Category Archives: Science & Technology

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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Preparedness

This article* will be longer than usual, but I think it’s an important topic to address. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived the first wave of Coronavirus, lockdown, and have been able to pay your electricity bill! Woohoo! But as the old adage goes, “History repeats itself”; as you can see from the images below, we’re not the first generation to deal with the affects of a pandemic. Such moments of crisis come in various forms: The Black Death, the Spanish Influenza, World Wars, the Great Depression, stock market crashes, slumps and recessions, and now the Coronavirus. Like any challenge, how you respond to it will determine how you come through it. The title, “Preparedness”, means “the state of being prepared”: It’s not about individual actions to accomplish something and check it off a list, but a long-term mentality to develop. The current times caught a lot of people off-guard, and some people and regions are still reeling.

In Britain at the turn of the last century, farming had been in decline because farmers couldn’t compete with the cheaper imported goods; they switched from grains to livestock, and two-thirds of British foods were coming from abroad. In the months before World War 2, the British government realized that, if the very real threat of a German blockade came about, the nation would be in danger of starving to death, so they petitioned people to plant vegetables instead of flowers in their gardens, and for farmers to dust off their equipment and begin planting crops again to feed the nation. They realized that self-sufficiency in a time of crisis is the best remedy for the essentials.

In the past decade or so, there has been a growing trend toward self-sufficiency through things like living off-grid, the tiny home movement, Earthships, living debt-free with minimal possessions and minimal environmental footprint, and growing one’s own organic, non-GMO foods in urban gardens – on rooftops, in vertical boxes, on balconies and on kitchen window sills, or simply moving back to the land and acquiring the skills to return to farming.

Do you know how to grow your own foods? How to get a plant from seed to harvest? I don’t. But we have the greatest tool of any generation: The internet. Such knowledge can be passed on to anyone and everyone via YouTube tutorials, Instructables & Wikihow, and whoever’s willing to roll up their sleeves and learn.

Per Person

Back in March, when Switzerland went into our first lockdown, a friend sent me a list of what the Swiss government recommends as emergency supplies for a week. This list is likely more focused on the scenario of a village being temporarily cut off by an avalanche or landslide, which is a very real threat in some areas here; it’s nevertheless a good starting point of things to think about to prepare for longer crises, such as Covid-19 has faced us with:

  • Water – 3 litres per person per day (extra for house pets, hygiene, etc.)
  • Fruit & vegetable juices
  • Rice, pasta
  • Oils and butters / lards
  • Powdered soups
  • Sugar, jams & honey
  • Bouillon, salt, pepper
  • Coffee, powdered chocolate, tea
  • Dehydrated fruits
  • Pulses (dried or canned)
  • Twice-baked breads, crackers
  • Chocolate
  • Condensed milk, UHT milk
  • Hard cheeses (can be frozen), sausages, dried meats, jerky
  • Special foods for infants and pets
  • Transistor radio, torch (flashlight) & extra batteries
  • Candles, matches, lighters
  • Gas canister for camping lights and / or grill
  • Soaps, loo rolls (toilet paper), hygiene articles
  • Extra prescription medicines, aspirins
  • Bandages, gauzes, salves, first-aid supplies
  • Facemasks, hand disinfectants, disposable gloves

That last item was certainly felt here if you didn’t have it: hand disinfectants went off the shelves fast, and when they returned, they were four times more expensive than before. We had some on hand, so we were able to bridge the gap in the empty shelves and can wait until the prices go back down.

Consider How & What You Eat

Below are a few areas to think about when preparing for times of crisis; some of these points may be logical and daily practice for some of you, but others might not have had someone guiding them:

  • Go through your cupboards and make an inventory of what you have; move the oldest to the front, so that they’ll be used first.
  • Your food budget probably won’t allow you to buy supplies for months all at once, so learn to think ahead as you do your normal shopping: Look for foods you usually eat and buy them double, or in 3-for-2 sales packages. Stock up gradually, and as you cycle your consumption (oldest first), replace them when you can; this will give you buffer room in a time of shortage.
  • Make a list of what you usually like to eat: Cross off the following: restaurants, take-away, deliveries, pre-packaged meals, frozen dinners (they’ll be crossed off for you anyway, come next lockdown…). What do you have left? Those things crossed out will (should) be the first to go any time things are tight financially. Cooking at home is far more economical, healthy, and psychologically fulfilling.
  • Learn ways to store foods longer-term than fresh: Canning, dehydration, freezing, jerky, fruit leathers, etc. The principle of “oldest first” applies to these goods, too.
  • Don’t buy foods you don’t eat. If you’ve never eaten beans in your life, don’t hoard cans of them. Don’t buy things you’ll never use, and use the things you have. If you have foods you’re not sure how to prepare, find out – Pinterest, Google, and dozens of websites will guide you.

