June 30 – Independence Day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Posted on June 30, 2014

There are two “Congos” in Africa. The Republic of the Congo is sometimes called Congo and sometimes Congo-Brazzaville. 

This Congo, the one that is celebrating its 1960 independence from Belgium today, is sometimes referred to as DR Congo, DRC, Congo-kinshasa, DROC, or RDC. (Hmmm...a lot of variation there!) 

But this Congo is also sometimes referred to as Congo, just like that other Congo. So I'm sure that at least once there has been a misunderstanding about which Congo people are talking about!

The dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had changed the country's name to Zaire for a while, but DRC's president Laurent Kabila restored the name when Seko finally fell. It's a bummer to acknowledge that Belgium and the United States supported this authoritarian, corrupt “leader” - because he was anti-communist. Seko amassed a personal fortune rather than helped his people, embezzling billions of dollars (up to $15 billion!!!) during his reign.

Sadly, even after Seko was finally ousted, the nation was torn apart by civil war...the worst kind of civil war, with nine different African nations and at least 20 different armed “sides” - with the usual violence of war coupled with a horrific amount of sexual violence and atrocities – and with millions more dying from disease and malnutrition. Hopefully the democratic republic established in 2006 will be stable!

Let's turn from the sad history of the DRC and talk, instead, about the geography of the place.

Did you know....?

The DRC has more thunderstorms than anywhere else in the world!

The annual rainfall of some areas of the DRC is almost 7 feet! Compare that to my own home, in Southern California, where we get only around 16 or 17 inches of rain a year (that's one and a half feet rather than seven feet!).

The Congo River and its basin, covered with tropical rainforest, dominate the entire country, although there are some “rift” mountains. The Congo Rainforest is the second largest in the world (after the Amazon Rainforest), and the Congo River's flow is second largest in the world (again, after the Amazon).

The rift mountains already mentioned, and the rift valley alongside the mountain range, are the result of two tectonic plates pulling apart, causing lava to push upwards and making new land. Because of this tectonic activity, there is a huge amount of minerals easily accessible in some parts of the Congo. Cobalt, copper, cadmium, diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron, and coal are all plentiful! (Fighting over this potential mineral wealth is one reason for the violence, unfortunately.)

Some of the most familiar “African animals” live in the DRC, including chimpanzees and their cousins, the bonobos, gorillas, elephants, rhinos, and okapis. The DRC is ranked as Africa's most biodiverse nation – but again, all the warring and violence have threatened wildlife and their habitats.

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June 29 – Log Cabin Day

Posted on June 29, 2014

The last Sunday of June, we are urged to step away from the modern world and try out a simpler existence. In other words, try to go through a day without electricity or indoor plumbing or other new-fangled comforts.

I actually do this with some frequency, but not in a log cabin. It's called tent camping!

Aside from experiencing a “simpler” life, other ways you can make Log Cabin Day special include:

  • Eat pancakes or waffles with Log Cabin Syrup. (It's actually really challenging to make good pancakes over a campfire, I think. And I don't even own a waffle-maker that's not electric!)

  • Play with Lincoln logs. When you build with these unique “blocks,” you learn one way that people make log cabins – by notching logs and then fitting them together. With an actual log cabin, however, there are always uneven spots that you have to close up with chinking and daubing. Chinking is pushing small sticks or rocks into a gap, and daubing is mud that is smeared into the small gaps that remain between logs and chinking materials.
  • Do research on the symbolism of the log cabin in the United States. What president do you associate with a log cabin? If you said “Lincoln,” you are correct – but actually there were seven presidents who were born in log cabins! And one president who was NOT born in a log cabin, William Henry Harrison, used the symbol of a log cabin to mean that he was a “man of the people,” not a rich, elite candidate. It might have worked, since Harrison won the 1840 election when he used the log cabin symbol!
  • Learn the first steps of how to build a log cabin from "Get It Done!": 
Part 1  and Part 2

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June 28 – Global Smurfs Day

Posted on June 28, 2014

Time to get out your blue makeup.

