Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Today I learned about the human hand

Posted by Daniexmachina

Today we will learn about the human hand. The hand has only 29 bones and major joints but 48 nerves and at least 123 ligaments. You might be interested to know that there are no muscles in your fingers. The fingers are pulled around by tendons leading down from a muscle in the lower arm. They are controlled like little puppets! Like the soles of our feet, the palms of our hands are rather unusual patches of skin. They are hairless, have finger or toe prints, cannot tan and usually have little color, as well as being tough and durable while still being rather sensitive. This skin is also anchored to the bone through an intermediate layer called fascia. This is what stops the skin from moving all over the place when we grip or twist. There is a medical condition known as Dupuytren's disease in which the fascia shrinks and thickens, making something like a thick cord holding a finger or fingers in a bent position.

Here's another fun finger fact (ooh, how alliterative!). Fingers are never perfectly straight. They all curve slightly toward the middle finger, while the middle finger itself can point slightly one way or the other. A rather gross hand fact is that during the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar ordered the thumbs of captured warriors to be amputated. This served as a tragic example for their people when they returned and made certain they would not bear arms again. Since that time, the practice has been repeated in a number of other wars and in slave trade.

Speaking of gross, the longest fingernails on one hand in the world belonged to Shidhar Chillal, who began growing them in 1952 and stopped in 2000, after it caused some nerve damage in his hand and deafened his left ear. He cut the record-breaking 20 feet nails. Now the record holder is Lee Redmond of Utah, US. She had started in 1979 and had planned to cut them in 2006, but had decided against that. Instead she kept them, a complete length of 24 feet! In 2009, Miss Redmond was in a car accident and broke her nails, as well as suffering serious injuries. 

Following the incident, Miss Redmond stated it took her 30 years to grow her nails that long and she may not last another 30, so she doesn't intend to grow them out again. She also said her hands seem to fly around without the extra weight of the nails. Her nails are currently about 4 inches each.

Another hand-related fact is that 12.6% of men are left handed while only 9.9% of women are. All you lefthanders can celebrate International Left Handers Day on August 13th. An incredible number of politicians have been left handed. 8 presidents, including the present Barack Obama, are left handed. Benjamin Franklin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Senator McCain are some others. Historically speaking, there is an amazingly long list. Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great, Charlamagne, Caesar, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Fidel Castro, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and even Jack the Ripper were left handed. Recently, there have even been guitarists who actually play left handed, namely Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Zacky Vengeance.

Artists M.C. Escher (his work Hand With Sphere pictured above), Paul Klee, Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci. There's also an extraordinarily long list of left handed actors. Some are Matthew Broderick, Carol Burnett, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Robert DeNiro, Whoopi Goldberg, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Jim Henson, Goldie Hawn, Nicole Kidman, Ron Perlman, Robert Redford, Christian Slater, Dick Van Dyke and Oprah. There is, of course, also a large amount of famous athletes, but as I don't care much for sports, you are on your own in finding out who they are. 

I hope everyone found today's lesson entertaining and interesting. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Today I learned about human feet!

Posted by Daniexmachina


My apologies to those who follow, the holidays were a very busy time and it was difficult to keep up, but here I am and I come bearing foot knowledge. Sit back and kick up your feet, they deserve to have some attention! Not many people think about their feet more than what socks and shoes they will use, but the feet are very interesting.

There are 52 bones in a pair of feet, accounting for 25% of all the bones in the body. Each individual foot has 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. In addition to all those fun things, the feet contain 250,000 sweat glands and can produce as much as a pint of moisture each day. To fully understand the weight of that statement, picture this:

But instead of tasty ice cream, it is filled with foot juice. Delicious, isn't it? 

The soles of the feet have more nerve endings and sweat glands in one place than any other place in the body, which is why so many people have ticklish feet. When it comes to footwear, it is best to shop in the afternoon. The reason being that our feet swell slightly throughout the day and it's important to get shoes that fit during that time. The average shoe sizes in the US are 10.5 for men and 8.5 for women, which makes me feel better about my size 9s. 

Walking is the best exercise to give your feet. It helps with weight control, improves circulation and makes a person healthier overall. The average person takes 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, adding up to 115,000 times a lifetime, which is longer than walking the circumference of the globe four times over! That's some serious footwork! On top of that, adding up the total amount of weight put on your feet by a day's worth of walking is equal to hundreds of tons, something like the weight of a fully loaded cement truck. Standing in one place for an extended period of time, as many who work know, is more tiring than walking because it is making demands of the same muscles for a long time. 

