Thursday, June 23, 2011
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Thursday, May 5, 2011
After work today, I did what every American does on May 5 … stopped by a local tavern to drink a few cold Dos Equis (with lime) in honor of Cinco de Mayo and to consume my body weight in chips and salsa. Ah, the festive twinkle of jalapeno lights and dusted-off sombreros does my heart proud. But what does it all mean? I mean, do we Americans really need another excuse to drink?
Apparently, we here in the U.S. make a much bigger deal of the holiday than do our southern neighbors. Cinco de Mayo … literally Spanish for “fifth of May” … is observed in regions of Mexico to commemorate the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a nutshell, Mexico was broke. After fighting both a war with the U.S. and repercussions of its own civil conflicts, the country was in financial despair. So in 1861, then president Benito Juarez announced the suspension of payment of foreign debts so the Mexican treasury would have the opportunity to rebuild. Well, France, England, and Spain didn’t care for that notion. England and Spain sent naval forces to “express their displeasure,” but Mexico negotiated a peace and the forces withdrew. But apparently France, who at the time had considerable occupation forces in Mexico, was pissed! Napolean III sent additional troops and went after Juarez with a vengence. The French army was renowned in the world for its superior training and resources and, with a force of more than 8,000 French troops on Juarez’s trail, the outcome seemed set in stone.
The French forces initially won some skirmishes but were stopped … actually crushed … in the state of Puebla by a poorly-equipped Mexican army of barely 4,000 soldiers. 2 to 1 odds, and the French were effectively stopped. It was more than a year before the rearmed French returned and established a French “emperor” in Mexico. But, according to most historians, the Battle of Puebla was significant for two reasons. First off, the thrashing of a superior force provided a sense of momentum and excitement and unity among the Mexican army. Yes, more battles came but this impetus had the effect of forcing events to proceed at an accelerated rate. Secondly, during that year that the French were regrouping, France was unable to supply and augment the Confederate army which was fighting in the U.S. Civil War. Scholars believe that this lost support was a definite factor in victory for the North.
Additionally, once the U.S. Civil War was concluded, aid was reinitiated to Mexican troops and French rule and occupation was ended only three years later. Some experts claim that if the French had stayed put, the U.S. may have never risen to the “world power” status it now enjoys. Hmmmmmmm.
So I was surfing the Internet … with a slight buzz from my Mexican beer infusion … and found a few great things to pass along. A bar owner in the Chicago area explained that he went all out for Cinco de Mayo “to celebrate the heritage and accomplishments of many of my Mexican-American patrons.” I liked that.
A Washington Post article discussed how the holiday was actually celebrated in Mexico. While many areas do not do much in the way of partying, the state of Puebla and the capital of Mexico City commemorate the date with parades, jet flyovers, and even a reenactment of the battle at a military base near Puebla complete with cavalry charges, cannon fire, and machete fights. How cool ... I loved that.
Then I glimpsed a mention of more than 150 “official” Cinco de Mayo celebrations involving special school exhibits and art projects, musical and dance performances, and, of course, festivals celebrating the foods of Mexican and all Latin cultures. This made me hungry.
Then I read four separate items that made me happy, then sad, then embarrassed, and then forced me to giggle out loud. First, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a concurrent request to the President asking the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate respect to Mexican culture (happy and proud). Then I read a United Press International mention where Cinco de Mayo was decried as nothing more than a marketing tool for beer companies (sad, and mostly true). Then I saw a comment where a company CEO made a speech to his day shift about how he was proud to be acknowledging “Cinco de Mayo … Mexico’s Fourth of July!!” Well, Mr. CEO, Mexico celebrates a national independence day on September 16 … I wanted to find this man (or his assistant) and smack them with a maraca (embarrassed and angry)! And then I got a message from a FB buddy … he wished me a happy “Cinco de Drunk on Mayo Ass Day,” but added that he was taking three of his Hispanic co-workers out after work and picking up the tab. My friend doesn’t have a clue to the history of today, but he was refreshingly honest and reminded me that he has a big heart!
POINT OF RANT: Happy “heritage day," Mexico!! … whatever you choose to call it.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
I did notice that today was the first day of the month of May. For me, it’s really just a reminder that the birthday of a niece is close at hand. Oh, and my stomach gets excited because it knows we will be enjoying some good Mexican food and too much beer on Cinco de Mayo. But earlier tonight, a friend on Facebook from Germany asked me how I celebrated “May Day.” I wasn’t sure how to answer so I gave my description of a typical Sunday in my life. When I asked him how his day had been, I got a VERY DIFFERENT answer.
In Europe, “May Day” is related to any number of ancient pagan festivals celebrated around early May. Many of these celebrations marked the end of winter weather and the start of the farming cycle and provided popular incentives for drinking, dancing, and “displays of fertility.” YIKES!! A few examples include the festival of Flora (celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers), the Celtic festival of Beltane (with loud feasts and the lighting of bonfires to banish the long nights of winter), and the Germanic festival of Walpurgisnacht (with the wrapping of maypoles and lots of dancing).
