October 1, 2010

















First postcard – Austria – 1869

On this date in 1869, Austria put on sale the first government postcards. (According to some histories, at least—other sources say this was the first private postcard.)

Picture postcards came later, and with them came the very popular pastime of collecting postcards. (This hobby is called deltiology. In case you were wondering.)

Collectors enjoy acquiring postcards from different countries, and some love discovering old postcards. Unlike postage stamps, postcards are manufactured by many different publishers in many different locations, so it is often hard to figure out the exact date of printing. I imagine some collectors like the challenge of trying to figure out the year of printing from postmarks, clothing and cars, and printing codes that appear on some postcards.

Find out more about collecting postcards here

Here is a link for a cool geography-learning, postcard-swapping activity. When my kids were little, we did something similar and had a great time trading with kids from 35 or 40 of the United States.

To start a collection...

Next time you go on a trip, be sure to buy a postcard from each place you visit, and buy a few extra to send to relatives and friends.

Then, when they go somewhere, ask that they return the favor by sending you a postcard for your collection. (When you tell people you are collecting postcards, you're sure to get more!)

Ask your closest pals and relations to save postcards that they receive for you. (IF they don't have a collection themselves, that is!)

September 30, 2010



Happy Birthday, William Wrigley

Born on this day in 1861 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Wrigley became associated with two things: chewing gum and Catalina Island.

Wrigley started a company when he was only 30 years old—and at first his company only produced soap, baking powder, and similar practical products. Wrigley decided to package chewing gum with each can of baking powder as a gimmick to get people to want to buy his baking powder rather than some other brand. The gum quickly became more popular than the baking powder, so Wrigley began to produce and sell chewing gum.

Today Wrigley's sells gum to more than 180 countries and has 14 factories scattered all over the world. In 2004 the company purchased the Life Savers and Altoids businesses, and in 2008 Mars, Inc. (maker of Mars bars and much more) bought Wrigley's.

William Wrigley loved Catalina Island, which is off the coast of Southern California. He bought a lot of the island's land and began extensive building projects. He put in public utilities, a hotel, a casino, a line of steamships, and a pottery business that could employ local people. The pottery business used clay and minerals found on the island to produce tiles that Wrigley used in his building projects and also dinnerware and art pieces that could be sold to tourists.

Wrigley planned his projects to preserve much of the island's life and charm so all could enjoy it, and his son followed his footsteps and officially created the Catalina Island Conservancy.


By the way...

  • I love that Wikipedia lists Wrigley's occupation as “confectionery magnate”!
  • Chewing gum of one kind or another has been around since the Neolithic Age (late Stone Age). Chewing gum about five thousand years old has been found!
  • Chicle, which is a naturally-occurring latex (rubber) material, is what makes some gum chewy, but nowadays most gum is based on artificial rubber materials.
  • One of the worst problems with gum is when it isn't thrown away properly. Schools, theme parks, other public places, and even entire countries have banned chewing gum in order to get rid of the sticky-mess problem of gum that has been improperly disposed of. Don't be one of those people who ruins it for the rest of us!!!

  • In Singapore chewing gum was illegal from 1992 to 2004, but now gum is allowed for medicinal purposes. It was the Wrigley company that engineered the partial lifting of the ban.
  • One of the ways that Wrigley promoted Catalina was offering prizes to the first man and woman who could swim from the island to the mainland. More than a hundred men and women tried, but only one man completed the swim—and therefore won $25,000. (It took the swimmer more than 15 hours to swim the channel.) No woman completed the swim and claimed the $15,000 prize, but the two women who came the closest to finishing won awards of $2,500 each.
  • The Catalina Casino is a circular-shaped Art Deco dance hall that is the equivalent of 12 stories tall. The ballroom floor is on the top floor, and the bottom floor is a theater. The Casino is almost surrounded by ocean.



September 29, 2010



Canada's first satellite is launched – 1962

With the launching of Alouette I, Canada became the third nation to build a satellite that was successfully put into Earth orbit. (I'm sure you know that the Soviet Union and U.S. were the first two space-faring nations.)

Alouette was launched by NASA in the U.S., but it was constructed in Canada by Canadians. It was designed to study the ionsphere, a region in the upper atmosphere—the region that many future satellites would be located. After the planned ten years of operation, the satellite was deliberately shut off. However, the satellite remains in orbit, and it is remotely possible that it could be turned on again someday.

