A Curious Miscellany

Fireworks

curious misc - fireworks

By 200 BC, the Chinese were already using a precursor to the modern firecracker: bamboo. Though completely unintentional, its name is pretty apt and onomatopaeic when you think about how 1) when placed into a fire, the pockets of air and sap trapped in its stem expand and cause an explosion (BAM!) and 2) the jarring sound was thought to be powerful enough to scare off the evil spirit Nian (BOO!), who the Chinese believed ate their crops and children. Roasting a few shoots of bamboo became a precautionary Lunar New Year tradition, which remained unchanged for almost a millennium. Then, ironically while trying to concoct an elixir of life, Chinese alchemists stumbled upon an early form of gunpowder (a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, charcoal and honey). They quickly used this discovery to upgrade their anti-Nian devices by inserting the concoction into bamboo stems, which inevitably led them to develop bombs, rockets and other pyro-weapons for their more pressing human adversaries, forever changing the ways of warfare.

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and explorer, is often credited for bringing fireworks to Europe when he returned home in 1292 from his 24-year road (and sea) trip in the East, and it was the Italians who transformed fireworks into a true art form: Not only did they perfect their aerial capacity through the invention of canisters that could be launched at high altitudes, but, during the Renaissance, Italians further developed fireworks to sustain their sparks and animate complex theatrical sets that were all the rage in royal courts across Europe. Fireworks became the ultimate sign of celebration and they were frequently called upon for weddings, coronations and even the end of plagues, as with the Festa del Redentore in Venice which is still celebrated with a fiery show in front of St. Mark’s Square every third Sunday of July. Through the years, fireworks became more obtainable for regular folk, and, with the first settlers, they arrived on the shores of the New World. On July 4, 1777, exactly one year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, fireworks were set off to boost the morale of the American patriots who were still fighting the Revolutionary War against the British. And, as John Adams foretold, “[The fourth of July] will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

But, wait! To think all this time these flashy light shows came in only two colors: orange and white. In the 1830s, fire masters in Naples realized that different metallic salts when added to the gun powder mixture would produce different colored bursts. How appropriate that the vibrant and brazen Neapolitans were the ones responsible for discovering how to finally cross over into a technicolor world of pyrotechnics. Other advancements have been made since then: new forms and colors, and, most recently, in 2004, the Walt Disney Company, the largest consumer of fireworks in the USA, developed a way to launch fireworks using compressed air instead of gunpowder and electronic timers to explode their shells, reducing excessive smoke and fumes for their big choreographed spectacles.

From pagan gods to scientists, from warfare to jumpin’ parties, from revolutionaries to Disney, and from one side of the world to the other—the history of fireworks covers it all. But, when I see their shimmering, streaming traces, something Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road comes to mind and I think of you, friends:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

Party on, friends! Evviva!

 

 

Turtle Dove

curious misc - turtle dove

For centuries, turtle doves have served as a symbol of true, devoted love. And not without good reason: turtle doves mate for life. Any ornithologists out there might rightfully retort that so do many birds. But, the turtle dove’s distinct turr turrr call—from which it gets its name (Streptopelia turtur)—has been likened to the sound of weeping and through the years has romantically been painted as the eternal mourning over a lost lover, as in the haunting English folk song, “The Turtle Dove“, by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

There’s something refreshingly honest about having true love represented not by a pure, white dove, but one displaying a motley array of colors and patterns: the body, head and neck of a turtle dove are mostly blue grey (the latter marked by a particular white and black striped patch), the wings are a warm reddish brown flecked with black and white, the tail feathers have a bold black center and white border, and the breast is vinaceous. Ah, yes, love is complicated.

Turtle doves find their mate between May and July while in their northern habitat, which can range from Europe to Asia. Males attempt to impress females by puffing up their chest (no comment) and bobbing up and down. When a female selects her man, they begin building a nest in which the female will lay one to two small white eggs that both she and her mate will help incubate over a period of about two weeks. Turtle doves will have up to three clutches of offspring per mating season before flying south to Africa in the fall.

Now, enough learning. Go get all lovey-dovey! It is Valentine’s Day.

