September 11, 2022 • 2:30 pm

I finally managed to get a full night’s sleep last night, even though it consisted of my repeatedly surfacing to near consciousness and then diving back down to full sleep. The good news is that this alternation of states was as bracing as a full eight hours of sleep. I didn’t lie awake worrying about getting to sleep, and I awoke refreshed and full of energy.

But that’s not my point here. The point is that I had weird dreams all night, but they were all variations on the same theme: UNWANTED FISHCAKES.

The dream was this: I was with two old friends, and we were in some strange place trying to get a meal in a restaurant. But when I ordered something, I got FISHCAKES instead. The first dream, I recall, was fishcakes served with rice. And these weren’t even decent fishcakes: they were like compressed disks of gefilte fish, a fish I hate. I didn’t eat them.

I came partly awake, went back to sleep, and the dream continued. This time my friends were there, but more strange people wandered in, and we all sat down to eat. Once again I got FISHCAKES–the same odious piscine pucks–but this time with noodles on the side. Once again I rejected them, though I was hungry.

Again, I came partly awake and then dozed off. This time there were even more people, and we were in a large restaurant at a round table. We sat down, and though I didn’t order, the waiter placed a GIANT PLATTER OF FISHCAKES in front of me. I told him I didn’t like fishcakes, but that was all I could get. There must have been twenty of those noxious things on my plate.

The fishcake scenari;may have happened more than just these three times; I can’t remember. But I do remember these dreams vividly because I woke up (not fully) each time. (You usually remember the dreams that you have only right before you wake up.)

What does this dream mean? I have no idea, but since I’m not a piscivore at the best of times (I do like a good fish and chips), it would have to be classed as a nightmare.

I talked to two other friends who, without prompting, also told me that they had weird dreams last night. One was about an unhooded and unruly falcon, and the dreamer kept insisting that they put on its hood to calm it.

The fishcakes in my dream were not fried like these:

If you had a weird dream last night, please put it below.

New duck, who dis?

September 14, 2020 • 8:30 am

UPDATE: Tara Tanaka has identified these as male wood ducks (I got the species right but not the sex). Tara says this:

How sweet!  They’re male woodies – you can tell by the crescent on their faces – the white “comma” behind the eye.  I’m guessing they are this year’s, however it’s possible they are adults that are coming out of molt and those are their new feathers.  They look really different during molt.

If you want to see how different a male wood duck looks in breeding plumage, go to this morning’s photos by Colin Franks and see the last picture.


After this morning’s feeding, three very small ducks flew into Botany Pond and made themselves at home with the mallards, even eating cracked corn on the duck plaza. I suspect these are wood ducks (Aix sponsa) based on their slight crest and eye markings, and they could be all females or perhaps including males not in breeding color. I’m sure readers can help me out with the IDs. There are also two videos at the end.

It was pretty dark, so the shutter speeds were slow, accounting for the non-sharp images.

On the North Duck Island with mallards.

These little ducks are adorable!

And two videos of them swimming in Botany Pond:

The trio swimming together.

I had a dream

May 12, 2019 • 12:00 pm

Two nights ago I had a strange dream. Instead of being visual, like all my dreams, it was a disembodied announcement that I remember almost word for word (I woke up and made an effort to remember it). The announcement went something like this:

“By 2039, the Democratic National Committee was the most powerful body in America—far more powerful than the President of the United States. Unfortunately, the DNC chairman was Jerry Coyne, who spent his time preoccupied with cats, ducks, and food.”

What does this mean?

I had another dream. . . and some biology

November 30, 2018 • 7:30 am

For some reason I’ve remembered my dreams recently, though I usually forget them by morning. This is a short one from last night.

For some reason I was confined in a cold jail cell, and the cell’s heater was simply a series of heated squiggly tubes, like a television antenna, resting on a stand. The heater didn’t work well, and when I asked the jailer why it wasn’t working, he provided me with—and explained—a diagram of how a duck’s legs remain warm in cold water through the anatomical and physical process of countercurrent distribution.

That’s all, except the diagram and the amazing way a duck keeps its legs warm has absolutely nothing to do with the poor heat radiation of a thin, heated tube in a cell. But of course it was just a dream.

But here’s a chance to learn how ducks keep their naked legs and feet from freezing in chilly water. The explanation of countercurrent distribution comes from here.

