Sunday, February 11, 2018

Michelangelo's poem

On the train back from Manhattan, the magazine in the seat-pocket had an article about the drummer Questlove. He had written a book, which the magazine described this way:

"he's put all that he's learned about inspiration into a new book, ... which is packed with patient, deliberate breadcrumbs intended to help people get unstuck creatively."

What an interesting way to describe a self-help book, "deliberate breadcrumbs".

It was a lovely day that started in Baltimore with the view from the train window: occasional coastlines, bridges, towns, and bare trees. We saw the sun rise, red horizon above the water. Outside of Philly, a group of rowers synchronized their colorful paddles as we crossed a bridge. One of those brief moments that leaves a picture in your memory.

I walked over to the cafe car and got us some tea. It felt wonderful holding it warm in my hands. Breakfast was cheese and tomato sandwiches that I brought, along with butter and jam sandwiches that my mom brought.

We arrived in Penn Station and took the metro to Central Park, then walked across the park to the Met. We met my daughter (and her friend) there, who surprised me with a box of macaroons, and my mom surprised her with two small paintings that she had bought on her recent trip to Iran.

This was the last weekend for the Michelangelo exhibit, so it was crowded. But the crowds were kind, and polite, as we inevitably ran into each other in front of this drawing or that. I reveled in the myriad of languages that I heard, so many ways to say "wow", followed by something that I couldn't understand.

The exhibit was all about Michelangelo’s "studies", drawings that he had made before he painted or sculpted the final piece. Almost all of them in pencil or another monochrome tool.

Because the pieces were studies, if you looked close, there was a story there, depicting a day in his life, some 600 years ago. On one of those days, he started with a piece of paper and drew a man, fully clothed, sitting, with detail that looked as though the drawing itself was chiseled in stone. Then he turned the paper around, and now doodled, drawing another man, this one naked, standing. Finally, he used the rest of the paper to write a poem.

How can it be, Lady, as one can see,
from long experience, that the live image,
sculpted in the hard alpine stone, lasts longer
than its maker, whom the years return to ashes?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Behavioral research at Journal of Neuroscience

In a recent issue of Journal of Neuroscience, the editors described an ongoing policy of increasing the percentage of papers that are “desk-rejected”, that is, rejected without peer review. The data showed that from Jan. 2014 to March 2016, the percentage of such decisions increased from 5% of submitted papers to around 25%. What concerned me was that the policy appeared to focus on a specific group of neuroscientists: those who primarily relied on behavioral experiments to infer function of the brain. We conducted a survey to quantify this impression.

130 people responded to the survey, 62% of whom had published a paper in JNeurosci. These authors represented about 342 articles in JNeurosci (this is a lower bound because a handful of authors had published 10 or more articles but the survey counted their contributions as 10). Of the papers that the authors had published in JNeurosci, about 40% were behavioral, without explicit neural correlates. Therefore, the survey participants represented a group of scientists that relied substantially, but not exclusively, on behavioral research.

