Gold Medal Throw Down with a Monk

Olympic spirit has infected my home like a bad case of the flu. I like the Olympics. I’ve enjoyed watching US snowboarders own it, and the figure skating is quite lovely, but my case is pretty light. My husband, on the other hand, is somewhat delirious. The man is obsessed. If the Olympic Games came around more frequently than every two years, it would definitely be time to stage an intervention.

This same guy, who ordinarily couldn’t care less about the world stage of biathlon or wouldn’t devote a moment’s thought to the subtleties of bobsledding technique, has transformed into an expert on all things international sports.

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Okay, it does look kind of fun. photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit IMG_1787 via photopin (license)

Nowhere is his illness more apparent than in his newfound (and likely short lived) dedication to the sport of curling. If we can assume the DJ on my preferred morning radio station got her information from a reliable source and that I heard correctly (both pretty big assumptions), then curling is currently the third most popular winter Olympic sport amongst the American viewing public.

Why not? It’s got slippery ice and heavy rocks and some very enthusiastic sweeping, everything a sport needs I should think. It has the nail-biting moments of tension that beg for otherwise responsible sports enthusiasts to stay up late even though they have to be at work the next morning.

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Prior to 1998, the only thing that came to mind for most of us when someone mentioned curling. Image courtesy of oga_red, via Pixabay

The sport is loud, too, sometimes called the “roaring game” because of the unique rumble of stone scraping against ice or possibly because of the crazy fanboy shouting coming from my living room.

Some of the interest in Olympic curling may simply be because it’s a relative newcomer to the Games, only included since 1998. Sort of. The sport actually made its Olympic debut with the first Winter Games in 1924, but was then downgraded to an exhibition sport because it lacked an international organization necessary to meet the requirements of the IOC.

Really, despite its recent emergence in the consciousness of Olympic fanatics, curling is an older sport than even its most dedicated historians (and yes, it has some) are willing to speculate. There’s disagreement about whether curling is originally Dutch or Scottish in origin, but the earliest written evidence of the sport, or something like it, comes from Scotland in the form of a legal record book from the 16th century covering the goings on of Paisley Abbey.

Scholars discovered the book in 1976 and quickly turned it over to be examined by curling historian David Smith, who is the kind of dedicated historian that might argue with you about the origin of the sport and would win because, let’s face it, you’d probably be out of your depth.

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One of the earliest instances of curling caught on canvas, Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap By Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Smith translated the passage of interest from Latin, he found that it described, ever so briefly, a practice run of Brother John Sclater who slid three stones to roar across the ice and felt fairly satisfied he was ready to meet the challenge he’d previously issued to Gavin Hamilton, the new lay governor of the Abbey.

Because the record of the anticipated match appears in Latin legalese, scholars point out that this most likely wasn’t a friendly contest. Rather it’s an example of how an angry 16th century monk issues a throw down. There’s no record of which man won, suggesting that the notary was rooting for the other guy.

I bet it broke his heart to see his favorite curler miss the mark. He’d probably stayed up late to watch the match, biting his nails as the stones roared against the ice and the competitors shouted and swept. He probably had to head to the office bright and early the next morning where he’d put in a full day filling books with Latin legalese. But he didn’t care because he’d caught the fever.

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A Little Big Night Out

In 1529, painter Gaudenzio Ferrari produced his Madonna of the Orange Trees, which includes the oldest known depiction of a violin. One of several stringed instruments to emerge from Northern Italy in the 16th century, this violone, played by an infant at the feet of the Madonna, was the first of many to appear in Ferrari’s works.

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I know string players tend to start young, but this just seems ridiculous to me. By Gaudenzio Ferrari – Church of St. Cristoforo, Vercelli, Italy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The instrument itself was representative of a family of stringed instruments termed the viola da braccio, all similar in appearance, but available in a variety of sizes, including the viola, the violin (or the cutie little viola), and the violoncello, which according to the most strenuously evaluated internet sources literally translates as the “little big viola.”

