That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

In February of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln followed up on a letter that had been sent to his predecessor by Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, the king of Siam. The king had made a generous offer to the people of the United States, suggesting that he would be happy to send a gift of a sufficient number of elephants to breed in the wilds of the nation. And it certainly wasn’t the bizarre offer it might seem like today. Highly intelligent and useful in transporting goods and raising circus tents, Asian elephants enjoyed a long history as generous gifts.

President Lincoln crafted a highly diplomatic response, explaining that America did not offer environmental conditions conducive to wild elephant success and that when it came to transporting goods, we were scraping by okay with our newfangled steam engines. But he was also careful to thank the king for his very gracious offer.

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Consular Flag of Thailand, featuring an auspicious elephant. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because some elephants, particularly the rare albino ones, have long been considered sacred in Siam and throughout Southeast Asia, given their relationship to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). The story goes that Gautama’s mother dreamt of a white elephant descending from heaven on the very night she conceived her son.

So white elephants (and some not-so-white ones that are found to possess other traits earning them the title of “auspicious elephants”) have long been considered the sacred property of the reigning king in Siam. On occasion, the king also may have chosen to honor deserving courtiers by giving them the gift of trusting a white elephant to their care.

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Royal Elephant Stable where the King of Siam used to keep his White Elephants (today: The Royal Elephant National Museum, Bangkok) By Hdamm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was a generous gift, but there were drawbacks. The amazing and rare creatures were too sacred to be put to work raising circus tents, had to be specially housed, and had to eat. A lot. A white elephant gift from the king, then, was not exactly something to be desired. It could easily burden a man into poverty. And it was a gift that couldn’t be refused.

Allegedly this is where the term “white elephant gift” came from, to refer to something you might give or receive that no one really wants. I don’t know about you, but over the years, I have been to my share of white elephant gift exchanges (also referred to as a Yankee Swap, or a Naughty Santa, which is NOT what it sounds like). These events usually come complete with rules that allow participants to trade the terrible gift they receive for someone else’s terrible gift. The idea, of course, is that one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure.

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Another man’s treasure. photo credit: sukigirl74 teacosy top view via photopin (license)

And who knows? Perhaps you have been searching for years for a tea cozy that’s the perfect shade of cerulean, and maybe your friend Ted has been just dying to get his hands on the Duran Duran cassette gathering dust in the top of your closet since the early 90’s.

But if your exchange doesn’t result in you taking home a gift you actually kind of want, don’t fear. You had a good time with friends, enjoying some laughs as everyone attempted to steal the same ceramic Yoda m&m dispenser. Besides you can always shove your unfortunate gift in the top of your closet and dust it off for next time.

Because over the last few years, the notion of re-gifting has gained some traction as a way to both rein in Holiday spending and create less waste. There are helpful re-gifting etiquette guidelines online and in October of 2008, then governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter declared December 18 as “National Re-gifting Day.” Frankly, I’m not sure the governor of Colorado has that kind of national authority. 

At least some people agree with me because a quick Internet search reveals that National Re-gifting Day can also be observed on either December 15, or on the last Thursday before Christmas, which to be fair to Governor Ritter will sometimes fall on the 18th. But I suppose it doesn’t matter when you mark it on the calendar because as other important festive occasions approach, National Re-gifting Day is a holiday that you can always pull off the dusty top shelf of your closet, stick in recycled gift bag, and celebrate again and again.

And That’s Why You Shouldn’t Mess with a Babylonian Pig

This year my oldest son began middle school. It’s going well, for the most part. He’s thriving in the world of increased social opportunities, having found a group of buddies that all seem to get one another pretty well. And despite the increase in workload, he’s enjoying the academic challenges middle school is bringing. He’s even almost a little more organized and responsible than he used to be. Well, he’s working on it anyway.

We’ve had a few hurdles to jump, but it’s more or less off to a good start. Or at least I thought it was until he came home the other day and as he ran down his list of homework and other tiny scraps of information he occasionally lets slip out, he casually mentioned that his classmates had sentenced him to death.

