February 26th, 2024
Color rendering of Gamma Ray radiation from space
Chromoscope has been created using public-domain datasets from a number of all-sky astronomy projects. It lets you easily move around the sky and fade between wavelengths using a simple user-interface to illustrate the similarities and differences between what is visible at each wavelength.


January 1st, 2024

For us, last year marked a return to (a new) normal, after the COVID pandemic and after my mother’s illness and death in 2022. I am back in the office on a pretty regular basis, and we were able to travel without public health-related restrictions. Although COVID is not “over,” it has become integrated and more normalized. People call in sick for the flu or COVID. I had a cold in late October, and just did a couple of COVID home tests (negative) to inform my management of the illness. Other than a cold, we were all in pretty good health this year, and we are grateful for that.

However, both Laura and I had a bumpy start for 2022 in that regard. On Jan. 2, I went for a run in the neighborhood and encountered a dog who had gotten away from his owner. When I tried to help the owner catch the dog, the dog bit me in my left hand. I got stitched up at Urgent Care, and was fine. Just a week later, on Jan. 10, Laura’s horse bucked her off during a canter in Hill Forest. Laura fell off backwards, but managed to roll on the gravel road. She did hit her head and may have briefly lost consciousness. Julia was with her and called the emergency dispatch, who sent an ambulance their way. Julia also informed me, and I rushed out there, too. Laura was able to walk to the road where the EMT examined her and decided to take her to the hospital. So the ambulance took Laura to Duke Regional hospital, and I arrived as they were leaving, and Julia and I took the horses back home. Then I went to the hospital to check on Laura. A few hours later, she was discharged from the hospital with some pain meds. The only damage from one of her worst riding accident in all these years was a mild concussion and some bruising. We are very grateful for that!

Her horse’s reaction was also very remarkable. Madison was clearly confused by what had happened, and had had no intention of bucking Laura off. When Laura was on the ground, Madison came right over to her to check on her. And when she saw Laura for the first time the next day out in the pasture, Madison whinnied and ran up to Laura to greet her – apparently relieved to see her. Both horses are very bonded to Laura and see her as the “lead mare” in the group. They would never intentionally harm her, but sometimes they do unexpected things that can be dangerous to the rider. Lessons were learned.

Speaking of horses … the highlight of the year for Laura and me was our trip to Iceland in August/Sept. We spent 2 weeks in Iceland, and did 6-day horse tour on the Snaefellsness peninsula. The tour was amazing, and we really got to experience the stamina and character of the Icelandic horses. It was a wild ride in terms of weather conditions, with sunshine, fog, rain, and hail; including spectacular sunrises and hurricane force winds that were pushing the waterfalls back up onto the mountain.

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Huge new fissure eruption in Iceland

December 20th, 2023
A new fissure opened up on Reykjanes peninsula, ejecting huge amounts of lava in the first few hours of the eruption. The location of the Sundhnúksgíga fissure is indicated in red below. See the Icelandic Met Office website for up-to-date information about this eruption.

Iceland vacation

November 11th, 2023

From August 26 to September 8 this year, Laura and I went on a little adventure to Iceland. First we spent a few days with my dad and his partner Marion exploring the area around Reykjavik, then Laura and I went on a 6-day horse riding tour on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Finally, we drove South and visited the Vestmannaeyar archipelago for a couple of days.

Reykjavik area, Þingvellir

Ever since we visited Iceland in 2005, Laura and I had the idea of going back for a longer vacation. So after an exhausting 2022, we decided it was time. Then my dad suggested we should come to visit him for his 81st birthday, since he was not really feeling up for a trip to the States. Half joking, I suggested we should meet halfway, and surprisingly, he was game. So Günther and Marion booked a week-long stay, and we caught up with them on the 26th and spent the weekend with them.

Traveling to Iceland has become super-convenient for us, as we now have a direct flight from RDU to Kevlavik. So Laura and I arrived early in the morning, checked into our vacation home in downtown Reykjavik and then took a bus to the Sky Lagoon to relax after the short night on the plane. In the afternoon we met up with Günther and Marion for a walk around town and dinner. Sunday morning, I picked up our rental Tesla from Blue Car Rental and we went on a day trip around Reykjavik, visited the Leiðarendi Lava Cave, the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel, the port town of Þorlákshöfn, and the fumerols at Krýsuvík.

