July 29 – Happy Birthday, Alexis de Tocqueville

Posted on July 29, 2014

Born in Paris on this date in 1805, Alexis de Tocqueville was a political thinker, historian, and writer. He did the important work of traveling around a country that was not his own, studying living standards and social conditions, and then carefully analyzing and writing about his findings. The country he studied was the relatively new nation called the United States of America.

Tocqueville's two-volume work on the U.S. is called Democracy in America; the book was published in 1835 and 1840. This glimpse of pre-Civil War America is invaluable to historians today, and many people continue to read and quote Tocqueville.

They also MISquote Tocqueville. Here is one misquote: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”

Hmm...Is Congress spending “public money” (money raised from the public through taxes) on public projects like parks, roads, bridges, education, etc., etc. – could it ever properly be called a “bribe”?

A bribe is getting someone to act in one's favor by illegally or dishonestly giving him or her money or “some other inducement.”

I guess a Congressional Representative somehow laying his hands on public money and slipping it to individual citizens to make them vote for him might qualify as a bribe – and is, I'm sure, against the law. But nobody thinks that is going on. Nobody uses that quote to mean that, and nobody reads that quote and thinks that.

No, I think that the quote is used to make it seem as if Congressional Representatives advocating projects in their own district is inherently wrong. But projects to “provide common defense” and “promote general welfare” are actually what government is for, and what else would fund them other than public monies?

At any rate, this misquote has been traced back to a similar sentiment written by Elmer T. Peterson but attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler (without any citation of Peterson's source).

If you want to read an actual quote from Tocqueville, here is one:

AMONG the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. I readily discovered the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society; it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the governing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.

I get from that quote that Tocqueville was surprised at how little economic “class” seemed to matter in early American politics.

Also on this date:

(another post here)

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July 28 – Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca

Posted on July 28, 2014

Guelaguetza” means “offering” in the Zapotec language, so today is the second day of the “Offering Festival.” Another name for this Mexican festival is Lunes del Cerro, or “Mondays on the hill.” It is held the last two Mondays of July.

There are parades and dance shows. And of course food. Lots of yummy food.

This festival is sort of a combination of pre-Hispanic celebrations of the corn goddess Centeotl and the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is a state-wide festival in which people from all over Oaxaca come together and celebrate the diversity of their traditions.

When I think of a handicraft
from Oaxaca, I always think
of this kind of gorgeous
barro negro pottery.
You may think of Mexican culture being one set thing, but just within the state of Oaxaca, there are 16 different ethnic and linguistic (language) groups. They each have traditional clothing, folk dances, and specialized products.
These colorful alebrijes are
made of wood and are very

Get this: at the end of a group's performance of their own regional dance, the dancers throw items that are particular to their region out into the crowd. That's a nice way of sharing culture with one another!

I think that throwing items out into the crowd must be pretty tough, though. I read that the dance performances are held in a special open-air auditorium that seats 11,000 people and that is located on a hill overlooking Oaxaca. The auditorium was built so that people looking down at the stage can also see a gorgeous view of the city of Oaxaca.... And that means that people throwing items to the crowd have to throw UPwards, into a very large crowd!!

Apparently it is sad to many of the indigenous peoples of the area that the new auditorium means that the once-free, more spontaneous sharing of cultures of the past is more of a tourist attraction that costs money. There is a lot of controversy about the official celebration, and I am wondering if some non-official venues are springing up here and there?

Also on this date:


Buffalo Soldiers Day 

Author / illustrator Beatrix Potter's birthday

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July 27 – Happy Birthday, Thomas George Bonney

Posted on July 27, 2014

So...if you learn a lot about something while having fun doing your hobby, you too might end up with a university job teaching that something, a Wikipedia article about yourself, and a lake in Antarctica named after you!

Born on this date in 1833, the English geologist Thomas George Bonney was a math teacher who loved to hike around alpine (high mountain) regions, studying the rocks there.

He got so knowledgeable about alpine geology, he became a geology lecturer at a college and later a professor of geology at a university. He also became the president of the Alpine Club.

Bonney also wrote a biography of geologist Charles Lyell, who was the most important geologist of his time. Lyell came up with the concept of uniformitarianism, which is the idea that the Earth was shaped by the same forces and processes that we see happening today. Rather than assuming that the Earth's landforms were created very suddenly by short-term, violent events like a catastrophic global flood, Lyell suggested that they were created slowly and gradually by processes such as erosion, which we see occur now. Lyell was one of the first geologists to realize that the Earth was older than 300 million years.

Lyell was a friend of and important influence on biologist Charles Darwin.

The word alpine comes from the Alps

When we talk about alpine animals, alpine plants, and alpine geology being the animals, plants, and rocks found on high mountains, we are using a word coined by Europeans for the highest mountains in Europe: the Alps.

The Alps are a mountain range that stretch from Austria and Slovenia, in the east, through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Monaco, Germany and France, in the west.