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Actually I’m pretty impressed with his skills if he managed to run off with one of these things. photo credit: jpellgen Largest Boar via photopin (license)

As you can imagine, a number of follow-up questions flashed though my mind. The answers to some of them were that he stole a pig, his accuser was a landowner, much wealthier and more important than he was, and that she tried to shoot him as he fled the scene, but the law didn’t seem to care about the attempted murder. Just the pig thief, even though he requested leniency and so did a number of character witnesses who swore he would never do such a thing unless he were starving. And, you know, he’s a middle school boy, so he might feel like he’s starving most of the time.

Finally, after enjoying my mystified expression for a moment, he went on to explain that his social studies class had been studying Hammurabi’s Code. Just in case it’s been as long since your middle school social studies days as it has since mine, I’ll explain.

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What a constitution looked like in 1754 BC. CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=818801

In 1901, while working on a site in the ancient city of Susa (in modern day Iran), Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier discovered a stone stele, over seven feet tall, covered in cuneiform script. When translated, the 44 columns and 28 paragraphs were shown to contain a total of 282 laws, which, dating to somewhere around 1754 BC, form one of the oldest written codes of law known.

Established under the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the laws cover a wide range of issues, including contract terms, liability, fraud, divorce, and the theft of a pig by a starving sixth grader in social studies class.

The code is also the first good example history has thus far offered up of a system of presumed innocence, with court proceedings that allow for both prosecutor and defendant to present evidence. Of course it’s not all rosy, because the code also spells out a hierarchical application of the laws. For instance, a doctor successfully treating the injuries of a high-ranking man will make more money than if he successfully treats a slave, but he will also face a much stiffer penalty for unsuccessful treatment of a wealthy man, and if it’s say, your run of the mill freed man, well, it officially just doesn’t matter.

And if a landowner steals livestock from another landowner, he is required to pay ten times the value of the stolen property to rightful owner. If, on the other hand, a starving middle school boy steals a pig from the rich girl who owns the desk next door, the punishment is unquestionably death.

As his mother, I might complain about this sad injustice, perhaps start a tablet writing campaign to the Babylonian elders, or petition the king for a pardon. But, I suppose the law is the law, and I’m completely thrilled that my kid has such a great social studies teacher. At least for the few days he has left.

And Once Again Conspiracy Theorists Get it Right

Today marks the 47th anniversary of American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, that moment when human beings first stepped onto the surface of the moon. Except that according to an article in the October 2, 1909, issue of Scientific American, written by John Elfreth Watkins, Armstrong may not have actually been the first.

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Something about the crosshairs in the upper right hand corner seems off. I’m sensing something fishy about this story. [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Watkins relays an old Chinese legend that claims an official by the name of Wan Hu (or sometimes Wang Tu or Wan Hoo, depending on the source) launched a lunar mission around 2000 BC. According to this legend, Wan Hu strapped forty-seven small rockets to a large wicker chair, sat down, and told his assistants to light him up. Neither the man nor his rocket chair were ever seen again, perhaps an indication of success. And so after Soviet probe Zond 3 did a flyby of the moon in 1965,  a crater on the dark side of the moon was deservedly named for famed Chinese astronaut.

Of course some people believe that Wan Hu faked the entire stunt with the assistance of some fancy camera work under the direction of Stanley Kubrick, a scheme long covered over by a joint effort from the Chinese government and the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney.  The evidence is far too involved to go into detail here, but it stems from the numerous drawings of the events that, to the well trained eye, reveal peculiar shadow angles, an oddly marked rock, and an unfurling flag, among other truly alarming details.  Don’t even get me started on the secret clues buried within The Shining.

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If you look really closely at Jack Nicholson’s space helmet, you can totally see a shadowy reflection of an object that might be a boom mic.

Now, I’m not generally a big believer in conspiracy theories, but this one, to me, seems entirely plausible. Because it turns out that prior to the 9th century, the Chinese didn’t yet have gunpowder, and they most certainly weren’t launching rockets in 2000 BC, strapped to a chair or not.

