Archive for February, 2012

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] is America’s nattiest nerd, its chicest geek!

He’s a sharp-looking scientist. A trendy twerp. He looks great. He is handsome and well-spoken, funny, witty and charming.

And he’s smart. Sweet Lord in heaven, is he ever smart!

(America’s most dapper dweeb!)

He’s the kind of smart that takes very complicated super-brainy stuff and breaks it down into simple bite-sized easy-to-digest pieces that the rest of us plebes can handle. And he make it fun in the process.

And because of that, you remember what he says just as much as how he says it.

He can talk to us in our language without making it sound like he is talking down to us.

He makes science fashionable and fun. His enthusiasm is infectious. You get interested in astrophysics because he is just so darned excited about the whole subject.

Tyson doesn’t intimidate you with his intellect. He beguiles you with his boyish charm.

And that is why we so desperately need him.

At a time when certain segments of society deny science and pooh-pooh basic theories, when ‘Truthiness’ trumps Truth and when Reality is accused of having a well-known liberal bias, we need him more than ever.

The world is a better, richer place because of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

It is a place where curiosity, literacy, education,  intellect and expertise are not dirty words.


[1] Neil deGrasse Tyson (born October 5, 1958) is an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and a Research Associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.

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Earlier this month (February 7, to be exact), was the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat. Like some other Jewish holidays, it occurs on a full moon.

But unlike Purim (the following full moon), Passover (the next full moon after that) or Succot (either a Harvest Moon or Hunter Moon), the Tu B’Shevat full moon happens in the dead of winter. It is also known as the February Moon or Snow Moon. When I was a little kid, standing outside on a cold winter night, I would look up at the Ring Around the Moon, awed by its simple beauty. At the time, my mind, uncluttered as it were with scientific facts, was able to appreciate its heavenly glory with pure innocence.

And it is in the dead of winter that you are most likely to see a Ring Around the Moon, aka a Lunar Halo. Still, thin clouds of ice crystals hang in the cold, wintry sky creating these gorgeous lunar halos. Refraction of moonlight by the hexegonal (six-sided) crystals produce a slightly colored halo with its characteristic radius of 22 degrees.

Luckily, there are times even now when, caught unawares by natures grandeur, I am pulled back to a child-like wonder of nature and the cosmos. It could be anything. The Harvest Moon, huge and warm, emerging just above the dark silhouette of a treeline; the Leonids meteor shower streaking overhead; and on the iciest and coldest of nights, Light Pillars.

I love for moments like these. They make me appreciate life. They make life worth living.

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A few weeks ago, I signed up with a program called Partners in Torah.

It is run by that fabulous adult Jewish education organization, Aish HaTorah. [1]

The premise is quite simple. People who, for various reasons, cannot get together with a study partner to learn Torah, Jewish history, Hebrew, Talmud, Halacha (Jewish law), and so on, can get connected with an appropriate person and, together, they study on the phone for 30 to 60 minutes a week.

(I saw this at Aish HaTorah’s Village Shul in Toronto)

As per their website…

Partners in Torah’s signature phone study program offers Jewish adults of all backgrounds across North America a cost-free learning opportunity to discover Judaism – its culture, history, and traditions – at their pace and their schedule. Jewish men and women with an interest in acquiring specific skills or who simply want to build on their Jewish knowledge-base, are matched, one-to-one, with a carefully selected personal Torah trainer or “mentor” for up to an hour a week of over-the-phone study and discussion. Participants can choose any topic including Hebrew, Jewish philosophy, or history. In its decade and a half of operation, Partners in Torah has engaged more than 40,000 intellectually curious Jews across North America, and today supports some 4,000 weekly study partnerships (over 8,000 individuals!).

I emailed Partners in Torah and very shortly thereafter received a phone call from a charming young lady who asked me several questions confirming my status as a Jew, a bit of my background, what I was interested in studying and why, etc.

I told her that while I spend about half of my week in a Orthodox neighbourhood in Toronto, the other half of my week I practice as a criminal defence lawyer down in the Niagara Region of Southern Ontario. Not exactly The Heart of the Old World and certainly not a bastion of Torah Study. In fact, you can count all the Orthodox Jewish men in the entire region on one hand. So I was very keen on being able to learn with someone as opposed to studying on my own (not the ideal method, by any means).

