Sunday, May 21, 2017

10 SPIES YOU'VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF

We've all heard of the famous (or infamous) Mata Hari, executed by the French in 1917 as a German spy. And Nathan Hale, the American Revolutionary War spy who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," right before the British hanged him in 1776 at age twenty-one.

But history is filled with spies whose names are virtually unknown.  In most instances anonymity is vital to success—an unknown name and an appearance that blends in with everyone else rather than the flamboyance of the fictional James Bond.

I read a brief mention about a female spy from World War II who died in August 2011 at the age of ninety-eight, someone I had never heard of, and that led me to a list of ten spies who are not household names.

1)  Nancy Wake:  Flirted her way through checkpoints and karate chopped a Nazi guard to death.
This is the female spy mentioned above who survived her World War II spy assignments and lived to be ninety-eight years old. In the 1930s, a young Australian journalist went to Germany to report on the rise of fascism and interview Hitler. The atrocities she witnessed changed her life forever. She settled in France and with the Nazi invasion in 1940 she joined the resistance movement, helping thousands of Jewish refugees and Allied servicemen escape to Spain. In 1943, with the Nazis closing in on her, she escaped to Spain and later to Britain where she convinced agents to train her as a spy and guerilla operative. In 1944 she parachuted into France leading a band of seven thousand resistance fighters where she coordinated guerilla activities prior to D-Day. She rose to the top of the Gestapo's most wanted list. She killed a German guard with one karate chop to his neck, executed a female German spy, shot her way through roadblocks, and biked seventy hours through enemy held territory to deliver radio codes for the Allies.

2)  Boris Yuzhin:  Used a camera concealed in a cigarette lighter to leak KGB secrets to the FBI.
In July 1975, the KGB sent Boris to San Francisco where he posed as a visiting scholar and later as a news reporter. His indoctrination said America was the enemy, but to his surprise he felt right at home and eventually grew to question his own country's policies. By 1978 he had become a double agent, supplying information about KGB operations in California to the FBI. His career as a double agent ended in 1986 when Aldrich Ames, the infamous CIA officer who had been spying for the Soviets, identified Boris which landed him in a Siberian prison for six years at a time when Soviet traitors were almost always executed.  Boris is still alive and living in Santa Rosa, California, north of San Francisco.

3)  Marthe Cnockaert:  Healed Germans to help the British during World War I.
In 1914, German troops destroyed the small Belgian village where twenty-two year old Marthe lived. Although sympathetic to the Allies, she was desperate for work to support her family. She found a job in a makeshift hospital for wounded German soldiers and earned the German Iron Cross for her medical services. A neighbor approached her about spying for the British, a role she soon embraced. For two years she coaxed secrets from German officers, arranged the murder of a German who tried to recruit her as a German spy, blew up a German ammunitions depot, directed airplane strikes and helped POWs escape. She was eventually discovered and imprisoned for two years. She was later honored by Winston Churchill and wrote a book about her wartime experiences.

4)  Eugene Bullard:  Spied on Nazi officers who visited his Paris nightclub.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1894.  As a teenager, he stowed away to Europe and supported himself as a prize fighter and interpreter. With the start of World War I, he joined the French army and became the world's first black fighter pilot. He later married the daughter of a French countess, opened a nightclub in Paris, and socialized with Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway. He served his adoptive country again in World War II when he joined the French resistance movement. He used his fluency in German to spy on Nazis who frequented his nightclub. The Germans spoke freely in front of him, believing that nonwhites were incapable of understanding their language. He helped defend the city of Orleans, sustained serious injuries, and was medically evacuated to the U.S. along with his two daughters. While a hero in France, in the U.S. he finally found work as an elevator operator. He died in 1961 at the age of sixty-seven, just two years after France named him a Knight of the Legion of Honor.

5)  Anna Smith Strong:  Used laundry to arrange clandestine meetings during the American Revolution.
In 1778, George Washington instructed a young cavalry officer named Benjamin Tallmadge to establish a spy network to operate behind enemy lines on New York's Long Island. His spy group, the Culper Spy Ring, became the war's most effective spy operation. Anna Smith Strong became a vital link between agents on Long Island and Washington's headquarters in Connecticut. She would hang specific pieces of laundry on her clothes line at certain times to send messages and arrange meetings according to a coded system. [Interesting that a man whose reputation was one of honesty—I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree—was responsible for the formation of our first spy operation.]

6)  Juan Pujol Garcia:  Helped ensure the Allies success on D-Day.
Juan Garcia, a Spanish businessman, earned the trust of high ranking Nazi officials who knew him by the code name Arabel. They were paying him to run an elaborate spy network which included a Dutch airline steward, a British censor for the Ministry of Information and a U.S. soldier in England, all of whom were gathering information that Garcia would transmit to Berlin. In reality, Garcia was a British double agent named Garbo who supplied the Germans with secrets designed to distract them from genuine military plans. June 9, 1944, was Garcia's most important moment of distraction. He sent his German contacts an urgent message saying the D-Day landings were only a diversion, that the real invasion would be at Pas de Calais. As a result, Hitler kept his best units stationed in the Calais area instead of sending them to Normandy as backup where the Allies were turning the tide of the war. [I saw a documentary about this man that was absolutely fascinating. He had the Nazi brass so totally believing his spy efforts that when he reported one of his fictitious spy ring members had died, the Nazis actually sent money for the fictitious spy's fictitious widow.]

7)  Elizabeth Van Lew:  Led a spy ring for the Union during the U.S. Civil War.
Even though Elizabeth was raised in a wealthy slave-holding family in Richmond, Virginia, she developed strong anti-slavery sympathies after attending a Quaker school in Philadelphia.  With the advent of the Civil War, she went on her own to visit captured Union solders, helping some escape and gathering information from prisoners and guards about Confederate strategy. In 1863, Union General Benjamin Butler recruited her as a spy and she soon became head of an entire spy network based in Richmond. She sent coded messages using invisible ink and hiding them in hollowed-out eggs or vegetables. In 1865 when Richmond fell to the Union forces, she flew the Stars and Stripes above her home.

8)  John Scobell:  Posed as a slave to gather information behind Confederate lines during the U.S. Civil War.
A former slave from Mississippi, John worked for Allan Pinkerton as an undercover officer. Pinkerton headed the Union intelligence services [prior to starting the famous Pinkerton detective agency].  John completed many top-secret missions, often playing the part of a cook, field hand, or butler. He also persuaded members of a clandestine slave organization to act as couriers and report on local conditions. Pinkerton specifically mentioned John in his memoirs, describing an incident when John was pretending to be the servant of a female Union operative. When Confederate agents opened fire on them, he single-handedly fought off the Confederates, killing several and saving the female operative's life and his own.

