Category Archives: Articles

Life & All that Jazz

I’ve been silent awhile; sometimes I just need a change of pace from daily writing, and blogging, to retank creative energy.  Life has been full in that time, so it’s not as if I’ve been sitting around in a toga eating grapes and reading a book… the whole time.  I’ve been doing crafts; I do a lot of all kinds of crafts, and my craft room has a bit of a reputation – it’s packed neatly with more supplies than any craft store I know of in Switzerland, literally.  People come to me when they need things repaired, or when they don’t know how to make something, or when e.g. their school class needs party decorations on a large scale, or large paper maché stage props. Here’s a small corner of my craft room… (just click on any of the images below to enlarge and have a snoop!) – everything you see is practical; the bear on the shelf is a ratchet screwdriver with 6 heads tucked into the belly; the grass blades are pens; the wooden bowls are great for sorting bits & bobs… you get the idea!

  Craft room, April 2018

And here’s our front door sign; the sign itself is decoupaged with the inside of security envelopes, and the large beads are made of paper.  This is our current sign, though the straps and dangles are interchangeable, as I have several sets (dangling from the metal ring in the photo above), depending on the season and my mood.

Spring 2018 Welcome Sign

I do a lot of practical crafts for our home – from coasters to tea caddies to curtains; here are a few images of things I’ve made from paper and cardboard:

Tea Caddy 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 3 - SmallLibrary Shade 1

Electrical Plug Prop, April 2018 - Small

The colourful doors are on my craft room book shelf; each cubby holds a world of crafts supplies! The giant electrical plug & socket are stage props for an upcoming musical production based on my husband’s first CD; that week, I’ll be busy as well, vocal coaching the soloists as well as the choir.  On the final evening, the plug will reveal that it is actually a piñata, stuffed with bags of toys and chocolates. Peeking out from behind the socket is the neck of a paper maché ukelele case I made and then doodled, as well as a bouquet of paper rolls ready for another project similar to the library’s round window shade…

Besides crafts, we’ve had a party and a few evenings with guests; the party was for part of my husband’s work gang and their partners, and I made a Mexican fiesta (here’s my menu, for those interested).

Kitchen Sign.JPG

This magnetic sign is now on my stove; I found it in a quaint little vintage café in Bremgarten, when my husband took me out for a day of surprises for our 25th wedding anniversary!  He’s good at keeping secrets… he’d invited two couples to celebrate with us: One for lunch in Bremgarten in a restaurant along the river, and one for dinner, at the Wörth Schlössli Restaurant at the base of Rhein Falls. We had a great day together, as always! In between, we went to downtown Zürich to spend a gift certificate I’d received from friends on my birthday; it was, of course, in an art shop!

So, that’s just a glimpse of some of the things I’ve been doing (when not in my toga eating grapes and reading).  Now that my mini hiatus is over, I’m tucking back into writing and all the bits and bobs that turn “writing” into novels!

 

 

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What’s in a Name?

The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.

Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene.  In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.

When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age:  If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank.  If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.

If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters.  For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose.  Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth.  Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children.  If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read.  Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune).  In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character:  Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)

There are so many resources available for choosing names these days:  Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.

Things to consider when choosing your names:

  • Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
  • Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
  • Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
  • Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
  • Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
  • Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
  • Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…!  Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
  • Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name!  And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
  • Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning.  In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons.  As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.

I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

Names 1Names 2Names 3Names 4Frank

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Upgrades & Technostalgia

Computer UpgradeThere’s no denying the fact that computers are huge blessings – combined with that little invention called “internet” they’re an unstoppable pair… until they stop, and life comes to a screeching halt.

That happened last week, as our main office computer gave up the ghost, after fighting a long, painful demise.  My own laptop, from which I write, has been limping and is in need of repair, but it was our only lifeline to ordering a replacement… done, and three days later, the packages arrived!  I’ve spent the better hours of 5 days sorting out things like transfer of emails and contact lists, programmes, updates, software and hardware setups, and patch-jobs to get old programmes to understand the new ones and vice-versa!