Monday was Günther’s birthday, and he wanted to spend the day at Þingvellir, one of the most popular, and most spectacular places to visit in Iceland. Þingvellir is a national park and a historic site. It’s one of the places where the effects of plate tectonics are directly and spectacularly visible, as the entire valley is riddles with deep cracks and fissures, many filled with glacial melt water, and all the direct result of the North Atlantic plate and the Eurasian plate pulling away from each other by a few centimeters every year. It is also the location of the historic Alþing, the parliament of Iceland from the 10th to the 18th centuries.

After walking around Þingvellir for a hours in the sun, we were hungry and headed back to Reykjavik for dinner at a Thai restaurant downtown to close out the day with a nice meal. After dinner, we said our good-byes and went our separate ways. Günther and Marion headed back home the next day, and Laura and I got ready for our next Iceland adventure in Snæfellsnes.

Riding Horses in Snæfellsnes

Tuesday morning we left our AirBnb, returned the Tesla and then we had a few hours to hang out in the city before embarking on our riding tour. So w hung out at the old harbor and ended up going on a whale watching tour. After that, we went to the bus station where we were picked up by the bus that took us to the horse farm where we spent the next 6 days.

The farm is called Gröf, and it is situated on the southern coast of Snæfellsbær, between Búðir and Arnarstapi. Our tour went along the coast eastward for about 50KM (35 miles) and then back to the farm. We rode about 20KM (13 miles) a day and then left the horses in a pasture for the night and were shuttled back to the farm. So we did a fair amount of intense, fast-paced trail riding every day – in amazing and very unique landscapes and along long stretches of beautiful sandy beaches. But we were also pampered with great food, hot tub and sauna and very comfortable rooms every day before and after the ride. Amazing experience.

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New Volcano eruption in Iceland

July 18th, 2023

Last week, the Fagradalsfjall volcano in southern Iceland produced a new eruption near the Litli-Hrútur mountain. There is lots of beautiful drone footage of the eruption, but this is some of the nicest I have seen, so far. Here is a link to a live webcam of the new vent.

R.I.P. Koklo the cat

May 17th, 2023
cat in garden

On April 25, our 18 year-old Russian Blue cat named Koklo died. She had been sick for a long time, but recently her health got worse and worse, and on Tuesday she passed away peacefully at home.

Koklo loved – nay adored – Laura. Koklo always wanted to be near Laura and sleep in her bed, sit on her lap or at least be in the same room with her. Koklo’s second favorite was our youngest cat, Azi.

Biting dogs, bucking horses and Julia’s Ghana trip

April 9th, 2023
Dog sitting in front of blooming pear tree
Spring in February

Winter came early and vigorously in December 2022, and then Spring popped in and out in January and February this year. Here is Patou enjoying spring weather in February. In fact, on Jan 2nd it was so nice I took my shoes off and went for a jog in the neighborhood, only to get attacked by a dog! The little shit bit me in the left hand and I had to go to the Urgent Care to get stitches. Good thing the dog was up-to-date on vaccines. The Sheriff’s Department had a little chat with the owner about keeping their puppers better under control. Yet, a couple of weeks ago, the same dog chased Sassy around. However, the goat turned around and head-butted the dog. when I tried to get the dog to leave her alone, he started charging at me, too. Ugh! Now I am trying to get the owner to hire a dog trainer to prevent this dog from turning into a problem.

