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Lausanne has a vivarium dedicated to reptiles, mostly snakes and crocodiles, and a few scorpions and tarantulas. Usually, I’m not easily fascinated by animals behind glass windows. Or rather after going through the repetitive set of tasks of (i) finding the animal and (ii) scanning the text in the infobox for something noteworthy 20 times, I simply tend to get bored a bit, even if the skin has an amazing texture. But on this visit there were at least two things to keep me from getting bored.

First, every Thursday you can witness the feeding of the crocodiles.Crocodiles largely feed on carrion, so dead rats and dead fish was good enough for them. Snakes on the other hand are more picky and for them the dead animals first have to be heated up to body temperature and possibly even be moved around a bit. This, unfortunately, we couldn’t see. But seeing the crocos chew on the rats and also bite each other a bit is in  certain sense “fun”.

The second thing, which really made the visit worthwhile, were the stories by the keeper in charge of the animals. He was in his mid-twenties, with an “alternative” look and very long, partly dread-locked hair. He was simply “cool” referring to the sense of
“relaxed” of the word. He didn’t bother to put on any gloves to throw the dead rats to the crocos and he was also completely relaxed while telling us the story behind the big bandages on two of his fingers. He had recently been bitten by a highly venomous snake. For a second I thought that this was a joke, but it sure enough wasn’t. This had happened while he was removing an old skin, recently shed by one of the snakes. Personally, I have now idea why I would want to reach into a cage of a venomous snake for any reason, but then who am I to tell other people how to do their job. Anyways, he was bitten in the finger but, fortunately, the snaked did not inject a lot of venom. So he “only” lost one phalanx on one of his fingers due to local poisoning. Some skin had to be removed from another finger to aid with the healing process. He also showed us a book with lots of pictures of extremities of snake bite victims. I never knew how many shades of black the human skin can turn into. For a fairly mild teaser, have a look at the pictures towards the bottom on this page or this one.

Another interesting trivia, which he told us is that sometimes people even die of bites of non-venomous snakes as they simply think the snake was venomous and then die of a heart-attack due to excitement. Also, I learned that the coral snake is one of the most dangerous ones as its poison does not immediately lead to any swelling or irritation, but the effect only settles in after a few hours, when you’ll die in a short amount of time.

Anyways, through all the stories and the dry excitement they were told with the snakes suddenly seemed a lot more “alive” to me and seemed to leave their cage just ever so slightly, hence the title.

Oh, apart from the croco feeding and the near-death experience story it was interesting to see some strange looking tortoises such as this one or this one.

It surprises me how many people are surprised when you tell them about censorship of the internet in Germany.

Most Germans are aware that certain books, such as “Mein Kampf“, written by a person (?) responsible for the horrible deaths of millions of innocent children, women and men, is not available in Germany, though you can easily obtain it from websites abroad (which can be found through Google). But the number of people who know about Google’s active role in censoring the German internet is significantly smaller.

Just try the following:

1. Search for “hitler” on the international (direct link). Note that the top 10 contains one result from the domain [I don’t want to link to this domain as I certainly do not want to boost the pagerank of such a site.]

2. Search for “hitler” on the German (direct link). Note that the top 10 does not contain the previous result.

Now you might think that the result has just been moved further down the list. Wrong. To prove this try the following:

3. Search for “” on the international (direct link). The “site:” command limits the search to the particular domain and shows all the pages indexed from that domain. As you can see, there are quite a few.

4. Search for “” on the German (direct link). No results. To be sure that the query syntax is correct, search for “” (direct link) instead.

Please don’t get me wrong. In this case I support the censorship which Google is required to do by the German legislation. I just find it important to know that these things exist.

On a somewhat related issue: It’s also worth knowing that even at the Speakers’ Corner there is no full freedom of expression and that the police will intervene if things are taken too far.

(i) your appartment has less than 30m² but still …

(ii) you have to search for your passport for more than 20 minutes.

What surprises me most about myself is my reluctance to change my approach to searching. I usually always start by asking myself: “Where would a normal person put X?” In this case of a passport the answer to this was some sort of drawer or a box dedicated to valuables. Of course, that’s not where I found it. That just wouldn’t be me.

It was in a big travel bag full of books, CDs and photographs. This bag was in turn covered by a family pack of toilet paper. Now that’s exactly the kind of place where a person like me keeps his passport.

When will I finally learn to look in these kind of places first?!

Last night I learned how to play a Swiss card came called Gemsch.

It is actually quite entertaining (but also stressful) as it combines luck, card counting skills, bluffing and communicating with your partner via secret signals.

The deck: You can play with either 32 cards (from seven to ace, as for Skat) or with 52 card (from two to ace, as for Poker).
The players: You need at least two teams consisting of two players each. If you have more people, it’s probably more fun to simply have more teams, but you could also go for larger teams.
The basic objective: You need to collect four identical cards (from all four suits) and then signal this to your partner using a secretly agreed on signal. Your partner then, once he notices the signal, calls out “Gemsch” and your team gets a point.