Instead of the “old fashioned” desktop computer with a huge processor that either stands on the floor and collects cat hairs and dust bunnies or stands on our desk and collects dust bunnies and cat hairs, we decided to go with a laptop hooked up to a docking station and two screens.  Sweet!  And yes, I can use both… it’s great when I’ve got research documents open while writing, or doing translations or editing two documents simultaneously.  Now, to get my laptop repaired.

It’s amazing how we’ve become so dependent on computers, isn’t’ it?  Personal computers didn’t really begin to enter households in any significant way until around 1990; technically, they hit the market in the early ’80’s, but the products were mostly limited to electronics geeks and university libraries.  We got our first home computer in 1993, and it had RAM of a whopping 256 MB!!  How could anyone ever use THAT much??  Now we’ve passed Gigabytes, and we’re into terabytes (TB, 10004 ), and it won’t be long until we’re into petabytes (PB, 10005), exabytes (EB, 10006 ), zettabytes (ZB, 10007) and yottabytes (YB, 10008).  I remember writing business letters in DOS – back before Windows, virtual desktops or virtual wallpaper had even been dreamt of.  I remember floppy discs – the latest in technology, now used as drink coasters somewhere in the world, I’m sure.  5-inch floppy discs became passé with the advent of (gasp!) 2-inch version… how could anything that small have so much space on it (1.44 MB).  Imagine – back in the advent of computers, there was no Microsoft, no Amazon, no internet, no cloud storage, no dropbox, no websites, no Skype… they were essentially an information processor, with transfer of information only possible through a floppy disc or good ol’ fashioned printouts and photocopies (we won’t even go into the whole issue of the love-hate relationship most secretaries had with the first few generations of photocopiers).

Do you remember cassette tapes?  Polaroid cameras?  Now music is on a cloud or virtual shelf, and selfies and Instagram have made physical print photos nearly obsolete, except as an art form.

20 years later and these things all fit in your pocketMobile Phone History

 

These images show how far we’ve come in less than 40 years.  But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Check out these up-and-coming products or concepts that are in the making:  Just hover your cursor over each image for more information.

 

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Short Story: The Stranger

Below is a short story written by an old friend, and I’d like to share it with you, by kind permission.

“A few years after I was born, my Dad met a stranger who was new to our small town. From the beginning, Dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer and soon invited him to live with our family.

“The stranger was quickly accepted and was around from then on. As I grew up, I never questioned his place in my family. In my young mind, he had a special niche.

“My parents were complementary instructors: Mom taught me good from evil, and Dad taught me to obey.

“But the stranger… he was our storyteller. He would keep us spellbound for hours on end with adventures, mysteries and comedies.  If I wanted to know anything about politics, history or science, he always knew the answers about the past, understood the present and even seemed able to predict the future! He took my family to the first major league ball game. He made me laugh, and he made me cry. The stranger never stopped talking, but Dad didn’t seem to mind.

“Sometimes, Mom would get up quietly while the rest of us were shushing each other to listen to what he had to say, and she would go to the kitchen for peace and quiet. (I wonder now if she ever prayed for the stranger to leave.)

“Dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions, but the stranger never felt obligated to honor them.  Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our home – not from us, our friends or any visitors. Our long time visitor, however, got away with four-letter words that burned my ears and made my dad squirm and my mother blush.

“My Dad didn’t permit the liberal use of alcohol, but the stranger encouraged us to try it on a regular basis. He made cigarettes look cool, cigars manly, and pipes distinguished.  He talked freely (much too freely!) about sex. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing… I now know that my early concepts about relationships were influenced strongly by the stranger. Time after time, he opposed the values of my parents, yet he was seldom rebuked… And NEVER asked to leave.

“More than fifty years have passed since the stranger moved in with our family. He has blended right in and is not nearly as fascinating as he was at first. Still, if you could walk into my parents’ den today, you would still find him sitting over in his corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures.
“His name?  We just call him ‘TV’.”

by Larry Ellsaesser

PS:  Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter – it’s short and sweet, with tips & tricks for writers!