Now that you've learned a bit about your feet, let's kick things up a notch (pun intended) and look at some famous feet. One very interesting and inspiring person is known not even for two foot, but one. Christy Brown, an Irish writer and painter was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to move anything but his left foot. He learned to create using all that he had and became an amazing writer and painter. The above image is a picture of his work Killarney.

Another amazing example of perseverance and fancy footwork is the lovely Miss Jessica Cox of Tuscon, AZ. Miss Cox was born without any arms due to a birth defect, but she has not let it slow her down by any means! Jessica is able to drive without any car modifications, type on a keyboard at a rate of 25 words per minute, pump her own gas and even put in remove her contact lenses. What's more impressive than that? Well, she alsoset records for being the first armless black-belt in the American Taekwondo Association. If you still aren't impressed, try this: Jessica Cox is the first armless person to be licensed to fly. That's right, she flies a plane with her feet and she does it well. 

So there are some interesting foot facts for your day! I hope everyone enjoyed today's learning!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Today I learned about Christmas in Denmark

Posted by Daniexmachina

Glædelig Jul, everyone! That's Merry Christmas in Danish because Denmark is the country we learn about today! Pictured above is Denmark's capital, Copenhagen with all it's beautiful Christmas lights. Christmas in Denmark is called Jul, which means 'feast' in the old Nordic language. There has been a winter celebration for hundreds of years in Denmark, dating back to pre-Christian times, when it was the festival of the pagans. In the Middle Ages, when Denmark became Christianized, Catholic traditions mixed with the ancient Nordic tradition. Candles, food and money came to be given to the poor. This is known as the Feast of the Candles. In the country, however, very little changed. Christmas was a time of literal magic, a pagan celebration filled with superstition. The people would leave bread on the table through the holiday and spread it across the fields before sowing their crop. This was supposed to ensure a good harvest. 

Following the Reformation, the Church was eager to get rid of old traditions, be it Catholic or pagan. People in the country baked, butchered, made candles and cleaned everything inside and outside. Then the family would get their Christmas bath (I'm hoping this wasn't the only time a year, but it's hard to judge the people who had no indoor plumbing). Christmas brought goodwill to other people as well as to animals. Grain was left out for wild birds and domestic animals got extra food for the time. All work was banned during the holidays. Though Christmas gifts were not common yet, it was gaining popularity in the cities. Still, servants and employees were given a Christmas bonus of bread or cakes called apple slices. Apple slices are still eaten in Denmark today along with a hot punch made of red wine and brandy or snaps with pieces of almond or raisins in it. This traditional beverage is called glögg. 

The time of Reformation brought a great reformation to Christmas traditions as well. Many new traditions were added during this time. For instance, the idea of the Christmas tree made it's way to Denmark from Germany and the first trees were decorated with paper decorations as well as candy, fruit, Danish flags and candles. Christmas gifts and cards started around this time and the idea of the Christmas 'nisse', a little elf who is said to control your fortune. Families left out a bowl of porridge out to please him and try to keep his jokes in check. The nisse was dressed in a grey sweater and pants and red stockings and hat with white wooden clogs (see the picture above). 

Christmas continued to be reshaped through the start of the 20th century, picking up traditions from other countries and mixing them in with those already in existence. Santa Claus came from the States, holly from Ireland, After WWII, Denmark picked up more traditions such as the Christmas calendar, Advent wreath and Lucia parade. 

The modern Danish Christmas begins with Advent, which means the coming. This refers to the coming of Christ. Advent started off as a time for penance and fasting in preparing for the Christmas feast to come. The 4th Sunday before Christmas is the start of Advent. A wreath of pine twigs with candles and either purple or red ribbons is hung on that day and one candle is lit. The following Sunday another candle is lit and so on until it is all lit. 

Juleaften (Christmas Eve), is the biggest celebration of the year. Danes go to an early mass and dinner is served early as well. The Christmas fare includes roast duck or goose stuffed with prunes and apples, boiled potatoes, sweet potatoes, red cabbage, beets and cranberry jam. Rice pudding is the most popular dessert. You can have ‘ris à l’amande’, the pudding topped with whipped cream, vanilla and almonds or 'risengrød', hot rice pudding. A peeled almond is hidden in the pudding and the finder receives a small gift. 

The Juletræ is another important Danish tradition. In Denmark, the Christmas tree is always topped with a star rather than an angel as some others do. The tree is usually kept outside until Christmas Eve when it is taken inside to be decorated. In some families the tree is decorated together and other times the parents do it together to surprise the children. No matter how it comes to be decorated, the tree becomes a place to dance and sing carols around when it is up and lit. 