Or to resurrect that old Smurf costume.

Or to dig out your Smurf figurines, dolls, games, or other toys.

Today is the Saturday closest to Smurf creator Peyo's birthday (June 25, 1928), so flash mobs and kids' activities and movie viewings are scheduled today to celebrate the blue creatures who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest.

Did you know that there are Smurf collectors? Well, I guess you could probably find someone who collects just about ANYthing – I once knew a little boy who collected different sorts of BandAids – but there are enough collectors of Smurf merchandise that there are entire clubs of them who get together and talk about Smurf stuff.

The Smurf universe began as a comic. It expanded into a TV show and then two movies. Smurfs have also entered the worlds of advertising, ice capades, video games and even theme parks!

Peyo was the “pen name” for the Smurfs creator. The fellow's actual name was Pierre Culliford, and he was born in Brussels, Belgium. I am glad to say that, even though Peyo died too early, at age 64, he was able to enjoy his creations' popularity. The Smurfs first appeared in the comic strip Johan and Peewit, in 1958. They got their own comic strip series in 1959, and even the merchandising of PVC figurines began that long ago! Still, the Smurfs' popularity was pretty local at that point – until the late 1970s, when Smurfs records and toys took off in popularity and created a splash internationally. In 1981, Smurfs became a Saturday morning cartoon in the U.S.

Check out the trailer for the latest Smurf movie. 

Episodes of the Smurfs are available on You Tube. Here's one. 

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Scientist Alexis Carrel's birthday

Constitution Day in Ukraine

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June 27 – Anniversary of the British Invasion of Buenos Aires

Posted on June 27, 2014

Here's a great plan:

Invade a neighbor's far-off colony. Grab the colony for yourself. Assure all the people living in the colony that you will be a better master than their old master, because you will guarantee certain rights to all...

Naturally, you will be welcomed by the people with open arms. An all-new and improved master, right? What's not to like?


In 1806 and 1807, British forces made several attempts to conquer the Rio de la Plata region of South America – an area now split between the nations of Uruguay and Argentina. They apparently wanted the region for trade opportunities – plus the Brits were in the middle of yet another war with Spain elsewhere in the world – so they judged that Spanish troops were too busy elsewhere, and they seized control of Buenos Aires.

However, the local forces were not prone to accepting new masters. They regrouped, planned, and eventually (after 46 days) forced the British out of their nation.

I suppose some of them thought, “Better the devil we know than the devil we don't know.” Or, “We will have OUR masters or no masters at all.”

Probably that latter thought. It seems that Spain was so busy fighting elsewhere, it could do little to help the local forces against the British troops. Because the local forces succeeded, the people of Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the Spanish colonies decided that they could and should be an independent nation. Soon independence fever swept the region, and the locals kicked out the Spanish masters, too!

  • Check out Buenos Aires in this fun, dance-y, happy video. Does it look like just any other modern city in the world, with a diversity of people? It's got a lot of pretty buildings, that's for sure. Maybe that's why it's called “the Paris of South America.”

  • Argentina has some wilderness, too, of course. I LOVE the magnificence of the scenery featured in this video slideshow of Glacier National Park in Argentina!

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June 26 – Madagascar's Independence Day

Posted on June 26, 2014

When I say “Madagascar,” do you think of the DreamWorks movie? Or of the real-life island off the coast of Africa?

Many biologists are studying
Madagascar's unique lifeforms
I think of a biological hotspot. That means a place with a lot of animal and plant diversity, and a place with a lot of unique species that don't exist anywhere else. Like other islands, Madagascar was a place where creatures could evolve in relative isolation from other places – and so 90% of its wildlife isn't found anywhere else on Earth!

If you're like me, you might wonder how the plants and animals got onto Madagascar in the first place, if it was so isolated. Well, a long, long time ago (hundreds of millions of years in the past) there were two supercontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana. They had been created when the landmass we call Pangaea broke up (we're talking continental drift, also known as plate tectonics), and Gondwana started to travel southward. Pretty much all of the land mass that is now in the Southern Hemisphere was part of Gondwana: Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctca, India, and Madagascar. So lifeforms were not isolated from each other during the Permian Period, when Pangea existed, and even through the early Jurassic Period, when Gondwana started to break apart, plants and animals weren't particularly isolated from one another. It has only been the past 88 million years or so that Madagascar was isolated from other land masses.

