December 31, 2010

Window Tax Imposed in England – 1695

On this day in 1695, Parliament passed a bill that specified that taxes would be assessed according to the number of windows and openings houses and shops had. Many shopkeepers and homeowners bricked over their windows rather than pay the tax!

If you tour Great Britain (or, actually, pretty much anywhere in Europe), you will see lots of old buildings still standing and in use today. Many of the older houses in England and Scotland still have bricked-up windows from that long-ago tax, even though it was repealed in 1851.

The rationale for the tax seems somewhat reasonable: the rich can afford to pay more taxes than the poor, and the rich tend to live in larger houses than the poor. The larger the house, the more windows it is likely to have. Makes sense?

However, according to some sources, the tax was a heavy burden on the middle class. Also, some people saw it as “a tax on light and air”!

Apparently the tax resulted in the richest families in the country using windows to set themselves off from the merely rich. When building a country home or manor, they would order an excessive number of windows—even building some over structural walls. The message seemed to be, “We're so rich we don't have to worry about extra taxes per window!”

By the way, France had a similar Doors and Windows Tax from 1798 to 1926.

Also: New Year's Eve and related holidays worldwide!

For lots of info and ideas about this important “eve,” see last year's post

December 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, John Milne

Born on this day in 1850, British geologist John Milne invented the first accurate seismograph.

The earth is always shaking, quaking, moving. Any day of the year, type “earthquakes” into Google, and you will see the most recent big quakes that happened that day, or the day before, somewhere in the world. But such a search only shows the big quakes, and there are many more small shakes than large quakes!

As a matter of fact, the earth experiences several million earthquakes a year!

Many of these tremors are so small or so out-of-the-way that they are not recorded, but the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center does locate and record 50 earthquakes worldwide EVERY DAY!

As the USGS website says, there is 100% chance that there will be an earthquake today. Because there are many, every day. 

How do we measure the strength of an earthquake? With a seismograph, an instrument that has a weight that can move relative to the instrument frame but is attached to the frame so that, if there is no motion, it will stay fixed relative to the frame.

The motion of the ground will move the frame, but the weight will not move because of inertia. By measuring the motion between the frame and the weight, the motion of the ground is also measured.

This short animation explains how seismographs work. 

By the way, a modern seismograph is sensitive enough to sense mine explosions, falling trees, or even elk footsteps!

Learn more about earthquakes here

December 29, 2010

Happy Birthday, Madame de Pompadour 

One of the most influential French women of her day, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was born on this day in 1721. She became Marquise de Pompadour and great companion of King Louis XV, she aided some to more elevated positions in court, and she was a patroness of such intellectuals as Voltaire and Diderot. We are mostly familiar with her name, however, for a hairdo named after her!

A pompadour is a hairstyle in which hair is brushed up from the forehead, often into a clip or a roll. It is often achieved with the use of hair gel (or even, back in the day, with wax), with a pad or hair appliance that produces a “bump,” or by ratting some hair and then combing other hair high and over.

Although Madame de Pompadour made the style popular with French women of the 1700s, it is also associated with the 1950s and Elvis Presley, rockabilly and Johnny Cash, Italian and Mexican Americans, Japanese gangs, and Conan O'Brien!

Learn about Hair History!

Best bet for a quick tour of hair history: The Way of the Hair

December 28, 2010

They're Always Changing the Map!” Day

Geography is the study of the earth's features, including land and oceans and human-created features.

The earth is always changing. Over the course of the billions of years of its existence, the continents and oceans have changed positions and shapes as tectonic plates slowly moved around, pulled apart, and slammed into each other. Mountains have been pushed up and worn down, islands have risen and sunk, land bridges have connected and later disappeared—earth's an active world, and things are always changing.

But by and large, these natural features change reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllly slowly.

Human features such as roads, cities, and nations are much quicker to change. In historical times (mere thousands of years), people have migrated from one area to another, settled cities and abandoned others, sworn allegiance to a particular ruler or rebelled against another, declared independence, taken over neighboring countries, or united to make a larger, stronger nation.