By now there are a few hundred operational satellites in Earth orbit, from more than 50 countries—plus thousands of unused satellites (like Alouette I) and satellite parts. It seems to me that space is getting just a bit too crowded! Even if the volume of orbiting space is hugely greater than the amount of human-made stuff we have sent up there, a collision could be disastrous. The problem of space junk will have to be dealt with eventually.

SAT Facts



Satellites are used for observation for military and civilian reasons. Check out these satellite photos! Look at a satellite image of your own house using Google Maps.  Or download Google Earth


Satellites are (of course!) used for communication—that's why we have cell phones and satellite TV


They're used for navigation and location devices such as GPS. If you have an I-Phone or a GPS, you can do geocaching, which is like a really cool scavenger hunt. 


They're used for study and prediction of weather and for other scientific research. I love looking at photos and more photos from the Hubble space telescope! 



And of course some satellites are meant for humans! The largest satellite now in use is the International Space Station


September 28, 2010



Confucius's Birthday

The traditional date given for Confucius's birthday is September 28, 551 BC (BCE). This great Chinese philosopher's birthday is celebrated in Taiwan as Teachers' Day, because Confucius was a master educator; on this day many Taiwanese students bring their teachers flowers, cards, or small gifts.

Confucius was brought up in poverty by his hard-working mother after his warrior father died, but he ended up being one of the most influential thinkers and philosophers in the world.

Confucius encouraged his disciples (students or followers) to think deeply for themselves rather than just follow rules. He believed in the perfectibility of individuals and society.

Confucius taught one of the earliest known versions of what is known as the Golden Rule (long before Jesus lived and taught). Confucius's version is sometimes called the Silver Rule:

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

More simply stated, “Don't do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

Confucius taught a lot of philosophy—not just on matters of ethics, but also on politics and social organization.

Some people treat Confucianism as a religion, but others argue it is more of a life philosophy that can be combined with any or no religious tradition.

Learn more about Confucius!

Check out Kidipede or Kids Philosophy Slam.  The latter includes some great quotes, discussion questions, and further links.

September 27, 2010

French Community Holiday – Belgium

This holiday is celebrated only by the French Community of Belgium. This is mostly made up of people living in the southern half of Belgium (an area known as Walloon Region) plus many living in bilingual Brussels. The people of this community are Belgian, not French, but they speak French as their primary language.

The date for the French Community Holiday commemorates an important battle in the Belgian Revolution—a battle of French-speaking Belgians against the Dutch army. Interestingly, the Flemish Community of Belgium has a parallel holiday (July 11) that commemorates a battle victory of Dutch-speaking Belgians against the French army!

(By the way, there is a third region of Belgium, the German-speaking Community. It is tiny. These three “communities” are official institutions with their own governments.)

On this day, the French Community schools are closed, and there are many free concerts plus plays and sporting events.

Did you know...?

  • Belgium is host of the European Union—in other words, most of the EU's institutions are located there. The headquarters of NATO are also located in Belgium.

  • Because both Dutch and French are quite closely related to English, and many Belgians from both language regions learn to speak English in schools, young Flemings and Walloons often chat with each other in English! That means that English is Belgium's lingua franca (a French term, adopted by the English language, that means “common language”)....The only time I've been to Belgium, I stayed with a French-speaking family in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, near Antwerp. And, by the way, I ran into a lot of people who didn't seem to speak much English.

  • Belgium is 321 times smaller than the U.S., but it has the same population as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska COMBINED!





Belgian Food Fun Facts

Belgium is known for chocolate. It produces about 220,000 tonnes (in the U.S., this would be 242,500 tons) of chocolate per year. According to my sources, the world's biggest chocolate seller is the airport in Brussels, Belgium! 


Belgians claim to have invented the fried-potato treat that are called French fries by Americans and chips by Brits. I love the fresh, hot fries/chips sold out of street carts in Belgium—partly because of all the yummy sauces we could dip them into! (I think there were 30 or 40 sauces offered by a typical friterie.

With such delicious fresh fries so easily available, it's no wonder that Belgians eat (on average) 165 pounds per year! 

Belgium is also known for its waffles and rice tarts and other bakery treats. 

Belgium has one of the lowest proportions of McDonald's restaurants per person in the developed world (seven times less than the U.S.).


