Category Archives: Science & Technology

Virtual Tour 4: Arboform, aka Liquid Wood

Our fourth outing together isn’t a museum, but a topical tour: Yesterday, I bought a hair comb when I went shopping; it looks like plastic, and it feels like plastic, but it is 100% biodegradable liquid wood. Having a curious mind, I came home and did a bit of research into the topic, so I thought I’d take you along on my discoveries.

Liquid wood, trademarked as Arboform, is a bioplastic made of natural ingredients, including lignin, which is the structural material found in plants and some algae, and cellulose, which is also a key structural component for green plants and algae as well as smaller organisms. The exact formula is a trade secret, of course, but the German inventors, Helmut Nägele and Jürgen Pfitzer, developed this thermoplastic in 1996, founded a company 2 years later, and in 2010 they won the European Inventor Award for their work.

Because of the properties that allow it to be melted and moulded like conventional plastic, its uses are limitless; but because it is made of natural ingredients, it is biodegradable – it can be disposed of in the ways wood could be, e.g. by burning or sawing, and will break down over time, as wood does. It may well transform the world of mass production and material sciences. What this product also does is use as a main ingredient a waste product from the paper-making industry – lignin.

The plastics industry created a huge problem that they never found a solution for, and they know it. But now, anything plastic can do, Arboform can do better. Literally. With more and more people trying to cut plastic out of their purchasing choices, this is the only logical solution to those who claim that plastic is the only alternative. Look around you right where you’re sitting: What plastic objects do you see? Speakers? Keyboard? A disinfectant bottle? Imagine every piece of plastic around you made from biodegradable products that, when you’re done with it, won’t harm the environment for hundreds of years afterward.

Below are a few examples of how it’s being used:

For a short tour of the factory, click the image below:

While Arboform can take care of the future, there is still the massive problem of the legacy of plastics that takes 10 minutes to drink a bottle of water out of, and 500 years to break down. There are other initiatives and efforts to clean up the environmental catastrophe; below are a few links if you’d like to learn more about the issue and how you can have an impact for the good.

No Plastic Waste

TED Talk: A radical plan to end plastic waste | Andrew Forrest

The Ocean Clean Up Project

Himalayan Life: Mountain Plastic Projects

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Filed under Articles, Nature, Science & Technology, Virtual Tours

Virtual Tours 2: Electric Ladyland Fluorescent Museum, Amsterdam

Come along with me on this next tour, as we explore the world of florescence. Today’s featured museum is the only one of its kind in the world: The Electric Ladyland Fluorescent Museum, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is an interactive “participatory art” museum; visitors can get creatively involved in the artwork, see fluorescent minerals light up, and can have their eyes opened to just how many common objects around us fluoresce. When was the last time you looked through your vegetable drawer with a UV light? Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers, coconuts… they all emit UV light waves.

First, what is fluorescence? It is also known as “black-light” glow; in other words, it shows up under UV (ultraviolet) wavelengths. Man-made fluorescence differs from nature’s spectacles of bioluminescence in that the latter doesn’t require external light – it is generated by an internal chemical energy in the organism. There are also examples of fluorescence occurring in nature: Syenite, also known as yooperlite or sodalite-syenite, is not a common rock, but does appear all over the world in pockets; in fact, about 15% of all minerals fluoresce. Check out this link to see where syenite can be found near you. Take a UV torch (flash light), and hunt for them at night. They look like plain rocks under normal lighting conditions, but glow under UV. There are also animals that don’t have bioluminescence, but do glow under UV lights, such as scorpions. To watch a short video about hunting along Lake Michigan for yooperlites (these start at 8:00), and see a glowing spider (19:23), click here. At 18:43, you can also see an example of phosphorescence.

Yooperlite – Credit: Reddit, uRyunysus

Phosphorescence is what we also know as “glow-in-the-dark” when it comes in a paint form. The emission of visible light persists after this substance has been exposed to a light source; it fades over time, but the light “charges” the phosphorescent material, such as stars on a child’s ceiling, and glows for a time. This is the paint you also see marking airplane’s escape routes (I hope you never need them!).