The participants reported that they had experienced 148 desk-rejections. Among the desk-rejected manuscripts, about 75% were rejected because the editors felt that the work “lacked insights into neural mechanisms”. Here are some examples of the letters sent to the authors:
  • “For purely behavioral studies, our criteria have evolved to require that a behavioral study provides novel insights into the underlying neural representations and mechanisms.”
  • "The study does make some experimental predictions, but they are all behavioral."
  • "while the study had a number of strengths, the emphasis was on behavioral processes rather than neural mechanisms which are the focus for The Journal of Neuroscience.”
  • “It is, unfortunately, the case that it is not possible for us to consider manuscripts where the emphasis is on behavior.”
  •  “I am afraid that it has become much rarer for behavior only manuscripts to be sent out for review at The Journal of Neuroscience.”
This policy has left a strong impression on the participants, as noted in their comments.
  • "It is well-known that it is useless to submit behavioral studies to this journal even if neural mechanisms are discussed in the Introduction and Discussion."
  • "To understand how the brain works, we have to understand the structure of the information processing and predict the behaviour before jumping to see the neural correlates of it. Therefore, I believe behavioural research is a fundamental part of neuroscience. It is sad to see one of the journals I respect is underestimating the value of behavioural neuroscience."
  • "Although my personal experience included neural data, I definitely share the impression.  Quite a few journals including j neurosci are rejecting papers at the editorial stage and I have a sense behavioral studies are being excluded more; also agree that this is not wise for the journal."
  • "I gave up submitting papers to JN or reviewing for them, a position which I also advertised to colleagues who came to me asking for advice whether they should consider JN as an outlet for their own work. My feeling has become that submitting papers that are mostly behavioural/computational to JN is a waste of time and effort."
  • "The loss of behavioral research is dangerous to neuroscience. The idea that we will understand the brain without a nuanced understanding of behavior, i.e. the only neural output that ultimately matters, is misguided."
  • "It will be a huge mistake to give any kind of low priority to behavioral/psychphysics/cognitive only studies! These papers are the basics of neuroscience. After all, this is what we aim to understand : human (or animal) behavior! Moreover, even as an electrophysiologist, i would say without hesitation that the contribution of purely behavioral papers to our understanding of computations in the brain is huge, and equal to that of invasive studies. Sometimes it is even more convincing to draw a conclusion about the neural correlates by observing the behavior, than by observing the actual neural correlate. this is due to two main factors: 1. Limitations and technical confounds of the physiological measures; 2. The superiority of a clean targeted well-thought-of purely behavioral design, compared to when compromised when one need to accommodate technological confounds of physiological methods. To sum, behavioral and psychophysics is, almost by definition, the foundation of neurosciences."
Fortunately, the editors are beginning to respond to these concerns. Senior Editor Dan Sanes left a constructive comment noting that this issue will be discussed at the journal's board meeting in November. Senior Editor Yavin Shaham spoke with me and noted that a policy statement that appeared to focus on behavioral research was problematic. Editor-in-Chief Marina Picciotto mentioned that she has asked for data regarding desk-rejections in the past 6 months and will compare them to similar data from 3 years ago to ascertain whether behavioral work has been unfairly impacted.

Meanwhile, David Herzfeld has begun a systematic, quantitative analysis of all papers published in the history of JNeurosci. The data has allowed us to quantify the citation impact of behavioral research, with the results published here.

In a thoughtful perspective, John Krakauer, Asif Ghazanfar, Alex Gomez-Marin, Malcolm MacIver, and David Poeppel considered the question of whether behavioral experiments are fundamental to advancing neuroscience. They noted that whereas the focus of neuroscience appears to have shifted to neural circuits, behavioral experiments provide the guiding vision of what that circuit might be doing. They wrote: "when scientists ask 'how does the brain generate behavior,' they are in fact asking a question best approached through behavioral work, specifically task analysis, aided by theory, that allows behavior to be decomposed into separable modules and processing operations... The neural basis of behavior cannot be properly characterized without first allowing for independent, detailed study of the behavior itself."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The positive immigrant

My friend Youseph had just returned from a trip to Iran. His father, a former foreign minister of Iran, under house arrest for many years, had passed away, and he had returned to Tehran for the 40th day ceremony. 

We met for breakfast. I found a table at the rather busy Einstein Bagels, and when he walked in, the first thing he did was to hand me a jar, with a small package of saffron in it. The jar was the one that I had given him some months back, with my homemade tomato soup. 

I sat mesmerized as he described the trip, what it's like to hear about your father from people that remembered him. Reminded me of when I had made a similar trip, some 8 years ago. 

Youseph is a positive person (aren't all immigrants?). So many changes to Tehran: signs that read come to the mosque, where you'll find a quiet place to think, where you can find shelter from an abusive relationship, where you can find peace. The mayor's initiative to fill the city with flowers. A new and interesting bridge, architecturally gorgeous, designed by a young woman. 

He recalled that as he mentioned his observations, people in the room, those who lived in Tehran, would occasionally dismiss it. "I think you're the first person that has actually read this propaganda that they put on walls." And "who cares about the flowers when after going to college for 4 years, you have to drive a taxi."

He fell into thought when I told him that he should write down his observations. I'm pretty sure I get this desire to record things from my dad. He loved to identify places and people that were in the picture on the back of that printed image. 

I look at his handwriting, and I see a record of his movements, as well as his thoughts, still here today.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Is Journal of Neuroscience discriminating against behavioral research?

Journal of Neuroscience is the flagship scientific publication for the Society for Neuroscience, a journal that was established in 1981 “to publish research in the field of neuroscience and to serve the membership of the Society for Neuroscience”. Unfortunately, available data suggest that the journal’s impact has been declining, at least as evidenced by the Journal Impact Factor (JIF). Perhaps as a reaction to these trends, in the past two years policy statements from the journal’s editorial board, and anecdotal evidence from the review process, suggest that the journal has instituted a policy of discrimination against a specific kind of neuroscience research: non-invasive, psychophysical experiments are rejected without peer review.