September 26, 2010



Happy Birthday, “Shamu”

On this day in 1985, the first orca to be born in captivity and survive took her first breath. She was named Kalina, but when she grew up and performed in the Sea World show, she was called the stage name Shamu. (Of course, there have been lots and lots of Shamus!)

Orcas are sometimes called killer whales because they kill and eat other marine mammals such as seals and porpoises.

Actually, only some orcas hunt marine mammals. This summer I went whale watching off of Washington state's islands, and our group saw three orcas that are called “transient”: they travel around a lot and always eat mammals. While we were watching these orcas, they surrounded and ate a seal and, later, a harbor porpoise!!! (Luckily, the messiness and blood I assume was involved in this hunt were all underwater, hidden from our sight by the churning waves the orcas created as they circled their prey.)

Later in the whale watch, we saw a huge pod of orcas that are called “residents” because they always stay near their particular home island. And they don't eat marine mammals—they only eat salmon!

These salmon-eating orcas showed off a lot, and I decided that watching them was like watching a Shamu show at Sea World. Various orcas flipped up their flukes (tails) or their pectoral flippers, and several breached, which means that they leapt out of the water and let themselves slam down again.

Of course, in some ways the experience was really different than watching a show. By law we had to watch from a respectful (safe) distance, so we were watching through binoculars. And of course, there was no trainer telling us where to watch or what to expect. I cannot tell you how absolutely more thrilling it is to see these behaviors in the wild!!!!

Learn more about orcas!

National Geographic has a Creature Feature starring orcas. 

Here is a coloring page.

Here is a really hard (but free) vidoe game. Notice that this orca eats small fish rather than seals, smaller whales, and large fish like salmon. Hmmm...not very realistic!

On a more serious note, here is an interesting but complex lesson plan discussing the environmental degradation dangers faced by orcas. 


September 25, 2010




An Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Begins its 74,003-day Journey to Adoption – 1789

On this day in 1789, twelve constitutional amendments were passed by the new United States Congress and sent to the states to be ratified (approved).

These amendments were called the Bill of Rights. The second one concerned paying Congress: any law that increases or decreases payment to Congressmen and women cannot take effect until the next set of terms for Representatives begins.


However, only the first 10 amendments were ratified in the late 1700s, and it is those that we consider the Bill of Rights. (The second amendment thus became the right to keep and bear arms.) The original second amendment—the one about Congressional salaries—wasn't ratified for more than 202 years!!! Yes, it took more than 74 THOUSAND days for it to become the law of the land! It was finally ratified in 1992 and became the 27th Amendment.

In other words, one of the very first amendments suggested became the last amendment to become part of the Constitution (at least so far).

Did you know...?

  • There are still four amendments that are pending (waiting to be ratified) before state lawmakers. One of these was part of the twelve original passed on September 25, 1789.

  • One of the supposedly "pending" amendments specifically preserves slavery! It was passed by Congress in 1861 as a last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War, and three northern states actually ratified it! (Seven southern states had already decided to secede from the nation and didn't bother to ratify.) Of course, even though it was passed without a time limit, the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlaws slavery, makes it moot.

  • Two amendments that passed Congress but weren't ratified by the states have apparently expired. One of these was an amendment that ensures equal rights to women, and the other would have provided full voting rights to people in the District of Columbia. It seems kind of strange that we can't get two-thirds of the states to approve those particular items, but it is probably a very good thing that amending the Constitution isn't super easy.


Here's the path this amendment took:

1789 – passed Congress, sent to the states for ratification

1791 – the sixth state (out of ten then required) ratifies the amendment

1873 – Ohio ratifies it in protest of Congress's “Salary Grab Act”

1978 – Wyoming ratifies it in protest of Congress giving itself a raise

1982 – a college student wrote a paper on the languishing amendment 
             and began a letter-writing campaign to state legislators

1992 – enough states ratified the amendment that it finally became law


Learn more about the U.S. Constitution and its amendments here

September 24, 2010



Happy Birthday, U.S. Supreme Court AND Chief Justice John Marshall

On this day in 1755, John Marshall was born in a log cabin on the frontier of Virginia. When he was born, there was no such thing as a United States of America (the colonies declared independence when he was 21 years old), nor of course a Supreme Court of the United States of America (it was created by Congress when he was 34 years old)! Marshall was homeschooled until age 14, when he was sent to a boarding school about a hundred miles away. He grew up to be a soldier in the Revolutionary War, a lawyer, a politician, and the author of a famous 5-volume biography of George Washington. Finally, at age 46, Marshall was appointed the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He served until his death at age 80.