About thirty-five years after the publication of the Scientific American article, American author Herbert S. Zim offered a thoughtful update to the tale in his book Rockets and Jets. He logically placed the story of Wan Hu in the early 16th century. And it was some time after that when the Chinese began to adopt the tale, eventually erecting a statue of this hero of space travel at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that the whole thing might just be made up, MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage attempted to recreate Wan Hu’s famous flight using technology that would have been available in 16th century China. They weren’t successful. And when they cheated and used more modern technology in an attempt to duplicate the results, their trusty dummy Buster wound up blown to bits and, most notably, not on the moon.

So, I think it’s safe to assume the conspiracy theorists have it right this time. Wan Hu could not have been the first man to step on the moon. The honor still belongs to Neil Armstrong, and thankfully, there’s no reasonable debate about that.

Apollo 11 Moon landing: conspiracy theories debunked

10 Reasons the Moon Landing Could Be a Hoax

 

BOOM! Aliens: A Detour Through Crazy Town

In 1553, Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León included in the first part of his Crónicas del Perú, a description of what he assumed were trail markers, basically a series of shallow trenches stretching across the plateaus of the Nazca Desert. Then in 1940, historian Paul Kosok flew over the trenches and saw in their patterns the very clear shape of a bird.

Eventually the Nazca lines were discovered to include several hundred animal and human figures of varying sizes covering nearly 200 square miles. Experts determined the lines were pretty simple to make with only very limited ancient trenching tools similar to what non-experts might call “sticks.” Many of these very technical tools have been found near the trenches and have helped scientists to date the designs to between 500 BC and 500 AD.

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It’s completely irrational to assume the Nazca people could have had access to such advanced technology. To my mind, this is definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth.

But no one has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory explanation of why the designs were put there in the first place. It’s been suggested by archaeologists that the trenches may be related to irrigation. Some astronomers think the designs may point out important heavenly bodies or mirror the constellations. Many anthropologists think the designs might be a type of offering to the gods who had the power to either bless or curse crops in the arid land. And one art historian even suggested the lines might be giant ancient textile patterns.

But the most delightful explanation comes from the field of Ancient Astronaut Theory, or as it is more commonly known among professional circles, Crazy Town. What Crazy Town suggests is that the lines and shapes were constructed to commemorate a visit to Earth from aliens, and that they were perhaps even created by the alien visitors themselves.

Because research is tedious and slow and, you know, aliens.

Ancient Astronaut Theorists have enjoyed a certain degree of seeming legitimacy for the last few years because of the History Channel show, Ancient Aliens, which premiered in 2009. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A channel that purports to focus on history while mostly providing reality shows about pawn brokers and monster hunters, parallels pretty nicely a blog that claims to be about history, but winds up being more about my dog.

I like the History Channel, at least some of it. When it started out, its list of programs mostly included thoughtful and well-produced documentaries about World War II. Even today you can occasionally find thoughtful and well-produced documentaries featuring the commentary of actual experts in their respective, non-crazy fields of study. Which is why the History Channel, much like this blog, can still lull you into thinking that it’s a reliable source of solid information.

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As the Nazca people obviously could not have had access to a picture of my dog, this, to my mind, is definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth. via Wikimedia Commons

Because even Ancient Aliens tends to start out sounding pretty legit. The camera swoops in on an ancient landscape. A voice with an unmistakable authoritative ring begins to ask serious, thought-provoking questions. The author of Great Adventures in Crazy Town, sounding more or less like an academic, sums up the conventional archaeological explanation of what you’re seeing. Then, just when they have you thinking that you’re being spoon-fed all the important details that will make you sound brilliant at your next cocktail party: BOOM! Aliens.

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Maybe not my best work, but the fact that five minutes at a craft store and a little hot glue yields this is, to my mind, definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth. And at least I didn’t end up writing about my dog.

It’s a little disconcerting when a trusted authoritative source takes a detour through Crazy Town. And I imagine that’s how my oldest son felt when he came to me a couple weeks ago with a problem. We were about to leave on a long road trip through the northeast, and I was busy working my way through the packing process so, really, I was in Crazy Town already. He reminded me, a trusted reliable source of all things crafty and motherly, that he needed a space-themed costume for the camp he was scheduled to go to the day after we were due back from vacation.