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Space: The Final Frontier

For you Sci-Fi buffs out there, that title will be very familiar, as it is the opening line of the Star Trek manifesto.  The novel I’m working on at the moment is just that – Sci-Fi, albeit not Star Trek.  It nevertheless takes me into space, and that’s always a fascinating thing!  So here are a few fun facts about what lies beyond our atmosphere:

  • Jupiter’s Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System, and is even larger than the planet of Mercury.
  • Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, with a surface temperature of 460°C. A day on Venus is 243 Earth-days long, but its year is only 224.7 days; Venus spins backwards on its axis.
  • Oxygen is the third most common element on the Sun, after helium and hydrogen.
  • A neutron star is the strongest known magnet in the universe, and such stars are among the fastest-spinning objects observed, spinning up to 500 times per second.
  • Since 1992, when the first exoplanet was discovered, there have been 3,728 confirmed planets in 2,794 systems, with 622 systems having more than one planet.
  • About 1 in 5 stars comparable to our sun have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone (known to scientists as the “Goldilocks Zone”). It is assumed that there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone; based on that, there would be 11 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in our galaxy (and up to 40 billion if you count red dwarf stars as well).
  • Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to us beyond the Sun.
  • Russia is larger than the entire surface area of Pluto.
  • The largest known star is Westerlund 1-26, which is 2,000 times bigger than the Sun.
  • Olympus Mons, on Mars, is the largest volcano in the solar system. Due to the low gravity of Mars and the lack of plate tectonics, it has been able to grow to three times higher than Mount Everest.
  • Dark matter and dark energy are thought to make up nearly 95% of all matter in the universe.
  • The Boomerang Nebula (also known as “the Bow Tie Nebula”) is the coldest known place in the universe, with a temperature of 1 K (−272.15°C; −457.87°F).
  • The Sun is growing, but we won’t have to worry about it for a few billion years, when it will become close enough to swallow the Earth.
  • On Mercury during the day, the Sun rises, stops, and then sets where it rose.  It rotates on its axis exactly three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun, meaning that, if you lived on Mercury, you would only see one day every two years.
  • The Sun’s core releases the equivalent of 100 billion nuclear bombs every second, and its energy is emitted as heat and light.
  • The storm on Jupiter known as the ‘Great Red Spot’ has been going on for at least 350 years; it’s so large that dozens of Earths would fit into it.
  • A supermassive black hole is thought to be present in the centre of nearly every galaxy, including our own (ours is a runt compared to the average size).
  • Shooting stars really aren’t stars; they’re meteors – and even then, they are often only dust particles falling through our atmosphere that vaporize due to the heat of friction with the atmospheric gases. If they are large enough to survive the journey through our atmosphere and impact on the ground, they are called meteorites.
  • We are in constant motion; planets move within the solar system, the solar system moves within the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn moves within The Local Group of Galaxies; the local group is moving toward the Virgo Cluster.
  • Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard left two golf balls on the Moon in 1971.  They’re still there:  One is in the Javelin Crater, and the second fell near where the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment) was deployed.
  • The Moon’s Javelin Crater gets its name because on the Apollo 14 mission, fellow astronaut to Shepard, Ed Mitchell, threw the Solar Wind Collector staff as a make-shift javelin.
  • Uranus has 27 known moons, all of which are named after characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
  • Jupiter has 69 known moons.
  • Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have no solid surface to land on, being comprised of gas.
  • Did you know that the Earth is actually a ringed planet by now?  At the last official count (2013), more than 170 million pieces of space junk debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 670,000 debris 1–10 cm, and around 29,000 larger debris were estimated to be in orbit; these clouds (in both the geosynchronous Earth orbit and the low Earth orbit) make it hazardous for spacecraft, due to the dangers of collisions; they basically sandblast craft, which makes the launch of equipment like telescopes or solar panels extremely susceptible to damage.
  • Below 2,000 km (1,200 mi) Earth-altitude, debris are denser than meteoroids; most are dust from solid rocket motors, surface erosion debris like paint flakes, and frozen coolant from RORSAT nuclear-powered satellites (according to Wikipedia).  Maybe it’s actually a good thing that we can’t make it to other planets to colonize…

Below are images from APOD – enjoy!

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Digital Echo Chambers

This article is longer than my usual blog, but please bear with me; the issues below affect all of us, and they are important to become aware of; after all, you can only keep an eye on something you see.

