Category Archives: Science & Technology

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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Science Undusted: Prince Rupert Drops

Let’s talk about shattering glass. As one does.

Probably as far back as molten glass was first produced intentionally by man (i.e. not volcanic glass drops formed naturally, which are known as Pele’s tears) drips of molten glass fell into the glass blower’s water, kept nearby to cool the glass products in. Sometimes, these drops have particular strength, and these alone are true Prince Rupert Drops.

The English name is a classic example of who knew who, and who wrote the history books: The drops had been made Mecklenburg, northern Germany, since 1625, though some think they go back as far as the days of the Roman Empire; they were sold around Europe as toys or curiosities. In 1660, Prince Rupert brought some of them back to London as a gift for King Charles II, who then gave them to the Royal Society to investigate and attempt to reproduce. Thus, Rupert’s name has gone down in history – for bringing back a souvenir for the right person.

Their unusual strength comes from how they cool; when done right, they will come out shaped like a tadpole with a long, thin tail. The heads can be struck with a hammer or shot with a gun, and they will not shatter; but if the tail is knicked or disturbed, the entire drop shatters into glass dust instantly, from the tail down.

Not all drips of glass cooled in water produce Prince Rupert Drops, also known as Dutch tears, Prussian tears, or Batavian tears; the difference is their behaviour and is probably influenced by impurities or inclusions in the mineral composition of the material used. Higher quality glass produces pure Prince Rupert’s Drops; low quality may simply not have the tension created in the cooling process to be a shattering success. I have a drop of molten glass, found on a beach in the Scilly Isles (UK); it is the result of a shipwreck from around the 17th or 18th century, and the drop is full of the impurities of the orginal glassware plus black flecks of cinders from the burning ship. The tail was snapped off over time, yet the head survived – thus, it was not a Prince Rupert Drop.

For a cool video that explains the science behind the drops, including slow motion analysis of the shattering, just click on the image below; the video is from one of my favourite YouTube channels, Smarter Every Day. For further behind-the-scenes footage of another experiment that Destin did with these drops, click here.

Prince Rupert Drop

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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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The Salt of the Matter

Recently I was looking into the matter of salt (as one does). Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and in its crystalline state is also known as rock salt or halite. It is essential for life in general, is present in our oceans, and is one of our five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty). As a spice, it is the oldest in the world; gathered along dried seashores from evaporated tidal pools, hunter-gatherers soon learned to value it.  Even as far back as 6000 BC, intentional salt production (by boiling or evaporating seawater) was around.  Since ancient times, it has been used as a seasoning, a preservative (whether air-drying in salt or through the brining process), a disinfectant, a unit of exchange, and ceremonial uses. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to disinfect them (see Ezekiel 16:4 as an example of this ancient practice).

The word brings quite a few things to mind, from culinary to military to spiritual:  One speaks of seasoned soldiers – those who’ve seen action and have learned how to respond rightly in a crisis.  Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt; it’s where we get the word salary (salarius – Latin, pertaining to salt), and worth one’s salt is thought to come from that concept of the Roman soldier’s payment. The phrase above salt, referring to someone high in rank or honour, came from the seating position that a person would be invited to take at a dinner party – the salt being placed in the middle of the long dining table; the more honoured a guest, the closer they sat to the host at the head of the table, above salt (used as far back as AD 1200 in that context).

Salt preserves and adds flavour by bringing out the full bouquet of flavour within the thing it’s added to.  It enhances a sweet melon or a savoury slice of meat.  Seasoned just right, even a lowly carrot or potato can become an explosion of taste.  In Colossians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses this culinary metaphor:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  Applying the qualities of salt to our speech, let it always be full of good taste, preserving the honour of those with and about whom we speak, bringing out their potential, enhancing them.  Such speech is applicable in every situation; such a reply is never wrong.  How we say something is at least as important as what we say; that’s the salt of the matter.  Salt was also used by ancient armies to symbolically curse the fields of a conquered area (it is erroneously thought that the salt was sown to make the land unproductive, but it would take a prohibitive amount of salt to accomplish that, so it’s logically rather a symbolic than literal salting).

Salt also gives us several more idioms than those mentioned above:

  • To take something with a grain of salt – from Modern Latin, cum grano salis. It means not to believe something at face value, or take something completely seriously.
  • (To go) back to the salt mines – (To go) back to work
  • To rub salt in (someone’s) wound – To make someone’s problem or bad situation worse
  • Salt of the earth – a good, honest, upright person
  • To salt (something) away – To save money or other item for another time or purpose
  • Salty dog – An experienced sailor (nickname due to the salinity of the sea)

Today, most countries have a wide variety of salt available: The typical salt in western societies is called “table salt”, and it has been iodized with iodine since 1924, to correct the deficiency of iodine in the average diet. The deficiency can lead to thyroid problems in adults and cretinism in children. Another mineral sometimes added is fluoride, to prevent tooth decay. The additives vary from country to country, which may also add to the variety and regional differences in taste.

Salts

The variety of salts found in my own kitchen

Sea Salt is just that – from the sea, including traces of algae, salt-resistant bacteria and also sediment impurities.