9)  Yehudit Nessyahu:  Helped bring Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann to justice.
Yehudit was born in Holland in 1925 and moved to Israel as a young girl. In the 1950s she participated in a covert operation to smuggle Jews out of Morocco using the persona of a wealthy and eccentric Dutch transplant. In the 1960s she was the only woman on the legendary Mossad team responsible for capturing Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann who was living in Argentina under a false name. She died in 2003.

10)  James Rivington:  Printed a loyalist newspaper but secretly spied for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
An English bookseller and publisher who relocated to New York's Wall Street after his London business failed. Was he a staunch backer of the British Crown or the American Revolution's most unlikely supporter? With the escalation of tensions between the colonists and the British monarchy, he denounced the rebels in his newspaper, Rivington's Gazette. In 1775, his articles incited a mob of revolutionaries to burn his house and destroy his press. Two years later he returned from a stay in England. According to recent scholarly discoveries, he had switched sides and worked as a spy for the revolutionaries. A coffeehouse located next to his rebuilt shop was a meeting place for high-ranking British officers. Documents from the period suggest the recent convert printer shared their secrets directly with George Washington.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Quirky Questions Tourists Ask

Part 2 of my 2-part blog about travel trivia shares some quirky questions asked by tourists.

At one time or another when we were in school, we've probably all heard a teacher say that there are no stupid questions in an attempt to get us to express our curiosity about something without being embarrassed because we don't already know the answer.

However, as an adult that old adage doesn't apply to all situations.  The travel industry is filled with weird, quirky, and in some cases just plain stupid questions asked by tourists.  Here's a sampling of some from various sources.

Actual Questions Asked On Cruise Ships:
Does the crew sleep on board?
Is the island surrounded by water?
What happens to the ice sculptures after they melt?
What time is the 2 o'clock tour?
Can you see the equator from the deck?
I know that ships often serve smoked salmon, but I am a non-smoker.
Can the iced tea be served hot?
Will I get wet if I go snorkeling?
Does the outside cabin mean it's outside the ship?
Where is the good shopping in Antarctica?

And cruise ships aren't the only place that tourists seem to have absurd questions.  Here are some actual questions received by Australians from foreigners, along with some well-deserved replies given to the questioner.

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, how do the plants grow? (question from the UK)
A:  We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

Q:  Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (question from USA)
A:  Depends on how much you've been drinking.

Q:  I want to walk from Perth to Sydney—can I follow the railroad tracks? (question from Sweden)
A:  Sure, it's only 3000 miles, take lots of water.

Q:  Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in Australia? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane, Cairns, Townsville and Hervey Bay? (question from the UK)
A:  What did your last slave die of?

Q:  Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (question from USA)
A:  A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe.  Aus-tra-lia is the big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not…oh forget it.  Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night at Kings Cross.  Come naked.

Q:  Which direction is north in Australia? (question from USA)
A:  Face south and then turn 180 degrees.  Contact us when you get here and we'll send the rest of the directions.

Q:  Can I wear high heels in Australia? (question from the UK)
A:  You're a British politician, right?

Q:  Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? (question from Germany)
A:  No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers.  Milk is illegal.

Q:  Can you tell me the regions in Tasmania where the female population is smaller than the male population? (question from Italy)
A:  Yes, gay nightclubs.

Q:  Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia? (question from France)
A:  Only at Christmas.

The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom put together an international list "of the most inexplicably simple queries fielded by tourism officials."
Are there any lakes in the Lake District?
Why on earth did they build Windsor Castle on the flight path for Heathrow?
Is Wales closed during the winter?
Why did they build so many ruined castles and abbeys in England?
Do you know of any undiscovered ruins?

And here are some tourist questions asked at Niagara Falls:
What time do the falls shut off?
How far into Canada do I have to go before we have to drive on the other side of the road?
How much does it cost to get into Canada and are children a different price?

And here are some goodies from Minnesota:
I'm coming in July and I want snowmobile rental information.
We want to tour the Edmund Fitzgerald. (the ship sank in a storm in Lake Superior in 1975)
One traveler asked to see the bridge in Minnesota with the arches.  She was shown various photos, none of which were the bridge she was looking for.  She finally identified a picture of the St. Louis Gateway Arch as the bridge she wanted to see.  She was given directions to Missouri.

And finally…these tidbits.
One tourist to Scotland asked what time they fed the Loch Ness Monster.  Another visitor to New York City thought they would end up in Holland if they drove through the Holland Tunnel.  A traveler in Miami asked a tourism official which beach was closest to the ocean.

So…I guess the bottom line is to maybe think about that question a second time before you actually ask it.   :)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Travel Trivia: 10 Miscellaneous Facts From Around The World

With summer approaching, I'd like to offer you a 2-part vacation travel blog filled with miscellaneous travel tidbits and trivia.  I came across an article recently that listed bits of trivia about various travel destinations.  Little snippets of miscellaneous information usually not included in travel guides.  Things I found interesting.  I hope you find them interesting, too.

1)  Mt. Everest
It's a commonly known fact that Mt. Everest (pictured above), on the Nepal–Tibet border, is the highest point on earth.  You'd think that would be enough, wouldn't you?  Well, apparently it isn't.  The precise height of Mt. Everest is somewhat disputed.  It's generally thought to be 29,029ft (8848m) above sea level.  And that interesting little fact?  It's still growing!  Mt. Everest is pushing upward at a rate estimated to be 4mm a year thanks to the clash between two tectonic plates.

2)  Mexico City
While Mt. Everest is growing, the interesting little fact about Mexico City is that it's sinking at an average rate of 10cm a year which is 10 times faster than the sinking rate of Venice, Italy.  And the reason for this?  Mexico City was built on a soft lake bed and subterranean water reserves have subsequently been pumped out from beneath the city.  The result?  The city is sinking.

3)  Vatican City
The world's smallest independent state, 44 hectares (110 acres) is totally encircled by Rome.  The Vatican's Swiss Guard still wears the uniform inspired by Renaissance painter Raphael.  Its population is 800 with only 450 of those being citizens.  It even has its own coins which are legal tender throughout Italy and the EU.

4)  El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles
What is all that?  In English it's Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.  It's the shortened version that's better known today—the city of Los Angeles in the U.S. state of California.  The town came into being in 1781 and today, in an area of downtown Los Angeles referred to as Olvera Street, there is a cluster of museums, ancient plazas and lively markets providing a taste of life in 1800s Los Angeles.

5)  Nuestra Senora Santa Maria del Buen Aire
What is all that?  In English it's Our Lady St. Mary of the Good Air, better known today as the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina.  It's the best spot to savor the tango.  Don't take the tango lightly in Buenos Aires.  It's serious business.

6)  London Underground
London's Metropolitan Railway was the world's first subway, opened in 1863.  The first section ran between Paddington and Farringdon and was a hit in spite of the steam engines filling stations and tunnels with dense smoke.  Today, if you ride the Circle Line between Paddington and Covent Garden, you'll travel part of that original route.