I also indicated to the young lady that I wasn’t all that interested in Talmudic civil law. If a wall crumbles and collapses and a person gets injured, trust me, I could not care less who is liable to pay damages. I went to law school for three years. I hated tort law then and nothing since has improved my outlook on the topic. Bunch of ambulance chasers, if you ask me.

(A page from the Mishnah Berurah, this one dealing with the laws of Passover)

I told her that what I was interested in was the practical day-to-day application of Jewish law. When asked to be more specific, I suggested studying the Mishnah Berurah (the Chofetz Chaim‘s commentary on the Shulchan Aruch [2]), especially Hilchos Shabbos (Sabbath Laws).

Surprisingly, she said, “I know just the person for you!” She then set me up with one of their volunteers, a guy in New Jersey.

He and I emailed back and forth a few times, and spoke on the phone the next day regarding what I was interested in learning and what would be a mutually convenient time for us to learn.

We agreed to study together Wednesday evenings from 7:30 to 8:30 pm.

The first study session went really well, I thought. It was exactly what I was hoping it would be. I couldn’t have been more pleased. I am looking forward to the next study session!

As the poster above says, “There’s happy. And then there’s ‘I have my very own Partner in Torah’ happy!”


[1] For those of you who follow this blog even semi-regularly, you will probably recognize the name Aish HaTorah as also being the international organization that runs, among other things, the Jerusalem Fellowships program which my daughter Exhibit One, attended in August 2011 and which my son, Exhibit Two, will attend this coming May 2012 in Jerusalem.

[2] Mishna Berurah (“Clarified Teachings”) is an important and widely used commentary, consisting of six volumes, on the Orach Chayim section of Yosef Karo‘s digested compilation of practical Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch. It combines his own elucidations and differing opinions with those of otherAharonim (post-medieval authorities.)

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For those of you unfamiliar with this delightful improvement on the old Rock Paper Scissors selection method, let me quote from Wikipedia:

Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock is a five-gesture expansion of the classic selection method game rock-paper-scissors. It operates on the same basic principle, but includes two additional weapons: the lizard (formed by the hand as a sock-puppet-like mouth) and Spock (formed by the Star Trek Vulcan salute). This reduces the chances of a round ending in a tie compared to the more traditional game. The game was originally invented by Sam Kass and Karen Bryla. It was mentioned in an article of The Times in 2005.

The rules of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock are as follows:

  • Scissors cut paper
  • Paper covers rock
  • Rock crushes lizard
  • Lizard poisons Spock
  • Spock smashes scissors
  • Scissors decapitate lizard
  • Lizard eats paper
  • Paper disproves Spock
  • Spock vaporizes rock
  • Rock crushes scissors

There are ten possible pairings of the five gestures, where each gesture beats two of the other gestures and is beaten by the remaining two.

And for those who have not yet experienced the exquisite pleasure of having the rules personally explained to you, here is the amazing Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory to do the honours!

Learn it. Love it. Live it.


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Several recent studies over the last few years have suggested that money is not the key to happiness.

Now while it is admittedly hard to maintain a sunny disposition under conditions of grinding poverty, once basic needs are met such as food, shelter, clothing, and so on, having more and more money and more and more stuff apparently doesn’t do all that much to improve overall contentment.

In fact, it appears that having too much of a fixation on money can even make you worse off.

How does all this plays out in the context of marriage?

Researchers evaluated nearly 2,000 couples in the United States and found that those who claimed not to care much about money scored up to fifteen percent better on marriage quality than couples where one or both members did claim to care a lot about wealth and possessions.

Marriages where both members self-identified as materialistic suffered from poor communication, poor conflict resolution skills, low responsiveness, and instability.

Now, let’s not get too carried away by these results here.

Materialism comes in different degrees and flavors. We’re all materialistic to some extent. We’re none of us St. Francis of Assisi. I don’t know how many people are reading this blog from the discomfort of a hermit cave deep in the wilderness. My guess is not many.

I admit… I myself have occasional flights of fancy where I visualize myself awash under a veritable cascade of material wealth.

This is not to say that a shared appreciation of being able to afford nice things, provide for children, and take family vacations can’t be sources of pleasure and happiness.

