Category Archives: Links to External Articles

How It’s Made: Rubber Bands

Rubber bands are ubiquitous; everyone has them and occasionally uses them. They come in nearly every shape and size; they’ve even become a craft accessory out of which creative shapes can be formed (just google “rainbow loom designs”).

But have you ever stopped to think about how they’re made? Are they made from natural or synthetic materials? You might be tempted to think that they’re some kind of plastic or silicone, but most rubber bands are made out of the sap of rubber tree plants; that sap, specifically, is latex. Trees are “tapped” – a slice of bark removed – every two days, and the latex gathers in bowls attached below the cut. It will flow for an hour or two and then heals over.

The actual process to turn rubber latex into uniform rubberbands is a complex one; it’s a process that evolved over time, trial, and error into a well-oiled machine – literally. To learn more, click on the following links:

Alliance Rubber Company – The birthplace of the modern rubber band

YouTube: How It’s Made

As with anything, we should take care to use what we buy, and buy what we’ll use. Rubber bands are produced by the millions each day (the factory featured in the YouTube video produces 40 million per day), so use the ones you have wisely!Rubber band ball If you’re curious as to how to make a rubber band ball like this image, just click here. I have several of these around the house, and they’re practical and easy to make. Enjoy!

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History Undusted / Flashback: The Rack

The rack has been used as a torture device since at least AD 65; it is still in use today, except that now it’s a piece of equipment found in a chiropractor’s office, with padded joints and supposedly-comfortable straps…  I called this a flashback as I personally experienced the rack for six years, three times a week, twenty minutes at a time, as a child (followed by electric shock, all in the name of medicine).  Just looking at this image makes my back hurt!  To read more about the history, just click on the image.

Torture - Middle Ages, the Rack

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 31

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History Undusted: The Colour of Carrots

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.

Carrots - Carrot-Museum-co-uk

Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.

They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).

These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.

One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.

Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).

For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).

The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.

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10 Natural Phenomena

Whenever I have a few minutes in my schedule, I like to fill it with something interesting; if I’m eating lunch, I’m probably watching a documentary or a video about a particular topic. So I thought I’d toss together a shortlist of natural phenomena that are out there somewhere on our unique and diverse planet. Just click on the links below to learn more – the links will lead you to either a YouTube video or an article. So, here ‘goes!