And motherly craft magic is tedious and slow, and you know, aliens.

BOOM!

 

 

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Dark Nights, Bad Decisions, and a Litterbug Comet

Just a little while ago I dropped off my two boys for their first day of school. And a few hours before that I made a questionable parental decision. You may have heard that this is the week of the Perseid meteor shower.

It happens every year around this time, usually peaking out somewhere around August tenth or so as the comet Swift-Tuttle makes its way past the earth flinging rocks at us like a thoughtless driver might flick a smoldering cigarette butt out his driver side window onto the interstate. Except much cooler to witness.

We saw a few like this. By Nick Ares from Auburn, CA, United States (Perseid Meteor 8/12/08) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We saw a few like this.
By Nick Ares from Auburn, CA, United States (Perseid Meteor 8/12/08) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
That’s especially true this year because Jupiter and its mighty gravitational pull was in a location on its orbital path to come closer than usual to Swift-Tuttle’s path, which, according to the people who know about such things, nudges the comet and its wake a little closer to Earth. This, along with the deep dark of a moonless night and a stunningly clear sky over my great state of Missouri, sets the stage for a great show.

You might say the stars aligned to make this some of the most spectacular viewing of the Perseids in years, though if you do, I’m pretty sure the people who know about these things would make fun of you.

The only factor out of alignment for us was the looming first day of third and fifth grades which happened to immediately follow the peak viewing of the meteor shower. Because my third grader doesn’t care for surprises and we thought might lead us toward wisdom in this particular instance, my husband asked him before he went to bed whether hypothetically he would wish to be awakened at 3:00 in the morning to watch the meteors, if we could see them well. He answered with an emphatic no.

Smart kid. Alas, we are not as wise and so we set our alarm for three and checked it out. Where we live there is a fair amount of light pollution, but Jupiter, the moon, and the litterbug comet did not let us down. I’m sure it would have been better in the country somewhere, but for a suburban backyard meteor viewing, it was pretty amazing.

By 3:30 we made the decision to wake our fifth grader and invite him to join us, an offer he gleefully accepted. As far as questionable parental decisions go, I suppose this one wasn’t so bad. It’s not like we’re Edward Claudius Herrick’s parents who in 1827 decided their highly intelligent son shouldn’t go to college because of his weak eyes.

Instead, Herrick, the son of a Yale graduate and a descendant of one of Yale’s founders, became a clerk in a bookstore that served Yale students, because as everyone knows, reading, sorting, and cataloguing books is much easier on the eyes than say, studying them.

Then on the night of August 9, 1837, Herrick was closing up shop when, with his weak eyes, he noticed a large number of meteors in the sky. He wasn’t the first to observe the Perseids, not by thousands of years. He wasn’t even the first person to take serious note of them in the 19th century, but still, he studied and published a great deal on them, faithfully observing the shower every year for the rest of his life. His body of work on the Perseids gained the attention of Yale which eventually awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree and appointed him to the position of college librarian, a job to which he, despite his weak eyes, was particularly well suited.

My son did wake up a little bleary-eyed this morning for his first day of fifth grade, but he also woke up excited to tell all of his friends and his new teacher (to whom I have to offer an apology and a promise not to pull him out of bed in the middle of the night again without a really good reason) about the meteor shower that his parents woke him up to see.

It was an experience I imagine he will remember for a long time, much more clearly than his first day of fifth grade, and not only because he’s tired. The experience, I think, was well worth the discomfort it will cause him today and questionable or not, I’m pretty sure I’d do again.

NOTE: A reader who evidently knows about such things recently contacted me to point out that Swift-Tuttle actually zooms by Earth only every 133 years and that in fact it’s Earth that runs into the comet’s trail of discarded cigarette butts every year in early to mid-August producing the Perseid Meteor Shower. Next I suppose he’s going to try to tell me the earth revolves around the sun.