I watched a fascinating TED talk recently about an African American man, Theo E.J. Wilson, who went “undercover” online as a white supremacist.  He did it in order to try and understand where some of the internet trolls who were attacking him were coming from, and to try and discover where they were getting their “information” and ideas from.  His findings were insightful.

He discovered something that has become more and more obvious to me lately, and that is that we all live online in “digital echo chambers”.  The definition of echo chamber is “A room or other enclosed space that is highly conducive to the production of echoes, particularly one that has been designed and built for this purpose.  An insular communication space that is of no interest to outsiders or refuses their input.”

The echo chamber is harmless, though annoying, when it comes to shopping or interest feeds; but it can be catastrophic when it comes to life decisions and social or political views.

“If you surround yourself with voices that echo similar opinions to those you’re feeding out, they will be reinforced in your mind as mainstream, to the point that it can distort your perception of what is the general consensus.”

Alan Martin, Wired

Echo Chmaber

Big Brother

The question growing in my mind is, am I telling algorithms online what I want to see/hear/learn, or visa versa?  I’ll give a few examples of what I mean:

Sitting at my dining table chatting over a tea with a friend, our cell phones sat off to one side.  We were chatting about holidays, and she spontaneously mentioned Mallorca (Spanish islands).  The next time we looked online, we both had ads for Mallorca.  This has happened many times – that a live conversation in a private home, with no online searches previously made, have resulted in ads, or articles popping up in suggestions; the conclusion is that Google is listening in on your life.  If you don’t have your phone on airplane mode and your cameras blocked (I keep small post-its on both front and back cameras on my phones, as well as my laptop’s camera), chances are you’re giving away a lot more than you want to.  If you tend to say your passwords out loud as you’re typing them in, you may be giving them away.

Facebook & co.

Facebook, theoretically a social media site to connect with your friends, in reality decides what it is you see, and whose activities you see in your feed.  I haven’t been on Facebook regularly for several months now as I removed it from my home tabs on my browser; that one move has saved a lot of time otherwise being wasted!  Now, when I look on Facebook, I literally see the home feed activities from only a handful of friends out of 300+; most of what I now see in my home feed is Facebook ads, FB suggestions, memories they’ve selected, and unrelated video stream suggestions.  They’re trying to draw me in; but they’ve missed the memo that I’m only there for real connections with friends, and I intend to keep it that way.  Maybe I should turn on my phone’s Wi-Fi and say that out loud… [Keep in mind that Facebook, or Amazon, or Google are not “they” as in human faces seeing your information; they are algorithms designed to harvest it.]

The more time you spend online, the clearer your digital fingerprint becomes; the more the algorithms know about your likes and interests, the more they will feed you just that information.  The dark side of this is that, if someone has temptations in a particular area, they will be bombarded by tailor-made algorithmic choices, guiding them toward the thing they may be trying to avoid.  A recent article in our local newspaper stated that, according to Netzsieger, a comparison portal, 25% of all searches online are related to pornography.  Let that statistic sink in a moment.

.Com is not .Com

And were you aware of the fact that, if you are outside of the borders of the US, a certain monopolistic shopping portal beginning with “Amaz” has been discriminating against you?  The prices you see are not the prices an American within the borders of the US are seeing.  I found this out recently when I was running a sale on one of my books; the sales price was 99 cents; the usual price is $2.99.  But when I went on (I am a registered kindle customer at .com) to see if the sale had begun, the only price I saw was $3.56.  That’s nearly a 20% price increase; no sale in sight.  When I asked them about it, they gave a fluff algorithmic answer, but did not address the real issue.  And they never answered my question whether I, as author, am being paid commission on the higher price or not.

It makes me wonder what else they’re not telling me as both author and as customer, and what else they’ve been charging me more for (likely, everything) than if I lived within the borders of the US; as a result, I’ve taken my online shopping elsewhere.  I will be doing further investigation into this, and if you do online shopping, I would recommend you do the same, and call them on the carpet about it – write complaint emails, and make your voices heard!  Have friends in other countries check out the prices on the same website and product, and compare.

