Archive for November, 2012

It’s not a cry of joy; it’s a scream of pain

November 30, 2012
Expressions numbered 1,4,6 show tennis player’s face on losing a point; expressions numbered 2,3,5 show a player after winning a point).                                                                             (Credit: Reuters: used with permission)

Expressions numbered 1,4,6 show tennis player’s face on losing a point; expressions numbered 2,3,5 show a player after winning a point).
(Credit: Reuters: used with permission)

We’re not as good at interpreting facial expressions as we think we are. In a series of studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researchers presented test groups with photos of highly intense facial expressions in a variety of real-life emotional situations. In one study, subjects saw photos of professional tennis players who had just lost or won a point.

The subjects could easily tell whether a player had won or lost the point when they saw photos of the player’s face and body, or even just the body (with the face removed). But when they were shown the face alone, their ratings were no better than chance. Nevertheless, the subjects who rated photos of the face and body were certain that it was the face and not the body that held the emotional clues.

In another study using photos of faces in intense positive and negative situations (for example orgasm or victory as opposed to grief or pain), subjects were unable to correctly identify the situation after viewing only the face. When the faces were “planted” on bodies expressing either positive or negative emotion, the subjects identified the emotions correctly, on the basis of the body.

Haifa-Acco cruise line to start operations in March 2013

Haifa, with the Baha’i Gardens and golden-domed temple in its center, is Israel’s prettiest city. Just 16 miles to the north, Acco, which has fascinating archaeological finds from the Crusader and other periods, is a gem that is often left out of crowded tourist itineraries. Now the two cities are to become more accessible to visitors thanks to a new cruise line, scheduled to begin operations on March 15, 2013.

The current plan is for two sailings a day in each direction. The ship can carry up to 220 passengers on the 30-minute trip. Both cities plan to offer combination tickets for the cruise and attractions.

Wake up and smell the … white?

There’s white light and there’s white noise. But white smells?
Weizmann Institute researchers have discovered that there really is such a thing as a white smell—that is, a combination of scents that is “neutral.” That is, it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant and is indistinguishable from another, totally different, combination of scents.

Researchers in the institute’s neurobiology department experimented with 86 scents to create a map of our range of perception and then blended the scents in various combinations. For the combinations to be indistinguishable, the components of each had to span the range of human perception and be of exactly the same intensity.

The researchers presented two scent combinations at a time to subjects and asked them to rate the similarity between them. When more scents were included in the blends, subjects tended to rate different blends as identical, even when the blends had no components in common.

The findings contravene the accepted wisdom about smell, and especially the view that our sense of smell is like a machine that detects odor molecules. The findings suggest that we perceive odors as a whole, rather than as the individual scents they comprise.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Bringing Venice to Jerusalem

November 27, 2012

“My dear Ninette, I know you have a garden and I would love to delve in it,” the gondolier sang to his beloved. Making delicate circles with his fingers in imitation of historical Venetian singers, countertenor Doron Schleifer poured forth his desire to the accompaniment of a harpsichord and a Venetian mandolin (like a soprano lute, but played with a pick).

The song opened a program of secular Venetian music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, performed in costume yesterday afternoon at the Henry Crown Symphony Hall (part of the Jerusalem Theater complex). The concert was part of the Etnachta chamber music series that features outstanding musicians, most of them young Israelis.

Cara La mia Ninetta” opened the first act of this staged concert, in which the music and lyrics expressed the excitement and comic side of falling in love, as Etnachta producer and announcer Hayuta Devir explained.

In Act Two, which reflected the conflicts and surprises of love, Schleifer appeared again alongside soprano Ye’ela Avital in the Monteverdi duet “Bel pastor.” The shepherdess coyly pestered the shepherd with her repeated questions: “Do you love me?” “How do you love me?” “But how much?” “How much?” The scene was particularly amusing because the shepherdess, decked out in long blond curls but with a stubbly beard, was none other than Schleifer; Avital played the shepherd.

Avital has a lovely, clear soprano voice, and Schleifer showed that he, like Avital, was fully capable of producing the difficult trills and flourishes of Baroque music.