Rubik’s Cube

curious misc - rubiks cube

In honor of the recent trip my sister and I took to Budapest, this entry is dedicated to one of the city’s claims to fame: the Rubik’s Cube. This colorful, loveable and yet incredibly frustrating three-dimensional puzzle with over 43 quintillion possible configurations (43,252,003,274,489,856,000 to be exact) is the invention of Ernő Rubrik, the son of a poetess and an aircraft engineer. Rubrik himself studied sculpture and architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design in Budapest, where he began to teach after graduating. In 1974, while designing models to help his students look at space in new ways, he stumbled upon the idea of a rotating cube, consisting of smaller interlocking cubes. Of this prototype, Rubrik said, “It was wonderful, to see how, after only a few turns, the colors became mixed, apparently in random fashion. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. Like after a nice walk when you have seen many lovely sights you decide to go home, after a while I decided it was time to go home, let us put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the big challenge: what is the way home?” Seeing the value in the product and with a push from various friends, Rubrik sought out a toy company that would produce the cube in Hungary. Initially called the “Magic Cube”, the puzzle adopted its inventor’s name when it was released to the West– an extreme feat of negotiation since the then-Communist government of Hungary had to give its permission. Within just a few years of its international launch, over one million Rubik’s cubes had been sold, speedcubing competitions were held around the world (the current world record, by the way,  is 5.5 seconds), and the puzzle was inducted into MoMA’s design collection. Rubrik became the first self-made millionaire to come out of Hungary. And yet, with all of the success (to borrow the words from another self-made millionaire, JLo): he’s still, he’s still Ernő from the (Communist) block / used to have a little, now he has a lot / no matter where he goes, he knows where he came from. In fact, Rubrik established the Rubrik Foundation, which supports young designers from Hungary and the Rubrik Studio, a game design studio in Budapest that remains active today.

Artichoke

curious misc - artichoke

On the occasion of Valentine’s Day, let’s talk about the artichoke – the vegetable with a heart. To be scientifically correct, an artichoke is actually the immature flower blossom of a perennial thistle (cynara) native to the Mediterranean region. Though prehistoric-looking, with its green and dark purple, scale-like florets, the earliest record we have that proves their existence was written by a Greek naturalist in the Third Century BC. In fact, the Greeks had a myth which explained its origin: basically, Zeus fell in love with a mortal named Cynara, who he invited to be his mistress on Mount Olympus, and when she decided that she would rather live on earth, Zeus turned this hard-to-get beauty into a hard-to-eat artichoke. Notwithstanding this inconvenient characteristic, the artichoke was adored by the Greeks and Romans—perhaps because of their supposed aphrodisiacal effects?—and, from Sicily and other parts of Italy, they slowly infiltrated the rest of the Mediterranean and parts of Europe. In the Sixteenth Century, Catherine de Medici was responsible for bringing them (as well as the fork) to the French court when she married Henry II. The artichoke arrived in the United States via Spanish colonists who road tripped it all the way to California, the state responsible for the entire production of artichokes in the US, the grand part in Monterey County. (Fun fact: in 1947, Marilyn Monroe was the Artichoke Queen of Castroville, CA, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World”.) When Pablo Neruda in his “Ode to the Artichoke” befittingly likened the vegetable to little warriors because of their “armor”, it seems it was an apt description also for their invasion tactics. But don’t you worry, just do what Neruda did: dump the suckers in boiling water (salted, perhaps with a little parsely) and about thirty minutes later…

Thus ends
in peace
the enlistment
of this armed vegetable
called the artichoke,
after which
leaf after leaf
we undress
its deliciousness
and eat
the peaceful substance
of its green heart.

Tango

curious misc - tango

During my adolescent years, my father frequently summoned the expression, “It takes two to tango”—typically after a sister fight in which one of us declared that the other started it. After a year of dancing the tango and having just gotten back from a two-week trip to Argentina, the birthplace of the dance, I can confirm that it definitely does take two…but, the man always starts it. Seriously. A tango commences when a man invites the woman to dance with a seductive cabeceo— a wink, a raised eyebrow, a nod of the head…yes, sometimes even from across a crowded room. After a moment of facing each other on the dance floor and listening to the initial notes of the music, the two embrace and begin the famously sensual movements. One of the most interesting things about the tango is that the dance steps of the man and woman do not mirror each other, rather the man leads the woman to her various elements, does his own, and combines them for a very varied experience. The timing, speed and character can all be improvised, permitting the dancers to match the music’s rhythm and mood (mostly melancholic).