About a week after I got bitten by the dog, Laura’s horse bucked her off during a ride in the woods! She landed on her back on a gravel road and hit the back of her head. Good thing she was wearing a good riding helmet! She was stunned, but otherwise OK. Julia called the emergency services, and they sent an ambulance. Laura was able to walk back to the road where they put her on a stretcher in the ambulance and took her to the hospital. At that point I arrived and was able to help Julia take the horses back home. When I got to the hospital, Laura had been thoroughly examined and after a while we finally got the OK for her to go home. She was sore for a while, but that was all. well, there is a reason we always wear a helmet when riding! And now we are also seriously looking into getting additional safety equipment, like an airbag vest, because those spinal injuries are no joke.

forest with house and a dusting of snow
Snow in March
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January 1st, 2023
Sigrid's Funeral with Julia playing her viola
Sigrid’s Funeral

For me, last year was overshadowed by the illness of my mother and her death in September. I ended up taking four trips to Germany this year, none of which were particularly relaxing. Of course this was also year three of COVID, moving from pandemic to endemic. And COVID rules also impacted most of our travel experiences, except for the November trip, when most restrictions had been lifted and we did not enter a nursing home any more.

The insanity that is the the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominated the early months of 2022, although for us initially mostly as news and as a new global worry. The war remains a significant factor in public discourse, but over time it has become a significant economic factor in daily life, causing (for us) an overall increase in the cost of living due to increased energy cost. Closer to the war, in Europe, there is also a significant impact caused by the need to care for a huge number of refugees from Ukraine. And there is also quite a bit of worry about an escalation of the war, potentially plunging the continent (and the world) into another catastrophic conflict. Not even to mention the catastrophic consequences of the Russian invasion for Ukraine. The loss of lives, the trauma, the suffering this war is causing the Ukraininan people is unconscionable, and all efforts should be made to find ways to end this terrible bloodshed.

view of Brightleaf Square
Brightleaf Square

In February, my employer moved my office out of Brightleaf Square and into a new office building closer to campus. I had worked at Brightleaf Square since April 2002, so almost 20 years. The building and several neighboring buildings had also recently been sold, and the new owners were doing major renovations on the entire block, which was causing noise and traffic disruptions. So I was not too sad to miss out on that mess.

In early March we bought a beehive from a local beekeeper and started on that journey. Beekeeping is actually much more involved than one might assume. It’s fun, but also quite a lot of work – checking for mites regularly, treating the hive against parasites, preventing them from swarming and making sure they survive the winter. Our hive decided to swarm in early summer, and then they successfully raised a new queen. We also had to treat them pretty aggressively against mites all year, so all that resulted in us not being able to harvest any honey during our fist year as beekeepers.

In April, Jacob moved into his apartment on the other side of North Durham, a bit closer to his work at Freudenberg. In December, he adopted a dog – a Husky named “Sashimi” – to keep him company in his apartment.

In May, Julia and I embarked on our first trip to Germany to visit Family and give her a chance to reconnect with Germany and her German family.

Julia and Sigrid eating pizza on the terrace
Julia and Sigrid eating pizza on the terrace

We visited my sister and my mom near Stuttgart for a few days. This was the first time I had visited her in the nursing home in Berglen where she had moved in 2019. For Julia and Sigrid, it was the first in-person visit in 10 years, since Sigrid had not been able to travel to the U.S., and we had not been able to take the kids to Germany while they were in High School and College.

Sadly, on the second day of our visit, Laura had to inform us that our old, beloved gelding Wally had died. Laura had to deal with her horse’s sudden and ultimately terminal health decline by herself (and with the help of our vet) while Julia and I were traveling to and in Germany. The sad news from home had a strong impact on Julia and colored the experience of that trip for both of us. After some family discussion, we decided to continue our trip as planned, because even if we immediately started to plan a return trip, by the time we’d be back home there would not have been much we could do to help Laura.

Julia in front of chateau Ludwigsburg
Julia at Ludwigsburg Palace

So despite the bad news from home, we still tried to enjoy our trip. We visited Family in Tübingen, my dad near Freiburg and my aunt near Bremen, all of which gave Julia an opportunity to re-connect with her German-ness. We also visited some touristy sights like Ludwigsburg Palace, Hohenzollern Castle, Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace, downtown Düsseldorf, the Schnoor neighborhood in Bremen, the Dangast artist’s colony in Friesland, and the North Sea beach in Cuxhaven-Duhnen. After 10 days and 1500 KM of driving, we returned to Frankfurt, checked into one of the many hotels near the airport, returned the car and early the next morning we took our Lufthansa flight back to the US.