7)  Venice, Italy
As mentioned earlier, Venice is sinking.  But in the interim…one of the things immediately associated with Venice are the gondolas on the canals, especially the Grand Canal.  Each gondola is made from 280 pieces of 8 different types of wood.  The left side is larger than the right side by 24cm.  The parts of a gondola represent bits of the city—the front echoes its 6 districts, the back is Giudecca Island, and the lunette is the Rialto Bridge.

8)  Great Wall of China
Most everyone knows this is the largest military construction on earth.  However the part about it being the only man-made structure able to be seen from space is an urban myth.  The sections were built by independent kingdoms between the 7th and 4th centuries BC, then unified under China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 BC.  A not well known fact is that the sections near Beijing which are most visited by tourists are reconstructions done in the 14th to 17th centuries AD.

9)  Table Mountain, South Africa
This large plateau of sandstone looms over Cape Town.  But this huge table has its own table cloth.  The plateau's cloud cover gathers across the flat top and spills over the sides when the wind whips up from the southeast.  You can reach the top by hiking trails or cable car.

10)  Uluru, Australia
This is probably the world's largest monolith, rising from the Australian desert.  More commonly known for years as Ayers Rock, it is now referred to by the Aboriginal name of Uluru.  The rock glows a fiery orange-red color, especially at sunset.  Where does its red color come from?  It's made from arkosic sandstone which contains iron.  When exposed to oxidation, the iron rusts thus providing the red color.

Stop by next week for part 2, a collection of stupid questions asked by tourists.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

LEONARDO DA VINCI'S 10 BEST IDEAS

Without a doubt, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is the embodiment of the term Renaissance man.  His genius crossed into so many different areas—artist, architect, inventor, and master of all things scientific.  All this from a man who had no formal education beyond basic reading, writing, and math.

Until the 2003 publication of Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE, he was best known as the artist who painted two of the world's most famous paintings—Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.  But there was so much more to him than his artistic creations.

His genius knew no bounds.  With a combination of intellect and imagination, he created (at least on paper) such inventions as the bicycle, helicopter, and an airplane that he based on the physiology and flying capability of a bat.

So, without further ado, here in no particular order is a list of Leonardo da Vinci's ten best ideas.

THE VITRUVIAN MAN
Thanks to Da Vinci, this drawing (above) is considered one of the most recognizable figures on earth.  He modeled his perfect human form after the proportions set forth by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.

GEOLOGIC TIME
While the scientists of his time explained inland and mountain top mollusk fossils as something leftover from the Bible's Great Flood, Leonardo disagreed.  He believed the mountains were once coastline before many years of gradually shifting upwards.

THE SELF-PROPELLED CAR
His designs for a self-propelled vehicle were revolutionary for his time.  His wooden vehicle moved by the interaction of springs and geared wheels.  In 2004, scientists at a museum in Florence, Italy, built a replica.  It worked just as Da Vinci had intended.

THE IDEAL CITY
Living in plague-ravaged Milan, he envisioned a more efficient city.  His architectural drawings were very detailed and even included horse stables and fresh air vents.  To the disappointment of many of Milan's modern day residents, there wasn't any provision for a soccer stadium.

THE AERIAL SCREW
Even though most modern scientists agree it would never have gotten off the ground, Da Vinci's helicopter design is still one of his most famous.  It was meant to be operated by a four-man crew and probably inspired by the windmill toy popular in his time.

THE TRIPLE-BARRELED CANNON
Da Vinci's distaste for conflict didn't stop him from coming up with designs for more efficient cannons.  His triple-barrel design would have been a deadly weapon of war.

THE WINGED GLIDER
His imagination soared with ideas for various types of flying machines, including gliders with flappable wings.  His open-shelled glider model had seats and gears for the pilot.

THE REVOLVING BRIDGE
As a fan of the quick getaway, he thought his revolving bridge would be best used in warfare.  His design was made of light weight yet sturdy materials affixed to a rolling rope-and-pulley system and allowed an army to change locations on a moment's notice.

SCUBA GEAR
Da Vinci had a true fascination with the oceans and had many designs for aquatic exploration.  His diving suit was made from leather and connected to a snorkel made of cane and a bell that floated on the surface.

MIRROR WRITING
For whatever reason, he liked mirror writing with most of his journals written in reverse.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Jack The Ripper Finally Identified!

After all these years of speculation about his true identity, it seems that Jack The Ripper finally has a name.

It's been almost 129 years since the world's most famous, perhaps infamous is a more appropriate word, serial killer murdered and mutilated his fifth and final victim.  Mary Kelly was only 25 years old when her body was discovered on November 9, 1888, in London's East End Whitechapel neighborhood.

For over a century theories about his identity ran rampant, including such candidates as a member of the royal family, a prominent surgeon, a famous artist, an American doctor, a Polish immigrant living in the neighborhood, and one case was even made for Jack The Ripper being a woman.  After seeing a documentary about the search for Jack The Ripper's true identity, I was leaning toward the American doctor as the culprit—Francis Tumblety was an Irish-born American medical quack who earned a small fortune posing as an Indian Herb doctor throughout the United States and Canada. He was in England at the time of the murders and when he returned to the U.S., the London murders stopped.

I find it interesting that most images of Jack The Ripper, whether drawings from that time or modern depictions, show him dressed in formal gentleman's attire including a cape and top hat.  A man dressed like that on the streets of Whitechapel at night in 1888 would definitely have been very noticeable to anyone living in the area.

Thanks to modern forensic science, a DNA match shows that Jack The Ripper is Aaron Kozminski, a Polish Jew who fled to London in the 1880s.  He died in Leavesden Asylum from gangrene at the age of 53.  Kozminski was one of the names on the list of strong suspects from the time of the murders but the police never had enough evidence to arrest him.

Russell Edwards, author of Naming Jack The Ripper (released in 2014), bought a shawl in 2007 at an auction.  Even though the shawl came without provenance, he was told that it belonged to Catherine Eddowes, the Ripper's fourth victim, and had been found near her body.  After the auction he obtained a letter from the previous owner claiming his ancestor had been a police officer who was present at the murder scene and had taken the shawl.

Edwards handed the shawl over to Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a world-renowned expert in analyzing genetic evidence from historical crime scenes.  He tracked down a descendant of Catherine Eddowes and a British descendant of Kozminski's sister, both of whom agreed to provide DNA.  With a DNA match from the samples, the doctor stated that Aaron Kozminski was Jack The Ripper.

The evidence has not yet been independently verified.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

10 STRANGE CITIES HIDDEN UNDER OTHER CITIES

Cities being built on top of ruins of ancient cities. Subterranean caverns running beneath today's cities. Underground fortresses and secret facilities being built. Many cities world wide have entire cities located beneath them, some centuries old and others relatively new.

Here are just a few of those places.