Developed among immigrants in the brothels and tenements of Buenos Aires in the late Nineteenth Century, the tango is said to have its origins in Cuban habanera, Uruguayan candombe, Argentine milonga (the milonga is still danced at tango nights, which to make things ever more confusing are called milongas!) as well as in several European dance traditions. While initially a dance of the lower class, the tango was eventually deemed acceptable and even fashionable among the middle and upper classes of Argentina after becoming a hit in Europe in the early Twentieth Century (thanks to Argentine sailors who landed in France…shall we call it T-Day?). The tango flourished under Juan Peròn’s government, but unfortunately saw a decline beginning in 1955 when various military dictatorships overtook the country and prohibited public gatherings. With Argentina’s return to democracy in the 1980s came a tango renaissance, which continues today. In 2009, the tango was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. I wonder if they know it’s often described as “sex standing up”…

Holly

curious misc - holly

‘Tis the season to deck the halls with boughs of holly…but, why exactly? Holly (Ilex) is a genus that includes over 500 plant species ranging from evergreen to deciduous, from trees to shrubs and existing anywhere from tropical to temperate climates. But, the holly that concerns us is the species native to Europe, the classic Ilux aquifolium, with its thick, serrated, dark green leaves and bright red berries so treasured by both the Romans and the Druids, the founders of our tradition. The Romans attributed holly to Saturn, the god of agriculture. Every December, when they celebrated the festival of Saturnalia (an event during which no war could be declared, where slaves and masters ate at the same banquet tables, and where gifts were exchanged), they decorated their feast halls with boughs of holly in the god’s honor. For the Druids, holly represented fertility and eternal life—perhaps due to holly’s evergreen leaves and red berries, which ripen just when most other flora have lost their foliage and snow begins to cover the landscape. Holly also functioned for them as a sort of anti-burglar system (Home Alone-style): the Druids hung it on windows and doorways to keep out the evil spirits, believing that they would get caught on the prickly edges of the leaves. Though a bit reluctant to adopt the decorative pagan practice, early Christians eventually relented, altering the significance to honor Jesus Christ: the thorny edges of the leaves came to represent his crown of thorns before being crucified and the red of the berries became a symbol of his blood. If that doesn’t already prevent you from wanting to taste a holly berry, perhaps this little fact will: they are toxic to humans and cause vomiting and diarrhea. On that note, Merry Christmas and Happy Saturnalia to you all!

Twinkies

It seems a case of bad timing—no, very bad timing—that just when marijuana is becoming legalized in certain states, Twinkies are on the brink of extinction. Yes, these golden American snack cakes may indeed take their last bow due to the closure of Hostess Brands Inc., eighty-two years after their inception…[Cue time travel fog] It is 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression. James A. Dewar is working as a manager at the Continental Baking Company and looking for ways to streamline the company’s production. He comes up with the idea of taking the oblong pans used for the strawberry shortbread, which is only made during the summer months when strawberries are fresh, and using them for a new creation: a sponge cake filled with banana cream, or the first-ever Twinkie. (Dewar came up with the name, by the way, after seeing a billboard for “Twinkle Toe Shoes” — perhaps this also explains why Twinkies always come in a pair.) With World War II, came rationing, and with rationing, went the bananas for the banana cream, though it was then that Twinkies acquired their vanilla filling. And somewhere in the 1950s, during the apotheosis of processed foods, Twinkies gained a whole lot of other, mostly chemical ingredients, giving them the reputation of being practically imperishable. In the Disney film WALL-E, Twinkies are even found still perfectly intact hundreds of years after Earth is deemed toxic to pretty much all organic forms of life. If Twinkies really do become extinct, and if their shelf life really is only ten days like Hostess maintains, they will still live on in the memories of many as being one of the most iconic forms of American junk food of the Twentieth Century.