Julia taking pictures at the North Sea beach
Julia at the North Sea

In June, Sigrid was admitted to the hospital because her health was deteriorating rapidly. Previously, she had had a lot of trouble walking, and was mostly wheelchair bound. But now she started having trouble with her hands as well, and her legs became completely paralyzed. This was just a couple of weeks after we sat on her terrace and shared a pizza. She underwent extensive tests at the hospital for several weeks and then the doctors gave her the terrible news that they thought she had ALS. They sent her back to the nursing home, since there is no real treatment for ALS, since it is not known what causes the degeneration of the nerves.

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Sigrid Meinhild Henn, 1942 – 2022

September 19th, 2022

Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment,
and say your last words in silence.

Rabindranath Tagore – The Gardner (61)

Sigrid Henn was born in autumn on December 18, 1942 in Trausen (Gerdauen district, East Prussia, today Lipnjaki, Russian Oblast Kalinigrad) and died on September 12, 2022 at the age of 79 in Berglen, Baden Württemberg, Germany.

Sigrid was the daughter of Meinhild Naujoks (née Mertineit) and Otto Naujoks. Her mother died in 1945 while fleeing East Prussia, and Sigrid’s grandparents took her to Bassum (Lower Saxony), where she grew up for a few years. After her father returned from captivity and settled in Bensheim (Hesse), he took Sigrid to live with him.

In 1961, Sigrid was at the school for textile design in Sindelfingen and met Günther Henn, who worked at IBM Germany in Sindelfingen. In 1964 Sigrid and Günther married in Bensheim. In 1965, Sigrid and Günther moved to Freiburg after Günther had finished his military service and was transferred to Freiburg by IBM. In 1968, Sigrid gave birth to her son Jürgen in Freiburg. In 1970 she gave birth to her daughter Monika in Freiburg. In 1974 Sigrid and Günther bought a house in Biengen (part of of Bad Krozingen in Baden). Sigrid worked as a saleswoman in a clothing boutique in Bad Krozingen and bought her first car – a Renault 5.

In 1979 the family moved to Stuttgart-Möhringen, as Günther moved to the IBM branch in Stuttgart. Sigrid worked as a saleswoman at Breuninger, and then later for a clothing boutique in Stuttgart. At the end of the 1980s, the children left home and Sigrid and Günther moved to Müllheim-Vögisheim (Baden) in 1992. In 1996 Sigrid and Günther divorced.

After the divorce, Sigrid moved to Schorndorf in the Remstal. Monika had settled with her husband Karsten in Weinstadt im Remstal. Günther stayed in Müllheim. Jürgen moved to North Carolina, USA, with his wife Laura in 1994.

In 1997, Sigrid and a friend took a trip to New Zealand with a stopover in Hawaii. The two women spent several weeks traveling all over New Zealand in a mobile home and even took part in a sightseeing flight on a small plane. This adventure left a deep impression on Sigrid, and she fondly remembered this trip to the end. During this time, Sigrid’s creativity flourished and was expressed in a variety of ways: puppets, masks, weaving and textile arts.

In the following years, Sigrid also traveled to the USA several times to help Laura and Jürgen with the birth of the grandchildren Julia and Jacob. Over the years, however, Sigrid’s health got worse and worse, so that soon she was no longer able to travel. So she spent more and more time in her cozy apartment in Schorndorf, doing creative handwork and reading a lot.

After several falls, hip operations and a severe stroke, Sigrid decided in 2019 to move into the nursing home in Berglen and sell her apartment. Originally, she was only admitted to Berglen temporarily to prepare for rehabilitation after her last hip operation. After a few months it was not foreseeable that she would be able to manage on her own again, so she decided to take this step.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March 2020, Sigrid was well cared for in the nursing home, even though she was only able to have contact with her children by telephone for a long time. Despite good care, physiotherapy and encouragement from the nursing staff, things slowly but surely went downhill physically. Shortly after a visit from Jürgen and daughter Julia in May 2022, Sigrid had to go to the hospital, where, after many tests, the diagnosis of ALS was made. In July, the mobile hospice service (SAPV) of the Rems-Murr district was called in to look after Sigrid. On September 12, Sigrid died peacefully in her room in Berglen, with her family present.

