Category Archives: Research

The historical, geological, scientific & gadgety interests that inform and propel my writing.

Imagination is a Superpower

I’ve taught English as a foreign language for adults for years, from the age of 13 up until Covid put such gatherings on hold. I would often use some kind of exercise that allowed students to think outside of their normal lives, to stretch their vocabulary and to practice speaking and forming sentences outside of their comfort zone. I once had a nursing student, meeting as a semi-private student with another fellow nurse, who categorically refused to do any exercises requiring a make-believe scenario; she called herself a “realist”. Regardless of reasoning with her, or her friend asking her to participate so that she could learn more, she refused. I found it frustrating as a teacher, but I found it tragic as a writer and creative thinker.

Thinking outside of the box and thinking creatively stretches our brains in extraordinary ways; it promotes creative problem solving, allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a moment, and can help us view a situation from several different angles. By thinking into fictitious scenarios, we learn something about ourselves along the way – those things that make us tick, our strengths, or our weaknesses.

For years, I’ve collected interesting writing prompts whenever I’ve come across them; it’s going down the proverbial rabbit hole to follow leads on the internet, but because I’ve collected them willy-nilly, I can’t tell you exactly where they originated – it’s a common problem with online research, and as often as I can, I try to give proper credit to images that I use if they’re not my own; the people out there who offer their creative perspectives, photography talents, or Photoshop skills deserve credit where credit’s due. But it’s one reason that I don’t often share such prompts here, for those of you following who are also writers. Another reason is that there are enough sites out there stuffed to the gills with prompts. What I would like to do today is share an exercise in imagination.

Albert Einstein quotes run rampant on the internet; without a reference book to know what he actually said, I feel that many of them fall into this category:

Having said that, sometimes you can gather the essence of what he probably said by reading “diagonally” through the supposed quotes, and one such sentiment is that Einstein said something like, “Imagination is more important that knowledge; knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world.” Mark Twain once wrote*, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” [* Excerpt from his Complete Works] (By the by, if you’d like more Mark Twain wit, I wrote an article about his views on Switzerland, and the German language – just click here.)

So here’s something to exercise your imagination with:

You have the choice between flight and invisibility; which do you choose and why? What will you do with this superpower?

I’d love to hear your answers in the comments below!

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Filed under Articles, Humor, Images, Musings, Quotes, Research, Writing Exercise, Writing Prompt

Psychology Undusted: Digital Dysmorphia

This topic is a bit of a rabbit hole, and longer than my usual article, but I feel that it’s an important issue to address.

Image Credit: Spark.ac.in

On one hand, living in a digital age is a blessing: It allows us to reach out and stay in contact with distant friends, family and, in these months of lockdowns and home offices, our co-workers. It allows us to learn anything, with a world of libraries and teachers and experts at our fingertips, but on the other hand, this age has also brought with it a phenomenon known as Digital Dysmorphia, Zoom-, Instagram-, Snapchat-, Facebook-, or simply Body Dysmorphia.

When lockdowns started in 2020, it wasn’t only a personal challenge for many, but also a huge challenge for businesses of every branch. Suddenly their personnel could no longer travel to international, or even national, meetings; they couldn’t meet their co-workers face to face, or even go into the office. Home office became, for many that still had work, a dream come true: Businesses that for years had claimed that home office would be too impractical suddenly found ways to carry on using tools like Zoom and Skype to gather virtual groups together for meetings. It became a common joke that many would be dressed for success on the top half, while the unseen half was PJs or boxer shorts or tutus, like John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube channel.

So what is Digital Dysmorphia? It’s the separating of oneself from one’s own real image by the distortion brought about through filters, enhancers and additions of body parts (e.g. large eyes, or bunny ears), using apps such as Snapchat; it’s the altering of reality, modifying self-perceived flaws, and presenting an altered reality of not only one’s physical appearance, but even one’s lifestyle (Instagram). Its danger is the destruction of self-esteem, fear of getting “caught in the lie” by being seen face-to-face by someone who only knows your digitalized self-image, and therefore fear of seeing people in person. It’s a different phenomenon than, say, knowing you need to update your online profile picture that was taken a decade ago. This dysmorphia, also known as BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder), is an active destruction of self-esteem through choosing distortions over reality. When someone has BDD, they are focused on their supposed physical flaws for hours a day, and they may take drastic measures to hide or fix them. BDD is sometimes diagnostically confused with OCD, social anxiety disorders, social phobia or depression. BDD was first described around the turn of the 20th century, but has only been taken seriously as an illness in the past few decades. To find out more, here is an interesting YouTube video (~8 min.)