Beryl

Recently I find myself staring off into the canals of Venice more often (perhaps partially due to the particularly intense season of acqua alta the city is experiencing which brings the water up to your front door if not well inside), admiring the myriad of shades the water can be depending on the time of day and weather. The mineral Beryl enters this reverie stage left as its various forms serve as perfect adjectives for describing the greenish-blues of Venice’s watery arteries: a milky emerald green to an iridescent aquamarine. In fact, the word beryl comes from the Greek beryllos, meaning “precious color-of-the-sea stone.” That said, Beryl is actually colorless in its pure form (Goshenite), and only because of the slight presence of trace elements does it come in a prismatic array of colors: Bixbite (red), Morganite (peach/ pink), Heliodor (yellow, yellow/ green), Emerald (green), Acquamarine (green/ blue).

Beryl’s hardness of 7.5/ 8 on the Moh’s scale and vitreous luster, together with these color variations, make it a highly desirable stone. Indeed, found around the world, hiding out mostly in granititic pegmatites (crystalline igneous rocks), Beryl has been prized by many cultures. The Egyptians used emeralds in their jewelry, the Greeks found beryl additionally useful for curing eye ailments and kidney stones, and 16th Century magicians believed it to bring its bearer victory in debates while still managing to come off amiable. In further gemstone lore, Beryl is believed to attract love, strengthen relationships, reduce fear, encourage truth, protect sailors (against seasickness and storms) and can ward off demons (though I remember reading in the American Museum of Natural History in New York that it could also be used to summon the devil).  And, try this at home: the next time you lose something, if you hold a beryl in your hands and visualize the misplaced object, supposedly the whereabouts will be revealed to you.

Trullo

After a Sunday afternoon spent soaking in the grandeur and ingenuity exhibited in Venice’s Biennale of Architecture, I found myself thinking about the trullo—a simple hut with cylindrical walls and a conical, vaulted roof, typical to the Istria Valley in the Apulian region of Italy (the heel of the boot). It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of this modest dwelling, mostly because its delicate drystone  construction (no mortar or cement) is so easily demolished; just pull the keystone piece out and poof!: a pile of rocks. It is probably because of their engineerial emphemerality that trulli were popular in the 1600-1800s; in order to avoid paying the heavy property tax of the time (yes, Italian tax evasion was alive and well even several hundred years ago), feudal lords would have their field workers live in these huts, requiring them to be dismantled should an inspector arrive in the area.

In later years, with a little help from plaster, trulli became more permanent structures as can attest the Apulian town Alberobello, which consists of hundreds of trulli clustered together, climbing its hilly base.  Perhaps more satisfying, however, is to see the loner dwellings sprinkled throughout the countryside in all their chaste and transient splendor. Henry David Thoreau would  have given an assenting nod at such a sight. I’ll leave you with one of his reflections from his treatise on life in the woods, Walden:

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature…We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.

Banana Slug

My little sister and I spotted several of these delightful creatures on our adventures through the Redwood Forests in Northern California this August. There are three species of shell-less mollusk that go by the moniker of banana slug: Ariolimax californicus (California), Ariolimax columbianus (Pacific) and Ariolimax dolichophallus (Slender). Their famous yellow coloring, which is sometimes accompanied by brown spots, serves as camouflage amongst the fallen dead leaves of North America’s Pacific coastal coniferous rainforests where they are endemic. The Pacific banana slug is the second largest slug in the world (the largest being the Limax cinereoniger of Europe), gaining lengths of up to 9.8 inches. If motivated, they can travel at a speed of about 6.5 inches per minute. Banana slugs are decomposers, consuming leaves, animal feces, mushrooms, etc. which they excrete as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. As dehydration is a major issue for them, banana slugs produce a heavy mucus that coats their bodies; some have been known to aestivate during a hot, dry spell. Their upper two tentacles are used to detect light and movement while their bottom pair senses chemicals, such as the pheromones in the slime of their future hermaphroditic mates. Related coincidence: in Pulp Fiction (a film I saw for the first time this summer), John Travolta wears a UC Santa Cruz t-shirt, featuring their mascot: yep, the adorable Banana Slug.

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