1) Edinburgh Vaults
Located in the nineteen arches of Edinburgh's iconic South Bridge, the Edinburgh Vaults [pictured above] were used to house tradesmen as well as the city's less desirable residents. When it was constructed in 1785, the bridge was intended to expand the city, and also serve as a custom-built shopping district. Along those ends, buildings located on the bridge's arches were given underground storage areas. Unfortunately, the storage vaults began to flood and were evacuated by their rightful owners. Shortly afterward, Edinburgh's downtrodden moved into them. The damp, dark rooms were a hotbed for crime, with serial killers Burk and Hare frequenting them for victims. [They were notorious body snatchers who became serial killers when there weren't enough 'legally' executed criminals to supply their need for bodies to sell to medical schools] Tons of rubble was dumped into the Vaults in the mid-1800s to close them down for good, but an access tunnel was discovered in the 1980s, leading to some fascinating discoveries. The underground city now has conducted tours.

2) Napoli Sotteranea
If you were to pick a European city that would be least likely to host an underground secret, Naples might be on your list. The flooded canals of Campania's capitol actually lay atop a bed of volcanic rock known as tuff, which is easy to mine and work. Over the centuries, a massive system of tunnels and caverns have been carved out of this material. The ancient Greeks used them as reservoirs, but there are also many fascinating ruins down below, including theaters and early Christian worship sites. During World War II, the tunnels were used for air raid shelters.

3) La Ville Souterraine
Most of the subterranean cities here have fallen into disuse and disrepair, but the massive complex beneath the streets of Montreal is one of the city's main commercial hubs. La Ville Souterraine was constructed after the Metro subway system opened in 1966, and covers over 20 miles of space under the city. Entry points are constructed around residential or commercial businesses at the surface, and the network contains underground stores, restaurants, nightclubs, and a library. During the bitterly cold winter, the majority of the city's commerce happens below the streets.

4) Burlington Bunker
The English country town of Cortsham, Wilshire, doesn't seem like it would be hiding any dark secrets, but guess again. Buried 100 feet below the quaint cobblestone streets lies a massive, sprawling subterranean city built in case a nuclear attack targeted London. The Burlington Bunker consists of 35 acres of construction and over 60 miles of roads. It was designed to support a maximum population of 4,000 people and boasted a number of amenities, including a television studio, cafeterias, and even a pub. Many of the walls are decorated with colorful murals. The existence of Burlington Bunker was classified until 2004, when it was decommissioned. It was never used, not even for test exercises.

5) Old Sacramento
In 1862, massive flooding swept through California's capitol, submerging both homes and businesses. The Legislature was relocated to San Francisco and the people who were left behind tried to figure out how to prevent a disaster like that from happening again. The solution was to raise all of the city's streets by ten feet, building new construction vaulted above the remains of the old. The abandoned spaces were used for storage and other purposes, and there is still a good amount of old Sacramento architecture left untouched beneath the surface, illuminated by squares of rose quartz set into the sidewalk as makeshift skylights.

6) Beijing Underground
The Cold War saw the threat of global nuclear annihilation loom heavy over our heads, so it's not surprising that many world leaders saw fit to head underground for safety. Perhaps the most ambitious project was Mao Zedong's underground city, which covers a staggering 33 miles of catacombs beneath the capital. China began construction in the 1970s when tensions with the Soviet Union were high, and the sprawling complex eventually came to contain medical clinics, schools, theaters, and even a roller rink. Food would come from a subterranean mushroom farm. It was opened to tourists in 2000, but closed in 2008. Some parts of the complex are now being used as illegal apartments.

7) Subtropolis
Having an office with a window is a nice perk, but for the workers of Subtropolis, that is not an option. This massive cave system carved out of the bluffs above the Mississippi River hosts 50 companies and thousands of employees working in a giant limestone mine. Subtropolis makes up a complex larger than downtown St. Louis's business district, and hosts the U.S. Postal Service's collectible stamp stockpile, a number of data centers, and an artisanal cheese aging facility. Even 5K and 10K races are held in this underground complex.

8) Paris Catacombs
Over 200 miles of tunnels, caves and catacombs stretch beneath the streets of Paris, France, and are used for a variety of fascinating purposes. Originally hollowed out for limestone when the city was being built, the Paris catacombs have been used for corpse disposal, mushroom farming, and hideouts for the French resistance during World War II. They were closed to the public in 1955, but a whole subculture has arisen around the underground city. Explorers have renovated tunnels, built living areas and even hosted art exhibitions in the Paris catacombs. The structural integrity of the remaining quarry walls are monitored by a team of French officials as they have been known to cave in and take whole neighborhoods on the surface with them.

9) Las Vegas Tunnels
The glittering streets of Las Vegas are a playground for people from all over the world with its tempting gambling, nightlife, and food. But beneath the streets, a subterranean city houses the unlucky people chewed up and spit out by Sin City. In the 1990s, with the tourism boom putting lots of tax money into the city, Vegas built a system of drainage tunnels to protect the city from flash floods. The 200 miles of tunnels have now become home to about a thousand people, who create living spaces in the cramped, scorpion-filled spaces and hope that the rain doesn't wash away everything they own.

10) Underground Seattle
One of the most famous underground cities in America was created as a result of a major disaster. In 1889, a cabinetmaker working in Seattle's Pioneer Square area tipped over a glue pot, which caught fire and started a massive blaze that destroyed 31 blocks of the city. Instead of just rebuilding, the City Council decided to raise all of the streets one to two stories higher than the old height. This created a cavernous area of walled-in sidewalks, with glass skylights in the street's above, that people used to get from business to business, as well as the remnants of buildings damaged by the fire. Seattle condemned the Underground in 1907 following a bubonic plague scare, but it was opened for tours in 1965. I've taken this tour [actually, took it on two different occasions]. Fascinating place.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

5 Lost Cities—Found

Last week it was 6 lands that were believed to be real at the time, but later proven to be myths.  This week, it's 5 cities that were believed to be myths, but later proven to be real.

1. Lagunita
An archeologist from Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts rediscovered the lost Mayan city of Lagunita. He identified a Mayan doorway, the remains of massive buildings, plazas, ball courts, a pyramid and three altars that date back to 711 AD.

The above picture was taken on Oct. 28, 2013 and released by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).  The ruins belonging to the ancient Maya city called Lagunita stand out in the jungle on a remote location in the southern state of Campeche, Mexico. Archaeologists in Mexico first stumbled upon this site in the 1970s and it was rediscovered in 2013.

2. Helike
In the year 373 BC, a giant earthquake hit off the coast of Greece, which created a giant tsunami that swallowed the ancient city of Helike. Then, in 2001 a team finally rediscovered Helike, digging up coins, pottery and ruins. The reason it took them so long to find it? They were looking under water, but it was actually under dirt. The water had long ago dried up.

3. Troy
The famous city of Troy was once believed to be a mythical place, a location, one that never existed in real life. The place that gave us Helen of Troy (the face that launched a thousand ships) and the Trojan Horse. But in 1870, Heinrich Schliemann followed clues laid out in Homer's ILIAD and found the ruins of the fabled city in Turkey, thus moving Troy from myth to reality.

