January 1, 2010

New Year's Day – Welcome, Twenty-Teens!

Why this day? Of course this is New Year's Day because it is the first day of the new year—but  WHY is it the first day?

Many cultures started their New Year at the vernal equinox (a.k.a. the first day of spring). This makes sense because it is hooked with an astronomical event (the day and night are exactly even) and it
resonates with the idea of the new year being the time when everything is fresh and new and reborn: new plants sprout out of what had been snow-covered soil, and new leaves emerge on what had been barren branches.

One of t
he most famous New Year's traditions is the Chinese New Year. In China's lunar calendar, the equinoxes and solstices are thought of as the middle of the seasons, rather than the beginning. Under this scheme, the beginning of February is considered the beginning of spring—and indeed, this is the time when the Chinese New Year falls.

Most of the world now uses the Western / Gregorian calendar, which was a reform of the ancient Roman “Julian” calendar. The beginning of our year is completely arbitrary
and unconnected to astronomical events. Julius Caesar decreed the January start date as the date when the two new consuls were chosen to rule Rome; the years were named for these consuls.

The name
January comes from the Roman god Janus, the god of doors, gates, and beginnings and endings; this god's two faces look in opposite directions, and mythology tells us that the god Saturn gave Janus the ability to look back to the past as well as forward to the future.

Rome didn't always count January 1 as New Year's Day. For years the Roman calendar began in March and so, like other cultures, Rome honored springtime as the start of the year. This is why the months that were not named for gods (such as March for Mars, June f
or Juno, and so forth) or for emperors (July for Julius, August for Augustus) were often given number names. The name September comes from septem, or seven(th month)—even though on our calendar it is the ninth month. Similarly, October (octo) means eight, November (novem) means nine, and December (decem) means ten.

The problem is, the Roman calendar was getting out of whack with the seasons. Caesar knew something had to be done to solve the problem. He decreed that the year 45 B
.C. would have 445 days, and that all years following would have 365, or 366 on leap years. Caesar chose the locally-relevant date January 1 as the day to start 46 B.C. (remember the consul explanation given above).

Although the Roman empire's breadth and importance meant that the Julian calendar was
used in many far-flung places, not just in Rome, different groups and nations often used other dates as the beginning of the New Year. For example, although England used the Julian calendar, it didn't switch its New Year from March 25th to January 1st until 1752, when it finally gave up the Julian calendar for the Gregorian calendar (about 180 years after most of western Europe).

Calendar Fun

If you have a new 2010 calendar, it's time to fill in the dates you already have—school and work schedules, dental and doctor appointments, and birthdays of families and friends.

If you don't have a 2010 calendar, how about making one? There are free calendar makers on the Internet (try this one or this one). Some of the calendar makers even allow you to enter holidays, personal birthdays, and your own photos!

Resolution Fun

The concept of making a promise to oneself at the beginning of a new year goes back at least as far as the ancient Babylonians. Rather than resolving to lose weight or earn better grades, common resolutions in our society, the most common resolution in Babylonia was t
o return borrowed equipment.

Some people make very, very weird resolutions. One blogger resolved to try lots of different meats—everything from raw yak to crickets. Another blogger determined to learn a new party trick such as belching the alphabet. A wealthy person decided to take his own personal waiter to restaurants to ensure good service—and he was very happy to report that he kept his resolution, and it had the desired effect!

Leonard Bernstein, a famous composer and conductor, once resolved to stop complaining. A great book about complaining (and NOT complaining) is Willie Bear and the Wish Fish by Debi Gliori.

Try to figure out what these common resolutions are by filling in the consonants from the letter box. There are *** between words:

1. D ___ I ___ ___ *** ___ O ___ E *** ___ A ___ E ___

2. E A ___ *** ___ E A L ___ ___ Y *** F O O ___ ___

3. ___ ___ I ___ K *** ___ E ___ ___ *** ___ O ___ A




December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve
Omisoka – Japan

Hogmanay – Scotland

Festival Day – Montserrat

Whatever you call it, this is the last day of the year, according to the widely-used Gregorian calendar. For some, it is a day to clean and get ready for the New Year, and for others, it is a day of feasting and festivities.

