The Grand Lisboa Casino – beautiful on the outside but terrifying on the inside!

It’s located in Macao.

Chinese casinos are scary, intimidating places. When I first entered one, I was not sure if it was a casino or a conference of snipers and assasins. For the casinos are filled with intense looking ultra-affluent Chinese people sitting silently at the various gambling tables, never moving more than the required muscles for hours at a time.  Nothing even casually reminiscent of Las Vegas.

Würm flowers

I took this snap in a field in Alsace,

What’s amazing to me about it are two things. The plants are stuck on the ground and remind me of starfish.

And the high number of flat, polished rocks is certainly a vestige of the last ice age in this area, in which a massive glacier (known as the Würm) covered this area.

 

My feet on the ladder of death

Or it could very well be the ladder of death, if you fall off.

Here is a picture of my feet on said ladder, and as you can see the drop is many thousands of feet below:

This is along the world-famous Hindelanger Klettersteig, a mountain route through the Alps of Southern Germany, where you don’t even want to think about coming unless you have the right equipment and know how to use it. Interestingly, this was my first such expedition, so I didn’t have the right equipment (I had to borrow it) and I didn’t know how to use it (but I learn fast).

And where you can get some very impressive views if the weather is nice:

Nanjing Road in Shanghai

Today it is one of the busiest streets in the world, but when I visited many years ago it was still quiet – it was unempty until at least noon, and you’d have to struggle to meet any foreigners there at all.

Interestingly, while visiting Shanghai as I scientist I was followed on at least two occasions by the Chinese secret police (actually, nothing unexpected since I had a background in nuclear physics, and the Chinese goverment made no secrets about following nuclear physicists whenever possible). And (as many, many people over the years have asked me) this is where my path first crossed with a man I only know as Mr. Tradecraft.

This was back in the days before China was open to the west: for example, all incoming flights had to stop in Beijing, where the passengers would get out and pass through immigration, before re-boarding and heading to Shanghai.

Another interesting story is that I shared a train cabin with a team of business leaders from Motorola, who at the time had no footprint in China and were considering opening their first factory there. So unknowingly I may have helped contribute to their business decision!

Cubbon Road Cows

Good cows, bad picture – I hardly think it’s possible. Here’s a snap of a few cows enjoying a quiet moment outside of Bangalore’s Cubbon Park.

Although it happened rarely, it did happen from time to time: cows are herd animals, so if given the chance they will spontaneously come together and form a herd. That’s OK if you are in Moneta, Wyoming, population 6.  But it ain’t so OK when you are in downtown Bangalore, and the cows stop traffic for over six hours.

Train operators

I don’t remember where I took this snap exactly,

but it was a few years before I joined the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB / CFF / FFS) so in many ways it was probably a harbinger of things to come!

I guess they didn’t get many American tourists here, because they invited me in and allowed me to watch them doing their operations!

Goan sunset

Goa is the site of many mysteries for me. For a long time it was a colony belonging to the Portuguese until India “liberated” it in 1961. One mystery is why more Indians don’t know their recent history, as this was an interesting episode of armed aggression initiated by the Indians. Another mystery is why there are still television stations in Goa that broadcast Portuguese language stations, although literally everyone I spoke to here told me that nobody remains who speaks it.

Anyway, located on the western shore of India, they have nice sunsets, as this snap shows:

and also this one:

Deadly fence at Hiranandani

Here is a beautiful view from the Renaissance Hotel of the neighborhood in known as Hiranandani, overlooking Lake Powai in Mumbai:

Just visible behind the bannisters is a barbed wire fence that is, by design, intended to kill. For after the atrocious terror acts in Mumbai, when terrorists entered the city via boats, hotels in Mumbai take no chances.

Namada Chilume at Devarayandurga

South Indian names are really not so bad – they are just like German words, made up of very many tiny elements.

Devarayandurga is a hill station near Tumkur, just outside of Bangalore. It’s famous for a number of incredible temples. I didn’t photograph any of them, but what caught my attention the most were the monkeys on a ledge,

And although I suppose I shouldn’t do it, I never miss the opportunity to share some of my fruit with any local monkey I come across, such as this very red-faced macaque,

But for me the most fascinating bit was a natural spring called Namada Chilume,

According to legend, the Indian God Rama was looking for water but could not find any, so he shot an arrow into the rock and out flowed a spring of water.

What I find so amazing is that water continues to flow, even after the many thousands of years of this legend!

Minerals in rural France are MIND BLOWING – 3

Continuing the series, I’ve warned you that Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and Sainte-Croix-aus-Mines are places where tourists are advised to keep out.

Keep well out, that is, except for two days every year, during the summer, when they become home to one of the world’s LARGEST and most MIND-BLOWING gem and mineral show on the planet, namely, the Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines International Gem and Mineral Show.

During this time, the villages are visited by literally hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world.  And every square inch of the villages is occupied by the stands of gem and mineral dealers from all over the world (52 countries at last count!) selling their gems and minerals.