But what my German friend was talking about was a more politically-motivated “May Day” … one I guess I knew a bit about but not much. It seems in many countries … and in the U.S., to a point … “May Day” is synonymous with International Workers’ Day. So in countries across the globe, May 1 is marked with political demonstrations organized by various groups to focus attention on employee rights and other workforce issues, as well as an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement.
One source explained that the roots for International Workers' Day can be found in a public Australian holiday known as “Eight-Hour Day.” Apparently in 1856, a group of stonemason’s negotiated an improvement in working conditions and a “workers’ holiday” was established. The notion of this April 22 holiday began to spread to neighboring countries and eventually the holiday was moved to May 1 to commemorate the Haymarket Square demonstrations of 1886. Known as one of the world’s most grievous labor-related tragedies, this event began when a three-day labor strike of employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., of Chicago, got out of hand and four employee were killed by police attempted to break the strike. The next day, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the workers’ deaths. Again, police arrived to disperse the crowds and during the process opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. A dozen more people were killed , including one law enforcement officer. Eventually, eight people were put on trial … all individuals known for having strong worker party political beliefs but almost no connection to the actual demonstration. Four of these men were publically executed and the affair is still cited by political activists as a total travesty of the American justice system and an example of people put on trial purely for their political convictions.
So while the United States may have provided some inspiration for International Workers' Day, it is a true international day with rallies and demonstrations allowing citizens of the world to protest unfair labor laws and practices. In 1958, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as “Loyalty Day.” It is also sometimes referred to as “Law Day.”
Several countries such as Bangladesh, Italy, China, Syria, Hong Kong, Poland, Taiwan, Portugal, Argentina, Finland, Ireland, Bulgaria, Greece, and Brazil have a long and “tense” histories of celebrating May 1. Whether it is “May Day” or International Workers' Day or “Labor Day,” these nations support this public holiday as an opportunity for workers to unite and speak with one voice.
Which, again, leads me back to my friend ... for him, “May Day” was drinking and dancing in the streets and watching families picnicking together. It was also numerous political demonstrations, some nasty name calling, and even bricks and stones thrown through several storefront windows. He also told me about regions in Germany where the traditions of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) are very much alive … where people still wrap maypoles and where young men in love secretly deliver trees decorated with streamers to the women they love. Women, though, sneak to the homes of the males they pine for and place heart-shaped offerings crafted from rose petals or rice grains. And often times, if the culprit is apprehended while delivering the “May Day” tribute, a kiss is required from the “offending” party. Romantic stuff, indeed!!
In many European countries and parts of the U.S., “May Day” antics still exist as a diluted form of the “green root” (pagan) and “red root” (labor) traditions of the past. In the UK, for example, some communities still celebrate with traditional dancing around the maypole, madrigal choirs, and the crowning of the Queen of May. Because of the Roman Catholic observance of May as a celebration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, May flowers are often placed on the heads of statues and figurines of Mary.
In some parts of the United States, “May Day” parades are still held. In more rural areas, the tradition of anonymously giving May Baskets … small collections of flowers and treats … to neighbors is still going strong. I love the idea of brightening someone’s day by leaving a basket of goodies on their doorstep, ringing the bell, and then running away. My Mom used to do that for some of the people in our neighborhood at Christmas who were alone or facing particular hard times. Guess she had the “May Day” spirit in December!
In Sweden, the country celebrates “May Day” as Vappu with crazy carnival-style street festivals. In France, there us a centuries-old tradition of men giving a sprig of lily of the valley to women in return for a kiss. In Hawaii, May 1 is “Lei Day” … not what you think!! … and since the ‘20s islanders have used this day to celebrate native Hawaiian culture.
And in other spots, contemporary “May Day” revelers have created 10K runs, vegan feasts, motorcycle and bicycle tours, streaking events, and organized skinnydipping to commemorate the day.
POINT OF RANT: Where the hell were my kisses on May 1? … I am waiting!!
Friday, April 29, 2011
For those of you who live in caves and/or don't appreciate great writing and the power of hilarious ensemble comedy, The Office is an NBC sitcom based on a similar BBC series created by acerbic comedian Ricky Gervais (remember how he tore up the Golden Globes???) and Stephen Merchant. Now in its seventh season, The Office is a "mockumentary" that follows the employees and business dealings of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company branch in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
To simulate the look and feel of an actual documentary, The Office is filmed utilizing a single-camera set-up as well as harsher lighting, intricate editing, and even technical difficulties. The show does not employ a studio audience or laugh track. From the very first episode which aired March 24, 2005, employees of the paper-pushing company have been equipped with lavalier microphones and battery packs and been tirelessly pursued by a mostly-unseen film crew to capture every detail of their office interactions. Some employees take their role in the production more seriously than others. But no one at Dunder Mifflin sees his "acting duties" as more sacrosanct than "Michael Scott," regional manager of the Scranton branch for the past 19 years.