Radioluminescence is, as its ominous name implies, a result of the decaying of radioactive isotopes; when mixed with a radioluminescent phosphorous chemical, the decaying radiation particles agitate the phosphor into emitting visible light. Believe it or not, Radium paint was used for over 40 years on the faces of watches, compasses, and aircraft instruments; if you are in possession of your great-grandfather’s or grandfather’s glowing watch, you might want to reconsider that. Radium emits gamma rays… think “Incredible Hulk”. Joking aside, the reality was far grimmer: The episode of history that became known as the “Radium Girls” and the impact it had on industrial safety standards deserves an article all of its own. Shockingly, radioluminescent paint may still be used in specialised applications, such as diving watches.

Radium clock. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I hope you enjoyed this short tour through all things glowing. What do you have around your house that either glows in the dark, or emits light under a UV light? If you don’t already have a UV torch (flash light), you can buy one fairly easily online. If you’re brave enough, take a tour of your home in the dark – UV is known to show up things that have perhaps been missed in your cleaning routine; they will show you what foods you eat that fluoresce; and you’ll most likely learn a few things along the way! Have fun!

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Filed under Links to External Articles, Nature, Science & Technology, Snapshots in History, Virtual Tours

History Undusted: Makeup

This device from 1930, invented by Max Factor (pictured), helps correct the application of makeup. Note: It’s only this complicated when a MAN does it…

Limbo-life goes on, but I thought I’d do a bit of dusting… of history, that is. I love historical images – they have a story that may have gotten lost over the years, or may document a significant achievement, such as the moon landings. Then there are those lovely photographs of bygone inventions: Some have succeeded into the modern era, while others were dumped somewhere along the wayside (and rightly so). Fortunately, the photo above falls into the latter category! As far as this topic goes, this is just a light dusting; there have been entire books and documentaries addressing this vast issue; if you’re interested in viewing a few documentaries on the topic, click here.

Makeup, as a topic of history, goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egypt is famous for their eyeliners and other cosmetic enhancements; lipstick may have been invented as far back as 5,000 years ago, by ancient Sumerians. The word “cosmetic” comes from Greek, and originally meant “technique of dress and ornament” or “skilled in ordering or arranging”. Natural ingredients used included charcoal, beeswax, crushed gemstones, castor oil, olive oil, milk (Cleopatra’s famous milk bath), rosewater, seaweed, fish scales (still used today), and seashells. In past ages, there were dubious forays into using tinctures of white lead, mercury, arsenic, quicklime, Belladonna, and even mouse fur eyebrows (for when the woman’s hair fell out due to using any of the above in combination…). A common insect still used in blushes and lipsticks is the cochineal, the Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect.

Probably as far back as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, there has been a fascination with mechanics, even in the beauty industry (as illustrated by the image above). Though I have yet to find images that document the attempts at enhancing a man’s handsomeness, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such inventions for women’s beauty. I think that fact simply reveals something about a deep-set, double-standard mindset that women need cosmetic improvement while men don’t *; that notion has been inescapably engrained into women for thousands of years (with the exception of the Egyptian culture, in which men used eyeliner just as much as the women). [*The two exceptions that I can find to this general trend is that men were berated in the mid-war years for being too scrawny, and they were encouraged to develop their physique; they were also ridiculed for baldness and were offered hair growth concoctions to counter the natural process.] While many of these gadgets and products have thankfully gone the way of the Dodo, some are still lurking around – and to them, I say, Shame on them for shaming natural features!

Here are a few other bygone mechanical attempts at enhancing the beauty of women:

1928 – A woman uses a vibrating weight loss tool. Credit: Getty Images
1940s: Slenderising salons devised all sorts of weight-loss treatments; this chair massaged clients’ legs with metal rollers. Credit: Getty Images
1958 – Invented by a South African doctor, this machine was supposed to massage away any unwanted bits using electric currents. Credit: Getty Images
Stillman’s Freckle Cream, originally from Illinois, has been sold for over 120 years, and is still touted in cultures desiring paler skin, such as in Asian countries.
1960s – ice masks were used by Hollywood actresses to freshen their faces between takes without spoiling their makeup. Credit: Getty Images
1875 – A flexible mask intended to bleach the skin, removing blemishes.