I have two dehydrators, and I use them frequently; there are some staples that I always have in dried form – onions, potatoes, dried fruits, tomatoes, etc. The flavour is amazing, and the nutrients are retained during the slow drying process. I store all my foods in bail lid or mason jars (click here to see why); it looks appealing, and I can see exactly what I’ve got. If you’ve never dehydrated, it might be something worth thinking about – if you don’t have space/budget for a dehydrator, there are instructions for doing so in your oven or outside if you live in a sunny, dry environment.

Build Your Resources

What would happen if, for whatever reason, the internet were to go dark, or your connection becomes unreliable? I’ve heard a joke that says Italians can’t speak if you make them sit on their hands, and I think the same could be said that nowadays, many people can’t think without Google or Wikipedia. So build your resources; start getting books on topics like emergency first-aid, foraging plants for your region (and do your local parks have walnut trees, apple trees, stinging nettles or edible greens?), gardening, household repairs, and even novels for a bit of an escape. And add a cookbook or two while you’re at it – e.g. the kinds that show you how to cook on a shoestring budget, how to prepare foraged foods, or how to preserve foods.

During the first wave of the Coronavirus, hospitals here were put onto “triage” mode – that means only patients were getting treated who had life-threatening issues. A broken arm isn’t life-threatening, so you may be stuck with one for weeks on end until your doctor has an opening. Would you know how to treat it in the meantime? A friend of ours here had to experience that first-hand, so be prepared just in case. Hopefully you’ll never need those skills or bandages, but to need them and not have them is worse.

Acquire Skills

It’s fairly inevitable that an economic depression is on the way, with so many businesses and individuals in some countries having survived on the “just now” principle – just enough revenue to pay the bills, with no buffer in the bank account (and many stores were operating on the same principle, which is one reason why shelves emptied so fast when supply lines broke down). Many people will be faced with unemployment; so use the time wisely by learning a new skill or honing a dusty one. The more you learn about a new skill, the more you’ll also learn about yourself. Someone who is motivated to learn something new has more self-confidence, will be more attractive for potential employers, or will even enable you to step out entrepreneurially. It will give you more job flexibility and more enjoyment. Not all skills have to do with monetary gain; some are for pure enjoyment, such as learning to play an instrument, which will bolster your mental health, enabling you to face things more squarely.

Think Outside the Box

What happens if the monetary system breaks down? Remember that adage about history? There have been times in recent history when a country’s currency had become less valuable than wallpaper – and people used their banknotes for that purpose. Banknotes have only been accepted as currency just over 300 years – a blip in history, really. So how were things traded before that? Sometimes with pieces of silver jewellery (called “hacksilver”), or gold, but often it was a matter of bartering – trading skill or service for service or skill: One neighbour might know how to do plumbing, and you might know how to upholster chairs. If you have marketable skills, consider tutoring online or via Skype or Zoom. Essential in this principle is getting outside your comfort zone and getting to know those you live cheek by jowl with. How many people, who live in an apartment building (block of flats) have no idea who their neighbour is, beyond their name?

True, in Corona times social distancing is important; but get to know the neighbours anyway: Talk to them in passing; perhaps even introduce yourself with a short note of introduction, telling them who you are, what you do, and your hopes that community can grow in your building. If you already know your neighbours, let them know that you’re willing to help out – offering help first makes it easier to ask when you need it, and makes them more eager to help in return.

I hope this helps; it’s easy to lose perspective in times of crisis, and the more prepared we are with the essentials, the faster we’ll be able to get our feet back under ourselves, and the more secure and less stressed we’ll be in the long run.

[*The original draft of this article was cleverly DELETED by WordPress’s new editing program in the blink of an eye, with NO draft backup, because they went and messed with a good thing again and completely changed their entire post layout function; apparently they have yet to learn the meaning of the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.]