The reason visual apps such as Zoom have made a negative impact on people is because we often see the image of ourselves onscreen as unflattering, perhaps because the camera sits too low, but also because we are looking at our own face for an hour or more at a time (it’s natural to be curious about how others see us, and our eyes are drawn to our own image because of it); while you might not be a teenager glued to your phone, if you’ve used Zoom or Skype, you’ve seen yourself through digital eyes.

Women especially, but not exclusively, have an added challenge: Every magazine image, and many social media images, are all air-brushed, photo-shopped and tweaked beyond humanly-attainable standards. We can never live up to the standard of beauty that marketing companies press on us, and that can wear on someone’s self-esteem.

Another danger in the digital age is the addiction to selfies: Trying to capture the perfect shot, the perfect moment, keeps people so focused on themselves that they completely miss the actual moment they’re trying to capture themselves in. Once in Scotland, my husband and I were enjoying a window-side lunch in a small road-side restaurant on the Isle of Skye; a bus-load of Asian tourists pulled up, and they faced the restaurant to take selfies of themselves with the background (which was the majestic Cuillin mountain range); they did not once turn around to see the actual scenery, but took dozens of photos of themselves before loading back up into the bus and leaving. They could have just saved themselves the trip, stayed at home, and put up a green screen with an image in the background.

Although we may tend to think of girls when we think of selfie addiction, the first British documented case was in 2014, then-19-year-old Danny Bowman. To read a fascinating article, click here: “Faking it: How Selfie Dysmorphia is Driving People to Seek Surgery”. Danny got to the point that he tried to commit suicide but was found in time by his parents and rehabilitated. He now raises awareness about mental health issues.

Image Credit: Bored Panda, Byron Denton

A few years ago, plastic surgeons were being asked to make a person look like this or that celebrity. Then lockdowns came into our collective lives, and Zoom became a household name; but with the sudden increase in digital contact, another, darker phenomena also increased, dubbed by cosmetic surgeons as the “Zoom Boom” to describe the increase. Now to be fair, Zoom is by no means solely responsible; every social media platform has the same dangers. Today, cosmetic surgeons are getting requests to make a person look like their digitalized self; but the requests are often not only impossible (e.g. Anime eyes or removing skin pores to give a porcelain complexion), but would also damage the person’s self-image further. A psychological anorexia, of sorts, it’s addictive and destructive. Plastic surgeons that place the patient’s mental health above their dollar signs must draw moral lines of age limits (younger and younger people are trying to get “preventative Botox” or “corrective” surgeries) and psychological screening.

For more in-depth articles on the topic, just click on the images in this article.

So, how can we avoid falling into the BDD traps? There are a few things you can do:

  • TURN OFF THE CAMERA: Just because you have the ability to have a visual call does not mean you must. If the caller complains that they can’t see you, just tell them to use their imagination, but leave the camera off. This can also apply to phone cameras – if you’re tempted to take selfies, put a sticker over the camera [this is something I do anyway, over front and back cameras – not because I take selfies, but because apps such as Google can and do hijack your camera to see you and your environment, and listen in… so keep your cell phone on flight-mode whenever possible, and “blindfold” them!].
  • LEARN TO IDENTIFY NEGATIVE THOUGHT PATTERNS: Everyone has something about their physical appearance that they don’t like; but if you catch yourself dwelling on a particular feature, try to change your perspective about it – try to compliment yourself, and then move on… positively focus on someone or something else besides yourself.
  • APPRECIATE YOURSELF: Taking care of yourself, getting enough rest, eating wisely, and exercising will all go a long way to restoring your self-esteem. Set small goals for yourself each day, and celebrate those times your reach those goals, giving yourself a big dose of grace when you’ve not been able to reach them. Taking this attitude will alleviate stress, which goes a long way toward supporting mental health.
  • GIVE COMPLIMENTS: This not only takes the focus off of ourselves, but it may be that the other person is struggling in this area, and a timely compliment may be the thing that saves their lives, literally. It’s never wrong to compliment someone, friend or stranger.