[Now I have another example of the digital eavesdropping:  I’ve been typing up this article in my Word program on my laptop – not directly into the WordPress blog; when I went onto Google to refresh my memory about percentage calculation, I began typing in, “how to calculate” – and it filled in “percentage” – with NO previous such search on my part… they didn’t choose “exchange rate” or any other more common option of mine…]

Breaking Out

So, how can we break out of our digital echo chambers and mess with the results of algorithms?  There are quite a few ways, actually:  Below are a few links to articles about that very topic.  I would encourage you to get informed, and put into action various methods to burst the digital bubble, and breathe in the fresh air outside your echo chamber.

Five Ways to Break Out of Your Online Echo Chamber

You can break out of your echo chamber – and here’s how

How To Break Out Of An Echo Chamber – Your Bubble

 Escape the echo chamber: How to fix your Facebook News Feed

5 Super Easy Ways to Eliminate Your Echo Chamber

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Under-researched and overhyped

 

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Living in an Algorithmic World

Back in the good ol’ days, we just shouted at the photocopier that we were sure was out to get us, as it ate the only hand-typed copy of our document.  Then dawned computers – albeit without luxuries-cum-necessities such as Windows.  I remember writing business letters in DOS.

Now, our lives are controlled by machines, and to a large extent, like proverbial frogs in a boiling pot of water, we don’t even recognize the fact – or if we do, we simply don’t know what to do about it.  But we have an advantage that we didn’t have way back then:  A voice on an international platform… blogs.

What’s brought this topic up recently is a string of frustratingly pointless emails back and forth with algorithms.  Around Christmas, Pinterest introduced a new feature – sections within boards.  It’s a great feature, theoretically, especially if you have tons of boards or tons of pins in said boards.  Theoretically.  While migrating my massive collections of pins to new sections, Pinterest constantly blocked me with their “spam filter”; when I did get things done, after the fact, they simply LOST three entire sections (not all at once… one here, one another day, one two days ago)!  Now comes the useless algorithmic runaround.  They have a limited number of options which you are required to choose from among; if your query is out of the “beginners problems” categories, you’re out of luck.  I have never, not once, reached an actual human on Pinterest Help.  I did once receive a response from some “one” named “Charlie” – but from the response, it was not human – just another algorithm.  They neither help solve problems, take responsibility, or offer an apology.  It is what it is, take it or stuff it.

2001 Hall Pinterest When did “customer service” become pointless?  The moment companies realized that they could make money off of the masses without actually bothering with them, that’s when.  If that sounds cynical, it probably is – and I don’t often let things ruffle me, but honour is one area that will always get up my nose, as I have a strong sense of justice:  When companies or people stop honouring those around them with common courtesies, they will hear about it from me.  If Pinterest refuses to add customer service (not just “customer processing”) to their list of skills, it will only be a matter of time before someone comes up with an alternative service with that issue as their strong point; and every disgruntled person of the “mass” will leave Pinterest in the dust, including me.  Because despite what some of these online upstart companies seem to think, humanity and human customers should always be the top priority; after all, we can and will make our own decisions, and we will go where we feel wanted, and taken care of.

Algorithms are everywhere; some are more intelligent than others.  If you have any amount of online presence, chances are that mega-sites like Google know more about you than your own mother.  So what can we frogs do?  Unless you’re willing to jump off-grid and become a cyber recluse (which isn’t an option for authors, writers, or most people in the civilized world these days), then let your voice be heard:  Write about it on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – wherever you have a voice.  When we’re loud about it, we will be heard; it will stir others to action; it may be a single drop of water, but it may be the one that eventually causes the dam to burst.

If you don’t want to make those waves, then I’d suggest you just pour yourself a piña colada, topped with one of those little bamboo umbrellas, lean back and enjoy the sauna while you can.  And if you decide to go for a swim while you’re in there, just watch out for the phishing lines…

frog-in-a-pot

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Merry Christmas!

