January 31, 2012 - Nauru's Independence Day

Two things make Nauru unique—it is the world's smallest republic, and its economy has been based on bird poop!

Nauru during WWII
With just 8 square miles (or 21 square kilometers) of land and not too much more than nine thousand residents, Nauru is a small island in the South Pacific Ocean. It was settled by Micronesian and Polynesian people, and it was taken over by the German Empire in the late 1800s and by Japan during World War II. In between the World Wars and after WWII, it entered into trusteeship of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. On this date in 1968, it was granted independence.

Phosphate fields of Nauru
Nauru had its heyday because of an unusual resource: bird droppings! For thousands of years, bird droppings called guano mixed with marine sediments and formed natural fertilizers from phosphate rocks. Unfortunately, the mining of this resource was of the strip-mine variety, and so the fertile land was depleted and the landscape destroyed. For a while the island made a mini-boom from illegal money laundering, but international pressure and government officials cracked down on that “industry.” Now the island is quite poor and dependent on aid from Australia. Once called “Pleasant Island” by British visitors, the island is now struggling to regain a reputation as being pleasant.

According to the Nauru tourism website, people can enjoy deep-sea fishing, swimming, and scuba diving. But there hasn't been a lot of tourist development on the island. There is one airport, and flights only come in once a week. There seems to be only two hotels and only a few restaurants. (In comparison, my little hometown, which is just a rather boring suburban town in Southern California, is more than three times larger than Nauru in land area, has more than seven times the population, and has at least five hotels.)

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January 30, 2012 - Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day

Goodness knows, when I hear sudden loud pops as we are unwrapping precious glassware, I appreciate the fact that it is one of my kids popping bubble wrap – and not glass breaking! So I really appreciate bubble wrap...and today's the day to show it!

Apparently, the first Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day was held in 2001 in Bloomington, Indiana. The day included a Bubble Wrap popping relay, Pop-a-Bubble/Mole (like the carnival game), a sculpture contest, and a fashion contest. You can see some Bubble Wrap sculpture and fashion here.

Bubble Wrap was invented in the 50s by two engineers who were originally trying to create plastic wallpaper with a paper backing. They ended up deciding that their invention was better as cushioning packing material than as wallpaper, and they started a company called the Sealed Air Corporation in 1960. I love the fact that it is air, rather than just the plastic, that does the most protection—the plastic just seals up the air in a usable form!

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January 29, 2012 - National Puzzle Day

This is my kind of day, because I loves me a good puzzle!

Jigsaw puzzles, word puzzles, logic puzzles, sudoku, codes, number puzzles, 3-D puzzles...I like 'em all!

Today's the day to dust off those boxes of jigsaws, or to buy a new puzzle book, or to try a new kind of puzzle online. Here are a few links to get you started:

Cryptograms are substitution codes. This free website is easy to use but challenging to solve the puzzles. Hint: use the “Hint me” key for as many hints as possible at the beginning of the game. It'll probably just give you a few vowels to get you started. I have found the puzzles much easier and more fun to solve with this get-me-started help! 

JigZone has tons and tons of free online jigsaws. There is a gallery of puzzles to explore, a puzzle-of-the-day, and a row of featured puzzles at the top. You can change the type of cut and the number of pieces to make it more or less challenging. I like the 48-piece classic cut. 

Puzzle Baron offers logic puzzles and a video tutorial about how to solve them, drop quotes, and word twist. Many of these puzzles can be printed as well as solved online.

Sudoku puzzles are very popular. Have you tried them? Web Sudoku puzzles are rated easy, medium, hard, and evil! Also, Web Sudoku offers Link-a-Pix and other logic puzzles.  

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January 28, 2012 - National Kazoo Day

In January of 1883, Patent Number 270,543 was awarded to a toy and/or musical instrument that the inventor, a fellow named Warren Frost, called a kazoo. People speak or hum into the whistle-like instrument, and their voices are distorted with a buzzing sound that is created by a vibrating membrane.

More advanced kazoo players don't just hum, they sing syllables such as dooo, whooo, brrrr or rrrr into the kazoo in order to create more fuzzy-buzzy sounds.