The village center is filled with dozens upon dozens of stands:

The church courtyards are all filled with dozens and dozens of stands:

And in fact, during these two days, each and every village office building is open to the public and filled with yet more stands. No space goes unwasted. For example, the local indoor pool is also filled with stands:

The bizzare of old meets new

It can be truly bizzare when old things meet new things.

Consider this Shabbat elevator in my hotel in Jerusalem, Israel:

On the outside it looks like a fairly normal elevator – and indeed, for six days of the week it is. You push the button and patiently wait, and soon the elevator will reach your floor and the doors will open.

But on the Sabbath, this elevator does not behave like a normal elevator at all!  For on the Sabbath Days many orthodox Jewish people are prohibited by their religious beliefs from pushing buttons. Therefore, on the Sabbath, this elevator will run continuously for 24 hours, going from the basement to the top floor and then back down again – stopping at each and every floor, where the doors open automatically, regardless of whether anyone gets in or out.

I find it is wonderful that we humans are smart enough to have technology like this. But I also find it amazing and interesting that things like this can be the modern day consequences of ancient religious laws set down thousands of years ago!

By the way, you can find lots of interesting information about Jewish traditions here.

The beans of Umberto Eco

This is Umberto Eco,

But these were not his beans:

Umberto Eco, who recently died in 2016, was well-known to many people as the author of some truly mind blowing books, such as Foucault’s Pendulum and the Name of the Rose (which became a movie starring Sean Connery).

Not being his beans, this was also not his bean and sausage soup,

That was my bean and sausage soup, and it turned out rather delicious.

But Umberto said a lot of very interesting things in an essay he wrote about beans, in which he argued that these little easy-to-store, easy-to-grow, easy-to-transport bundles of life saving energy had a revolutionary effect on Europe in the Middle Ages:

So when, in the 10th century, the cultivation of legumes began to spread, it had a profound effect on Europe. Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent.

We believe that the inventions and the discoveries that have changed our lives depend on complex machines. But the fact is, we are still here — I mean we Europeans, but also those descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Spanish conquistadors — because of beans. Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist. Some philosophers say that this would be better, but I am not sure everyone agrees.

Minerals in rural France are MIND BLOWING – 2

Continuing the series, I’ve said that Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines are extremely rural French villages where even tourists are advised to stay well away.

Well, if you do risk life and limb and find yourself here, you won’t be surprised to see vestiges of the Roman mines everywhere.

Here, for example, right in the middle of the downtown area there is an ancient Roman mine shaft that has been turned into a flower garden.

Minerals in rural France are MIND BLOWING – 1

Before we talk about the minerals, lets talk about the place.

Nestled deep in the most rural of rural regions in France sit two little villages, Saint-Marie-aux-Mines and Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines.

To visit, you need just two things.

First, you need a damn good GPS navigation system in your car – or you might not arrive. These villages are tiny, and they are remote, and the people who live here do their best to keep visitors away.

And second, you need a damn good measure of courage, because the rural French don’t take too kindly to foreigners – so you might not depart. I am not kidding when I say going here unaccompanied is something the French Gendarmerie do not recommend.

Even with Google maps it’s hard to find these places until you turn the magnification up to the highest levels:

And what of these places?  These were the places where, even long, long before the Middle Ages, the tough, fearless Romans risked their health and their lives to mine silver and precious metals from mines deep underground. And today the tough, fearless inhabitants of these villages are the descendants of those Romans – brutal, not afraid of pain, not afraid of hard work, and not suffering either fools or visitors lightly.

 

The great mystery of the Basel Bahnhof – SOLVED!

If you have ever been to the train station in Basel, and if you have a sharp and discerning set of peepers, then this view might drive you crazy:

Why? As you can see, there are train tracks 11, 12 . . . and 14 and 15  – but there is no track 13!

For a long time, I pondered this mystery. Was track 13 removed to avoid bad luck?  Other train stations have track 13, so I don’t think so.  Was track 13 removed for satanic pagan reasons?  Basel has one of the largest pagan celebrations in the free world – so this could be likely – but I never was able to connect this pagan ritual to the number 13. Was track 13 removed because the Swiss are sloppy guys that made a mistake and never bothered to correct it?  Hardly!

So then I got busy: I hit the rails and asked train conductors – lots and lots of them. Sadly, none of them knew the answer. I hit the Basel train station office and asked the counter staff – lots and lots of them. Sadly, none of them knew the answer.

Fast forward about THREE YEARS! Recently, I finally got lucky – while talking to a train conductor a train driver happened to overhear my question, and he jumped in and told me there was in fact a track 13. Turns out, he knew the track very well and drives on it regularly!

You see, the key to the mystery was, there is a track 13, but no platform 13.

And to their great credit, the Swiss Federal Railways did not lie or mislead about this. In German, the term used is “Gleis 13” which – translated – means “Track 13” and not “Platform 13.”

After three years of hard work – the great mystery of the Basel Bahnhof has been solved!