Christmas Story

For me, Christmas has never been about the commercialism or the food or the decorations; we do things low-key here in Switzerland, though we do decorate and exchange gifts.  It’s about family, time together, specific gifts that the receiver wanted or needed (not just purchases to stuff the stocking or load the base of the tree).  As a Christian, the true meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with Santa or sitting around a dead tree in the living room eating candy out of socks.  It has to do with the single greatest event in the history of humanity, which was simultaneously a “non-event”… nothing like the people of the times had been expecting, and so most of them missed it altogether.  Those who have ears to hear, or eyes to see, will hear and see; those who don’t, or who choose to remain deaf and blind, will do so; it’s that simple.  So it is that many people today repeat history and miss the point of Christmas altogether.  They get bogged down in materialism, commercialism, superficiality or social pressures of one form or another, and forget about the historical and spiritual aspects of the holiday.

Personally, we will continue to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree, gifts, Christmas music and time together with loved ones, all the while remembering the true Reason for the Season, for the greatest demonstration of sacrificial love next to the act of Jesus’s obedience to the point of the crucifixion:  That of coming to Earth in the vulnerable form of a baby, born into a family with no status, no wealth and no social power, becoming a human in order to identify with us in every way, and to eventually pay the ultimate price on our behalf so that, if we accept what Jesus did for us on the cross, we can know him intimately – on the deepest level of connection possible to humans in our limitations of time and space:  That of the heart, the soul, the mind, and the spirit.  The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling it is; the events that we celebrate at Christmas were set in motion for you and for me.  It’s that simple.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a Blessed New Year!

Chalkboard - Christmas 1

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The History of the Nativity & Christmas

nativity - by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)In 1223, in Greccio, Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi is accredited with creating the first Nativity Scene.  We tend to think of commercialism and materialism as a modern disease, but in fact, Francis created that display to be a visual reminder of what Christmas was all about, and to counter what he felt was a growing emphasis on secular materialism and gift-giving.  It was to be a day of celebration and worship of thanks to God for what he had inaugurated through the birth of the prophesied Messiah, Jesus.

When we think of a modern nativity scene, we think of a few elements as standard:  Shepherds, Jesus in a wooden manger of straw, three kings, angels, and cattle and donkeys and sheep.  In fact, the stable was more likely a cave or a small hand-dug dugout, a shelter for animals in cold weather or raids, and perhaps a place to store surplus grains or foodstuffs.  The manger was a feeding trough, much like modern feeding troughs found on small farms.  The shepherds “watching the flocks by night”  tells us that it was likely in spring or summer in that region; the day we celebrate as Christmas was adopted throughout Western Europe in the fourth century.  Imagine the scenario:  Rome had called for a census of the entire region, turning everything on its head as everyone was required to travel to their ancestral homes, including businessmen like Joseph, and innkeepers as well.  Hundreds of people descended en masse onto sleepy little villages unequipped with beds or food to cope with them all.  Perhaps Joseph had tried at several places in Bethlehem; perhaps there was only one Bed & Breakfast in the entire village; turned away, they headed back to the stable to get their donkey, and uh, “Wait!  The baby’s coming!”

The kings were actually Magi, likely a caste of scientists and astronomers, from the “east” – i.e. east of Israel, which could have made them Asian, Indian, Caucasian, or even African.  There were not three, but rather three gifts:  Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.  In reality, their number might have been more like a small army:  They would not have travelled such a distance with the quantities of gifts fit not only for a king but representing their own importance, as well as the honour they wished to bestow on this new king, without protection!  The Bible records that King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed by their presence and the reason for their journey (Matthew 2).  The three gifts offered by the Magi were very symbolic:  Gold was a symbol of kingship, the wealth of the earth.  It is one of the only metals that, when heated, loses none of its nature, weight or colour, but allows impurities to surface.  It is used to symbolize faith and the process of refinement.  Frankincense represents priesthood and divinity.  It was familiar to most people in the ancient world, used in religious ceremonies.  Myrrh, unlike sweet Frankincense, is bitter.  It was used as a resin in a spice mixture used to embalm the dead and was symbolic of Jesus’ purpose in coming:  His death, burial and resurrection.  It makes an appearance both at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  It was used medicinally as a painkiller (often dissolved in wine) which is the reason Jesus refused to drink it on the cross (Mark 15:23).  And note that the Magi did not show up at the manger in Bethlehem, but by the time they’d travelled that far and found Jesus, he was a child, and Mary and Joseph had set up house (Matthew 2:11).

ichthus

ICHTHYS

Let’s address one more historical topic:  Xmas.  Many people think it’s a modern attempt to “X” Christ from Christmas; but in fact, it is just the opposite, historically-speaking.  The X is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός which comes into English translated as “Christ.” and such abbreviated references date back as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1021.  Even further back, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) was an acronym meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour” used by ancient Christians.  It is often placed within the symbol of a fish, as Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men.”  Ichthyology is the study of fish, reflecting the Greek connection for the use of the symbol.