What the study suggests, though, is that there’s a tipping point where loving money for its own sake becomes a source of conflict. It is when things go past this tipping point for one or both spouses that the marriage suffers.

No doubt, there are very wealthy individuals and couples who manage to be quite happy. But their wealth may be more a by-product of contentment rather than a source of it.

Money buys you comfort and convenience. And lots of it, to be sure!

But it seems that the old adage still rings true. You can’t buy happiness.

Although, in many instances, you can probably rent it, temporarily.

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We all know that bees do the most amazing things. They set up intricate societies. They wage war on other bee colonies. They clear their beehives of debris and dead bee bodies.

But perhaps one of their most famous talents is the ability to communicate with other bees by means of a ‘wiggle dance’ by which they tell fellow bees via sign language where, for example, the good flowers are located.

Well, according to a recent article in the wonderfully named website, TreeHugger.com, it turns out that bees don’t only communicate with other bees. They can use body language to ward off enemies, like bee-eating hornets.

(Hornets… the honeybee’s enemy!)

New research that suggests honeybees also send ‘sign language’ signals to predators, warning would-be raiding hornets that they have been spotted and they’d better back off. And the best thing is the fact that these signals actually work!

The researchers described how the bees shook their abdomens when a hornet approached, a signal that triggered the hornet to retreat.

They published their findings in the journal Animal Behaviour.

(Hornet attempting an ill-advised landing at a local honeybee cluster)

As reported by the BBC:

Researchers already knew of this “characteristic shaking signal”, in which all the guards bees simultaneously vibrate their abdomens from side-to-side for a few seconds when a hornet approaches the colony. In the wild, this produces a spectacular “Mexican wave” of vibrating bees.

This study, carried out on a small bee hive, revealed the hornets (Vespa velutina) responded directly to the bees’ shaking signal. Warned wasps would retreat from the colony and try to catch bees in flight instead. To find this out, the researchers tethered live hornets to lengths of wire and held them at a variety of distances from the hive entrance. The closer the tethered hornet was held to the hive, the more intensely the bee guards shook their bodies. To confirm that the bees were specifically “talking to” the hornets with this signal, the team carried out the same tethering experiment with a harmless butterfly species (Papilio xuthus).

And what would happen if a foolhardy hornet decided to forgo the warning and try to make it into the hive?

(Uh oh! I got a bad feeling about this!)

“If a hornet lands at the hive entrance,” say the researchers, “it is pounced on by the guards, which then form a dense ball of up to 500 bees around the hornet.”

This kills the hornet with a combination of heat and suffocation. A pretty grizzly end, for sure.

So take heed, hornets, and think twice before you start up with the honeybees.

That extended finger may be the last thing you see!

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It is a sad day indeed when someone poaches your nanny.

Let me say right off the bat that I’ve been extremely lucky with all of the nannies I’ve hired over the years for Exhibits One and Two when they were mere tots. Each one better than the next with not a clunker in the bunch.

Others have not been so lucky. There is a friend of mine who has had the opposite experience… one nanny an even bigger horror story than the last.

In the olden days when dinosaurs ruled the world and it was relatively easy to hire a nanny, the government had (and still has, as far as I know) an ‘incentive program,’ of sorts. If a person outside Canada could find employment in Canada as a Foreign Domestic Worker (I think that’s what they were officially called) and maintain employment as a domestic for two years, then that person could apply for permanent residency status. [1] This was a good way for Canada to get the kinds of workers it needed and, in addition, increase its population. My father, like so many Italians, came to Canada after the war with a similar program that encouraged foreign labourers to work up in lumber camps in northern Ontario for a year or two, then become landed and bring over their wives. It was a pretty good deal in those days.

So, too, the foreign nanny program seems like a good set-up. So… what is going wrong?

You know that old cliché, “Good domestic help is so hard to find!”?

Apparently, the supply of good nannies is drying up.

According to a recent Toronto Star article, “Since 2010, fewer foreign live-in caregivers have been admitted to Canada, partly due to the declining applications by Canadian families who are now required to pay for all recruitment fees incurred and partly a result of Ottawa’s slower processing and tighter screening. The shortage of live-in caregivers has been exacerbated since mid-December when the federal government issued 14,000 open-work permits to nannies who met the employment hours to apply for permanent residency.”