Montserrat is a Caribbean island, and today is one of the most important days of the Festival season (which is like the Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations that occur in February or March in other nations). Festival Day is the day of the Festival Troupe competition. For several weeks, there have been masquerades and music and competitions to select the Festival Queen and King. Tomorrow there will be a parade of all the troupes who compete today.

In Scotlan
d, Hogmanay is characterized by “first-footing,” which means visiting people with gifts of food and drink immediately after midnight. The gifts are supposed to be symbolic of luck for the coming year.

A custom local to north-east Scotland is described on Wikipedia:

WARNING: Don't try this at home!

This involves local people making up 'balls' of chicken wire filled with old newspaper, dried sticks, old cotton rags, and other dry flammable material up to a diameter of 61 cm. Each ball has 2 m of wire, chain or nonflammable rope attached. As the Old Town House bell sounds to mark the new year, the swingers set off up the High Street... swinging their burning ball around their head as they go for as many times as they and their fireball last. At the end of the ceremony any fireballs that are still burning are cast into the harbour.

Wikipedia reports that the 2007/2008 Hogmanay event was attended by 12,000 people, and that the event is now streamed live over the Internet. Presumably that includes the musical acts before the fireball swinging, and the fireworks after!

In Japan, Omisoka is marked by the year's biggest housecleaning followed by the year's biggest dinner. At midnight, many visit a Shinto shrine, where large cast bells are struck 108 times (to represent the 108 earthly desires that cause human suffering).

In the U.S., parties and fireworks and shows are all common on New Year's Eve. Some of the most popular spots to enjoy these things remain Times Square in Manhattan, NYC, Las Vegas, and Disneyland.

Kids' New Year

Sparkling apple cider
, noisemakers, streamers, confetti, and maybe even a midnight balloon shower are great fun for kids who aren't normally allowed to stay up until midnight!

For how-to advice on making a balloon shower, go here.

Another idea from a parent is unrolling bubble wrap on a hardwood floor and jumping onto it at midnight. (See details of this idea here.)

Some parents celebrate the New Year at someone else's midnight. For example, with a countdown-to-midnight and ball-drop televised from New York City airing at 10 p.m. Mountain Time and 9 p.m. Pacific Time, kids can experience the excitement of the New Year but still get a full night's sleep.

New Year's Fortunes, Predictions, and Resolutions

Another warning: Make sure everybody "gets" that fortunes and predictions are just for fun, no magic at all...

Write fun fortunes and tuck them between layers of a cake, with curling ribbon sticking out all around the cake so family members or friends can pull out a random fortune. Or play magnet-fish with the paper-clipped fortunes being the fish. Fortune cookies or simply drawing fortunes out of a bowl are some other possibilities.
It can be fun to make predictions for the coming year. Consider tucking away the predictions until New Year's Eve next year—then you can check and see how many of your predictions came true.

Finally, write some New Year's resolutions. Try to be realistic and specific, and it will be much easier to fulfill your resolutions!

December 30, 2009

Rizal Day – Philippines

Jose Rizal is a national hero in the Philippines, and the anniversary of his death is marked by a public holiday.

Rizal was a writer who worked for freedom of his country from Spanish rule by institutional reforms and peaceful means. When the Spanish rulers executed him, however, he ended up inspiring the Filipino revolution that ended in their secession from the Spanish empire.

(Unfortunately, the Filipinos were not yet free and independent; instead, Spain ceded the country to the U.S., and Filipinos had to continue their struggle for independence against a new ruler.)

Rizal is considered a “polyglot,” which means that he could speak many languages—ten, to be exact. He is also considered a “polymath,” which means that he was learned in many areas. (You can probably tell that poly- means many.)

Rizal studied surveying, medicine and philosophy and earned degrees—including two doctorates!—in Manila (Philippines), Spain, France, and Germany. He was an ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright, journalist, poet, and novelist, and he dabbled in architecture, cartography, economics, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, dramatics, martial arts, fencing, and pistol shooting. (Source: Wikipedia.)