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Filed under Articles, History, Military History, Musings, Science & Technology

Design Undusted: Norman Doors

You have all come in contact with a Norman Door, even if you might not have known that’s what it was called. Remember the last time you tried to go through a push door by pulling on it? That’s a Norman Door. The name comes from Donald Norman who, after spending time in the UK, wrote a book called, “The Psychology of Everyday Things“, later changed to, “The Design of Everyday Things“. Doors are a prevalent example: Every building has them, but they are not necessarily put through any stringent tests of user-friendliness; if the hinges are hung straight, and the door swings one way or the other, that’s usually enough to pass. Donald Norman’s point is that if people are using a product the wrong way, it’s not their fault – it’s poorly designed. He popularized the term “user-centred design” – designs based on the needs of the users, whoever and however many they might be. Below are a few examples of failed designs – either inconvenient to use or just downright impossible. Next time you come across an object with poor usability, you’ll at least know what to call it.

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Nature Undusted: Magnetic (Gravity) Hills

When I was growing up, I went to a place called Silver Dollar City (in Branson, Missouri) several times; it is a family amusement park with rides and various attractions. One of my favourite attractions was a house that played with your mind: It had water running up a drain, floors that tilted at different angles from room to room, and optical illusions that played with proportions and directions in your perceptions. You simply couldn’t trust what you felt or saw while in that house, and when you came out, it took a minute or two to right your bearings again.

But did you know that there are natural anomalies? Throughout the world, there are areas known as magnetic hills, magic roads or gravity hills. Due to the surrounding geography, the road or stream may appear to be going uphill, when in fact it’s going downhill; this makes water look like it’s flowing upward, or cars in neutral appear to be defying gravity by rolling uphill. It’s nothing more than an optical illusion, but such places attract visitors, the curious and the thrill-seekers.

Wikipedia has a list of over a hundred recognized places; chances are, there might be one near you.

To see the phenomena, click on this link to a short YouTube video about New Brunswick, Canada and the history of what was first known as “Fool’s Hill”.

Magnetic Hill

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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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DIY Face Masks & Hand Sanitizer

Corona Jokes 16

Official Disclaimer…

I hope you’re all staying in, and staying safe! Once in a while, however, you may find that you need to go out for groceries and supplies. Studies have shown that a person touches their face 16 times per hour on average; so if you go out for an hour’s worth of shopping, you’ve probably touched your face several times; in the best of times, this is no big deal and we don’t even think about it (ask Mark Rober, below); right now, however, it could be lethal.

A great video that illustrates how germs spread in a fun, vivid way is by Mark Rober (NASA engineer involved in designing hardware on the Mars Rover) – check it out here.

With facemasks in short supply, and hand sanitizer as rare as hen’s teeth, we need to find solutions we can make at home.

Hand sanitizer is simple enough: Mix rubbing alcohol (or something with at least 60-70% vol. alcohol content) and a bit of aloe vera gel with a few drops of essential oil for scent. Make sure to keep your hands moisturized, too – washing your hands more than usual, and using alcohol-based products when out and about, will dry your skin out – and cracked skin will give another opening for germs to get in. The best way, as I’m sure you’ve all heard, is to wash your hands for 20 seconds; please turn OFF the water while you’re lathering up – don’t waste water! And since you’re soapy anyway, lather down the faucet before rinsing off your hands… cleaning two birds with one bath, so to speak.

Face masks can be a bit trickier, especially if you don’t sew. So I’ve rounded up a few simple ideas for DIY facemasks; some are with sewing, and some without; some with cloth and some are simply paper towels and a minute of folding. Keep in mind that these will not stop bacteria from getting through; they will simply keep you from touching your face while out in public, which will be better protection than nothing. Always remove face masks by the ear straps, not by the “muzzle”.