So, there are some of the interesting Danish traditions. I apologize for slacking for a couple of days, I know that there should be no excuses for getting in the way of my own education, as well as yours, but I've been very busy. There will be daily posts from now on!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Today I learned about Christmas in New Zealand

Posted by Daniexmachina

Today I got a little inspiration for the country of study when I went to see the Hobbit! In honor of that, we will learn about Christmas in New Zealand. The first important thing for us Stateside to remember is that New Zealand is in the lower hemisphere, so when we are getting snow and being pointed away from the sun, they are getting warm weather being pointed toward the sun. Which leads to such hilarious images as santas running on the beach. 

For those unfamiliar with New Zealand's history, they have an indigenous people, just like the Indians in the United States. The native people of New Zealand are the Maori and the Maori had no idea who Christ was or what Christmas was until European contact. The first Christmas celebrated in New Zealand was in 1814, led by a missionary named Reverend Samuel Marsden. He came in response to an invitation by the Maori on his waka (Boat) the Active to meet the local Ngapuhi along with the other in his mission party. They all sang Psalm 100, a song which encourages people of all lands to get together and sing of God's goodness. Marsden preached to the people and the Maori chief Ruatara provided a translation for the natives. Conversions started out slowly, not picking up in any significant number until the 1830s. Still, in 1842 the Bible was translated into Maori and they began to act as missionaries to their own people. And so Christmas has continued, becoming an official holiday by the 1920s. 

The tree shown above is called a Pohutukawa and has become the iconic Christmas tree of New Zealand. The settlers of New Zealand referred to it as a the Christmas tree, which is how it came to be called that. The tree now features in many songs and poems and graces the front of greeting cards. The Pohutukawa also is prominent in Maori tradition. It is said that Tawhaki, a Maori warrior, attempted to find heaven to seek help in avenging his father. He fell to earth and his blood made the beautiful flowers red. 

One particularly fun thing the New Zealanders (also called Kiwis!) have done is customizing popular Christmas songs to fit into their culture. For instance, a version of the 12 Days of Christmas was written by King Ihaka in 1981 called "A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree". (Much more fun sounding than a partridge in a pear tree!) There have also been hymns translated into Maori to give them a New Zealand flair, such as Marie Te Po (Silent Night). 

Although in the 60s, a songwriter and folk singer named Bob Edwards wrote the words to a Christmas song that was completely and totally for New Zealand. I listened to this song, called Sticky Beak the Kiwi and it's quite amusing. The lyrics are as follows: 
Now Sticky Beak the kiwi, that bird from way down under
He's caused a great commotion and it isn't any wonder
He's notified old Santa Claus to notify the deer
That he will pull the Christmas sleigh in the southern hemisphere.
Lots of toys for girls and boys load the Christmas sleigh
He will take the starlight trail along the Milky Way.
Hear the laughing children as they shout aloud with glee:
'Sticky Beak, Sticky Beak, be sure to call on me.'
Now every little kiwi, and every kangaroo, too,
The wallaby, the weka, and the platypus and emu,
Have made themselves a Christmas tree with stars and shining bright,
So Sticky Beak will see the way to guide the sleigh tonight.
Now Sticky Beak the kiwi, that Maori-land dictator,
Will not allow Rudolph's nose this side of the equator
So when you hear the sleigh bells ring you'll know that he's the boss,
And Sticky Beak will pull the sleigh beneath the Southern Cross.

As far as Christmas dinner goes, some New Zealanders make a hangi, which is their version of how Maori cooked in a pit underground while others barbecue for Christmas. Pavlova is important to Kiwi Christmas. It is a fluffy meringue cake with a marshmallow center, topped with fruit. Other traditional foods are much like what we would have here in the States. Ham or turkey with roasted potatoes, pumpkin, kumara (sweet potatoes) and gravy. 

New Zealand sounds like a rather fun place to have Christmas and I personally wish we had a bird as cool as the kiwi to sing about at Christmastime. I hope everyone enjoyed learning today. Meri Kirihimete!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Today I learned about Italian Christmas

Posted by Daniexmachina

Buon Natale, everyone! Today we learn about Christmas traditions in Italy! It's a time for food, family and friends as it is here, but with less commercialism. The colors of the Italian flag (White, red and green) are the traditional Christmas colors as well. Christmas caroling originated in Italy during the 13th century. Saint Francis of Assisi wrote the first Christmas carol, which quickly spread all over Europe. Though Saint Francis wrote in Latin, the first Franciscan friars wrote many Italian Christmas carols. 