The kazoo is often played by kids or in comedy music, but a classically trained musician named Barbara Stewart once performed with her quartet of kazooists at Carnegie Hall, and amazing music was played by 3,910 kazooists at Royal Albert Hall in 2011.

If you don't have a kazoo to play today, you can try what rock legends Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles used in their music: a comb and paper. (Try waxed paper or tissue paper as well as notebook paper.) Here and here are some other ways to make homemade kazoos. 

Did you know...?

Some people are trying to get the kazoo named the official musical instrument of the United States.

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January 27, 2012 - Vietnam Peace Day

On this date in 1973, the Paris Peace Accords arranged a ceasefire to take place on midnight, officially ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. This 20-year war was devastating to the people—not just the armies, but the Vietnamese civilians—and the environment of Vietnam, as napalm and defoliants burned and destroyed plant life.

How has Vietnam recovered from the war?

Well, it is considered a success story because the economy continues to grow each year. Vietnam exports oil and agricultural products. Tourists visit and spend money in the country. New forests are being planted. Still, there is a lot of poverty in Vietnam, and there is disagreement about planting exotic trees (that is, trees that usually grow elsewhere) that are good for the lumber industry, or planting native trees and trying to return to the natural pre-war forest.

Vietnam has its beauties, especially along the coast, as you can see in this and this other slide show.

Find out more about Vietnam at the Kids National Geographic site. Or check out the links Mr. Donn has gathered here.

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January 26, 2012 - Lotus 1-2-3 Day

It's a day to celebrate spreadsheets, which as easy as 1-2-3, because on this date in 1983, Lotus began to sell its best-selling, user-friendly spreadsheet for Microsoft DOS.

Lotus 1-2-3 wasn't the first spreadsheet program for microcomputers, though.

I bought my first computer before there was such a thing as a “PC” or IBM Personal Computer. I bought an Apple II, which was then very big in the very small microcomputer market. I remember hearing about this new kind of software – a spreadsheet program, whatever that was – called VisiCalc. It turned out that VisiCalc made Apple much more popular as a home and small business computer. A few years later, Lotus 1-2-3 did the same thing for the new PCs. Nowadays the most popular spreadsheet program is Excel.

So, what is a spreadsheet? It is a computer application that allows users to enter data in table form. Some columns of data are commonly numbers such as dollar amount, hours, or quantities. The spreadsheet gives users tools to easily rearrange the data, sorting things alphabetically, by date, or by amount. Another tool allows users to easily and automatically perform math formulas on the information. For example, you might want to add together a column of hours worked, and in another row you might want to multiply the number of hours by the hourly wage. With a spreadsheet, you can immediately see how the total is affected by one change.

Here and here are some websites to give you ideas of how to use spreadsheets. 

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January 25, 2012 Day of Serpents in Lithuania

(Mid-Winter Festival)

This day, called Kirmeline, marks the symbolic awakening of snakes. People put out food and milk for the snakes, and if these things are consumed, a good year is foretold.

It reminds me of Groundhog Day, when people wait for an oversized rodent to come out and either see its shadow (foretelling six more weeks of winter), or not (because, counter-intuitively, a cloudy day means that winter weather will soon end).

When is a snake a serpent?

When we talk about real snakes such as rosy boas or diamondback rattlesnakes, we usually use the word snake. Serpents, on the other hand, are usually symbols or mythological creatures.

Just what do serpents symbolize? Sometimes they are symbols of evil, such as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes they symbolize the creative life force. Because snakes shed their skin through molting, serpents can be symbols of rebirth or transformation, even healing. The Ancient Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius, has a rod entwined with serpents. Sometimes serpents are cast as guardians; statues of hooded nagas served as guardians of temples in Angkor, Cambodia, and sometimes the Buddha is pictured sitting beneath the hooded serpent king Mucalinda, who shields the Buddha as he meditates.

Sometimes serpents are considered dragons, and other times they live in the sea, as sea monsters such as the Loch Ness Monster.

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January 24, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Hermann Ebbinghaus

Don't forget this man's name!