His last words

Rizal was idealistic and dignified even through his military trial and martyrdom. He wrote a poem on the last day of his life, and he hid it in the stove in his prison cell, knowing the stove would be given to his family. In front of his guards, but in English, Rizal told his sisters, “There is something inside it,” thereby ensuring that the poem would be found.

The poem was untitled, but many refer to it as “Mi Ultimo Adios,” or “My Last Farewell.” According to Wikipedia, it could be the most translated patriotic “goodbye” in the world:
“Aside from the 35 English versions and interpretations into 46 Filipino languages, this poem has been translated into at least 38 other languages: Indonesian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Fijian, French, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Igbo, Italian, Japanese, Javanese, Korean, Latin, Māori, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Somali, Tahitian, Thai, Tongan, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Wolof, and Yoruba.”
Color a map and flag of the Philippines. Notice that the country is made up of many islands. But the coloring page doesn't show ALL the islands—there are more than 7,100 of them!

Do Filipino-inspired crafts. There are four ideas here.

Languages of the Philippines

Just growing up in the Philippines, you get to be a bit of a polyglot. That's because there are two official languages (Filipino and English), at least 8 other “co-official” languages, and about 170 languages altogether!

For more than 300 years, Spanish was the official language of the country. When free public schools were mandated in 1863, they were taught in Spanish, and when Jose Rizal was writing his works in Spanish, it was spoken by 60% of the population (as their first, second, or third language). After the Spanish-American war, when America occupied the Philippines and imposed English as an official language, Spanish gradually declined. (Source: Wikipedia)

Some of the important regional languages are Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Ilokano, Kapampangan, Kinaray-a, Maguindanao, Maranao, Pangasinan, Tausug, and Waray-Waray. Tagalog is the regional language that is the basis for the official language, Filipino.

Listen to some Tagalog phrases at this website.

December 29, 2009

Texas Statehood – 1845

On this date in 1845, Texas became th
e 28th state of the U.S. The name Texas comes from the Caddo Indian word teysha, which means “hello, friend.”

The phrase “
six flags over Texas” hints at Texas's complex (we might even say “messy”) history:

Can you figure out which of the flags listed
below is which flag in the picture above?


4.Independent Republic of Texas

5.United States of America

6.Confederate Stat
es of America

Notice that there was no flag from the original inhabitants, the Caddo Indi
ans and other Indian groups. This backs the point that comedian Eddie Izzard once made: Europe stole countries “with the cunning use of flags.”*

Take a quiz to see how much you know about Texas.

1) Texas is the ______ state in the U.S.

a. largest
b. second largest

c. third largest
2) Texas's official nickname is _________.

a. the Bluebonnet State
b. the Longhorn State
c. the Lone Star State
3) The Alamo (often referred to by the phrase, “Remember the Alamo!”) was the site of _____.

a) a victory of Mexican troops against Spain
b) a victory of Mexican troops
against white “Texians”
c) a victory of white “Texians” against Mexico
4) The largest city in Texas is ________.

a) Houston
b) Dallas

c) Austin
5) One of the most important aspects of the Texan economy is _______.

a) cattle
b) wheat

c) oil
6) Which of these U.S. presidents were born in Texas?

a) Dwight D. Eisenhower
b) Lyndon B. Johnson

c) George W. Bush

d) “a” and “b” above

e) “b” and “c” above

f) all of the above

ANSWERS: 1.b (only Alaska is larger) 2.c 3.b 4.a 5.c 6.d

* Warning: Izzard is very funny but uses some curse words in his act.

Texas has a reputation for everything BIG!
Big state, big (unobstructed) sky, big ranches and cars and hairdos and money and ev
en hurricanes.

So, of course, there has to be some big art, too! Monumental land art (also called “earthworks”) is an art form that is large-scale and involves a sizable chunk of land. There are several pieces of monumental art in Texas. One is the Amarillo ramp (a curved, almost fully circular ramp), and another is Cadillac Ranch. Cadillac Ranch features ten “Caddies” that are half buried in the ground. If you go see the sculpture, take a can or two of spray paint—because viewers are invited to participate with the art by putting their names, initials, or inspiring messages on the cars.

Plan your own monumental art piece. If you had a lot of money and land for land art, what would you create? Draw your plan.