The article continues, “The number of live-in caregivers arriving in Canada has plummeted by 40 per cent from its peak of 13,773 in 2007 to just 8,394 in 2010. Currently, average processing time to get an overseas nanny is 15 months, 17 months for the Philippines, the main source country.”

As a result, nanny poaching has become a rampant!  Fewer foreign domestics coming into Canada (declining applications, tighter government processing), more experienced nannies leaving the job pool and more families desperate to find good, trusted nannies to care for their kids, especially in a situation where both parents have full-time jobs and do not want to put their children in day-care.

What was once an employers’ market has rapidly turned into a nanny’s market! No longer content to work for minimum wage, good nannies these days can pretty well call the shots, especially when parents are willing to tempt them away from their present employers with higher wages, better living conditions and other attractive incentives.

As mentioned above… and this fact cannot be overstated… so many good nannies have completed their two years employment, obtained open-work permits and have moved out of the ‘live-in nanny’ business and into the ‘I’m going to make a better life for me and my own family, thank you very much’ business!

Which leads me back to my opening statement. It is a sad day indeed when someone poaches your nanny.

(Nanny no more!)

But really, what did we expect? Did we seriously think these wonderful women become nannies for the sheer thrill of taking care of our little kids night and day for little pay? Did we honestly believe these girls wouldn’t leave us for more money and a better deal for themselves? Or, heaven forbid, to start their own lives and families the first chance they could get? The only reason they looked after our kids, cleaned our houses and cooked our food was the hope that after two whole years of this crap, they would be well on the road to becoming Canadian citizens! Oh, and just in case you still haven’t caught on… that’s why they came over as nannies in the first place!

The law of supply and demand is hitting parents were it hurts the most… in their children’s lives.

It’s a tough situation to be in, no doubt. But parents can make it easier on themselves and reduce the risk of having their nannies stolen from under their noses.

Here is some free advice from an old man who’s hired a few nannies in his day.

  • Pay them well. Don’t scrimp when it comes to the women who are taking care of your children. Don’t give them only what you are absolutely required by law to pay. Give them the bare minimum and it is just a matter of time before someone realizes how much your nanny is really worth… and is more than willing to pay it!
  • Treat them well. They aren’t your servants. They aren’t your slaves. They certainly aren’t your friends and family. Treat them as valued employees. As with monetary compensation, if you don’t treat them well… someone else will be happy to do so!
  • Give them their own time and their own space. Having a live-in nanny doesn’t mean she is on call 24-7. She needs her own life, her own space and her own time. Make her work environment seem like a prison… and she will be happy to grab the first opportunity to escape.
  • Do everything above-board. Pay all of her source deductions. Make sure she is in this country legally! Don’t give in to the ‘under the table’ urge. You will both be happy in the long run. Trust me.
  • Be kind and generous. You, in turn, will be rewarded with their loyalty. Be nasty, stingy and mean… and you are basically asking them to find a new job.

Here is another truism I’ve learned when I was an employee…

‘You will often put up with being treated poorly if you are paid well… and you will often put up with being paid poorly if you are treated well… but there has to be at least one or else you quit!’

Good luck out there. I hope you are as fortunate as I was!


[1] A permanent resident is someone who has acquired permanent resident status by immigrating to Canada, but is not yet a Canadian citizen. Permanent residents have rights and privileges in Canada even though they remain citizens of their home country. In order to maintain permanent resident status, they must fulfill specified residency obligations. (Citizenship and Immigration Canada)

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Just when I barely got my mind around the fact that my son, Exhibit Two, was no longer five years old and was, in actual fact, a teenager… he turns 20!!

(My son with his sister, the lovely Exhibit One)

It seems hardly fair, to my mind.

For those of you who think that you might have seen this guy before, if you look at the photo up at the top of this blog page, you will see a familiar figure…

Yes, folks… that is my little (6’2″) schmendrick praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem last summer.

If things go well, Exhibit Two will return to Jerusalem in May to study at Aish HaTorah as part of their Jerusalem Fellowships program.

Happy Birthday. May HaShem continue to bless you, my son.

I am so lucky to be your father. No one could ask for a better son.

Let’s continue growing closer into the future!