So it probably makes sense that the name of that last one would eventually be shortened to the cello. It must have been a very confused instrument.

Actually, I think it still might be, because earlier this week my husband and I enjoyed a night out at the Fabulous Fox Theater here in St. Louis attending a cello concert, and I’m still kind of reeling from one of the most wonderfully confusing performances I’ve ever witnessed.

The show featured 2Cellos, a pair of young classically trained cellists who have decided it might be fun to be rock stars instead of always just being the soft spoken nerdy guys that play in the symphony.

Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic met as teenagers while training at a master class in Croatia. Both are phenomenal musicians with all kinds of impressive credits to their names, and at one time could have been considered rival musicians. But then they made a YouTube video together in which they played a cello arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and the world went crazy for it. It was amazing. And fascinating. Also maybe a little bit confusing.

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The plural of cello can also be celli, but I think we can all agree that “2Celli” would be a stupid name. photo credit: misterlevel IMG_0928 via photopin (license)

Of course you might know more about these things than I do, but as a person who is not a classically (or otherwise) trained cellist, I had no idea the instrument could be so versatile.

The concert began with a series of really beautiful arrangements of movie scores followed by the polite applause one might expect from a well mannered classical concert-going crowd out for a fine evening in a fancy venue. Then it shifted directions and became instead a rowdy rock n roll show featuring songs originally performed (but not as well) by the likes of ACDC. This part of the show saw one of the musicians sliding on his back across the stage while he riffed ON HIS CELLO! I think I even saw a pair of panties fly toward the stage.

It was surreal, but also incredibly impressive. Actually I’m finding it hard to figure out just the right words to describe it. In a way it might make sense to say that the concert was both little and big. So maybe those silly Italians knew what they were doing after all.

If you’re not familiar with 2Cellos, it’s worth checking them out on YouTube. Just be warned, you may need to set aside some time because it’s hard to stop. Here’s a good one to get you started:

You Probably Don’t Give a Flick

Earlier this week, social media giant Facebook, which has dramatically altered the way we interact with the kid we used to sit next to in second grade, announced that it has also invented time. The idea comes from designer Christopher Horvath, who first brought up the notion in a Facebook post in October of 2016.

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How else would you ever keep track of the fascinating life of that counselor you met one weekend thirty-seven years ago at Scout Camp?

Because Facebook has been useful for connecting people with similar concerns, the post generated a large, productive response.  A whole bunch of geeks chimed in and more or less agreed that a new division of time would be a pretty handy tool for more precisely synching media frames.

The new time measurement is 1/705,600,000 of a second, which makes it just enough bigger than a nanosecond that it evidently makes a difference to those in the know. These tiny units of time are called “flicks,” not to be confused with “Netflix,” a unit of time defined as the span of one full night of binge-watching The Walking Dead instead of sleeping.

Perhaps, like me, you’re not a media geek, and fail to see how this particular invention will affect you. And you can relax, because most experts who have bothered to comment on the new time division agree that it really won’t.

The flick might make some of your video experiences just a little bit crisper, but your alarm clock isn’t suddenly going to start going off 1/705,600,000 of a second earlier. Most of us ignorant schlubs will go happily on with our lives until sometime at a trivia night we’ll be asked, “What is the smallest unit of time that is still larger than a nanosecond?” and we’ll say, “Shoot. ..I think I read about that once.”

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So there are 42,336,000,000 flicks in a minute and 2,540,160,000,000 flicks in an hour, in case you do happen to give a flick.

But because time measurements are imposed human constructs that help us make sense of our world, it’s not always been easy for humankind to be so nonchalant. From Ancient China’s 100 “mark” day measured between midnights, to the 12 hour day and 3-4 watch night of the Ancient Greeks, every culture has attempted to mark the passage of time through the signs of nature and habits of the population in their particular corners of the world.