R.I.P. Wally

June 19th, 2022

On May 12, our beloved, old gelding Wally died in the pasture where he had lived for the last 12 years.

We purchased Wally in 2010 as a companion for our Tennessee Walker mare Cleo. He was already older – maybe 16-18 years old and scrawny, almost malnourished when we got him. But we got him back in shape, and Laura trained him as a trail riding horse. After a couple of years with us he was a great riding horse with a super smooth gait and a nice rocking-horse canter. The difference is clear between the photo below, right after we bought him, and the one above in 2015 at his peak.

Wally right after we bought him
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Bees – Bienen

March 26th, 2022

Für DEUSCH hier klicken
In Early March, we bought a beehive from a local bee-keeper and set it up on our little farm. Laura had been taking beekeeping classes with the local beekeeper’s club, and one of the members put up his three hives for sale because he was planning to move to a different state. So Saturday evening we drove to South Durham, after dark, when the bees were all snoozing in the hive, we closed up the entrance to the hive, put it in the back of the car and drove it home.

Over the following week, the bees started exploring their new surroundings, and soon we saw them coming back carrying pollen – so they had settled in and went down to business. The following Sunday, the former owner came over and helped us with our first inspection of the hive. These inspections have to be done every 2-4 weeks to assess the health, productivity and space needs of the colony. Below I posted a video of that process. We determined that we had to expand the hive by adding another deep hive body with empty frames – which we pretty much expected, and Laura had already prepared the necessary equipment.

We’re now feeding the bees sugar water to help them draw out the comb for the new frames. Once they are done with that, we’ll add a honey super. We hope later this spring we’ll get our first taste of honey from our own bees.

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Goodbye Brightleaf Square

March 19th, 2022

Last month I moved out of my office in the Brightleaf Square South building, an old tobacco warehouse from 1904 that had been restored and converted to retail and offices in the 1980s. I had had an office in that building since I started working at Duke in 2002 – so for 20 years. At the time, this was one of the busiest entertainment districts in Durham with restaurants and bars, retail and public spaces. Satisfaction was there, which was one of Durham’s most popular bars and pizza places, as well as a popular Greek restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and a bunch of stores.

view of Brightleaf Square
View of Brightleaf Square from the railroad tracks

After downtown was revitalized, Brightleaf businesses really struggled to attract customers. Everyone wanted to hang out in the new, shiny bars and restaurants in downtown. The pandemic did in most of the remaining businesses, and last year the buildings were sold to a new owner. They also bought the Peabody Place complex across the street, which used to house Morgan Imports, a pizza place and Parker & Otis. They completely gutted that building and are in the process of remodeling. Brightleaf is also undergoing extensive remodeling. It’ll be interesting to see if they can start attracting more customers to Brightleaf when they are done. I sure hope they can – it’s a great space and should be a destination in Durham.

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Happy Twosday!

February 22nd, 2022


Snow days

January 29th, 2022

After a fairly mild December, this January has brought some actual winter weather to central North Carolina. This is a video I shot after this morning’s snowfall/ This is the third time we had snow this month, but this was definitely the prettiest morning, with a fresh blanket of snow and the sun rising over the hill. Patou the dog is especially excited about the snow … she looooves the cold weather! Look for her in the video – with her white fur she is pretty well camouflaged. The horses are OK with the cold weather as long as they have their blankets on. The emus, however, hate it! They are not cold weather critters, and they have a hard time keeping their feet warm enough.

The forecast for tonight predicts a low temperature of 16 deg F (-9 deg C). Brrr!

RIP Thich Nhat Hanh

January 22nd, 2022

Thích Nhat Hanh passed away today at Tu Hieu Temple in Vietnam. He was a wise Buddhist master who had a strong impact on Buddhist practice in the West.