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Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Sheril Kirshenbaum [1], science writer and author of the recent book, The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, sheds light on exactly what goes on biologically when we lock lips. Kissing basically “acts like a drug by stimulating the natural chemicals in our bodies, yet unlike other human behaviors, science has barely begun to ‘put kissing under the microscope’ to study this intriguing evolutionary behavior,” says Kirshenbaum.

(The most famous kiss ever photographed – Times Square, August 14, 1945)

As recently reported in that bastion of scientific journalism, the Huffington Post, “Our lips are packed with sensitive nerve endings so that even the slightest brush sends a flurry of information to our brains that often feels very good. Although we often don’t think of them in this way, our lips are the body’s most exposed erogenous zone. When they are involved in a passionate kiss, our blood vessels dilate as our brain receives more oxygen than normal. Our pulse quickens and our breathing can become irregular. Our cheeks flush as our pupils dilate causing many of us to close our eyes. Five of our 12 cranial nerves jump into action as we engage all of OUR senses in interpreting what’s going on and anticipating what may happen next.”

(My personal all-time favourite – the upside-down Spidey kiss)

When there’s real chemistry between two individuals, a kiss sparks romance by triggering a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that cascade through our bodies and brains! (Actually, that sounds kinda hot in a nerdy biochemical sort of way). Thusly (people don’t say ‘thusly’ enough), locking lips with our respective sweetie-pies serves as humanity’s most intimate experience because it conveys more than our words can possibly express. It’s nature’s ultimate litmus test telling us when to pursue a deeper connection with someone special or to step back because we’re incompatible with a partner.

And understanding the science behind how this happens doesn’t take any magic out of the moment. Well, not for me at any rate. Instead, it provides a better understanding and appreciation of our ourselves and our relationships.

So in this super-smoochy lovey-dovey ‘food tastes better when I’m with you’ time of year, let us not forget to blow kisses to the Sheril Kiershembaums of the world who remind us that, like the wonder of a kiss, science is indeed all around us.


[1] Ms. Kiershenbaum is also Director of the University of Texas Project on Energy Communication (or as she puts it, “communicating science to a nation watching reality television”) and appeared last year as a speaker at TEDGlobal 2011.

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Just in time for Valentine’s Day…

Fossil Cricket Reveals Jurassic Love Song

Yes, those love-besotted geeks over at ScienceDaily.com have spared every expense in bringing us this heart-warming tale of prehistoric passion.

[Present day Katydid (Tettigonia viridissima)]

The nerdlings gush, “The love song of an extinct cricket that lived 165 million years ago has been brought back to life by scientists at the University of Bristol. The song — possibly the most ancient known musical song documented to date — was reconstructed from microscopic wing features on a fossil discovered in North East China. It allows us to listen to one of the sounds that would have been heard by dinosaurs and other creatures roaming Jurassic forests at night.”

Thanks to Chinese researchers [1], those hopeless romantics, their findings, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, imply that the acoustic environment was already quite busy 165 million years ago with many animals (such as amphibians and other arthropods) singing at the same time, possibly chorusing, within the additional background noise produced by waterfalls, streams and wind.

(The great green bush cricket)

The researchers provided an exceptionally detailed bush cricket fossil from the Mid Jurassic period. The specimen had such well-preserved wing features that the details of its stridulating organs were clearly visible under an optical microscope. Such information has never been obtained before from insect fossils. It was identified as a new fossil species and named Archaboilus musicus by the Beijing-Kansas team. [2]

But… what did it sound like?

Amazingly, based on the detailed morphology of Archaboilus‘ wings, Dr Fernando Montealegre-Zapata [3] could reconstruct the songs emitted by these ancient insects.

Dr Montealegre-Zapata said, “Using a low-pitched song, A. musicus was acoustically adapted to long-distance communication in a lightly cluttered environment, such as a Jurassic forest. Today, all species of katydids that use musical calls are nocturnal so musical calls in the Jurassic were also most likely an adaptation to nocturnal life.”

In other words, love was in the air… even in those days!


[1] A group of Chinese palaeontologists, with Jun-Jie Gu and Professor Dong Ren from the Capital Normal University in Beijing.

[2] The group also teamed up with Dr Michael Engel of the University of Kansas, USA, a leading expert on insect evolution.

[3]  Dr Fernando Montealegre-Zapata and Professor Daniel Robert, both experts in the biomechanics of singing and hearing in insects, in Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, were also contacted by the Chinese researchers.

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