Sunday, April 5, 2020

9 DANGEROUS SCIENTIFIC WORK LOCATIONS

When you hear the word 'scientist,' it usually conjures an image of a sterile room with a person in a white lab coat surrounded by test tubes, Bunsen burners, and beakers with bubbling lab experiments. But in reality, there are many scientists working in various fields of discovery whose 'lab' is far removed from that stereotypical image--scientists who do their work in the field. I read an article about scientists who work on location rather than in a lab…the ones whose labs are out there, in dangerous places and situations where most of us would never go.

So, in no particular order, here are nine of these dangerous scientific work locations.
1)  Inside Volcanoes
When you think of geologists your first thought is usually the study of rocks and various landforms, something safe and basically stable. But for the branch of this particular science known as volcanology, things are definitely less stable and a certainly a little hotter. Having been to Mt. St. Helens, Washington, not long after the explosive eruption and viewing the devastation first hand, I'm very familiar with the story of David Johnston, the thirty-year-old volcanologist who was on duty at the time and was one of the fifty-seven people who died in the eruption. Volcanologists study the intense heat and chaos inside active volcanoes, and recently a team of three researchers descended inside the Marum Volcano on Ambrym Island off the coast of Australia to study lava flows inside. Wearing a heat-resistant suit, one of them descended 1200 feet into the volcano’s crater to capture video footage of the lava's movement. Normally, scientists use robotic cameras mounted to small helicopters or drones to do this extremely dangerous work.
2) Tornado Country
The movie Twister gave us a good look at what storm chasers do, and those who live in the part of the U.S. referred to as Tornado Alley see the results of their work on the news when the storm conditions are present that produce tornadoes. Collecting data on storms is a tough process. Getting close to a tornado is risky on a good day, and self-proclaimed storm chasers run that risk all the time. Even with technology such as Doppler radar giving us the overall picture of a severe storm, some scientists claim there is some data that can only be gathered at ground level. One of the most noted tornado researchers, Tim Samaras, routinely drove in front of tornadoes to place cameras and pressure sensors to record the velocities of objects swept up by the storm. Unfortunately, in 2013 Samaras, his son, and another storm chaser died in an Oklahoma tornado.
3) Biosafety Level 4 Labs
All the news these days is about the Coronavirus which has been elevated to the status of a pandemic. Laboratories that deal with germs and diseases that can be dangerous or fatal to humans are given a biosafety rating from one to four. Facilities that deal with Level four are where the really bad stuff happens. One of the most notable is the NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) integrated research facility located at Fort Detrick, Maryland (pictured here). The laboratory is housed in a three-story office building—an airtight, pressurized environment restricted to only a select number of researchers. The facility has airlocks that separate it from the outside world and anything that leads outside the building, such as light fixtures or electrical outlets, is sealed in epoxy to prevent even a single germ from escaping. Scientists are given a seven-minute showering with virus-killing chemicals before they leave.

4)  Underwater Caves
The ocean is a massive mystery to humanity, covering the majority of the Earth’s surface. Even though it's part of our planet, we seem to know more about outer space than we do the depths of our oceans. One of the most interesting areas under the ocean's surface are what are known as blue holes, underwater caves that can reach as deep as six hundred feet below sea level. These caves have difficult topography. They vary in size from massive, sprawling caverns to holes barely big enough to admit a human. Diving there can be very dangerous with unpredictable currents. Despite the dangers, scientific rewards are huge with both biological and archaeological finds waiting to be discovered.
5)  Tree Canopies
Forest ecosystems are made up of distinct layers, each with its own climate and variety of plants and animals. It's a simple task to study the layers nearest the ground, but botanists have lots of questions about what's happening up above. And that's where canopy research comes in. Scientists at Humboldt State University climb to the top of trees that can exceed 350 feet in height, anchoring their bodies to the trunk. From that risky perch they can observe the canopy ecosystem…as long as they don't lose their balance. At the top of the trees, researchers have discovered a whole ecosystem of moss, lichens, and even whole new trees and bushes growing from dead stumps.