January 1st, 2022

Year two of the COVID pandemic was a wild ride, and once again we have to just count our blessings that we stayed fairly healthy, and did not experience any existential hardship. All four of us received our vaccinations in the first half of the year and we experienced no unusual or lasting side effects to the vaccines. Restrictions are fairly minimal around here, not much beyond mask mandates, and so this year was a real improvement over 2020.

family watching elephant
Visit to the NC Zoo in October

I was back at he gym (the local YMCA) exercising with a cloth mask, which is not ideal, but better than no exercise. Yes, I can go for runs in the neighborhood – and I did that, but I like going for some laps in the pool and taking a round or two in the sauna. Staying fit and healthy has certainly never been more important than now. Once again, it was possible to meet friends for lunch in town, go out on a dinner date with Laura, go to public events, and have (a couple of) friends over some drinks around a bonfire.

The Eno Park during the Festival

In July, Laura and I even worked as volunteers at the 43rd edition of the Festival for the Eno at West Point on the Eno in Durham. In October, we visited the NC Zoo in Asheboro. Trips to the zoo used to be a family favorite when the kids were little, and this year Julia requested a family trip to the zoo in celebration of her birthday. In November, Julia and I also joined the Katina celebration at the NC Buddhist Temple. At this yearly event, the local Sri Lankan community presents the monastics at the temple with new robes, which is a tradition that goes back to the Buddha’s time.

dog in pasture with tree
Patou guarding the pasture

The animals were mostly doing fine last year. Wally, our gelding, is getting old, and he can’t chew the hay anymore, so we started feeding him re-hydrated alfalfa and beet pulp to keep some weight on him. The other geriatric critter – Koklo the cat – also needs special, high-calorie food to keep some weight on her bones. But besides some of the usual hoof abscesses, the animals have all been pretty healthy. Patou is doing very well, and she got to eat an entire deer in the fall, when a 4-year-old buck died from a gunshot wound on the neighbors property. No idea who shot the poor animal, but the neighbors were happy to donate him to Patou’s meal plan. I just had to collect the carcass and cut it up, which took the better part of a Saturday afternoon. But we got 75 pounds of nice, lean deep meat out of this, plus a bunch of bones, which I have been cutting up and feeding to Mel (the emu) as a calcium supplement during her egg-laying season.

I was as busy as ever at work, and Laura’s business is flourishing. Julia moved back into our home, after finishing her bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina, and she helped Laura a lot with the holiday season sales. Jacob started a job at a local Home Depot; he works at night with a team re-stocking the store. So were were all keeping pretty busy, while at times it felt like the world was in a tail-spin.

Laura expanded her line of products last year with new lamp designs and with a line of window decals. She also started selling her products in 2 local stores: at Womencraft in Carboro and at Artisan Market in Durham. Both are small stores where local artists and artisans sell their products. Womencraft was founded in 1973, and it is one of the oldest artisan cooperatives in the country. Artisan Market in downtown Durham was started by owner Karen Casey in 2017 and provides a great storefront for around 50 local artists. Laura has been very active at both stores, doing shifts at Womencraft and helping Karen with the inventory system at Artisan Market.

My work shifted back more or less to my old job over the course of the year, with the telehealth team dwindling, as people were returning to their research and admin jobs. By the end of the year only one of my colleagues was left doing active support shifts, and I still keep tabs on any issues he encounters in or weekly meetings. On the other hand, the research groups I support all ramped their work back up. New protocols are in place to reduce in-person contact, and when in-person visits are needed, hygiene protocols are in place to minimize the risk of passing on the virus. Most of the year I was back in the office about 3 days a week for anything between 2 and 8 hours, working on troubleshooting computers, imaging new machines and rebuilding older ones. Most of the sys-admin work I do I can do from at home, and I still do a fair amount of troubleshooting remotely via Zoom or RDP. The biggest change in 2021 was the news that my department would definitely leave Brightleaf Square, which means I have to leave the office where I had been working for the last 20 years. I have another office in another building, but very little space, so I will have to shed a lot of ballast in the process.

