October 21 – Remembrance Day in Serbia

Posted October 21, 2016

Today is set aside in Serbia to remember the victims of World War II.

That sounds relatively normal sad-and-solemn occasion, a day to remember soldiers who died in wartime – but it is not normal-sad, it's tragic-and-terrible sad, because the victims were so numerous. Also, most of the victims were not armed, trained soldiers, but instead ordinary people with no way to defend themselves. During WWII there were many, many Serbian civilians murdered, many expelled out of their homes and homeland, many forcibly converted to Catholicism. It is called the Serbian Genocide, and it was carried out by a particular regime leading the Independent State of Croatia, by Albanians who collaborated with the Nazis, and by the Nazis themselves.

So...what is Serbia known for that isn't tragic-and-terrible?

Great things in Serbia


Apparently Serbia is #1 in growing raspberries – they grow almost one third of the entire world's supply!

Natural beauty!

Devil's Town is actually a natural spring located among some rock formations:

Uvac is a lake with “meanders” – which are figure-S-like shapes:

Krupajsko Vrelo, Lisene, and Tupavica are gorgeous waterfalls. Like other nearby European countries, Serbia is known for karst landscapes, which typically have amazing caves, pools, and waterfalls:

By the way, Tupavica is gorgeous even when it is frozen over:


Nikola Tesla was a Serb (although he was from Croatia); he moved to the United States at age 28 and began working for Thomas Edison. Then he decided to start his own laboratory, where he developed many electrical devices.

Also on this date:

Reptile Awareness Day

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October 20 – Capture of Calico Jack!

Posted October 20, 2016

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to talk a bit here and there about pirates who sailed and robbed during the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the Caribbean Sea. (Yes, that's right, I'm talking about the real Pirates of the Caribbean.) I've even mentioned “Calico Jack” – John Rackham – in my write up of one of the few famous female pirates, Anne Bonny

Well, today is the anniversary of the day in 1720 when Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and the rest of their crew were captured by pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet.

Rather than talking a lot about the beautiful Caribbean Islands among which Calico Jack sailed, or expounding on the rarity of his having two women pirates aboard his ship – both of which I've talked about before (see the links above) – I'd love to get into the Jolly Roger, the familiar pirate flag.

We commonly think of the Jolly Roger being the skull and crossbones symbol on a black flag. You might think that this is just some modern add-on to the tales of pirates – but this flag really was used by a bunch of pirate captains, including Black Sam Bellamy, Edward England, and John Taylor. It was even likely to have been flown by Blackbeard. The skull-and-crossbones symbol were first used on naval flags way back in the 1600s, and plain black flags were used by many pirates in the early 1600s to the early 1700s. So we can see how the tradition of the Jolly Roger evolved.

Our anti-hero of the day, Calico Jack, designed his own version of the Jolly Roger. See the difference?
Even more menacing, I think!

Why advertise that you're a pirate?

Obviously, back in the Golden Age of Piracy, most ships can see one another from quite a ways – at least, during the day, and when it's not incredibly foggy or stormy! That's what the crow's nest way up high on the main mast is for, right? A constant lookout for land, reefs, other ships?

So why-oh-why would pirates advertise that they were pirates, allowing others to at least try to sail away?

The answer may be obvious enough that you already know it (or have just figured it out): most pirate ships carried a variety of flags onboard. And they would hoist the “false color” that most benefitted them as they approached a ship and came within shooting distance of their guns (cannons).

That probably means, if they were approaching a British ship, they'd fly a British flag.

But once they were close enough to shoot, the pirates would raise the Jolly Roger with a warning shot. Often, the people in the other ship would give up without a fight – because they wanted to stay alive!

And THAT'S why pirates would fly a pirate flag - because it would often strike dread in people's hearts and make them give up their gold and jewels to spare their lives.

There were a variety of
black and red pirate flags
flown by all the various
Pirates of the Caribbean.
If a ship decided to resist, at least some pirates would take down the Jolly Roger and put up a red flag. The red flag meant that they would “give no quarter.” In other words, they would take no prisoners. In even plainer words, they intended to kill everyone.

So the Jolly Roger WAS relatively jolly, since it represented “we are not necessarily going to kill you!”

Also on this date:

Spirit Day – third Thursday of October

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October 19 – Happy Birthday, Annie Smith Peck

Posted October 19, 2016

In 1895 American mountaineer Annie Smith Peck was 44 years old. She had scaled a number of mountains in Europe and the U.S., including one of the most beautiful mountains in my own state, Mount Shasta. She now strove to climb one of the highest peaks in Europe, the world-famous Matterhorn.