I pass this information on to you, dear reader, because I would hate for you to embarrass yourself at a cocktail party by spouting erroneous information you read on this blog. And I want to remind you that it’s always a good idea to mention this blog at a cocktail party.

It’s the End of the School Year as I Know It

This has been the last full week of school for my kiddos this year and they have pretty mixed feelings about it. On one hand they’re looking forward to fun days at the pool, family vacation, and the more relaxed vibe of summer. They’ll be able to stay up a little longer and sleep in a little later, and then there will be summer camps and trips to visit grandparents and all kinds of fun. My oldest son who has been counting down the months, weeks, days, and now hours is ready for it.

But for my youngest son, the end of the school year might as well be the end of the world. He’s shed a few tears these last couple of weeks. It’s been a really great second grade year with an absolutely wonderful teacher and even though we love our school and I am confident that his third grade experience will be great, too, he’s not been easy to convince. Transitions are hard for him and the end of the school year is one step closer to the unknown.

Nostradamus predicted the end in 1999, but it seems maybe he wasn't so certain, because he also thought the year 3797 a likely candidate for a fiery apocalypse. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Nostradamus predicted the end in 1999, but it seems maybe he wasn’t so certain, because he also thought the year 3797 a likely candidate for a fiery apocalypse. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Really, I don’t think his perspective is all that unusual because throughout human history, there has been a recurring obsession with one looming transition in the fate of humanity: the end of the world.

According to Wikipedia (surely the most reliable source of information regarding all things eschatological), there have been approximately 148 failed end-of-the-world predictions since people started to realize it might be fun to count them. According to other “experts” there may be as many as 400 end-of-the-world predictions in all of recorded human history. Either way, that’s a lot.

Images from the Mayan long calendar that ends December 21, 2012, which proved a little unnerving until December 22, 2012 dawned. By Maudslay (Cyrus Thomas (1904) Mayan calendar Systems II) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Images from the Mayan long calendar that ends December 21, 2012, which proved a little unnerving until December 22, 2012 dawned. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
But don’t worry, because Wikipedia also helpfully points out that “no predicted apocalyptic events have occurred so far.” What a relief!

The obsession with the end of it all stretches  back at least as far as the Assyrians. According to this 2009 Smithsonian article, a clay tablet dating to 2800 B.C states: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

Personally, I suspect the translation might be a little rough, either that or the “prophecy” has been misunderstood by scholars and the stone tablets really is nothing more than the discarded notes of a popular Assyrian standup comedian. It also seems likely that the existence of said “tablet” may have actually been made up in 1979.

Still, there’s something that keeps us humans guessing that the end is upon us. Whether it comes from religious conviction, scientific understanding, or from societal pessimism, our fate seems always to speed on toward some sort of transition and that fills us with a little bit of anxiety.

Some even less optimistic scientists say there's a 0.3% chance the world my be destroyed by an asteroid on March 16, 2880. So if you have plans that day, you might want to be prepared with a plan B. photo credit: BENNU’S JOURNEY via photopin (license)
Some even less optimistic scientists say there’s a 0.3% chance the world my be destroyed by an asteroid on March 16, 2880. So if you have plans that day, you might want to be prepared with a plan B. photo credit: BENNU’S JOURNEY via photopin (license)

And just because the end has failed to arrive maybe as many as 400 times, we may not be out of the woods just yet because there are currently at least 15 predictions open for consideration, from the interpretation of the series of blood moon eclipses in 2014 and 2015 that places the end of the world in September of this year (perhaps not coincidentally, just after the start of my son’s third grade year) to the insistence of numerous truly alarmist scientists who insist the sun will consume the earth a mere 5 billion years from next Tuesday, give or take an hour or two.

So perhaps the end is upon us, but I’m not going to worry about it too much. Most likely I have some fun summer days with my kiddos to look forward to. And despite the tears of yesterday, this morning my son told me he’s decided even though he’s sad second grade is ending, he isn’t going to be afraid of third grade, because, “[He does] this ever year, and then the next year turns out the be the funnest ever.”

As we plunge into summer break next week, it may be the end of the world as he knows it, but, all in all, I think he feels fine.