6)  Amundsen-Scott Station
Originally built by the United States government in 1956, the Amundsen-Scott Station sits squarely on the south pole. With temperatures ranging from minus 13.6 degrees Celsius (minus 56.48 Fahrenheit) on a nice day to minus 82.8 degrees Celsius (minus 181.04 Fahrenheit) when winter is in high gear, it's one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. Even though blizzards and intense winds are common, astronomers spend months at the station because the six months of total darkness during winter makes Amundsen-Scott a perfect place to observe the night sky. Other researchers study the movements of the Antarctic ice sheet—the station itself moves about thirty-three feet a year as the ice drifts.
7)  Aquarius Lab
Operated by the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration, this deep-sea science station comes with a little twist. The human body is only capable of staying underwater for a short period at a time because decompression sickness (commonly referred to as the bends) can cause incredible damage when gas bubbles form and disrupt tissue. Some scientists have long-term research projects that need to happen in deep water, so they do it at the Aquarius Lab. This facility rests on the sea floor outside of Key Largo, Florida at a depth of fifty feet. Researchers spend up to ten days underwater at a time, studying the nearby coral reefs.

8)  Inside Hurricanes
Here’s another meteorological condition where some scientists like to get a little too close. The National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration employs a number of flight meteorologists who take airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to gather data on the storm's strength and direction. They use two planes—one is a Gulfstream G-4 that has the easy job of circling the storm's funnel, the second is a smaller propeller plane that actually penetrates the fast-moving wind to fly right to the eye of the storm. In addition to using Doppler radar on the plane's tail, they also release a device called a dropsonde that transmits pressure and humidity data.
9)  Outer Space
And finally…there is literally no environment as hostile to the human body as the vacuum of space. Long-term weightlessness has negative effects on muscle tone, bone density and the immune system. Exposure to radiation in low-earth orbit comes at levels ten times higher than the normal dose on the Earth's surface. And there's also the fact that outer space doesn't have any of that oxygen stuff our bodies need to function. Experimentation in outer space has led to a number of fascinating discoveries in fields as diverse as astronomy and cancer medicine.

And there you have a sampling of dangerous locations some scientists refer to as their lab (minus those white lab coats, of course).

Sunday, March 29, 2020

April Fool's Day

Wednesday, April 1, 2020—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 backs 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 22, 2020

What Your Handwriting Reveals

Graphologists claim that your handwriting can reveal clues to your personality. There are many small details that provide clues to your personality in addition to several generalizations. Let's see if any of these observations ring true for you.

Small handwriting is associated with being studious, shy, meticulous and concentrated.

Large handwriting is associated with being an outgoing, attention-loving person.

Average handwriting is associated with being well-adjusted and adaptable.

Wide spacing between words means you enjoy your freedom. It also means that you don't typically enjoy large crowds and you don't like to be overwhelmed.

Narrow spacing between words means that you can't stand being alone and you tend to crowd people.

Having rounded letters is typically associated with being artistic or creative.

Having pointed letters can mean you are intense, intelligent, curious and aggressive.

People who write with connected letters are associated with being logical and systematic.

Crossing the very top of the 'T' generally means you have good self-esteem, are optimistic and ambitious.

Crossing the middle of the 't' generally means you are confident and comfortable in your own skin.

Leaving open letters (like not closing an 'O') typically means you are expressive, social and talkative.

Writing a closed letter 'O' indicates you are a private person and an introvert.

If the dot on your 'i' lands high above the letter, you are considered to be imaginative.

If your dot lands to the left of the letter 'i,' then you might be a procrastinator.

If the dot is perfectly over the 'i,' you are considered to be detail-oriented, empathetic and organized.

If the dot of your 'i' has a circle, then you are considered to be a visionary or child-like.

If the dot looks more like a slash, then you might be overly self-critical.