At least two women (Lucy Walker and Meta Brevoort) had climbed the Matterhorn in 1871, but it was a tough feat to do – and when Peck succeeded in reaching the summit, she might have expected a bit of congratulations from the press.

Apparently it was way more important to discuss WHAT SHE WORE!

Lucy Walker, the first woman to make it to the top of the Matterhorn, had done so wearing a white dress. The fact that Peck wore a long tunic, climbing boots, and a pair of pants caused a ton of attention, even debate.

At the time, women were being arrested for wearing trousers (pants) in public. Still – mountain climbing has to be really hard in a dress! You'd think people would acknowledge that. But I guess only some people were able to cope with such a novelty.

Peck went on to climb many more mountains. She was the first person to climb Nevado Huascaran in Peru and also to climb one of the five peaks of Coropuna, also in Peru - the latter when she was 65 years old! She climbed her last mountain, Mount Madison in New Hampshire, when she was 82 years old.

Peck wasn't just a mountaineer. She worked hard to get a university education despite the fact that some universities wouldn't allow female students. (She ended up earning bachelor's and master's degrees, and she graduated with honors.) She majored in Greek and Classical Languages and was fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese as well as (of course) her native English. She taught at several different levels including being a professor at two different universities. She gave up teaching when she was able to make enough money on the lecture circuit and through her writing – mostly speaking and writing about archeology, mountaineering, and traveling.

She was an activist for women's rights, especially the right to vote. She placed a “Women's Vote” banner at the top of Coropuna in Peru.

Enjoy some of the wisdom from Annie Smith Peck:

Men, we all know, climb in knickerbockers. Women, on the contrary, will declare that a skirt is no hindrance to their locomotion. This is obviously absurd… For a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.”
Peck, Outing Magazine, “Practical Mountain Climbing,” 1901

Also on this date:

Anniversary of a Venus Fly-by

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October 18 – Happy Birthday, Rebecca Watson

Posted October 18, 2016

I love that I get to talk about people doing “jobs” that don't exist in most career handbooks – or that didn't exist when I was a kid. Yesterday, it was a rock balancer. Today, it's a blogger, vlogger, and podcast host.

Rebecca Watson says that she had little interest in science in school or college but became more interested once she was an adult. She came to this interest through being a magician and meeting other magicians, including James Randi. Through that, she became aware of the skepticism movement and – voila! She is now a professional skeptic!

We often use the word skeptical (and related words) to mean doubtful about or disbelieving in a particular claim. Like: “I told my mom that I beat the world's record for chin-ups, but she was skeptical LOL.”

But to be a skeptic generally – to walk around in life as a skeptic, or to participate in the skepticism movement – isn't really about doubt or disbelief, and it isn't really being negative. Instead, it means using logic and reason, it means being a critical thinker.

Okay, being a skeptic is a BIT about disbelief. Because it means not accepting something without evidence, and it means not believing everything you hear from friends or read on the internet. But it also means not necessarily dismissing things you hear from friends or read on the internet!

It means using the scientific method, which is the best tool humans have ever invented to find out what is true.

When Watson became involved with the skepticism movement, in the early 2000s, there weren't a lot of women in the movement. So, in 2005, Watson started an organization called Skepchick. The goal was to promote skepticism to women. It included a forum and a monthly online magazine, but now it is a blog with 15 contributors (Watson, 13 other women, and one man).

Watson became a co-host of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, a speaker at skeptics' events, and vlogger (video blogger). An asteroid is named after her!
Interested in checking out skepticism?
There is a 
TeenSkepchick website you
might like.

Or how about Junior Skeptic
online magazine? 

Also on this date:

Persons Day in Canada

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October 17 – Stone Bridge Day

Posted October 17, 2016

I decided to call today Stone Bridge Day, because it is the anniversary of an amazing artist named Michael Grab creating a beautiful stone bridge.

Michael Grab isn't mostly a bridge builder. Mostly, he is fellow who plays with gravity!

As a matter of fact, his website is called Gravity Glue

Grab is a master balancer, and when I say “balancer”...

...I mean he's crazy good at balancing rocks! 

And when I say “master”...

...I mean an insane amount of mastery –
that looks more like magic!

Grab's artwork takes an enormous amount of concentration, dedication, maybe even meditation! He has to be patient, and he has to have a high tolerance for being cold, maybe even cold-and-wet (which is a much harder kind of cold for most of us).

He has to have a really high tolerance for failure!
  • Here is a short video of how Grab builds a stone arch in moving water! 

  • And here is a wonderful rock balancing video with several sequences of failure, plus lots of slo-mo and rewind tricks. 

Also on this date:

Astronaut Mae Jemison's birthday

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