Bamboo Salt (Jukyeom) is prepared by roasting salt in a bamboo container plugged with mud at both ends; it absorbs minerals from the bamboo and the mud, which in turn adds a distinct flavour to the salt.

Celtic Sea Salt, also known as grey salt (from French, sel gris), is harvested by raking salt crystals off of the bottom of tidal pools along the coast of France. It’s got a distinctive briny flavour.

Fluer de Sel (Flower salt), is another tidal salt from France, but its crystals are paper-thin flakes taken from the water’s surface. Because of the labour-intensive harvesting, it’s known as the “caviar of salts” as it is the most expensive salt on the market (1 pound of salt can be $20). Any salt harvested from the water’s surface creates flakes, so there are less expensive varieties available.

Kosher, or kitchen, salt is coarse-grained and non-iodized and used for things like cooking or pretzel-making.

Pickling salt has a very fine grain to speed up the dissolving process in cooking or brining.

Gourmet salts often have other spices or elements added or infused into the salt grains.

Kala namak (Nepalese for black salt) is a Himalayan salt that’s been packed into a container with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark, then fired in a furnace for a full day before it’s cooled, stored and aged. This process gives it a distinctive reddish-black colour, a pungent, salty taste and the faint sulphurous aroma of eggs, which lends vegan dishes the taste of egg.

Pink Himalayan Salt is rock salt mined in the Salt Range mountains of the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the colour comes from trace impurities found in the soil, ranging from transparent to beet-red. It is comparable to table salt in taste, though it lacks the health benefits of the latter. This salt is especially popular as it is erroneously purported to have special health benefits for everything from reducing ageing, clearing up sinus problems, to increasing bone strength and even more dangerous presumptions – a modern-day snake oil medicine. It is fine as a supplement to, but not a replacement of, our salt intake.

Hawaiian Black Lava Salt is a sea salt harvested from the volcanic islands of Hawaii, and it gets its deep, black colour from the additive of activated charcoal. Alaea Salt is an unrefined red Hawaiian salt; its colour comes from the reddish, iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea, and it adds a robust flavour.

Persian Blue Diamond Salt is extracted from salt mines in the Semman province of ancient Persia (now Iran). Mineral deposits add small flecks of blue to some of the crystals, giving it its name.

Smoked Salt is slow-smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire of hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or alder wood, and it adds a smoky flavour to dishes.

Cyprus Black Lava Salt comes from the Mediterranean Sea. These crystals are formed through natural evaporation; mixed with activated charcoal, the grains look like miniature pieces of charcoal and have a very mild salt flavour.

Red Wine Salt comes from France (where else?); I have one called Fleur de Merlot. It is a coarse-grained salt mixed with wine and then allowed to evaporate, infusing the salt grains with a dark red wine flavour. It goes well with robust flavours with which you might serve Merlot wine.

New Zealand Lake Grassmere Salt: Seawater from the deep is brought to seaside ponds surrounding Lake Grassmere in New Zealand, and at the end of the summer, salt crusts are lifted from the bottom of the ponds.

In some cultures, salt is not a staple condiment, replaced instead by high-sodium ingredients that fulfil the function of salt: Soy sauce, fish sauce, or oyster sauce, to name a few. I cook a variety of dishes, and all of these have their place in my kitchen; you can’t cook an authentic-tasting Asian meal without them.

There are probably thousands of types of salt in the world; each one has its own distinct colours and flavours due to the mineral deposits that seep into the water before or during the evaporation process, or because of additives such as wine, crushed tequila worms, rosebuds or herbs.

Because salt is used as a preservative, many processed foods include it. Over-consumption of salt can lead to health problems – just think of a salt-brined fish, and apply that principle to your organs to get an idea of what happens. I use processed foods sparingly – mainly things I cannot process myself, such as canned tuna. Be aware also of the amount of salt included in spice mixtures; it is hidden in most pre-made items (unless sugar is used as the preservative – but that’s another story). The best way to control your salt intake in a day is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and make things like spice mixtures and batters from scratch – that way you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!

The next time you reach for the salt, pause a moment and consider where it came from: It could be from the ocean or from a salt mine deep in the earth; it could be from a tidal pool bottom or top or the scum of a pond. It could have intentional additives or random mineral impurities that add to its flavour. Even the humble salt crystal, when seen under a microscope (below), takes on a grandeur that has the thumbprints of a grand Designer.

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Calligram #2: Ammonite

When in Lugano on holidays, we’ve gone occasionally to the Meride Fossil Museum, which houses fossils found in the Monte San Giorgio geological layers. High in the mountains, sea creatures’ fossils are found, which is an amazing fact when you realize that the nearest ocean is hundreds of kilometers away today, and the deposits are 480 metres above modern sea level. To visualize the information, I made a calligram of an ammonite; see if you can spot my name and date of creation in the image. Click on the picture to enlarge. Enjoy!

 

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[As always, if you are interested in using this elsewhere, please ask my permission, and give credit where credit is due (i.e. link to my blog and all that…) Thank you!]

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History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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