Today is the anniversary of two events that required changes in maps:

On this day in 1836, the city of Adelaide was founded in South Australia.

And on this day ten years later, in 1846, the state of Iowa joined the United States of America, becoming its 29th state.

More on changing maps...
this modern map of AfricaWhat countries have stayed about the same size and name? What changes have there been? 

Here is another comparison: this map of Central America is from the early 1900s, and this one is modern. What has changed?

More on Adelaide...
South Australia was settled as a new British province with the founding of Adelaide. The Surveyor-General of the new province, Colonel William Light, planned the site and basic layout of the city, with wide streets oriented in north-south or east-west directions and park lands surrounding the city center like a green belt. Because of his plan, the city did not have to undergo modification as it grew and as technology advanced, as most old cities do.

More on Iowa...

This state got its name for one of the many groups of Native Americans that lived there, the Ioway, a name that was also given to one of the rivers that flows through that area.

Actually, the tribal name was “Ayuxwa,” which means “one who puts to sleep.” The French spelled the name “Ayoua,” and the English spelled it “Ioway.”

The state's nickname is the Hawkeye State. Apparently this is to honor the memory of Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk Indians. It is very interesting to me that Black Hawk has the stature of a hero, with statues of him on display, roads and schools and other features named after him, and a biography that became a best-seller in his own time—although he could have been seen as an enemy of the state. Black Hawk led Sauk warriors against the United States, alongside the British and many other groups of Native Americans, during the War of 1812, and he fought against the U.S. again in the Black Hawk War of 1832. After Black Hawk and his warriors were defeated, he was taken into custody and sent around the U.S. with other Indian leaders. Although they were prisoners, these leaders were met with huge crowds of mostly positive onlookers. They were painted by portrait artists and interviewed for biographies. Near the locations where he had actually fought, Black Hawk's reception was less positive—crowds there were more likely to jeer and burn or hang effigies than to cheer.

December 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Johannes Kepler and Louis Pasteur

Two giants of science were born on this day (251 years apart!).

In 1571, Johannes Kepler was born in Germany. His claim to gigantic-ness—he is even called the Father of Modern Astronomy!— is that he figured out that the planets travel in elliptical (oval-shaped) orbits rather than round orbits, and he figured out three major laws of planetary motion. Sir Isaac Newton's law of gravitation had their genesis in Kepler's laws. Kepler also suggested that the tides were caused by the attraction of the moon. All of that is pretty gigantic!

In 1822, Louis Pasteur was born in France. His claim to gigantic-ality—he is considered one of the founders of microbiology!—is that he discovered much about causes and preventions of diseases: he developed the first vaccine for rabies and anthrax, invented pasteurization of milk, and discovered the role of bacteria in fermentation and was therefore able to improve the manufacture of wine.

For more on Kepler's Three Laws, try Carl Sagan's “Cosmos”...

The Science Channel's “Greatest Discoveries” has a segment on Louis Pasteur...

December 26, 2010

Second Day of Christmas

Whether it's 2 Juledag in Denmark or Svatek Vanocni 2 in the Czech Republic, many people around the world continue the Christmas holiday on the following day. In the Netherlands, many couples spend the day with the husband's family, say, if they spent Christmas Day with the wife's family, and vice versa. In some countries, people who had to work on Christmas Day, such as servants, get the next day off as their Christmas holiday. (This is commonly called Boxing Day.) Some people celebrate this day as Saint Stephen's Day by distributing aid to those in need—things that St. Stephen was reputed to do during his life. (“The Feast of Stephen” is mentioned in the Christmas Carol “Good King Winceslas.”)

For more on Boxing Day, see last year's post

By the way, when you hear “the second day of Christmas,” you may think of the famous song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.

Many people have come up with clever new versions of the lyrics. Try writing the entire song with the same rhythm and rhyming scheme, but all new gifts. It's fun!