I hope that this “undusts” this topic a bit for you; if you know anyone who’s struggling with their self-image, let them know that they’re not alone, and that they’re beautiful.

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Filed under Articles, Links to External Articles, Lists, Psychology Undusted, Research, Science & Technology

History Undusted: Limbo

Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.

My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.

As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:

The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!

As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Research, Snapshots in History

Virtual Tour: Odd Collections

Most people collect something as a hobby; I’ve collected various things over the years: Stamps, postcards, arrow heads, fossils and minerals or gemstones, and coins. All of those are fairly common. The oddest thing I used to collect, in middle school, was spiders: I had about 500 different species in test tubes, and I would use them with my science fair presentations that was, for several years in a row, a growing display of all things arachnid, including my pet tarantulas.
But there are folks out there who make that last collection of mine look normal: People who collect thousands of toothbrushes, or back scratchers, or “Do Not Disturb” signs, or erasers, or milk bottles. Where most of us have a collection that fits into a storage box, others have them the size of an entire room or two. OCD is probably also on the top of their profile descriptives, but then maybe they’re just passionate or fascinated about something most people would never think about collecting.

To have a look at 43 odd collections, just click HERE. Some of these are only odd in their amount collected, while others are just downright gross (think world’s largest chewed gum ball, or navel lint…). Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong sentiment in those cases, but nevertheless, have a fascinating time vicariously checking out the odd quirks of others!

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Filed under Links to External Articles, Lists, Obscurities, Research, Virtual Tours

Virtual Tour: Voices You Know

Most of my writing in the last few weeks has been intensively focused on my current novel’s manuscript; After nearly a year of Corona Virus residual exhaustion, I’ve finally been able to focus my mind; brain fuzz is apparently widely recognized now as an after-effect, but when this all started for me it was new territory for everyone. Only by talking with other friends who’ve gone through it have we pieced together which symptoms are common denominators – it doesn’t alleviate them, but it helps to know the whys and hows.

While writing, editing, and researching for my novel, I’ve been keeping one eye open for the next interesting topic for a tour, and today I found it:

This might actually fall under another category I did back in 2016: Odd jobs (just search for that in the column on the right of the screen, and you’ll find the list). Today’s tour introduces the people behind the voices we have all heard and recognize, but who we would never recognize on the street – or even know their names: Film trailer voices, bank and computer voices, and public announcers.

Come with me as we meet some of the faces behind the well-known voices:

Carolyn Hopkins: You may not have ever thought about who is behind the voice of the airport announcer – you might think it’s a random employee of the airport who just happens to be on duty in the dispatch; but you’d be wrong. In over 200 airports worldwide, you will hear the same motherly but authoritative voice of Maine resident, Carolyn Hopkins. She records those airport warnings, delays and flight changes, as well as subway announcements and storm warnings, all received by email from her modest little home office-cum-recording studio.

Susan Bennett: Though you might not know the name, you’ll know her voice: Siri.

Jane Barbie: Back in the days before cell phones, this woman was the most-listened to recording artist of all time, with her recordings heard 25 trillion times per year. Her most famous one is: “I’m sorry. The number you have dialled…”

Redd Pepper: With a booming voice, he is one of the most-recognized film trailer recording artists in the UK and beyond.

Joe Cipriano, Mark Elliott, Beau Weaver and Scott Rummell: These four men are known within the industry as the icons of the promo and trailer world. For a trailer spoof read by the four of them, you can simply watch the video link from time mark 1:00 to 2:00.

Charles Martinet: The voice behind several of Nintendo’s Super Mario’s characters for over 25 years, he’s a bit of a character himself!

Jim Cummings: As he says, you might not know him, but you know his characters: Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too.

Here is a short video featuring several voice-over artists – voices you’ll recognize, with a bit of an insider look into the industry’s unseen side.