I read a book about Schliemann's discovery of Troy and then by coincidence a few months later the university's art museum hosted an exhibition of photographs taken at his archeological dig.

4. Pavlopetri
Many believe this city, underwater off the coast of southern Laconia in Peloponnese, Greece, is the real life Atlantis. This 5,000-year-old lost city was found in 1967 and is thought to have been submerged about 3,000 years, giving it an impressive lifetime of 2,000 years. Archeologists found roads, buildings, courtyards and pottery.

5. Machu Picchu
Maybe the greatest of the lost cities sits on top of a mountain in Peru. It wasn't rediscovered until 1911, mostly because of its location. People are always digging for lost cities, looking under the oceans, or trekking through the jungle. No one thinks to look up to the high mountain tops.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

6 Important Lands that Never Existed

Island of Thule (Tile)

Even though I'm posting this blog on April 2nd, I'm considering it to be in honor of April 1st…April Fool's Day. And why would it relate to April Fool's Day? This week's blog is about 6 lands believed to be real at the time but since have proven to be no more than myths.

Ancient travelers (and by ancient I mean many centuries ago) told stories of mysterious places located in the unexplored reaches of the world—fabled cities, phantom islands and exotic civilizations.  Even though these lands were usually dismissed as myths and legends, a few of them found their way onto world maps and helped inspire some of history’s most important journeys of discovery.  From a fabled Christian empire in Asia to a supposed lost kingdom in Canada, find out more about six of the most influential lands that never were.

1) Thule
A subject of fascination for ancient explorers, romantic poets and Nazi occultists.  Thule was an elusive territory believed to be located in the frozen north Atlantic near Scandinavia. Its legend dates back to the 4th century B.C., when the Greek journeyman Pytheas claimed to have travelled to an icy island beyond Scotland where the sun rarely set and land, sea and air combined into a bewildering, jelly-like mass.

Many of Pytheas’ contemporaries doubted his claims, but that didn't stop distant Thule from lingering in the European imagination.  It eventually became synonymous with the northernmost place in the known world.  Explorers and researchers variously identified it as Norway, Iceland and the Shetland Islands, and it served a recurring theme in poetry and myth.  The island is perhaps most famous for its connection to the Thule Society, a post-World War I occult organization in Germany that considered Thule the ancestral home of the Aryan race. The Munich-based group counted many future Nazis among its members, including Rudolf Hess, who later served as Deputy Führer of Germany under Adolf Hitler.

2) The Kingdom of Prester John
For more than 500 years, Europeans believed a Christian king ruled over a vast empire somewhere in the wilds of either Africa, India or the Far East.  Talk of this mythical land first surfaced in 1165 after the Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors received a letter—most likely a European forgery—from a monarch calling himself Prester John.  The mysterious king claimed to serve as supreme ruler of the three Indies and all its 72 kingdoms.  He described his realm as a utopia rich in gold, populated by exotic races of giants and horned men.  Perhaps most important of all, Prester John and his subjects were Christians—even the name Prester meant Priest.

Despite the fact that a Papal mission to find Prester John’s court disappeared without a trace, the myth of his kingdom took hold among Europeans.  Crusading Christians rejoiced in the idea that a devout ruler might come to their aid in the struggle against Islam during the Crusades, and when Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes conquered parts of Persia in the early 1200s, many mistakenly credited Prester John’s forces with the attack.  The kingdom later became a subject of fascination for travelers and explorers.  Marco Polo provided a questionable account of encountering its remnants in Northern China.  Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese mariners searched for it in Africa and India.  While explorers eventually discovered a Christian civilization in Ethiopia, it lacked the grandeur and the gold Europeans had come to associate with Prester John’s realm. By the 17th century, the legend had faded, and the famed empire was dropped from most maps.

3) Hy-Brasil
Long before Europeans ever stepped foot in the New World, explorers searched for the island of Hy-Brasil, an ethereal land said to exist off the west coast of Ireland.  The story of Hy-Brasil most likely comes from Celtic legend—its name means Isle of the Blest in Gaelic—but its precise origins are unclear.  Hy-Brasil first appeared on maps in the 14th century, usually in the form of a small, circular island with a narrow strait splitting it in two.  Many mariners accepted it as a real place until as recently as the 1800s, and it became popular as the basis for myths and folktales.  Some legends described the island as a lost paradise.  Others claimed that it was perpetually obscured by a dense curtain of mist and fog, only becoming visible to the naked eye every seven years.  [which sounds as if it might have been the genesis of the Lerner & Lowe musical BRIGADOON about a village in Scotland that appeared out of the mist every one hundred years]

Despite its somewhat whimsical reputation, Hy-Brasil was widely sought after by Britain-based explorers in the 15th century. The navigator John Cabot launched several expeditions in an attempt to find it.  It's suggested that he had hoped to locate it during his famous journey to the coast of Newfoundland in 1497.  Documents from Cabot’s time claim that previous explorers had already reached Hy-Brasil, leading some researchers to argue that these unnamed mariners may have inadvertently traveled all the way to the Americas prior to Christopher Columbus.

4) El Dorado
Beginning in the 16th century, European explorers and conquistadors were intrigued by tales of a mythical city of gold located in the unexplored reaches of South America.  The city had its origin in accounts of El Dorado (The Gilded One), a native king who powdered his body with gold dust and tossed jewels and gold into a sacred lake as part of a coronation rite.  Stories of the gilded king eventually led to rumors of a golden city of untold wealth and splendor.  Adventurers spent many years—and countless lives—in a futile search for its riches.

One of the most famous El Dorado expeditions came in 1617, when the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh traveled up the Orinoco River on a quest to find it in what is now Venezuela.  They didn't find any trace of the gilded city, and King James I later executed Raleigh after he disobeyed an order to avoid fighting with the Spanish.  El Dorado continued to drive exploration and colonial violence until the early 1800s, when scientists Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland branded the city a myth after undertaking a research expedition to Latin America.

El Dorado wasn’t the only gilded city supposedly tucked away in the New World.  European explorers also hunted for the Seven Cities of Cibola, a mythical group of gold-rich settlements said to be located somewhere in what are now Mexico and the American Southwest.  The most famous search for the Seven Cities came in the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado scoured the Great Plains of the U.S. in search of a city of riches called Quivira.

5) St. Brendan’s Island
St. Brendan’s Island was a mysterious manifestation of Paradise once thought to be hidden somewhere in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.  The myth of the phantom island dates back to the Navigatio Brendani, or Voyage of Brendan, a 1,200-year-old Irish legend about the seafaring monk St. Brendan the Navigator.  As the story goes, Brendan led a crew of pious sailors on a 6th century voyage in search of the famed Promised Land of the Saints.  The journey on the open sea describes attacks by fireball-wielding giants and run-ins with talking birds.  According to the tale, Brendan and his men landed on a mist-covered island filled with delicious fruit and sparkling gems. The grateful crew are said to have spent 40 days exploring the island before returning to Ireland.