To inspire you, here is a Shrek version. (For fun, try to find all the typos in the lyrics. There are a lot of them!) 

This You Tube video has not so much a parody of the song, but a great mash-up. Try it! 

December 25, 2010

Christmas Day

This is my favorite holiday! I love arranging our collections of nutcrackers and Santas and snowmen, I love the beauty of twinkling lights on a great-smelling and highly decorated tree, and of course I especially love getting together with family for food and gifts and fun. Part of the fun is getting ready—finding special treats that my kids will love, baking our family favorite cookies, counting down the days on an advent calendar. This year we had a lot of fun making a gingerbread train with a Tootsie-Roll tree.

Even though I love Christmas, I understand why some people bemoan the commercialism of the holiday, and why some people who are not Christians or who (for whatever reason) do not celebrate Christmas feel left out or even irritated by the pervasiveness of Christmas in the U.S. 

Christmas hasn't always been around!

At the beginning of the religion of Christianity, there was no such holiday as Christmas. There is no good reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25; as a matter of fact, there is no indication in the Bible of what day, month, or even season Jesus was born. When 4th-Century Christians (in other words, people who lived hundreds of years after the writing of the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament) decided that it would be nice to celebrate Jesus's birth as well as his death and re-birth, any date seemed equally likely or unlikely. So Pope Julius I chose a time of year that was already a time of fun and celebration, at the end of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, near the Winter Solstice.

Some Christians do not celebrate the holiday because of the shaky historical origins of the chosen date (or for other reasons). Puritans who first settled the New England area were opposed to the holiday, and celebrating Christmas in Boston was actually against the law from 1659 to 1681. After the American Revolution, many English customs—including the Christmas holiday—became less popular, and the first U.S. Congress after the ratification of the Constitution, December 25, 1789, Congress was in session.

Christmas was not declared a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870.

For more on Christmas Day, including some fun quizzes, see last year's post

In the Republic of Congo, it's Children's Day, and in both Angola and Mozambique, it's Family Day.

What these three African nations have in common is a relatively recent time of Marxist government. During the Marxist regimes, Christmas Day was changed to Children's or Family Day celebrations.

I have a feeling that people in these African countries do pretty much the same thing every year, whether it's called Christmas or Family Day or whatever. They probably gather together with loved ones, eat together, perhaps exchange gifts, play games, dance or sing.

December 24, 2010

Yap Constitution Day—Micronesia

Micronesia is the name given to a group of thousands of small islands in the Pacific Ocean. Nearby are the many islands of Melanesia, Polynesia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Many of these islands make up the sovereign nation of the Federated States of Micronesia. One of the country's four states is Yap, which celebrates the writing of its constitution on this day.

One of the things Yap is notable for is its stone money or Rai stones. These disks of calcite are pretty big, as money goes. They wouldn't fit in the average man's wallet or the average woman's purse. That's because they are up to 12 FEET (4 meters) in diameter!!!

The value of the Rai stones depends on their size and their history (most stones were brought from other islands many, many years ago). The least valuable are only around 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter.

Still, a foot-wide disk of stone is not a convenient coin to jingle in one's pocket!

Most of the time, these stones are not moved when ownership changes. People just know who each of the 6,500 stones belong to!

Of course, nowadays the people of Yap use Western-style money. As a matter of fact, they use actual Western currency: the Federated States of Micronesia use U.S. dollars as its official currency! Still, the Rai stones are used in traditional and ceremonial exchanges and are seen as national symbols.

Also on this day—Christmas Eve!

  • For the past few years, Google has teamed up with NORAD to “track Santa” as he makes his way around the globe on this special night. Intrigued? Check it out here or here.
  • The Feast of the Seven Fishes, also called The Vigil, is a Christmas Even custom that originated in southern Italy and is now pretty much kept alive by some Italian American communities. The common custom of getting together with family for a huge holiday meal has the twist that the meal is a combination of anchovies, sardines, dried salt cod, smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, and clams, alone with pastas and vegetables. Yummers...