Just click on the images below to watch the link’s tutorial:

This is a simple 2-layered cotton mask, of which I’ve made a few already, with elastic earloops and a metal wire across the nose bridge; the wire can be a pipe cleaner, a bread wrap wire, or a thin piece of florist’s wire (a paperclip would also work in a pinch, though it will be less pliant):

Facemasks 2

This is a straight-edged, no-pleat, simple sewn mask with one tie at the back of the head, nose bridge wire, as well as an inner pocket to insert disposable filters; I made one today – it’s fast and simple:

Facemasks 3

This next mask is a no-sew solution using things you likely already have in your home, using a piece of cloth (T-shirt scrap, bandana, scarf or piece of cotton material of any kind), 2 rubber bands (either the office variety or a hair elastic band); as an added layer of protection, you could use a coffee filter tucked into the layers, too:

Facemasks 4

Facemasks 5

This last mask is the simplest – a one-use, cheap alternative – you could even draw a smiley face on the outside! All you need is a paper towel or two, a paperclip, tape, a stapler, and 2 rubber bands:

Facemasks - Easy No-Sew Shop Towel Mask - shortened edit

Stay safe, everyone! Look for the creative, the beautiful, the cheerful and the interesting in each day!

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Greetings from the Global Village

Depending on where you are in the world, right now you’re feeling the effects of our global village more or less than others. Here in Switzerland, the Corona Virus is headline news. We’ve had a few cases here – 43; the government has issued instructions on how to sneeze properly (into your sleeve “elbow” or into a tissue), to stay home when sick, and to cease greeting rituals (here, that would involve either hand-shaking, three kisses on the cheeks, or hugs). Gatherings of over 1,000 people have been banned – goodbye, sports fan sections and exhibitions. Below that number, lists of participants must still be kept to trace any spread to a patient zero. This includes our church; it was strange not to hug people, and to checklist who attended. It might be just a matter of time before facemasks are commonly worn in public (they’re sold out here, but I’ve yet to see someone wearing them in public).

The global village is also felt in the breakdown of the chain of supplies for goods; many shelves in our supermarkets are empty. If tin cans are made in some outback area of China that has now been quarantined by the Chinese government, then companies canning foods in Europe don’t get the wares they need to keep their factories running – as soon as one interruption happens, it breaks the steady flow. If enough shelves empty, people begin to panic and hamster supplies. Remember Y2K? The panic induced by the media, in the end, came to nothing. Yet the media are once again being panic mongers by continually focusing on this issue. What else is happening in the world? I have no idea, because the Corona Virus has taken over the world press. What I do know is that this is now the new reality; we’ll just have to get used to it and get on with our lives.

Flu girl-blowing-nose-illustration - Mayo Clinic, credit

Illustration credit: Mayo Clinic website

While I take all of this as seriously as it needs to be taken and find some of these measures sensible in any case of sickness, even the common cold, I am also a lover of history – so let me put the present crisis into a larger context:

  • The World Health Organization (based here in Switzerland, by the way) estimates that worldwide, annual influenza epidemics result in about 3-5 million cases of severe illness and about 291,000 to 646,000 deaths. That’s the old, run-of-the-mill flu, something that most of us, if not all, have had once (or even multiple times) in our lives.
  • The Covid-19 flu strain (known as the Corona Virus) is 10x likelier to be fatal.
  • The Spanish flu, which struck just after WW1 (and which is related to the Swine flu of 2009), killed an estimated 40-50 million (but could have been as high as 100 million). The common name is a misnomer: The reporting of the flu in Allied countries and in Germany was suppressed by wartime censors to avoid damaging already-low morale, but the newspapers were allowed to report cases in other countries, such as Spain. As a result, people thought the flu was heaviest there or had even begun there; thus, the common name. To put that in perspective of the Great War, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I is estimated to be about 40 million.
  • Going further back, the Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th century (1346-53) – that was roughly 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time. It reset the economic and social structures, ending centuries of feudalism with its systems of lords, vassals and fiefdoms; it also killed off a disproportionate number of priests as they were infected while helping the sick (as well as the fact that they lived in closed communities). This necessitated a restructuring even of the church in some countries, opening the way for lay preachers and access to the Bible for common people (that’s a whole other topic).

These statistics shouldn’t induce panic; on the contrary: It shows us that life goes on. We should take precautions and practice sensible hygiene – washing hands when we come home from shopping or work, using hand disinfectant* when out, keeping distance as much as possible between ourselves and strangers when out in public, avoiding crowds of people, and avoiding physical contact with people outside the immediate family. But in the end, it is what it is; we can do what we can do, and no more. [* In case hand disinfectant is sold out in your area, you can make your own: Proportion into a pump or squeeze bottle 1/3-1/2 aloe vera gel (as close to 100% aloe vera as you can get), 2/3 rubbing alcohol or any alcohol with 60% vol. or more, and a few drops of essential oils for scent.]