Ted Williams: About 10 years ago, a YouTube video went viral about a homeless man on the side of the road with a sign claiming that he had a radio voice; he became known as the Man with the Golden Voice. His rocket into fame was a rough ride, with people taking advantage of him, but he’s now got better management, and continues to do voice-over work and support the homeless shelter that had supported him for 20 years of his life.

Hal Douglas: One of those famous movie trailer voices, here’s a short spoof video taking the mickey out of his own job.

For a short video covering the history of how box office trailers evolved with the film industry, click here.

I hope you enjoyed getting to know some of the people behind the scenes of the media!

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Filed under Articles, Research, Videos, Virtual Tours

Virtual Tour 7: Maple Syrup

It’s time for another tour! Today’s tour takes us on a sweet-tooth trip: Maple syrup, and how it’s made.

Usually made from the sap of sugar-, red-, or black maple trees, this sap is stored during the cold seasons in the trunks and roots of trees before winter to keep the tree conserved and primed for the warmer season; when the temperatures rise, the tree is ready to go – it begins moving sugar from its roots to the twigs, supplying the energy needed to grow new shoots and leaves. At this point, if the tree is “tapped” by drilling holes into the trunks and attaching a collection container, the sap flows, and can be processed into maple syrup; when done properly, the tree won’t be substantially hindered in its spring production.

But why is sap from the maple tree so dominant? What about other hardwood trees? There are at least 20 tree species that can be tapped for sap, including hickory, pecan, birch, sycamore and walnut; but while the maple trees can be tapped from January to March, as long as the nights are below freezing and the days are warmer, and they produce about 40 litres sap for 1 litre of syrup, some trees, such as the birch, can only be tapped for 2-3 weeks, and because the sugar content is much lower in this tree, it would take about 60 litres sap to make 1 litre of syrup. Walnut trees can be tapped from autumn through spring, but its syrup tends to have a bitter and astringent taste, and so it’s not a popular flavour.

When you consider that tapping a tree produces drops at a time, harvesting is a slow process; it explains why some trees are less preferred by producers, as their volume-to-production values are lower. A major factor in maple syrup production is that, before the colonization of North America, sugar maple trees were the most abundant trees in their areas; as the most dominant biomass, it was natural that they were the most experimented with, and early Native American tribes recognized their potential – they used the sap for everything from sweet snacks to medicines and poultices, and passed on their knowledge to early European settlers.

A cheap alternative is a “maple-flavoured” syrup, which is nothing more than corn syrup with flavouring and colouring added; but corn syrup (also known as glucose syrup), which is made from the starch of corn and is a common sweetener in many pre-packaged foods, can lead to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. It increases your appetite, promoting a vicious cycle, while the real deal, maple syrup, provides at least 24 antioxidants (according the healthline.com); these can neutralize free radicals, which are believed to be among the causes of ageing and many diseases. As with anything containing sugar, however, it should be enjoyed within reason!

So, now that we’re all on the same page as to what maple syrup actually is, let’s go on our tour!

The Wheelers Maple Syrup site gives you its background, how its produced, and much more.

The New England Maple Museum, in Pittsford, Vermont, takes you on a historical journey through the local sugaring industry, with an online shop.

The Food Insider takes you on an 8-minute insider’s tour through a video: “How Real Vermont Maple Syrup is Made

I hope you enjoy exploring these links, and admit it – how many of you have a hankering for pancakes now?

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Filed under Articles, Links to External Articles, Nature, Research, Videos, Virtual Tours

Rabbit Holes

Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?

I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.

The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!

I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).

That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.

Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.

Nis & Maren “Mary” Aaroe, my great-great-grandparents, who immigrated with 2 small children to Kansas from Vonsild, Denmark in the 1880s. Here, in the late 1910’s.

There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:

www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!

The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.

Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉

For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:

Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.

This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.

Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Mistranslations, Research, Snapshots in History

Soapbox: Digital Interruptions

How many of you have ever heard something like, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the following important information”? This is a phrase used by radio and television channels in some English-speaking countries to announce emergency conditions. When you hear that, you expect the message to be important enough to warrant the disruption. But most of us grew up (if we had any kind of guidance from parents) knowing that it was rude to interrupt; we learned to wait for an appropriate moment to introduce an opinion or a change in topic.