Although there is no historical proof of St. Brendan’s voyage, the legend became so popular during medieval times that St. Brendan’s Island found its way onto many maps of the Atlantic. Early cartographers placed it near Ireland, but in later years it migrated to the coasts of North Africa, the Canary Islands and finally the Azores. Sailors often claimed to have caught fleeting glimpses of the mystical isle during the Age of Discovery, and it’s likely that even Christopher Columbus believed in its existence.  Its legend eventually faded after multiple search expeditions failed to track it down. By the 18th century, the famed Promised Land of the Saints had been removed from most navigational charts.

6) The Kingdom of Saguenay
The story of the mirage-like Kingdom of Saguenay dates to the 1530s, when French explorer Jacques Cartier made his second journey to Canada in search of gold and a northwest passage to Asia.  While traveling along the St. Lawrence River at what is modern day Quebec, Cartier’s Iroquois guides began to whisper tales of Saguenay, a vast kingdom that lay to the north. According to a chief named Donnacona, the mysterious realm was rich in spices, furs and precious metals and populated by blond, bearded men with pale skin.  The stories eventually transitioned into the realm of the absurd when the natives claimed the region was also home to races of one-legged people and whole tribes possessing no anus.  Cartier became intrigued by the prospect of plundering the riches of Saguenay.  He brought Donnacona back to France, where the Iroquois chief continued to spread tales of a lost kingdom.

Legends about Saguenay haunted French explorers in North America for years, but treasure hunters never found any trace of the mythical land.  Most historians now dismiss it as a myth, but some argue the natives may have been referring to copper deposits in the Canadian northwest.  Others have suggested that the Indian tales could have been inspired by a centuries old Norse outpost left over from Viking voyages to North America.

Fortunately, today we have Google Earth to confirm or deny such rumors of mythical places.  :)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

April Fool's Day—Where Did It Come From?

Friday, April 1, 2016—April Fool's Day or All Fool's Day as it is also known.  A date that has been celebrated for centuries.  But what in the world could possibly be the origins of a day dedicated to pranks and practical jokes?

The exact origins remain a bit of a mystery, the most widely accepted theory says it dates back to 1582 when France switched from the Julian calendar where the new year began on April 1 to the Gregorian calendar where the new year began on January 1 as called for in 1563 by the Council of Trent.  People who didn't get the word that the start of the year had moved or refused to accept the change and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the object of jokes and hoaxes.  Paper fish would be placed on their back and they were referred to as poisson d'avri which means April fish.  It symbolized a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.  These people were considered fools and had practical jokes played on them.

Historians have linked April Fools' Day to ancient festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises.  There's also speculation that April Fool's Day was tied to the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when Mother Nature fooled people with changing and unpredictable weather.

On April 1, 1700, English pranksters began popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools' Day by playing practical jokes on each other.  The celebration spread throughout Britain during the eighteenth century.  In Scotland it became a two day event in which people were sent on phony errands and had fake tails or kick me signs pinned to their rear ends.

All Fools' Day is practiced in many parts of the world with the playing of practical jokes and sending people on fool's errands.  In modern times people have gone to great lengths to stage elaborate pranks.  Here's the top ten hoaxes from a list of the best one hundred pranks of all time as judged by notoriety, creativity, and number of people duped.

1)  The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest (1957):  The respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop.

2)  Sidd Finch (1985):  Sports Illustrated published a story about a new rookie pitcher who planned to play for the Mets.  His name was Sidd Finch, and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy.  But Sidd Finch had never played the game before.  He mastered the art of the pitch in a Tibetan monastery.  This legendary player was the creation of the article's author, George Plimpton.

3)  Instant Color TV (1962):  At the time there was only one television channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white.  The station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception.  All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their television screen.

4)  The Taco Liberty Bell (1996):  The Taco Bell Corporation announced it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.  Outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia to express their anger.

5)  San Serriffe (1977):  British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic consisting of semi-colon shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean.  It described the geography and culture of this obscure nation.  Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse.  Its leader was General Pica.  Only a few readers noticed that everything about the islands was named after printer's terminology.

6)  Nixon for President (1992):  National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program announced that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again.  His campaign slogan was, "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again."  Listeners flooded the show with calls expressing shock and outrage.  Nixon's voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

7)  Alabama Changes the Value of Pi (1998):  The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the Biblical value of 3.0.  The article soon made its way onto the internet, then rapidly spread around the world.  The Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation.  The original article was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution and had been written by a physicist.

8)  The Left-Handed Whopper (1998):  Burger King published a full page ad in USA Today announcing the introduction on their menu of a Left-Handed Whopper for the 32 million left-handed Americans.  The ingredients were the same as the original Whopper, but the ad claimed all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers.  Thousands of customers requested the new sandwich.

9)  Hotheaded Naked Ice Borers (1995):  Discover Magazine reported that a highly respected wildlife biologist found a new species in Antarctica—the hotheaded naked ice borer.  The creatures had bony plates on their heads.  When fed by numerous blood vessels, they could become burning hot thus allowing the animals to bore through ice at high speeds.  They used this ability to hunt penguins, melting the ice beneath the penguins and causing them to sink downwards where the hotheads consumed them.  It was theorized that the hotheads might have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of noted Antarctic explorer Philippe Poisson in 1837.  To the hotheads, the explorer looked like a penguin.

10)  Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity (1976):  British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur and listeners could experience it in their own homes.  Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity.  Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment the planetary alignment occurred they would experience a strange floating sensation.  When 9:47AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation.  One woman reported she and her eleven friends had floated around the room.

Have you ever played an April Fool's joke on someone, or had one played on you?  Tell us about it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

10 Scariest Places On Earth

I recently came across a list that claimed to be the 10 scariest places on Earth.  The list isn't a reference to most haunted places. That would have made it a Halloween blog. :) Although, a couple of the places on this list are said to be haunted. Some of these places have been abandoned due primarily to man's misdeeds. This list is in no particular order.

1)  Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic (pictured above)
When you have the remains of over 40,000 people, what do you do with all those bones? The Abbot of Sedlec went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1278 and brought back some dirt he claimed came from Jesus' burial site. Immediately thereafter Catholics from all over Europe started demanding burial in the Sedlec Ossuary cemetery. The cemetery obviously didn't have the space to accommodate all the continual requests. In the 16th century, the church staff dug up everyone buried there and used those bones for decoration: there's a chandelier made from one of every bone in the human body, garlands of skulls, and a replica of the Schwarzenberg coat of arms made from bones.