Michael is a buffoon on the highest order. He spends each work day playing practical jokes and attempting to befriend his subordinates while shying away from all major decisions. He constantly interjects his personal dilemmas into the day-to-day office routine (i.e. burning his foot on his George Foreman grill), yet he remains lovable as he offends employees and clients with equal vigor. Michael butchers the English language on a daily basis and inflicts great anguish on his co-workers via practical jokes, tasteless e-mails, and a stream of his famous "That's What She Said" asides. In today's economy, the employees of Dunder Mifflin are scrambling to sell paper and make ends meet, which isn't easy with Michael calling "emergency meetings" all the time in the conference room only to discuss the most trivial matters. As a manager, Dunder Mifflin employees look to Michael for guidance but usually end up incensed by his time-consuming antics which often involve his fondness of using costumes and fictional personas (i.e. "Prison Mike") to share his overblown business acumen. Michael Scott has dedicated his life to bringing fun into the workplace ... efficiency and productivity seldom make his list of concerns.
Some of Michael's most memorable exploits include hiss poor supervision of power-hungry salesman Dwight Schrute; his poorly-timed intrusions into the romance between sales associate Jim Halpert and receptionist Pam Beesly; his outing of homosexual accountant Oscar Martinez; his heart attack-inducing annoyance of salesman Stanley Hudson; his over-the-top macho posturing with outside sales specialist Todd Packer; his outlandish racial remarks to American-Indian customer service representative Kelly Kapoor; his overt and unreciprocated "bromance" with office temp Ryan Howard; his vehicular assault on alcoholic supply relations rep Meredith Palmer; and his unrelenting taunting and hatred of human resources specialist Toby Flenderson.
Michael is also a failure at love, and when his relationships go south the entire staff pay the price in his odd behavior and the ensuing emotional turmoil. For example, Michael drove his real estate agent Carol Stills away in a panic when he publicly proposed to her after only dating for a few short weeks. Then there was the time that Michael fell in love with a picture of a model in an office furniture catalog, only to become despondent when he discovered that the model had died in a bizarre accident. Michael broke a few corporate rules with his incredibly destructive, borderline S&M affair with his supervisor Jan Levenson-Gould. And he broke a few ethical rules when he embarked on disastrous relationships with Helene Beesly (Pam's mother) and Donna, a married woman who managed a bar frequented by Dunder Mifflin personnel.
Michael's most serious battle with cupid was when he fell hard for H.R. professional Holly Flax, but a long-distance transfer seemed to doom their deep romance. But over time and a few awkward meetings, Michael and Holly were reunited and Michael elected to leave Dunder Mifflin to begin a new life with Holly in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado.
The character of "Michael Scott" is portrayed by American comedic actor Steve Carell. Hailing from the Concord, Massachusetts area, Carell earned a degree in history from Denison University in Ohio (only about 35 minutes from where I'm sitting writing this post) with aspirations of becoming a radio broadcaster or even attending law school. After college, Carell wandered through a number of careers including a short stint as a postal carrier. Eventually bitten by the "performance bug," he embarked on the usual odd jobs of a struggling actor including work in TV and radio commercials, a member of a touring children's theatre company, and comedy training with the notorious "Second City" troupe in Chicago. Carell's big break came in 1996 when he became a cast member of "The Dana Carvey Show," a prime-time sketch comedy vehicle on ABC. From this, Carell progressed into reoccurring sitcom work and a prominent roll on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" from 1999 to 2005.
While Steve Carell will always be known to millions of fans as "Michael Scott," millions more acknowledge him as an accomplished motion picture star with such hits as "Curly Sue" (1991), "Bruce Almighty" (2003), "Anchorman" (2004), "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005), "Bewitched" (2005), "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), "Evan Almighty" (2007), "Get Smart" (2008), "Date Night" (2010), "Dinner for Schmucks" (2010), and the upcoming "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Carell has also showcased his unique voice talents in blockbuster animated films like "Over the Hedge" (2006), "Horton Hears a Who!" (2008), and "Despicable Me" (21010).
But it isn't only his fans that applaud the work of Steve Carell ... numerous critics and entertainment organizations have bestowed him with professional honors including a Golden Globe for "Best Actor in a Television Comedy Series;" five Emmy nominations for his work on "The Office;" a Television Critics Association award for "Individual Achievement in Comedy;" a Writers Guild of America award for an episode of "The Office" which he penned; and MTV Movie Award; and an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Likewise, in part due to Carell's talents, "The Office" has garnered critical acclaim in the form of an Emmy for "Outstanding Comedy Series;" a Screen Actors Guild award for "Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series;" various honors for writing, editing, and direction; and even awards for "Best Television Website" and the spinoff "Webisodes" which aired on the Internet between several of the regular television seasons.