December 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jean-Francois Champollion

Born on this day in 1790 in France, Champollion became a scholar who specialized in languages. He is remembered because he deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics, thus helping to illuminate much of the history of the Ancient Egyptian civilization.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 by a French soldier in Egypt. (The discovery was made near the town of Rashid, which is translated in French as Rosette, hence the name of the stone.) Carved into the stone is a decree (or royal order) from the year 196 BC, on behalf of King Ptolemy V—but the important thing about this stone is that the decree was stated in three different scripts: in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Egyptian “demotic” script (related to hieroglyphs and to modern Coptic), and in Ancient Greek. Because the latter script was known to scholars, this relatively small stone was gigantic in importance—the key to a language and centuries of recorded history!

Still, there was a lot of work to be done to figure out exactly what each hieroglyph meant. It was especially a problem because much of the top of the original stone stele was broken off—and that was the part with the hieroglyphs!

Jean-Francois Champollion

Obviously, since the Rosetta Stone was discovered when Champollion was only nine years old, it took years to decipher it. Scholars didn't just sit around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for Champollion to grow up! Lithographic copies and plaster casts circulated among European scholars, and in 1803 the Ancient Greek was fully translated. A Swedish man named Johan David Akerblad worked on translating the Demotic text (pictured here below right), which was related to the modern form of Ancient Egyptian, the Coptic language. He was only partially successful because he assumed that each character (symbol) stood for a sound, as our letters do.

A student of Chinese suggested that some of the symbols were ideographic, standing for an object or idea rather than for a sound, and Thomas Young ran with the suggestion and was able to figure out that the Demotic script had similarities to the hieroglyphic script and that both used phonetic symbols (“letters”) to spell out names but had some ideographic symbols as well. Young published his findings around 1814.

Champollion first got into the project when Young sent him a letter in 1814. He was able to create a phonetic alphabet of hieroglyphs by 1822, and he figured out that, not just names were spelled out phonetically, but some words were as well. Champollion drew on many other ancient texts as he continued to create a hieroglyph dictionary and grammar.

Champollion suddenly died in 1832. However, thanks in part to his work, we can now figure out what all those hieroglyphs on all those scrolls and statues and monuments and tombs and sarcophagi say!

Ahhh....the Rosetta Stone...

At the British Museum, there are an amazing assortment of incredible displays, including huge statues and facades of ancient buildings and even entire temples! Yet my blood was stirred most when staring at the 45-inch-by-28-inch broken chunk of rock called the Rosetta Stone. I remember standing there, thinking, “Wait—this is THE Rosetta Stone? The original? The real deal?” It was a bit like looking at the Mona Lisa and realizing that it was THE Mona Lisa.

I am not alone in my interest in this "rock of ages"—according to Wikipedia, the Rosetta Stone is the most-visited object in the British Museum.  (And did I mention that that museum is FULL of crazy-cool stuff?)

The term “Rosetta Stone” is sometimes used to mean the key to unlocking knowledge. For example, people have said that a particular discovery turned out to be the Rosetta Stone of modern physics. A brand of software that teaches foreign languages is called Rosetta Stone, and some translation services and software use the name Rosetta as well.

Find out more...

Here is a short bio of Champollion. 

Ever wonder what your name would look like in Egyptian hieroglyphs? Here and here are text-to-hieroglyph converters. 

Learn ALL about hieroglyphs here

December 22, 2010

First string of Christmas tree lights – 1882

Before this day in 1882, Christmas trees were decorated with wax candles—and I can hardly believe that, because it seems so dangerous! I suppose people didn't have their decorated trees as long as many of us have them—about a month in a centrally-heated home, in my case!

At any rate, Thomas Edison's associate, Edward H. Johnson, created a string of Christmas tree lights with miniature two-candlepower carbon-filament lamps.