How many of us like having our concentration or focus ripped apart by someone or something breaking into our reveries or a conversation with a friend? If you’re deeply focused, it is jarring to be interrupted. Once is okay; a dozen times is beyond irritating.

Unfortunately, this bad habit has become a trending behaviour online: You’re watching a video on YouTube, and mid-sentence of the documentary or instructional video, or mid-action of whatever you’re watching, you are suddenly expected to switch focus to an annoying commercial (are they intentionally made abrasive to grab your attention?). Now don’t misunderstand me: I realize that the material on YouTube is free of charge, and someone needs to generate revenue to pay for it all; but does it need to be mid-sentence? Why not wait until an appropriate break in the video? It’s too much work to be digitally polite, apparently. [I just hit Alt + delete at the beginning of every video; it will skip ads with only a hiccup.] For me, this isn’t just an interruption; it’s a rude, deliberate attempt to distract me from my original focus. I don’t know about you, but such ads don’t leave me any desire to hear their message or give them my business; if anything, I’ll avoid their products.

Another digital interruption I’ve noticed on the rise on sites such as Pinterest is the bombarding of my home feed with inane pins: Last week it was Asian teeny bands, or today surfing ads, Cambodian royalty, gossip magazines and paparazzi pins – none of which have anything to do with either my interests or my recent activities. On Pinterest at the moment, my feed is stuffed with useless fluff. I wrote a complaint, and they cleared away the Asian bands, only to have them replaced with the above-mentioned idiocy. To actually find what I’m searching for, my focus is wrenched back and forth. Every. Other. Pin. Guess what? I won’t be on Pinterest as much any more. Facebook did the same thing; I’m not there, and have no intention of going back all that often (the only reason I keep my FB account is to keep in contact with international friends and family).

So what can we do? Do we have to accept this behaviour? No; but raising other people’s children costs time and energy. But it does work: Write a complaint; give feedback when requested or not; block such pins or links as spam (= “misleading and/or repetitive”). This same principle applies to content farms online (e.g. So Yummy, Troom Troom or 5-Minute Crafts): If you come across their videos and watch them, and notice something faked, dangerous, or repetitive (every one of their videos contain one or all of the above), don’t “dislike” or comment – that just tells the algorithm that someone saw it and that it elicited a response; click on the three dots near the video and report it. If you’d like to go farther down this particular rabbit hole, a good place to start is Ann Reardon’s informative videos about debunking fake videos; her husband is a journalist and writer, and puts his investigative skills to good use (if you want to skip her food testing and get straight to the investigation, click to 12:05 in the video).

The internet can be a wonderful place to learn, to do research, and to be entertained; but be aware of the growing trend of subtle manoeuvres by algorithms, digital echo chambers and flashy ads to manipulate your perceptions, opinions, and habits. Take time to act and move around wisely, even if it’s in cyberspace. Discernment may be an old-fashioned concept to some, but it’s a lifeline in the sea of churnalism in today’s world.

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Food History Undusted: Mac & Cheese

As I recently mentioned, we had problems with kitchen moths; the source has been found (dates) – the jar which contained them also isolated them; I played the jar like a maraca and sang “La Cucaracha” as we put them in the compost. We are now moth-free! Woo-hoo!

We really appreciate the advantages of storing everything in glass jars: It looks pretty, we can see exactly how much we have, what we have, and it’s inviting to be creative in meal planning. One of the pasta jars we have contains mini “Hörnli / Hoernli” – the Swiss word for “little horns” and what the rest of the world probably refers to as macaroni. The topic came up as a meal idea, and of course, being us, we got into the historical aspect. Where did it originally come from? Did it arrive in America with Italian immigrants or is it a hybrid dish?