The details:

Before the game starts, each team needs to agree on a secret signal. This can be an audio signal (e.g., clearing your throat) or it can be a visual signal (e.g., touching your chin). The game starts by dealing four cards to each player. In the middle there are four cards face-up. This is the public “exchange pool” and you can put down any card from your hand to replace it by one from the pool. This is done in a synchronous manner, i.e., everybody can help himself at the same time. First come, first served. Once all people have stopped swapping cards with the pool, the pool is removed from the game and four new cards are put face-up into the middle.

Once any player has collected four of a kind (e.g., four 10s or four kings), he tries to signal this fact to his partner using the secret signal of their team. If his partner partner notices the signal he calls out “Gemsch”, the round is over and the team gets a point. If the signal is noticed before by the other team, they can call out “Gegen-Gemsch” and they get the point. If somebody calls out “Gemsch” although his partner does not have four identical cards, then also the other team gets a point. You can also try to get a Gemsch yourself first and then call out “Doppel-Gemsch”. Of course, you can also combine the “Gemsch” and the “Gegen-Gemsch ” and call out something crazy such as “Gemsch and Doppel-Gegen-Gemsch” meaning, you think your partner has four of a kind and so do both of your opponents. Whenever you’re completely right you get the point(s) (three in this case), whenever you’re wrong about anything you claimed, then the opponents get the points.

What’s interesting is that you don’t need to rely on the secret signal to call out “Gemsch” or “Gegen-Gemsch”! If you memorize the cards your partner or your opponents pick up, you can sometimes know that someone as a Gemsch without knowing the signal. So to avoid your opponents from keeping track you need to swap cards fairly fast and in a certain random fashion.

If you like a challenge, then I suggest that you try the following: Try to get any pineapple juice in Lausanne, on a Saturday, after 18h00.

You might think: Oh, just try a petrol station.
No luck there, buddy. If you’re lucky they might just about have apple juice.

So, next stop the Aperto 24 in the train station. Surely they will have it, right?
Close, but no cigar, let alone pineapple juice. But if you want to buy wine or salad instead, then this is your place.

Ah, but what about the Coop Pronto? They even have different kinds of fresh bread, so they certainly should have pineapple juice.
Well, you can get your orange juice in three different size, from two different brands and from three different shelves, you can also get Kiwi-Apple juice or other multi-fruit juices containing traces of pineapple, but no pineapple juice itself.

The moral of the story:
If you plan to make cocktails (such as Piña Colada) with proper pineapple juice, then I suggest that you actually “plan” this more than 3 hours in advance.

I can only name and identify about 20 different kinds of fruits, certainly not more than 25. [Try it yourself! You should be able to easily beat this yourself. Don’t forget to include the various berries and various citrus fruits!]

When it comes to non-standard vegetables, the gap to a “normal” level of knowledge is even bigger.

Needless to add that I’m completely lost when it comes to such “exotic” dishes as Risotto, Crespelle or Bruschetta.

But I’ve never had illusions about this fact and I’ve always considered myself at the very the bottom of the scale. Little did I know that a similar-minded friend of mine did not even know what Pesto was! [I realized this when he came to visit me and spaghetti was pretty much the only dish I could offer … but at least I had to different kinds of instant sauce to choose from!]

If years of living off frozen pizza and (not frozen) pasta has taught me anything, then it has taught me to appreciate a jar of good “pesto alla genovese“.

Oh, glorious day! Finally I made to the circle of culinary experts.

Sad to think, how many lives could have turned out differently, if children (and adults) had only know what I’m about to reveal:

You can wear glass and still be a pilot (or even an astronaut)!

I realized this a few years ago when I saw a commercial pilot wearing glasses, but I only “formally” verified it this morning. The exact regulations are complicated though. Different restrictions apply to commercial pilots and to fighter pilots and the rules even vary from airline to airline. But if the correction is not too strong, then it’s certainly no problem. However, with some airlines you may not be color-blind to become a pilot.

If you’re curious then check out the discussions at Yahoo answers (e.g., here or here) or at answerbag (which gives the most details).

A town in Italy, but it also stands for Programme for International Student Assessment.

I’m not going to comment on the original “Pisa Shock” (after the results for the first study were released) or the state of the German educational system. I’m not even going to comment on the results of the recent study. (Key facts are here, the “executive summary” (56 pages) is here.)

I just want to give you a short list of questions that 15-year olds were asked for the recent study. Each question is preceded by an introductory text.