Nowadays we have easily accessible strings of “white” (clear) and colored lights, several sizes of bulbs, “icicle” shaped strings of ordinary lights plus the new LED icicles that look like falling rain or snow, twinkle lights, and many other products. Nowadays even ordinary people can program light shows to music—near us is an entire street that has WOW lights programmed to the same music!

Here are a few Christmas light faves:

  • This is my personal favorite: “Wizards in Winter” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 

  • A Christmas favorite is “Carol of the Bells.” Here are a CRAZY number of lights dedicated to lighting up that song. 

  • And here is “Amazing Grace.” The lights go from classic and beautiful to colorful and pulsing. 

December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice and Eclipse Day!

A fairly rare event—the total eclipse of the moon—and a once-a-year event—winter solstice—are happening on the same day!

The total eclipse of the moon happened VERY early this morning (or even last night, for West-Coast types like me). Did you see it?

Here in Southern California, we seem to be living at the bottom of a very big shower stall right now, because it's been raining HARD for days. (I know many people have to deal with this much rain on a regular basis, but we're used to drought and earthquakes, not flooding and inundation!) ...The point is, we couldn't see the eclipse because of the total cloud cover.

A total lunar eclipse is when the Earth gets between the Moon and the Sun, and the Moon falls totally within Earth's shadow. The Moon, which is full or nearly full, usually shines (reflecting the Sun's light) a bright white color, but during an eclipse, the moon seems to become gray, then orange, then deep red.

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year—and, of course, the longest night. Most cultures nowadays count the winter solstice as the day that winter begins.

NOTE: Most of the world's population lives in the northern hemisphere. However, millions of people live in the southern hemisphere, and today is their SUMMER solstice—the shortest night and the longest day of the year!

How do (and have) people celebrate(d) the winter solstice?

Germanic countries (including the Scandinavian countries), long before Christianity in Europe, held a winter festival called Yule or Yule-tide during the solstice. Customs such as burning a Yule log, decorating the house with evergreen branches and wreaths, lighting candles, eating a Yule feast, and Yule-tide singing (or Wassailing)—all of these solstice customs are now commonly associated with Christmas. Characters that haven't made it into  widespread use in Christmas traditions include the Yule goat, pictured here. 

A Druidic tradition (think of the people who built England's Stonehenge) calls the winter solstice “Alban Arthuan,” which means Light of Arthur, or “Alban Arthan,” which means Light of Winter. A poetic interpretation of the Light of Arthur is that the legendary figure of King Arthur (of “Knights of the Round Table” fame) still sleeps in a mountain, ready to return to his people if he is needed. The Druidic holiday colors are red, green, and white—again, colors that today are often associated with Christmas.

Ancient Rome celebrated Saturnalia for a week around the solstice. There were some nice aspects of the holiday—wars were interrupted by temporary truces, for example, and slaves were served by their masters—and there were some familiar customs such as exchanging gifts and lighting candles. However, apparently the holiday eventually started to become less fun, with too much wild behavior and even crime.

Other places in the world celebrate the solstice with bonfires, ritual baths and purification rites, feasting, and even special dances.

Special places for celebrating the solstice...
  • Newgrange is a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland, with a huge circular stone structure estimated to be around 5,000 years old (older, even, than the Egyptian pyramids at Giza!). It was built so that a shaft of sunlight would illuminate a particular special spot on the dawn of winter solstice.
(By the way, a megalith is a huge stone used to build a structure or monument.)

  • The Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, was built about a thousand years ago. A modern-day artist noticed that, during the summer solstice, a slender beam of sunlight passing between two rock monoliths exactly bisected a spiral-shaped symbol. She came back to the spot on the winter solstice and, sure enough, a ray of sunlight bisected another, smaller spiral. Unfortunately, so many people have gone to see the sight of these daggers of sunlight, the trail eroded, the monoliths shifted, and the Sun Daggers no longer bisect the spirals!

  • The Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa may have helped medieval astronomers track celestial bodies; modern-day scholars note that the brightest stars in Orion line up with several monoliths during the winter solstice.