To learn more about the Supreme Court, try Congress for Kids, Ben's Guide, or Oyez's virtual tour.  Oyez has a page on John Marshall, too. 


What's with all the Johns?

I noticed that the first Chief Justice was John Jay, the second was John Rutledge, and the fourth, of course, was John Marshall. (Thank goodness, the third Chief Justice was named Oliver Ellsworth.) John Marshall was appointed to the court by President John Adams. Our current Chief Justice is John G. Roberts!

John is currently the second most common boy's name in the U.S., after James. Wikipedia claims that one-twenty-fifth of all Americans is named John!!! The historical data I found states that John was THE most common boy's name in the English-speaking world until the mid 1920s. Jonathan and Jon are similar sounding names that come from a different Hebrew name. Johnny and Jack are common nicknames for John—but there are many others as well.

All these names are the equivalent (or translation) of John in other languages. Match the name to the language:

1. Juan
2. Ian
3. Johan or Johannes
4. Jonas
5. Jean
6. Hans
7. Jan
8. Sean

LANGUAGES: French, German, Irish, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Scottish, Spanish,



ANSWERS: 1.Spanish – 2.Scottish – 3.Norwegian (or German) – 4.Lithuanian – 5.French – 6.German – 7.Polish – 8.Irish

Find out how popular your first name is the United States here. You can also check out how common your last name is. 

How Many of Me is another name statistic site that allows you to find people who share your first name AND your last name! Again, it's just for the U.S. According to the website, there are almost 45 thousand people named John Smith, 976 people named James Bond, and 103 people named Harry Potter. There's only one of me, although my sister and brother have name-alikes (38 people with my brother's name, and 50 people with my sister's name!).


September 23, 2010





Autumn Begins with the Equinox (Northern Hemisphere)

Equinox means “equal night,” and this is supposed to be the date when day and night are equal lengths. (Depending on where you live, the day and night aren't quite equal.) In the Northern Hemisphere, fall begins on this day, and in the Southern Hemisphere, spring begins.



The Equinox occurs at 3:09 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). For people in the U.S., that is yesterday evening. Coordinated Universal Time is a time standard that can be referred to worldwide. It is based on International Atomic Time and is roughly the same time as Greenwich Mean Time, which is the time kept at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England.

Again speaking from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere, the days have been getting shorter, and the nights longer, ever since the first day of summer. They will continue to get shorter and shorter until mid-December. Today is the mid-point in the process.

The shorter days are the main reason that winter is colder than summer. This seasonal change is caused by the Earth's tilt.

Balance an egg on its end...

...or not...

Even though it has been disproved over and over (and over!), there persists a myth that you can balance an egg on its end only during an equinox, when everything is balanced and equal.

It's not a myth because it is impossible to balance an egg. It's really hard to do it—it takes a lot of patience—but you most definitely can balance an egg on its end.

However, you can balance an egg on its end any day of the year. The myth is that it can only be done during an equinox.



Check out the Moon and Jupiter!

If you have clear skies tonight, be sure to check out the full harvest moon! Also, Jupiter is closer than usual, and so Jupiter is probably brighter than you've ever seen it. (It hasn't been this close to Earth since 1963, and it won't be again until 2022.)

I've sighted Jupiter for two nights, now. It has been rising in the east at about sunset, a little later than Moonrise. Once Venus sets, it seems to be the brightest “star” in the sky. Of course, it isn't a star at all; it's the solar system's biggest planet. With a really good pair of binoculars, and if the sky is really dark, you might be able to see one or more of Jupiter's moons, maybe even a dark band across its disk, and maybe even Uranus looking like a blue-colored star near Jupiter.

September 22, 2010



In Switzerland...
Anniversary of the Peace of Basel – 1499

In keeping with yesterday's Peace Day, today we honor a peace treaty. After months of fighting between the House of Habsburg and the Old Swiss Confederacy, the Swiss emerged triumphant, and Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, had to sign a treaty that made Switzerland quite independent of the Roman Empire.

(It remained nominally a part of the empire until the mid-1600s, but after the Peace of Basel, Swiss were exempt from jurisdiction and taxes. In other words, for all practical purposes, Switzerland was independent.)