So as of March 28, 2011, Steve Carell and "Michael Scott" have left the Dunder Mifflin building ... so what happens now??! Well, in my opinion, the executives at NBC have been handling the departure beautifully. "The Office" has been picked up for an eighth season and the show has been building tension between possible internal candidates for the regional manager position and outside hires. In a recent story arc, Will Ferrell of film and SNL fame has joined the cast as a possibly-permanent supervisor named Deangelo Vickers. And media spots are leading viewers to believe that other television and film actors are being considered for the cast void including Will Arnett, James Spader, Ray Romano, Ricky Gervais, and even film megastar and funnyman Jim Carrey. NBC is keeping this announcement top secret and fans are loving it!! Only time will tell.
POINT OF RANT: No one ... NO ONE ... will ever fill the business wingtips of "Michael Scott." And That's What I Said!!
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Last year, I wrote a blog post on the difficulties of locating the ideal sized, solid chocolate bunny for filling Easter baskets. Now I’m embarking on a campaign to get people to turn their backs on another Easter-time staple … the dreaded PEEPS!!
PEEPS are to marshmallow as Taco Bell is to Mexican cuisine. Marshmallow as a candy finds its roots in ancient Egypt and also in the field of medicine. More than 5,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians used the root of the marshmallow plant … Althaea officinalis … to create a confection that was both tasty and a remedy for sore throats. Using either the pithy root or sap, the plant material was mixed with nuts and honey to create a widely-consumed chewy treat.
Many years later … the early 19th century to be exact … French candy makers augmented the recipe by whipping the marshmallow sap and sweetening it, often with rose water. Known as pate de guimauve, the new marshmallow included an egg white meringue to lighten the candy and provide a unique texture. These French confections closely resembled what we today call “marshmallows” … most often a combination of corn syrup, water, softened gelatin, dextrose, flavor extracts, and sometimes coloring agents whipped into fluffy goodness. Further modernization was applied to marshmallow candy in 1948 when Alex Doumak, an American inventor, created an extrusion process that pushed the various ingredients through tubes, cut them into small cylindrical shapes, and finished each piece with a mixture of finely-powdered cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar. Contemporary marshmallows contain ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from the marshmallow plant. Puffed up treats, indeed!!
Now I love marshmallow crème on top of a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream! And I have very happy memories of toasting marshmallows during childhood camping trips. But the perversion of the “white stuff” that PEEPS represent just makes me quiver … I get that feeling like someone is walking on my grave.
The often-overlooked sign of the Apocalypse that we call marshmallow PEEPS truly began in Russia. Sam Born, A Russian-born candy maker, immigrated to the U.S. from France in 1910. Born was an incredibly hardworking and determined man. He worked at his craft and soon gained a reputation for introducing French chocolates to New York City. Born also received great acclaim for inventing a machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops, a procedure previously requiring human workers. In 1923, Born opened a small retail candy shop in Brooklyn. The business promoted that its candies were made daily and passersby were thrilled with the elaborate displays in the storefront’s windows. One marketing slogan prominently displayed was a simple window sign that reminded people that the fresh treats inside were “Just Born.” Soon the Just Born Corporation was created. In fact, the company’s original logo featured a baby resting in a candy measuring scale.
Despite the challenges of being a small business and the economic devastation of the Depression Era, the Just Born Corporation thrived in the Greater New York area. In 1932, the company moved its operations to an empty printing factory in the bustling steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Born’s expanded enterprise soon began tapping into new markets. As Just Born grew in popularity and business strength, the company acquired smaller candy companies and their various resources. The first significant acquisition occurred in 1935 with the Maillard Corporation, well known for its hand-decorated chocolates, crystalized fruits (YUM!!), and bridge mix. Sam Born and his organization continued on an upward spiral, launching the fruity, jaw working “Mike and Ike” candies in 1940 and the spicy, cinnamon-flavored “Hot Tamales” in 1950.
But the road to “true evil” was embarked upon by Just Born in 1953 when the company absorbed the Rodda Candy Company in nearby Lancaster, PA. Rodda was well known for its “jelly bean technology,” but Sam Born was more intrigued by the company’s small line of marshmallow products … including chicks. These sticky confections … hand-formed from a yellow-tinted marshmallow recipe … were very popular but labor-intensive to create. In early 1954, Sam’s son, Bob (who had joined the company in 1946), developed special manufacturing equipment that mechanized the “chick forming process” and allowed for mass production of the spongy, bird-shaped confections. And with the flip of a switch on an upgraded conveyor belt, the Just Born Corporation became the largest marshmallow candy company in the world. And its key product was branded as PEEPS Brand Marshmallow Candies. I wonder if people remember where they were the day this tragedy occurred?