Ducks, as well as many other birds, have a counter-current heat exchange system between the arteries and veins in their legs. Warm arterial blood flowing to the feet passes close to cold venous blood returning from the feet. The arterial blood warms up the venous blood, dropping in temperature as it does so. This means that the blood that flows through the feet is relatively cool. This keeps the feet supplied with just enough blood to provide tissues with food and oxygen, and just warm enough to avoid frostbite. But by limiting the temperature difference between the feet and the ice, heat loss is greatly reduced. Scientists who measured it calculated that Mallards lost only about 5% of their body heat through their feet at 0C (32o F). To put this in perspective, the rest of the duck is covered with feathers and in contact only with air, not ice, but because the body is relatively hot, 95% of the heat loss is from the head and body. Meanwhile, the cool feet sit on ice and give up very little heat.

More Info: In the diagram [below], without counter-current heat exchange, warm blood makes it all the way to the foot. This keeps the feet considerably warmer than the ice the duck is standing on. Remember that heat flow is roughly proportional to the temperature difference. With a large temperature difference, there is a large flow of heat from the foot to the ice.

In the second diagram [below], you’ll see that multiple branches of the artery are in close contact with branches of the vein. This intertwining of arteries and veins is called retia (singular – rete tibiotarsale). Because heat flows from the arterial blood to the venous blood, the arterial blood becomes colder and the venous blood becomes warmer. Less warm blood gets to the foot, keeping the foot cold and reducing the temperature difference between the foot and the ice. This reduces the flow of heat from the duck to the ice.

That’s today’s biology lesson.


I had a dream

November 29, 2018 • 8:30 am

Every night I wake up in the wee hours for a short while before going back to sleep. If I’ve had a dream before that 2 a.m. awakening, I’ll often remember it vividly, but I always forget the details when I wake up for good in the morning. I usually try to impress the details of such dreams on my brain, but it doesn’t work: unless I have a dream right before I wake up for good, I forget it.

Last night I had another vivid dream, but was up for a while after having it, and while awake I tried hard to remember the details. Mirabile dictu, when I woke up this morning I did remember them! Here’s how it went (note: I have a cancer-phobia).

I was standing at one end of a long, low brick hospital, and at the other end were three guys who were yelling at me. I have no idea what the altercation was about, but I proceeded to give them the finger, whereupon they started running toward me. I was also carrying a big bag of chocolates, and I didn’t want to get beaten up or have these angry men steal my chocolates.

I ran into the hospital looking for a place to hide. It was nearly empty, and I made my way into a suite full of fancy-looking white machines. Somehow I realized that these machines were used to treat cancer. Nobody else was in the suite.

I continued running through the hospital looking for safety, and wound up in the fancy office of a hospital official: a kindly woman who said she’d give me refuge. But, she said, to do that I’d have to go with her as she dealt with three patients, all children, and one of whom had cancer.

I went into the room with the woman, and shortly thereafter the childrens’ mother came in with her offspring. They were all mutants, looking like human tadpoles, and one of them resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon:

Then CEO of the hospital came in, and the woman explained to him that the “black lagoon” child had cancer of the head, and proceeded to demonstrate how, when she pressed on the child’s head, it created an indentation that remained indented. That, she said, was a sign that the cancer was serious.

I then woke up.

I have no idea what this dream means, if dreams mean anything. I recount it simply because it’s bizarre, and it’s one of the few dreams I remember.

If you have a recurrent dream, or have had a weird one recently, do put it in the comments below.

I had a dream

April 12, 2018 • 10:00 am

I can remember dreams only when they occur right before I wake up for good. That happened this morning, and I thought I’d recount another weird one.

I was on a football team, playing on a big field in a stadium. All of a sudden a big wind swept all the players up and dumped our team in a foreign land, which I somehow knew was Mexico.  As we lay on the ground, all but two of the players vanished, leaving me and one other.  Shortly thereafter, two Mexican women, both very pretty, came to us, and each of us had one take his arm and lead us away. My impression was that they were supposed to take care of us.

My “date” said something like, “You look hungry. Let’s get you some good food.” She took me to a place where a man was standing before a big pot of boiling oil. In the oil he was cooking hollow cylinders of dough, about half the size of a churro but more like shredded wheat, so you could see through them. I was told that this was excellent comfort food, but woke up before I could try it.

I have no idea, of course, what this means.

I had a dream

April 8, 2018 • 8:30 am

Last night—or rather, early this morning—I had an extremely vivid dream.  I was in some exotic locale on a cruise, but the cruise was a big ship traveling very rapidly down a narrow canal through a city that seemed to be a combination of Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Latin America.  Somehow two friends and I had accidentally gotten off the boat, and desperately needed to get back on. The problem was that we didn’t know where the boat would stop next, and we couldn’t find out. We kept going to many information booths, and stopping many people, to find out—but no dice.

I knew that on the boat was my colleague Trevor Price, and I had a cellphone and his number, so I tried to call him to find out where the ship would stop so we could get aboard. But the cellphone was weird: the buttons wouldn’t work, or they’d jump out on springs, and the phone began disintegrating. I woke up terrified that I’d been left behind.