So ... what does your handwriting say about you?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

8 PEOPLE YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF WHO CHANGED HISTORY

As children, we're told we can grow up to be anything we want.  We can grow up and change the world.  However, the reality is that when we grew up we hopefully had a positive impact on our family, our jobs, our surrounding and hopefully our community.  But not many of us have actually ended up changing the world in massive ways simply by working hard, thinking quickly or just doing our jobs properly.  Many of these people were lost to history for a number of reasons—cultural differences, minority status, military secrecy, and in a few cases, just plain modesty.
THE GHOST ARMY
It's World War II, the Army's 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the Ghost Army, played a major role in putting a halt to Hitler's advances through Europe.  In reality, the Ghost Army consisted of 1,100 soldiers who were artists, illustrators, sound technicians, and other creative types who used their brains and specific creative skills to win battles.  Their mission was to trick the enemy into believing there was a huge military presence where one didn't really exist.  Through the use of fake inflatable tanks, trucks and weapons in conjunction with war noises through huge military speakers, the Ghost Army played a major role in helping America's Ninth Army to cross the Rhine River deep into German territory.  The Ghost Army pulled off more than 20 such missions, all of which remained classified until 1985. I've read about several of their deceptions. What they accomplished was truly amazing.
FRANK WILLS
Security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds when he noticed a small piece of duct tape on a door of an office complex.  Wills removed the tape, but found it there again on his next patrol of the night.  He immediately called the police.  The date—June 17, 1972.  The location—an office complex in Washington D.C. named Watergate. Minutes later, 5 middle-aged men were caught ransacking the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee thus launching the scandal that would eventually cause President Richard Nixon to resign and would later be turned into the Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman film All The President's Men.  Sadly, his life took a turn for the worse after that.  He quit his job at the Watergate after being turned down for a raise and found that many places were too afraid to hire him as a security guard allegedly because they feared retaliation by Republican politicians.  He ended up in prison, then destitute, before dying of a brain tumor in September 2000.

JOSEPH WARREN
Even though he's generally unknown to all but the most dedicated Revolutionary War aficionados, there are 38 towns and 14 counties named after him.  A Boston doctor who performed the autopsy on Christopher Seider, the first American killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre.  When things between the colonists and the British became even more heated, he put together a military unit and participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill (which was actually fought on Breed Hill) where he died from a British musket ball through his brain.
ROSALIND FRANKLIN
We all know some facts about DNA such as you can extract it from fossilized remains to bring back dinosaurs and it can be altered to create ninja turtles.  But seriously…Rosalind Franklin, physical chemist and pioneering x-ray crystallographer with a PhD from Cambridge, was born in London, England.  The new technique of using x-ray crystallography on things that weren't actually crystals aided in accurately recording the structure of DNA.  Even though her work provided the linchpin of James Watson and Francis Crick's articles establishing the double helix theory, she was mostly ignored and brushed aside as far as being given credit for her work.  She died in 1958 at age 37 from ovarian cancer.
 
MARY ANNING
Highly intelligent, a fossil collector and paleontologist at the beginning of a century marked for tremendous advances in the practice and philosophy of science, she was royally screwed over from the beginning.  She had three strikes against her—she was poor, a religious minority, and (worst of all) a woman.  She was officially shunned by the British scientific establishment even though she had discovered the world's first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton when she was only 12.  Soon, geologists and paleontologists across the Western world knew her by reputation despite receiving almost no formal education and barely having enough money for journal subscriptions.  She died in 1847 of breast cancer.  She received an eulogy from the Geographical Society of London (where women weren't admitted until 1904), a glowing article by Charles Dickens in 1865, and a 2010 mention by the Royal Society as one of the 10 British women having the greatest impact on history.  And there was a tongue-twister about her day-to-day business of selling marine fossils.  We know it better as She sells sea shells by the sea shore.