PEEPS literally swept the land. And over the next few decades, these creatures of chewiness changed form and further insinuated themselves into American culture. Typically associated with the Easter season, PEEPS assaulted other holidays. In 1958, pumpkin PEEPS attacked the Halloween candy market. Christmas was also a victim … Just Born introduced snowmen and Christmas tree PEEPS in 1960. The ‘60s and early ‘70s seemed to be a time where Just Born and the Born family regrouped, marshaling their forces. Oh, the company marketed some chewy candy variations to keep us interested … like “Root-T-Toots” (root beer-flavored chewy candies) and “Cool Kids” (spearmint chews) and “Jack and Jill” (licorice chews) … but it was just a front, a way of lulling us into lowering our defenses. And then BLAM!! … Just Born attacks an American institution. In 1975, the company introduces football PEEPS just prior to the start of the NFL season. Insidious, I say! Then the attack of 1977. Teddy bear PEEPS … is nothing sacred?! Over the next few decades, Just Born renewed its onslaught on Easter. In 1980, cute little bunny PEEPS were added to the company’s product assortment. In 1995, lavender chick PEEPS were created to provide contrast to the original yellow devil-birds. Blue chicks and green chicks followed respectively in 1998 and 2007. Just before the start of the new millennium, Just Born fired a salvo of multi-targeted ventures. In 1999, the public was tempted with the first-ever flavored PEEPS. The new product promised vanilla crème goodness and many unsuspecting people were swayed. The same year the company decided to use the power of the media on the masses, launching its first-ever national TV advertising campaign and www.marshmallowpeeps.com. The media also helped Just Born that year by reporting on an Emory University study on the “indestructible nature” of PEEPS. And just to confuse us, Just Born entered the sour candy market the same year with “Zours,” a truly delicious combination of blue raspberry, green apple, tangerine, and watermelon flavors. This concentrated effort, I believe, laid the groundwork for what I call the “Devious Decade.” Starting in 2000, the Just Born Corporation systematically enthralled the public with various introductions and product developments disguised as “doing business.” In 2000, Valentine’s Day was subsumed by the introduction of heart-shaped strawberry crème PEEPS. In 2002, the very patriotic nature of our nation and its citizens was trampled with star-shaped PEEPS. In 2003, the company launched a media blitzkrieg for its 50th anniversary. This was followed by PEEPS decorating kits (2004), sexy chick PEEPS enclosed in a chocolate “egg” (2005), sugar-free PEEPS (2007), and letter-shaped PEEPS for writing tasty little messages (2008). Toward the end of this decade, Just Born developed a secondary headquarters for spreading its confectionary ill-will by opening its first retail store … PEEPS & Company … in National Harbor, Maryland. Now the public had access to a plethora of PEEPS products and additional promotional items like T-shirts and other apparel, lunchboxes, sports items, toys, candy dispensers, cosmetics, and much more. And in 2010, PEEPS collided and conquered one of the most sacred elements in the universe … chocolate. This year marked the introduction of chocolate-covered PEEPS! Today I feel like the only soldier fighting against millions of enemy agents. The public is not in my corner, helping in the fight against these overly-chewy, carnauba wax-filled beasts. Every year, the colorful Just Born creations fly off the shelves. “PEEP OFF” events across the country attempt to break records for PEEPS consumption. Artists and photographers … some quite famous … utilize PEEPS in new work. And prominent media outlets like the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and St. Paul Pioneer Press fan the flames with contests to promote PEEPS-loving activities like photo contests and diorama displays. There is some good news ... a friend just told me of an annual "Kill The PEEPS" contest where people attempt to develop more diabolical ways for destroying these Tartarus-tainted treats!
So I’m going to keep fighting, but the odds are definitely against me. The Just Born Corporation has more than 500 dedicated associates in facilities in both Bethlehem and Philadelphia, including three generations of the irascible Born family. Just Born candies are sold in more than 35 countries. And every single day, 4.2 million friggin’ PEEPS march off the assembly line!
POINT OF RANT: When I drop my mini-marshmallows in my cocoa, my eyes see the enemy burning. BURNING!!
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Within the past week, scientists have discovered a “brown dwarf” star literally hiding behind another slightly brighter star more than 75 million light years from Earth. Using observations from powerful telescopes in Hawaii, Canada, and France, this new star … designated CFBDSIR J1458+1013B … is roughly the size of Jupiter, slightly more bluish than a typical brown dwarf, and constitutes the first evidence ever found of a theoretical “spectral Y” star, a celestial object that hovers on the fence between being a star and a large exo-planet.