Switzerland is a small landlocked country in Europe. It is known for its natural beauties, especially the beautiful Alps, banking and watches, chocolate and cheese, and peace and neutrality.

Swiss speak

Nestled between Germany, Italy, and France, Switzerland has populations who speak German, those who speak Italian, and those who speak French. But it's not enough for Switzerland to have three official languages—it has four, since there are 30 or 40 thousand people who speak Romansh as their mother tongue!

Swiss money

The only time I've been to Switzerland, in 1999, I had a mix of monies from the various countries I had visited on that trip: German Deutsche marks, Italian lira, and Austrian schillings. I still had a few U. S. dollars in my wallet, too, but of course no Swiss francs. I sighed as I realized that I would have to go to a bank to convert all these sorts of money to Swiss francs—it's a bit of trouble to do so, but more importantly, you lose money in transaction fees every time you convert it.

Naturally, it was a Sunday, so the banks were closed.

I wanted an ice cream cone, and I wasn't sure I could pay for it. We had paid for our hotel room with a credit card, but back then, people didn't accept credit cards for small amounts.

At least, most people in the world didn't, but I soon found that the Swiss were different. Shop owners and even street vendors took EVERYTHING – money from other countries, credit cards (even for dollar purchases), debit cards, traveler's checks – everything! I was so happy as I traded my now-useless lira and schillings for a double scoop of ice cream.

















Swiss neutrality

In keeping with its unprecedented independence within the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland has maintained a neutral stance in world affairs since 1815. This country has diplomatic relations with almost all countries, and it was able to stay above the fray even during the two World Wars. (Hitler drew up plans to attack Switzerland but never did.)

Partly because of the strong stance of neutrality, many international organizations are located in Switzerland. These include the international Olympics headquarters, the World Health Organization, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and many others.

Celebrate Switzerland!

  • Read Heidi, by Johanna Spyri (available free online). Or watch one of the movie versions of the story.
  • Eat some Nestle's chocolate. (Henri Nestle was Swiss, and his company made the first milk-chocolate.) 
  • Here is a puzzle of the Swiss flag (which has been adopted as the sign of the Red Cross). 



September 21, 2010

Peace One Day

Launched by filmmaker Jeremy Gilley in 1999, this day has been adopted by the United Nations as a day of global ceasefire and non-violence. It is called, variously, the UN International Day of Peace and Peace Day.

It is a day to talk about non-violence in our homes, communities, and schools, and to create programs to increase peace at all levels of human interaction.

Is there a peace rally or program in your area? If not, consider creating one. You can do something small today, and plan a larger action for next year. The people behind Peace One Day are partially trying to get the word out about the day—because if the world can create one day of peace, perhaps it can move toward a real and lasting peace.

One Day One Goal is a program to see football (in the U.S., it's called soccer) matches played on Peace Day in every country in the world. PUMA is helping to put this program together. To participate, play football/soccer!


For more ideas...

Adopt” a Peace Corps volunteer, or create a dove ornament or paper cranes, or write letters to your government... There are lots of ideas here


September 20, 2010



Happy Birthday to Patent Leather

On this day in 1818, Seth Boyden (of Newark, New Jersey) began commercial production on patent leather for shoes, boots, and other accessories.

Boyden wanted to create a dressier leather and did some experiments to see what would look and feel good. He found that, by giving fine-grained leather a series of linseed-oil-based treatments, he could create a shiny black leather. His glossy new form of leather quickly became popular for formal dress.

Although today Boyden's linseed-oil treatment has been replaced by synthetic resins (in other words, a variety of plastic finishes), today patent leather is still popular. Note that there are shoes and accessories created from non-leather materials, such as plastic and faux leather, that are shiny and that look and feel somewhat like patent leather. Some vegetarians may prefer these synthetic materials, but some people feel that they are a cheap substitute for real patent leather.

It's a matter of material...

Here are some of the materials that are commonly made into clothing and accessories:

furs and skins, cotton, flax (linen), wool, silk, down (feathers), and human-made (synthetic) fibers such as nylon, polyester, and spandex

Here are some less-common clothing materials:

bamboo, hemp, jute, recycled plastic, rubber, paper, and soy

And of course shoes and bags and other accessories may be made out of many more materials, including wood, bone, rigid plastic, rope, and on and on...





Recycle your clothing!

Hand clothes down, make a quilt, or do some of these craft projects.