I am alarmed by this change. I believe that the new policy is flawed for a number of reasons.
  • The available data suggest a poor relationship between rejection rates and journal impact factor, making it unlikely that increasing rejection rates will result in improved impact factor.
  • The focus on rejecting a specific body of research is discriminatory and runs counter to the principle of representing research of all members of the Society for Neuroscience.
  • The current policy, as applied to the journal’s own data would eliminate some of the highest cited papers in the journal’s history. That is, the new policy may worsen the plight of the journal.

The declining impact factor and the journal’s new policies
The Society for Neuroscience is an organization that represents scientists who study the field of neuroscience at all levels, including molecular, cellular, systems, behavioral, and computational. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years the flagship journal of this society has seen a general decline in its impact factor.

The reasons for this decline are unclear, though I speculate that one factor is the rapid rise of new, competing journals. Perhaps in response to these trends, in January 2016 the journal published an article describing changes to the review process. The new policy aimed to increase the rate of rejection of papers at the editorial stage, before they are submitted to peer review. The data that were included in a follow up article showed that from January 2014 to March 2016, the total percent of papers rejected increased modestly from around 70% to nearly 80%, while the percent of papers rejected before peer-review increased by a factor of five: from 5% to about 25%.

The new policy described the kind of research that the editors rejected without review. They wrote: “… purely biophysical or behavioral studies should provide novel insights into, and make specific predictions about, neural mechanisms or neural representations.” A typical rejection letter from the senior editor gave the following reason for rejection without review of a study that used psychophysical, non-invasive recording techniques to measure behavior: “we felt that The Journal of Neuroscience is not the right venue because the findings do not inform us about or implicate a specific neural mechanism.”

It appears to me that the journal’s new policy is targeting a specific group of neuroscientists: those who primarily rely on behavioral data to infer function of the brain. Given that this is the official journal of the Society, the discrimination would divide the membership into classes that can and cannot publish in the journal.

What to do
To help address these issues, we need data that quantifies how the policy is affecting the ability of the community to publish in the journal. To help with that, I ask that you to take a few moments to complete this survey.

The objective of the survey is to collect data regarding the publishing experience of scientists who may have been affected by this policy. We hope to be able to answer a simple question: what has been the impact of papers published in the journal that have relied primarily on psychophysical tools to measure behavior? We hope to present the data to the journal’s editors, clarifying the impact of their new policy.
Thank you for your help. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Elizabeth's hopes and dreams

Early mornings, as I walk the path from the university parking lot to my lab, I stop and pick up occasional potato chip bags or candy wrappers that were left behind by children and other pedestrians that shared the sidewalk, maybe on their way home yesterday from the nearby school, or maybe on their way back from the corner store.

Sometimes there is a crumpled piece of paper, someone’s graded test, perhaps a homework, little windows into a child’s life.

It’s worth looking, because the way they see the world is a perspective akin to that of poets: by recasting the obvious, they help you rediscover the beauty that’s right in front of you.

And so a few days ago I picked up this crumpled piece of paper, where a girl named Elizabeth had listed her hopes and dreams, crossed out a few things, and then finally put check marks next to the ones that, I imagined, she identified as the key ingredients for the recipe of her life.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

From Jonathan to Joni

My colleague Joni began her presentation by describing a patient named “Elliot”, a businessman who had a tumor in his frontal lobe. The surgeons had successfully removed the tumor, but now Elliot “wasn’t Elliot anymore.” His life had started to fall apart. He lost his job, where he had been a successful executive. He divorced his wife, and then married a prostitute (which also ended badly).

Elliot had gone to see Antonio Damasio, the eminent neuroscientist. Damasio noticed that Elliot did fine in all the usual tests, exhibiting intact memory and excellent intelligence. But when asked to look at pictures of emotionally charged events, like an auto accident, or people in distress, Elliot did not register the usual signs of being affected by what he was seeing. The damage to Elliot’s brain had caused him to be unable to access his emotional memory to assign value to things that he sensed or actions that he might do. 

Without access to this emotional context, options could only be evaluated based on “cold-blooded logic”, Damasio noted. And when all you have is logic, options appeared of the same value in the landscape of decisions, and decision-making became quite difficult.