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer. Not someone who strode out into the wilderness and built a log house, but a pioneer in the study of memory. Ebbinghaus was very curious about the fact that even good students forget 90% of what they learn in a classroom within 30 days, and he tried to figure out what he could about when and why we remember—and forget!

Ebbinghaus worked with the memorization of “nonsense syllables,” 3-letter syllables that didn't mean anything, such as YAT and KOJ. One thing that made his research less useful to later researchers is that he used only himself as test subject; it would be much better to use many different people so that the findings could be generalized to larger populations, and also it compromises research, to some extent, to have the same person acting as both researcher and subject!

Still, Ebbinghaus was able to describe findings that have stood up to later testing, such as the sharp (exponential) “forgetting curve” and “learning curve,” and the fact that we tend to remember the last and first items in a list longer than the middle items. He also studied “savings,” our ability to relearn things we had once learned and then forgotten.

Train your memory at Kids Memory Dot Com! 

Ebbinghaus also invented this illusion,
which is called the Ebbinghaus illusion!

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January 23, 2012 - Chinese New Year

 It's the Year of the Dragon!

In China's time zone, it is New Year's Day on January 23, 2012. With the Chinese lunar calendar, the New Year comes on a different day each year, and it often comes in early February. This year it arrives a little earlier!

Many people know that each year is assigned an animal name, cycling between twelve animals as varied as rats, tigers, monkeys, and pigs. This year is surely the coolest animal—so cool it doesn't actually exist!—the dragon. But did you know that there are also element names associated with each year? The elements are metal, water, wood, fire and earth. This year the element is water, so this is the year of the Water Dragon.

Here are some questions I had after reading about Chinese New Year:
  1. What does it mean to say “China's time zone”? China's a large country, about as large as the U.S. Wouldn't it have more than one time zone, like the U.S. (which has four time zones)?
  2. Does China still use its lunar calendar for everything? Including business?

I googled these questions, and this is what I found out:
  1. China used to have five time zones. Since the end of World War II, and the beginning of Communist China, all the various time zones use the same time, so it is as if the whole country shares one time zone. That means that some residents have times that roughly correspond to the sun in the sky, with the sun almost overhead around noon, but other residents do not—some might have the sun overhead much earlier or later than noon.
  2. China has used the Gregorian calendar that the rest of the world uses since 1929, although in the Chinese system the months are numbered rather than being translations of the familiar names (January, February, and so forth). The traditional lunar calendar is still used for festivals and holidays, and in astrology.

Celebrate Chinese New Year!

Here and here are links to Chinese New Year coloring pages, activities, and recipes. 

For more on Chinese New Year...check out this earlier post

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January 22, 2012 - Answer Your Cat's Questions Day

This isn't a day for humans to research and answer our questions about cats. Instead, we are supposed to look at the cats we know and notice that they often stare at us with serious but questioning looks on their faces; we are directed to meditate on what our cat is wondering and then to answer their unspoken questions.

According to the official website, the Number 1 cat question is, “What is on the other side of this door?” This is very curious, because often the cat has just come in through that door and, one would think, should know very well what is on the other side of the door! 

The website also has a list of rules that cats live by. Very informative!

Enjoy cats and kittens!

Everyone loves cat/kitten videos, right? Here is a "Best Of" video someone compiled... 

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January 21, 2012 - Errol Barrow Day – Barbados

He helped to lead his nation to independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, and he made changes to Barbados such as providing free education to all children, providing school meals to the needy, and other progressive reforms. Errol Barrow became a hero who is pictured on paper money, and his birthday is celebrated every January 21st.

Do you know where Barbados is? It is an island country in the Caribbean Sea. It's only a teeny little island, only about a third of the size of the city of Los Angeles in land area. It's one of the big tourist destinations in the Caribbean!

Here's why (according to the Barbados tourism council, that is!)

If you were visiting Barbados right now, you would be enjoying balmy temperatures that range from 75 degrees F at night to 80 in the day (although there would likely be clouds and rain showers, too). Maybe you would go on a submarine ride, or into Harrison's Cave. Or maybe you will get to go diving and see shipwrecks off the coast,  or you could take a pirate cruise

Speaking of pirates, there were real pirates of the Caribbean, of course, and here are the true stories of two of them. 

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