ABU L-HASAN 'ALI IBN NAFI' (ZIRYAB)
One of the most significant people in Islamic culture remains nearly anonymous in European history even though he single-handedly set the groundwork for traditional Spanish music.  Ziryab was a highly educated North African slave in the approximate year of 800.  In addition to his strong point of music, he invented numerous dyes and chemicals for clothing, makeup, and hygiene.  He introduced the idea of seasonal fashions, came up with the structure of the traditional three-course meal consisting of soup, entrée, and dessert.  He also popularized shaving and short haircuts as a way of beating the fierce Mediterranean heat.  It's also said he invented the world's first underarm deodorant and an early type of toothpaste that was both effective and also had a pleasant taste.
LA MALINCHE/DONA MARINA
Dona Marina (as the Spanish called her) was 1 of 20 slave women given to the Spanish as the spoils of battle in 16th century Mexico.  Her skill with languages made her far more valuable than merely being Cortes' mistress.  She was instrumental to the small Spanish army's eventual victory by interpreting intelligence information and cultivating allies among the many tribes fed up with being kicked around by the Aztecs.  She's a controversial figure today.  Some argue that she was working in the best interests of her native people by aiding the Europeans and convincing Cortes to be more humane than he might have been.  Others think she was a traitor and her name is almost a curse.  Either way, without her the Cortes expedition might not have succeeded and history would have been changed forever.

VASILI ARKHIPOV
Vasili got his start in the Soviet Navy at the tail end of World War II and worked his way up through the ranks where he became the executive officer on the Soviet Navy's hotel class nuclear submarine K-19.  From there, he was dispatched to the Caribbean to command a group of 4 nuke-armed Foxtrot-class patrol subs.  And it was there that he made a decision that literally had a life and death impact on the future of the world.  He found himself in a sticky situation as his Foxtrot came under what seemed very much like an American attack (The US Navy saying it was only dropping practice depth charges in an ill-considered attempt to force the sub to the surface).  The Soviet sub's captain and political officer both demanded that they retaliate with nuclear torpedoes.  They hadn't had any contact with Moscow in days and didn't know if World War III had actually started or would start as soon as they fired back.  Vasili refused to authorize the launch.  The sub eventually surfaced and scampered away from the American task force with no further interaction.  Vasili advanced to vice-admiral, retired, and died in 1998.  It was 4 years later when former NSA head, Thomas Blanton, called him "the guy who saved the world."

Sunday, March 8, 2020

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 one miserable winter night in the 1940s at Foynes' port, the precursor to Shannon International Airport on the west coast of Ireland near the town of Limerick. 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. On several occasions I have enjoyed Irish coffee at the Buena Vista.

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 1, 2020

America's Greatest Train Rides

Spring is officially here in three weeks. Can summer be far behind? Before summer vacation time for this year has come and gone, you might want to consider taking a train trip.

Train travel in Europe is very commonplace. Whenever I travel to the UK, I always buy a Brit Rail pass before I go and use it for traveling all over Britain—day trips out of London to such places as Windsor, Oxford, Bath, Stratford-Upon-Avon and longer trips such as travel to Northern England and Scotland.

And in the U.S., with more and more restrictions and inconveniences put on airplane passengers and airlines constantly adding fees and surcharges on top of the ticket price, train travel has had quite a resurgence. And even though gasoline prices are down for the moment, not surprisingly the last few years have been the best in Amtrak's history. With the passenger's suggested arrival time at the airport now being two hours prior to your flight departure and you still have to contend with long security lines, the reduced number of flights which creates longer wait times when you need to change planes for a connection, and even a short flight now takes a lot more of your time than it used to.

The Travel Channel on cable television has a couple of shows about scenic train travel in America.

One of the nation's best rides is Amtrak's Southwest Chief that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles and gives the traveler a way to relive America's 1800s expansion west. The train trip lasts a little over forty hours, traveling through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and the famous wild west town of Dodge City, setting for the long-running television series Gunsmoke. From there it continues into Colorado and New Mexico. Then across northern Arizona with the availability of a side trip to the Grand Canyon on a historic old steam train. And finally into Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

With only a few exceptions, this ride is on the same tracks that were once the Santa Fe Railway which was built along the old Santa Fe wagon train trail, a route that also inspired the highway of the days before Interstates crisscrossed the country—the famous Route 66.