So Elliot might take hours trying to decide between various options for dinner. Food, after all, is something that can be viewed logically as having some caloric value, and some health benefits, but for a normal person the choice of what to eat is often based on memories of how it felt when you ate that food. Without access to memory of pleasure associated with eating the food (which is derived largely from the emotional context in which the food was eaten), the caloric content of food becomes a sterile dimension to base decisions.

Joni used this example to motivate her own research, which focused on the activity of neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex of animals. She showed that the neurons increased their activity when the option promised greater reward, and lowered their activity when the option required the animal to exert greater effort (through lever presses). She showed that the neurons of the orbitofrontal cortex were encoding value of the option, taking into account a measure of the reward that it promised, minus the effort that it required.

And so perhaps when there was damage to these neurons, and their connections to the brainstem regions that were important for registering emotional context of events, people lost the ability to make choices based on the subjective value of that option, that is, how they felt about that choice.

But damage to the frontal lobe, particularly the regions that so dramatically altered the ability to make choices, also changed the way people reacted toward the patient. Joni brought this up later as she sat in my office, describing that a major problem that patients faced following these forms of surgery was in their ability to continue their relationships with people whom they had known all their lives. These friends and family members had a hard time adjusting to a person who looked exactly the same as before, but now suddenly had changed internally. That is, Elliot wasn’t Elliot anymore.

As Joni explained this problem, a tear formed in her eyes.

I suddenly understood that in some ways, a similar problem was faced by people who changed their gender. For them, on the inside they were exactly the same person as before, but now on the outside, they looked something else entirely. That outwardly change made it hard for lifelong friends, children, family, to maintain the relationships that they had built together. Just when they needed it most, the critical bonds were being strained.

You see, about a year ago, Joni was Jonathan, married and father to children. Now, she was an elegantly dressed woman with eye shadow and curves.

“I’m still the same person I always was. I’m just being more authentic now.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

Cairo on your own

On the Cairo subway, a gentleman stands up and offers my wife his seat. On a busy street, the two of us are standing, looking at the city map on our tablet, and a man in a late model car stops and asks if he can help us. In the airport, standing in a long line for what appears to be Gate 4, a man comes up to us and gently points out that this line is for a flight for Baghdad, probably not our destination. At a fruit stand, we try a glass of sugar cane juice, with some warm Egyptian bread from the next door bakery. In the evening of a very hot day, we sit on our porch and watch the Nile go by; where there are a group of female rowers all in head scarves, party boats that are playing Arabic disco music, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

It’s September of 2016, and my wife and I (a couple of 50 year olds) are having four days of adventure in Cairo. We went about it on our own, and had a marvelous time. Here are some of our successes, as well as mistakes.

Before arrival. We used one of the many online services to book a place to stay, a houseboat on the Nile, in the downtown area. This gave us fabulous views, a gentle breeze, and a place to unwind after the hot day, but also the loud music of party boats that went down the Nile till around 2 AM on the weekends. Before leaving, we downloaded a map of the city ($4) on our tablet. As we did not have cell phone service in Cairo, the tablet allowed for GPS tracking and was an excellent way to get our bearings. [You can use your phone/tablet as a GPS by first downloading a map, and then simply putting the device in Airplane mode. While Google Maps allows you to download maps of many places for offline use, it does not allow it for Cairo, so we ended up purchasing the downloadable map.]

Arrival. We acquired a visa upon arrival at the airport. On the plane they handed us an immigration form, and once landed we simply walked to one of the banks and handed them $25 each and received a small sticker (they take US dollars). We then gave the form along with the sticker to the immigration official, who placed the sticker in our passport. That served as the visa. We picked up our bags and met a driver that our host (our landlady) had arranged. It was a 30 minute ride to downtown (we arrived at 1:30 AM). A taxi ride from airport to downtown should cost you no more than $10. Our host was waiting for us when we got to the flat. She had the fridge stocked with food and drinks. We exchanged dollars to Egyptian pounds with her (the rate was 12.5 pounds to the dollar, considerably better than the official exchange rate of 9 pounds to the dollar).