Color a Texan flag, state flower, or map.Take a virtual tour of Texas here.

Learn to talk like a Texan with this fun website. (Scroll down for the vocabulary!)

December 28, 2009

Chewing Gum Patented – 1869

On this date in 1869, William Finley Semple received the first U.S. patent for chewing gum, which was a “combination of rubber with other articles.” He never commercially produced his gum, however.

Before the milestone:
The ancient Greeks chewed mastiche, resin from the mastic tree; the ancient Mayans chewed chicle, sap from the sapodilla tree; North American Indians chewed sap from spruce trees; and early European settlers in North America mixed beeswax in with the spruce sap for their chewing pleasure.

Spruce sap gum was sold commercially in 1948 by a man named John B. Curtis, and when he added paraffin gum to his line, the new product quickly became even more popular.
After the milestone:
Thomas Adams of Staten Inland, New York, opened the first chewing-gum factory in 1870 and received a patent for his gum-making machine in 1871. He began to manufacture and sell a licorice-flavored (chicle-based) gum called Blackjack; one of Adams's later flavors that became popular was called Tutti-Frutti.

Although most commercial gums from Adams on were based on chicle, nowadays many manufacturers have gone back to Semple's idea of rubber-based chewing gum.

Also on this date...

Dishwasher Patented – 1886

On this date in 1886, the first patent for a commercially successful dishwasher was issued to Josephine Garis Cochrane, who had worked for several years on an improvement to the mechanical dishwashers patented in 1850 and 1865.

e was a wealthy woman who had servants to wash her dishes for her, although she was apparently unhappy with how often her china became chipped in the process. Every history of the dishwasher that I consulted reported that the earlier mechanical dishwashers, both invented by men, did little to actually clean the dishes, and that Cochrane said, "If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself."

Cochrane unveiled her hand-powered mechanical dishwasher at the 1893 World's Fair, and she sold them to friends, hotels and resta
urants. Eventually Cochrane sold her company to the Hobart Corporation, which launched the brand name “Kitchen Aid.” Dishwashers didn't catch on with the general public until the 1950s and didn't become standard in American households until the 1970s.

In honor of the day, chew some gum and use your dishwasher, if you have one. However, do NOT wash your chewing gum in the dishwasher!

Did you know...?

For some people there is an urge to “decorate” things with chewed gum. Two places I have seen this “decoration” are at the observatory at Greenwich, England, and on the trail up the backside of Stone Mountain in Atlanta, Georgia. At the Greenwich site, there is a tree in the garden that has been decorated by hundreds or even thousands of gobs of chewed gum of many different colors; the chewed gum circles the trunk and branches. Along the Stone Mountain trail, a huge boulder at one side of the trail and the cliff face on the opposite side have both been similarly decorated. (I don't know for sure if these “decorations" are still there, are more widespread, or have been cleaned off.)
In many other places, walls and utility poles have been gum-gobbed.
It's pretty gross, but sometimes lots and lots of old gum can take on a look of mosaic tiles and actually look cool. But don't—DON'T!—“dispose” of your gum on a tree, rock, wall, or pole that belongs to someone else or is public property. This practice is illegal in many places, and the fine for sticking gum somewhere can be quite high!
Pictured below is "Bubblegum Alley" in San Luis Obispo, California:

Chewing gum was banned in Singapore for twelve years, apparently mostly to avoid the mess of people sticking or dropping chewed gum rather than properly disposing of it. The ban was partially lifted in 2004, but gum can only be bought in pharmacies, and those who purchase it must register and show ID. Any pharmacist who relaxes these rules can be fined almost three thousand dollars!

It is said by some that Kool-Aid can clean dishwasher pipes. People are instructed to place the Kool-Aid in the detergent section of an otherwise empty dishwasher and run through a cycle. Hmmm....this doesn't seem too likely to me! We need Mythbusters to test this idea, so I won't have to!

A small drip from a faucet can waste up to 50 gallons of water each day. This is enough water to run a dishwasher at least twice on a full cycle.