Like many mountain ranges, the Alps were created when two tectonic plates collided. Remember, geology has a lot of very slow (yet unstoppable) processes, and the collision of two plates is one of them. It's not a dramatic SMASH! BANG! collision -- but it goes on and on year after year after year after thousands and millions of years.

In the case of the Alps, the African plate and the Eurasian plate moved slowly toward one another, probably at about the rate of fingernail growth. They collided while traveling toward one another at a rate of less than an inch to a few inches PER YEAR.

(Of course, once in a while tectonic plates move quickly, slipping past each other in a juddery, skittery event called an earthquake. But that's generally when plates are moving alongside each other.) 

In the case of colliding plates, it's hard to see any change within a human lifetime. But as they collide, the plates push upwards in a series of folds, forming mountains over millions of years.

Here is what is special about the Alps: 

They are the most densely populated mountain area in the world.

The Alps are middle aged mountains. (For comparison, the Rockies and Himalayas are considered young – at 10 to 25 million years of age. The Urals and Appalachians are old, at more than 200 million years of age. The Alps began to form about 40 million years ago.)

About 11 million people live in the Alps, making their living through forestry, pasturing sheep, cattle, and other animals, and of course tourism. Ski resorts and other winter tourism is especially popular, but in the summer the Alps are filled with hikers and walkers, cable-car riders, and para-gliders.

Because of the huge numbers of tourists and the large all-year population, the Alps is considered the most threatened mountain chain in the world.

I am thrilled to inform you that, although I have only ever been to the Alps in the summer, I was up high enough during a storm that it snowed on us! I never thought I would get to say that I was snowed on in the Alps!
The world-famous Matterhorn

Tourists can even enjoy the INSIDES
of the Alps. This tunnel was carved
into a glacier. I visited tunnels and under-
ground caves of a salt mine in the Alps.

Also on this date:

Walk on Stilts Day 

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July 26 – National Day of the Cowboy

Posted on July 26, 2014

Today in the U.S.A., it's the tenth annual National Day of the Cowboy.

It's a day all about preserving “pioneer heritage and cowboy culture.” 

Local celebrations vary, of course. Whether it's a parade on horseback down Main Street or a covered wagon trip, a chuck wagon meal or an ice cream social, a historic gun show or horseshoeing demonstrations, choosing a local Cowboy and Cowgirl or holding an Art Spur Writing Contest (in which a piece of Western art “spurs” the writing)...there are a ton of things communities do listed here...

There is a celebration very near me, in Norco, CA, that will include:

Man, I do not know what some of these events are, even! You know what cow chips are, right? It seems icky enough that many festivals and rodeos feature cow chip throwing contests, but what is a celebrity cow chip contest? Do participants try to create celebrity sculptures using cow chips? Or do celebrities compete with throwing the cow chips?

Also on this date:

National Dance Day

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July 25 – Talk in an Elevator Day

Posted on July 25, 2014

Notice how blank and expressionless
everyone's face is...
Have you ever noticed that many times people ride up elevators together pretty much silently, each person facing forward and not really looking at one another?

Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Many times people are riding in elevators with people they know, and they enter the elevator talking to one another, and they keep talking all the way up or down. 

Actually, sometimes I wish that people in elevators were a little MORE silent!

Also, most people murmur quiet polite phrases such as “Good morning,” “Excuse me,” “Floor 3, please,” and “Thank you.”

This is NOT how people ride in elevators.
This looks posed....and WEIRD!
But most of the time, a group of strangers will ride together without looking at or speaking to one another. And even when we are riding with a friend plus strangers, we tend to talk only quietly to our friend or stop talking for the duration of the ride.

The study of “proxemics” tells us about the unwritten rules of society, including how close people get to one another and body-language cues.

Normally, strangers in public keep ten or more feet away from one another, when possible. However, on crowded city streets or enclosed spaces such as elevators, that obviously is not possible.

In an elevator with only a few people, each person tends to stand in his or her own corner, with as much space between them as possible. But when an elevator fills up, people jostle and adjust their positions to maintain maximum space between them.

Ways of coping with too-small of personal space include reducing or eliminating hand and arm movements, lowering voice or not talking, and decreasing eye contact.

Apparently, men tend to not look at others in a crowded elevator at all, but women tend to quickly check out who they are sharing the elevator with—just a quick glance around, usually accompanied by a smile.

Today we are urged to break the unspoken rule about not speaking – and to make polite, light small talk on an elevator. Compliment a stranger, chat about the weather, ask for directions, etc. Does it take courage for you to do this? What do other passengers do when you talk –- do they join in? Look away? Shift uncomfortably?

By the way, if there is a baby or small child – or maybe even a dog – in the elevator, complimenting him, her, or it is probably the easiest way to start a conversation. My husband often tells parents, “You have a beautiful family,” and people warm right up to him.

Also on this date:

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