The group’s musical director, Yizhar Karshon, who played the harpsichord; Amit Tiefenbrunn, who played the viola da gamba; and Avi Avital, who played the mandolin (and who has the distinction of being the first mandolin player every nominated for a classical-music Grammy), were all decked out in knee breeches and white stockings. They put me in mind of the married men of Toldos Aharon, a strict hassidic sect headquartered in Jerusalem, who wear striped gray coats, black knee breeches, and white stockings, though I doubt these Hassidim would ever be caught warbling about the pangs of earthly love.

The Etnachta series is immensely popular—yesterday’s concert filled the 750-seat hall—but it is an endangered species that producer Devir has fought vigorously to keep alive. The programs, Mondays at 5, often include works by Israeli composers, sometimes even premieres. This free series is one of Jerusalem’s best bargains.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

What the cranes said

November 21, 2012

Squawking and jabbering, cranes gather at the Agamon Hula pub before settling down for the night.

The cranes that glided to a landing in the bird pub in northern Israel last Wednesday squawked up a rumpus. Were they screaming “Ahmad Jabari is dead”? Absolutely not, although Jabari—the commander of Hamas’s military forces in Gaza—had just been “eliminated” (in the newspeak of Israeli media). Blissfully aware for the moment of events in Gaza, I was in the north of the country with a group of foreign journalists to learn about the semiannual bird migration.

Israel is the bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, and at least half a billion birds cross it as they fly south in the fall and return to their homes in the spring.

On this long trip, birds need “facilities,” said Dan Alon, head of the Israel Ornithological Society. We were watching the cranes at Agamon Hula, a park and artificial wetland created with water from the Jordan River. It is one of the largest bird restaurants and hotels in the world, according to Alon.

So what were the cranes saying as they settled down in the pub? “Check out the peanuts.” “The water here is better than any beer.” “The restaurant down the road is three forks.”

According to Alon this is not a fanciful description, but rather how researchers describe the behavior of cranes before settling down for the night; they’re as sociable as people in a pub.

More than 390 species—waterfowl, birds of prey, and songbirds—pass through the Hula on their migrations. This makes Israel one of the best bird-watching sites in the world and is the reason for the annual International Hula Valley Bird Festival, hosted in mid-November by the Pastoral Hotel in Kibbutz Kfar Blum.

Birders attending the second annual International Hula Bird Festival use their gear to get closeups of the birds.

Although most of the birds continue south to Africa, many stay in Israel for the winter. But as freeloaders in agricultural areas, they are not always welcome. That is why the Jewish National Fund, which built Agamon Hula, sets out meals for the winged visitors.

More than 100,000 cranes come from Russia and Finland, and about one-third of them stay for the winter, according to Inbar Rubin, content manager at the park. They are the first to go south and they return north starting at the end of February. Storks, on the other hand, are the last to go north and can be seen flying over Israel’s skies as late as May. Storks and pelicans migrate by day in big flocks, but small birds migrate at night to avoid being seen by predators.

And whereas the storks are silent, the cranes never stop talking, Rubin said. “The females make three times as many sounds as the males,” she added.

Cranes are monogamous and migrate as a family, arriving at the crane pub in family groups of three or four. At the end of February, they court by dancing. Often one can see a whole family dancing, because courting is one of the life skills the parents must teach their young.

Pelicans whose nesting place is in Romania are an endangered species; only 65,000 of them still exist. They are the largest migrating birds in the world, with a wing span of up to 3 meters, and all of them migrate through Israel to the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and Lake Victoria.

British ecologist Tristan Reid, who had 24 endangered bird species tattooed on his arms, is a walking billboard for bird preservation.

The bird festival attracted 200 birders this fall and included tours, evening lectures, and early-morning outings for photographers. Among the participants was Thomas Krumenacker, 47, a Berlin-based journalist who is writing a book about birds in Israel and regional cooperation.

Krumenacker is fascinated by the thought of meeting a bird from Germany in Israel. “I came on a plane,” he said. “He came with his wings.”

Tristan Reid, 37, who was in Israel for the first time said, “Seeing 30,000 cranes leaving the roost in the morning.… it’s emotional.”

An ecologist from Wigton in Cumbria, England, Reid is a walking advertisement for birding and bird preservation. Although he had never had a tattoo, after a visit to Turkey where he learned about its endangered bird species, he decided to have pictures of 24 species tattooed on his arms.

And while the birders continued their idyll in the north, the journalists turned away from the beautiful, jabbering cranes and returned to the center of the country to file reports about lethal objects flying through the skies.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.