There are many studies and “facts” about dishwashers and handwashing on the internet; the research and the websites compare the amount of water used in each, the level of cleanliness achieved by each, and the general environmental impact of each. In general, most of the evidence apparently shows that dishwashers, if used properly (not too much pre-rinsing, running full loads) is better for our limited water supply and the environment.

However, a lot of people have written to these websites, apparently quite upset, complaining that these findings are clearly not true. There is a lot more emotion on the subject of washing dishes than one can imagine!

December 27, 2009

Kwanzaa – U.S.

This week, from December 26 to January 1, is
a celebration of universal African heritage and culture. Participants light a kinara (or candleholder), feast together, and give gifts.
The holiday was created by Ron Karenga in 1966. Karenga established symbolic colors anseven principles of African cultures (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith), and he encouraged black people in American to research and reconnect with their roots in Africa.

Design some kente cloth.
cloth is a kind of silk fabric made by sewing together woven strips. Althou
gh it is native to the country of Ghana, it has become a symbol of all of Africa, and some women dress in kaftans made of kente cloth during Kawanzaa celebrations.

To make your own kente design, cut strips of white paper and decorate each with a geometric design. Use bright markers to made the designs, according to the symbolism of the various colors:

Red - Life and Blood
Blue - Innocence

Green -Mother Africa, Mother Earth

Black - People and Unity

Gold - Strength and Fortune

Here are some more craft ideas revolving around kente strips or cloth.

Do some Kwanzaa crafts.
There are loads of ideas here.

Color a Kwanzaa page: An outline of Africa is the backdrop of several Kawanzaa symbols, including corn, kente cloth, and the kinara.

December 26, 2009

Boxing Day – Great Britain and many other nations

Especially common in countries that were once part of the British Empire, this bank and public holiday originally came from the tradition of giving Christmas boxes to people of "lower class." For example, merchants would give gifts to tradespeople; alms boxes in churches would be opened, and the contents would be distributed to the poor; and masters would give servants the day off and a Christmas box.

Nowadays, many people use the day to make yearly donations to charities, but the day has also become associated, for many people, with shopping and sales.

Various countries have taken Boxing Day and given it their own twist:

Annual Sports Day – Falkland Islands
The sports played on this day include horse racing, bull riding, and sheepdog trials.

Day of Goodwill – South Africa
In 1980 Boxing Day was changed to Day of Goodwill so that South Africans could continue the “spirit of Christmas” to everyone in the country.

Family Day – Namibia, Zimbabwe, and other African nations
On this day, families play games together, feast, and remember their ancestors.

Junkanoo – British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas
This is a street parade with music. It is named after an African slave master and trader named “John Canoe,” and the festival celebrated the slaves' freedom.

You could continue the tradition of giving to the less fortunate by gathering boxes of canned goods for a soup kitchen, used clothes and blankets for a homeless shelter, and new cleaning supplies for a family aid organization—just to give a few examples. Or how about honoring people who have served the community? Make up boxes (care packages) for our overseas troops, and make boxes of homemade goodies for fire fighters.

December 25, 2009

Christmas Day!

Identify the Christmas carol. (Synonyms confuse the familiar names.)
1. Inaudible Evening
Euphoria to the Entirety of Nations
Embellish the Corridors
Acoustic Device with Tinkling Sounds
The Dozen 24-Hour Periods of Yule
Travel This Way, Every Person of Trusting Belief
7. The Small Male Percussionist
Which Youngster Is Before Me?
Listen, the Spiritual Beings who Act as Messengers Vocalize Melodies
Far from Here, in a Trough

1.Silent Night 2.Joy to the World 3.Deck the Halls 4.Jingle Bells 5.The 12 Days of Christmas 6.Come, All Ye Faithful 7.The Little Drummer Boy 8.What Child Is This? 9.Hark, the Herald Angels Sing 10.Away in a Manger

Try to match the Christmas greeting with the language it is in:

1) Feliz Navidad
2) Joyeux Noel
3) Meli Kalikimaka

4) Froehliche Weihnachten
5) Salaam Kwa Siku Kuu
6) Glaedelig Jul

7) Buon Natale
A) Hawaiian
B) Swedish
C) Spanish
D) Swahili
E) Italian
F) German
G) French

ANSWERS: 1.C 2.G 3.A 4.F 5.D 6.B 7.E

A great website about Christmas customs, including crafts and games, is here.