2) Centralia, Pennsylvania
Our incredible natural resources is one thing that has made America such a prosperous country. Unfortunately, those natural resources can occasionally turn on us and that's what happened when a coal mine near Centralia, Pennsylvania, caught fire in 1962. The veins of coal ran under the town which ultimately turned Centralia into a literal hellhole. Temperatures over 1000 degree Fahrenheit accompanied by belching clouds of poisonous gas. Once the initial conflagration settled down, people began to move back but soon discovered that the veins of coal were still burning resulting in blazing hot sinkholes that swallowed people without warning. Most of the residents have moved away.

3)  Pripyat, Ukraine
A colossal example of man's ability to really screw up the planet is on display in Pripyat in the Ukraine. The town's former population of 49,000 was evacuated following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Now referred to as the zone of exclusion, it looks like a freaky ghost town. The few people who have ventured back into the town report an atmosphere of desolation and terror. Dolls on school house floors, vehicles in disrepair on the roadsides, and the skeleton of an abandoned amusement park that's hauntingly scary.

4)  Aokigahara Suicide Forest
The Aokigahara Forest at the base on Mt. Fuji in Japan is associated with multiple demons in Japanese folklore. There's something about the supernatural forest that drives people to suicide. An average of 100 people travel to Aokigahara every year to kill themselves, mostly by hanging or drug overdose. Legend says that in the 19th century families would abandon their elderly relatives there to die when they couldn't take care of themselves.

5)  Lome Bazaar, Togo
If you've ever been to a street market in a third world country, then you know how crazy things can be. So, take all that energy and put it in a bazaar that sells only materials for voodoo and you have the Lome Bazaar in Togo. The bazaar is a one stop shop for a wide variety of terrifying things used to perform frightening functions. The absolute volume of grisly death that stares at you is enough to make the strongest person weak in the knees.

6)  Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge period of Cambodia's past is one of the scariest genocides in history. Millions of innocents were slaughtered and the museum is located where it all happened. In Khmer, "Tuol Sleng" translates as "Strychnine Hill." The museum is housed in a former death camp and notoriously haunted by ghosts of the thousands who died there. Of the 17,000 people who were admitted to the prison, only seven survived.

7)  Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee
Sometimes science has to do some pretty disgusting things to make advancements, but we don't make them vacation spots. Studying the decomposition of the human body can give researchers lots of knowledge useful to medicine, forensics, and others. To monitor a body decomposing in real time, you go to the body farm on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It's a 2.5 acre of land and at any time has multiple bodies laid out in various positions. Over 100 corpses are donated to the Body Farm every year. Several detective/forensics/crime shows, both entertainment programming and documentaries, have used the concept of the Body Farm in their episodes.

8)  Helltown, Ohio
The village of Boston was founded in Ohio's Summit County in 1806 and succeeded until 1974 when something weird happened. President Ford signed a bill authorizing the area to be turned into a national park, the houses were purchased and boarded up, but no park was ever built, resulting in a deserted town in the middle of nowhere. The newly named Helltown spawned some terrifying legends including Satanist sacrifices, mysterious toxic waste spills, and an escaped mental patient who wanders the woods.

9)  Fengdu, China
With China's population, there isn't much room left for a ghost town—except for Fengdu, located on the north bank of the Yangtze River. Fengdu is completely abandoned. It's rumored to be a junction point between Earth and the underworld where rampaging demons grab unaware souls.

10)  La Isla De La Munecas, Mexico
Dozens of small, uninhabited islands dot the canals south of Mexico City. It's not just the polluted runoff from Mexico City that makes the area less than desirable. Fifty years ago, a man named Don Julian Santana lived the life of a hermit on one of the islands. One day he fished the corpse of a young girl out of the water. As a form of protection, he started hanging dolls from the tree limbs and branches on his island. He continued to do this over the next few decades until the entire island was cluttered with broken, weathered dolls giving it the appearance of a terrifying place.

And that's the list of ten. Have any of you ever been to any of these places?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

St. Patrick's Day—history, symbols, traditions, green beer, and Irish coffee


March 17—St. Patrick's religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. A date that falls during the Christian season of Lent. The Irish have observed this date as a religious holiday for over a thousand years. Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in the U.S., not in Ireland. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762, (when we were still a British colony). In 1848, several New York Irish aid societies united their parades to form one New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. Today, that parade is the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States with over 150,000 participants.

Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although North America is home to the largest celebrations, it has been celebrated in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.

In modern day Ireland, St. Patrick's Day has traditionally been a religious occasion. Until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated pubs be closed on March 17. In 1995, the Irish government began a national campaign to use St. Patrick's Day as an opportunity to promote tourism.
Symbols and Traditions
The shamrock was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland, symbolizing the rebirth of spring. By the seventeenth century, it became a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism.

Music is often associated with St. Patrick's Day and Irish culture in general. Since the ancient days of the Celts, music has always been an important part of Irish life. The Celts had an oral culture where religion, legend, and history were passed from one generation to the next through stories and songs.

Banishing snakes from Ireland has been associated with St. Patrick. A long held belief says St. Patrick once stood on a hilltop and with only a wooden staff managed to drive all the snakes from Ireland. The fact is the island nation of Ireland has never had snakes. The climate is too cold and damp for reptiles that cannot internally generate their own body heat.

Every year on St. Patrick's Day the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage is consumed. Cabbage has long been an Irish food, but corned beef didn't become associated with St. Patrick's Day until many years later.

Belief in leprechauns probably comes from Celtic belief in fairies—tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. Leprechauns are only minor figures in Celtic folklore, cantankerous little men known for their trickery which they often used to protect their fabled treasure. The cheerful, friendly image of the leprechaun is a purely American invention created by Walt Disney in his 1959 movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
Chicago is famous for a somewhat peculiar annual event: dyeing the Chicago River green. The tradition started in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and realized that the green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday. That year, they released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river—enough to keep it green for a week. Today, in order to minimize environmental damage, only forty pounds of dye are used, making the river green for several hours rather than days.

Green beer, certainly associated with St. Patrick's Day here in the United States, is NOT an Irish creation. Purists claim that Arthur Guinness would turn over in his grave if anyone attempted to add green food coloring to the traditional Irish brew. Green beer is most likely of American origins.

And Irish coffee?  The forerunner of today's Irish coffee was said to have originated at Foynes' port (the precursor to Shannon International Airport on the west coast of Ireland near the town of Limerick) one miserable winter night in the 1940s. Joseph Sheridan added some whiskey to the coffee to warm the arriving American passengers, proclaiming it to be Irish coffee.

A travel writer named Stanton Delaplane brought Irish coffee to the U.S. after drinking it at Shannon Airport. He worked with the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco to develop the perfect drink. The Buena Vista Cafe started serving Irish coffee on November 10, 1952, and continues to serve large quantities of it to this day starting from the time they open in the morning for breakfast until they close at night.

So, here's to everyone celebrating on March 17 whether Irish or not. Enjoy your corned beef and cabbage, green beer, and Irish coffee.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Daylight Saving Time and the Vernal Equinox

Every March we have two annual observations that are not holidays—one is man made and the other is science/nature. The first is the start of daylight saving time and the other is the beginning of Spring. Grammatically speaking, daylight saving time is correct but the common usage over the years has been daylight savings time.