Here are five more great long-rail journeys to consider.

The West Coast's Coast Starlight is considered by most travelers to be Amtrak's most scenic route.  It runs along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, traveling through some truly spectacular scenery.

From California, the classic route east is the California Zephyr, following the path of the first transcontinental railway between San Francisco and Chicago. It visits such places as Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, across the Rockies to Denver, through Nebraska and Iowa to Chicago.

By taking the Southwest Chief in one direction and returning on the California Zephyr, you are traveling what the Gilded Age tourists in the 1880s and 1890s called the Grand Tour of America.

If you want a ride that goes through the heart of the country, try the Texas Eagle starting in Chicago. It crosses the Mississippi River at St. Louis, travels down through the Ozarks, across Arkansas into eastern Texas, and continues through Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and on to San Antonio where it connects with the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.

The East Coast relies much more on rail service than the rest of the country, especially the heavily used tracks in the high traffic corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

One of the country's first scenic rail routes is the Empire Service from New York City up through the Hudson River Valley where Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane encountered the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hallow.

And if you're on the East Coast and are heading to Florida, you can take the Auto Train where your car travels with you. Passengers board just south of Washington, D.C., and their vehicles are loaded on the train. The trip terminates just outside Orlando, Florida. A great convenience for those wintering in Florida from the cold northeast to be able to have their cars travel with them without having to drive.

Maybe you're not planning a vacation by train, but would like the train experience. There are lots of day trips in various parts of the country, including vintage steam and narrow gauge railroads.  My personal favorite is the Napa Valley Wine Train in California, which includes winery stops. Alaska Railway's White Pass & Yukon Route offers a three hour tour through some truly dramatic scenery.

Have any of you taken a train vacation? A day trip train tour?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

13 Bizarre Pirate Traditions Most People Don't Know About

Pirates have a reputation for being ruthless bloodthirsty killers. They also developed some strange habits that made them infamous. Just like the Vikings who created odd rituals, pirates used codes to govern their lives on the high sea. Their code was an agreement among marauders that established a sort of law among the lawless.
Pirate Earrings Served A Practical Purpose
Pirate ships were outfitted with numerous cannons. Cannonballs were accompanied by a loud blast and were known to deafen. Pirates would hang wads of wax from their earrings to prevent this sound damage. They popped the waxy contraptions into their ears like a makeshift earplug when firing cannons.

Pirates spent their lives on the high seas but they didn't want to spend death at the bottom of an ocean. The infamous pirate earrings were actually insurance to make sure that they'd be given a proper burial. Whether gold or silver, the precious metal could be melted down and sold to pay for a casket and other funeral necessities even if a pirate's dead body washed ashore. Some pirates went so far as to engrave the name of their home port on the inside of the earrings so their bodies could be sent there for proper burial.

There were many myths about the otherworldly properties of pirate earrings. One tale claimed that they could prevent sea sickness while another suggested that the precious metals could cure bad eyesight. Many pirates believed that a gold earring could prevent a man from drowning, but that myth was disproved a number of times.
No One Ever Wanted To See The Bloody Red Pirate Flag
The Jolly Roger flag that flew from pirate masts was terrifying but the most dreaded sea flag was red. A ship hoisting a red flag warned its enemies that no mercy would be given to a captured ship. Everyone on board would be killed immediately. The red flag was sometimes called the Bloody Red and if it replaced a skull and crossbones flag, the pirates under siege might sometimes jump ship.
Pirates Weren’t All Missing An Eye—the Patches Had Another Purpose
Some pirates were definitely missing eyes. Other pirates wore eye patches for different reasons. By wearing an eye patch, they could always keep one eye adjusted to night vision. Pirates spent a lot of time going from the bright light above deck to the darkness below deck, especially when they were raiding ships or defending their own. If he lifted his patch before going below deck, a pirate could instantly see even if there was only a little light.
A Secret To Maintaining Blackbeard's Terrifying Facial Hair
Born Edward Teach, Blackbeard was arguably the most terrifying pirate in the world and he built his reputation on hemp. In the early eighteenth century, before Blackbeard captured any ship he'd weave hemp into his long dark beard and under his captain hat. Once he lit the hemp on fire, smoke billowed out from his face and made his opponents fear for their lives. In addition to his burning beard, Blackbeard also wore a crimson coat and carried at least two swords, pistols, and knives at all times.