What does this mean?

I had a dream

May 26, 2017 • 8:15 am

Lately my dreams have turned from dreams of frustration—usually dreams involving being unable to find the room of a final exam in college, or having to take an exam on a subject I know nothing about—to dreams of  sheer terror. Last night’s was especially vivid. I was taken to a torture center run by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge (perhaps the infamous Security Prison 21, about which I recently read), and was placed by the door, forced to watch the prisoners dragged in, kicking and screaming. Then I was taken inside and made to watch the torture. That consisted of prisoners being tied to horizontal metal poles by their arms. Then guards would apply blowtorches to the poles, which became red hot. Seared by the metal, the prisoners would scream horribly. And then I woke up.

I have no idea what this means, but torture with red-hot instruments was used by the Khmer Rouge. Of the 17,000 prisoners put in that security prison, only 7 came out alive.

Many people have recurring dreams, with academics especially prone to the “final exam: can’t handle it” dream. Please recount below either your own recurring dream, or your latest dream. And tell me what you think my dream of last night meant (yes, I know dreams may be random phenomena, but in many there’s often a kernel of truth: the “day’s residuum,” as I think Freud called it).

The things rats dream about

June 30, 2015 • 10:15 am

by Grania Spingies

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest (4.1.168-170)

I should preface this with my regular caveat: I-am-not-a-scientist, nor do I play one on TV. My level expertise only allows me to say the rough equivalent of “Oh hey, this looks interesting.”

As a child I often used to watch my dogs dreaming. Clearly they were running, sometimes barking and huffing, sometimes panting. It used to fascinate me, and I wondered where in their heads they were running. Was it a field they knew? Were they alone or with companions? Were they chasing prey? Running for the fun of it? What does prey even look like to Canis lupus familiaris who may never met anything particularly prey-like in their modern suburban existence?

Once one of them barked so loud in her dream that she startled herself and woke up with a jump. I’d never seen a Labrador look more sheep-like when her eyes met mine. Unfortunately there was no way to ask her what she had been seeing in her dreams.

But it seems that remarkably a team of scientists has had a glimpse at what rats dream about.

Not an actual lab rat

Kiona Smith-Strickland over at Discover Magazine writes about a new study where a team looked at rats and determined remarkably that they dreamed about going places they were aware of but had not yet explored. She explains the process:

First, researchers let rats explore a T-shaped track. The rats could run along the center of the T, but the arms were blocked by clear barriers. While the rats watched, researchers put food at the end of one arm. The rats could see the food and the route to it, but they couldn’t get there.

Then, when the rats were curled up in their cages afterwards, scientists measured their neuron firing. Their brain activity seemed to show them imagining a route through a place they hadn’t explored before. To confirm this, researchers then put the rats back into the maze, but this time without the barriers. As they explored the arm where they had previously seen the food, the rats’ place cells fired in the same pattern as they had during sleep.

Neuroscientist Hugo Spiers, who co-authored the study, notes:

People have talked in the past about these kind of replay and pre-play events as possibly being the substrates of dreams, but you can’t ask rats what they’re thinking or dreaming. There is that really interesting sense that we’re getting at the stuff of dreams, the stuff that goes on when you’re sleeping.

You can read the paper here:

Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space by H Freyja Ólafsdóttir, Caswell Barry, Aman B Saleem, Demis Hassabis, Hugo J Spiers

I had a dream. . .

February 26, 2015 • 6:31 am

This is a weird one, and I remember the details (which are slowly growing hazier) only because I had it right before I awoke this morning. At the beginning, I was sitting on the grass with a girlfriend (nobody I know in my waking life), and then another girlfriend came by and sat down beside me: and this one happened to be Geena Davis (the star of Thelma and Louis), who put her arm around me. And then I immediately found myself in a courtroom with a group of friends, all of whom happened to be “professional jury people.” That is, all of us had permanent jobs as members of a jury whose job was to judge a people on trial, one after another. We were also members of a golf club, where we would repair to play golf, drink, and eat after our day on the jury.  On the day of my dream, we were going to the clubhouse to commemorate the death of one of our members who had just passed away.

It turned out that this member was known as a “Belty” for his girth.  “Belty” status was determined by everyone being issued sweaters with knitted vertical ribs in them, with the ribs very far apart: several feet, in fact.  A “Belty” was designated as someone who, when he was wearing that sweater, would show more than one vertical rib when you faced him. In other words, Belties were people of considerable girth.

That’s when the dream ended. What does it mean? The only thing I can add is that I am not amorously drawn to Geena Davis, nor do I ever think about her.

Anybody else have weird dreams last night? At least mine wasn’t about having a final exam and not having studied, or not being able to find the exam room.