Modern Nativity scenes represent a condensed version of a historical event (there is, after all, more historical evidence for Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection than many other events in history people accept as fact); so the next time you see one, think about the significance, the reason for its inception by St. Francis of Assisi in the first place, and the Reason for the season.

Merry Christmas!  Or, Merry Xmas!

Originally posted on History Undusted, December

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Cultural Oddities of Japan

I came across an article recently about a Japanese trend among single women to marry themselves.  It reminded me that there are a lot of oddities and quirks that come out of the Land of the Rising Sun; they even have a name for odd inventions:  “Chindogu”, meaning “‘un-useless’ or priceless tool”; I think that’s meant in irony, but one never knows, with Japan.  For the list below, believe me when I say that I’ve left off hundreds of REALLY bizarre items!  Here are a few of the less-weird ideas:

  • Soap-printing pens: 3D sculpting pens for bath time that make soap foam.
  • Sleeping dome head tent: Just like it sounds – a small tent to put your head in at night, so that your skin stays hydrated.
  • Salty potato ice cream
  • Ice-block noodle bowls
  • Hyperrealistic food bookmarks
  • Watermelon-shaped dumplings on a stick
  • Charcoal Face Wash
  • Smile Assessment Apps: Designed to assess a smile’s quality with facial recognition; used in hospitality industries such as airline flight attendants and customer service positions.  A symptom of this image-obsessed age.
  • Umbrellas with wheels: A “rolling cane umbrella” means you can drag it behind until needed…
  • Single weddings: “Me marrying myself” weddings are becoming popular among single women in Kyoto, Japan – complete with bridal pampering, the dress, the hair & make-up and photo album of memories, but without a groom necessary.
  • Eyedrop funnels
  • Karaoke, and “silent karaoke” (for those moments you don’t want to be heard belting out a tune)
  • Shoe umbrellas
  • Square watermelon: Makes them more space-efficient to ship
  • Umbrella necktie
  • Hearing enhancers: Basically, aluminium bowls strapped to the side of your head – in case hearing aids are too discreet for you.
  • Bubble wrap keychain – re-pop-able stress relief. This would be a good gag gift for a stocking stuffer or Advent calendar.
  • Baby Mop Suit: Let the baby clean the floor while they’re crawling around.  Very hygienic.
  • Half-body, or “hug” pillow: A torso-shaped pillow with arm, for the lonely woman.
  • Lap pillow: For the lonely man, a pillow shaped like a woman’s kneeling lap.
  • Capsule hotels: Literally a box, similar to a morgue slab, for sleeping in; an economical way to crash overnight.
  • Themed food for films (see hamburger below, made for the Ghost Busters film)
  • Zentai – De-stressing and escaping social pressures by dressing in full-body lycra suits
  • Commuter’s Aids: Either a construction helmet with a suction cup on the back to hold your head upright while sitting in the U-Tube (subway), or a stick with a padded “U” to hold your chin while you stand.
  • Face Gadgets: Everything from face irons, eyebrow wrinkle stretchers, smile exercisers, lipstick application masks (because every woman has the same size and shape mouth, right?), round-eye enhancers, eyelid trainers, face slimmer mouth exercisers, face lift chin-belts… the list goes on and on, with the Japanese fixation on Western standards of “beauty” reaching maniac proportions.
  • Cat costumes:  The Japanese are cat-crazy, from the lucky cat waving everywhere, to cat restaurants (as well as any other kind of animal you can think of), and the weird (and animal-unfriendly, if you asked the animals) custom of dressing cats and dogs in bizarre mini outfits.

The slide show below illustrates a few of these gadgets or concepts, plus a few others.  Enjoy!

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