Insurance Payments For Injured Pirates Came Out Of Everyone's Loot
Although experts debate just how democratic pirate groups were, they were surprisingly progressive when it came to the spoils of their enterprises. They created a sort of insurance fund for injured pirates. This meant that if a member of a group become injured, they were still able to reap the benefits of a successful campaign. Individual group charter articles identified the amount of loot to be paid to injured pirates. Spoils were gathered together in the aftermath of an attack. Injured pirates all received the amount specified in their charter, and the rest of the group divided the remainder among themselves.

Pirates Created A Drink That Prevented Certain Diseases
Credit for the invention of grog goes to sailors in the British Navy who first started making the drink some time in the 1600s. To avoid drinking slimy water contaminated with algae and microbes, the sailors mixed rum into their water. In 1731, the British Navy gave each sailor half a pint of rum per day. That was equivalent to over five shots of alcohol. Pirates borrowed the recipe for grog and made it legendary by adding lemon juice which helped prevent scurvy and sugar for a better taste.

Pirates Could Be Upstanding Members Of The Land-Side Community
The prevailing image of pirates has them as swashbuckling, lawless individuals who sail in groups on the open ocean and were despised by those who lived on land. But, while they were prone to violence and did exist mostly on the seas, pirates could still participate in family and community activities on land. There are records of prominent pirates, such as Captain Kidd, contributing to social organizations on land as "prominent members of Colonial society." Captain Kidd, for example, helped found Trinity Episcopal Church and also commissioned a pew in the church specifically for his family.
Most Pirates Didn't Bury Their Treasure
Even though it's easy to picture a pirate burying treasure on a tropical island, only one pirate, Captain Kidd, was ever recorded as having buried treasure. Kidd deposited his loot off the coast of Long Island but the scheme backfired when an ally dug up the trove and used it as proof to convict Kidd of piracy.
There Were Women Pirates, Too
Women also took to the seas to make their fortunes. One pair, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, sailed together on the pirate ship Revenge in 1720. Anne Bonny even served as first mate. Some, like Mary Read, chose to dress as men to hide their identities. Unfortunately, their ship was captured and both women ended up in jail.

Walking The Plank Was Mostly A Myth
While there is some evidence pirates did use walking the plant as a form of psychological torture, there is not enough evidence to prove it was a widespread practice. It became popular thanks to the rise of pirates in entertainment in the 19th Century. There were plenty of other ways pirates killed people, and some of it involved forms of torture. But for the most part, anyone they wanted to execute was killed quickly and swiftly.

The Most Famous Pirates Probably Weren't The Most Successful Pirates
In a strange but sensible irony, the pirates whose names have made their way through the decades of history to the present day probably weren't the most successful pirates. The pirates whose names we know were the ones who were captured and tried in court. The court proceedings were published making their exploits legendary.

Pirates Mostly Stole Booze and Weapons
There's a good reason why most pirates didn't bury their treasure. Unlike what was shown in movies, most of their loot wasn't gold and jewels. Pirates typically stole food, alcohol, and weapons, in addition to lumber, cloth, and animal hides—essentially whatever ships might be carrying across the Atlantic. Those goods weren't worth much if buried so pirates used them immediately or sold them.
Marooning People Was A Real Thing
Pirates did actually maroon people on isolated land masses when they did something wrong. It was considered one of the worst ways to die, because it was slow. Typically those marooned were disgraced pirates who violated the rules of a ship. He would be placed on an isolated sandbar with just the clothes on his back, a small portion of water, and a weapon. Pirates who were marooned had the option to kill themselves with their weapon, but it was widely considered cowardly. Some men actually managed to survive being marooned if they were rescued by a different pirate crew, but that was very rare.