This website concentrates on Christmas traditions from around the world.

December 24, 2009

First Sun-Heated Home – 1948

On this day in 1948, the first home heated completely by solar power was completed in Dover, Massachusetts.

(Odd timing, because it was a
cloudy day near the beginning of winter, when the days are nearly their shortest.)

The home was named “Dover Sun House.”

e heating system was designed by Dr. Maria Telkes, a Hungarian-born scientist from the MIT Solar Laboratory; the solar-energy experiments were sponsored by Amelia Peabody; and the architect was Eleanor Raymond. (I'm sure some men were involved with the project, too!)

Learn about solar energy here.

Order solar power kits from $10 to $25 (or so) here. They look pretty fun!

Also on this date:

Christmas Eve – Many people have feasts, go to church, and exchange gifts. In Finland and Sweden, most of the Christmas festivities, including a visit from Santa to distribute the gifts, happens on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. (Swedish kids used to get gifts from the Yule Goat, not Santa!) In a lot of countries, children get ready for Father Christmas or Santa Claus by hanging stockings, putting out cookies and milk, and even putting out carrots for the reindeer.

La Noche Buena (Latin America) – Fireworks are common, plus families stay up til midnight for their gift exchange.

Santuranticuy (Saints for Sale) (Peru)
This is the largest arts and crafts fair in Peru. Once a time for image carvers to display and sell figures that can be used in Nativity scenes, now other crafts items are included as well.

December 23, 2009

Night of the Radishes – Oaxaca, Mexico

The people of Oaxaca carve radishes into figures and animals, to be displayed or sometimes sold.

You can borrow this tradition and do a little radish carving yourself (ask permission!), or you can add radishes to your salad in honor of the holiday.

Festivus – the Holiday for the Rest of Us

If you don't live in Oaxaca, Mexico, you can enjoy the all-new, modern-living “holiday” of Festivus. Created by writer Dan O'Keefe and made famous on episodes of the comedy television show Seinfeld, this holiday is characterized by putting up an aluminum Festivus Pole and having activities such as the “Airing of Grievances” and the “Feats of Strength.”

Yes, it's pretty much “just” silly fun, but Festivus functioned as a holiday in the O'Keefe family for about 30 years before it became part of a Seinfeld episode in 1997. The family originally held Festivus celebrations in February to commemorate Dan O'Keefe's first date with his wife.

Now that the holiday is celebrated by more than just one family, a company actually manufactures Festivus poles, and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle had one in the executive residence (it is now a part of his museum). Festivus poles have also been erected in several city halls and other government
al spaces, along with Hanukkah and Christmas decorations. Festivus was the name of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor in the early 2000s, and the name has been borrowed for several other items and events.

The Roots of Radishes

You probably know that radishes are edible roots. But, did you know that...?

Radishes are related to turnips and mustard plants.

Although red radishes are the most familiar to most of us, some kinds of radishes are purple, white, pink, yellow, or gray. Ummm, gray radishes! Sounds yummy!

Radishes were grown in the ancient Greek and Roman empires.

The leafy pa
rt of the radish plant can be eaten, too.

Some people ma
ke radish pies! Get a recipe here.

Oaxaca, Land of the Black Pottery

This Mexican state's name (and the capital city of the same name) is pronounced Wha-haw-kaw (with each syllable rhyming with the English word raw). It is famous for its beautiful, shiny black pottery (from the town San Bartolo Coyotepec), made with a local dark clay.
The state includes lovely beaches and lagoons, waterfalls and even some petrified waterfalls. It is considered the culinary capital of Mexico and is famous for its chocolate, its local cheese (now imported all over the world), and even its chapulines, or roasted grasshoppers (again, yummers!). Oaxaca has more than 4,000 archeological sites, and its forests boast around 30,000 different species of plant life!

Information about Oaxaca (including little mini-videos) can be found here.

Learn about Mexico with Zoom School.

Learn some Spanish!
Here is a great site for learning Spanish -- free!