In the U.S., at 2am on the second Sunday in March we set our clocks forward one hour for the start of daylight saving time—or to put it another way, we lose one hour of sleep. This year, the second Sunday falls on March 12, 2017. And on the first Sunday in November at 2am we reverse that process by setting our clocks back one hour—we get an additional hour of sleep to make up for that hour we lost in March. In 2017, that first Sunday is November 5th.

Standard time—the creation of time zones—was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads in 1883. Due to the vast width of the two countries stretching thousands of miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, it was necessary to establish some method of standardizing train schedules. However, it was not established in U.S. law until the Act of March 19, 1918. The Act also established daylight saving time which was repealed in 1919 while standard time in time zones remained the law. Daylight saving time was re-established in World War II. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 brought standardization of start and stop dates but allowed for local exemptions from its observance. Since then the official beginning and ending dates have changed several times, the most recent being in 2007.

Those states that have opted for the exemption from daylight saving time are Arizona (except for the Navajo, who do observe daylight saving time on tribal lands), Hawaii, and the overseas territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands

There are several states that are split between two time zones. Oregon and Idaho are split between the Mountain and Pacific time zones. Florida, Michigan, Indiana (I think I read somewhere that one of Indiana's time zones observes daylight saving time and the other time zone does not), Kentucky, and Tennessee are split between Eastern and Central time zones. Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, North and South Dakota are divided between Central and Mountain time zones.

At one time, Alaska covered four time zones. That has been changed and Alaska is now in two time zones. More than 98 percent of the state's population are in one of these zones, now called Yukon time, which is one hour earlier than Pacific standard time and four hours earlier than Eastern standard time.

And then there is the other annual observance, the one dictated by science/nature—the vernal equinox.

Equinox translates literally to "equal night."

On March 20, 2017, at precisely 6:29AM eastern daylight time, the sun crosses directly over the Earth's equator. That moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere announcing the arrival of spring and the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere announcing the arrival of fall. A second equinox will occur in September.

The fact that the Earth has distinctive seasons is due to the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. The Earth receives more sunlight (longer daylight hours) in the summer and less sunlight (fewer daylight hours) in the winter.  The tilt of the axis makes the seasons opposite in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. At the north pole summer gives six months of daylight while at the same time the south pole is experiencing six months of darkness. The closer you are to the equator, the daily hours of daylight and darkness become more equal.

The fall and spring equinoxes are the only two times during the year when the sun rises due east and sets due west. Modern astronomy aside, people have recognized the astronomical connection to the season changes for thousands of years. The ancients of various civilizations all over the world built structures that illustrate this—temples dedicated to their various gods that modern man recognizes as observatories. Not only the spring and fall equinox days, but also the summer and winter solstice days (most and least daily hours of daylight).

I think it's also interesting to note a connection between the spring equinox and Groundhog Day (another holiday derived from the practices and celebrations of the ancients). If the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, we have six more weeks of winter. And by "coincidence" that six weeks takes us to within a few days of the spring equinox.

A little bit of equinox trivia: According to folklore, you can stand a raw egg on its end on the equinox. One spring, a few minutes before the vernal equinox, twenty-four almanac editors tested the theory. For a full work day, seventeen out of twenty-four eggs stood up on the large end. Then three days following the equinox, they tried the same test again. And guess what? The results were similar.  Perhaps the second test was still too close to the time of the equinox?  :)

And there you have it—your science lesson for the day. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

SOME OF HOLLYWOOD'S BEST WHO NEVER WON AN OSCAR®

The 89th Annual Academy Awards Ceremonies falls on Sunday, February 26th, this year.  Who will win that coveted statuette?  Who will be taking home an Oscar®?

There are many people in the movie industry who are considered legends, those who were nominated and deserved the Academy Award but never received that elusive prize.  Some of the names will even strike you as What? That can't be true. He/She must have won at least once.

So, in no particular order, here is a cross-section of very deserving movie legends who were often nominated but missed out on the grand prize of the movie industry's top award.

1)  Alfred Hitchcock
With a string of directorial masterpieces to his credit, he never won one of the prized statuettes for directing.  However, in 1968 he was presented an honorary Oscar® for his lifetime body of work.

2)  Cary Grant
He made it look easy which sometimes prevented people from realizing just how good he was—adept at drama and light comedy (and even slapstick, after all he started his career as a vaudeville acrobat in England which certainly equipped him with the dexterity and coordination to do physical comedy).  Considered by many to be the epitome of the romantic leading man.  However, in 1970 he was presented an honorary Oscar® for his lifetime body of work.

3)  Peter O'Toole
He holds the record for the most Best Actor nominations (8) without a win with his most famous role probably Lawrence of Arabia.  My personal favorite of Peter O'Toole's films is My Favorite Year, one of his few comedy films.  However, in 2003 he was presented an honorary Oscar® for his lifetime body of work.

4)  Deborah Kerr
With many outstanding roles, certainly From Here To Eternity and also The King And I, she was nominated six times but no wins.  However, in 1994 she was presented an honorary Oscar® for her lifetime body of work.

5)  Richard Burton
Many outstanding performances including an exceptional one in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolfe. Six nominations, five of them for Best Actor, but no wins.

6)  Albert Finney
The British actor is probably best known for Tom Jones, one of his earlier films.  He's garnered five nominations but no wins.  My favorite Albert Finney film is Murder On The Orient Express, show casing his marvelous portrayal of Hercule Poirot (with an incredible cast including several Oscar® winners and nominees, among them multiple Oscar® winner Ingrid Bergman who won an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress in Murder On The Orient Express).

7)  Angela Lansbury
Today she's best known for her award winning role of Jessica Fletcher, the retired school teacher turned mystery novelist and amateur sleuth in the long running television series Murder, She Wrote.  In addition to television, she has an impressive award winning string of Broadway performances.  But oddly enough, even though she started her career in films and received three Oscar® nominations, it's the acting award that has remained elusive.  One of her Oscar® nominations was for a riveting performance in the original film version of The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey (she played Laurence Harvey's mother even though they were only a few months apart in age).

8)  Fred Astaire
Although best known for a stellar career in a long string of very successful musicals (many with his long time partner, Ginger Rogers), his one and only nomination came for a dramatic role in Towering Inferno.

9)  Charlie Chaplin
He is one of the most pivotal stars of the early days of Hollywood.  Even though he never won for either acting or directing, I wasn't sure whether to add him to this list of never won an Oscar® because he did win one for Best Original Musical Score in 1952 for Limelight.  However, in 1972 he was presented with an honorary Oscar® for his lifetime body of work and received the longest standing ovation in Academy Awards history (over twelve minutes).

There are, of course, many more nominated actors/actresses/directors who deserve but haven't yet had their name engraved on an Oscar®.