Transportation. Taxis are plentiful and have a meter. The meter starts at 300, meaning 30 cents. Our longest ride took about 30 minutes and cost about $5. None of the taxi drivers we met spoke English, but having a tablet with a map was very useful because we could show the driver where we want to go. However, traffic was crushing and air pollution was severe. A much better bet was to take the metro. The metro was clean, frequent, and efficient, but covered only a limited region. To get to our destination, we often took a metro as far as we could, and then used a taxi. To use the metro, upon entry you will need to buy a ticket. Metro tickets cost 1 Egyptian pound (about 10 cents) and give you access to the entire system. Keep the ticket after you enter because you will need it to exit.

Day 1. Egyptian Museum. When my wife was a teenager, the King Tut exhibition came to Seattle. She remembered the long lines. At the magnificent Egyptian Museum, there are thousands of items from Tut’s tomb, and we were often the only tourists in the various rooms. The museum is in Tahrir Square (Sadat metro station). Upon entry, we bought a ticket and were immediately approached by a guide who offered his services at a rate of 120 pounds per hour (about $10 per hour). He was an older gentleman, well educated, with excellent knowledge of Egyptian history and contents of the museum. (The guides are licensed by the museum, and wear an identification badge.) We checked our backpack at a kiosk and headed in with our guide. The guidebooks had mentioned the crowds, but judging from our experience, after the 2013 revolution/coup there now appears to be very few visitors to Cairo. In most rooms at the museum we were the only people. The museum itself, in my view, contained some of the most beautiful pieces of artistry in human history. Nearly 5000 years ago, when the Egyptian had yet to invent the wheel, they were depicting women with wings, long fingers, elegant body, covered with linen, on the sarcophagus of kings. The craftsmanship, in the chairs, foot rests, staffs, and chariots of the pharaohs, was breathtaking. The most surprising item was the condom that was used by King Tut, and the strap that held the item around his waist, both made of animal skin, in nearly perfect condition.

Walking slowly through the museum, listening to our guide, I thought about how for 5000 years, the belief in the after-life was so strong that it supported whole legions of artists that made such beautiful pieces of work. Then came science, and it erased so much of those beliefs, perhaps now leading to its near complete elimination. Religion was for so long the strongest motivation for support of artistry. Kings paid the artists because they were paying for something that they would personally need in their after-life. I left thinking that perhaps in ancient Egypt we had the golden age for the profession of the arts.

The museum closed at 4:30, and so we asked our guide for a good place to eat. He suggested that we try Kosheri, a traditional Egyptian meal, consisting of pasta, lentils, and crispy fried onions. He took us for a 15 min walk down Champollion Rd, to a busy restaurant that only served Kosheri. The sign on the wall proudly said “we have no other branches”. It was absolutely delicious.

Day 2: Giza. Our taxi brought us to the entrance of the Giza pyramids and after a security check, a guy got into our taxi and told the driver to go over to where they were renting horses and camels (this guy worked for the horse master). There, we chose to ride our own horses (the other options were a horse-drawn carriage, or a camel). We made two mistakes here: the tactic used by the horse master was to first put us up on our horse, and then begin negotiations on price. It was harder to walk away when were already up on the horse. Our second mistake was to agree to pay for the tour in advance, rather than at the end. However, having a horse turned out to be a good way to see Giza, making it fun to climb the hills and try vantage points for pictures, and then gallop a little on the warm sand. We rode to each of the three main pyramids and went inside a couple of the smaller ones that surrounded them. In one of the smaller underground tombs, apparently that of an engineer who designed the largest pyramid, we entered to find hieroglyphics on the walls, and one symbol that looked like a face with large ears. It looked like Obama!

I spent a bit of time looking at the stones that had fallen from one of the pyramids. It was red granite. The facade for the pyramids used to be white limestone, some of which was still there on the bottom two rows of one of the pyramids. Magnificent craftsmanship that was later damaged when pieces of the pyramids were taken away to be used in churches, mosques, and palaces. The horse ride lasted about 3.5 hours and cost about $160. As the ride ended, the guide wanted us to spend time at a particular store (which he called a “museum”), which we politely declined.

Afterwards we explored the impoverished village near the pyramids, buying some of the local bread (5 cents a piece) and having a wonderful time at a fruit-juice place, trying the fresh squeezed mango and orange (about 50 cents a glass). From the village, we used our GPS to walk to the main square and then hired a taxi home ($5).

Looking back, it would have better to go to Giza with our own guide. Although seeing the pyramids on a horse is wonderful, the guide offered by the horse master was there merely to handle the horses and could tell us little about the history of the place. The ideal way to see Giza may be to hire a guide in Cairo and go together to Giza, have him negotiate for the horses, and then ride together to see the sights. Coming with your own guide makes dealing with the incredibly aggressive horse masters much easier.