  1. The Sahara Eye: Also known as the Richat Structure, it is a fascinating geological structure that’s best seen from lower orbit (located at 21.1269° N, 11.4016° W). Because of its concentric circular formations, there have been many claims that it was the fictional Atlantis of Plato’s writings. While the reasoning the supporters of that theory are interesting to me as a novelist, the scientific explanation is fairly straight forward.
  2. Spotted Lake, Canada: This lake has no run-off, which means that water flowing into the lake only leaves through evaporation. Divots in the lake have grown into spotted pools which attract various minerals as snow melt-water enters the lake. The Native tribes used these pools as therapy for physical ailments in a time before modern medicine, just like people in 18th century England went to Bath to drink and bathe in the mineral waters there. On Google Earth, its coordinates are 49°04’40.86″N 119°34’03.01″W; if you use the historical toggle, you’ll see the individual pools more clearly.
  3. Floating Eye Island, Argentina: This is a relatively new discovery from 2016, located at 34°15’07.8″S 58°49’47.4″W. It was discovered by Argentinian film director Sergio Neuspillerm, who was looking for a location to film a horror film and came across the Google map image of this unusual lake; because of his bent toward the purpose of this place, most “reports” have leaned toward the paranormal, and it was difficult to find a serious scientific report on the phenomenon. The actual interpretation is probably simply a combination of geology, botany and hydrodynamics: The lake produces methane gas, and if the floating island of debris and grasses growing atop the fertile strata get pushed around by methane bubbles rising, it will naturally knock off the rough edges of the floating patch and the land it bumps into, creating a circular “island”.
  4. Ice Discs: Similar to the Eye, these rotating discs of ice form in freezing water which is moving slowly; they usually form in eddy currents, where the accelerating water creates the effect called “rotation shear”, breaking off a chunk of ice and twisting it around; the process grinds off the rough edges, leaving a round disc of rotating ice. This disc grows as it cools the water around it and attracts more ice into its vortex.
  5. Sailing Stones, Death Valley, California: For years, people have observed the evidence of large boulders sliding across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. The explanation may be relatively simple, but sometimes people just like a mystery.
  6. Fairy Rings/Pixie Rings: These are caused by the processes of the mycelium of fungi, as it spreads outward in a circle while looking for nutrients. Before scientific understanding came along, of course, these were thought to be portals to the magical realms of pixies or fairies and were convenient scapegoats for anything bad happening in a nearby town or village.
  7. Since we’re on the topic of circles, what about the Namibian Fairy Circles? There are conflicting hypotheses about their origins, but the most recent study has discovered that beneath the bare circular patches of earth, distributed evenly over some 1100 miles of the Namib Desert, are colonies of termites. They eat the roots of the plants growing above their territory, removing the competition for the limited rainfall and allowing the water to go directly into the soil above their colony. It’s a complex ecosystem, but scientists are slowly beginning to understand it. In the meantime, the locals just call them the “footprints of the gods”.
  8. Blood Falls, Antarctica: A waterfall in Antarctica flows blood red, caused by the iron-rich waters hitting oxygen and turning to rust. The symbiosis of microbes living in that subterranean water source is the stuff good science fiction is made of.
  9. The Everlasting Storm: Catatumbo Lightning Storm, Venezuela: This lightning storm occurs during 140-160 nights per year, and lightning flashes up to 280 times per hour. Located over the mouth of the Catatumbo River as it empties into Lake Maracaibo, it has become so famous and so persistent that it is even featured in the flag and coat of arms of Zulia, the state which contains the lake, and is mentioned in the national anthem of Venezuela.
  10. Red Crab Migration, Christmas Island: Christmas Island is an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean, and on this 135 sq km (52 sq mi) patch live literally millions of red land crabs, found only on this island. To spawn, the females make their way down to the beach at high tide to release their eggs into the ocean – at the risk of drowning, as they are not aquatic. The eggs will hatch, and the tiny crabs will eventually return to the island. During this mass migration, the island slows down and makes way for the red river flowing over its streets, stairs, and anything else between the crabs and their goal.
Christmas Island Crab Migration

Baby crabs returning to Christmas Island

 

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History Undusted: Earrings in the 18th Century

I recently watched the film “Emma”, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam; as the proposal scene was playing, I noticed her earring and wondered if that was historically accurate – did they have pierced earrings in England at that time (the early 1800s)? I’m not into fashion (that’s an understatement – I’m very pragmatic when it comes to clothes!), but the historical aspect fascinated me enough to look into the matter.

While we have probably all heard of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, painted ~1665 by Johannes Vermeer (doubts have been raised as to whether it is actually pearl or rather polished tin or coque de perle, given the reflective qualities and size, but that’s another issue), it is a Dutch painting from the 17th century and thus doesn’t answer my question. My interest lies more in the 1700s (18th Century) of Britain, and so I began researching 18th C. English portraits.

I discovered that, while there are many portraits with earrings displayed, there are far more without. So it would have been possible, but was by no means as common as it is today. Also, sometimes the current hairstyle hid the ears, such as that of the 1770s and 1780s, or perhaps their ears were hidden by the custom of married women wearing mob caps, even beneath other “public” hats.

 

Mid-to-late 1780s

Typical 1780s hairstyle; such a style would have either hidden earrings or made them obsolete.

 

Mrs. Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789

A married woman wearing a mob cap under her bonnet (though from the black cape and hat combined with a white dress, she may be at the end of a period of mourning, wearing “half weeds”). Mrs Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789

 

 

The portraits do not reveal whether or not they were merely clip-on earrings or studs, though ear piercing has been around for centuries, varying in intensity and use from culture to culture (some for religious purposes, some for ownership such as slave earrings, and others were status symbols for royalty or nobility). I’ve found many portraits from Europe as a whole, between the 16th and 19th centuries which portray women wearing earrings; here are a few, with their details:

1761 Joshua Reynolds. Lady Elizabeth Keppel

1761, by Joshua Reynolds: Lady Elizabeth Keppel. Note that the Indian woman is also wearing an earring(s), and a rope of pearls; I don’t know whether she is portrayed as a servant or merely inferior in rank, due to her placement in the portrait…

 

 

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. Though this is a French portrait by subject & painter, it is from the period in question and displays a hoop earring, as well as the hairstyle common in this period in England as well.