Mac & Cheese History

This image above is nearly sacrilege for many people, myself included – I cannot imagine eating pasta from a can! But just after World War 2, manufacturing of canned goods, frozen meals and the like were coming into their stride as families pieced their lives back together and got on with the business of rebuilding the country and economy; televisions entered the home mainstream in the early 1950s (think black and white, rabbit ear antennas, no remote and 2 channels) – but that’s another topic. Product placement during television programmes and news was a major factor in influencing the purchasing power of the average consumer (product placement may have begun as early as 1873, when Jules Verne’s fame led shipping companies to lobby being mentioned by name in his upcoming novel,  “Around the World in 80 Days”).*

The oldest known reference to a dish that may be recognizable as the ancestor to the modern concoction is from the 13th century, from someone in the court of Charles II of Anjou who was familiar with the Neapolitan court; the dish was basically prepared with sheets of lasagne sliced into small squares, cooked in water and tossed with Parmesan cheese. The American version some might be more familiar with has two claims to ancestry: Either it began as a Connecticut church supper dish known as Macaroni Pudding, or it was brought over from Italy in the form of a recipe by Thomas Jefferson, who also brought back a pasta machine.

So, where was the noodle dish invented that we know today as “Macaroni and Cheese”? Switzerland, of course!

The dish, known as “Älplermagronen” (=”Alpine herders’ macaroni“) in the German-speaking areas and “Macaroni du Chalet” in the French-speaking areas, is made with those Hörnli, also known as “Magronen”, which were dubbed for the horns of the cattle, sheep and goats which the herders tend. The cheese was often a local product from the milk of those very animals, and the dry pasta was easy to hike up to their summer chalets where they slept on the Alps during the summer grazing seasons.

For a good, long read about the history of the pasta, click here for a “BBC Travel” article on the topic – and get a good taste of the Swiss Alps in the meal! And be honest – how many of you have a hankering for Mac & cheese after reading this? Click on the image below for an authentic recipe.

Alplermagronen - Betty Bossi

Image credit: Betty Bossi (the Swiss version of Betty Crocker)

 

*Information source: Wikipedia, William Butcher (translation and introduction). Around the World in Eighty Days, Oxford Worlds Classics, 1995, Introduction.

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History Undusted: Bubble Wrap

I do a lot of crafts. I mean, a lot variety-wise, and a lot quantity-wise. When I’m not writing, managing our household, planning meetings or teaching students (I’m a vocal coach and an English teacher for adults), I’m usually doing some kind of craft, and it more often than not involves some form of upcycling – turning “trash” into “treasures”. Recently, I’ve been making sheets of plastic-confetti-filled bubble wrap, ironed into what’s known as “ploth” (plastic cloth). These can then be sewn into bags, etc. It got me to thinking about just how bubble wrap came to be. I have tons of the stuff, stashed here and there in the craft room, for such projects – and I’m constantly on the lookout for creative uses for that poppable fun.

Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended as packing material but as wallpaper? In 1957, Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes and his business partner, Alfred Fielding, wanted to make a wallpaper that would appeal to the emerging Beat culture [for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it was a generation of post-war, anti-establishment rebels who were more or less the precursor to the 60’s hippie and counterculture movements]. What the partners did was simple enough: They put two layers of a plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine. But it came out in what they first saw as a failure, with air bubbles trapped between the two layers. They figured they were onto something, failure or not, and so they got a patent and then began experimenting to find other uses. Wallpaper wasn’t popular; neither was their suggestion to use it as insulation for greenhouses (perhaps that was simply a matter of marketing to the wrong demographic). Then, around 1960, IBM began shipping their newly-designed 1410 computers and needed a way to protect the delicate dinosaurs – eh, I mean, computing mammoths. That’s a LOT of bubble wrap. The rest is, as they say, history. And in case you’re wondering, yes, people have been popping the bubbles from the beginning, just for fun. So much fun, in fact, that the last Monday of every January is officially “Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day”.

Click on the image below to watch an IBM recruiting film (1 minute), from 1960. You can also see one of IBM’s massive scientific mainframes being used by the original “computers” of NASA in the film “Hidden Figures“.

IBM 1401 unit - History of Computer Museum archive photo

IBM’s 1410 computer promotional photo, 1959. Credit, Computer History Museum archives

 

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Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Research, Science & Technology, Snapshots in History, Space, Astronomy