How we respond to the present crisis will show our mettle; there’s no need to panic, to hoard, or to isolate ourselves behind closed doors. Hopefully, the current climate of raised awareness will linger; that it will teach people to consider others (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been greeted with three kisses, only to be told after the fact that the other person is sick! I’d rather be warned and be able to have a choice in exposing myself or not, thank you very little…) and to generally adopt more hygienic practices even when sick with a common cold.

For me, far more important than the outward circumstances is the heart of a community that manifests itself in times of crisis. If we could look into individual communities in those past ages, we would almost certainly see people supporting others; groups who united to help the families affected. The human stories would most certainly be inspirational. There are numerous contemporary examples of natural disasters in which people have pulled together, whether locally or internationally, and helped the helpless. I can think of a dozen people in our church who would cook meals or run errands for those who are sick, and I’m sure there are far more people out there willing to step out of their own isolated, daily bubbles – and that’s where such a crisis becomes a blessing to communities, in the long run.

 

 

 

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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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Seeds, Pits, Pips or Stones?

If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know that my curiosity likes to sprint down obscure paths. I recently finished the first draft of my next novel (Woohoo! Now the real work ahead!), and one of the things I was researching was something I wanted to write but then hit that proverbial wall: Do I use pit or seed in this context? And what’s the actual difference between the two, or are they interchangeable? And where does stone or pip come in?

Well, as with any roadsign to curious paths, I pulled out my walking stick – or in this case, the dictionary (as in, Wiktionary). And as you’ll see, just looking it up won’t do – I had to learn a wee bit about botany along the way:

Peach Pit Anatomy

Anatomy of a Peach. Image Credit: http://www.pngfuel.com

Endo- means within, inner, absorbing, or containing. Peri- means peripheral, or surrounding; Meso- means middle (as in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic); Exo- means outer (as in exoplanet); and -carp means part of a fruit or fruiting body. I tend to remember something better if I can make a linguistic leap of understanding, and the suffix carp- actually comes from the Greek word Karpos, which was the mythological son of the west wind and spring (new vegetation), which naturally includes fruit.

In this instance, however, the dictionary wasn’t exactly helpful:

SEED: A fertilized and ripened ovule*, containing an embryonic plant. [*the structure in a plant that develops into a seed after fertilization.]

I don’t know about you, but I found myself none the wiser.

PIT is even more confusing! It’s a seed, stone or pip inside a fruit, or a shell in a drupe (such as a peach) containing a seed.

PIP makes the issue even foggier: It’s a British term for a seed inside certain fleshy fruits (compare stone/pit), such as a peach, orange, or apple!

STONE seems the clearest definition (insert sarcastic tone here): The central part of some fruits, particularly drupes; consisting of the seed and a hard endocarp layer.

If I had to put it in layman’s terms, I’d say it like this: The seed contains the embryo; the pit/pip/stone protects the seed until it’s ready to sprout (and only certain types of fruits have pits); pits are usually singular in a fruit, while there may be one or more seeds.

Pits are found in fruits like cherries, mangoes, peaches, plums, avocadoes, olives and dates. Seeds are found in fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas (the variety of bananas usually sold in stores usually have sterile seeds – what we might call “seedless”). If I can follow this jungle-infested side path for a moment, did you know that bananas don’t actually grow on trees, but are the world’s largest herb, and that they grow upside-down, defying gravity? Another interesting point is that a seedless banana can still propagate itself – I should rather refer to it as clone: Each” tree” (i.e. layers of leaves) produces 1 bunch of fruit and then dies; but its rhizome, below ground, simply sprouts up as the one is dying and repeats the process.

Then there’s the hairy issue of the coconut: Technically, it’s a one-seeded drupe; but it could be considered a fruit, a nut, or even a seed. When you buy a coconut in the store, the outer layers have generally been stripped off: The exocarp is usually green; the fibrous husk beneath that is the mesocarp, and the hard, woody layer we often think of as “a coconut” is actually the endocarp. Every part of the coconut and the palm plant (not tree) on which it grows can be used for something, so it’s often referred to as “the tree of life”.

And let’s not get into figs; they’re technically inverted flowers, and besides, there’s probably a wasp inside there (without the fig wasp, we’d have no figs). Now ya know. Don’t look into that too closely unless you really want to know, because you’ll never look at a fig the same way again.

Learn something new and get smarter every day!

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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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