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RIP Desmond Tutu

December 26th, 2021
Desmond Tutu, South African Anglican bishop and anti-apartheid freedom fighter died today at the age of 90 years. Rest in peace, Desmond Tutu. Thank you for using your courage, strength, wisdom and wit for the betterment of your fellow human beings.

Tschüß, Mutti!

December 11th, 2021

After 16 Years in office, Germany’s former chancellor Angela Merkel hands off leadership of Germany’s government to Olaf Scholz. Chancellor Scholz will lead a historic 3-party coalition government of his Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, and the centrist Free Democratic Party, with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party in the opposition for the first time since 2005.


March 31st, 2021

This is the Perseverance Mars rover’s Mastcam-Z First High-Resolution Panorama
Use your mouse to move the image and zoom in.

“Stitched together from 79 individual images, this Mastcam-Z right-eye 110-mm zoom mosaic is from the camera’s first high-resolution panorama imaging sequence. These images were taken on the afternoon of Sol 4 (Feb. 22, 2021) of the mission; a sol is a Martian day.” Source: NASA


January 24th, 2021

Uncertainty was a worldwide theme for 2020 and last year, we too felt the hot breath of that unpleasant reality much more strongly than usual. We were lucky, and we did not experience the full brunt of that aspect of reality, unlike so many people who lost their livelihood and/or health and are facing uncertainty of how to afford food and shelter. I am grateful that we continue to enjoy good health and a no significant financial worries.

In fact, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I experienced one of the busiest years of my career at Duke. Until the pandemic hit, all my work at Duke had been in IT for psychiatric research. By the end of March, however, most research at Duke had been shut down, and so I was asked to help with supporting our department’s clinical work. All clinical work had been moved to a new and untested telehealth platform, and the providers needed training and tech support for the visits. Our department decided to recruit staff from shuttered research labs to set up a team for this effort. So in April, I was learning how to troubleshoot the telehealth platform, training providers on how to use the platform, and on-boarding and training staff for our support team. It was a busy time. We put together a team of 14 staff who were trained to train providers, call patients to make sure they have the right apps set up for the visits and provide live tech support for the telehealth visits. While that work was at times stressful and intense, I found it really rewarding to contribute in a meaningful way to the care of our patients. It was also interesting to work on a clinical project and work more closely with department leadership and clinical providers.

Now that research has re-started, I am mostly focused on my old job again, managing IT resources at the Autism Center and a couple of other labs, but I still work a few hours every week on the telehealth support effort for the time being.

Laura started a new chapter in her career by laying the foundation for her business. During the spring, while transitioning out of her job at Lifeskills, she also started sewing face masks for the Lifeskills staff and clients, and for the family. All year she worked on developing her amazing emu-egg shell jewelry, fine-tuning her lamp designs, experimenting with paper designs and custom fabric designs. She also joined a local artists coop where she is selling her jewelry and lamps and several paper designs. She started designing cool fabric prints with Spoonflower, and she is using these custom fabrics for jewelry and for her lamps. But the most awesome pieces she made last year – I think – are the fabulous zippered emu eggs she designed and sells on her website:

Emu egg with zipper … by Laura

Jacob and Julia continued their studies in 2020 remotely, as both institutions tried to adapt their operations to the pandemic conditions. Julia had a dorm room at UNC, but came home and finished her spring semester from at home. For her fall semester she already had a shared apartment rented in Chapel Hill for the 2020/2021 school year, so she decided to move into the apartment at the end of the summer. Luckily her room mate behaved responsibly with respect to the pandemic restrictions and so it was a good experience for her. Jacob did all his classes from at home, and since his social life pretty much revolves around gaming and roll-playing games, he rarely leaves his domicile. Well, at least we don’t have to worry about him going out and bringing the virus back home. So they both adapted and made the best of the situation (and continue to do so).

However, I do have a major complaint in that context about UNC (my alma mater!) The administrators really botched the fall semester startup when they forced the students to move back to campus, only to send them right back home two weeks later after many students tested positive for the virus (and after the housing fees had been paid). That outcome was totally predictable and I found it very disappointing that they went ahead with this asinine strategy anyway. Luckily, Julia had already decided to rent an apartment off campus, so this stupidity did not impact her too much.