The Christmas season begins for Italians 8 days before Christmas and continues until after the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th). People sing and play instruments at the shrine of the virgin Mary and songs are sung at the homes of carpenters in honor of Saint Joseph. On the 8th day before Christmas, special prayers and church services begin and go on until Christmas Day. On December 23rd, children dressed as shepherds will go around playing songs on shepherd's pipes or giving recitations. They get money which they can use for a Christmas treat in return. 

The Italian word 'ceppo' can refer to two different Christmas traditions depending on who you asked. The first meaning is that of the Yule log which I discussed in detail in the post about Scottish Christmas. The other meaning is that of a decoration also referred to as the Tree of Light (Pictured above). This is always shaped like a tree, with the family's presepio (Nativity) on the bottom tier and the rest decorated with greenery, fruits, nuts and presents. The presepio is symbolic of the gift of God, fruit and nuts are symbolic of the gifts of the Earth and presents are the gifts of men. The top would be decorated with an angel, a star or a pineapple because that represents hospitality. Some families put lights on each shelf, which is how it got the name Tree of Lights. The presepio is the center of most Christmas activities for the Italians. Guests kneel before it and musicians perform in front of it. The figures are very detailed in their faces as well as their clothing. 

Every culture has its own specific Christmas dinner traditions and Italy's sounds just as delicious as the others I have written about thus far. The day before Christmas everyone participates in a partial fast in religious observance where they may not eat meat. Instead they eat fish and really, the menu gets pretty packed in spite of the 'fasting'. It's called the Night of the Seven Fishes (or 9, 11 or 13, depending on the area), so there are seven fish foods and many others. Typical food for the night includes: drowned broccoli rabe, roasted or fried eel and caponata di pesce (fish salad). 

Christmas Day brings another delicious meal, this time made up of baccala (salted and dried cod), vermicelli, baked pasta, capon and turkey. Sweets are very important to an Italian Christmas dinner. Many of these treats originated in convents where nuns made them to mark special religious holidays like Christmas. The nuns would present the treats as gifts when noble families or the mother superior paid a visit. Each convent had its own particular sweet, such as struffoli (Neapolitan honey pastry), cenci (fried pastry ribbons sprinkled with powdered sugar), dried figs, candied almonds, chestnuts and marzipan. There are also the sweet breads like panforte, pandolce and panettone. 

On the night of Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Three Magi, Italian children eagerly await a completely different gift-giver from every other place I have read about as of yet. And that is because she is a woman. La Befana is an old hag, hunchbacked and ugly, looking like a typical witch. But she is a kindly woman and she has an interesting story. It is said La Befana was visited by the Magi when they stopped to ask her for directions on their way to find Jesus. They asked if she would like to join them, but she refused, saying she was too busy. Later a shepherd came by her way again inviting her to come along. Again, she refused. When it became dark, she saw the great light in the sky and thought maybe she should have gone along with the Magi and the shepherd. She gathered up some toys from her child who had died and set out to follow the others and find Baby Jesus. She got lost and couldn't find the stable, the child or the Magi. Now every year she goes out in search of the Christ Child, never finding him she instead gives toys to good children and coal to the bad ones. 

I hope everyone enjoyed today's look at another culture. I am finding it very interesting, personally, and hope that you are too. Buon Natale!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Today I learned about Christmas in Ireland

Posted by Daniexmachina

Continuing with learning about other countries' Christmas traditions, today we have a look at Ireland! Although most people in Ireland say "Happy Christmas" as their holiday greeting, the Irish Gaelic phrase for it is "Nollaig Shona Dhuit". If you are looking for a lovely blessing to offer, try this Irish Christmas blessing, “The light of the Christmas star to you, The warmth of home and hearth to you, The cheer and good will of friends to you, The hope of a childlike heart to you, The joy of a thousand angels to you, The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.”

A tradition used in Ireland that is still practiced there and here as well, is that of hanging holly as Christmas decoration. Holly grows naturally in Ireland and is one of few plants to bloom in the winter. To the Ancient Celts holly represented life and rebirth. The evergreen leaves represented life during a time when there was no other life and the berries were symbolic of the coming of spring. When Christianity came to Ireland, the berries took new meaning as new life in Jesus.  

One interesting piece of folklore surrounding holly said that putting it out was a kind gesture to tiny fairies who hid in it from the cold. Holly wreaths on the door here started when the Irish immigrated here during the Great Potato Famine. On another plant-related note, the Celts also believed that mistletoe had healing properties. The powers of the plant were so great that it encouraged a momentary truce between even enemies. This is where the kissing under the mistletoe came from.