By definition, brown dwarf stars are small sub-stellar objects that over time have lost so much mass they can no longer sustain hydrogen fusion reactions in their cores like other main sequence stars. What makes this newest discovery so “cool,” however, is that astrophysicists and other stellar scientists believe that the temperature of the object is about 100 degrees … basically like a steaming hot cup of tea.
When I was barely a teenager, my older sister had the opportunity to take a trip to Mexico. My one older brother and I were so jealous that our parents coughed up exceptional Christmas gifts to shut us up. My brother received an electric guitar and amp from “Santa” … a gift he NEVER learned to play, I might add. And I received the telescope I had been begging for going on three years.
At its simplest, an optical telescope is a device that makes distant objects appear much, much closer. Using either lenses, mirrors, or a combination of both, a telescope collects and focuses some form of electromagnetic radiation (such as visible light) to enable a viewer to magnify the image of objects very far away using an eyepiece lens. Telescopes have been critical to astronomical research.
Working telescopes were first developed in the Netherlands in 1608. These used “refractors” or objective lenses to gather light. In 1668, Isaac Newton engineered the first practical “reflecting” telescope using mirrors to concentrate the light, thus correcting some aberrations caused by lenses. Technical advances in telescope design and engineering include the use of parabolic mirrors (1722), achromatic lenses (1733), silver-coated mirrors (1857), and aluminized mirrors (1932).
Since the early 20th century, scientists and engineers have developed telescopes that utilize other types or radiation and energy to study distant objects including ultraviolet, X-ray, infrared, radio, gamma rays, neutrinos (electrically neutral particles), and gravitational wave devices.
The telescope from my youth was manufactured by a company named Zhumell which is still a major player in this market segment. It was a reflector type with some motorized positioning instruments and a 114 mm aperture that allowed me to see some cool stuff. My “scope” was relatively easy to set up on its tripod but it was kind of heavy. My Dad helped me use it the first few times but then I got a little huffy and my stargazing became the solitary hobby I wanted.
During those first few weeks of scanning the heavens, I looked at the moon closely and studied bright Venus in the sky. But as an imaginative kid, Mars occupied most of my attention. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars is the fourth planet from the sun in our Solar System and thus the Earth’s “next-door neighbor.” It is sometimes referred to as the “Red Planet” because of large quantities of iron oxide on its surface that give the planet a reddish hue.
Mars is about half (53 percent) as large as the Earth with lighter gravity. Because it is 230 million miles from the sun (compared to Earth at 93 million miles), a Martian year is 686 days.
Like the other planets, it is estimated that Mars is around 4.6 billion years old. Mars has always been of great scientific interest, especially since its rotational period (days) and planetary tilt (causing seasons) are similar to those of Earth. In fact, the planet is believed to have been much more “Earth-like” millions of years ago. Mars is considered to be a “terrestrial” planet because of its thin atmosphere (95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and traces of oxygen, methane, and water). Mars has two permanent polar caps and great quantities of water ice beneath the surface, but the planet’s current low atmospheric pressure prevents any accumulations of liquid water to exist. Martian soil is slightly alkaline (pH of 8.3) and contains elements such as magnesium, sodium, sulfur, potassium, phosphorus, chlorine, and basic salts. Martian surface temperatures range from roughly -125° F to 23° F due in part to the thin atmosphere which encourages little heat transfer.
Mars has two moons … Phobos and Deimos … and boasts the highest mountains (Olympus Mons) and largest canyons (Valles Marineris) of any planet in the Solar System.
Dozens of probes have been sent to Mars by the U.S., the Soviet Union, Japan, and various European efforts through the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA’s Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to successfully complete a fly-by of the planet in July of 1965. In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first space probe to orbit the Red Planet. Just weeks after this accomplishment, two Russian probes became the first to land on the Martian surface but ceased transmitting almost immediately.
The U.S. NASA Mars Exploration Program has launched 20 missions with 13 being successful. The Viking program launched two orbiters in 1975 which had successful Mars landings in 1976. Viking 1 and Viking 2 provided incredible data for six years and three years respectively. In the summer of 1997, the NASA Mars Pathfinder and its robotic exploration vehicle Sojourner landed on Mars and began collecting data and transmitting pictures. In January 2004, Mars “rovers” Spirit (MER-A) and Opportunity (MER-B) landed on Mars and began conducting important analytical tests on air and soil, providing conclusive evidence of the existence of liquid water in the planet’s past. And on May 25, 2008, the NASA Phoenix Mars lander touched down in the north polar region of Mars to gain better knowledge of the planet’s ice caps.
At this time, three orbiters (Odyssey, Express, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and two rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) are still active on and above Mars. A projected launch window for November of this year will provide the necessary conditions for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, a faster and much more sophisticated exploration rover. Of course, no mission to date has ever acquired and then returned a sample of Mars to the Earth; scientists have had to rely on transmitted data as well as Martian meteorites. NASA administrators believe that a manned Mars mission will be feasible as early as 2037. The ESA has similar aspirations for between 2030 and 2035.
