February 28 – U.S. Snowshoe Days

Posted on February 28, 2014

Today is the start of the U.S. Snowshoe Championships at Prospect Mountain in Vermont. The best snowshoe racers from the U.S. and around the world will compete with 5 K and 10 K races and relay races. 

Snowshoes are especially designed for walking over the snow. They are meant to be much larger than ordinary shoes—while still being as light as possible—so that a person's weight is distributed over a larger area, and the person doesn't sink into the snow. It's important that a snowshoe not accumulate a lot of snow, so they are designed to have openings (latticework) so that any snow that gets on top of the shoe will fall through. A final feature that helps people walk on the snow is the fact that the toe of the snowshoe curves upward slightly.

Traditional snowshoes were made from wood with rawhide lacings. Modern snowshoes are lighter, made with lightweight metal or plastic and synthetic fabric lacings. Of course they have some sort of binding to hold the snowshoes to boots.

Some people may need snowshoes for their jobs; snow shoes allow people to walk in areas with deep and frequent snowfall. I can imagine forest rangers in some areas needing them, for example. However, most snowshoes are designed for recreational use. People love to walk in gorgeous, untouched, powdery snow—as long as they don't have to slog thigh-high through the drifts!

So, yeah, walking through pristine powder is great – but running? I imagine that is really, really tiring! It must be worth it, though—hundreds of people join in the races!

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National Tooth Fairy Day 

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February 27 – Dominican Republic's Independence Day

Posted on February 27, 2014

It's pretty common for nations to have more than one national holiday, more than one independence day, even. That's because many nations unite with other nations, then split apart, are conquered, then win back their independence, and so forth and so on, over the centuries changing their names and borders and allegiances.

The Dominican Republic has two independence days. The Caribbean nation celebrates its 1844 independence from Haiti today and its 1865 independence from Spain in August.

Learn more about the Dominican Republic in this and this other earlier post. Today I'm going to focus on the designated gem of this country: amber.

The Dominican Republic has at least two small museums and shops dedicated to amber (or ambar in Spanish). This gemstone isn't made up of a single element, like diamonds, nor a complex mineral, like rubies. Instead, amber is fossilized plant resin. It glows a beautiful gold color, and we can sometimes see, encased in amber, insects that have died in the resin when it was still soft and sticky!

You might be thinking that amber is made from the sugary sap that travels up and down a tree's trunk, acting in similar ways to our blood—but resin is not the same thing as sap! Resin is the semi-solid stuff that is secreted by many plants, especially pine trees and other conifers.

Some scientists say that it is basically a waste product—stuff that the plant doesn't really need—but resin can help the plant that secretes it because plant-eating creatures (from deer to beetles) either don't like the sticky stuff or get trapped within it. Also, resin can quickly seal over a wound and prevent fungi or other agents of disease getting access to the plant's insides. It can even lower the amount of water lost by the plant's tissues.

Since most amber ranges from pale yellow to orange, it is surprising to find out that some amber is green or even blue! This is the case for some amber found in the Dominican Republic. According to the website Caribbean Green Amber, Dominican amber is probably made from an ancient species similar to the modern algarrobo, pictured here, about 20 to 40 million years ago. Dominican blue amber fluoresces, and in direct sunlight scatters reflected light back to our eyes, making it appear blue. 

These two photos (above and below)
show the exact same chunk of blue amber.

The photo above shows it in direct sunlight;
the photo below shows it backlit.

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Author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birthday

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February 26 – World Pistachio Day

Posted on February 26, 2014

How do you celebrate World Pistachio Day?

Well, you wear green, of course! Think Stephen Colbert on his “wonderful pistachios” ad for the Super Bowl.

Oh, and I guess you should also eat some pistachios! I love them plain, of course, but I also love pistachio ice cream and pistachios in salad. Oh, and baklava made with pistachios!

Here is a recipe for pistachio nougat candy. (Yum!) 

Here are some tips and recipes for adding pistachios to salad. 

And here are 22 recipes from snacks to entrees to desserts. Including baklava. 

Did you know...?

  • The first American harvest of pistachios was relatively recent: 1976! (That's especially surprising since at least some Americans ate pistachios in the 1800s, and pistachio ice cream became a craze in the 1940s.
  • Today, California produces about 98% of the pistachios grown in the U.S. (So, pretty much all of them!)
  • Top world producers include (#1) Iran, (#2) the U.S. (by which I mean California), (#3) Turkey – and runner ups China, Syria, Greece, and many more. 
  • In Iran, pistachios are known as the smiling nut, and in China, as the happy nut.
  • Pistachios are related to cashews and mangoes.
  • Pistachios are good for your heart because they have phytosterols and unsaturated fat. They provide fiber and antioxidants, thiamine and B-6, even beta-carotene. That means that they help fight cancer, Alzheimer's, and other diseases as well.

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February 25 – World Spay Day

Posted on February 25, 2014

The Humane Society wants you to know how important it is to spay or neuter your pet. The last Tuesday of February each year, the society and other organizations hold a campaign to make people more aware of this important responsibility—and to encourage veterinarians and veterinary clinics to hold events during which this kind of surgery is affordable and available to all.

Spaying is sterilizing a female animal by removing her ovaries. Neutering is sterilizing a male animal by removing his testicles.