Like the Scots, the Irish also followed the tradition of keeping a lit candle in the window to guide the Holy Family in their travel. If you had no light, you were saying "No Room" like the innkeeper of yore. Nobody would want to be guilty of turning away the Holy Family. 

Some other fun facts about Irish Christmas include the tradition of leaving mince meat pies and a bottle of Guinness out for Santa. Most children find their presents in a sack in their bedroom rather than under the tree or in a stocking. Also, they have something they call "Little Women's Christmas", which is January 6th. That day is just for women to go out and have fun while the men take care of housework, cooking and taking down the Christmas decorations. Traditionally it is bad luck to take down the decorations before this day. 

I hope you all enjoyed today's lesson. Remember to wish everyone a Nollaig Shona Dhuit and leave a Guinness out for Santa!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Today I learned about Christmas in Scotland

Posted by Daniexmachina

Today there will be two blogs because yesterday I fell asleep learning about Scotland. Nothing personal, Scots, I was exhausted. Anyway, continuing on with learning about Christmas in other countries, I bring you a Scottish Christmas! The Scots tend to be a rather superstitious people, which makes for some interesting traditions. Although as in Russia, New Year's is the bigger event for the Scottish. This is because, like Russia, Christmas was banned for about 400 years. The ban was lifted in the 1950s. 

In Scotland it is very important that their fire burns all through the night on Christmas Eve. If the fire goes out, malicious spirits will make their way down the chimney and into your home! The Yule Log is also important to the fire. These are usually made from a birch or rowan tree and is cut and dried over the summer. On Christmas Eve, the log is brought inside and circled three times around the kitchen. Everyone makes a toast to the Yule Log and it goes into the fire. People used to check the ashes the next day and if they were foot-shaped, it would tell the future. A foot facing the door meant a death would come and a foot facing inward meant a new arrival. 

Lighting a candle and putting it in the window is symbolic of guiding a stranger to warmth and safety. It is also a symbol of lighting the way for the Holy Family as they traveled. Many people light bonfires to dance and play bagpipes around. People sing carols such as The First Nowell, Taladh Chriosta, and Bottom of the Punch Bowl. Decorations are hung and include the colors and patterns of tartans as well as evergreen branches. 

Traditional food for Nollaig Beag (Little Christmas) are Selkirk Bannock (see above), venison stew, Scottish shortbread, Scottish blackbun and Dundee cake. The Selkirk Bannock was originally made by a bakery in Selkirk, which is where it got its name. It is a festive cake made from flour, sugar, raisins and fruit peels. The blackbun is a very rich cake made of fruit, almonds, spices and flavored with whiskey. 

Because of the ban on Christmas for hundreds of years, the modern Scottish Christmas traditions are now similar to that of the United States and Britain. With gift-giving, cards and Santa Claus. The Scottish new year festival became more popular during the time of the ban, so it is still quite big. It's called Hogmanay and it is certainly a big thing. 

Scottish people prepare for Hogmanay by cleaning their homes in a purification ritual of burning juniper branches throughout the house. Haggis is the main food of the night as well as shortbread, scones, oatcakes, cheese, whiskey, wine and black buns. For those who do not know what haggis is, it is sheep parts (heart, liver and lungs) cooked with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt. It is traditionally cooked in a cow's stomach, though modern haggis is sometimes made in sausage casing. It tastes about as good as it sounds. 

An old Scottish new year tradition still in practice today is called the "First Footer". The story goes that the first person to arrive in your home on New Year's Day would decide your family's luck for the rest of the year. This belief was based in the idea of the magic power of beginnings. The person you would prefer to see  come into your house first would be a tall, dark haired man especially if he came bearing a gift. His handsome looks would make the year pleasant and his gift of a loaf of bread or shovel of coal would ensure the house would never be hungry nor cold. Anyone of an opposite type could cause disaster, which is why many folks would contrive to have just the right person arrive first in their home. 

As at Christmastime, bonfires are popular and sometimes a straw figure called Auld Wife, symbolizing the old year, would be thrown into the fire. An interesting old tradition was to banish evil of the old year into a cat or dog and then scare it away. On New Year's Eve, everyone would link arms together and sing Auld Lang Syne. On New Year's Day, the children will rise early and go singing to their neighbors in exchange for coins, candy, mince pies or apples. The children must hurry for anyone to sing after noon would be called fools. Nollaig chridheil!