Speaking of stupidity and disappointment … that was another major theme in 2020. And considering our low expectations, it was truly remarkable that this country still managed to disappoint. The thing about crisis situations is that they tend to reveal the character of a person, a group, and sometimes an entire society. Does the leadership manage to set aside differences and focus their resources on addressing the problem, or do they use the crisis to deepen the divisions, and leverage the sense of uncertainty to push their political agenda? in the U. S., the pandemic laid bare deep divisions and profound distrust across society. Distrust in police and government institutions, distrust between “races”, distrust in science and medicine, distrust between people with different political ideals and ideologies. I myself can’t escape this sense of distrust when I am confronted with the crazy rhetoric of some Trump supporters who have clearly not accepted the results of the election and are willing to foment chaos in order to have things their way.

If this country’s leadership cannot muster the courage to address these deep divisions and this pervasive distrust, the democratic experiment in this country will fail. The last 4 years have been a lesson in what NOT to do. Suppressing dissent, gaslighting the people, ignoring real problems and blaming others is exactly the path that leads to the end of democracy. In 2020 we saw how this plays out. It leads to a direct attack in democracy by a sitting president, weaponizing discontent in order to overturn a general election. But that same strategy is not only applied by the Trump regime. The Democratic party used it effectively in 2016 and again in 2020 to ensure that the presidential nominee for the Democrats was the one the DNC wanted it to be.

So I have very little hope that the new administration will do much to address these divisions and the real grievances of the people on both ends of the spectrum – the Black Lives Matter supporters and the Trump supporters. I think that the people who demand “Defund the Police” and the people who shout “Make America Great Again” have a lot more in common than they realize.

As a family, we tried to adapt as best as we could to life during a pandemic. Living in a fairly rural area on some acreage, the main impact for us was not commuting to an office and working at home instead. We also don’t really have much of a habit of going out on the town to enjoy restaurants or nightlife. So we just switched to occasional takeout food and more home cooked food, which was not hard. Also, Laura got back into baking bread pretty regularly, which the entire family appreciates.

The main leisure restrictions we experience due to COVID is seeing friends, although we have had friends over and we just wear masks and stay outside. That works pretty well and we feel it’s safe. We have even met quite a few of our neighbors for the first time this way. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, families were just walking in the neighborhood to get out of the house. Some of those folks made it all the way up to our place and walked up to the gate to see the animals. We have no problem with that, and Laura attached a note to the gate letting folks know they are welcome to come to the gate. She also included some information about the animals (names and appropriate treats) and some ground rules (“Don’t open the gate”).

This was nice for the humans and for the animals. The humans seemed to enjoy the experience (especially children) and the animals got some attention and sometimes even treats. Patou is also usually out there during the day, and so she got to know some of the neighborhood dogs, like her buddy Riddick in the photo below.

Neighbors visiting our pasture

One big change on the farm was re-homing Darwin. In 2019, Darwin had escaped and was on the lam for several weeks. So we had kept him in the goat pen to make sure he can’t get out again. That was not a great long-term solution, though, because the enclosure is just too small. The goats actually had gotten used to the bird in their pen, but Darwin was not really happy there. So when we heard that a local farm-animal rescue was looking to adopt a male emu as a companion for their lonely female emu, we were pretty happy to offer Darwin. We loaded the bird on our horse trailer and took him to his new home – Blind Spot Animal Sanctuary, where he moved in with his new companion, Aphrodite.

Darwin’s new home and Aphrodite, his new companion

2020 was an unusual year. It brought much suffering and unrest to much of the world. We are fortunate to be healthy and to live in a community that is not doing too badly with regards to the pandemic. We have been able to make the best of the situation, and even grown professionally a bit. Let’s hope the best for 2021 … let’s get the pandemic under control and let’s help alleviate the unnecessary suffering in our community and around the world – be it due to the pandemic or due to injustice and racism. I think the resources are there to help those in need, there just needs to be the will to allocate and distribute them wisely and compassionately, so no one has to suffer more than what is unavoidable. So here is to hope … and to a good 2021.