The planet Mars has been a part of the human mythos since the time of the ancient Egyptians who charted its course across the sky as early as 1534 B.C. Roman and Greek cultures used the masculine nature of the heavenly body to embody their “god of war.” Astronomers in the 19th century kept regular track of Mars with their telescopes, and in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced the first detailed maps of Mars.
For more than a century, a more active “Mars Fever” has permeated our culture. In 1899, noted inventor Nikola Tesla claimed to intercept repetitive radio signals originating from Mars. Around this same time, H.G. Wells fatalistic novel “The War of the Worlds” set in motion hundreds of similar fictional works and even prompted the eventual and incredible 1938 live broadcast by Orson Welles that many mistook for an actual news alert concerning a Martian invasion. In 1948, America was introduced to a friendlier extraterrestrial in the animated form of “Marvin the Martian” from Looney Tunes and Warner Brothers. And comic book enthusiasts were rewarded with “J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter,” a Supermanesque character first introduced by DC Comics in November 1955.
To this day, novels, TV dramatizations, and major film projects still play upon the age-old fascination with Mars. My personal suggestion for one of the best … read the “Mars Trilogy” by Kim Stanley Robinson for a truly wild and intricate Martian ride!!
Over the years, I have watched the developments of NASA and other cosmologists. Every meteor shower and shuttle mission and experiment on Mir has fascinated me. And lately there have been articles and Internet synopses pertaining to “dark matter,” a relatively new supernova, and even some planned experiments to attempt to “retro-engineer” the Martian atmosphere.
But what really has my “juices flowing” is the summer plans of a good friend. He and his partner are much more knowledgeable about the cosmos than I so along with a few of their friends, they are going to rent time on a “REAL” observatory telescope. How cool is that?!!
But I do have a plan of attack of my own … this Christmas, I am going to ask all of my relatives to combine their efforts and get me a telescope ($250 to $350 range) as a hybrid XMAS/birthday gift. By spring, I hope to have a “renewed” hobby and be totally obnoxious with the amount of “heavenly info” I have to share.
POINT OF RANT: Why can’t kids take better care of their toys?
Friday, April 1, 2011
I hate to even use the descriptor “holiday” when referring to April Fools’ Day (or All Fools’ Day), but there are so many idiots that look on the first day of April as an excuse to let their love of tasteless antics roam free. It’s like the Holy Day for foolishness. In my mind, that was what Halloween was for.
The origins of April Fool’ Day (AFD) are a swirling mass of myth and conjecture. The earliest recorded connection between foolishness and April 1 was written in the Canterbury Tales in 1392 by Geoffrey Chaucer. One story told of a vain rooster tricked by a sly fox, while another story was set “32 days after March” which many historians believe was interpreted as April 1. Other literary works from Flemish poet Eduard de Dene and British author John Aubrey also made reference to April 1 as being an “April Fool” and the “Fools holy day” respectively.
Another interpretation has a more religious tint. According to biblical scholars, Noah committed a foolish act when he sent forth a dove before the waters of the Great Flood had receded. He did this on the “first day” of the Hebrew month corresponding to April. Some believe that this handed-down tale propagated “festival of fools” events in parts of medieval Europe.
Yet a third belief is that the celebration of April Fools developed in various cultures simply as a lighthearted way of watching spring weather supplant the cold of winter.
But the greatest consensus of people … and really the origin story that makes the most sense … believe that April Fools’ Day is a result of the establishment of the Gregorian calendar which under the rule of Charles IX moved the start of the new year from March 25 to January 1. Prior to this date, many countries like France celebrated the new year in an eight-day celebration culminating on April 1. With news of the day traveling by foot or by horse, it took years for the new calendaring system to be adopted in rural areas. So for decades, visitors to villages celebrating the old “New Year” labeled its residents as “fools” and general ridicule and harassment took on the form of jokes and pranks. Historians believe that this unofficial “horseplay” spread from France to England and Scotland in the 18th century and later to the American colonies.
While April Fools’ Day (AFD) IS NOT a legal holiday, it is widely recognized and celebrated across the globe. In the U.S., AFD is a time of debauchery where people lower their intolerance for pranks, funny jokes, and general foolery. Good-natured hoaxes are encouraged between friends and family, and even accepted in the workplace. Over the years, pranks have evolved from simple “fibs” to elaborate hoaxes that last all day. But regardless of the complexity of the prank, the originator usually ends the farce by yelling, “April Fool!!”