Here is a website that has a game about the parts of the face (or, in Spanish, la cara).

December 22, 2009

First day of winter – Hong Kong

Many of us in the Northern Hemisphere have yesterday, December 21, listed as the first day of winter. But the idea of “the first day of winter” is a human invention. We could choose just about any day as the first of winter.

The solstice (which occurred yesterday) is based on nature – yesterday was, in fact, the longest day / shortest night for people in the S
outhern Hemisphere and the shortest day / longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. That's nothing to do with humans and their calendars—it's to do with the tilt of Earth's axis and how that works to make colder and warmer seasons. How we actually divvy up the year into the seasons, however, depends on human ideas and rules and traditions.

In America and much of the rest of the world, the first day of winter is the winter solstice, even though that means that as soon as we reach winter, the days begin to get longer and longer and the sunlight more and more direct. In these countries, most of December is fall, not winter, and most of March is winter, not spring. Also, in America and all those other countries that have the first day of winter hooked to a natural event, it occurs on different days in different years: the solstice can occur any time between the 20th and the 23rd of December.

Some people think that solstice should be a mid-season celebration. According to that concept, December 21 would be the halfway-mark of winter (for the Northern Hemisphere).

Apparently, Australia organizes its calendar differently yet, aside from the fact that it is a Southern-Hemisphere country that has seasons opposite of Northern countries. In Australia the first day of winter is the first of the month in which the winter solstice occurs (so therefore June 1) and the first day of summer is the first of the month in which the summer solstice occurs (December 1) Australians can count their seasons by whole months while much of the world has to deal with fractions of months.

For some reason, Hong Kong apparently has its first day of winter one day after much of the rest of the world: today!

Why do we always privilege what's happening in the Northern Hemisphere?

If you could slice the earth in half along the equator, by definition the two pieces would be exactly the same size. However, they would be really unequal in both land and people! Although the Southern Hemisphere includes much of South America, part of Africa, and all of Antarctica and Australia, the southern half of the earth only has half as much land as the northern half. Because Antarctica is barely settled by humans (there are a few scientific outposts), the population comparison is even more drastic: only 10 to 20% of the world's population lives in the Southern Hemisphere.

Why is the earth "north-heavy"? It is just an accident of timing. Because the earth's continents drift about (in a process called plate tectonics), there have been
times in the past when the Southern Hemisphere had more land. At one time, almost 100% of the land on earth was in one huge super-continent that happened to be south of the equator. Now two thirds of earth's dry land just happens to be north of the equator.


If there is snow where you live, you may already be sick of shoveling it. Lots of kids who live in snow have fun making snow people, tunnels, forts, snowball fights, and so forth. But even those of us who DON'T live where it snows can enjoy making snow pictures.

How about torn-paper pictures?
The idea here is to tear regular white paper into fluffy little pieces that can fall down a bright blue construction paper sky and pile up in drifts and create snowmen and so forth.

Sponge painting.

Cut a corner off of a sponge and use it to dab white paint onto a darker background. Be sure to pat the sponge a few times on the edge of the palette or on a piece of scrap paper so that it isn't too thick on the sponge—you want a feathery feel for your snowy landscapes.

Collage. Cut up white feathers or pull apart cotton balls to make faux snow that you can glue to a picture.

Kirigami. Of course you already know how to fold paper to cut snowflakes, right?

Winter Fun
Try some of these fun activities.

Word Puzzle
There are at least 18 words on this banner. How many can you find? (Find little and big words within the long string of letters. A word can start and stop anywhere, but don't skip any letters, and don't rearrange the letters. (Answers below.)


1.HO 2.HOLIDAY 3.LID 4.I 5.ID 6.DAY 7.A 8.YOU 9.YOUTH 10.OUT 11.THE 12.THEN 13.HE 14.HEN 15.ENJOY 16.JOY 17.JOYFUL 18.FULL

December 21, 2009

First crossword puzzle – 1913 On this date in 1913, an English journalist named Arthur Wynne published a “word-cross” puzzle in the New York World. This puzzle included horizontal and vertical clues and most of the features of the crossword puzzle as we know it, and is therefore often called the first of the genre. (An 1890 puzzle that was a four-by-four grid with no open or shaded squares appeared in an Italian magazine. That sort of “word square” goes back to ancient times—there was one found in the Roman ruins of Pompei!) 