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Images, Links to External Articles, Obscurities, Science & Technology, Snapshots in History

The Limbo of 2020

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been more or less in a state of limbo for several months: COVID-19* has thrown a spanner in most people’s schedules. Events postponed. Then cancelled. Then re-scheduled. Then cancelled again. And again. Or maybe in a few weeks? Not likely, but things still need to be decided, planned as-if, and prepared for. But it’s challenging to work toward a goal that’s too fluid to pin down; is it happening or not? Will it be worth all the effort to prepare, or will that all come to nothing? [*Shouldn’t we now be calling it COVID-20? I think 2020 deserves to be known as the year of COVID more than 2019 when most of us had never even heard about it last year.]

One event I am planning for (maybe) is our semi-annual Christmas craft fair at our church. I usually provide a variety of options, and this year is no different; but now that I’ve found out it’s actually happening (as far as we can tell at the moment), I’ve been scrambling to make various-sized face masks and mask mates (button/ cloth extensions to relieve pressure from the ears) in time for the last November weekend. Part of my mind – that part a bit gun-shy from on/off plans – has wondered what I’ll do with so many masks if we don’t end up having the fair! But I can’t let that stop me from preparing for it, anyway.

My husband and I are both active in the leadership of our church; he is an elder, while I am in the team that organises / produces the church services. By “producing” in this context, in normal times it would simply mean coordinating the various teams beforehand to make sure everything runs smoothly on the Sunday; but with Corona, it now also means that – at least for now (as in March/April for a while) – it is once again restricted to livestream. But for how long? Or will we soon be back at full capacity? And how long will that last? Our quarterly planning sessions have become an exercise in limbo… in how many ways we can say “maybe”. The production side of such an event has taken on another quality: We are responsible for ensuring that the security measures are followed; we have also shifted from service leaders to producers of a video. It’s a learning curve, as there are a lot of considerations to plan for that were not necessary in a live service.

In the first wave, most people in general were supportive of governments’ restrictions such as lock-downs and closures of events (concerts, exhibitions, weekly food markets) and restaurants, pubs, etc. Many probably thought it would soon be over. But as the second wave hit Switzerland, and we became a “hot spot”, I think people have not only begun to feel tired of it all, but also are beginning to think in terms of long-term preparation and planning that needs to be done. The first wave brought on panic-hoarding of things like loo rolls (toilet paper) and canned foods; at least here, the second wave has been met with calm pragmatism. Facemasks were scoffed at back in spring; now, they’re becoming a fashion accessory and an accepted part of our collective psyche.

If you or someone you know has been affected by COVID, then you’ve learned that “recovery” is also a limbo concept: There are longer term effects that could not have been anticipated, such as heart problems, breathing problems, effects on the brain, exhaustion, hair loss, rashes, smell and taste disruptions, achy joints, brain fog, headaches, and even depression. This isn’t just a flu virus. I myself had a mild case back in March, and I still have achy joints, exhaustion, occasional headaches and brain fog. I have no desire to test the hypothesis of herd immunity; I think that’s been debunked by now, anyway… it’s possible to be re-infected, so that’s enough for me to err on the side of caution.

Eventually, we’ll emerge from the fog of 2020; in the meantime, we can choose how we approach the current events: Some will buck against being told to wear a mask and wash their hands and keep their distance; some will hunker down in a food-stuffed bunker; some may focus on the not-haves and become impatient and depressed; some may choose to find a new hobby or something to positively focus their mind on; and some will do all of the above at various phases along the way. I think it’s similar to the process of grief or loss: Denial, shock, anger, bargaining, mourning, acceptance, peace. Wherever you’re at, I think we’re in this thing for the long haul, so I hope you arrive at the positive phases soon.

With what energy I have (which, admittedly, is a lot less than pre-Corona), I will try to keep a positive outlook, and do what I can with the time given to me. I hope you are well, that you stay healthy, stay safe, and that you can find creative ways to approach the upcoming holiday seasons within the restrictions of our times.

To end this with a smile, take a look at a few fun face masks!

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Filed under Articles, Musings, 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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