Some nations have a separate “twist” on AFD. In places such as New Zealand, the UK, Australia, and South Africa, jokes and pranks on April 1 only last until noon. Anyone who plays a prank on someone later in the day is dubbed an “April Fool.” But in Scotland, AFD lasts for two days. The first day is sometimes called “Hunt-The-Gowk Day” (with “gowk” meaning a foolish person) and often celebrated by sending people on meaningless errands. The second day is called “Taily Day” with jokes focusing on people’s posteriors. The “Kick Me” sign is a very common April 1 contrivance in Scotland. In France (and French-speaking portions of Canada) and Italy, April 1 is celebrated in a very similar fashion. In France it is known as “poisson d’arril” (April’s fish); Italians call it “pesce d’aprile" (April’s fish). In both countries, the prank of the day is often trying to attach paper fish to people’s backs without them noticing. In Belgium, April 1 is often celebrated by a tradition where children lock their parent and teachers out of homes and classrooms; candy or small gifts are required to gain entry. In Poland, April 1 is “Prima Aprilis” and jokes often involve whole families, businesses, schools and universities, and social organizations. Very little serious work is accomplished in Poland on the first day of April. Probably the oldest version of a national April Fools’ Day is held in Iran. Called “Sizdah Bedar,” this day of pranks and light humor was first celebrated on the 13ih day of the Persian new year (April 1 or April 2) in 536 B.C.
There are even a few countries that celebrate a similar holiday but elsewhere on the calendar. Many Spanish-speaking nations including Mexico, Spain, and Portugal observe “dia de los Sabtos Inocentes” or “Day of the Holy Innocents.” Originally a religious remembrance celebration, this day … celebrated on December 28 … has evolved into one of pranks and partying. And in Denmark, May 1 is celebrated as “Aprilsnar” with jokes and foolishness.
When I was a kid, the common pranks were simply getting you to look when someone said “hey, your shoes are untied” or when a kid colored the edge of a quarter with a black marker and got you to role it down your head, producing a black line bisecting your face. In college, the sophistication went up a few levels. We used to sneak into friends’ rooms on April 1 and reset their clocks so they were late for classes and lunch until the figured out the prank. Or we propped a wastebasket full of water above a partially open door and called for someone to come into the room. SPLAT!!
I never worked in an office where pranks were really allowed, but I have talked to people that have celebrated AFD by sneaking onto someone’s computer when they were away from their desk and hiding files, or even people who have put a five dollar bill down on the floor just under a filing cabinet and, when someone stoops to retrieve it, loudly tearing apart a scrap of material to make the other person think they have ripped their clothing. I even heard of a group of employees who filled their boss’ office with close to 500 plastic cups full of water. The supervisor had no idea how to even start the clean up.
Even mass media has gotten into the April Fools’ Day pranking game. In the 1950s, a Dutch television news show pranked viewers during an April 1 broadcast by telling them that the Tower of Pisa in Italy had toppled over; the station was flooded with phone calls demanding more information. In1976, BBC Radio 2 colluded with a British astronomer to tell people that on April 1 at 9:47 a.m. a unique planetary alignment would lessen the effect of gravity on Earth temporarily. Hundreds of people later “confirmed” that they were able to jump higher at that exact moment; some listeners called in and reported that they were actually floating. On April 1, 1997, TV hosts Alex Trebek (Jeopardy!) and Pat Sajak (Wheel of Fortune) switched hosting duties to the delight of millions of fans. On April 1, 1998, the fast food powerhouse Burger King ran an advertisement in USA Today announcing a Whopper variation for left-handed people that rotated all the condiments 180 degrees to help lefties eat a neater burger. Thousands of customers were disappointed at counters and drive-thru windows nationwide. On April 1, 2005, the official NASA Web site promised that it would be showing photos later in the day of water found on the surface of Mars; in the afternoon several pictures were posted showing a glass of water balanced on top of a Mars candy bar. On April 1, 2008, National Public Radio (NPR) pranked its straight-laced listeners by announcing that instead of the typical cash refunds, the IRS would instead be sending recipients consumer products that “they thought they would like.” And on April 1, 2010, two commentators on an ESPN segment decided to prank the public and the press by reporting to Masters Tournament lovers that Tiger Woods, who at the time was embroiled in his sex scandal, wished to furthermore be called by his given name Eldrick. The sports channel emplyees perpetrated the prank just to see how many people would swallow the bait.
But the celebration of April Fools’ Day has had some unpopular and even lethal results. On April 1, 1984, media outlets reported the shooting death of singer Marvin Gaye. Believing the story to be a fake, fans and friends of the family reacted negatively at a time when support was needed. On April 1, 2004, Google launched its “Gmail” product to initially dismal results because post people believed its features and promised 1 GB of online storage was just an elaborate hoax. And on April 1, 1946, the Aleutian Island earthquake tsunami claimed the lives of 165 people. Although the death toll was low, reports indicate that almost no one sought shelter or reacted appropriately because they believed all warnings to be an April Fools’ Day hoax!
POINT OF RANT: Happy Birthday, Jess!!!