Why would we do this to animals? Well, there is a horrific overpopulation of dogs and cats, and that means lots and lots of them are homeless, and many are captured and put into shelters. Happily, some of the animals taken to shelters are adopted, but many are “put down.” And of course, this euphemism means that they are killed. They're killed in a painless, humane way—but we would be a better society if we didn't have so many homeless dogs and cats, and if we don't put down so many strays. If every pet owner did his or her part by spaying and neutering pets, it will help make the problem smaller rather than make the problem larger.

Spayed or neutered animals actually tend to live longer, healthier lives, and they even tend to have fewer behavior problems. Of course, this results in reducing costs for the pet owner, as well.

Spaying and neutering are good for rabbits, too.

The numbers of the situation

If you are still not convinced we should be spaying and neutering our pets, consider the fact that you should either (1) provide or (2) find a good home for any puppies or kittens your pet has.

So, how many would that be?

Let's go with kittens. A female cat will usually have two to five kittens per litter, and so we can say that the average litter is three. With that female having 29 litters in 10 years, that makes 87 kittens!

Do you want to have 87 cats? I guess you'd still have the mother cat, so that would be 88 cats. And surely some of these cats would also start having kittens...so that makes it the number explode into thousands and thousands of cats!

Do you want to find good, loving homes for 87 kittens? Good luck! I once had a female cat who had five kittens—all as cute as could be! We found four good homes after a lot of effort...but we could never find a fifth family to take the “runt” of the litter, a little black kitty we had named Howie (for Halloween). Finally my husband found a kitten rescue place that would take little Howie—and he lived a full, fun life with lots of other cats in a playground-for-cats kind of setting. But he didn't have his own family to love and cuddle him.

What if you have a male cat that you do not want to neuter? Well, you may not ever see his kittens, so you may not have to provide homes for them—but you will have to walk around with the knowledge that he could be fathering 2,500 kittens each and every year that you put off neutering him.


If your tomcat lives a full life, he might father 35,000 kittens!

The numbers are similar for dogs. One unspayed female dog and her puppies can produce 67,000 puppies in just 6 years.

The saddest number is that at least three million cats and dogs are put down every year—not because they are gravely ill, or badly injured, or old and in pain—but because caring pet owners cannot find good homes for their pets' kittens and puppies.

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February 24 – A Clogged-Up River is Cleared

Posted on February 24, 2014

Chunks of ice were just floating down the St. Lawrence River, minding their own business, when suddenly they found themselves in a narrowed stretch of the river, where they stuck, caught in a huge traffic jam.

Well, I guess I should call it an ice jam!

Around 250,000 tons of ice were jammed up, blocking the St. Lawrence River.

And the St. Lawrence is really important—that is the way that ships get from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, and vice versa. The ice jam had to go!

Someone decided to try using explosives to clear the jam. Thermite (the kind known as a magnesium bomb) is an explosive made of finely divided magnesium and iron oxide, and three 90-pound charges were readied.

Ka-boom went the first charge! When the second charge was fired, “a huge flame fifteen feet in diameter and six feet high was emitted.” Apparently this was startling even to the guys blowing up the thermite; people talked about watching “burning ice.” After the third charge, the whole jam moved out and “passed quietly down the river.” 

Do you like fireworks?

Some of the brightest parts of fireworks are created by burning magnesium.

Magnesium is a metallic element that scientists sometimes work with in powder or ribbon form. When people burn magnesium in a lab, for example as a demonstration for students, it is important that the demonstrator wear goggles and that the students not look directly at the burning magnesium. 

Check out this video to see how brightly it burns! 

Here is a video of a demonstration of burning magnesium inside dry ice. 

If you have ever wanted to see thermite destroying a laptop, here it is. In slow motion. (Note that this sort of thermite uses aluminum rather than magnesium.) 

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Independence Day in Estonia 

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February 23 – Brunei's Independence Day

Posted on February 23, 2014

This map highlights with a red star the port
of Muara, in Brunei.
Brunei is a small nation located on the island of Borneo. It is entirely surrounded (except for the coast) by part of Malaysia—and a chunk of Malaysia actually divides Brunei in two! It's also quite small—smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware, although a bit larger than Rhode Island.

 You would think, wouldn't you, that a Southeast Asian nation this small and divided might be poor and undeveloped?

Well, if you thought that, you would be wrong. Brunei is considered a developed nation, and it is wealthy from its petroleum and natural gas resources. It is second only to Singapore, among Southeast Asian nations, in education and health statistics, and in 2011, it was one of only two nations in the world with 0% national debt!

Today Brunei celebrates its independence from the U.K. in 1984.

One thing that is interesting to see at Brunei is Kampong Ayer, the Water Village, which is a part of the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. Every building in the village is built on stilts—because the village is built in the middle of the Brunei River!

You may be picturing a cluster of 30 buildings in the river, built on stilts, and you may think, oh, how nice—but the Water Village is more than 4,200 structures. There are houses, of course, but there are also restaurants, shops, schools, and a hospital. There are mosques. There are more than 29 thousand meters of foot-bridges connecting the village to the shore, and 36 kilometers of boardwalks connecting the various buildings. Instead of using the boardwalks, many people go from place to place on water taxis that look like long wooden speed boats.

Even though people have lived in the Water Village for more than 1,300 years, there are modern facilities available. People enjoy plumbing and electricity, of course, but they also enjoy air conditioning, satellite TV, and internet access.

Opposite Kampong Ayer is a beautiful mosque called Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. It is built in an artificial lagoon. With its marble minarets and golden domes, the mosque is one of the most recognizable bits of skyline of the capital. It is surrounded by a courtyard and gardens. A bridge leads to the Water Village, and another bridge leads to a replica of a 16th-Century barge.

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