 

 

Turkish Dress c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

Turkish Dress, c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

 

Young Woman in Powder Blue, ca. 1777

A young woman in powder blue, ca. 1777

 

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 London, Portrait of Lady Anne Furye, née Greenly - born 1738

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 London, Portrait of Lady Anne Furye, née Greenly

 

Based on History Undusted Original Post, June 2015

 

 

 

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The Long and Short of it

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know I’ve written a few novels; the recent sale was a great success!

I’ve been working on something that will not only help me market those novels to a wider audience, but it’s also giving me good experience in another genre: Short stories. Just like a novel, a short has a setting, a character, character arc, conflict and resolution – just in a much more compact and simpler landscape, so to speak. You can’t afford to flesh out an ensemble of characters or have a slow-burn leading up to the time-bomb or ticking clock of conflict. I’ve been trying my hand at various lengths, from flash fiction of 6 words, or exactly 53 words long, to short stories up to 7,500 words. They all have their own challenges.

Until recently, I’d been taking a distance-learning course on the topic of short fiction, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t worth the money – and was refunded; I’ve taken a course through the same institute before, so I’ll be glad to continue looking at their options since they were helpful in resolving the issue. While the premise of the course was a good one, I am a quick and independent learner, and I’d learned enough through online research to have all the principles – it’s just about putting them into practice.

I won’t be sharing any of the stories here, because I’ll be using them to enter writing competitions, and one of the frequent prerequisites is that a story has never been released online or elsewhere. But I’ll share a cartoon with you that kind of reflects the life of a writer: Writing, re-drafting, hoping others will appreciate it, and eventually releasing the story into the wider world…

Writer vs Reader

If you’re a writer, keep at it! Hopefully you live in an area where you can join a writers’ group, or at least find other writers that can encourage you and give you feedback; if, like me, you’re on your own and living in a country that speaks another language than the one you write in, then keep at it – find your encouragers online, or within your family or circle of local friends.

If you’re interested in finding out how to write short stories, here are a few recommendations:

James Scott Bell’s “How to Write Short Stories

How to Analyze Short Stories

Short Story Tips: 10 Ways to Improve Your Creative Writing

Keep writing!

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History Undusted: Mary Seacole

Have you ever heard of Mary Seacole? Probably not – I hadn’t, and I’m a history fan. Have you ever heard of Florence Nightingale? You probably had something taught to you in school about her.  In reading about the two, the most striking difference, and perhaps the one that made all the difference in the paths their lives took, was that Florence was born into a rich, upper-class and well-connected English family; Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican woman, who first taught her about medicine.

mary seacole

 

Mary Seacole. Source: Wikipedia

 

While Florence was famous for training nurses during the Crimean War, the English authorities refused Mary’s request to be sent there, too, even though it was known that the nursing care was far too inadequate; so she scraped the money together herself, travelled to the front lines on her own, and established a hotel in order to provide meals, a place of rest, and medical treatment for the wounded. She would often go out to the battles to bring in the wounded, and as mortars flew past, a soldier would shout, “Down, mother!” and she would hit the dirt, then pick herself back up and continue on. To tell her whole story would be a lengthy one here, but she has told it in her own words by writing a book: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, available for free as a Kindle or other formats here. You can also read more about Mary herself in the following links:

 

Wikipedia

BBC

YouTube

Her story is well worth reading, because it truly was an adventure, and it neither started nor stopped in Crimea. Kudos to the woman who overcame a triple-prejudice (being a woman of mixed race from a poor background) to achieve her calling and change the lives of the men she helped. It’s a history gem worth undusting!

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Columbus’s Egg

1200px-columbus_breaking_the_egg'_(christopher_columbus)_by_william_hogarth

Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth, 1752

At the end of December, I began a new training course in crafting short stories; this has renewed my interest in finding good writing prompts. By focusing on something, you usually begin to see things related to it everywhere you go. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle and focus on the edges, you’ll begin to see them right under your nose where they’d been all along – you just hadn’t seen them before because you’d been focused on a specific colour or a particular section.

My brain is usually on rapid-fire mode; in any given second, dozens of topics flash through my thoughts. Reaching into this stream and pulling out one particular topic to focus on can lead to interesting, related issues, and Columbus’s Egg is one of the results.