(Did I just say ONLY 88 million years???)

Madagascar is in red here.

But today we are not celebrating Madagascar's independence from Gondwana and other land masses. Instead, today Madagascar celebrates its independence from France in 1960. Along with the usual feasting and dancing and fireworks, the people of Madagascar enjoy presentations of Hira Gasy, which is a musical version of Malagsay folklore, with singers and dancers portraying pieces of poetry and favorite folk tales.

Lemurs and Medicines...

Because there were no monkeys or apes to compete with, lemurs flourished in Madagascar. The original species branched off into more than 103 species and sub-species of lemurs – and at least 17 species have gone extinct since humans arrived on the island!

There are three times as many palm species as there are on all the rest of Africa, and there are many other unique plant species on the island. One species has led to medicines to treat certain cancers, and scientists hope to discover other cures or treatments among the plant species found on this island only.

  • Check out this video about Madagascar's top predator. It's probably no surprise that humans are (accidentally) threatening the survival of this species...but you may be surprised just how! 
  • Here is a David Attenborough video clip. 

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June 25 – Antoni Gaudi

Posted on June 25, 2014

I just got back from a visit to Barcelona, Spain. I have a t-shirt that says “Barcelona” alongside a picture of broken-tile mosaic lizard.

What does a broken-tile mosaic lizard have to do with a busy, cosmopolitan port city in the north of Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea?

Well...the broken-tile mosaic lizard has to do with today's birthday boy, Antoni Gaudi. And Barcelona is Gaudi crazy. And tourists like me who come to Barcelona are especially Gaudi crazy. 

So broken-tile mosaic lizard = Gaudi = Barcelona.

Gaudi was born on this date in 1852 in Catalonia, Spain. (Catalonia is a region of Spain. It's not entirely clear if Gaudi was born in the town of Riudoms or Reus.) Gaudi grew up to be an architect, and he created the best-known examples of Catalan Modernism.

Gaudi was very influenced by nature and by his religious beliefs (he was Catholic). He was interested in every detail of his designs, and his buildings and gardens included many different sorts of “crafts” such as ceramics, wrought-ironwork, stained glass, and carpentry. One of the new crafts he introduced was trencadis, which is a kind of mosaic made from broken tile shards.

Yes, like that lizard!

I loved loved loved Gaudi's buildings and other structures. I just cannot for the life of me understand why his designs didn't sweep over the world. Shouldn't there be one of these buildings in every town?

And we should all have access to one of these covered walkways?

Here are some interesting facts about Gaudi and his work:

  • Gaudi rarely drew up elaborate plans for his buildings and other structures. Instead, he created 3-dimensional models, and he molded details as he thought of them.

  • Gaudi studied a lot of other subjects along with architecture, although he only earned average grades and sometimes failed courses. When he was given his diploma, the director of the Barcelona Architecture School said, “We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show.”

  • Gaudi tried to integrate his buildings and his landscaping into the natural landscape already present. He also chose native materials or materials that would help his creations to fit the natural setting.
  • Gaudi devoted the last decade of his life to his magnum opus, a church called La Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family). It is a huge structure, with a 5-aisled nave, a transept with three aisles, and an apse with seven chapels. The plans include 18 towers. 

The interior of the church was designed to resemble a forest.

Only a small portion of La Sagrada Familia was completed by the time of Gaudi's death in 1926 (tragically, he was struck by a tram and received poor medical care because people thought he was “just a beggar”). However, work has continued under several architects devoted to carrying out Gaudi's plans, and the church is expected to be completed in 2026...or so!

Learn more about Gaudi in this video. 

Here is an hour-long show just about Gaudi's unfinished cathedral. Or try this super-short vision of what the cathedral will look like when it is finished. 

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