Crossword puzzles became a regular weekly feature in the New York World and soon in other newspapers. By 1921, crosswords were considered a craze, and librarians complained about “puzzle fans” swarming the library for dictionaries and encyclopedias, driving away students and “legitimate” readers. Simon and Schuster published the first book of crosswords in 1924, and it was an instant hit that set off yet another craze.

It is perhaps instructive to see how many intellectuals, clergymen, and editors criticized the pastime of solving crosswords as being a shameful waste of time and of no value to one's brains or vocabulary—one even said that doing crosswords was “the mark of a childish mentality.” 

It's also interesting that throughout the first decade of crosswords' popularity, journalists and others opined that the craze was dying out and would soon be forgotten. Other fads of the 1920s have indeed “died out” – flagpole sitting and goldfish swallowing, for example – and even the newspaper that published that first crossword has disappeared, but crossword puzzles are still going very strong and are considered to be the most popular kind of word puzzle in the world. 

See (and do?) the 1913 Wynne puzzle, a.k.a. the world's first crossword, here. (Scroll down.)

Do some crossword puzzles. If you take a newspaper, it's likely to include a crossword puzzle. Or try these free puzzles off the internet. 

Make a crossword puzzle. Use graph paper to help you keep the interlocking words lined up. Be sure to include a blank square (or, of course, the edge of the puzzle) at the beginning and ending of each word, and make sure that all letters next to each other form a word or abbreviation. Of course, you have to number each square that begins a word either across or down, and include numbered lists of definitions. 

By the way, about that word square in Pompei... Here it is:
Notice it reads the same across and down! 

ALSO: Happy solstice, everybody! Today is Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. That means that, in the north, this is the very shortest day and longest night of the year. In the south, of course, it's the longest day and shortest night.

December 20, 2009

Electricity Theme Day

On this day in 1879, Thomas Edison privately demonstrated his incandescent light bulb at his Menlo Park research lab.

Remember, Edison didn't invent or even discover electricity (known from ancient
times), and he didn't invent the first light bulb (Sir Humphrey Davy made an arc lamp in 1809, and Frederick de Moleyns got the first patent for an incandescent bulb in 1841). What Edison did was to make the first commercially practical light bulb and an entire system of electric lighting. Edison said on the last day of 1879, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."

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On this day in 1880, Broadway in Manhattan, NYC, became one of the fi
rst streets in the U.S. lit by electricity. A mile of the street was lit by carbon-based Brush arc lamps, which provided much brighter light than the incandescent light bulbs of the time. Since then, that section of Broadway, which features the Theatre District and Times Square, has become known as “The Great White Way” because it is lit by millions of lights on marquees and billboards.

On this day in 1901, Robert J. Van de Graaf was born. This American physicist invented a high-voltage electrostatic generator, which looks like a large silver ball mounted on a pedestal. It makes your hair stand on end, but more importantly, it can be used as a particle accelerator in physics research.

On this day in 1938, Russian-American inventor Vladimir Zworykin (sometimes called the “true father of television,” although most give Philo Farnsworth that honor) was finally granted a patent for his iconoscope, an early television camera. (This camera had already been used for the historic TV transmission of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.)

On this day in 1951, the first electricity ever generated by nuclear energy was created near Arco, Idaho. (The Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho produced enough energy to light four 200-watt light bulbs that day.)

By 1952, the Paley Commission was already somewhat pessimistic about nuclear power and called for “aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy.” And by 1955, the Arco Reactor was the first reactor in the U.S. to experience partial meltdown.

Have fun with this model of the electric force
Virtually speaking, create electrons and see if you can keep them from getting sucked into the positive-charged proton.

Do some electricity experiments!
Try the ideas here. Or here is a fun website.
These experiments are so easy, they're considered “snack size.”

Build electric circuits with information found here.

Learn more.
Here is an interactive course about electricity.
And here is an interactive diagram that shows the difference between AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current).