Text 1:

Acid Rain
Below is a photo of statues called Caryatids that were built on the Acropolis in Athens more than 2500 years ago. The statues are made of a type of rock called marble. Marble is composed of calcium carbonate. In 1980, the original statues were transferred inside the museum of the Acropolis and were replaced by replicas. The original statues were being eaten away by acid rain. The effect of acid rain on marble can be modelled by placing chips of marble in vinegar overnight. Vinegar and acid rain have about the same acidity level. When a marble chip is placed in vinegar, bubbles of gas form. The mass of the dry marble chip can be found before and after the experiment.

Question 1:

“A marble chip has a mass of 2.0 grams before being immersed in vinegar overnight. The chip is removed and dried the next day. What will the mass of the dried marble chip be?”
A. Less than 2.0 grams
B. Exactly 2.0 grams
C. Between 2.0 and 2.4 grams
D. More than 2.4 grams
Competency: Using scientific evidence, Knowledge category: “Physical systems”, Difficulty: 460 [easy], Percentage of correct answers (OECD countries): 66.7%


Text 2:

A team of British scientists is developing “intelligent” clothes that will give disabled children the power of “speech”. Children wearing waistcoats made of a unique electrotextile, linked to a speech synthesiser, will be able to make themselves understood simply by tapping on the touchsensitive material. The material is made up of normal cloth and an ingenious mesh of carbon-impregnated fibres that can conduct electricity. When pressure is applied to the fabric, the pattern of signals that passes through the conducting fibres is altered and a computer chip can work out where the cloth has been touched. It then can trigger whatever electronic device is attached to it, which could be no bigger than two boxes of matches. “The smart bit is in how we weave the fabric and how we send signals through it – and we can weave it into existing fabric designs so you cannot see it’s in there,” says one of the scientists. Without being damaged, the material can be washed, wrapped around objects or scrunched up. The scientist also claims it can be mass-produced cheaply.

Question 2:

Can these claims made in the article be tested through scientific investigation in the laboratory?
Circle either “Yes” or “No” for each.
The material can be washed without being damaged.
The material can be wrapped around objects without being damaged.
The material can be scrunched up without being damaged.
The material can be mass-produced cheaply.

Competency: Identifying scientific issues, Knowledge category: “Scientific enquiry”, Difficulty: 567 , percentage of correct answers (OECD countries): 47.9%


Text 3:

The grenhouse efect: fact or fiction?
Living things need energy to survive. The energy that sustains life on the Earth comes from the Sun, which radiates energy into space because it is so hot. A tiny proportion of this energy reaches the Earth. The Earth’s atmosphere acts like a protective blanket over the surface of our planet, preventing the variations in temperature that would exist in an airless world. Most of the radiated energy coming from the Sun passes through the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth absorbs some of this energy, and some is reflected back from the Earth’s surface. Part of this reflected energy is absorbed by the atmosphere. As a result of this the average temperature above the Earth’s surface is higher than it would be if there were no atmosphere. The Earth’s atmosphere has the same effect as a greenhouse, hence the term greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is said to have become more pronounced during the twentieth century. It is a fact that the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere has increased. In newspapers and periodicals the increased carbon dioxide emission is often stated as the main source of the temperature rise in the twentieth century. A student named André becomes interested in the possible relationship between the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and the carbon dioxide emission on the Earth. In a library he comes across the following two graphs.

[Two plots, both with the time from 1860 to 1990 on the x axis.]

y-axis Plot 1: Carbon dioxide emission thousand millions of tonnes per year. Seems to be exponentially increasing just until about 1980 or so, when it flattens.

y-axis Plot 2: Average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere (°c) . Slightly zig-zaggy, but still clearly rising by 1°C in the given period.

André concludes from these two graphs that it is certain that the increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere is due to the increase in the carbon dioxide emission.

Question 3:

André persists in his conclusion that the average temperature rise of the Earth’s atmosphere is caused by the increase in the carbon dioxide emission. But Jeanne thinks that his conclusion is premature. She says: “Before accepting this conclusion you must be sure that other factors that could influence the greenhouse effect are constant”. Name one of the factors that Jeanne means.

Competency: Explaining phenomena scientifically, Knowledge category: “Earth and space systems”, Difficulty: 709 [difficult], Percentage of correct answers (OECD countries): 18.9%

“I’ve never thought about this before!” – I love it when this thought comes to my mind. It happened again this morning while I was listening to the radio.

Needless to say that overall the universal accessibility of information, through web search engines such as Google, is a fantastic thing and certainly to the advantage of mankind. But, of course, there are also downsides such as the availability of terrorist handbooks (this is probably still a fairly mild version) or the occasional errors in Wikipedia (which are then quoted without any verification of the facts). This is both obvious.

But for some reason I had never thought of another domain: medicine. Now every person with an internet access can browse through thousands of articles about all kinds of diseases and their cures … without having any clue about the applicability of the statements to their own conditions or having any proof of the expertise of the author. The radio show this morning gave a few cases of people just asking Dr Google for advise, without questioning or understanding the results. Obviously, this is not very advisable …


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