A tapestry depicting Adam and Eve before and after she took the forbidden apple.  The guide suggested that the horse to the right, tied to the tree, represents the ability of humans to control their impulses.

3. Coptic Cairo. Greeks, Romans, and then Christians followed the time of the Pharos. A good place to see the remnants of these civilizations is Coptic Cairo, which houses churches that were built on spots where Mary and Jesus are claimed to have spent a few months during their flight from Palestine. We started with the Coptic Museum, directly across the Mar Girgis metro station, and found a superb guide that we stayed with for the rest of our visit to Cairo. [His contact information is available at the end of this blog. He charged about $10 per hour.]

At Coptic Cairo we spent the afternoon with our guide, walking through the Hanging Church, Church of St. Sergius, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Starting with Pharonic history, he explained the evolution of the symbol that represented the upper and lower Nile, to the cross that the early Christians used in fear of being found by the Romans, to the cross that Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians used, to the 7th century arrival of Islam. In the architecture, in the symbols, in the art used to decorate the churches, you can see the sharing of the ideas between the dominoes of history.

Probably the coolest exhibit for me was a recently unearthed library from the 3rd century. An important page on display was from a book that describes “the origins of the world”, describing philosophy of a group of agnostic Christians.

That evening we bought kabobs from a tiny restaurant that both an Egyptian friend and a local driver had recommended: Abou Shakra. The menu was in Arabic only, and the place was not much not to look at, but with the help of the guy behind the counter we ordered some kofteh kabobs. The food was simply superb (dinner for two, $5).

When we arrived home, our host texted us to ask if we would like some Sheppard Pie that they had made, our second dinner.

Day 4: Sakkara and Islamic Cairo. We arranged our final day of adventures with the guide that we had met the day before. We rose early and took the metro to its last stop near Giza. Our guide picked us up with and his car and drove about an hour south to Sakkara. Sakkara is home to the first pyramid built in Egypt (called the step pyramid), a superb museum that has some of the finest examples of wooden statues found in the tombs, as well as examples of surgical instruments from around 2500 BC. Unlike Giza, Sakkara provided access to the tombs, where one could see the spectacular artwork on the walls, depicting life of ordinary people, girls playing a game, farmers harvesting grain. The artwork showed bakers, fishermen, and craftsmen, as well as the animals of the Nile, including geese, hippos, and a variety of fish. I was surprised to find that some of the drawings still maintained their colors, blues and reds. 

Sakkarah was special for me because it celebrated probably the first known engineer in history, Imhotep, who designed the first stone pyramid in Egypt around 2780 BC, the step pyramid. The pyramid is still mostly intact after nearly 5 millennia. I wondered whether any of the structures built in the 20th century would be around in the year 7000 AD.

For lunch, we found another fruit-juice place and enjoyed a few glasses of citrus and some local bread, and then headed north to the Islamic Cairo. We focused on the Citadel, a place that Saladin built in the 12th century to fortify the city against the crusaders. The fortress is dominated by the mosque of Mohammad Ali, built in gorgeous alabaster. There were two other mosques in the neighborhood, with one housing the remains of a few modern kings of Egypt, as well as the Shah of Iran.

That evening, we had our host and her sister up to our place, where we enjoyed a wonderful conversation. Our host arranged for a ride to the airport on the next day.

Leaving. The Cairo airport had multiple security check points long before we got to the check-in counter. It took us about an hour to go from arrival at the airport’s first security check to the gate.

And then, something beautiful: the call to prayer, and a large number of passengers, waiting at the various gates, get up and self-organize in a carpeted space between two gates, and begin to pray. Their motions, as if spontaneous choreography among a group of stranger.

On our last evening, sitting with our host and her sister, she asked whether we would return to Cairo. Thinking about her question, I remembered that as we walked on the sidewalks, even in the nicest neighborhoods; I couldn’t help but be saddened by the piles of garbage; couldn’t help but be annoyed by the constant honking of horns; couldn’t help but be unhappy that in one evening from 11pm to 4am, the neighboring house was undergoing noisy construction. Yet, I don’t know of anywhere else on earth that one can view examples of ancient art and engineering, see depictions of how people lived at a time before the invention of the wheel, walk on lands crossed by Alexander, Jesus, and Saladin.

A wonderful local tour guide: Ramadan Emam <>