The original thought that I plucked from the stream this morning was, “How do you actually spell Kobayashi Maru?” (I know, right? I’m sure you had exactly that thought as soon as your feet hit the ground this morning; it’s just that my “morning” began this afternoon as I wrote through the night and got to bed at 9:30 this morning…) By looking it up, I came across the apocryphal story about Columbus:

The story goes that Christopher Columbus, while attending a dinner, was confronted with Spanish scoffers who said that, had he not been the first to discover the Americas, someone else would have done so. He made no answer but asked a servant to bring him an egg (presumably a boiled one). He then challenged everyone present: They must try to get an egg to stand on its end, with nothing to support it in that position. Everyone tried and failed; when it was Columbus’s turn, he tapped the tip of the egg on the table, and the crushed, flat end made the egg remain upright. the moral was that a solution is obvious to everyone, but only once it has been found by someone else.

brunelleschi's dome, duomo of florence

the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

The story is recorded in Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World, published in 1565, as he related it to Columbus, but it is likely apocryphal as the same anecdote was circulating 15 years previously about the architect of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy.

My original thought’s term, Kobayashi Maru, is a term that any Trekkie will be familiar with: It was a no-win scenario designed to test Star Fleet cadets’ characters in the face of certain defeat. The term has gone beyond Star Trek and is used in business to illustrate the importance of changing the rules of the game in order to win, i.e. re-evaluating the foundation of a particular business scenario.

There are other such related terms, such as the Gordian KnotCatch-22, and the Archimedean point. All of these concepts are about thinking outside the box, which is exactly what I try to do as a writer.  If you’re also a writer, catch those thoughts – write them down, and let them foment into something interesting! Keep writing!

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History Undusted: The Japanese Schindler

I believe that people who have made a significant impact on the lives of individuals and nations not only deserve being honoured by remembrance but need to be brought into the spotlight for each new generation.

Though you may have learned something about Oskar Schindler through the books or film about his deeds, chances are you’ve not heard of Chinune Sugihara, whose conscience would not allow him to look the other way when Jews came under the persecution of the Nazis during World War 2. As vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, he was in an ideal position to save thousands of lives by issuing travelling visas, but at the risk of his own career by disobeying orders.

His story is worth taking a few minutes to read; please click on the two links below, to get a picture of the man who became the only Japanese Righteous Among the Nations.

Lessons in Manliness: Chiune Sugihara

“Sempo” Chiune Sugihara (Wikipedia)

Chiune Sugihara

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Postcard from Lugano IV

Greetings from Lugano!  Between my last postcard to you and this one, we’ve managed to emerge from the Dark Ages here and get internet in the flat.  We’re here for another week, and are being spoilt with perfect skies, crystal blue waters on the lake, and sunshine.

Before I let photos speak for themselves, I’d like to share an interesting story that happened today: My husband and I took a ferry to a small town on the lake, called Morcote, and we happened to sit next to an older couple the same ages as my in-laws. I find people fascinating, and so we started talking; before long, I learned the origins of their family names, about accidents when the husband was a small boy, their children and grandchildren, their careers, and a lot more. When they told me their first names, I mentioned that my husband had an older cousin with the same name, whose father was killed in a train accident in 1948 in Einsiedeln. It turned out that the woman’s cousin and uncle were on that same train, one car back from my husband’s uncle; they were severely injured, but both survived.  What are the odds of someone else from Zurich being on the same boat on Lake Lugano today, sitting next to us, whose family had also been affected by the same accident 70 years ago? It just goes to prove how small the world is, and that we just might have something (or a lot) in common with the person sitting next to us on a ship, or in a train, or on a subway, or in a concert, or in a classroom – we just have to break out of our own little bubbles and reach out. And it also reminded me that sometimes the smallest actions can change lives forever: Joseph Hüsler had wanted to bring his children (2 and 4 at the time) candy after visiting his aunts in Einsiedeln; he forgot, got off the first train he’d been on, and spent more time with the aunts after he’d purchased the candy, until the next train departed. That was the train that crashed. Curious, I found a couple archive photos from the time of the accident; here they are (both images, credit – http://www.waedenswil.ch):

1948 Zugunglück Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Februar 1948, 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch1948 Zugunglück - Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch

We had a wonderful visit with the couple, and then waved goodbye as we went our separate ways. So, as promised, here are a few images of Lugano, Morcote, and surrounding towns:

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