The other side, Rangers responded with some chants about the Pope.  That’s why Glaswegians can’t really get their heads round rival  American football fans being nice to each other. It’s shameful, terrible, but the hostility, and the bigotry, goes back to the Battle of The Boyne. (1690).

And every piece of history on top of the coffin, is part of our, British, history.  A history maybe that we should not be totally proud of.  The stones on the crown and the sceptre that lay on top of the coffin signified that very clearly and drew criticism which is fair enough. 

But as a nation, there was true mourning. In many cases it was the transference of grief but still grief.  

And the nation did mourn.