And so throughout most of history, everybody just did their own thing. That resulted in a confusing assortment of time systems, but it kind of worked up until 1876 when Scottish-Canadian railroad engineer and manager Sandford Fleming missed a train in Ireland because he couldn’t figure out the local time. Miffed, he joined a movement to standardize time, proposing a universal “cosmic time” based on a common meridian from which twenty-four time zones would spread out across the world.

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To me it’s really all just more wibbly-wobbly, timey- wimey stuff. photo credit: Rooners Toy Photography The Victorious via photopin (license)

Fleming shared his idea with anyone who would listen, including the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference where it was partially accepted. The conference liked the idea of Greenwich Mean Time, which adopted the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as the center. Worldwide standard time zones, however, were harder to impose.

It turns out time, and how it’s calculated and divided and used, is pretty central to unique cultural identity. The system took some tweaking over the years and the occasional leap second adjustment, and it actually wasn’t until 1972 that every major world nation had finally jumped on the time zone wagon.

So if you aren’t too sure you’re ready to embrace this latest adjustment to the now standard divisions of time, and you’d rather Facebook just stuck to reintroducing you to those friends you haven’t seen in more than a few flicks, it might be that you’re following in the footsteps of history.

Earthquakes and Alien Probe Technology

At around 9:00 on the morning of January 19, 1916, Baxter, Missouri resident Mrs. Frank Jackson heard a terrible noise and received a frightful shock. The sound would later be described as something like discharged dynamite followed by a series of heavy strikes against a large drum and fading off to the north, disappearing completely after a few minutes. Initial reports in the local paper didn’t identify the source of the noise, but rather requested the opinions of readers as to what may have caused the disturbance.

One of the most useful observations came from some of the Jacksons’ neighbors who were working in a field nearby and claimed to have been peppered by gravel falling from the sky. And of course there was the 611 gram stone that crashed through the Jacksons’ roof, hit a log beam, and lodged itself in their attic.

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If I’m honest, I’m sure I have a lot of junk in my attic, too. Probably not from space, but still. photo credit: kakov Chelyabinsk meteorite via photopin (license)

What had fallen from the sky was a meteorite, made of, well, spacey meteorite stuff, as verified twenty years later by American Meteorite Laboratory founder H. H. Nininger. It measured somewhere around 13 cm across. While the impact of such a stone isn’t going to dramatically alter the earth’s climate or cause mass extinction, it’s certainly large enough to weigh down the corner of a tarp on a breezy day or scare the stuffing out of someone when it crashes through the roof of their house.

There’s not much word on what poor Mrs. Jackson thought as the meteorite came crashing into her house, but perhaps we can make some assumptions based on the reactions of those who witnessed a fiery meteoroid falling through the sky above southeast Michigan on Tuesday of this week.

If Twitter is any indication, the good folks in Michigan, though not quite as terrified as Oregonians facing the trauma of pumping their own gas, were pretty freaked out by the incident. Captured on dashcam video, the meteoroid, which scientists estimate was about two yards across when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, exploded in the sky, causing a small Earthquake and an awfully loud boom.

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I’m a big fan of shooting stars, but I admit if I actually saw a huge one that exploded with a loud boom and an earthquake, I might get a little jumpy. photo credit: tonynetone meteorite hits Thunder Bay, Ontario via photopin (license)

Witnesses expressed confusion and then a great deal of concern as they processed whether Armageddon had come at last. Within minutes, conspiracy theorists took to the Internet to caution against initiating any contact with the many small meteorites scientists believe are now spread across the state. The main concern, obviously, is that surviving meteorites are actually alien technology, likely parts of otherworldly probes, of the variety that have been sent frequently to Earth by malevolent alien forces since at least since the 15th century. Seems legit to me.

NASA, on the other hand, has seemed relatively flippant about the whole event, more or less stating that though massive balls of fire flying into the Earth’s atmosphere are relatively rare, slightly less massive balls of fire do it all the time. So maybe everyone should just calm down.

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I just have to assume that if aliens have really been sending probes to Earth for at least hundreds of years, they aren’t really in that much of a hurry to invade.

Despite both the dire warnings and the nonchalance, the hunt is on for meteorite pieces. NASA has made a few suggestions for where people might have luck looking, but is clear that any chunks found will probably be pretty small and might not really be worth all that much.

But when H. H. Nininger verified the Baxter meteorite as the real thing, he was quick to make an offer. I haven’t been able to find how much he paid for this delightful addition to his extensive meteor collection, but hopefully it was at least enough to cover the repairs to the Jacksons’ roof.

Since Tuesday’s heavenly event, experts have explained to the media that the value of a meteorite will depend largely on its makeup. Whereas the more common iron will net you somewhere between 50 cents and $5 per gram, a stone meteorite might fetch up to $20 per gram. Now if it’s made of alien probe technology, well, I suppose there’s no telling how high the price might go.

Rosewater, Wine, Sugar…and Tomato Sauce?

In November of 1493, intrepid Italian Christopher Columbus ruined pizza when, on his second voyage to the New World, he discovered piña de Indes, or Indian pine, which the Carib people called ananas, because it’s not a pinecone and they lived nowhere near India.

What he found was a spiky headed fruit that Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, writing in 1513, called “the most beautiful fruit of any of the fruits I have seen” and what today we know (thanks in part to Columbus) as the pineapple.

Sugar hungry Europeans generally thought this discovery was pretty neat, and almost immediately they began attempting to cultivate the pineapple a little closer to home. That proved pretty tough, because a tropical climate is something Europe definitely doesn’t have.

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Charles II looking super excited to be receiving a pineapple. Hendrick Danckerts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was the Dutch that discovered the trick first, probably because the Dutch West Indies Company had a stranglehold on the pineapple importation business. And it may have been economist and businessman Pieter de la Court who, by the late 17th century, did it best in his innovative hot house that kept the soil and air temperatures in the range most conducive to pineapple cultivation.

Of course De la Court is remembered today not so much for his pineapple cultivating prowess, but rather for his writings in support of a thriving free market and his general disdain for the Caribbean shipping monopoly held by the Dutch West Indies Company. It seems likely then that he may have succeeded with the pineapple out of spite.

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Gross.

Coincidentally, I assume spite is the same reason otherwise seemingly reasonable people sprinkle pizza with a fruit described by 17th century English Botanist John Parkinson as tasting “as if Rosewater, wine, and sugar were mixed together.”

I admit pineapple is not my favorite fruit. It’s fine for garnishing fruity drinks when you’ve run out of cocktail umbrellas, but I just find it too sweet unless it’s cut with something a little less cloying. And no, I don’t mean tomato sauce, cheese, and ham. Yuck.

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I can’t argue with this use of pineapple.

Actually, I think early pineapple enthusiasts in both Europe and America of the 18th and 19th centuries might have been on to something when they tended to see the pineapple as more decorative than consumable. Importing the perishable tropical fruit from the Caribbean was costly, often prohibitively so. If a host could get his hands on one to place in the middle of an elegant table display, it was sure to impress.

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I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I think I’d like to live in a world in which people used to rent pineapples in order to impress their friends.

The pineapple then became a symbol of hospitality, gracing not only table displays, but also frequently as a feature of art and design. And if the Internet’s favorite pineapple rumor can be believed, the fruit was even available to rent for a special occasion, only to be later sold to the extremely wealthy who could actually afford to eat it.

By the early 1900s, James Dole had come along and begun his Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later the Dole Fruit Company), which soon made canned pineapple widely available, for a long time supplying more than 75% of the world’s pineapple needs. And now it’s so easy to get hold of, we even put it on pizza. Just to be clear, by we, I mean people who evidently have no taste buds and who are definitely not me.

So really maybe James Dole should get the blame. I suppose I can let Columbus off the hook for this one.

Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.

Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

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This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

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No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

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A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs.